Tag Archives: jetsetting

Switzerlandia

Based upon our brief sojourn, my opinion of Switzerland is (quite appropriately) neutral.

We spent a lovely weekend in Lausanne, a smallish city best known for being the international headquarters of the Olympics. (Relatedly, I saw more people jogging, mountain biking, and wearing Patagonia fleeces than I’ve seen since I left Minnesota.)

Three days is hardly long enough to understand a place, and since Lausanne is in the francophone region, Switzerland felt basically like France to me.  I was, however, quite amused to observe a few ways that the Swiss resemble Americans.

1. They carry around coffees in big To Go cups.
2. They prefer hard cheeses.
3.  I was not the only person wearing running shoes.*
4. They post disclaimers!

Loosely translated: The City is not responsible if you fall in the fountain like a dumbass. You do not see this kind of thing in France, because in France it goes without saying that no one will take responsibility for anything.

My favorite thing in Lausanne was the Collection de l’Art Brutessentially, Museum of Outsider Art. Sorry, Walker and Pomidou: I have a new Favorite Art Museum in the World.

The collection features self-taught artists who have never been recognized formally by The School. Much of the collection is melancholy. Many of the artists were schizophrenics and other mental patients for whom the art was a way a cope with an undoubtedly sad life. One woman tore up sheets for thread to crochet a wedding dress that she never got to wear. Another, for lack of gouache, stole medications and iodine from the dispensary to use as paint. The melancholy, however, is precisely what made the collection so inspiring: it is a testament to the human need to create.

And not all of it was sad. Some of my favorite pieces were by artists with Down’s Syndrome. The collection also featured a number of delightful eccentrics, such as a man who eats shellfish every day just to have enough shells to make intricate bas-reliefs painted with nail polish.

Oh, and the museum had the most gender-balanced collection I’ve ever seen! Point: it’s great to see a museum where women artists made about half of the collection. Counterpoint: Why does it take an outsider museum to feature women and artists with handicaps?

Art Brut: A++++++!

As much as I liked Lausanne, not everything about Switzerland was so peachy.

Switzerland makes itself interesting by doing its protectionist politically neutral thing. Part of me really respects that. As an American, I’m continually fascinated by the fact that geographically tiny European nations that all crammed into one another nonetheless maintain distinct national identities. But, as an awesome piece of graffiti in Lausanne read, “Nations are hallucinations,” and Switzerland’s stubbornness has several irritating effects.

First off, it’s outrageously expensive. The going rate for a shot of espresso is around $4 US. A glass of table wine would run at least $8 US. Just out of curiosity, I checked what a movie would cost and then did a double-take and nearly fainted: a movie in Switzerland costs $19.97 US.

Switzerland’s staggering prices are compounded by the fact that they insist on maintaining their own currency instead of being reasonable and taking on the Euro. The Swiss Franc is only slightly stronger than the U.S. dollar—and to its credit, the bills cool, really colorful—but since you always lose some money to the exchange rate, it’s really just a pain in the part of the ass where you sit on your wallet.

Second, I consider it a symbol of Switzerland’s irrational nationalism that they have their own plugin, which is only very slightly different than the one used in the rest of Europe. Irritating.

Third, Geneva was awful. Just terrible. So bad, in fact, that Jef and I will forever call it The Place That Shall Not Be Named. I don’t want to upset myself all over again by rehashing the rest of our horrid morning there, so I’ll leave it at this:

1. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the UN was set in a place even uglier than a suburban American office park.
2. Despite being a major world city that (unfortunately) receives a lot of tourism, The Place That Shall Not Be Named had the most backwards, illegible, unnecessarily confusing public transit system I’ve ever encountered. Jef and I are both reasonably intelligent people and avid users of public transit at that, and yet it took us nearly 90 minutes to reach the bus station we should have been able to reach in 20.
3. I understand that timepieces are a point of national pride, but I’m outraged that we were not allowed to join a 12:00 guided tour of the U.N. when we showed up at 11:58.

