Yes, I know. It’s kind of a lame excuse, but, hey, it’s better than the usual “oops, I just got so busy with things that I forgot to write.”
Though, that bit is true.
This last month has been rather hectic to say the least. Not just with the usual end of term grading binge and holiday prepping, or with the strikes, which somewhat altered my theatergoing plans.
And yes, as an aside, I didn’t go to the theatre as often as I had planned last month, but that’s not to say I have any feelings of resentment over what’s going on. On the contrary, I actually support what’s going on, in large part because it directly affects my line of work (because of course teachers and other public servants are so privileged that our pensions must be snipped away at. Unless, of course, we’re cops…obviously), but also because, to be quite frank, in this general environment of increased neoliberalization, seeing that mass worker mobilizations can still do…something…is slightly encouraging. Slightly, only because who knows if it will actually amount to anything significant. It’s hard to stay optimistic.
In any case, it is also quite hilarious (well, infuriating but also hilarious) to read the news about this and see mostly comments along the lines of “well, yes, we understand why people are striking, but why must it be so disruptive?”. I mean, I suppose that people could just go out into the streets one day for a couple hours, make some little signs, wave them around, say a couple of slogans that could later be printed onto t-shirts or pins to be sold for the low price of X euros and then go home—perform at protest, evoke the idea, the gestures of protest—, but what good would that do?
But this is part of what the general tide has turned towards, perhaps. Going through the motions for a moment of illusory subversion, a quick rush to think “yes, I feel good about myself right now” without daring to take that extra step into more difficult territory.
It’s somewhat similar to what I’ve seen in some pieces over the last few years. It’s what Olivier Neveux categorizes as theatre that is essentially “political” in name only, when in reality, it operates within—and even to some degree, reinforces—existing power structures and dynamics.
So, yes, I’m mentally (and physically) preparing myself for a lot of cold walks in the coming days. So be it.
But beyond that, I was also sent into something of a tailspin regarding my dissertation—well, more precisely, my dissertation defense date—that kind of cracked me in the last few days leading up to the break. Chalk it up to stress, or a general feeling of being so close only to potentially have things collapse from under you, but by the time I was ready to board my flight for San Francisco, the only thing on my mind was that I needed to get out of the city for a bit. Clear my head. Relax.
And I did, relax, actually. In fact, to really hammer that bit home, I did something I had never done before for a flight to California: I upgraded to business class.
To be honest, this was always one of those things I always told myself I would do one day, but never did. Mostly because I never thought I had enough money set aside to do it, as well as just generally feeling guilty about the thought of spending money on a one-time treat like this. Besides, once I saw the “other side”, could I ever go back?
Well, friends, let me tell you: I’ve crossed the Rubicon. Business class is very nice.
And it’s not just the fact that the seat turns into a full-on bed so that I could actually sleep (okay I slept for only two hours but, hey, that’s more than zero), or that I actually had enough personal space that I could get a good amount of work done (yes, I finished grading exams because I am also very responsible when I relax). It was getting a 15-minute facial (and mimosa because I get started on my relaxing early in the morning as well) in the Air France lounge. It was getting a complementary glass of champagne on arrival, a three-course dinner with actual silverware, and then a light lunch before landing, again with actual silverware. It was the amenities kit with a toothbrush/paste, eye mask, ear plugs, and hand creams that was offered after we were all seated. Hell, it was the fucking facial cleanser in the bathroom.
I mean, let’s be honest, in brief, it was just the general feeling of being treated like a human being instead of a mass in a seat.
Now, to be fair, I have had very good experiences on Air France in economy class, so this isn’t so much a dig at them, per-say. It’s more the same general comment about air travel that’s been repeated ad nauseum over the years.
In any case, it was a lovely experience, and a good way to get started on my holiday.
And it was a good holiday too, even if I did spend the majority of it working.
I did, at least, make it out for one solo adventure in San Francisco. My parents had gone down to Orange County to visit my sister, and I elected to stay behind to finish my dissertation draft (which I did…somehow). As a sort of reward to myself, I decided a walk and a visit to the SFMOMA was in order.
And eating, lots of eating.
I started with a croissant and café au lait at Tartine (because I can never leave France behind entirely) before venturing on a stroll around the Mission to kill some time before lunch (aka the reason I came out here in the first place).
I mean, I actually managed to visit the namesake Mission, for once.
But yes, lunch.
Lunch was tacos.
Now, yes, the taco scene in Paris is not too terrible (special shout-out to El Nopal), but let’s be honest, it cannot beat what I can find here. And hell, I’m not even remotely an expert. I just like a good lengua taco now and then to accompany my usual order of carnitas, and also a small salsa bar.
Well, anyway. Taqueria Vallarta more than satisfied all of that. And it filled me up for my trek to the SFMOMA as well.
The museum was lovely, as usual, but nothing stood out to me so much that it left an impression. I think it was more the general feeling of being surrounded by art that made me the most happy, or that just got me out of my head for a moment.
After that, I popped over to Good Mong Kok Bakeryto grab a red bean cake, and then it was off to City Lights Bookstore to see if I could find anything that struck my fancy. Unfortunately, I didn’t this time around, but, then again, I’ve got two rather large books on deck, and my bookshelf is pretty much full at this point. In any case, it was nevertheless a good way to end the adventure, as well as to mark the closing of the year and decade.
Yes, this is going to turn into a slight end of decade post. I say slight because I more or less did this in my birthday post (the perks of having a birthday so close to the end of the year, I guess). But I’ll add a little something here:
The 2010s for me have been, above all, the decade of Paris. Studying abroad in Paris, moving to Paris once and then back again, and spending all my time when not in Paris thinking about how I would get back. The Paris of my 2010s, and consequently my 20s, was a Paris of studying, of dealing with bureaucracy, of my first real job (which consequently, was also my first real teaching job). It was days spent at the BNF that turned into evenings. It was all-nighters (or close to them) being pulled at Reid Hall, seated behind a window in a little attic room, a pile of paper fortune-tellers acting as a testament as to how long I’d been there.
I’ve dealt with the dormitories, the landlord who got into a straight-up argument with me over giving me my security deposit back, the apartment that was too big (yep, figured out that was a thing), and then my spot now.
In short, over the past decade, as back and forth as my time here was, Paris became home.
And at the risk of getting overly sappy, I’ll end it at that. I’d say here’s to an excellent 2020, but the idiot-in-chief may or may not have just started WWIII so….eh?
Ah fall. The crispness in the air, leaves changing color, the return to the hearty foods that make the lack of warm weather bearable…
And vacation. Yes, one of the many perks of being a teacher in this country. Just when la rentrée winds down, it’s time for another two-week holiday.
I’m spending most of this holiday at home (because I still have a dissertation to write…joy), but I did plan out some time to get away for a quick weekend.
I guess the first question would be ‘Why Krakow?” and the answer to that would be, well, because Eastern Europe has been a bit of a theme in my travels as of late, and I thought, why break with tradition?
It also has a lot to do with where I went on the morning of my second full day there, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Basically, though, what with it being fall break and all (yay for a little break from teaching), what I ideally wanted was a weekend somewhere that screamed autumn (as in, lovely foliage) and where I could indulge in some food that I only ever get in the mood to eat when it’s nice and crisp outside and my belly needs fuel for warmth.
So, Poland it was. And because Krakow was selected as the European capital of gastronomy for 2019 (yes, that’s a thing and it’s wonderful), the decision was pretty much set. I knew just a bit about Polish food from having been exposed to some of it (read: pierogi, kielbasa and Polish vodka) back in the States, so I was very much looking forward to experiencing more of it.
Spoiler alert: Krakow is a very excellent food city, and may have just topped my (very short, since there are only three items on it) list of food tours I have done. More on that in a bit, though. For now, in order, the things I did.
I arrived at the airport early in the afternoon, meaning there was plenty of time for some early exploring before dinner. After taking a cab into town (I had just missed the train into the city center and the next one wasn’t due for another hour…), I checked into my private room at the Secret Garden Hostel. Actually, “hostel” is a bit of a misnomer. This place was not only incredibly clean, quiet and updated, it also had probably one of the most comfortable beds I had ever slept on in a hostel (or even in a hotel for that matter).
Really though I am not lying when I say I wanted to roll the thing up and transport it here.
The hostel is located in the Kazimierz district, known as the Jewish quarter, as well as the place to go out for dinner/drinks and get a general feel for Krakow’s cultural life for both locals and visitors. Ongoing construction on the main street cutting through the neighborhood made getting around a bit tricky, but other than that, staying there was positively delightful (and delicious).
My first food stop wasn’t in Kazimierz, however. Instead, I walked all the way up to Old Town and over to Gorace Paczki for a traditional Polish donut filled with rose jam. I grabbed a seat on an empty bench in the park nearby and dug into the still-warm pastry. Fluffy, yeasty, with just the right amount of jam filling to be stuffed without exploding everywhere, this treat was the best way to start my trip, and a definite step-up from the last jelly donut I had before this (which I’m pretty sure was from Dunkin Donuts…). The best bit, however, was that it only cost 3.5 zloty, or $0.91.
Oh yeah, for travelers on a budget, Poland is definitely a good place to check out.
After devouring my donut, I had a bit of time to kill before my dinner reservation (for 1, ha!), so I spent it basically walking around the park that encircles the Old Town. I found out on the walking tour I took the next day that the park, designed during the period when Krakow was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, replaced the walls that formerly surrounded the city, but that evening, my biggest priority was taking pictures of every tree, trying to capture some of that golden color I’ve missed so much.
As mentioned earlier, my dinner that night was a solo endeavor in a sit-down, slightly above casual restaurant, something I have managed to avoid in all my other trips before this one. Don’t get me wrong, I actually have eaten dinner out by myself before, but there is a difference between doing it somewhere I am familiar with (as in, here at either my neighborhood dumpling place, or the slightly less nearby ramen place by the BNF), versus in a place where I have never been and don’t know anyone (or the language, for that matter).
But I wanted something cozy, and Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (or Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz) delivered that. Yes, the restaurant is a bit more touristy than what I might otherwise go for, but the food was good, there were candles on the table (a bit of a theme in Krakow and Kazimierz in particular, I soon found out, and one of my favorite little details about the neighborhood I chose to stay in), the décor was just the right amount of kitsch, and there was live music.
For my dinner, I ordered roast duck breast with cranberry sauce, potatoes, and side salad as well as a glass of wine. It cost me less than $20 total, not bad for my “treat yourself” meal! If I hadn’t been so full (seriously, the portion sizes were very generous), I may have even ordered a small dessert.
Instead of heading straight back to the hotel to sleep after dinner, however, I ended up walking a couple of streets over to Eszeweria, a cozy (more candles!) bar on Józefa street. The weather wasn’t quite cold enough to call for it, but I decided to order a mulled beer anyway because why the hell not. And so my night wound down with some reading by candlelight, clearly as good an indicator as any that this weekend was getting started on the right foot.
It was an early wake-up for me this morning (another habit I have during my solo trips), as I wanted to get a good breakfast (and coffee) in before heading out on the first of the two free walking tours I wound up taking while here. For my breakfast, I walked about a half hour north of my hostel, towards Krakow’s main train station, to check outWesola Café, a spot that had come up in my research into the local coffee scene. The café was pretty packed when I got there, but I managed to snag a spot by the window to enjoy my filling breakfast of warm, spiced millet with fresh fruit accompanied by a very much needed flat white.
