Finland: The Land of Snow

Thankfully, the one-hour flight from Stockholm to Helsinki was relatively smooth and didn't involve any time travel. (While that might seem fun, 1930s/1940s Europe is somewhere I'd want to avoid.) However, given the delays and the one hour jump in time, I was now running behind schedule as I was planning to meet my friend/former Mansueto Ventures co-intern Laura in downtown Helsinki for dinner.

By the grace of the airline gods, my purse turned up on the conveyor belt quickly with everything in tact. I proceeded to take a 30-minute bus ride into the city and then transferred to the tramway at the Central Railway Station (or as Laura described, the building with the four guys and glass balls). It turned out that my hostel for one night was conveniently located in the city's design district, which reminded me quite a bit of either SoHo for New Yorkers (but less commercial) or Valencia Street in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it was not nearly as nice as the hostel in Stockholm, but then again, it was only for one night.

After dropping my stuff off and not getting to shower, I met Laura in front of my hostel. It was definitely good to see a friend again. She took me to a very trendy restaurant that specializes in Finnish tapas. Given that I've never eaten Finnish food before, I was definitely up for some experimentation. I was certainly put to the test when I sampled reindeer heart, which actually wasn't so bad. It tasted more like smoked ham that one would eat at Christmastime...except then you remember what you were eating.

We had to call it a night after dinner, as we were getting up early the next morning to meet at the train station to go to Jyväskylä up in central Finland, about three hours away from Helsinki. There were only three other guests in my hostel room. The first one I met was a very nice German girl traveling with her brother staying in another room. The second was a French girl living in London, who was nice but very talkative. The third I didn't really meet, since she came in after we were all asleep already and I saw her when I was leaving early the next morning.

I was blessed with good weather in Helsinki. While it was definitely a few degrees cooler than in Stockholm, it still wasn't too bad and I didn't need to wear my big wool coat. Not to mention, it was quite sunny starting on Saturday. When I arrived on Friday, it was fairly overcast, and combined with the sullen/communist-block architecture I saw on the way from the airport, I wondered if I was behind the Iron Curtain - which is weird considering Finland never was.

The train system in Finland is set-up very well. While not as high-speed as the trains in France or Spain, they still moved at a good pace (better than Amtrak). The only downside was the price. But that wasn't going to stop us from going to Jyväskylä, which when pronounced sounded like a bit like a disease, making both Laura and I giggle. But the town is lovely. Surrounding a river and framed by mountains (some of which was still frozen over), Jyväskylä is a lively college town. It's also the farthest north in the world that I've ever been.

We were staying with Laura's boyfriend, Matti, who kindly let me (a complete stranger from America) stay on his couch for the evening. And then he even drove us to a small ranch nearby where Laura and I went on a pony safari. While it didn't involve much trekking into actual wilderness, the ride was quite picturesque.

The last time I rode a pony was when I was eight or nine years old somewhere near Pacifica, Calif. Like almost everyone in Finland, the instructor spoke English fluently, and she was happy to give me a crash course (and we even taught her that expression).  I was paired up with a Finnish pony (seen in the photo) while Laura took a slightly more daring partner in an Icelandic pony (this was pre-volcano). Unfortunately, given that my Canon 1000D is prone to an "Error 99" problem (even after I installed a firmware update that was supposed to correct that), none of the photos that the instructor took of me actually riding the horse actually came out. Nonetheless, I still had a great time. I got a little nervous when trotting, as I almost lost my balance. I can also see why female equestrians suffer from reproductive issues. But once in a while, it's fun activity. And the settings were absolutely beautiful, with the landscape still blanketed in snow but shimmering from the sunlight. It was also very remote, so there was no one else around. Just peaceful and relaxing. It must have been one of the most fun things I've done in Europe and/or on vacation ever.

To continue my Scandinavian adventure, Laura and her friends took me to a restaurant reminiscent of The Rainforest Café, but instead with a Viking theme. I really wish I could have worn the hat. After sampling reindeer heart and reindeer cheese (basically something like cheddar with bits of reindeer in it), it was only natural to sample some reindeer sausage, which was the clear winner. Also surprising was that cocktails are really good in Finland. Not only did we have some good ones at the Viking restaurant, but also at another trendy bar around the corner. The best were the smoothies. (It's been so long since I've had a smoothie! France needs a Jamba Juice.)

Most of the evening was filled with sharing travel stories, inappropriate stories and Laura throwing herself against a poster of Taylor Lautner in between bars. (Note: She likes him, not Twilight. She has taste in movies.) Kindly, Laura and her friends all spoke in English throughout the evening for my benefit, or else I would have been totally lost. While Swedish is a wee bit like English (at least on paper), Finnish is something completely different. Although I did learn how to say hello, goodbye and thank you, like usual.

The second miracle of the weekend was that I didn't wake up with a hangover. Although, I don't think the same could be said for Laura. Nonetheless, we took the three-hour train ride back to Helsinki on Sunday afternoon, followed promptly by a stop at McDonald's. There are three reasons that I am thankful for McD's all over the world: 1. Hangover food. 2. Open on Sundays everywhere. 3. Free Wi-Fi.

We didn't eat all that much as we had already planned to make tacos for dinner. We bought everything at the grocery store and took the bus back to Laura's fabulous house on an island that I can't remember the name of. But it's quite near Nokia HQ, and the most hilarious part about Laura's house is that she's right next to the Mexican Embassy. So Californian. I learned a lot about Scandinavian houses this weekend, namely the showers are quite different. Rather than doors or a tub, there's just a nozzle in the wall with a drain in the floor itself, and you can square off the shower area with a curtain. Everyone also keeps a squeegee-looking mop in the bathroom for clean-up afterwards. I also learned that Finnish houses have heated floors, which must be necessary in the winter when it gets -20*C.

Monday was my last real full day of vacation in Scandinavia, which I was quite sad about. (And maybe if I had planned to leave on Wednesday of that week rather than Tuesday, I could have stayed for a lot longer!) As Laura had work all day, I spent the day roaming Helsinki. Again, it was a perfect day to be outside and walk around. One thing that is really great in Helsinki that most tourists might not realize is how great the shopping is. Helsinki's Design District is very up-and-coming, full of mid- to high-end designers of fashion, furniture, art and other unique items.

I got a bit lost, however, when trying to find the "church in the rock" which is literally what it means when translated into English. (The Finns are right to the point when they speak and name things.) After checking out the Helsinki Cathedral, I tried looking for the church, but I got a little turned around by my map, which is unusual for me since I have a good sense of direction. However, I only got lost for about five minutes, and then I was well on my way. After seeing the cathedrals and other sites that Conan O'Brien visited when here (he really is popular there still), I did a bit of shopping before meeting up with Laura for dinner. My farewell dinner was delicious. It's quite rare that I get to eat anything but French food in France, so I definitely wanted something more spicy. We went to a Nepalese restaurant, which did the trick for me. We were both stuffed by the end of the meal, and then hopped on the bus back to the island while the sunset on the water surrounding the city. It was a little bittersweet, since I didn't want my trip to end. I had such a good time in Scandinavia. It might be more expensive than France, but it still has very nice people and beautiful sights.

I had to get on the bus to the train station early, as my flight was at 10AM. This time, I remembered to take my Swiss Army knife out of my bag, especially since I had to change planes - coincidentally in Switzerland. I got through security alright at this airport, and I actually slept most of the 2.5-hour flight from Helsinki to Zürich. The seats next to me on both flights that day were empty. I'm sure that's quite a different scene than one week later on European flights - or even right now still. My ticket was a great price considering I was going through four different airports (London Heathrow, Stockholm, Helsinki and Paris), and I only had to change planes once - this time in Zürich. Yet the layover was four hours. I ate, shopped and had a drink for the first 90 minutes...and then I was quite bored after that. I was even too lazy to write this post then.

But eventually it came time to board my Swiss Air flight to Paris-CDG, which felt like France as soon as I stepped onto the plane as the flight attendants greeted in me in French. It was like I was already home! Not only was most of the plane empty, we even got free beverages. On a 55-minute flight. At one point, the flight attendant tapped me, and I was a little surprised, especially when she held out a packaged muffin...for free. I couldn't believe it. Maybe I had traveled through time! Flying was fun again!

Stockholm: Venice of the North

A museum curator in Stockholm told me that Sweden's capital is sometimes referred to as the "Venice of the North," as it is a city built on a collection of islands. Despite the cold, I prefer Stockholm to Venice.

Actually, it wasn't even that cold - or at least it didn't give that impression in comparison with the high winds in Normandy. After a train trek via Paris to Lille and then later to London for four days, I packed up my things from the flat we were staying in (near Buckingham Palace!) for Heathrow. It's funny writing this now - a few days after the European skies have reopened to air traffic - as the day I left London for Stockholm, it was a relatively normal travel day. I certainly got lucky with my flights over all...although I wouldn't have minded missing a few more days of work back in France.

The two-hour flight on Scandinavian Airlines was relatively routine, but I got into the city rather late (jumping ahead an hour again) at about 10PM. I just made it to the baby bullet train from Arlanda Airport to the city center by a hair as an English woman in front of me could not figure out the ticket machine.

Normally, when I disembark from a plane, I'm quite hot and don't notice cold temperatures so quickly. So when I exited the central train station in Stockholm, I thought it might not have been warm as it felt. Granted, I was wearing a long wool coat and gloves, but I really only needed the latter for the rest of the trip. I was quite fine with my short leather jacket and a couple of long-sleeve shirts throughout my jaunt in Scandinavia.

This was also the first time I stayed in a hostel by myself. The City Backpackers Hostel was very easy to find, being only five minutes walking distance from the station. It wasn't as spectacular as the Lisbon Living Lounge, but then again I don't think any other hostel is. This one was quite nice nonetheless, and it hosted a mélange of guests. Over my four days in the hostel, I met people from Norway, Germany, England, Australia, Spain, Chile, France, Belgium and a handful of fellow Americans. The common language at the hostel was English, as it was almost everywhere in Scandinavia, which was incredibly helpful. I always try to learn at least four words in the native language of whatever country I visit: the equivalents of "hello," "yes," "no," and "thank you."

I was exceptionally lucky that the weather was pleasant all week, especially the first day. I decided I better take advantage of my good luck and situate myself at the same time by taking a day tour. Like most things in Sweden, it was a bit pricey, but I saw quite a bit in two hours. I don't like feeling lost, so it also gave me a better sense of where everything was, especially the sites I wanted to re-visit later in the week.

Two of those sites were the Vasa Museum and the Nordic Museum. Conveniently, they're right next to each other and the latter is free after 4PM on Wednesdays, so I hit them both up at once. Two very informative museums in one day can be a bit exhausting (and it's usually my limit), but it was well worth the trip.

After having to switch between a couple of buses unexpectedly due to construction, I finally made it to the Vasa Museum. It's the home of a Viking ship that sunk on her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbor in 1628. Talk about fail. But thanks to some modern engineering, it was resurrected in 1987. The ship was massive. There were several miniatures on hand to represent what the ship looked like before centuries of decay underwater, and it was quite colorful once upon a time. Now it's just a dark wooden brown that shins from the little available light in the museum.

The Nordic Museum surprised me more. From the outside, the building looked well enough. But inside, it looked like a palace, reminiscent of the Danish palace from Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet. And even though it bears the name "Nordic" Museum, it's really only about Sweden. Starting from the fourth floor down, it houses exhibits on Swedish history, culture, architecture, photography, fashion and an exhibit about the Sapmi, the native tribes of Scandinavia. There's even a short exhibition on Swedish doll houses. But what surprised me most (and maybe it shouldn't have) was the exhibit on modern Swedish furniture. I always thought that Ikea's popularity stemmed from the fact that their designs are so basic that they can work in most countries around the world. But I didn't realize that they're actually a reflection of how Swedish homes have been decorated for the last fifty years. So either Swedish style is extremely basic...or they're trying to take over the world from INSIDE the home. And you thought McDonalds was too much of a cultural influence.

One of the highlights of staying in the hostel was meeting people from many different countries and backgrounds. On my third night in the hostel, I went on a bar crawl with several other guests in the hostel. The crawl was a bit short with three bars total - four if you went to the karaoke bar, but I don't sing. I met two other assistants, except they teach Spanish and French in England. And given that all three of us knew at least some of each language, it was pretty fun discussing the intricacies of the languages and our experiences living in foreign countries. My proudest accomplishment was teaching them typical American phrases, especially, "I know, right?"

Most of my last day I spent shopping, which apparently the Swedes really love to do. Stockholm goes right up there in the list of great shopper's paradises like Paris and Tokyo. Although, it's not exactly cheap. But there certainly is an H&M on almost every corner, and I nearly got lost in the shopping mall, so I left after 10 minutes. I didn't feel like spending anymore money in another foreign currency when I could buy the exact same thing in Finland in Euros.

On my last night in Stockholm, me and the other assistant girls plus one of my 12 roommates visited the Absolut Icebar. Being that I'm from California, the two girls were from France and Spain and the fourth guy was from Chile, a bar made out of ice was extraordinary. Stockholm's is the world's first location, with others in London, New York and Barcelona. While we were all bundled up already, we were all given thick blue capes with white woolen lining. The girls and I joked that we looked like Belle from Beauty and the Beast in that winter scene, but I felt more like Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory when she blows up into a blueberry.

As it's the first location, it's quite small and tucked inside of a hotel near the train station. It was packed when we got there, but as we managed for 40 minutes in there, the number slowly dwindled. The temperature inside was -5 degrees C (23*F). It actually didn't feel that cold, and my theory rests on the fact that there was no wind, which is common when it's very cold outside. But we were also bundled up plus the furry ponchos. I can't even imagine visiting the one in Barcelona, as it would probably be warm inside, so all you'd have to protect you from the cold is the cape given to you on the way in. All of the drinks are served in glasses made out of local ice as well. Apparently they last very long - although not forever as a group of German guys brought their ice goblets back to the hostel the night before and they were a puddle in the morning.

