Monday, May 5, 2008

Kera Abroad: Bordeaux

They say all good things must come to an end. Well, my semester is finally over, and I’ve said my farewells and packed my bags. I’ve also started traveling, so this past weekend, I found myself in Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is a beautiful city, but most of the world recognizes it for its celebrated wines.

Before I go into my stay, here’s a bit of information on the wine, and the region:

All wines in Bordeaux are vintages.

The region surrounding Bordeaux, the city, produces Bordeaux, the wine. There are over 57 appellations that produce over 700 million bottles a year. What exactly is an appellation, you ask? Well, there are subregions and microclimates that all add a little something different to the wines that they produce. Each of these subregions/microclimates are appellations. That is to say, the wine being produce is the same kind of wine, it just varies depending on where it’s coming from. Appellations can be as close as 15 minutes down the road from one another, just because the soil is different!

Vineyards and wineries are known as “chateaux.” No, they aren’t castles. They just keep naming the vineyards chateaux because back in the day, the larger, richer families were the vineyards owners...thus, they had the larger estates, and consequently, chateaux.

Wine production itself is heavily regulated by a council. There are specific harvest days, rules on how many branches each vine can have, rules on how many vines can be planted per hectare, and a ban on artificial irrigation. They forbid irrigation because it homogenizes the wines being produced... if all soils are kept at the same moisture level, they lose some of that extra “oomph” that they give to the wine.

More importantly, there exists a ranking system for the most prestigious chateaux in Bordeaux. The first ranking, back in 1855, resulted in the Grand Cru Classe chateaux, which are tiered from 1st to 5th rung. So, if Bordeaux produces some of the best wine in the world, then a 1st Grand Cru Classe would be one of the best winemakers in the world. Chateau Margaux, a 1st Grand Cru Classe, has sold one of its vintages for over 200,000 a bottle, making it not only the best, but most expensive, wine in the world. On average, though, a 1st Grand Cru Classe wine will set you back about 1,000 dollars a bottle. (That’s still way out of my price range!) In addition, all Grand Cru Classe vineyards, except for one, are in the Medoc region.

Unfortunately, if you didn’t make it onto the 1855 list, you weren’t ever going to make it to the “top” winery has been added since then. So, feeling a little left out, and a little under-appreciated, the smaller vineyards petitioned for their own ranking system, and voila, the Cru Bourgeois vineyards were created. These wineries are noted for outstanding wines, but aren’t quite as well-known as their Grand Cru Classe counterparts.

So, while I was in Bordeaux, I toured the Medoc region, and more specifically, the Listrac and Margaux appellations. I got to see a small, family-owned, Cru Bourgeois chateau, and then a larger, more industrialized, 3rd Grand Cru Classe chateau. I learned all about growing grapes, harvesting them, and then using them to produce outstanding wine. I also got to taste three different wines, one of which was a Grand Cru Classe (over 50 dollars for a half bottle!). In my opinion, all of the wines were good, but the Grand Cru Classe was a bit more complex than the Cru Bourgeois. Unfortunately, it was way out of my price range, so I passed on buying a bottle, and instead settled for a cheaper, 5th Grand Cru Classe at the Vinotheque in downtown Bordeaux. (It’s a huge store that sells all of the region’s wines, hosts tastings, and even has a “sanctuary” of 1st Grand Cru Classe vintages that you have to be a serious collector in order to see).

After touring the vineyards, I toured the city itself. I saw the Cathedral St. Andre, which is one of the stops along the Compostela pilgrimage to Spain. This pilgrimage is the second longest in the world... it’s only trumped by the one to Jerusalem!

I also saw the Hotel de Ville, or town hall, the Musee de Beaux-Arts (fine arts museum), and the Musee d’Aquitaine (the history museum). I really enjoyed the history museum because of the amazing artifacts housed there. The Aquitaine region of France, where Bordeaux is located, is also home to some of the oldest cave paintings in the world. They literally removed a large chunk of cave wall and put it in the museum, so you can see these 17,000 year old cave paintings first hand! There are also roman artifacts, medieval works, and 18th-century wine-production tools. It’s a museum that focuses on the history of the region, and does an amazing job at it.

After all of those museums, and the cathedral, I stopped by the Gironde monument, which commemorates the girondists who were killed during the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. It’s a beautiful column/statue/fountain. It’s managed to take the cool things from each of the above, and combine them into a really pretty work of art.

