Thursday, July 31, 2014

A wonderful day in Germany

When we first came to Germany about 2 weeks ago, it was miserable.  I was hot and tired and couldn't figure out how the public transportation worked.  It lacked the mystique of France while managing to be incredibly confusing at the same time.  It did not help that I wasn't particularly prepared for the German leg of my journey.  I hadn't studied maps, or worked out the public transportation, or even bothered to learn any German.  All of these things are my fault.  Germany is not to blame:  it simply went on being the same country it had been for the past decades.

There are some things that Germany could do better, but they are not meant as affronts to me personally.  I'd like to see more air conditioning.  I would like to see better internet connections.  I would like the public transportation to be connected.  As it is, I have to leave one station and walk a block to transfer to another line.  This is irritating.

Fortunately, we have worked around a lot of these problems.  I found a direct bus line to where I want to go.  We put up some curtains to block out the sun and keep the apartment cooler.  The internet is still terrible, but we found some high-speed free wifi for our downloading needs.

Today, the weather was lovely and we really enjoyed Berlin.  After class, we had a cocktail (some shots of absinthe and a cherry colada, to be specific)

You can see both the absinthe and the edge of my cherry colada.  The absinthe was a little horrible, the cherry colada was delicious.

Then, we went to the Pergamon museum.  This is an incredible museum in Berlin that has the gates of Babylon, a Roman altar, an Islamic wall... and some other things.  The artifacts themselves were amazing, but what I couldn't get over was the HUGE pieces they had in the museum.

They literally took pieces of ancient cultures and moved them into a German museum.  It was overwhelmingly amazing.  Hopefully, I will post a few photos soon.

We spent an hour or two in the museum and then worked our way back home.  We stopped at a riverside bar and had an evening cocktail (I had this delicious caramel-coconut rum thing), while we watched the river flow by in front of us and lounged on some beach chairs.  We picked up a few groceries for dinner and wrapped up the night with some tasty burgers and fries.

The weather was wonderful, the night was great.  I have no complaints, other than we did not have this night sooner.  Our first 12 days in Germany were rife with struggle (perhaps in true German fashion), and now we've finally figured things out.  It feels like it is almost too late.  We just have a few more days before we go home.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Third entry: pinecone

So I just finished my delicious raspberry beer. I thought this might be the best time for the dark horse in this race: pinecone. I thought maybe it would be ok... Or maybe the pinecone thing was an advertising gimmick. 

Let me tell you. I was wrong. Imagine having a mediocre can of beer an accidentally dropping a pinecone in it.... And leaving it there to steep. It tastes like that. Or if you spilled your beer on a pinecone and decided to lick it off. TERRIBLE!!!

To top it off, it has a slight green tint to the otherwise amber ale hue. I could not get a great photo, but trust me. That itself was off putting. 

So, I don't like beer a lot, remember... So I decided to pass this one over to Mike for a second try. He took one sip and scrunched up his face in confusion. His review:  "this is just weird. I guess it is supposed to taste like nature & maybe if I was camping and there was no other beer available.  But I wouldn't buy it if there was other beer on the shelf."  I asked if he ever had worse beer. The only thing he could come up with was "warm Milwalkees Best". That is saying a lot from a ugh that really loves beer. 

Obviously, I will never buy this again. It was sort of worth the dollar to see what pine ones tasted like, but part of me wishes I would have spent the dollar on another raspberry beer. 

Final score:  0/10. This has no redeeming qualities. It gives beer a bad name. I doubt I'll be able to finish the glass. 

Second entry: red

I've finally finished the pink beer. The more I drank it, the less I liked it. I actually considered pouring the second half out. 

For my second beer, I moved on to the red Kindl beer. 

This photo doesn't do it a lot of justice. It really is a deep magenta color, like strawberry soda. 

And, it is delicious. I've had this before and I really enjoy it. It has a deep raspberry flavor, similar to a wine cooler, but somehow fruitier. According to the label, there is some actual fruit juice in it -- so while I have no illusions that it has any nutrients, I think the flavor is natural, rather than chemical. It more than makes up for the horribleness of the Becks. I wish I would have bought more than one of them. 

If I could get this at home for a reasonable price, I would buy it all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. perhaps it's best that I can't. 

Score: 8/10. Delicious, but not life changing. Actually, after another swallow, I'm revising to 8.5. Delicious. 

I will surely buy this a number of times before I leave Germany next Sunday!

First entry: pink

First, I'm trying Becks Summer Hollander, for no reason other than it is pink. That makes it first in my rainbow. 

Honestly, it's a little disappointing. While it is pink, it tastes a lot like regular beer, which I mentioned that I don't love. There is a little bit of a fruity aftertaste but mostly it tastes like a standard ale or pilsner. Initially, I was excited about this one, because I love the cherry Kirsh beers. I thought this would be similar. Personally, I feel that if the beer is pink (and only 3% alcohol), it should taste like fruit. This does not. I will not be buying this again. 

Score:  3/10 (on my arbitrary 10 point scale)

The German rainbow of beer

I don't love beer. I know, crazy. However, Germany has some very interesting beers.  Tonight I have devised a personal taste test of some of the most colorful beers I found at the store... 

Pink, red, green, purple... 

And this one, which I think might be pinecone. Who knows. It's Germany. 

I will drink each one and review them separately, just for the heck of it....

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My love/hate relationship with Germany

I realized last night that it is almost exactly 13 years ago since I packed a giant suitcase and embarked on the first of my international endeavors.  In the summer of 2001, I moved to Shenzhen, China (with a few weeks of training in Beijing) to teach English in a private school for nearly a year.  That was also my first forray into the world of teaching -- and as we can see, both things have stuck pretty well.

Since then, I have traveled pretty regularly.  I have returned to China a few times and explored various parts of Europe - in typical American vacation fashion - a week or two here and there.  I have never had the opportunity to travel as extensively as I have with Mike since we have been married.  Our honeymoon was nearly 3 weeks of Italy and the Medditerranian, and now, we are spending six weeks in France and Germany.  These two trips combined are probably more time abroad than many spend in their lifetimes.  

