‘Where the Hell Have You Been?’: A Retrospective

How do you say ‘my bad’ in French?

It’s not that I didn’t have anything to write about for the last few months, quite the opposite.  And now I’m up against it.  Eight weeks later and it’s time for another vacation.

So, to whet your palate, a Christmas newsletter of sorts.

Part 1

Thanksgiving in Gap (yeah, I’m takin’ it way back) was a family affair.  Teaching assistants all over town pushed their hotplates to the limit before crowding into the one private apartment between us, that of the very game Maddy and Sarah.  Wrangling chairs from desks and outdoor furniture sets, the Europeans waited as we Americans looked dumbly at a beautifully cooked, but frustratingly intact turkey.  With German assistant Ha Nam’s help, I stepped up, doing my best Dick Bohlander impression.

And then WE ATE!

In December, I visited my friend Alizée for a 30-hour stay in Paris.  No, seriously.  Alizée spent two semesters at Pitt on exchange from Sciences-Po and happened to sit next to me on the first day of a political science course.  After seeing her scribble something in French in her notebook, I decided I was not going to let my first French friend slip away.  Good thing I didn’t learn to keep my eyes on my own paper.

Arriving at her apartment on the Left Bank at 9am on a Saturday, it was really nice to see Alizée two years after she left Pittsburgh.  Her apartment is adorable, plus she is a great hostess. (This is my third stay in France, I really shouldn’t be surprised by this anymore.)

A good friend takes your picture in front of a beautiful tea salon. A great friend waits til you're off the phone.

Alizée wanted to know which parts of Paris I had yet to see.  And then she took me to see them!  We were unstoppable: the Eiffel Tower, the Marais (the Jewish quarter); Sciences-Po for the judging of a literary contest; Le Bon Marché, one of the fanciest and oldest department stores in Paris; and the Christmas displays in the Parisian equivalent of Macy’s Herald Square.  Then, Alizée invited me out to dinner with a few of her friends, all of whom were lovely and would have been perfect for a ‘fashion on the street’ feature in a magazine.  Oh, and I learned about Miss France, which is exactly what it sounds like and has secured a permanent spot on my radar.  Finally, we met up with a couple of Alizée’s friends for a drink.  What a classy place.  They could have handed me some PBR, and I still would’ve paid 5 euros for it.

Quick as it was, the trip to Paris was so worth it, and I had no idea just how serious Alizée was about showing me the Paris I’d never seen before.  Someday I hope I can return the favor…I wonder if she’s interested in seeing a side of the Philly suburbs/Central Jersey she’s never seen before?

Coup de foudre à Firenze

Salut!

Okay, more of my wonderful week in Italy…unfortunately, my last full day in Rome I was sick. Coughing, achy, stuffed up, headache, the works. But it didn’t (I hope) prevent Sofie, Klaudyna, and me from having a full day. We had another wonderful grasse matinée (lazy morning), including a lasagna lunch made for us by Birgitta, Sofie’s mom. She apologized for what she insisted was the worst lasagna she’d ever made because she didn’t have time to heat it at the lower temperature it required…it tasted pretty darn good to me. Our first stop in Rome was the Spanish steps, which were decked out with huge pots of beautiful azaleas. It made me think of the azaleas at home, which are probably in full bloom by now.

Next was the Pantheon. While its interior isn’t as lavishly decorated as St. Peter’s or some of the other churches I’ve seen this semester, the Pantheon is an architectural wonder. How did they build such a perfect dome, and on such a large scale, so long ago? The measurements are incredibly exact. Not only is the bottom rim of the dome a perfect circle with the hole at the top exactly centered, but the dome, if reflected downward into the building itself, would make a perfect sphere. And this sphere would just barely touch the floor at the exact center of the structure. How’s that for precision?

We stopped for some gelato (when in Rome…) and then walked over to the Colosseum and Forum Romana again, to take a better look. It wasn’t great weather, but at least it wasn’t raining. Then, to finish up the day, we walked through the Villa Borghese to a place that Sofie promised had a great view of Rome at sunset. And she was absolutely right, it was incredible to see all the cupolas, spires, and ornate buildings in relief against an orangey pink sky. A perfect finale for a great three days in Rome.

I arrived in Florence by train the next day (Wednesday) and checked into my hostel. Not wanting to risk it with my cold, I rested most of the afternoon and really only ventured out into the city to find a very inexpensive, very good trattoria. By this point having lost my voice almost completely, I croaked out my selection for the prix fixe menu, choosing fettucine with pesto, chicken with a white veggie sauce, and a salad. It was excellent, and the tiramisu wasn’t bad either. The highlight, though, had to be the pesto, since French pesto, pistou, just doesn’t cut it in my opinion. How can you make a good pesto without pine nuts?

