Snowshoeing without Snowshoes

I skipped out of work a couple of hours early (having worked late several evenings this month) and hopped on the Metro-North train to visit a friend who got married last summer. A few weeks prior, I was sitting in a restaurant next to three young women, one of whom was espousing the line to her two friends: “The Metro-North is the way to travel. It is like, so sweet.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does tend to be on time (great if you’re early, out of luck if you’re running late).

My friend and her husband picked me up from the train station in New Haven, Connecticut. Along for the ride was their big Doberman puppy, who jumped all over me as soon as I got in the back. She alternated between being very conspicuous—bounding on me and chewing the crocheted lanyard on my bag—and almost invisible, as she is black as that Friday night.

In their town about half an hour’s drive away, they had left their door unlocked for the other friend who would be joining us for the weekend and had arrived shortly before. We certainly weren’t in Kansas anywhere—or maybe we were closer to Kansas? In the Jersey suburb where I’m from, we wouldn’t leave the door unlocked if we weren’t home.

Here were wide open spaces. A long, wide driveway leading up the house. Peaceful, snowy trees out back. Birds flitting around a feeder on the deck. A kitchen that could fit two, perhaps three Parisian studios.

The weekend was a lovely one, with a BIG pancake (to quote the menu), laughter and talks, the making of not one but two cakes, music and movies, cuddling with the two dogs, and a hike up snowy hills and along a frozen reservoir.

In Paris I used to visit a friend in Marseille every few months. Since coming back to the States, I’ve done the same with my friend in Connecticut. The Metro-North is not quite the same as the TGV, but it’s still “like, so sweet” since it takes me to scattered parts of my heart.dsc00223dsc00224dsc00226dsc00229dsc00234dsc00235dsc00237dsc00240dsc00242

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.
100_8251

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.

It’s good to know that kids are still interested in magic. 100_6735

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.

A Day at the Races

During my trip to Yorkshire a while back, I went along for a day at the York Races with my host, one of her daughters, and her daughter’s fiancé and friend. I had brought my bright coral dress to England expressly for this event. That morning, my friend tried on several of her long summery dresses, asking for all of our opinions before settling on her red flowery maxi dress.

Everything about that day was a welcome bombardment to my senses. It was hot, the British girls were out in their colored printed dresses and showing skin, and excitement surrounded each horse race. I saw a grown man dressed as a baby surrounded by his pals who were in button-down shirts, ties, and trousers. It was prime time for people watching.

Everything about that day was a welcome bombardment to my senses. It was hot, the British girls were out in their colored printed dresses and showing skin, and excitement surrounded each horse race. I saw a grown man dressed as a baby surrounded by his pals who were in button-down shirts, ties, and trousers. It was prime time for people watching.

Can you find the former jockey below?

And the baby-man?

At the end of the day, the Scottish band Wet Wet Wet gave a concert. It was fun to see my friend singing along and swaying to the music. She was in heaven. If you don’t know this group that was especially popular in the 1980s and 90s, like me you may at least have heard the song “Love is all around.” “I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes…”

100_6722100_6721100_6720

Afterward, we stopped in the pub where my friend’s other daughter worked.

Pubs. British fashion. The York Races. Wet Wet Wet. Everything about the day was out of the ordinary for me. Americans share many similarities with the British, but we still have our distinct cultural characteristics.

A Castle and a White Horse

As my guide to Yorkshire, my friend decided to take me to Castle Howard, whose construction began in 1699 and was completed over 100 years later. The exhibits inside included one dedicated to the adaptions of “Brideshead Revisited” that were filmed there. The movies and TV series are based on the 1945 book by English writer Evelyn Waugh.

100_6673100_6649100_6653

I enjoyed exploring the grounds and gardens. 100_6658100_6663100_6669100_6666100_6668100_6671100_6670

On the drive home, my friend pointed out “the white horse” to me. She told me that a teacher created it in the mid-1800s. How funny. Can you imagine saying to yourself one day, “I think I’m going to etch a horse at the top of that hill.” Why not? 100_6675100_6674

We had time to drive to Kilburn village and walk along a trail to catch a view that was hazy but somewhat romantic because of it.

100_6676100_6679

Yorkshire

Sometimes when I walk through a city park, I think of the time I took an acquaintance to the Place des Vosges in Paris. She was from Yorkshire, England, visiting Paris for the first time on business, and I acted as her enthusiastic guide. Place des Vosges, located in the center of Paris, has grass, benches, and a fountain and is surrounded by old beautiful architecture. The day we went was beautiful and sunny, and many people lounged on the grass. “I love this park,” I told my new friend. She laughed, and not one to mince words, said, “You call this a park? It’s so small!” I was confused and remained so until a few months later, when I visited her in Yorkshire.

