Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Paris Day 6 - Strasbourg

Despite the constant late nights, we hauled ourselves out of bed before sunrise on Saturday, bundled up, and headed to the Paris Est train station. There was a little hassle over our tickets, but once we figured out where the SNCF office we sorted it out quickly (making me extremely grateful for the eightieth time on this trip that Jason's so proficient with the language). We even had time for a cup of hot chocolate and a pain au chocolate each before boarding the TGV to take us to Strasbourg.

I wanted to stay awake and enjoy the sights of the ride. I really did. Back when I started teaching, I figured out quickly that sometimes the children pushed so many buttons all at once that I had two choices - either go really loud and yell or go really quiet and wait. So I used to go to my happy place: I'd shut my eyes and retreat far enough away mentally that I could wait for them to regulate themselves. They were always pretty quick to quiet down when I did that (I don't think they were used to seeing their teachers stand ((or, on one particularly impatient occasion, lay down on the floor)) perfectly still with their eyes closed), and it solved the problem more quickly and neatly than yelling did. The point of my telling you this is to say that when I would go to my happy place, I would always go to the long car rides we took to Paris back when we lived in Landstuhl. I can easily slip back to the memory of the sound of rain on the glass, the smell of the countryside, the quiet murmur of my parents talking in the front seats, the rough texture of the upholstery and the cool smoothness of the window. I especially loved watching the green, green hills and the small white and brown villages passing by. It's one of my most sensuous memories, and I love it.

So I did want to watch the countryside pass by on this ride (albeit much more quickly than we drove back then), but the past few days weeks months and the gentle rocking of the train overpowered me, and I slept the entire way there.  Fortunately, Jason stayed awake for most of the journey and documented it for his train-obsessed nieces and nephew. Please to enjoy.

We arrived in Strasbourg just before 11:00, walked out of the train station,

Strasbourg Train Station

and immediately came upon brown market stalls. Most importantly, one of said stalls had a large sign proclaiming "Crepes!"

Crepe Stand!

Okay, it didn't have an exclamation mark. I, however, read it with the exclamation mark, since there had been a serious lack of crepes on our trip so far. We pounced, Jason ordered a beignet (which is not at all the same as the ones made by Memere and is therefore far inferior) while I got a crepe with Nutella and banana. Eventually. It was the first day of the market and the girl making them didn't quite have the knack yet, so it took her a few tries.

Crepe Take 2

She eventually got one to work, and I thrust my phone at Jason to take a picture of me enjoying the crepe (while wearing my tourist-beret, of course!):

Yum!  Crepes!

"What's with your eyes?" Jason asked, looking at the result on my iPhone.

"I'm rolling them in delight," I explained.

"I'm taking another picture," he said. "Just look normal this time."

Other Yum Crepe Picture

"Better?" I asked.

He sighed. "It'll do."

With that and with me licking my Nutella-coated fingers, we set off through the town.

Apparently, I've been to Strasbourg before, but to nine-year-old me, cute German towns all just blended together. I thoroughly enjoyed it this time, though. It's rife with small alleyways and winding streets:

Jason in Strasbourg

lots of buildings in that Germanic style I love:

Germanic House

fun details like this trompe d'oeil:

Fake Cat

stores that were fully in the Christmas spirit already:

Hansel and Gretel's House

and, best of all, signs like this one:


There wasn't just one market though. Every plaza in town was full of those brown wooden stalls. We planned to shop, but decided to see the town first. And to eat. It had been minutes since my crepe and his beignet after all.

Alas, some of the prettiest food wasn't so practical for us tourists:

Beautiful Meat

But we quickly found a brat stand

Brat Stand

and got some lunch:

Brats and Sauerkraut

Do you see the size of that bucket of sauerkraut? We did our best, but barely made a dent in it.

The stand we got that meal from was sponsored by this deli:

Deli with Wooden Pigs

which had all of these cute wooden pigs embedded in their Christmas decorations.

Thirsty, we went hunting for hot cider but only found stand after stand of hot wine. Finally, we saw a sign advertising hot orange juice with honey. So strange we had to try it!

AJW and Juice

Hot Orange Juice with Honey

I liked it, although it did get too sweet for me about halfway through.

We discovered a collection of stalls heralded as the Swiss village and were winding our way through them towards the Children's Land, when Jason suddenly cried out, "Raclette!"

