Monday, May 11, 2009

Day of a million things

Just as a quick brain-dump/stress relief/mental break, here's a list of the 100 million things going on in the next 24 hours

#1 - Need to finish cleaning the greasiest kitchen in England. Seriously, how does that much grease get everywhere when I don't fry anything?

#2 - Just got confirmation that I have been accepted to the Masters of Science in Marine Environmental Management Program at the University of York this fall.

#3 - DH and I are "celebrating" our 8th wedding anniversary. "Celebrating" is in quotes because really, there's nothing special that we're doing, mostly because...

#4 - DH's and my octogenarian grandmothers are arriving from the States tomorrow morning for a two-week visit. These prospect of entertaining these gray hairs is rapidly giving me many many more of my own.

#5 - I am stressed out about everything, and there's no gin or tonic or limes in the house to take the edge off. I've not been myself for the last few days as the stress-levels have reached stratospheric heights, and I just feel like life is on hold until the grammas are packed up on their way back to the States.

On top of that, DH and I would like to start house-hunting for somewhere new to live, and I just simply don't have the time to do it right now. Then there's the stress of packing and moving and etc etc etc.

Please, if you see me babbling some incomprehensible jibberish and drooling out of the side of my mouth during the month of May, please hand me a Xanax or a G&T to get me back to my senses.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Things I am happy about...

I find that when I'm not talking about the latest travel destination we've visited, most of my blogposts since I've arrived in England are about the things that make me unhappy: the weather, the boredom, the idiosyncrasies that I know are cherished by the English but annoying to this American.

That's a one-way road to depression-ville, though. So I thought I would purposefully sit down and focus on the things that I am happy about - even as the wind howls outside, I have bathtowels drying on the line outside and I know they'll be as stiff as boards when I bring them in, and there are no current plans on our horizon that involve me spending time in a warm climate.

#1 - We have no children. This sounds like an odd thing to be happy about, but seriously, I couldn't be happier. For every status update on FB that is something positive about parenthood, there are ten others that bewail some other stress, drama, problem, or frustration. I know it's not a very scientific way of understanding parenthood, but I think my bliss will be in ignorance on this particular subject.

#2 - We are financially stable. This is probably directly connected to #1, but I also chalk this up to the choices that DH and I make about our lives. Living beneath our means, keeping focused on our long-term goals and having clear priorities about what we value now are all key for us. But mainly it has been because DH has a good, stable job that he enjoys and even though I'm not working at the moment, when I was working it was also in a good, stable job that I (mostly) enjoyed. Is luck involved? If so, is it lots of luck, or just a little? Who knows - I hate to give too much credit to luck when it denigrates the very real choices and work we do to be in our position, but I also realize that circumstances beyond our control contributed to where we are now. Particularly during these times when so many are struggling, this bit is something I'm especially thankful for.

#3 - We have a positive marriage. Again, this is greatly influenced by #1 and #2, but I have been in enough relationships to know I have much to be thankful for in this respect. DH and I have similar values, similar life goals, and while our relationship is far from perfect (who's is, and what is relationship perfection anyway?) at the end of the day (or sometimes, the next morning) we contribute more to each other's life than we take from it.

#4 - I love my car. This sounds so shallow and minor, but it really represents something bigger. Everyone needs something that brings them utter and complete joy without strings, without complications, without drama, without trying. For me, that's my car. It represents the first BIG THING I ever bought for myself that was purely for me, that was exactly what I wanted, and it has never let me down. I can be in the worst mood in the world, but I get into that car and that black cloud evaporates immediately.

#5 - I have my health. I may not be in the best shape of my life, but I think my health is one of the most precious things I have. This is another one of those bit o' luck, bit o' personal responsibility things (don't smoke, don't drink to excess regularly, don't overeat but also have good genes and good fortune on my side). This is definitely one of those areas that could turn in an instant, but for now, I'll be happy about it.