After drinks, we headed for Max, Sweden's version of McDonald's. For some unknown reason, I'm really intrigued by other countries' equivalents of America's famous burger chain. For example, I find Quick in France to be deplorable, but Jollibee's in the Philippines to be satisfactory. But Max beats out McD's. My favorite item off their menu was the falafel burger, which didn't feel greasy at all. Plus, the restaurant was immaculately clean (even being inside a train station), and there was free tea and coffee.

Overall, I really loved Stockholm. Everyone I met was really friendly, and it was quite easy to communicate with locals if I ever needed help since most everyone was fluent in English. I'm very impressed by the nations of northern Europe by how bilingual they all seem to be. I wish that trait was common in the United States - and France as well, for that matter. It doesn't have to be English - but just something else!

Unfortunately, getting out of Stockholm was not quite so easy. After reading daily about the experiences of stranded travelers all over the world due to that pesky Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, I feel a little bad about complaining. But it was just one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong - precisely because I woke up a few minutes later than I had planned. Thus, I seemed to be thrown off and on edge for the rest of the day. While I caught the train to Arlanda quite easily and everything went smoothly at the SAS check-in counter as I checked my bag for Helsinki, something still felt wrong. And by the time I was about to leave the security checkpoint, I realized what it was.

When the inspector pulled me and my purse aside, I couldn't figure out the problem. Then he said it, "Miss, do you have a small knife in your bag?" I groaned. I forgot that my Swiss Army knife was still in my purse and I had forgotten to pack it away in my suitcase. Given that I bought it in Brussels and spent quite a bit of money on it, I wasn't willing to just throw it away. He suggested I go back to the check-in counter to see if I could get my bag, and in vain, I tried that. But the clerk said no, offering me two options. One, I could mail it back to myself. Or two, for free, I could check my purse. My purse. I didn't really know what to do, but for some reason, I went with checking my purse, removing my wallet, passport and my camera, but then filling it with items to fill out the bag that I didn't mind losing (all that much), such as my scarf and a water bottle. Then I had to bring it to the "Special Luggage" counter, where I handed it to a very amused gentlemen who handled the purse like it was going to explode.

Finally, I went back to security, where I got another funny look from the man who scanned my boarding card and said in an Indiana Jones-movie villain type way, "You've been here before, haven't you?" I said yes, and not really bothered by hearing my explanation, he waived me through. On top of it all, my one-hour flight to Helsinki was two hours delayed, which isn't helped by the fact that Finland is one hour ahead on Eastern European time. At some point that day, I finally boarded a plane from the tarmac itself given it was a tiny plane with two seats on each side of the aisle and only about 10 rows long. I hate tiny planes. And on top of it all, I was right next to the external propeller. PROPELLER! Apparently, instead of Helsinki, I was traveling to the 1930s.

Visiting Normandy

After a month of solitude in a tiny village near La Manche, I finally broke out for three weeks, starting with two days in Paris when my brother came to visit France for the first time at the end of March. But it was our trip to Normandy, a site I've longed to visit for some time now, that I was looking forward to the most.

My brother and I boarded the train to Bayeux in Basse-Normandie (lower Normandy) from Paris' Gare St.-Lazare. Despite it being a local train (and not TGV), it was only a two-hour long ride as there was only one stop (Caen) in between Paris and our destination. And it didn't take long to notice the sharp differences in landscape and terrain in Normandy than that of Nord-Pas de Calais, which was surprising since it's only a few hours away by car.

By 8PM, it was already dusk and there wasn't anyone else really on the platform when I we disembarked in Bayeux. Yet, with two platforms and electronic screens, I knew this town was already a step above Montreuil-Sur-Mer. After about a 10 minute walk from the station to the town, we found our quaint and uniquely named hotel, Le Bayeux. At first, it looked like we were the only occupants in the hotel, given that all the room doors were open, revealing neatly made but empty rooms. Being in the countryside, this was a little spooky. But by the time we returned from dinner, there were several dozen English teenage boys causing a ruckus in the halls while in Normandy for a class trip.

Our main objective was to visit the beaches invaded on June 6, 1944. However, I failed to realize that spring (even early spring) might be a busy time, and I didn't secure tickets in advance. So when we called to see what was available that morning, none of the tours had open seats. We ended up settling on reserving two spots on a full day-tour the following day, which in hindsight was the best plan possible.

But first, we spent the day (which was half rainy, half sunny) touring Bayeux, notably with a visit to the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie (the Museum of the Battle of Normandy). The museum was quite well done, laying out all of the information clearly, both chronologically and by subject. It was informative, but not an overload. It was also one of the first spots where I began to notice the presence of more American tourists, some of whom I can pick out in Paris, but I hardly ever see in Northern France.

One of the aspects of visiting Normandy is sampling Norman cuisine. While we tried another restaurant or two, my brother and I ended up eating dinner at the same place for three nights in a row because it was just so delicious and had something that most other French restaurants don't have: good and attentive customer service. L'Assiette Normande (The Norman Plate) is located just opposite the gorgeous Gothic cathedral (pictured above).

Dishes incorporating camembert were obvious selections being that the smelly (but yummy) cheese hails from Normandy. My two favorite dishes were a tie between the tartiflette and the Norman salad, the latter being one of the few dishes I've found in France that includes corn. The waitress obviously remembered us, as on our third and final night in Normandy, we were treated with a few complimentary glasses of crément.

But it was our last full day in Normandy that was action-packed. Huddled into a mini-van seating nine, the Battlebus tour commenced at 8:30 AM, led by our very-knowledgeable and personable British guide, Dale. There were three groups of nine initially at the starting point, and it was broken down into two groups of Americans and a third group of Canadians. Our tour focused on most of the American-related points of interest before, on and after D-Day. 85€ per person might have seemed a lot to ask for a day tour, but in the end, it was worth every penny.

The first stop was a small church (in a tiny town of which I have forgotten the name and should have written down) that was used as a makeshift triage center/hospital on D-Day, staffed by only two American soldiers - both of whom survived the war. The church was more like the size of a chapel, and it was literally covered from wall to wall with injured soldiers, incidentally from both sides. But the church is kept up today solely by the funds of the local residents, including several expensive stained glass windows that were commissioned to commemorate the heroics of the Allies in liberating this village.

Stop two was in a larger town named Sainte-Mère-Église. The events of this town have been depicted in the film, The Longest Day. Being that I haven't seen the film yet, hearing the story for the first time myself from the guide was quite exciting. It's almost too bizarre to be true. In the wee hours of June 6, American paratroopers began landing in Basse-Normandie, farther inland from Utah Beach, some of whom landed in Sainte-Mère-Église. Unfortunately, at the exact same time, a house had caught on fire in the center of the village, drawing the attention of the town mayor, most of the residents and the German soldiers occupying the village. Upon seeing these paratroopers, the Germans opened fire, but a few managed to survive - one of whom had a parachute caught on the church steeple.

Just before lunch, we stopped at the first of the two beaches invaded by the Americans. The Allies took over a total of five beaches on D-Day, with the British at Sword and Gold, the Canadians at Juno and the Americans at Utah and Omaha beaches. While the pictures may look like it was a lovely day, it was brutally windy - so sharp that it could cut your face. I only pulled my scarf down from over my head and face to take the photo below. The guide remarked that I looked like a ninja. He also remarked that the weather on the day of our tour was similar to that of the climate on June 6, 1944. That would be sunny with mixed clouds, but very windy and a temperature around 7-8 degrees Celsius. I can't imagine doing much outdoors in that weather, let alone fighting in one of the greatest battles in world history.

After lunch in a local canteen owned by an English family, the next big stop was at Pointe du Hoc, a cliff top bombed repeatedly before D-Day by the Allies. It looked like the moon.

Omaha Beach was the second to last stop. What surprised me about Omaha Beach (and even Pointe du Hoc) is how these sites are depicted in films versus how they actually look. These are many steep cliffs, reminiscent of coastlines in California more so than two hours north in Pas de Calais where the coastline is pretty much flat.

But these beaches do not feel like anywhere you'd visit for some leisure time during the summer months. They are solemn, and you can instantly feel the heavy weight what took place on these sands just 66 years ago.

And only a kilometer or so away, you can instantly see just how much these soldiers sacrificed for their country and for the liberation of Europe. The American Cemetery in Normandy is the third military cemetery I've visited (after Manila and Arlington), and it struck me instantly how much this place looked like the other two. It was as if I had been instantly transported to the United States. There was a memorable but haunting scene in Saving Private Ryan that took place in this graveyard, which sparked in my mind while walking past thousands of white crosses. Many of those who died at the Battle of Normandy have actually been repatriated home, but so many still remain buried in France.

There isn't really much one can say or think after visiting this cemetery or even the beaches invaded on that fateful summer day in 1944, except how thankful we should be to those who heroically fought and gave their lives to defend freedom and defeat tyranny.

Basse-Normandie is one of my favorite locations in France that I've visited so far, and I hope to go back and see more in the future.

Porto: Valentine's Day at McDonald's

More restaurants need to stay open on Sundays in Europe. There, I said it. It's one of the biggest frustrations that Americans seem to encounter when traveling in Europe, and it's the only reason I'm thankful that there is a McDonald's everywhere. There, I admitted that too.

We left Lisbon on a late Sunday afternoon, which also happened to be Valentine's Day. We boarded a bus that was similar to Bolt Bus in both price and comfort, sans the free Wi-Fi. You can't have it all. But Rede-Expressos is more like the equivalent of Greyhound, being a nationwide bus company...although that nation is a tad smaller. By the time we arrived in Porto, it was already nightfall and dinnertime. This time we had a map and found the hostel much easier this time, with the exception of taking a few dark back alleys that I would never enter again - especially not by myself.

Our second hostel was the Porto Poets Hostel, another hipster, boutique hostel. If it weren't for the fact that we had arrived from the greatest hostel in the history of hostels, the Porto Poets would have been just lovely. This time, the room was much more cramped, there were more little fees here and there (i.e. towels) and there wasn't a key for my locker, but Rachel was nice enough to let me share with her. Luckily, we both only had the teeny-tiny bags that we could carry on to Ryanair anyway.

And naturally by this point, we were very hungry. When we asked the front desk employee where we could find dinner. He looked at us blankly, saying that it's Sunday so there wasn't really anything open. But noticing the developing faces of frustration on the three of us, he said we had two options: a small restaurant nearby (that he sort of pointed to and couldn't give us a name) or McDonald's.

After dropping our bags off in the room, we ventured out into the very windy night to find an ATM and this small restaurant. We think we found it, but it didn't look all that appealing at all. And that's how we ended up at McDonald's on Valentine's Day. But it was definitely the nicest McDonald's I've ever seen, with modern decor and the ambiance of an actual restaurant. Not to mention the value meal prices were much cheaper in Portugal than in France, where a value meal starts around 6€ ($8-9). The McD's was also packed, mostly with what appeared to be locals considering it was the only thing open on Sundays.

Although that turned out to be untrue, as we found a lively café open right around the corner where we ordered a couple glasses of Port and called it an evening.

Given that there was still blustery weather outside when we woke up, it was time for more indoor activities, starting with the Lello bookstore (pictured, right). Filled with tourists speaking every sort of language and richly designed interior, it felt like a real-life Flourish and Blotts. (If you're not a Harry Potter fan, look it up.) And we would never have happened upon it if it weren't for the recommendation of our new German friend and roommate, Johan. Lello features a neo-Gothic facade and sells books in multiple languages, making it the most beautiful and cosmopolitan bookstore I've ever seen.

As noted before, Portugal is very affordable for the traveler on a budget. And apparently that doesn't stop at taxi fares either, as Johan advised us. There was a special photography exhibit at a modern art museum just outside of town, and since it was rainy and windy and a bit of a journey, we hopped into a cab. And it only cost us 7€ total, each way. I could really get used to Portugal.

After the exhibit, some lunch (where I had something very similar to Poutine, which was delightful), and a trip to the riverfront (which was incredibly windy, not helping my bout of vertigo), it was time to look for Carnaval costumes. The hostel was hosting a Carnaval/Mardi Gras party, complete with a buffet of several courses, wine, caipirinhas and a costume contest. We stumbled into what must have been the only costume store for miles as it was lined from wall to wall with teenagers trying on sequined masks and tossing around tiaras and trinkets on the shelves.

Within 20 minutes, we had our costumes. Rachel was going to a bird with a very fine winged mask and blue feathered boa, Amy was going as a flapper with a silver and pink-feathered headband, and I chose to go as a princess with a tiara and Marie Antoinette-style mask, naturally.

There was one mishap that we ran into when we got back to the hostel. That morning, I had turned in my laundry with the girl at the front desk, and she said it would be on my bed by the time we returned that evening. That was at 11 AM. We got back after 6 PM. She hadn't even started it yet. She mumbled something about being busy most of the afternoon, and she would start it then and it would be ready within two hours. But really, how long does it take to throw a small bag of clothes into a laundry machine? A few minutes. But as the laundry room was right outside of our bedroom, I noticed that she didn't even put it into the laundry machine until an hour after I spoke to her. So when it rolled around to the middle of the party, I asked her about it, and she made a face realizing she forgot about it and still had to put it into the dryer. Given that I really wanted to pack before I went to bed, I was getting antsy and annoyed. But I said ok, and figured it would be ready by the end of the party.

The Carnaval party was a lot of fun, although not that many people dressed up. We met a bunch of other young people vacationing in Portugal...all of whom lived in France! Vacances d'Hiver really spreads us all out around Europe, I suppose. And because our costumes were just so lovely, we won a free bottle of Port wine! We considered bringing it home, but instead we just opened it then and drank it with other guests at the hostel, quite a number of whom were tuned to the TV, watching the long-track speed skating at the Olympics. Naturally, I joined them.

