I Can Ride My Bike With No Handlebars Tuesday, Jun 8 2010 

Did you pack your Chucks along with your Gucci talons (high heels) from Monaco? Good deal! Because now, instead of promenading along the gilded streets of Monaco, we’re off to Dijon, where the famous mustard originates, the wine flows more freely than water and the tourists get sloshed every day (because they can!)

Countryside near Dijon, France and beautiful vineyards (or as Laura would say, "wine fields!")

Armed with a lot of water, and good shoes, the two Lauras and I took a train from Dijon (which seemed wrong, since we had just arrived in the city less than 24 hours earlier) to Beaune. Beaune is the capital of the Burgundy wine-producing region, and although nearby Dijon is much larger, Beaune is largely unspoiled by gawking tourists and remains blissfully picturesque. It boasts a “smashing Saturday market,” so after renting bicycles for the day, we wandered to the market, and “smashing” it certainly was!

Me and my bike!

We bought fabulous mustard seed-coated formage (cheese), a twisted baguette, sweet tomatoes and the rest of our yummy picnic lunch.  Packed with our pique-nique lunch, we embarked on a 24 kilometer trip to Puligny-Montrachet where some of the world’s foremost Chardonnay is produced. We explored on our bikes via rolling, sweeping hills and zipping down and around the old streets of picturesque villages and gazing at the zigzagged rows of vines on either side of the roads.

A column naming the vineyard's owner and city of origin

Vineyards.... and a horse and plow!

Baby grapes...

Everything was smooth riding (with the exception of some huffing and puffing up some hills) until the moment where Laura T thought it would be a good idea to tumble, headlong, off her bike and on to the pavement, effectively scraping herself in several places and scaring Laura the Chef and I silly. But what a trooper she was! After getting bandaged up (along with popping several painkillers), she hopped back on her bike and away we went.

My Lauras, just before Laura T had a close encounter with the pavement.

The fateful road... and a wicked rough hill to bike UP. (A moment of silence, please, for Laura Trude's skin.)

When we reached Puligny-Montrachet, we were tired. Some of us were sporting abrasions, others were sporting awesome sweat stains and others were regretting the giant 1.5 liter of Coke she had purchased earlier (It turns out that Coke is heavy not to mention NOT thirst-quenching!). But none of the above were going to stop us from tasting the world’s finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir!

Wine tasting (and spitting bucket in background). In case you didn't know already, you don't DRINK all the wine in a tasting. You unceremoniously spit it OUT, right in front of everyone. Counter-intuitive? Yes.

So we signed up to taste (NOT GULP!!!) wine while we lazily soaked in the atmosphere of the Burgundian countryside. That night, back in Beaune (and still sweaty and somewhat bedraggled by this point), we had a delicious meal of Boeuf Bourguignon, regional wine, cheese and exquisite dessert.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Pretty Laura the Chef at a great dinner in Beaune!

By the end of the day, when we removed our Chucks (not our Guccis!), we were exhausted: physically and emotionally. But I think it is safe to say that it was my all-time favorite day of this last fling in France.

Boeuf Boeurginon

To learn about Pugligny-Montrachet, click here… and then get a corkscrew and a wine glass! Chin! (Cheers!)

To see the surrounding area of Dijon and a map of the route we took biking, click here.

Remember to check out Laura the Chef’s blog! It boasts a great new post about our Ice Cream Overload in Nice from a few days ago!

[I have 24 hours left in the country and only a few more blog posts before I say farewell. Stay tuned for the final installments!]

Advertisements

“Deo Juvante” Monaco Sunday, Jun 6 2010 

I hope you packed your Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Marc Jacobs, because we’re off to Monaco, a tiny principality of France and the world’s second smallest country! Here, appearance is everything. The rich foreigners strut down the street and the Ferraris are more like red streaks dashing down winding roads, dodging gawking tourists. The high rise condos shoot into the crystal-clear sky and the water sparkles in the sunshine. Giant yachts glide, phantom-like, through the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

The serene Mediterranean Sea, as seen from overlooking one of the old city walls, near the Museum of Ocean Sciences

Mmmm! Ferrari! Outrageously expensive, brand-new sports cars run around Monaco like Chevy 4x4s in North Dakota.

