Coming back to this little space of mine to keep my sanity in check during this period of total insanity that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Since I have a little bit of extra time on my hands and we’ve been talking about the importance of daily writing in one of my classes, I thought I’d make the attempt even if it’s just for a few minutes a day.
Today was day 2 of our official “lockdown”; we’re not quite as shut-in as those in other states or countries, but nevertheless, with all university activity going remote and all “non-essential” businesses shut down, there’s just simply not much else to do but stay home. Dani and I also have the added layer of needing to self-quarantine for two weeks, as we’ve just come back from traveling abroad. While Mexico isn’t a hotbed of coronavirus activity, we spent four days at a resort surrounded by people from all corners of the world and took a total of four flights during our travels. So, better safe than sorry.
If I had to pick a word to characterize the last few days, it would be gone. Everything is just suddenly…gone. The town is empty. The grocery stores look like they’ve been ransacked. There’s no toilet paper, anywhere. Normalcy is gone, and nobody knows when it will be back, if ever.
But there are silver linings to be had as well. These strict measures will hopefully help to “flatten the curve” to keep our health care system from being totally overwhelmed. Carbon emissions are down, which means our planet gets a much-needed break. People are helping each other. This morning I took a live yoga class via Instagram, thanks to a studio in NYC that has moved everything to Instagram (for free) while everyone is stuck at home. Even the instructors appear to be teaching from their apartments. The liquor stores in Pennsylvania are shutting down indefinitely, but they put everything on sale, so I was able to get four bottles of my favorite wine for the price of two normally. It seems trivial, but I’m clinging to the little things.
Still, I can’t help but feel some trepidation and fear of what’s to come. It’s the same feeling I remember in the wake of 9/11, one that I was still too young to fully understand at the time: the feeling that the entire world was about to change, but without any idea of what that new future would look like. Perhaps we can make something good of it.
As Dani and I planned the itinerary for our time in Munich, we looked at a few possible day trips to get out of the city and see some of the other cool stuff that Germany has to offer. I was originally most interested in visiting Schloss Neuschwanstein, that giant castle that was supposedly the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle, but given that it is a Mecca for Instagram “influencers” (and wannabes) and knowing that it would be likely overrun with people all vying for the same exact shot, I decided against it. A deal on GetYourGuide for a day trip to Salzburg, Austria, however…well, it piqued my interest. We hadn’t realized how close Munich actually is to Salzburg (a mere 2 hours on the train) and being pretty big fans of The Sound of Music, we decided to go for it. Popping over to Salzburg for the day also offered an added bonus: another country to cross off our “visited” list!
The morning of our day trip we had enough time to grab breakfast and a coffee before wandering over to the meeting point at the train station. Once we boarded the train, our guide, Maxine, gave us a historical overview of Salzburg and also talked quite a lot about The Sound of Music and the different places around town where key scenes were filmed. Dani and I have a tradition of watching the movie every year around Christmas time, so we were definitely excited to see the locations in real life! The trip itself was quick and just before we rolled into the train station, we got a stunning view of Salzburg from the train – fortress atop the hill and all.
Our guide started us on a walking tour, and the first stop were the Mirabell gardens, where much of the iconic “Do-Re-Mi” sequence from The Sound of Music was filmed. We had a few free minutes to wander through the garden, then met back up with the group to head over to the Old Town. We’ve seen a lot of Old Towns, living in Europe, and Salzburg definitely didn’t disappoint. Mozart’s birth house, the tiny corner cafés, the winding streets with the iron shop signs hanging out front…it was so charming! Maxine gave us a thorough tour of the main sights of the Old Town, and we finished in front of St. Peter Stiftskulinarium, one of the oldest restaurants in the world. It was first mentioned in a letter to Charlemagne in 803 A.D. Maxine had taken the liberty of making a lunch reservation for our group, but given that it’s kind of a pricey place, Dani and I opted out and hit the market for a quick bite instead so we could maximize our three hours of free time.
