Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Danish Delights

If I'm a bit behind in my blogging, I can only blame our over-active travel schedule.  It's already been almost two weeks since we went to Copenhagen, and we've also managed a five day trip to Provence since then. 

But let's give due time and honor to Copenhagen.  Having never been to any Nordic/Scandinavian country before, I expected a lot of blond people.  Definitely got that.  However, what we really learned and loved about Denmark were the following:

1. Cinnamon-themed pastries.  The French don't do cinnamon - which is one real black mark against French baking.  Mr. Oil and I love cinnamon. And now that we never have it, we REALLY love it.  So when we were introduced to kannelgiffel by Mr and Mrs Copenhagen on our first afternoon, it was love at first cinnamon-filled bite.  We pretty much proceeded to eat our way through as many cinnamon-themed pastries as possible in four days, which is no small number of pastries.

2. Danish design.  Yes, there are the classic chairs and starkly-designed sofas.  What I fell in love with were the gorgeous vases and tableware, and the general feeling that if your home was filled with this stuff, you would have a sophisticated, classy, light-filled home.  And this home of course would be spotless at all times, despite your blond-haired children laughing happily as they traipse through the house with their Legos and other Danish toys. 
Normann Copenhagen

From Illum Bolighus

Anne Black

3. Things for Kids.  By this I mean that Copenhagen is prepared for toddlers and young kids like no other city I've visited.  Case in point, when you visit the big department stores, they actually have nice, clean, free play areas with all sorts of toys out for kids to play on.  One store even has a mini carousel that kids can ride on for free - which was great for Baby Oil, since we're still too cheap to pay for him to ride the carousel in Parc Monceau.    And also in "Things for Kids" are Danish toys, which includes Legos and my new favorite toy (though not available in France or in the US), Plus-Plus
Giant Lego Dragon Head at Lego Store

Plus-Plus diagram. I promise they are awesome.

4. Giant strollers.  Babies and toddlers are carted about Copenhagen in the largest strollers in the world.  I read a description in a guidebook that said it's as if Victorian-era prams are still in style, and that about sums it up.  They are huge.  Fortunately, because of "things for kids" there are working elevators everywhere. 

5. Tivoli.  Definitely also a "things for kids", but you must love a city with a charming amusement park at its center, where all kids go all summer long, that manages to be just the right combination of nostalgia and shmaltz.  And is clean.  And there are giant stuffed bears (see below).
And the happiest-looking park security guard ever.

6. It's the Portland of Europe.  This is a completely biased statement (since everything else I write is objective, naturally), especially given that Mr. Copenhagen and I both grew up in Portland, Oregon.  But Copenhagen shares many wonderful characteristics with my fabulous hometown - it's manageable, clean, lovely, people are truly friendly, it has the accoutrements of a city without being overwhelming urban.  Also there are almost no minorities (just telling it like it is). If you love Portland, you will like Copenhagen.  Plus, they have better pastries. 

7. Licorice. All you black licorice haters, stop reading.  Or keep reading, and realize how wrong you've been.  But Denmark, Sweden, Finland, etc - this is the home of real licorice.  That is delicious.  Think chocolate-covered licorice.  Mmmm. Licorice.  Mr. Oil's not a fan - more for me!

In all, we spent a truly fantastic weekend with friends who showed us all the best of what Copenhagen has to offer (we skipped the herring).  Baby Oil and Baby Copenhagen were pretty much besties by the end, and we can't wait to find a reason to return to another Nordic country soon. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Some Things Change

And, of course, some things stay the same.  Never did I realize how much today's Paris is still very much the Paris of one hundred or more years ago until I attended the fantastic Eugene Atget exhibit at the Musee Carnavalet this past weekend.  Atget was a French photographer who many credit with giving birth to modern documentary-style photography. He took photos of people, scenes, and buildings in Paris around the turn of the 20th century. 

First, please picture this man lugging this around Paris:

Once I got past the mode of dress, I realized that the physical streets and buildings in the heart of Paris are not so different today.  Children still play in the Jardin du Luxembourg, we still walk on the same cobble-stone streets, and in the early morning light, Paris has that same magical quality that Atget captures. 
Luxembourg Gardens. Credit: Eugene Atget

Luxembourg Gardens. Credit: Eugene Atget

Even the street signs are exactly the same today. Credit: Eugene Atget

Naturally Atget's photos also serve as an invaluable source of historical context and information.  Turn-of-the-century Paris comes to life in his photographs as you see respectable shopkeepers, women in brothels, peddlers, ragpickers, children rich and poor, living out their daily lives.  He also made sure to capture parts of the city that would not remain, including buildings destined for demolishing and the ragpickers' shanty-towns from which residents would be evicted.
Credit: Eugene Atget

