Monday, May 6, 2013

Do I still love Paris?

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I'd prefer to not delve into detail of how long it took me to make the above design. It just felt necessary. It felt like the only way to demonstrate my devotion...Yah, so... I'm certifiably obsessed with Paris.

Sofia and I arrived to Charles de Gaulle, and everything felt so familiar. I remember waiting in this airport two years ago for Alex and Kelsey to arrive... seeing Alex down the long corridor and just sprinting like my life depended on it toward her to receive her into my welcoming arms.... aaaaaaaaaaand I'm crying hahahaha just kidding just kidding, but we had a grand old time in Paris two years ago and I was excited to be in Paris for the third time and to see how/if my sentiments toward the city would change!

I truly felt like a local arriving to Paris. Okay...that is a bit of a stretch. I speak enough French to not get lost and accidentally end up in Germany, and I am familiar with the airports, the RER, and the metro as well as many stops...but I think what made me so excited was the people I knew in Paris! For starters, the four friends we made two years ago all still lived in the area, and one of them, named Gamha, was even letting Sofia and I stay in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. Then there were three other Grinnell Women's Soccer individuals who happened to be in Paris the same time I was! I know eight people, someone give me my French residency already!!

Cute menu at the cafe
First things first, we went to drop our bags off at Gamha's apartment. After many screams and hugs and quick catching ups, we made our way to a cafe for some lunch! I was happy to be able to utilize the broken French I knew to order the meal! We had a nice old lady as a waitress and she was patient and helpful, as well. FRENCH PEOPLE ARE THE BEST AND DON'T LET ANYONE ELSE TELL YOU DIFFERENTLY.

After lunch we had a fairly relaxed afternoon...Sofia and I were exhausted from all our traveling so we decided to take our time and get ready for a concert we were going to that night. We did just that. Now this band we were going to see...was not of my choosing. It was definitely Sofia's thing, a punk rock type of band that I just DO. NOT. COMPREHEND. (The name of the band is King Khan & the BBQ Show) The show itself was entertaining at least, I could never make the mistake of saying it was boring...the two guys in the band dressed up in ridiculous costumes, made the strangest faces while performing, jumped around wildly, you know, overall they delivered for their type of crowd. So I'm glad Sofia and everyone else in the venue enjoyed it... but meanwhile I was there wishing the prices of beers weren't 6 euros a pop and daydreaming about the Eiffel Tower! After the concert we called it a night... we had a lot of Paris to see the next day!

The plan for the next day was to go on the free walking tour of Paris. Of all the New Europe Tours I've been on, Paris has always been the most entertaining. The guides are the most knowledgeable and engaged, and the city is just perfect. Well, anyone who knows the Dominguez women knows that we are not a timely bunch, and so Sofia and I missed the tour. But, Sofia suggested that I just show her around since I knew the city well enough, so that's exactly what we did!

Notre Dame

Pont de Arts aka Lover's Bridge
The Louvre Museum

Eiffel Tower!
The first time I set foot in Eiffel Tower territory two years ago, I swear my heart was stolen and never returned lololol. Upon setting foot back into its territory, everything felt right again!! Maybe that's a bit much... I get very emotional and dramatic when it comes to the Eiffel Tower, sorry. I'm not going to go so far as to be the cliche of a woman who dreams of getting proposed to on the Eiffel Tower...instead, I will insist on getting proposed to while up in the Montparnasse Tower, so that I can see the Eiffel Tower while it is lit up, and on the Eiffel Tower I would like to see the marriage proposal written in lights. Purple lights, if possible. Is this such a tall order to ask? A girl's gotta have aspirations.
Me and Mackenzie
After giving Sofia a tour of Paris, we were pooped. But I still had some unfinished business...I had to meet up with my two Grinnell Women's Soccer buddies Mackenz and Al Pal!! First up was my meet up with Mackenz which, should anyone be surprised, did not go scheduled as planned and what was supposed to be a relaxed two hour catch up was a rushed half hour whirlwind talking session. It was quite the tease, only getting to see her for a limited amount of time, but it was still nice to see her!

Next up was meeting with Allison. We planned to meet up at the Arc de Triomphe...and I was 45 minutes late. I had no way of contacting her but we just made our way there and hoped for the best! We made it there, but just barely... why are there no clear directions as to how to actual get to the Arc?? It's located in the middle of a huge roundabout and there's no crosswalk. Our weary bodies were NOT about to take a chance and dash across the eight lane roundabout. Eventually we found the dang tunnel and made our way to the Arc. It was enormous and beautiful! It also made for a nice place to sit, take a breather, and enjoy the sunset of Paris...