We knew we wanted to see the Sound of Music abbey, which is at the top of the hill, just next to the fortress so after our snack, we set out through the old town to find the trail to the top. Thankfully it wasn’t too challenging of a walk and we made it up the hill to the abbey relatively quickly. We spent some time poking around the outside and inside the smaller chapel; everything was peaceful and quiet. Of course we couldn’t stop ourselves quoting the moving as we stood at the gate where the Von Trapp children come to see Maria after her sudden departure from the Von Trapp household. Unfortunately, there was some cloudiness/fog/pollution that day, so the view of the Austrian alps from the abbey – which is magnificent, or so we heard – was somewhat obscured.
Coming back down from the abbey, we stopped to split a beer at one of Austria’s oldest breweries, Stiegl, founded in 1492 and supposedly frequented by Mozart. While we were there, we ran into Maxine, our guide, who let us know that lunch at the restaurant had run a little longer than she’d thought, so we had the option to stay one hour longer in Salzburg if we so chose. Score! With the extra time, decided to go for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at a little family-owned café that our guide recommended, where we indulged in two different kinds of cake and milchkaffee.
After our afternoon dessert, there wasn’t a ton of time left before our departure, so we did what we do best – went and sat next to the Salzach river and enjoyed the sun. Unfortunately our train ride home – though beautiful, as the fog/cloudiness had lifted and we could see the mountains and countryside – and our enthusiasm from the day were marred when an accident on the train tracks delayed our already late return to Munich by about another hour. Then, as we were sitting on the tracks, came the news that Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was burning. Joy tempered, we returned back to our hotel.
Reflecting on our day in Salzburg now, however, I can only smile! We knew we would enjoy it, but like our experience in Poland, we had no idea just how lovely Salzburg would actually be. It definitely has inspired us to visit Austria again in the future, and to perhaps spend a little bit more time in the countryside.
We kicked off our weeklong spring break (two weeks for Dani!) by hopping on a quick flight over to Munich, Germany. You’ll remember from our trip to Krakow that technically, we have been to Munich before, but this time we actually went there on purpose!
I was going to title this post “Mediocre Munich” because, to be honest, we both felt kind of meh about it, but I changed my mind once I was reminded of Nomadic Matt’s recent blog post about globalization. The fact that I feel kind of “blah” about Munich is not really about Munich at all, but rather my warped tourist’s perception of what I thought Munich should be. The reality did not match the myth that I had created for myself, which isn’t Munich’s fault at all. It’s mine. Munich does not owe me shit.
That said, Munich was fine. We had a good time, but it’s not a place I feel particularly compelled to go back to. We got in to the city really late on Saturday evening and went straight to our hotel, so that we could be up and at ’em for our 10 AM free walking tour. The walking tour was a basic introduction to the city, but we enjoyed our guide so much that during the tour’s short bathroom break, we immediately booked his afternoon Third Reich-themed walking tour, which was just as excellent. So the bulk of our first day was devoted to learning more about Munich itself, and we did enjoy ourselves quite a lot on the walking tours, though the weather left a bit to be desired. In fact, it was cold!
Naturally, we used the cold weather as an excuse to hang out in Munich’s most famous beer hall, the Hofbrauhaus, both in between our two walking tours and right afterward. Is it touristy and ridiculous? Yes. Did we care? Not even slightly. I mean, the beers were as big as our heads!
The very next day we took a day trip to Salzburg, and then we had one more full day in Munich before we took off to Brussels. We chose to spend the majority of it at the Viktualienmarkt, a huge open-air market in the center of town that also has a beer garden right at its center. It’s much more frequented by the locals and quite reasonably priced. By this time, the weather had greatly improved, so we didn’t mind spending a few hours outdoors in the beer garden at all. After, we went to the Royal Residence museum and then popped over to spend a few minutes in the Englischer garten, Munich’s version of Parc de la tête d’or.