Our weeks in France were amazing.  I loved virtually everything about Paris and the surrounding areas. After 3 amazing weeks, we flew into Berlin.  Berlin was immediately not as amazing.  Charlene (another law studnet) pointed out that while Berlin was cool, it was not AS amazing as Paris.  We should have done it the other way around... start with something great and move on to something fabulous.  It is just anti-climactic after the history and amazement of France.

After a couple of days here, I hit a wall.  Germany was dumb.  I could not read anything, the trains were not user friendly, It was hot (90+ degrees), with no air conditioning anywhere.  I spent all my time sweating and miserable.  The internet did not work.  The only English-speaking channel I had was BBC world news... while they were pretty good, they repeated themselved every hour.  I could continue to go on, but you get the idea.  I caught myself thinking "this is dumb, I want to go home".  

All of a sudden, a light switch flipped.  I remembered my first weeks in China.  My professor, Dr. Hall gave an orientation session discussing the stages of living abroad - first you started in the honeymoon stage... everything is wonderful and amazing.  The food is delicious, the sights are fantastic, the people are fun, etc.  Most people that travel abroad for short periods of time never get out of this stage.  I thought about this stage a lot while we were in France.  Even though we were here for 3 weeks, we probably never left the honeymoon stage.  We loved everything.  

However, one of the later stages (sorry, Charles, I do not remember all of them) was just the opposite.  You hate everything and want to pack it in and go home.  That was the stage I was in.  He talked at length about this stage and how to get past it.  He told us to recognize it, embrace it and understand that it would be ok.  Call a friend, go out for McDonalds (or something else that feels like home), and reground yourself 

I had plenty of I hate China days.  I probably wrote plenty of emails to friends and family telling them about my deep hatred of China.  I specifically remember one day when I got lost... really lost.  None of the street signs were in English, no one spoke english, nothing looked familiar, and I just wanted to sit down and cry.  I think I actually did sit down and cry.  Obviously, I eventually found my way back (otherwise, I would still be lost in the streets of Shenzhen).  My friends Megan and Jill were good about helping me find my way out of the rabbit hole of expat depression.  We had meals and drinks - Megan even managed to figure out how to make my ultmate comfort food - Chicken and Dumplings.  Over the year, I had a few "I hate China" days, as well as a number of "OMG, China is awesome! days".  

I realized on Monday that Germany was the same thing.  I did not actually hate Germany, I hated the circumstances surrounding me.  I was frustrated by the heat and the lack of 21st century technology.  I also realized that it was a lot like China.  Mike and I live in former East Berlin, in a communist era building.  The apartment is large and georgous, but is missing some things.  There are never enough wall plugs, the kitchen is weird... it is like China.  I have noticed other things that remind me of China as well... in addition to the love of train station/shopping malls... ice cream.  I was always amazed by the ice cream in China.  Sundaes were works of art with cookies and swirls and sauces in a rainbow of colors.  I will take some photos.  China did the same thing.  They worked hard to make ice cream fancy.  It occured to me that maybe that was a communist thing.  Fancify things so people do not realize what they do not have.  

However, yesterday I woke up and was better.  It was not so hot.  The internet worked.  I ate some delicious food.  Mike bought a $20 DVD player so we can watch some cheap English DVDs.  He inadvertantly bought my favorite film - O Brother, Where Art Thou, which we watched last night.  Today, we are going to the dinosaur museum - which Yelp gives 4.5 stars.  While it is not perfect, everything is better.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Germany - Initial Impressions...

     I was very sad to leave France yesterday.  VERY sad.  We had such a wonderful time and could have easily spent another month there and not tired of it.  We were getting a little hot... no AC in the apartment and days were creeping up to the 90 degree mark (with humidity).  We would come home from walks drenched in sweat with little opportunity to cool down.  But, aside from that, we had such a wonderful time that I have found myself Googling "how to move to France" a number of times.

Nonetheless, early yesterday morning, we boarded a regional Air France flight to Berlin.  It only took about 90 minutes, and it was so weird knowing that we had made such an abrupt cultural change in such a short period of time.  We landed at Teigel Airport - which is the "other" Berlin airport.  According to a lovely woman we met (more on her in a minute), it is a relic from the cold war when flights could only go to either East or West Berlin, depending on their origin.  Nonetheless, this place was TINY!  We landed a little ways away from the building and were immediately shuttled on little busses (it was literally a 90 second ride) into an airport Mike compared to Little Rock, but I think of as similar to the Boise airport.... although I think Boise might be bigger.  We had our luggage and were out the door (no customs because of the Euro zone) in less than 10 minutes.  Yup, you read that right... we went from airplane to curbside in about 15 total minutes.  It was weird.  We looked at each other and I said "I hope we flew to Berlin and not some other German city".  I could not imagine getting out of McCarran in such a short period of time.

So, we took a cab to our apartment and after some miscommunications, finally got into our temporary home.  The person I rented the apartment from misunderstood my arrival time, so no one was actually here for us.  We wandered the complex aimlessly for a while and ended up having coffee with a wonderful German woman that helped us make the appropriate phone calls.  She kept us company for almost an hour, chatting and being a wonderful introduction to Berlin.  She told us that when Berlin hosted the world cup in 2006, their motto was to treat their guests as friends (she couldn't remember the exact translation), but since no one ever told them that policy was over, she figured it still applied.  :)

So, we then spent some time in our apartment and then went across the street to the market to pick up some groceries since everything in closed on Sunday.  EVERYTHING.  I grant, I am spoiled living in Las Vegas.  If I want some Louis Vuitton stilettos at 2 in the morning, I can probably get them.  But here, no.  In some ways, it is better than France.  Things there were mostly closed by 6pm, except for tourist areas.  Also, things were closed two days a week... half or all of Sunday and then one random weekday.  There was not a lot of rhyme or reason to it -- some chose Monday (traditional day), others chose Wednesday.  One guy picked Tuesdays.  Who knows.  Here, things seem to stay open a little later (8 or 9), but are CLOSED on Sunday.  No exceptions.  I guess it is German law.  Fortunately, I figured that out yesterday.  However, we are fortunate enough to live just down the block from the central train station, where stores are allowed to be open on Sundays.  They got a government exception.