I stepped out of the airport in Leeds, England, where my friend awaited me with the little blue Mercedes convertible she drove for her employer. I had never ridden in a convertible and was thrilled as we zipped away to her village, our hair whipping around as we caught up during the hour-long drive.

Upon our arrival at her place, I noticed that her house was neither isolated nor crowded because she had neighbors directly on either side but vast space in front and behind her property. Her home was lovely. A red roof topped a brick structure that featured a perfectly-sized back garden and patio along with a small pond and nursery.

Approaching the back fence of her garden, my jaw dropped when I saw what seemed like endless miles of cornfields. They didn’t belong to her but ensured that this amazing view would not soon be obstructed by new buildings. I suddenly understood why she thought Places des Vosges was small. If only she knew how Parisians considered a tiny balcony prime real estate. When her two young adult daughters arrived at the house to join us for dinner, she laughed and remarked to them that I had taken photos of the cornfields.

100_6618

From my time with my friend and her family, I noticed that most of them had lived in Yorkshire all their lives and were happy there. She told me that all of her family lived close-by except for one of her daughters, who lived in Leeds. Leeds was only an hour’s drive away! Her considering that as far made me think about how I was an eight-hour plane ride from my own family and how my parents were halfway around the world from their families. I love traveling and feel lucky to have lived in different places, but I also thought about how nice it could be to be the type of person who is content staying put. Not to say that my friend and her family didn’t travel—they had all gone on vacation to different countries in Europe—but it was clear that none of them had that yearning to move somewhere else. 100_6626

My friend served a pitcher of the English alcoholic drink Pimm’s to which she had added slices of cucumber and fruit. We ate dinner outside at the table on the patio: my friend, her two daughters, one daughter’s fiancé, and the other daughter’s new beau, whom I only realized was a new boyfriend when my friend started questioning him conversationally. My friend’s husband worked long hours on the field and would not be home until later.

As darkness fell we all sat in the living room that was in an extension of the house covered with a glass roof and walls. It was interesting having the light on and night around us, being inside and outside at the same time. I remember a similarly warm and pleasant night when my friend and I had reverse roles; she was the visitor and I was the host. I took her to a restaurant in Montmartre and we ate French food at small round tables outside on a steep little street, other diners seated closely on both sides of us. How different an evening may be in different parts of the world.

On my first night in the English countryside, I was kept company by this boy, whose name is Paddy.

100_6628

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.

101_0085

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

101_0088

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.

 101_0089

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

101_0091

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.

101_0092101_0096101_0097101_0098

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.

New Hampshire

The Sunday of our girls’ trip to New Hampshire, four of us remained after breakfast. We had said goodbye to my friend’s cousin the night before, and the mother-daughter team headed back to Vermont post-pancakes. The rest of us took a walk and chatted about our concerns back home, once in a while stopping to notice the icicles, sunny path, and partially frozen lake.

101_0056101_0057101_0059101_0060

Then we piled in the car to drive back down to Connecticut, where we would split for our respective trips home.

101_0062101_0064

At a gas station, while my friend nourished the car I ran out and got excited by these scenes that reminded me of early to mid-1900s American painters like Edward Hopper and Grant Wood.

101_0065101_0066

A Cabin in the Woods

Six other girls and I recently took a weekend trip to New Hampshire. I met up with a fellow member of the group to take the train from New York to Connecticut, where our friend picked us up in her car. After a stop at her place, where we were greeted by her docile mutt and the other girl’s jumping German Shepherd, we drove up to Burlington, Vermont to pick up a fourth friend, who was choosing wine at a co-op.

From there it was onto the last leg, the nighttime drive from Vermont to New Hampshire. As we got further from the cute main street in Burlington, buildings became further sprawled apart and lights were fewer. Looking out the window at the pitch black surroundings, I was reminded of how diverse the United States is. In the suburbs I know, lampposts line some streets, and houses are fairly close together. Here, it was dirt roads, and our headlights provided the sole illumination directly in front of us. Sure, there were main roads that had the odd phone store on the side, but our GPS had turned us off to an isolated area with forest on both sides and a house from time to time. Supposedly we were somewhere in the vicinity of our rental cabin, but there was no sign of it. We turned off the road and suddenly found ourselves in front of this series of signs that straddled the private property of a house and a dirt road leading to dark woods.