To be fair, we’re both glad that we saw the Red Cross Museum. The last time I cried in a museum, I was in the Anne Frank House. It was very moving, and if I had money to donate, I would definitely give some of it to the Red Cross.

Overall, though, after four hours we couldn’t wait to leave Geneva and breathed a big sigh of relief when our bus crossed the French border. There’s nothing like a weekend in Switzerland to make me think France is dirt cheap.

 

*I do not condone the wearing of running shoes as everyday footwear. The habit is especially tacky in francophone Europe, where the population is particularly well-shod. However, my black leather everyday shoes are about a half size too big, which has resulted in crippling tendinitis pain in my right leg, rendering me incapable of walking in any reasonably attractive shoes.

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Grand Adventure picture preview

This isn’t necessarily a representative sample of the fun adventures we’ve had, but I can’t connect my camera right now so a few pictures we’ve taken from my phone will have to do for now.

Grand 

Jef with the young Jules Verne in his hometown of Nantes. (Verne's hometown, that is.)

It was hard to get a good picture inside a 900-year-old wine cave!

I think Rennes should have a talk with Pisa, Italy, for taking all of the leaning building cred.

This is how I got sunburned in Switzerland.

Here I am at the top of a tower from which you can see basically all of Switzerland, a bit of France, and probably Italy.

Damnsterdam! (Cont’d.)

I ended up, as I often do, with too few classic tourist pictures and too many pictures of things I liked and/or found amusing. I figured I should share.

Things that Amused Me in Amsterdam

Babies for rent? (Actually kind of a good idea. Get a baby, give it back when it poops.)

Absinthe delivered by bike? Only in Amsterdam...

This place was ridiculous! A fast food joint that's essentially a long row of vending machines. You put your change in the window corresponding to the item you desire. (I realized that part of why I found it funny was that I thought it was called "FEED" until I realize it was "FEBO.")

I was mesmerized that you can buy your contact lenses over the counter!

Among all the other cobblestones in the Red Light District...

'nuff said.

This was a salon where you can stick your foot in a bowl full of fish. I suppose it's a secret to eternal youth or something.

Truer words have never been spoken.


Damnsterdam! Day 4

Day 4
Brought to You by My Parents and Western Union

Day 4 could have been an unfortunate misadventure, considering the potentially dire money situation that began when my bank card wouldn’t work the night before. I’m extremely lucky that my parents didn’t mind bailing me out. I picked up a Western Union transfer and went immediately to the restaurant I’d visited the night before to settle my outstanding bill.

I worried I would be a thing of “OMG You Won’t Believe This Annoying Tourist” legend, but I ended up having to instruct the server on duty to check the cash drawer for my train ticket. Point: At least the servers hadn’t sat around talking about how pathetic I was. Counterpoint: The 13€70 ($18.55) I owed was clearly no big deal for the restaurant, so they should have just earned good karma by giving me the meal for free.

With that bill settled, it was time to think about lunch. My dad visited Amsterdam in his youth and when I had told him I was going, he didn’t seem concerned about my safety or sobriety; he just wanted me to try the herring. (Really, Dad? You visited Amsterdam and all you have to say about it is, “The pickled herring was delicious”?!)

So I did. If the authenticity of a local food can be measured by the number of actual locals who eat it, I chose my herring shop well. The menu was not printed in English and the other customers were Dutch, not tourists.

Dutchy Dutchness.

Unlike this lady, I did not deep throat my herring. The sandwich was fine but it didn't live up to my dad's hype.

There was a still a strong wind that made it unpleasant to be outdoors and I had heard great reviews of the van Gogh Museum, so I decided to suck it up and spend the admission price to check it out.

The museum was interesting and I did learn a lot about van Gogh—for instance, how did I not know that he painted this picture?—but 14€ was a hefty admission fee for a mere hour and a half of fun.

