3.5 days in Paris: day 1

3.5 days in Paris: day 1I realize that my previous post was excessive; it was so long even I didn’t want to wade through it. So, in this post I will endeavor the capture and harness the unicorn of my writing wonderland: succinctness. Pray for me.

That said, I present to you the first full day of my Paris adventure – with headings!

Musée d’Orsay
After picking up a croissant at the corner bakery for breakfast around 8:30, I took the metro to the stop closest to the Orsay, so far as I could determine. I emerged from underground just outside of what turned out to be the Jardin des Tuileries – a massive swath of impeccably manicured lawns, beds of tulips, and tree-lined avenues that extends beyond the imposing façade of the Louvre. At that hour of the morning, only a few people were about, reading newspapers with their feet propped up on the plentiful chairs clustered around one of the fountains or having their morning smoke under a blooming, gnarled cherry tree. I crossed the width of the gardens, my feet ever-quick steps making what seemed like all too much noise on the dusty white gravel. The garden’s opposite side ran the length of the Seine river, and I found a footbridge to cross. In stereotypical Parisian style, its fencing was covered in padlocks inscribed with initials and dates in various scripts and languages. Just across the bridge and to the left, I spotted the Musée d’Orsay, with its life-size rhinoceros sculpture outside and – darn it – a line of people snaking around the building. I joined the crowds and, for the remaining 15 minutes before the museum opened at 9:30, attempted – rather successfully, I believe – to guess people’s nationalities based on their shoes. After the requisite metal detector passage and another free entrance (heehee!), I rented and audio guide and started in.

The Orsay does not permit photo taking, so the solitary image I have for you is one of the inside of the building itself, which seemed to be (or at least I interpreted it to be) excluded from the mandate. What the museum is most famous for is its top-floor gallery of impressionist art, mostly Monet. And it was there that I decisively concluded that I do not like Monet’s art; it’s all too blurry and pale for my taste. However, that negative realization was balanced by my discovery of my adoration for neo-impressionist pointillism, the vibrant colors and unique perspectives of which left me actually wishing to for a print to adorn one notoriously bare walls of my Spartan room. Somewhere along the way of my three- and a half-hour visit, it became my goal to browse every single room in the museum. So I did. I even walked through some rooms of incredibly average-looking but apparently history-making 20th century furniture. It was fun. And, don’t worry, I even enjoyed that Monet gallery; the view of the river and the Louvre was great from up there! Perhaps the most interesting of all to me, was my realization that I tend to appreciate the non-famous works of art most. While there was a certain thrill in seeing that Millet painting I studied in 11th grade, the neo-impressionist painting of a girl brushing her hair was more fascinating; a snowy hunting scene more striking; two Arabian lovers embracing on a moonlit night more moving.

The best baguette of my life.

Baguette
It was lunchtime when I stepped out of the Orsay, and I was determined, as always, to avoid eating someplace touristy at all cost. All cost turned out to be four or five long blocks down and behind the museum to a bakery with a short but constant line of customers, who appeared to be of the local variety. I hopped in line and requested what most everyone else had: a “tradition” baguette for somewhere around €1.50. Duly pleased with my impossibly cheap lunch, I vowed not to eat the entire baguette and then circled the block, searching for the metro entrance my map told me should be nearby. Well, it took me a good 30 minutes of walking in a giant circle to find the metro, and I did devour the entire baguette. But let me tell you: it was the best baguette and maybe the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life. Its crust was firm but not thick – almost for of a shell than a crust. When I bit into it, the baguette first smooshed into itself, then crunched slightly, and then pulled apart slowly, not unlike taffy – the gluten was so perfectly developed. The soft, soft inside bread was smooth but chewy, and the crust crackled just slightly against my teeth. No sharp shards of crust pierced my gums; no dry bits of bread stuck in my throat. It was flawless.