Some time after midnight, I went back to the room, hoping to see my laundry. It was not there. I went back down to the front desk, but the girl who was responsible for finishing my laundry had already gone home, and now there was a new girl on the night shift, stuck with fixing what the first girl didn't do. Apparently all of my clothes were still wet. I was pretty angry on the inside, but I realized yelling wouldn't do anything about it, especially considering it wasn't this new girl's fault. I told her I didn't know what to do since I had to pack and we had to leave at 7 AM to catch our flight back to Lille. First, she gave me a refund (which I didn't ask for, but I think I was due for one and definitely appeased me), and then she even offered to pack for me. Although I appreciated the offer, I turned it down as I really like to pack my things myself and know where everything is.

Thus, I had to get up much earlier than I planned or wanted to in order to collect my clothes and then figure out how to stuff them back into my Mary Poppins-esque bag all over again.

Our taxi ride to the airport was swift and cheap, plus the driver had picked a great station on radio. Noticing that we liked the songs and started singing along (we were way too chipper for that early in the morning), he turned the volume up and we all cheered. Porto's airport was much more elegant and modern than we expected, and we were even there too early. (Again, I was picturing something from the movie Airplane!) And since our costumes were recently purchased and a bit delicate, we couldn't really pack them. It was Carnaval anyway, so we just wore them at the airport, attracting a lot of looks and even a chuckle from the security agents at Rachel's gold-sequined beak mask.

It was time to board our last Ryanair flight of the journey, and we even got first-class! (The front row.) Two short hours later, even spotting Paris outside the window on the journey north...shortly followed by a giant blanket of snow covering the North, we were back in Lille.

Lisbon: Europe's San Francisco

When I first saw Lisbon, I wondered if the plane had gone too far as we were sailing over the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, at least it looked like the Golden Gate. Actually, the orange and white easyJet plane was sailing directly over and not too high above a red suspension bridge, which was the April 25 bridge, right next to a mini version of the Christ Redeemer statue.

Given that the flight plan takes aircrafts right over the bridge and then over the entire city, which was much larger than I imagined, we got a pretty good overview right from the start. It didn't hurt that it was all in the middle of a beautiful sunset. Getting from the airport to the city center was extremely simple. It was finding the hostel after we got off the bus in Rossio Square that proved to be the challenge. We didn't have a map and only street directions - but we didn't know where any of the streets were. Rachel stopped and asked several different people, all of whom were very nice but (naturally) only responded in Portuguese. So we were a bit lost, to say the least. But finally, we came across someone who spoke English, and after about 30 minutes of searching, we found the Living Lounge Hostel.

And we discovered that we were staying in the best hostel in the whole world. Really.

The Living Lounge Hostel is nicer than most hotels that I've stayed in. The staff were warm and welcoming, and all of the rooms (bedrooms, bathrooms, lounges, kitchen) were very modern, clean and had a theme. Plus there were several free amenities that other hostels normally charge for, including linens, towels, Internet and a hair dryer. Oh, and free Port wine for all! Given that we were staying in the "lomography" themed room and there was a lot of kitschy furniture abound, after a few minutes, I finally put my finger on it: We were staying in an Urban Outfitters. It was the most hipster place I'd ever seen.

Turns out that's fairly reflective of Lisbon as a whole, given that most young people were dressed like hipsters. That, plus the bridge lookalike, old cable cars on the streets and the city being famous for seven hills convinced me and Amy that Lisbon is truly Europe's San Francisco. I used to think it was Amsterdam, given the liberalness, laid-back attitudes on just about everything, tepid weather during the summer and relatively friendly people. But with the exception that San Francisco is far cleaner than Lisbon, the two cities could be cousins at the least.

After an entire day of traveling from Palma to Portugal, you can only imagine that both Rachel and I were very tired. Since Amy had arrived at the hostel before we did, she naturally went out and check out the sites, so we decided we'd wait for her to get back. And when she did, not only did she have two new Brazilian friends in tow, but also bags full of food! Oh, best day ever. So we all made dinner together (well, frozen pizzas and salad, but it was delicious), and just chilled at the hostel afterwards. Unfortunately, our new friends were leaving to go home to Brazil the next day, after a 45-day tour around Europe. It's too bad when you meet really cool people, and only get to know them for such a short time. Geography can suck sometimes.

The next day, it rained. As usual. So we decided this would be the best time to check out indoor attractions: museums. We checked out two museums, one on fashion and the other fine arts - both of which we got into for free with student IDs. (Well, I'm going to be a student again in May...sort of.) While both were good, I definitely loved the fashion museum more. The whole museum was dedicated to an exhibit on fashions from the 1960s and 1970s, enhanced by a soundtrack of  songs from those decades, a timeline involving world events and fashion plus screens with films made at that time (A Clockwork Orange seemed to stick out the most). Plus all of the hippie furniture reinforced my stance that Lisbon is a hipsterville. After checking out the fine arts museum on the other side of town, we realized it was time for another indoor activity: shopping.

We had a bit of a scare on the way back into town though. After walking out of the fine arts museum, we saw a bunch of preteen boys holding water balloons. The three of us said nothing, avoided eye-contact and tried to calmly walk away from the situation. Yet out of the corner of my eye, I could see them eyeing us. Amy and I were nervously looking at each other, constantly asking all the way down the block, "OMG, are they still looking?" fearing that all of a sudden they would charge down the street and attack. But luckily, no such thing happened. Then we waited for the cable car/trolley to arrive for about 15 minutes, while we watched three arrive at once in the other direction. Just like...MUNI. The similarities are endless.

After perusing some stores in Barrio Alto, a neighborhood filled with shops near our hostel, we decided to make a trip to Starbucks. Being the only one in Portugal and that we hadn't had Starbucks in a good long while, we thought it would be fun and a nice treat. But then when we walked into the shopping center where it was located, we noticed something strange. It was very dark inside. That was because the power was out - and not just in every store. We walked the few blocks back to our hostel, where there was also no power. A block on the grid must have been wiped out because there was no power anywhere nearby, meaning that all the shops and restaurants were closing early - and we were HUNGRY. But after an hour or two, it came back and we were all happy again.

We had dinner at the hostel, which has an 8€ prix-fixe menu each night. All of their dinners include three courses, then free bread and wine. And given that it was all delicious, it was a bargain. Actually, most of Portugal is a bargain in comparison to most countries in Western Europe. That night the main course was "vegetarian Shepherd's Pie," which I didn't quite understand given that ground beef is the heart of Shepherd's Pie, but I was curious nonetheless. While it was still tasty, it should have been called a potato and vegetable casserole.

Coincidentally, the girls seated across from us were American. When we asked what they were doing in Europe, they said they were studying in France. This led us down a procession of questions, narrowing their location down to Northern France, and down to Lille! What a small world. We actually ran into a lot of people living in France on this trip, either French people or others (Americans, Canadians and Brazilians) studying in France and all on vacation given that it was Vacances d'Hiver. I guess this is what Europe is like every six weeks. You can just expect a load of new tourists arriving from France now and again given how much vacation they give out in this country, and that a lot of it is doled out during the same time periods.

On Saturday morning, we woke up to the most lovely sight: sunshine. This was our one chance to do some serious outdoor activities, so we headed for the train station to go to Sintra, a touristy town about 40 minutes away with several castles and palaces along a mountainside.

Normally, getting train tickets is a very straightforward process. But given that there were several long lines at the ticket machines and windows, it wasn't quick. Luckily there are trains to this town every 10 minutes. As we couldn't figure out the automatic ticket machine, even with the help of a few nice locals, Rachel went and lined up to buy them in the ticket window. As she had been in line for a few minutes, we went and joined her. Everything was going fine until we got up to the window. It was pretty obvious that the three of us were together given we had been talking together in line for the past 10 minutes.

But then, as we approached the window, some nasty old man behind us in line started yelling at us in Portuguese and literally shoved me and Amy aside. And when I say shoved, I mean seriously pushed. I actually stumbled a bit. He didn't tap on our shoulders or try to get our attention before. He shoved us right at the counter window. Some woman next to him decided to join in at yelling at us. We had no idea why they reacted this way, given that Rachel had been in line before they were and we certainly didn't cut anyone. Even the ticket agent asked them what their problem was. Even if we had cut, to exhibit that kind of behavior where you actually put your hands on a stranger is rude, uncalled for and he should be ashamed of himself. To conduct yourself that way at any age is disgraceful. Rachel bought the tickets for all three of us, and as we walked away, Amy said to him in a voice that was firm yet somehow still sweet, "I hope you have a very bad day," which prompted the giggles for someone who understood English behind them.

Amy and I agreed that's where the similarities between Lisbon and San Francisco ended.

When we got to Sintra, the sun was shining, but it was still a bit chilly, especially at the top of the mountain. We took the shuttle to the top, around some very narrow woodland roads similar to Highway 17 on the way to Santa Cruz, only tighter. We decided to start at the top and make our way down, starting with the royal Pena Palace at the top. It was so colorful that it almost didn't look real. More like a casino in Vegas. The views from the top were spectacular given the clear day. I could see the Atlantic from one view, and all the way back to Lisbon from another.

The more photo-friendly palace was the outdoor, ruinous Moorish Castle just down the road. Dating back to at least the 10th century, stone staircases spiral around the mountain forming the perimeter for this old outpost. It also made a super location for a photo shoot. Given the lovely weather, some time in fresh air and visiting some really old stuff, I'd say it was a great day. Getting back down the mountain was a little more exciting, as the roads got narrower, making it more difficult for the bus driver to navigate. Then add 30 screaming school children on the bus and you get the picture.

When we finally got back to the hostel, we stopped into Vitaminas, a cute healthy food chain with a salad bar and tons of other healthy treats (banana yogurt purée, spinach strudel, etc.). We all got some pasta salads and brought them back to the hostel, where we mingled with some other new friends. This hostel was definitely the best I've been to for meeting new people. It attracted a more outgoing demographic of tourists, just creating a more lively atmosphere in general.

After dinner, a bunch of us went out to a few bars with traditional Fado music. Both were crowded, as both were about the size of a hole in the wall, but the music in the first bar was enchanting. The second wasn't so bad, except we had to sit on the floor and they were telling stories in Portuguese, making it hard to stay interested. I love music in foreign languages, but its hard to pay attention to narratives when you don't have any idea what they're about.

The sun hung on for a little bit longer on our last day, which also happened to be Valentine's Day. Not much was open in Lisbon, but one attraction that did have its gates open was the Castelo de São Jorge on top of one of Lisbon's seven hills. And it has the perfect view of the city, as seen in the photo below. After wandering around the castle, we headed back to the hostel, made some lunch, and wistfully bid adieu to the best hostel any of us had ever stayed in.

It was also a little bittersweet because I never knew how much Lisbon had to offer. We could have easily spent a week in Lisbon, exploring its quirky neighborhoods and venturing out for day trips to small towns nearby. It was also the first place in Europe where we could really stretch our money. But our time in Portugal wasn't quite over yet, as we got on a bus that afternoon for a four-hour ride north to Porto.

La Isla de Mallorca

Once upon a time, George Sand escaped to the Spanish island of Mallorca with her lover, Frederic Chopin, to escape the nosiness and scorn of the French over their scandalous relationship. But apparently her hideaway wasn't as pleasant as she might have hoped, given that Sand wrote about how much she hated her time on the island in her book, A Winter in Mallorca.

If it's the weather she didn't like, then I can understand a bit. It rained during our stay there…and then it rained some more. Despite the raindrops, it was considerably warmer than Northern France. And I didn't travel to Mallorca to "escape" the French. But it was nice to change up the climate, culture and language a bit.

Although, I didn't get the language adjustment I was expecting. Granted, my Spanish is far rustier than it was on my trip to Spain last June, but I was looking forward to brushing up and seeing how much I could remember. Yet, after less than an hour or two on the island, I noticed something peculiar about the language on the signs and being spoken around our hotel in Palma, the largest and capital city of Mallorca. And I'm not talking about Catalan.

Everything seemed to be in…German.

I'm not quite sure how Palma is advertised in Germany, but during the off-season at least, it seems to be the biggest tourist demographic on the island - by far. All of the signs were in at least Spanish, Catalan and German (and usually English if there was a fourth option), and several of the restaurants around the beaches were all German establishments. I went to Spain with the idea that we'd be eating tapas and drinking sangria out of a faucet, whereas there seemed to be just as many schnitzel and strudels abound. Not that this was a problem - it was just definitely not what we expected.

But I was right about my Spanish being rusty - to the point where I was ashamed of myself. I had to call my mom via Skype on my iPhone several times asking for words and phrases I'm quite sure I knew up until I moved to France. Strange how the two romantic languages I adore and am fascinated by so much seem to map over each other in my brain. Why can't I ever get the two straight? At the same time? After a few days, lots of it was flooding back to me. But after a few days, we were already heading to Portugal.

It wasn't too much of a hindrance though given that most people on the island were very friendly. And by the time we reached our second hostel, the Hostel Tierramar, everyone spoke English given that its run by English people and seemed to be a haven for English, Australian and other English-speaking travelers. We were the only Americans at the hostel…and I didn't come across any others while on the island. One German lady in the elevator even asked if I was from London. (Maybe I should have just gone with it, but I said I wasn't.)  With the smoke-filled bar and pleasant characters with multiple accents, the hostel could have been a good setting for a sitcom.

Along with speaking Spanish, my main objectives for my trip to Spain were eating tapas upon tapas and drinking lots of sweet sangria - both of which were well accomplished. One night we even went on an impromptu tapas/sangria crawl. All I can think about now are dates wrapped in bacon. Genius…

The rest of the time was spent sightseeing on the island, mainly in Mallorca but with a few rained-out excursions to some other villages on the Mediterranean coast. During the offseason, Mallorca is supposed to be filled to the brim with tourists, particularly young ones, all along the soft and sandy beaches. But being that we went in the middle of February (when it's extremely cheap since no one is there) it's also quite wet. But not because of the ocean.