Monaco is less than a mile square although it hosts a population of 33,000. Monaco’s population is unique in the fact that its natives are of the minority. The majority is made up of French, followed by excessively wealthy foreigners who flee to Monaco to enjoy its lack of income tax. The government gets its due when it comes to real estate taxation and employer’s taxes. Almost half of the income from the people goes to the state, and the city reflects the income nicely. All buildings are perfectly kept. No graffiti is seen, no cigarette butts litter the ground, and everyone seems keenly aware of the beauty of their surroundings and strives to keep it beautiful.

Highrise Skyline of Monaco

The country has been ruled by the House of Grimaldi since 1297 when Francesco Grimaldi, disguised as a monk, captured Monaco and became its ruler. Monaco is currently ruled by sovereign Prince Albert II, Europe’s “Most Eligible Bachelor!” The castle, modest yet beautiful, is perched on a jutting-out of land, overlooking the beautiful Côte d’Azur.

The beautiful Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco

Prince Albert II’s mother was the famous American actress Grace Kelly who was tragically killed when her sports car careened off of one of Monaco’s cliffs. Princess Grace was married and buried at the same beautiful byzantine cathedral, right in the castle of Monaco’s walls.

We wandered around, aware of the lack of beggars and litter. It was other-worldly how clean, sparkly and expensive the country was. We got sleepier and sleepier in the sunshine that continued to warm our shoulders (and according to Miss Vein, “cook us”) as we walked up and down the terraced streets of Monte-Carlo (the city in the country of Monaco).

We wandered to the world-famous Monte-Carlo Casino, the place that gives Monaco its nickname “The European Las Vegas.” The interior and the exterior of the casino were as grand and obscenely rich as everyone who travels and lives in Monaco. Gilded, vaulted domes, floor to ceiling mirrors and plush, velvet curtains hung on every wall. I wondered if the Louvre had changed cities and planted itself in Monaco instead of in Paris.

Monte-Carlo Casino!

Laura the Chef, who had never gambled before, decided that she had 5 extra euros that needed to be spent and fed them to a slot machine. 25 minutes later, the three of us walked out of Monte-Carlo, Laura bearing the winnings of the day, a whole 5.60 euros. Sixty centimes (cents) wasn’t getting us any closer to a Ferrari or even some posh Gucci shoes, but at least our luck followed us to Monaco that day!

Me, overlooking the beautiful Côte d’Azur, Monaco.

That night, officially exhausted, we hopped back on a bus headed for Nice and our amazing hotel. We bid Monaco farewell, promising a speedy (and fashionable!) return, and were rocked two and fro, gently, as the bus wound along the twisty roads of the Côte d’Azur.

To learn more about the beautiful Principality of Monaco, click here, and click on the English option!

Look at Laura the Chef’s latest picture post about the nicest, sweetest things in France!

To see the extent of the Côte d’Azur region in France, click here.

Mmmm… Saint-Malo, Mont-Saint-Michel and Mutton! Wednesday, May 19 2010 

Sometimes when I begin entries such as the following, I have to struggle to convey how fully indescribably beautiful the sight was without being a mini-Rick Steves. The two places I have to tell you about are so fantastic that the only way to truly appreciate them is to visit them yourself.

Our rented car!

I hopped in a rented French car with my Italian friends Maura Talozzi, Valentina Graziosi and Stefano Laboni. I will tell you up-front that I was scared brainless because of several reasons. I was 1) traveling to a place I’d never been with 2) people I hardly knew 3) in a car driven by Italians who have a bad reputation for driving habits. I was thrilled to find that all my worries were completely irrational as we drove 140 km (about 90 miles) to Saint-Malo and Mont-Saint-Michel laughing and speaking in French and Italian.

