- Chantez et vous trouverez votre chanson -

Life isn't about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.
     -George Bernard Shaw

It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves- in finding themselves.
      -Andre Gide

Sunday, October 26, 2008

France Finale

I knew I was ready to go home the day my suitcase broke.

I was moving to a different apartment in Paris for the umpteenth time and basically dying as I tried to lug all my shit (pardon my French) down the street when all of a sudden, my suitcase felt very awkward.  I stopped to check everything out and realized that the long handle used to drag the suitcase on wheels had bent and snapped under all the weight and was now dangling by a thread.  Fab.  Just fabulous.

My plan of taking two buses over to the new apartment I was staying in for my last 3 days being thwarted, I hailed the next cab I saw and overpaid just to get to the apartment in one piece and without killing someone.  That was when I realized I was sick of living like a nomad.  As much as I loved being in France, shuttling all my belongings from city to city and apartment to hotel to apartment was wearing on me.  I was done and it was time to go home (plus, the money was wearing thin).

That being said, I enjoyed my last week to the fullest.  Meaning I spent every last dime that I owned.  I went to Laduree and waited on a line far too long for its own good for delicioussss, expensive macaroons, went out to eat as much as humanly possible, and as a grand finale, spent 400 euro on amazing French vintage dresses.

Before this trip, the idea of vintage clothes intrigued me, but I didn't really know where to look or how to go about the whole shebang.  Then, this summer, on an unexpected plane ride to Florida sans reading material, I came across an article about Ooh La La Vintage in the US Airways magazine stuffed in my seat back pocket.  A private vintage boutique based out of Paris, the article mentioned that I could arrange for a personal lesson on vintage, learn the styles that would flatter my body type and then try out all sorts of pieces from their collection.  Sounded like a winner to me.  I earmarked the page, stole the magazine and held onto it until I arrived in France.

Ooh La La Vintage was amazing.  The owner, Tara met me right outside of Paris at the RER metro station and led me back to the boutique.  We spent the afternoon chatting and as she filled me in on the history of fashion and the keys to a good vintage piece, I got to play dress up! It was the perfect way to spend an afternoon in my opinion.  She even made us lunch!  

I happen to be made perfectly for vintage clothes- I'm petite, and women back in the day tended to be built very small, so everything was in my size for once!  I also have an hourglass figure - a small waist countered by some good ol' baby-bearing hips - meaning I fit nicely into those awesome 50's dresses.  After she told me this, I knew it was going to be dangerous, haha.  

Tara was so helpful: she wanted to see everything I tried on and gave honest judgement on the fit and style.  There was absolutely no pressure to buy... but of course I fell in love with everything and just had to have it!  I walked out five hours later with my first five pieces of vintage: a dark 50's button-down tartan dress, a cream crochet curve-hugging dress from the 70's, a 60's Cacharel plaid A-line high-waisted skirt, a tweed vest from the 30's and finally, a olive green leather cinching belt with awesome detailing from the 80's.  

I left France a happy (yet broke), overpacked lady.

Finding History in Honfleur

My trip to Honfleur was my "voyage a la source."  

My great-grandmother, Andree Charlotte LeBlanc was born in Honfleur - a cute, little marina town in Northern France, and visiting was my chance to see where she came from, and understand a bit more of my past than I had before.  It was my chance to put on my sleuthing shoes and fulfill my childhood dream of being a part of the Ghostwriter team (you know you loved it, too).  Well, not that serious, but I was on a bit of a wild goose chase for answers: What was her childhood in France like?  What street did she live on?  Do we have any relatives left here?  Why did her family move to the U.S.?

It was harder than I imagined to get to Honfleur without a car.  After five different buses/metros/trains, I finally arrived in Trouville... not even Honfleur.  Apparently, Honfleur doesn't have a train station, so I had to stay in the next town over.  It turned out better than expected - Trouville is a really adorable beach town with old Victorian beach houses, old-fashioned changing rooms right on the water, and plenty of good restaurants and inexpensive hotels (in the off season at least).  During the summer, Trouville and Deauville (another neighboring town) are two of the most popular weekend getaways for Parisians because they are only two hours from the city.

In the morning, I was able to jog on the beach right near my hotel, and then catch the local bus to Honfleur for only about 1.50 euro.  I came armed with an address, a name and a date.  The address: 36 Rue Lingots.  An Henri LeBlanc (we think he was maybe a cousin of my great-grandma) wrote her numerous postcards after she moved to the U.S. from this address.  The name: Laurent LeBlanc, the only LeBlanc I could find in the White Pages of Honfleur.  The date: 1898, the year my great-grandma was born.

