Friday, October 31, 2008


Can it be true? Do I actually have Internet? I can’t believe it. I’ve been waiting so long! Part of me feels intensely insecure about this, almost even sure that I’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll be gone – in fact, this can’t be real. Before I randomly checked to see if my connection was working, I began this post a few hours ago...

"I’m revisiting a familiar feeling that I experienced when I first pieced together the lie that is Santa Claus, as I start to lose faith in my belief that I will get Internet in my apartment. It’s been a month and a half now, and the ISP keeps telling us it’ll work in another week, just like the bank kept telling me that I would most assuredly get my card, which didn’t actually happen until my fifth trip there. There’s always something else that they didn’t address in the first place, you know?

I also happened to have to live in an expensive but poorly maintained apartment owned by a negligent landlady who lives literally countries away – and the kicker is, there’s no way for us to turn on the heat ourselves. And - please pardon my crudeness - it’s getting so cold that I scald myself when I pee. Who picks an apartment that has no thermostat??? But I must admit that I can be a little prone to doing stupid things. My excuse is that sororityland fried 97% of my brain cells.

Another recent act of stupidity on my part: heading for Germany without knowing which terminal I was to leave from. Apparently Halloween is “a stupid (commercial) American tradition” according to Europeans, so instead of partying it up, I went to Germany instead. I checked in online the day before at a cyber café and didn’t remember to check the terminal. The next day, the day I was to leave, I was totally pressed for time, of course, because I left everything to the last minute. I just grabbed my bags and hopped onto a bus headed to the airport and it wasn’t until then that I realized I had no idea where I was going. So at the airport stop, I got off and just got onto the first terminal shuttle that came by, with the rationale that I’d have just enough time to switch terminals if it was the wrong one, but luckily and thankfully, it wasn’t.
Speaking of Germany – it was phenomenal! I love being in Germany! The temperature, the flora and the atmosphere are a little closer to Canada than France, I think, and I can almost imagine myself living there. Plus things seem to be cheaper there, for some reason. I totally meant to blog during my trip, but my gracious hosts just kept me so busy the entire time that I had no time to write or edit. Here’s a post I started on my third day there, which I just finished:

Good God, what could I have possibly done to deserve this?!

The Cosmos must really, really love me – as do my Auntie and Uncle, whom I am currently visiting in Bavaria. I am literally living in the lap of luxury right now. It’s a little ridiculous.

I’d planned my German trip about a month before, and I was really looking forward to perhaps some home-cooked food, some sight-seeing, and just mainly good, old-fashioned doting, home-style. When my Auntie informed me that they were paying for my ticket, I was incredibly touched. Then when she showed me our itinerary – a week of overnight trips in three different cities in southern Germany – I was totally overwhelmed.

I got a clearer picture when she came to the airport to whisk me off in her Audi convertible – they are 12 year old DINKS, after all (double income, no kids). But I mean, they were just so incredibly generous with me, financial situation aside, especially since this was the first time I’ve ever met them. The first day, Auntie took me around downtown Stuttgart while Uncle worked on a project in Münich. That night, we had a really nice Italian dinner at a family-style restaurant – it was the only menu on my trip that I was able to read, besides at Chinese restaurants. The next day, we drove to see Neuschwanstein Castle (going 210 on a speed limitless German highway in my Uncle's BMW SUV, which has all the cool features you can imagine); it’s Ludwig II’s (unfinished) breathtaking fairytale castle dedicated to Wagner’s works, and it’s one of the most photographed buildings in the country, although taking pictures of the inside is prohibited because all the walls and ceilings are frescoes. It’s on a hill, so we went up by a horse-drawn carriage, and we sat opposite the cutest family from the States, which totally broke my heart. The dad was gorgeous, the mom was beautiful, the children (almost three, and ten months old) were super sweet and super cute. They were actually picture-perfect. And the hot dad could speak four languages (English, Spanish, German and Mandarin). They must be really well off to be travelling as often and as long as they did – but then again, the dad was a Phi Beta Kappa honour student, so it’s no surprise.

