New Years in Paris!

Ahh, New Year’s Eve…I’ve realized that the older I get, the less I want to celebrate this changing of the calendar in the confines of a club, bar, or other establishment meant for partying. However, I also feel pressured to do something “fun”, or at least with the appearance of fun. So, when we heard that people in Paris celebrate New Year’s Eve by walking around the Champs Elysees and basically just, well, walking around, that sounded right up our alley, so we booked the train and headed off!

As the past couple of trips have pointed out, we’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors walking around cities in the freezing cold. Well, since we don’t have any museums in Paris we’re aching to see at this point, the itinerary lent itself to continuing the subzero-walking thing we’re getting so good at. This time we armed ourselves with maps of a handful of restaurants, a smattering of bakeries, and more Asian grocery stores than you can shake a red pepper at, and headed out on our “random neighborhood” tour of Paris!

Let me just say, we hit some gold mines. Paris just has so much to offer; you can find virtually anything you want. Need a new frying pan, and don’t want to pay Geneva prices? Go to Paris! Need some Korean fish sauce, and can’t find it in Geneva? Go to Paris! Want some organic wines from up-and-coming producers in the Loire Valley? You get the idea…but as a result, we had one of our best city trips, without seeing any of the real sights.

This type of travel is fun, as it lends itself to weird occurrences. My favorite was while we were walking through one of the markets, just south of the Eiffel Tower. One of the stands had some freshly-cooked chicken wings, and as Soph and I hadn’t had chicken wings in over a year, nor had we eaten breakfast yet, we decided to buy a little bag of them and scarf them down. Finding a park bench off to the side, we ravenously dug into them, breaking the all-important French rule of not eating with your hands. As we were doing this, an old woman walked up to this pile of boxes on our left, which were clearly trash, and started digging through them. Within a minute she had found a raw chicken breast, and she picked it up and put it in her bag! I can’t make this stuff up; anyway, as she looked normal enough, I couldn’t tell if it was an issue of her not having enough money to buy a chicken from the vendor, or if she was simply thinking “hey – free chicken!”

The true funny part of this story, however, is that as this was going on, one of the vendors saw us sitting on the bench, eating our chicken wings (which were awesome, by the way). He then yelled over to us, half-mockingly, half-friendly, “bon appetit!” We smiled and yelled “merci” back, at which point the five Parisians standing in his line slowly turned their heads to us, and in succession, either sneered or completely ignored us, then turned back. Not even a smile at the ingenuity we were showing by eating the chicken wings right there, rather than waiting to take them home and eat them. No issues with a woman going through the garbage and taking out raw chicken breasts, but don’t eat chicken wings until you’re out of the confines of the actual market! Guess they’re afraid the tourists are going to invade their market, which is a reasonable enough fear, because that market ruled! I mean seriously – they had awesome croissants, specialty cheeses, and chicken wings – where else on earth can you find all three of those in the same place?

One thing I would advise against visiting in Paris are the sidewalk cafes. I know it sounds sacrilegious to skip these, but at the end of the day they don’t serve a quality product, and virtually all of them charge exorbitant prices. The coffee you’ll get will be decent, but the hot chocolates are often just cocoa packets with water, and the wines are below average at best. The only bright spot of these is that you’ll get to sit down for as long as you want, which is good for people watching in the summer, and escaping the cold in the winter, but they’re not the cultural experience they should be. That said, if you look hard enough, you can find some stellar wine bars that serve great stuff. Same goes for restaurants – we found a couple of fantastic, moderately-priced bistrots that were simply phenomenal. Have a couple more we didn’t get to, so guess we have to go back to Paris in a few months!

So yet again, Paris has proven itself to be a fantastic city, offering up everything we were looking for. And New Years? Well, after walking around the Champs Elysees (with our open containers; the American in us just can’t get used to that, so we kept hiding them whenever we’d see police!), we headed to a bridge over the Seine, where we had a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. No fireworks or anything, but it did light up at midnight, and everyone cheered, then went home. More or less uneventful, but really, it’s probably more fun that way. 2009 is looking like it’s going to be a good year!

Next week: Sitting around doing nothing!

Ducks from Divonne

Today Tyler and I decided to take the Mobility car out and venture over to Divonne, France, where purportedly, there is a great food market. If not for having previously visited Ferney-Voltaire’s market a couple of weeks ago, I probably would have freaked out and slobbered all over this market and spent like 200 Euros. But, having gone to Ferney’s and fallen in love with that one (dude you can buy whole, unplucked geese and rabbit…not that I would), we merely splurged on a duck roast, marinated in honey, rosemary, and figs; some great cheeses; as well as some very nice bottles of wine that are a little more difficult to find in Switzerland (and much more expensive). So of course we had to sneak those wines in. Funny note on the wine shop we went to; Tyler broke out some pretty impressive French and asked the owner what wine she would recommend from the Loire Valley. She proceeded to answer us in English, which made us give each other the knowing look - the secret glance of “Wow that pisses me off, but at the same time, I‘m so glad” look. Hence our slow slow progression with the French language. Anyways, she recommended a few wines and we bought four, two of them being Chinons, to taste and prepare ourselves for our Easter trip to the Loire Valley, where the cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc grapes reign.

