Saturday, May 26, 2012

Rosé-coloured glasses

Paris summer: Warm breezes, open-toed sandals and gallons of rosé.

This is the first warm weather week in Paris. Flowers are nearly falling over themselves, hanging out windows, their petals lapping up the sunshine they haven't tasted for months. Ladies in their summer dresses are sashaying up the streets and down through the Métro. I have seen many polka dot undies wedged into some jiggling bums over the last few days. Those ladies don't realize how transparent their dresses really are, or they forgot to wear their slips, or they are French and that's how they roll.

And then there is rosé.
Hello, dear.

You'd expect to see a few young girls sitting on patios drinking this blushing bride of wines. Rosé, before I knew better, was what people who don't drink wine slurp back at weddings. It's wine-lite. It's sweet, cold and... did I mention sweet? And after a few sips, there is a sense that this grape Kool-Aid is a bit... off.

In the USA and Canada, we wine lovers scoff at the stuff. You're having White Zinfandel?! But here on the streets of Paris? Rosé is an honored beverage, a perfect transition from the reds of a cold winter and the refreshing whites of a hot summer. And Parisians are clip-clopping in their shiny new open-toed sandals to the nearest bar to partake in this printemps pleasure.

Even big burly men with bellies out to *here* maneuver themselves into sunny seats on crowded patios to sip dainty glasses of rosé while conversing about the new president, women, Greece and that whole mess. Je crois this and je crois that. "I believe" everyone has a different opinion on everything in the Eurozone, but we all agree that rosé is where it's at when it comes to summoning sunshine.

Rosé is a refreshing young wine with hints of floral and grapefruit. And it's light as lace. It has become so popular here that in 2008, it surpassed white wine sales. This is a big deal. The French aren't into change. At all. But they seem tickled by this pink potion.
Pretty in Pink.
The lady friends and myself managed to talk our way through two bottles the other night. Our apéro, which is the delightful interlude between the work day and dinner, turned into a full night of gabbing and spearing olives with little toothpicks.

After a wobbly walk home, I sat on the edge of my bed replacing the blister bandages on my feet and sighing with satisfaction. Summer is here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

People who make me up my game

Upping my photo montage game.

Three days after returning to Paris, I received a call from my local bookstore. My new book was in.

I was breathless.

"Yes, yes. I'm coming right now. Hold on!"

I nearly ran, I was so flippin' excited.

I ran into the bookstore Kramer-style. "I'm here! I'm here for my book!"

He didn't ask me what book it was. He grabbed it from the top of one of the many piles on his desk and handed it over. He knew what book I wanted because I had stopped by two days in a row. I "happened" to be in the neighborhood and was "wondering" if my book was in yet. I even "happened" to veer Christophe down a small alley on our walk that just "happened" to be the fastest way to the bookstore. Just to see.

I snatched the book from him, bid a swift adieu and headed to the nearest café, which happened to be a Tabac shop. Little known fact: Tabac shops in Paris are some of the best, most lovely, haunting, beautiful cafés. And there are no tourists in them. It's a good place to hide.

I could have bought it on Amazon, but I considered ordering it through a bookstore an artist date. The book in question:
Holy frig its good. The author, Nichole Robertson, spent many a leisurely lingering afternoon snapping photos of Paris. She works in the neutral background of Paris and finds colors that pop. Then snaps them and mashes them together for a photo montage that makes my teeth tingle. So good. There are no cliché touristy Paris shots, just fantastic images of daily life.

She gives a nearly-daily dose of the good stuff on her blog Little Brown Pen. And if you feel like stalking her further, you can do so at her Etsy shop.

After absorbing each and every page of this book with my eyeballs bugging out of my head, I walked toward home. It was as if I was struck by enlightenment. Colors popped. Flowers, candy, chairs and scooters revealed themselves as vibrant as toys. I tried snapping shots like in the book. I realized just how many shots and how much exploring it takes to do what Robertson did with Paris in Color.