Our first and last days of our time in Mallorca had blue skies, but the middle two were gray and dreary. We foolishly brought swimsuits, even though the highest temperature during the trip must have been somewhere in the high 50s Fahrenheit. Within the city, we traversed many cute, narrow alleyways so typical of Europe that somehow always entertain and delight American tourists to no end. Sometimes we stopped to buy jewelry on sale or bought locally grown, giant and juicy olives at a farmer's market. We also learned that February is the big sales month in Spain and Portugal, whereas January is in France. I guess they rotate in Europe.

Two of the best things I noticed about Palma: first, it's very clean. It's an old city, and in some ways shows its age, but its also well-taken care of. Very few buildings had paint peeling off the sides and the streets, even the tiniest passageways, were very clean. Second, the transportation system is very efficient. One hardly waits for a bus (the longest we must have waited for one to arrive was five minutes), and the buses take you almost anywhere you want to go in the city. Plus, they have a well-organized and very new-looking train station and system to other cities on the island, and commuter buses to most other places nearby.

The first village we took a day trip to was Estellencs over on the coast. After an hour-long bus ride winding along curves reminiscent of Highway 1 on the way to Stinson Beach, we finally got off the bus in a tiny town that appeared to be deserted. But it still looked very posh with a few restaurants, a four-star hotel and many empty, yet expensive-looking homes. It must be a summer home town and I can only imagine how lovely it must be in late July, just a walk from the beach down the hill and watching the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea from this little town tucked into a cove along the coast. After walking around the tiny cobblestone streets and meeting a friendly cat along the way, we stopped into a café, where I had the most amazing lemon sorbet in a champagne flute for only a few Euros. Then we were back on the dizzying bus to Palma.

The next day, we went to Valldemossa, which could have been mistaken for a lovely tourist-centric town in Napa Valley. And this town is lucky it's so cute to begin with, given that it was raining cats and dogs outside. And none of us had umbrellas. I'm thankful I brought my Columbia zip-hoodie sweatshirt on this trip. After trying to dry off in a restaurant with some tapas and hot chocolate, we ventured back outside into the rain again and quickly up a hill to the monastery that Sand and Chopin lived in together. This building was seriously huge and a multi-purpose facility over the years. It was once a monastery with a chapel, and then turned into a hotel of sorts by the state after the French occupation, at which point the happy couple moved in. Now they also have a modern art museum upstairs with a few Miro paintings on display.

On the last day, the sun came out again, and being that it was just Rachel and I by this point, we saved the best outdoor activity for last. We went to a castle. From there we could see the entire city with the sun shining down on it. There weren't many people up there, and it was a bit windy, but it was one of those times where I felt like I was on top of the world. Far from any troubles or worries. Or reality.

Ever since I moved to France, it has felt like I've been away from reality. Or at least the realities I am familiar with and I didn't feel again until I went back to New York for Christmas. That isn't to say things in France aren't real for me, as I've had plenty of hurdles to jump here that are as real as any other. Housing, bank accounts, sorting out bills, the CAF - all in my second language.  None of these things are easy, but they're just the realities of life.

But for a short time on the top of that castle, overlooking all of Palma and out towards the sea with the mid-afternoon sun providing gentle warmth against the winds blowing about, everything was fine.

After four days in Spain, we said hasta luego and headed on another Ryanair plane to Madrid to connect to an easyJet flight to Lisbon. The terminal we were stuck at in Madrid was very representative of the city itself: there wasn't much to do and people were rude. There were two places to eat total, both of which were ridiculously overpriced.  I paid 6€ for a chorizo sandwich the size of my hand, and I was constantly shoved without apology in the duty free shop. It was worse than Manhattan in there.

Thus, I was quite relieved when we finally took off from Madrid, and then an hour later I when I got my first glimpse of a new country.

The Journey South

I used to think the journey from Morningside Heights to JFK Airport was a long one. But that was before I went from Montreuil-Sur-Mer to Brussels Charleroi International Airport in a single day. Four trains, a shuttle bus, a cab ride and then a plane the following next morning is apparently the cheapest way to Spain from here.

Being that it was our third break in the school year (Vacances d'Hiver), a few of us planned a trip to migrate south for 10 days and get out of the cold, rainy weather of Nord Pas de Calais. Our destinations? Spain and Portugal. Our tickets on Ryanair and easyJet for the entire trip were really cheap, and being that it is actually easier to fly from Brussels Charleroi rather than Paris Beauvais (seriously, Beauvais is very far from Paris), we decided to head to Palma, Mallorca from there.

My trip began with waiting for the train at the station, to catch another two trains to Lille. Being that it was a clear day and before noon, I thought there would be no problem or delays. But of course there was. My train to Boulogne-Sur-Mer, which had departed from Arras, was 15 minutes late. And there was only a 22-minute gap in between that train and my connection to Gare Calais-Frethun. By the time the rickety old train finally reached Boulogne, I had two minutes to get myself and my two duffel bags (one of which I was going to live in Lille) four platforms over to the next train. I made it, gasping for air as I flung myself down in my seat, then asking a family in front of me if in fact I was on the right train, which they confirmed.

Up until this point, the sun was uncharacteristically bright with plenty of blue skies hovering over the Cote d'Opale. About 30 minutes later, I was disembarking into a sea of fog. I had to make one more transfer at Calais to catch the TGV to Lille Europe. (Being that it was a Saturday, there are fewer trains towards Lille, thus I had to make two changes, which is unusual but the only way to get there in under two hours.) When the train left me at the platform, it railed away into the mist where I was unable to see it any longer. Within the span of an hour, I had changed from sunglasses to earmuffs. Such is the weather of Northern France.

But within 20 minutes, I was whisking away down to Lille on the high-speed TGV train. After arriving, I completed a couple of errands, namely dropping off one of my bags with my laptop tucked inside at Rachel's apartment in Fives, and then going to La Furet du Nord (a giant bookstore chain) to pick up a copy of The Alchemist for the journey. Being that a Brazilian wrote this novel about a young man traveling in Andalucía (and beyond, but I won't ruin it), I thought it was relevant enough and appropriate for my own trip down to the Mediterranean.

By late afternoon, it was time for the two Rachels to hop on board the Eurostar train to Brussels. Only a 30-minute journey, we arrived at Gare Bruxelles-Midi right on time. Brussels is definitely one of those cities where I visited once and thought, "Okay, well I've seen it and I don't have to come back." Somehow I've been to the quirky little European capital three times now, each time wondering, "How did I get here again?"

We met up with Liz inside the station, and our first order of business was to find the shuttle to Charleroi airport, since we were staying at the Etap Hotel right next door to it that night.

Just to make things clear: Charleroi is not Brussels. Ryanair might say it is, but it's not. We learned this the very, very hard way. I knew we were in for a trek getting there, but it was beyond anything that any of us expected. After meeting up with Liz, we asked a few station agents where was the shuttle to Charleroi Airport. And after asking in both English and French and getting responses in both languages, all of those responses were different. And given that Bruxelles-Midi is the size of a small airport and one of the largest train hubs in Europe, walking around the perimeter of this station countless times while carrying somewhat-heavy bags on our shoulders wasn't exactly relaxing.

After about 20 minutes, we finally came upon a bus that departed every 30 minutes to Charleroi. Being that the description of this bus matched the one we had read about on the Internet before, we assumed this was the correct connection and decided we'd go eat in the center of town first before heading out to the middle of nowhere.

So after getting on a quick train to Bruxelles-Central (which you can only get on if you already had a major train ticket from TGV, Eurostar or Thalys to Midi), we hopped off and ate at the same restaurant I ate at on my first voyage to Brussels in 2004. And what did I eat? The perfect Belgian meal: fries and waffles. All that was missing was a side of mussels, but I had to keep costs down somehow.

After dinner, it was already nightfall, past 6 PM. We were aiming to get back to Midi to get to the bus by 7 PM. After trying to figure out the Brussels metro system for a few minutes, we got onto a train, which transported us back to the 1970s. I seriously questioned whether or not the Berlin Wall had fallen yet or not. It's not that the train was old itself, but it had that mustard yellow and brown color scheme going on that only goes with a shaggy carpet.

Two metro trains later, we were back at the bus stop outside of Midi. Only, after we got on the bus and were about to pay, I asked the driver if he was going to Charleroi. He said he was going to the town, but not the airport, and that we shouldn't board that bus. So we hopped off quickly, and a Belgian girl tried to help us by suggesting we take the train. However, I think we were all sure the train was more expensive and the shuttle bus was only supposed to cost 13€.

So we headed back into Midi, asking two more times where to find the bus. Finally, we tried the last door out of the station that we hadn't exited from before, and sure enough, we found the navette (airport shuttle). After a 45-minute drive, we got to the airport. At this point, it was approaching 8:30 PM. We could even see the neon-blue sign of the Etap hotel, but being that it was dark, freezing and no sidewalks in sight, our only option was a taxi. But when we got into the first taxi, the very brash driver informed us sharply that it would cost us 20€ minimum. For a five-minute drive. So we hopped out of there as faster than we got in. We almost started to walk out of the airport, but there was really no safe way to do that, especially in the dark.

We headed into the terminal, which looked recently renovated, shiny and spotless. (I've always imagined Ryanair to fly into places with wooden shacks for terminals - somewhere that hasn't been renovated since the 1950s and might have an old TWA sign hanging off its hinges, but it turned out to be the quite the opposite on this trip.) As we were unsure at this point what to do, Liz called the Etap concierge, who saved the day by sending over a taxi that only cost 7€ total.

Etap is a hotel chain in Europe that is hit or miss. It's quite cheap (our room was only 49€ per night, then split amongst three people) and they're available in most cities and near most airports. However, they're not always clean (or bearable, as I've read in some reviews). But thankfully, after a voyage that lasted nearly a day just to get to an airport for a 20€ flight, ours was one of the nice ones, with a friendly staff to boot. There was even a TV! What a treat just a simple TV has become after living without one for months.

However, we had only just begun our vacation, and we were already exhausted. Several different phone alarms woke us up at 6 AM, at which point we gathered our things, headed back down stairs and into the taxi back to the airport.

There was one thing that had kept me nervous the whole previous day: I typed in my passport number wrong when checking in for the flight online. I was terrified that because I added an extra digit, they might not let me board the plane as some kind of security precaution. However, it turned out that they didn't even care, just taking a glance at my passport and stamping my boarding pass, "Visa Checked." It was lucky for me, but I certainly hope that any potential terrorists don't try to plan their journey through Charleroi.

Soon later, we were on the plane, flying over the clouds and the European continent to the Spanish island of Mallorca…


On January 2, I walked out my front door in San Francisco at about 5:00 AM PST. I unlocked the door to my studio in Montreuil 25 hours later.

While my journey was long, exhausting and mundane at times, it was relatively smooth - especially in comparison to other winter travel/horror stories I heard from other assistants upon my return. I managed to catch every connection on time and my little brown suitcases made its way successfully to France (filled with 45-lbs. of toiletries, food and a few pieces of clothing I exchanged for things I brought home). Basically, it went plane-plane-train-train. Sounds simple, and since I knew exactly where I was going when I got to France, it pretty much was.

It didn't start out so certain though.

Aside from the fact I was nervous about the weather in Washington, D.C., where I was changing planes at Dulles International, I was also looking at a 30-minute connection time in DC between my flights from SFO to Paris CDG. My brother drove me to SFO about four hours before my original flight (and without traffic, it's only a 20-minute car ride from my house to the airport). We walked up to the United Airlines ticket counter, already busy with plenty of passengers there early, either for flights or because of long security line fears after the Christmas Day incident in Detroit. After flying solely with JetBlue Airways and Virgin America within the United States over the last three years, it was bizarre entering a different terminal at SFO, or flying with a different airline. But the employees of United turned out to be kind and friendly from start to finish.

I asked the ticket agent if I could get on the stand-by flight to DC that was departing an hour before my booked flight, and she replied that I probably could fit on the plane! Lo and behold, about 90 minutes later, I was boarding the flight and even got a window seat (albeit, the seat was in an exit row - a first for me - and directly across from the flight attendant in the jump seat). She also put my bag on the earlier flight, so even if I didn't make it on that plane and ended up being stuck on the later one, my suitcase would probably make the connection to France. (I thought this was a bit strange since I thought according to some of TSA's anti-terrorism rules, every bag that goes on to a plane has to have a passenger with it.) But, given that the flight got to DC on time (although there were some other delays at Dulles due to very strong winds, so only one runway was open for landings and take-offs), I got a nice 90-minute window instead of 30. I decided to use my time to buy a burrito for the last time for a while and read my new book (The Boleyn Inheritance).

With the time change and since the first flight (SFO to DC) was only four and a half hours, it was already 5:30 PM EST by the time my second flight departed from DC. I gave a last look out the window from American soil (pictured, right) and let out a big sigh. While it is always difficult to leave home, the murmurs of French voices on the plane already filled me with excitement to return to France. The part that hurt the most, however, was flying over New York City. By good fortune (and asking the gate agent up until the point where I was in line to board if there were any window seats left), I got a window seat on the left side of the plane. As the plane crept north over the Eastern Seaboard, I knew exactly when we would be approaching New York without even looking at the map anymore. And then I saw the Manhattan street grid, perfectly straight from my angle and glittering like threads of gold.

Then there was just darkness. For a really long time. And most unfortunately for me, the only flight I was able to get any sleep on was that first one. So for seven long hours to Paris, I was awake. It's time like that in which I really hate traveling alone. But as the tiny plane on the Google map flew over the island of Jersey, then Rouen and finally landed in Paris, I gained a tiny second (or third or fourth) wind.

