Monday, February 21, 2011

In Which I Don't Have Much to Say for Myself

Well, it's vacation. Most of my friends are off gallivanting around Europe, and I've been hanging out at home, waiting for my friends from the US to come visit. So since I don't have many options for entertainment, and my friends don't arrive until Thursday, I've been doing a lot of napping, reading, cookie eating, and fiery political blogging. Oh, and I cleaned my room.

Tonight, being quite hungry and realizing I needed something to blog about, I made some delicious food. Now for those of you who don't know, I received several years of classical culinary training in the Brooksian school of MSUAYGA (Making Shit Up As You Go Along). I rarely use recipes, except sometimes for inspiration, I'm not a big fan of measuring, and I swear a lot in the kitchen. But it usually turns out pretty well. Usually, when I decide to cook something, it becomes a game of "what do I have in the kitchen and what can I make with it?" Tonight was no exception, and I felt added pressure to get through some of our produce, since everyone in the house will be leaving at some point this week and the house will be empty for several days (now that you know this, please don't rob us). So, taking stock of the available ingredients and their need to be used before rotting, I decided on stir-fry. And I thought I would be kind and provide you with the recipe (you know, the one I made up as I went along).

Sorry it's kind of blurry.

Impromptu Honey-Soy Stir-Fry for 1:
Ingredients: some fresh vegetables (I used carrots, potatoes, onions, and green beans), garlic, olive oil, soy sauce, honey, strong mustard (none of that French's nonsense... go invest in a good whole grain or Dijon). Rice or some other grain to serve it on... I chose red quinoa.
*optional: meat, fresh or powdered ginger, chopped peanuts

1. Start rice or whatever grain you chose.
2. Chop veggies and meat (the smaller you chop, the faster it will cook), mince garlic.
3. Add veggies/meat to lightly oiled pan on medium heat. Add them in order of how long they take to cook. For example, I added the onions and potatoes and carrots, let those cook a bit, then added the meat, garlic, and green beans. This way you don't end up with crunchy potatoes and mushy beans.
4. While veggies are cooking, whip up a sauce of equal parts olive oil, soy sauce, and mustard (start with ab a teaspoon or two of each), then add honey til it tastes good. (Super technical, I know).
5. When veggies have about 5-7 mins left to cook (they should take ab 15 mins from start to finish), add your sauce and mix everything around to coat it with the sauce. Add some powdered ginger now, if you didn't already add fresh, and throw some chopped peanuts in if you feel like it. Let everything wallow together in the delicious, saucy goodness for a few mins or until everything is cooked through, then serve over your grain of choice.
6. Drink a good, local beer and eat chocolate pudding for dessert. But only if you want to be classy like me.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back

It occurred to me the other day that I have breezed through the half-way point of my grand French Adventure without even noticing. Time flies when you're having fun, huh?

I don't have much to report this week in terms of gallivanting I've done or crazy situations I've gotten myself into, but I have been doing a lot of self-reflection lately... a mid-term evaluation, if you will. So I thought I'd share a little bit.

I've really changed a lot since I came to France. Not only in the way I view myself and my relationship to the world, but also in the way I live my life. And I think most of it has been really good change. Leaving home last September was an incredibly hard thing to do. While I was excited about the prospect of living in another country and all that that would entail, I was also really reluctant to leave my comfortable American lifestyle. I left my job, my apartment (the first one I had ever paid for by myself), my car, my dog, my friends and family, and a relationship of nearly two years. When I got here I knew no one, barely spoke or understood French, had nowhere to live, no concept of French culture, and about $1500 to get started. And I remember how incredibly terrified I was as I said goodbye to Mom and Dad and Laura at the gate in Indianapolis, and how terrified I remained for about the first week I was here. But now I look at my life here, and it's awesome. I live in a great house with wonderful roommates, I have a fabulous and diverse group of friends, gainful and (mostly) enjoyable employment, passable skills in French, and plenty of time for adventures and shenanigans. And it really kind of blows my mind to think, "I did this." I did it by myself. And I'm pretty proud of that.