When I was finished in Bordeaux, I took the train to Toulouse, in the Langueduc-Roussillon region. This city is known as the “ville en orange,” or orange city, because of the orange rocks used to construct most of its buildings. I hit up the Sunday market, stopped by the museum, saw the local church, and toured a monastary. I also took a nap, and just spent some time relaxing, since a vacation wouldn’t be half as fun if you ran yourself ragged the whole time. Toulouse is also famous for its violet harvest, as well as the products that it creates from these flowers, so I picked up some violet candies before I left. They’re pretty good, but it still tastes odd eating flowers, or rather, flower-flavored candy.

Now, I’m back on the train, and I’m headed to Nimes, the “Roman city.” I’ll have more for you on that later this week, but for now, I hope you enjoy some pictures of Bordeaux. And, if you find yourself craving some French wine, I’ve made up an image (below) to show you how to read a wine label. ;-) (Pictures from Toulouse will follow later.)

Pictures from Bordeaux.

How to read a wine label.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Kera Abroad: Final Weekend in Paris


As I mentioned previously, this was my last weekend in Paris. What did I end up doing? Well, Saturday the weather was gorgeous, so I headed over to the Latin Quarter to visit the Museum of the Middle Ages, before taking a leisurely stroll to the Pantheon, which is situated just past the Sorbonne University. The Museum of the Middle Ages is perhaps my favorite out of all of the museums that I've visited in Paris. Half of it is housed in an ancient Roman bath house, and the other half is housed in an old residence (I don't remember the century that it dates to, though). The collection here features statues from the gothic cathedrals of France (most of the ones you see on the cathedrals today are copies), a gorgeous set of tapestries, and plenty of artifacts from daily life during the Middle Ages (I even saw some Medieval sheet music).

The Pantheon is yet another place in Paris that honors famous dead people… only those interred here are the honored "sons" of the Republic. IE-People they still liked after the Revolution occurred (some of them they even moved from the cemeteries they were buried in, like Emile Zola). You'll find Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurés, Alexander Dumas, and the Curies all buried in the crypts. The ground-level portion of the Pantheon features Foucault's pendulum. It was here that he first demonstrated the Earth's rotation in 1851.

From the Pantheon, I bussed over to Parc Monceau, the only English-style park in Paris. This lovely green space was built by the Duke d'Orleans back in the day, and still remains popular with the locals. I had some ice cream, and relaxed in the nice, warm weather. A family was horseback riding through the park while I was there, and a father was teaching his son to ride a bike. There were also plenty of picnickers out and about on the pelouse (lawn).

After people watching at Monceau, I met up with Michael Ann and Noah for our own picnic, only we had dinner on the Champs de Mars. We didn't have anything fancy…just some McDo…but it was a lot of fun chilling out with the hordes of people relaxing near the Eiffel Tower. There were bongo drums, pick-up soccer, and lots of wine going around, so the feeling was upbeat and I'd even say it was the closest thing to "college" that I've felt since being here.

We stayed until the first "sparkling" of the Tower (it doesn't get dark here until after 9PM now), and then later headed up to Trocadero for some crepes.

(Not the first sparkle, but the next one!)

It was a fabulous, relaxing day, and it made a great end to all of my Parisian Saturdays that I've had since arriving in January.

But, I wasn't in Paris on Sunday. Corinne and I took the TGV to Reims (pronounced rance) to explore the heart of Champagne. We visited the cathedral where the French monarchs were crowned, toured the champagne cellars at Taittinger and had a glass of bubbly afterwards, ate lunch on one of the many verandas along the main street, wandered though the local rotary club's car show, and visited Eisenhower's War Rooms, which saw Germany's surrender on May 7, 1945…officially ending WWII in Europe. (The papers signed the next day in Berlin were actually the second set of surrender papers.)

And because I know you're dying to know more about the champagne (although, I won't go into all of the details on the Champagne-making process itself because it's so extensive) here are a couple of facts that really sparked my interest:

  1. 60% of the champagne produced is consumed in France. That means only 40% of it is consumed by the rest of the world!
  2. Champagne only comes from the Champagne region in France. That bottle you saw in Publix that comes from California is lying…it's just "sparkling wine."
  3. After removing the sediments that build up during the aging process, it's necessary to add in a mixture of liquor and sugar to top off the bottle. The liquor/sugar ratio determines whether the champagne is Brut, Demi-Sec, or Sec.
  4. Champagne is made from both white and red grapes.
  5. Vintage champagnes are made from one harvest, in one year. Normally, the champagne houses keep some reserve wine from the previous year to make sure that the next year's batch stays consistent to the overall flavor of the brand. So, that means that the vintage is unique, and will never be reproduced again. This is what makes them so pricey and sought after.
  6. Once the champagnes have reached the stage where they are done "aging," the sediments that have built up need to settle in the neck of the bottle so they can be easily removed. Thus, they are stored at an angle to help the process move along easier, and they are rotated daily to make sure the sediment keeps moving downwards. In the Taittinger Reims cellars, there is one man responsible for rotating all of these bottles, and he can rotate 6,000 of them, exactly 1/8 to 1/4 of a circle, each hour.
  7. Each champagne is made from multiple types of grapes. "Just as you cannot make a good perfume from one type of flower, you cannot make a good champagne from one type of grape." (Paraphrased)
  8. Clovis was baptized in champagne.