Honfleur was smaller than I thought.  I started my day by searching for the address.  I easily found it... right near L'Eglise de Ste. Catherine, a church famous in Honfleur for being the only all-wooden Catholic Church.  It was a home-wares store on the first floor with a set of apartments upstairs.  Really cool to imagine someone sitting at one of those windows nearly 80 years ago and writing postcards that I still hold onto today...

Next, I headed over to the Hotel de Ville (town hall) to see about finding any information about my great-grandmother through the old town documents.  But, alas, the Hotel de Ville was closed daily from 12:30-2:30pm for lunch.  Yes, in France, they close things for lunch and on Sundays.  Hard for an American to get used to...  So I set out to explore the town for awhile and find lunch.  I poked around all the different shops and tiny, little roads and took plenty of pictures of the Vieux Bassin, the dock famous for all the Impressionist and Watercolor painters that have loved it over the years.  I found a restaurant serving Moules a la Normandie (mussels in cream sauce) and broke for lunch.  I treated myself to a Pommeau aperatif, an apple-based liquor popular in the Normandie region, and a Tarte Tartin (upside-down apple tarte) for dessert.  Why not?  As my trip was nearing an end, I no longer feared eating by myself and I was all about eating as much yummy French food as possible before I couldn't anymore (that may be why I feel a little extra pudge in my stomach area that wasn't there before, hmm).

Trying the Hotel de Ville again, I faced the typical French attitude... at first, they basically told me it was impossible for them to search for anything on her because I didn't know enough background info.  But, as I had learned to do during my stay, I kept inquiring, and a nice woman finally directed me to the Town Archives.  At the archives, they found her birth certificate from 1898 as well as the marriage certificate of her parents from 1896 within five minutes.  It was so exciting to see all these incredibly old documents that led to my past!  The marriage certificate explained that on the day of their marriage, my great-great grandmother's father had been missing without any news for 17 years... interesting.  The birth certificate listed the road my great-grandma's family lived on, so I was then able to find the street she grew up on until moving to the U.S. when she was four years old.  So much history in one day!

My final stop of the day was Laurent LeBlanc's address.  Who knows... maybe we were cousins?!  It turns out Laurent LeBlanc was an artist (a good one, too!) and the address I found was his gallery.  I stopped in to chat with him when there were no customers around, and unfortunately, we were not related.  His family grew up in another French town, so it looks like the Honfleur LeBlancs of my family have died out or married.  Damn.  But, I did make a friend.  We talked for awhile and he showed me all his work, and then he offered to drive me back to Trouville in an hour, since I had missed the last bus back.  Sweet deal.

I finished my Honfleur day by painting a small tableau sitting on the edge of the Vieux Bassin, just like all the artists around me and all the artists of days before, and then hitched my ride back to the hotel.  Some mysteries solved, but other questions about my family history had just begun.

Monday, October 13, 2008

La Drome - Living the French Country Life

I've been traveling about a month and a half now (and mostly by myself) and I just realized something -- I think I might be proud of myself.  What I'm doing here (while lots of fun) is not easy.  With the help of a good friend back in New York, I've met up with different people in Paris and found places to stay.  I've gone multiple times to French travel agencies and (in French) figured out travel itineraries, rail passes and how to get around in this foreign country. With no definite "plan" before I left, I organized myself here and decided where I wanted to visit each day/week and when necessary, searched online and found hostels/hotels, etc... I might just be a good traveler!

As I write this, I'm leaving the Drome, one of my favorite areas of France.  I visited this area - a tiny village outside of Valence called Ste. Croix - once before, 3 years ago during a summer study abroad trip with St. John's University and fell in love.  Beautiful mountains, cute little towns, open markets, Clairette de Die (a bubbly and delicious wine specific to the area), horses, roosters, sheep... it's a simple and real way of living here.

I think I like it so much because it's such a different way of living than I'm used to.  It's a sort of departure from my life -- I stay in a plain bedroom in a monastery built in the 11th century, eat delicious French meals until I think I'm going to pop, go on hikes, picnics, and horseback riding, speak only in French and have very little contact with the outside world.

But then again, this whole trip has been a departure from my life.  I don't have to think about jobs, growing up, friends lost, boyfriends, or what I'm doing with my life.  I can just be.