A panoramic shot of Saint-Malo. (Not work by yours truly!)

Saint-Malo, an ancient city in Brittany, is tucked into protective walls that look like a medieval take on inner city housing. The ramparts are no longer used to keep people out, and we rambled alongside the beautiful walls to gaze on the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel (Mont-Saint-Michel Bay). The city is home to more seafood restaurants per capita than any other place in the world, and Maura and I longed for les huîtres (oysters) when we smelled the sweet, salty air coming off the baie.

We enjoyed our lunch in a park surrounded by ancient buildings and hungry birds and then said au revoir to Saint-Malo, headed for Mont-Saint-Michel!

Beautiful lady! My friend Maura, perched on the ramparts of Saint-Malo

Beautiful aqua water of Saint-Malo and Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel

Ramparts of Saint-Malo. Right behind what looks like rowhouses is centre ville (downtown)!

Situated just between Brittany and Basse-Normandie, there is a small island that until about the year 700 AD was called Monte Tombe (Tomb Mountain). Work began on a monastery after the Archangel Michael appeared to the Saint Aubert, Bishop of Avranches. In 933, William Duke of Normandy (and later known as “the Conquerer”) annexed the little island and its monastery. Ducal patronage helped expand the monastery for many centuries following the Norman Conquest (which was depicted by the Bayeux Tapestry and in which Mont-Saint-Michel has a prominent role!). [Click here if you need a refresher course on William the Conquerer and his cool tapestry!]

Beautiful, beautiful Mont-Saint-Michel by night. (I did not take this picture either!)

The abbaye has resisted invasion after invasion over the course of its 1,300 year existence. Its natural fortification of water, quicksand and unnaturally fast-moving fog-cover and tidal swells seem to be divinely placed. In the Hundred Years War, although the English failed to capture the abbaye itself, they did capture the area and granted safe passage to pilgrims in exchange for payment. People of all walks of life paid homage to the mountain and its safety, many drowning in the quickly rising tides, sneaky quicksands and strange weather patterns associated with the area.

Warnings posted on the beach about the quicksand and quickly-flooding high tides.

The walls and streets are steeped in history as are many places in France. Molly said it best when she said in response to one of my offhanded remarks, “Well yeah, Kelli… France is fairly tripping over itself with history,” which I remembered with startling clarity when I tripped numerous times over the ancient, hand-laid cobblestone steps and streets of the village. The village of Mont-Saint-Michel has a grand population of 46 people. While most of the workers in the dozen cafes and tourist shops live in Pontorson, a small city 6 miles south of the Mont, a few people actually live right on the Mont itself along with a few monks who live in the abbaye.

Mont-Saint-Michel, the way I saw it today.

The busy cobblestoned streets packed with pilgrims, tourists and very overpriced omlettes!

The landscape is marked by very gently rolling collines (hills), dotted with the black-faced sheep and dairy cows who lazily roam les collines and the damp marshes. The sea that soaks the land twice a day at high tide makes the ground naturally salty and in turn grows tangy, salty grasses. When the sheep graze, they themselves become salty. Therefore, it’s completely honest to say that every Breton shepherd has a herd of bona  fide pre-seasoned lamb chops roaming around on the marshes of Mont-Saint-Michel, completely oblivious to the fact that their diet of grasses is making them one of the most sought-after dishes in Brittany!

Looking through the ramparts of Mont-Saint-Michel to the salty marshes below

Me, overlooking the marshes and the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel

Look at all those sheep!!

While I got to know my new friends the Italians and said “O la vache” (“holy cow!”) and “très joli!” (“very pretty!”) more times than I could count, I found that there was no place on earth quite like Mont-Saint-Michel. The sun warmed my back and danced across the water in the baie, the wind kissed my cheeks, and I watched les goellas (gulls) drift lazily on the updrafts from the sea. I was perfectly, 100% contente and thankful.

