Spring Break in Munich

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

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Carnival in Nice, France

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.

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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.

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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.

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Delicious Krakow

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.

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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).

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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.

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It’s hard to make this look appetizing in a photo, but believe me, it was delicious.

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!

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I see you looking at my donut, pigeon.

Winter in Europe

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.

Pérouges

We’ve been in Lyon for about three weeks now and while we love the city, we’re going a little stir crazy. Classes don’t start here until the 17th, which means that I’ve been effectively “off duty” work-wise since the beginning of May. (I don’t count teaching online, as that wasn’t really an everyday commitment like grad school/full-time teaching.) We moved back to Michigan at the end of July, so Dani has also been off for the last two-plus months; while it’s been nice, we’re also both very much feeling the need to get back to a routine.

So in an effort to keep ourselves occupied until we’re back to the long-awaited “real world”, we decided to take a day trip to Pérouges, a medieval town just up the road from Lyon. At first I was a little bit skeptical, as I thought it might be packed with tourists and totally inauthentic as such little towns can be (I’m looking at you, Frankenmuth and Mont-Saint-Michel) but much to my surprise, we had the place (mostly) to ourselves!

There wasn’t much to do in the cité itself other than take in the scenery and eat which is, let’s be honest, not a problem for either of us. There are some walking trails that circle Pérouges and then go out into the surrounding countryside that vary in length from 30 minutes to about 2.5 hours. Since Lucie came with us and we were operating on a semi-strict timeline because of the train schedule, we picked the 1.5 hour long trail. We ended up not finishing the whole thing because it was blazing hot and poor Lucie was wrecked, so after not quite an hour we took a shortcut back to Pérouges, had an absolutely enormous lunch, then milled about the town until it was time to had back to Méximieux to catch the train to Lyon.

You can click on any one of the photos below to see a larger version!

A Year in France: the FAQ

So, if you’ve been following along on social media, you’ve no doubt seen that we’ve been preparing for a trip abroad. There’s been no “formal” announcement, but as most of our friends and family know (and those who’ve been reading closely), this particular trip will last…about one year! Last October I was offered the opportunity to participate in my department’s international teaching exchange in Lyon, France; it’s always been a goal of mine to get back to France at some point, and at this stage of our lives – no kids, we’re not homeowners, not tied down by any one job – it just seemed like the right moment.

That said, we weren’t certain it would actually be happening until about two weeks before our scheduled departure date, as there was some drama with my visa application. Thankfully it all worked out for the best and we were able to leave as planned, with no delays or rescheduled flights or any of the other nightmare scenarios that ran through my head every night from May until…last Tuesday, when we were sitting at the airport and waiting for our flight to Paris.

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We made it down to Lyon yesterday afternoon after an unintentionally busy week in Paris and are just starting to settle in. Now that I have a little more free time to write, I thought I’d take a minute to address some of the questions that have kept popping up as we’ve told people about our new adventure!

Wait…what? You moved to France? Why?

Yep! Well, kind of – for a year. The university where I am doing my graduate work offers two year-long teaching exchanges in France – one in Strasbourg and one in Lyon. We happened to visit both cities in 2015 and we preferred Lyon (zero shade to Strasbourg though, which is a lovely place) and so when the time came, I applied to participate in the Lyon exchange.

What are you teaching?

Not French! For the first time in my career, I will be teaching English! My target audience is French university students. I’m not sure what variety of English classes I’ll be teaching just yet, but these exchanges usually involve helping students with their speaking.

Are you taking classes, too?

No. Participating in the exchange puts my degree progress on hold for one year, so this does not count toward my Master’s degree. I am expected to return to Pennsylvania at the end of my year in France to finish up my degree.

What will Dani do?

Dani is also here in France! Bringing her along made the process a little more challenging than it otherwise would have been, as we had to figure out a way to get her legally into the country for a year, but luckily she was able to sign up for some classes and obtain a student visa. She didn’t have any super solid things going on in Pennsylvania that she felt she couldn’t walk away from, and has always wanted to live abroad (though Australia, not France, would probably have been her target country if it were up to her) so…why not? Her plan is to take French classes during the week and do some remote work to make ends meet, and eat as many croissants as she can cram into her body.

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At the airport, waiting for her first flight!

What about Lucie?

Moving a dog to a foreign country for a year seems like a crazy idea, and we briefly considered leaving her in Michigan with her Nana and Puppa (Dani’s parents), but we just couldn’t do it. She’s a part of our family and we really hated the idea of being apart from her for so long, so we began the process of getting the paperwork in order to bring her to France. Luckily, France is pretty lenient – so lenient, in fact, that the border agent didn’t even ask to SEE the paperwork that we had to drive 2 hours to East Lansing to have endorsed by the USDA – and as long as she’s microchipped and up to date on her vaccinations, she’s good to go and doesn’t have to spend any time in quarantine. It made our initial travel arrangements a bit more expensive, as we had to find a direct flight to France; normally we don’t mind flights with layovers and flying through Dublin is pretty cheap, but as Lucie is not allowed into the UK or Ireland and entry regulations can vary from country to country within the EU, we thought it best to fly direct. She was a champ on the flight and on the train and has so far been adapting to life very well as a city dog!

