Fairground Museum Paris

My travel tastes tend to range from the classic bucket list items to the hipster “you went where?” items. On my first trip to Paris, I visited the major must-dos like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, the Sacre-Coeur, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery. At that time my “off the beaten track” experience was going to see my friend perform Burlesque at La Féline Bar. Sadly, I never had the chance to write this trip as my life in 2015 became rather hectic shortly afterward. I did upload my photo albums, however, so you can still see those on the Facebook Page by following the links on each location above.

For my second trip to the city of lights, I made it to the Catecombs, a couple art museums, and a bike tour of the hot spots, which I’ll be writing about later. My more obscure find was a tiny museum of Fairground Arts, the Musée de Arts Forains. It’s actually not a public museum, but the private collection of Jean Paul Favand. It includes object d’art from fairgrounds around Europe in the 19th century. The museum has done extensive restoration on the artworks, and patrons are free to ride and play many of the “exhibits” on display. It was enchanting beyond all expectations and lasted just under 2 hours.

No Bag Storage? Starbucks!

Since the collection is private, the museum doesn’t keep regular opening hours, and tours are by appointment only. I was slightly desperate to go, but the only time a tour was available during my 6 days in Paris was the afternoon of my very last day, the day I was planning to catch a bus onward to Brussels. I had no choice but to choose that day, and move my bus to a later time. I’m so glad I did.

I had to check out of my Airbnb by 10am, and my host did not offer any variety of luggage storage. Neither does the museum offer any sort of cloak room or bag-check room. I checked a few websites for storage options, but it turns out that there are only a few places around town where it’s even possible and they are mightily expensive. I was travelling light (backpack only, yes, that is my actual luggage for the whole 7 week trip), but it was still at least 10-12 kilos, which can become tiresome to carry for many hours.

My tour was at 2pm, and I didn’t want to walk around Paris with all my luggage, so I headed straight to Bercy where both the museum and the bus would be found. I zeroed in on Starbucks for a clean bathroom, an iced latte, and a place to sit while waiting. This long haul travel is giving me some new appreciation for the use of American stand-bys. I’ve become addicted to iced lattes in hot weather, and the French seem to think that ice in coffee is anethema. Even McDonald’s McCafe failed at providing iced coffee options, but Starbucks is the same world wide with a few exceptions for seasonal specials.

I love French coffee, and I could have sat at a cafe the whole time I was waiting. No one kicks you out of a restaurant in Paris. Oddly Starbucks was a cheaper option since a coffee here is a tiny shot of espresso for 2€ or maybe a small cafe creme for 3.5-4€. At Starbucks, I got a Venti iced latte for 4.65€. I don’t want to be the tourist who goes abroad and only visits American chain stores, but sometimes, especially on a long trip, it’s nice to have the choice. Free clean bathrooms, cheaper large (iced) coffee, air-con, and free wifi do make it an ideal place to kill time if you have to.

Getting There

The museum was easy to find, although it looked a little foreboding from the outside. The grounds are covered in fences and the buildings all have shuttered windows. The tour guides only speak French, but they were kind enough to make an English language pamphlet that contained the pertinent information about each area of the museum we would visit. I read through it while waiting for the group to assemble, hoping that it might help me follow along.

When we finally assembled and began the tour, my feelings were primarily childlike glee. My joy wasn’t the only childlike feeling I had. Standing in the courtyard listening to the guide talk in French I had a sudden flash of understanding of how every kid must feel when tour guides talk and there’s nothing to look at or do. I tried to listen, but he talked so fast I couldn’t catch much. Fortunately, as he pointed out to us, it’s really a visual tour. The courtyard was pretty and I enjoyed the gargoyles and decorations amid the trees and flowers, but I was impatient to get inside.

The Giant of Bercy

This is the story he was telling while we were standing outside. I found the English version later. According to legend, Kind Louis XIV came to Bercy to attend mass at a nearby cathedral. Of course, all of his subjects were expected to kneel before their king during his royal visit, but when the time came for this obeisance, one man remained standing. When the guard were sent to investigate, it turned out the man was kneeling after all, but he was a giant who loomed above the crowd even in genuflection. The giant was a vintner named Martin, who used this unique chance to meet the king to talk about the taxes on wine merchants in Paris.

Charmed by the giant and amused by his complaints, the capricious king decided to grant the Pavilions of Bercy a tax exemption. The 106 acre region became closed off behind walls and ware houses with railroad tracks leading to the Seine where wine shipments could be transferred by boat. The buildings that now house the Musée d’Arts Forains were at one point warehouses and market buildings.

It wasn’t all wholesale business, however, and Bercy was also known for it’s wine bars and guiguettes where patrons could sip by the glass or by the bottle in convivial company.  Such an atmosphere prompted festivals, fireworks and other fun, giving Bercy it’s reputation as a joyful place.

The Venetian Rooms

As soon as we stepped inside I realized the photos I found online do not come close to representing the atmosphere of this place. Beautiful pieces of art displayed around a centerpiece of a merry go round from a classic Venetian style carnival. There was no roof, as a modern carousel might have, and most of the seats were elaborate gondolas and carriages with a few ornate animals with saddles. Our guide invited us to hop in for a ride and we whirled around to a recording of the original music.

Image may contain: people sitting, night and indoor

After the ride, we stayed seated but turned to face a wall which was decorated as the Grand Canal. The lights dimmed and we were treated to a beautiful light show that had clearly been made just to fit the size and shape of the room. We went from outer space, to under water, to a cityscape, a gondola ride on the river, a ballroom and a theater as the lights and sounds created this beautiful illusion.Image may contain: night, bridge, outdoor and water

The adjacent room was an animatronic opera with singers mounted around the room on the walls just below the ceiling. The lights and speakers moved as different characters (including Columbine, Harlequin, and Cassanova) sang and the robots moved. It was like Disneyland’s tiki room or hall of presidents.

It was easy for me to wander away from the group or start behind as they moved on and get photos of the rooms with no people. Since I couldn’t really understand, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Sadly, the rooms were so dark that most of my photos are only any good for jogging my memory of the experience.

The Carousel-Salon

In the 19th century, the Fairground was quite popular, and the Carousel-Salon was a style of fairground that included the pipe organ, the carousel, a ballroom for dancing, and of course, a bar.

Our guide cranked up the pipe organ, which was stunningly loud, and I took the time to get a closer look at some of the statues and carvings around the room. The detail of craftsmanship in these pieces was impressive. It was clear that the fair or carnival was much more than it is today. When I think of the clunky state-fairs of my childhood covered in bare bulb blinking lights and cheaply airbrushed panels on easily disassembled rides and booths, I can see how much we’ve lost in the last century of fairgrounds.

Once the pipe organ ended it’s song, we were invited to ride again. This time, a more familiar carousel with the faux tent roof and a few horses that trotted up and down as the ride goes around. My only complaint is the the tours allow more people than there are seats. The guide ran the ride twice but I didn’t get to ride a moving horse either time. Despite this small disappointment, I had tremendous fun riding the antique carousel inside a room filled with similarly antique carnival rides, games, and decorations.

Vue d'ensemble du manège de chevaux de bois du Musée des Arts Forains

We rode a pedal powered carousel as well. It was made up of a circle of large brass bicycles. This carousel was all about the thrill of speed. When the device was in use, warnings had to be issued that if a patron should lose their footing, they should not try to catch the pedals. Apparently the speed and force of the pedals resulted in more than one lost foot. The cycle carousel was capable of reaching 40mph (65kph) which in 1861 was dizzyingly fast! Once upon a time it also ran on electricity or steam, but the museum’s ride was purely pedal-powered. Don’t think that makes it less impressive. With every seat filled, the cycles seem more like a roller coaster ride than a carousel.

Vue d'ensemble du Manège de Vélocipèdes du Musée des Arts Forains

There were many other oddities, pieces from other rides, and classic fairground games to look at as well. German swing boats, card tables, shooting galleries, and exotic animals lined the walls around us. Electric lights and moving pictures will still a novelty often found only at such public shows. One of the most famous shooting games is the French Waiters. I’ve seen similar racing games in most modern carnivals and fairgrounds. Shooting at your target advances your waiter and the first one to the finish is the winner.

The Theater of MarvelsMusée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 02.59.30 by Laika ac)

Next we entered a room full of oddities and treasures. It was Jean Favand’s own Cabinet of Curiosities including oddities such as a tree that could grow a leg and a dwarf in a boot. The center piece was made to look like the balloon of Baron Munchausen made by the collector himself. Esmerelda, the patroness of the funfair is depicted dancing. There was a huge papier-mâché elephant with a glamorously dressed rider, and Unicorn Cave is made from petrified wood, preserved plants, and mythical creatures.

Musée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 03.03.52 by Laika ac)                              Musée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 03.34.26 by Laika ac)
Our guide showed us a game called Palio di Sienna that was played by spinning a top through arches to hit a bell,and we all got to participate in a racing game that seemed like a combination of skee-ball and the shooting racer. Instead of hitting a target, you roll a ball into numbered holes for points, and your racehorse advances a little or a lot depending on how many points you got. The group played four times and I sat only one. It was very popular!

We ended the tour with a waltz in a music room. A self playing orchestra like the ones I would later see in Utrecht played a waltz comprised of 12 different musical instruments. Members of the tour group paired off and danced joyously around the dance floor while waxwork oddities looked on. Great historical figures like Victor Hugo and Thomas Edison stared down, dressed in disguise, and an unimaginably queer unicornitaur (like a minotaur, but the head of a unicorn?) stood by a grand piano ready to deliver a song that would never play.

Image result for musee des arts forains


The fall in Korea has been keeping me busy. I volunteered to teach a debate club this semester and I’ve been trying to get out to a few more local social groups, maybe join a book club or two. We’ve also had a lot of school holidays. Last year, the three main fall holidays came together for one glorious 10 day vacation, but this year they’re spread out across three weeks. Counter-intuitively, this has actually made more work for me, and given me less time at my desk to work on this blog.  I would also like to shout out to the beautiful photogs who donate to Creative Commons because they saved my bacon from my tragically dark-derpy camera, and provided beautiful royalty free images for me to share. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this hidden gem of Paris.

Advertisements

Chocolate! A Glorious Day in Brussels

I don’t know about you, but the current news cycle has me going back and forth between fiery rage and hide-in-bed anxiety, so I decided to write about something everyone can agree is wonderful: chocolate. Belgium is known for it’s high quality chocolate, despite not being able to grow cocoa, and that’s because it was a Belgian who first perfected the blend of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk that became the creamy, bitter-sweet confection we are all addicted to today. Naturally, as a lifelong chocoholic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend a full day visiting the best that Brussels has to offer. I pulled a basic itinerary from another blogger, and modified it a little to suit my own needs. I also made a couple of extra stops in the days afterward to round out my Belgian Chocolate Experience. Get a napkin, because you may drool.


I’m not going to go into the history of chocolate (it’s fascinating), nor am I going to give detailed information on the chocolate flavor profiles (just as complex as wine). I’m also not going to do a lot of explaining of basic chocolate vocabulary. I think most of you can still enjoy these descriptions without that, but if you are curious to learn more about chocolate, I suggest you check out any of the websites of the chocolateries I visited in Belgium.

After each shop and description of individual candies, I’ve given my rating out of 5 stars and my recommendations for what to try. You can decide which shops are most appealing to you to make your own Brussels chocolate tour. Nearly all of them have multiple locations within a walking radius in Sablon, but those that are a little farther out are well worth the bus ride.