Sadly, this once-in-a-lifetime trip will be ending all too soon, and I will have to think about all of the above again, and make some very big girl decisions.  But for 3 days, I was a French country girl, galloping through the mountains on a horse named Shepes without a care in the world...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Adventures in Amsterdam

Staying on a boat sounded much more glamorous than it was, haha.

When we arrived at Centraal Station in Amsterdam, it was rush hour and we had to fight through the crowds to find the "botel."  But once we found the dock, there were over 20 boats! I guess that makes sense for a city of canals, but it was confusing for us American girls. 

The gruff Dutchman that owned the boat showed us the way to our cabin (calling it a cabin is a stretch) -- and lucky for us, the way included a set of the steepest, skinniest stairs I've ever seen.  Once inside the "cabin," there wasn't even enough standing room for the two of us and our bags, haha.  My friend couldn't stretch her wingspan across the room without touching both walls and I couldn't sit up on the bottom bunk without bumping my head.  It was interesting to say the least!

We headed out for food and exploration and stopped at the first pizzeria we saw.  Bad idea.  It was the worst pizza I've ever tasted.  And the guy microwaved it!!  That is such a no-no when it comes to pizza.  We're from New York for Christ's sake!  That's not to say Amsterdam doesn't have good pizza.  I'm sure they do... just not where we went. 

Left to our own devices without tour guides like the California guys in Munich, we set off walking and hoped to run into something fun.  We found our way to the edge of the Red Light District and found a long row of coffee shops, bars and a quite interesting store called The Condomerie.  Plenty of people were out and about and we were curious about the whole coffee shop experience, but our prude American nature made us hesitant to walk in.  How does it work?...Is there a certain coffee shop etiquette??  Finally, we pushed our reservations aside and tried out Coffee Shop Sheeba.

Sheeba was great.  The middle-aged man behind the marijuana and hash counter showed us the menu, chatted with us and joked around.  We made our purchases and headed back to the boat.  3/4 of the way back, we made the brilliant realization that we lost our lighter somewhere in Munich.  Damn.  Amsterdam is an early city - all the stores are closed by 6 or 7pm and the bars and coffee shops close at 1am.  We were stuck.  Then came Funky.  

Funky was a Jamaican reggaeman (and possibly homeless) that was wandering and dancing to his own beat on the dock near the boats.  We went up to him, asked him for a light for a cigarette, he lit it and asked where we were staying and tried to chat... we responded far far away and scampered back to the deck to smoke our legal goods before he saw us.  We then came to the conclusion that though illegal, it just might be easier to smoke in America.

We sat on the dock together, looked at the beautiful city of canals at night and smoked.  A nice Dutch guy from the boat next door and his dog, Dolly came to join us.  After a few struggles, it was a perfect end to our first night in Amsterdam.  Then, the rain came and we had to head inside to our cubicle.

A few things to note about Amsterdam:

- A trip to Amsterdam is probably best during the summertime.  Surrounded by many canals and situated in the North, it was windy, freezing cold and raining during our whole stay in late September.  Plus in the summer, there are tulips!

- Go out early because most of the bars and coffee shops shut down around 1am.

- The Van Gogh Museum has an amazing collection of his work, but for some reason, it's more expensive than any other museum I've visited in Europe, and they don't offer a discount for people under 26 years old. (costs around 12.50 Euro)

- The Anne Frank Haus is a must-see.  We've all read the book and it was both moving and sad to see the actual place where her family hid as she wrote her diary.

- Amsterdam has great shopping.  If you're looking for funky trinkets and souvenirs for family and friends, there are tons of gift shops on every block.  And if you're looking for a great piece of Euro fashion to take home, there are a bunch of cool boutiques and shops like Sacha, where I found my new favorite boots.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

PROST! Oktoberfest in Munich

I left Munich with war wounds and a massive hangover, and I loved it.

Before this trip to the biggest beer festival in the world, I had never been to Germany or met many German people... but if Oktoberfest is any indication, I loveee them both.

My friend and I arrived in Munich after midnight on a Thursday and exhausted from the train, we assumed we'd go to bed early and get a good start the next morning... hahaha, not so much.  We had rented an apartment through Craig's List Munich (best idea ever - thanks Mel!) that was just 5 minutes walking distance from the fairgrounds and when we got inside, we met the 4 guys from Cali staying in the room next door.  Instant friends.  That's the thing about traveling -- you make instant friends wherever you go because frankly, you don't have anyone else!  We went straight to the local bar and quickly got our first taste of Oktoberfest.  The place was crawling with leiderhosen-clad men and Bavarian-dressed ladies already tanked from drinking all day.  They were jolly, loud and so much fun.  We didn't go to bed until probably 5am, and as soon as we got up the next day, we started all over again.

