Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Oxford Canals

This morning as the sun floated lazily on the Oxford Canal and I walked its edge, I saw only a few living creatures: a duck paddling with one foot as it dozed with its head tucked onto its shoulder, a fisherman staring into the reflection on the water, a soft white cat belonging to a houseboat, and some young bikers en route to something exciting. 

What is it about canals that attract? Why do people love Venice? Why did Californians construct a new world of canals in Venice Beach? Why do I love this walk in Oxford so much?

Flowers spill over the edges of dusty little beachfronts, incongruously laid before expensive brick homes in something-or-other-period architecture. Battered canoes, bright plastic rowboats, and the occasional kayak float tethered to the shores, though I've never once seen a person in one. Ducks seem to feel the territory is their own, barely shuffling out of the way when I walk by. 

Three steps down from the bridge on Charles Street and I am in another world, the sunny sleepy world of reflected flowers and weeping willows dipping their branches, a world ruled by half-conscious ducks. I like it here.

Our Oxford Apartment

Max taught me how to make videos while we were in Paris so here is my first attempt. It gives a quick look at our Oxford apartment, and hopefully bodes well for future more impressive videos of Sofia, Istanbul, and the worlds we will soon discover! 

Paris Post #5: Just for Fun

So, what makes a trip to Paris go smoothly? Here are the things that helped me (this post is especially for JoAnne, who is about to go on her dream trip to Paris for her birthday!)

1. I really enjoyed reading some history about Paris in one of those big coffee table books(as well as a guidebook) beforehand. I got one from the library, and it was full of large photos and clues about the city, explaining the context of museums and monuments, the history of neighborhoods, etc. On the way there, throughout the trip, and on the way home I read a book called "Almost French" by Sarah Turnbull, about her experience living in France for the last six years after moving there from Australia - this also helped give me more angles on the city and more understanding of Parisian culture. Plus, it's very well written and engaging.

2. Lisa and Max gave me a metro map (you could print one from the internet) and it was very handy to have with me. The main thing, when you see a metro station, is to read the sign to see if its your line (each line has a number and a color), then look to the edges of your map to see what the stops on each end of the line are. You want to go on the right line (#/color) but then also you want to pick the doorway in the station with the name of the stop where your train ends. So if you are at Le Marais and you want to go West to Champs Elysees, you go under the doorway that says Le Defense, because that is the last stop to the West. Don't be intimidated by the metro (as I was at first). It helps you look like a local if you wear an ipod - which also helps you feel a little more at home in this necessary but not super pleasant part of the city. Buy a day pass (around 6 euros) every day so you can just hop on the metro at will and speed off to a new neighborhood. Walking between all the parts of the city would be way too tiring. 

3. Dress up a bit and begin every conversation with a service person with a few French words or phrases. This will help you fit in and earn you respect. Without fail, if I started with Sil Vous Plait or Bonjour, the person helping me immediately detected my English accent and switched into English. I've heard if you start in English, you will be perceived as thoughtless and less likely to hear English back. Though Parisians are sometimes labeled as rude, I encountered tons of nice and pleasant people. My cab driver to the train station spoke to me entirely in polite if broken English and asked me how to say "have a nice trip" in English, in exchange for which he taught me to say "goodbye" in Chinese.  

4. I enjoyed wandering the city and seeing the big things from the outside, having experiences like the rollerblading adventure and the picnic on the steps of Sacre Coeur. Though I'm sure the Louvre would be worth a little line and some crowds I enjoyed the Picasso Museum, where there was no line at all, and I didn't pay to go into or on top of any other monuments. Those things didn't matter so much to me, and this way I felt I got much more variety (I saw the Eiffel tower from angles all over its neighborhood as I explored, but didn't spend three hours in line to go up it, etc.) But I did poke into practically every bakery I saw, which I would highly recommend! 

This is my last Paris post. Probably. Maybe. JoAnne, I hope you have a WONDERFUL trip! I loved the city, and I bet you will too.