A note about being a tourist: When I read about chocolate touring in Brussels, I was warned that shops did not give out samples, but that single pieces would be about 1-2€. I was prepared for the price of fine chocolate, but I was delighted to find it wasn’t actually true. Nearly every shop I went into was happy to let me try one or more of their flavors if I stopped and talked about it with them. I’m guessing that other tourists have found the shops to be sample stingy because they want to go in and get free chocolate without engaging anyone socially. For me, chatting with the staff was half the joy of this chocolate self-tour! They are friendly and very knowledgeable about the history of chocolate and of their own shop. I also found that most places were very reasonably priced if you were willing to have your pieces in a bag, rather than a fancy box.

Neuhaus

160 years ago, Jean Neuhaus (depicted in chocolate to the right) discovered the magical combination of ingredients that has lead to every chocolate confection and candy bar you’ve ever enjoyed. His chocolaterie is easily the most famous in the world, and it was my first stop.

Best Truffle in the World: No really, it won the award. It was given to me as a sample. I wouldn’t say it’s the very best chocolate I’ve ever eaten but I think it might be the epitome of “truffle”. The chocolate was not too bitter, not too tart, not too sweet, just the Goldilocks zone of chocolate and cream, dusted with cocoa powder. Simple and elegant.

Irrésistibles Coffee: Everyone in Belgium has ganaches, pralines, and truffles out the wazoo, but Neuhaus is the only place you can find the “Irresistables”. These little triangular gems are made with a base of nougatine (a crispy caramelized sugar), filled with cream or ganache, and enrobed in chocolate. I has the coffee ganache flavor. The coffee is very subtle, the filing is quite smooth, and the nougatine is delightfully crunchy and caramelly.

Hazelnut Creme Cone: The cones are “just filling”, held together with a gold foil cone instead of a chocolate shell. The hazelnut flavor was creamy and smooth with tiny bits of nut, not too sweet and good balance of chocolate, cream and hazelnut flavors. I could eat a dozen. In fact, I went back another day and got more because these were some of my favorite treats from the whole tour!

4 stars: The cones are tantalizing, and the Irrisistables are so unique. Plus, it is the oldest chocolaterie in the world.

Mary

Mary Delluc was the first female chocolatier in Belgium. She also designed the boxes of silk back in the day, and though they use paper now it’s still her design.

Champagne Truffle: The champagne flavor is clear and the texture contrast of the brittle chocolate outside and very soft creamy inside is nice. It was a little sweet for my personal tastes.

Earl Grey Ganache: There is no bad chocolate here, but it’s harder to judge the middle players after eating the best. I can’t really taste the bergamot flavor here. It’s a pleasant chocolate, but just chocolate. It’s disappointing because the truffles are good.

Violet Ganache: The flavor is subtle and the flower is more of an aftertaste. At first I thought it wasn’t there but as the chocolate left my tongue the violet became more obvious. I think violet tastes a bit like bubble gum. I noticed this when I tried violet liquor some time ago. The chocolate is good quality, the ganache is very smooth.

Champagne Rose Truffle: This is made with ruby chocolate, which was just introduced to the chocolate world one year ago in 2017 by Swiss chocolatiers at Barry Callebaut. The champagne flavor comes through strong. The powdered sugar exterior is a bit sweet, but the overall flavor is more mild cleanly chocolate. It was my favorite at this shop.

3 stars: Her chocolates aren’t my favorite, but it’s worth stopping by for the history and the champagne truffles.

Dandoy

Dandoy isn’t a chocolaterie, it’s a waffle shop. Waffles: the other confection Belgium is famous for. I didn’t know, but there are different types of Belgian waffle. I tried the Leige style with stracciatella ice cream. It was more chocolate chip than stracciatella, but still good.

The waffles are magically caramel on the outside. It’s as if a thin crispy later of sugar was caramelized. On the inside the Leige waffle is dense and bread-like, though think sweet bread like a cinnamon roll. Creamy ice cream is the best topping choice since it breaks up the sugar with fat.

Be careful if you order take out. They’re really serious about it, and won’t let take out orderers sit at the tables outside. If you want a table, you must request a seat and order from your waiter, not from the counter. The cost is the same.

4 stars: You have to try the waffles in Belgium, you might as well go for the famous name.

Chocoholic

I stopped to take pics of the tool shaped chocolate. Found …other… shapes. This shop isn’t anything to write about flavor-wise. The chocolate is mid-range and the flavors are unimaginative. It is purely a novelty shapes shop.

1 star: Don’t bother.

Pierre Marcolini

While I was interrogating the staff about their chocolate it became apparent they were only selling boxes (8 piece minimum). When I asked about the possibility of only buying a few pieces, I was sent upstairs to a little dining area. Although their chocolates focus mainly on single origin, bean to bar flavors, they do have a signature dessert line called the “Desir” which comes in a variety of flavors from white to dark chocolate and passing through a range of fruit and nut compliments.

Translation: “Every day, our pastry chefs prepare these deserts with passion, to offer you a rare and unexpected emotion.”

Desir Noisette: I felt I had died and gone to heaven. The desert starts with a cookie base, followed by a hazelnut mousse filling, the center of which nestled a jewel of  custard and caramel, coated in more chocolate and caramel. 

I talked with the staff about my chocolate loves, and my plans for the day. I told them that chocolate and hazelnut was my all time favorite flavor combination, and the waiter gave me three hazelnut pieces to try. ❤ I don’t know their names, so I can only describe them by shape. 

Round: The chocolate is very intense and a little bitter. The texture is dense with crunchy bits, probably a praline. 

Square: It is sweet and very crispy. Almost like many thin layers of sugar or dough. The hazelnut flavor is strong, while the chocolate flavor is lighter.

Oval: Similar in intensity and flavor to the square, but with a gooey later of liquid salted caramel in the center. Just what it needed to balance the sweet and crunchy. It is the clear winner.

5 stars: I can’t imagine not liking anything there, but make time to sample a Desir, you will not regret it.

Laurent Gerbaud

This shop is a little far out of the way but it is 100% worth the detour. It is a beans to bar production which means they actually make the chocolate from scratch. Most places buy chocolate from a bulk supplier and then add their own flavors. A few more places in Belgium are moving away from the couverture and into the beans to bar. My top 3 picks in Belgium are all bean to bar makers. Laurent Gerbaud is one of them.

In addition to making their own chocolate, their fillings are incredibly creative and diverse. Most other chocolatiers here have the same flavors, each shop having maybe one or two unique twists, but Laurent Gerbaud goes all over the flavor map! I love it! 

Black Olive Ganache: This award winning flavor was given to me as a sample. I probably wouldn’t have bought it just to find out, but they were excited to show off. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The filling evoked raisin and anise notes as my brain tried to reconcile chocolate and olive. I did have some cognitive dissonance as my palate refused to accept the blend. The second bite was smoother. Since I’m not really a fan of anise or raisin it wasn’t a winner for me, but neither did I feel the need to brush my teeth afterward. It went a long way toward showing me the skill of the makers.

Candied lemon peel: I’m used to candied fruit having more sticky chewy and this one seemed a bit dry for my taste. The lemon flavor is solid, no acidity and not overly sweet, and the chocolate is great, but the texture is a little odd.

Ginger praline: A milk chocolate filling that was light and creamy. There were candied ginger bits for added texture. The gigner was prominent but balanced.

Sesame praline: Stunning! It’s like the best halva in amazing chocolate. I could eat it by the pound. The toasting flavor comes through, there’s a crispy texture from the sugar, and the chocolate just glides in to the mix.

Marzipan: Good crystalized texture, not too sweet, nice blend with the dark, rich chocolate.

Chai ganache: Good balance of flavors, playing well but not overpowering the chocolate. It’s a savory chai which is almost like a sweet curry. I actually thought it WAS the curry at first, but the real curry had more heat.

Curry ganache: Nice spice blend, similar to the chai but with an added bonus of heat. Like everything here it’s well balanced between chocolate and infusion and sweetness.

5 stars: Even the flavor I would not have imagined was well done. Things that are traditionally sweet are still only lightly sweet. They don’t need to use too much sugar to cover sad flavors because their flavors are amazing! Excellent ganache infusions and a truly magical sesame praline!

Corne Port Royal:

Pistachio Marzipan: So sweet! Even with the dark exterior. The almond flavor was ok, but the pistachio was not noticeable. 

Manon Sucre Vanilla: This shop is famous for inventing this particular confection, although other shops make and sell it now, too. It is so so so sweet. Nougat creme and nuts in white chocolate. It’s like someone took divinity and added white chocolate and whipped cream. Not… bad? Just so much sugar! I think the filling would have been great as a contrast to a dark, bitter exterior but only vanilla and coffee were on offer.

Ganache Violette: I was disillusioned with this shop by the time I tasted this one, and really only did so to compare it to Mary’s violet ganache. Here the chocolate is more tart/citrusy, where Mary is balanced, the ganache is thick where Mary’s is lighter, and although the final taste in Mary’s was more of an after taste, here it feels overpowered by bitter chocolate and extra sugar.

White chocolate speculoos praline: It was better than the Manon and the marzipan, but still quite sweet. Not a unique flavor, so I’d say just try the speculoos praline elsewhere if you’re curious.

1 star: Sugar, sugar, sugar. Seriously, I don’t know how this place is on the famous list. The white and milk chocolates are overly sweet, the special flavors are not present or are overpowered. Disappointing. Skip it.

Mathilde

Another “historical” stop. The dark chocolate here is a little on the fruity/sour side. Some people like that in a dark chocolate, I prefer the earthy flavors. The chocolate squares came with things like pop rocks, m&ms, or artificial fruit flavored dots. The chocolate bonbon balls were uninspired and bland flavors.

 Anywhere but Brussels, I’d call this good mid-range chocolate, but it’s much to expensive for it’s quality. 4.9€ per 100g, and the shop was one of two that had a minimum  I liked the samples but those were simple chocolate squares. I ended up buying more novelty flavors and some of the bonbon balls to fill out the 100g… I was frankly disappointed.

2 stars: Perhaps their liquors, spreads and vinegars are more impressive, but as for chocolate? Skip it.

Elizabeth

Bay leaf / Laurier groseilles: The flavor is very subtle. The chocolate is dominant, and the filling is very smooth. Overall, it is rich and earthy with a pleasant bitterness.

Black cardamom /ganache cardamone: This one had a strong fruity flavor like berry? No sign of cardamom. It tastes good… but what flavor is it? I should be able to tell.

Jasmine ganache: Why can’t I tell what flavor it is when it’s in my mouth? I know what these things are supposed to taste like. Again more tart and citrusy, maybe a little earthy, but not clearly recognizable as floral.

Orange Fleur de Sel: It is sweeter with a milk chocolate exterior, less acidic, probably orange peel. I can find the orange but it is very very faint. The fleur de sel is more a suggestion than a flavor. It tastes good, but not especially like what it’s supposed to taste like.

Chocolate truffle (sample): Delicious and rich, it has the perfect sweetness with a light crunch from a layer of cookie.

Caramel rose / truffon rose: I ate this last and it blew my socks off! Liquid caramel, buttery and with the edge of bitterness that I like in caramels. The rose flavor is prominent and balanced and so easy to find, but it doesn’t hide the richness of the caramel or the chocolate. The dark outside layer is a little on the acidic side but not enough to put me off that amazing filling!

Lemon meringue (sample): Next to the Elizabeth chocolates is the Elizabeth meringue shop. I’ve had meringues before but never imagined they could be so good. The crispy outside dissolved in my tongue like a cloud and the inside was chewy but light. I don’t think they sell them individually unless you but a huge one. But great to try!

A parade came by while I was inside. The shop woman told me it was Flemish Independence day. They aren’t independent, they just want to be, so they have this event every year to rally support.

