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It’s been over a month since the start of the Lunar New Year. The year of the rooster began on January 28. For us Chinese (and several other Asian ethnicities), it’s the chance for a sense of rebirth on the heels of the Gregorian New Year, just shortly after the French stop saying “Bonne Année.” Not only that, but the celebration goes on for two weeks.

I follow the superstitions surrounding the Lunar New Year, just in case. Clean the house the day before but not the day of. Eat three good meals. Eat long noodles. Don’t get your hair cut. Wear red.

Did I mention eat well?

On New Year’s Day this year, a group of friends and I had lunch in New York Chinatown. Our ringleader was my friend who is Chinese-born. Then there was me, who is Chinese American, and seven non-Chinese Frenchies, several of whom had spent a few years in Beijing.

Perhaps you know how it goes in Chinese restaurants. Rather than ordering our own entrées, we ordered dishes to share (though this place lacked a lazy susan, which would have made second helpings easier). After a meal of fish (presented in complete form), lobster, meat, eggplant, noodles, rice, and more, we wandered out into the streets to watch the dragon dance, in which several dragons accompanied by loud drums went from door to door. Businesses put money in their mouths for good fortune. Sidewalk vendors sold long cylinders that when snapped in half, popped and shot confetti into the air. Kids threw fake firecrackers on the ground that made a loud noise upon impact.DSC00187DSC00188DSC00189DSC00190

About a week later, I came across these fierce dragons near Times Square. Though they’ve apparently been there since last fall, I hadn’t noticed them up close, and they seemed particularly appropriate to take a walk around and greet for the New Year.

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They made me smile. How could they look so ferocious and joyful at the same time? It must have been the heart and happy faces on their noses.

I am still finding confetti. Today I was sitting outside and saw a piece of shiny pink confetti on my pants. It must have fallen out of my purse. That’s how you know you celebrated New Year’s well.

Bordeaux

Around this time last year I took a weekend trip to the city of Bordeaux with five friends. I had just come back to Paris from attending my sister’s graduation in the States, and it was the perfect way to mitigate the sadness of leaving my American home. One friend had found cheap train tickets weeks earlier and in her knack for organizing groups, gotten four of us to commit to a specific weekend and a rental apartment she had found online.

After four and a half hours on the train, we arrived in Bordeaux midday. During our relatively quiet walk from the train station to the apartment, a French man on a scooter zoomed up from the opposite direction and stopped next to us. He said my friend’s name in the form of a question. She answered in the affirmative, and we quickly realized that he was not a stalker who had followed her from Paris, but the owner of the apartment. He was afraid we would get lost on the way to his place and so had come to look for us (clearly this was not Paris, where looking for five girls with suitcases would have yielded too many results).

He needn’t have feared because we were just fine. Realizing this, he said, “Ok, à tout de suite !” and turned around to drive back to his apartment and wait for us.

Upon our arrival at the apartment, we were greeted by him and his partner (wife?), who each made their rounds with the five of us to faire la bise. That out of the way, they gave us a tour and chatted with us a bit. Of course, we didn’t know them personally, but without knowing their real life problems, we could have easily believed they were living the dream life. They were both tall, good-looking, had a child, owned a beautiful, beautiful apartment with a backyard deck, and were off to Paris for the weekend to celebrate his brother’s birthday. They were like those magazine feature articles of celebrities. Like those stars who are interviewed at home, they were not wearing fancy clothes, but casual clothes that still made them look effortlessly chic. Good grief.

After cool couple relinquished the keys, we were free to let the excitement bubble over at our place for the weekend. As the weather was warm, we shed our Parisian scarves and sweaters before heading out into the sunshine.

On our way to the center, I was charmed by this small lending library. I have seen one of these in New Jersey too, in exactly the same type of enclosed shelf.
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The main streets were animated, with a multitude of restaurants, bars, and shops (including a shoe store with the amusing English name of “Size?”). After an unfortunately mediocre lunch, we continued our exploration of the city. 100_8254100_8256100_8259100_8263100_8264100_8266100_8268100_8270100_8272100_8273100_8275

Our day closed with a dinner that made up for our midday meal. Triple threat: the service, food, and ambiance were all good. My positive opinion was clinched by a dish featuring duck served three ways. I never said I believe in restraint when it comes to food. Moderation, yes, but decadence too.

We took a nighttime walk and had a quick drink at a high table outside a bar before calling it a day. Day one of a luxuriously lovely yet inexpensive weekend with four fun girls, pas mal.

People sometimes ask me where I would like to live in France if not Paris. I love getting acquainted with different regions but never had a desire to live in another French city. However, since visiting southwestern France I usually have to add, “But… I could maybe see myself in Bordeaux.” The main streets were lively and the weather was amazing. Sure part of the reason why we were so relaxed was that we were on a brief getaway from daily life, but it was also that Bordeaux had a laidback vibe that was conducive to loosened muscles and sandals flapping against the sidewalk.