To learn more about Mont-Saint-Michel and its almost limitless history lesson, get a lamb-chop and click here.

To learn more about the beautiful little port town of Saint-Malo, click here.

The Road Less Traveled Wednesday, Apr 28 2010 

I haven’t always loved peace and quiet the way I have now. For a long time, I thought that a big city with its crazy atmosphere and non-stop lifestyle was what I wanted. But priorities, along with so many other things in our day-to-day growth in life, change, and I have decided that I am irreversibly in love with the peace and beauty of the countryside.

Caen is a city that is home to over 100,000 people (Fargo-size), so it is not a booming metropolis, nor is it a small city. There are always things to do, places to go and people to meet in Caen, and if you need proof, consult my accolades of the city earlier this month. But as beautiful as architecture is and old-town sights are, I crave the quiet of the hills that surround Caen. I can see them from my window and they seem to taunt me, just out of reach for a busy student with more French language studying than she can possibly conquer.

But recently, I vacated my stuffy dorm room and my studies, and Molly showed me the most delightfully calm and beautiful place. The area near the hippodrome is right on the edge of Caen, and just far enough away to be “away from it all.” On a lazy Saturday or Sunday, you can amble down to the River Orne and soak in the sunshine with a book and a picnique. The river flows very gently and almost imperceptibly while the ducks lazily tool around in pairs.

More lovely peacefulness

The river, along with the fine houses that tower above the river and look out on the hippodrome and horse-race track, look like something from a Monet painting when the sun sparkles on the river and dazzles your eyes. The wrought-iron gates that protect properties from one another and the boats pulled up on the man-made shores are green with lichens and moss. The grasses slope down the sides of the river and mingle with the weeping willows who, like graceful ladies, dip their branches, like toes, into the current.

The River Orne that runs along the hippodrome in Caen

As you meander past the hippodrome and into the campagne, the cottonwood trees filter the sunlight, their leaves reflecting the sunshine as they wave in the breeze. People bike, walk, and run along the river’s edge. Old men, who seem to have stepped from a different era in time, walk from one tiny village on the outskirts of town to another via the main route and the whole place is completely picturesque and utterly serene.

Peaceful road that leads into more countryside...

Wherever you are, I hope you find peace, serenity and the chance to “be still.” Happy Spring!

Beautiful Cherbourg (Part II) Sunday, Apr 25 2010 

I slept soundly and greeted the sweet sunshine that poured into Petra and Nordahl’s lovely flat in the center of Cherbourg. The sky was nearly cloudless and I could tell it was going to be an absolutely fantastic afternoon.

Petra and I enjoyed cup after cup of yummy coffee and toast with rhubarb jam and laughed about silly things like girls usually do. Cultures are wonderful in this way: you can travel the world and the little things you take particular delight in follow you around and manifest themselves in different ways. The joyfulness of sharing a cup of coffee (or three!) with my Czech friend was simply irreplaceable.

We left the flat and went on another tour of Cherbourg, this time to see what we could see of the sea from the Montagne du Roule (say that ten times fast). We walked along the Avenue de Paris to another beautiful park, full of exotic birds and not so exotic birds (giant chickens and geese), and I looked up to the beautiful blue sky to see the Fort du Roule, where the Germans, while they occupied Cherbourg, entrenched and offered fierce resistance before surrendering to the Allies and Free French.

Petra and me, on top of the Montagne du Roule. It was a little bit windy!

The Montagne du Roule itself is noteworthy because the mountain hosts intertwining tunnels dug entirely by man-power of a prisoner held in the mountain for two years. There is a war museum in the fort perched on the side of the mountain, too. It was opened in June 1954, just nine years after V-E Day.

Looking out on the Montagne du Roule. You can see the fort tucked on the right side of the mountain.