Five things is a pretty good list I think. Some of them are in my control, some of them aren't. But right here, right now, as my two kitties sleep peacefully in the back room, DH is on his way home from work early, and a weekend full of work is in my cards, I can sit back and look at these five things and find a little internal sunshine to counter the dark clouds out the window.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Brilliant Barcelona

DH and I are back from a 3 day, 3 night trip to lovely Barcelona. It's the perfect short trip city - it has enough sights to keep you entertained, but not so many and not so "important" that you feel guilt if you don't hit them all. It has great food - in fact, I really consider it a foodie paradise. It's compact and walkable, with easy and cheap public transportation when you want to get somewhere fast or your feet are aching a little. It's gorgeous - everywhere you look there's another something that catches your eye and makes you sit and stare.

We arrived at about 7pm Saturday night, checked into our hotel, and then headed out to Paco Meralgo for what was easily the best meal of the trip. Two bottles of wine (including a lovely spanish Chardonnay) and 12 plates of tapas later and we were full and happy. All for 25 euros per head, which I consider to be incredible value. One of our friends (we were traveling with three girlfriends from Harrogate) was a salsa dancer, so we hit the Mojito Club so she could dance the night away. We got to the club about 1130 and it was dead empty! However, by the time we left the club around 130am (when they changed from salsa music to reggaeton, we could barely get out the door. It was a good night, and we slept like rocks that night.

The next morning we got up bright and early (1000am) to the sounds of thunder and lightning! It was pouring rain, like a mid-summer storm. The storm ended, but the clouds never left us, so we set out to Mauri (a gourmet pastry shop) for a croissants and coffee breakfast before making our way down to the Gothic neighborhood to visit the Picasso museum. This museum focuses very heavily on his early work, when it's clear that he's a skilled, but otherwise unremarkable artist. The number of works start to thin as one progresses through his life (the museum is organized chronologically) but they also improve in their imagination and uniqueness. You can see the dramatic change in his style and expressiveness once he gets to his Paris phase - although there are hints of it in earlier periods. Finally, you see a dozen or so works from his blue period, and a room or two full of his cubist period (with a strong collection of his studies of Velazquez's Las Meninas. I had been previously "warned" that the museum was heavily tilted towards his unremarkable pre-Paris works, but all in all I thought that the presentation and the chronological arrangement did a strong job in showing his personal and artistic development.

After visiting the museum, we headed out for a tapas lunch and lazed around the Parc de la Ciutadella for a while. We then made our way to Barceloneta, the fishing village cum trendy neighborhood. The marina was FULL of sailboats, and despite the gray weather and spitting rain, we stopped on the beach and dipped our toes in the water. That night we made our way back to Eixample, where our hotels were, for a truly dreadful dinner at "Obamas" - a British-African theme spot, before hitting the sack.

Monday brought bright blue skies and sunshine - the perfect day for a little modernisme! After another lovely pastry and coffee breakfast at Mauri (where DH descovered the Snecken Brezal - a pretzel-shaped pastry that was divine!) we sauntered down the Passeig de Gracia admiring the myriad modernisme buildings that line the street. I really wanted to tour Casa Battlo, but the 16.50 euro price tag seemed quite steep. So we popped into Casa Amatller's gift shop, where amazingly I bought myself a necklace and earrings. We walked along to see Casa Mila (La Perdrera), then set out for the Sagrada Familia.

What can I say about the Sagrada Familia. It is one of the most unique, beautiful, stunning, impressive examples of modern architecture I've ever seen - and it's not even done yet! I could easily have spent an entire day exploring the facades and towers. We had gorgeous weather, which made the pictures all the prettier, but it was just an incredible place to visit.

