Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2010 Trip Report: Part Deux - France!

After the last post, Michael lectured me on writing LESS, or, at the very least, writing shorter paragraphs. We shall see if I can limit myself to just a few 100 words when waxing poetic about our French portion of the BIG TRIP.
As you can see from the following pics, we were in Paris and captured a few of the ubiquitous sites:

Funnily enough, despite the pictures of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, we actually did not venture in or up either one! The "Paris interlude", at the beginning and the end of our stay in France, was actually quite relaxing for Michael and me. Perhaps because we stayed with friends in a fairly non-touristy part of the city and because we did "normal" activities like grocery shopping, there was a sense of routine and normalcy that I did not expect while in Paris, such a cosmopolitan city! Not that we did NOT go out and see the sites, but since we had visited Paris a few years ago, the sense of urgency to go, do and see everything did not take hold of us.
Rather, we spent most of our time wandering around the streets, relaxing in parks and hanging out with our friends, Brian and Sara. They took the brave and bold step last year to pick up, leave the comfortable life that they had been leading in SoCal and experience living in France for a two-year stint. We actually credit them for this entire trip - if they hadn't been there, we certainly would not have traipsed across the Atlantic for such a long jaunt!
We were not total slackers, however! We spent some time at the gardens of the Rodin Musuem (See below: Michael and Sara are looking confused at the museum guide that I picked up for them to peruse. What, who cares that it's in Spanish?!).

No photo of it, but we did return to the D'Orsay Musuem which displays, as Michael said, "Impressionism's Greatest Hits", and we spent time oohing and aahing and staring silently over Monet's "Water Lilies" at the L'Orangerie Musuem. I think that may have been my favorite place - I could have lost myself in those paintings, they were so beautiful and rich with color.
Inevitably, one of our favorite parts of the experience in Paris was the food! We were a bit tired of eating out after a week on the road in Spain, so we enjoyed cooking IN most nights. Still, we hit three different markets while in France, and I think that I could have gone to a different market every day, had I been able to do so. Sara kindly took us to the President Wilson Market in Paris the Saturday before we returned to the States, and you can see how excited I am below:

Don't most people talk to vegetables?!
It was wonderful to stock up on fruit, vegetables, wonderful herbs, and cheeses at the market. We also loved our frequent trips to the Carrefour, the French "hypermarket", where I could spend hours staring at cheeses and yogurts. Don't even mention the boulangeries! We once bought two loaves that were just *hot* out of the oven. Despite not being extremely hungry, we managed to devour a few mouthfuls just because we couldn't resist. If I had stashed a pound of butter in my backpack, we probably would have eaten the entire baguette! Although some people are drawn to the "pain au chocolate" (a chocolate croissant, basically), I was a huge sucker for the "pain au raisins", which is a pastry with tons of butter and raisins. When we were in Brittany, our friends found a bakery whose pain au raisins must have weighed a pound or two. No fluffy little morsel there!
While in Paris, Brian and Sara let us in on a bit of a secret: the Mouffetard, right by the Pantheon, an area that is lined with every single type of "eatery" that a person can imagine, most of them quite affordable. For our first night out with them, we went for crepes, but then we returned two more times and ate the most amazing wrap from a Lebanese place. I honestly would return to Paris JUST to eat one of those sandwiches!
See how happy Michael looks with that sandwich/wrap?!

Do you want a bite?

Obviously we enjoyed the street food, but we also liked the more "formal" meals, like lunch in Tours, as we waited for the car rental place to open up! I don't think I'd ever eaten my fill of mussels, until this trip.

Once we managed to pick up our car in Tours, we were in business! On the road, ready to explore some chateaus and villages!

The Loire River:

Ussé, or "Sleeping Beauty's Castle" - Sara's daughter referred to the princess as "Sleeping Bleaudy", which we quickly adopted!


The gardens at Villandry - so beautiful!