I'm also proud of a lot of the lifestyle changes I have made since being here. When I left the US I was a pretty stressed out person most of the time. I was prone to laziness and lethargy, preferring to spend most of my free time on the couch watching TV, rather than out and about and doing things. I smoked a half a pack or more of cigarettes per day, and ate way too much fast food. And despite the fact that I was making almost three times as much money as I make now, I always seemed to be broke. Nowadays I make my cigarettes last three or four days instead of one or two (and I'm thinking about thinking about quitting, haha), I usually eat out once a week or less, I eat tons of fruits and veg and a lot less meat, and while I am still working on getting out of the house more (hard to do when it rains all the time!), I have traded TV for reading, so at least I'm learning. I always have money, and I just feel so much BETTER about myself and my life. I feel healthier, more energetic, and less stressed.

So now that I am starting to plan for when I come home in a coupe of months, I'm trying to set myself up to maintain these improvements, rather than lapsing back into old habits, which I know it will be easy and tempting to do. My lovely and wonderful former roommates from Bloomington, Rachel and Lauren, have recently moved to Indianapolis, and have invited me to live with them again when I get home, and I think that will be stellar. They are a great influence on me when it comes to healthy lifestyles, not to mention two of the greatest friends and roomies a girl could ask for. And I'm also looking for a job somewhere in the community development/ social justice arena, in preparation for eventually pursuing a masters degree in the same area (macro end of social work). I have no qualms about going back to Papa John's for a while if I need to, as I know community agencies are really suffering at the hands of government budget cuts right now, but I think working in a field that encourages the same kind of lifestyle as I want to live (ie healthy, low environmental impact, frugal, etc) will also really help me make these changes permanent ones.

And that's really all I have to say for now. If anyone has any potential connections in social services/community development, please let me know! Happy V-Day everyone!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

First Tango in Paris

Ok, so I didn't really tango, but it was my first trip to Paris, and I did dance my @$$ off.

Yes, somehow I have been living in France for almost 5 months, less than 2 hours from Paris, and still hadn't managed to visit until this last weekend. Now I wish I could go back every weekend. I will be going back at least once with my parents though, so that's good.

We left on Friday afternoon and got into Paris around 4:30. My first view coming out of the metro was of Notre Dame, right in front of me. Pretty freaking spectacular. The group consisted of me and my friends David, Shelby, and Joey, and some meet-ups with other friends Allison and Emily, who also live in Valenciennes but traveled separately from us and stayed in different hotels. After navigating our way to our hotel, which was in the Quartier Latin (home of many famous artists and writers during the early 1900's), close to Notre Dame and the Sorbonne, we got all settled in, and then went for dinner at a Tibetan restaurant called Lhassa. None of us had ever really eaten Tibetan food before, so it was an interesting experience for all. I had a chicken curry with some Tibetan bread, and we shared an appetizer of roasted barley flour balls with yak cheese. I normally pride myself on being an adventurous eater, but I think I can probably go the rest of my life without ever eating yak cheese again. But at least I tried it, right?

The rest of Friday night was pretty uneventful. We pre-gamed at the hotel, and then were supposed to go to some bars that Emily's Parisian boyfriend, Felix, knew about. Unfortunately, Felix (who is a pretty awesome guy in general) slightly overestimated his own navigation skills, and we ended up spending most of the night just wandering around the city. We did pop into a couple of good bars though, so the night was by no means a total loss. We went back to the hotel relatively early (about 3am), and tried to get some sleep before a couple of jam-packed days of sightseeing.

Saturday and Sunday both were primarily spent "monument walking," as in, we walked to a lot of the popular sights in Paris and took pictures, but didn't always go in or thoroughly explore them. Since everyone else had been to Paris before, and I knew from the get-go that I would be coming back (with parents who pay for things like museum admission), we really just wanted to do a general tour of the city's main attractions. So we set out from our hotel on Saturday morning and walked across Ile de la Cite, which is the big island in the Seine and the very center of the city. We saw Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle from the outside, and walked back things like Palais de Justice and the flower market. Then we walked over to Centre Georges Pompidou, which is a gargantuan modern building that houses a library and an impressive modern art collection, among other things. Centre Pompidou is best known for its "inside-out" design, with all manner of pipes and wires in a rainbow of colors covering the outside of the building. Here is a picture:

After that, we headed over to Les Halles. Les Halles was the main marketplace area in Paris until 1969, and is notable for its beautiful glass and steel arcades and extensive gardens. Unfortunately, most of the outside structure was under construction, so we couldn't really explore it or take many good photos. Les Halles has struggled to find and maintain an identity since the demise of its open-air markets, and currently it houses a cavernous underground shopping mall, though I understand that there are renovation plans currently in the works. So we explored the mall for a little while, before having lunch at a cafe and creperie nearby. We opted to dine outside, despite the fact that it was a little chilly and more than a little bit windy. But even with teeth chattering I was a very happy camper, because dining outside in a cafe in Paris was definitely on my bucket list. It should be on yours too.