The following pictures are what we saw when we got to the top of the mountain! I hope you enjoy the pictures as much as I enjoyed the experience. The wind whipped our hair around and kissed our cheeks while the warm sun brushed our cheeks with a little bit of red. Boats drifted lazily in and out of the harbour, and I felt that if I had a picnique, I could stay up on the mountain for a very long afternoon.

One View from the mountain...

Second view from the mountain top

Petra's photography! Me, hopping down from our perch high above the ocean.

If you want to learn more about the Fort du Roule, click here

But if you really want to see beautiful countryside, immaculate parks and oceanfront, there is no choice but to visit Cherbourg for yourself. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Panoramic Panoramas Saturday, Apr 17 2010 

I could tell you for a million years how beautiful Salzburg, Austria is, but it’s one of those places that you simply must visit for yourself in order to truly appreciate its full glory. The Alps wrap the city in what seems like tangible beauty: beauty you can almost touch aside from the fact that the mountains loom 3,000 meters (9842 feet!) above your head. The hills are very dark luscious green.

In spite of the stubborn clouds that refused to be blown away overnight, I hopped on a bus for the famous Sound of Music Bus Tour. We tooled around Salzburg while the tour guide relayed interesting and little-known trivia from the movie and the lives of the real family Von Trapp. When the tour guide switched off his microphone and turned on the soundtrack to the famous musical, I couldn’t help singing my face off with the rest of the Americans and gaping at the mountains, still impressive although they remained largely obscured by clouds. We took curve after curve, braving wind and rain and passing high-altitude snowpack still lingering in the ravines. When we stopped at the town of Mondsee (Moon Lake), we were able to stretch our legs, eat warm apple struzel with vanilla sauce and tour the church where the beautiful wedding scene in The Sound of Music was filmed.

I did not take this picture. This is what the area WOULD have looked like if the clouds would have taken off. Someday I'll return and see it like this.

Mondsee, the way I should have seen it...

Lovely lovely lovely. It's so peaceful and lovely in the countryside!

The church was breathtaking. Statue after gilded statue packed the church full of glittering gold and loveliness. The altar was simply over-the-top glorious. It is just as stunning in real life as when Maria walks down the aisle toward the Captain in the movie. The ceiling looks like the top of a iced cake. Its white with pink detailing criss-crossed, curlicued and arched and then “dripped” down the walls in perfectly straight columns.

Inside the Cathedral of Mondsee where the wedding scene from the Sound of Music was filmed. See the pink "Icing" dripping down the sides of the church in columns?

The apple struzel, I believe, deserves its own paragraph. Molly fairly laughed at me when I became reverent over my own “crisp apple struzel” in a restaurant where a little old lady prepares your food and you can look over the church, its courtyard and the hills. I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect to top off the Panoramic Sound of Music tour, and silently tried to remember every single detail about the struzel. It was warm and soft, the top powder-sugared and on either side of the dessert was ladled creamy, cloves-y, vanilla sauce. The apples were just cooked enough to be soft, but not mushy like the French apple pastries, and they  gave a little pop when you bit into them. I scooped every. Single. Last. Bite. And then Molly asked me if I was going to cry.

Crisp Apple Struzel with Vanilla Sauce... be jealous of me.

Mondsee, the lake that gives the town its name, is crystal-clear and icy, aqua blue. It is frigid cold because its water comes from the glaciers housed in the mountains far above. As the ice melts, it runs down the rocky cliffs and tumbles down in waterfalls. Over distance, the waterfalls become rivers and the rivers are the source to most of Austria’s beautiful lakes. I assume that when the sun comes out, it dances and sparkles on the water invitingly, but don’t take a swim unless you want to become almost as blue (with cold!) as the water!

I swear I will return to Austria someday when it is not cloudy. It is too beautiful to only visit once. The sky is bluer, the people are blonder (a rarity in France!!!) and it is very much like a little taste of home.

