Cooking Up a Storm

At the start of the school year, I decided to eliminate gluten from my diet once again. I had tried being gluten-free before I went to France — but, in the land of food, baguettes and patisseries seemed indispensable to my cultural immersion experience.

After coming back to the U.S., I realized that wheat was having some seriously negative effects on me, like chronic stomach pain and rashy hands. I also learned that I have an auto-immune disorder called Hashimoto’s Disease, which causes the thyroid to underproduce and slows down my metabolism, among other things. Research into the disorder led me to an interesting discovery: apparently, this disease is often cured, or helped, by the gluten free diet, because gluten and the thyroid have similar tissue. If I eat gluten, my body creates antibodies to gluten that also attack my thyroid because they think it’s gluten.

This was all very interesting, and it gave me a real reason to give up the wheaty treats I love so much. It’s been easier than I thought — both because I live in Seattle, where trendy diet accommodations abound, and because once I stopped eating gluten, I stopped craving it.

It has also made me cook a lot. Making things at home is the easiest way to avoid things I can’t eat. Now, cooking has become my way to unwind after a long day. It’s fun to make something that I can savor just afterward, or share with friends. Here are some of my endeavors, all GF of course:

 

I’m definitely learning a lot about cooking as I go. Now I sometimes don’t even need a recipe! It’s fun to be creative, although I still have trouble using everything I have in my cupboards and fridge. So much food, so little time.

Cooking Up a Storm

A Special Kind of Love

This weekend was all that I wanted my last weekend in France to be.

My friend Dana has friends who live in a small town an hour from Toulouse, and they invited me to eat, swim, and explore the Midi-Pyrénées with them for two days and a night.

Here’s their backyard:

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As Philippe, the father of the family, was driving me toward his house on the first night, we stopped off along the way for some picture-worthy (obviously, since I took some) views:

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And, here’s one from our walk in the morning:

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In between the arrival and the walk, we ate two big meals on the terrace, made with the barbecue and the plancha, a Spanish appliance made for their method of grilling meat and vegetables. On the dinner menu was an entire jar of foie gras and champagne as an apéro, and then three varieties of saucisses de Toulouse. Although I’ve lived in France twice now and made a valiant effort, I’ve not yet acquired the taste of some of their stinkier cheeses. However, I can now proudly say that I have acquired the heck out of foie gras. It’s amazing. The sausages were also spicy, meaty, and especially tasty with semolina and grilled zucchini. And of course in the unbearable heat, Haagen-Dazs was the only possible dessert! For Sunday lunch we had a Spanish specialty, lomo a la plancha, which is marinated pork (in a special curry-cumin mix) grilled on la plancha. Needless to say I ate sooooo much. The customary coffee or tea after dinner became my only hope, digestion-wise.

Carbonne is, by U.S. standards, a village…and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Philippe put it well when he said that you feel like you’re in the countryside, but it’s actually a town which has all of life’s necessities. And it’s on the banks of the river Garonne, which means it sufficiently meets all of the charmingly breathtaking French village criteria.

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And, through all that I did and talked about with the family and their friends, I noticed some special kinds of love.

The first and most present was Family Love. Being around this family made me realize what I forgot: there is a special atmosphere of love when I’m at home with my family. The bickering of siblings, the hushed parental conversations about their children’s success, the meals where everyone knows each other’s favorite foods — that taking-care-of-each-other spirit is one of the things I miss most.

I got to experience this new family thanks to another special kind of love — Hospitality. It takes an extended stint far away from home to be truly aware and appreciative of how hospitable people can be. I was invited for this weekend into their home only because I knew someone they knew. They fed me, they gave me a nice cozy bed, they took me to and from their place, and they showed me other parts of the Southwest, and all this, they assured me, was avec plaisir! It makes me want to write them a heartfelt thank-you note, send a lifetime supply of wine (who am I kidding, they have that, they’re in France…) and, when the time comes, to welcome them into my own home and return the favor. We’ll see if they make it to Seattle one day.