The part that sort of soured me on Munich, though, was how we were treated by the people there. We got the royal tourist treatment on several occasions – and not in a good way. There were certain things going in that we expected, like being brought and charged for a bottle of water at dinner instead of getting a pitcher of tap water, because I lacked the German skills to specifically ask for a pitcher. The same kind of thing happens in Paris, though because I speak French we are usually able to avoid that kind of price gouging for tourists. But in Munich we just felt like we were being constantly ripped off – a bottle of water was twice as expensive on our bill than what was shown on the menu. Our meals were more expensive – on two occasions at two separate restaurants, our servers heard us speaking English and swapped our German menus for English ones, which had higher prices. And on two occasions at two separate restaurants, when the dinner bill came the waiters “reminded” us that, “the price doesn’t include tip! How much would you like to tip me – 20 percent??” which not only is far from the general European practice of rounding up to an even figure on the bill, but is just a tacky way to communicate. And our cab ride to the airport the morning we left (public transit didn’t run that early) was seventy euros for a twenty-six minute ride. I couldn’t help but compare it to my experiences in both New York and Paris, where a cab ride to the airport (often up to an hour of driving, especially in Paris) has never cost me more than 50 bucks.
So yeah, we left Munich feeling a little underwhelmed and turned off. I don’t want to make generalizations about a place and its people – I’m sure if we spent more time there, off the beaten tourist track, that we would have a much different view. Talking to the locals we encountered in the Viktualienmarkt was really the highlight of our experience in Munich, and I would have enjoyed a lot more of that and a lot less feeling like the “stupid American abroad” trope. Perhaps we’ll go back one day – to Germany, certainly, there’s just so much to see and experience – but for now, we say auf wiedersehen.
Life has been rolling merrily along here in France. My teaching schedule this semester has been mercifully easy – so easy, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll ever adapt to having a “regular” job again. I only teach one class on Thursday evenings, and then three classes in a row on Fridays, from 8 AM until 2 PM. That’s left plenty of time to explore Lyon, read the MA list, and put in some hours for freelance projects.
We’ve not done as much traveling this semester as we would really like (the passage of time has always and will forever follow an academic calendar), mostly due to the dog and Dani’s school schedule which is a bit more punishing than my current five-and-a-half-day-weekend situation. Taking a trip back to the States also set us back a bit financially, as one of those trips was an unpleasant surprise. Spring Break is on the horizon, though – and we’ve got an adventure planned!
Until then, we’ve just been enjoying the little pleasures that come along with living here. The weather has been exceptionally nice, so that has meant lots of afternoon picnics in the park and walks along the river. We try to hit the open air market at least once a week, and enjoy a coffee or a pint on a terrace in the afternoons. I also recently had the pleasure of finally meeting someone in person who I have known for years online; she is part of my personal learning network on Twitter and was in Lyon with students for their spring break. We were able to have dinner together, and it was so nice to finally get to speak with her face-to-face!
Also, just a few days ago we went to our first European soccer match. It was a match between the local team, Olympique Lyonnais, and the football club from Rennes for the “coupe de France” which, as far as I can tell, is the game that decides the best team in France. In an attempt to fill up the stadium, tickets went on sale for only 1 euro! A local friend of ours, knowing that we’ve wanted to make it to a match this year, bought a few and invited us along. Unfortunately, OL lost to Rennes in the last few moments of the match, but it was fun and exciting nonetheless! A few months back Dani bought a ticket package to the last three matches of the women’s World Cup, so we’re looking forward to (hopefully) seeing the United States play at the same stadium in July.
We’ve also settled on a return date to the United States: August 7th. It’s exactly one week shy of the one-year “anniversary” of our arrival in France. I’m trying not to get too down in the dumps about going back home, but it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the countdown. There is still a lot to look forward to in the months to come – we have a TON of travel plans coming up and our best friends are coming to visit in June. I just know that once the “busy” season sets in, as summer begins, that the days and weeks are going to fly by even faster than they have been. So for now, I’m enjoying this “slow” season and trying to soak up as much as I can with the time we have left.
One of the (many) upsides to spending this year in France has been the ability to finally go and see all of the cool things I spent five years exploring in class with my students. La Fête des Lumières? Check! Christmas Markets? Drank all the vin chaud we could stomach. The gorgeous lake and canals in Annecy? Done and done.