3.5 days in Paris: day 1

Catacombs
After my heavenly baguette experience, I’d have to say the Catacombs of Paris were a bit of a let-down. For one, I stood in line for an hour and a half before entering their damp depths. Granted, the weather was lovely – as it was the entire trip, I should note – and I had Kindle books to read on my phone, but still, I was a bit bored. And underground itself? I was ready to leave after five minutes. It wasn’t that I was necessarily repulsed by the neat stacks of bones or the murky lighting, but there just wasn’t a whole lot to see. The first 15 minutes after descending the dizzying, 10-story circular staircase are spent trudging long, empty tunnels, punctuated by the occasional, uninteresting plaque providing geological information or descriptions of the architecture of the space. Then come the rooms of bones. But to call them “rooms” is an overstatement. They’re just enlarged, humid tunnels full of dusty (molding?) bones. That’s it. The piles weren’t as tall and the low caverns weren’t as large as I had expected from pictures I had seen over the years. I crunched my way through the gravel – and bone fragments, presumably – as quickly as I could, but I kept getting stuck behind couples intent on contemplating their mortality at a snail’s pace. Or maybe they were just slow walkers. Regardless, it took me at least 20 minutes to at last reach the daylight again. My hair was frizzier and my post-waiting-in-line mood certainly hadn’t improved, but I was thankful that the presentation of all of those human remains had at least been more respectful than the awful, decorative displays I’d witnessed in a former monastery in Rome.

Macarons
My search for a metro entrance beyond the exit of the Catacombs lead me to something far better: French macarons. The line out the door of the pâtisserie was longer than the bakery line for my baguette had been, but the half dozen employees behind the glass cases of luscious pastries filled the requests of the people in front of me at such a rapid pace, that I found myself still hesitating over my choice when one of them asked me which of the rainbow of macarons I had pointed to I actually wished to purchase. She smiled at my agony, and my tongue stumbled drunkenly in my mouth as I butchered the French pronunciation of pistachio, chocolate passion fruit, and vanilla. Parted with far too many euros for such a feather-light purchase, I clutched my paper bag of brightly-colored sandwichlettes and scanned the area around the bakery for a picnic spot. Nothing.  So, I took myself and my precious cargo down to the metro and got off at the secondary Louvre station. A short walk found me a bench in a sunny garden area behind the Louvre and in front of a beautiful church of pale stone.

My immediate thought after taking my first bite of one of the macarons was that it tasted like the perfect combination of cake and ice cream. Let me clarify: I don’t mean an ice cream cake; I don’t mean eating your cake and ice cream together. I mean, it was as if someone had taken the best qualities of both cake and ice cream and had combined them into one, splendid dessert: the cool, smooth creaminess of ice cream inside and the easy, saccharine substance and bite of cake outside. For a second, I thought it was the best thing I had ever eaten. But then I remembered all the other delicious foods I have loved and decided that I couldn’t commit to a statement as strong as that, though in the moment I could’ve shouted it from the rooftops of Paris. With the exception of vanilla, which I found surprisingly unremarkable, the flavors were true to life, if not more pure. The pistachio tasted like the purest, freshest of those green nuts. The flavor of the chocolate-filled passion fruit macaron burst forth in all the tropical glory that I have always loved in those wrinkly, purple fruits, while the chocolate was deep and sweet. Oh man, it was a wonderful experience.

Louvre
I returned to the Louvre, and once inside, carefully read the descriptions of each wing until I found what I was looking for: Flemish and Dutch Renaissance paintings. Recalling that I had most enjoyed studying art from that area back in Western Cultures class in 10th grade, I eagerly climbed the stairs to the Richelieu wing. I was not disappointed. I spent the greater part of an hour sauntering the halls and galleries full of serene landscapes, realistic still lifes, and freeze-frames of everyday occurrences, pausing frequently to sit on a comfy bench and read one of the white placards some rooms offered and which provided detailed analysis and history of the paintings in the area. When I couldn’t find one in English, I tried Spanish or German. It’s at thrilling, little times like that when language learning seems most worth all the struggle. Besides the art of my friends Vermeer and Rubens, I wandered through Napoleon III’s overwhelmingly sumptuous apartments and furniture galleries, more Renaissance paintings, and various sculptures. At the end of the sculpture gallery, I came out into an enormous, glass-ceilinged atrium scattered with a few life-sized, dynamic statues and surrounded by arched windows looking into the rest of the museum, from which I had caught glimpses of the room multiple times. It was quiet and calm and the natural light from above was wonderful, so I found myself a corner bench and soaked in the peacefulness for 20 minutes, until the PA announced the museum would soon be closing. It was a lovely break.