The Sunday Roast Mystery

On the last day of my long weekend in Yorkshire, my friend took me on an amble through the Shambles, a charming historic street of shops in the city of York. 100_6738100_6736

We saw the York Minster cathedral exterior, the Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, which are now part of a public park, and other sights in the area.

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I could have stayed and wandered in and out of little shops for hours, but we had to get on to experience my first Sunday roast. I remember when a British friend from Birmingham first described the concept of Sunday roast to me. “It’s a big meal with meat, potato, and some kind of veg…” You mean like a normal meal!? I did not really get it. Meat, veg… this is what I’d usually eat for lunch or dinner, except that I’d call them “vegetables.”

At the restaurant, the server went around our table of eight or ten people to take our orders of appetizers and entrees. I was the last one.

“I’d like the summer tart,” I said.
“The what?”
“The summer tart,” I said a little louder.
The waitress paused uncomprehendingly. I was equally confused, as others had ordered the same appetizer before me.
“The summah taht,” the native Yorkshireman sitting to my left repeated.
“Oh, the summah taht,” the server noted.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt like English wasn’t my native language. The disbelief on both of our faces leading up to the clarification still gives me a laugh today.

I also saw for myself what makes a Sunday roast different from any other meal with meat and veg. My roast beef and gravy was topped by a huge Yorkshire pudding made from eggs, flour, and milk or water. Quite a sight to behold. 100_6744

Yorkshire was a lovely peek into a different lifestyle and landscape (and accent). I now understood why during my hostess’s visit to Paris, she remarked that we walked a lot, more than she was used to, that Parisian parks were small, and that she’d be more comfortable taking a taxi from Montmartre to her lodging even after I assured her that it would be simple to take the metro, just one switch involved. In Yorkshire she has to drive to get anywhere from her village home. She walks her dog in a vast, wild field rather than on a busy city sidewalk. Her furthest immediate family member lives only an hour away. Her wonderful swinging bench on her back patio negates the need to seek out restaurant terrasses. I certainly fell in love with her backyard features that she designed herself. Ain’t nothing like jumping into someone else’s pond for a few days, especially a saucy British lady’s.

Do Americans Eat Burgers Every Day?

When I am outside of the United States, people often ask me what Americans eat. Burgers? Bacon and eggs?

Well, the following is what my friends and I ate during my recent trip to Boston from a Friday afternoon to Sunday midday. Keep in mind that this is not our regular daily diet, as many of us usually eat cooked food at home, but this is an example of a weekend eating out with friends.

– Butternut squash risotto with mushrooms and a fried egg (I like fried eggs but have never understood putting one on top of anything, whether in French, Korean, or American cuisine)
– Duck salad with bleu cheese, dried cranberries, and apples
– Almond brioche
– Gruyere cheese croissant
– Coffee with milk and sugar (I am no longer in the land of espresso)
– Japanese buffet with lots of fish, sushi, delicate salads, and green tea soft serve (soft serve is a kind of ice cream and may be called something different in your country)
– Raw oysters
– Lobster roll (lobster pieces on soft, warm buttered bread)
– Cannoli
– Prosecco apple cider cocktails
– Pretzel bunny (a soft pretzel shaped like a bunny, in case you had a doubt)
– Smoked salmon and arugula sandwich
– Lamb and tomato chutney sandwich

Thank goodness my friends are gourmands, meaning we all love to eat.

I will admit that half the reason for making this list was so that I could relive my food pleasures. I am guessing that reading it is not half as interesting or enjoyable as eating it.

To note, I like a good burger once in a while. I probably have a burger less than once a month (except when I had two French friends visiting and they wanted to have burgers almost every day. At least we sampled different restaurants). I usually eat oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast and only eat eggs on the weekends, usually fried or scrambled. I like bacon but only eat it about once or twice a year.

Buses and Bubble Tea in Boston

Back in the day, Greyhound buses between New York and Boston used to be $15 each way. So were the famous/notorious Fung Wah buses, which I never took.

Nowadays, prices vary more widely, so when I go to Boston I compare about five bus companies. The famed $1 ticket does exist, though they are spare and kind of random. Tickets can be up to $30 or more.

This past trip, I took one of the Chinatown buses, which was $44 round-trip and driven by a Chinese bus driver who spoke little English. People informally call them Chinatown buses because they pick-up and drop-off in New York and Boston’s Chinatowns. They are Chinese-run, and when you call their customer service, it is in English and Chinese.

Our bus happened to stop at a rest-stop at the same time as two other buses. I laughed. There was BoltBus, which its bright-red orange paint and big logo; Megabus, with an even larger logo on its double-decker vehicle; and us, an unmarked white bus.

