Tag Archives: travel

New Orleans: That Which Cannot Be Named

IMG_1017In my head, New Orleans is wide streets under balconies full of Spanish moss, with 24-hour jazz funerals parading down the street.

This is slightly true. My friend Carly and I spent our Thanksgiving  in the Marigny, four blocks up Frenchman street from piles of jazz bars and the cry of street-band trumpets. New Orleans also has economically disparate neighborhoods, no laws against open containers, and a transient-friendly climate. You can sense that something is not quite settled under the town’s skin. But you can also sense that it’s cultural quicksand–it could suck you in for good.

We met people who had only left New Orleans for one month in their 50 years, and transplants from Texas, Seattle, Chicago. Musicians, glass blowers, baristas, bartenders, and shopkeepers. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed in Baltimore as well. What makes a city addictive? It’s hard to pin it down but …

It’s a Big Easy legend that every citizen grows up playing an instrument. Frenchman street featured a full jazz band that, if seen in Baltimore, people would make “The Wire” jokes about. Dancing in the road creates joy.

New Orleans has 300 years of history so diverse that almost any American can feel a connection. The roots are deep, and the feeling of being a part of something seeps into the air.

IMG_9228Signs of life.
Coming from the north, the packs of purple, orange, and yellow houses look like they’re smiling at you. A jeweler told me 100 percent humidity means people chill. People seem to be whom they want to be, whatever they are.

Every skycap in the airport had on a Saints jersey. A woman who sold me a wooden wine stopper was wearing two-inch tall Saints player earrings. If you live here, you’re on the team. Baltimore gets this drift, too.

IMG_1072Because you have to.
Probably because of Katrina, New Orleans still feels like an underdog. There’s no facade hiding this, and an underdog with tradition and life is irresistible.

The Travel Buddy Checklist

3499_10100229988228615_847782171_nIt’s a new year! New resolutions, new to-do lists, and twelve whole months full of open calendar just begging to be filled.

Being back in the motherland means I have many more people to visit, and old friends who could be new options for travel buddies. This could be a real blast… or it could end in near fisticuffs when we find out that we are completely, utterly unsuited for bus-hopping and sightseeing together.

Enter, stage left, the Travel Buddy Survey.

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The USA Like I’ve Never Seen it Before

“It’s so surreal! I feel like an alien! I feel like ALF!”

All this in response to… a parking meter. Continue reading


“What do Americans think of French people?” Considering the reputation of Americans, I was always surprised that French people are so concerned about what we think.

The short answer could be: they’re all fashionable but smell awful, they eat baguettes and drink wine while wearing a striped shirt and a beret, and they’re kind of snobby. In reality, I spent the last year discovering how welcoming French people can be (behind a slightly frosted façade), even in the bitter north.

Lonely loft.

When I arrived in Lorraine last September, the only people I knew were two Irish teaching assistants who happened to be arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport at the same time as me. I spent the first two nights sleeping on the floor of a hotel room using space bags full of clothing as a makeshift bed and my backpack for a pillow. Bienvenue!

By comparison, Tuesday morning a French teacher and friend got up at 6 a.m. (on a holiday) to drive me to the train station for my hopefully-not-final departure from Epinal. My temporary housemates, an Italian and a Spanish assistant who welcomed me for the weekend, not only helped carry my bags and made me toast, but came all the way to the station to see me off. Not one, but three separate people are housing my massive amount of sweaters, boots and sporting equipment over summer. I also know I have at least one bedroom all set up for me in September. I’m going to go ahead and be sappy: I have a lot to thank the French for.

It’s true that many French people will not hesitate to give their opinion, even if it’s on your weight gain or your baldness. Yet in Lorraine many locals were thrilled to meet an American and exchange ideas. And of course show me the rolling countryside, black-and-white cows, and general obsession with fatty pork products they grew up with. An exercise in how far genuine curiosity, modesty, honesty and a dusting of bravery will get you with almost anyone, in almost any place.

Around the Vosges mountains, it can land you laughing on your butt in the snow on the border of a frozen lake, a week before Christmas, as the flakes slash by you.

It can get you to a living room sofa covered with babies who can’t crawl, but eat Roquefort on crackers, or to a breakfast table with 10 kinds of bread.

It can get you into a 100-year-old iron forge run by three generations of smiths, and occupied during the Germans during WW2. Direct quote: “They ate a lot of potatoes.”

But most importantly, it can make a hell of change for you. Answering the questions of how Americans see French people, or how French people see Americans, is only going to get more complicated.

Thanks, for helping me pimp all over the world.



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Here I come

I haven’t updated this blog in like two weeks. I have written at least three or four blog posts, but between finishing out my contract at school, scrubbing the floor of my apartment on my hands and knees, and migrating from house to apartment to high school to Parisian apartment to airport Brioche Dorée at 6 a.m., I haven’t seemed to find the time to post them.