Eiffel Tower
As my last act of tourism for the day, I visited the Eiffel Tower. The sun was still very much up when I followed the crowds out of the metro and down the street. There certainly was no question as to which direction to go. I darted off into a calmer side street and came up to the towering, brown hulk from through a nice garden area, complete with ponds, ducks, flowering trees, and couples on benches. Who knew the Eiffel Tower was surrounded by beauty? Not I. They don’t tell you these things on the internet – except, I’m telling you now.

At first I stood in the line for the elevator to the top, but soon I realized it wasn’t moving at all, and by the time I got to the top, it would be totally dark. Plus, unaccustomed as I was to paying for attractions in Paris, the €12 price seemed wildly expensive. Once I switched to the line to take the stairs to the middle of the tower, I overheard that the elevator line was three hours long. Yipes. I waited no more than 40 minutes to pay my more reasonable €4 student ticket and to start taking the stairs two by two. There are two levels where you can pause to take pictures, and from the second level, you can also take the elevator to the top. The view was rather similar from both levels: a city seen from high above. Pretty, but nothing extraordinary. I suppose it might have been better from the very top, but I suspect not. I was quite content with my view and the opportunity for a brisk stair climb.

Back on the ground, I re-read the section of my guide book about the Eiffel Tower, which informed me that during the off-season, it would be illuminated for 10 minutes every hour, starting at 8:00pm. I set off at a near trot away from the tower, expecting to have 15 minutes or so to put as much distance as possible between myself and the steel monstrosity to get a decent picture. At some point I glanced over my shoulder and realized, to my surprise, that the lights were already on. And, I’ll admit, it was a bit magical, as little as I like that word. The soft yellow light of the tower danced slowly in the deep dusk; couples pushing strollers chatted happily; a small crowd milled about a crepes stand lit by a single, bare light bulb. Oh, Paris.

My pictures taken, I returned to the apartment to dine on pre-packaged tabouli from the only grocery store still opened, some odd Oriental dessert, and a banana. And I was happy.

 

Below is the video of the day. Also, don’t forget that you can click on the individual photos in this post to make them larger  or see their entire captions.

3.5 days in Paris: day 1/2

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Call me crazy, but I saw Paris in three and a half days. And I mean, I saw Paris. At the end of my brief sojourn in that city of picturesque metro entrances and baguette-toting Frenchmen, I could find no reason to be discontent with what I had seen, no tourist attraction I wished I had made the time to visit. And for my first, official trip completely on my own, I couldn’t have chosen a better city to explore. Well, maybe I could have, but I’ll never know now, will I?

My first day in Paris was a half day. Really, it was a fourth of a day, but let’s not be nit-picky now, shall we? I left the closing ceremony – though “ceremony” is a strong word for the pretzel-eating, champagne-drinking, and group picture-taking that occurred after a smattering of two-minute appreciation speeches – of my language course on Friday, March 28th and headed directly to the train station in Freiburg, from which I caught the first of a series of trains at 12:57. One packed lunch, a few pieces of chocolate, multiple hours of travel journaling, and some beautiful countryside later, I arrived at the Gare de l’Est train station in Paris at 4:35. Yes, the times were really that exact.

