Oh, La Nourriture à Paris!

Well, it’s truly a treat.

I fell in love with Julia Child this past summer. If you haven’t read My Life in France, please, please, please read it. I swear you’ll enjoy it, and I guarantee she’ll charm ya 3 pages in. She teaches you what she learned – that in France (elsewhere in Europe as well) food is respected. It is worth exerting effort over, worth a presentation, and worth the time it takes to get a seat at the table by the window to enjoy the plate and the drink that you order.

 She’s also hilarious, a fun writer, and obviously a  talented cuisinier. I couldn’t help but think Julia was  in the Parisian air this past weekend. Even when the  first night’s dinner turned out to be sushi. Yes,  Japanese sushi in Paris, France. But we were  recommended (and then walked to) the restaurant by a  lovely Frenchman, if that counts? Stopped in the  middle of a rolling street, I asked him in very broken  french if he knew the way to a certain cafe we were  hunting for. This effectively began the end of any  negative French-person-Paris-people-snooty  stereotype we’d ever heard. Because not only did he  stop and smile, he put down his briefcase, pulled out  his iPhone, told us how to get there – then suggested a  closer spot (the sushi place) with a “good  atmosphere”  and a great place across the street for drinks. He then told us how to walk to the Notre Dame afterwards, to see the cathedral at night, with lights, and “good atmosphere.” And then he walked us to the bar because he was going the same way as well.

la bière aux framboises (raspberry - yes - beer)

A day later, we found ourselves discussing different metro line options in the late afternoon. After leaving the Catacombs, our metro ride made an unplanned stop due to a construction project on the railway. Everyone had to get off, walk to the next station, and reroute their busy day. We decided to have lunch. A walk up the stairs placed us on Boulevard St Germain, just kiddy corner from Le Danton.

The waiters were tall and in fancy suits, they swiftly danced around the room delivering plates and glasses, and the hostess – an older woman who is best described as simply ‘European’ – was most welcoming. She had the warmest smile. It was bustling inside just like the busy corner the restaurant sits on, but the service was personal. A cheese plate, a bowl of soupe à l’oignon française, salads, and sandwiches were ordered… the atmosphere was kind and real.

Just outside we came upon this charming little cart: It was like Willy Wonka in Paris. Yes, we each filled a pink striped bag… the colors and shapes were so fun to photograph.

There were a couple hours spent sitting outside over scenes like these: looking out at scenes like this: And the whole time you can’t help but feel lucky and grateful. It’s a treat to see and smell and taste and hear this city, this little part of the world. It’s also like a gust of hopeful wind to know, for rock-solid sure, that in the midst of the world’s not-good, there are bits that twinkle: the helpful man at the metro gate, the hat at the vintage shop, the kind eyes of a passerby, the reflection of Autumn colors on the canal.

oh, yes, and this tarte au chocolat.

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Enchanted by Paris

Oh, Paris!

I should probably put my feet back on the ground, really, but I just can’t help it. Everything about the place was a delight. Is a delight. Can we all move there together? 

There is this feeling I always get before one of my favorite musicians goes on stage. I guess I’d say I become very nervous… I’ve loved them from afar for so long that when the time finally (finally) comes to see and hear their talent live, I just so, so want them to do well. I sit on my hands, fingers crossed, refusing to lower my expectations, quietly wishing and hoping. They always come through; I walk away with a big smile, gratitude and a sore throat. Probably overdramatic, but oh well.

Paris was similar.

Determined to see as much as we could from Thursday to Sunday, we booked an early morning train ride arrival and a late evening return by bus. The route, through Dutch, Belgian, and French fields (as well as inner city Brussels, too), was a treat in itself. Over the next few days, we found a way to master the Metro, walk under the tree canopies of Versailles, order dessert, stand beside the Tower, and cap Friday and Saturday evenings with the Pitchfork Music Festival.

Amidst the buzz of it all though, the calm pulse of the city is palpable. I think Paris is a place of self-assuredness. A quiet sort of confidence that forces you to stop for a second, hear your own voice in your own head a bit more clearly, with a bit more volume. I didn’t find a Parisian ego or conceited snootiness… just people who were sure, style that was sure, food that was sure. It was refreshing and beautiful, and hopefully I’ve made sense of it to you.

To discover a new place with new friends, each from a different  place, is a funny thing. Each person’s perspective is illuminating  for the others’. There were commonalities among the 4 of us  though, like the  spontaneous and giddy applause we all broke into  the moment the  Eiffel Tower was visible in the distance.

