Ilivetolearn's Blog

December 31, 2006

manners maketh man, French edition

Filed under: books/authors,food/groceries,on the road — ilivetolearn @ 12:27 pm

One of the few enjoyable things about our apartment (and did I mention it only had four beds, not the five promised in the photos on the website?) was that its bookshelf yielded At Home in Paris, a 1993 guidebook published by the Junior Service League of Paris. We had readings over meals; our favorite section was “How to Cut the Cheese.” You can imagine the jokes made over that chapter title, not to mention the seriousness of the content. One must never cut the nose off the cheese, every portion of cheese should contain some of the rind, etc. The line drawings illustrating how to take the knife to various blocks of Camembert or Coulomiers were worthy of a 300-level plane geometry course.

When we mentioned our fun with this book during dinner at the home of a Yale classmate, she said it was actually helpful for ex-pats trying to figure out what is de rigueur in Paris. And of course proper cheese-slicing is important; you must leave the cheese in its original shape if possible. Little did I know until I read a subsequent Times article (“France Polishes its Politesse”) that we committed at least two faux pas that evening: we arrived bearing a bottle of wine (which is supposed to indicate you don’t trust the host’s taste–a box of candy is preferable) and we were more than 15 minutes late. If there had been a cheese course I’m sure we would have embarrassed ourselves with bad technique.

I guess while I was holed up in the Rue Mandar watching the handyman fix the clogged toilet, pirate light bulbs from one room to illuminate another, and reattach the doorknob that had fallen off, I should have been boning up on savoir-faire.

December 30, 2006

high culture

Filed under: on the road — ilivetolearn @ 1:30 pm

It recently came to our attention that some families visit Paris and other cities and do things other than look at art—go to zoos, take cable-car rides, etc. This was a shock to Bill. To quote from an e-mail he sent: “What do you do during your trips if you and your family don’t spend all your time going to Art Museums and Cathedrals?? P.S.: Don’t breathe a word of your anti-intellectual and pagan practices to our kids when you come here. We have told them that the sole touristic sites in the major cities of Europe – – indeed the only reason that such cities exist at all – – are important Art Museums and Cathedrals.”

We had the highbrow-only week in Paris. True, the weather was not conducive to boat rides on the Seine or any outdoor activity. Every once in a while we would glance to the west and say, “Oh, look—there’s the Eiffel Tower…well, half of it.” Its top was almost always obscured by heavy fog, and when we finally made our way to its base one bitterly cold evening the wind was so strong that the upper level was closed. We gave up and went back to our depressing apartment.

But Bill was in art-lover’s heaven, and took in the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, the Picasso museum, the Pompidou Center, the Orangerie, and the Grand and Petit Palais, with various willing or unwilling companions. We were all awed by Monet’s water lilies, underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa, and struck by little oddities here and there. I took the girls to an exhibit about Walt Disney’s early influences (from the Gothic to the Surrealist) and came away with new respect for the artwork in cinematic classics such as Snow White and Pinocchio. And it WAS the Bavarian castle built by King Ludwig II in Neuschwanstein that inspired the design of the Sleeping Beauty Castle, not the Alcazar in Segovia. Another Spanish claim is put to rest.

December 28, 2006

our “home” away from home

Filed under: on the road — ilivetolearn @ 12:43 pm

We checked out of the Novotel and rolled our bags back to Rue Mandar to see if we could finally get into the apartment. The agency people, while seeming to be helpful and competent, basically accomplished nothing all day. They said there was no other key…and suggested we take a screwdriver over to the flat (across the street) to get in! We had to point out to them that there was a security risk, since somebody had taken the key from the drop box. They finally agreed to get a locksmith to come over. Then they waited till 4:30 to actually go there, check the place out, and turn on the heat.

Now this was the coldest week Paris had had for many months, and even though they cranked up the heaters (causing an awful smell) it was COLD in there. And the hot water didn’t work. Nor did the phone. And there were a couple of bedrooms with no bulbs at all in the lamps. (Evan turned on the non-functional TV to get the “no signal” screen to light up so he could unpack.) And everything in the kitchen was grimy and sticky. And the list goes on…

On the plus side, the location was great. So while the agency people twiddled their thumbs, we walked over to Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame and the Conciergerie, enjoyed the Montorgueil market area, and got our fill of Paris street life.

December 27, 2006

joyeux noel

Filed under: on the road — ilivetolearn @ 12:24 pm

It’s become a Carmean Christmas tradition to travel…sometimes on the 25th itself. After an approximation of the Ross Streusel Coffee Cake breakfast (as close to the real thing as I could get with a recipe from the internet) and some very unfrenzied present opening, we hopped into the Multipla and headed for Terminal 4 at Barajas, bound for Paris. This was only complicated by the fact that I still had no passport, so had to beg for a boarding pass using the only photo ID I could find—a card issued by the town of Pozuelo for entry to our local gym. It was sketchy but it worked.