After lunch we took the metro to the North side of the city to see Montmartre, the neighborhood famous for the Moulin Rouge, which itself is a nonevent. Really. Go, take a picture outside, and then proceed directly to Sacre Coeur, because that is what you really need to see, trust me. Sacre Coeur (French for sacred heart), is a beautiful, snowy-white basilica atop the highest hill in Paris. It is relatively new in comparison to many of Paris' churches (built in the 1860's I think), but it is truly breathtaking. It has sort of an Arabian/Middle Eastern feel to it, though it is a Catholic church. It's free to go inside, but strict codes of silence and no photography are in place and are enforced, which lends an incredible sense of reverence to the place. But outside the church is a different story. You see, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre hill are the absolute best places to view the city, being atop the highest hill and being at the Northern end. You have to work for it, though. There is a tram that goes from the bottom of the hill to the top, but you have to pay to take it, and therefore most people take the stairs. And there are a LOT of stairs. But the view from the top is 100% worth it, once you catch your breath and the burning in your thighs subsides. There are street performers and vendors and hawkers of all kinds, and the whole city is spread out before you like a map, with landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Centre Pompidou, and Notre Dame easy and fun to spot. My comrades got caught up in a street show, and I took the opportunity to grab a seat on the wide main stairs in front of the church, buy a beer from a vendor, and just relax and take in the city. It was one of the most wonderful and incredible moments of the trip, and I think also a memory that I will cherish forever. Not to mention another thing crossed off my bucket list!

Me with my beer, completely and utterly content with my life.

After Montmartre, we headed back to the hotel for much needed showers and downtime, as we had big plans for Saturday evening. Sunday was Joey's 24th birthday, and he requested Mexican food and dancing to celebrate. So we had a fabulous Mexican dinner near Les Halles (Mexican food being almost impossible to find in France, let alone good Mexican food), and then went to a couple of clubs in the neighborhood "Le Marais," which was a wonderfully good time, and finally stumbled back to our hotel sometime near 6am on Sunday morning. Happy Birthday, Joey!

After about 3 hours of sleep, we were back up and at 'em for our last day in Paris. Since it was the first Sunday of the month, all of the national museums were free. So Joey and Shelby headed to check out the modern art at Centre Pompidou, but I wanted to be outside enjoying the sunshine and gloriously warm weather that had suddenly appeared on Sunday morning, so David and I decided to do some more monument walking. We started at Nortre Dame, and arrived just as mass was starting. I'm not a particularly religious person these days, but nonetheless it was a pretty incredible and moving experience. After that, we walked down the Seine to the Louvre, through the outdoor Louvre complex (which is unbelievably huge, btw), through Jardin des Tuileries, a massive garden/park adjacent to the Louvre, through Place de la Concorde, the centerpiece of which is a giant ancient Egyptian obelisk, and straight down the Champs-Elysees, Paris' most famous grand boulevard. We saw Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Sephora's flagship store, and, of course, two McDonald's. We had lunch in a cafe down a side street, and finally ended at l'Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon's grand monument to himself. It was another one of my favorite sights of the trip. For one, it is phenomenally huge-- much bigger than it looks in pictures, and two, it was just... We didn't climb to the top, as we were thoroughly exhausted by this time, but it still made for a really excellent way to top off the weekend. I'm excited to take my parents there when they visit.

Tired and happy at l'Arc de Triomphe

After that we met the others back at the hotel, collected our belongings, and caught our train home. We arrived completement epuisees (completely exhausted), and I am still not sure I've fully recovered, but it was absolutely worth it for the amazing experience. The others reconvened later that night at Shelby's to watch the Super Bowl, but as it started at midnight, French time, and I had to work at 8am, I opted for bed.

So, in sum, Paris was an amazing experience-- even cooler than I could have imagined. If you ever have the chance to go, please, please do. It will rock your world.