Monday, January 31, 2011

the weekend

Saturday late morning, I accompanied the Garmons to the Musée d'Orsay. ( ) Since I am a student between 18 and 25, I get to go to most museums in Paris for free! That was a very fun fact to discover.  The museum was amazing.  Unfortunately, they didn't allow pictures to be taken, but let me try to create one for  you.  The Musée d'Orsay used to be a train station, so imagine just a large rectangular building with a domed ceiling, splendidly carved, reaching from end to end (like a cylinder on its side).  There is an enormous gilded clock at the front.  Much of the art in this museum is from the Impressionist period, and also includes naturalism and art nouveau (my favorite!).  So pretty much art from about 1848-1914.  I saw SO many paintings that I have in books at home.  My aunt Kelly gave me so many art books when I was growing up, and I was always very much interested in impressionism and pointillism, which I saw so much of at this museum.  There was a hallway full of Van Gogh paintings, and wings full of Degas, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and Bouguereau, among many many others.  Bouguereau always reminds me of my Rachel, who has done several reproductions of his works.  I saw Renoir paintings that I was obsessed with as a child, as well as Cirque by Seurat.  It was incredible.  I almost go into a meditative state when I'm at a museum.  We decided to have lunch at the restaurant inside the museum.  And, since I saw some people take pictures in here, I decided to take a few of my own.

A small corner of the ceiling in the restaurant

Marcie and Woody Garmon, who are taking VERY good care of me!

Looking out the windows of the restaurant, and across the river

 I had a little vegetarian tart that came with some thyme sorbet, which was very refreshing and cleansing, but I couldn't have eaten the entire tiny scoop because it is exactly how you could expect thyme sorbet to taste.  The Garmons have been spoiling me, and I have gotten used to drinking very delicious wines at meals.  At this particular meal, I had several glasses, and I decided to stay behind at the museum as they walked home.  I have to say, my art appreciation lenses skyrocketed even more (if that's possible), and I was almost in tears at some of the pieces of art nouveau :)

But seriously, even without the wine, there is so much beauty here that I am frequently almost in tears, even after so small an act as taking a bite of warm creamy goat cheese sprinkled with pine nuts, or turning a corner and seeing an intricately carved tower, like this one:

Saturday night, the Garmons took me to dinner at La Fontaine de Mars.  Apparently, Barack and Michelle Obama ate there the last time they were in Paris, and the entire block was shut down so they could eat there in peace.  Anyway, the Garmons took me here so I could try this famous French dish called Cassoulet, which is a dish made of white beans, duck, and sausage.  Kind of like a gourmet chili & beans (although I'm sure the French would love to hear me say that)!  But it is very much a comfort food and was so nice to eat on such a cold evening.  For dessert, I got to try some vanilla crème brûlée.  It was delicious and creamy and unlike any crème brûlée I have ever had in my life--it was perfection in comparison.  Little specs of vanilla beans were apparent inside.

Later that night, I went to a birthday/going away party of a friend of Ben's.  The theme was to dress up as something that started with a "d" --at first, I was just going to be a doll, but since it was WAY too cold to dress like one, I just threw together one of my feather headbands, my fringy moccasin boots, and braided my hair into pigtails and was a Dakota native american--it's a stretch, but it's really all I had.  At the party, there was a dinosaur, a bunch of dancers, a dalmatian, a diplomat, Dionysus, Diana (goddess of the hunt),  a tube of toothpaste (dentifrice in French), a girl who wore a mardi gras mask and had a question mark and was devine (the French word for "guess"), and many others.  Everyone was SO nice, and if I was anywhere near a group of people talking, they would immediately start speaking English to accommodate me, which is extremely courteous, but at some point I want to improve my French!  It was at this party that I was reminded of the way that the French (and many other Europeans) greet each other, with a kiss on each cheek.  It kind of surprised me at first, and then I remembered learning about it in French class, it's called the bise, and the greeting of the little old lady in southern France that Rachel and I stayed with on our trip.  Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and I learned several popular French songs.

Marcie made pancakes and bacon on Sunday (late) morning.  Around noon, Ben and I went for a walk.  Turning a corner, I saw a sign for Saint Séverin cathedral, one of my mother's and my favorites.  So, of course, I went there.  Here is a picture of the back of the cathedral:

Saint Séverin Cathedral
Now, I really wish I had a good photo from the front and from the inside, however, as I was taking a picture from the front, my camera started making a really bizarre noise and wouldn't stop--so I had to remove the battery.  And, since it was Sunday, mass was going on, so I didn't want to go inside and take pictures, but I'll go back, I promise Mom!

A few steps further, and this famous cathedral was in front of us, and my camera started to behave again:

Notre Dame

Crossing a bridge

We had a very delicious lunch at a bakery.  I had a tartine with sauteed spinach, warm goat cheese, and pine nuts.  I also had a bite of Ben's croissant, my first croissant in France this time--so yummy!  I can't wait to learn how to make them myself!  Then we ordered hot chocolate, which is definitely not what you are thinking about, it is certainly not hot water with some chocolate flavored powder.  This was thick and viscous and not too sweet, and it came with macarons, which are a very famous treat here.  They come in all sorts of flavors, but the flavors I got were rose and pistachio.  I bit into the rose one expecting strawberry, but it was SO delicious, I don't know how they capture the flavor so exactly, but it was just like eating a rose might taste like--or if you could eat the smell of Mimi's rose scented perfume.  Absolutely incredible!  And the pistachio one, of course, was delicious as well, especially with the lovely hot chocolate.