Ragpickers. Credit: Eugene Atget

Building that will be torn down. Credit: Eugene Atget

The Musee Carnavalet has a tremendous collect of Atget's work - something like 10,000+ prints - that they began purchasing from him while he was creating his photographs in the early 1900s.  You have to appreciate a city that founded its history-of-the-city museum in 1866.  It may be trite for me to pull the "stuff is way older in Europe than it is in America" card, but I think this exhibit really did pull this into focus for me.  That the Paris I know and love is not just the Paris of 2012, and of movies and literature.  It is a real Paris that has seen generations of children playing in its gorgeous parks, and centuries of women shopping at the boucheries, where the same streets that I push my stroller down saw horse-drawn carts and puffed sleeves.  It is an imperfect Paris, with its share of squalor and poverty, no less true today than a century ago.  Eugene Atget's photos remind us why Paris occupies the special place in our hearts that it does, and why for many, many years it has been a focal point for lovers, dreamers, eaters, and adventurers the world over. And will be in one hundred or two hundred years from now as well.

[Disclaimer: If this post seems a bit heavy on the Paris love, please recall that I am working on overcoming this weekend's bout of homesickness.  Though the arrival of a wedding invitation today that I can actually accept is certainly helping!  As are the chocolate chip cookies that I made as promised, and which scored big points in Mr. Oil's office today as well.]

Sunday, June 10, 2012


I should be writing about the wonderful Paris weekend we just had - including the best crepe ever, the long-awaited return to Popelini, finally seeing the inside of the Opera Garnier, and a well-overdue lunch at Kunitoraya, all accompanied by the ever-good-natured and oh-so-helpful-with-Baby-Oil Uncle Pumpkin. 

Instead I find that that particular post will have to wait because I find myself needing to admit that despite all the wonderful Paris-ness about our lives, I'm homesick.  It snuck up on me, and I didn't notice until today that it had lodged itself in my psyche.  I know it will go away, but right now, in this moment, I really miss home.  Which means America, and DC, and family, and friends.  I hate missing the first of three summer weddings that we will miss (the first takes place today). I hate missing the wedding shower for the soon-to-be-Mrs.  Yes, we are starting to build a community for ourselves here, but it doesn't change the fact that our friends back in the US are incredibly dear to us, and I miss them.  I hate that it takes two weeks for me to be able to actually get on the phone with a friend. I hate that I still haven't met my nephew, who is now 3 months old. I desperately miss American television.  I could really use some grandparent support as my energetic toddler with no appreciation for quiet in the early morning is honestly draining me (though we are counting the days until Banana and Papa R arrive!).

It is true that many aspects of our Parisian life are enviable.  And no, I'm not ready to give up and head back to the US. But this country remains a foreign place, and one in which we are still very much outsiders. Last week I had a friend over for a play date (well, technically our kids were having the play date).  She had a bit of an expat breakdown in my living room - we've all had them, I promise - and in a way I think that released something in me. I've been holding in some emotions of my own in the name of the game face, an optimistic outlook, and the fact that I do still feel incredibly fortunate to be having this experience.  As everyone knows, and many years of therapy have reinforced, holding in emotions doesn't actually help.  So I'm trying to let them out, let them settle, and I know that just like Baby Oil's 5am wake-up time, this is also a phase. It'll pass.

A hot shower and a good night's sleep will help.  And this week I'm going to make real American chocolate chip cookies.  That will definitely help - and I get to use French butter.

Friday, June 8, 2012

June Showers

At this point, I'm not clear why the Pacific Northwest gets such a bad rap when it comes to rain.  Because in Paris, it rains all the time.  Yet when I tell people I live in Paris, nobody says, "Oh, doesn't it rain all the time?" like they used to say when I said I was from Portland.  Now, there are of course other reasons why rain is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Paris, but let's be real - this city gets a lot of rain.  This whole supposed "Paris in the springtime" thing?  If by springtime you mean daily rainshowers and occasional truly unseasonably cold days, then springtime here has been lovely so far.

I've heard that back in DC its already incredibly warm and humid.  And that sounds fairly miserable, but I'm reaching the point where I would consider taking disgusting, sweat-dripping-from-elbows humidity over this. 

Wait - what?  No.  Wrong.  I'll keep my June showers, thank you very much.

This has not been our best week in Paris ever.  Mostly this is due to Baby Oil's ongoing penchant for getting up at 5am, combined with Mr. Oil's extremely hectic week of working late every day - nobody is getting much sleep.  That did not stop Mr. Oil and I from attending our first Parisian opera this week.  We saw The Barber of Seville, which was the first opera I'd ever attended.

It felt fittingly Parisian to go to the opera, and it is an impressive display of true talent on the part of the singers.  There were a few moments where I felt like I was at synagogue on High Holidays, and the second act in particular is a bit of blur.  Allegedly, I fell asleep.  Either that, or I was so moved by the music that I was elevated into some higher meditative state in which the 60 minutes of the act lasted but five, and I missed major plot development (such as when the Count and Rosina actually get married).   Really, its not a judgment on the opera but more of a reflection on our current level of exhaustion. I would go to the opera again, though I might wear pajamas next time...

