31 May 2009

Brittany's belle île is better than yours detroit

took the ferry to the island off the coast of quiberon called belle île today.

as we walked to the port from our hotel we picked up some warm pastries from town: croissants, pain au chocolat, and a custard apricot pastry. we ate these while in line for the ferry boat. we rode a large, fast, smooth ferry 20 minutes out to the "large" port town of le palais (about 4000 people live on the island, in total).

in le palais, we sat on the terrace of a café in the sunshine and watched the little harbor and the people. definitely a holiday destination for the more wealthy, it was a great place to watch people and their toys (there were some seriously silly go-karty, clown car things you could rent to tool around the island in).

after the café, we wandered along the water and looked at the citadelle (the walled military fort next to the harbor) and walked to the little pedestrian bridge across the river. we had bought tickets for an island bus tour (cheaper than renting a car) and were making our way up to the pick-up point. for being a small island, it is VERY hilly. people rent bikes here and man would you get a workout!

anyway, after like 40 boats passed by the bridge, they finally lowered it and we got across. we went up the hill to overlook the little port town while waiting for the bus. it arrived at noon-ish and we boarded the hot bus! it was packed and behind us was a japanese man who had a runny nose...and he was sucking back the drippage every five seconds going "gulp...ahhhhh!" after every time. GROSS! when another bus pulled up and offered to move some passengers onto it we jumped up right away! and, bonus, this new bus was cool and air conditioned!

(le palais)

our route took us past the small town of bangor, past the ritzy spa resorts along the coast, past the port goulphar and the lighthouse, and we arrived at Les Aiguilles de Port Coton. this was a major inspiration point for a series of claude monets works. we were on the savage coast side of the island and it was stunning. cliffs, rocks, bare land, clear aqua water (very similar to what quiberon and also finistère looked like, but the cliffs here are bigger).

(dave at monets port coton spot; one of the monet paintings from the same spot)

our next stop was the Grotte de l'Apothicairerie. our hotel also happened to be the lone building out this way. all alone on barren land close the cliffs. awesome location (but not so awesome hotel). we actually took the opportunity to check-in to the hotel while the tour group was looking at the grotte (an arching cave structure in the cliffside).

the tour continued past some megaliths before we arrived at our lunch site, the port town of sauzon. smaller than le palais but on the same side of the island; the more smooth, safe side of the island. as such, it was a peaceful little strip of buildings along the harbor with sunny sidewalks and colorful little cafés and restaurants. we also tried the local pastry called belle iloise (not my favorite, but it wasnt super sweet which was nice. a harder pastry outer layer filled with apples and prunes).

(me walking down the main street of sauzon)

after lunch, we went to our final spot, the northern tip of the island called Pointe des Poulains. there is a combination of lighthouse, cliffs, sandy beach area, rugged rocks, calm water for swimming, and the house of the famous french actress, sarah bernhardt. it was a nice spot i would have liked to have been able to spend more time at. beyond the lighthouse im sure there were more views of the lovely cliffs.

(us at pointe des poulains. love moms wonderful picture-taking skills)

to finish, our bus dropped us back in le palais. we had a couple hours before places were ready to serve dinner so we walked up some steep roads and arrived at a quiet spot overlooking the le palais harbor and the citadelle. a good place to rest, feel the breeze, and enjoy the relaxation part of the vacation. after a while, we picked up and moved spots north of the town above a tunnel in the road and sat in the shade overlooking the little streets.

(mom in le palais with some lilacs growing out of the wall)

our dinner spot was called "au jardin du port" and it was very cute, with nice staff, and had tasty, well-priced food. i think it was 14€ for seafood maindish and a dessert (or an appetizer and main dish). dave and mom had cod (cabillaud, in french) and i ordered another whitefish called "merluchon" (cant find its name in english). my fish came to me whole...again. so, im getting pretty good at eating dinners that stare at me. but really, he was tasty and everyone enjoyed their food.

(my dinner staring at me)

our next task was getting a taxi on a sunday to take us back to our isolated hotel. after paying an arm and a leg (25€) we arrived at our hotel. crampy little outdated room (it was also the cheapest, like 76€) but the location was fantastic. i went for a walk along the cliffs and then dave and i watched the sunset. we were on the west coast of the island so there was nothing obstructing our view as the sun melted into the sea. a bit chilly and windy, but it was really nice to watch our part of the earth fade to black (sunset wasnt until around 11pm, we are actually quite west of greenwich but one time zone more eastern. weird).