After polishing off my breakfast, I walked the short distance over to the former gate into the Old Town to meet up with my walking tour (organized with Walkative). Our two hour excursion took us through several sites, such as:
The aforementioned Barbicon gate:
The central market square, featuring (in order) Saint Mary’s Basilica, Cloth Hall, and the lone remaining tower of what was once Krakow’s town hall
Poland’s first university (founded by King Casimir the Great)
Before finally ending at Wawel castle
As far as free tours go, I would recommend this one, but I was not exactly the biggest fan of the guide who was a bit more brief in his explanations of things than I would have liked (this is personal preference though). That’s kind of par for the course when it comes to these things, and I will say that I had a much better experience with the guide on the second tour (moral of the story: try and go for current/former history students). Plus, it did kill about two hours of the day, which was good since I didn’t have anything else planned until much later in the afternoon.
Still, it was only just after noon when the tour let out, so there was a little question about what to do in the meantime. This issue was promptly resolved with a brisk walk across the river and to the Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art. Now, those of you who look up the museum on Google Maps will notice that it is located just next door to Oskar Schindler’s former factory (now a museum with a permanent exhibition on WWII and the Holocaust). I ended up not going to visit the factory on this trip, instead opting for the decidedly less crowded art museum, which at the moment was also hosting several exhibitions on or around the Holocaust.
I managed to kill another couple of hours browsing around here, leaving me plenty of time to walk back to my room, rest up for a quick minute, and then head out again to my next activity (and the reason why I skipped lunch that day).
Yes, everyone, it was time for my food tour.
Unlike the other two tours I have taken on my solo travels thus far, this one (Delicious Kazimierz operated by Delicious Poland Food Tours) did not center around touring a market but rather on visiting different places in the Kazimierz neighborhood. One of the advantages of this approach is that it puts visitors in contact with locally-run places at the same time as it showcases what the city/Poland have to offer, culinarily-speaking. I can happily say that I ended up adding a couple of places to my mapstr after taking the tour (for when I eventually come back, of course). The group was relatively small (12 total, including the guide), and the overall atmosphere was very convivial, I’d say more so than the other two tours I had been on previously in Budapest and Riga.
Though the beer and vodka may have also helped a bit with that.
And it was definitely a good thing that I came hungry too because I was positively STUFFED afterwards. Here’s a brief rundown of what we tried.
Four different kinds of pierogi, including potato and cheese, mushroom and cabbage, spinach, cheese and garlic, and “sweet” plum with sour cream. Those are the potato/cheese pierogi (also known as Russian-style pierogi) in the photo.
Several different Polish tapas like herring, smoked kielbasa (this is the way it’s traditionally eaten here, so a big difference from the kielbasa in the States), grilled mountain cheese with cranberry sauce, pickles, and sliced Cracowian bagels topped with mushrooms or apples and thin slices of lard. These were also accompanied by a tasting of two different vodkas: the famous bison-grass vodka that is usually taken as a shot (and pairs very well with the herring) and then a digestif vodka flavored with quince that is meant to be sipped.
Zapiekanka, a sort of Polish pizza made from a baguette topped with cheese, mushroom, ketchup (yes, this was invented around the 80s, so there’s an explanation for everything) and chives. The nosh of choice for folks here after a night out (though kebab is starting to make some inroads).
Two different craft beers locally brewed by an organization who uses the proceeds from their sales to fund bear conservation in the mountains where the beer is made. If you’re ever in Krakow, I recommend checking Ursa Maior out for yourself.
Then it was on to dinner which featured two soups (sourdough soup and beetroot soup with meat dumplings) followed by a variety of mains: potato pancakes with Polish-style goulash and sour cream to top them with, hunter’s stew (sort of like a choucroute garnie in that its main components are cabbage and pork products), and cabbage stuffed with beef/veal and rice and topped with tomato sauce.
And because we weren’t already almost full to the brim, there were also apple fritters with a sour cream and red fruits dipping sauce.
You’d think I would have just rolled myself back to my room after this (the hostel was only two minutes away), but instead I decided to have a nightcap at Alchemia, a local bar with an underground venue that happened to be hosting a series of jazz concerts that weekend.
I won’t say too much about this other than it was very experimental jazz. Like, incredibly so. If I could post sound clips on here, I would, but for now, just imagine a dude playing a guitar with a teacup, and you’ll get what I mean.
It was an overall early night though because the next day I had to get up incredibly early (well, actually earlier than even I had originally anticipated, since a headache that had been ‘nagging’ me all day decided to kick into high gear that night…joy).
I started my early (as in out of the hostel by 06h15 early) morning by marching over to the only 24hr pharmacy I could find within a reasonable vicinity, picking up some ibuprofen, grabbing a coffee and apple muffin from one of the only bakeries open that early that was also on my planned route, and then hopping on a charter bus. The bus was part of the other reason for my deciding to spend the weekend in Krakow. Rather than touring more of the city, I was going to spend the morning on a guided visit of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Coming to visit this site has been on my mind for a number of years now, but it gained a sense of urgency with the current state of things in the world. I have no immediate connection to the site. Going was, instead, more about furthering my own education. Prior to this, I had never visited a site of a once-active concentration camp. I had, however, visited several museums and exhibits dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, the most affecting of these having been the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. I was fourteen then, and it was while on a trip with my Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember much about that visit, except I think it’s highly likely that my eventual decision to want to visit Auschwitz in person originated there. I think it may have felt something like a responsibility I owed to those who were slaughtered or the comparative few who survived there that someone of my generation go.
Honestly, it’s a somewhat similar reasoning to one I would give if someone were to ask me if I ever would want to visit a plantation. For the record, I have (in New Orleans), but what was notable about this one, and where I as a visitor ended up spending the most time, was in the former slave quarters where a new exhibit was just getting off the ground, documenting the reality of life in and around that ornament of a house. The younger generation owes it to the past to acknowledge and directly confront moments like this, and then learn from them, even though such a process may be difficult.
With Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, one thing that I had not really counted on as much as I should have was how much “notoriety” it as a memorial/tourist site has built up. Yes, I was very much aware before going on the controversies surrounding the taking of selfies or staged “insta-worthy” photos along the tracks leading to the main gates of Birkenau. Thankfully, I didn’t see any of this on my visit. No, what ended up standing out more during this visit was the number of people who were there in the first place.
The question of mass tourism is one that gets brought about often with regards to cities (see: Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik and even many areas of Paris), and I think soon it will have to be reckoned with in regards to sites like this one. On the one hand, more people visiting and educating themselves on the history of the place is good for the spreading of knowledge. On the other hand, sites like this one are not quite the same as ancient ruins or big cities. Sites like this were designed (especially in the case of Birkenau) to torture and kill en masse, and as such, demand a different approach on the part of the visitor.
I’m not saying everyone must go in expecting a profound, life-changing experience. That would be fetishizing the space on a somewhat different level (and commodifying it even further than it already is, in a way). What I will say though is that pushing and shoving (more so from some individual visitors than guided groups as a whole), snapping a photo and moving on without regard for others in the (relatively small) exhibition rooms is a bit much. Of course not everyone will want to linger on everything, but when your guide (who was otherwise very informative) starts getting exasperated and cutting some bits of her lecture short, it tends to put a different perspective on things.
The sites can be visited independently or with a licensed guide (what I ended up doing). If I had to do it again, I would have likely tried to find a way to get there myself and done an independent visit. The site at Auschwitz overall is very well-curated, and there are brochures/guidebooks available in several different languages to accompany the already-displayed plaques, should visitors want more information. Due to the difference in building material (bricks here, versus primarily wood in Birkenau), the bunkers here that formerly housed prisoners have been transformed as exhibit spaces and archival storage. Our guide took us through most of the spaces dedicated to specific aspects of the history of the place, but there were several others that, due to time, we were unable to visit as a group. These included former barracks now dedicated to exhibits curated by the different countries prisoners were taken from. It is, in short, a site that demands a few hours of visitation should one want the time to truly engage with everything there (and one should take the time…really).
Birkenau, on the other hand, was a bit different. Birkenau (at least for me) was when the scope of everything in that space hit the strongest. I don’t know if I can properly explain in words what walking down the central pathway by the train tracks was like, looking out onto a great, open expanse of rows of what were once wooden bunkers, the rows neatly planned out, straight lines, each bunker equidistant from the other. There’s a line of trees at the back, beyond the barbed wire, just behind the memorial, pictured above. And it’s quiet there. And you are very exposed.
We were able to walk there on our own a little bit more before we had to be back on the bus. The time for reflection was welcome, in my case.
After getting back to Krakow, I grabbed a small sandwich for lunch (I hadn’t eaten since the morning, and it was already 14h15), before heading to Cloth Hall in the main square for some souvenir shopping (earrings, of course). After making my purchase, I popped upstairs for a quick peek at the 19th Century Polish Art Gallery, a branch of the National Museum of Krakow.
And I found a little slice of home there. Honestly, I didn’t even have to read the accompanying placard to know exactly what this painting was depicting.
While I was walking around the gallery, I decided that I still had it in me (and my legs) to do one last walking tour. A visit in Kazimierz centered around the history of the Jewish community in the city before and after the war (there was another tour focused on the War/the Holocaust, but that was starting in the neighborhood where the former ghetto was located, and a bit too far from where I was) was going to be starting a couple of hours later, giving me plenty of time to grab a little something sweet beforehand.
The Polish-style almond cheesecake from Ciastkarnia Vanilla hit just the spot, considering, again, how very little I had eaten that day.
As alluded to earlier, this second tour was provided by the same group as the first, though this time with a different (and more engaging) guide. We started our visit at the Old Synagogue
Before moving on to hit some other sites
Of course, a stop in the courtyard where they filmed some scenes from Schindler’s List was also included (several others in the group seemed rather excited about this bit).
And by the time the tour ended, it was dark, and I was starting to feel the first rumblings of hunger for my dinner. So, after a quick stop back into Eszeweria for a cozy glass of wine in a very comfy armchair (and the candles, I still could not get enough of them), I was heading back to the Old Town for one last dinner.
To say that U Babci Maliny is a bit tricky to find is an understatement. I mean, there is a sign above the building whose courtyard (well, courtyard basement) it is housed in indicating that you’ve come to the right place, but when the door to the building seems to lead to a library, it tends to inspire confusion rather than confidence.
Luckily a group of (French, of course, they follow me everywhere) tourists was about to walk in as well so…I followed them in. Once you cross the main hall and enter the courtyard, there is another little sign with the restaurant’s logo, only this time, it’s above the actual entrance.
The name of the place roughly translates to Grandma Raspberry. Staying on theme, immediately to the left of the entryway was an older woman, dressed not unlike the woman in the logo, knitting and pointing patrons in the direction of the dining room. Once inside, it’s pretty casual. You go to the counter, order your food off their (rather extensive) menu, they give you a number, you grab a seat and wait for it to be called out.
I went for some mushroom and cabbage pierogi (boiled, of course, as the food guide from the day before mentioned they should be) with a red cabbage salad on the side, so thankfully my food didn’t take too long to come.
And with that, it was back to the hostel, and back to sleep. The next day, I woke up just early enough to make it to Wesola for one final breakfast right when it opened (and before the crowds descended) before hopping on the bus to the airport and flying home.
Overall, I am very happy with how this trip went. Honestly, Krakow might just beat out Budapest for my favorite of my solo destinations (at least so far). At the very least, I can honestly say that, as with Budapest, I left Krakow feeling as though I needed to come back and see more of it.