We had arranged for a large apartment, and since it was Christmas Day and we didn’t want to mess with public transport, we asked the rental agency to book its van service. This turned out to be a very good thing, because the complicated key drop system failed utterly. The poor van driver opened the lock box to find no key, called the agency people (who were of course at parties and family gatherings), and finally, after two hours’ wait on a cold dark deserted street, got their authorization to drive us to a nearby hotel for the night.

I highly recommend Novotel Paris Les Halles, with balconies overlooking St. Eustache. I do NOT recommend Parisian Home rentals. The nightmare was just beginning.

December 22, 2006

navidad y las tres reinas

Filed under: food/groceries,fused plastic,random quotes,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:01 pm

This year Christmas feels more like Christmas. We have a real tree, and supplemented the cheap gold and red balls from the Chinese store with dozens of hot-bead creations (we’ve been good customers of the Perler company over the years) made by just about every family member. We’ve gotten more cards this year and have displayed them on a bulletin board. We’ve made sugar cookies and gingerbread persons in our new oven. There are clementines studded with cloves here and there in the house for aromatic value.

We even have a large sprig of mistletoe, brought by houseguests. It was problematic to hang in the doorway (all the tall males in the family kept crashing into it) and had to be moved higher twice. Evan, who made his appearance a week or so after its installation, ran into it, sending leaves and berries flying, and said, “OK, who hung dead stuff?” We decided it had outlived its usefulness.

And as for adopted Spanish traditions, we will have a shrimp feast again on Christmas Eve, eat some turron (nougat), and go to the Cabalgata de Los Reyes (Three Kings Parade) on January 5th, though we stop short of doing the present exchange on the 6th. It really makes sense for children to send wish-lists to Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (rather than Santa), since they were the original gift-bearers in the nativity story. I’ve read that the Church of England, three years ago, decided to drops “kings” in favor of “magi,”making them more gender-neutral. This, I think, gave rise to the joke:
Q: “What if the three wise men were women?”
A: “They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there would be peace on earth.”

December 19, 2006

goods and services (but not septic tank work)

Filed under: food/groceries,sewing/knitting,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 7:48 pm

Because Evan is coming for his Christmas break, we have been busy ordering things for him to bring. He will be more Santa than Evan by baggage weight: I’d guess 50% presents, 50% dirty laundry. Elliot was online filling a virtual cart when Pilar (the landlady) happened to be here, and when he told her what he was doing, she said, “You’re buying something on the computer??” in absolute disbelief. And this is someone whose husband makes a living designing and installing electronics systems for businesses.

Spaniards do not do e-tail. One reason is that they cannot believe any website is really secure, but I suspect it has more to do with wanting the social interaction of shopping. They must enjoy chatting with store employees…otherwise why would they put up with the hassles of supermarkets where your produce is bagged and weighed by one person, your fish selected by another person, your meat cut by a third person, your baked goods wrapped up by a fourth, and so on. There is very little pre-wrapped meat and seafood and everybody but me seems to ignore it. Most customers have lengthy conversations with about a dozen salespeople before leaving the store, successfully reproducing the feel of small-town marketing (separate shops for each type of foodstuff) under one enormous roof.

I am finally getting used to the layout of the closest supermarket/department store, Hipercor, though every once in a while I am surprised by a new section. On the way to merceria last week (it means notions, but it is the only source of a paltry few types of yarn within ten miles) I saw a sign for CESS. No, it’s not guano or abono del caballo (horse manure)…it stands for Centro de Seguros y Servicios–center of insurance and services.

December 18, 2006

discombobulation in December

Filed under: food/groceries,on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 3:48 pm

How many things could go wrong? Not only did I have no proof of who I was (and so could not use a credit card; in Spain you are always asked for photo ID when charging), and no oven or microwave, but also my computer developed an annoying habit of turning itself off and had to spend almost 4 weeks in repair. I had to learn new ways of shopping (all cash), new ways of cooking and reheating (all on the quirky ceramic cooktop, another auto-disconnect appliance), and new ways of stealing computer time from Elliot and Bill. The day we finally got a replacement oven the car stopped working.