(sunset in belle île)

30 May 2009

Quiberon, not to be confused with the car

took full advantage of the holiday weekend, french style, by taking public transit to a beach resort. quiberon to be exact (the name reminds me of tiburon, the hyundai car).

anyway, before leaving, we took mom to the rennes market. delicious treats everywhere! because she is a goat cheese fanatic, we spent more time than usual in the bread/yogurt/cheese/honey/goodies hall than normal. we found the homemade yogurt, etc man and purchased a small tub of caramel rice pudding (yeah it was as delicious as it sounds!).

got back to the apartment and loaded up for the train. the train was packed with people heading to the south coast of brittany. we shared a seat with a little boy named matisse (and his young mother) who was busy eating a croque monsieur throughout the entire train ride (1.5 hours). after the train stopped in auray we caught a crowded bus down to the peninsula point of quiberon (150 km south of rennes).

the bus drove along the coast, through the town of carnac (famous for it megaliths that are older than stonehenge. probably 1000 years before actually), past some nice beaches, and then out to the pencil thin point of quiberon. amazing that such a sunny, beachy resort town is so close to rennes. it feels worlds away.

after exiting the bus north of quiberons city centre, we walked to our hotel. what a great place! its called the hôtel men er vro (it means something in breton) and our three-person room was white, light, airy, and fresh. tons of space in the sleeping quarters and the bathroom! a place to spread out and relax in in europe, no way!

when we ventured out of our hotel we were in short sleeves and capris (totally new wardrobe combination for me!), the sun was out and things were hot! good for a resort town, bad for me. i HATE heat. a bonus part of quiberon is that the eastern coast (the part exposed to the direct current of the atlantic) has some beautiful scenery. we headed in the direction of this "savage coast" as its called to revel in its magnificence...

cut to us 1.5 hours later, me grumpy and drenched in sweat, us having forfeited the route to the savage coast (took a wrong turn at first and were stuck in the peninsulas suburban hell...identical white houses lining blacktop roads that were hellaciously hot...). we bailed for the beach, "where the fuck is the water? i just wanna see some fucking water?," and not a moment too soon, i was feeling claustrophobic on this tiny ass peninsula with nothing but rooftops and pavement in sight. turn one corner...and, ah....the beach. first time ive said that in my life...

(quiberon beach)

we had a smoothie and walked along the beach. a nice, long, white, sandy beach and i got an eyeful of elderly men in speedos. thanks europe! then took the road back to the city centre (and past a putt putt course...they have putt putt in france?). once at the hotel we recuperated and studied up on where to go to dinner...mapping it out precisely this time.

we walked to dinner at la chaumine, which, as it happens, is a stones throw from the elusive savage coast. we ate out on their terrace a tasty seafood meal. for starters, dave had some delicious fish soup (im priming my belly for fish stews and chowders in halifax). then we had fish for dinner. i tried their house specialty: sole au jus de girolles, which is an entire fish in a ginger, mushroom, butter sauce. i worked that fish with the skill of a surgeon, didnt puncture any organs and basically got all the meat off. the dish was tasty, but im not sure it was worth the price tag (23€). for dessert we shared chocolate mousse (definitely not the best) and their weird house specialty: a kind of toasted cream with berries (not bad).

(my sole...bones; mom and dave after dinner)

during dinner, we were treated to the adorable mr chippie. one of the diners brought her dog and while she went out to smoke, he followed and sat there looking cute. we were all remarking that nearly every french dog has impeccable manners. they are quiet, well-behaved, they travel well and they are treated like a member of the family. there was also a delightful little wire-haired dog on the bus from auray to quiberon. he quietly laid on the bus floor...making cute eyes at us. the population seems very patient and tolerant of the animals and the owners seem to have some magical secret to their dog training...maybe just love, trust, and teaching both their children and animals the same lesson...how to be "propre" (except for the pooping business).

(mr chippie)

after dinner, we walked into the wild-flowered breezy meadow leading up to the coast. what a serene and beautiful place (there is actually a new york times article about the area). the plant life swirling around the ancient rocks and megaliths was dreamy and when we got the coastline it didnt disappoint. the rocks were rugged with lichen and jutted out into the sea. i felt like i could sit on a rock and mediate to the sound of the ocean (if i knew how to sit still). to add to the beauty, the water was glittering with the setting sun.

(walking down a path toward the coast. a gypsy van is in the distance; mom and me on the rocks; still on the rocks; some savage rocks in the water)

we walked past the chateau on the tiny piece of land that effectively ends the savage coast and blends into the port/harbor which connects to the beach. then we ended up going back through the city centre to curl up in our our beds. it was a nice walk to take after dinner. lovely quiberon...but i still hate your suburbs.

29 May 2009

Bleu cheese burgers with buds

relaxed day around rennes and a pleasant evening eating burgers with glen and martin.

we ate at "la cerise sur le gateau" again (mom is eating her weight in goat cheese here. "can i put some in a tin and take it home?") and then walked around rennes and hit up thabor park. nice calm day.

(mom in the park)

in the evening, we went to glen and martins apartment for some burgers! they somehow had found hamburger buns in this country and had concocted a recipe of patties stuffed with bleu cheese...yes, i will take one please!

their roommate with all the dishes and apartment stuffs had already moved out so we had a fun camping-like experience. :) but, being amongst friends, we didnt even notice. picnic in the living room! appetizers and chatting (american, french, and australian accents rapidly mixing...fun!), then salad and burgers...no talking...chewing and enjoying (by me at least). :) then dessert: dense, dark chocolate mini cake, chocolate chip cake with a lake of chocolate ganache in the middle, a tart with a layer of caramel and then chocolate on top, and a breton cookie with creamy citrus sauce topped off with strawberries.

thanks for hosting us guys. a night with you is always guaranteed enjoyment. :)

28 May 2009

A grey day turns pink!

took mom to dinan for the day.

rode the bus to dinan this morning. it was a bit of a grey, chilly day so our first activity was to hit up a souvenir shop with tons of regional products of bretagne. it was actually kind of a decent place, dave and i had scoped it out last time we were there. i bought a few things, so now i have to play the game of "what will fit in my suitcase..." when i pack for my return.

after shopping, we ate sandwiches on a bench by the wall overlooking the river, viaduct, trees, and town below. we were a bit cold afterward, so we went for dessert at the same tea salon i went to last time. i ordered my same pot of coromandel tea (i forced myself not to drink the entire pot, though i could have) and mom ordered the café david, coffee mixed with hot chocolate. we also ordered an apple crumble. it came to us warm and delicious!