I booked it off the plane. Given that I only had a purse for a carry-on, I knew where I was going, confident enough with the language, I felt like a local already. Getting to Immigration and baggage claim was a bit of a walk (with a moving sidewalk), and the baggage claim area at CDG Terminal One was the most bizarre room I've ever seen in an airport. (Maybe ever.) I thought I walked into a giant hamster maze for adults. There were tubes with escalators going every direction. Fortunately for me, there were again more EU citizens on the plane than non-EU citizens, so I zoomed through Immigration, and my bag turned out to be the fifth one to roll down the conveyor belt. After a few "excusez-moi"s, I grabbed my bag and power-walked for the AirTrain to take me to CDG Terminal 2, where the SNCF-TGV station is.

Turns out I didn't have to walk so fast since the first and next train to Lille wasn't leaving for another 45 minutes. Not to mention that since I now have a French bank card compared to when I first arrived, I was able to buy my ticket from the SNCF kiosk (since my card has a chip) and not have to wait in the INSANE line at the ticket counter. After waiting a bit to see which platform would be announced and checking my email on my iPhone (it felt so good to have internet on my cell phone everywhere again), the voie (platform) was posted on the board.

I was about to take the elevator down, when I ran into Liz Louie! France is turning out to be a small place. After a long voyage and leaving home after the holidays, I was already a little down-trodden, so it felt good to see a familiar, friendly face. She was taking the train back to Lille after a trip down south, so we caught up with Vacances de Noël stories while waiting for the TGV to approach. However, we had to sit in different cars since we bought our tickets separately. When I found my seat, it was the most bizarre part of a TGV train I'd ever seen. It must have been the first class car's coat or luggage closet before, since it was part of the first class car, but there were only a handful of seats, and most of them aligned flat against the wall like a subway car.

When I landed in France, it was still dark, at about 7:0o AM CST. Now that it was closer to 9:00 AM, the sun was rising over the snow-covered valleys and farms that I passed on my trip to the airport in December. Except this time there was actual sun. I dare say that it was one of the most beautiful days I have ever seen and experienced in France. Unfortunately for me, I was too tired to appreciate any of it.

After my train arrived at Gare Lille Europe, I dragged my little brown suitcase over to Gare Lille Flandres, where there was the one direct train of the day to Montreuil, leaving at 11:30 AM. I sat in the waiting area reading my book, while vagrants were walking in and out (out because the station guards were constantly checking on them). Considering it was freezing outside (literally), I felt really awful for them since they weren't causing any trouble and not asking anyone for money, just trying to sit inside and escape the wind chill.

Finally, my train to Montreuil was announced, I got up and on to the last part of my voyage. I had the hardest time trying to stay awake. My eyelids felt like hard stones and I couldn't lift them anymore. But I was more afraid of falling asleep and waking up at the train's terminus: Calais. (I'm not afraid of Calais; it's just really far past where I needed to be.) The sunshine was absolutely gorgeous, and I'd normally give anything to have such a nice view from the train. At about 1:30 PM, the TER finally pulled up to Gare Montreuil-Sur-Mer, after which I dragged my suitcase up the giant hill, past the ramparts, through the cobblestone village streets, into the very empty Grand Place and then up the stairs to my studio.

The bizarre feeling upon walking into my studio was: it was like I never left or went anywhere. I was back in some surreal dream. Is it because it's France? A tiny village in the middle of nowhere? Such a contrast from New York or San Francisco? I don't think there are as many contrasts between French and American cultures as some people might think (or like to admit, on either side), but maybe I've really adjusted to living here.

The downside to being back: I had jetlag for over a week.

Coming to America

Getting to Montreuil wasn't easy. Getting OUT was even more difficult. First off, I couldn't take the train to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport and get there before my flight within the same day within reasonable hours. I could have left at 7 AM, changed in Arras and arrived at CDG 8 hours before my flight, but I preferred not. Thus, I left Montreuil for Lille on Wednesday (Dec. 16) and spent the night at Rachel's place. This turned out to be a great idea as it was quite a fun evening and picked up my spirits before heading home.

However, we ran into a problem with keys. She had class early in the morning, and my TGV to CDG wasn't until noon. Thus, we rushed to Euralille at 8 PM at night with the foolish hope that a key copy shop would still be open. Carrefour (France's Wal-Mart) still was, but as we soon found out, the key place wasn't. Rachel and I tried coming up with several different plans, but given the way her buildng is designed (you need a key to lock the front door, mailboxes are on the inside, etc.) we couldn't think of anything right away. We decided to ponder further over at her friend's apartment, quite close to Gare Lille Flandres. As we were walking over in the frigid weather, I noticed something falling on me. Something soft and fluffy, but it kept disappearing on my coat.


I knew France's first snowfall was coming soon since I had just heard news about it hitting England already that day. While it was all lovely and romantic, I knew this wasn't going to be good for my travel plans. I tried to put it out of my mind, as the key situation was more pressing. After debating whether or not I should call someone we knew to meet up with me in the morning and take the keys, Rachel realized we could meet at Porte de Douai while she was taking the bus in between schools, and I could give her the keys there. That was settled, and we enjoyed the rest of the evening with some wine and snowflakes before one of her friend's drove us back to her apartment.

When I woke up in the morning, I wasn't as excited as I normally am when I see what I saw. Lille was a winter wonderland. The fresh and clean snowfall was delightful and a perfect touch to the already-decorated city, but it was not what I needed before my flight to New York. Our key plan worked perfectly, especially since I had a tiny roller suitcase. I took the bus to Porte de Douai, said a fond farewell and save travels to Rachel as she was going home a few days later, and then caught the train directly to Gare Lille Europe, where I waited just a bit for my TGV to the airport.

The landscape outside the windows on my 59-minute high-speed ride was quite the contrast to the one I had taken to Lille three months ago. Back then, the sun was shining, there was some warmth in the air and the fields were relatively green and bright. Now everything was covered in a shiny white blanket of snow. It was also far easier without tumbling along with three giant suitcases. Instead, I just jumped off the train at the very convenient CDG station, as the train continued on to Rennes.

That's when I saw the reality of the situation on the Departures board. A good deal of the flights were canceled, including all of those headed to England. So far, my New York flight was A-OK. I headed up to the Air France departures terminal and got in line to drop off my bag. Then, I hit a milestone in my time in France: for the first time at the airport (or any other place that deals with a lot of tourists in Paris), I spoke to the employee in French...and they replied in French!! It's usually always automatically in English. But I said in French that I printed my boarding card the night before, and she said that was great and asked where I was going, etc. in French! Then I placed my little brown suitcase on the conveyor belt and just hoped everything inside (especially two bottles of wine and a bottle of Ch'ti beer) would make it safely to America.

Everything continued to go smoothly, as I went through French border control, then security and then on to my terminal via shuttle train. I was amazed by how friendly all of the airport employees were towards me. I don't know if it was because of Christmas, the first snowfall, not too many travelers at the airport that day, the fact that I spoke in French first always, or the ridiculous giant grin on my face because I was so happy to be going to NYC. I had an hour or so left before boarding, and the flight was still supposedly on time. I got some spinach quiche, a glass of wine and some petite treats for my final meal and picked up the three very well-designed bilingual magazines published by Air France. (Would LOVE to work for one of those).

By 4 PM, I was just Twittering and waiting by the gate as that's when we were supposed to start boarding. However, we weren't. There wasn't even any indication by the movements of the employees by the gate that we should get ready. After a few minutes, a passenger asked an AF employee in a yellow vest when we would start boarding. Then he replied, in English, "Oh, well we think it might be delayed about five hours." My jaw dropped.

Five seconds before this, all was peaceful around the gate. After this sentence, all the New Yorkers showed their colors and bounced up from their seats, throwing questions at the AF employees left and right. They ranged from, "Are you serious?" to "You better tell us the truth right now" to "It's not even really snowing outside!" And that NYer was right: if that were JFK, we definitely would have taken off anyway. There are always crews going around, clearing snow from the runways and de-icing planes, 'round the clock. In Paris, there was pretty much no one outside doing anything. (And it was only about 28-30 degrees F.)

Normally, I'm quite embarrased when I hear Americans speaking so loud and acting this way in France. It's no wonder they hate us sometimes. But this time, I was proud to be a New York resident. Someone had to express our frustrations, and no one expresses frustrations better than a New Yorker, let alone a whole plane of them. Then one of the passengers asked if we could go up to the AF Elite Member Lounge since we were going to be stuck there for hours, to which the now-frazzled employee said "yeah, probably." So we headed up there, all ready to make up some story to find that the lounge front desk was pretty busy. So four of us just walked in. And it was like heaven. There was an unattended open bar with a fine selection of wines, beers and spirits, along with a table of free food, and a refrigerator of sodas, bottled water and other specialty drinks. There was also free Wi-Fi, free French magazines (I picked up French Premiere, with Natalie Portman on the cover) and free international newspapers (I picked up Le Monde and The Guardian, since I can't get those so easily in the U.S.). Plus, all the chairs were plush and leather, and there were HD flat-screens tuned to France 24, reporting on Copenhagen and then the poor weather at CDG. Of course. I even met a Columbia Journalism school alum who works for Global Post in Paris, and we shared a bunch of stories about professors who seem to never leave. I guess you really can find J-Schoolers everywhere.

After about an hour up in the lounge, there was an announcement that Air France Flight 10 to New York-JFK was finally boarding. I even got to board with First Class since they were just trying to get us all out of there. However, we were all shuttled by bus to the plane, which took about 45 minutes. Then, we sat on the plane for another hour before moving. Finally, after falling asleep for a bit, we finally starting moving, at which point I switched off my iPhone thinking we were going to take off. But then we just moved to another part of the airport where we had to de-ice the plane. This took about another 30 minutes. Basically, it was like going through a carwash. The two guys inside the truck took a hose to the plane and just went at it, as the snow began to fall every which way from the top of the plane to the bottom, and then flying off the wings. It's a good thing they warned us that the sights and sounds from this process was completely normal, or I'm sure we all would have been a little freaked out.

About a minute after this process and about four hours after we were originally supposed to take off, we were wheels-up in the sky. Considering I couldn't see a darn thing out the window until about 5,000 feet from all of the snowy clouds at 8:30 PM CST, it was a very smooth take-off, and so was most of the rest of the flight.

Despite the delays, Air France is truly a great way to travel across the Atlantic. The dinner was delicious (I almost licked the plate from the boeuf à la sauce de moutarde (beef with mustard sauce), plus there was free champagne for an apertif and unlimited free wine. Not to mention that their media library is also quite packed and useful (when it stopped working somewhere over Greenland and they had to restart it). I finally watched The Hangover, which has to have been one of the best comedies I've ever seen.

Finally, after seven and a half hours in the sky, I saw the bright lights of Manhattan's skyline as we gently touched down at JFK Airport. And being near the front of the plane and apparently one of the few Americans in that section, I made it through Immigration almost immediately. Then I got my bag from the Carousel, all safe and sound. Upon making my exit from Customs, I was bombarded by shady taxi drivers asking if I needed a ride to Manhattan, and that big, ridiculous grin returned to my face. I was back home in New York City. I ignored them, and like a proper New Yorker, I got in a Yellow Cab and headed for Stephanie's apartment on the Upper East Side. I even got a very nice driver, and speedy one at that, getting me there in 30 minutes.

Twenty hours after I left Lille, I finally made it.

Bordeaux: Land of Wine and Macarons

rachel-king-Saint-Emilion On a very typical Lille morning (rain, cold, more rain) on October 27, four female American language assistants boarded a TGV with a final destination of Bordeaux. After only three weeks at work (and a total of six in France for me), we already had our first paid vacation. Life in France can be very good.

As the little blue dot on my iPhone Google map application treaded southward past Gare Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy (a.k.a. the station for EuroDisney), there were only blue skies for us for the next seven days. But, as we learned, there's a price to pay for nice weather. Namely, you're trading in friendly people for friendly weather. You can't have both in France. Nowhere is perfect. While we arrived in Bordeaux twenty minutes late, the five-hour train ride fairly pleasant. High-speed train is really the most relaxing way to travel long distance on a budget (Although I've never been on a cruise ship, I've never been fond of boats.). But I did make the mistake of forgetting to bring enough snacks along for the ride, and in a moment of weakness somewhere near Tours, I made my way to the Bar Car and ended up paying € 2 for a bag of Lays classic potato chips. I still can't believe I did that.

After taking the very sleek and futuristic tram into the center of Bordeaux where our hotel was, we got in a bit of sightseeing before the day was out. We started out at the Place de la Bourse, which has a huge fountain spraying pink water and the nymphs above the fountains had pink sashes draped over themselves for breast cancer. After that, we walked on water. Literally. Bordeaux has a giant, flat reflecting pool that tourists and locals mingle barefoot over, splashing about in the daytime and then admiring the brilliant reflection of the Parliament buildings at night.