4 stars: Worth going if you stick to the truffles and caramel on the chocolate side. Skip the flavored ganaches, but DO make time for the meringues next door.

Benoit Nihant

While I was chatting up the generous staff at Pierre Marcolini, they recommended another shop that was not on my list. When a quality chocolatier tells you to visit a rival shop, you know you have to go, but it was too far out for me to get to on the same day.

When I finally had time, I hopped on a bus that took me practically to the door and was greeted by a bubbly and kind woman behind the counter. She was blown away that Pierre Marcolini staff had recommended me to go there and happily told me about all the chocolates on offer. It’s beans to bar, and high quality, but as a smaller and younger shop they can’t afford the rent in Sablon yet, which is a tragedy because they are amazing.

She was so excited to share with me, I tried several different flavors before deciding what to do my box with. The minimum is 4 pieces at 5€, but it is so worth it.

Sesame: The balance of flavor chocolate is perfect. The toasted sesame comes through clearly without hiding the chocolate or bring hidden. Just sweet enough, and a good earthy chocolate base.

Strawberry with Sichuan Pepper: I was warned this was sweet, the strawberry is a jelly and the pepper is a ganache infusion. The jelly was very sweet and the pepper and chocolate were both a bit run over. It was a good jelly with amazing fruit flavor and smooth texture but the lady helping me was correct when she said it was sweeter than I was really looking for. She says all the jellies are like this, so I didn’t get any others, although the fig raspberry and pear cardamom both looked intriguing. 

Baracoa from Cuba, Single Origin:  Rich and creamy, it was pushing the tart side  a little but not over the line. These are made with a simple ganache filling to show off the unique flavor of the origins.

Marzipan:  I had a marzipan from the sample dish. It is the best marzipan I have ever put in my face. They use 70% almonds to keep it from being too sweet. In addition to the almond, there are light floral notes and dreamy dark chocolate robe.

I did actually buy some chocolates that day as well. I took away a box with 4 more flavors.Earl Grey Ganache (two lines): This has a beautiful dark chocolate flavor, not acid or sweet, but earthy with a slight astringency from the tea. The bergamot is subtle, but it’s still a delightful piece.

Orange Thyme (orange line): It has abright zest flavor, without being too citrusy. The thyme is subtle but ads depth and range to the flavor I don’t think you’d get with just the orange alone. The chocolate is still amazing.

Cuyagua Village Single Origin from Venezuela (gold line): Just so good. Intense chocolate flavor smooth and clean with a tiny hint towards the fruity but just a whisper to make it interesting. Light and bright, but strong and powerful. The ganache is smooth and dense and helps spread the flavor access the tongue. Much love. Single origin is meant to highlight the unique flavor of a region rather than other ingredients.

4 Spice Praline (silver line): I was told this was classic gingerbread spices. Definitely true. The praline had a nice crunch and crisp with a lovely gingerbread flavor. Not too sweet, beautiful classic chocolate, the spices are there but quiet. It’s a classy candy.

I loved Benoit Nihant so much that I hunted down their shop in Leige when I was there later in my trip. The weather was so hot that my chocolates melted a bit on the boat ride, so the textures were impacted by that, but it was still a trancendant experience.

Haceinda Single Origin: This one was dark and creamy, fruity without being overly acidic, with a slight spicy finish. Bear in mind, all that complexity comes from the chocolate alone, since there are no fruits or spices added. It’s a little like wine tasting.

Marzipan Pistachio: Since the original was so good, I decided to try the 2.0. It’s still delicious, but a bit sweeter. There is clearly a diffusion or mixture that isn’t all almond, I would not have been able to say it was pistachio if no one told me. Really good marzipan. I think I’ll stick to the original if I ever get another chance.

Peanut Praline: It’s like the most sophisticated peanut butter cup you’ll ever eat. It walks straight up to the edge of burnt sugar, bringing bitter, salty, sweet, and peanut in with the chocolate together with a nice crunch.

Hazelnut Praline: Surprisingly not as good as the peanut. It still has a dark close to burnt caramel in the praline. I can’t tell if the texture was off because of the melting but it seemed a bit more granular than it should be.

Lavender Ganache: Wow! Good lavender flavor without being potpourri. I love florals but balance is hard. I had become disenchanted with the violet ganaches in other shops and interrogated the shop staff mercilessly about this, but they nailed it!

Mint Ganache: This transported me back to my mother’s garden. The mint flavor is so fresh and natural I can taste the green. I believe it must have been made with fresh leaves in the infusion and not an extract.

Lime with Basil: The lime is dominant and reminds me of a lime chiffon or even a key lime pie, more like a creamy pastry lime than a drinks lime. The basil is a bit lost. Like the orange thyme, I think it added depth without drawing attention to itself.

The staff in both places were pleased to talk endlessly about the chocolates and the shop. In Leige there is also a cafe next to the chocolate shop that sells several chocolate deserts as well as chocolate drinks. I didn’t get a chance to try anything on that side, sadly. I also learned that you don’t actually have to get a box for 5€. If you buy the chocolates in a bag it’s 100g for 9€, which works out to about 15 chocolates, but there is no minimum.

5 stars: I wish everyone on a chocolate tour of Brussels could take a side trip out here or find one of the other 5 stores in Belgium as they are not available anywhere else and are truly a treat worth having. Try anything, but especially the marzipan.

Galler

Finally, I didn’t find this brand in a fancy shop in Sablon, but in nearly every grocery shop in the city. Galler praline bars were definitely a great score. They’re quite affordable and far superior to the average supermarket chocolate bar. Stop in a Del-Haize and grab your favorite flavor.

4 stars: Compared with the very best in Sablon, it might be 3, but taken in the context of the supermarket aisle, it blows away the competition.

Chocolate with Compassion

Chocolate is one of my favorite things on Earth, however it is an industry rife with slavery and abuse. Cocoa only grows in a few places on the planet and those are almost exclusively in 3rd world, developing nations in Central & South America, as well as Africa. Cheap chocolate companies use child labor, forced labor, and under paid labor, putting vulnerable people at risk and taking advantage of the economic disparity between developed and developing nations.

In recent years, more and more fine chocolatiers have become interested in supporting these cocoa farmers by paying a fair price for this very labor intensive product. I often hear excuses about ethical consumerism around the basis of “all the companies do it”, or “how else am I supposed to afford xyz?”, but chocolate is a luxury and there are plenty of companies that source their cocoa responsibly.

Buying ethically sourced chocolate not only feels better, it often tastes better since these companies would not dream of diluting their top dollar cocoa with milk-fat, sugar, paraffin or other additives commonly used by the check-out aisle candy companies.

Please choose one of these the next time you want to indulge. Look for a label: Fair Trade, Fairly Traded, Jane Goodall, Fair for Life, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ. You can see a list of many slavery-free chocolate companies at this website. Small chocolatiers are not listed, so if you have a neighborhood chocolatier, you can always ask them. People who use ethically sourced cocoa are proud to tell you.

Happy eating!


Writing about chocolate has helped take the edge off of the sheer horror that is the US News Cycle this week. I can’t say chocolate makes it all better, but there is a certain amount of truth in J.K. Rowling’s assessment that chocolate helps in the battle against the Dark Arts.  I will treasure this memory for as long as I have taste-buds, and I hope that you didn’t drool too much reading it 😉

Carolus Thermen Spa Experience

I didn’t have many spa experiences growing up. We weren’t exactly poor but we never really had enough money to do things like that. A “spa day” in my house was putting some scented oil in a hot bath and filling the bathroom with candles. A mud mask or cuticle soak purchased at the local corner store sometimes featured as well. I remember once we were able to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas where we were treated to a soak in the “healing waters” but it wasn’t until I was living in Saudi Arabia that I discovered the magical heights that “spa day” can soar to. That experience will probably remain the most astonishing spa experience of my life, and I’m ok with that, but Carolus Thermen comes in at a very close second.


Bad Aachen

It’s not “bad”, that just means “bath” and according to the website “Aachen” is a linguistic evolution of the word “aaaahhh” that people exclaim when they enter the warm mineral spring water that flows naturally in this part of Germany. For 2000 years humans have been enjoying the thermal water there, from the Celts to the Romans, the Victorians, and now modern tourists from all over. Charlemagne actually declared Aachen his favorite place because he loved soaking so much! Royalty and celebrity have been visiting for centuries to “take the waters”, but when I went they were having a summer sale and I could enjoy all the tradition of pure spring water piped in from Aachen’s Rosenquelle spring along with all the modern amenities of pools, waterfalls, saunas and treatments for a mere 26€ for the whole day. I’m pretty sure that a home “spa day” with candles, bath bomb, face mask, and foot scrub would cost at least that much and not be anywhere near as glorious.

On July 18, I was staying in Lanaken, a small town in Belgium that is effectively a suburb of the larger (yet still small) city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Yes, those are two different countries, but for the most part, inside the Schengen zone of the EU, travel between countries is no more a hassle than travel between two states or provinces in other places. The main complication was the sudden switch from French to Dutch at the border and the fact that the public transit was run by two different nations. More on that in a dedicated transit article, but for now just be in awe that I woke up in the morning in Belgium, rode a Belgian bus to the Netherlands, then rode a Dutch bus to Germany to spend the day at the spa.

aachen-map

The final bus stop was about 1km from the spa and the walk was through a beautiful green park with lots of shade and fountains. The weather was still unseasonably hot for the area, but the large green space was cooler than the streets around it. I saw my first red squirrel there, too! He was too fast for me to snap any photos, but it was quite a pleasant shock as someone who has spent a lifetime surrounded by grey squirrels to see one of the fox colored ones in the fur, so to speak.

Thermal Bathing

I ended up coming into the spa complex from the park, aka, the back entrance. I walked through part of the outdoor pool area where I captured my only photo of the day. Thankfully, the spa front desk had friendly, English speaking staff who explained the rules to me and issued my bracelet. No one carries keys or money or even phones around. The bracelet unlocks your assigned locker but also has a chip that you can use to buy any food or drinks, items from the shop, or extra spa services. Then when you leave, they add up your total and you pay all at once on the way out.

I didn’t have much in the way of spa gear, but I had brought my swimsuit and a sarong I got in Malaysia that now functions as my multipurpose travel cloth: light blanket, towel, scarf, skirt, shawl, dress, swimsuit cover, etc. I was prepared to rent towels and a robe if the spa required such, but no one said anything to me, and I saw plenty of other people who had brought wraps from home as well. As with all shared water spaces, the changing room included showers in order to get everyone squeaky clean before entering the pools. Once I checked in, I couldn’t take photos, so from this point on, all the photos are from the spa’s website.

The swimming area is like a water park for grown ups. There are eight indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, the unique brine steam bath “Strokkur”, a beautiful sun terrace and even a beach. The main pool connects with several others and includes amenities like bubbles, waterfalls, and gentle currents. I also noticed a lift for disabled visitors which I thought was great since the warm water therapy would be wonderful for people in PT or with long term physical limitations.

Most of the pools are in the “warm” range (35°C), with a few dedicated to more extreme temperatures. Two pools on either end lead outside to cooler (33°C) water. A small set of pools next to each other were set up hot (38°C) and cold (18°C) to go back and forth between. I perched under a massage waterfall in the hot pool for a nice chance to work out the tension, and I did the ice plunge to get my circulation going and because it feels bonkers when you go from hot to ice to hot. In addition to being a treat for the body, it is stunning to look at.

After exploring every pool on the first floor, I ducked back to my locker to grab my phone (functioning as e-reader) and a sandwich from my bag before heading to the sun terrace for a rest. The sun terrace is a lovely outdoor area surrounding one of the two outdoor pools on this level. There’s a little faux beach with sand and beach chairs, as well as a small bar/cafe where you can get refreshments. I noticed that many of the people who had reserved the larger beach chairs also brought picnic baskets filled with tupperware containers of snacks, some books, extra tanning lotion and other “beach day” necessities. I was a little worried the spa might not allow outside food and drink since they sell it there, but it seemed to be quite common after all.