Our silent rest was interrupted when I turn to my right to see Allison, panting, bent over a railing, sunglasses half falling off, lugging a gigantic suitcase behind her...I could not for the life of me stop laughing. Only you, Al, only you. We all went and got a snacky at a nearby cafe, and Allison proceeded to talk my ear off just like old times :) She later also joined us for dinner at Canteen Bus (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) with Gamha and his girlfriend. This restaurant holds a ton of memories for our French friends as they always went there on roommate dinners, and somehow, two years ago they let us (Alex, Kelsey and me) lodge ourselves onto the room mate bandwagon and pretend that we also hold lots of memories with them there. It was a deliciously large meal as always, and I was very comforted to see that amongst the numerous photos of celebrities on the walls, over the past two years that I´d been gone the restaurant had finally got the mind to put up a picture of Tyler Durden :)

What followed this evening after dinner was nothing short of...majestical. This was my third visit to Paris and I was finally going to see the Eiffel Tower in its full glory...lit up at night, with some wine in hand and wonderful people in my surroundings. It was Allison, Sofia, Gamha, his friend, and myself all waiting in the chilly Parisian night for the spectacular to begin. We had a couple of bottles of wine to warm ourselves, and we anxiously awaited the lights to illuminate. And happened...

 Up until this point in my life, the only times I've truly lost my breath were from getting fouled hard during soccer and getting the wind knocked out of me. But when the Eiffel Tower lights turned on...oh my worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd. I think I squealed and gasped and grabbed my cheeks Home Alone style all at the same time... oh my goshhhhh what a sight. This should be on everyone's Bucket List. Everyone. It's such an elegant, exciting, show that so greatly epitomizes the class act that is Paris.We went back home afterwards and I had the sweetest of dreams.

The next day was another long day on foot, and the first stop was the Louvre! On my two previous visits to Paris I passed through the Louvre entrance but never made it was time to end that streak!. Gamha and his girlfriend agreed to visit the Louvre with us, and man was it ever helpful to have two French individuals there with us. But before we got the the museum, we stopped to get some breakfast to-go...CREPES! Sofia went for a salted crepe which was delicious, but I, seeming to still have no resistance to sugar, went for a nutella and banana crepe. It was when we were at this creperie ordering breakfast that a gentle snow started to fall... the most beautiful kind of snow...the snow that falls gently but doesn't stick to the ground! I had a little falling-even-deeper-in-love with Paris moment then :)

So as I said, we visited the Louvre. Gamha had the brilliant idea of buying our tickets beforehand...and holy crap was it a good idea. When we got there the line wound its way around the plaza, and we just skipped on up to the front and were let in right away (Man, I could get used to this VIP treatment). Before entering the museum, we knew there was no way we would be able to cover the whole thing...most people have told me that it takes 4-6 hours at the very least. We decided that we would power through and see the most famous pieces of art, and that still ended up taking us about 3 hours! We saw the Mona Lisa, which was quite an unpleasant experience. There was a crowd forming a 30 meter radius semi-circle around the thing, so you had to gradually work your way toward the middle. Now, I've experienced rude people pushing in lines and whatnot, but NOTHNG like the crowd around the Mona Lisa. Everyone was "no-mercy", elbowing and shouldering to try to get the best view. I felt so bad for a lady who couldn't have been taller than 4'8" and was getting tossed around like a rag doll. Anyway, there was a lot of yelling and sweating and smelly people and I don't think the art piece is worth the fuss. It's something you gotta see once in your life though, I suppose.

There were many other pieces in the Louvre that I found to be more alluring and beautiful. I dug the Greek and Roman sculptures in particular:

My future home?

After the Lourve, Gamha and his girlfriend guided us to Montmarte There we saw the Sacre Coeur as well as the Moulin Rouge. It was comforting to see that the same amazing juggling/street entertainer from 2 years ago was still standing up on a pillar on the Sacre Coeur! We were quite beat after this visit, so we made our way back to the apartment, where Sofia and I attempted to create a Mexican meal for Gamha and his girlfriend with the limited amount of Mexican supplies available in France! It was...mediocre... I really need to start paying attention to my mom and grandma when they cook. At least the guacamole was pretty good :)

The next day was Sofia's last in Europe. Gamha was kind enough to take her to the airport so that she wouldn't have to navigate her way through the RER and metro. It brought on a lot of nostalgia to see Sofia leave... make no mistake about it, she and I fought like mad and nearly killed each other, but in the end it was awesome to see her, and I'm glad she and my other friends got to meet each other and that we were able to explore Europe together for a second time!

My pile of meat and potatoes with some raclette
After dropping Sofia off at the airport, Gamha drove me to the suburbs of Paris to meet up with the rest of the guys. Now I was truly starting to feel like a genuine french woman...I was goin to da 'burbs! Strangely enough, the suburbs of Paris look EXACTLY LIKE THE SUBURBS OF CHICAGO. I guess I was expecting for the magic of Paris to trickle all the way out to the suburbs! It almost made me homesick, being in a proper suburb again. Anyway, it was a cute drive but the cuteness of the experience was just starting!