I find it almost fitting that my first post back from an unintentional hiatus arrives on the official day of la rentrée, which also happens to coincide with Labor Day back in the US, and, since today’s only dedicated to the students’ orientation, I just so happen to not be working. That, of course, will change tomorrow, but until then, I’m going to take advantage of these last few free hours available to me to remember what feeling moderately relaxed is like.
I say “moderately” because while this summer was, by and large, wonderful in terms of getting away from things for a while (more on that in a bit), I did nevertheless dedicate a large chunk of it to writing—just not on this blog.
For those who want to know, at this point, the status of my dissertation is that I have first drafts completed of every single chapter exceptmy introduction (and conclusion, though what form that thing is going to take is up in the air right now). Arriving to this point was one of my primary goals for the summer (though it remains to be seen as to how goodor usableany of the things I produced/added will end up being…the joys of writing never end), and a good bit of that was completed in the course of lazy afternoons in my family’s beach house in Greece as well as at my mom’s village. Everything has pretty much been sent off for looking over; the only thing left now is to wait for feedback. To be honest, the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to realize that thisis perhaps the primary source of my anxiety with regards to this whole endeavor: the waiting.
But enough of that. Time for a quick summer recap.
I’m going to focus on my time in Greece this year for most of this—as I did spend about a month there—, but before then, a quick shout-out to the quick pre-holiday holiday I took to Valbonnais, a small mountain village a couple hours outside of Grenoble. A good friend had invited me to her family’s house there for a sort of “writing/working weekend”, and I’d say that the fact that I managed to churn out about 10 new pages while editing old stuff—all without an internet connection—is evidence enough that, as far as working weekends go, this one was pretty successful.
As usual, however, the majority of my vacation was spent in Greece, and honestly, at this point, to notspend a good amount of my summer there would feel almost wrong. It was just my parents and I this time around (the joy of having a sister who has just started her medical residency and is too busy literally saving lives to come and hang out at the beach…so rude… /s), but though this holiday wasn’t exactly party-crazy, we still had a quite lovely time. I would like to think that this is in large part due to the decision—on my recommendation, based on the advice of some friends—to start our trip with a couple of days on the island of Sifnos.
Like the majority of the Cycladic islands, the terrain here is more rocky than lush, but unlike some of its sister islands (looking at you, Santorini and Mykonos), Sifnos hasn’t been completely overrun to the point of getting nonsensically expensive—yet. While we all wait for that inevitable chain of events to take place, I would just like to say, in full confidence of the fact that the readership here is low enough that the effects of my pronouncement will be more or less inconsequential, that everyone who has the means to should go to Sifnos.
You want quiet but then a chill, not super crazy/insane nightlife? Sifnos has that.
You want clean beaches, including an organized beach at the port which is surprisingly impeccable, given its location? Sifnos has that.
You want cute little towns with whitewashed houses, but without the nonsense of Santorini? Sifnos has that.
But most importantly, you want to eat damn well and not have to clean out your bank account to do so? Sifnos definitely has that.
Sifnos has been something of a culinary destination for a while, given that there are several Greek chefs who were either from there or have worked there, in particular, Nikolaos Tselementes, a native of the island who, in the early 1930s, published the first complete cookbook in Greek. The island’s reputation for quality, but also simple, not terribly fussy food is more than well-deserved, and successfully highlights the things I love most about Greek food: fresh fish, an abundance of seasonal vegetables and legumes (I think I’ve said this before in another post, but to reiterate, Greek food is traditionally much more vegetable-oriented than all the gyro stands one sees Stateside and elsewhere would have you believe), and a focus on highlighting the products being used rather than trying to mask them. In short, I ate incredibly well in Sifnos, from the grilled red porgy at the fish taverna near our hotel (where, and this is a rarity, the people running the taverna are also the ones who get up at 5am to go out in their boats to catch the day’s offerings), to the amigdalopita—almond cake soaked in syrup—with almond ice cream from a café/patisserie that also offered Paris-Brests that were literally the size of a bicycle wheel rather than the mere suggestion of one, to, last but certainly not least, the creamy revithada—chickpea stew—one of the island’s signature dishes, and the source of my newfound appreciation for chickpeas. It’s not that my love for them was ever waning, but something about having them in this format, where they were the literal stars of the show rather than just a base for a soup or curry, shifted things a bit. Suffice it to say, I will most definitely be making this come later this fall/winter, thanks to my newly acquired clay pot (yeah, Sifnos is also known for its ceramics).
Beyond that, the rest of the vacation went more or less the way these things usually do. My mornings started at the beach at 09h00 when there was literally no one, then came a late lunch, then work (yay), dinner, sleep, repeat. In between, there was also an excursion out to Epidavros to see Ivo van Hov’s Éléctre/Oreste—which also marked the first time that the Comédie-Française performed in that venue—, some quick evening trips out to Spetses, and figs. So many figs. Thankfully, we actually managed to make jam with them this year (and I got to take a jar home with me) instead of just staring at the ever-growing pile of collected figs toppling over the sides of what we assumed would be an appropriately large enough bowl to hold them, wondering how in the hell we were going to manage to eat these.
Yes, everything was lovely. I even had a little victory moment on the balcony at the house in my mom’s village when, after an entire day of writing like a maniac, I managed what I thought was impossible and met my writing goal. I felt good. All I had left to do at that point was plan my lessons for my classes this year (which I did after I got back). The rentrée and the end of summer were approaching, but I was feeling pretty good.
And then, in Athens, the afternoon before I was to leave, I got a call from my landlord.
I thought this was a bit strange, since usually we are only in contact once every six months or so when I relay the water meter readings to her. As, however, our building was in the process of getting new electric meters installed in every apartment, I figured this may have had something to do with that (I had already called the service in charge of that and rescheduled to have someone come by when, you know, I was actually there to let them in, but one never knows in France…). Oh, how very wrong I was.
Now, fortunately, this post is not going to end with me finding out I’m getting evicted or anything. No, instead, we will end by commemorating my new induction to a club I never really wanted to be a member of. Yes, everyone, as of August 21, 2019, I have now joined the ranks of Paris residents who have to deal with the nonsense of a water leak.
Thankfully, nothing exploded or anything (dear god, the situation would have been sososososo much worse if that had happened). No, what happened was that the glue on one of the connecting pipes out of my water heater had worn off, and so the water—which I had neglected to turn off, since I don’t have the habit of doing that anywhere except in Greece since when I leave there, it’s with the understanding that I won’t be back for another year—had just been slowly dripping down on my counter. For about a month, would be my guess. Long story short, my downstairs neighbor (who as it turns out, is an incredibly nice and understanding human…thank goodness) noticed water stains on his bathroom walls, deduced—rightly—that it was coming from my place, relayed that info to our building’s guardienne, who called my landlord, who called me.
So, needless to say, me coming home was a bit of a stressful situation. Thankfully, renter’s insurance is mandatory here, and given the cause of the damage, I do not have to do or pay anything. My bathroom is going to have to undergo a bit of work (side note: who thinks it’s ever a good idea to put hardwood floors in a bathroom?), but hopefully that won’t take an insanely long time. In the meantime, the source of the leak has been fixed, and the fruit flies that also decided to invade my momentarily moist house have also been mostly destroyed.
In the meantime, I’ll be back on here soon enough blogging about shows, even though I have pretty much set my show critiques for my dissertation. In other words, the writing might become more unhinged/carefree than usual. I’ve got this last year left before I (hopefully) hand in/defend this beast of a thing in the spring.
I don’t think it really occurred to me how much—or rather, how little—coffee I drink on a daily basis until my most recent trip to Sweden this past weekend.
Granted, I should not have been surprised by the uptick in my coffee intake, given that the same thing happened during my last visit. In my defense, however, that last visit was six years ago. It was also in March—aka “still kind of wintertime”—so the constant coffee consumption was also a very convenient way to keep the cozy factor high and fight off the chill.
This time though, I was incredibly lucky in that all the threats of rain that were showing up on my weather app in the days leading up to my departure turned out to be unfounded, and whatever sun I was missing in Paris seemed to follow me up there. I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink as much coffee as I did the last time I was here overall, but it was still enough to notice a change in my overall temperament. I was, in short, peppy.
Though that may have had something to do with seeing and hanging with old friends again as well.
I arrived pretty late on Thursday night to my friend’s apartment in Uppsala (thankfully, even though our departure out of Charles de Gaulle was delayed a bit because some genius left their iPad in the departure lounge, I managed to catch the last direct bus from Stockholm-Arlanda to Uppsala central station for the night), but I think being pretty much dead on arrival kind of helped. I would need a decent amount of sleep to be ready for a somewhat early start the next day.
Friday morning started with breakfast and the first two coffees of the day before we headed off to my friend’s uni to support one of her cohorts during his 90% thesis seminar (and yes, before anyone asks, the presentation was in English). I always find it fascinating to compare doctoral programs not just across different departments in the same school, but between different countries as well. And frankly, I find the Swedish system of structuring thesis work/defenses rather intriguing. Basically, when you are 10%, 50% and 90% done with your dissertation, your department organizes a seminar where you will present your work in the presence of your committee, your classmates/cohort, and, most importantly, an opponent (generally someone in the field/a closely related field, but who may not necessarily be part of the department faculty/affiliated with the university itself). Given that sociology of education is not quite my field, there were a number of times where I tuned out a bit, but I found a lot of value in this process of periodic questioning/examination of one’s work by an outside perspective. If nothing else, it can point out things that the student/their committee may have not noticed or glossed over for various reasons, and in the end, result in (hopefully) a better and slightly more accessible thesis. As far as Harvard goes, although they do offer optional writing workshops (which I cannot attend for…obvious reasons), I think trying to integrate something mandatory like this could be very beneficial (if nothing else, it could at least keep everyone up to date on what their fellow PhD candidates are doing).
After the seminar ended, it was time for lunch, and perhaps the most “Swedish” of the main meals I had during my trip. A café near the train station had a very affordable lunch menu on offer, so we opted for that (the large terrace was also a big plus). For my main course, I chose a lightly battered and fried fillet of fish served over potatoes with sliced apple, diced carrots and celery and a mustard sauce. This came with a small salad and a choice of coffee or tea (I chose to shake things up a bit with a green tea):
Bellies full, it was time to begin my (re)exploration of Uppsala, which included stopping by several sites, including
The Uppsala Castle, home to a free art gallery, showcasing art that at times inspires more questions than answers
(for real though, there were also some more typically aesthetically pleasing images on view)
Then it was off to the Uppsala Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Uppsala, last resting place of King Gustav Vasa (among others):
The cathedral also features this startlingly realistic wax mannequin gazing adoringly at the tomb of King Gustav and his consorts
Up next was the Upplands Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of this particular region of Sweden. Along with artifacts depicting the daily lives of various civilizations who inhabited the area throughout history, there was also a special exhibit dedicated to famous sweaters (yes, sweaters), hence the décor out front.
My friend’s husband ended up getting off of work in time to join us on this visit. Luckily, the weather was still holding up very nicely, so when the idea to grab some soft serve was proposed, it didn’t take much persuading from any of us. This also gave me an opportunity to try something new: black licorice sprinkles on vanilla soft serve. Not gonna lie, I was hesitant at first, but I think this may have ended up being one of my favorite things that I tried this trip.
Our dinner reservation not being until 19h, we pretty much just ended up killing time the rest of the afternoon with, you guessed it, more walking.
