Saturday, November 13, 2010

What to do for New Years in France

So what do for a New Years escapade to France?

Many people ask me what I do for New Years in Paris. Perhaps they imagine New Years in the city of love to be filled with the swirl of the city lights, the gaze on the Eiffel Tower, the romantic cruises on the seine river....

Nyahhh... We go for steaming bowl of Pho noodle soup and tender morsels of Camobodian style Loc Lac Beef at Tricotin - Hands down our favorite Hole in the Wall Asian Diner in Paris.

Why? - It comes down to two reasons: Prices and Reservations.

There are half a million tourists that come to Paris expecting the Soiree of a life time and therefore they make you pay for it. It's ok to shell out $400 for dinner if you flew halfway across the world to get there for that special France moment of champagne and truffles to celebrate a successful 2010 but for us who live here, we will probably eat at that same restaurant a few times in the year so it begins to lose its luster once the price begins to double.

The other reason why? Unless you reserved in November for your must visit restaurant, you will most likely not get a seat unless you are an entertainer with a single word or symbol for your name.

So what would I suggest to you my Jet setter friend?

Experience, the charms of small rural villages in France.

Stay in a quiet bed and breakfast and discover the treasures of the French terroire. Try a real crepe made with the local ground flour, the cream from the dairy, and the eggs from the farm next door. Drink the local wine, and eat a plate of stinky cheese.

If your flying into Paris, its best to do something within easy access. North of Paris, is Normandy. My favorite region is around Mont St. Michel. That in itself is probably the top destination in france outside of Paris.

It is an 11 century monastery built on an island that is only accessible by foot when the tide goes down.  The moving tide is the fastest in the world and claims several lives each year.  Unless you can run faster than a horse,  or surf like a Hawaiian  you will most likely not make it back. Luckily there is a bridge now so you don't have to be an expert in tidal charts to get there.

Around there, the food is also quite unique. Especially if your into seafood, but if not, the food is still amazing for the carnivore in you(Agneau pré salé is a lamb that eats a unique herb in the salt marshes of Mont Saint Michel -

For small villages, I like to go to Cancale, which is famous for its oysters. I like to go straight to the beach where you can buy a dozen fresh oysters for $5 and a bottle of iced crisp white wine to wash it down for $6. Just ask the locals where the trash for the oyster shells are. "Just throw it back into the water!" You mean, I pay 11 bucks AND get to shuck, slurp, and promote littering???!! For some reason it appeals to my caveman instincts just to eat a raw creature and chuck the leftover carcass back into the sea.

Cancale is right around the corner from the Mont St Michel and for evening entertainment you can visit Saint malo around the corner and get a glimpse of how the French used to indulge in luxurious carnival getaways 100 years ago. I consider it the Coney Island of France.

This trip is about a 3.5-4 hour drive from paris. Trains do stop in the areas nearby from the terminal Montparnasse in Paris (Granville and Avranche i believe).

If you want to go East Bound of Paris for a 45m-1 hour drive/trainride, I suggest to take a trip to Champagne country. Reims is the capital of the champagne region, and boasts world class brands such as veuve clicquot (There is a picture of Jean Claude Van Damme attending a party on the wall), Tattinger, and Pieper Heidsick.

For me, I actually like to go a little bit smaller and make my way through Epernay. Think small town, wall to wall champagne houses. Take a car and a designated driver (or a bus tour from the tourism office) for the charming Champagne country road tour and relax those jet lagged feet in one of the local country house spas. Not a big night life here, so spend the night in reims and organize a day tour in Epernay if you fancy to mix partying into the thrip.

You can do bed and breakfast here (Auberge in French), but I think that a stay at a Chateau is simply delightful (pronounce this with a snobby high british accent). Dinner is usually a 4 hour affair, served on silver platters and an endless succession of mini plates inbetween your apperitif, appetizer, main course, cheese course, desert course, coffee, digestive drink, and finally the stick your toothbrush in the back of your throat to induce dietary hurling course.