After spending 3 hours at Sagrada Familia (and believe me, I could have spent twice that!) we made our way up to Park Guell high above the main city center to enjoy a little picnic lunch/dinner. It was quite crowded with tour groups, but nevertheless we found ourselves a nice spot on the mosaic-tiled benches and enjoyed the view. We took some lovely photos of the architecture of the park and strolled back down the hill to catch the Metro back into town. Dinner that night was at Taller de Tapas, which wasn't bad, but no where near the same league as Paco Meralgo.

Our final day began the same as our first - pastry and coffee at Mauri. We then strolled down the Passeig de Gracia to the Placa Catalunya, then down the (in)famous La Rambla. It has the reputation as being a tourist and pickpocket mecca, but in reality it's a kinda cheesy, tree-lined street with lots of street performers and tourist eateries overcharging for mediocre food. Our main reason for this stroll was to visit the Mercat St Josep - otherwise known as La Boqueria. What a feast for the eyes - what a feast for all your senses! The displays of food were magnificent! We spent about an hour or so just strolling around all the stalls, looking at the beautiful displays of fruits and vegetables, meats, seafood, eggs, cheeses, olives, spices, nuts, candies, etc. It was heaven. I was so sad that we had eaten only an hour previously, because there's nothing I would have rather done than to have eaten my way through that market.

We left the Boqueria reeling, trying to get a little fresh air and sunshine by strolling over to the Barcelona cathedral. It was nice, but really, having been through the Italian cathedrals, I just wasn't that in to it. Plus, it was being heavily restored, so that detracted from it quite a bit. We sat for a while, a bad decision since I ended up getting pooped on by a pigeon. Afterwards, we popped by Palau Guell for our last little dose of modernisme, returned to the Boqueria to grab some lunch essentials (a baguette, some chorizo, 1/2 pound of manchengo cheese, 1/4 pound of olives, and 1 pound of strawberries for less than 10 euro!) and then sat in the sunshine back at the cathedral and enjoyed a delicious lunch.

We ended our time in Barcelona by walking the rest of the way down La Rambla to see the monument to Christopher Columbus, and then watching the fishing boats return to the harbor before hopping into a taxi and returning to the airport.

We took over 600 pictures on this short trip, which you can see here, here, and here. You don't need a Facebook account to view them.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Long time no post... again

Wow, it's been a seriously long time since I've last updated my blog. Facebook is certainly taken over this little blogs role in my life, except I find myself reliving my life as status updates and photos rather than a personal retelling of what's going on. I'll try and rectify that with a little post here.

Since my last post, I've gone to London and visited with two friends I met in Italy in 2004, I've done a 10 mile hike up a steep hill in the cold, wind, fog, and rain, I've visited two ruined abbeys (thanks to Henry VIII for those), a quaint seaside town, and driven my beloved Bug several times with the top down. I found our second trip to London a little anti-climactic, the hike more difficult than I anticipated, the seaside town almost identical to American seaside towns, except replace your pizza joints with fish-n-chips spots, and the ruins of abbeys to be haunting and cool.

On a more daily basis, I guess one would say I'm surviving, but not thriving. Oh I love the travel opportunities and have built a small social life, don't get me wrong. I just don't feel I have any purpose here. Hopefully things will be more personally fulfilling when I start another Masters degree program this fall, but until then I'll just concentrate on all the little things that need doing. My grandmother and DH's grandmother are coming to visit us for two weeks in May, and that's going to require
a considerable amount of preparation and planning. DH and I would also like to move to a different house this summer when our lease for this place is up - so there's house hunting and moving plans to make.

Still, when DH and I talk about going "home" it's something that I am keenly looking forward to, even though I don't think we quite know where "home" is. We'll have had strangers living in our DC house for at least two years, probably not caring for it as if it were their own. It's going to be so strange to return to that house - if we even do - knowing that others were washing their dishes in our dishwasher, showering in our bathroom, and letting their dog poo on our lawn (hopefully that's the only place it goes!). We've long talked about selling the house anyway; it's really too big for the two of us. So, in some ways, I don't feel like I have a "home" in DC to return to.