Upon returning chez moi, I checked my email and found yet another brilliant poem by Samantha Reynolds from Bentlily. She endeavors to write one poem a day. When I see her new poem, everything else stops. She's a cup of hot tea on a rainy day. She makes loving poetry easy. And every poem leaves me sighing with satisfaction. She does to poetry what Robertson does to color.

These two make me want to up my game. Bring it.

Oh it's brought.

Who said that? 

Monday, May 14, 2012

An ode to cabbage roll lady of my youth

So I'm in Budapest. I'm not knowing much about the place because oblivion is how I roll. As I'm starting to take in the culture, I'm noticing something... familiar.

I grew up in Norfolk County in Ontario, Canada AKA the baked goods capital of the country. Oh yeah, you want a cookie? I'll make you a cookie that you'll never forget... or rather, I'll have one of my sisters bake you a cookie that you'll never forget, because delegation is also how I roll. The county, like the rest in Canada, is made up of immigrants. My community has a healthy mix of Belgians, Germans, Poles and Hungarians.

So at the cultural events of my youth, like my favorite social event of the season, the Catholic Woman's League Bazaar, there is a mash-up of the cuisines of various eastern-veering European countries. And that means a lot of savory (but slightly bland) food. So I generally gravitate toward one particular culinary delight: Cabbage rolls. 

Long ago, my mom gave up making cabbage rolls. Thank goodness. Toothpicks don't taste good. She delegated the cabbage roll job to a lady named Liz who runs a cabbage roll making business. I suspect she makes nearly all the cabbage rolls in Norfolk County.

She's often seen sitting in her car in the church parking lot. Another car rolls up. They hand out cash. She hands back a bag wafting of cooked cabbage. On occasion, my mom has gotten a call from one of my aunts early on a Sunday morning, "You going to church today? Liz is ready with my order." And there I am, leaning into Liz' car like a seasoned traffiker, hauling out the loot and carrying it away under my arm. Salivating.

Back to Hungary. I tried an authentic cabbage roll to see how it measures up against those of my youth. And get this: They taste EXACTLY the SAME as the cabbage rolls of Norfolk County.

A world away. The same. Astonishing.

The mild tang of the cabbage, the savory meaty filling, the overall aroma of stewed tomatoes. And a mysterious concoction of spices. Bravo Hungary! Bravo Liz!

Liz and her cabbage rolling is... pure magic. She's got a gift. So while I was traipsing around Budapest with a cabbage roll sloshing around in my belly, I couldn't help but feel, that though I was half a world away, I was at home. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

F&*cked on a train to Budapest

So Vienna. Nice and all. Mozart. Swell. 

But there are always those travel memories that trump any memory of pretty statues and lovely music. And the memory that blot out Vienna happened the day we hopped the train to Budapest.

We bought our train tickets at a vending machine at the train station as was instructed by Mr. Unhelpful Information Man. But our spidey sense was on high alert so we found a real ticket agent to confirm that what we bought was correct.

Because vending machine tickets? I don't know. Sketchy.

Yes, he assured us. The tickets were completely correct. He even handed us a schedule of departure times. Ever so helpful.

But you know what happens next, right?

You know that half way to Budapest, after I'd settled into my seat, Mr. Austrian Ticket Man informed me that these were the wrong tickets.

Oh yes they were.

First, I said with my eyes bugging out of my head as he was leering over me, "We ARE going to Budapest, right?"

In rough, gruff English, he said. "Yes, yes. But these tickets are for another town to Budapest. They are not leaving from Vienna."

Why on EARTH would I buy a ticket in Vienna to go to Budapest from a city that isn't Vienna? AND the vending machine had one option to Budapest. That's the ticket I bought. And I used the English version on the vending machine so don't give me any of that lost-in-translation crap.

I looked over at Christophe who speaks five other languages other than those required for assistance in this moment. Beside me was a lady who had three kids in the seat behind us (Mommy open this, mommy open that, OMG). And there was a quiet gentleman sitting across from her reading a book and minding his own business while this ticket issue was happening.