Then, my Auntie and Uncle took me to this incredible resort called Schlossanger Alp Berghotel where we had dinner at their world-class restaurant. We had a different wine with four of the five courses and we ended the meal off with some 60 year old Luis Felipe brandy. That’s four bottles of wine and then some between the three of us in one meal. It was indescribably good – one of the best meals I ever had, and I really felt I made huge steps in my epicurean education. My Auntie had what my mum calls “floaty footsteps” by the end of the meal, but I was just really, really happy. Plus the hotel room shower was AMAZING. Best shower I’ve ever had the pleasure to use, because you could crank up the water until it hurts, plus it’s got this thing that you can put in the drain so that you can get an ankle-high foot soak going while you get clean. (The water heater for my current apartment isn’t quite enough for three people, you see.) And the water offered for drinking in the room is real, pure mountain water. I just wanted to stay there and forget about France already. The room was so comfortable, the service was really good – my only complaint is that there’s no wireless in the rooms – you have to go to the second floor of the lounge to use the Internet. But even so, I'm so, incredibly grateful that they took me there because it was beyond words.

The following day, we went to see Linderhof Palace, the one finished castle of Ludwig II, which was gorgeous. The history totally fascinates me – he was made king at just 18 years old and he basically just lived in his dreams all the time. He never married, and he really admired the absolute power of French kings. He also had a huge thing for Wagner. It was gorgeous, even if a bit small. I was a little disappointed that we couldn’t see the Venus Grotto were he used to watch performances from, though – from what I can see from pictures, it totally trumps Hugh Hefner’s.

The next three days were spent in Münich, which I love. We even went to a smallish Asian grocery store and had almost decent Chinese food! The shopping is fantastic in Marienplatz, except I’m dirt poor and have no money to spend, so I just watched Auntie and her best friend doin’ it up, ballah-style. Hey, if I can’t be the one shopping, I may as well be encouraging other people! It’s such a beautiful city, and the subway system is amazing. Oh, and I saw the Olympic park! The pool totally looks way bigger on the small screen.

Then, we drove back to Filderstadt, where Auntie and Uncle live. They are both such sweethearts - they're so happy even after 12 years of marriage and 16 being together. Between the two of them, the family I met on the way to Neuschwanstein, the couple who owns the gorgeous resort and the loving couple who owns the hotel we stayed at in Münich, I feel like I was surrounded by love stories in Germany. Then the night before I left, Uncle and I had some Camus Borderies XO (he's a huge fine alcohol junkie - showed me his stash like a kid showing off his toys the first night I met him), which was the best brandy I have ever, ever had. The weird thing is, it was supposed to rain when I was there, but it didn’t until the day before I left. Then it rained lightly when I got back to France, but then it started to pour when I got back into my apartment. Guess the Cosmos really are smiling down on me! :D"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chez Princess Grace

I am so in love!

With Monaco, that is.

You see, sometime last week I was hanging out with my girls A and R, who I’d just had class with, because their next class was two and a half hours away. I was complaining about how I must be the only person here that I know who hasn’t seen Monaco yet, and A suggested that we make a day trip out of it on Friday – so we did.

I couldn’t ask for better tour guides, because they’re game for anything, and they’re just so much fun to be around – I remember being instantly intrigued when I first saw them in translation class, these two pieces of cuteness huddled together, giggling away. I’m so, so glad I went out on a limb and took that class when no one else in my program did at first, just because I got to meet them.

Anyway, so I met up with R on campus and we took the bus out to meet A at the Nice Port (last picture), where the two of them live. Then, we took a different bus out to Monaco, and the beauty of it is, it only costs a euro each way, because the public transportation system services all of the Côte d’Azur. The same goes for Cannes, but I like Monaco way better.

The drive there was unbelievably gorgeous. I mean, Canada has beautiful scenery too, but it’s so different, especially since we’re right by the Mediterranean here. I was twisting around in my seat during the entire trip with my mouth hanging open and my jaw on the floor, because there I was, right in the midst of the kind of breathtaking beauty that inspires art. I tried to snap pictures of the scenery as we drove past, but it was hard because the car was moving, and I ended up getting mostly shots of headrests and some guy’s head.

We passed the city of Villefranche, the girls told me, and Beaulieu, which literally translates to “beautiful place” – and let me tell you, it was very aptly named. I almost broke a rib laughing when they told me that there are a lot of people who live in Beaulieu and commute to work in Nice, because Beaulieu is much mellower, and Nice is too fast-paced.