Sara, again, made all of the arrangements for us. We stayed in a lovely B&B that had been an old, country house, where I was chastised for using a child's bowl for my yogurt. Ah well... We slept and ate quite well there, so how can I complain? After a few days touring chateaus and stopping in a few 'caves' or wineries/wine-tasting rooms and stocking up on sparkling wine, we headed west to Brittany. There, we stayed at the very end of this tiny, tiny peninsula in a town called Quiberon. It was high-tourist season, I suppose, but we were definitely some of the few Americans who ventured there! Brittany was beautiful and impressed us with its wonderful walking paths and dramatic coast, and we spent lazy mornings walking around the village and were up late at night, talking and drinking wine and beer (yes, beer! It's pretty big in Brittany, and our favorite was an ale called "Duchess Anne" which we just called "the Duchess").

I wish that I had a suitable "ending", a conclusion that resonated deeply, a realization about my own life and how I want to live it. I do feel rather envious of Sara and Brian's experience and wish that I were that brave! And, if nothing else comes of the trip, I'd love to return to France and explore more of the countryside. It feels as though we've definitely had our Paris experience and are comfortable in the city, so exploring other parts has a distinct appeal.
I'll have at least one more "entry" for the 2010 trip report, but all of this traveling does remind me how fulfilling and exhausting it is. Not that we suffered any misadventures or mishaps. Not at all! In fact, the most challenging moments were dealing with rental cars and airports. But being foreign and in a place that is alien, makes me appreciate the vitality of traveling.
One final note - I've decided that I REALLY want to learn French. I know a little bit, but being there inspired me un peu, un petit peu, and not only because two different people complimented me on my French whereas only ONE person in Spain complimented me on my Spanish. Most people spoke to me English there, unless we were in the Basque country, where they tolerated my Spanish with a scowl.
Ah, the joys of traveling!

Friday, August 20, 2010

2010 Trip Report I: Spain

So, the 'big' trip! We had a bit of a crazy schedule for a few days, driving to Colorado, flying out of Denver to Heathrow and then to Paris, arriving June 20th. We spent the night in Paris, only to leave at a ridiculously early hour for Madrid. Before leaving Denver, I decided that I needed to have one final taste of Mexican food - chips and salsa!

And now, all about Spain, España, or "la Madre Patría" for true patriots! I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Spanish culture and people, which feels like a dirty confession, seeing that I teach Spanish language and Hispanic literature classes. Still and all, I do enjoy visiting and traveling through the Spanish-speaking world, and see it as a must in terms of personal and professional development. Also, Spain is a country that I've had the good fortune to visit every few years or so. Mexico used to be on that list of "places to visit on a regular basis", but it's now just a wee bit too dangerous, so Michael and I stick to day-trips when we are visiting my parents in South Texas and want to restock our tequila supply.But I digress... Back to España.


Here we are in León, which means "lion" in Spanish, but I learned that it actually comes from the Latin word for "Legionaire". Impressive, no?!

I can't say that I know ALL of Spain well, but I have had the good fortune to travel through some of the different regions. The south, Andalucía, provides the visitor with the stereotypical vision or experience: bullfighting, flamenco, the Moorish influence, olive trees, white-washed pueblos, the Alhambra... In recent years, I've avoided the south and the heat of the south, seeing that I mainly come in the summer, and have traveled more in the northern part. I may have to return to the South soon, however, now that I think about it.

The ubiquitous "jamón serrano", hanging from the ceiling in a bar/café/restaurant. I remember the first time I went to Spain, I was in high school, and the idea of eating it did not appeal to me at all. How times and my tastes have changed! It's always on my list of "What am I looking forward to" when I go to Spain now.

This time around, Michael and I left the planning primarily in the very capable hands of his brother and sister-and-law who live in Spain. Why not depend on experts? This meant that other than the ticket to Madrid, two nights in San Sebastián and the rental car, I had to do almost nothing for our entire Spanish interlude! It was great! I'm almost ready to sign-up for an all-inclusive package to the Caribbean after this experience. Okay, just kidding on that. But it was great because Mónica could tell us about the history of different places and her own experiences and impressions. It was like having a private tour guide!

One more digression: This is/was quite the 'banner year' for Spain in terms of the sporting world. Despite it's shaky economic situation (it's part of the "PIGS" - Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, the weak links in the EU), the country was riding high on it's recent successes. I read about the "triple crown": Nadal´s triumph in Wimbledon, obviously the World Cup victory, and, while we were there, Contador's third Tour de France win. We did not partake in any celebrations, but there was certainly a bit of pride on display, depending on the part of country where one was.