From there, we explored the city a little.  We went on a crazy manhunt for a fan -- as it is a record setting hot weekend in Germany.  Heat index of around 100 without AC.  It has literally never been this hot in Berlin.  The people on the news are freaking out.  It seems that wherever Mike and I travel, we land in freakish heat waves... Italy, NYC, DC, you name it.  If there has been a heatwave in the last five years, we have been there.  It is supposed to cool off in the next few days, but these first couple have been brutal.

Since it was so hot, we decided to go the one place we knew it would be cool... the cinema.  We went to see the new Transformers movie.  Don't even get me started on the plot.  There are insane plot holes that you could drive a transforming semi-truck though.  But, the special effects were good and it was cool.  That is all that counts.  On our way home, we realized that our train had stopped running about 15 minutes prior (it was 130 in the morning) and we had to convince a cab driver that we knew where we lived....

Fortunately, the German people have been very nice.  They speak so much more English than we speak German (thank God) and unlike the French, they aren't averse to using it.  :)

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Michael Gandy Hat Tour of France

Right now, I am between exams at my last day of French foreign exchange.  I have taken 3 of them, with one to go.  Mergers and aquisitions is next and I only need to pass to get credit, but I am kind of questioning it.  Part of me wants to just walk out and say I dropped the class.  But no, I have come this far...

However, I am going to take a few minutes to take you on the official Michael Gandy hat tour of France.  I have said that if (when) we move to France, Mike should go into the tour guide business.  He could start a freelance touring group that does really bizarre and specific tours... "my favorite places to eat onion soup", "everything you ever wanted to know about the lower righthand side of the Orsay", "really weird stuff in the Louvre".  You know - basic stuff.

I have decided that today would be dedicated to that.  Mike has purchased a collection of hats from around the world - literally.  Italy, Spain, you name it.  He uses them for his mythology class - teaching Egyptian mythology?  Wear a pharoh hat.  Norse?  Dress like Thor.  It's a real thing.

Without further adeiu -

Let us start with pirates.  Pirates are French, Right?  Sort of.  Pirates did come from France throughout the 1600s and 1700s.  When we went to Disneyland Paris, we thought it was actually a lot more accurate for the pirates on Pirates of the Carribean to be screaming at us in French than in English.  Also, no Johnny Depp, which I kind of liked.

The classic beret.  We almost did not buy one of these, but then realized it was dumb not to.  Berets are the stereotypical French hat.  No one here seems to wear them, though.  Mike says it is because it is a winter hat.  I say because it is a stupid stereotype.  Either way, he has it in case he has to do any miming - as indicated by the photo.

This is actually very difficult to see - but it is another Disneyland hat - a top hat with Uncle Scrooge pearched on top, holding a cane and Euro notes.  It is a wonderful hat with no legitimate purpose, other than wearing in Disneyland (in the winter).  But, Mike loves Uncle Scrooge and all things Scrooge McDuck.  So, he had to have it.  The fact that he is holding a Euro makes is especially cute.  

And finally... 

Yup, cowboy hat.  (2E at Disneyland from the Lone Ranger collection).  How is this part of the hat tour of France?  This is how the French see America... or how they romanticize America rather.  The same way we think of France and see romantic strolls through the moonlight (the sun never goes down, fyi) and people wearing berets, they see America as the land of Cowboys and Indians.  It is a huge deal.  In the Small World ride, America is designated by cowboys.  There were museum exhibits in Paris dealing with the Great Plains indians. All very weird.

He is hoping to pick up a French chef hat sometime today or tomorrow before we leave France.  If so, I will update.  In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed the tour.  :)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The best parts of France

I talk all the time about the BEST things in France... sometimes I feel like a 5 year old, wherein everything is my favorite.  So, I have come up with a list of 10 things I have found most enjoyable about my stay in Paris.  I am going to discuss them in no particular order... 

1.  The bread - I have mentioned the bread half a dozen times.  I post about it, I write about it.  I have facebooked and instagramed the bread.  If I had a twitter, I would tweet about the bread as well.  I love the bread.  All of the bread.  I have always loved fresh baked bread.  My mom made it fairly regularly thoughout my childhood and even today, when she comes to visit, I usually try to convince her that she NEEDS to bake bread for me.  I love that I get fresh baked bread every single day - except maybe Wednesdays.  Many of the bakeries are closed on Wednesdays.  I love baguettes, croissants, chocolate crossants... you name it, I have tried it.  Oh wait, I have not tried Vienna style bread yet.  I will probably try that today or tomorrow, just so I can say I have tried all of the types of bread in the bakery.  There are countless dessert pastries & I have done my best to try a good selection of them, but Dr. Yao would kill me if I came home from Europe weighing MORE than when I left.  :)

2.  Chocolate - Chocolate is delicious everywhere - except China.  Chinese chocolate is terrible, but that is a post for another day.  (Note to self, write a post discussing all of the chocolate I have eaten around the world).  French chocolate is probably near the top of my chocolate ranking system.  The French have perfected the every-day chocolate bar.  You know, the one next to the register at the grocery store.  Every country in the world (except China, again) does the "special" chocolate bar pretty well.  In the US that would be Godiva, or something similar.  They cost $3-4 (or more) and are the kind of thing that you want to savor and eat in small pieces so it lasts longer.  I tend to receive them on holidays or my birthday.  Sometimes a student will buy me one on a special occasion.  They are delicious and I love them.  However, I can pretty much do without our everyday chocolate bars.  Hershey and its progeny are mediocre, at best.  I do like the occasional Heath bar, but that is probably about it.  However, here in France, chocolate is delicious.  Even the most basic milk chocolate is smooth and creamy and delicious.  Then, there is the aisle full of chocolate bars with "stuff" added in.  a) it is literally an entire aisle of chocolate bars  b) they add things I did not realize you could add.  There are bars with nuts, crunchy things, creamy fillings, fruits, other types of candy, cookies, other kinds of chocolate... Yesterday, I bought one that seems to have mini MMs in it... I do not have a review of that one yet, but I will be sure to post it after I taste it.  I can recommend the ones with toffee bits.  It is like a heath bar, but with a higher chocolate to toffee ratio.  So delicious.