 I stole as many moments as I could, sealing ’em as long lasting  memories. You find yourself, maybe even your subconscious,  seeing people and past occasions in monuments or shop windows  or items on a menu when you’re away from home in a new place.  Like my Catechism-teaching grandfather in the Notre Dame.

Or the vintage dress a friend would love.

The Autumn colors were gorgeous and bright (I’m still partial to the real Midwest thing). The Catacombs were spooky and perfect Halloween timing. The gardens of Versailles were some of the most grand landscapes I have ever seen. The Louvre, the chocolate tarts, the dashing waiters, and the helpful direction-givers… You walk away grateful, sore feet, smiling big.

I’m telling you, it’s enchanting.

Occupy Rotterdam

Rotterdam is a puzzling place.Much of the city was devastated by bombings in World War II. As a result, the architecture is not only modern, but bizarre. My friend kept saying he felt like we were walking around an amusement park – but you can’t ride the rides, because they’re buildings. It is fast-paced and a little less warm and charming. There is a definite diversity in people, food, and atmosphere, and as we walked around I found all of it refreshing.

After leaving the city hall, which managed to survive the WWII bombings and is one of the oldest buildings in Rotterdam, we stumbled upon some modern day newsmakers.   The Occupy movement is truly popping up everywhere; we hurriedly crossed the street to see a part of in real time. Doing my best to follow its developments in the US from Holland, it was funny, a little disorienting, and very exciting to see Occupiers in my temporary neck of the woods.

I asked one of the demonstrators if the group had started sleeping out on the Stock Exchange steps. Not yet, he said, but 5 or 6 more people would make the group large enough to stay round the clock. They have been at the site since October 15th and didn’t seem to be in any hurry to pack up and move on.

There seemed to be about 25-30 demonstrators in the group… peaceful, conversational, well-informed, and occupying the steps with a sense of purpose. It made this article feel not so far away.

Pretty cool to see.

Gouda by Bike

To pronounce Gouda correctly is to sound as over-the-top Dutch as one possibly can. I mean, really, it’s just short of haucking a loogie. Ha, I’m serious! This city keeps you smiling all day, though, even if it’s not \”gooooda\”.

The sun and the air and the blue sky were perfect October, so to Gouda we went – by bike. It isn’t more than 28 km and this country is designed for cycling. The bike paths take you through Zuid Holland’s Groene Hart, the rural land in between the major cities of Utrecht, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Den Haag. There are too many grazing cows to count, lots of sheep, rows and rows of flower farms, and hectares upon hectares of beautiful green, green pastureland.

I still cannot get over how well-maintained the bike paths are… it’s smooth (and flat) sailing. I catch myself staring at scenery to my left and right for who knows how long.

After a midway stop for lunch along a canal, we arrived in Gouda on Market Day. The little city center was bustling! Vendors under tents lined the streets, with the steeple of Sint Jankserk shooting up in the sky just beyond the shoppers. 

After wandering among the fruits and vegetables (and trying Prickly Pears for the first time), we sat in on an hour-long (and gratis!) classical violin concert inside Sint Janskerk. Its stained-glass windows are famous and the church itself dates back to 1280 or so. Needless to say, a live concert inside brought goosebumps (or, as the Dutch say, chicken-skin). 

Of course, though, Gouda = cheese. And it’s endearingly funny how much the city loves its claim-to-fame. We stopped in more than one cheese shop thanks to free samples – cheese, especially Gouda, comes in more colors and combinations than I knew.

 

And then there was the cheese museum, The Kaas-expomuseum. It is housed in Gouda’s original 17th century cheese weighhouse. The curators are beyond obsessed with cheese and Gouda’s history, and I’d like to share with you this little fact I learned:

that last line there is important

The history really is impressive – cheese-making in Gouda can be traced back to 800 BC in clay pots. A video explained the entire modern day process; it is an art, for sure. And every new fact I learn about the Dutch Dairy Industry makes me fall more and more in love with cows. The Holstein-Friesian cow, a German-Dutch breed, is the most important for cheese production… did you know they can produce 7,500 litres of milk a year and eat 80 kg of grass a day?

The rest of the city is perfect for aimless walking, especially on an Autumn day. It was a long day, with lots of biking, but one with perfect company and sun (and delicious dutch dairy).