If you visit Amsterdam, dear readers, I suppose I would recommend the van Gogh museum if you’re not concerned about your budget—but if you have some euros to spare, might I suggest visiting the Dutch supermarket?

Foreign supermarkets are magical wonderlands of curiosities and excitement, and I bought myself some incredible edible souvenirs: a jar of fantastic peanut butter, signature Dutch waffle cookies, a bag of Kettle Chips (they n’existent pas in France), and—omgomgomgomg—a jar of crunchy Speculoos butter.

My favorite, however, was the sheer abundance of sprinkles. I was mesmerized. This entire rack is devoted to sprinkles.

Finally, upon another one of Nic’s fabulous suggestions, I headed back to the Red Light District for the best thing I saw in Amsterdam: The Prostitution Information Center.

I have to go stick a check in the mail, but after that I promise to tell you all about the PIC. (I’ve already written it; just have to spellcheck before I post.)

Here I Amsterdam

So far I would say I’m 80% infatuated with Amsterdam.

Wednesday I explored and got hopelessly lost but ended the evening nicely, chatting with a cafe owner. Yesterday I visited the Anne Frank house and explored some more with Cassie and her friends.

Today I think it’s raining so I may need to make it a museum day.

Nantes my ordinary day

I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch. Christmas has turned out to be time-consuming. Since I do so little shopping, I relished the wee bit of shopping I did, making multiple trips to, for instance, the papeteries where I bought cards and the supermarket where I bought candy. That’s how I spent most of last week. Well, that and watching Christmas movies repeatedly and listening to carols while I addressed said cards. I also had a pretty big weekend.

On Friday, I visited Nantes, the whopping third city I’ve been to in France. It’s only 45 minutes away by train but I hadn’t been yet, which is weird considering that I’ve been kind of obsessed with Nantes for over three years, albeit in a very roundabout way.

If you’ve received a mixtape from me in that time then you know that Beirut’s song “Nantes” is a serious contender for the title of My Favorite Song of All Time. In fact, it’s the reason that I listed Nantes as my first choice of region when I applied to come to France.

I can’t listen to it without grinning, skipping to the beat, and waving my fingers in the air as if I’m conducting it. (I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve gotten weird looks for doing so while listening to it in my headphones.) I’m not usually very devoted to celebrity crushes, but no matter how many times I watch this video, I can’t help but clutch at my heart in a feeble attempt to keep it from palpitating wildly over Zach Condon.

Considering it was therefore a lifelong (well, okay, three-year) dream for me to visit Nantes, it’s funny that the long arm of the law was what finally dragged me there. I had a mandatory appointment at the Office of Immigration. My friend Caitlin’s appointment was scheduled within an hour of mine, so we decided to make a day of it.

I was hoping that the city would make me as absurdly happy as the song named after it does. It was a high bar to set, so I wasn’t surprised or terribly upset when it didn’t live up to that standard. It was a pretty nice day nonetheless.

First stop: the castle. Angers’ castle has a more imposing location at the top of a bluff, but Nantes’ gets a lot of badass cred for having an actual moat. In Angers, the moat is filled with flowers. In theory, I prefer the peaceful image of a moat filled with flowers…that just happen to be fertilized with blood shed by enemies past…awkward…

but in practice, when I visit a castle, I wanna see a motherfuckin’ moat.

This being Europe and us being tourists and all, we walked to the cathedral next. The first was unimpressive by European standards. The second, though, was fantastic, 10% because it was gigantic and the stained glass was gorgeous and my art history geek friend was telling me about Gothic and Romanesque columns—and 90% because of an accidental crime scene. Is it just me, or does the juxtaposition of this painting

and this cross that had been taken down for repair

note the hand

make it look like Jesus was crucified about ten minutes ago?

From there we went to the art museum and then had tasty croque monsieurs and  éclairs for lunch.

I can tell by looking whether a boulangerie will be any good, and this one was even prettier than most.