After checking out the local carnival, we met up with Liz's Bordelaise friend, Veronique, who did us the great favor and service of showing us around Bordeaux each evening. But as we were all exhausted by the end of the first day, we passed Rue Sainte-Catherine (the longest pedestrian street in Europe), had a round of drinks and called it a day. Not without trying to find a local grocery store first though. However, we were five minutes too late when we got to the closest market to the hotel, which was actually open pretty late for France (9 PM). After deciding to walk another block, we passed a Chinese food restaurant, which prompted us to all swear to eating there for dinner the following evening as we all had gone into Asian-food withdrawal. A few doors later, Amy screamed at an appropriate American-volume level, "It's a liquor store!" There we were able to gather necessary supplies, namely wine and cookies. After we got back to the hotel and realizing being four girls in the "penthouse" (fourth floor) of the hotel and the week of Halloween, it was the perfect time for slumber party-style sharing of ghost stories. While I told my usual Unit 3 Computing Center "I saw a Ninja-looking ghost" story again (which is so true), Amy definitely won with her retelling of La Llarona, which might not have been the most pleasant imagery before going to bed.

rachel-king-bordeaux-macaronsThe four of us woke up fairly bright and early (for a vacation) refreshed and ready for a full day in Bordeaux. Most of that day consisted of drinking wine and eating macarons. After visiting a very sketchy flea market in the morning (looking more like a garage sale without any garages), and lunch on the steps of the Grand Théâtre à la Gossip Girl (I should have worn my sparkly headband), we first visited the Maison du Vin...then the Musée du Vin! The Bordelais have much to be proud of (please don't take that as sarcasm, I do mean it.) Bordeaux is a very beautiful, clean city. It's a mini-version of Paris, just less hustle and bustle. On our way to the Musée, we discovered we all like antiquing. Rachel walked out with a very pretty pair of gold earrings, I left with an old-fashioned (or maybe just old) poster of 19-century French fashion and a deck of cards, and I think Amy left with a bag. (I can't remember if Liz got anything at that particular antique shop.)

After touring the Musée and a few tastings of wine, I left with a few bottles that I can't discuss as they're surprises for people who might read this. But we stopped by the macaron shop again on the way home, where I got five macarons (blackberry, rose, pistachio, vanilla and raspberry) and two kouignettes (raspberry and apple). Then we had Chinese food for dinner, which wasn't too bad actually, and then drinks at Le Petit Bois (the little forest). Decorated with trees inside and wallpaper reminiscent of Versailles, it looked like an Anthropologie catalog. Thus, I liked it.

We set out for Saint-Émilion on our final full day in Bordeaux. Saint-Émilion is a tiny town in Bordeaux's eastern wine country. When we hopped off the train in the early afternoon, we were welcomed to very surprising warm weather (so much that I had to find a bathroom/corner to take my leggings off it was so warm) and absolutely no one at the train station. There wasn't even a town in sight. The station itself was closed an there weren't many signs pointing towards any civilization. And I thought Montreuil is petite.  But after a bit of dilly-dallying around some fields near the station, Liz stopped inside a vineyard office and asked where the town (and tourism office) was. We were pointed up hill (of course). After about 10 minutes of walking and just around the bend, there was the town. Extremely cute (and extremely touristy), we definitely made a good choice in picking Saint-Émilion to visit. At this point in the day, we really only had time for one winery, a trip to the Catacombs and possibly the Disneyland-looking train ride around the area. After finding the tourism office at the very, very top of the hill, we were pointed back down in the other direction to Château Le Chatelet.

When we arrived at Le Chatelet, we had to knock on the door a bit since it didn't seem like anyone was there. But then the manager came out to greet us and asked if we wanted a dégustation (tasting), to which we all promptly replied, "YES." Patrick, the manager, was extremely friendly, telling us all about his Grand Cru bottles, of which we tried the 2003, 2005 and 2006, and then the warm, smooth, fruit-filled 2007 Le Chatelet. While the last bottle was my favorite, it was € 60. So we all ended up taking a bottle of our second favorite for € 35 per bottle: the 2005. While the three San Franciscans of the group briefly flirted with the idea of shipping bottles back to SF collectively to save costs, we realized we still couldn't afford it (the shipping minimum was € 150 for 12 bottles...then the prices of the bottles). Perhaps we can go back in the spring. But, nonetheless, as there was no one else there besides of the four of us and the very hospitable Patrick, it was a lovely nice private tasting session. We even got a peek at the cellar, which as far as the winery goes, is five generations old. But the cellar itself is probably over 1,000 years old.

After grabbing our bottles and bidding farewell to Patrick, we headed back to the top of Saint-Émilion. However, as it was late afternoon, we had been walking all day and not really eaten much. Thus, the tastings quickly added up and we were stumbling but smiling all the way back up. We missed the only English-language tour of the Catacombs 4 PM that we bought tickets for by six minutes, but as we were all in an extra-good mood, we just said, "Oh, we can just take the tour in French! No problem!" By the time the French tour rolled around (4:30 PM), I was starting to become sleepy and I probably wouldn't have gotten much out of a tour in English. But with the tour in French, I was pretty much sleep-walking. After an hour and a half, we realized we didn't have time for the Disneyish wine country train, thus, after stopping for some yummy mushroom Quiche and hot chocolate, we headed back down to the train station.

There wasn't anyone else besides us, a few young French people, and a group of young Asian tourists. By this point, the wine had worn off and we were just ready to eat as soon as we got back to Bordeaux after the 40-minute TER (local) train ride. I don't know if it was because we were tired or it was close to Halloween, but even though we weren't standing that close to the tracks, when a train in the opposite direction headed towards the station at full speed (maybe 60 MPH), it literally looked like it was going to jump off the tracks. Thus, when it whizzed past us, we all screamed and jumped back towards the station wall. I even ran with my hands covering my face. We all clung close to the wall laughing so hard that the French people started laughing at us too, but I assert they were laughing with us. Whatever. Our train eventually came, and Rachel read us another passage from my our new must-read, Are You There Vodka, It's Me, Chelsea (by Chelsea Handler).

On the only morning with substantial fog and clouds we had outside of Lille, we went back to Gare Bordeaux-St.Jean for a seven-hour train ride to Marseille. They really need to install a TGV line in between those two cities. I'm a bit shocked there isn't already one. The Corail-TEOZ train was comfortable, but ran at about the same pace as Amtrak. Unacceptable. Passing many places I wouldn't mind stopping in the future (Toulouse, Montpellier, Carcassonne, almost near Perpignan...), the ride went almost without incident. But somewhere near Nîmes, a group of rowdy, greasy-looking guys started talking really loudly and asked if they could "buy" our table from us. Seating is assigned on TEOZ, and even though it was a joke, the manner in which it was delivered was so rude that it wasn't funny. If only we knew then what we had to expect when we arrived in Marseille...

Festival Des Soupes

rachel-king-festival-des-soupes When I bought my Let's Go: France guide-book a few months back (and after I noticed its serious printing press error of 14-pages about Spain instead of France), I came across a list of annual festivals in my humble village of Montreuil-Sur-Mer. While most take place in the summer, I happily saw one at the end of October: Le Festival des Soupes et des Pains (The Soup and Bread Festival). The book described it as a lively event in the town citadel, with admission set at 5€...all-you-can-eat soup and bread. While I was really excited about this, I wasn't sure how much other people would actually care to come up for it.

Apparently, plenty. After I mentioned it to several other American assistants in Lille, nearly all of them were ecstatic about the idea. Initially, about seven or eight assistants said they'd come up for it, but being the first weekend of the Vacances de la Toussaint (my first of four paid two-week vacations while teaching over here), naturally some people's plans changed. But Rachel, Pat, Marc and Rory seemed determined on the prospect of an endless supply of soup.

I sent out a confirmation Facebook message a few days in advance to see who was still coming, as I became nervous about how many people I could actually fit in my tiny studio. On Friday evening, I received a very mysterious series of text messages from Marc, first asking for my address. I sent it back, also asking what time they planned to arrive on the train. He said that he and Rory wouldn't be taking the train, and I'd see them the next evening. While they had previously joked about biking from Lille to Montreuil, we all thought they were kidding. The two towns are 68 miles apart. But no, the pair seriously conducted their own mini Tour de France, eleven hours from Lille to my studio. More on their arrival later...

While the two of them were probably up and getting ready to leave down in Lille early Saturday morning, I received a text message from Paul around 7:30 AM. It wasn't really a problem as I was getting up at 8:00 AM anyway, as Nathalie was picking me up at 9:00 AM to drive me to the weekly morning marketplace in Le Touquet. But I've found that California and France are the perfect distance apart for receiving drunk dials and texts, at least on my end. As it was around 10:30 PM in San Francisco, the roosters were chiming "cocorico" (or, how the French hear "cock-a-doodle-do") on my end. After chatting for about 30 minutes (who knows how much that cost him...), I got up and ready for Le Touquet. It was absolutely dismal outside, finally pouring for about an hour straight while we were at the marché. I ended up getting a pair of ankle-high flat grey boots, which Nathalie negotiated in French down to 20 € for me. She also very sweetly bought me a handful of noisette (hazelnut) chocolates, which I ate for lunch.

Shortly after arriving back at my studio, I embarked on the first of several trips down the hill to the train station, first to collect Rachel, who was coming in with the two Lance Armstrongs' stuff. Then a few hours later, we headed back down to retrieve Pat, who was arriving from Paris after staying there for a night. While we were down at the station, this time at about 7:00 PM, we received calls from the biker boys that they had arrived in Montreuil and were waiting outside my apartment. After an 11-hour journey that involved popped tires and a Google Maps mistake that said there was a bridge over a river where there clearly wasn't (I said they should have tried to caulk the wagon, but whatever), there they were: exhausted, sweaty and throwing back some beers, which turned out to be 7 € each - only 2 € less than the train ride would have been from Lille. Oh well.

After cleaning up and stocking up on beverages and snacks at the Shopi (a mini-mart) downstairs, we headed back into the bistro downstairs where my Paraguayan friend, Jean, is a waiter. For the first time ever, I ordered a seafood dish as my main course: mussels and fries. Probably the only seafood I can stand, it was very good, but I realized I'm not ready for a full seafood meal yet. I shared my mussels with the rest of the table and concentrated on the fries. As the boys were tired, and the weather wasn't the best, we passed the rest of the evening in the studio playing cards and drinking French wine and beer.

When I awoke Sunday morning, aside from a headache, something that Julia said to me on Friday suddenly passed through my head: time change. I'm not sure when the time changes in the United States this year, but daylight savings time ended in France on Sunday morning, giving all of us an extra hour of much-needed sleep. My iPhone (with the Orange France Telecom carrier) changed the time for me, but my American Motorola didn't.

After much-needed coffee and orange juice, we headed out for the weekend's main event: The Soup Festival! There were over two dozen different kinds of soups, prepared by local farmers and chefs. Some of my favorites included spinach, pumpkin, Saint-Germain and, an oldie but a goodie, Lentil. Unfortunately, I missed out on the tomato garlic soup, and I wasn't too impressed with the garlic or onion soups. But all the bread was amazing. However, I wasn't quite prepared for how much of a mob scene it would be. People were pushing everywhere to get to the front, go to the bread station or over to the drinks tent, where sodas and du vin chaud (hot wine, which is divine and tastes like cider) were being sold. But it was so crowded that at one point, someone bumped into me and knocked the lens cap off of my camera. Rachel and I then spent the next five to ten minutes trying to find a tiny black, Canon lens cap on the ground covered in hay. It was useless, so I'll have to buy another one at some point.

We made two trips to the Soup Festival, as we could re-enter for free for our tickets. In the middle of the day, we toured the ramparts of the village, as the weather was much warmer and brighter than the day before (with the exception of a 30-minute downpour around noon). We also saw a re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt going on near the Citadelle, being that October 25 was the anniversary of that fight. But I found it a bit odd considering the British won that battle, not the French. After the second round of soup, we grabbed our bags and we all headed back to the train station. I was going with them as I'm leaving for the south of France from Lille on Tuesday, and there was no point in staying in Montreuil another night. Plus, its nice to make the two-hour journey with others when I'm usually by myself. But on the way down the hill, the boys had to stop and grab some souvenirs: two Festival des Soupes signs, which prompted many stairs when we were walking through the Metro station at Gare Lille Flandres later on. It was also extra nice as it was a rare direct train to Lille, although the train itself was an older model, one that Rory said "should have been retired after World War I." A bit harsh...but true.

At the moment I'm at Rachel's apartment in Lille, but tomorrow morning, us two plus Liz and Amy will be speeding southward on the TGV to Bordeaux. Tout à l'heure!

London Town

rachel-king-london-regent-streetAfter three weeks in France, I was itching to hear a bit more English being spoken. So I went to England. Well, that wasn't the only reason. The primary reason would be that my dear friend Mary was organizing a petite reunion of the J-Schoolers in Western Europe (more like those in London and +1 from Ireland and +1 from France). When I woke up on Friday morning, I could see some sunlight breaking through the clouds, so I had some hope for the day's weather. Typically, what the weather is in Northern France, it is in England. But as the day progressed, I saw it deteriorate all along my journey, finally culminating in pouring rain when exiting King's Cross-St. Pancras International Station.

It didn't help that back in Montreuil, I realized as soon as the TER pulled away from the station that I had forgotten my Oyster Card AND my Eurostar tickets. I was slightly nervous all the way to Lille that I going to have to pay a hefty fee for getting duplicate tickets, since it said so on the email. When I got to the SNCF counter at Gare Lille Europe, I asked the woman to reprint my tickets, when she replied, "C'est pas possible." (It is not possible.) My jaw dropped. I said nothing. My face must have gone pale. (But judging by the photo above, I'm sure you can guess I did make it to England this weekend.) I think she realized my fright by my lack of motion or life in my body, so she went to go talk to her supervisor. He came out with her and started speaking to me in English. He then pulled out a notepad of Eurostar tickets, gave them to her and she hand-wrote my new ticket. The forms were obviously old since they still said "London Waterloo" on them.  But both of them were very nice, and probably extra so since I didn't cause a fuss, yell or throw a tantrum when I almost didn't get my way.