The Saunas

After lunch, I headed upstairs to check out the sauna. I didn’t think I was into saunas because, except for the one in KSA, I haven’t really enjoyed them. I find them to be too hot and hard to breathe in. Because I read the website ahead of time, I realized that the variety of saunas offered at Carolus was so extensive it would be almost impossible for me not to find at least one I liked. Aside from the sheer volume and variety on offer, they also have scheduled special events inside the saunas that are free, and I was intensely curious about these.

It was amazing. However marvelous the first floor with all it’s pools and waterfalls, it is as nothing compared to the pleasures and sensory delights that awaited me on the sauna side. There are 15 different saunas and steam baths of different humidity and temperatures, a sauna lake, and the sauna garden. 

While the thermal bath area requires swimwear, the saunas are bare skin. People don’t just walk around naked the whole time (although they could), but wraps or robes are hung on hooks outside each room, and you just use a towel between you and the seat as a cushion and heat barrier, and to keep your sweat off the wood, because you WILL sweat. 

Right out of the showers, I first encountered the Feminarium (below), for women who want to sauna nude without any male observers. It’s much smaller but still had a dry and wet sauna option as well as cool showers, foot baths, and reclining chairs so that ladies could enjoy a full sauna experience in gender seclusion. I was the only person in it, and I just stayed long enough to test everything out before moving on.

The main floor has the dry saunas which are low humidity and often extremely hot. To do sauna right, nearby is a cold pool, a foot bath, and resting area. Outdoors there are even more pools, dry saunas, and quiet places to rest or nap. It also has the no-clothes terrace for those who don’t want any tan lines.

There is a large board displaying the day’s event schedule, showing what is happening in what room when. I was too excited by the variety to sit still and relax yet. Instead, I wandered around testing things out while I waited for the next scheduled event.

Oriental Bathing World

Downstairs from the dry saunas is a pool surrounded by steam rooms. These are higher humidity and had a wide range of temperatures. I enjoyed the Tepidarium (below), which, at 27°C, was just warm enough to feel it without trying to kill me, but my favorite was the Odorium. This room has my “Goldilocks” temperature with just little hints of air current to keep it from stifling. The Odorium is named for its aromas which were truly heavenly.

While the Odorium had my favorite smell, nothing in this place was odorless. I tested every room and only one had a smell I didn’t like. Many of the rooms were too hot for me to spend much time in. The warmest steam rooms were 45°C and 100% humidity! I read the proper way to sauna, but that involved spending 10-15 minutes even in the hottest of rooms and I just couldn’t last that long.

The whole decor of the sauna is dark, but in a refined classy way. It’s gentle for the eyes, with lots of soft lighting, color shifting LEDs and star lights in the ceiling. The dry rooms are mainly cedar benches, but the steam rooms are decorated with stunning tiles and patterns, intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath.  Beautiful ornaments, and water fixtures were everywhere. Lamps made to look like cut lace and even globes with holes to let shafts of light out to dance in the steam. Each room was intricately beautiful and completely unique. It’s no surprise that area is called “The Oriental Bathing World”.

Under a high arching dome, in the middle of all the steam rooms, there was another pool with pleasantly warm water (34°C) and LED lights shining upward casting rippling light and shadow in the ceiling, as well as softly changing colors. Just as I was drifting there thinking oh yeah this is that “wow-is-this-real” feeling I love so much, and imagining all my friends reactions to visiting such a space and how happy it would make them to experience this magical crossover of visual beauty, amazing smells and skinny-dipping, I decided to float on my back and watch the ceiling lights. Suddenly there was music!

Startled, I sat up and it was gone. The music was only underwater. As soon as I submerged my ears the sounds of the people vanished and I could hear lovely soothing “meditation” music!!! Floating naked in a near body temperature pool with underwater music in my ears and the mingled fragrances of saunas in my nose (no bathroom or pool smell here) and my eyes feasting on the shifting lights and colors above… It was pure magic.

Steam Sauna Treatment

When it was finally time for the treatment, left the pool with no small reluctance. I needn’t have worried. Nothing in this place could possibly be a let down. The first activity I was able to join was a mystery to me. The name on the schedule was an all caps word I did not recognize and had forgotten by the time I got back to anything I could take notes with. Even though I had no idea what it was, I was ready to explore.  I headed into Halvet (below), a very hot and steamy room, to see what would happen. This picture is nice and clear, but when I went in the room was filled with thick steam and the latticed orbs and windows shone soft beams of warm light.

Plenty of other people had the same idea and soon the benches were full. About a minute later, a young man in a towel came in with a tray of little plastic shot glass looking things that had a lightly golden liquid inside. Having no clue what I was supposed to do, I tried to surreptitiously watch the people around me and discovered it was meant to be applied to the skin. It was a delightfully scented oil! No one seemed hesitant or shy about rubbing themselves with oil in front of each other, and I decided I wouldn’t be either. Friends even helped each other, rubbing oil into hard to reach spots. I was sweating so much I wasn’t sure the oil was going on, but I kept at it until I had used the whole thing. I noticed the others who finished were heading straight to the showers and followed suit.

With only 15 minutes until the next event, I went to lay down in my favorite room, the Odorium (below). I felt like heaven. My skin was singing and so so so soft. The room was cool enough to help me relax from the hot steam treatment while still being warm enough to be comfortable naked. Not to mention my favorite smell of the day. I thought I was going to melt into the lounge chair with sheer pleasure.

Dry Sauna Infusion

The next event was a “popsicle infusion” back upstairs in one of the dry saunas. The dry saunas range from 60°C to 100°C (I didn’t set foot in that one). The infusion room is listed as 90°C (194°F) with a mere 5% humidity. The walls are lined with cedar benches, and a tall cylinder of hot rocks was in the center.

Popsicle infusion was remarkably popular. I have been to naked parties, and gone skinny dipping, but I do not think I have ever been in such a small space with so many other naked adults where no one gave a crap. It’s mixed gender. Men and women together, lining every available seat on the three tiers of cedar benches. Dudes were casually adjusting balls to rest comfortably on the seat, and chicks were wiping boob sweat. There was not one trace of awkward or creepy. The attitude was “sauna” not “sexy”. I felt completely safe and comfortable in a way I can’t even imagine experiencing in the US.

When all the seats were filled, another betoweled employee came in carrying a saucepan and a bucket of ice. He talked a lot and people laughed at certain points. I’m sure the story in German was good, but all I managed to decipher was something about the ice and that the infusion was orange.

When the speech was finished, rock music eased out of the speakers. With some disappointment, he called out to his assistant to crank it up and soon we were well and truly rocking out in these Death Valley conditions. He liberally sprinkled ice on the rocks and I swear it sublimed, going from solid to vapor without even passing through liquid on the way. He then took another towel and used it to fan the steam at us. Not in cute dainty wafting way, no. This was aggressive German air shoving.

You know that blast of heat you get when you open the oven to check on something? It was like that. The force of the hot air hitting us dead on as he went around the room. People put their arms up like in a roller coaster.

Next he added the orange infused liquid. The smell was intense but pleasant, and the moisture in the air was much more noticeable. Once more, he repeated the towel blasting. I was getting into it, but also feeling really hot by this stage and just starting to wonder if I’d have to leave when he picked up the bucket of ice and flung handfuls at the ceiling. It was coarse shaved ice and broke apart on the wooden beams, raining down on us as a cool shower.

As he started on a second round of infused liquid, a girl sitting in front of me headed for the exit. I decided if she could be a wimp, I could too. Honestly it was just as well. I was becoming dizzy and realized I could be flirting with dangerously overheating. I got to some cool water and started to feel better just in time for the popsicles! The staff passed out little orange creamscicles to everyone who had participated. I’d already been thinking that they must have named it the “popsicle infusion” because it smelled like that childhood treat, so the cold fruity reward was the perfect finish.

Break Time

After the intense heat of the popsicle sauna, I took my time to cool off all the way. I had a cold shower, took a walk outside, lay for another rest in my favorite room, and one more dip in the cold pool (18°C) of the Balneum (below).

With plenty of time before the next event, I decided to head over to the sauna’s connected restaurant. You don’t get dressed to eat there, just throw on a robe or towel. It’s separated from the clothed area, and the terraces are protected with shrubbery to keep anyone outside from seeing in. The view was lovely, but the food was disappointing. I ordered the Thai crab soup, which tasted like someone went “soy sauce and ramen that’s Asian right?” It also had no crab or even fake crab, just teeny tiny shrimp. The cheap sandwich I brought in from the grocery store was better. Before you ask why I ordered Thai food in Germany, the restaurant is called “Lemongrass” and claims to specialize in Asian food. However, the staff was kind, and my mood was just to good to want to think about bad food so I just wrote it off, I was planning to pay 36€ that day before I learned about the summer sale. Thinking of it as bad free food it’s much less painful than thinking of bad food I paid for.

Feeling Like Fresh Bread

It would have taken an act of gods to ruin my glow that day, and while the restaurant may have been a let down, good food was the topic of my final experience: the bakery.

It’s a dry sauna meant to be like a red brick oven which is not uncommon in saunas. I’ve seen several in the Jimjilbang in Korea. However at Carolus, there’s actually an oven inside. Although the room is open for use all the time, every couple hours they bake something in the oven while people are there. I read about it before going and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to. I went into the room the same time the dough did and I lay in the semi-dry heat (60°C 40% humidity) dripping sweat and surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh baking bread. I can’t even properly describe this room other than to say I felt like I was in the oven with the bread…in a really yummy way, not in a gingerbread cottage witch way.

When they were done baking, it turned out to be pretzel rolls. Once she added some coarse salt, the attendant staffer passed around the piping hot treats. They were light and fluffy inside and crispy outside and almost too hot to bite into. It was so amazing to be with the bread and have the aroma as part of the sauna and then get eat it after as I walked around in the fresh outdoor air.

Spa Spell

I never wanted to leave that place. After my baking treatment, I had only about 30 minutes left to visit my favorite highlights one last time before it was time to return to the non-magical world outside. Of course for me, that meant one more float in the musical pool, and a rest in the Odorium to air dry a bit. 

My ersatz towel was completely drenched by this time and would do me no good as a drying method. I was a little worried about carrying my wet bathing suit and sarong home, so I didn’t get back into any of the swimming baths at the end of my day. I underestimated the facilities once again, since the locker rooms had quick spin cycle machines to whip the extra water out of any towels or suits. There were hair dryers, too. I didn’t need one in the summer, but I would have been grateful to see them if I were leaving on a cold winter’s evening.

When I put this spot on my travel calendar, I did not think I could spend 7 hours in a spa with no distractions, but I only read my book for about an hour at lunch. Other than that my phone was locked up the whole time. I didn’t even miss it.  There were many more experiences, treatments, and classes I never had a chance to attend. I thought about trying to find a room in Aachen so I could stay until they closed at 10pm and come back again the next day, but the cost was even more than the bus rides. I thought also about returning another day that week, before I left Lanaken. I could go back every day for a week before I could see it all.

In the end I decided that the euphoria I experienced that day came from the wonderful surprises and the way nearly every part of the day exceeded any possible expectation I had. If I returned and it was anything less than pure magic, I risked disappointment. Lanaken and Maastricht were providing a nearly unbearable number of disappointments already, and I didn’t think I could take another. Better to keep this shining jewel of memory just the way it is. Visiting Carolus Thermen in the middle of some intense emotional turmoil (which I intend to share elsewhere for those interested in my turmoil and growth) was an incredible escape. It elevated me into a realm of calm delight that was not only a pure joy, but gave me the mental clarity to process a lot of heavy stuff. It is and will remain one of the highlights of all my adventures. 