Fast-paced? Nice?! That’s crazytalk! The slow, slow pace of life here just about slammed me over the head with culture shock when I first got here. But I digress.

So we went to Monaco, and it was absolutely gorgeous. It’s a beautifully designed city, and the opulence makes the Material Girl in me quiver. There are fancy pavilions everywhere, as well as plenty of public gardens filled with plants that I’ve never seen before. What I especially love about the city is that the streets are super clear, unlike Nice, which is literally covered in (dog) sh!t - and dog pee. Okay, maybe “covered” is a strong word...let’s say it’s “liberally sprinkled.”

The restaurants right by the port aren’t too expensive, but the prices spike when you step into the downtown area. According to A, we absolutely have to have coffee at the café just outside of the Monte Carlo and the Hôtel de Paris (where all the celebs stay - 1st & 2nd pictures) even if it’s super expensive, because it’s what all chic people do and you get a great view of the Ferraris rolling by on the street, so we did. I had a ginger ale that cost 6 € and was half the size of a bottle of Coke, which was the same price. I know, right?

We got carded at the Monte Carlo, which was a little annoying, but nothing I’m not used to of, because I get carded even when I’m all dressed up and wearing a full face of makeup. But I'm not going to complain, because I'm sure I'll appreciate this when I'm older. I was disappointed that you’re not allowed to take pictures in there though, because it is absolutely divine inside. There’s this arcade-like side room with all kinds of gambling machines inside, where you don’t have to pay to get in. If you want to actually play and rub elbows with ballers, however, it costs like 10 € for a single entry, and like bus fare, you can get entry packages that are slightly discounted, for say, a certain number of entries or even season passes. I wonder how much money some people can afford to lose...judging by the Rolls Royces parked outside though, probably more than I can fathom. But I didn’t go in because I’m a poor student and I’m not into gambling anyway. Maybe on a dull weekend, I’ll go and try my luck.

Then, we went to the incredibly beautiful Hôtel de Paris. R has a friend that works as a server on the fancier main floor restaurant there who’s served Eva Longoria and Tony Parker! I’m really glad that you’re allowed to take pictures of the interior because it’s so glam it’s ridiculous. It is opulence, epitomized. The only unfortunate thing that kind of screws with the effect is the fact that it stinks outside the washroom, but as long as you don’t go down that wing, you’ll be fine. There are glass cases of all kinds of luxury products on display – Ciribelli pearls the size of marbles, diamond-encrusted cell phones by Vertu, diamond-encrusted Rolexes... And there’s a little stretch of a hallway of shops where you can buy these things.

But what I was most interested in was the fancy restaurant. There’s a sort of café at the left of the entrance and the expensive restaurant is on the right. You can only see inside through the opening/closing door when people walk in and out of there, but besides that, it’s completely closed off. The split-second glimpses I caught were unbelievable. It looks like the set of a historical movie about royalty. There are huge, luxe chandeliers, elegant centerpieces, gorgeous silverware, smartly-uniformed services milling about with perfect posture... The menu is posted outside, and a set lunch costs ONLY 130 €.

Then, we went to see the Monaco Palace, home of the House of Grimaldi, which actually isn’t that impressive, but the view from up there sure is. The steps leading up there are numerous, however, and I was saying the most unladylike things by the time I got there. Then we went to the St. Nicholas Cathedral, where I was hoping to see where Grace Kelly is buried, but I couldn’t find her. What was interesting to me is that there are still people who place fresh flowers on the tombstones of some of the deceased royalty. Also, judging by the flags pasted on the outside of the confession boxes, the priests are polyglots – you can confess your sins in four or five different languages!

Afterwards, we did a teensy bit of shopping, had some dinner as well as some Mövenpick ice cream and then headed home. I was pooped from all the walking. So was A. But R looked like she could’ve kept going! A announced that we’re going to go back to the posh outdoor café before I leave to have champagne – I’m going to have to start saving up. I hope I won’t be a crying, emotional wreck by that point!

Next stop: Germany for a week. Then the Friday after I get back, I’m heading to San Remo, Italy with A and R, where they tell me the pasta is much better quality and much cheaper, so I’ll have to stock up. EEE!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Living in Baked Goods Heaven

Thanks to everyone for your kind wishes. I lit a candle for my friend at Monaco's St. Nicholas Cathedral yesterday, since her family is devoutly Christian. She is very strong and she's trying hard to recover and move on with her life, so, as an homage to her, I'm going to move on as well.