(lunch spot by the wall)

after we were warm, hydrated, and radiating with apple goodness, we walked down the quaint, steep street of dinan that ends down at the rance river. while going camera crazy down the street, my mom stopped at a store with a pink jacket for sale (pink is my moms favorite color, thus it is a shopping weakness. paint dog poop pink and she would contemplate buying it). she logically arrived at the argument that the jacket she was wearing was insufficient to deal with the damp brittany air and the breeze, so this jacket was a must...so, into the store we go to buy her something else she will have to jam into her luggage. its a cute jacket...and thus we have a hundred pictures of it...

(mom, pre-pink jacket acting somewhat sane; mom puts pink jacket on...; mom acquires powers of a ballerina...; and the ability to pose like a child getting headshots for a beauty pageant)

after we came out of our pink jacket coma, we realized we were late for our return bus. we barely made it on but arrived back in rennes safely...for MORE shopping. still not sure how i survived today, except that we capped it off with some shopping i can endorse...shopping for food. we acquired my favorite pizza (artichokes, mushrooms, ham, green olives) for dinner. :) okay, now im happy.

Rennes meet mom, mom meet rennes

mom sees rennes.

the morning began with the introduction of mom to real french pastries (we had had some shit croissants in london and on the train before this) and french coffee (behold the power of tasty caffeine!).

after that, i introduced her to the more mundane daily activities of doing your laundry in europe and grocery shopping. she purchased some snacks and more yogurt (the kind in glass containers so she can take more souvenirs home).

for lunch, we chose a place near us that was new to me called "la cerise sur le gateau" (the cherry on the cake). mom ordered a tartine (basically a piece of toast with melted cheese) with hot goat cheese sprinkled with olive oil and herbes de provence sitting on a bed of bibb lettuce with slices of tomatoes and fresh mozzerella, shredded carrots, green beans, and mushroom slices all drizzled with a delicious creamy sauce (she ate every bit and dabbed bread to absorb every drop of dressing). i ordered a tart/quiche with leeks, chicken, and mushrooms with a similar salad (minus the tomatoes and mozzarella). for dessert...a warm apple nut cake with warm cream sauce and...a cherry on top. DElicious. a tasty new find. :) (the waiter was confused when we had to pay. he'd never seen my moms kind of credit card...the kind without a chip. it was funny to watch him act like a caveman encountering a calculator.)

anyway, after lunch we went...shopping. we went to a place called zara. ntina had described it as the "spanish version of h&m," so i felt reasonably safe. as it happened, they had some cute things, but we didnt end up getting anything.

next, we met jj for a tour of rennes and some tea. jj was anxious to meet my mom to try his english out on another american and to show a new person around his beloved city. we went to the different town squares, a few churches, the historic areas, and ended up having tea in our usual spot near the republique. then we set a date to see mont st michel together.

(jj and mom discussing the finer points of english; me and mom in city hall. in case you cant read it, her shirt says 'Qu'est-ce que c'est sup?' (roughly: whats up?); me choking mom by the drawbridge...what else is new?)

later that night, after work, mom and i enjoyed a homemade couscous dinner à la dave. yum! a regular slice-of-life day in rennes.

27 May 2009

Train, train, go away come again another day

todays train travel went smoothly (thank my lucky stars!) but there was a lot of it!

day started at 6a. got up, checked out and hopped on the tube to the st pancras station. got onto our eurostar (chunnel) train with no problems. went to the food car to get a coffee, yogurt, and croissant to use up the rest of my pounds (i actually used up the pounds we had leftover from our trip to jersey island). mom was enamored with her yoplait yogurt because it came in a piece of pottery she insisted on keeping it.

once we arrived in paris, we easily got on the métro line #4 south to the montparnasse train station. 20 minutes later we arrived. here was my real "fingers crossed" moment. SNCF (the company who runs the french trains) had declared a strike and some of the trains were canceled, but i didnt know which ones. we got up to the big board and saw our train listed as on-time, success!

while i was distracted with joy, a woman approached me. she was dressed normally and seemed to have a question. while registering that i was giving her the time of day, i realized she was a beggar. i then said "sorry, no" but she kept at it. "do you have any change?" "no" "do you have any small coins?" "no." then she switched to talking to my mom. i spoke up and said "no, she doesnt have anything either." the lady then switched to begging, level 2. asking my why i was speaking for her when she could speak for herself...and proceeded to ask for some change. i said "this is my mother, she doesnt speak french and we dont have change." she stepped it up to begging, level 3. she started telling me i was rude and my french was bad and she started to correct my pronunciation. at this point my mom was saying "no merci...au revoir." then the lady decided to pull out level 4, the f-bomb. she said "you are not nice. you are mean. fuck you." i said..."thats nice." she said fuck you a few more times and walked off.