And this brings us to dinner. Now, when I finally confirmed with my friend that I was indeed coming to visit her, I already somewhat knew what place I wanted to eat at. No, it was not a Swedish restaurant. It was, in fact, a Chinese restaurant: Jappi. ‘But Effie,’ you are probably wondering, ‘why would you want to go to a Chinese restaurant in Sweden?’ Good question. In brief, it’s because she had talked about it many times during several of our conversations, and so I of course had to see what it was all about! Verdict: it was actually pretty darn good (and spicy)! We ordered some eggplant, sliced fish soup, and grilled tofu along with some Tsing Tao beers, and quite frankly, I knew I was in for a great time when the soup came out and I saw all those chilis and Sichuan peppercorns floating on the surface.
Then it was back home for a quick nightcap and more sleep to rest our legs for the next day’s adventure: Stockholm!
The morning started bright and early with coffee and a trip to Güntherska bakery for some cinnamon buns (honestly, other than Jappi, this was my one absolute food-must for my trip. I love Swedish cinnamon buns). A quick train ride later and we had arrived in Stockholm, conveniently just in time for lunch.
Apparently, burgers are just a big a deal in Sweden as they are in Paris, and this one from Vigarda didn’t disappoint. The jalapeño slices were a nice touch too.
We only visited one museum during this outing, The National Gallery. Apparently, it had been under renovation until recently, but luckily enough time had passed between its reopening and our visit that there was no crowd smushed up at the entrance to get in. Another perk of this museum: it’s free (though there are paid tours on offer as well).
The work here is more typical to that which you’d find in an average fine arts museum, though I was surprised to stumble upon the portrait of a certain queen…
Apparently, the artist who painted this was Swedish. So…there’s a fun fact I learned.
Following our visit, we walked along the water a bit to get our appetites up in anticipation of some coffee and cake (also known as fika). Our search for an open café lead us to a somewhat random hole in the wall run by an older woman who came from a family of Finnish opera singers (and who may have been a performer herself…there were some glamour shots on the walls of a woman who looked a lot like a younger version of the café owner, though we never confirmed with her if our guesses were correct or not).
Dinner that night continued in the tradition of ‘not Swedish’ with some yummy chicken bo-bun at a Vietnamese place in Ostermalm:
It was at this point that the light rain that had been threatening to fall the entire afternoon actually made good on its promise, though it only lasted about a minute (and thankfully started after we had all finished our meals). In any case, at that point all there was left to do was leisurely walk back to the train station (making sure to stop off at a candy store for some provisions on the way, of course)
Yeah, there are definitely a decent amount of licorice-based candies in that bag. Funny how taste buds change.
And speaking of new tastes, I of course couldn’t leave on Sunday morning without one last bun and coffee, though this time I opted for cardamom rather than the usual cinnamon:
And then it was off to the airport and back home, where a train issue meant I was stuck in the rain waiting for a bus for far longer than I expected to be (namely, thirty minutes versus no time at all). As incredibly relaxing and fun as this weekend was, I’m kind of glad I’ll be staying put for the foreseeable future (at least until I head to Greece in mid-July). All that traveling back and forth was starting to get to me a bit, especially the whole having to unpack/repack my backpack thing.
But I think I made the right choice in taking this trip before heading into the final stretch of the school year/into another heavy round of dissertation research/writing. I just need to keep telling myself I’ll get over the writer’s block hump that’s been bugging me for the last few days/week.
I feel like April this year was one of those months that snuck right up and right past me. Did I see shows? Yeah, several actually. But I’ve also come to the realization that I may have mentally finalized my ‘performance corpus’, to the point that I am just attending things for my own amusement now (still at the same theatres though). It’s not that I have completely closed myself off to the possibility of a late addition, but needless to say, I haven’t felt as much urgency to blog about the shows I’ve seen than I used to.
Besides, now that I have finally received confirmation that I will have completion funding next year, I am feeling a greater urgency to write on the things I already have on deck than adding even more…stuff. Part of the dissertation is, after all, knowing when to stop, recognizing the fact that it is simply not possible to include every single thing (otherwise I’d be doing this for another ten years which…I’m not particularly keen on).
What I have been doing recently, however, is traveling.
One of the bonuses about teaching in this country are the numerous 2-week breaks interspersed throughout the school year (basically it’s 6 weeks of instruction, 2 weeks break…it’s lovely). I’m currently in the middle of the second of my two weeks of spring holidays, and unlike with the February holidays, this time I took full advantage of the break to travel a bit.
The first trip was relatively local, as well as to a city I had been to before, though not in the springtime. Several weeks ago, a friend and I decided to plan a short weekend trip, as I was about to start my break, and she had a 4-day weekend. Of course, this being the week of the 20th(aka, Easter), our last-minute train bookings somewhat limited our options (the original idea of spending the weekend in Bruges was verrrrry quickly abandoned). Thankfully, tickets to Strasbourg were still very affordable (especially on the slow line), and as she had never been there, the final decision was almost made for us.
Honestly, though, I think we ended up really lucking out with this trip, if only for how absolutely gorgeous the weather was. Right up to the day we left, the weather apps were predicting at least a bit of rain on the Sunday of our trip (a day we planned to spend walking around the nearby small city of Colmar), but in the end, all we had was sun and maybe a little bit of wind. And though we had to get up very early to catch our 8h20 train, the 4-hour ride was worth it the minute we stepped off the train and out into the bright sunshine. The air smelled cleaner there. The abundance of wisteria in bloom helped with this.
After we checked into our lovely AirBnb in Petite France, we spent the majority of the afternoon walking around and exploring. Lunch that day was at a little Easter fair in front of the Protestant cathedral, where we had the first of the tartes flambées (basically like an Alsatian flatbread) and beers that would be consumed that weekend.
Our hunger sated, we commenced a more thorough walking adventure of the historical part of the city, stopping off at the Modern Art Museum to kill some time before heading back to the AirBnb to freshen up before grabbing dinner.
As my only other experiences in Strasbourg were primarily centered around eating my way through Christmas markets, I didn’t have too much in my arsenal in terms of restaurants to visit. Luckily, another friend of mine who used to live in the city was more than happy to provide several recommendations, one of them being Fink’Stuebel.
One thing to note about food in Alsace is that many of the traditional dishes—choucroute, spaetzel, baeckeoffe—are much more well-adapted to the cold winters the region is known for than to the warmer days of spring and summer. However, we still wanted to make sure we took advantage of the opportunity to eat some regional dishes that are not as easily available in Paris, so even though the weather was rather warm, we pretty much said ‘Screw it’ and feasted anyway (it was vacation after all).
I opted for a pork knuckle with a side of German potato salad, while my friend chose to try the (incredibly generous/this can’t possibly just be for one person) choucroute garnie—a pile of sauerkraut topped with various pork products. The cozy interior of the restaurant—think dark wood walls, wooden chairs, mismatched water glasses—certainly helped set the atmosphere for the meal, with the carafe of Riesling we chose as an accompaniment only further adding to the enjoyment of the evening. We were lucky enough to book a table on the last day they were open before closing up for the Easter holiday, and clearly the place was very popular because several parties had to be turned away for lack of a reservation. In terms of more traditional Alsatian restaurants, I would highly recommend this one, especially for its location at the edge of Petite France, as well as the quality (and quantity!) of the food that is a far cry from stereotypical ‘tourist traps’.
A long day of traveling, coupled with a very copious dinner, meant we didn’t really stay out too late that night, which ended up being not so much of a terrible thing, considering all the walking we did on Easter Sunday. That morning was another early wakeup for us, as well as a short 30-minute train ride to Colmar. Unlike with Strasbourg, this was both of our first times in this small city, and I personally was very giddy about it. I mean, just a quick Google image search will show pictures of what looks like the most adorable fairytale town, and, after my visit, I can confirm that those photos are all incredibly accurate. Colmar is a gem. We spent pretty much all our time making several circles around the old town, and I honestly could have made a couple more, had we not had a train to catch back to Strasbourg.
There were a couple of spring markets on around the city—possibly to drum up tourism in times that are…not Christmas—and along with the usual food and crafts, there were also some opportunities to meet some farm animals! Because what says spring more than a bunch of baby goats munching on hay (or some particularly—terrifyingly—gigantic pigeons):
It probably also won’t surprise anyone if I said that this town is rumored to have been the inspiration behind Belle’s hometown in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast(I mean, really all that’s missing from that opening scene are a couple of kougelhopfs and maybe some pretzels and it’s pretty much set). I think I would like to come back again later in the year to see the city at Christmas, because I can only imagine how quaint all those little houses would look under the glow of some fairy lights (though the very real possibility of the immense crowds that would have to be dealt with is…less than ideal).
At least we got this little Easter sheep for a (momentary) souvenir (honestly though, this looks a lot better than it tasted…there’s a reason these are meant to be eaten with tea or coffee):
Lunch in Colmar was relatively light (tarte flambée and beer again hehe), so we were more than ready for another big meal once we got back to Strasbourg. Not having made any reservations, we simply scoured Trip Advisor/Yelp looking for places that a) would be open and b) served the dish my friend was really keen on trying: baeckeoffe.
In brief, baeckeoffe is a sort of casserole, traditionally composed of potatoes, onions, mutton, beef, pork, carrots, leeks and Alsatian white wine baked together in a ceramic dish. Much like with the dishes we had tried the night before, this one is definitely more ideally suited for colder weather, but thankfully the evening was cool enough that eating it could still be enjoyable.
We ended up choosing the appropriately-named Le Baeckeoffe d’Alsacefor our dinner—a restaurant geared more towards tourists than locals, but which nevertheless provided solid versions of what we were looking for for our evening meal. As with the night before, portions sizes were more than generous, as evidenced by my portion of spaetzel (think mac and cheese, but the cheese is slices of muenster melted directly over the top of the pasta…mmmmm) that could easily have fed three if not four people.
All of this was, of course, washed down with more Riesling.
After a quick nightcap on the terrace of a nearby bar, it was time to rest our feet again before a final day of walking that Monday.
And we really took advantage of the half day we had left in the city to stop off at all the sites we hadn’t visited properly during our first day. We strolled around the cathedral and saw the astronomical clock:
Then checked out the museum of fine arts just across the cathedral plaza.
As the weather was still very nice, we followed our visit to the museum with a quick lunch al fresco (where I had a salad because vegetables are necessary), then headed out of Petite France and to the university to check out the botanical garden, where we encountered some very loud frogs (mating season and whatnot).
A final beer by the river marked the end of the trip, and before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to the wisteria (whose smell I wish I could just bottle up and take with me everywhere), the cleaner air, and the lack of dog poop and those damn Lime scooters in the middle of every sidewalk (seriously, it’s not that difficult to park the damn scooter on the side of the damn sidewalk so people can actually, I don’t know, walk…). The train ride seemed to go by faster this time—as return trips often do—and before I knew it, I was back home again, though not for long.
To get this out of the way early: yes, this was kind of another impulse-buy trip. As with my birthday trip to Budapest, this one came about partially from an itch to see something new, and partially from the general overall ‘blegh’ feeling one gets after being stuck in a place for a while (and also from the mental toll that teaching + the stress of dissertation-related nonsense + personal stuck in a rut/feeling like everything’s coming out only half-baked can have on one’s personal outlook). In short, I was in need of a shake-up.