For the West of Paris, I would recommend to take a 2 hour trip to the king of the castle regions, Tours. Let's just say that a stay at hotel there resembles more of a hunting lodge than a castle.  Tours was once a big hunting destination and in most hotels and restaurants that I stayed at, I had to eat next to a stuffed turkey or the head of a slain bambi mounted on the wall.

There is a scenic route that goes through dozens of historic castles.  My only reference point before this visit was sleeping beauty castle in Orange County, California so I was pretty impressed to see actual castles with actual inhabitants.

Ok, so we spoke about North, we spoke about East, we spoke about West.  What about the South of Paris?

My first introductions to the region South of Paris was in my level 2 French course with Professor Eric at the French Language Institute.

"Here is France.  It has 8 sides to it.  we call it the Octogon
What is here in the middle of France?"

Me: Trees!
Classmate 1: Mountains!
Classmate 2: Rivers!

"Professor Eric:  There is NOTHING!  C'est Vide (empty)!  There is No reason to go here! Just avoid it all costs.  They don't even have teeth!"

So there you have it folks.  Thanks to professor Eric at the French language institute I have no advice for you for South of Paris except for where to get gas.

Monday, July 5, 2010

I'm in Sweden and not a freaking meatball in sight

If you ever wanted to get a tan in your sleep I recommend trying a hotel in Sweden. Every morning I wake up at 2:30 am and if you were here in my room now you would say that my room more resembles a tanning salon than a hotel room.

For those who are just as ignorant as I in the ways of life above the 59th parallel , let me explain. Because it is so North, the sun goes down at 11 PM and comes back'a blazin at 2:30 am during this time of year. I guess I had to learn that little bit of geography the hard way, because it is as FREAKING BRIGHT as a my little pony magic rainbow in my room.

Compounding the problem is the fact that i sleep with my eyes open. Yep. OPEN... ask Elodie.. she will confirm.

So I've been invited to do some work in Sweden for a week and got super lucky with the fact that the hotels are fully booked. So i basically had the choice of being put into a room with no windows (it's no wonder they have a high suicide rate here) or the luxury suite on the top floor (sweeeeet). Well, I got placed in sweeeeeet for a week!

Its my first time to Sweden and I thought that I did have some notion about what life in Sweden might be like. I was actually quite surprised to see how much of it I got wrong:

Surprise #1 - You indeed are ugly.

So of course, you would think that if you came to Sweden you are surrounded by beautiful blonde model quality women all around you. Not at all true. There are beautiful brunette model quality women all around you as well. Having just flown in from Paris, I was quite surprised by the fact that there is no way you can't feel underdressed around these guys. It's like they are all dressed for a private yacht party, and you were dressed up as their galley cook.

Surprise #2 - The Swedes are not as progressive as you would think

The princess of Sweden just married her gym coach..which you could say is pretty progressive. The rules state however that a commoner male can never marry into the family and become king. A woman can however make it all the way to the top. Eh hem.. glass ceiling???

Surprise #3 - Swedes sit upon a throne of lies.

I've been here for an entire week and not a god damn meatball in sight. Who said swedish people eat meatballs? All I see is freaking sushi bars. And these sushi bars aren't even japanese. They are thai and chinese people prentending to be Japanese. Whenever I ask a Swede where to go for some meatballs, they say "Try Ikea"

Surprise #4 - I am getting a stocking full of coal for Christmas this year

I have never seen a reindeer in my lifetime. Yet someone asked me to buy a reindeer fur as a present. So I've got this incredibly huge Rudolph Rug rolled up in my suitcase.

Surprise # 5 - Koreans are allergic to Reindeer

My eyes are freaking itching like crazy ever since I bought that damn thing. Who knew that Koreans had this genetic weakness?

Surprise # 6 - Swedish people like to make fun of Norwegians

They nickname them "Seal Clubbers of the North" or simply just call them Norwegians.

Surprise # 7 - ABBA is for the tourists and Mama Mia is not shown year round

Even those damn Paraguay flute players with the funny hats play "Take a Chance on Me" on the street corners. It's kind of like listening to Rod Stewart played on the bagpipes.