A few weekends ago I got to cross another literal textbook experience off the list – the Carnaval de Nice! It is one of the biggest Carnaval (or Carnival, for you anglophones) celebrations in France; and it is a family affair, for those of you more familiar with its raucous cousin from New Orleans. Going to the carnaval in Nice was on my France bucket list before we even boarded the airplane last August, though I was worried it wasn’t going to be able to happen as the bulk of the events would be happening during the one week I had already planned a visit back to the States to see my new baby niece (of course). However, given the flexibility of my teaching schedule this semester, we were able to make it work by heading to Nice for the very last weekend of the celebrations, and staying until Monday afternoon.
We got to Nice at about noon on Saturday – just in time for a quick lunch and for me to sprint to the ticket booth to buy our entry to the bataille des fleurs, which I (mistakenly) thought was free for those in the standing-room only area. Luckily, Dani held our spot in the long security line and I made it back to her literally just in the nick of time – thirty seconds later and she would have had to step aside, all progress lost.
The bataille des fleurs is basically exactly what it sounds like: a relatively short parade, where the floats are completely covered top-to-bottom by fresh flowers. The parade route is a circle, and it begins with the performers on each float tossing branches of mimosa (the flower, not the cocktail) to the spectators. After about one full circuit, when all the mimosas are gone, they start to dismantle the floats themselves and toss the other flowers to the (very eager, as we found) parade-watchers. At the end, if you’re lucky – or athletic – you leave with a lovely fresh bouquet.
The evening parade, though, is really the main event. Each year the Carnaval de Nice has a theme; this year it was Roi du Cinéma (King of Cinema) and the floats are designed around the theme. I have to say, these are not your typical parade floats. These things are absolutely massive creations, often satirical in nature, and truly are amazing to see. They move slowly around the parade route, surrounded by dancers in costume and smaller versions of costumed characters related to the main subject of the float. Confetti explodes at random intervals, and the music never stops.
Plus – it’s in Nice. It doesn’t get much better than that, in terms of locale. It really was the perfect weekend; we can’t wait to go back once the weather is a bit nicer, and hopefully enjoy some more time in the water.
I know this post is super late, given that we traveled to Krakow in November, but I just really have to talk about our food tour experience since it was such a great one. We’re food tour people – I’ve posted about our amazing experience in Rome here – and food tours have become our go-to activity in new places that we visit. It’s a fun way to see a city, and the guides typically make excellent restaurant recommendations for places that provide quality food and are authentic and not too overtaken by tourists.
We knew we definitely wanted to do a food tour while we were in Krakow, and we opted to book through Delicious Poland. They’re locally owned and operated, and though the company has expanded to include tours in other cities like Wroclaw and Warsaw, it was created in Krakow. In fact, our guide for our food tour through Kazimierz, the city’s former Jewish quarter, was the company’s CEO/co-founder, Kamila.
Having done several food tours, Dani and I have a pretty good idea of what we like and this one ticked all the boxes. It was a group experience, but small – there were only six of us, plus Kamila. We’ve been on larger tours and we’ve been on smaller tours where it was just us and the guide, and we definitely like the group atmosphere – there is just something fun about discovering and sharing new food with other people. But the one thing that we really loved about this particular tour through Krakow was that we tried foods that were totally traditional to Poland and that we also would probably never have tried on our own. I mean, everyone likes pierogies and potato pancakes – but pickled herring? Chilled beet soup? In all honesty, I would never order either at a restaurant, but I’m so glad we had the opportunity to try them on our food tour and that the food choices were not tailored to the palates of finicky tourists.
So, what did we eat?
We kicked off the tour at a pierogi take-out joint and sampled four different kinds of pierogies, three savory and one sweet. As it was getting close to the Christmas holidays, Kamila explained that the pierogies she chose were typical of those served at Christmas time in Krakow, and she explained how they are typically made (it sounds super tedious). From there, we walked further into Kazimierz and stopped at a restaurant where we the aforementioned chilled beet soup, which was surprisingly delicious and not at all “earthy’ tasting as one normally expects with beets. We also had zurek, a hot soup made from a sourdough starter. It reminded me a lot of the dill pickle soup at the Polish-American restaurant my family frequents. I’m not sure why I was initially put off by the idea of a sour soup, given that I quite like the dill pickle version, but the zurek was excellent.