3.  Museums - I could go on forever about French museums.  Realistically, it probably needs a post all of its own.  I could spend every day in a museum and never get bored.  Of course, Paris is home to some world class museums, arguably with one of the top art collections in the world.  I love the Met and MOMA in NYC, and I have nothing bad to say about either of them, but the Louvre puts them to shame.  I could spend months wandering through the rooms in the Louvre without overlapping.  Last week, we spend a couple hours in the Louvre with the audioguides and only got through 4 or 5 rooms.  There are so many amazing works of art, any one of which could be a centerpiece for a smaller museum.  But, in addition to these huge museums, there are dozens of smaller museums with fewer visitors and a much more relaxed atmosphere.  The Cluny, for example, was amazing.  It is the French museum of the Middle Ages, housed in a castle-type building from the 1200s.  We also saw the Quai Branley, which is dedicated to primative cultures (mostly those that used to be colonized by France).  Here is an example of their displays:

Both of these museums were lovely, and did not have the hustle and bustle feel of the Louvre or the Orsay.  I could spend another month in Paris, just wandering in and out of museums....

4.  History - Along the same lines, Paris is brimming with history.  It is such an old city that has gone through tremendous changes in the past 1000 years -- yeah, it is roughly 1000 years old.  The age of the city gives it a history that most American cities can never dream of.  Boston and NYC are fantastic, but about 400 years old, at best.  The Notre Dame was built 400 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.  On the day the pilgrims landed, the Notre Dame was as old as Boston is now.  Mind blowing.  Old buildings, bridges, prisons, streets... you name it... it is all amazing.  Versailles is huge and ornate and mind blowing.  Essentially, it is a house that sent the country into bankruptcy.  You cannot even imagine the opulence.  Pictures do not do it justice... but I will still try... 

5.  Outdoor space - France does outdoor space very well.  Some American cities have fantastic outdoor space.  NYC is fantastic.  Las Vegas is not.  We have a few small parks, but nothing like NYC and all of our parks together would not hold a candle to the parks in a single Parisian neighborhood.  There are walking parks, running parks, playgrounds, dog parks.. there are walking paths everywhere.  They assume you are walking places, so they do what they can to make it pleasant.  There are trees and flowers everywhere.  And Wifi.  While I never bothered trying it, most public parks have free Wifi.  The idea being, instead of being stuck inside surfing the internet, you can go outside and surf the internet.  At least you are getting some sun.  The weather here has been lovely (though rainy for a few days) and I could see spending more time outside in the parks if I had more time.  We have a lovely park across from our apartment that has two playgrounds - one for small children, one for elementary aged kids - a dog area, benches and picnic tables.  And it is packed all the time.  People are always out with their dogs and kids, enjoying the day.  I could get used to that sort of thing.

6.  Restaurants - yum.  Las Vegas has an amazing restaurant culture, which easily rivals that of any city.  We have everything from the hole in the wall Chinese joints (although my favorite recently closed) to the fanciest 5 star places you can imagine.  Paris is the same way.  The one thing they do a little better is the expectation that you are there to relax and enjoy your food.  There is no one dropping the check on your table half way through the entree course, and no one bothering you every 5 minutes to see if there is anything else you need... this is true no matter the level of restaurant you visit.  We did not splurge for a crazy fancy dinner here, because we are just as happy having eaten at a number of less expensive restaurants ($12 or 15 for a three course meal).  The waiters (mostly men, oddly), expects that you eat multiple courses and you are going to sit there for an hour or two talking and enjoying the meal.  Sure, they want to turn the tables, but it is not the primary goal.  They want the diners to be happy.

7.  Public Transportation - One word.  AMAZING.  Public transportation is easy, affordable and well managed.  During peak hours, subway trains run every 3-4 minutes.  During non peak times, the longest wait I have ever had is 8 minutes.  Busses run a little less frequently, but are equally well run.  If you have a subway pass, it is 20E per week, or 60E per month for unlimited transportation within the city (there are add ons for the suburbs).  Between my car payment, gas, insurance and upkeep, I pay $600+ per month.  I would love to get rid of all of that and pay $75 for a monthly transit pass.  Think of all the bread and shoes I could buy with that other $500. Yes, it is crowded sometimes, but it is bearable.  I wouldn't even hesitate.

8.  Shopping - This is another thing I did not do a lot of, but I could see myself really getting into here.  Unlike many tourists, I have access to the flagship Parisan stores... Louis Vuitton is just down the road from my house.  No, it is not THE LV store, but as I am not in the market to buy one of the bags, it seems kind of pointless.  The same goes for Chanel, Bulgari, Hermes... we have all of them in Las Vegas.  I have, however, loved window shopping the little boutiques.  There is always something interesting... and July is national Sale month.  Seriously - the French Government tells the stores that they should have their sales in July.  It is a little like holiday shopping at home... 30-60% off is normal.  I could have spent a lot more money here, but I held back, and actually bought very little.  

9.  Beauty - not the fact that everyone here is beautiful... which they seem to be... but that France is beautiful.  The architecture and city planning work together so well, it is lovely just to walk down the streets and enjoy the views.  There are interesting statues and centuries old buildings to look at around every corner.  

10.  Relaxation - more than anything else, despite the breakneck pace of my classes and my daily 10K walking jags, I have found France to be very relaxing.  I do not feel nearly as frenzied here.  While exhausting, I even like all the walking.  I have time to clear my head of all of the "junk".  I am not constantly worrying about what I will do later, or tomorrow.  I do not care (mostly) about what other people are thinking.  I know that part of this is that I am a bit disconnected from my regular life - and it is summer, so I am not working.  I do not feel the constant nag of my emails, or texts, or anything else. But, I think it is a combination of elements working together to give me a much more peaceful existance.  I am hoping that I can bring some of these concepts home with me and dial back the stress on my day to day life.

Vive le France!