Writing away as fast as I can, I still can’t seem to get all the way to my goal of 2 stories a week. The new semester of classes has brought it’s share of challenges as I try to understand a whole set of course materials and students. It’s also bringing some new joys which may be taking away from writing time. I adjusted my schedule so that I could attend more weekend events out of town. Last weekend, I got to attend my first watercolor class which was a lovely social event and a chance to learn new art skills. I plan on going to book clubs, craft fairs, and of course to some Korean festivals as well. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve arrived at a place in my life where I get to have so many adventures of all sizes. I’ll do my best to keep sharing them with you, even if it’s not as quickly as before. Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂

어떻게: How

I have to admit, I’d rather be posting about my trip to the DMZ. I’ve got pages and pages of stories left from my summer and fall adventures, but somehow, it just doesn’t seem right to keep blithely moving on to happy travel posts without at least acknowledging what just happened. I’m not a political blogger, but those who read here know sometimes I share my thoughts on a major world event, and/or event that causes me deep emotional reactions. If you just want the happy travel stories, that’s ok. I like those better anyway. But, for what it’s worth, my .02 on the election.


I’m 16 hours ahead of the West Coast. The election was well underway when I woke up Wednesday morning. By lunchtime, the Koreans were staring at the electoral map on my phone, just saying 어떻게 (ottoke) over and over. It means “how”. By the time I left work, it was over and I was in shock. My Canadian and I ate pb&j sandwiches and drank 2 bottles of wine while trying to talk about literally anything else.

I didn’t sleep well. Anxiety and stress combined with some lingering back pain. I woke up tired and numb. Random thoughts keep scrolling across my brain like one of those LED tickers in New York. Tears coming and going as I walk down the street to the bus station. No appetite at all. Even when I’m finally hungry, I can only eat a few bites before it all seems disgusting again. I cried, I yelled, my coworkers laughed because they thought it was a joke until I gave example after example and then they cried too. I spent the whole day fighting the urge to just lay down on the floor and stop moving. My body is in grief.

어떻게 (ottoke)

yayomg-oh-sad-mad-dreamworks-home

I was (am?) one of those disenfranchised white people who is sad-mad about the loss of my future. I believed in the meritocracy and it failed me. I’ve changed careers 3 times because every time I invested in the training and the low level experience building, it was just in time to have the economy hiccup and destroy my future. In America, I couldn’t get adequate health care because it was too expensive. I put myself in insane debt for a career that I will never have now. I couldn’t afford to live on my own with a full time (30-50% higher than minimum wage) job. Even with a roommate, I couldn’t save up for a car, a house, a new TV or even dream of getting out from under the credit card debt without the aid of my family. I took a job I didn’t like with no prospect of advancement simply because I needed the health benefits more than I needed a job with a future. I drove the one new car I bought way back when the economy was still good until it died a sad death from lack of me being able to afford regular maintenance 16 years later. One of the reasons I never married or tried to have children because the very thought of even more financial burden terrified me to my core.

What makes me different from the rest of the disenfranchised white people who believe Trump can save them? I am honestly not sure. It could be my educational level. It could be my hippie mom. It could be my urban location. It could be … nothing.

You can make jokes and snide remarks about racism, but we all know that only a small portion of the Trump base are really off the hook haters. Most of them are the lost people, who like me, thought that if they worked hard, they could get that house with the fence and the kids and the dog and it would be ok. We are all processing what it means to realize that just isn’t true.

the-american-dream-is-over

My cousin – my mixed race, female cousin told me she would have voted for Trump if she’d voted. (Do not even get me started on that “if”) When I expressed my worry for her and her family members of color, she was surprised and said she had no clue how I got the idea he was racist. Even when I tried to explain, she dismissed it as having happened so long ago (the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and you know the recent election cycle) that it wasn’t relevant anymore. When I asked her to tell me some things she liked about Trump, all she could tell me were the same things I’ve read and seen over and over. Hillary is BAD, the establishment is BAD. Trump is not those bad things. Yeah, but what do you like about him. He’s not the establishment.

190xhd

She was just as politely patronizing to me as I’ve seen well meaning liberals be, too (and if I’m being brutally honest, as I’m sure I’ve been to people when I feel like they are being dumb but I still want to try and be nice). I was hoping my liberal media “bubble” was exaggerating that “voting-against” response. That if I just talked to a reasonable Trump supporter they could explain the good things to me, but nope. It looks like the people who don’t love Trump are so in hate with Hillary and “the establishment” that they don’t care who else gets hurt, including themselves.

I can’t tell you how much I want to be wrong. I want to be Chicken Little and not Cassandra. So. Much.

어떻게 (ottoke)

obama-protestAnd there’s the riots, which I am not happy to see. I don’t want violence to be an answer ever. Yeah, I know, the Trump supporters did it first, but now that they’ve won, they’d like it all to stop. People are like “oh you’re overreacting”, “oh you’re whiny cry babies” (nevermind that’s been pointed at us for caring about anything ever for decades, so it’s lost it’s oompf as an insult), but I voted in 2000 when this happened with Gore and I was not scared for my nation’s future (although, it turns out I should have been). I was mad when Kerry lost in 2004, too because that explitive promised to do recounts and bailed. And the Democrats didn’t take to the streets in protests and riots because voters who lost an election were capable of telling the difference between a guy we didn’t like the policies of, and a guy who we honestly believe will enable the ruination, incarceration, and deaths of humans we care for and respect.

It’s not about oh we lost, boo hoo. It’s not about, oh we didn’t get our way and now we’re throwing a tantrum (looking at you House Republicans). It’s about all these horrible stories on twitter of people being harassed, threatened, and assaulted in the name of the President-elect. It’s about high school students being groped and bullied and beaten while their classmates chant “white power”. It’s about spray-painting the President-elect’s name on cars and churches then setting them on fire, sometimes with people still inside.

They say they’ve never rioted when their candidate lost (a debatable claim at best), but I say we’ve never abused people in the name of our winning candidate. This isn’t like any other election.

어떻게 (ottoke)

13csv2

Oh, yeah, I’m not going back. It’s not as big a political stance as it sounds. I left when the country was improving. I left before marriage equality. I left, not because I was disgusted or afraid, but because I like to travel. I’ve stayed away for the very practical reason that I get paid better for work I find more rewarding in cultures that have superior access to quality health care and in communities of like-minded globe trotters. It’s better for me out here than it is at “home”. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of going back before. What would I do? How would I pay rent? How would I afford health care? This is just a sort of nail in the decision. I don’t want to live in a country where I’m struggling to just get by when I can live somewhere that I thrive. I desperately want America to be that kind of a place again, but I’m not optimistic for the near future.

Not everyone can leave. Not everyone would actually have a better life outside America. Not everyone even wants to leave. That part’s just about my life choices.

어떻게 (ottoke)

Democratic National Convention: Day One

Bunch of folks are looking for the love. We know hate is bad, we know love conquers hate. I personally don’t like hating because of how it makes me feel. But I’ve also seen a lot of people in the at-risk minority groups get righteously upset at those “love uber alles” type messages. They worry, and I think justly so, that we who remain un-impacted or less impacted by virtue of our skin tone, our gender, our economic status, or our geographic region can take the moral high ground and love without suffering, thus forgetting the pain, fear, anger, loss and very real danger being experienced by people not us. But, I think it’s ok to love while still being hurt, angry, sad, mad, and scared.  I don’t think you have to choose.

I’m trying not to hate. I saw the Daily Show the other day, the it comes with the package speech Hassan Minhaj gave, and it so succinctly put into words why I’m upset with the not-actually-horribly-racist Trump supporters.

source

Maybe right now, I feel the same way about them. I don’t actually hate you, non-racist, non-misogynist, non-xenophobic, Hillary-hating, establishment-destroying Trump supporters… I just don’t care about you? Doesn’t really feel good.

I’m trying to find all my compassion and use it, but I’m tired, wrung out, this year has seen so much tragedy in the US and I am afraid it is only going to get worse. And yeah, I’m mad at the people who voted for this. But I’m trying to be like… family mad. Mom mad. That kind of mad where you’re like, “I can’t believe you just took the family car for a joyride and crashed it into a telephone pole!” HUG “I’m so glad you’re ok, I love you.” because those go together. We can be mad at people we love and we can love people we’re mad at.

I’m not sure I have it in me to love the super bigots yet. I may not be that enlightened. But I know that’s not most of the people I’m mad at.

So they’ve shown it’s possible to not-hate someone, but at the same time not care if they live or die. I’m saying possible to be mad at people for doing dumb, dangerous, shortsighted, selfish things and still . That’s the struggle for me right now. That and trying to decide what to do with my book collection if I’m really never going back there.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to lay down on the floor and stop moving.

어떻게 (ottoke)

pinkie_pie_faceplant_by_sairoch-d5wx2d1

#UltimateCoOp – A Seattle Gamer-Geek Wedding

As some of you know by now, I have returned to my US stomping grounds in the Emerald City. While I have been away, I wrote many stories about new experiences with new people and now I’m going to try a little experiment and write a story about something familiar using the same perspective I had while travelling. After all, there’s no reason not to keep having adventures just because the surroundings are familiar.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” — Terry Pratchett


I came back to Seattle just in time to attend the much anticipated wedding of a couple of friends of mine who rank among the geekiest gamers I know.  Over time, through accident or design, they have come to talk about their lives in video game terms and so their engagement was announced as “Achievement Unlocked: Engaged”. The groom designed a video game using the wedding party as the characters, and a local comic book artist designed some beautiful comic art versions of the bride and groom for the website and invitations. The wedding theme was “gamer geek”, so I knew we were all in for a fun and non-traditional time.

I picked out a simple outfit using some clothes I’d picked up in Japan and tried to create a bit of an “anime” look with hair and make-up to blend in with the theme and to highlight my recent adventures. I felt a little bad because I hadn’t had time to gift shop at the registry places, but I’d promised the bride a “traditional Japanese wedding present” and she seemed happy with that idea. Mind you, this was before I researched Japanese wedding traditions. As it turns out, the most common gift is money in a very elaborate envelope. What can I say? I’m broke. My friends now have a very elaborate envelope.

First Impressions

I arrived at the wedding hall about 15 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to begin and got to see the basic outlay. There was a wine bar on the patio, which is fairly standard at American weddings, but the divergences started as soon as I walked in the door. In the foyer, the traditional “guest book” had been replaced with cards (each bearing the comic art bride and groom characters with the names and date of the wedding). Instead of signing a book, guests were asked to write a message (or draw a picture) on a card using the colored markers provided and place them in a treasure box.

For snacks, a candy bar had been set up. No, I don’t mean a square bar shaped candy, I mean a bar (like snack bar or pub) with many full bowls of candy. Guests were invited to fill a bag with their favorite sweets to snack on or take home. Offering guests wedding favors is an American tradition, often small bags or boxes of candy (butter mints and jordan almonds are very popular), sometimes small bottles of bubble solution, and even on occasion a decorative trinket. This couple had opted to use the candy bar to let guests make their own candy bags, and had some beautiful copper keys (with a secret bottle-opener feature) as wedding favors, each adorned with a brown paper tag bearing a loving quote.

Off to one side of the entrance was an old fashioned arcade game set up with the groom’s homemade wedding video game that allowed guests to play a joystick/button-mash adventure that pitted 8-bit bridesmaids and groomsmen against one another with highly customized (read “inside joke) attacks like spilling a drink or flinging a crowbar. And on the other side stood a giant red telephone box replete with a Mario Question Mark cube dangling tantalizingly in the air.