Surpise # 8 -

The alcohol tax is uber expensive. Buying a round of drinks for your friends cost as much as a round trip ticket back to France. Since the country is cold, freezing, and envelopped in darkness half the year, the gas companies lobbied to make this reliable source of social heating less accessible to stifle the competitive market.

Surprise # 9 -

Don't ever do anything nasty against the Swedes. The Danish beheaded a bunch of Swedish aristocrats 200 years ago and they are still pissed off about it today. There's not a moment that doesn't pass where the Swede's don't talk about their retarded neighbors and how they got to go to the World Cup despite the fact that they they are cold blooded murderers.

Surprise #10 -

If you are famous and die in some gruesome way, the Swedes immediately think about the retail value of your demise. A visit to the Royal Costume Museum has on display all these original bloodied and muddied outfits when the Kings and Princes were all stabbed, shot, or clubbed in the name of their country. Even the poor horse of the king got stuffed and preserved in clever decision to increase ticket sales.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Korean Fried Movie

I have come up with a new rule that I should try to live my life by:

Live life as if you only had three more months to Scotland.

It's 6:30 am and I'm wide awake. In any other location I would be sleeping just until the dreaded morning buzzer of my alarm sounds off. I mean, I should be sleepy....  But with this much fun, how can I not jump out of bed?

My first month was spent living a month with a fanatical Green Peace spanish hippy vegetarian archeologist, which got to be a little tiring after a while.  She was clean.  She was quiet.  But she had this talent for making slight snipey comments about my ways from the top of her legume crested throne.

"No need to throw your leftover food into my garden compost box.  You boiled the vegetables so they have no more vitamins left for my plants."

"Your cheese is non-organic and full of chemicals."

I have since been liberated from the veggie-nazi and feel like every day is a new opportunity for precious memories to be made.

Scotland has got to be one of the greatest places I have visited in Europe.  I now live a 5 minute walk away from a castle.  Wait, I live next to a castle?  How freaking cool is that?  I live in an international heritage site!  Getting lost has never been so fun, with the cobblestone roads.. smokey grey buildings.. It feels like your in Disneyland, but that mouse you see on the path is a real one who's ancestors spread the Black Death to a quarter of its inhabitants.

What's it like to hang out with the Scots?  Well, first off get used to saying "Huh?" .. because you won't understand a freaking thing they say until you've been here for about 3 weeks.  My only real reference to the scottish accent is Mike Myers SNL sketch "If its not Scottish its Crrrrap!"

I have an affinity for Scottish people because they are very proud of who they are but will never radiate an ideology that they think that they are better than anyone else.  While they do have a few historic lows (losing to the English, potato famine, the deep fried mars bar..) they have created some of the worlds greatest stuff (golf, whisky, Sean Connery).

So while I am here, I would like to share a bit of my action packed days by giving you my Top Tips on how to have a successful visit to Scotland!

1) Play Golf:
Personally, I wake up at 7 am to practice golf in my front yard.  I live on the steps of a centuries old public park and golf course and take advantage of the empty surroundings and free facilities.  Only in Scotland can you find a place that believes that every citizen should be entitled to a chance at the sport.

2) Drink Coffee:
I mean drink good coffee.  The place just inspires a morning coffee to soak in the atmosphere and get the mind into its creative state.  JK Rowling spent a year writing Harry Potter in the Elephant Café just up the road from my place. You can get the idea of where she took all of her inspiration from.

3) Buy some fish:
They are more of a rare occurence than before but you can still find a real classic fish monger in many local neighborhoods.  You can buy fish that is fresher than Big Foot's dick for the same price as a Mcbarfburger here.  Throw a white filet of fish in a pan with melted butter topped with lemon juice and you will never reacher a higher point of enlightenment.

4) Take a ghost tour..I mean a REAL ghost tour:
What do you get when you combine an ancient castle, violent neighbors, and a plague?  Really Bitchin' ghost tours.  Many of the pubs I frequent seem to have their own local ghost... I hang out often at the Last Drop pub which is right in front of where they held the village executions.  The spookiest is the underground city where the city's poor used to live.  During the black plague they declared a state of emergency and mercilessly sealed the entrance, leaving its thousands of inhabitants to die.  Lot's of paranormal activity there evidently...