By the same token, I don't feel like Harrogate is "home." It is a temporary situation, and mentally I can't think of it any other way but temporary, which probably makes life more difficult and easier to deal with at the same time. Again, things may (hopefully will) change when I start school in the fall, but I just don't have any personal investment - emotional or otherwise - in our life here. It's an extended vacation from our "real life."

A lot of people struggle being expats because of how "different" things are (early shop closing hours, social structures, daily routines, etc). I find that element of living abroad quite easy to deal with. It's more the difference in my role - or rather the absence of a "role" - that I'm struggling with. People throw suggestions like "volunteer" or "get a job", and I've certainly looked around to try and get into those types of activities. But again, it's a question of personal investment. Back in the States I was very invested in my career, and found where I thought I was heading very personally and professionally fulfilling. There's simply nothing comparable open to me here; the exception being this degree program I'm going to pursue.

Is it possible to temporarily redefine oneself? Temporarily excuse yourself from where you really want to go in order to find another path to happiness, knowing all the while you fully intend to return to your original path? With the clock ticking all the time (two years and two months) down to when we plan to return, it's a difficult mental exercise to perform.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

St Patrick's Day / Weekend in Dublin

There comes a point in most everyone's lives when they realize that they are no longer "young." It doesn't necessarily mean that they are "old," or that they will not inevitably revert back to being "young" on the odd occasion, but what does happen is that the lens through which certain events are viewed is irrevocably changed.

I am no longer young.

DH and I spent St Patrick's Day in Dublin, which sounds to most people like an absolute dream. I'm going to assume that it is only because most people have not been to Dublin on St Patrick's Day. The analogies I've heard/made are that is it basically an Irish Mardi Gras, or an international Frat party, and both of those are apt. I think that the thing that disappointed me most of all is that people think that they'd like to be in Dublin because of the intrinsic Irishness of the holiday, and that being in Dublin would somehow bring that to the fore. But in reality, at least from what I saw, Irishness is reduced to an unflattering caricature drawn by the non-Irish, and being in Dublin for St Patrick's Day is no different than being anywhere else in the world, and indeed perhaps even worse for the expectations.

I found Dublin to be a really tough city to figure out. There are some things that we really, really loved. The parks are gorgeous and inviting and the people are quite friendly. And maybe because it was St Patrick's Day, or maybe not, I just couldn't figure out what Dublin was about. The city reflects this kind of uncertainty about its identity, I think. There are vacant lots and ancient hovels and tenements standing next to gorgeous new modern glass and steel buildings, as if they were trying to build a new identity that overshadowed the old without really dealing with the past.

DH and I arrived on Saturday and had a low-key kind of day, meeting up with some friends who were already in the city for a short while, walking around a couple of parks and whatnot, just trying to soak in the atmosphere and get a little oriented. That night, the hotel's bar turned into a nightclub open until 3am, which basically prevented me from falling asleep until 330am. Not a happy camper. We ended up changing hotels in the end.

Sunday we did our major "sightseeing," making our way to the Guinness factory, Kilmainham Gaol, St Patricks and Christ Churches, etc. It was Sunday that we started realizing how weird Dublin is... the Guinness tour was self guided, flashy and basically interesting, but still felt a little haphazard and thrown together, like they ran out of information but still had a couple of floors on the building to fill. The Gaol too, was poorly organized for tourists, with tours that filled quickly and seemingly no way to pre-book the (required) guided tour in advance, which forced folks to go WAY out of their way twice (once to book the tour, and once to take it). Our guide was earnest, but the information ended up being muddled, the history and significance of the place in the end was not clear. Is it a symbol of British repression? Does it memorialize the martyrdom of those who fought for an independent republic?