I hope you know a little more about champagne now (I know I do!), and if you'd like your own mini-tour of Taittinger's cellars, my photos are
here (along with pictures from the rest of the day).

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Kera Abroad: A few of my favorite things...

My time in Paris is finally coming to an end, and this will be my last weekend here. Before I give my oral defense on Wednesday, before I pack up and head to southern France for a week, and before I come home, I’d like to take a moment and share with you some of my favorite things that I’ve discovered whilst living here for four months.


Favorite Random French Vocab Word: Crapauduc (sounds like crap-o-duke)

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A frog tunnel. In France, most frogs are apparently protected species. Because they’re protected, and it just wouldn’t due to have them get run over, the French have built subterranean “walkways” for them. There’s even an office dedicated to digging crapauducs all over the country. Personally, the word reminds me of aqueduc, and I guess the comparison fits because they both carry something from one place to another.

Favorite Cheese: Crottin de Chevre

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Okay, so the literal translation is goat poo, but this cheese tastes really good regardless of its name! It’s just a regular goat cheese, but it comes in small cylinders that you can toast and serve warm and melty. I like it for the flavor, and the fact that it’s already in serving-size portions. Did I mention it can be toasted and eaten warm and melty? Mmmm.

Favorite French Pastry: Mille Feuille

This has to be one of the most decadent treats you can buy yourself, I think. It’s composed of filo dough layers that are filled with a sugary vanilla custard, and it’s topped with a homemade icing that normally features some kind of design swirled into it with a contrasting color. I like it because it’s rich, and not the normal chocolate something or other you normally end up buying to satisfy your sugar craving. I also like how each bakery makes it a little differently, but it’s always tasty nonetheless (unless you go to a lousy bakery, then it’s horrible).

Favorite Tourist Trap: The Louvre

It’s one of the finest, if not THE finest, art museums in the world, but I’m still calling it a tourist trap...and I love it anyways. There are ridiculous entrance lines, confusing layouts, randomly closed galleries, hidden galleries (that do not appear on the map), and so many people that you probably won’t get a good look at that famous painting you’d always wanted to see. But, alas, it does house celebrated art works...and multiple gift shops, a cafe, a subterranean shopping area, a Starbucks, a post office, and more. I love art though, so if I’m up to braving all of the touristy razzle dazzle, then it’s an amazing visit.

Favorite Place to Grab an Espresso: Les Editeurs

Near Odeon, this snug café is the modern-day haunt for aspiring writers. People can always be seen typing away on their laptops, and there are special days for sharing manuscripts. It has that learned, literary vibe that Les Deux Magots seems to lack. And the coffee’s reasonably priced, and good. You can’t beat that.

Favorite Public Space: Buttes-Chaumont

This engineered park feels more like the countryside than an inner-city green space. It’s all hills and rambling walk ways, and there are brooks, waterfalls, and rocky outcroppings. It was completely planned – down to the last square inch – but it’s not the obsessive symmetry of the French-garden-style. Ironically enough, it’s also one of the Parisians’ favorite places to relax...and mine too.

Favorite Arrondissement: The 16th, in the Passy commune.

This little area was the place to be back in the day. Balzac and Benjamin Franklin both lived here, and it has retained much of its old, lush architecture. It borders the Seine and sits on a hill, making it a lovely place to wander through on a sunny afternoon. There are narrow walkways, busy streets, and little squares. Sure, the rest of Paris has all of these things, but it’s all on a much smaller scale here in Passy...and it’s prettier too, in my opinion. There’s also a great ice cream shop here, a wine museum, and a really good hole-in-the-wall convenience store/take away restaurant. Maybe I’m partial to it because I work in the neighborhood, but I really prefer it to any other.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Kera Abroad: Springtime in Paris, the Marathon, Opera Bastille, and more!

Wow! What a week!

Over the weekend, Jessica came into town from Orléans, where she's studying. (The recap from my visit to see her is here.) We went to Sainte-Chapelle, and then headed to the Latin Quarter to have some mint tea at the Mosque of Paris. It was really cool! The tea room at the Mosque is done up to channel Northern Africa, so there are fountains and covered, tiled courtyards that you can sit in.  Our tea was delicious, and cheaper than a cup of coffee, so we were happy.