Antwerp, Belgium

A day in Antwerp is a day well spent! Last Sunday I took the train to the Belgian city, just about 2 hours from Leiden, NL. To be honest, I hadn’t heard much about Antwerp before landing in Holland. It was dropped into a forgotten conversation once weeks ago, but then quietly popped up in … Continue reading

Awake

… to catch these early morning colors!

Sunday morning in October, Leiden

  And this one just before parking my bike and hopping on the train. See the surprise in the sky? Matches the banner over the station. I don’t know if I’ve ever caught a rainbow without catching the rainstorm first.

same morning, 7:45a

Etentje met Vrienden

Korean Dinner Night

Before I was in college, my mom, sister and I visited a few prospective schools in Chicago over a winter weekend. One night caught us in our (too big for the city)car, in busy rush hour traffic, bright headlights glaring every which way, with wet snow and slush all around us. We were hungry and lost, and the stress in the car was very, very tangible. We had just about given up on meeting John (maybe you know him) for dinner when he (probably just as stressed out, but for way more legit reasons – read: med school) charmingly convinced my mother to take one last look at the map. She did. She made a swift U-turn. She found the pizza place. We met John outside in the snow, we ate in the warm restaurant, and we had the kind of conversation that only occurs between familiar faces in an otherwise unfamiliar setting. Like finally finding your friend in the crowd after a very long day. (there was singing on the street, afterwards, too. regina spektor, remember?)

On the way back to our hotel, my mom recounted what John said before (so patiently) giving her directions to the restaurant (and while we were at our wit’s end). Something like, “Listen, we all gotta eat dinner tonight. Why not do it together.”

I’ve heard similar lines of thought in years since. Usually after a huge anxiety has passed on okay or a long day has left us barely standing, but hungry. There’s the sweetly basic idea, too, that we – that collective, worldwide We – all have to come to the table at dinnertime and each deserve to have not only a spot to sit, but food to prepare.

Anyway, my point is that Dinner can be this hugely magical thing if you stop to let it do its thing. At the end of any kind of day, it’s sure to deliver a really cool lesson. I think it might be one of my favorite parts of my experience over here so far. And I’m lucky to have friends who are also great cooks!

Minho makin magic

My friend Minho is from Seoul, South Korea. Last Friday he treated a group of us to a homemade Korean dinner, and it was so, so delicious. I promise to find the names of each piece of this meal; it’s fascinating to learn about a person and a people through their foods and recipes.

so, so good

Above, in the pot on the left, is Kimchi. Minho was telling me about how it is made at home – by his mother and aunts, an entire year’s worth is made all at once. And it’s custom for him and his family to eat Kimchi almost everyday. Minho spread his arms super wide to show me the size of the pot they use.

Pictured below is a group of us gathered for an Italian night… my friend Giulio is from Rome and made his Italian mother’s pasta sauce for us. I’m not joking. In the shot below, there are 2 Americans, a Canadian, 2 Italians, someone from France, South Africa, Notting Hill, the Netherlands, and my friend who was born in Germany, lives in Cuba, and attends McGill University in Canada during the school year.

Italian Dinner Night

There was Italian wine, caprese salad, garlic bread (the real thing), two types of pasta (olives! in the marinara sauce!), and Italian donut cookies. And there was good music and good conversation.

Potlucks seem to happen a lot as well. I think it’s in their very nature to just materialize, or come together. On the table below was everything from a pesto potato salad to Korean pumpkin pancakes to salmon & mackerel sushi to BORSCHT SOUP (yes!!) to Korean rice cakes to baguettes and cheese from the lovely goats of Holland.

saturday potluck

There are times when you can feel the moment almost sealing itself, and you know it’s going to reside for a very long time in that space your brain protects for certain memories. It’s where that Chicago night is, where the key words are that led us to that restaurant in the snow, where, if I’m lucky enough, a few of these dinner nights will stay as well.

Hutspot, Herring, Leiden Ontzet

Charming, storybook Leiden transformed over the weekend. Today, October 3rd, marks the Relief of Leiden (or “Leiden Ontzet”) and it is the biggest celebration of the year. In 1574, during the Eighty Year’s War, Leiden was under the Spanish rule of King Fillips II. The city was starved, tortured, and held captive by the Spanish – until a group rallied together to overtake the King and join forces with the good guy: Prince William of Orange. The people of Leiden were applauded for their bravery (and the town was awarded a certain university as further thanks).