This past weekend was National Day in France.  Or, as most non-French people know it, Bastille day.  It is similar to (but not the same as) July 4 in the US.  It is a day to celebrate the nation of France and how awesome France is.  How do we they do this, you may ask?  In the traditional way - parties and picnics and fireworks.

Wait a second, this sounds exactly like July 4!  Right?  Wrong.  On the surface, it does sound like the 4th of July.  Americans have picnics and parties and shoot of firewords to celebrate American awesomeness.  I propose, to be truly awesome, we need to take some celebratory lessons from the French.  This is the country that invented champagne, remember.

Let's start with the picnics.  To put it simply, their food is amazing.  I have talked about French food before.  Suffice it to say, picnic food is equally amazing.  Even the basic sandwich is elevated to a new level when you put it on a crunchy, delicious baguette.  Add amaing pastry and some of that weird French soda I talked about yesterday -- or better yet, a bottle of wine and voila, delicious picnic.  

Now, on to the fireworks.  I am not going to make a declaration that French fireworks are better, per se.  Many American cities have amazing fireworks displays, including my home in Las Vegas.  I do want to give them some credit in that the entire nation shuts down in the evening so everyone can watch the fireworks.  Over 500,000 people gathered on the Champs de Mars to watch the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower - a full 25% of the city went to this one park.  I was not there - as I did not want to be smooshed in with half a million people.  However, I did go to Montmarte to watch from the hilltop - along with probably 1000 others.  I would be willing to bet that 75% or more of the city was watching the fireworks displays.  I call that dedication.

But what I really wanted to talk about is the parties.  These parties put Americans to shame.  Mike and I happen to live just up the block from the main fire station for our zone (think the equivalent of NYC boroughs).  Each neighborhood held a fireman's ball on Sunday night.  Normally, when I think policeman or firemans ball, I think black tie, expensive tickets and all the whos who of the city.  This is not that kind of party.  The fireman open up the station (the ground floor and courtyard areas of it) for everyone in the neighborhood to come and party.  There is a stage with a live band, a bar and everyone from your neighborhood... young and old (I even saw a few kids there).  This party starts at 11pm and goes until 4am.  FOUR in the morning!  Oh, and did I mention that it is free?  Yup, free.  Everyone is welcome.  No ID checks, no guest list, no VIP section.  We did go through a metal detector, and right inside the door was a wine barrel with a hole drilled in the top for donations.  We threw in a few coins (couple dollars, max) and they just similed and said thank you.  Many did not give anything, some were putting in bills (the smallest euro notes are a 5, for reference).  I am sure they made tens of thousands of dollars.  The firemen also ran the bar - cheap beer and bottles of wine, which they expected you to drink straight out of the bottle.  They would open it for you, though.  Everyone was singing, dancing, laughing and having a good time.  There were no wall flowers, there were no creepy guys in the corner trying to hit on women that did not want to be hit on.  Even the firemen were having a few drinks and dancing.  When the band sang "I Love Rock and Roll" as an encore, there was not a single person having a bad time.  

As I am not really a party until 4am person, we did not stay for the second band.  We called it quits about 2:30 -- with the party still going strong.  Little old ladies out partied us.  We were exhausted and needed to go to bed.  But, it was amazing -- something everyone should experience.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Travel Advice 101

Today marks day 21 that we are in Europe, officially making this the longest stretch of time that I have traveled continuiously (not counting that year in China, of course).  That being said, I thought I would give some of my most successful travel tips, and mention a few things that I THOUGHT would be great ideas, but were not.

DO - pack light.  Originally, I was very overwhelmed by the prospect of packing for a six week "vacation" in three cities with a variety of climates.  I ended up committing to a capsule wardrobe concept - 25 items of clothing to mix and match for multiple outfits.  I looked at this post for my inspiration:

Notice, it even mentions Paris in the title.  After 3 weeks, I have only run into one problem - tshirts.  Notice how the picture does not have any tshirts?  It makes lounging around the apartment less comfortable.  I do have a few tanks for layering, so I tend to wear those.  I have also bought 2 Paris shirts - one from the University and one from Disneyland.  Now I am set.  Also, I should have really thought about my own style a little more.  I combined this one with a second "springtime in Paris" post, which included more skirts and dresses.  I do not wear a lot of skirts and dresses, so I could have trimmed that down a little... and packed another tshirt.

But, aside from that, it has been working out really well.  Mike went with an even more compact wardrobe.  I think he has six shirts, two pants, and two shorts.  

At the same time, DON'T be unprepared.  I followed European weather for a couple of weeks to give me an idea of what I oould expect.  Had I just packed for "July", I would have had nothing but shorts and tanks, with a couple of short sleeved shirts for good measure.  Instead, I am wearing a lot of pants and the occasinoal sweater.  I have an umbrella and raincoat - things I never need in Las Vegas.

DO remember the creature comforts.  There are certain things that will make you happy, no matter where you are.  Everyone will have a bad travel day.  Your flight will be delayed, you will get lost in the streets of Venice, someone will be mean to you in the museum... whatever it is, your day will not go as planned.  It is so much easier to get your head back on straight if you have some sort of security blanket, either literal or metaphorical.  Mike has an actual blanket, I have episodes of Law and Order (Jerry Orbach years) downloaded onto my Mac.  Nothing makes a terrible day better than relaxing for an hour with Law and Order.  For you, it is probably different -- a favorite movie, a good book, your favorite chocolate bar.... but be sure you have something to comfort you when the day goes poorly.  I loaded my iPhone with a bunch of new music (Amazon Prime now has a free music service) so I could have a new soundtrack for wandering the streets of Paris.  I have songs that make me happy and upbeat for all those miles of hiking I do every day.  I also have guilty pleasures, so I can sit on the subway and listen to Nickelback's top 20 (don't judge me).  These little things make a good trip great.

However, DON'T be afraid to try new things.  Delicious foods, a new route to the subway stop, a different kind of coffee or soda.  Something new can become your new favorite.  Soda is my favorite.  I do not drink a lot of it, but I like to try new soda in foreign countries.  France has delicious flavors -- Peach, Grapefruit, Green Apple (they like fruit flavored, obviously).  Chips are also fun.  Mike has prided himself on trying every bizarre type of chips he can find.  He likes roasted chicken and bacon flavors a lot (those are two things), olive is not what we hoped it would be.