And there’s a third kind that I remembered. I think it’s in some places everywhere, but in France I think it’s in nearly every small town which has one church and one family-owned butcher: Community Love. France is truly the land of traditions, and most of these traditions celebrate the intense community of village life. Philippe showed me a series of photos of the yearly Fête de Carbonne, where the whole village gathers over a three-day weekend. There is orchestra music, a marching band, dancing, singing, and a huge meal in the town square. He showed me pictures of the table that he and his neighbors all get together, around which they talk, laugh, eat, and celebrate life until the early hours.

I wish I knew my neighbors. I wish there were a Fête de Redmond during which we all gathered at the Old Schoolhouse Community Center and ate our traditional dish and listened to a marching band until 4 AM with all of our neighbors, friends, and local shopkeepers. Even the scenario sounds absurd.

But if Redmond were just like small-town France, it wouldn’t be so interesting being here, would it?

And while we’re on the subject…confession:

I have a special kind of love for this place, this life, and these experiences. I’ll be back.

A Special Kind of Love

Gyro to Hero: Tales from the Grecian Isles

One 7-hour ferry ride later, we arrived on Santorini. After our first two days in Santorini, I was going to write a 5,000 word rave about its fairytaleness. Luckily for you all, I waited until my memory had done its thang and filtered through all the uninteresting (what!? never!) details and now I can’t come up with 5,000 words on it for you. Unless a picture is worth a thousand. LOOK AT THIS!

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Sorry, didn’t mean to go all capital-letters on you, but it is just as dreamy as it looks. That’s really all you need to know. But I’ll tell you more anyway.

Dana and I followed the recommendation of a friend of ours and stayed in Oìa, one of Santorini’s two major towns (the other one being Fira). Like true budget travelers, we found ourselves in a house-converted-into-hostel, run by a charming old Greek woman and her husband. She gave us the lowdown on what to do and see and how to find the rooms in broken English, which she had taught herself (“You can look the windmill here” “Coffee and tea is for every time”).

Oìa’s laid-back, whitewashed island atmosphere inspired us to take a true vacation. We saw some sights, but at a leisurely pace. Lots of rooftop wine bars were involved in our 4 days on the island. We made some new friends  — we happened to be on a rooftop with some American girls. They offered to take our photo, and we got to talking and discovered that all of us lived near Lille, and they were assistants too! We had mutual friends and everything. We spent some time eating and drinking with them until they left, a day before us. We also met a couple from Napa on their honeymoon (they screamed SoCal)  and a group of moms who were taking a consolation vacay to commiserate about having to send their sons off to college. They were the sweetest, funnest ladies, and we want to be them when we grow up.

We went on two little excursions which both involved volcanic beaches and swimming. The first was to the bottom of our cliff, in Ia, where there was a small port (as seen in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). The water was clear blue and cold.

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Another excursion was to the active crater on the volcanic island in the middle of Santorini’s caldera, and some hot springs. We had to take a boat from the capital city, Fira, for this one. We encountered yet another aspect of Greek culture: reluctance to reveal all the information about an excursion before embarking. We were on the boat when they informed us that there would be a 2-euro entrance fee for the attraction we had already paid to see! Nice one, tour company, nice one. The view from the top may have been worth the price, though.

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The hot springs weren’t hot, but they were warm. But they also neglected to mention the nice little 50-meter swim through the ocean to get to them. We braved the cold anyhow, craving a swim after the long, hot hike and boat ride.

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After Santorini, we moved on to Crete. It had been my dream to go to Crete ever since I’d learned about it, in 4th grade, as the birthplace of Greek civilization and where Theses slew the minotaur! We didn’t make it to the Palace of Knossos, but we were close enough. Crete was very different from Santorini. It’s HUGE. We stayed in Rethymno, a small town between the two big cities, and it took over an hour on the bus to get there. The beaches were much more familiar looking, and we decided that it was more representative of real Grecian island life.

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The water was warmer, too. That guy had the right idea.

It was also cool because it has some of everything: sun, beach, fortress, and snow! Here’s the view from the old Venetian fortress:

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In short, it was a beautiful, much-needed vacation. Dana was the best travel buddy, all the people we met were fantastic, and I’ll never forget the views! We made it home from Athens after an overnight boat, one more day of touring, and a flight which we caught at 6:15 AM (so we woke up at 2:30 AM…). Needless to say, I slept most of yesterday.