I found the entrance to the metro station and proceeded to hold up the rush-hour line while I fiddled with the metro ticket vending machine until it produced the set of 10 tickets that I wanted. Following the directions provided my Airbnb host, I rode the metro about 25 minutes to a stop in the north of Paris and walked the block or so to the apartment where I would be staying. In what I believe must’ve been proper apartment fashion, I rang the bell that corresponded to the apartment number and was buzzed inside the outer door. My host met me in the entryway, showed me the apartment, handed over the keys, and provided me with a faded metro map and directions to the Louvre. By 5:45pm, relieved of my overstuffed backpack, I was was letting myself out of the apartment building and retracing my steps to the metro station to take advantage of the Louvre’s Friday night late hours. But first I stopped at a bakery I’d spied on the corner just up from the apartment. There I gestured, nodded, and smiled my way to acquiring my supper: a pain au chocolat. The pastry’s buttery flakes drifted down onto the rather-too-bold-for-Paris stripes of my purse as I wended my way through the metro station, hoping I didn’t have bits of bread in my scarf or chocolate on my mouth.

The “Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre” stop on the yellow line 1 of the metro connected directly to a small but grand underground shopping and dining complex, the Carrousel du Louvre. A few expensive boutiques, a Starbucks, and other pricy, touristy distractions lined the high-ceilinged breezeway and inner atrium, which, oddly enough, included a diminutive and inverted version of one of the ubiquitous, glass Louvre pyramids hanging from the rooftop. I could have entered the Louvre, directly across from the Apple store, but instead I chose to return the way I’d come to find an exit to street level in order to take some pictures of the more recognizable outside of the museum before the sun disappeared entirely, given that I was unsure if I would come back to the Louvre in the daylight before I left Paris (spoiler: I did, twice).

Above ground I snapped the usual photos and selfies. The Louvre is one of the few places on earth where it is entirely socially acceptable to shamelessly turn the camera on yourself. All the other tourists are doing just that, but I still felt as silly as ever – not that you would suspect that, given the number of selfies I take when I travel. But at least I didn’t have an iPhone extended on stick, something I observed far too often.

The sun had mostly hidden itself behind the trees of the gardens beyond the Louvre as I found my way back indoors and to the central space beneath the bizarre pyramid. I snagged an English map from the buffet of pamphlets in various languages at the information desk and stood in line briefly at one of the ticket counters. I had read online that college-aged residents of the EU received free admission to the Louvre and numerous other cultural and historical sites in Paris. Sure enough, the same information was printed, albeit in minuscule font, on a single sign next to the counter, and I referred to it as I slid my Uni Freiburg student ID and a copy of the main page of my passport towards the lady behind the glass of the ticket booth. Rather than handing me a ticket or smashing my hopes, she simply pointed out one of the entrances and instructed me to show my documents to the ticket collector, thereby establishing my protocol for visits to all the other sites in Paris: skip the ticket lines and go straight to the entrance with passport and ID in hand.

So, I stepped away from the ticket lady and into the center of the open space below the pyramid and retrieved my iPod from my trusty bag. With my own lovely headphones – in contrast with the dubiously ragged ones of a rented museum audio guide – clipped on my freakishly small ears and my maps in hand, I began to listen to Rick Steve’s free Louvre audio tour. It was nearing 7:00, and the museum closed at 9:45, so I had my art-gazing cut out for me. Luckily, I’m quite adept at breezing through museums, so I was confident that time would not be an issue, especially since the audio guide claimed to highlight only the most crucial of sculptures and paintings. With the introduction out of the way, I took the stairs up to one of the entrances – there are three or four wings, each with its own stairway – and after gleefully gaining my free entrance, I dove into the Greek and Roman sculpture galleries. From there Rick Steves lead me from room to room, giving short descriptions of key pieces along the way, and, unfortunately, often leaving me utterly baffled, circling a gallery trying to follow his terrible directions to the next stop on the tour.

The audio guide ended with some stops in the Grand Gallery of Renaissance art, one of which was the Mona Lisa, of course. Despite Rick Steve’s assurance that I would find simply by following the noise of the crowd, the room in which it was housed was no more full of people than the rest of the museum. The picture-taking viewers were three deep at most, and I easily skirted them and found a space at the bar in front of the painting to take my own selfies. I’ve never much liked Da Vinci’s paintings, but, as ever, it was neat to behold something so famous in person.