DO go off the beaten path.  Every city has its tourist must-dos... but do not define your trip by these things.  Some of my greatest experiences are the random experiences that I stumble across.  I ate a delicious crepe while sitting in a park watching the people go by.  This was a wonderful moment that you will not find in any guide book.  Try the small museums, visit restaurants without an English menu, wander through the small shops, buy chocolates from the supermarket -- Unless you are in China, then I recommend avoiding the supermarket chocolate at all costs.

But, DON'T be afraid to be a tourist.  Rick Steves writes great European guide books.  He tells you about all of the little nooks and cranies of the cities to make your vacation wonderful.  However, he is adamant against being too touristy.  He hates the Latin Quarter because it is not local enough - it exists only to serve tourists.  But, he misses the point - you are a tourist.  Yes, I have wonderful local experiences, but I have also had wonderful French meals for 10 Euros because of the tourist competition in the Latin Quarter.  Buy souvineers.  Buy subtle reminders of your trip, but do not forget to get the obligitory Eiffel Tower statue.  People will ask to see it.  

Last but not least, DO follow your own rules.  I see a lot of people wandering through the city, using their Rick Steves guidebook as a Bible.  They follow the maps, use the pre-determined routes and eat at the recommended restaurants.  Sure, you will have a good experience, but you will have that experience and not your own.  I could make a list of every incredible place I have been, but then you will simply have my vacation and not your own.  Make your own way, go at your own pace, and create your own memories.  They will be so much more valuable.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The downside of France

For the past 10 days, I have been extolling the benefits of Paris.  Today, I am going to briefly adress the biggest downside of being here.  So, all of you that have been living vicariously through us can read this post and stop being jealous, at least for a moment or two.  

It smells.  Horribly.  At first, I thought it was just the metro stations.  As anyone that has been to New York City knows, metro stations smell badly pretty much everywhere you go.  Homeless people hunker down to stay out of the elements, drunk party goers that cannot make it back to their apartments, or the nearest public restroom, relieve themselves with abandon.  Rotted food, garbage that doesn't get take out as often as it should, all add up to something that does not smell great.  But, let me repeat, this is not a problem that is unique to France.  I think every subway in the world has that weird smell that attacks your olfactories as soon as you start going down the stairs.  It is slightly compounded here by the number of fruit vendors in the subway stations -- occasionally the mix of the bad smell and the fresh produce is just awful.

However, in Paris, that smell permeates most of the city.  Everywhere you go, there is a distinct bathroom-odor.  Not just in the city center, not just in the tourist areas, but in all corners of the city.  The execption might be if you are standing directly outside of a bakery.  Bakeries smell wonderful.  Everything else smells terrible.  

(beautiful city, but it smells terrible... photos are misleading...)

Sunday, Mike and I were walking to the flea market in a nearby neighborhood and we were amazed to see a young man (maybe 25), open up his fly and start urinating on a car parked on the street.  In the middle of the day.  Across the street from a church and park.  There were so many things wrong that we almost could not comprehend what was going on.  Let me repeat -- young guy, hanging out on the sidewalk, having some drinks with his buddies on a Sunday morning (part of me thinks this is where he started going wrong -- when you start drinking at 11am, great things are not likely to happen).  He made the brilliant decision that rather than go inside to use the bathroom, or go to the public restroom across the street in the park, he would rather open up his pants and pee on a car.  I am going to bet that it was not his car, because who would pee on their own car?  Granted, this is not the only question that one should be asking... but it is a good place to start.  

And this, my friends, I have decided is why Paris smells weirdly like a bathroom everywhere you go.  There are no real mysteries, it is just a matter of dudes peeing on cars (yes, I am stereotyping, but I do not think women do this with any frequency).  

Monday, July 7, 2014

French Fitness

(I started this post the other day and thought I should finish before moving on)

The concept of "fitness" in Europe, or at least in France, is so different from the American concept.  I've read and seen a million times how the European lifestyle promotes fitness in a way that the American lifestyle does not.  To an extent, I experienced this is China.  I walked everywhere, ate a lot of vegetables and over the course of a year, lost a LOT of weight.  Of course, I gained all of it back after returning to the US (over the course of a couple years) and have never gotten close to that size again.  

Although, I'm fairly certain that if I lived in Frace for six months, I could make a pretty decent run at it.  

Here is French fitness in a nutshell.

Step one:  Walk.  Everywhere.  I am ashamed to admit that I typically drive to the grocery store at home, even though it is less than a mile away.  I convince myself that there are a few good reasons for this:  I buy a lot of things at once, and it is often very hot outside.  

From time to time, Mike and I do walk to the store when it is not swealtering hot and we only need a couple of things, but this is the exception rather than the rule.  I could get around the "buying lots of stuff at once" thing by simply buying less stuff.  I do not NEED to stock up on food as if I am preparing for the impending winter.  Because there is no winter, at least not in Las Vegas.  December and January are lovely months.  It seldom dips below 50 degrees.  This year, it was a "record cold winter".  While my friends in other parts of the country were being burried in mountains of snow and ice, we were experiencing the mind-bending temperatures of 40-45 degrees for nearly two weeks!  Remember all of those LA newscasters that we made fun of for freaking out at the near freezing temperatures?  The same thing happened in Las Vegas, but no one noticed because we were all too busy making fun of Good Morning LA.  I wore sweaters with t-shirts underneath for a couple of weeks.  One day was especially chilly and I wore tights under my jeans.  The biggest problem stems from people's lack of cold weather preparation.  Many buildings do not have great heating systems. For a few days, my classroom was only about 60.  60 is not freezing, but 60 inside in the winter, is quite cold.  