Riding roller coasters in a 16th century city

Ever since, the 3rd of October has been a city-wide holiday. Cycle just one town over and nothing’s going on. In Leiden, though, they pull out all the stops. Not only did the circus come to town, but so did the atmosphere of an autumn football saturday, an outdoor music festival, an art fair, and maybe even a restaurant week.

DJs and live music played in the streets, alleys, and on barges over the canals

The city has been unrecognizable! People and parades and roller coasters abound. All with a european flair, of course. Below is the view from a friend’s apartment on Friday night: Saturday brought warm and sunny weather, strange for October. It also brought rows and rows of Dutch treats… they’ve got quite a sweet tooth.

This would be fried butter. Yes, it's delicious.

Shops and schools closed early on Friday afternoon. You could feel it in the air – people itching to start the weekend, wind their boats through the river around town, barbeque on the streets. Today, nothing is open; classes are always cancelled on the 3rd. This morning, at 7am, an hours-long line formed in the center of town. All Leiden citizens, provided you register 2 weeks in advance, are entitled to 2 free herring (with onions) and a slice of white bread. You’re handed the herring with head & tail, so you have to clean it up yourself. Eat it, too. Hutspot is another popular dish in the Leiden Ontzet story. It’s simple, but made/eaten with of a lot of spirit! Onions, potatoes, carrots, and sausage, all mixed together. (The veg option is just as good, people.)

It has been a treat to be in Leiden during it all! 

Farming in Holland

One of the courses I’m taking this semester is called Rural Development and it’s offered through Leiden’s cultural anthropology and developmental sociology departments. We’re looking at rural poverty and environmental degradation. How small scale farmers in developing nations usually have the most agricultural and land-based knowledge to share. How that knowledge and their well-being are usually overlooked. It’s a fascinating and humbling look at how we get our food, how people make their lives, how interconnected the world is.

My professor believes we need to understand farming in The Netherlands if we are to contextualize farming in Brazil or Cameroon or The Banaue Rice Terraces in The Philippines. So: field trip! Last Wednesday, from 9am to 6pm. Oh yes, and there was no yellow school bus.

We covered about 60km that day

The trip took us into Holland’s Groene Hart, or Green Heart. It’s the rural land between the province’s horseshoe of cities: Rotterdam, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Den Haag. Much of this land has actually been reclaimed from the sea – one dairy farm we visited used to be a lake – and averages about 3 meters below sea level. A morning view from the top of the restored Hazerwoude water tower gave us a look at where we’d be cycling:

   We arrived at the de Jong dairy farm, were welcomed with coffee (and cream) and cookies, and received an introduction and tour of the farm. We hopped off our bikes a bit winded and a bit chilly to enter the barn I was in heaven.

Students on the left, Farmers on the right

   Mr. de Jong inherited the farm from his grandfather, who kept about 20 dairy cows. He was at capacity then; milking each cow by hand yielded about 6,000 L of milk per cow per year. Today, the farm raises 130 dairy cows thanks to mechanized milking systems. One cow now has a yearly yield around 10,000 L of milk. This little thing was just born the day before:

best field trip

I also learned about the European dairy quota, which places a ceiling on the amount of milk every farmer is allowed to produce and sell. This policy was a response to the crazy surplus of milk and butter throughout Europe in the 1980s. Milk and butter was overflowing over here! In effect, the de Jong’s milk income is capped or limited by this policy. While their farm is valued at around 5 million euros,the actual profit they see is just enough for one family.    As a foreigner, it was inspiring to hear a Dutchman talk about his land; this place I’m just visiting is the same place giving him (and his animals) a job, a livelihood, meaning. We also passed greenhouses (“glass cities”) and flower farms that seemed to go on forever. 

Along the way

   The trip ended at my professor’s house with a recap of the day (and more tea & cookies). He and his wife raise a few chickens in the backyard. Just beyond, the green, green lawn hugs the canal. And the thatched roof! Plus, see the trees below? To the left of the patio furniture? Apple and pear. Best apple I have ever had! And the pears fell right off the branches into our hands. I was almost weak in the knees.

They Still Cycle The Same Way

I first watched this video last winter, during that relentlessly cold and snowy Michigan winter. I found it charming then, and I’m happy to report that the charm is alive and well – in real life, and in 2011. I think I could sit on a bench in the sun and watch people cycle by all day. All of the woven baskets and wheels in symmetry, it’s quite romantic.