Anyway, the next day was full of walking, queueing, and gawking. My first priority was to see Michelangelo’s David, housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia (I hope I spelled that right). The entrances to the Accademia and the Uffizi are surprisingly low key, at least I think so. It took me a good ten minutes wandering around near the Galleria dell’Accademia until I happened to spot the line in a small street off of a square. But it was of course worth the wait. I actually am glad pictures weren’t allowed, because I would’ve been tempted to just take as many pictures as possible instead of taking my time to look at the statue. It was off on its own under skylight, so you could walk all the way around it. Every step I took, the expression on David’s face changed and so did his body language. Also, it never occurred to me before that David’s head is actually not proportional to his body, it’s too big. It doesn’t take away from the sculpture, it’s just funny that one of the most famous pieces of sculpture is not one of the most technically perfect.

Wandering away from the museum, I made my way down to the Duomo. I love the colors, the pale pinks alternating with dark greens, and the painting on the inside of the cupola is one of the most beautiful ones I’ve seen, I think. It’s not the sunniest subject, the progression from Hell to Heaven, but again the colors are striking and it’s beautiful even from 30 feet below, kind of spiraling up away from you. The rest of the inside of the Duomo was simple, but still impressive because of the size.

Before committing to the wait in the line at the Uffizi, I walked over to St. Croce Church, where I had read there was a kind of specialty foods market. The church was similar in style to the Duomo with its pink and green stonework, but I was really there for the market. Having scoped out all the stalls, full of pastries, cheeses, olives, and alcoholic beverages of all kinds, I gave in to my sweet tooth, though as usual it took some convincing, and got a cannoli. Not the most conventional lunch food, I admit, but completely satisfying. Now I was ready to wait for almost two hours to get into the Uffizi.

I’ve said it before, early religious art usually doesn’t interest me. Despite coming from a culture steeped in Judeochristian traditions I’m just not well enough versed in art history, Christian symbology, or the Bible itself to really appreciate that kind of art. There was a lot of ‘that kind of art’ in the Uffizi, but also a lot of Renaissance art, which I can understand better. My favorite piece is an obvious one, Boticelli’s Allegory of Spring, but I liked Judith Slaying Holofernes by the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi as well. The more I travel around Europe the more I understand why Europeans are so hung up on the fact that the United States is a “young country”. As I made my way to the most recent paintings in the Galleria del’Uffizi I made sure to see how many were completed after the founding of the United States. Not such a difficult task, since there were three.

After this busy, busy day I picked out a trattoria that was recommended by my trusty Let’s Go volume and a couple travelers’ forums and headed out, ready to eat. Apparently documentation of Florence’s streets hasn’t been as accurate or as thorough as I would have hoped. Twenty minutes after I had found the approximate location of Trattoria Anita according to Let’s Go, Google Maps, and the person at the front desk of my hostel, I found an annoyingly straightforward little sign that pointed down a tiny street “Trattoria Anita”. Still, another success on the food front. I would actually just prefer to eat the pasta and not even go on to the second course, which is usually a meat dish, maybe with a veggie on the side. It seems like the pasta is the main event, and all of the second courses I had were good but didn’t really compare with the quality of the fresh pasta and their wonderful sauces. Me and my crazy American ideas…

Before leaving Florence the next afternoon, I explored the Ponte Vecchio and the Oltrarno neighborhood on the other side of the river from the main drag. The weather was beautiful and the Oltrarno was much more peaceful than the very tourist-y center. I found a tiny but wonderful sandwich place run by two brothers and frequented by locals. You have to be quick with your order, just say the number of the sandwich you want to one brother, order a drink from the other, and then enjoy your fare squatting on a curb beside the tiny, tiny storefront. It’s kind of odd to see people standing in the street eating sandwiches and drinking from dainty wine glasses. But my prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich was awesome.

I was reluctant to leave Florence, and Bologna didn’t really compare to either Rome or Florence for me, but it was a lazy end to a very full trip. Bologna is called the “Red City” because a lot of its buildings are in red brick and apparently it’s known for its Communist inhabitants. I can’t speak for the number of Communists I saw in Bologna (how does one spot a Communist?), but its buildings are a charming dusty red color. I spent some time in the main piazza and grabbed my last pasta lunch in Italy before taking an overnight bus into Marseille.

So, enfin, I’m back in France, the blog’s updated, and I’m coming home in less than two weeks. I think I’ll update next with some jokes about French people one of my professors gave us. A plus tard!
Maggie B.

Paris au printemps

Salut!
I must apologize for not updating for so long, but I promise the only things worth updating about have happened in the past two weeks. But what a busy two weeks! Just so you know, I’m in Italy right now, in Florence to be exact, but I’d rather just write about my mom and my aunt Missy’s trip to France for now.

Two Saturdays ago I was really excited to wake up, get ready, grab my things and head to Paris on the TGV to see my mom and aunt…and then I promptly missed my bus to the Aix TGV station. But I took a taxi and made the train and the connection in Lyon. I really didn’t know how I was going to find the two Shepherd sisters, but by some freak coincidence they were consulting a guide book, huddled under a cafe awning right beyond the stairs out of the Metro station! I don’t think they even realized it was me at first, I was so happy to see them I kind of just pounced. We found the apartment we had rented, just a two minute walk from a Metro station and the Boulevard de Rennes, a perfect location in the Left Bank. And the apartment was very nice.