101_0043

The reason the photo is blurry is that we high-tailed it out of there. So creepy. The top sign informed us that our GPS had led us in the wrong direction. Another warned that this was “private property” and there was to be “no trespassing.” And why is the stop sign in French?? Did we go too far north and hit French Canada? We didn’t stick around to have our questions answered.

Of course, when we finally arrived at our cabin around 9, the other three members of our party were already there. Two, a mother and daughter team, had settled in hours earlier and turned on the outdoor hot tub (!), which had a view of a lake (!). The third person assured us that she had only beaten us by ten minutes.

We gathered around the table in the eat-in kitchen and had bowls of soup made by one girl’s sister, who couldn’t come but had sent bags of food via her cousin. We sliced into fluffy white bread that we thoroughly enjoyed and only later found out that one girl had planned to serve it with breakfast the next day (oops). I’m glad she didn’t say anything at the time because it really hit the spot after a near escape from a possible ax murderer with a penchant for totem pole signs.

In addition to figuring out the hot tub, checking out the backyard view, counting the beds (eight), and taking stock of everything in the kitchen cupboards  in the hours prior to the rest of the group’s arrival, the mother-daughter duo from Vermont had also fired up the wood stove to create a toasty, cozy atmosphere. The mother emphasized to the New Yorker and the Jersey girl (me) that we SHOULD NOT touch the stove. A mere five minutes later, she repeated her warning before leaving the room. I’m glad she didn’t take it as a given that everyone knows stoves are burning hot. While it didn’t cross my mind to touch it, I have rarely been in the same room as a wood stove and can stand to be treated like a city slicker from time to time for my own safety. nh.2015b

And people say cities are dangerous.

Back to My Casa

Before my return flight from Casablanca to Paris, my friend and I had the morning and afternoon to squeeze in a few more activities. Not that it felt rushed at all (not until later, anyway).

We had breakfast with her friends at their usual spot, then took a long walk to a market so I could buy dried fruit and nuts to bring back to my friends and volunteer group.

I was in heaven. Dried fruit is usually expensive in France, but in Morocco not only was it a reasonable price, but also the number of choices boggled the mind. I filled clear plastic bags with dried figs, dates, kiwi, pineapple, papaya, and almonds. At the time I did not realize that the figs would later become an obsession due to their deliciousness; I would grab two or three each time I left my Paris apartment, savoring them and trying to stretch out the bag as long as possible.

100_7858100_7857

Next was a shopping trip to an open-air bazaar, during which my friend coached me on the art of haggling. As I expressed interest in items, she told me what she thought they should cost and advised me to keep in mind the highest amount I’d be willing to pay. I bought one leather bag for my sister and one for myself, as well as three little money pouches for friends. I was happy with my purchases, but that was enough haggling for me—I don’t think I would enjoy shopping at the more touristy cities like Marrakesh, where the sellers are more aggressive.

I was kind of surprised how quiet the market was, given that it was a weekend.

100_7872100_7871100_7863

We drooled over the rugs and vowed to come back one day when we had more money. As we browsed, the shopkeeper asked, “How’s your friend?”  At first we were confused until we realized that he remembered that my friend had previously brought other visitors and was asking how one of them was!

100_7869

Another square of the market featured platters of olives. On shelves nearby were bottles of Argan oil, which is supposed to be good for the skin. I bought a small bottle. Since becoming aware of it I’ve seen big brand shampoos in France and the United States featuring it as an ingredient.

100_7859

Of course, I had to have one more taxi story before leaving Casablanca.

100_7873

After a quick snack and gathering up my belongings, my friend and I headed out to hail a red taxi to the train station, after which we’d buy tickets to the airport. I mentioned before that taxis in Casablanca are shared. That means that a taxi that is already carrying passengers going to different destinations may stop for more passengers who are going in the same direction. We stood at the side of the road, and my friend hailed taxi after taxi, but they were either all full or not driving on a route that included the train station. After being turned down by cabs in a span of time that felt like an eternity, my friend informed me that she’d put me in the next one that had one spot going to the train station. Time was now tight. I knew I could figure out how to buy tickets to the airport at the station, but I really didn’t want to lose my guide and have a quick goodbye as a full car of passengers waited for me.

As luck would have it, one of the next cabs she hailed took us, and we were off.

I got a little teary at the airport as my friend handed me a bag of food that she had been toting around, waiting for this last moment to give it to me. Along with it she told me what questions to expect at customs. It was easy to answer truthfully: No, I am not transporting a large amount of dirhams out of the country. I spent it all on figs and taxi rides.