Next up? Toulouse! TBC

Gyro to Hero: Tales from the Grecian Isles

Acropolicious: One Day in Athens

Our flight from London to Athens arrived at 10:30 PM, leaving us just enough time to get to our hostel in the city center before the metro closed for the night. Currently, I am on a ferry from Athens to Santorini, which we caught at 6 AM this morning. Between arrival and departure, we had one glorious day in the Grecian capital city I learned so much about in my youth (thanks to having Mrs. Gatton for Latin).

Our hostel was awesome. If you go to Athens, stay in City Circus. It’s well located and has the most comfortable hostel beds I’ve ever encountered. Seriously, they were downright fluffy. When we arrived we met Jessie, our new friend. She accompanied us to the Acropolis, our first destination, the next morning. Here’s a stadium on the way up and then the view of us with the Parthenon!

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It was a gorgeous, sunny day. Not even the mobs of tourists really got us down, although it was hard to avoid getting them in pictures. And don’t worry friends and fam, I put sunscreen on. My reflective skin lives to see another day (although my freckles have emerged with gusto).

According to Jessie’s phone, we walked about 5 miles (9,000 steps) — up and around the Acropolis and down again, through the Athenian streets. We stopped for lunch, having burned most of our calories. Our first choice table was taken, unfortunately for us…cats rule. This cat was the king of naps.

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We found a new table. The street was like an island paradise with the beautiful pastel buildings and the smell of barbecued meat wafting through the air. We got olives to start and tabouleh salad, appetizers, and a kebab to share as our meal.

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We went back to the hostel for some work and an afternoon snooze (it was already siesta time), and met our fourth roomie, Kati. She’s on the ferry with us now, heading to Ios (a famous party island) for 6 months. The four of us went to dinner on a rooftop with a view of the Acropolis and a super-friendly waiter.

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We then went for drinks with two Australian friends of Kati’s who own a bar on Ios, called “Lost Boys Bar.” They had been searching for antique pirate wheels during the day, preparing to head to the island for the busy Ios summer season.  I was reminded once again of why I love adventures: you can never predict the people you’ll meet! It’s also amazing to me how different our perspective on language and travel is from the European perspective on language and travel. We can learn a lot from them.

Next stop: Santorini!

Acropolicious: One Day in Athens

The City of Brighton & Hove

Most of my anglophone best friends from this year happen to be British. I was surprised, upon arrival, to find that they nearly outnumbered the Americans, as I’d been unaware that they had a similar program to TAPIF in Britain (and they can even do it as their year abroad, during their studies). Although we technically all speak English, having British friends was a linguistic adventure. Especially in the beginning, there were lessons to be learned about common words and phrases that either don’t exist or don’t have the same meaning in American English. For instance, “put the trash in the trash can,” becomes “put the rubbish in the bin.” Trucks are lorries, “pissed” refers to drunkenness rather than anger, and I am routinely asked to “come round for tea” instead of to come hang out over dinner. My best friend Laura, from Scotland, gave out tea towels with some fun Scottish words, like “numpty,” and “crabbit,” as a going away present. Even though language lumps us together, the similarities only go so far…and the UK and the US do have very different cultures.

Dana and I finally got to experience some UK culture during our Spring Break kickoff weekend by the sea, in Brighton, England. Officially, it’s, “the City of Brighton and Hove,” and it was originally designed as a “healthy” getaway for British socialites and aristocrats. It has since become a student city, with a lively nighttime scene and an arcade-and-amusement-park pier for families wanting a day or a weekend away from London (it’s only about an hour from there by train). There were freshly made churros and donuts (really, they made them before our very eyes), candy floss (cotton candy in British), crêpes, ice cream, burgers, and fish and chips aplenty!

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After a really long bus ride, Dana and I made our first stop the pier, for a game of DDR (Dance Dance Revolution, for those of you who weren’t 90s babes). I am sorely out of practice, so while Dana beasted “Difficult” I tripped over my feet next to her. We walked down by the ocean, the cries of seagulls and the smell of frying dough contributing to the vacationy ambiance.