Raclette contraption
We arrived to our friend Erwan's house, where there was more squealing and giggling and hugging etc. I begged Erwan to make me some of his famously delicious crepes, and he agreed. But before he could begin to get to work...his mother invited me to eat lunch with the family!! WHATTTTTT!! LUNCH CONSISTING OF A TRADITIONAL FRENCH MEAL WITH REAL GENUINE FRENCH PEOPLE IN A FRENCH SUBURB OF PARIS. After wiping tears of joy from my eyes I agreed and headed down to have the meal with the family. Oh my was a WONDERFUL meal! It was this awesome thing called Raclette, and included an oven contraption that I had never set eyes on. Basically, you get your own mini frying pan (literally the size of my palm) where you put a slice of Raclette cheese. You put the cheese in the oven contraption (which sits in the middle of the dining table) and wait for your cheese to get nice and melty. Meanwhile, you pile on various cuts of meat and potatoes onto your plate. Once the height of your pile is satisfactory, and your cheese is browned, you take the frying pan, and with a cute mini spatula you scrape the cheese off the pan and onto your pile of food. The raclette cheese cascades from the pan, forming a gorgeous gooey puddle onto your food. And then you EAT. And boy, did I eat. Now it may sound like I just trudged into the room, stuffed my face with food, burped, and left the table. BUT I promise you that I made a legitmate attempt to speak french during this meal. Essentially, all I was able to throw out was that I was American, I was teaching english in Spain, I love France, I love the food, and thank you very much. But I'd like to think it was better than nothing! :)

After lunch the family brought out the CUTEST little cake with bunnies and eggs on it...and I thought to myself, wow that's cute, are bunnies a French thing too... wait a second ...It's Easter today, isn't it? Holy crap I am spending a holiday with a French family...SERIOUSLY now, GIVE ME FRENCH RESIDENCY!!!!!! And if I weren't full enough from that meal AND dessert, Erwan still came through on his promise to make me crepes. And they were perfectly delicious as always! It was such a pleasure to see all of the guys again (but sad that Florian couldn't join us ;) ) I literally never stop laughing when I am with these crazy French men!! I can't wait until the next time we are all together!

We are all French!!!! (Antoine, Erwan, Me, Gamha)
We made our way back to Paris center afterwards, where I slowly starting packing and also took a nap. I was meeting up with another friend, Hannah, later that night for a drink. That was half disastrous as well, because there was miscommunication and basically Hannah and I looked for each other for a good hour. I wish we had gotten more time together but even that little taste of HanHan was enough to hold me over for a bit!

So, after this I went to sleep, dreaming of glittering Eiffel Towers, succulent lemon crepes, and heart attack raclette cheese. Early the next morning I had my flight back to Spain...back to reality, away from France :(

Everyone tells me... "Well why don't you stop talking about how much you love Paris (but one wants to hear about it anymore!!) and just find a way to move there!" I have considered it. I read an awesomely informative book last year called C'est la vie about a woman who lived in Paris... basically what I gathered from the book is that I'll need to be 40-50 years old with piles of money to spare if I ever want to think about even surviving in Paris. It is expensive as hell. And honestly, I would be scared to lose the magic and giggly girl feeling that I feel every time I return to Paris. Wouldn't it all just lose its novelty? I think I'll prefer to keep my heart locked up in the Eiffel can't live without your I can't live without a bit of Paris every so often :)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

If only food everywhere was as cheap as Poland's...

Cursing the cold weather
Anyone who has flown discount airlines such as RyanAir, Vueling, or EasyJet knows the drill. One small suitcase, less than 10 kilos. If you're a daredevil, you'll put your purse on underneath your jacket and hope that no one takes note of the unsightly lump at your hip. You wear your biggest sweater and heaviest shoes and 2 pairs of leggings under a pair of jeans so as to take away from the weight of the suitcase.  What's that? You're flying to a blazing-hot beachy destination? Doesn't matter. You wear those layers all the same otherwise you may be screwed into paying an ungodly amount of money before boarding the plane.