What did you do with all of your stuff?

Dani’s parents are saints and helped us pack up and move most of our stuff from Pennsylvania back to Michigan (despite having just done the opposite trip a year prior), so most of it is currently living in their house. We did purge a TON, however, which felt really great.

Have you found a place to live?

We have! We were lucky enough to secure a place before we left the States, which we had hoped to do, but knew that the odds weren’t particularly in our favor. The rental market in Lyon is crazy – it moves quickly, and requires a ton of documents that are challenging for us to provide, particularly when it comes to income. Most landlords in Lyon require a French guarantor, who must also provide copies of their work contract, three most recent pay slips, three most recent tax returns, bank account verification…it’s really mind-boggling. Though we wanted to have our own place, we ended up finding an apartment with some roommates. The place is HUGE and is smack in the center of Lyon, with an amazing view and a rooftop terrace. It’s only been a day so it’s really too early to tell how it’s all going to turn out, but so far so good – both girls have been super welcoming and kind, and Lucie and the cat (“Mouette” is her name – it means seagull) have gotten along well.

That should cover it for now – we hope to post here regularly, so that we can keep everyone updated on our adventure in France. We can’t wait to see what unfolds!

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The view of Lyon from the terrace of our new place.

The healing waters of Vichy, France

France wasn’t really in my 2016 travel plans, but last year an opportunity came up that I knew I had to jump on. It was a scholarship for American French teachers, sponsored by the French Embassy in Washington D.C., for a two-week pedagogical “internship” at a language school in the city of Vichy. Very nearly all expenses paid – tuition for the language school, room and board with a host family, a round-trip train ticket from Paris to Vichy, a $600 allowance to defray the cost of a plane ticket, and 200 euros in spending money.

Um, yeah. Sign me up, please.

The only problem was that the scholarship is super competitive. Like, only 20-teachers-nationwide-competitive. Added to that, I didn’t even find about it until literally three days before the deadline Still, I figured I’d give it a shot (it didn’t cost anything to apply – but I did pay to overnight my materials to Chicago) so I cobbled together the application materials as best as I could (realizing that I had lost my passport in the process – thank goodness I had made a copy of the first page for my records!) and crossed my fingers until the day the notifications were to be sent out to the recipients (it was a Friday).

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CAVILAM – Alliance Française

Well, the day came and went and I hadn’t heard anything. I let myself feel disappointed but ultimately moved on – I had rushed to get the application together, after all, so I couldn’t be too surprised – when Wednesday arrived and so did the e-mail that started with Félicitations!

I may have cried a little in front of my students. They were nice about it though!

A few months later I was on a train from Paris to Vichy.

Vichy is an interesting place; it’s in the center of France, right in the midst of a chain of dormant volcanos called Puy-de-Dôme. For literally centuries, Vichy has been known as a place of healing and restoration – there are numerous natural springs that provide the city with mineral water. Some is freely drinkable, and you can fill up as you like at a couple of local wells. The water is naturally carbonated and tastes slightly salty. The others are found in a beautiful art nouveau building in the center of town and can only be drunk with a prescription from the doctor citing your specific ailments and what variety of mineral water you need to drink to cure them.

There are also hot springs and spas are in abundance. Likewise, outdoor activities are in abundance – rowing, biking, horseback racing at the Hippodrome, a lovely riverside park for jogging or rollerblading. It’s a place that values health, quietness and calm. It was lovely. I was surprised at how much I loved it there, particularly considering Vichy’s more recent history.

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La source des Célestins, just steps from my host family’s house

While Vichy has long been known as a sort of “resort town”, just slightly more than 70 years ago Vichy became known for something else. The French government, on the eve Germany’s invasion of Paris, packed up and left the City of Lights while simultaneously assuring her citizens that there was nothing to fear. Yet the Parisians awoke one day to bombardments, and also to find that their leaders had fled – to Vichy. Vichy became the new capital of France, and forevermore a symbol of the French government’s ultimate collaboration with the Nazi regime. Maréchal Pétain, the president of the Vichy regime, was complicit in the deportation of thousands of Jews – including children (originally denied by the Nazis, Petain sent them anyway) – to ghettos and ultimately, death camps such as Auschwitz.

 

In Vichy, there are no traces of the war years. No museums, no memorials, no commemorative plaques on any buildings as there are in Paris. The quiet calm of the city makes it hard to believe that such atrocious ugliness happened there. Yet I’m sure the citizens of Vichy – largely made up of elderly retirees – must carry the memory quietly within themselves.

Or perhaps, just as the water of Vichy has healed the many thousands of people who have come to drink from its springs, the city itself has been healed, too.