Finished with the audio guide and still with an hour left before closing time, I let myself wander. I perused the entire length of the Grand Gallery and all its adjoining rooms; I listened to a French university student explain the meaning behind an obscure painting in hesitant but accurate English; I re-discovered the sculpture galleries and contemplated some of the marble statues I had missed in my Rick Steves-induced haste. Somehow I ended up in a practically deserted, bottom floor gallery of unique Muslim and Middle Eastern art and artifacts, where I browsed ancient pottery, glassware, oriental rugs, weapons, and manuscripts. All in all, it was a peaceful and happy last hour of exploring, punctuated by my quick strides between galleries and around large tour groups. I was thankful for my independence.

Just after 9:45 I was back on the metro in the direction of the apartment. At the station where I had to change trains, I ended up walking in several frustrating circles, unable to find my way to the correct side of the tracks. In the end I took an incredibly indirect route home, where I finally arrived around 10:30. My host left, not long after I arrived, to start the weekend with a gathering with friends. And I rolled into bed, after reviewing my schedule for the next day and updating social media, of course. (More on how I planned out my trip in a later post.)

Okay, don’t leave yet. Look below this paragraph. See that Youtube video? That’s not an ad. Nope. That’s actually a compilation of videos I took during that first half day in Paris. I’ve decided that I really like video as a medium for sharing experiences; it provides a much better feel for a place. I think you can get a sense of how alive and real Paris – or anywhere – is with a video, whereas still photographs, as wonderful as they are, present merely a frozen image, which can leave a place looking a bit dry and two-dimensional (literally) at times. Anyway, I’ve been taking a lot of videos. There are also videos at the bottom of my posts about my Schwarzwald outing and my hike outside of Freiburg. So, go back and have another look at those posts if you wish. Videos like this will most likely appear at the bottom of all of my travel posts from now on.

Schwarzwald: St. Peter, Titisee, Neustadt

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When I was in Peru, one of my Spanish teachers observed that it would be an absurdity to say that I had “seen Peru,” as if the entire country could be checked off a list with the swoop of a checkmark and a satisfied, self-congratulatory pat on the back. That’s what my brother and I tend to do in our ceaseless and increasingly cut-throat contest to visit the most countries. But there’s so much more to a country than its largest cities; there are so many histories and fables to be told about the smallest of towns. You can live in a country for months without even scratching the cultural surface. For that matter, you can live your entire life that way. Every country is just so big - even if it’s one twenty-seventh the size of the US, as Germany is. And I know that. In my mind I know that so far I’ve only seen the tiniest of tiny pieces of Germany, but two weekends ago I took a day trip into the Schwarzwald, and it started to properly sink in.

The language institute (SLI) through which I’m taking my intensive language course this month organizes various trips and outings for us students. The weekend of March 8th - yes, I know, I’m way behind – the trip for Saturday was into the Black Forest to see various churches in various towns, a popular lake, and a ski museum. Since travel would be provided by means of a private bus – and, I presume, a tour guide – it cost €35 or so. Disinclined to spend so much money on a trip that sounded rather uninteresting, I planned not to go. And then, some people I met on the hike up to the top of Schlossberg hill the previous weekend, invited me along on their own little excursion on Saturday. I love it when that happens: other people make the plans, and I just come along. Coincidentally – or not so coincidentally – we ended up going to most of the places on the SLI trip. Indeed, we ran into that group two or three times. But! Our trip was free. Ha!

The handy-dandy “Regiokarte” train, tram, and bus ticket we students purchased for this month of language classes allows for free transportation to a large swath of the Black Forest outside of Freiburg. So, at 9:15am, we met at the main train station, and off we went!

After a brief train journey – say, less than 25 minutes – we disembarked in a small town where we caught a bus a few minutes later. In about 20 minutes this had brought us through several other little towns and up further into the hills of the Schwarzwald to the village of Sankt Peter, and, more importantly, its cathedral. We hopped off the bus into the chilly shadow of the church and made our way up the hill to its ornate door. I say ornate, but all church doors I’ve come across in Europe are beautiful and ornate to some degree or another. Really, this was just another church door. And inside was just another downright gorgeous, stained glass-windowed, towering stone columned, ancient church with the massive paintings of biblical scenes winging their way across the walls and ceiling, as usual. Confession: I’m a cathedral snob. I’m way past the point of saturation when it comes to churches and lofty architecture and awe-inspiring art. It’s a tragic reality.