Ben keeps making me ask for the check because it's good practice.  The waitstaff at restaurants here are nothing like those in the united states--you can go hours without getting eye contact.  So, for shy little me, it is quite difficult and a bit scary to be assertive enough to get the attention of someone, in a different language, who isn't even looking at me.  Anyway, we were there quite a while before I worked up enough courage to ask for the bill.  I suppose it is good practice.  We were sitting next to a window so people watching was very easy to do.  I have come to believe that every woman in Paris who owns fur wears it on Sunday.

After leaving the bakery, we came across the Hôtel de Ville (which is not, in fact, a hotel, it's a government building), and there is ice skating, a carousel, and cotton candy vendors in front of it.  It's so beautiful!  I learned that "cotton candy" in French is la barbe à papa (Daddy's beard--although it isn't colored, it's just white so it looks kind of like Santa's beard).

l'Hôtel de Ville

Carousel in front of l'Hôtel de Ville

Ice skating!
We considered ice skating, but decided we would go again another time when we were wearing the appropriate socks.  So, the walk continued, and there were so many more beautiful monuments around every corner.

Entrance to a courtyard inside the Louvre from the back

A small part of a wall inside the Louvre's courtyard

Walking through gardens in front of the Louvre

Ferris wheel!  (You can see the Arc de Triumph on the bottom right of the wheel)

A view walking home

 Right now, I'm enjoying some jasmine blossom tea and shortbread with Marcie--it's lovely!

Friday, January 28, 2011

No more jetlag!

It's day 4 since my arrival here in Paris, and I am finally functioning normally.  I actually slept through the night last night!

Yesterday was a very full and exciting day.  I started off at the French national assembly (my friend Ben is a scientific advisor to the French parliament and put me on the guest list).  Walking in, it was a large room with 3 rings of tables (and very comfortable leather chairs). The important people were in the central ring, including the president of L'OPECST (l'office parlementaire d'evaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques), who I had the privilege of being introduced to after the first set of talks and debate.  The second row also had important people like members of parliament, and senators probably, and I was in the third row, which is composed probably of journalists, interns, etc.

The first set of talks were about stem cell research, called les cellules souches in French, and it was so fascinating to hear about how that research is going and what they are learning from it.  Of course, I didn't understand absolutely everything that was said, but what I did gather was amazing.  For example, a lot of the in vitro studies (that use cultured cells instead of live animals or humans) have more successful results so far than the in vivo studies (mostly mice and rats).  One of the studies in particular was focused on generating heart cells, so they also spoke about how the fact that in vivo studies aren't always as successful right now as in vitro could be due to the fact that the heartbeat of a mouse differs so greatly than that of a human--so we can't always compare what works on mice to what may work on people.  Anyway, I just LOVED listening to these lectures because I haven't kept up on scientific research since graduating.

Then I walked home (past the Invalides, where Napoleon is buried--a beautiful structure with a gilded dome in the middle) and down a lovely old street still hung with Christmas decorations.  Since I had an appointment today at my school, Marcie accompanied me on a trial-run bus ride and walk there.  It is a very easy trip.  On our way back, we ate some very tasty pizza at Pizza Tina, just down the street.

Finally, last night, I went to a Thriller Live concert. haha.  It was at a venue called the Zenith, which is very clever because it's at the very top northeast corner of the sun-shaped city.  It took 45 minutes to get there by metro and a bit of walking.  I started to feel, as we crossed the plaza to get to Zenith, that I had been there before... and I had a whole flood of memories of the first time I came to Paris with the youth orchestras of San Antonio--the museum of musical history (I forgot the real name), was right there, and I even remember having a picture of the entire group taken in front of the fountain in the middle of the plaza.  How crazy.  Anyway, it's always fun to go to a concert, even if it isn't the greatest :)  Although, I really can't wait to go see the symphony or an opera!

So today I had my appointment at the school, and it was so great to walk through the school and see all my future peers--there are classes currently going on.  Anyway, I can't wait to go there every day and be surrounded by academic energy again!  But it was really nice to meet the woman who I've been corresponding with for so many months.  I took the bus there, and used my last bus ticket, so I needed to get more, and she recommended I get some at a nearby metro station and walk home, as it would be easier than getting the tickets (which were far from the bus stop) and then walking back to catch the bus home.  Anyway, I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up having a lovely walk all over until I got my bearings again--it's not too hard to find yourself again with so many large landmarks everywhere.  The only bad thing about it was that it was 2 degrees C, whatever that is in F, and I forgot my scarf.  But I'm not complaining, because I actually really enjoyed my walk, and even chatted with an old French man who told me all about his mignon (cute, little) dog named bandit.  People are really more friendly here than they get credit for.

Marcie, my first cousin once removed on my father's side (my grandfather's sister's daughter), makes the most incredible food!  The first night I was here, she fixed some fresh salmon along with the most amazing wild mushroom risotto I've ever eaten, and some delightful roasted vegetables which were so fresh and local that they almost had a sweet flavor despite being seasoned only with salt, pepper, and olive oil.  Lunch a' la Marcie the next day was a tomato cut kind of into a flower and stuffed with some tuna salad, very lovely presentation, and so tasty too!  I'm really enjoying getting to know this side of my family better, they are very nice and so helpful.  One evening they took me out for dinner at a small restaurant that is Marcie's very favorite.  I had this creamy pumpkin soup garnished with pistachios that was absolutely incredible and I wish I could find better words to give credit to how delicious it was.  Then. I had.  A roasted fillet of sea bass on a small bed of mashed potatoes, and surrounded by a pool of morel mushroom sauce (the kind of mushrooms my family went mushroom-hunting for once while we lived in Iowa).  It was so good--the fish just melted away upon contact with the mouth.  For dessert, I had chocolate cake that was rich on the outside and gooey in the middle, and garnished with pistachios and a creme sauce.  Yummy!  I can see why it's her favorite restaurant.

I feel like I've probably caught up on recounting most of what has happened so far.