While I will say the Eurostar is an incredible feat and the simplest way to England possible (I've taken both plane and ferry there), it isn't the most comfortable ride. Second-class on Eurostar is just as cramped as coach on any airplane, with the exception that there's no middle seat. But I was in London from Lille in less than 90 minutes. I was invigorated right when I stepped off the train, despite the rain. Few cities delight me and make me as happy upon arrival as London does (a short list would include SF, NYC and Paris). I can't quite explain the feeling, perhaps its the familiarity with the city at this point. (That isn't to say I don't get lost in London easily. And I think I have a pretty good sense of direction. But that city is an absolute maze.) I was also delighted to see Mary waiting outside the Arrivals exit when I ran out the door and practically tackled her. After a quick trip back to her house in Northwest London, we made our way back in to Spitalfields, where I had my first burrito in weeks. Normally, Mexican food is one cuisine I have learned to stay away from in Europe, since only once (in Paris) have I had anything remotely good (or even edible). But recently, Nick and Frank opened up their own burrito shop in London named Poncho No. 8. Europe is a desert, and Poncho No. 8 is an oasis. I don't think that's an overstatement, as I'm quite hard to impress when it comes to Mexican food. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who finds themselves in London. Plus, it was especially nice that there were specially-made burritos there waiting for us after-hours, thanks to the order that Laurence kindly put in for us.

Most of the rest of the night consisted of drinking several (and several more) rounds of wine, beer and shots of Sambuca at The Three Greyhounds in Soho (which I mistakenly kept calling The Three Broomsticks, which is actually found in Hogsmeade). If it weren't for lots of water and a Subway sandwich that hit the spot, I might have been worse off in the morning. While I wasn't completely myself the next day, I was up and ready before noon for some brunch and shopping near Oxford Circus.

Naturally, Mary brought me to an American-style diner, except they served British-style breakfast. Quite the "special relationship" combo. Afterwards, we met up with her friend/bandmate David, and we set out to complete the one other objective I had for the weekend (besides the burrito): visit Europe's first Anthropologie, which was supposed to have opened on Regent Street in September. The key phrase: supposed to. It wasn't that I was going to buy anything, as since I only have U.S. dollars in my bank account, and I haven't been paid in Euros yet, it would be too expensive for me to buy anything yet. I was really just going to look. But, alas, I couldn't even do that. Once we found it, there it was: the windows covered in paper and the doors were shut closed on a bright, sunny afternoon. I threw myself at the feet of the doors and wept. Well, sort of. More like I pretended to do so and we all laughed for a few minutes straight. I guess I'm just going to have to go back to London next month.

Anyway, after the failed trip to Anthro, we hopped on the 23-line bus towards Mary's house, and more importantly, the Sainsbury grocery store near her house. However, London Transport is ridiculous, and we were forced to take three separate 23-buses to get uptown. (There was a 15-20 minute stop at Primark, which I discovered along the journey, and I CANNOT WAIT to get paid so I can go back there.) Most of the bus ride consisted of Mary telling us about her dreams about the Queen (I guess it's something they all do in England, as I've never dreamt about her. I've never dreamt about any American presidents either. I might have had a nightmare about Cheney once. Oh no, that was an eight-year reality...), and learning how that in middle-class England, when adding the suffix "-ed" to the end of any noun can exemplify how drunk one was the night before. For example, "I was so bungalowed" last night. Try it.

After about an hour and a half (or more, who knows), we made it to the Sainsbury. The highlight of this store was when we pressed the "Press Here" buttons on all of the plush pumpkins on the shelves, which proceeded to sing "I Want Candy." Otherwise, Mary picked up all the necessary ingredients for dinner, while I picked up all the necessary ingredients for Pimm's.

Dinner was quite a success, albeit my petite cold clogged up my nose to the point where I was having difficulty breathing for most of the night. Mary made a vegetable-style lasagna, while Gabriele brought the Spotted Dick. I'm usually scared of most English food, especially given that a lot of dishes have misleading names (See: Sweetbreads). But this has to be one of my favorite English foods now (although, the only other two things I really like are Cottage Pie and trifles...). It was especially delicious drizzled in creamy custard. Plus, anything goes well with Pimm's. Anything. This evening was definitely more tame than the previous night, given all of our hangovers, but it was still lively and late nonetheless. Plus, it was especially nice to see some familiar, friendly faces after moving over to this side of the pond. (Coincidentally, there was another reunion going on over on the other side of the Atlantic, and they all walked to Brooklyn. Too bad I can't be in two places at once.)

Sunday was basically a travel day. I got up again around 10 AM, at which point Conn realized he might miss his flight back to Dublin, so everyone's goodbyes at Mary's house were quick. I was a little nervous about making it back to King's Cross on time when the Bakerloo train decided to sit at one station for 10 minutes.  But alas, I made it back to King's Cross, with £5 to spare. I spent half of it on a copy of Hello! with Kate Middleton on the cover and a bag of cheddar -flavored Kettle Chips. The rest is in my coin purse, mixing with some Euros and ready for their next trip up north in November.

The Brooklyn of Lille

rachel-king-lille-fivesAfter having a very busy, stressful week, I needed to surround myself around friends and take a break from worrying about paperwork. So on Friday, I headed out of Montreuil back to Lille for the weekend. I even had a very special visitor, as Sharon visited me on her first stop during her French backpacking trip. When we first sat down for coffee, I spilled everything that happened in the past week and spoke a mile per minute as it was the most English I had spoken in five days. After heading back to Rachel and Pat's apartment in Fives (pronounced "feeves", which is pretty much the Brooklyn/Hackney of Lille, Sharon and I didn't have much to do as neither of the roommates were at home. But I had their keys since I was staying there for the weekend, so it was no problem getting in (except the 15 minutes I spent at the door trying to figure out the key). But without a TV or internet in the apartment nor a working toilet (it was fixed the following morning), it didn't help we were extremely tired. After about an hour of staring at the wall and listening to Disney tunes blaring on my iPhone, we walked up the street to the first bar or café we could find to use a bathroom. I don't think we were prepared for the place we walked into. Or perhaps they weren't prepared for us. The windows were open, the lights were on and there were people inside, so I made the assumption the bar was open. When I pushed the glass door open, the world stopped. The darts stopped flying, the old people stopped drinking and everyone in the room turned to look at us. It was as if I swung a saloon door open, and it was very obvious we were the new kids in town. I was also immediately surprised by the smell of cigarette smoke clouding the room, since its illegal to smoke indoors now in France. I asked (in French) if the place was open, and the big buff man said yes. Everything resumed as normal, so I walked over to the barman, ordered a coffee and sat down while Sharon went off to the restroom. After I finished my drink (quickly), I followed suit, and we bid them all adieu.

But after another hour of waiting back at the apartment, we were both exhausted, but hungry. There's not much open in Fives after 9 PM, as most people still out at that hour are probably in Centre Ville or near Rue Solferino. But we stumbled upon an open kebab place, where I ordered fries and Sharon got a vegetable sandwich. I would have gotten a kebab, but I was saving it for my 2 AM meal the following night (which I never ended up getting). While we were eating, a local French guy started talking to us, asking us about where we were from, why I was in France, etc. While I love the fact that I'm getting better at French with each conversation, after awhile, I was just too tired to talk in another language. And Sharon was tired from the fact that she had just arrived after a seven-hour flight from New York with only four hours of sleep, being that she had arrived in Paris about 12 hours prior at this point. We managed to squirm away politely after about a 30-minute conversation, and both went home to get a good night's sleep.

The First Day

rachel-king-montreuilI've moved from a city of eight million to a village of 2,000. And no one seems to want to let me forget that. My Motorola phone woke me up at 6:45 AM on Monday morning, giving me enough time to get ready and throw the last few things in my suitcases. Rachel helped me carry my three suitcases down the two sets of stairs, where I bid farewell to her and the Hôtel Moulin d'Or. As I stepped out the front glass door, pulling a big suitcase on each arm, fog was there to greet me. However, I barely noticed the temperature drop from the previous day after the sweat of carrying my bags downstairs. Luckily the trip to Gare Lille Flandres was short: just across the street. However, I overestimated how long it would take me to get ready and bring my suitcases down, thus was 45 minutes early. However, I noticed quite a few of the trains were delayed, including my 8:35 AM TER train to St. Pol-Sur-Ternoise, where I'd connect for the train to Montreuil-Sur-Mer. The train was five minutes late, which made me very nervous as I only had a 9-minute break between trains, and pulling my suitcases off a train and throwing them back on would not be as quick as it sounds.

The TER train system is far slower than the TGV, which stands for Train Grande Vitesse (basically, Big Fast Train). It's probably the equivalent of an express subway train in New York when it's going at its fastest possible speed. But it's still quicker than Amtrak. However, my train pulled out of the station very slowly, and as it slowly picked up speed and some sunlight managed to break through the clouds, I said tout á l'heure to Lille. See, the town where I'm assigned to teach is Montreuil-Sur-Mer, considered within the same school district or academie as Lille, but its 75 kilometers away, with only five trains per day, none of which are direct. So the minimum possible travel time is 1 hour and 55 minutes on the TER. I assume it's faster by car. And with the consistency and frequency that French unions strike in this country, I found out it would be impossible to commute. Thus my resolution has been to spend my weekends in Lille, at least, with my other friends in the program.

As the train made its way to the junction point, St-Pol, I became increasingly nervous (as usual) that I was going to miss my connecting train. We arrived at 9:45 AM, precisely when my next train to Montreuil was supposed to depart. As we approached the station, I didn't see any other trains. And there were only four tracks. The TGV has usually been on time for me in the past, I assumed the TER was the same way. Well, apparently not this morning. When I finished pulling my bags off the train, I asked the station agent where train to Montreuil was, and he replied by telling me it was delayed. "Quarante minutes." Forty minutes. I sighed, but was slightly relieved when I saw the elevator down to the underground walkway between the platforms. But when I reached the elevator, naturellement, it was out of order. Thus, I had to make two trips down the stairs with my bags, and then two very slow trips back up the next set, since that elevator, too, was out of order.

A gaggle of teenage girls were on the platform. One offered me help, but I foolishly said I could handle it on my own. I did, but it hurt. They all went back to laughing and smoking. If I thought the fog back in Lille was thick, it was nothing like that in St. Pol. I could barely see to the end of the platform, nor anything beyond a few trees past the station. If it were a movie, I'm sure a mysterious character dressed in a trench coat and a fedora would have emerged from the mist. But after 40 minutes, the train did.

After another 20-25 minutes, I arrived in Montreuil. While there were actually some patches of blue sky and the station itself looked a little more alive than past ones, it was certainly clear that I was far from any major city. Especially when I jumped off the train, only to discover by the sand already in my shoe that the platform was made out of gravel and sand, not cement. I pulled my suitcases off the train one last time, and two people, one man and one woman, approached me. Saying my name and speaking to me in English, it was definitely my two contacts from the school. Laurent and Nathalie both greeted me with smiles, kisses on both cheeks like any proper French people would and helped me carried my bags to Laurent's car. I apologized prefusely about the delayed train, to which they both simply laughed and said, "This is France." They asked me how I was able to carry such heavy suitcases by myself all this way, and I replied by saying there aren't many elevators in New York apartment buildings, so I'm fairly used to Europe.

By this time, it was close to 11:30 AM. First thing was they brought me to see an apartment. Well, it was actually a room for rent. Both of them insisted that I did not have to take it, and I should be completely honest with them about how I felt. When I saw the elevator, I was already a little pleased. The catch was that I'd be living in the flat of a much older woman, probably somewhere around 65 years old. It was a cozy room, a bit small, and facing a parking lot, but not bad at all. My only concern was how much influence or authority the landlady might want over me. Typically in French home stays, the owners of the home like to exercise parental authority over their guests. While I definitely understand that anyone would have rules over a potential tenant, I'm a bit too old and independent to take on a foreign set of parents. She also talked a bit, as even Laurent said to me on the way out that she was "a bit of a chatterbox." Nathalie informed the woman that I would have my decision in a few days, which I'm still not quite sure about as I write this post. The rent was fine, but I believe hosting any guests would definitely be out.

But I'm not really expecting many guests in this town. As everyone I met that day seemed to tell me in one way or another, Montreuil is a very small town with not much going on. Everyone also seemed to make a big deal of the fact of how long my journey to Montreuil was, starting in San Francisco to New York to Paris CDG to Lille and finally to Montreuil. I guess it didn't seem so bad or so long since I had so many breaks in between the major legs of the journey. Just the suitcases weighed me down. I tried to keep up a smile on my face, saying that the small town didn't bother me and that I was very excited to be living in France. But I was definitely lost on the inside.

Nathalie and Laurent brought me to the Lycée, which was already in the middle of the lunch break. High school was weird enough when I was a student. And I don't think I've been in one since I graduated. But walking into a crowded lunchroom in France isn't much different from one in America. They look fairly the same, and with the noise level as high as it was, individual accents were inaudible. But the food was certainly far better than anything I've ever eaten in any American high school cafeteria. Only €3 for all-you-can-eat. It was a reflection of the school in general: very modern and upscale. Once a monastery, it was now a very advanced school, with plenty of computer, engineering and science labs as well as clean classrooms and a large library as well. For being in the middle-of-nowhere, it is a fine educational establishment.

In that sense, I'm very lucky compared to most in the program, and compared to most of my friends who are teachers in the United States and the UK. I must also emphasize how nice and friendly everyone has been to me at the school so far. My contacts are both very helpful and kind to me. But I began to feel out-of-place quite quickly. My French isn't exactly up-to-par, precisely one of the reasons I came to France. I understood most of what was being said to me, but there was only so much my brain could translate at once. I smiled and nodded a lot. Hopefully no one was insulting me, but I really doubt it. But when other teachers asked me questions, I became very nervous and tense, and I couldn't quite think quickly enough. I kept apologizing for how poor my French is, and everyone insisted that it isn't a big deal and I'll learn, but I still felt pathetic.