Back to our trip - after picking up our car, finding our way to Michael's brother's apartment in Madrid where we crashed for a few hours (totally jetlagged), we ate lunch and then headed north to the town of Zamora in the region of Castilla-León. Little did we know it, but we had embarked on our "stone tour" - visiting one medieval cathedral after another! From Zamora, we traveled north to León, the capital of the region, obviously! Again, more plazas, winding streets, Roman walls, an impressive cathedral and excellent cheap wine!

From the northern part of Castilla-León, we drove further north, over the mountains and found ourselves in the green wonderland of Asturias, one of the regions that is part of the "Costa Verde" (the Green Coast), all along the Cantabrian Sea. I had visited the north before, so I was aware of the stark contrast it provided with the South. The food, language, landscape and people all differ. Michael kept repeating, "We are NOT in Spain!". No doubt the Basque separatists would agree with him! In Asturias, we poked around small fishing villages, visited more cathedrals and churches, ate some amazing "pulpo a la gallega" (Octopus prepared in olive oil and dashed with paprika - I'm sure that it was not "Paul the Octopus", known in Spain as "Pablo el Pulpo", which has some nice alliteration). We also took in a bit of a Celtic festival, bagpipes and dancing and all, but have no pictures to show for that. And I did not join in the dancing, by the way.

Pics from the Costa Verde:

And then, San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, a city that I'd wanted to visit for AGES! I spent some time in Bilbao a few years ago and loved it, but I failed to make it further east to San Sebastián. At any rate, I finally experienced the elegant, sophisticated beauty of San Sebastián. The Lonely Planet (my go-to guidebook when traveling) describes San Sebastián thus: "This is no Grande Dame either, more a cool, svelt, diva who has seen them all, from belle epoque blue bloods to 21st century international rock stars.
I'm not sure that I had quite the "cool" experience, but we did enjoy San Sebastián and the País Vasco. It definitely felt like a different country! While Castellano (more commonly known as "Spanish") is taught and spoken, all of the signs are in "Euskara" or Basque, which throws k's, t's, and x's all together! While in San Sebastián, we visited the Museo Chillida in the town of Hernani, which, for fun, we pronounced "Her-Nanny" when we were out of ear-shot of anyone who might find it offensive. From there, we drove to Pamplona, walked the route that the bulls run for the festival of San Fermín. Fortunately we missed the festival and the whole "running of the bulls" thing. That is an experience that I never want to have! Not because of the danger, but I cannot imagine the crowds of drunken idiots. We also visited some quaint, random villages in the Basque country.
San Sebastián:

Museo Chillida:

A quaint Basque village:

Finally, on the way back to Madrid, we stopped in Burgos which has the bragging-rights to one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Spain. It WAS quite a site - suddenly open and full of light, at least in comparison to the darker, more Romanesque cathedrals that we had visited in Zamora and León. Apparently "El Cid", Spain's epic hero, is buried there, and we did see a stone in the cathedral marking his grave, but I'm skeptical. If you haven't seen the movie "El Cid", I highly recommend it for a bit of a laugh. Sophie Lauren and Charlton Heston (of course!) star. Finally, back to Madrid after eating our final Spanish lunch - it consisted of chorizo, jamón serrano and queso. Pork and cheese - very fitting!
All in all, an excellent trip! We were excited to head to our next destination: Paris, France!

Hola and Adiós from Burgos! Don't I look like a tourist with my Lonely Planet 2005 guide?!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Re-entry to "reality"!