We also went to the Jardin des Plantes to see all of the flowers in bloom, and managed to stumble across a small exhibit on renewable resources...needless to say we ended up with a bunch of free stuff!

In the evening, we waited in line at the Opéra Bastille (not the opera house of Phantom of the Opera fame...the other one) for an hour and half to get rush tickets for the opening weekend of Balanchine/Noureev/Forsythe, a collection of contemporary ballets that the Ballet de l'Opéra was putting on. We got tickets for 12 euros, and ended up with our own private side balcony in the first tier! It was an amazing show, and well worth the wait.  FYI: Ballet de l"Opera is to France what the American Ballet Theater is to the US, and the Royal Ballet is to the UK.

Sunday was the Marathon de Paris - a huge international marathon that takes place in Paris and sees thousands of runners each year (35,000 this year!). I went out to Ave. Foch to see the end, and managed to make my way far enough through the masses to actually see the grandstands (but not the finish line...I gave up pushing through people). It was really exciting to see so many people from around the world all joined together to cheer on their friends and family. There were signs decorated in all languages, small children with pictures they'd colored for their mom or dad, and people waving flags. The runners were certainly exhausted, but watching them reunite with their loved ones was amazing.

On Monday, the Olympic flame passed through Paris, and if you haven't heard, there was mass-protesting against China. Unfortunately I work in the neighborhood that saw the flame come through, so when I got off the metro in the morning, there were lines of police vans wrapped around the sidewalks, and men out with their walkie-talkies. By the time my lunch break rolled around, my metro stop had been shut down, and those van-fulls of police were all out and about with their automatic weapons. Kind scary... but at least they're good with security...

I've also been working on booking my train tickets and hotels for the trip I'm taking at the end of my program. I've got it all finalized now, so in three weeks, I'll be in the South of France, and in four weeks, I'll be home!

Can you believe how fast time has flown by?!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Kera Abroad: A whole bunch of things to say!

Well, since I last updated, I've celebrated Easter, gone to the banlieues (suburbs) to visit the Basilique de St. Denis, and taken a day trip (which turned into an overnighter) to Rennes, in the heart of Bretagne!

Easter was a lot of fun! Our host family gave us little Easter baskets full of chocolates, and Corinne and I baked up a fabulous Easter roast wth all the fixings(potatoes, tomatoes, and asparagus) after going to an afternoon service at an English-speaking church.

The next day, we had a work holiday (the French take Resurrection Monday off instead of Good Friday), so we ventured out into the suburbs to visit the Basilique de St. Denis. The basilica was founded as a shrine way back in the 5th (?) century on the site of St. Denis' miracle. Legend has it that St. Denis was beheaded by the Romans in the Monmartre area of the city. After his beheading, he stood up, picked up his head, and walked outside the gates of the city to the current site of the church! St. Denis appears on many buildings throughout the city, and France at large, as he is the patron saint of the country (he's featured on the front gates of Notre Dame, for example).

The basilica is also famous because it is a royal necropolis, and boasts every single French monarch (save a few). Louis and Marie-Antoinette, Francois 1, Catherine de Medici, Clovis, Dagobert, and Childebert are all buried here. There's also a heart preserved here (I have NO idea what happened to the rest of the body...). In addition, you can see Charlemagne's crown and other royal objects of awesomeness.

All in all, it's a pretty cool trip worth taking.

THIS weekend, I took a trip out to Rennes, in the Bretagne region (it's only 2 hours by train from Paris). It's a cool little city, even if the main art museum was closed (for the whole year!), and it didn't have as many tourist attractions as other places in France. It was nice to just walk around a different city (the vibe in the countryside is a complete 180 from the fast-paced Paris).

I went shopping, experienced a French protest march (against genetically-modified foods), and watched people bungee-jump from a crane in the city's main square. I also got my hair cut because quite frankly, I ran out of things to do (with the museum being closed) and it was half the price that I'd seen in Paris.

To round out my day, I had a tasty galette and some Breton cider for dinner. Unfortunately, I underestimated the time it would take to get back to the train station and arrived one minute too late to catch my train. They're serious about timetables here. I just wish I would've made it there a minute sooner!

Anyways, I quickly discovered that I'd missed the last train for the day, and that I would have to spend the night and purchase another ticket home in the morning. Thankfully, I found a nice budget hotel near the train station. Actually, I kind of liked being able to chill in bed and watch some tv (I haven't watched it since leaving the states...except for the one time I watched Shrek 2 in French with my host mom). I'll also admit that I put CNN on for awhile just so I could enjoy listening to English. (It was a program on mortgage rates...completely boring, I know...but it was in English!)