thats my only encounter with a beggar that turned out like that. often they are quite polite, even when i ignore them or say "sorry, no." my general rule, anywhere, is never to give money to street people. i dont discriminate, if you arent making music or doing something constructive, i cant donate money to that. not if youre sleeping, drinking, kneeling, walking around with a sign, asking me to translate something, using your dog as bait, or parading around dirty children for sympathy. nope. this lady tried a new approach on me...nope, nothing.

anyway, our train arrived on time, we boarded and departed on time. when we arrived in rennes we had had enough of the train for one day. after mom got settled in her hotel, we walked to the franco-american institute to get her hooked up with a book. she chose her favorite...to kill a mockingbird. good comfort book away from home. then we hit a bakery for a snack before i headed off to work.

after work dave and i went out with mom to find a crêperie. its a regular tuesday night...and none of our regular crêperies are open...why? i dont know. so we settle on something else nearby. the crêpes were mediocre but the lady owner was a hoot. she had no one else to talk to so she jabbered away to us about her rum in the rum raisin ice cream crêpe she made for my mom. half-buzzed, my mom was laughing at her nonsense talk which encouraged the lady to bring over her dish of seashells and give us the life story behind every animal that lived in those shells, including whether or not they tasted good (of course a frenchwoman would know this). weird night.

26 May 2009

No rest for the wicked/ancient

see more of london! march, march, march! (several more miles of walking today...i gave my mom shin splints...urban mountain climbing she called it...with me as the drill sergeant...anyone else wanna come visit?)

after hitting up one of the local starbucks (approx. 5 were in our immediate vicinity...there are exactly none in rennes, joy!) we headed south to leicester square to wait in line for discount theatre tickets. we confirmed that jersey boys was on the board and stood in line. we happened to be waiting behind a young toronto couple. they were touring europe after just finishing undergrad. the female mentioned her family has a summer home in halifax and that its a great city. she even recommended her favorite eatable there: donair kebab sandwiches (this is a version of the turkish döner sandwiches we eat regularly here in rennes). thank you!

after acquiring tickets, we took the tube to the london bridge stop. we walked to the thames and paused to admire the tower bridge. very cool. i love the color aqua...slap aqua on anything and i'll call it awesome. we then turned west and strolled past london bridge (sad, ugly rebuild...but we got to hear a tourist sing "london bridge is falling down...") and arrived at the newly rebuilt Globe Theatre.

(mum at tower bridge; had to take a picture of this ice cream vendor along the way)

the original globe theatre (which burnt down in 1613) was built near to the rebuild, along the thames, with partial ownership by shakespeare (not to be confused with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in stratford-on-avon). we decided to take the tour of this new incarnation of the globe (opened in 1997). a traveling production of "As You Like It" was rehearsing and we were able to watch them on stage (this made the price of the tour so worth it!).

what an awesome theatre, totally in keeping with the style of the original (or what is known of the original). it is all wood with bench seating in the upper decks and an open ground floor near the stage. the theatre is round and there is no ceiling. the thatched roof protects the top seats but the stage is exposed to the elements (hence the "performances continue whatever the weather" warning on the tickets).

(shakespeare actors in costume just outside the theatre; mum amongst shakespeare)

after the globe, we bought some tasty, fresh sandwiches from the chain called Eat and lunched on the lawn near the tate modern art museum and millenium bridge. the tate was having some kind of cool modern art festival for children. it looked totally awesome, what a great way to spend a bank holiday with your family and introduce your kids to the world of art.

after lunch, we took advantage of the fact that most museums in london (and the uk?) are free. the arts are SUPER government-supported and it makes for a wonderful culturally-aware populace. so, we popped into the tate to just peruse the third floor collection. easy breezy.

then, we continued west along the riverwalk to the hungerford bridge and waterloo station. near the bridge, we paused to catch a weird act: a seriously made-up woman with killer calves being fondled and danced with by a legless man...strange. with that in mind, we jumped on the tube to go to harrods, which turned out to be a different kind of equally frightening freakshow.

we plunged into the cosmetics area. lights, perfume, action! so many counters and rooms of uniformed workers waiting to help you. kinda scary actually (especially because i am allergic to shopping). there was a room with an egyptian theme selling purses and watches and the jewelry rooms felt like museums, with creepy side rooms of tiffanys, cartier, etc for the "real" customers. then we arrived at the ultra fancy tea room. after realizing they didnt serve the kind of tea we were after we left that area. mom decided to wander into the super gaudily decorated market area and we located the small café inside serving cream tea (exactly what we were after).

the cream tea was basically £9.50 (each) for a generous pot of tea, two scones (one plain, one with raisins), 2 tiny jars of jam, and a dollop of clotted cream. delicious! because we chose peppermint tea, we didnt get the liquid cream with our "cream tea." this was a tasty and fun oasis in the madness that was this store. after tea, we decided to head back to our hotel (thereby missing other store gems: the diana and dodi memorial, the wax figure of mr al fayed, and the pet shop area selling only purebreds...no thanks!).