Around the time I was thinking of booking something, I was also spending my library lunch breaks scrolling through the NY Times Travel section, in particular the 52 Places to Travel to feature. One of the cities listed was Tallinn, which is where I got the idea to center my search on the Baltics in the first place. After getting some tips from friends who had visited the region (special shout-out to Caitlin for her excellent recommendations), as well as a quick search on Kayak, I settled on Riga as my destination, mostly because, at the time of my search, flights to there from Paris were cheaper than flights to Tallinn (otherwise, everything else came out pretty equal).
I think I’m also noticing a slight pattern in the destinations I’m being drawn to for my short solo-travel excursions in the sense that I’ve been drawn to cities where there exists a dichotomy (and I would say, at least based on my impressions of Riga, a spatial/aesthetical tension) between the country’s pre-USSR and USSR histories—especially with regards to how the latter is still very present, like a shadow, even as the country itself tries to move forward from it. Traces of Riga’s troubled history—and I’ll take a minute here to stress the fact that not just Riga but the Baltics in general went through quite a bit during both WWII and the Soviet occupation—can be seen almost everywhere, most evidently once one leaves the very charming—though quite touristy—Old Town. Honestly, sometimes it was an observation as simple as noticing the state of a sidewalk or the landscape planning of a park that conjured up a feeling that there was something weighty in the air, if that makes sense. If nothing else, what I did end up leaving the city with was a very strong desire to visit the other two Baltic capitals in future travel excursions, even if I feel like I’ve closed the book on Riga…for now.
Don’t mistake that last sentence though. I actually had a very lovely time there. That statement comes more from a feeling of…completeness…I had upon leaving, one that spoke more to a desire to explore outwards, in other parts of the region, than back into that particular city itself.
Would I recommend visiting Riga? 100% (and not just because it was crazy affordable).
See, the food there is also pretty excellent (and may be another reason why I felt more compelled to try and plan trips to Tallinn or Vilnius afterwards than return right away…because if I ate so well in Riga…surely there would be other equally as delightful gastronomical adventures awaiting me in other parts of the region). Of course, it helped that I did some research (of course) before going—as well as booked a tasting tour of the central market—but just based on the number of restaurants on my list that I didn’t manage to try (because one can’t make it to everything in a weekend), I would be rather confident in saying that it is rather easy to have an affordable, seasonal, quality, meal in Riga.
That being said, let’s get down to the details.
Friday (Day 1).
I arrived in Riga late on Thursday night, around 22h. Prior to leaving Paris, I had arranged with the hostel I was staying at to have a cab meet me at the airport, as I wasn’t sure I would be able to make the last bus into the city center, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of navigating a new city at night after having travelled all day (left Paris in the early afternoon, then had a layover in Stockholm). I wasn’t necessarily worried about anything happening to me, per say—and Riga is a pretty safe city, at least from my personal impressions—but I did want to at least make sure I knew exactly where my hostel was so I wouldn’t waste time navigating. The trip from the airport took about 30minutes and cost 15 euros (pro tip: have cash on you…I did not know this, but thankfully there was an ATM right around the corner from the hostel). Before I knew it, I was flopped down on my bed in my private dorm in Central Hostel, ready for a good night’s sleep (yeah, no, I’m done with hostel dorms).
The next day, I was up bright and early to do a bit of visiting before joining in one of the two free walking tours I would end up doing on my trip (in addition to the aforementioned food tour). I started my morning off with a black coffee and vegan (yes, vegan) waffles with berries at MiiT Coffee, and trust that I am not exaggerating when I say that the coffee scene in Riga is quite good.
The coffee that I chose was roasted locally, as well as brewed to order, something that you don’t find very often, especially for the price they charged (around 3 euros). That plus the waffles came out to about 8euros total. Not bad at all.
After filling up on breakfast, I made my way to the Latvian National Museum of Art just in time for its opening, and just in time to see the entire permanent collection before having to speed over to the Old Town to catch the tour. Entry to the main collection is only 3euros, with the option of adding a visit to the temporary exhibition halls as well for an additional 3euros. Honestly, I was fine with just sticking to the main exhibition spaces, especially as they spanned about three floors and covered works by Latvian artists from the 18thcentury to the present. I’ve posted some of my favorite works below (Madonna with a machine gunis especially eye-catching):
My visit finished, I quickly power walked across the small park in front of the museum and headed into Old Town, just in time to catch the 2.5hr Alternative Riga Walking Tour. This is one of two free tours run year-round by local guides (they offer bike tours for a fee as well, but only from May – September), the second—and shorter—one meeting at 10h and focusing solely on the Old Town. As this one’s name implies, we would be getting a different view of Riga than the usual tourist hot-spots, one that focused more on the sociopolitical history of the country, rather than on the historical architecture of some of the buildings.
While we did spend some time in the Old Town (around 10 – 15min), we left the area pretty quickly to check out other nearby areas of the city, some of which see less tourist traffic, but nonetheless merit a visit. I think my favorite site was the very imposing Academy of Sciences, also known as Stalin’s birthday cake. See, the idea was to build the thing and present it as a gift to Stalin during one of his visits to the city. Construction started in 1951. Stalin died in 1953. Oops.
The building houses mostly offices now, but there’s also a viewing platform at the top that is open to visitors for a small fee (I didn’t end up going up though).
It was during this tour that I also—thanks to my eavesdropping—became acquainted with three other solo female travelers: one from Germany, another from Japan, and the third from Taiwan. This was a very pleasant surprise in my visit, not going to lie, especially as one of the things I still struggle with sometimes is actually getting up the nerve to talk to people. Taking the plunge and introducing myself paid off, however, as we all ended up having a late (and very filling) lunch after the tour was over, as well as meeting up again a couple times throughout the weekend.
Speaking of lunch, this was had at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, a sort of tavern (in a basement), serving Latvian foods and beers at incredibly affordable prices. For my meal, I had beef shank in dark beer with a cauliflower purée and salad (yay!), along with a half pint of local, unfiltered beer (tasted very similar to some German-style beers I’ve tried):
And because we weren’t full enough already, we also stopped off at Gelato Italiafor some ice cream and espresso:
We all went our separate ways for a bit after that, agreeing to meet later that evening for cocktails, and I used my time to stroll around the Old Town a bit and take some photos before the rain that had decided to make a quick stopover while we were indoors having lunch returned again (otherwise the weather was absolutely fantastic).
It was when I went back to my hostel room to rest my feet and freshen up a bit that I ended up getting one of the best emails I have gotten in a long time…
My funding for next year is confirmed.
Considering how much stress this whole “will I/won’t I” have funding (as well as, in the case of the latter, how the hell am I supposed to scrounge up $25,000 to hand over to Harvard…oh yeah, you all read that correctly) had been weighing on me these past few months, seeing that message almost made me want to bounce off the walls. I was that happy. Needless to say, cocktails that evening at the Skyline Baratop the Radisson Blu hotel took on, at least for me, a rather celebratory tone. I normally don’t go for cocktail bars like this—or for particularly sweet or flowery cocktails—but I figured, why the hell not.
Plus, the view from the 26th floor was pretty fantastic.
Saturday (Day 2).
It was another day of walking (and eating…so much eating) on Saturday, this time with a quick breakfast of barley porridge with jam and a latté at Rocket Bean Roastery, another local coffee roaster. The hearty porridge proved to be a good choice for the morning as well, and not just because I had two tours to look forward to that day.
I started with the 10h00 Old Town walking tour, one I had not originally planned on doing, but was ultimately convinced based on what the other girls I had met had said about it. And honestly, I had no idea what I would have done otherwise, so I ultimately made a good choice. This time, our guide was someone who had a background in history and urban planning, which proved especially advantageous when discussing some of the…controversies…around some well-known sites in the area (his complaint about how the inscription on the House of the Blackheads should read ‘replica’ instead of ‘restoration’, considering the whole building was pretty much destroyed in WWII and later by the Soviets was both amusing and also…real).
Going on this tour also proved useful in another way, mostly in how it determined how I would end up spending my time between this (which ended at 11h30) and my Central Market tour at 14h00. The guide was taking questions as the tour wrapped up, during which time someone asked about shopping. I had been looking for places to find some souvenirs (especially locally-made jewelry, since I’ve decided that’s my thing now), but had had no real luck so far. It being Saturday, our guide suggested anyone interested should cross the river and head to the small, but vibrant, Kalnciema Street Market (held only on Saturdays). The walk was about 45 minutes long, but hey, I had time to kill, and figured it would be good to see a different, more local (and yeah, more hipster….ha) part of the city while I had time.
As mentioned, the market was rather small, but there were plenty of vendors packed into the space—a sort of courtyard surrounded by small wooden houses/buildings—, most of whom were selling food. If I didn’t have more eating in my near future, I probably would have bought my lunch right then (or hell, maybe even an ice cream cone…it was pretty warm out), given how tempting all the smoked meats, cheeses, cold salads/dips and pastries looked.
Luckily, there were a number of crafts vendors around who caught my eye as well, and I ended up walking away with two new pairs of earrings.
By this point, as you can probably imagine, I was feeling very hungry. Thankfully, after another 45minute walk back to the other side of the river, I didn’t have long to wait until my food tour started.
As with my food tour in Budapest, this time I was the only person in the group who was traveling solo. Unlike that time, however, this time the group consisted not of me and an older British couple but of me and a group of 8 Swiss-German men out on their yearly guys’ trip. Don’t get me wrong, they were all very nice…I just found the situation hilarious. 8 tall dudes and one tiny me.
I’m going to apologize in advance here for the quality of the photos, since the lighting in the market halls wasn’t exactly the greatest, but here’s a basic rundown of everything we tried:
The one thing I do wish was that there were some opportunities to taste some local beers or other beverages along with this tour, but as with the bike tours mentioned earlier, those tours don’t really kick off until the start of the tourist season in May. I did, however, end up having enough room to have a quick half-pint of IPA (of course) at Alkimikisbrewery, which also happened to be on my way back to the hostel.
Dinner that night was with two of the three girls I had met the day before at a restaurant recommended by our tour guide from the Alternative Riga Tour. Mildawas slightly more upscale than the other restaurants/eateries I had visited thus far, but still incredibly affordable for the quality of food served. The specialty here is Baltic cuisine, albeit with a slightly more refined/modernized aesthetic. We were served a complimentary starter of chicken liver mousse before our main courses arrived.
For my main course, I opted for the whole trout with a whipped sour cream served over slices of baked potatoes and beets. I don’t eat fish incredibly often, since when cooking at home, I like to make dishes that will last me for several days, and ordering fish at a restaurant can be rather expensive, but this locally-caught trout only cost 14euros (and no way was I going to pass that up).
The fish was delicious. Fresh, light, perfectly cooked, the garlic in the sauce drizzled inside it perfectly complementing the tangy sour cream. For dessert, I chose to try the Latvian rye bread pudding with dried fruits, honey, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Our tour guide from the day before had mentioned this dessert, although his description (mix rye bread with a bunch of water and sugar until you make a paste and then eat it) left something to be desired. This version though was quite nice, especially in how the honey, spices and dried fruits mixed with the slightly more peppery rye.
Of course, all this was washed down with more beer.
After a quick nightcap of blackcurrant-flavored black balsam (the local liqueur, basically vodka and a bunch of herbs mixed together that are meant to have “health benefits”. The original is quite…special. This one is slightly better) at a nearby bar, it was time to say goodbye to the Old Town and the new travel friends I made and head back to the hostel to catch a tiny bit of sleep before my very early flight the next day. Overall, I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to take two weekend trips during the spring school holidays (even if that cut into my dissertation work time a tad). It’s nice to be able to treat oneself once in a while.