I consider myself lucky, not only because of my recent trip (reports to follow), but also because I have yet to experience the serious travel/adventure-withdrawal/depression that a few of you mentioned. This isn't to say that I haven't suffered post-trip/vacation blues in the past, but it's a welcome change to not only find myself happy to be home, even though everything is dismally brown and it is blazing hot (to me), but to find myself thriving.
Perhaps this indicates that the trip gave me enough time to rest and relax that I "recharged" my mental and physical batteries? Despite being in plenty of different places over those four weeks, Michael and I did not keep up a break-neck, let's go-go-go, frantic and frenzied pace. There were some days when played the tourism card to the hilt, but other days were a smattering of lazy mornings coupled with a long walk.
I also cannot emphasize enough the relief that one feels when getting out of the car after a hellishly long drive. I don't mind road trips, in fact, I enjoy them, but I loath traffic. Ironic, isn't it, that I live in the Los Angeles area?! I am usually quite attune to traffic and don't mind changing a route to avoid long delays, and a thought did bounce around in the back of mind, wondering about Sunday night traffic coming back to LA from Vegas. "Nah" I told myself. It's summertime, too hot for people to 'weekend' in Vegas. In retrospect, I find such naiveté humorous, but while enduring the mainly stop and sometimes go frustration of traffic, humor was NOT on my mind. What should have been a 3.5 hour drive extended to 7 hours, which meant that a 13 or 14-hour drive in one day turned out to be 17 hours or so. The only thing that saved my sanity (and probably Michael's too because he did not have to listen to me rant and rave) was a trashy book that I could read while stuck in traffic. Thank you, Jeffrey Archer for writing the fictional equivalent of cotton candy! I totally left poor Michael to battle with switching lanes and inching forward while I lost myself in the captivating and inane narrative. That man is a total saint!
Once out of the car - Happiness! Relief! Delight! Exhaustion! We made it home! The best part was that these wonderful little beings greeted us:

I had missed Gus and Milo, aka "the Boys", SO MUCH over the past four weeks! And it was somewhat reassuring to know that they had missed us just a bit too. They sat close all night, and when we eventually went to bed, they slept right outside the room, snoring and yelping a bit as they dreamed (I love it when they dream - I always wonder if they actually get to CATCH squirrels in their dreams instead of merely chasing them). The only unfortunate part of the touching story of our reunion is that they gained some serious poundage in our absence. Gus, the lab-beagle mix, in particular. He can now be described as that three-letter word: F A T.
And finally, easing back into the swing of things has helped, going into the office to take care of some paperwork and helping out with a college essay-writing seminar. I consider myself to be fairly unqualified to advise students about the college process and writing the personal essay, but I must say that I enjoyed the experience of working with the students. It was a nice 're-introduction', being with colleagues and students and discussing the writing process, but not jumping back with the intensity that characterizes the official start to the year.
Now, if only that official start will be as forgiving as the return to my current reality! We shall see...

Friday, August 13, 2010

The "World Traveller" is almost home!

To me, the term "world traveller" evokes a cosmopolitan and intrepid individual, and I don't quite attribute either of these adjectives to myself. I think of people in the early decades of the 20th Century with huge trunks as they undertake an epic trip across the world, or of an Edmund Hillary-type-adventurer, ready to explore "unknown" lands in a continent further away than the European one. However, according to my British Airlines boarding pass, I can consider myself to be a European AND a World traveler. Woo-hoo!
While the more exciting leg of the trip has ended, I am not quite home, sweet home. Still, I have had enough time back in the States to recover from jetlag but find that the Colorado altitude continues to drag me down a bit. Ah well, I will be back to sea level quite soon! After four weeks away from the comforts of home and the joy of being with our dogs, I am rather anxious to return.
Still, this is a quick update about my almost-epic trip which I can easily sum up in one word: FABULOUS, as my good friend in Paris would say. Or, if I want to use a phrase, I think that I would go so far as to say: Maybe, just maybe, the best trip EVER.
It definitely fits the description of a "trip" and NOT a "vacation", but we did balance good family/friend time, tourist-y sites, long and short walks, excellent food and some major naps.
A few highlights that come to mind:
- Spending time in Northwest Spain, particularly in the "Costa Verde" (Green Coast), the area composed of the regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the País Vasco. Michael kept repeating, "We are NOT in Spain", feeling a bit like Dorothy and her Kansas vs. Oz experience, except that we were in Spain, just not the stereotypical vision of it. Seriously, we found ourselves in the midst of an international Celtic festival in Spain!
- Paris, Paris and more Paris.
- The markets in France and the abundance of cheese, bread, fruit and other tasty items and treats.
- The rolling hills, winding roads, castles and the wine caves of the Loire valley, a place that I've always wanted to visit and finally have!
- The Brittnay coast and its amazing scenery, crepes, pain au raisins, and mussels. Plus, the menhirs! So cool!
- Staying up far too late as we ate, drank and conversed!

More to come...