Under normal circumstances, I would have assumed he had spotted an obscure French literary reference, but he was instead pointing at this strange sight:

Raclette Toasting

"What's raclette?" I asked.

"You haven't had raclette?" he asked, more aghast than he would have been if I hadn't recognized the obscure French literary reference. "We're having raclette," he declared.

I hesitated. I was very full after trying to conquer Mt. Sauerkraut, and a plateful of cheese seemed more than I could handle without more walking first. Jason saw my hesitation and said the magic words he knew would make me give in: "It's served with cornichons...."

I looked at the stand and, yes, there was a giant tub of cornichons. There were also tall blond Swiss men serving up those cornichons. "Okay, raclette!" I said.

(there is a serious issue with the potato-to-cornichon ratio on this plate!)
We took our plates of oozing cheese over to the stand next door where a bar had been built around a fire pit and warmed our hands as we ate the raclette, which was indeed delicious.

Raclette Fire
Very, very full at that point, we walked to and along the river, making many a photographic stop.

Strasbourg Germanic Buildings on River
Strasbourg Building

Lion Pipe

Strasbourg River
Grotesque on corner of cathedral

Skinny House!
(Look! That house is skinnier than the European car in front of it!)

There was a variety of street musicians, too, as well as steadily-growing crowds:

We turned back towards town and went to check out the cathedral. The cathedral really is stunning – you see glimpses of it as you walk through town, but when you walk into the square in front of I suddenly BAM! There is it, and it’s overpowering, forcing you to look heavenward with it’s gothic pointiness.

Strasbourg Cathedral

Aside from the usual innards of a cathedral,

Cathedral Candles 2
Children entranced by the forbidden candles
Strasbourg Cathedral Stained Glass
Pretty windows
Nativity 2
Exotic Nativities
Strasbourg Cathedral
Pretty ceilings
Strasbourg Cathedral
Creepy babies
We also found a Primary Program!

And a very cool clock:

Our blood sugar dipping dangerously close to normal levels, we went back outside to fight the crowds and find food. We found flam:

Swiss Guy Making Flam
(also made by tall blond Swiss men)


Flem Stand

Which we ate while watching ice skaters circling a small rink built nearby. Then we found a stand full of enticing-looking boules de neige:

Boules Neige

and the long-sought cider!

Boule Neige and Cider

(the boules were filled with marshmallow atop a waffle, by the way:)

Boule Neige
By then the sun was setting, the lights were gleaming, and the throngs were pressing. We refreshed our wallets at the ATM and went Christmas shopping at some of the few stalls of more traditional German crafts before a quick dinner of donar kabobs and frites.

Streets of Strasbourg
Streets of Strasbourg

Streets of Strasbourg
We happened upon the tree the moment it was being lit.  We're good like that.

We escaped the crowds to wind our way back to the train station where we had to wait a while on the platform for our delayed train back to Paris. I was glad when it finally arrived, by dismayed to find that our seats were facing backwards. Despite my motion sickness watch, riding on a swaying train backwards is just not a good thing for me. Jason tried to distract me for a time by translating the essay on feminism from his newly-purchased script of L'ecole des femmes, but even the promise of learning how to turn myself from an object to a subject was not enough to keep the nausea and dizziness at bay. I turned to the only defense I had left – sleep – and dozed fitfully the rest of the way home. A few moments to recover on the platform, a metro ride filled with drunk young adults (shouting "How DARE you?  I'm not drunk!  I'm not f****** drunk!" is a dead giveaway that yes, in fact, you are drunk), and a short walk later we were back in our hotel. We cranked up the opera music and sadly packed our suitcases to depart Paris in the morning.

And, as you saw, we made it home with little adventure and slight discomforts. I will add that the Airbus is pretty awesome. Not only does it have a nifty entertainment center in front of each seat:

Airbus Entertainment

but it’s actually quite spacious for an airplane. You can stand up comfortably, and the seats have a little more room than usual.  I'd recommend it, if you have the chance.

And there you have it – our trip to Paris. May it be one of many.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Paris Day 5 Part 2 - Cendrillon

I just wanted to put in a few more details about the ballet we saw Friday night.