As to upcoming theatre-related things, I’ve got a number of shows on deck that hopefully will inspire an urge to write some commentary (if not include them in my final dissertation). Other than that, there is yet another trip also coming up mid-month, though this time it’s to a place I have been before (albeit about 6 years ago) to visit some pretty legit people.
Until then, here’s to blackcurrant black balsam (and last-minute frantic lesson planning):
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that any teacher with a sizable pile of papers to grade (and a dissertation to continue writing) must be in want of a vacation.
Conveniently, I just so happen to be in the middle of the second of my two week work holiday (because, yes, a two week winter/ski break between the Christmas holidays and spring beak is a thing…a very wonderful thing), so even if I hadn’t ended up going anywhere, I would have at least gotten in a bit more rest than usual. Fortunately, though, trains exist, and Paris just so happens to be incredibly well-connected.
I had been pondering over the idea to take a day trip somewhere for a while, even before the holidays started, and to be frank, the unseasonably (and incredibly concerning) warm weather we had leading up and into last week only made that urge stronger. Faced with a desire to get the hell out of the city for a bit, but with absolutely no idea as to where I wanted to go, I sought out the advice of friends, one of whom recommended Rouen, a city about 1.5 hours outside of Paris. With tickets being only 20eur for a roundtrip, the choice to go was pretty much made for me. Even better: I managed to convince another friend to venture out with me.
Rouen is the capital of the Normandy region, and was also one of the most thriving and prosperous cities during the Middle Ages (this may explain why there are so. Many. Cathedrals…or not. I don’t know; I’m not a historian). It was also the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and yes, before you ask, the city does lean into that a bit. She may have been the “Virgin of Orléans”, but she died in Rouen, goddamnit.
And no, before anyone asks, we did not visit any Joan of Arc-related sites or attractions.
Other than Joan, Rouen can also lay claim as a birthplace or residency of several other notable figures: dramatist/tragedian Pierre Corneille (whose Médée is still one of the few neoclassical French adaptations of a Greek tragedy that I actually like), novelist Gustave Flaubert (Rouen also plays a pivotal role in Madame Bovary), and artist Marcel Duchamp. Monet also spent a considerable amount of time in the city, painting, among other things, a well-known series of the Rouen Cathedral. The city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts is also quite well regarded (and conveniently free for anyone who wishes to visit the permanent collections).
There are several trains leaving from Saint Lazare that head out in that direction daily, some with a final stop in Rouen (the rest usually will continue on to Le Havre). Regardless, the TGV ride is swift and calm, and before you know it, you will have arrived at Rouen’s central train station.
Now, despite the fact that it was once a former commercial hub, Rouen today is noticeably more calm and quiet (and more sparsely populated) than Paris. It is also much smaller than Paris, the historical center in particular, meaning that it is relatively easy to walk where one wants to go and see pretty much all the sites in one day (though I’m sure there is more to be explored…perhaps on another visit!). The historical center is absolutely breathtaking, not just in the incredibly well-preserved medieval architecture, but in the variety of colors on the building façades (think pinks, mint green, blue, basically almost any deviation from the usual ‘white walls/brown timber’ combo, though there were plenty of those as well). I, however, being a bit of a dummy, did not take photos of very many of said buildings, so…yeah. Just imagine it yourself.
Arguably, one of Rouen’s biggest draws is its cathedral, made famous both by Monet’s paintings as well as the fact that it suffered considerable damage following an Allied bombardment in WWII (in one of their operations leading up to the D-Day landings). Unfortunately, a few of the stained-glass windows were damaged beyond repair, but the loss of a couple of windows is more than made up for by the intricate details on the front of the building.
Inside the cathedral there is a self-guided (though, given that it is still actively used as a church, religiously-bent) tour on the building’s history, including some panels detailing the various periods during which the 800+ year old building had to undergo some kind of maintenance. There are also a number of tombs inside, whose inscriptions gave my friend and I an opportunity to test our skills in Latin (spoiler: we were only middlingly successful). Overall, though, I’d say that was a good way to spend the morning.
On our way to lunch, we also popped over to admire the large clock that almost every blog/travel guide post I looked up about Rouen prior to my visit had a photo of. It was very impressive.
I’ll get to what we ate in the end, but before I do, some shots of what ended up being our primary afternoon activity: a visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts (did I mention it was free??).
I don’t think there were any temporary exhibits on, or if there were, they weren’t ticketing them because we were able to get in to see everything (or pretty much everything…we may have inadvertently skipped one or two rooms). The museum is not particularly large, so seeing everything isn’t exactly a Louvre-sized feat. What I was most excited for, however, was the small impressionist collection. As far as art movements go, impressionism still ranks up there as one of my favorites, mostly because of how much the landscapes/environments/colors it favors contrast with my own life. If cubism–as much as I also like and admire it–inspires almost overwhelming feelings of dread knowing that WWI was just around the corner (and having a feeling that maybe the art was anticipating the violence a bit as well), impressionism brings calm, openness, a feeling of being able to breathe again. I can still recall the last time I was in Giverny close to six (!) years ago and I went to hike a bit on the hills behind the village, away from the tour groups. It was a clear day, and from where I stood, I could see all the way out to where the Seine, much wider and more peaceful than in Paris, stretched along a green valley. Insects buzzed. There was a breeze. If I perked up my ears a bit, I could hear the soft grunts of the horses roaming around in a nearby pasture. It’s easy, from a perch like that, to understand why someone would want to build a house and create art here.
Anyway, back to the museum. The collection may not be as impressive, say, as the one in the Orsay, but the advantage here, again, is that there are fewer people to deal with.
As we did not have a ton of time ahead of us after leaving the museum, the remainder of our little trip was spent walking along the river, enjoying the sunshine (even though, again, that should absolutely not have been a thing in February).
For those who want to know where (and what) we ate:
First stop was coffee at Citizen Coffee. Yes, I did look up coffee shops before going because that is a thing I do now (really though it’s because I do not like to take chances that early in the morning when I’m not even properly awake). They use Café Lomi beans there, so the quality is pretty much guaranteed. I, for instance, can confidently say that I was very happy with my flat white.
Lunch (our only full meal in the city) was at L’Espiguette, a recommendation from the friend who suggested I visit Rouen in the first place. A lunch formule of a first and main course runs at around 14eur. I opted to have a glass of wine with my meal, which brought my total to 19eur. For a starter, I opted for leeks vinaigrette (my friend got a slice of rabbit terrine), and then a steak (with a copious serving of fries) for my main. The fact that I still felt super full when I finally arrived back home (even after all the walking we did post-lunch) is a testament to what a good (and delicious) value this place was.
And thus ends the musings on the mini-vacation to Rouen.
Other than that, my vacation has pretty much consisted of me writing (and reading…yes, because the theoretical research never ends) and trying to push the looming thoughts of lesson planning and grading out of my mind (they’re creeping back in now, unfortunately). Thankfully, this last trimestre goes by insanely quickly, what with another two weeks off in April and May being…a weird month (a lot of random national holidays). It still never ceases to amaze me how quickly this year has been going by, especially considering all the ups and downs (and dear god were there some mental downs) that accompanied my first period of furious, financially-motivated writing.
These next couple of days are going to be slightly emotionally tricky, to be honest. In sum, a very good friend is moving away early next week. I’m not particularly good at goodbyes, especially when it concerns people I have become rather close to (and when the leaving also implies the further shrinking of my rather small social circle). This, of course, is one of the things that comes with being an expat, getting accustomed to the flux of people coming and going (and hell, I was one of those people coming and going once). I’m trying to make more of an effort of going to more things other than plays on my own though, if nothing else than to just be around people. Feed off their energy a bit, try to find other communities I might want to try and be a part of (the nice thing about being an expat, especially in a country I have no familial ties to: I can constantly readjust and reinvent myself as I see fit).
I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, how quickly it seems to have been passing these last few weeks, and consequently how very little time is left between me and a very important deadline in February.
Yes, it’s the dissertation thing again. I’ve managed to write quite a bit, but always with the feeling that I should be doing more. On the other hand, I have started to move away from the feeling that I need to hit a certain page number before I can turn in this chapter draft (mostly because I feel like since I haven’t really been consistently communicating with my advisor since the summer, I should have a good chunk of something to show for it. Is 25 pages enough for that?). Teaching hasn’t really put in as much of a dent on my work as much as getting around my own frustrations has. It’s still so much easier for me to write a post for this blog—arguably a far more personal form of writing—than it is to hack out this chapter draft. Maybe because I’m not exactly gushing over the topic of focus in it. Here’s hoping when I get to writing on my own theoretical ideas, the words will come out faster.
Time also figured pretty prominently in the show I saw on November 7th, Nachlass, piècessanspersonnes at the MC93, though I hesitate over whether or not it is even theatrical at all, rather than firmly anchored in performance art. The idea of this is that visitors are gathered into one of the venues smaller exhibition spaces which has been fitted out with a series of 8 rooms, each one dedicated to one (or in one case 2) individuals. For the most part, said individuals are all dead (and I leave the caveat in there because there were a couple who never explicitly mentioned that the existence of their presence in this exhibition space meant that they were no longer alive). Rather than let visitors enter and exit the rooms as they wished, a timer above each doorway indicated the time remaining for the current occupants to finish their visit, before the door would open, the previous visitors would file out, and new ones filed in. There was no particular order to follow. Other than one of the rooms that absolutely needed six people in it, if possible, thus causing the staff curating the event to herd people in its direction, so that everyone could experience the room as it was meant to be, visitors were free to wander as they wished. As I had set myself a deadline at which I had to leave in order to be able to make it to the high school in time for the start of theatre club (I attended on a Wednesday afternoon), I just made my decision based on which door had the shortest wait time listed over it after getting out of the previous room. I only ended up waiting longer than a minute (wait time could vary between 30 seconds and just over 5 minutes) a couple times, and at those moments, I would sit on one of the crates lining the walls next to the doors, looking up at the ceiling where a world map was projected, little pings of light marking another death somewhere in the world.
Yeah, not exactly the most sunshiny of performances.
What the pieces really rest on, though, is absence. Not total absence, at least not quite. Once the door begins to close on each of the rooms—decorated in a certain, incredibly meticulous way so as to reflect an aspect of the life of the deceased—, a recording would play in which the deceased would introduce themselves, and then address their audience directly as they began to talk about not just their lives, but their musings on death as well. Sometimes, we were invited to poke around a bit, other times to help ourselves to water or, in the case of one of the subjects who happened to be Turkish, loukoumia. But there’s an uneasy feeling that creeps inside you when you realize that not only does the person to whom that voice that is talking to you now originally belong is dead, they are aware of the fact that their existence would continue on for a while in this manner, in this ‘present-but-not-quite’ manner. It’s almost like a proto A.I., a thing that tries to sustain existence beyond the human.
But it can’t ever really reach a human presence because of this chasm that exists between us and it in terms of precisely this idea of interaction. It can influence us, make us perform certain actions by tapping into a desire to know more or to cultural notions of hospitality, but we cannot do the same with it. The recording still plays even when no one is in the room. Our physical presence is required for the story to become that, otherwise it’s just a series of vibrations in a contained space.
Maybe this “play with no actors” is more about drawing attention to the material presence of our—as in the audience’s—physical existence than it is about musings on death. Who knows?