5) Drink a real Whisky:
None of this Glen Fiddich/Johnny Walker crap that you can buy at the airport duty free.  A glass of the local fire water will actually cost as much as a pint of beer yet make you wonder why you ever mixed the stuff with a coca-cola.  Aim for a small production or something from one of the smaller islands off the coasts. 

6) And my final trip suggestion....Eat something NASTY!
Nothing gets you into the inner circle of trust with the locals than manning up to the challenge of local fare.  My personal favorite is to walk into a gastro-pub and say in my really LOUD american accent "Soo Whats a HAGGIS??!"  You can almost hear a pin drop after that.  They are waiting for it to come.. They can't wait to see the expression on my face when I find out that its a sheeps heart, liver, and lungs, wrapped and simmered in its own stomach.  I'll turn to the local group of Scots next to me and ask them if I should try it... followed by a resounding "YES!"  In my opinion, its the best way to meet locals and you will most likely be bought a beer for your bravery.  Scotland is the only country where a stranger has offered to buy me a beer (and I swear it wasn't a gay bar!)

So while I pause to take some time to write this blog entry, I am rushing right off again to share in the splendid bliss of Scottish culture. 

I leave you with this photo of me eating a King Rib from the local Fish and Chips shop.  Its basically a deep fried patty of processed pork, breaded, deep fried, and then sitting under a heat lamp for 8 hours. 

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The saddest date I ever eavesdropped on

Morningside is the richest district of Edinburgh, and most notably known as the residence of J.K. Rowling and Scotlands patriarchs of culture. Its not your typical rich neighbohood with displays of wealth dripping at every corner. I find it to be rather a caricature of Scottish culture with churches side by side and little old grandmas in country clothing checking out the displays of little shop windows. The wealthy seem to just lock themselves up in their estates and send the servants to run the errands, making this seem more like a little country church town more than a Scottish Beverly Hills. The men dress like Sherlock Holmes and the women dress like they are on their way to a knitting club reunion. I'm here for 2 weeks as my new flat won't be ready until mid February so I'm renting a room with an old spanish hippy lady that sells jewelry next to Edinburgh Castle.

Living amongst the elderly does give you a different perspective on life. Conversations seem to drift towards loved ones lost and spirituality.

My heart is going out to this elderly couple on their first date sitting next to me at Falko, a popular German coffee shop in the neighborhood. Its impossible to not hear their conversation as much as I try to drown it out to give them their own privacy. These two seem to have met through a church lecture and are having their first coffee together. She confesses she doesn't understand much about men anymore and he it seems is clueless about the needs of women. It seems to me that both of their partners have passed on and now they are looking to restart their lives with the companionship of someone new.

She begins to talk about her faith and its clear she seems to be seeking a spiritual partner to share her life with. He seems to be of the gendre of old historians you see on the BBC that enjoy lecturing on arcane subjects that interest only a handful of people, none below the age of 60.

I can sense the heart sinking in the lady next to me. She begins to get deeper into discussion about her church lectures and he begins to fly this plane into the side of a cliff by continually changing the subject back to his history lessons. Evidently, he is convinced that the Holy Grail had come to Britain in the past and had passed hands with Merlin the Magician. As the druid religions were converting over to Christianity at this exact time, Merlin, as their religious leader thus had some involvement in the exchanging hands of the Holy Grail.

She changes subjects back to church and he then asks her if she would be interested in reading his book on the Holy Grail. I imagine it must be hard to move on when your older. You take it for granted that your partner listens to you and puts up with you for the past 50 years and suddenly you have to start dating again and become a good listener.

Their conversation has ended and she is digging to find a spark. She kindly offers to pay for the drinks and he suggests that each pay for their own coffee. That puts the final nail in the coffin. Perhaps in another life, another age, another time. This time though, both will go back to their homes empty handed. Her being dissapointed and him wondering why no one is interested in his stories.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Mars Bar Krispies

Whoaaahhhh... My head is spinning!!!!