I was very excited about this duck roast, as I had never really cooked duck before. I love peking duck, but have not really tried it any other way. Apparently duck meat is darker because ducks are more active than chickens, which results in more blood pumping through their muscles, and therefore darker meat. The vendor told us all we had to do was to roast it in the oven for about a half hour, turning it over midway through. So that’s what I did. And I watched as the fat just melted around it. It’s amazing how much fat a duck breast has, but I guess it needs a lot in order to float and survive in winter! It finished roasting and I cut it open to find the figs and half cooked meat, which was a little disconcerting so I decided to put it back into the oven, which of course led to me forgetting about it, and the duck coming out a little dry. But better that than raw duck meat! Normally, we cut away all the fat that is present with the meat, but this dish was definitely enhanced by the crispy deliciousness of the fat. It mellowed the gaminess of the actual meat itself. No wonder they tell you to only eat duck maybe once a month at most! Tyler decided to open a St. Joseph wine that we had purchased earlier in Divonne, and after decanting for about a half hour, it matched wonderfully with the dinner. The turnip mash I fixed on the other hand was dismal. Sometimes I feel like a really good cook, and other times I feel so incompetent! On the whole it was a great day, French markets, new food, great wine, and relaxing on the sofa with a movie with the Christmas tree softly glowing in the corner. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Christmas in Geneva

As many of you know, this year we decided to spend the holidays in Geneva, rather than flying back to the US. Obviously we would have liked to have come back and catch up with friends and family – but we didn’t, so there’s no use dwelling on it. Hey – if you want sappiness, you’re gonna have to talk to Sophia!

Anyway, the original plan was to spend a couple days with our Christmas tree, sitting around and reflecting on how great a year it’s been. And, of course, watching tv. In fact, the whole reflecting thing was never gonna happen, especially considering we have like fifteen shows we need to catch up on. We also were going to spend a day or two skiing, but since the seemingly minor injury I sustained last weekend has yet to heal, I thought it best not to push my luck just yet. Sophia, of course, needed no convincing to stay in the apartment in lieu of hitting the slopes, so it was an easy decision.

A really quick note on the Christmas tree: it was a debacle getting that thing. As we don’t have a car here in Geneva, getting a Christmas tree involves either A) renting a car B) taking the tree on the public tram C) carrying the tree all the way across town. Since B and C sounded kind of silly, we opted for A. On the bright side, we can rent a car for short periods of time, such as two hours, making it relatively inexpensive to use a car for an errand such as this. On the other hand, we still had to rent a car to pick up a Christmas tree, which seems somehow ridiculous. But, that’s what we did. It wasn’t until after purchasing the tree that we realized we didn’t have anything to tie it to the top of the car with, since we normally don’t have a car in which to tie things to the top of. That, and I’m not even sure if it’s legal to do this in Switzerland. Thus, in true improvisational style, we folded down the seat of the compact car and chauffered the tree through Geneva in the front. On the bright side, it was a much quieter passenger than Sophia normally is, and it smelled like pine, rather than Asian food. Sorry honey – but that’s what you get for making yet another batch of kimchi!

We did take the opportunity on one of these days to drive over to the outdoor market in Divonne, France. Once again, we rented a car for a couple of hours (actually turned out to be the same car, and with no trace of pine needles!) and drove across the unmanned French-Swiss border to buy way more scarce necessities (such as red meat and wine) than we are legally allowed to bring back into Switzerland. This was yet another good market, and even after seeing so many of them, we still think that markets are awesome.

One quick shout-out to the city of Geneva: somebody did an amazing job decorating the downtown area! Colors all over the place, one of the churches has a cascade of white light pouring from it, there’s a nice Christmas tree in one of the squares…it really makes the city look great! I normally feel Geneva doesn’t go the extra mile when it comes to decorations, but this year they did really well on the Christmas lights. Not sure if the pictures will do them justice, but I braved the sub-zero temperatures to go out at night and take these, so I’m posting them regardless!

Other than that, we did some nice relaxing, a lot of good eating, and some more relaxing – so it turned out well. Even got to see “A Christmas Story”, which is pretty much the all-time greatest Christmas movie, a fact verified by TBS each year as it runs it in a 24-hour loop. TBS rules!

Next week: New Year’s in Paris!

Ski Weekend: Year 2, Version 1

I probably should change the title of these to “snowboard weekends”, since I’m switching away from skiing this year. After a lot of soul-searching, I realized I just wasn’t very good at skiing, and it was going to involve a lot of pain and gut-wrenching falls before I would begin to get any better. So I thought, why not try snowboarding? I then took the plunge, and rented a snowboard for the season.