I was uncertain about the production of Cendrillon during the first act. The theater and the stage were beautiful and the dancers were good, but the plot was so hard to follow! Nureyev's restaging placed the classic Cinderella fairy tale in the early days of Hollywood. I could pick out well enough that the stepsisters were aspiring actresses with the obligatory stage mother, but I wasn't sure where they were (In a house? A studio? A movie theater?) or the roles of all of the side-players in the first act. I really liked the movie producer/fairy godmotherfather, and the stepmother was terrific. Cinderella was, of course, beautiful and put upon, but I was glad to see her whisked away to Hollywood where the plot would soon be easier to follow.

Next came a fashion show of the different seasons (still confusing), followed by a creepy Metropolis-like Dance of the Hours. Act 1 ended with a wonderful trick where a large fabric pumpkin was brought on stage. When it reached center, it "popped," the fabric collapsed to the floor, and then immediately and quickly inflated to become a 1920s-style car, complete with a chauffeur who had been sitting in the pumpkin.

Act 2 began with a series of films being shot - a comedic crime piece, a Louis XIV waltz, a remake of King Kong. They were all choreographed with slapstick bits and really had nothing to do with the plot other than setting up the Hollywood mood. We met the prince, a movie star, shooting the ball scene of what else? Cinderella.

Here I think they were showing off their wealth. The costumes and sets were terrific, but what really wowed me was the presence of two guys for every girl in the chorus. Not only did it make for interesting choreography for the waltzing, but director-me who is casting Beauty and the Beast next week and who might not have enough guys to fill the lead roles let alone a chorus was positively green-eyed.

In the midst of shooting this scene, Cinderella shows up in a delightful entrance, silhouetted behind the green-glass and clockwork-looking backdrop accompanied by a mob of paparazzi with cameras flashing. She and the prince immediately begin dancing for the film, then she sits to the side to watch the shooting continue. Their first pas de deux of the show was my favorite. It began quietly with the prince slowly approaching Cinderella on her stool downstage left. He takes her hand, spins her around on the stool, and then they dance and it's just all soft and lovely like a pas de deux should be. The dance ended with the prince sitting on the same stool, Cinderella posed across his lap, the pair of them slowly circling around and around.

I was only disappointed by the lack of impressive lifts (I love those nearly as much as I love male dancers leaping), but all of the lead dancers in this show were wonderful at making incredibly difficult move look as quick and easy as shaking water off your hand. They did complete the show with a terrific lift at the very end - the Prince lifting Cinderella completely above his head while she holds a long pink scarf aloft in the breeze of a wind-machine aimed by the producer. I just wish he had scooped up her skirt so we could see his face too!

By the end of the show, the production had completely won me over. It was beautifully and skillfully danced; the comedic leads shone, the stepsisters and the movie director/assistant in particular, although the stepmother had a wonderful moment when she decided to try on the shoe herself; and the music was so grand and waltzy and dark and shimmery at all the right times. I'm so glad we got those suddenly-released tickets!

I was a good audience member, of course, so I had to do some hunting online for images to share with you. Here are a few from the official website (Please do click to enlarge - they're so pretty!):

P.S. I'll tell you about Strasbourg tomorrow. They're predicting 8-17 inches of snow tomorrow night/Thursday, so I need to pack for a few nights up in Mountain Town. At least I got three nights in my own bed before living out of a suitcase again!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ma Soeur

Thanksgiving Dinner!

I came home last night to find that Rachel had left a complete Thanksgiving dinner in my fridge!

I was too tired to eat last night after the flights, so I got to enjoy it today instead. We ate well in Paris, but I was a little sad to miss out on the traditional flavors of this holiday. It was delicious, and I'm very lucky to have such an awesome sister.

Paris Day 5 (Friday)

(I'm home! And I taught a full day of school! And ran speech practice! And learning even occurred at both! On the part of the students! And now I get to catch you up on the last two days in Paris!)

Our museum passes expired Thursday, so we felt less hard-pressed to get out of beds and get cracking Friday morning (and no, that's not a typo. I typed "get out of bed" originally, but given our tight space and the maid's non-too-subtle suggestions via blankets and bed positioning of how she thought we should be sleeping I wanted to clarify that we were indeed in two separate beds). We hit snooze several times on the alarm, and took our leisurely time getting ready. It was nice, actually. Almost like we were on vacation.

When we finally did get out the door, the first order of business was breakfast. We decided to try a new bakery ("new" as in not Paul's) we had passed and that I had seen recommended on my Pastry App (more about that in a moment). When I saw their wall of bread that was so reminiscent of the framed cereal display at my parents' house, I knew I'd like them.