But, I digress.  I was talking about walking.  We very easily fell into the European habit of walking, partially because we did not have a choice.  We do not have access to a car here, unless we want to rent one.  It seems that many Parisians do not have cars and are perfectly satisfied to walk and use public transportation.  We do not buy a lot of groceries at once, just what we can carry.  We do our best to pick up the daily necessities on our way home for the evening and seldom go out again once we are in for the night.  Our neighborhood is very convenient in that sense.  Just outside the train station are a bakery, a butcher and some produce markets.  If we need dry goods, there is also a little grocery store about half way between the train station and the apartment.  However, I am surprised by how few dry goods we need.  

Step two: meals.  I seem to eat much smaller meals here.  Even though restaurant meals come in courses, the courses are much smaller.  Whereas I typically skip breakfast at home, I be sure to eat here, to fortify myself for my daily 10K worth of walking.  This morning, I had two yogurts and a few strawberries because I was out of bread, and I am starting to think I made a mistake in not eating something more (an egg or sausage) before I left the apartment.  

Step three:  look beautiful wherever you go.  While this may not exactly fit into the idea of fitness, it is part of the regimine.  As a whole, French people are amazingly attractive.  They put a lot more thought into their wardrobe and appearance than I ever have.  Even on my best days, I do not look as good as a "casual" French lady.  So in a sense, they set an unwritten standard and expect everyone to stick to it.  They accept that tourists will not follow these rules (typically the Americans), but if you are part of society (or want to blend in), you need to follow these rules.  Well put together outfits, well kept hair, makeup, you name it.  In general, best face forward at all times.  I have seen women jogging that look immaculate.  I have no idea how they do it... 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

French Food

Since my first visit in 2004, I have appreciated everything about French food.  It is delicious.  There are lots of breads and cheeses and chocolates, and other delicious things that I love.  There is a reason that we as Americans think of French food as "fancy".  Because it is fancy - at least fancier than American food.  I think part of it is that the French still appreciate the ritual of the meal.  It is very rare occurrence that a meal lasts less than an hour (not counting food on the go, which is a different sort of beast).  Meals come in well timed courses, meant to be enjoyed.

For most of the last week, Mike and I have been eating in.  As I mentioned a couple of posts back, we are shopping in the grocery store and the local market street to get the things we need.  There is something very appealing to me about going from shop to shop to gather the ingredients for a delicious meal:  meat from the butcher, bread from the baker, cheese from the dairy... and so on.  It goes against my American sensibilities - I want to go to that one-stop shop and get a great price on everything all at once... or at least a decent price.  Here, I actually SAVE money by scavenging my dinner from a series of shops.  Meat is especially expensive in the grocery store, when compared to the butcher.  Chicken breast, for example, costs almost $10 per pound (17E/kilo) in the supermarket.  Tonight, I saw it for 7E/k (about $4.50 per pound) at the butcher.  Granted, even that is more than I really want to pay, but at least it is affordable.

My favorite, without question, is the bakery.  Not only does the French government regulate the price of a baguette (the best $1 per day I spend) because it is such a central part of the French culture and diet, but they have annual competitions to see who is the best baker.  This is serious stuff; the winner gets to hang a sign in his/her window saying they are the premier baker in Paris.  And everyone takes their baking seriously - they want to be the winner, so they make the most delicious stuff they can.  Crusty loaves of bread, fluffy soft croissants, pastries that tempt me every time I walk past them... It is all delicious.  Even the most basic baguette is amazing (especially when smeared with soft cheese or jam).  These same baguettes become sandwiches for lunch.  Sliced bread isn't particularly popular. You can buy it, but few people do.  I've also tried a selection of other breads and pastries.  So far, I think my favorite is pain Suisse.  It used to be pain chocolat - a croissant with some chocolate shoved inside.  But the Pain Suisse is like pain chocolat on steroids... LOTS of chocolate and this sugary custard to hold it together.  Everything about it is delicious.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Because Science

Today is the first day that Europe has caught up with me and truly kicked my ass.  What I mean is that I am finally exhausted from the miles and miles of daily walking (we estimate 8-10 miles per day, or more) and the hellacious world of daylight that Paris is enveloped in.  

Think back to your elementary and middle school science classes - where we learned about the slight tilt of the earth that leads to 22 hour days in Alaska during the summer.  Now, let's review the globe for a moment....

Paris is not too far from that bright aqua colored splotch next to England.  Now, follow that line of latitute back around the the US and what do we notice?  It is so FAR NORTH!!!  We are talking mid-Canada here.  Las Vegas is nearly two full lines of latitude further south.  That translates into a lot of daylight.  According to the weatherman, the sun rose this morning about 5:45 am and sets just after 10pm.  To compare, the sun will rise in Las Vegas about the same time (5:32 today) and set at 8:01.  Nearly two full hours earlier.  By 9pm it will be fully dark -- still over 100 degrees, but at least we will not have to watch the heat waves rise off the pavement anymore.  

So what ends up happening is I stay up much too late, because I am waiting for it to get dark like an 8 year old.  It isn't dark, so I shouldn't have to go to bed, right?  Finally, about 11pm, it is dark-ish.  It still isn't dark, but it is dark enough.  Less than six hours later, it starts getting light.  I wake up to the sun shining and the birds singing and think "oh my god, it is so early and I am so tired!"  Why?  Because it is early.  The light starts pouring through my windows around 5am.  

Now, add to this last night's tourist extravaganza.  Yesterday, my former exchange-daughter, Sarah, came to visit us from Germany.  We have not seen her in a few years, so we were very excited to have her come for a few days.  After she arrived at our local metro stop, we took her to the Latin Quarter for dinner and some touristing.  We took some obligatory photos of the Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.  I got some macaroons, which were perhaps the most delicious macaroons that I have ever tasted.  We also sampled some Tunisian pastry, which is essentially fried dough soaked in butter and honey -- and how can that ever be bad?  All of this was so incredibly wonderful, except that we stayed out much later than normal.

Typically, Mike and I do some afternoon touristing and then return to our apartment in the early evening to unwind and relax.  It is very reminiscent of our American routine and feels very comfortable.  It is especially important because of the sheer amount of walking we do every day.  

I wrote all of this to say one thing... I am exhausted today.  And I blame science.  :)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Coffee and Commuting

Today, I have been thinking a lot about my morning routine and how much different it is than my American routine... even though in some ways, it is very similar.  Ok, that doesn't make a lot of sense... so let me just explain.