This was, quite sadly, our last hurrah with our English friends. They were chaperoning a U of Valenciennes trip to England, so with students in tow we went out for a drink on the first night. It was a Saturday, and the streets were crazy! The bar we ended up in had a DJ but no dance floor…so we danced in our chairs. I discovered my new favorite cider, which is Swedish and comes in many fruity flavors.

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The next day, our only full day in the city, Dana and I wandered the “Lanes,” Brighton’s hipstery shopping streets. It was a European Portland — every road had at least one cute independent coffee shop advertising cold brew, stores full of vintage treasures and colorful Asian-inspired garment shops leaking incense into the street. I touched pretty much every beautiful leather handbag that crossed my path. It was an afternoon of longing gazes and angry exclamations about the pound to dollar conversion rate. And of course we had to stop at Starbucks for our midday beverage, as we’ve been deprived of it in France for so long.

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When in the UK, eat Indian food! So we heard, and so we did. Our curry dinner at the Curry Leaf Café was “quite spicy” and super delicious (with a little serving of yogurt for us spice wimps, that is). We later went with our friends to another Indian restaurant, The Chilli Pickle, where I got some honey-drizzled naan for an after dinner treat.

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And of course, our final meal had to be fish and chips — true English cuisine. We ate it on the beach, taking extra care to protect it from the doggedly nose-diving seagulls. It was battered to perfection, golden brown and crispy and best when drizzled in ketchup and vinegar, a perfect last meal of the weekend.

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The saddest part was saying au revoir to my dear lecteur friends, who I’ll only see one more time before I leave for my next adventure in Toulouse. It was a lovely last hurrah. I’m writing this post from the plane on the way to Athens, Greece, where we’ll be when I post my next post! Stay tuned for more Spring Break adventures.

The City of Brighton & Hove

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

What do you get when you put four Americans in a car heading west with a flag tied to the roof, eating Jif To Go with Ritz Crackers and drinking A&W rootbeer?

A good old US Road Trip, of course! But in France.

We rented a car and headed out on a sunny Friday morning, blasting pop tunes and full of energy. Our first stop was Etrétat, a city known for its stunning falaises (cliffs) which attract painters from all over.

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As a bonus, it was full of Normande charm, with the characteristic architecture and signs for cidre and calvados in every restaurant.

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We spent two hours clambering up onto the cliffs and taking epic photos. It was a sunny day (a rarity in the North at the moment) and a combination of that and the fresh sea breeze put us in a stellar mood. Hikes and laughter are my jam.

Back in the car, we had an afternoon snack as we headed for Caen, to my friend Dana’s host family’s house from her study abroad in Normandy. Her host family welcomed us weary travelers with an apéro of champagne and snacks and a beautiful 2-room setup to sleep in (which can also be rented via Air BnB, if anyone is interested). After drinks, we dashed out to meet Dana’s expat friend for dinner at a cow-themed fondue restaurant and ate and talked until we had to sleep.

Day two was dedicated to Mont-St-Michel, one of the most famous sites in France. My mom had been telling me to go for ages, and this was the perfect time. We arrived the weekend after the grandes marées, the highest tides in ten years, which means that we beat the crowds; there had been roughly 30,000 people descending on the Mont the weekend before. Our day was spent wandering the quaint winding streets and the hidden corners of the Abbey, complete with a picnic lunch in the garden.

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On the way home, we stopped in St Malo. I am always stoked to return to Brittany, my regional true love, and this town didn’t dampen (despite the rain…hehe) my feelings for Western France. It is a walled city, with some of the most intact walls I’ve seen. We entered through a stone gate and climbed up to the top of the ramparts (N.B. Cities in America do not have ramparts). We were able to walk halfway around the city and were rewarded with stunning views of the west coast on one side and the Breton city on the other. It was a great stop despite the adverse weather change, although the misty rain reminded me of home.

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Saturday night was spent with Dana’s family, eating and chatting. There was a spirit of warmth and hospitality, even though we were nearly complete strangers, which reminded me of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais community where I’ve made my home this year. The only downside was the cheese choice — Camembert and Livarot, two varieties whose tastes I have yet to acquire. I can’t handle the stench…

On Sunday we made our way home, tired and discouraged by the weather, but we all agreed that it was a great trip. What surprised me most was how it felt to be among Americans again, and on the road. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like a natural version of myself in Europe, which is a huge accomplishment. And yet, something felt especially nice about being able to joke and laugh and be outrageously patriotic in “American.” It’s our cultural language that is lacking here, as is everyone else’s cultural language if they aren’t from France.