Missy and my mom were exhausted, having barely slept on the flight. I felt bad enforcing the number one rule of fighting jet lag in France: you MUST stay up til 8pm the first night. So we got some lunch-y food at a cafe and then walked around the 6th arrondissement a little bit, stopping at the Cafe Les Deux Magots, where Simone de Beauvoire, Jean Paul Sartre, and others used to sip out of tiny cups and eat tiny chocolates. It was a cool experience, and one that made me appreciate the customary 1,70€ I begrudgingly pay for a coffee in Aix. We saw the Seine, though it was dreary and drizzling, before heading back to the apartment.

My mom and Missy stayed up even a little past 9, so they were ready to go the next morning…in their own time. Apparently I’m not really capable of sleeping in anymore, at least not before these two weeks of vacation. The ‘grownups’ enjoyed what the French would call a grasse matinée, or a fat/lazy morning. We had some fresh croissants and jam from the market I found down the street. At any rate, we packed a lot in our first full day in Paris, including a nice walk through Saint Michel, my favorite part of Paris, and a tour of Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle. We grabbed lunch in a very funky creperie in Saint Michel. I was very excited because it had galettes! Galettes are just like crepes but are made from a different batter using buckwheat flour (I think), and they’re popular in Bretagne, including Nantes, where I studied last summer. Though I couldn’t convince my dining companions that cider really was the way to go, they seemed to enjoy their galettes.

After lunch, we walked over to the Louvre to look at the exterior, then walking through the Jardin des Tuileries. Missy and Mom got a little catnap in the surprisingly comfortable chairs around one of the fountains. Then we headed off up the Champs Elysées towards the Arc de Triomphe. We were looking for a place to rest our feet and get a cup of coffee when we spotted an interesting pale green exterior on the less frequented side of the Champs. It just so happened it was a cafe called Ladurée (sorry, not sure if it’s two words) known for it’s incredible pastry desserts. I dove in for the chocolate, Missy chose a kind of religieuse (puff pastry with icing and filled with cream) with raspberries and rose-flavored cream, and my mom chose an awesome strawberry dessert. We finally made it to the Arc de Triomphe, and the sun had set below the treeline, leaving a pale orange backdrop.

Then it was off to the races again! We had reserved a table at a Corsican restaurant all the way back by the Louvre, near the Palais Royal. So we booked it. When I called the restaurant to explain that we might be a little bit late, the guy who answered the phone just said thank you and kind of laughed. I had a feeling the French aren’t ones to go giving away tables when something as important as a pre-arranged, fine dining experience is at stake. The restaurant was great, live music, interesting decor, and excellent food. Not to mention the two sisters’ running commentary on our two waiters, trying to get me to admit I liked one of them.

We walked back to the apartment, over the Seine, and fell into bed after our huge day. The next morning, not too early of course, we headed to the Louvre. We saw the must-sees, the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Michelangelo’s sculptures, and some things I either hadn’t seen or hadn’t noticed the last time I went. Our last goal for the Louvre was to see the Napoleon III apartments, which definitely lived up to my expectations. Ceilings dripping with chandeliers, furniture covered in gold and velvet, and a dining room table that might actually have been able to sit the entire Shepherd family.

In the afternoon, we went to the Jardin du Luxembourg, stopping to enjoy some French pastries (well I had to show them the best France has to offer, right?). I had been before and I like it better than the Jardin des Tuileries, but this time we found something I didn’t see the last time. We found a boules league! Boules is the French game that is kind of like bowling on the greens or bocci ball, however you spell that. Except boules is on a sandy dirt surface. It’s often called pétanque in the south of France, where it was invented. I’ve only ever seen really old men playing it, never women, let alone a 20 year old one.

For our last night in Paris, we went to a very nice restaurant in the 5th or 7th arrondissement, I forget which exactly, just whichever one has the Eiffel Tower. This outing led to by far the most memorable moment of the trip. When the waiter came to take our order I asked for the rognons de veau with tagliatelles, a kind of pasta. I figured rognon was some kind of round cut or something. Except…it wasn’t. As soon as it was placed in front of me I knew I should have just clarified with the waiter what it was since now I had a plate full of what appeared to be either brains, intestines, or, as my mother tried to say reassuringly, sweetbreads. Now I may get some flack for not trying it, but I’m sorry, I don’t do weird textures, and I knew all I needed to know when my mom tried it and all she said was “It’s an interesting taste”. I just ate the pasta and waited it out for tiramisu (it turned out to be excellent).

Before going back to the apartment we walked over to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, but really I just wanted to know what rognons were. I ran up the six flights of stairs to our apartment and breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t eaten any cow kidneys that night!

I’ll leave it at that for now, next time I’ll write about Missy and my mom’s stay in Aix and hopefully at some point I’ll get pictures up on Facebook from that trip and the one I’m on right now.
A bientot!
Maggie B.