This weekend, we ended up going with a couple of friends to the mountain resort of Flaine. I’m a huge fan of Flaine, although it’s probably the ugliest group of buildings ever built. Seriously – it seems that any architect who comes to the French Alps just completely loses their ability to design anything that doesn’t look like a Siberian prison. I think the Russians actually send their students to Flaine in order to get ideas on how to build more oppressive structures. That said, the skiing is fantastic, and the mountains are beautiful, so it more than outweighs having to see the communist housing blocks that function as a resort (especially considering we don’t actually stay in the resort).

For those of you who are wondering whether skiing or snowboarding is better, it’s a matter of opinion at the end of the day. For me, the things I hated about skiing were 1) the terribly uncomfortable boots 2) carrying the skis 3) the fact that I sucked at it. Snowboarding solves all of those dilemmas, as 1) snowboard boots are actually quite comfortable 2) the snowboard is easy to carry 3) yeah, I might still suck at it, but at least I look a little bit cooler. Plus, chicks dig snowboarders.

Of course, it’s not all peaches and cream. If there’s one bad thing about snowboarding, it’s the j-bar lifts. These are where you grab a squiggly pole with a little thing on the bottom, and it drags you up the mountain, while you’re holding onto it. On skis, these are relatively uncomfortable nuisances that you’re faced with when going on the wussy slopes, which is kind of where I spend the majority of my time. On a snowboard, these are minions of evil who’s sole objective is to embarrass you in front of little children, who seem to have no problems whatsoever in using them. I saw multiple snowboarders wipe out on them, and I don’t mean they just wiped out on them, I mean they wiped out and looked really stupid as they were wiping out. I would know, because I was right there with them looking really stupid as I wiped out. Makes me want to find the guy that invented this devil-machine, and punch him in the nose.

That said, I find snowboarding to be otherwise vastly superior to skiing, much like a Japanese car versus an American car. Note, however, that Sophia is keeping up with the skiing, which is probably a wise decision. She’s becoming a pretty decent skier, in the sense that she can go down a mild run and not fall down or lose control, and look cute doing it – and at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Instead of ski pictures, here are some Christmas cookies...

Next weekend: Christmas in Geneva!

Christmas Markets

Last weekend, we decided to make the most of December by visiting some of Europe’s storied Christmas markets. As such, we made the trek out to France’s Alsace region, and hit a couple of the cities there.

We started off at Colmar, and headed straight towards a booth selling hot chocolate. Hey – it’s winter, and it’s cold! We then spent the next 6 hours walking around in aforementioned cold, either looking at the markets or exploring the city. Colmar isn’t overly large, and it’s quite a cute place – the architecture has that mountain lodge-look and is well cared for, but it’s beat up just enough to appear as if it’s functional, rather than a façade put up to draw tourists. After a few hours of walking, we stopped at a café, which was noteworthy due to this old dog they had there. It muddled over to us, and of course I started petting it, and every time I would stop it would whine to get more petting - my kind of dog! Anyway, I ended up spending a good half-hour nursing a coffee and petting this dog, just to avoid going back out in the cold. When we did brave the cold, we went straight to a local restaurant that Soph had picked out, which was great, as Alsatian food combines the richness of French food, with the heartiness of German food. Nothing beats eating well after a cold day outside.

The next day we hit Strasbourg, and somehow lucked out and had beautiful weather. Beautiful meaning, still very cold, but with sun. Once again, we spent a good six or more hours walking around the city and looking at markets, but as Strasbourg is quite big, there wasn’t a lot of backtracking. Strasbourg has a monstrously large city center, which is great as you can explore it for hours and not get bored (unless you get bored walking around looking at old buildings, in which case you’d get bored really fast). It’s also a very pretty city, and the center is completely encircled by a river / canal, which more or less cordons a lot of the traffic away and makes it very pedestrian-friendly. The market stalls here tended to have more food items, specifically pretzels with Munster cheese; good stuff! We also went on an ornament-buying rampage, so our Christmas trees should be set for years to come with cute French crafts.

At the end of the day, that’s kind of the fun of the Christmas markets. You’re walking around in the cold, buying hot foods and drinks from the vendors, looking at handcrafts, and trying to avoid the group of Native Americans playing flute-instruments and trying to sell cd’s. You seriously can’t go anywhere in the world without running into those guys!

On Sunday we took the train back to Geneva, which is always great because any direction around Geneva, at any time of year, has beautiful scenery. This time, we were able to go through some of the Swiss mountains after a fresh snowfall, and were consequently greeted with miles and miles of unspoiled snow-covered pine trees. It was the kind of scenery that makes you take stock of your life, and think about your place here on earth, and how you could contribute to making it a better place. It also made me think about the truckload of Belgian beer I smuggled into the country, and how life as a professional beer smuggler would probably allow me to see more of the beautiful scenery.

Next weekend: Ski Season Begins!