Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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le 26 mai: Des Léçons Appris en Faisent du Vélo à Beaune

Some of these were learned by trial and error today, and some at another date, but all were relevant to our day today.

  • Don’t try to order breakfast food from a brasserie at lunchtime, as it will take FOREVER. Long enough that you start to wonder if they’re out back collecting eggs for that quiche and waiting for your croissant dough to rise. If you want such things, go to a Boulanger, where they have them on hand all the time.
  • Any time my mother and I decide to go for a long bike ride, it will rain. Last time, we biked up to Lake Forest Beach from our house. It was HOT when we started, so we figured the rain would feel nice. We didn’t count on the rain dropping the temperature down into the fifties (or colder), and we ended up sitting in the bathrooms trying to dry off our clothes and borrowing sweatshirts from the lost and found for the way home. This time, at least, we were more prepared and outfitted with raincoats and quick-dry clothes.
  •  If the weather forecast calls for a 60% chance of rain, don’t go with your original plans and hope that there’s more than a 40% chance that it won’t.
  • When choosing a raincoat, make sure the hood a) can be tightened so it stays up in the wind generated, say, by biking, and b) does not flop down into your face, obscuring your vision to an absurd and unsafe degree. This will allow you to actually WEAR said hood while biking, keeping you warmer and preventing you from looking like a drowned rat.
  • When the guy at the bike rental place offers you a helmet, take it. Especially if it has a visor, as this will help to keep the rain out of your face.
  • Know that rental bikes are crap, and you will likely end up with a bike that  has no shocks, a seat that pitches you forward, handlebars  that aren’t meant for the racer crouch the seat wants to force you into, brakes that make an alarming crunching sound, and a front wheel that hits your feet when you try to turn, severely limiting your ability to do so.
  • Don’t stop halfway up a hill to wait for your mother. If you find yourself stopped with more climbing to do, find downhill or at least flat spot where you can start and gain a little momentum before heading back up the road. ANYTHING is better than trying to start up a muddy hill from a dead stop. (Told you, Mom.)
  •  DO NOT try to brake and turn at the same time on a wet, muddy road (knew this one already, but was rather abruptly reminded of it). Brake BEFORE that sharp turn at the bottom of the hill with a stone wall  on the downhill side, and after, if you still have to.
  • DO NOT try to brake too quickly while going downhill on said wet, muddy roads, especially if thy are not level (which they are not). Even if you are not turning, that back wheel will skid out from under you if it gets locked up, because the road is banked.
  • DO NOT sharply call out for your daughter, who is riding in front of you, to stop, causing her to brake too quickly and start to skid.
  • When you reach a fork in the road with a cross, behind which you can see that the sky up ahead is dark and tempestuous, while that behind you is reasonably clear, listen to your mother and take it as a sign from God to turn back. (I wanted to go on to the next little town/vineyard/whatever it was that we could see up ahead, despite the ominous rumblings of thunder. We got to the top of the hill, at which point I realized that the clouds where coming on much faster than I had anticipated, and it started to rain. So we turned back.)

  • If you find that you are on one side of a small, old, European city, and your destination is at the other side, don’t try to go through it. The streets are likely made of cobblestone, and bikes and cobblestone do not get along. Even if you go slowly. I’ve never tried to use a jackhammer, but I imagine that it feels something like that. Remember that you are on a rental bike that does not have shocks, and this will make the cobblestone an even more inhospitable surface. Take the ring road around the city walls instead, even if Mom wants to cut through.
  • Don’t try to eat at a restaurant that appears to have only one staff member present. The poor man was waiter, bartender, and (if someone wanted an omelet or a croque-monsieur) cook, and he had a bout nine tables’ worth of people.
  • There is always time for ice cream. Especially sorbet de cassis (black currants).
  • Check when the trains back to Dijon run before you leave the station for the day—and check when the desk closes. Chances are, the ticket machines don’t like American credit cards and you don’t have 16 euros in coins.
  • Don’t despair if you can’t buy a ticket for a short ride on the TGV. They might not even check to see if you have one.

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le 25 mai: Observations on French Culture

So we all know that the French like their bread, and their cheese, and their wine. And their cigarettes. None of this was news to me.  However, French culture continues to surprise me, as their preferences in many areas are very different than ours.

  • Pizza toppings. I have yet to see pepperoni listed on any of the menus I’ve seen. Or sausage, or pineapple, now that I think about it. Chicken seems to be popular, however, and I’ve seen seafood and snails. But the most surprising one? Egg. Yes, egg. Cracked right in the middle and baked there.
  • Beverages. Apricot juice seems to be much more common here. And the hot drinks are wonderful. I’m not a coffee drinker, but I had chocolat the first morning. What I received was not a pre-made beverage, but a creamer full of, well, cream, and a smaller one of melted chocolate – the dark/bittersweet kind. With sugar on the side, so I could make it as rich or as sweet as I wanted. Which, for me, meant lots of chocolate and no sugar. YUM.
  •  Ice cream. None of this cookie or candy in ice cream business we have at home. The French like their fruit flavors, it would seem; here’s a fairly typical list. So far, I’ve tried cassis, pistache, and mangue. And raspberry and banana gelato. All were superb.