Paris Post #4: Food

Log houses of long crusty baguettes, piles of black currants, shapely slippery wedges of quiche, delicate almond macarons poofed around thin layers of almond cream, cakes dusted with sugary patterns, delicate pureed prune pastry pockets, lumpy long cured meats in various delicate coatings, hefty slices of sweet brioche coated in fat sugar crystals, chocolate creme croissants, goat cheese in every shade of powdered or paper-covered white, cream, yellow, eggshell, ivory, beige and alabaster.

When it comes to a picnic or a snack, Paris has everything that could be desired. Though some argue that its restaurant culture has long lost its edge on the world, its boulangeries (bakeries), patisseries, street stalls and markets continue to delight the Parisians and visitors who wait happily in line for their favorites. In general, the longer the line, the better the reward at the end.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Paris Post #3: Tour de France (on skates)

Paris Skate
Paris Skate
Paris Skate

Paris Skate

Who says you can't rollerblade over cobblestones? Last Sunday Max and I joined with about a thousand other skaters to prove you can as we skated through the streets of Paris from Le Bastille to a park in Vincennes. An escort of police motorcycles at the front and police vans at the back kept the group together, the front line stopping every mile or two so the vast expanse of moving Parisians (and a few visitors like me) could accordion squeeze into a few blocks after stretching out for three fourths of a mile, maybe more. Yellow-shirted members of the association skated alongside our parade, stopping traffic at all crossroads and attempting to corral the show-offs, sometimes reduced to screeching in French but usually quite friendly. There was a good spirit amongst the crowd as we braked across bad surfaces, sprinted down smooth lanes, and admired views of statues, lakes, and bitter stopped drivers.

You can see a video of the Sunday skate if you scroll down the right side of the following French website. It is not the exact skate we did (we had to change routes due to the Tour de France on the Champs Elysees) but you'll definitely get the idea!

Paris Post #2: Montmartre

On most tourist maps of Paris, miniature building cartoons pop up where the icons of Paris stand. One of these tiny drawings shows the church of Le Sacre Coeur, perched atop the steps of the sharply angled Montmartre neighborhood, which also contains Le Moulin Rouge. On Saturday night, Lisa, Max, Brett, and I boarded the metro in pursuit of a real life look at this famous church, and, more importantly, a look from its steps.

We weren't the only ones with this idea. A few blocks up from the Montmartre metro stop, we joined the happy herd climbing the endless steps towards Le Sacre Coeur, torn between looking up at the church and looking out over Paris to admire the best free view in the city. Huge crowds had gathered beneath the church, singing along to the 60s style music of the street musicians playing there, admiring the sunset, perhaps buying one of the tiny golden Eiffel towers on sale, scattered before the feet of the half dozen illegal vendors positioned across the plaza.

We found a corner on a sloping patch of lawn and uncorked the champagne Lisa and Max had bought to celebrate both of our weddings and our visit to Paris. We ate strawberries as the light turned from pale gold to ripened gold to twilit blue. We opened our bag (yes, they come in bags in Paris) of olives and crunched down on poppyseed littered bites of baguette scrunched around Manchego or Cheddar. The frame of the exterior of one downtown building appeared to catch on fire after a while, burnt by the sun. The lights of the ferris wheel far below popped on, heralding many more to come. The sun disappeared altogether.

For some, it may have been just another night in Paris. But for us, as visitors, it was a chance to participate in a surprise community, drawn together by the light, the city unfolded beneath us, and the dramatic curves of the cathedral above us.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Views of the Tower: Paris Post #1

From the edge of the Champs du Mar

A common bus advertisement

The Tower from the Plaza across the Street

On the far right horizon from the Montmartre steps at sunset

From below the tower mid-sunburst

Chocolate Display in one of Paris's most famous Bakeries

View from a bridge across the Seine

Through a photography display outside Unesco Headquarters

A heart shaped view

She seems to direct the eye to the Tower

The most amazing thing about the Eiffel Tower is not the way it looks when you stand next to it. Though that is pretty amazing, not least because of the thousand or so people surrounding you. But what really bowled me over was the way it popped up unexpectedly, in a shaped brioche in a Boulangerie window, an advertisement on a bus, a view from the steps of Sacre Coeur, a gap between buildings or trees. It floated over the river in the view from every bridge in West Paris, appearing to grow out of statues, apartments, or museums. It splashed through the gaps between branches and dominated the narrow alleys in its vicinity.