A thing that I can say is that I am sad that I am at the airport, and not just because the pain au chocolat is expensive, but I will be glad to be back in the States later today.

I will be glad to eat Mexican food, have people be on time, buy bagels, eat crabs, give hugs willy-nilly, smile at strangers on the street, and make up words without being chastized.

A bientôt.

La Maison Forestière

A nearby forest-bound sculpture garden.

The more idyllic the scenery, the harder it is for me to take pictures. That was the case this week when I visited one of my fellow teachers in Hennezel, France. It’s home to less than 450 people and completely surrounded by woods, but somehow cozy anyway. My host’s husband is a forestier; something like a woodsman or a forest ranger, who spends most of his days walking through the woods choosing the best trees to cut down while allowing the forest to prosper. Their house is a “maison forestière” heated entirely by wood with vegetable patches against the lean-to, and blossoming pear trees and lilac bushes.

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Learning on the Road

Céline lives in a wooden-floored one bedroom in a historic pans de bois building in Troyes, with pencil sketches on the walls and multicolored tins of tea lining the shelves. I’ve couchsurfed before, but this is the first time that I’ve gotten off the train to find someone waiting for me with a big smile and bisous, complete with a black bicycle and beret.

Troyes, in Champagne, pulls its charm from medieval houses and cobblestone streets, but I enjoyed it most because Céline took me through the side alleys and her friends’ shops. She bought raw, whole milk (creamy, but tastes like… milk), described the best local cheeses, and explained why a passing bachelor was enrobed in a burlap sack. But possibly the most interesting thing about Céline was her travel plans:

Every vacation she takes, she plans to learn something. Continue reading

Alsace’s Route du Vin, and “Grandmas Are Awesome”

This is not the first time I’ve said this, nor is it by any means the last. Despite living in a backwoods Bermuda triangle that seems to hold onto locals, I’ve met a number of amazing older women. Women who have lived in Zaïre. Women who moved to London without housing and spent two months hiding under a friend’s bed at night. Women who have bathed in a hot stream with Bjork (really!) and hiked the Camino de Santiago post-retirement.

And last weekend, women in their 80s who speak four languages and can tell you everything on earth about the history of wine, Alsace, and France.

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Fromage Friday: Saint-Nectaire

The gorgeous weather here is holding out, so today we picked a place on the Vosges map and threw our cameras in our bags. The place we chose was Bain-les-Bains, which is one of the small towns locally that has thermal baths. It also has a chateau, a couple canals, and is generally cute.

Or so we heard! I actually have no idea, because it turns out that Bain-les-Bains is 4.5 km away from the Bain-les-Bains train station. So instead, we spent a sunny afternoon wandering the country roads, and stopped in a tiny roadside bar called “Le Coq Hardi,” for a beer. When we got home at sundown, a few bites of cheese were much needed while I cooked my first meal since breakfast.

Saint-Nectaire, cow cheese
Made by: Fermier (farmer), from somewhere nearby. Ish.
Hails from: Auvergne, south central France.  Serious cow country.
Background: Hideous grayish purple rind, a semi-hard cheese. It’s one of the waxier cheeses I’ve tried, and the first bite I had I was actually disgusted by, but I must have gotten a little of the rind. Stay very far away from that rind. Outside of that it has a bit of a bitter taste–nutty and almost a little metallic. BUT, after trying more I decided it is not bad, and my book says that this cheese is best in summer. Therefore, I will return to it in June.
Can I eat the rind? Dear god, no.
Serve it: Serve it with things that would go well with nuts, especially chestnuts or walnuts! Salmon, potatoes, tarts — I even saw a recipe for crème brulée which I am truly intrigued by.

Fromage Friday: Tomme

I cheated again and bought cheese at the grocery store. Actually, I didn’t even buy it. But I spent about 11 hours in Paris before taking the crack of dawn flight to Madrid, so I didn’t have time to brave the cheese master’s stand.

I don't have my camera cord, so imagine I took this.

This cheese: Tomme Noire des Pyrénées
Cost: 3ish euros
Nonsensical rating: 7 out of 10

This is a firmer cheese, the closest to something I would have bought in an American grocery store of all the cheeses I’ve had in France so far. It wasn’t as rich as the usual creamy French cheeses either, and apparently might be slightly lower in fat. This is important, as I am starting to become concerned about my cholesterol levels. But I liked it! As a mild cheese that you might use for a winter potato dish, or even something you might use for raclette–it had a similar mild taste–I can imagine myself getting it again.

My goal upon my return in France: go up to the fromager and just ask him to give me a stinky, stinky cheese.