Last night I went to dinner with a group of women bloggers/writers at Blend, a new chic hamburger place in the 2nd.  Shockingly for Paris, they actually offer TWO veggie options - a veggie burger and a buffalo mozzarella burger.  I went with the mushroom-tofu burger, which is crusted in sesame seeds and is absolutely fantastic - comes with creamy brillat savarin, eggplant, and mint, on fantastic handmade rolls.  The dinner was for writers for an excellent (though I'm biased) site called Girls Guide to Paris, which I am starting to write for as well (hence the bias).  Another former writer for the site is actually the baker and pastry chef for Blend, and once the staff found out we were "friends with Camille" they were extra solicitous and wonderful.  In other words, completely un-Parisian!

If you're in Paris on vacation, you might not need or want a burger.  But if you do, I would highly recommend stopping by Blend.  But come early or be prepared to wait - there was a line at 7:30 when it opened, and when we left around 9:30, there was still a line.  Do not skip dessert - the cheesecake in particular is light and creamy perfection served in a petite French portion.

So June showers continue, but at least there's burgers and fries to compensate!  Not to mention the entire box of Belgian chocolates that Mr. Oil brought home from a work trip to Brussels yesterday.  

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Under the Tuscan Raincloud

Naturally, my careful planning for months had not included plans for multiple days of rain in Umbria and Tuscany.  On the first day of serious rain, we checked the weather for various towns within a 90-minute drive from our base of Bevagna, and it looked like the weather in Norcia was sunny.  So we headed to the Valenerina, a gorgeous section of Umbria filled with richly forested hills, and drove all the way to the much-lauded (in our guide book, anyway) Piano Grande.  The Piano Grande is a vast plain that stretches throughout an entire valley between the mountains.  As it turns out, weather forecasters in Italy are about as good as weather forecasters in France.  Here was our drive through the Piano Grande
Woohoo vacation!

But if you are going to drive through freezing cold rain, you at least deserve a good meal afterwards.  In Norcia, which is particularly famous for their pork (butcher shops all over Italy that specialize in pork products are called "Norcerinas") and is also in the heart of truffle country, we made the most of a truffle-filled lunch that included truffle-crusted bruschetta and fantastic truffle-topped tagliatelle. Baby Oil enjoyed himself as well.
We like to start 'em young on truffles.  Go right for the good stuff.

I can also tell you that the butcher shops of Norcia smell so intensely of ham that it is impossible to spend more than a minute inside - I'm not sure I can articulate the intensity of the cured meat smell though it makes me shudder a bit to recall it.  And no, I am not a vegetarian (though I don't eat pork) but even for a meat lover it is a lot to handle.  After digesting our truffles and wanting to escape the pork-fest, we ventured back to the Piano Grande since the sun had peeked out.  In other words, we drove 25 minutes back up a mountain so we could take the following photo, then drove back down.  Awesome.
Piano Grande - check

It was also gray for the day we went to Montepulciano.  Which you may know either as one of the most famous towns in Tuscany and home to well-respected Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, OR through their other claim to fame touted in many a tourist shop-window, where scenes from the vampire flick New Moon were filmed.  Yes, the part where Edward decides to out himself as a vampire because he thinks Bella is dead.  Well, if Edward had shown up on the day we were there, he would have been totally SOL with that plan.  No sun at all.  Totally vampire-friendly weather.
Montepulciano Town Square.  (Though I was really more of a Team Jacob girl)
Eventually though, we got our sunny weather.  And we pretended that one day of sunshine was all we needed.  That day, we pulled over to the side of the road to take photos QUITE often.  But truly, you really can't get enough of the rolling hills, the endless vineyards, the silvery-green olive trees, and the ubiquitous wildflowers that blanket large swaths of the countryside in yellow, red, and purple.

So yeah, we spent 15 days in Italy.  They were good days.   I'll leave you with our list of the best gelato we ate - though hardly representative of the quantity we consumed:
  • Cinnamon, at Pianegiani in Todi (Umbria)
  • Limoncello, at Cafe Royal in Amalfi
  • Ginger, at Perche No in Florence
  • Lemon Caviar, at the Florence Gelato Festival (yeah, you read that correctly)
  • Banana, at Bottega del Gelato in Pisa
  • Licorice, at Gelateria Gambrinus in Perugia (Umbria)
Italy - you owe me some sun.  But I'll take my compensation in gelato, thank you very much.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Promised entry about Umbria/Tuscany forthcoming, but I need to report that today I ate at the Paris Chipotle.  And you know what, it tasted exactly like Chipotle.  I mean that in the best possible way.  9 euros for a burrito is a tad steep, but worth every black bean-infused, pico de gallo-covered, sour cream-oozing, guacamole-loving bite.