We breezed our way through the cathedral, and then returned outside to look for the historic library that the SLI group was also going to visit. We circumnavigated the church ground – it used to be a monastery or convent – not once but twice before asking for directions in a little souvenir shop off the plaza in front of the church. She confirmed what I had suspected after seeing some signs inside the cathedral: no public tours of the library on Saturdays. The SLI group had gotten a private tour. I think my traveling companions were rather more disappointed than I was, even though we soon ran into people from the SLI group who informed us that the library was, and I quote, “really cold.” They showed us some pictures of – big surprise – more arched rooms and paintings on walls, along with some old books. Yup, no big loss.

Of course, now we had a bit of a problem. Our bus out of town wasn’t going to come for another hour and a half, we had no library to visit, and it was cold and blustery outside. So, we found a sunny bench overlooking the nearby hillside and pastures, and I started at my map of the Schwarzwald while other two girls consulted (sort of argued?) over the bus schedule and the guy just sat there. I suppose this would be an opportune time to inform you that I was on the trip with two girls – an American exchange student from up north and a Swiss girl from Geneva – and a guy, who’s an American from the northeast. They’re all in the same level of German, which is about two times higher than mine. And we spoke only German.

Eventually, when we had about 45 minutes left before our bus would come, we made a painfully hesitant move to a cafe down the street. Our group ambivalence was becoming slightly maddening. But, inside the cafe, the other three warmed themselves with hot chocolate, and I finally thawed against the warm pane of the sunny window behind our table. We discussed the foods particular to each of our home towns, the upcoming semester, and so on. And then we headed back to the bus stop.

The long-awaited bus took us to another small train station, where we caught a 6-minute ride to the Titisee stop. A 10 minute walk down a road lined with wide sidewalks clearly constructed to accommodate large groups of ambling tourists and the racks of kitschy souvenirs that spilled out from the shops along the way. The lake itself, once we arrived at its breezy shores, was smooth and clear and surrounded by forests and the rising foothills of the Schwarzwald – quite picturesque, and, I’m sure, excellent for swimming in the summer. We found a bench in the sun and ate our lunches: in my case, a giant roll of oddly pungent and sharp smelling but delicious and crusty potato bread, some brie, and an apple.

Our leisurely lunch completed, we concluded that there wasn’t much to be seen in the town, so we wandered back up to the train station. On the way we poked our heads into a touristy shop or two. In one which sold chocolates, all three of my friends insisted that I try a Mozartkugel chocolate, which they claimed were a very traditional sweet made of a chocolate-filled and chocolate-covered marzipan ball. I consented, of course, and felt a bit silly as I purchased my single piece of chocolate from the store. It wasn’t a very impressive sweet. Mostly just sweet, as if someone had compressed a tiny sugar cookie into a ball and then coated it with chocolate. The most notable detail was the foil wrapper, which showed Mozart’s face. Hence the name, “Mozart ball.”

Before we arrived back at the train station, the other two girls had another session of bench sitting and schedule discussing, which concluded with the decision to go to the nearby town of Neustadt – because, why not? So we did. The town was quiet and nearly empty. I suppose everyone was enjoying their Saturday afternoon by staying home. After passing an amusing pair of sculptures of an ear and a mouth – you could speak into one and hear out of the other, like those playground speakers – we ascended a hill up to the town’s church. Though still just another beautiful church, this one’s architecture was unique. Its smooth, curved lines and two-toned stone color scheme seemed modern, but on the ceiling were faded remnants of ancient paintings. It was an odd combination.

After visiting the church, we were essentially finished with Neustadt. We listlessly strolled partway down a street in hopes of finding something of interest but soon turned back and returned to the train station. Our train arrived soon enough for our 40-minute ride back to Freiburg, where we arrived sometime around 5:00pm, tired but content with our day of haphazard exploring one little corner of the Schwarzwald.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was my first little adventure of this grand adventure of being an exchange student.