But I was also more than happy to return home to my lovely house in Val and my international friends. As a group, we have created our own subculture, with an international smorgasbord of influences. I know that when I’m back in America, I will miss that subculture more than I can express in any language. I’ll have to go on plenty of road trips (and eat jars and jars of peanut butter) to cope 😉

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

Un Retour à Paris

Paris. I have experienced it over and over again since my first visit. A study abroad friend personified Paris as a bad boyfriend: it takes you from honeymoon period to love-hate relationship (Paris in the slush? Yuck) and back again. Now, Paris and I have settled into the companionate love of old friends. I know it’s always there; it feels familiar and safe. But every time I come back we have new experiences together, just to keep things spicy.

I’ve been there three times since September. The first time, Caro and I brunched the day away at a Breton buffet and made new friends in the street by night. The second time, I picnicked, then ended up in a hole-in-the-wall bar watching rugby, drinking beers, and reminiscing about college days with a friend from Whitman. This time, I reunited with my mom and aunt for museums, classical music, and shopping. There really is something for everyone 😉

My mom’s visit was long overdue. She and Paris had their own relationship — she studied there for a year during college. Part of my motivation for studying there was her stories about spending days in the Louvre, mornings in Parc Monceau, living in a mansion-flat owned by the sister of François Mitterand whom she exclusively called “Madame.” She was a hitch-hiking adventuress, covering much of Europe by car-hopping, ending up in random bars and houses, and in one case, a barn. Though she advised me not to follow that particular example (it’s okay mom, we have the internet to arrange carpools now), as I chased the ghost of past-mom around Paris for my study abroad semester I wished that she were with me.

And this time, she was!

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To make things more fun, her sister came with her — here we are with my lovely aunt!

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In the spirit of making their dreams come true, I found us a Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons concert in the Eglise de la Madeleine to end our first day. The violin soloist blew my mind. I can’t say I’m a connoisseur of classical music (mostly because I don’t even know where to start), but I deeply admire those who can make it. [This is especially thanks to my elementary school best friend Nellie, whose life is classical music — and she’s brought it into mine. She’s even on Youtube, playing her own arrangement of a very popular song…]

We got to revisit my favorite impressionist sites (Musée MarmottanMusée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie) and visually feast on Sainte Chapelle’s stained glass. I was in the throes of a what-will-my-future-be crisis and bowed out of some of these adventures, but we always reconvened in the apartment at night for some family fun! There was much sitting, laughing, cooking, and bothering Claire with “hilarious” videos (of my mom and I, of course).

I somehow convinced them to take me to Breakfast in America, my favorite American restaurant! What can I say, I desperately needed some pancakes. (Look, they liked it too!)

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I also got to see Cara for a lunch at Les Pates Vivantes, an Asian noodle place formerly frequented by the Paris Crew. It is always a joy to see my former French major inspiration!

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Another highlight was a dinner with my old host family: Marlène, Jeff and Lulu, the cat! Caro (my byootiful study abroad partner in crime) even got to join us for this one; we used to brunch and dine together all the time, so Marlène knew her and I finagled her an invitation. We ate foie gras, drank champagne, and our main course was fondue, homemade by a true savoyarde (the name for the fondue region, where all the best cheeses come from). And my mom and aunt got to pull out their dormant French skillz! In true Reflective Anne fashion, being back in my former Paris home made me think about how many things had changed since the last time I’d been there: I’ve graduated college, for one, and I succeeded in coming back to France. Plus, my French has come a LONG way.

On our last day, we did a trip out to Chartres, a nearby cathedral and town famous for having 12th century stained glass, saved from fires and wars by diligent townspeople for hundreds of years. They also invented a color there: the famous “chartres blue.” The cathedral was amazing, and the town was a charming escape from Paris!

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I was very sad to say goodbye! Seeing family both refreshed and comforted me: I remembered what it was like to be with people who have known me forever, and I remembered that I’m going back home someday…which inspired me to live France life to the fullest, while I still can!

Un Retour à Paris