(these brits may have awful food, in general, but damn they do an awesome tea and scone!)

after resting, we dropped down to soho to grab some dinner before our musical. we chose gourmet burger kitchen (on michaels suggestion). it reminded me of a similar set up to jo'burger in dublin...so i was wetting my pants in anticipation of this burger. unfortunately, it couldnt live up to my hype (but then again, what could!?), plus my mom and i shared a burger and fries and the price was like £12. not cheap. we did sit next to a nice british mother-daughter couple who had visited the u.s. (L.A. and las vegas, yikes!) and were nice enough to buy the side sauce my mom ordered mid-meal when we didnt have cash to cover it.

anyway, dinner was done and now it was time for jersey boys. this is the sensational musical about the real life "frankie valli and the four seasons." this was my moms era of music and she absolutely loved the entire thing, so it was definitely worth it. for me, the plot was crap (the pacing of the biography was off to me) but the musical numbers were great. surprising how many of their hits are seriously famous (sherry, big girls dont cry, walk like a man, rag doll, bye, bye baby, working my way back to you, will you love me tomorrow, i cant take my eyes off of you, oh what a night!). a little disturbing that the old man behind me sang along to every song...but it was a nice night and the upper terrace of the theater overlooked old compton st in soho so that was cool during intermission.

overall, london reminded me of new york city, except it was even more international. there were so many people speaking languages i couldnt identify (russian?, polish?, arabic?, something from somewhere in asia...) it felt like a city of the world rather than a city belonging to any one country. and every single person was wearing some different type of clothing to denote their personality, nationality, persuasion, beliefs, etc. very, very cool.

also, the transportation was quite easy. we didnt take any buses, we did it all via the tube underground. with some helpful tips from friends (avoid the district, hammersmith, and circle lines like the plague) and by listening for the current lines/stops to avoid, we had NO problems getting around. many times per day we found ourselves on the northbound piccadilly line, and i giggled everytime when the electronic lady voice said "this is a piccadilly line to...cockfosters." so im immature, sue me. funny shit though.

(me and my boyfriend dexter in the london underground...back off lola)

also, i would like to thank the city of london for its lovely weather (3 days of nearly full sunshine, only a few raindrops for like 30 minutes today). it also provided some delightful entertainment seeing all the pastie white brits who were burnt redder than a lobster. ouch! thats what you get from being from a damp, grey country.

25 May 2009

London calling...

we hit the pavement (and underground) to discover...much of london.

in the morning we went out for coffee (for mom) and then checked out of the hotel (happily!). then we hauled our gear through the tube system over to regent park (from russell square) to arrive at our holiday inn. thank god it was cleaner, nicer, and much better staffed. we dropped off our luggage and headed out for the day.

we started with a walk through lower regent park. lovely english park with gardens. tons of pasty brits were already out sunbathing.

then we headed south toward oxford street. it was sunday, so shops werent opening until noon but there were still tons of people out milling around. and who can blame them, it was the start of a sunny, warm day in london. very rare! we hit oxford street and were plunged into a NYC-like shopping area bonanza. then we turned down regent street and got more of it. then we arrived at piccadilly circus and still more! we even found the Lush flagship store was open. of course we had to go in.

(area near regent and oxford streets; my mom concentrating on the salesgirl at lush)

after lush, we had a brunch reservation in the eastern neighborhood of shoreditch, near the liverpool station. we emerged from the tube into this "cool kids" neighborhood (as i called it). an urban but local-feeling brick building area with the understated smell of money and hip uniqueness.

the chosen restaurant was called Saf. it is a vegetarian restaurant specializing in seasonal raw foods. i wanted to try something a little different while in london because of the reputation for horrid british food. this was a perfect fit to that description. the food was fresh, colorful, and flavorful. i wouldnt say it was the best meal ive ever had, but i dont regret it.

we started with a ginger, lavender lemonade (pricey but DELICIOUS!) and then welcomed some gorgeous beetroot ravioli and a trio of tacos. aside from the bitter greens on top of the tacos, nothing we ate tasted like grass (for any raw food skeptics out there). after the main dishes, we shared a dessert of blueberry flapjacks (the title was misleading, they were actually a dense nutty, sweet cake drizzled with blueberries and vanilla sauce. it was a bit too sweet for me).

(mom with her lemonade. yum!; tacos and beetroot ravioli. yum!; the cool "gherkin" building in the financial district)

after lunch we went back to the hotel to check-in and recuperate from the morning walk. we quickly headed back out for more exploring and to take advantage of the glorious weather. one of the major soccer matches in town had just concluded when we boarded the tube so we were crammed amongst a bunch of sweaty british men. they were nice though (and well-behaved for having been fans of the losing team) and they had the best accents. most of them werent from central london with the more muted international accents, no, they had the lovely working class language. :)

so, the tube exit dumped us in the middle of trafalgar square. hoards of people, the best way to start off our pilgrimage around the tourist destinations of central london. we walked to the thames near the hungerford bridge, past the london eye, and the westminster bridge to gawk at big ben and the parliament house. then we walked by westminster abbey to st. james park (kind of a gross overpopulated park if you ask me). exiting the park plopped us right in front of buckingham palace...unimpressed. a boxy, grey slab of a building resting on a drab square. come on...you can do better than that england...