Well, that about sums up my activites for the past two weeks! If you'd like to see pictures of everything, they're now up here

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kera Abroad; Spring Break and Internship

I know I've been remiss in updating you all since I got back from spring break, but man! Life has been so busy, and it's just plain exhausting!

Spring break was marvelous fun, and all of my traveling went smoothly. Scandinavia was a beautiful region, and I think Stockholm has become one of my favorite cities. It sits on the eastern coast of Sweden, and is a city of islands that are connected by bridges and an underground metro system. It's truly beautiful...especially at sunset! While in Stockholm, I:

  • Had coffee and pastry in the's a Scandinavian tradition that I'm in love with. Somehow, it make sense to have a large, warm cup of coffee and something sweet to hold you over in such a cold environment.
  • Tried drinkable yogurt and muesli - the breakfast of champions!
  • Visited the only remaining 17th -century warship, the Vasa. It was one of the coolest artifacts I've seen anywhere, and its museum is simply superb.
  • Chilled out at the Absolut Icebar. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)
  • Saw Ötzi the Iceman's clothes and personal items on display at the Historiska Museet. He's that Iron Age mummy they found in the Alps, and he's given us a look into what daily life was actually like thousands of years ago.
  • I also viewed the largest collection of viking artifacts (at the same museum). It was awesome.
  • Went window shopping at H&M's flagship, and bought some neat home goods at a Swedish design store. (I will have my own apartment next year, so I figured why not pick up some cool things for it?)
  • Wandered the narrow, curvy, medieval streets of Gamla Stan, which is the oldest part of the city.
  • Took a guided tour of Stockholm's Town Hall. (It's where the Nobel Prize Banquet is held every year.)

Then, I hopped on bus, and nine hours later I found myself in Copenhagen, the capitol of Denmark. Copenhagen was picturesque, and filled with personality, but its museums were lacking. Nonetheless, I had a good time, and got to discover another unique city. What did I do?

  • I continued enjoying the afternoon coffee tradition (I mean, espresso shots in Paris? Not so fulfilling. Twelve ounce coffees that come with refills? That's what I'm talking about!)
  • I fell in love with Bang and Olufson. I wish I had the kind of disposable income that would allow me to buy their stuff...
  • Visited the Danish Design Center, which outlines the history of Danish design innovation.
  • Went to Roskilde to view the royal cathedral (a World Heritage Site!), but most of it was undergoing restoration, so I didn't get to see some of its highlights. Although, I did get to watch them doing restoration work on a royal sarcophogus. Cool!
  • Viewed the viking ships on display in Roskilde harbor. They're the finest collection of viking ships in Scandinavia.
  • Ate a hot dog from a street vendor. Did you know that in Copenhagen, you get ketchup, mustard, onions, and bacon bits on your hot dog? Pickles were extra. It was odd.
  • Climbed to the top of the Round Tower, the centuries-old observation tower that Tycho Brahe used! I was going to go to open observatory hours, but it was far too cloudy to see anything. :-(
  • Browsed all of the little bookstores around the university, and managed to find a French one! It felt weird speaking French in Denmark, but it was kind of cool to be able to do something "familiar."
After all of that, I found myself back on the nine hour bus ride, and back in Stockholm. Then, well, I came back to Paris...and entered the work force. I'm officially an intern in Paris! 

My internship has been keeping me busy from 10-6 everyday, but if you factor in my 40-minute commute, it's more like 9-7. I'm doing lots of French-English translation, and helping out with various things around the office (delivering inter-office memos, making copies, sending out mass-mailings, you know, the norm for interns). 

I have to admit, working in French is much harder than taking classes in French! In classes, everything is formal French, and everything is clearly annunciated. In the workplace, however, there's a lot of slang, a lot of fast talking, and a lot of shortened words. I find myself mentally exhausted by the end of the day just from trying to keep up! 

But, with the exception of a couple downsides, I really like my job. I stay busy, and I'm not just the coffee girl (someone else in my program is...and is bored out of their mind!). And, today, my supervisor told me "job well done"! 

On a sidenote: I had this horrible moment earlier this week where I was on the metro and I thought, "This is the rest of my life. There won't be any more semesters, or summer vacations. It'll just be 9-5 everyday, until I retire." It was kind of depressing.

Well, I hope you're all doing well, and if you haven't found them already, my pictures from Scandinavia are here. :-)