Kelsey, Danielle, Laura, Molly and me on top of the world at Wolfgangsee, Austria

Usually I give you a link to click on at this point, but I do not have a link for the entire Sound of Music movie. If you have not seen it, drop whatever you are doing at this very instant and watch it. It is good for your soul.

For the (condensed) history of the real Von Trapp family, click here. Theirs is a fascinating story, and one that beats the musical version in its drama. You can also read first-hand about Maria, Georg and their turbulent true-life musical. Maria herself wrote it! Click here for the book.

The Golden City Wednesday, Apr 14 2010 

I am inexplicably in a bus traveling toward Linz, Austria. The sky is getting darker and darker and I am left to think about the last 2 days as well as why I am on a bus instead of a train.

I spent a beautiful two days in Prague, capital of Czech Republic with my friends. It was my 4th journey to Prague, and every time I visit the “Paris of the East” it seems to get nearer and dearer to my heart. When I landed in the plane, it was almost like I was coming home. We were warmly greeted by a kind driver who brought us to our hostel. Sir Toby’s Youth Hostel immediately won our love because of its giant fluffy pillows, warm comforters and exceptionally nice desk workers. In spite of the rain, we ventured out to a wonderful restaurant and ate traditional and delightfully cheap Czech food and then hurried back to attend a wine and cheese party at Sir Toby’s. We met a lot of interesting world travelers and shared many laughs over the Czech “stinky cheese.”

This is Sir Toby's, the Greatest Hostel in Prague.

Culture shock manifested itself with the switching of currency (it’s stressful doing division in your head all day for money purposes!) and the people-to-people customs (a startling lack of KISSING in Czech Republic as opposed to France!). I was struck again at my complete and utter lack of language skills. I have, in comparison with my Czech langauge abilities, perfect French.

It’s easy to forget that communism ruled over this country only 20 years ago. In Prague, one is surrounded by the glittering beauty of a city that works tirelessly to obliterate any trace of the deep scars imparted by communism. The rambling, majestic castle stands beyond the swiftly-flowing Vlatava River over which the Charles Bridge and all 31 of its famous statues seem to preside.

Me, on the Charles Bridge, ignoring the fact that I was getting more and more soaked with rain. Prague is beautiful, even in the rain and when you have wet feet!

Big Square by night in Prague.

One of my favorite little things about Czech Republic is the existence of terracotta rooftops and the warm glow that the color seems to give the city as you look over it from the Petrin Observation Tower (which is why Prague is oftentimes referred to as the “Paris of the East”). In spite of the unwelcome rain that thinned out the usual crowds of people, I soaked in the distinct beauty that one can only find in Prague by night.

Prague, splendid view from the Petrin Observation Tower

The City of Terracotta rooftops. The reason it was called the Golden City comes from the practice of putting the city's extensive gold reserves on the rooftops, safe from thieves.

The people you meet in the shops, at the hostels or waiting your table seem to be bred for niceness, as though its part of their very core to be kind and generous. Yet at the same time, as my friend Molly observed, there is a distinct feel to the city and its people. The Czech people have suffered under persecution from destructive government regimes for many decades, and it’s as though they are very anxious and happy to show others what their city is truly like (warm and welcoming!) instead of the stigma that might still linger from the days of communism and a closed-off country’s inhospitality.

Prague Castle by night. The lights of the castle are reflected in the Vlatava River.

If any country in Central-Eastern Europe can make you fall in love, it’s Prague. Come visit! Stay for awhile and soak in the kindness, the atmosphere and the beauty of a country that is worth a second look. The story of how I came to be on a bus instead of a train will be saved for the next installment of my adventure in Czech Republic.

Me, Molly and Laura spending time in the castle gardens with breathtaking views of the Vlatava River and the city.

To learn about the Petrin Observation Tower, click here.

To learn a little Czech History and how far this country has come in the last century, click here.