In a way, it's funny that Monday was, for me, all about finding out my identity, in a city that seemed not to know itself. I visited the National Archives to find the only surviving census documents recording my maternal grandmother's father's family presence in Northern Ireland and I visited the General Registry Office to get copies of the registers of my great-grandfather's birth and his parents' marriage. It was an interesting exercise, to say the least, and definitely has me wanting to learn more.

Tuesday, St Patrick's Day, was the most ridiculous day of them all. DH and I stood for nearly 4 hours to wait and watch the St Patrick's Day parade, which was without a doubt the most bizarre display I've ever seen. Again, like I felt most of the weekend, I was left thinking "I don't get it." We visited Christ Church, a mish-mosh of time periods encapsulated in this single space (from Viking-era crpyts, medieval tombs, Dark ages architecture and 16th and 19th century renovations). We ate lunch in St Stephens Green, surrounded by those too young to get into pubs and families with young children (everyone else, we presume, was in a pub drinking). That night we did venture into the Temple Bar district (think Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras) and carefully stepped our way around broken glass, urine, and vomit to a pub for a pint, and then to a traditional Irish restaurant for dinner.

The whole experience was truly mind-boggling, and I think that if I lived in Dublin, I'd high-tail it out of town during St Patrick's Day. From what we could see on the news and in a couple of small circulars around, there were serious Irish cultural events going on as part of the celebration, but those were utterly and completely drowned out by the drunken frat boy mayhem that visitors brought with them. The presence of so many foreigners, there for seemingly the singular purpose of getting as drunk as possible, makes it really tough for me to figure out what Dublin might be like without them. I'd like to find out, but I wonder if the Dubliners themselves aren't even sure.

Pictures are here and here, and you don't need to have a Facebook account to view them.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Love your cat(s)/dog(s) a little bit extra today

My dear friend CCHarmony had to put her beloved Pepper to sleep last night. Pepper was a good dog - 15 years old! - and had been suffering from kidney disease for just about a year.

I'm devastated for her, because I can only imagine how sad it must be to put down a pet. So today, in memory of Pepper, my kitties are getting extra doses of love and hugs.

They, however, are not really that into it.

Eliza getting her extra dose of love... and desperate to get away from it!

Henry getting his extra dose of love... and just barely tolerating it.

So give your furry friend a little love today in memory of Pepper!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Americans in Paris... in photos!

Links to our photos from Paris are:

Here and

You do not need a Facebook account to view these photos.

Americans in Paris... Day 3 Recap

Ugh. Another morning, another late-ish start. We had an imposing schedule planned - Notre Dame, Saint Chappelle, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. We only ended up doing two of those things in the end.

We set out on foot in the direction of Notre Dame. This may have been one of our big mistakes, in retrospect. Looking at a map, things look fairly close together and you think you'll be stopping at a cafe or a boulangerie for some coffee and croissants so the walk should be no big deal. Well, when it's spritzing rain and you feel like you can't find a cafe or bakery to save your life, it's a very, very long walk indeed. we did find a little cafe around the corner from the National Assembly where we had a nice coffee, and did find a bakery with some croissants and pain au chocolat, but it just never felt as easy as it should have been. I don't know how to describe it and maybe we had bad luck by happening to walk on one street versus another (even though we tried to pop up or down a block or two when we seemed to be in a deserted area), but it was just a frustrating pain in the butt and it always seemed to happen to us.

Anyway, we made it to Notre Dame, passing a long, long line to get into Saint Chappelle (so we passed on it entirely) along the way. We toured the inside of Notre Dame, but again, the line to get up into the towers was long, and we just didn't have the spirit to deal with it in the mucky weather and spritzing rain, and with the specter of visiting the Louvre still ahead of us. So we passed.

We trudged over to the Lourve, searching for a crepe stand somewhere along the way. Again, it was one of those things that I just expected to be there... and we were walking along the Rue de Rivoli, a fairly major shopping road. We found one crepe stand, but the little hot plate wasn't working, so that was a bust. Finally, about five minutes later, we happened upon another little crepe stand and ordered two ham and cheese crepes for ourselves. Those things sat in our stomach like blocks of lead for the next couple of hours, but they gave us enough energy to get through the Louvre.