Its lofty metal glory binds the city together, accenting every arrondisement (neighborhood) somehow, whether in a view, a postcard stand, or a shop window.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Make Tarator not Terror"

This morning when I opened the "Standart News", a daily English newspaper from Bulgaria, the picture of the day was of the Razgrad Yogurt Festival. That's right, there is currently a yoghurt festival going on in Bulgaria with the slogan "Make Tarator not Terror." (Tarator is a kind of yoghurt soup popular in Bulgaria and several of its neighbors). It's good to know we are moving to a country with this kind of appreciation for dairy and peace.  

Find out more at:

P.S. We are headed for Paris tonight, so look for pictures from the city of light next Tuesday! 

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Market at Gloucester Green

"What you want? Baby I got it!
What you need! You know I got it!"

Aretha Franklin's immortal lyrics might easily have come from the mouths of the many vendors at the weekly Gloucester Green farmer's market in Oxford. Wandering from stall to stall, I am stunned each Wednesday morning by the fresh, cheap, delicious delights hovering over the cobblestones of the square. 

It's rather an ugly little square on non-market days, surrounded by the less quaint shops of Oxford on two sides, and a movie theater and a bus station on the other two. But Wednesdays after breakfast it comes into its own. 

So what do you want? Clementines? Raspberries? Fresh salmon? A side of pork? Goat cheese? Feta cheese? Rustic loaves? Olives stuffed with Almonds? Olives stuffed with garlic? Hummus? Clove flavored hard candy? Banana chips? French fruit taffy? Yoghurt covered apricots? Or perhaps some nightdresses? Used books? Random fleamarket items crowd the edges, waiting for their moment of glory at the goods market which comes on Thursdays. Because it's really the food that shines on these mornings when I wander into the transformed square, always carrying at least two bags to load up for the week. 

This is the kind of market conjured up in the mind after watching Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady." Here vendors shout "best plums, fresh plums just ten for a pound" and "pineapples! pineapples!" Here moms shop to fill their fridge for the week, and don't collide with a half horde of young tourists waiting in line for milkshakes or candy, as at the covered market. It has all the splendid food of the covered market, but at half the cost, and in a transient state. 

Somehow each week, though I know it will be there, I have the feeling I have discovered a wonderful secret when I walk into Gloucester Green. For a few minutes I am a local, whether the people around me know it or not. I know it because I brought my own bags, I joke with the candy lady, and I know I have to flag the attention of the nut man as he attempts to cover the three twenty foot sides of his giant stand. Whenever I am in Gloucester Green on a Wednesday, I am at home in the bustle of this old city.  

The First Oxford Candy Bar Potluck

We gathered. We pulled from our pockets Yorkie bars, Kinder Bars, Tiger bars, Fry's Peppermint Cream, Aero Mint, Curl, Swirl, Double Decker, Caramel, and Boost bars, wine gums, jelly tots, chocolate covered honeycomb. We chopped. An expectant hush fell over the room. We sampled. We smiled. We recommended, discussed, and sampled some more. We voted.

Britain's Best Candy Bars, according to the chocolate-craving students of Oxford:

1. Kinder Bueno (chocolate with hazelnut filling) - not to toot my own horn, but this was my contribution to the potluck!

2. Yorkie Original (Simply outstanding mini-bricks of chocolate, though some of us have mixed feelings about its high position since the slightly amusing but mostly idiotic slogan of the Yorkie "Biscuit" flavor is "It's not for girls!")

3. Fry's Peppermint Cream (fine dark chocolate shell with a creamy mint frosting inside)

4. Boost (a plump chocolate covered caramel log described by one taster as "a Twix on steroids")