So! My Londonite flatmate thinks it’s hilarious that I call UK “The Land of the Most Wearable Flag”. I also refer to France with a number of endearments, one of which is Baked Goods Heaven, because there’s literally a bakery around every corner. I wonder how they can all stay in business because there is just so much competition, but my local friends assure me that France can support virtually any number of bakeries that crop up because it’s just their way of life. They happen to eat a ton of baked goods, and there will always be a demand for it.

But I realized that not all bakeries were created equal, because the ones that are labelled “Artisan(ales)” make much yummier stuff. There’s a huge difference between regular bakery products and artisan bakery products, and it’s completely obvious from the first bite. The first few nights I was here, I survived almost entirely on the exquisite baguettes from the Artisan Boulanger in Magnan, right around the corner from the hotel I stayed at. It was the most incredible stick of bread I had ever eaten up to that point – the crust was delightfully crispy and the inside was light as air – and I naively assumed that all bakeries here are that amazing, but I had a reality check when I started shopping around. It also helps to talk to and befriend locals, because that’s how you can get insider information on which bakeries specialize in what. For example, sometimes, a bakery that specializes only in bread may make their own bread but buy their pastries to sell.

I was delighted to discover that there’s a fantastic bakery right around the corner from where I live, called Le Chant du Pain, on the northwest corner of Andrioli and Rue de France. Originally, I was craving a brioche au sucre (a round, fragrant bun about the size of a palm, sprinkled with crumbly, coarse sugar), but when I walked in, this huge, lush confection caught my eye. It had about an inch-high layer of cream between two layers of pastry, and it was topped with crumbly sugar chunks – even better than just a brioche au sucre! The kind lady behind the counter told me that it’s called a tropézienne, and I just had to try it. I also bought a baguette to make a sandwich with for dinner, and on impulse, I also got a slice of apple pie.

Well, I never got around to making that sandwich, because I ate everything in a single setting; it was so good! The tropézienne was unbelievable – the sweet cream was rich, but fluffy and the layers of pastry were so buttery! And I must admit, I have a soft spot for crumbly sugar, because they just have the most lovely texture to bite into. And that baguette! It’s different from the Magnan one, but it’s just as good. I like it because it’s not super skinny, so it’s more versatile – you can spread things on it, dip it in soups and sauces, or you can make sandwiches out of it. And the beauty of thicker baguettes is that there’s more soft, fluffy stuff in the middle. The top was very crispy, the golden-brown bottom was crusty and flavourful, and the middle was smooth, soft and punctuated with big air bubbles. I buttered broken off pieces and finished it in the blink of an eye. The honour for Best Apple Pie, however, remains with that of J. Multari - there's one on Gambetta & Bottero and one downtown, as well. However, I'll definitely be going back to my local bakery, Le Chant soon.

I better watch it, because if I eat like this every day, I won’t be able to buy any of the gorgeous, European-sized clothes here!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

When It Rains, It Pours

Dear friends,

I was really excited to update today because I'd just prepared an entry on one of my favourite topics - food. But upon getting myself to a place with Internet service and re-connecting to the world, I've found out that several unfortunate events have taken place in the last few days. In order of severity, from lowest to highest, they are:

1.) Multiple Hollywood divorces are happening. Not uncommon at all, but it's sad, all the same.

2.) The Canadian dollar has dropped its lowest since 1987. This personally affects me because that means that the poverty aspect of my living situation will be dominant over the glamourous part - click here for a refresher if you have no idea what I'm talking about. Hopefully that will inspire people to travel to my home country to spend money and hopefully boost our economy!

3.) A couple days ago, a high school friend a year behind me lost her grandmother and mother in a brutal double homicide, which she barely escaped from herself. Investigations are still going on, but as more details get released, the worse it's looking. The newest article I can find on the case is here. She is such a genuinely kind girl, and I'm so upset that this happened to her. This kind of trauma is just completely devastating. My heart goes out to her, and I hope that she will have lots of support back home and recover from this as soon as possible.

So as you can see, I just can't enthuse about baked goods right now. In particular, I'm really heartbroken for my friend. I'm sick to my stomach. Please send good thoughts her way, as I will be.