The Louvre. What can one say about it. It's immense. Imposing. Simultaneously crowded and abandoned, depending on which room you are in. We thought we were being ruthless with our itinerary - only visiting the Greek and Roman sculptures and the Italian renaissance art, but even that proved to be utterly exhausting. We did see the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, but in the end they were completely underwhelming. And because the Louvre was so insanely huge, even the stuff that I do love (Botticellis and Lippis and Titians and Canovas and Michelanglos) just wasn't that enjoyable.

Mentally, I was comparing the Louvre to the British Museum and National Gallery in London and the Uffizzi in Florence. In my opinion, the British Museum was much better organized with respect to it's Egyptian, Greek, and Roman collections. It didn't seem as scattered and seemed to tell a story rather than just showing off what they had. Same with the National Gallery's collection of Italian Renaissance art - the rooms were smaller, allowing you to spend time with some of the paintings and really get into them, rather than feeling like you had to see everything at once. Likewise with the Uffizzi. Again, there is no shortage of amazing famous art there - but again, the rooms are smaller, attendance is tightly controlled, and I feel like you can enjoy the art rather than being shuttled quickly by it. The Louvre, to me, feels organized in such a way to keep folks moving through the huge rooms. I know that there is an entire science behind museum collections and displays, and I wonder if this comes into play with the Louvre since it is such an immense space and huge tourist destination.

Also, the Venus de Milo is not that hot. :)

Anyway, we finally escaped the madness of the Louvre, feeling like we had seen too much to process and nothing at all. We refueled with an eclair and pain au chocolat from a pastry shop, and then made our way back to the apartment for another rest before dinner. After the days events, and again with the dismal weather, we were just feeling very blah about Paris.

The evening's events redeemed Paris for us, just a little though. Dinner that night was at Au Bon Accueil, quite literally in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. We were seated next to another American couple, the ambiance was very modern romantic, and the service and food were on par with our first night's experience. My starter was octopus in a ceviche style with a tomato-like salsa. Simply out of this world. There was a lot of acid to flavor the unique texture of the octopus, and I do not think that I've ever tasted anything better. If we had stayed another night, I would have returned for the octopus alone. It was excellent. DH had a simple salad dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette, Parmigano Reggiano, and walnuts. Yummy. For dinner, I had grilled sea bream (think trout) on fennel with a side of potato puree, and DH had an incredible sirloin steak with a roasted potato pancake. DH's steak was a revelation - perfectly, perfectly cooked, and with the first bite, you expected the nice tender taste of meat (which there was) but then there was this tasty caramelized crust that took a good steak and made it transcendent. Yum, yum, yum.

For dessert we both had a molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, lovely perfection. Our neighboring Americans had had the same dish (my question about it had led to us striking up a conversation throughout the rest of our dinner). All in all, our experience at dinner went a long way in redeeming our time in Paris, but the best was yet to come.

I had wanted to see the Eiffel Tower "sparkling" the entire time we were in Paris, but we never seemed to catch it, leading me to believe that the "sparkling" was just a part of the display celebrating France's presidency of the EU, which had ended a little while ago. On our walk back to the apartment that night, I caught a glimpse of the flashing reflection of the Eiffel tower in the windows the buildings lining the street. DH and I ran about 3 blocks over to the park next to the Eiffel Tower and watched the sparkling lights for nearly five minutes until they ended. We got some pictures (which I am sure won't turn out in the end) but it just seemed like the perfect ending to a much better night. We walked back to the apartment, packed up our things for our morning flight back to England the next morning, and fell dead into bed from exhaustion.