  • Condiments.

o   Dijon mustard : the French as ketchup : Americans. No, it’s more than that. It’s been in every salad dressing I’ve had so far, and an undeclared ingredient in most of the sandwiches as well. And that was just while we were in Paris! Now that we’re actually IN Dijon, it’s everywhere. You can get it with basil, with honey, with white wine, with tarragon, with extra mustard grains, with nuts, with balsamic vinegar, with coconut and curry powder, with raspberries, with herbes de Provence, with currants… And holy cow is it strong. Sure, it’s not comparable with wasabi, but I still had to stop after every few bites of my sandwich this afternoon while my sinuses were thoroughly scoured.

o   Butter. The French serve bread with dinner, not before it and they don’t give you butter. Mom had to ask for it at every restaurant, and every time they looked at her like she was a little off her rocker, or like they didn’t know what she was talking about.

o   Peanut butter. The French don’t like it, so they don’t sell it. Anywhere. Even at Carrefour, the local equivalent of Walmart. Believe me, I looked.

That’s all I’ve got for now. If I come up with more, I will add them.

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le 21 mai: travel and first impressions

May 20-21

Traveling was… well, traveling.  Not particularly exciting, although trying to navigate French public transportation was interesting. I don’t have the vocabulary necessary for this, I’m afraid. That’s going to have to change. Mom commented drily on my eagerness to jump into the pool with my French, but that wasn’t entirely on the mark. I’m pretty reticent about going up to people and asking them for help, even when the folks at the information desks speak English.

Eventually, however, we made it to our hotel and got our luggage stowed. It’s a little room with two twin beds in a place on Rue de Constantinople, which Mom has difficulty saying. And then we were ready for a walk.

Now, you have to understand that when we got off the Métro, this was the first thing I saw.


So I think you can imagine which way we started to walk. I said that I wanted to go to Sacré-Coeur, and Mom asked where that was. So I pointed it out to her. “If I can see it, we can walk to it,” she said, and off we went.

It was further away than it looked, as I knew it would be. Sacré-Coeur is BIG, and on high ground to boot, so it was visible from across the 18e arrondissement, where we were. And getting there was not as easy as it looked, since French streets don’t exactly follow the grid pattern we’re used to in America. And of course, as we got closer and started up the hill, it disappeared behind the nearer buildings. “Just keep heading east,” I said, so we navigated based on our shadows (east is blessedly easy to find at noon on a sunny day) and the occasional glimpses we caught through alleyways and between buildings.

At the bottom of the impressively steep and narrow Rue Tholozé, we were briefly distracted by the sight of a windmill. No, it was not the famous Moulin Rouge, though we were indeed in Montmartre.

So we climbed the street to have a closer look at what turned out to be La Moulin de Galette. Which was cool. But this was about as close as we could get.

So we resumed our quest for Sacré-Coeur, which Mom by this point was referring to as “the damn church.”

We’re getting closer!

At last, we made it, though we made a stop at St. Pierre de Montmartre first. I think. At least, the sign outside this little church said St. Pierre; everything I saw inside said Notre-Dame de Montmartre. But it was old, and stone, and Gothic. And quiet. And moldy, which mom’s nose did not appreciate.

I do not have pictures of the inside of Sacré-Coeur, though I wish I did. It was large and impressive, especially the mosaic on the ceiling. But there were signs that specifically requested that we respect the constant prayer and adoration that’s been going on there since 1885 and not take pictures or video, so I put the camera away. And I tried not to analyze the architectural features of the basilica and just appreciate it as beautiful… but at that, I failed. 

At this point, we decided to hunt down the infamous Moulin Rouge. And food, since it was going on 3 pm and we hadn’t really eaten since the plane. This was a little harder to find, as it wasn’t dead east of us and we couldn’t see it from a distance. So Mom asked for directions; they took us back down Rue Lepic and Rue Tholozé, where we stopped for sandwiches at a little outdoor café. And then, way down at the bottom of the hill, there it was.

That, however, was it for the day’s adventures. I got about two hours of sleep on the plane, which was most definitely not enough. When we flew to Hungary for the orchestra trip in high school, I remember getting three hours and still having the energy to make it to the end of the day without a nap. That, however, was in high school, when I was used to surviving on six hours of sleep every night. My body doesn’t really do that any more; having been deprived then, and then even more deprived last year, it now demands as much sleep as I can get. So by 2 pm (Paris time), I was dragging, and by 3:30, I was all but asleep on my feet.

Back to the hotel we went (and it seemed a much longer walk on the way back, even though it was downhill). I lay down at 4 to take a nap, causing Mom much consternation when both knocking and phoning the room failed to wake me up to let her in (she’d gone for bread and cheese at the marché across the street). It was only supposed to be an hour-long nap, but I most definitely did not want to get up when my alarm went off. So in essence, I went to bed at 4 pm. And when I woke up at 4 the next morning, I did some blogging.

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Please be patient while I get myself organized and find a decent internet connection…

I have TONS of stuff to say about the time Mom and I spent in Paris. I do. And some of it is even written already! But I don’t have time to post it yet, and the internet connection at this hotel is really, REALLY slow… 4 minutes to upload one downsized picture slow. So I leave you this as a teaser…