(mum near buckingham palace)

we continued on through greens park, the wellington monument, hyde park (all these huge central city parks were WAY too crowded and ugly for me) and through the marble arch to the tube stop. our feet were deceased, we were sweaty, and i was waiting for the spreading heat of the sunburn to commence (thankfully i didnt get too red today).

later, after we had propped our feet up, we met my friends brother for dinner. michael lives in london, after having gone to an artsy university in scotland, and gets work as "the american" in british tv, movies, and plays (score! you can see him this fall in a guest appearance on Dr Who!). anyway, it was lovely of michael to come out with us. we ate in a typical pub and had the traditional fare: fish n' chips...plus cider (bulmers). with tartar sauce lining our bellies (and weird minty "mushy peas," weird-fine, not weird-bad), we fell asleep ready to do it all over again the next day.

(mum and i at the pub)

24 May 2009

All's well that ends well

started the day in paris, ended in london.

woke up with n&b and we all got ready to head out (them to italy, me to london). we hit our bakery again...fresh, warm croissants and sandwiches for our days journeys (bakery: L'epi d'Or J.M. Leduc on 24 rue daguerre). we then ate our treats at a nearby café to enjoy the rest of our morning together.

by-and-by, a bizarre, yet typical, french woman sat down near us. elderly, totally clad in black, seriously funky cat-eye glasses, and interesting hair. i watched her drink an espresso and crunch croissant flakes all down her front, then order another espresso with a thin, sliced, heavily-buttered baguette...dunking the buttered bread in the coffee as she went about adding her to the pile of crumbs on her chest. strange.

afterward, we checked out of the hotel and bumbled to the métro station to embark on our travels. after ben bent his luggage handle in the subway turnstile...we hugged and took our tunnels in the opposite directions. i then headed up to the gare du nord to catch the eurostar (aka, the chunnel) to london. after standing around like an ass due to poor signage, i had to RUN to catch my train. on the top level of the gare du nord, through an airport check-in type area (electronic ticket reader machine, french border control, british border control, baggage security, and gate check-in lady), i finally came within sight of the tracks...with my train still on it.

there was an ancient couple in front of me afraid to step onto the steep, flat walking escalator. after the man finally shoved their bags on the conveyor belt and bravely jumped on i was left with the terrified wife still staring at the ramp. i offered her my hand and she and i rode the inclined ramp down, her jabbering in french to me the whole time.

anyway, i boarded the train (as one of the last people allowed on) and we started chugging toward the english channel. i visited the food car for the first time in my life...not as glamorous as the movies. its an empty car with a snack bar and a couple of poles and side shelves for leaning on if you happen to be crazy enough to want to eat there. so, got a drink and settled in for the 2 hour train ride.

we arrived in london, i disembarked, and headed for the Tube station area. asked for tube stop information to get to my hotel and forged ahead. i arrived at russell square and then got a bit lost. 15 minutes later i arrived at the hotel, nice and sweaty and ready to locate my mom. it was 2pm and there was mass chaos because it was the hotels check-in time.

i was told it was illegal to be given my mothers room number but that i could call the operator from the lobby and have my call transferred to her room. after one hour and no answer in her room, i asked the front desk if she ever actually checked in. thankfully they could give me this information, yes she had checked in. they tried calling her room again, no answer. i said i needed to get a note delivered that would physically go up to her room so i could better guarantee she had contact from me. they said okay, i filled out the note and waited. and called and waited. i tried so frequently i think the operator got annoyed with me.

then i started freaking out. what if she laid down for a nap and died in her sleep from a blood clot in her legs she got during the flight, what if she tried to take a shower and slipped and fell in the tub and died? all signs pointed to certain death and i became frantic for a plan. by the third hour of waiting (it was now 5pm) i spotted a woman who looked like my mom come out of the hotel and start walking away. i had set up my things in the courtyard in front of the hotel (where i said i would be in my note) and by the time i had packed up my things and ran after the woman she was nowhere to be found. shit. now i was hallucinating. i tried to calm down before i demanded a hotel staffer pound on her door and forcibly enter if need be, that, or call the police to file a missing persons report. while these new plans were formulating in my mind, my mom reappeared, i yelled "susan!" she turned and it was her! bingo!

elation at connecting across the ocean turned to anger (at the hotel) and hunger. we were also now pressed for time because we had theatre tickets at the Royal National Olivier Theater. we quickly changed, ate a shit dinner at the nearby pub, and jumped on the tube down to the waterloo stop. we walked up to the hungerford bridge and along the thames to the theatre.

we entered and rushed up the steps of the theatre to take our seats for the preview week of shakespeares "All's Well That Ends Well" (cuz you gotta see a shakespeare when in london). the play itself felt a bit long, but perhaps thats because we were sleepy. in general though, the production was nice: great costumes, lovely set, a bit of modern ambiance, and some magical style elements.