Will be back in a couple days after a breather.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Glamorous Poverty: Wine, Skin Care, Shoes and French Generic

It’s a happy coincidence that the boy that I love shares his first name with a huge fashion designer/major label, because every time I see people wearing shirts with his name splashed across the chest, it’s like he’s winking at me, all the way across the pond.

In additional gushing, the wine is so cheap here it’s ridiculous. You can get a perfectly decent bottle for anywhere from 1-3 €, but I’ve even seen some that are less than a euro! That’s practically free! They’re almost giving it away! They may as well just have wine come out of public fountains, or spray it out onto the streets at people – can you imagine what a party that would be?

It’s such a shame that wine isn’t dirt cheap at home, though – after all, Ontario produces wine, too. It’s also super easy for anyone and everyone to buy alcohol here – a local friend told me that a child of 10 could easily buy wine or beer and no one would bat an eye. That and the fact that kids are exposed to wine at their family dinner tables virtually every day since a very young age is why I suspect that drinking isn’t as huge a deal here as it is in North America.

But I digress. The point is, wine is really, really cheap here, and buying an occasional bottle to sip with friends or to cook with is a great way to amp up your quality of life despite being dirt poor in Europe.

I find that as a general rule, necessities are expensive in Nice, while fun things can run really cheap. For example, food is generally more expensive, especially if you have certain diets. For instance, I eat rice almost every day, and a one kilo bag of mediocre rice is about 2.50 €, while a premium-quality 10kg bag in uptown Toronto is about $15.00 CAD – and that’s after inflation, because they used to cost about $10.00. Personal care products, like shampoo and toothpaste, are also really pricey – only exceptions are French skin care products, which are not cheap but are definitely less costly than at home because here, they are domestic products. For example, I love the brand Avène because I have sensitive skin. An Avène moisture serum (which, by the way, is a phenomenal award-winning product) is $43.00 CAD at Shopper’s Drug Mart in Toronto (since August, anyway), but here, I can buy it for 22 €, which is about $35.00 CAD. Pretty darn good.

Fashion accessories can also be really cheap, but it takes a lot of patient sifting to find something really special, I think, because there’s just so much to choose from. I’m particularly interested in shoes, and I’ve been able to score some great finds here. My flatmate found a store that has a selection of shoes for only 5 €, but I went there, and I don’t really like what’s available. However, I got a pair of cute little cobalt blue patent pumps for only 22 € (that’s about $35 CAD), which is now on sale for about 11 €, and today I bought a pair of supercomfy, casual canvas flats on sale for 6 € (!) and a dressier pair that can totally pass for real leather for just 13 €, all at Moa (on Jean-Médecin). For those of you living in Nice – there’s a huge sale there. I saw a few cute bags that I’d totally go for if I didn’t have the good sense to guilt-trip myself for spending money I shouldn’t spend yet. There are also a lot of great little items (especially trendy pieces and cheap shoes!) at Pimkie, the store right beside it.

Luckily, for all of us poor students living here in France, I find that most generic brand products are very good quality, sort of like President’s Choice in Canada, although I’d say that President’s Choice is steadily becoming a power brand. The other day, I bought a box of Schlecker-brand tissue from Schlecker, this awesome sort of discount store chain in France that reminds me of, say, Pharmaplus or IGA in Canada minus the medications, and I’m very happy with it because it’s thick, durable, and it can almost pass for Kleenex. It wasn’t cheap (because it’s a necessity and it follows my rule, see), but it was cheaper than everything else and it’ll last me because it’s good quality. I’m also pretty happy with Casino-brand food products, which of course, are sold at Casino stores – it’s a supermarket brand that’s sort of halfway in quality between Loblaw’s and No Frills, except with lots of booze.

But my favourite generic food brand by far has to be Leader Price, which is available at Leader Price and Franprix stores. The only Franprix store I’ve been to was very clean and very well-organized, if a little small. Leader Price products are even cheaper than Casino products, but they are very, very good quality. One of my flatmates recommended this mussels & potatoes TV dinner, which costs only 2.14 € and it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten since coming here – as well as a great substitute if you’re craving moules frites and are broke.

So! If you’re low on cash, don’t despair, because there are ways to live well without bankrupting yourself – I call it living in glamorous poverty. ;}