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Boston was cloudy, cool, and rainy, but it felt good to be there.

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I stopped in a Chinese store full of knickknacks, paper lanterns, DVDs, and accessories. At its entrance was a not very welcoming “Hall of Shame,” which featured dozens of screenshots of shoplifters caught over the past few years. Okay then…

I walked around the corner to check out a coffee shop that attracted me on the bus ride in. The cashier asked me how my morning had been and whether I lived in Boston. I ordered a taro bubble tea and sat down with my rolling backpack.

An employee yelled my name, and I trotted up to the counter. “We have the bubbles, and we have the mix… but we don’t have the big straws,” he said. He asked if I wanted to change my order or get a refund. I didn’t bother asking him exactly just how far their straw distributor was and why they didn’t have a nearby emergency source. We were in Chinatown, after all, there must be a store that sold them…

I ordered a mocha instead and was a bit taken aback by the huge cup that arrived. It definitely required two hands.

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Five minutes later, the cashier who took my order came by with this.

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I was a bit confused. “Your colleague told me you were out of big straws,” I said. She held up a shallow wooden spoon to accompany the regular skinny straw.

It remained impractical to drink but delicious all the same.

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I hopped on the T (Boston’s subway system) to join a friend a few stations down. The city calls its metro card a Charlie card. As little as ten years ago, it was still using thick round tokens. Since then it has surpassed New York. Tap the Charlie card against a sensor and walk right through the open doors, thereby avoiding the “swipe again” prompts New York provides if you don’t swipe your card at the perfect speed.

Out of the station, I walked past a coffee shop and made eye contact with a girl sitting inside. Our eyes widened as our brains caught up to our initial instant recognition. Five years earlier, we had worked together in New York. We hadn’t seen each other since then. I knew she had moved to the Boston area, but I certainly didn’t expect to see her staring at me through a window on a Friday afternoon. We had a brief catch-up before I moved on. Later, I also found out that one of my friends lives above the café I had visited earlier. No wonder Boston always feels like going home.

Strasbourg

Another late November, before I had ever tasted a flammekueche, a friend and I took a day trip to Strasbourg from Paris. Was it because we were naïve or enthusiastic or wanting the least expensive train ticket that we took a train before 6:30am? I can no longer remember, but I do recall arriving in the eastern French city before 9am and realizing that not only was it threatening to rain, but also the city had not awoken yet. Perhaps people were at work already, but it seemed pretty quiet.

Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region, which borders Germany. Most relevant to our trip was that it touts itself as the capital of Christmas. In late November, it opens what it proclaims is the oldest Christmas market in France. I wonder what the Christmas market in 1570 was like. You would not have found an Asian American and a Trini girl wandering it. And in another 450 years, who will be shopping for their trinkets?

We bought a 1 euro city map from the tourist office in the train station. The city center is quite small. You can walk from the gare to the center in 12 minutes, and across the whole center in about half an hour.

We headed to the Petite France area, which had charming architecture flanking canals and cobblestone streets.

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Do you see the French/English play on words at this café?

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We saw a bridge with a green gnome painted on it, and I crouched down and posed to imitate him while my friend took a picture of me. A group of school kids and their teachers walked up to us, and one of the teachers asked if I could pose again with my friend taking a picture so they could include us in their art class film about the types of people in Strasbourg—residents, tourists. Clearly we were representing the tourists. She spoke in English, not too badly, until she realized we spoke French. My friend and I recreated the scene as requested. Afterward the kids clapped for us. I was tickled by the whole thing. Now we’re in some random Strasbourg art school film.

See how the teacher has caught sight of us? You can tell she’s thinking, “Jackpot!”

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We walked through a Christmas market that had just opened for the day. It would be the first of many Christmas markets we visited. We browsed the marchés de Noël at place Broglie (the biggest one, called Christkindelsmärik), place de la Cathédrale, place Kléber, in front of the gare, and others.

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We had a snack at a brasserie, and I was amazed at how much cheaper food was than in Paris.

The tall Christmas tree at place Kléber stood above a lit up village scene. According to a brochure, it was the tallest natural Christmas tree in Europe.

At the marché de Noël at place Broglie, I bought a bretzel (pretzel). In addition to bretzels, we saw a lot of pain d’épice (gingerbread) and St. Nicolas cookies (kind of weird to eat a bishop).

We walked to the cathedral. By this time it was raining and pretty miserable.

We met up with my friend’s acquaintance, a woman from Trinidad and Tobago who had been living in Strasbourg for ten years. We looked around a book fair at the l’Aubette shopping center in place Kléber. Strasbourg is the birthplace of printing, as it is where Gutenberg printed the first bible!