we rode the tube home and when we pushed open our hotel room door...my handwritten note, from hours before, was sitting on the carpet. good job guys. we also checked the phone...it was dead...nice. somehow the operator couldnt tell that the phone is the room was deceased? you are totally worthless. with no energy left for fighting, we fell asleep on the hotels crappy beds. *note: NEVER stay at the royal national hotel on 38-51 bedford way in london...even if its free!*

22 May 2009

Dia de los paris

in paris with n&b today, we toured the city to the theme of "dead people."

took the 6:35a train from rennes to paris. fun! arrived at n&bs hotel before 9a and we headed out for breakfast. i had to laugh when i found out they had discovered the same bakery dave and i had (we stayed in a hotel very close to the hotel n&b had chosen), the one with the perfect croissants. we loaded up with pastries and sat at a nearby café to plan the day.

we wanted to hit the catacombs, the panthéon, notre dame, and the hotel des invalides. after breakfast, we headed toward the montparnasse cemetery to look for the entrance to the catacombs (thats where i thought it was). after wandering around we found the grave of jean-paul sartre and simone de beauvoir. there were a lot of offerings on their duel gravestone. interesting to see.

then (after asking the cemetery guard) we found the true entrance to the catacombs...half a block from where we had eaten breakfast. by now, the line was around the block (they only let 250 people down there at a time) so we decided to skip it. :(

(n&b near a fountain by the catacomb entrance)

we headed north toward the panthéon. originally a cathedral, it now houses the bodies of many famous french people: marie curie, voltaire, rousseau, victor hugo, etc. the square that the panthéon is located feels like a fancy neighorbood. outside, the panthéon looks a little dull but was it pretty cool on the inside...from what i could see. it costs €8 to get in...sorry, not to see coffins and a cool ceiling. so we stood just inside the entrance to marvel at the architecture. beautiful, graceful, peaceful.

(exquisite ceiling above the outer front entrance to the panthéon)

across the road from the panthéon is the university of paris law school, thought that might be cool so we walked in...ew, kinda dirty. no thanks, went pee and left. we continued down blvd st michel until we crossed the bridge to notre dame. the line wasnt too long so ntina and ben waited to go inside while i sat in the square out front. people watching is fun. there were the gypsies peddling their sob stories, the families deciding what to do next, the totally done up women, the strange europeans with white socks and sandals, and the dapper men in awesome burnt orange pants, striped shirts, well-tailored blazers, and cool european shoes (i actually saw more than one man like this, i wanted to grab them and take a picture; dave you will look like this one day!).

after notre dame, we headed north past the pompidou to find lunch. we ate a simple french lunch at the bistrot victoires (where i ate last time in paris with dave). after lunch we went back to the pompidou because the weather was great. jj had told me you can take an elevator (its just to the left of the main entrance) for free that gives you access to the top floor of the the seven story building. we had a great view of paris with the clear, sunny sky.

(view of sacré coeur. the highest point in paris; n&b in the métro)

next, we took the métro over to the hotel des invalides. this is the old military hospital that is now home to the military museum and the tomb of napoleon. the tomb of napoleon is perfectly garish and over-the-top: lavish gold dome and the interior painted ceilings, golden altar, his tomb that is actually 6 separate coffins (constructed like the wooden russian dolls that fit inside each other). pretty interesting.

then, we headed into the military museum. very weird, dark (literally, not figuratively) museum with military costumes, weapons, paintings, etc. i think youd really have to be a french history/weapons/military buff to appreciate this one. i got my moneys worth seeing the cannons that were outside, for free. but seeing napoleons tomb was worth it. if you can buy a separate ticket for that alone (without the museum), i would suggest it.

(ceiling of the dome above napoleons tomb; painting of napoleon in the military museum. the song "little fat man" from the ricky gervais show, Extras, comes to mind...)

anyway, we were tired from the walking and the baking sun so we retired to the hotel for a rest and to plot our next move. we settled on dinner at the famed brasserie in the 14th arr. called "la coupole." it was the hang out for heavy hitters like hemingway (hung out at the bar) and jean-paul sartre and simone de beauvoir (nightly dancing in the dance hall). and like any good place with a history like that...it was a tourist trap. it had a HUGE dining room that was nicely decorated but the food was overpriced for the taste and the atmosphere was very anti-paris. it wasnt cozy, private, calm, or dimly lit. from our lunch spot to this...was a bit of a dining shock. anyway, as always it was still a fun meal to be among friends.

afterward, we felt like stepping into our pjs and crawling into bed. we chatted for a couple hours and nodded off to slumber town.

21 May 2009

The devils drunkin dance party

what better way to celebrate jesus ascension than with an all-night bender of noisy, drunken debauchery?

tomorrow is thursday, may 21. the day of ascension. the third holiday in may for france. since the holy day lands on a thursday...why dont we just go ahead and throw in friday for free? so, this basically marks the beginning of the carefree summer season (much like memorial day weekend for us in the u.s.). the students have one more holiday (pentecost) and then they finish school in june to say hello to 2 months of summer vacation. its the beginning of the end of life as we know it, in more ways than one.

starting at about 9p, our apartment building became satans brothel and all kinds of partying heated up. louder than any other day of celebration since weve been here, this thing only escalated throughout the night. by midnight, i inserted earplugs as i laid down to sleep. i was awoken to noise piercing through the earplugs at around 2a(?) and i think the celebrations finally started to calm down sometime after 4a? awesome.