The feeling was especially palpable by dinnertime. As I'm staying at the internat (boarding school) until I find a place to live here for the next seven months, I can have my meals at the school. Before dinner, I met up with the other assistante de langue at the school, a 23-year-old from Germany named Julia. It's very nice that I have at least one other person to commiserate with here. Around 5 PM, her school contact brought us to two other rental options, neither of which could fit two people. The first was a very cute, petite French house - but with an emphasis on the petite. This place could only fit one person, or perhaps a couple. While it is fully furnished and with a TV, the upstairs is a loft and the shower isn't private. In fact, it isn't a shower, but rather just a bathtub, and since the roof is slanted, there isn't enough room to stand up. The other option was at the base of the hill, closer to the train station. But it was two beds in one tiny room in an old French home, and the elderly landlady said there was no possibility for installing Internet there. Both Julia and I each looked at each other and left. Both of us need Internet, not just for work, but Skype is our only affordable way to call home. Inevitably, Julia took the small house, while I said I'd keep looking.

I returned to the school as I thought dinner was at 6:45 PM (it's really at 6:30 PM). I walked up to the ticket machine, flashed the new ID card I had been given earlier, but no ticket came out. I needed the ticket to be served, and I also noticed there wasn't much food out left. Thus, I walked back out the door of the building and across the courtyard, trying to comfort myself that I could eat the chocolate I bought in Belgium for dinner. When I got back to the front door of the internat, I couldn't unlock the doors. For some reason, my key kept jamming.

Out of the corner of my right eye, I saw a young woman approaching me. She was one of the RAs of the building, letting me know that I could still get dinner even though I was late. I followed her back into the dining hall, where I was able to get the last helping of steak et frites (fries). But since I was late, I had to eat alone. When the RAs and the students were departing for evening classes, they were asking me some questions. But by this point, I was so hungry and so tired; I couldn't understand a thing anymore. I was so embarrassed and kept saying desolée, to which they replied it was fine. But when they all departed and as I sat alone at the table eating my dinner, tears began to well up. I refused to let them out, as I would not be seen crying on my first day. But I just felt lost and completely alone, both in language and a new, very small town.

Lunch in Brussels

rachel-king-brussels-belgian-waffleAfter a week of exploring Lille's crowded squares, gothic churches and lively nightlife scene, there weren't many options available on a Sunday afternoon. Usually in France, grocery stores, bakeries, many shops, etc. are closed on Sundays, and no one was going to show available apartments to my friends that day either. Plus we were hungry. So what were we to do? Have lunch in Lille? No...we went to Brussels! Why? Because we could. Brussels is just a short, 30-minute ride on the TGV from Lille. And with our SNCF resident discount cards (for ages 12-25), it was only €13 per person to get there. After waking up around 11:30 AM (I think we got back to the Hôtel Moulin d'Or from O'Scotland and the African Bar on Rue Solferino around 3 AM), Rachel and I got ready slowly, as Liana and Pat eventually arrived at our hotel room. We had bounced the idea around of going to Belgium soon, but as we sat in the hotel room with the French music station playing on the TV in the background, we realized we had nothing better to do. I checked the schedule online, only to discover that the next train was in 30 minutes, and the following train wouldn’t depart from Lille until after 3 PM. Thus, we sped across the street, through Gare Lille Flandres and then the following 400 meters to Gare Lille Europe. Actually, we made it with plenty of time to spare since there wasn't a line at the ticket counter.

I had been to Brussels once before in July 2004, and the weather was much fairer and warmer on that Sunday in late September than that chilly, foggy summer day. I never really planned on returning to Brussels, since there really isn't much to do there besides eat. When we arrived in Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles, depending on your language of choice), we had to walk a bit to reach the center of town, as we arrived at Midi Station instead of Central Station. After a 10-minute walk past a sketchy flea market and a more rundown part of town, we made it into the Grand Place of Brussels. However, most of the square was closed off since they were cleaning up from their Braderie. At this point, we remembered the reason we came to Brussels: LUNCH. There are several culinary specialties in Belgium, namely waffles, chocolate, beer, mussels and fries. First on our menu were fries. We found a sandwich shop off of the main square where we all got sandwiches with both meat and fries within the bun. It was simple, cheap and delicious.

We had to walk around a bit before moving on to the next meal. As we passed through the Grand Shops corridor, I remembered something I wanted…no…needed to buy: a Swiss Army knife. On the previous night, we had two bottles of wine and alas, no wine opener. Except then Liz showed up with her trusty Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew attached, and we were set. Not only did I realize that would be useful to have around in France, but also a pair of scissors and a small knife couldn't hurt too - in case I have to fight off some wild animal out in the country where I'm living. Thus, we found a very nice shopkeeper, who informed us what was legal and not legal in Belgium and France (Mace and switch blades are not.) He suggested we travel to Holland if we want either of these items.

After walking along for a bit further, checking out boutiques here and there (including a store that had a full-size Nimbus 2000 in the window), we started making our way to the famous baby statute in Brussels. Unfortunately, about a block before we got there, some local police yelled at us. We started crossing the street when the green walk signed appeared, but by mid-street, it was red. And they don't really give you a warning with a flashing sign or anything to that effect, so we were caught red-handed by the police. It was a little startling, since they seemed really mad at us, but we walked away with a sneer verbal warning.

After being made to feel like criminals, it was definitely time for waffles. I ordered a strawberry and chocolate syrup waffle, which was so big I couldn't even finish it. We washed our waffles down with some local Primus beer (and a €3 water for me, hmph) before heading to Gare Bruxelles Central to buy tickets back to Lille. After waiting in line for at least 10 minutes before reaching the ticket counter, we were informed the next train to Lille was in one hour from Gare Midi on the Eurostar. We got on one of the shuttles over from Central to Midi, and made it almost just in time to check-in for Eurostar.

This was my first trip on the Eurostar, so it was quite an adventure. It's also far stricter than the TGV. The morning train was like hopping on the subway. The afternoon train we were booked on was headed for London, with just one stop in Lille, thus even though we were only going to France, we had to check-in at least 30 minutes prior to departure, go through security, and even speak to UK Border Control. When I got up to the UK official, she looked at me very sternly and asked me how long I was going to France for, which I responded by saying for several months. This caused her to raise an eyebrow, but I quickly pointed out my visa, and she responded by asking me why I was going to Lille. I said I teach English there, which produced a very large smile on her face. I found this hilarious, but I don't think it would be a good idea to laugh in front of UK immigration officials. They scare me a bit. The train ride home was quick, and it felt like we were barely moving. High-speed rail is just fantastic.

When we got back to Lille, we were all a bit tired. Thus, most of the evening was just finishing off the last bottle of red wine we had in our hotel room, watching some more French TV and packing up our bags as it was the last night at the Moulin d'Or. I also had to tuck in early, as I had to get up very early for the TER train to Montreuil-Sur-Mer, the town where I am living and teaching this year.

Arrival en France

rachel-king-air-franceFor the last year, I've been planning on moving to France. It never actually seemed like this time would actually arrive. After a fashion-wine-college-football-packed week in New York City, on September 17, I departed from JFK airport on Air France to Paris CDG. Armed with two large suitcases, a carry-on suitcase and my laptop bag, I wasn't exactly traveling light. After a relatively quick Super Shuttle to the airport, I suffered through another round of French bureaucracy at the Air France counter. (Honestly, I think this is the country's version of hazing.) After having to stand in one line to get my boarding pass from the check-in machines, I got in line to have my bags checked. While waiting in line, I met another New Yorker, Helene, who was very excited for her European adventure (except to Italy, not France). She, too, noticed that I had a lot of baggage, and I told her I was going to France for seven months to teach English, since I couldn't find a job in the U.S. right now. She commented how strange it must be to have to leave America to find a job, and I agree, but I hope it will be a great adventure anyway.

When I got up to the counter, it turned out one of my bags was overweight, thus I had to pay a $50 fee. However, they don't take your bags at the Air France counter. Since my bag was overweight, I had to haul ALL of my bags over to the Air France customer service counter to pay the fee, drop off my suitcases at another stall, and then return to the check-in counter to show my receipt and get my boarding pass back. Security seemed like a breeze after such an ordeal.

After security, I ran into Helene again, and we searched for the first terminal bar we could find. (I'm a very skittish flyer, despite how many times I might be on an airplane in any given year. I don't like turbulence.) It seems you can't go far in New York without finding someone else in the media industry, as Helene worked for a NYC radio station for many years. Thus, media and the recession were one of the big topics. After talking with Helene and the bartenders for about 90 minutes, I was much more relaxed and ready for the 7-hour flight ahead of me. I said au revoir and bon voyage to Helene, who got the lucky chance to sit upstairs on the flight to Paris, while I made my way for my window seat in row 34. Departure from the gate was a little delayed, and I nearly fell asleep for take-off, but I woke up just in time to see us lift off the ground, with the lit-up Manhattan skyline grow smaller and smaller until the plane turned, and I could only see the pitch-black Atlantic Ocean.

The flight itself was relatively smooth. Since I had brought a Chipotle burrito for my meal (the last burrito I figured for a while), I waited for my complimentary glass of wine, and passed out for about three to four hours, with brief moments of turbulence here and there. It's remarkable how long I survived on such little sleep. Sunshine was breaking through the clouds as we descended over the French countryside, with a very smooth landing at Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport. As I disembarked from the plane, only the coffee must have kept me awake and sane, as the sun nearly blinded me through the glassy exterior of the gate ramp into the terminal. Prior to leaving for France, I was incredibly nervous for days, to the point where I thought I was developing an ulcer and couldn't eat well for days. From worrying about my poor French skills, to people judging me about being from another country, to wondering what line I should even get in at Immigration, I was a wreck. Well, one problem was solved at Immigration, since all passports had to get in the same line! When I got up to the front, the French Immigration officer was actually very nice, just asked (in French) how long I'd be staying, stamped my passport and work visa, and I was on my way.

At this point, I had about an hour and 15 minutes to get my luggage from Baggage Claim and make my way to my 12:42 PM TGV train directly from CDG to Lille Europe Station. French time is a bit slower than American time, but I noticed even the French passengers getting annoyed with how long it took for the bags to start falling onto the conveyor belt. It took about 30 minutes for suitcases from the New York-JFK flight to start arriving, since they were backed up after a flight that had just arrived from (coincidentally) San Francisco. After checking my watch every minute for about 15 minutes, I became nervous that I'd miss the train I had already booked a ticket on. Thankfully, my bags arrived just at 12:00 PM. I practically threw them onto the (thankfully, free) luggage cart and started power-walking for the TGV station.

Unfortunately, I couldn't determine which check-in machine I was supposed to use for retrieving my e-Ticket. I tried both of my credit cards on both the TGV and SNCF machines, but nothing came out. Finally, an Information Desk employee pointed me towards the TGV office, where I was able to get my ticket. Then I took the elevator down to the platform and got my bags off of the luggage cart with five minutes to spare before the train to Lille arrived. I have learned that running for trains in Europe is not romantic or Jason Bourne-esque with two 50+-lbs. suitcases.

Up to this point on my journey, getting around with my bags actually wasn't very difficult since I could hook up the carry-on suitcase to one of the bigger ones. It was just a strain on my arms. But lugging three bags onto a train by myself proved to be impossible. However, the French passengers on this train proved to be a friendly bunch, as several people offered help when I boarded and disembarked the train. The 59-minute train ride from CDG to Lille was a relaxing break after the last two hours of running across an airport with all of my life for the next seven months packed into three suitcases. Listening to the Marie Antoinette and Amelie soundtracks on my iPhone, the TGV train whisked along the northern French fields faster than you could say "Amtrak."

When I arrived at Gare Lille Europe, I had about an hour and a half to kill before taking a taxi over to the furnished flat that three other American assistants and I were renting for the next four days. I wasn't hungry, and I attempted to read the Air France magazine I picked up on the plane, but after about 10 minutes, I couldn't even turn the page anymore. My biggest task was trying not to fall asleep while sitting in the station. I felt like Forrest Gump for about 90 minutes, as several different characters ended up sitting next to me at different times, including a cute elderly French couple, and a woman headed home for a few weeks to Martinique. She noticed that my French isn't, well, the best, and asked where I was from. I said that I'm American, and she asked all about the program and moving to France, etc. The woman, probably in her mid-30s, was very friendly, noting that I shouldn't be too nervous about France, and that Lille is a nice town. Finally, it came time to get up, find a taxi and say goodbye to the latest person I met on the journey. As I picked up my bags one more time, she said, "Bonne Courage!" I replied, "Merci," knowing that I'm going to need it.

Flickr Photos

I've finally uploaded photos from my Asia tour, which you can see on Flickr here. It also looks like I'll be going home for Christmas, as I got a super cheap ticket on Virgin America...but only for the return from San Francisco to New York. I still need to buy a ticket TO San Francisco, but I'm waiting to see which bowl game Cal ends up going to.I know: Priorties, priorties. Most of my sources tell me that we'll be going to the Emerald Bowl, which is in San Francisco on Dec. 27, the day before I return to NYC, which works out perfectly for me. But I wouldn't mind flying out a week earlier to Nevada for Vegas Bowl...

Next on the Itinerary

I've been back in New York for a few days now, and readjusting to life here has been slow and slightly painful. But I'm getting there. But my internal travel bug will never die. I'm going to try to keep the travel blog alive next year thanks to some frequent flyer mile tickets (Thanks to JetBlue, Virgin America and Northwest) and freelance gigs in some other cities. I still need to make it to L.A., Chicago and London to visit people that I promised, and I still need to work out getting to Montréal. And apparently no one wants to go to Iceland with me. Also, I might go back to Asia in the spring, as my mom wants me to come see her again. I'll probably stop in Tokyo again, since that's the cheapest way to go via Northwest. Along with seeing some more destinations in the Philippines (i.e. Chocolate Hills) I want to throw in an extra city, possibly Singapore. Any suggestions? Despite loving Thai food, I'm going to avoid Bangkok. Here's to hoping Manila doesn't undergo a coup next time I'm around.