In my helpless English, I was trying to ask Mr. Bossy Ticket Man how we can solve this situation. We, the sinister bad ticket purchasers. And he told me that new tickets would be 60 Euros, which was separate from the 30 we already spent. 90 flippin' Euros??!??!?! And I'm not even going to translate that into the US dollars I'm living in over here.

That's when mom next door pushed up her sleeves and went to town on the ticket guy. She started yapping to him in German, complete with dramatic hand and arm gestures. The flap of her underarm was flying like a flag in high wind. From what I gathered, because I'm bilingual in flab flap, is that I shouldn't have to buy another ticket in addition to this wrong ticket because it's the fault of the train station vending machine or ticket agent or entire country of Austria or even the recession for all I know. It certainly wasn't the fault of moi. Innocent doe-eyed moi.

The ticket agent looked at me and said, "Can you come with me, please."

Holy fucking fuck. 

He was taking me away from the pack, and especially from Mamma Wolf.

He escorted me... with all eyes following... to a quiet area between the cars where he could explain my folly in slow English. I replied back in rapid English, which I hope conveyed that I was apologetic for the mishap yet not wanting to lose the battle Mamma Wolf started fighting on my behalf. I can't walk back to her with my tail between my legs. Basically I wanted to keep rattling on and annoying him for as long as it took for him to give up and leave me alone.

And it worked.

Applause around the world!

But, he warned, that though he was letting me go, there would be a Hungarian ticket agent on the other side of the border so I'd have to fight this battle again.

When I returned to the seat, tail wagging, I explained everything to Mamma Wolf then looked over at Christophe who was waiting impatiently for the translation.

They say the best way to learn a language is on the pillow, but I think the best way to learn a language is when you're flipping out.

Then I waited an eternal hour for the next round with the Hungarian Ticket Dude.

And when he arrived, I handed him the tickets. He sighed, looked at me. I looked back. What? There's nothing wrong here is there Nice Officer of Hungary.

And that's when Mr. Reading His Book In The Corner The Whole Time put up his dukes and started laying into the Hungarian Ticket Dude in Hungarian about how I shouldn't have to pay more and it's the fault of the VENDING MACHINE IN VIENNA FOR CHRISSAKE.

Or at least that's what I gathered from the jiggling flap under his jaw.

The ticket guy replied in Hungarian with, basically, "Hey bro, from here it's only an extra 20 Euro."

Mr. Reading His Book translated this to me in English. Apparently, we were far enough down the track that he was only going to make me pay the difference from here, which was a mere 20 Euro.

I nodded to Mr. Reading His Book. He nodded to the ticket guy. I handed over the 20. He moved on.

I turned to Christophe to translate. He shook his head no and said, "I understand. We won."

Friday, May 4, 2012

Vienna's Golden Age

There are some things in life I wish I knew early on so I could have already been giggling and snickering for years. All that giggling WASTED because I missed a day in History class.

For instance, why didn't I know about the Hapsburg inbreeding. Had I known, I could made fun of it and slid in one-liners for years to come?

While on a tour of the Habsburg estate in Vienna, I learned how this major royal family of Europe split in two in 1556. One part went to Spain and the other went to Austria. The Habsburgs of Austria became known for gaining political power not by wars but by marrying off their kids to other royal families.
Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria, nube.
Let others wage war, but thou, Oh happy Austria, marry.
And you know why? Because the Habsburgs in Spain got so into marrying each other that they got in a rotten mess of DNA. A bunch of horny uncles were marrying nieces, and cousins were boinking cousins, which eventually resulted in this looker:

Charles II of the Spanish House of Habsburgs is said to have had an enormous wonky head, his jaw stood out so far that he couldn't chew, his tongue was so large he couldn't speak, he couldn't walk and his intellect was similarly disabled. 

But what makes me snicker is not this unfortunate DNA science experiment, which was't his fault. These royal heirs are also rumored to have distinct tails and a severely droopy lower lip.
One of the most famous examples of a long-lived trait is known as the “Habsburg Lip.” This distinctive elongation of the jaw and droopiness to the lower lip-which made the Habsburg rulers of Europe such a nightmare assignment for generations of court portrait painters-was passed down intact over at least twenty-three generations. 
-- James Watson & Andrew Berry’s DNA: The Secret of Life
So the Habsburgs of Austria said, "Um, let's marry other people so we don't have babies with tails."