20 May 2009

Bon voyage dear friends!

today n&b set off toward paris to continue their vacation (they will also be spending a week in italy).

we met them in the morning for breakfast. afterward, we walked across the street to a little shop that made homemade jams and caramel as fillings for their homemade crêpes. we hadnt bought anything there yet because we dont normally eat too many crêpes if visitors arent here. anyway, n&b hit the jackpot! he had just finished making some homemade salty caramel. they got to buy 4 warm jars of the stuff! cant wait to hear how it tastes. i'll have to stock up for our trip home.

grasping their jars of warm gold, we went to my favorite bakery to get them some sandwiches for the road. after loading up and packing the car, they set off. i get to meet up with them on friday in paris for another day, but dave had to say goodbye for real. it was a mix of emotions. we had had a nice, short but memorable time with them sharing our favorite things in our new town (something we have never gotten to do because weve always lived in michigan and all our friends who come to visit have family nearby or personal experience with the area already). and while we were sad to see them leave, we were happy things went well, leaving the door open for more fun on future vacations. always a good thing! love you guys! thanks a ton for coming!

19 May 2009

A gastronomic day in rennes

today was a recuperate and relaxation day in rennes, which means it turned into a food extravaganza.

dave had to work, so n&b and i went to a nice bakery, picked out some goodies and sat down to enjoy them in a nearby café. because we had nothing else to do, we had a relaxing breakfast in the sun, chatting and being french. i really relished the quiet morning with my friends: being able to talk freely, sit calmy, and be thankful they had traveled so far and seemed to be having as good a time as me.

after breakfast, we wandered the city drooling in all the shops. we tasted honey, sipped olive oil, bought some chocolates, marveled at fancy desserts, peered into the butcher cases, wandered through delis, picked out a mouthwatering pizza as an appetizer for lunch (artichokes, mushrooms, ham, and green olives), acquired some tasty sandwiches, chose some rich desserts and went back to our apartment to regroup for our lunch picnic.

we packed some chilled apple juice (the awesome kind sold at the saturday market), the pizza, sandwiches and desserts and met dave in the thabor park for a picnic. of course it was gorgeous out when we sat down and slowly turned more grey and chilly while we ate but who cares, we were with friends. afterward, we walked around the park and stared at the birds in the aviary. weird little creatures.

after dave headed back to work, n&b and i went to walk off lunch along my little promenade beside the rivers of rennes. we had worked up a bit of a sweat and a thirst, so afterward, we stopped for a drink in the busy place des lices in rennes city centre. i had to work again tonight, so after about 45 minutes, we headed back so they could rest and i could get to school.

after work i met the crew at our standby restaurant, l'iles du mets, for 8p dinner reservations. i had some weird fever/nausea going on at work, so i didnt feel up to eating a full dinner, but i sat for the company and the food ogling. ben and dave were determined to have a complete, authentic french dining experience, from beginning to end...

thus, a true meal was begun: dave ordered a ricard (anise-based liquor) and ben ordered a kir véritable (cider with a tiny bit of cassis liquor for taste) as their apéritifs. the restaurant gave us an amuse-bouche (tiny taster) on toothpicks: pesto-drizzled goat cheese with a baby shrimp and cherry tomato. then the entrées (appetizers) came: for ntina, asparagus with morel mushrooms and a poached egg, for ben, foie gras, and for dave a mixed veggie salad with a slice of amazing ham and a small glass of gazpacho made from puréed peas (delicious! dave had ordered their special festival gourmand menu). a bottle of red wine was chosen for the three to share with their red meat meals. the plats (main dishes) arrived: for ntina and ben, onglet beef (hanger steak) with a caramelized onion sauce and a boat of buttery potatoes, and for dave, sliced lamb with a pressed seasonal veggie cake. daves lamb was the most tender, perfectly seared, slightly crunchy on the outer layer cut of lamb i have ever touched to my tongue (i couldnt resist trying some, even though i wasnt feeling my best. so glad i tried it).

(daves appetizer; bens foie gras)

as usual, dinner was fantastic but not overly huge and filling so there was still room for more! dessert arrived: ntina had créme brûlée, ben had gooey chocolate fudge wrapped in phyllo dough with a tiny cup of vanilla ice cream, and dave had a berry birds nest with cane sugar pop rocks. the pop rocks were a bizarre addition but dave said that it helped create a pleasant reaction in the mouth with the desserts simple ingredients. after dessert, the warm beverage (digestif course) was the final phase of the meal. ben had a coffee and dave had tea.

(daves dessert; bens dessert)

a meal complete. and honestly, with the full course meal and the 2.5 hours it took to eat it, neither dave nor ben felt stuffed, tired, or gross. there is still something mysterious about the relationship between the french and their food. i say this a lot yet it always surprises me. if you can try to mimic their lifestyle, you can truly find tangible evidence that they have found the key to leading a life worth living.