Americans in Paris... Day 2 Recap

Sunday in Paris.. not much to do other than sightsee. We dragged our butts out of bed quite late Sunday morning and started going towards the Musee d'Orsay. Along the way we stopped and grabbed a couple of croissants and two cafe au laits for breakfast (although at that point it was more like a very early lunch!).

The Musee d'Orsay was a nice visit. I'm a huge fan of the Impressionists - particularly Monet and Renoir. The collection was very good, crowds were manageable, and we got to see most everything we wanted. The museum building itself was stunning. An old railway station, the openness of the central area made it feel very airy and light. All in all, I'm glad we went, but I don't think I'd visit again. I'd probably try and hit some of the smaller collections (like the one at the Orangerie, which has a huge number of Monets) next time.

After d'Orsay we set out to visit the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee. We were also starving, and desperately looking for a small boulangerie or something that had sandwiches, or even a crepe stand. For a city that boasts that there is a bakery, a pastry shop, a cheese shop, and a cafe on every block, we had a nearly impossible time finding anything open on that Sunday. We were forced to grab a sandwich at one of the tourist traps on the Champs itself, which wasn't bad, but wasn't really great either, but at that point we had burned so many calories walking we had to make them up somehow. It was spitting rain and quite overcast, which really cast a pall on the whole day. We finally made it to the Arc de Triomphe and were shocked to see it cost more to access the top than to visit the Musee d'Orsay. We did the tourist thing... climbing to the top to overlook the Champs and all the traffic in the Place de Charles de Gaulle Etoile below us. Our view over the city was really marred by the weather; Sacre Couer was barely visible in the distance. We climbed down and made our way back to our apartment for a much needed rest before heading out to what turned out to be the most disappointing meal of our trip.

That night we ate at La Fontaine de Mars - steps away from Cafe Constant where we had had such a good meal the night before, and recommended as a good Sunday night choice by several travel boards. Unfortunately, it wasn't our cup of tea. Our waiter seemed to be that famous Parisian waiter of lore, dismissive and snooty and barely there. We were handed English menus without a question, and the service felt more American (was he trying to flip the table?) than French. The two highlights were DH's starter - an absolutely lovely langostine bisque - and the bottle of Sancerre I ordered after being introduced to the yummy white the night before. Even these two highlights were diminished by the waiter bringing us the wrong bottle of wine at first ("whoops!" he said after I said "Sancerre?" as he was tearing the foil away from the cork. He disappeared for 10 minutes before reappearing with the correct bottle, and then he never refilled my glass despite the fact that it was being kept in an ice bucket) and then, even worse in my opinion, forgetting to bring DH a spoon with which to enjoy his bisque. I actually had to flag down another waiter after waiting for 5 minutes to get DH his spoon. Really it's unforgivable to forget that kind of thing.

For dinner I ordered one of the daily specials - a cassoulet (French white bean stew), and DH ordered the chicken with morels in a cream sauce. My cassoulet was just alright; the flavors were really muddled, the texture of some of the contents wasn't really nice, and all in all it just wasn't a success. DH's said that even though the morels and cream sauce were good, the chicken was dry and a little overcooked. Shocking! So, feeling pretty disappointed with both the service and the food, we opted to skip dessert and get the heck out of there. To be fair, the service wasn't universally abysmal there - we watched as one of our waiter's colleagues politely helped a Russian? couple at the next table understand the menu and the day's specials (our waiter - their's as well - had left the English chalkboard with the daily specials at their table saying "here's the English version" and walked away). Anyway, we were pretty bummed, especially since that meal ended up being the most expensive of our short vacation.

We stumbled home again, pretty disillusioned with Paris in general after that second day, to again wait out some noisy neighbors behind paper thin walls before falling asleep.

Americans in Paris... Day 1 Recap

DH and I spent a long weekend in Paris, filled with walking, food highlights and lowlights, and lots and lots of butter.