Thankfully, though, my past two weekends have been decidedly more upbeat.
First up was a quick trip to Grenoble to visit a friend of mine who I met while we were both living at CitéU. She and I had been talking for a while about me coming down to visit, and thankfully our dates finally coordinated to make it happen.
And other than a bit of rain during the start of our little day trip to Lyon on the Saturday of my visit, the weather was basically perfect.
I opted to take the Ouibus down instead of a train, mostly due to the fact that the bus was significantly cheaper. Clocking in at 8.5hrs though—including mandatory stops—it was significantly longer as well, but thankfully the WiFi actually worked pretty decently, the seats were comfortable, and I had no one in the seat next to me (yay stretching out my legs).
I arrived late on a Friday night, and as Grenoble is a pretty small city, we opted to dedicate Saturday to exploring Lyon, another city I had not been to. Ticking off two new cities in one trip? I’d say that’s pretty good.
As usual, the visit mostly consisted of walking, with an incredibly filling lunch thrown in for good measure. I’m a bit suspicious that the slight cold I came home with originated at some point on this walk, what with the combination of light rain in the morning, and general windiness in the afternoon (though, thank goodness for sun). We had originally planned on visiting a museum, but as walking is free and the city rather large, we opted to stay outside and let our feet guide us. And good thing too because it was peak fall outside, and I was absolutely here for it.
Speaking of lunch, this meal marked the first of two weekends full of meals that were delicious, but otherwise all but void of any kind of veg. Don’t get me wrong; I like a good sausage or stew as much as anyone. But, not going to lie, I am very much looking forward to chomping down on a whole head of broccoli once I get back to Paris [side note: I’m writing this while sitting on a rather turbulent flight back to Paris from Budapest].
Lunch in Lyon was at a restaurant in the older part of the city, where they offered a set lunch menu for around 15eur. I started off with a rather sizable bowl of French onion soup (because something was needed to counteract the morning chill).
Then I moved on to a main course of boudin noir (blood sausage) with roast potato and apple. Now, I love a good boudin noir—it’s probably up there among my favorite sausages—, but to be quite frank, I do think there’s a limit as to how much of a good thing you can have, particularly when it comes to portion size.
Honestly, I could have done fine with just one of the sausages, about half the potatoes and the apple, especially considering the large soup I had just finished eating. Food waste is such a problem, that it’s almost unnerving to see this quantity of food served for one person as part of a multi-course menu in a country where getting a to-go bag isn’t really part of the culture. Hell, even if I had just had the dish on its own, I probably still would have only been able to down half of what was on the plate. Anyway, all that aside, the dish was pretty good (though, last little nit to pick, a salad or something green would have been nice).
For dessert I decided to keep it local with a slice of pink praline tart.
I’ve seen many pralined items on offer in bakeries in Paris, but I never knew that this thing originated in Lyon. Lyon, however, would like to make sure you never forget its history with all things “praliné-d”, as the amount of pink emanating from bakeries is enough to last a lifetime.
As to the tart, it was actually quite good. The filling is essentially a kind of almond paste, which I’m quite fond of, and it wasn’t as overly sweet as the bright pink would suggest.
Given how full we were, even after walking off the meal with a trek around pretty much all of Lyon, we had no intention of eating anything for the rest of the day. Well, we did end up grabbing some veggie tartines at a bar back in Grenoble that evening, but that was more to have something to nibble on than to fill a pressing need for sustenance.
And in spite of all the walking we had done, we opted to go out dancing in Grenoble when we got back. Well, attempted to go dancing would be more accurate. After we bar-hopped a bit, we finally reached the pub where the dancing was, only to find it absolutely packed-in-like-sardines full of people. So, less dancing, more bobbing around in a 2m radius. The cheesy French music the DJ kept playing did keep things incredibly entertaining though.
The next morning, the sun was out in all its glory, meaning a short hike was in order. Grenoble sits in a basin surrounded by the alps, so the views from high up on the Bastille fortress were pretty remarkable (a highlight: getting a glimpse of Mont Blanc in the distance).
Lunch was sausage again (though this time a local one called a diot), and this time there was a hint of veg too!
And then it was back on a bus for me for another longish ride back to Paris.
The week was mostly quiet, save for some parent-teacher conference meetings (oh it is odd being on the other side of these things…). More accurately, the week was pretty much a countdown to Thursday night, when I was scheduled to head off again for another weekend adventure, this time to Budapest.
A couple months ago when I was thinking about what I would like to do for my birthday—which was this past Friday, November 16—, I started to toy with the idea of taking a solo weekend somewhere. This was partly inspired by the fact that I didn’t really feel like doing a deep clean of my apartment (or amassing any more chip bags…), but also by where my mental state was at the time, which in brief, was not exactly in the best place. In the name of practicing self-care, I decided, almost on a whim, to book a solo weekend to Budapest, a city I had always wanted to visit. Flight prices were reasonable, and quite frankly, I didn’t want to bother waiting for anyone else to confirm whether or not they were available to take the plunge and go.
And so I went on my first solo trip.
I have travelled alone to places before, but never to a place I had never been, and never remaining solo for this long. To be honest, I felt a bit nervous that I’d start to feel isolated, but it turns out a weekend was just enough time to get back in touch with myself without wishing for other people’s company.
Besides, I was really only venturing solo for one of the days I was there.
Originally, I was due to arrive at around 23h on Thursday night, but due to some flight delays, did not get in until 02h30 on Friday. This means I turned 29 in the sky, while grading papers. Being a teacher is incredibly exciting.
Arriving so late also meant I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked in order to be nice and refreshed for the food tour I booked as a birthday gift to myself, but eating things shook me out of any residual tiredness rather quickly. My group consisted of me, an older British couple, and our guide, a middle-aged Hungarian named George who peppered his talk with comments about how, as we all know, none of this meat and cheese and potatoes and bread (and lard…so much lard) is particularly good for the health, but how wonderful that fresh veg is so widely available to us now. I guess these are things that of course come up amongst the middle-age crowd (I suppose this counts as relating to one another), but I did find it hilarious that we were all in a general consensus about the importance of eating a balanced diet, and then our lunch happened.
Here’s what we ate (and drank) :
The older woman of the couple on the tour with me even offered to take my photo when we were sat down for cake, so now I’ve got at least a bit of proof that I did, indeed, have a birthday cake of sorts on my birthday.
Our tour concluded with a bit of wine tasting, where I discovered a dessert wine that I actually quite liked.
After the tour concluded, we all headed our separate ways, with me deciding to cross the Danube over to the Buda side of Budapest and taking a little hike up to the castle. Given how early the sun sets out there (like 16h…moving eastward definitely makes a difference), most of my time up there was spent attempting to take good nighttime photos on my phone, and honestly, I think I did pretty ok!
Then it was off to a quick trip to the Christmas market for some hot wine and some browsing before heading back to the hostel for dinner.
Yes, one of the perks of staying here was the free communal “dinners” in the evening. That word is in quotes for a reason that will become clear in a bit.
But, Friday night at least was lentil stew night, and even though I was still pretty full from earlier in the day, I’m glad I at least got some sustenance in me before heading out that evening to celebrate turning 29 in a way that did not involve grading papers on an airplane.
Along with two other people from the hostel (who were totally down to go out on our own rather than to the hostel-organized boat party that cost like 20eur (yeah…no), my night was spent at Szimpla, probably the most well-known of Budapest’s ruin bars. This place is like no other bar I have ever been to, mostly due to how absolutely massive it is. Like, I don’t even think we made it into all the different rooms. I will say that I had a pretty legit IPA while there, with a very…special name.
The next day—my last full day—I woke up at 10h, and started my morning at Massolit, a café I am convinced was made for me (I mean books + cozy plush chairs + good coffee = happy Effie. The poppyseed strudel helped too).
Afterwards, I made my way over to the Terror House, a museum dedicated to exhibits documenting the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary. As most of the material was in Hungarian, I opted to rent an audio guide for my visit, which—though it was a bit long-winded at times—did give an incredibly thorough overview of everything on display and the history behind it. This was the only museum I visited (and given that it was free for teachers, my recently-acquired Pass éducation was actually put into good use), and for those who are planning a trip to Budapest, I would definitely recommend making some time for it. Note though, that many of the images and videos shown—as well as the interviews with past political prisoners—are rather graphic in nature, so this museum may not be for every traveler.
By the time I was finished in the museum, it was getting on 14h, and I was starting to get a bit hungry. Thankfully, a bistro I had pinned on my Mapstr—Két Szerecsen—was only a ten-minute walk away. I ordered the chicken paprikash and a glass of red wine (though I can’t remember the region of Hungary it is from, just that the waiter recommended it), and settled in to a very cozy and filling meal before setting out on another long walk.
I started my post-lunch hike with a visit to Heroes’ Square, on the northeastern side of the city.
Before making my way back down to the river to see the Hungarian Parliament by night (and by “night” I mean 17h30).
I then decided to head back to the Christmas market for a last bit of hot wine drinking and shopping (yay new pair of earrings for me), and also to grab a chimney cake as a sort of last-night treat.
It was actually a good thing I did the latter because even though it was absolutely massive, and I couldn’t manage to eat it all, it did keep me full throughout the night, especially since dinner at the hostel was a bit more…special…this evening.
Yep, little pizza toasts. Which essentially became an odd sort of pan con tomate once they ran out of cheese.
Why was there no actual food this time around, you ask? Good question. Basically it was because the crew spent the budget almost entirely on making this:
With that though, I decided to call it a night early in order to be able to get at least a little sleep before heading back out today. This is going to be my last traveling weekend for a while, and honestly, I’m not too mad about it. I want to be able to be settled at home again for a good while now.
Especially since I’ve still got that thesis chapter draft to finish.
I really should be in contact more with my advisors…
So I guess I needed a week to process seeing Hamilton before writing about it.
Let me get right to it though: I loved this show. Hands down, definitely deserves all the hype that is still surrounding it. Really, I can’t think of what else to say about this that hasn’t already been repeated ad infinitum, other than, yes, it was definitely worth avoiding listening to the cast recording so that I could experience everything fresh in real time.
And yes, I want to recommend everyone who hasn’t yet had the chance to see it to grab a ticket, but this show is still incredibly prohibitively expensive. Welcome to one of the (many) problems I have with the musical theatre industry in the United States. The other major one of course being the fact that one gets the impression – especially when one doesn’t live in a major theatre city like New York (hell, especially New York) – that musical theatre is theatre in the US. That is, that to be a theatre-lover is necessarily to like and want to do that kind of theatre. Granted, when musical theatre is some of the only kind of theatre most people have access to – if they have access to any theatre at all -, it is easy to get the impression that that’s all there is. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people here where I’ve had to say that no, I have not heard of such-and-such underground company in New York. Why? Because I never lived in New York, nor do I go there often enough to be able to take the time to discover/stumble upon such-and-such group. Aside from visiting family back east, whereupon a visit to New York would almost always include a ticket to a matinee, my theatre exposure was, other than what we did in school, whatever came through the local community theatre stage. And nine times out of ten, that was musicals. Musicals, especially the old standbys, make money. And when you’re constantly teetering on the edge of the abyss in terms of funding, getting butts in seats is pretty essential to survival, so creativity and innovation kind of goes out the window. It also leads to the creation of a sort of gatekeeping culture, in which being a ‘theatre kid’ means having memorized the entire catalogue to every show ever, and being able to belt out the latest show tunes at the drop of a hat.