To see where I stayed and where you can find Sir Toby’s, click here. You won’t be disappointed!!! This is the BEST HOSTEL!

Touch Wednesday, Mar 24 2010 

Touch, in and of its nature, is extremely personal. The touch of someone you love whether in the form of a bearhug, a foot nudge or a bisou (kiss) means something very special. When you’re in a country not your own, there are many things to learn about personal proximity and what barriers should and should not be crossed in order to make one’s cultural-immersion process successful. This is the fourth of five entries on senses and what France feels like.

I am in the middle of a love affair with my shower. The water is hot and the water pressure just a little pathetic. I love the feeling of clean. When I walk to class, I slide my hand over the railing covered in graffiti, the metal smooth and gliding under my fingers. The wind tosses whatever work I put into my hair out the window, but I delight in its caress anyway. Sometimes, like this morning, the raindrops speckle my face and make me shiver.

The satiny soft feel of a giant red sweet pepper is so unique.

When I ride the tram in the busy hours, even my nearly non-existent bubble of personal space is popped. People are crammed with everything from children to dogs to bicycles to the most enormous suitcases I have ever seen. Passengers push and shove without reserve. The feeling of being a sardine in a tin can of the tram is overwhelming. I detest the feeling of packed sardine-like trams. However, when we travel somewhere and we take the regional trains, the feeling of rocking is almost lullaby-like and in combination with the soft seat covers and a full day of travels, it’s difficult not to be rocked asleep with your head on your friend’s shoulder.

The woolen blankets on my bed filled me with repulsion the first time I encountered them, but after almost 2 months of living here, I have grown to love them. I may even miss their scratchy-fuzzy texture and the remarkable warmth that crawling under them gives.

The cultural kisses (bises) here scared me half to death before arriving. The thought of kissing a complete stranger was so foreign and bizarre that I wasn’t sure I could do it. Heck, I’d bearhug a person before lightly brushing my lips to their cheek any day! But when I got here, it seemed so natural that I couldn’t help falling in love with the bises. In France, when you are introduced to someone, the proper thing is not to shake their hand but lightly touch your cheek to theirs and make a small kiss sound. Bises are sweet and unattached, and if the person you’re “bising” happens to be unshaven, it’s prickly. If you know the person well, it’s okay to hold the other person’s upper arm or touch their shoulder.

Touch is important, but it’s just as important to touch the lives of others around us in non-tactile ways. Verbal encouragement, a listening ear, a random act of kindness or even just a small smile can make all the difference to someone, and the joy of such interaction is remarkable.

My wonderful friends who touch my life every day.

Sights Monday, Mar 15 2010 

In continuation with the series of senses blogposts, I have chosen “sight” as the third installment. I could write a book on what I have seen thusfar, but I feel it’s important to give you an idea of what I see on a daily basis and show you the beauty therein.

I live in a dorm that looks like it may have been constructed in the 1950’s, very shortly after the war. There are few to no frills and I have learned to adapt. My dorm room is sunny and warm because it faces west. The sun streams through the windows in the afternoon, dancing across my desk (which looks like it got attacked with an Exacto-Knife in another life).

I have a “Wall of Happiness” on the plywood-backed cabinetry. The plywood itself is hideous, so I have chosen to cover it with punched ticket stubs, pictures of people I love, cards I’ve gotten in the mail and the paper that wraps pastries from the patisserie.

Graffiti covers almost every surface of campus. About 25% of the graffiti is actually artistic and shows people, places and curly letters. All kinds of colors are used in the mural.

The “football field” I cross to get to class every day is usually really ugly, but now with spring on the way, tiny daisies dot the field. Overhead, the sky is crystal clear and as blue as any I’ve ever seen in the world. It’s the kind of sky that you feel you can almost touch. Soft summer-like clouds drift quickly across the sky and the sun is blinding.