This is off-topic, but I wanted to share these amazing potty training chairs that were outside a shop. The pink one said, “Queen of the pop-oooh!”

I wonder how many toddlers have, not knowing any better, used them right there on the street?

We spent the next several long, boring hours in the Office of Immigration. It was an Ellis Island sort of thing, very slightly updated for the 21st century. They just want to make sure you won’t give everyone TB, and if you assure them that you aren’t pregnant with an illegitimate child that you’re planning to pawn off on the French government, they’ll reward you with a stamp in your passport.

Caitlin and I celebrated our temporarily-official status in proper French fashion, drinking hot wine in a bar that looked like it predates the USA.

My first hot wine was merely great, but the second was magical. The bartender who made it shared my belief that there is no such thing as too much cinnamon.

 

And finally, for dinner we had a Nantes specialty: savory crêpes called gallettes and apple cider. (I would normally have taken a picture of the whole meal, but crêpes aren’t the most photogenic food. They’re just brown squares on the plate when they arrive.)

This is the locally-grown, grown-up version of that Martinelli’s stuff our parents used to give us on special occasions: delicious sparkling apple cider, only better because it’s alcholic!

And that, ladies and gents, was my day in Nantes. Tune in tomorrow for more on what happened in the Office of Immigration.

Paris, je t’aime (but only as friends)

As I mentioned in my last post, I went to Paris last weekend. I had nearly two weeks off of work—welcome to France! I was hoping to take advantage of the long break to leave the country. I didn’t get my act together in time and then there was another general strike on the day I would have tried to fly out, so it works out just fine that I hadn’t paid for a flight I would have missed.

I was feeling depressed, though, at the thought of spending two whole glorious weeks off here in Angers. (As my friend Colin would say, what a bourgeois problem!) I was hoping to do something a bit more unique than the ol’ cliché weekend in Gay Paree, but, okay, fine, twist my arm—I guess if I really have nothing better to do, it wouldn’t kill me to spend a weekend in Paris, right?

So that’s exactly what I did. Thursday night, I decided to stop talking about it and just book a freakin’ ticket. (If you’re feeling jealous, please know that I’m aware how lucky I am to be living somewhere that’s just a 20E train ride from Paris.)

Friday (Classic Tourist Day):

-Had to leave before sunrise, but if there’s ever been a good reason to get out of bed before dawn, going to Paris is it.
-Wandered through the tourist heart of Gay Paree, past Notre Dame and up to the Centre Pompidou (more on the Pompidou later)
-Met up with my Moroccan friend Bouz under the Arc de Triomphe and strolled the Champs-Elysées
-Did something I’m not proud of. We ate lunch in the McDonald’s on the Champs-Elysées. But before you go shaming me for being an American tourist in the McDonald’s on the Champs, please bear in mind that I live well under the poverty line here and I was on the freakin’ Champs-Elysées. I was very hungry and it was the only place I could possibly afford within at least a 3-kilometer radius. (To be honest, I have absolutely no sense of how long a kilometer is, but I’m confident about that statistic anyway.)
-Wandered through the Tuileries and across a gorgeous bridge to the Hôtel des Invalides, one of many tributes to Frenchmen who have sacrificed life or limb for their motherland.
[Tangent: For all the United States’ military might, I was thinking that the French are much better at acknowledging their soldiers’ sacrifices than America is, until it occurred to me that I was in the nation’s capital. I suppose D.C. is similarly packed with monuments, and the U.S. does aside both Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day each year. Furthermore, we’ve only been a nation for 234 years, whereas the French have millenia’s worth of wars to commemorate—but then, I think the U.S. has done more than enough warmongering in just two centuries to more than make up for that. Thoughts?]
-Toasted la dolce vita as we sipped café au lait and watched as Paris strolled by our table at a corner café
-Bouz had to leave, but I had the delightful company of the Claude Monet exhibit at the Grand Palais

Not my best fact, but it was a great exhibit.