And then there was a whole bunch of years of uninteresting royals.

Until this beauty came along:
She is Empress Elisabeth of Austria. She could be confused with the Queen of Hungary because she was both at the same time.

Which crown will I wear today? Hmmm. Choices, choices, choices.

At 15, she was married to Franz Joseph and was in a bad mood about it for the rest of her life. She had a few heirs as was instructed by royal pressure, but motherhood wasn't her thing. Neither was marriage. Or eating. She spent a great deal of time starving and traveling without hubbie and the tail-free cherubs. Eventually she was stabbed by a nutcase in Italy and that was the end of her.

When Franz Joseph died after his 68 years of reign, his grand-nephew Karl took over. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was supposed to take over but he was axed by a Serbian nationalists. This act started World War I.

And after World War II, the winners said, "Hey Karl, you're out." But Karl was all "As if!" but really he was out and that was the end of that.

And that concludes our Short-attention-span history lesson about the Habsburgs.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Vienna's Golden Arch

Our tour of the imperial cities of Europe continues.

We hopped a night train from Prague and were spit out at a random train station in Vienna, Austria, at 6 a.m. This was not the main station. There was no central station vibe like when you walk arrive in Grand Central Station in New York or Union Station in Toronto. This was just a platform. Without an information booth. Or signs in English. Or maps. Or (gulp) anything.

Standing on the platform, looking at the street, wondering which direction was which, I had but one thought:

"I should have thought this through."

Or even bought a map of Vienna prior to this moment. 

I had done some research on touristy things to see and do in Vienna. But the map? Oops.

These are the moments that test a relationship. It's really easy to lose your nerve. By now, Christophe and I were both caffeine-deprived and had spent the night on a train. Not in a sleeper cabin either. We woke all night. Twice by gruff ticket men, but mostly by paranoia that we would miss our stop or lose our wallets.

So we started walking in one direction. Based on instinct alone. And that's when we saw the golden M. Not an M for the metro station, which would have been helpful. We found the other M that was even more helpful.


Now, if you recall, I spent a good deal of time as a vegan back in my California days. I had a healthy position about McDonald's and the harm it was causing the environment, health and every street corner in major cities around the world.

But this morning in Vienna? McDonald's was coffee, a clean bathroom and free WiFi. Oh my stars in Heaven did I ever love McDonald's in this moment. After a few coffees, a few trips to the restroom and locating ourselves with my maps app, we figured out how to get to the hotel. (My iPhone's 3G didn't work in eastern Europe. Who knows why. I blame AT&T even though I broke up with them last year.)

Soon we were on our way with a drawn out map of how to get to our hotel. When we arrived at the our hotel, our room was ready, even though it was only 8 a.m. Sweet!
Actual restroom sign of our hotel. Yippee!

A few hours later, after a shower, nap and study of the free map provided by the hotel, we were off. 

A brief history of Vienna for those with attention-deficit disorder.
Vienna is the capital of Austria and home to Mozart, balls and Mozart balls.

Gimme another one.
Like most European cities smack dab in the middle of western and eastern Europe, Vienna has had its share of wars and malleable border lines. For a long time was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Later, Napoleon came along and bossed everyone around. Eventually Hitler came to town to boss people around further and put a serious dip in the population. And in the middle of all this, there was a royal family, the Hapsburgs, that sometimes did, and sometimes did not, boss people around.

But seriously, what you really want to know about is the wienerschnitzel.
It's veal breaded and deep fried. Who ever thought this was a good idea? It tastes like cardboard. But goes well with beer.

After burping our way through the streets of Vienna, we stormed another castle. This time, the home of the Hapsburgs. In the next post (because we're all attention-deficit) we will find out what makes this royal house famous. From the inbred droopy lip (!!!), to Rapunzel-length hair of a famous queen, to the color yellow.

Burp. I need to pee.
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