Bread DIsplay

Bread Display

We picked out our treats (including their highly-recommended cookie) and ate them at a counter-top while I looked up the location of a FNAC bookstore. There was one only a few blocks away, so off we went!

It had been days since I had been to a bookstore, so you can imagine my delight. Jason dove into the fiction section to resupply his home library while I went to the kids/young adult section to peruse.

Jason at FNAC

It was fun to see the offerings of a big-chain French bookstore. In addition to all sorts of great books with excellent covers they had a whole display of Tintin-related merchandise for the movie, of course, several versions of Trivial Pursuit (I would have gotten the French Food version for my family had I not thought the language would be a bit of an issue), and recipe kits that included miniature pots, presses, and croissant-cutters.

FNAC Tintin

FNAC Trivial Pursuits



We walked to the Luxemburg Gardens next which, despite being only a block away from our hotel, we had not yet visited. There were bright, beautiful, giant polka-dots of chrysanthemums all along the walls, a group of middle-school-aged kids chasing each other as they waited for something, joggers (as promised in the Stuff Parisians Like book), and a few other lunch-break wanderers like us. Even in the winter the park was lovely, and I was thrilled when it started to rain almost-but-not-quite snowflakes that remained minute drops of water when they landed and sparkled on our jackets and hair.

Luxembourg Gardens

Luxembourg Fountain

Luxembourg Flowers

As the almost-snow continued, we headed out of the park to find lunch at a nearby cafe. We went off-book for the meal and found again that we were disappointed. We kept our choices light in anticipation of our afternoon plans - just a salad each and a cheese plate to share since there had been a disturbing lack of cheese so far in our trip. Alas, it was the same quality that you could find at any grocery store in the States. So it was with renewed purposed that I set to work mapping out our afternoon plans.

Originally we were going to visit Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, but this morning Jason said, "What if instead we go to different specialty shops and find the best of various treats like pastries and chocolates and eat our way around town all afternoon?"

"I think doing that would make my parents more proud of me than when I got my master's degree or IB diploma," was my reply.

So I downloaded David Lebovitz's Pastry App (thanks again for the recommendation, Pepere!), which I used over the remains of our cheese plate to map out a route for the afternoon. We were off!

(By the way, there's no need for me to rate or review everything we tried, since it was all absolutely delicious and well worth future visits. We chose well, and we have the App to thank for it.)

First Stop: Eric Kayser
Eric Kayser 

Type: Bakery

I sampled: Baguette Sandwich (salami and butter), pain au chocolate, pecan/chocolate chip cookie
Breakfast Friday

Second Stop: Pierre Herme
Pierre Herme

Specialty: Chocolates

I sampled: "MOGADOR - Ganache au chocolat au lait et au fruit de la passion, biscuit macaron fruit de la passion, pâte d’amande fondante au macaron fruit de la passion, enrobés de chocolat au lait"
Pierre Herme Bonbon

Pierre Herme Fancy

Chocolate Store

Chocolate Display Case

Third Stop: Laduree


Specialty: Macarons (and I finally understood what all the fuss was about!)

I sampled: Lemon macaron

Laduree Display

Fourth Stop: Chapon

Specialty: Chocolate Mousse Tasting Bar  (I KNOW!  Right?)

I sampled: Madagascar with carmelized pecans sprinkled on top

My Mousse

I also couldn't resist those green balls in the background. They were too pretty! So I got one of those as well and had it after the ballet.  Turns out it was a Lime Caramel dipped in dark chocolate. Here it is on my bed:

Lime Caramel

Fifth Stop: Barthelemy

Specialty: Cheese

I sampled: Well, here's the thing. We didn't get the names of what we bought. Which is more than a dommage, it's a horror because it means we can't search fruitlessly for that deliciously runny cheese and lament that it's not available in the US because there's absolutely no way a cheese that delicious would be approved by the FDA. So let's just look at the pictures of that cheese again and mourn our cheese-name ignorance.


Cheese Shop Interior 3

Cheese Store 2

Cheese Store 1

We didn't eat the cheese right away because we needed to dash back to the hotel to dress for the ballet.

The rest of the story will have to wait, though, because it's eight o'clock and my brain thinks it's 4:00 AM, and I need to get my tired self to bed so I can teach the wee ones again tomorrow. I'll write more soon, I promise.