-Exhausted, went back toward the hostel where, unfortunately, I had a terribly disappointing dinner of saucisson de somefrenchregion-frites. I was expecting a well-seasoned native French sausage and fries (which are actually French when you’re in France, hon hon hon), but what I got was basically two hot dogs and fries that clearly came from a bag in the freezer. I would have been perfectly satisfied if it had only cost me 3E, but this sad excuse for a dinner in Paris cost NINE euros. Paris is shockingly expensive.

Saturday (Slightly Quirkier Tourist Day):

-Got up early, full of good intention to arrive early at the museum I was eager to visit, but got distracted wandering slowly and happily through a delightful pleine-air market in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, where I bought specialty seasoning salts from my new favorite Frenchman and ate my first of three crêpes of the day

This man was so fond of his speciality salts that he kissed the sachets goodbye before selling them to me.

-Spent the next several hours in rapture over the Jean Michel Basquiat exhibit at the Musée d’Art Moderne. I took a break to have an overpriced-but-delicious lunch of turkey in a creamy mustard sauce in the museum restaurant and charge up on espresso just so I could take in my fill of the expansive (over 150 works!) retrospective. I’ve been fascinated with Basquiat for year, but I had never seen an original. I’m sure I don’t need to explain how different that is and I learned a lot! Also enjoyed the exhibit by Didier Marcel, a conceptual, minimalist indoor forest. Didn’t so much enjoy the exhibit by Larry Clark, though it did make me think about the theoretical boundary between art and pornography.

One clearing in the minimalist forest.

-Had a dinner that challenged the notion that French food comes in reasonable portions: a ham and cheese crêpe that weighed nearly a kilo, and that’s probably how much more I weigh after consuming it. I topped it off with a juicy pear that was, if not as big as my entire head, at least as big as my brain.
-Met up with my old friend Mary Kathryn (we go back even farther than junior high and both happen to be in France this year) to catch up and drink beer and people watch under the Eiffel Tower. During the day the Eiffel Tower just shows off. I mean, it just sits there saying, “I’M PARIS!” and I’m like, “Okay, fine, I’ll be excited that you’re Paris.” At night, though, it’s really beautiful. It looks like it’s made of gold.

 

Sunday (Tourist Getting Tired Day):

-Ate a delicious breakfast in Montmartre that included the best orange juice I’ve ever tasted in my life
-Ankles in agony from stupidly wearing shoes that were too flat for all the walking I’d been doing, I scoured a bunch of cheap shoe stores and splurged (10 whole euros!) on the first pair of sneaker-type shoes I found
-Went into the Centre Georges Pompidou, thinking I’d just check it out and make a note of whether I’d want to come back later. (I loved visiting Paris with the attitude that if I didn’t make it to something, it will still be there if I come back in a month or two.) I ended up sticking around for a few hours because I got completely caught up in two exciting, inspiring feminist exhibits: Nancy Spero and elles@pompidou.
-Watched the sun set over Paris as I ate a picnic dinner on the steps at Cathédrale Sacré Coeur

The Eiffel Tower just wishes it were as gorgeous as the sunset behind it.

 

Monday (I’m Having Fun But I’ve Got to Get Out of Here Before I Spend More Money Day):

Red-faced at the Red Mill.

-Luckily, my second of two hostels was located just blocks from the heart of Montmartre, so I took advantage of my last few hours in Paris to wander around the area, which I adore.
-Took the obligatory tourist picture outside the Moulin Rouge
-Had yet another café au lait—this one at Café des Deux Moulins, which you may recognize from the movie Amélie! (And yes, I did use the bathroom where they DO IT.)

I, however, didn’t do it in there.

Jeez, that was a long post! Thanks, readers. I hope I kept it entertaining. (If you read this far, please consider leaving a comment. I can tell how many people have clicked on my blog each day, but not who they are or whether they actually read the whole thing.)