As we were ushered to our seats in the main hall, each guest was equipped with a walkthrough and strategy guide to the day’s events (aka, a program). Written in the style of a video game walkthrough and complete with FAQs, the program gave us some tantalizing glimpses of the night to come, including the eventual appearance of Seattle’s premiere steampunk band, Abney Park.

Looking around me, I saw that the theme had been well and truly taken to heart by the guests who were dressed in an astonishing array of geek finery from
Star Trek uniforms to renaissance garb. Corsets abounded along with crazy hats, gear adorned ties, aviator goggles and foam weapons. The bridal party were possibly the most in harmony with traditional wedding garb, wearing suits and ties for the men, and simple black dresses for the ladies. The geek shone through in the adorable corsages that included a miniature blue spiky shell (from Mario Kart) and a rune adorned mini-dagger.

The Ceremony

The ceremony began traditionally enough (although the officiant had pink hair and a serious steam-punk vibe), but quickly took on the couple’s own unique flair. They began with a ring warming, trustingly passing their wedding rings around the seated guests to be “warmed” with handling and good wishes. Reading special passages is very common at American weddings, although for many this would include an excerpt from the Bible or classic literature about the nature of love or marriage, this couple took instead from their own favorite fantasy writers: Madeline L’Engle and Patrick Ruthfuss.

Side note: The argument about how much marriage should or should not be religious or secular is quite hot in the US in recent years, however Seattle is one of the most liberal cities around and has been embracing all kinds of life-partnership for a long time. Perhaps as a result of the overwhelming liberalness of the area, weddings here are often more about the individuals’ personal values than about a traditional “church” affair. Nonetheless, it was really cool to see how this couple took those church traditions, dug out the meaning behind them that they liked best and then created a new way to share that meaning.

Another new take on an old tradition involved the blending of two into one, and the set-up for the 1 year anniversary. For the for representation of two lives becoming one, many couples choose to use two candles that light a central single candle, and for first anniversaries, a chunk of the wedding cake kept in the back of the freezer is common. My friends decided to integrate their love of Mexican tequila into these traditions instead. Having solidified their love on annual trips to Mexico which included lots of tequila tours, they each chose their own blanco to pour into an aging cask so that it could mature into añejo by the one year anniversary when they will open the cask and enjoy (much tastier than frozen wedding cake!).

Even the exchange of rings had a gamer twist, for when the officiant prepared to hand over the rings, she looked at the couple seriously and warned them, “It’s dangerous to go alone… Take this.” And of course the ceremony ended with a final traditional kiss along with the Achievement Unlocked: Married.

The Wedding Quest

As we filed out to the patio for cocktail hour, members of the wedding party passed out another pamphlet containing the Wedding Quest. The Quest was a great ice-breaker activity set that got people mingling and playing with the various games and props that had been scattered around the building. Not only did a guest have to perform the task (such as play the wedding brawler video game, or take a selfie with the bride), but they had to get someone to witness the achievement and sign off on the checklist. Some quests involved signing the guest book or using the photo booth to help create more memories for the couple, while others involved dancing with strangers or feeding the bride’s mom.

The photo booth was a fun way to make wedding memories for everyone. In keeping with the video arcade theme, they had set up a computer and printer inside a box that looked like an arcade game. Guests were encouraged to choose from a range of silly props and costume pieces just outside the photo room. Then with a single press of a big red button, the machine captured 4 silly photos against a Mario background and printed your souvenir card with the wedding comic art and date. Below is Abney Park and some of the bridal party having a good time with the photo booth between sets.

The Quest kept me happily busy until the wedding hall had completed it’s transformation sequence into a dining hall, where we all convened for dinner and toasting. I took some advantage of my status as welcome home guest to finagle some of the bridal party’s special vodka and generally enjoyed seeing people I hadn’t seen for the last year along with meeting the new people that had come into our community during my absence.

Toasting, Caking & Dancing

The toasting began with a bottle of champagne that the bride’s parents had set aside at their own wedding, not realizing that unlike still wine, champagne does not improve with age after purchase. I really hope the photographer was standing by to capture the looks on their faces.  I think the aging tequila cask will be a much more successful investment.

Once safer drinks were provided, the toasts resumed with funny stories and clever antics. The bride’s brothers even presented her with a lovely sword to defend her own honor with. Although many of the audience felt that the new sword would be a great cake-cutter, it turned out that the couple had installed a dagger as part of their cake topper for that precise purpose. In addition to the dolls matching the comic book character themes there were several layers of geekery including the Portal cube, a dragon with a hoard of gold, a D20, some Mario Bros., a small library of gaming books and a solid foundation of Pac Man. And, for extra humor, the cake was a lie. It turned out that only one layer was cake for the couple to cut and share for the traditional cake-face-smash, er I mean feeding, and all the other layers were cleverly disguised styrofoam with fondant frosting decorations. Guests were served cake from a hidden resource somewhere in the back (which is just as well because fondant is nowhere near as tasty as butter-creme).

The traditional first dance of a newly married couple is often a sweet and romantic song like Eta James or Frank Sinatra. Sometimes a couple will take dancing lessons or plan some “fancy” moves like twirls and dips to look good on their special day. My friends took this to expert level, as it were, and chose for their first song Code Monkey by Jonathan Coulton. In addition to dancing their way through the chorus, they took turns being the code monkey in the story and acting out the lyrics. It was pretty much as insanely cute as it sounds. Parental dances were then followed up with a honeymoon fundraising “dollar dance” that allowed any guest an exclusive dance with the bride or groom for a financial contribution to the getaway fund.

After I took my turn dancing with the groom, I stepped aside to the bar and while chatting with another guest about our Wedding Quest achievements, I related that I had yet to achieve “Dance With Someone You Don’t Know”. At which point, the bartender swiftly emerged from behind the bar to treat me to a quick jig and witness my achievement. I think the catering staff were just as amused by the wedding as we were. It’s always fun when my group gets to attend events with staff, since so many of us have worked those grinding jobs before, we’re all extra nice and friendly to them, and it’s awesome to see their reactions when they realize they’re being treated like people instead of robot servants.

Finally, I stepped outside to get some fresh (cool) air, but my respite did not last long before a bride led conga line snaked into the courtyard to scoop everyone up and down the stairs into the hidden speakeasy. The basement room was decked out with a small stage and dance floor and plenty of comfy lounging couches around the walls plus another bar off to one side. Giant tubs of popcorn provided anyone still hungry with more snacking options and the slices of wedding cake kept appearing as if by catering ninjas. I proceeded to have a lovely time being flung around the dance floor by two very good friends who take dance lessons in swing, blues and salsa. My hairdo did not survive the experience, but I can’t say I was upset.

Abney Park

I’m really not sure what kind of shenanigans, bribes or blood sacrifices were made to accomplish this, but Seattle’s one and only Post-Apocalyptic Steampunk band played at this wedding. These guys aren’t just a local gimmick band, they’ve traveled internationally and enjoyed sold out shows. Apparently they also have a series of genre books about the airship captain and his crew. I however live in a cultural hole in the ground when it comes to music, so until that night I only had a brief and passing awareness of the group based on posters I had seen advertising concerts around town.

As you can see from the picture, they have a violinist among their musicians which is always a good way to win me over. The music is fun and bouncy without being painfully loud, another plus. And it seems to be largely story based type lyrics that are reflective of the characters and world they are portraying. They are also really mellow, fun folks. The venue was pretty small, so the stage was really just a step up from the dance floor and there was no green room or backstage area for them to go so they had to mingle with the guests. Perhaps because most of the guests were also in costume, or perhaps because of the bottles of wine that found their way from the bar to the stage (open bar is music to any musicians ears), they were highly complimentary of our vibe, totally seemed surprised at how happy everyone was, and quickly settled into enjoying themselves too.

Light it Up & Let it Go

At one point in the performance, I stepped away to help create the send-off decorations. Some people throw rice at a departing couple, and I’ve seen doves and butterflies released as well. Apparently the families had wanted to release floating fire lanterns, but the long dry summer had left a normally damp Seattle too dry. In fact, most of the state of Washington had been on fire only a few weeks before. So instead they got a couple hundred tiny battery operated lights and white balloons. This meant a hardcore team of volunteers spent a while assembling the final product, a non-fire starting floating glowing thing to release to the skies.

After we filled all the balloons, there were a couple dozen lights leftover, so I decided these should become fashion accessories for as many people as I could get them to.  This made for some new fun as we all tried to figure out the best places to add lights to our costumes. Several groomsmen wound up with back-lit ties, and an equal number of bridesmaids had glowing cleavage. I handed several around to the band while they were on break. They seemed to get a kick out of it, and wore the lights in hair, clothes and goggles for the second half of their show.

As the dancing went on, it became apparent that the bride and bridal party’s lack of sleep and early start to the day were taking a toll. Among the hundred or so regular size balloons were three giant ones that the couple used to lead everyone back upstairs and out the gates into the street. Once each remaining guest was armed with a glowing balloon, we huddled together and counted down to release. It was quite lovely to watch the glowing pearly balloons float off into the cloudy black sky. When the last balloon had drifted from sight, the couple looked around for their car and had a fun surprise. At some point the groomsmen had decorated the couple’s car with cling wrap and shoe polish as well as about a dozen more glowing balloons. However, since gamer geeks are notorious utility knife carriers, the plastic was swiftly dispatched and the couple drove off into the night, exhausted but happy, all quests completed and all achievements unlocked at the Ultimate Co-Op Wedding.


Special thanks to all the photographers I’m using here. I forgot to point and shoot for most of the event, so I’m relying on other guests phone photo skills to provide the fun imagery. I managed to personally achieve all quests in the Wedding Game before leaving (bragging rights) and had a great time reconnecting with my Seattle family. I love you all to pieces. Megan & Brendan, thank you so much for letting me be a small part of your special day, I know you’ll work hard to take care of each other and be happy and I look forward to more games and stories with you in years to come.

France 2015 – Metz & Reims

My original summer plans had actually involved finishing the school year in Tabuk and then spending two months wandering Europe before returning to the US. All of this turns out not to be true anymore. As much as I loved my students and appreciated the experience of Saudi, I didn’t even realize how unhealthy I had become. I lost physical tone because there was no place to excersice easily, my lunchtime yoga routine had died when the school slashed our lunch breaks, and my mood (ok depression) made it nearly impossible for me to get up the energy to do any exercise at home. I also became mentally unhealthy, depressed and moody, unable to deal with stressors properly and not at all balanced. Being out for just a week made me feel happier and more balanced. So in addition to the extra stress that happened in my last week in Saudi (like the fact that all the teachers got heat exhaustion and had to go to the nurse or hospital), the restoration of my neurotransmitter levels in these last few weeks has really affirmed my choice to leave early.

Between my new job in Japan and the cancellation of my backpacking buddy, I decided to cut my summer break short and will be heading back to work on June 8th. With only three weeks of holiday and feeling a strong need to get people back in my life, I decided my break would be less about seeing Europe and more about seeing friends. My friend in Prague was happy to have me, but had another guest for a few days so I went to meet up with another friend, Miss Vixen Valentine, who was travelling in France to do some research for her Master’s thesis and to do a performance in Paris. So it was that one day into my holiday, I embarked on a road trip across Germany.