Honestly, there’s only so many times you can hear “La Vie Bohème” or “The Bitch of Living” before you want to tear your hair out. But maybe that’s because for a long time I felt out of place because I wanted to do something, to follow something other than all that.
As imperfect as the system is, I will say that a major advantage of the French system of funding and subsidizing the arts is that situations like those seen with Hamilton where an $800+ ticket became almost normal don’t happen. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had conversations with people here before about the effects of the incredible lack of State support for the arts in the United States, and even though Hamilton is something of an anomaly even by American standards, there is something rather disturbing about the fact that throwing down just over $100 to see a Broadway musical is almost expected.
Speaking of things being prohibitively expensive…I’m pretty proud of myself for how not expensive this little trip to London turned out to be. Staying in a hostel helped. Eating on the cheap was even better.
Not going to lie though, I think one of my favorite things was this tiropita + Greek coffee combo I had at Ergon with my cousin just after I arrived. There aren’t really any Greek cafés in Paris (pity…), and although there are numerous places where I could buy Greek products, sometimes I do wish there was a place where I could grab one of my preferred indulgent breakfast treats of tiropita + frappé. Of course, until I decide in a moment of pure impulse to drop everything and throw myself full-force into opening one, I’ll settle for this.
Ok fine, the next morning, my friend, Caitlin, who came down from Sweden to join me in this little adventure, and I hit up another Greek café, although this time instead of another Greek pastry, we split a cinnamon roll.
Other food highlights include: dinner on the first night at Yalla Yalla, a Lebanese restaurant located down an alley in Soho that also provided a bit of entertainment in the form of a woman doing what looked like moving her furniture into her apartment via several back and forth trips on a pedicab.
An Ethiopian curry lunch at Borough Market the next day before the show, followed by some wonderfully spicy lamb vindaloo and an assortment of other curries later that night for dinner definitely helped fight off the (annoying but also kind of expected because…London) cold.
And of course, because it’s London, we had to stop at a pub for some fish and chips.
Another wonderful thing about London, free museums. We took advantage of this on our last day there, first by checking out the Tate Modern.
Then by heading over to the National Portrait Gallery, where I finally got to see a portrait I had been wanting to see for a long time.
And also one that, let’s just be honest, I wasn’t quite expecting.
Some people might wonder if going from one major city to another really counts as a vacation, but honestly, considering I hadn’t been out of Paris since I went to California over the Christmas holidays, I was pretty much down for anything at this point. Besides, getting out of the city to go…anywhere…is a recharging act in and of itself. Hell, even the fact that my return train back to Paris was delayed by 90min (no, not because of the ongoing strikes; an electrical problem), meaning I had to sprint to make sure I caught the trains I needed, couldn’t put a damper on my little holiday.
And then of course it was back to work. We’re in the home stretch at the high school now, which is fantastic on the one had because soon I’ll have even more time to get back to my own work, but chaos on the other hand because I did a silly thing and assigned mini writing assignments to all my classes to turn in after the break that I now have to grade…oops.
Tuesday the theatre workshop I’ve been involved in for the past month had our final presentation, but hopefully I’ll find a way to fill that little performance-void in my life again soon. It’s hard to stay away for long anyway.
A new art space opened up in Paris a few weeks ago, that I had been wanting to check out with another friend of mine, but our schedules kept getting crossed until finally we were able to head over on Friday night. The Atelier des Lumières is located in a former ironworks factory on rue St Maur in the 11th arrondissement. Its aim: render artistic works more immersive and accessible through the use of digital technology. While I can definitely get behind the immersive aspect, I’m not sure the 11,50eu price tag was really worth it, considering all the expo consisted of was a room that projected a (admittedly rather impressive) digital art expo on almost every exposed surface. Currently on view is an exhibit on Klimt, which, if you want to inaugurate an immersive art space, was a rather good choice in subject. We definitely enjoyed exploring the space as the different art works projected above, below, around, on and over us, but the lack of visible informational context to accompany the projections was a bit disappointing (the informational panels that were available for consultation, were a bit hidden in a random corner of the mezzanine area, and could have perhaps served better were they placed in the lobby before the exhibition entrance).
After the expo finished, we ended up grabbing dinner at a small restaurant nearby, and chatted with the owner a bit about his new neighbor. Apparently, before its official opening, the Atelier (which is run by a private company, hence the ticket prices) invited local business owners and families for a visit. The restaurant owner and his wife attended along with their young daughter. While we all agreed that in general, the ticket prices left something to be desired, he did mention that his daughter was now pointing out all the posters advertising the gallery space and exclaiming excitedly that she recognized the Klimt painting depicted on them (“The Kiss”, for those wondering). So, if nothing else, at least it’s getting kids excited about something they might not have been exposed to otherwise.
Saturday was a bit quiet (and yes, this does count the little demonstration against the current occupant of the Élysée Palace), and today was rather on the relaxing side as well, starting with brunch at L’Heure Gourmande with Anne.
Followed by a stroll up to La Fontaine de Belleville for an iced coffee to accompany my grading spree (which, yes, was actually incredibly productive).
It’s funny how so many things can change even within the span of two short weeks. I had forgotten how much the Seine tends to rise in the winter months – what with all the rain – , and so I was a bit taken aback when, on my walk back to the metro today, I saw water sloshing up paths I normally walk on.
I’m also not entirely sure those people in the photo above have the best idea of standing literally inches away from the water, but hey…choices.
Anyway, today was mostly a day of laundry, tutoring and lesson planning, save for a lovely few hours this afternoon at tea with a friend.
At her suggestion, we met at a lovely little place called L’Heure Gourmande in the 6th near Saint-Germain. I don’t often venture over to this side of the river (exceptions being venturing to get pho and/or dim-sum in the 13th), but given how warm and cozy this place was, I might make a point to try and swing by a bit more often. It’s a bit hidden away in a passage of the main road – although there is a little sign right above where you’re meant to turn, it can be a bit easy to miss – which means you’re far enough away from the hustle and bustle of the area that you can really sink into your chair and dig in to a very generous slice of pie with abandon.
Back to the grind again tomorrow. Thankfully, I managed to plan my lessons for the week so I can actually get back to spending the majority of my downtime focusing on my prospectus…thing.
‘What in the world is the Victory of Samothrace’ doing outside of the Louvre?’
Well, this is just one of the many rather endearing quirks about Montpellier, a city I don’t think I would have visited had I not known someone who lives there…which I do.
But before I get to that, a bit about the theatre piece I saw on Thursday night:
I was intrigued by Melancholia Europa (Une enquête dramatique) primarily because of the title: really, talking about a melancholy Europe seems particularly timely to me…wonder why. The chance to finally have an excuse to go to the Cent Quatre – the former home of the city undertakers up until the end of WWII, then a garage until its refurbishing/reopening as an arts center in 2008 – only further added to its appeal.
And let me just say before I get into the rest of my thoughts on the show – which, spoiler, I was mixed on -, I really, really loved that space. I’m going to be heading back there again this week, so I will try and actually remember to take some photos of it. Suffice it to say that, as far as former warehouse/factory-turned-arts spaces go, this one seems to have a keen feel for its new identity. Not only are there several theatre spaces on the premises (there was at least one other show going on the same time as ours, I believe), the space also houses a café/resto/bar (though this is pretty standard), rehearsal spaces, galleries, and, of course, the ubiquitous organic food market. This last point merits its own discussion on the passage of the organic movement from fringe to part of the capitalist machine, but that’s for another time.
Anyway, the play.
The basic premise was that we were invited in to the offices of a group of journalists/researchers grappling with the question of fascism – its roots, how it manifests/spreads, how it has evolved…or not – through the lense of Hannah Arendt’s work on the banality of evil. Although the show referenced the emergence of neofascist movements both in France/Europe and elsewhere (especially the United States), the figures examined in detail were high-ranking Nazi officials, in particular Heinrich Himmler.
There is a word that describes what it is to catch yourself almost at the point of recognizing something that could resemble humanity in someone so absolutely evil. That word is “unsettling”.
Far from rehabilitating those like Himmler, however, the play presented little tidbits about their daily private lives in order to highlight the ordinariness – the banality, if you will – of these otherwise almost unthinkably evil people, the fact that what they did could happen again, easily, anywhere.
And although moments like this were thought-provoking and effective, I’m still a bit puzzled in terms of what, exactly, the show intends for its audience to do with them.
This might be because, given how incredibly Brechtian it was (and a bit of disclosure: I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Brechtian-style theatre…I think it lets its audiences off the hook far too easily), the play’s political bent, its call to motivate audience action was very apparent. At the same time, and I am going to sound like a broken record on this, I’m not sure that maintaining the frontal stage/audience relationship really worked for this. There were moments when I felt that I was more in a lecture hall than part of something that – from what I can gather – was meant to rouse up a desire to act. Maybe this is a personal bias, but as far as theatre – any theatre really, but political theatre especially – goes, I don’t want to feel safe or secure as an audience member. Maintaining a sense of spatial order, I think, allows for a certain distanciation on the part of the audience, which, although keeping very much with Brecht’s desired alienation effect, also allows for a certain sense of ‘Not I’isms to creep out. As in the ‘Yes I can observe the suffering of the working class, but I, a middle/upper class capitalist who has the means to buy a ticket for this show am not one of the contributors to the problem, seeing as I am here learning and observing. Then I will promptly return home to think about things. Whether anything comes out of this thinking remains to be seen’ kind of distanciation.
I’ll say this again probably, but, if working on Genet for so long has influenced me in any way it is in the fact that theatre should not make you feel secure in your position whether in the building/room itself or outside it. It is a balancing act, a threat of chaos. No one should be left unscathed from it.
But now on to more upbeat matters.
Unfortunately, given the very cold, very wet weather this weekend, there wasn’t much done in terms of outdoor exploring. Luckily, Montpellier is a small city, so I was able to see most of it – at least the older parts. The fact that there were Christmas decorations up made the whole city look like the coziest place ever, especially when those decorations involved strings of lights twinkling above narrow cobblestone streets.
Oh, and of course, the Christmas season also meant a visit to the local marché de Noël, where I finally got to try aligot – otherwise known as incredibly cheesy, buttery mashed potatoes – for the first time! I swear if it wasn’t so unbelievably unhealthy for you, I’d eat that almost every day to keep warm.
Come to think of it, I think I pretty much ate my weight in chocolate and butter this weekend, what with that Christmas market visit, plus breakfasts of crepes and Nutella, and stops for chocolat chaud and cake (the final café visit before my afternoon train back to Paris today):
Thankfully, the butter/chocolate overload was tempered by a dinner of roasted fish (dorade, for those wondering), roasted potatoes and chard on Sunday evening.
I’ll close out this post by mentioning what was, perhaps, one of my favorite quirks about Montpellier: the Place des Grandes Hommes. This is a sort of rotunda – adjacent to a mall – around which are displayed statues of great men (and one woman) who influenced history. Charles de Gaulle is there, of course, along with some others, like Lenin:
A truly unrecognizable FDR:
And of course, Mao Zedong, who, irony of ironies, is standing directly in front of a giant supermarket megastore (Casino is a supermarket chain, not, you know, an actual casino):
Silliness aside, though, Montpellier was really rather adorable, and it was nice to get away from the city for a bit, the cold weather notwithstanding. Now I’ve just got to think about working off all that butter and chocolate before I head back to California for the holidays…