My American morning routine is pretty typical.  I wake up, I get dressed, make myself some coffee and drive about 20-25 minutes to work.  In all, it takes me about an hour from when I wake up to land at my desk.  Keep in mind, I spend almost zero time "waking up" in the morning.  The alarm goes off, I begrudginly roll out of bed and I get to the car in as little time as possible.  Most days, it takes less than 30 min.

Here in France, the basic function of my morning is the same.  I wake up, get dressed, and commute about 20 minutes.  However, that is where the similarities end.  First of all, I spend much more time sort of lounging around.  I read some e-mails, surf the internet for a few minutes and slowly get ready for my day.  I leave the house about an hour after I first wake up.  Part of that is because I do not have 24/7 internet access and I want to scan through to see if there is anything important.  Anything work or school related generally happens while I am sleeping... job rejections, for example come through while I am sleeping.  It took a little getting used to, but I do not mind the untethering from the internet.  It is almost like I have gone back a decade in my life...I have internet at home, but no cell phone and no continuous tie to the "real world".  

Once I leave, paying careful attention to the layers of clothes I am wearing (temperatures vary fairly dramatically here, at least by Vegas standards), I leave the apartment and walk about 5 minutes to the metro station.  Then, I take the metro to school.  I am very fortunate to have an easy commute.  I switch trains once at a non-touristy station and then upon exiting my train, walk less than one block to the University.  

Despite this, it is so very different.  Las Vegas is a huge metropolitan area - about 2.1 million people.  But we have no mass transit system to speak of.  There are busses, but they are not set up for commuters, and I could probably count on one hand the number of times that I have ridden on them in the past 10 years.  If there was convenient mass transit from my house to work, I would probably use it at least 50% of the time.  So, by default, I drive to work.  I am not a huge fan of driving, in general, but I do not have much choice.  I like the solidarity of driving.  It is my "me time" before and after work.  I can get my thoughts together, listen to the radio, make phone calls (don't worry, I have bluetooth), or anything else of that nature.  

Here, I am surrounded by people from the moment I leave home.  There are hundreds of people on the train and since I am commuting at the same time as most others, we are all smooshed together into a human sardiene can.  I do wear my headphones, and I take the free metro station newspapers so I can try to read some French articles (an interesting piece about selfies this morning).  I have ridden trains and subways before.  I am pretty confident on the NYC Metro system and have ridden my fair share of other systems in London, DC, Paris, Rome, etc... so I know how it works and do not worry about getting lost.  :) I even have my very own Navigo pass -- the Paris travel pass similar to the London Oyster card.  It is a plastic card that I just tap on the turnstyle - paid by the week or month.  It even has a (terrible) picture of me on it.  Between that and my Louvre membership, I am positively French.

And then, there is the coffee.  Mmmmm... coffee.

Let me start by saying, I love coffee.  I do not drink a lot of it, but I do drink about a cup a day, sometimes two.  Seldom more... because I also love sleeping.  I also typically make my own in the morning with my Keurig machine, because buying coffee gets expensive.  A typical Starbucks latte costs me about $4.  Even 7-11 coffee is about $2 for the large size if I forget my travel cup.  It adds up quickly.

Here in France, I do not make my own coffee.  I do have a coffee maker in my apartment - of sorts.  It is a French press (naturally).  However, wandering around with a coffee in hand is not typcial.  Instead, I buy a coffee when I arrive in school.  I have decided that I like cafe creme - which seems to be two shots of espresso with the rest of the cup filled with milk.  Stronger than a latte, because the cup is smaller, but the basic idea is the same.  Throw in a square of sugar and it is lovely.  It costs me less than $1.  Half way through my classes, I wander over to the vending machines and get a second cup of coffee... I have been trying out the different vending options and so far, the cafe vanille is my favorite.  It is instant stuff, that reminds me a lot of the International Delights coffees that were so popular 10-15 years ago (Jean Luc!), but more delicious.  Considering it costs me 50 cents and comes out of a vending machine, I will not complain.  Today, I paired my internatinal delight coffee with a kinder bar - easily the most delicious chocolate bar in the world and had a fantastic morning snack.  :)

So, in short... France is different.  I can see why some Americans freak out by the differences, but it is wonderful.  Where else can you get International Delights from a vending machine for 50c?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A few thoughts on the concept of study abroad...

Today is my second day of classes here in Paris.  In some senses, it is amazing.  I have the opportunity to learn from world-class professors... people that have been involved with the literal formation of international law (One of my professors assissted in the writing of the post-war Iraq constitution).  I am surrounded by dozens of other law students from a variety of systems and walks of life.  While my part-time program offers me amazing diversity in my classmates, this takes it to an entirely new level.  There are students from all over the US, as well as France, Isreal, and a few other European countries (however, I am one of the oldest students in the program, which feels weird, since I represent the median age of my UNLV program).

However, there are some weird downsides.

1.  I have no real desire to study.  I know a lot of my classmates are in the same situation & I think the skimming I do of the reading materials may actually be much more studying than most are doing.  Do you have any idea how difficult it is to read the evolution of merger and anti-trust law when I could be out visiting some of the amazing Parisian sites?!

2.  Everyone here seems to have different concepts of what is ok in the classroom.  Coming from an American system, we have a general set of standards that we adhere to - we generally don't talk while professors are lecturing, we try to be sneaky about surfing on the internet (though are not always successful), and we generally do what we can not to interrupt the class.  Others seems to have slightly different ideas... I will just leave it at that.

3.  I finally understand some of the struggles of my ELL students.  While all of the classes here are conducted in English, one of my professors is French.  Lives in France, works in France, but speaks English and is teaching a course in European Law.  His English is thickly accented and not completely fluent.  So, I have to pay so much more attention to parse apart what exactly it is he is saying... because while it is English, the academic language is unfamiliar to start with.  I find myself drifting off and struggle to pay as much attention as I should.  This must be how my students feel.  The words should be familiar, but the combination of the language barrier and the academic language makes it impossible to completely understand what is going on.