I had always heard of the infamous deep fried Mars bar, but I never thought that the scottish had so much of a true affinity for the snack that it transgressed to other recipes.

So Yes, I am now in SCOTLAND... You may find that strange... I find it strange myself. I was just in Jordan, then in France, and now in Gods gift to human kind... Edinburgh.

This place is truly magical... you feel like you are in a harry potter movie with all of the dark smoky churches and the truly impressive site of the Edinburgh castle. Holy cow, its hard to imagine that people live in Disneyland.. but they do.

I always am amazed to see people walking to work.. its just pleasant to be walking on cobbled stones, ancient passage ways, castles and bridges.. Imagine legoland, the castle version, but the real thing.

Edinburgh castle is just next to my office and apartment(i didnt take the photo though):

So I have been to Scotland in the past but at the time I worked in Glasgow. Glasgow has a bad rap because it was known as a depressed dump.. but I found it to be rather hip in some areas. As in, there were a lot of big hips. I actually had to leave the project there because it was getting way too unhealthy for me to live there. After work, we would all kip out the door and head straight to the pub. We would drink rounds and rounds of lager and guinness and when we finished at 10 pm, there was nothing to eat except for pizza hut and fish and chips. Every colleague of mine must have had a +45 waste and I decided that I was on a fast track to beer gut time if I didn't get out of there.

So this time around, I'm in Edinburgh. I'm working at a large insurance company in the heart of town and we have about 1,000 people working in the building. These guys know how to live... barely anyone is fat, yet everyone seems to be freaking snacking around me all day. It seems like everyone is eating a cookie, candy bar, biscuit, yogurt and everyone is a gym fanatic.

It reached a pinnacle today when we held a bake sale for Haiti relief this morning. I had sampled the usual.. carrot cake, banana bread, chocolate chip cookie....

At the end of the day, I heard a 'something something mars bar krrisps (thats my best scottish accent)." Evidently I just thought it was legend that Scottish like to eat deep fried mars bars... so I had to see if it was true that there was another snack made out of an already existing snack.

So, at the end of the bake sale table I found this heavy, dense block sitting with the crumbled pieces of banana bread and half broken cookies. When I say dense, I mean this sucker could be used as a paper weight. I took it back to my desk and took my first timid bite.

The first thing that hit me was a sudden sensitivity shock to my teeth and gums. It was as if you had dipped them in caramel and then soaked them in pepsi cappuccino (yes, it does exist). Next my saliva glands kicked into hyper overdrive much like popeye's forearms turn into locomotive engines after he eats a can of spinach. I was finally able to down the morsel of solid chocolate crack until finally it hit the digestive juices in my stomach and then into my bloodstream.

Suddenly my head started spinning and I was getting dizzy from the sudden jolt of sugar to my system. My face and throat swell whenever I eat something sinful and this time it was off the charts!!! Whoaaaahhh I'm buZZINGGGG at work!!!!! I'm BALLS Tripppin!!! Woohooo!!!!!! Look at me everyone!!! I'm eating my first mars bar krrrisp!!!

What the hell is in these things???

So I asked my colleague Paul how these are made.

"First you get a pan heated and you melt the mars bars in BUTTER."

When I asked him if he was serious about the butter, he said rather matter of factly, "Yes, its really the way forward you know..."

After you get it all melted then you add the rice krispies and spread it out on a cake pan.

THEN when the snack is cooled you melt some more butter and some more chocolate and you pour THAT on the mars bar krispies.

So as I look up the recipe on google.. try it yourself even.. search on "mars bar krispies recipe" and you'll get a whole list of recipes stating "Great snack for the Kids" and "I've never known a child who doesn't like these"...

Check out this website for the full recipe:

Mars bars, with their nougat centre with toffee on top and covered with milk chocolate, are a favourite the world over. And the snap, crackle, pop of rice crispies are found everywhere, including Scotland. Put the two together and you get a treat that's enjoyed by children (big and small) everywhere. And not a deep fried Mars bar in sight!

So you heard it everyone! Great for the kids... Go off baking (or microwave baking in this instance) and turn your friends and family into mars bar krispie junkies!!!