Fotunately it was only a dead battery. We couldn’t find neighbors who had jumper cables but Victor (the landlord’s son) was here with his mother installing the oven so he helped us push-start the car, in reverse (we live on a one-way street and that direction was a slight downhill). Comical but effective. And after major cabinet reconfiguration, we have a bigger oven and can stop baking birthday cakes next door and start cranking out gingerbread people. Now if we only had a microwave…

December 15, 2006

the exit fiasco

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 1:28 pm

So everything went swimmingly in Italy until the last hours. I discovered while packing that I had lost the little anti-pickpocket pouch I carried at Bill’s urging, containing my passport, my credit card, my US driver’s license, and my hard-won Spanish DNI. Also 50 euros. There was no time to retrace our steps or report it missing; we had to catch a train to Milan, bus to the airport, and flight to Madrid. So I learned how to accomplish international travel without a photo ID. In Milan, at least, you step into the conveniently located airport police station and tell your story to a very young and attractive cop, who hunts and pecks his way to filling out a “denuncia” (report) for you. This states that you and all your identification have somehow gotten separated in the streets of Florence. Voila—you’re on the plane.

I spent Margo’s birthday (the 11th…the day of our arrival home) in high dudgeon about the missing items, checking online obsessively to see if anyone was using the Visa. But in the subsequent days, after several phone calls to the restaurant where we ate dinner two successive nights before departure, there was good news. The pouch was there, everything was in it, and the proprietor will mail it back to me today. Phew.

Everyone who goes to Florence—please patronize the Trattoria Antellesi, a few blocks behind the Duomo (Via Faenza, 9). Not only is there great food, and a table quite close to the kitchen pass-through so you can watch the cooking—but also Franco and Rosa are wonderful people who probably aren’t even thinking “a fool and her money are soon parted.” Plus they were amused by the Ross/Carmean BS-between-courses tradition.

December 13, 2006

last days in Italia

Filed under: on the road — ilivetolearn @ 3:41 pm

Our travel agent in Madrid had arranged all our trains (Rome-Pisa-Florence-Milan) and we mistakenly thought the leg from Rome to Pisa was open-ended. We realized as we left the Galleria Borghese, my favorite art venue in Rome, with amazing Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio paintings, that we had missed our booking by about three hours. After a frantic dash, rolling luggage around the extremely crowded station, we were told we could just get on the next train with our voucher—no red tape about exchanging tickets, no metal detectors as at Atocha Station in Madrid, and almost an entire car to ourselves.

Pisa was diverting—the Leaning Tower and the Cathedral, a great restaurant called La Clessidra (the hourglass)—but we were anxious to get to Florence. So off we went on an early train (again, no fuss and bother; just get on and sit down) to try to cram all of Florence’s attractions into 48 hours. Fortunately we had booked the Uffizi ahead of time online and didn’t have to wait in an enormous queue. It was marvelous, as much for the building itself and the views out the window along the river as for the spectacular art. We also took in the Pitti Palace and the Accademia and the Duomo and the church of Santa Maria Novella. And managed to find time to buy a new supply of leather gloves (the ones bought on our last trip to Italy in 1985 having given up the ghost) near the Ponte Vecchio.

December 12, 2006

Rome: highbrow, lowbrow

Filed under: food/groceries,on the road — ilivetolearn @ 1:13 pm

The glories of Rome will certainly stay with us–the Colisseum, the Vatican museums, St. Peter’s Basilica (and the climb to its dome), the Spanish steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon. But I fear what the girls will remember most are the tourist traps: the wax museum, filled with tacky popes, fairy tale figures, dinosaurs, and the rock group Pooh (I didn’t make that up); the Time Elevator, “a multi-sensorial attraction that shows 3000 years of Roman history… See Rome from above, flying over the city, watching it burn with Nero. Through your headset, hear Brutus plotting to kill Caesar – in your language. It takes just 45 minutes of thrilling travel time to make sense of the history of Rome;” and last and probably least, the National Museum of Pasta, in which the organizers vainly attempt to make some old pasta-extruding machinery and sheaves of wheat fill 11 rooms, padding the gaps with photos of celebrities (Ingrid Bergman) eating spaghetti, and bad art work with pasta themes.

We’ll be reminiscing about craning our necks to admire the Sistine Chapel, and Phoebe will say, “Remember how the seats shook and it rained on us in that Time Elevator place?” or Margo will say, “Remember how we could almost pick the oranges off the trees from the top of that double-decker tourist bus?” And we will all remember the sighting of the 5 KG jar of Nutella at a roadside creperie (we tried very hard to buy one for Evan but they seem to be only for the wholesale trade), the many delicious trattoria meals (only one was mediocre), and the new family habit (in informal eateries) of hauling out cards between courses and playing raucous games of I Doubt It. Phoebe, knowing the alternative name (BS), christened our version Cowshit, I assume thinking that part of the name was verboten but getting confused as to which part.

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