From there, we went to a Polish vodka bar where we sampled two different kinds of vodka – one traditional/plain, and one flavored – accompanied by herring and other small bites, like smoked sheep’s milk cheese. I’ll be honest: this stop was my least favorite, food-wise, as I’m just not normally a fish person under the best of circumstances and herring is quite particular. But it’s typical in Poland to have herring alongside vodka, as the grease of the fish complements the bite of the alcohol, so I tried it. Final verdict: herring is not for me, but Dani liked it (as did the others in our group) so definitely don’t be put off by my unpopular take. I’m glad Kamila included this stop on the tour, since herring is everywhere in Krakow, so it added authenticity to the whole experience.
Wisely, we took some time to “walk it off” before heading over to a craft brewery, Ursa Maior. Krakow is big-time into craft beer (definitely NOT a problem for us) and this brewery in particular was cool for two reasons: one, the head brewer is a woman and two, they only serve their own beer, which is 100% vegan, natural, and locally made. Not much else to say on this stop – we love beer, so we loved it (obviously).
Finally, we had our stop for dinner at a restaurant where Dani and I had actually stopped for a light lunch earlier in the day…whoops. No matter – we were more than happy to eat there again because the food was amazing. We had a beef goulash and potato pancakes, followed up by a dessert (which I unfortunately don’t remember) and kompot, a juice made from a variety of boiled fruits.
To say that we left fat and happy would be an understatement. And, as a little side note and shout out to our awesome guide, Kamila, she helped me read the instructions on the cold medicine I had bought earlier in the day. She also recommended a great paczki place that we tried the very next morning (there was no way I was going to Krakow and not getting paczki). I went with Kamila’s suggestion of rose jam filling and all I can say is that the Michigan paczki market needs to get on board with that particular flavor, STAT.
Really, we can’t recommend Delicious Poland enough. This is not a sponsored post – we just know a good food tour when we see one, and this is right up there with our epic experience in Rome. If you ever find yourself in Poland, check them out – you won’t regret it!
The time is passing here much more quickly than we would like, as is evidenced by my lack of posting. I feel like I just wrote about our trip to Krakow (heck, I feel like we just went to Krakow) but here we are, end of January already.
We really enjoyed the Christmas season here. Between the Christmas markets that pop up at the end of November/early December and the Fête des Lumières in Lyon, it felt so much more festive than it normally does at home. The only thing missing was the snow – not that I particularly enjoy snow, but I did miss it during the holidays. Though I have to admit, it’s been really nice to be able to spend the season walking on (mostly) dry streets and in temperatures that have rarely descended below freezing.
We kicked off winter with a trip “up North” to visit our friend, Célia. We spent the weekend snuggling her new baby boy, visiting the Christmas market in Montbéliard (seriously impressive) and gorging ourselves on raclette and crêpes.
The weekend after was the Fête des Lumières, a yearly celebration where the entire city is lit up by various light displays and installations. Even though it was a “meh” year, according to our local friends, we were still sufficiently marveled. The atmosphere was just so nice…for four nights, everyone was outside exploring the city, and just about every café, store, and restaurant in town had a small table set up outside to serve vin chaud and other snacks to help keep everyone warm while they took in the sights.
Dani’s parents came to visit on Christmas. They spent two weeks with us; one week at our place in Lyon, and then we took off on an adventure to Paris (obviously) and Annecy, a small-ish city in the Alps. It was absolutely freezing cold in Annecy but ho-ly crap I could not have cared less – what a charming place. The mountains! The lake! The food!
Since they left, we’ve been hunkered down in Lyon, just enjoying the day-to-day. We moved apartments in mid-December and have been so glad to have a space that’s just for us. It’s tiny, but it’s perfect for the two of us and Lucie.
We have some fun travel plans coming up in the next few months, and I do want to re-cap a couple of other things from Krakow that we really enjoyed, now that my teaching schedule has been greatly reduced and I have the time to do more writing.