On our way to a café, a woman asked us if we wanted to take part in a cheese and flammekueche tasting. We thought we were going to do a quick tasting inside a food place near where we were standing, but the woman led us to a building and up to the second floor. What an unexpected experience. We didn’t even know where we were or what organization was organizing the tasting. We tried three different kinds of Muenster cheese, which is a specialty of Alsace and spelled munster in French, and two kinds of flammekueche. Surrounded by fellow tasters, we filled out surveys on each sample.

Let me explain about the flammekueche. I had been very curious about this fun-to-say food long before I moved to France. I used know a Russian in the States who had lived in Strasbourg for a few years. He talked about how a specialty of the region was flammekueche, a hot dish that resembled a pizza but without tomato sauce. The standard one was topped by crème fraiche or fromage blanc, onions, and lardons. This Russian friend, who came from Siberia, said a lot of things that made us go, “Huh?” He was really nice, and it was him that I called on via email to recommend a joint for some good flammekueche, also called tarte flambée.

With this adresse in hand, my friend and I settled into the cozy, dimly lit brasserie for dinner. I had an onion, mushroom, and lardon flammekueche called a Forestière. When the bill came, I was surprised that it cost only about 3 euros, because it was happy hour and therefore half price.

On our walk to the train station, we were treated to Strasbourg’s Christmas lights, which were so pretty at night. Every street had different kinds of lights. One had red and gold lights in the shapes of stars. Another had boxes with lit chandeliers inside.

Why not chandeliers outdoors, I say?

Do You Have to Let It Linger

Soon after my move to Paris, I was out and about and came upon a person distributing sample-size cups of dried cranberries with a brochure titled “Connaissez-vous les cranberries des Etats-Unis?” (Do you know about American cranberries?).

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Note the striped fields and star-strewn sky that form a brilliant American flag motif.

The brochure was divided into sections: Caractéristiques (what they look like and when they are in season), Cuisine (good with muesli, yogurt…), and Santé (why they are healthy for you). The benefits of cranberries were laid out, along with recipes for cranberry sauce and smoothies.

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It is true that while many French people have heard of cranberries, just as many have never tried them. I sometimes shared my warehouse-size bag of dried cranberries with French friends who visited me. On the other hand, most French people of varying ages are familiar with the Irish music group The Cranberries.

When I was about to run out, my friend who lived in Morocco came just in time with a plastic sachet of dried cranberries. Have you tried cranberries in more than one country? I noticed that the ones from Morocco were plumper, sweeter, and a brighter red than those from my local warehouse in the U.S. To my taste buds they weren’t necessarily better, but good and a rather exotic import that I greatly appreciated.

Dried cranberries are available in supermarkets in Paris but in very small packs and for a premium price. They’re not in demand, anyway. I brought mine from the States knowing that they would be a happy addition to my morning oatmeal.

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It is true that doggie bags are not part of French culture. That said, takeout is common. Many people buy baguette sandwiches, Chinese food by the kilogram, and Greek gyros to go. If an eatery offers takeout, then it follows that they have ways to wrap up your meal for the commute.

Even at these places, however, you may ask for a container of ketchup to go with your fries and receive this.

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I appreciate that they didn’t blink an eye when I asked. I didn’t either when I received ketchup in a ball of foil.

The Pizza Pilgrimage

The pizza is excellent, he said. The owners are from Naples. The place is really small, though, and you can’t make reservations.

That’s okay, I said, we can also take it to go. Oui, he responded, we’ll sit along the river and eat if there are no tables available.

We met up around 9pm and walked to the street, which was quiet. I hope it’s open, he said. We approached the clearly shuttered storefront. A sign on the door indicated that the owners were on vacation for the majority of August. They’re probably in Naples right now! I said.

We walked away, my friend lamenting that it was closed. It’s okay, I said, I wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t my first time in Paris in August.

My friend suggested another good pizza place nearby, located in an inconspicuous passage that was nevertheless full of life and people spilling out of bars and restaurants. We walked to the end without seeing a pizzeria. He checked the address on his phone. Apparently it was at the beginning of the street, so we must have missed it. We made our way back.

It was closed. The façade was dark, which is why we hadn’t seen it the first time. In fact, it was the last day of the owners’ vacation; the restaurant would reopen tomorrow.

My friend ran though his mental index of restaurants in the area. We decided to stay on the pizza path that we had started. He pulled out two more pizzerias, one of which he knew was open because he had passed it earlier. We headed to that one, because how much do you want to bet the other would have been closed? We were done gambling.

We snagged a table for two on the sidewalk terrasse. The menu was plentiful in choice, and the service was good. The street was quiet but for the busy pizzeria and the restaurant next door.

He asked if I had enjoyed my long-awaited pizza, topped with halved cherry tomatoes. Yes indeedy.

I still like August in Paris.