Day 1:

We arrived via Jet2 at Terminal 3 at Charles de Gaulle airport. We were staying in an apartment one street over from the Rue Cler, so we called the rental agent from the airport to let her know we were in Paris. To make a long, fiasco-filled story short, we got to the apartment and there was no one there to meet us. After frantically calling and texting the rental agent for 10 minutes, the people I suspect were the "cleaners" came down and let us in. Apparently whoever was supposed to have met us was in some kind of accident (although it couldn't have been too serious since we got a hold of the agent about 30 minutes later). There was much drama and misunderstanding (the cleaners spoke very, very little English, and we spoke no French and very, very little Russian) but we finally got things settled.

We walked to the Eiffel tower, stopping at a little boulangerie/patisserie to pick up an outstandingly delicious onion quiche and a fairly pedestrian apple tart to eat in the park under the Eiffel. We took some pictures, then walked along the Seine for a while, took a chilly boat ride at sunset (which was not visible, since there were heavy dark clouds in the sky the whole weekend) and saw the Eiffel Tower light up for the night.

Without a doubt the highlight of Day 1 was dinner. In what I'm chalking up to intervention by a supreme being, DH and I walked into a fairly popular restaurant (Cafe Constant) a couple of blocks from our apartment at 8:00 and we able to score the last table available that night. Seriously, there was another couple studying the menu outside we passed while entering the restaurant, and when they walked in two minutes after we did, they were told the restaurant was full for the night. Two more groups walked in and were told the same in the following 5 minutes.

DH and I had done lots of mental preparation for eating out in Paris. All the guidebooks and online travel websites tell you that eating out is a religion in Paris, which lots of social codes and such. We wanted to try and fit in (or at least not draw undue attention to ourselves) as much as possible. We read the chalkboard menu all in French (no "menus" here... just chalkboards with the day's offerings) and used our little French phrasebook's menu decoder to try and figure out what everything was. We sorted out what we wanted, ordered in French, and when our waiter said something to us in English (can't remember the circumstance - maybe when we asked for wine) I realized that he had an impeccable unmistakably American accent. I asked him where he was from, and lo and behold he was from NYC (Queens, no less!). Moreover, when the Japanese couple sitting next to us asked if there was a menu in English, our waiter produced an English version of the menu that he himself had translated. DH and I just looked at each other and laughed and laughed... all that effort to try and assimilate, and we had a NYC waiter. It was gratifying, though, to know that we did a pretty darn good job figuring out what everything was from the original French.

Anyway, on to the meal. This was one of the best meals I've eaten in my life, no doubt about it. To start DH and I both had lobster ravioli in a bisque-like sauce. There are no words to describe how wonderful this tasted... the sauce was like velvet, the lobster was sweet and perfectly cooked, and it was the perfect-sized portion. Dinner for me was a lovely cooked filet of sea bass (not Chilean!) on a garlic-potato puree. Absolutely scrumptious! The only complaint I might be so bold as to offer is that the portion size was a little big. There were three filet "chunks", so to speak, and I had palate fatigue after eating two of them. DH had an interesting shrimp dish where the shrimp were lightly "breaded" and fried in what appeared to be a flaky filo dough. Underneath the shrimp were these little roasted potato "coins" that were divine. For dessert, I had a lovely, light Creme Caramel and DH had the richest chocolate I think we've ever tasted. Called "Quenelles Chocolat" or chocolate dumplings, they were these little, solid, egg-shaped milk chocolate "dumplings" that were swimming in a custard-like sauce. They were so rich he could only eat one, and after three bits I was similarly unable to eat any more. But they were incredibly delicious. We had a carafe of wonderful Sancerre white wine (nice and dry, very good with all the rich food we had) and perfect service. Needless to say, it really was a great dining experience. The same chef owns four other restaurants on the same street, and if we return to Paris, we'll absolutely be eating at one of them.

We stumbled home on our sore feet and fell into bed... waiting for the noise of the neighbors to die down behind the paper thin walls of the apartment before we finally we able to get to sleep...