I rented a little mini car for pretty cheap and I had GPS on my phone, so after a light breakfast in my hotel, I hit the open road. Germany is really beautiful to drive through. It’s GREEN. I missed green so much. I think I had actually forgotten there were so many shades of green. I made up poetry in my head about the color green as I drove. And I think I also formed a new appreciation for the canola fields that broke up the green rolling hills with swaths of bright sunny yellow. The farm fields would end abruptly in forests as the vallys turned upward then open back up to farmland in the next valley. The gas stations were also really neat. There were these huge rest areas with gas stations, restaurants, bathrooms, and nature areas. The bathrooms cost .70 Euro, but you got a voucher for .50 that you could use at the next stop or toward your purchase in the shop. The coffee machines actually had whole beans and would and brew your coffee fresh when you pushed the button. There were full delis with actual food and not just gas station junk. It was really nice. I tried to follow one of the brown signs to see a cool site, but I never did find it. I didn’t mind the detour however, since I got to see a tiny little town with windy roads and cool buildings before getting back onto the main highway.

The drivers were really polite and took the whole concept of a passing lane very seriously. I had a couple mishaps early on where I didn’t get out of someone’s way fast enough, but I soon figured it out and then really enjoyed the driving experience.   As I got closer to France, the crops changed from  canola to grapes. The only indication that I had left Germany was a tiny blue sign that said France and the language on the road signs changed. It felt just like driving across states in the US, only I think states make a bigger deal about letting you know you are leaving or entering.

Metz, Lorraine Region

After a long but leisurely drive, I finally arrived in Metz. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even noticed this town, let alone spent two days there if I was travelling just to sight see. My friend however had gone to see the river Moselle because it is her family name, and so I found myslf across from the Cathedral of St. Etienne in a tiny little studio apartment overlooking the Moselle river.

Part of me just wants to tell you how terrible this place is, oh awful, don’t go, just so I can keep this little jewel all to myself. But, really, I think it may have been my favorite place in France and I’m strongly looking at how to get an EU work visa for next year just so I can live close enough to visit Metz more often. After settling in with my “luggage” (a backpack), we set off in search of dinner. Restaurants in France don’t typically open for dinner until 7 or 730, and it was Sunday, so even fewer were open. Eventually we found a little Canadian themed restaurant and decided to eat there.

I have been thinking about how to talk about the food in France. I went through several stages of love, disbelief, infatuation, rapture and awe while eating in France and I’ve decided that I really need to write a separate post to do the food justice. So for the moment, I will just tell you the restaurant was ah-maze-ing and I’ll do the blow by blow (or bite-by-bite) later on for all the fantastic places we ate.

We lingered a really long time over the meal and didn’t get back to the room until after midnight, but the gentleman serving our food never once made us feel rushed. We probably didn’t get enough sleep, but we were both just happy to be in such a pretty little town that we got up fairly early. We got ready slowly though, drinking our coffee and researching things to do in Metz as well as trying to figure out where we would go next and where we would stay in Paris. When we set off for lunch, Vixen suggested we ask the local tourist office where a good place to eat was, which turned out for the best because once again we ended up spending more than two hours over an impossibly good meal. When we finally finished our last cup of post dessert coffee we set off for the cathedral.

 

I don’t have a lot of experience with cathedrals. There are a couple in the US, but of course they aren’t very old. This one dated back to the 5th century. I had been admiring the exterior architecture every time we walked past it, but somehow I had not really been expecting the inside to be as high. I guess I thought there would be floors? So when we walked in and the ceiling just didn’t quit going up, I was really amazed. The building looked like it might have undergone a fire at some point because the stone walls were blackened in places. The stained glass windows also looked like they might have been replaced at various points in history because there seemed to be medieval, renaissance and post modern styles in the window art. There were very few other people in the massive structure, so it was very easy to feel the scale of the building. We walked all around admiring the art in glass, stone and wood. There was a birdsnest organ as well as the main organ, and for a while I just had to sit down and reflect on the sheer number of centuries that this building had been standing and been used as an active place of worship. Seeing this cathedral made me even more excited at the thought of going to Notre Dame in Paris in a few days.

After that, Vixen needed to go to see the Centre Pompidou-Metz, which turned out to be a sort of gallery space that looked like a large white tent and seemed to have a rotation of 5-6 different gallery displays. We ended up sitting in the little outdoor cafe area because I was starting to feel pretty icky. At first I thought it was just some jet lag and maybe allergies, but it quickly became apparent I was getting very dehydrated and also developing a wicked sore throat from my sinuses. So we left the Centre and set off to find a pharmacie on our way back to the flat. The French speaking pharmacist tried to help me out with my bad French, but eventually had to go get her English speaking co worker. She was able to help me find some rehydration powder as well as some throat lozenges which helped a bit. We stopped in a Carrefour to get some water and ended up with delicious fresh strawberries as well.

We passed by the Rue Taison, which is supposed to be a kind of Taiwan town, but other than the large plaster dragon hanging over the street and a few dragonesque signs around, I wasn’t really sure why. The shops are more French than anything else, and I didn’t see a strong presence of Taiwanese food or goods. It was still nice to walk through the little streets and see all the different architecture. Some buildings as old as the cathedral had been re-purposed into shops or hotels next to “newer” buildings that were a mere 200-300 years old. We stopped at a street vendor selling soft serve ice cream, let me just say that nutella-pistachio swirl is a magical idea.

By this point in the day it was becoming apparent that I did not merely have some desert to temperate climate adjustment issues going on in my sinuses, but actually a full-blown travel flu. The downside to so many flights in a row is the enormous exposure to other people’s germs. So we headed back to the flat so I could get some rest while Vixen went to view the river of her family. Somewhat sadly, I slept firmly until the following morning and missed out on the river island and what I am sure was another amazing dinner. Travelling while sick is really no fun since it takes a lot of your get up and go right out. I was feeling a bit less insanely flu-like after a good shower, so determined to keep on with my adventures through France.

Reims, Champagne Region

After some breakfast pastry detours (which I will explore more fully in the post about the food), we made it back on the road heading to Reims. We weren’t originally planning to do anything between Metz and Paris. We’d stopped in Metz to see my friend’s family river and she had a show in Paris. It’s only about a 3 hour drive, but we looked up what was between them just for fun. It turns out that the Champagne region is between them. I sort of vaguely remember when France threw a giant naming fit and everything that had previously been called “champagne” in the US suddenly became “sparkling wine”. This basically meant that in my life, I had never had true champagne. Even my champagne brunch in Dubai was really served with sparkling wine because I was too cheap to go for the Moet upgrade. We decided that we couldn’t really justify driving through Champagne without drinking any, so I looked up several different options for tours and tastings. There was one particularly helpful BBC article that outlined four houses, so we tried to reach out and contact each of those to make an appointment, but we weren’t doing it far enough in advance, because they didn’t email us back until 2 days after we’d left Reims. So if you’re dead set on a particular house, I suggest planning well in advance.

We decided to drive up to them anyway and see if we could get in. The first one we went to was GH Mumm, and the description was a tour of the process of making champagne plus a tasting. They told us we could join the 4pm tour, so we booked our spot and went off to check into our hotel. Our tiny little hotel, Alhambra, was in an interesting part of town, since we were in sight of a sex shop and a tattoo parlor, and also just around the corner from a school. The rooms were small but clean, there was a bathroom on each floor and a shower on the main floor. We were only staying for one night, so it wasn’t really an issue. The manager there was a Berber from Algeria and was very proud of the languages he spoke (7) and very complimentary of my “beautiful” English. Some of our conversation was in English, some in French, and some in Italian (which Vixen speaks quite well), but eventually he helped us by calling one of the other houses we were interested in, and we found out they had an English speaking tour at 4pm also. Realizing that we were only going to make it to one champagne house, we then had to choose based entirely on online descriptions.

The house we decided on in the end was Tattinger. Tattinger started out as a chalk quarry in the 4th century under Roman occupation. Later, in the 13th century an abbey was built on the chalk pits and the monks used the temperature controled caves to keep their champagne at a constant temperature. The abbey itself was destroyed during the French revolution, but the caves and cellars were used during WWII to house women and children, so there are carvings in the soft chalk walls from the people who lived there during the war. Then shortly after the war, the Tattinger family began to use the site for their own champagne. Wise choice. It was really amazing to see all of that history just piled up on itself underground. There were stone stairs leftover from the abbey that had once lead from the abbey to the cellars and now led from the cellars simply into the ceiling. The carvings from those during WWII were alongside chisel marks from Roman tools. And the whole thing was filled with over 2 million bottles of champagne.

Our guide told us about the champagne process, how they use the natural yeast in the fruit for the first fermentation, but add yeast and sugar later on to create the champagne from the still wine. I learned that most champagnes are actually a mixture of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Since the later two are black grapes, they must be picked gently by hand to make sure that none of the pigment leakes from the skins to change the color of the juice. The process takes a long time and involves several stages of fermentation, resting, turning and rebottling. I think the most fascinating stage to me was the removal of the sediment from the bubbly. The still wine is bottled with extra sugar and yeast, but it is corked to keep the gas that is released during fermentation in the bottle (making it sparkling).

However, as the yeast dies it forms a layer of sediment in the bottle that no one wants to drink. So there are these racks that gradually change the angle of the bottles over a period of 8 weeks. Two guys come in and turn the bottles and slowly change the angle from horizontal to pointing almost straight down. This process sends all of the sediment into the neck of the bottle. Then (this part is really cool) they freeze the neck of the bottle. This causes the sediment to freeze solid, so when they turn the bottle upright it stays in place, then they simply treat it like a cork and pull it out whole! leaving the clear sparkling champagne behind to be properly corked and placed in storage to age.

She showed us all the sizes of bottles that they distribute in, including a really giant one for extra special occasions. She talked about the different types of champagnes that Tattinger makes, and how they measured the quality of each year’s grapes, still wines and champagne blends to see if they deserved to be marked as vintage or not. I really just expected the structure and tasting to be the cool parts of this tour, but it turns out the whole process of champagne making is way more interesting than I thought it would be. Definitely a worthwhile stop over.

After the tour, we headed up to the tasting room. Vixen and I had bought the three glass tasting. Everyone got to try the Brut Reserve which is their most popular. I was pleasantly surprised at how light it was. I am so used to Brut sparkling wines in the US being very dry and kind of aggressive. This was far from sweet, but it was mellow and bright. Very enjoyable with a sort of amber warmth. The second glass was the Grand Crus, mixed from Chardonay and Pinot Noir in equal measure. It was just as mellow as the Brut, but I felt that it had more notes of fresh green. The third glass was extra special, the Blanc de Blancs which was made entirely from chardonnay grapes (unlike the others which are blended). It isn’t produced every year, but only when the grapes are deemed exceptional at the harvest. It’s only from the first press, and 5% of the wine used to make it are aged in oak barrels before they go into the champagne fermentation. The Tattinger website has a really lovely description of its flavor, and since I am not a sommelier, I defer to their adjectives, I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure it was the best champagne I’ve ever put in my mouth and when I am rich and famous, I’ll order it by the case for Christmas gifts.

We lingered a long time over our tastings and eventually the very nice folks there had to remind us that they closed up at 5:30. Half of our goal for the day was well and happily completed, so all that remained was to find a nice meal. I gotta say, in many ways Reims was a serious let down from Metz. I mean, I understand it’s a small town, but I would think with so many tourists coming through on wine tours that it might have been a little nicer. The traffic was prodigious, so once we made it back to our room, we didn’t want to move the car again until we left the next day, so we set out to find a restaurant we could walk to. Unlike Metz where walking seemed to be the main form of locomotion, Reims almost seemed designed for cars.