I followed the drill to a T during this trip with Sofia. I went so far as to having a designated travel outfit: my winter coat, two scarves, a shirt with an oversized sweater over it and another button up sweater over that, jeans, tights, socks, and my heavy leather boots. Upon arrival in Rome, I quickly peeled every extra article off because it was so nice out!! However, when we got to Poland, I found myself actually reaching into my suitcase and trying to find more articles of clothing to put on: another scarf, gloves, and a hat. I laughed a bit a myself, remembering that as I was packing for this trip I had genuinely considered bringing a lighter jacket. What an absolute fool. I'm lucky my flat mate Anna had insisted that I bring the winter coat. Thanks, Mom :)

So Poland. Poland was...freezing. Not only was it cold, but it was uncomfortably windy. If I recall correctly, the temperature ranged from about -7 to 3 degrees Celsius the entire time we were there, so 19 to 37 degrees Fahrenheit. I know, I know, being an individual who has lived through countless Chicago winters, this should have been a walk in a park for me. But, I have been living in Spain, where, although rainy, it doesn't seem to ever get below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, rare is the day that we experience wind in Ourense. And Poland was nothing BUT wind! I longed for sunlight and underarmour and blankets and heat pads and hand warmers and hot chocolate the whole time we were in Poland. We often sought shelter by running into whatever store was nearby, feigning interest in antiques or other thrift store items just to take advantage of the indoor heating. We also ended up visiting TWO shopping malls, and trying to see if the cheap prices of food translated into did not. But I did get to eat a Cinnabun, which I had been craving for a long time :)

Spinach perogies
Despite my avid weather complaints, I promise you that I enjoyed Poland! The biggest perk about Poland: it is CHEAP. Sofia and I went to have lunch at a nice restaurant which was listed in the Michelin guide. We had an appetizer, alcohol, nice meat dishes and dessert. We each paid what was the equivalent to 15 US Dollars. And that's for a nice meal--when we went and had an average hearty meal it was about 3-5 US Dollars. Needless to say, Sofia and I took advantage...buying pastries and (pseudo) bagels galore! One of our first meals was a plateful for perogi's which was absolutely delicious.

The first night in Katowice we went on our first shopping excursion, but went to bed fairly early. The next day we had big plans: a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. I wish I could say that the cold weather didn't put a damper on the visit... but that's completely untrue. Along with the weather, Katowice did not seem to be very tourist friendly. First, finding the bus that went to the concentration camp was just short of exhausting. No one spoke English. The one bus attendant who did, gave us completely inaccurate information. The one who didn't speak English was the one who ended up giving us correct information... but that put us on a bus whose driver didn't speak any English, and seemed to be mocking us. Thanks, guys. Well, eventually we got to the town of Oświęcim, where the concentration camp is located, and the bus driver all but tossed us off the bus, pointed in a direction, made some gestures, laughed, and sped away. We were overjoyed with gratitude when the driver of the next bus spoke English and was actually nice to us and helpful. And we made it to Auschwitz! Just 15 minutes before the final English tour, too :)
Barbed wire fences at Auschwitz

What can I say about the camp... it's just as somber, if not more, than what you would expect it to be. The exhibits are powerful; you can read hours and hours of Holocaust history but until you've been to the camp you don't truly process the reality of it all. It was also a bit haunting for all of us on the tour group to be bundled up in our puffy coats and scarves and boots, and to still be complaining about the cold, and then you realize that the people who lived in these camps 70 years ago were dressed in nothing but pajamas and shoes. Really puts things into perspective! Also, it was interesting to see the vast difference between the Auschwitz camp and the Birkenau one. Auschwitz was originally intended for Polish soldiers, so the barracks are substantially more solid, but once you get to see Birkenau you see that most of the barracks haven't even stood the test of time and have already collapsed from the harsh weather. Overall it was a super rewarding experience, and despite feeling like my toes and fingers had fallen off, I'm glad we got the chance to visit both camps. We took a train back to Katowice, picked up our suitcases, ate some delicious kepabs, and took a bus to Krakow.
Watch tower at Birkenau
Krakow's main square

Krakow was super pretty and lively, which made for a nice breath of (very) fresh air in our Polish experience. There was a  cute trolley type thing that ran through a track in the city. There was a shopping mall with an abundance of stores, as well. Despite all its cuteness... Krakow was still FREEZING. Our hostel was heated, but I still slept in some of my airport attire: sweatpants, leggings, various shirts, and a sweater. I'm relieved to say that the worst weather of the trip was already over once we left Katowice! But it wasn't exactly the Mojave desert warm, either :)

The next morning we woke up to a gentle snowfall...which, looked very precious in the courtyard of the hostel, but otherwise was just unwelcomed. We caught a free tour of Krakow in the city center, with one of the tallest, gangliest, goofiest tour guides I've had to date. We saw all the main sites of Krakow, but in the end the site that left me with the greatest impression was that of the main square. While most of Poland is gloomy, snow-covered farmland and bare trees, this city center is full of colorful and intricately designed buildings. It was gorgeous. 

After the free tour Sofia and I wandered around, buying souvenirs, stopping into every 5 stores we passed in order to take advantage of the heating, and also making a brilliant stop for dessert. Despite the weather, I somehow craved a Pinocchio-shaped ice cream creation...and it was delicious! We wandered around a bit more for the rest of the night, but eventually the frigid air got the better of us and we made our way back to our relatively warm hostel. The next morning our plane would be taking off for heaven!!! mean....Paris!!!!