The people I see are just like any in the world albeit a little more fashionable. After all, I live in France. On campus, however, there are people from every walk of life. Every face shape, skin color, height and weight have been spotted. It’s diversity at its finest!

At night, when I look out my window, the lights of the city sparkle. Abbaye aux Hommes, a very beautiful abbey I have yet to visit, sits in the distance, luminous and imposing. Eglise St. Pierre, where I go to church, is lit up with high-power beams of light that create shadows on the steeple. The rest of city bustles even though night has fallen, and down by the port, the bars hop with college students every night. Ships sway in the breeze on the port and the owners of the boats eye me sneakily.

Caen by Night

Around every corner there is a kebob stand, a “pharmacie” and a pastry-bread shop. It’s safe to say that the French are never hungry or ill with such a surplus of such outlets.

Amazing Tarte Aux Pommes... Amazing sunlight to take the picture.

It’s a beautiful place, and I can only imagine it getting prettier as the flowers start to bloom and the trees’ leaves come out of hiding from winter. Open your eyes and see the beauty around you!

Taste and See Tuesday, Mar 2 2010 

The crumbs of the baguette flew everywhere like a welder in his shop throwing amber sparks every direction, the sparks bouncing on the floor haphazardly and landing in ever imaginable crevice. A crumbly baguette is just the beginning of the adventure.

The tastes of France are regarded as the finest in the world by some of the leading gastronomists (food critics). The national cuisine developed primarily in the city of Paris with the chefs to French royalty, but eventually it spread throughout the country and then to even the lowly student population (Praise the Lord).

I described the sounds of France in an earlier post, and I think it fitting that I move through the senses so one who has never experienced another culture can fully appreciate all that goes into living in a culture outside your own familiar one. Sounds are very important to a culture, but tastes are just as important. Everyone, you understand, needs to eat.

Because I am a student, I have been forced to be economical in my culinary experimentation, but I have discovered some of the finest foods I have ever had the pleasure to digest even in the short month I have spent in France. Pain au Chocolat and I first became friends when my friend Laura Vein made a batch on her trip home to North Dakota. Since then, I have entertained a love affair with pain au chocolat (translated: bread and chocolate). When you touch a pastry such as pain au chocolat, it bows under your finger’s touch. But when your mouth encounters the buttery, flakey pastry, the millions and millions of tiny sheets of pastry crumble simultaneously and melt in your mouth. Inside the pastry the soft doughy center is accompanied by two long sticks of very dark chocolate. They give a small and very contradictory crunch to what you have eaten thusfar and melt in your mouth with the rest of the crumbly exterior of the Pain au Chocolat. If you’re lucky, you wind up covered in tiny crumbles.

Pain au Chocolat

There is nothing better than walking to class eating an apple. Ah yes, those fine apples from the vineyards of France that are advertised in the markets and sold at shocking low prices… they are the purest forms of nutrition I have found, next to the Moroccan Clementines that seem to be the French version of crack. The juicy fruits found here are delightful. The apples, when you bite into them, emit such a juicy explosion that you are immediately compelled to lean over and let the juice dribble off your chin lest it run down your shirt. The clementines, the most curious little fruits ever beheld are just as pithy as a full-sized orange yet are so much more easily peeled as so be exponentially more addictive than an orange. You blink and kablam–you’ve eaten eight clementines. The little segments explode with a pop between your teeth so much so that they seem to say “wake up!”

The air here seems to be purer, fresher and more “gulpable.” This morning, I woke up and flung open my windows. I so deeply desired to jump on the next bus to the beaches and soak in the salty, tasty air of the ocean that it was almost more than I could do to remain in Caen and go to class instead. It’s a spring-time air that anyone with winter-fever inhales and tastes with a deprived hunger.

So, next time you desire a taste of France and this exquisite culture, fling open your windows, gulp the morning air and sink your teeth into a beautiful French pastry. Soak in the sunshine, wear a pair of cute shoes and love life. It’s la vie en rose after all!

Next Page »