We walked to a small tapas place, but ended up not liking the diner menu so we kept going. Eventually we found a tiny fondue restaurant and decided to try it. More about all the wonderful food that was that place in the France food post, but it was amazing, keeping up with all our food experiences so far, and our waiter was a really cool guy who totally didn’t freak out at all when Vixen knocked the burner over and set the table on fire. We tried another new after dinner liquor and as I was complimenting our waiter on the amazing chocolate mousse that came with our desert, he decided to share another local wine with us! So it was that we found ourselves sitting in a tiny Swiss themed restaurant after hours finishing off a bottle of something local and delicious while chatting with our waiter as he ate his own dinner, meeting the owner (and his twin brother) and finding out about the local club/show/dj scenes in Reims. I. love. my. life.

The next morning I set out a little early to find us some pastry and coffee for the road. This is how I learned about the school nearby and passed the Reims cathedral. I stopped at a bakery and got chocolate croissants, but they didn’t have any coffee, so the man directed me 100 metres past the school to a shop that would have some. When I got there, I saw some folks enjoying an early morning glass of wine, giving me just one more reason to adore the food culture of France. Suitably armed, we hit the road for our last stop in France: Paris.


Sadly, I never had the opportunity to write about my first visit to Paris… The summer of 2015 transitioned into Japan and became frantically busy trying to figure out my job, my life, and my future. The rest of my European travels that year are memorialized only in photographs.

From Saudi to Czech

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve added anything here. Since leaving the Kingdom I’ve been having a lovely time travelling in several countries and hanging out with some friends who have also made the exodus from the US. I also caught a fun cold/flu thing which has had me moving a little slow and maybe not writing as much as I wanted. Tomorrow I’m heading off to Japan to start my new job and the next chapter of my adventures. It may take me some time to share all the amazing stories from the last 3 weeks, especially since I’ll be settling in to a new home/job/life soon, but I promise it will all get out there.


 

Leaving Saudi was a strange feeling. I didn’t feel any particular sense of relief or sadness, it just felt like walking out the door on a normal day. I had some last minute Saudi style adventures because my driver forgot about me (despite having been reminded only the day before) and the airport in Tabuk did not check my bags all the way through to my final destination. During my 5 hour layover in Jeddah, I managed to track down someone about the bags, because I did not have time to pick them up at Charles de Gaul and change planes. At first they tried to say there was nothing they could do, but I’d been in Saudi too long to accept that as an answer, and eventually got a manager who made someone go and find my luggage and reissue the stickers. And thank goodness, because I barely made it to my connecting flight in Paris.

After seeing several other ladies in the Jeddah airport dressed in non-Saudi clothes, including one Indian woman in a midriff revealing sari, I decided I could pack my abaya before boarding. It felt strange to be surrounded by people in a public place that way, but I noticed even more ladies had changed as soon as they boarded the airplane. Still surrounded by so many thobes and abayas, I felt oddly exposed in my modest western clothes. Once again I was asked to change seats to spare some man the trial of sitting next to a woman, and then had to explain to the French lady who I was seated next to what was going on. She had simply been catching a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur and had no context for the Saudi airline custom.

When we arrived in Paris, she warned me about the poor organization of the CGD airport, and I said that after living in Saudi, nothing like that could really phase me anymore. A Saudi man turned to me and said that I sounded like I didn’t like Saudi, so I started to try to explain my mixed feelings and point out positive things, but as soon as I mentioned I had lived in Tabuk, his expression completely changed. Oh no wonder you didn’t like it, I’m sorry you had to live there, etc. We chatted a little about my week in Jeddah and how different it was, but even a native Saudi who was proud of his country expressed understanding for my frustrations when he found out where I’d lived.

My flight neighbor was right about the airport. Not only did the airline check all our passports as we disembarked, but we also had to go through passport control for the EU there in CDG regardless of our final destination. The security area seemed to be malfunctioning, so they asked me to take off my “jacket” so they could use the wand. This was really just a long sleeved shirt over my sleeveless shirt, and I was pretty upset about having to remove it, since I felt like they were asking me to take off my shirt while the ladies still wearing abayas were not asked to undress. After all the respect and privacy accorded to women in the Middle East airports (not just Saudi, but Jordan, Egypt and Dubai), this was a real wake up call that I was back in the West.

The line for customs was enourmous and I would not have made my flight if I’d waited patiently, but the people around me encouraged me to simply skip up and explain to others that I had only 15 minutes to make my connection, and this actually worked, no one got upset at all. I saw some other people try to walk up to one of the airport officials with the same plea and get turned back, so I’m glad I decided to rely on the patience of my fellow travellers to get up to the head of the line. I made it to the gate at final bording call! I didn’t actually realize this was passport control until much later because there was no bag searching and no declaration forms, they simply stamped a date in my passport and waved me through.

I had a big surprise arriving in Prague because I didn’t have to do any customs or passport control there at all. My friend explained to me that it was because I had done it in Paris, so that crazy wand search and little passport stamp were all the security I needed to be in the EU. We picked up my rental car and for the first time in over 8 months I was driving again. It’s so peculiar because the entire time I lived in China, I never even wanted to drive. To be fair, there was great cheap public transportation and prolific taxis, plus the driving was kinda scary. But somehow, being stuck in a place where I could not drive and could not move independently with public transport made the feeling of being back behind the wheel nearly euphoric.

My friend met me at the airport and guided me back to her apartment. She’s also a teacher and you can read about her adventures here. Some nice young men from her TESOL program showed up just as we did and helped move all the luggage up the three flights of stairs. Then we set off to find food, which turned out to be this amazing little restaurant called Martin’s Bistro wherein I had some really phenomenal food, the likes of which I really hadn’t had since the last time I was in Dubai.

On our way back we ran into a wine festival in a public park area and ended up getting happily buzzed on local Czech wines. I discovered Clarets and straw-wine, both of which I hope to cultivate a longer relationship with in the future. I also got a frozen yoghurt that was fresh made and mixed on the spot with frozen cherries for a fruity soft serve in a light and crispy waffle cone. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot, and the live music was fun. It felt like the entire world was trying to welcome me home. As if that weren’t enough, we went with some of her classmates to a traditional Czech pub for dinner where I ate the heavy but delicious local food and watched the Russians get way too excited about the hockey game on TV.

Because I’d really only slept for a few hours on the flight from Jeddah to Paris, the whole thing felt like one really long day in which I’d woken up in my apartment in Tabuk and somehow been warped into this quaint Eastern European utopia of wine and food where I finally fell asleep. Little could I have known what else the universe had in store for me as I continued my journey.

 

Night Hiking

Seattle is not what you would call “warm” most of the year, but we do love our outdoor activities. For the last several years, I’ve been engaged in a swing shift job which keeps me indoors during the afternoons, evenings and weekends when most people like to enjoy the great outdoors after work and before bedtime. But now that summer has happened upon us, and the temperatures at midnight are above 45 degrees, I have taken up a new hobby: night hiking.

Remember when you were a teenager, and would relish the freedom to stay out after dark? Or better yet, when you’d sneak out of the house? Night hiking is like that. When I was in high school and couldn’t sleep, I’d creep out of the house and into the woods behind our yard, or go up to the front of the subdivision and climb the tall brick wall that bordered the main road. I’d just sit up there and listen to the sounds of the night and feel like I really owned my own space for once.

Now, there’s no one to tell me to go to bed, and I’m old enough that I’m not likely to get harassed for being a hoodlum. So there’s less illicit thrill in night hiking than there was in sneaking out after curfew. However, it does still elicit a wonderful sense of the strange yet calm. The boundaries and obligations of daytime occupations drift away, and the world is a magical place again.

There are really quite a large number of walking/biking trails around Seattle, and a tremendous number of parks (some of which are closed after 11pm,  most of which are not locked, but I would  never advocate any illegal activity, of course).

In the last several weeks we have gone to a  mountain trail in the Cougar/Squak Mountain area (flashlights are advised for emergencies, but if the moon is out, you can often see the path quite clearly without one), along the Inter-Urban trail in Shoreline, into a quiet still playground, and even a graveyard. Police might think its strange, but usually unless you’re drunk, loud or otherwise obviously breaking the law, they tend to be fairly cool when you explain its just a walk.

So the next time you’re wondering what to do with your night off, instead of heading to a bar/club/party, grab a good friend (and maybe a good bottle of wine), and put a tree line between yourself and civilization.

Thor’s Well Adventure — or, The Story of How Everything that Looked Like It Was Going to Suck Turned Out Awesome After All

This started because I saw one of those FB “39 things to see before you die” and realized this one way close enough to me to get to with very little difficulty. So I decided I would go this summer. Sadly, my regular camping buddy, Paul, was unable to attend, so i tried to make new camping buddies with Joe and Julie, both of whom were looking forward to the trip, but didn’t make it either.

Finally, refusing to give up, I have convinced JIngalls and Shelby to come with me, and even managed to pick up Jane  from Portlandia on the way.  First potential suck turned awesome.

Four people and camping gear stuffed into my car for several hours was a stretch, but everyone was in good humor when we arrived. Now, I’m an over planner, so the fact that I forgot to pre-book the campsite was odd, but I called them and was assured there were plenty of walk ins available. The second potential suck turned awesome comes in here, because while driving around the loop we spotted a secluded little camp site. We actually had to climb up a few stairs to reach it, and unlike every other site, it was totally surrounded by trees, and even had a little stream running by. Perfect gladed beauty that I would never have known about if I had pre-booked a site.

Dinner was amazing, thanks to Shelby’s suggestion of STEAK. We had sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts cooked in the coals and delicious fire seared steaks, with cocktails and s’mores. Go on, be jealous.

After a few hours of good food, great company and plentiful libations, we all tottered off to sleep (thank you Kevin K for the tent, btw). We awoke to the third thing that should have sucked… RAIN. Like torrential rain, you’re never going to get a fire going for breakfast rain, and also you’re packing those tents wet.

Enter the small town of Yachats, the gem of the Oregon coast. After a sleepy, rain laden pack-up of the car, we headed over (a whole 3 miles) into town to find a diner with eggs and bacon. What we found was the most amazing place I’ve eaten at in ages. Called the Alder Restaurant and Bistro, the first thing we noticed was the reserved parking spot for the chef. 

Upon seating, we are offered complimentary Prosecco and shown a menu that would make Gordon Ramsey cry tears of joy. All the ingredients were fresh, organic and local, and the preparation was full on gourmet, while the prices were on par with any other greasy spoon with dishes ranging from 8$ for an omelette to 14$ for the fresh local seafood fried oysters benedict. 

If the comp’d wine and top notch food wasn’t enough, they had desserts from the local Bread & Roses Bakery. I ordered a chocolate torte made with nut flour instead of wheat flour, and I seriously believe this may have been my first (or at least my greatest) food-gasm ever. So, rain ruined your firewood? No prob, have the most awesome brunch ever!

Oh, and did I forget to mention, the lovely staff at the Alder drew us our treasure map to find Thor’s Well, since it is apparently not on any of the signs.

Of we go, hand drawn map in had. The rain has stopped and the sun has come out. We arrive at the beach and spend the next two hours scampering over the volcanic rocks, exploring the deep chasms worn by the tide, watching the creatures of the shallow tide pools, and finding out how close we could get to the edge before the waves soaked our feet. Check these awesome photos!

Just as we finished, the sky began to cloud up again. We piled back into the car and headed north to the constant accompaniment of rainbows! We saw so many rainbows on the drive home. One triple rainbow had the main rainbow, touched by the second where the red of the second started where the purple of the first ended, and the third rainbow which was above the other two and separated by a bit was upside-down, with the red on the bottom and violet on the top!

I am so very happy to have had this experience. I am grateful to my friends who shared it with me and helped make it wonderful. And I am grateful to the universe for having so many beautiful things in it, and letting us enjoy them. 

 

This Adventure took place May 17-18, 2014