The guys showed us the best beer tents (don't be deceived -- the beer tents are huge, completely enclosed barn-type buildings) and we drank steins, danced on tables and rode the carnival rides (interesting when drunk...) all day.  We thought we were drinking well into the night, but as we later learned, it was probably 9pm when we left the festival grounds, ha.  But we didn't stop there... the pub we went to the first night became "our pub" for the week, and we made a point to go back every night post-Oktoberfest.  It was my "Traditions" in Germany :) and the beer maids knew us by the last night.
My memories may be a little dim thanks to the strong Bavarian brews, but I know I had a good time... there are pictures to prove it!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Thought of the Day

A French boy told me the other day that he knew he was fluent in English the day he began dreaming in English.

I wonder if I'll ever dream in French...

Euro Beauty and Fashion Finds

Can I just be European already?  Euro girls always look so fashionable and put together.  I love their nonchalant, au natural yet still looks perfect long hair, and even their short cropped coifs that only the likes of Vicky B and Anna from the O.C. (2003/2004 reference) can pull off without looking like a boy, butch, or both.  No matter how cute I thinkkk I look, I always feel frumpy around French girls.

So in my travels and attempts to gain a European sense of style, I've figured out a few things along the way...

French pharmacies are cute... shops with blinking neon green crosses dotting each corner with every product imaginable for complete health, beauty and well-being.  The pharmacies carry expensive French beauty brands, holistic heath products, and in addition, they sell medicines over the counter that in the States we need prescriptions for (score!).  One cool product I picked up is a citrus scented shampoo/shower gel combo by Rene Furterer Paris.  Why don't more companies make products like that?  It's so convenient!  This one is called Initia, Gel douche tonique cheveux & corps.  It's soap-free, smells fresh and lemony, and since I'm a multi-tasking traveler, I'm able to use it as my shampoo, body wash anddd shaving cream.  Not bad for a 12 euro set of two bottles.

Paris has their fair share of H&M's and stores we have in the U.S., but while poking around in St-Germain-des-Pres, I found a French shopping chain that I absolutely looove.  It's called Sinequanone.  It's far above the price level of an H&M, but not terribly expensive, and their clothes are tailored, hang nice and make use of interesting patterns.  In my opinion, the clothes there are perfect for the twenty-something set just getting into the working world.  I bought myself a high waisted cream silk skirt with splashes of navy and black cropped and tapered leg pants with a bow tie high waist.  Both will be perfect work attire (even though I don't currently have a job when I return, haha).  Also, side tidbit: I had no idea how to even pronounce the store name let alone know it's meaning, but I recently found out that "sinequanone" is a French term that means ideal.  If you ever want to look smart and savvy you can say, "C'est une situation sinequanone."  Like if you decided months in advance that you wanted to run a race and you practiced regularly, for you, the race will be "une situation sinequanone."  It's the best case scenario.

This last one is going to give a little credit to the Dutch: For high, flat Fall leather boots, Sacha is awesome.  Everywhere I went in Amsterdam, women were wearing flat leather boots to die for in every shade of brown, black and the rest of the rainbow.  They all looked so...warm.  Unfortunately, during my trip to Amsterdam, it was freezing, rainy and windy, so I was super jeal of the boots I was seeing everywhere until I was window shopping and came across Sacha. The store was closed at the time, but my boots were glowing in the window.  Love. at. first. sight.  They were smooth green leather, flat heel, rounded toe and almost knee length.  I ran back to the store the next day to try them on and it was a done deal.  They're wide enough to slip over my jeans perfectly, but still look great with a simple dress and tights or leggings and a sweater, and the shade of green goes with (almost) anything.  I've worn them every day since I bought them, no joke.  And Amsterdam had a great selection of boots and plenty of shoe stores, but one thing to note is that a lot of them were extraordinarily expensive.  Sacha wasn't cheap by any means, but I was okay with paying 109 euro for these puppies.

So, that sums up my spectacular beauty/fashion finds from the past month or so in Europe ;).

Things I've seen a lot here are leather bomber jackets, scarves for every occasion, boots boots and more boots, and a lot of cream, violet and navy shades.  What's the fashion scene like back home now??  I feel so out of touch...