Next up: Paris, where I went last weekend.


 

hallo, Freiburg

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It finally happened. I went to Germany. I came to Germany. I’m in Germany.

What?!

I’ve been here for a full six days now, so lots has happened – enough to keep me busy enough not to blog, anyway. In the interest of being as succinct and organized as possible, I shall answer some questions I have posed for myself.

How was the trip to Freiburg?
I flew Luftansa straight from Houston to Frankfurt, Germany. Mom dropped me off at the airport around 2:15pm, and after waiting for an hour in an impossibly slow security line – during which time I wondered if the US is the only country in the world allowed to have blue passports or if everyone just likes red better – and another 30 minutes or so in the terminal, I boarded the double-decker plane. That is, we lowly cattle boarded after the  first- and business-class passengers boarded through a separate gate. I shouldn’t have been surprised by such a stringent segregation of the classes, but I was, especially when I discovered to my amusement that both gates lead to the same gangway and door. Anyway, the flight was mostly empty, and as our 4:30 departure approached, I held tightly onto the hope that I would have my row of three seats all to myself. Alas, no. A Hungarian mother and daughter took their places next to me just before the door was closed, sealing my fate: there was no hope of sleep. So, I spent the next 8 hours and 45 minutes mostly watching movies and tv shows, and occasionally attempting to sleep. Sure enough, that never happened. But I finally got to watch Frozen, so I felt that my flight was well-spent, if not restful. By 9:00am, I was walking off the plane and into the enormous Frankfurt airport. And then, by 9:53, I had exchanged money, emailed my parents, picked up my trusty suitcase, bought a train ticket from a kiosk, found the train station, gotten directions to my train platform, and smashed my suitcase on the floor next to me inside the train car. Two hours later I was in Freiburg.

What happened once I got to Freiburg?
From my platform at the train station in Freiburg, I followed the directions given to me by the Sprachlehrinstitut (SLI) and bought a Straßenbahn (streetcar/tram) ticket. I got off two stops later and pulled my giant suitcase across the cobblestone streets and sidewalks in the wrong direction a couple of times before I found the SLI building. Inside, I sat at one of several tables of students while a staff member reviewed the large packet of information she’d handed out: class, dorm, optional activities, regional tram ticket, food, et cetera. After purchasing my month-long tram ticket, I got on the tram to my dorm. 10 minutes later, there I was.

Where am I living?
My dorm is one of 22 of varying sizes that are situated along a small lake, 10 minutes outside of the older part of the city, where the university is located. Our floor has two hallways; each hallway has four single-person rooms, one half bath, and one full bath; and the two hallways both have access to the large kitchen and dining area. I’m allowed to use any of the pots and pans and such in the well-stocked kitchen, though I’ll most likely subsist quite happily on sandwiches alone for the next five months. My room itself has a large window, comfy bed, perfect-size desk, hanger-less closet, bookshelf, pathetic radiator, and sink. All of my flatmates are German, and they seem quite nice and eager to include me in their outings and such.

What are my classes like?
The Sprachkurs that I am taking is split up in to 12 or so levels/classes, and there are 180-odd students from 30 or so countries here to take it. I am in class 5 with a couple of other Americans, at least seven Japanese students, a Brazilian, a Greek, an Italian, a Brit, and a girl from Hong Kong. We have class from 9:15 to 12:45, with a generous 30-minute break thrown in. During class we generally work out of our textbooks, doing fill-in-the-blank exercises, answering reading or listening comprehension questions, or following prompts to have a short discussion with our neighbor about a particular topic. It is frustratingly boring at times, but I hope that it will get better. Our teacher is a nice middle-aged lady who, though unable to explain new words with much success, is patient, enthusiastic, and as engaging as possible, considering the curriculum.

What have I done besides class?
In more or less chronological order:

  • taken a mini tour of the city with a bunch of other students
  • eaten at the Mensa (the student eatery with a single-item menu) with some classmates
  • stumbled across a consignment shop and bought a pair of boots
  • gone grocery shopping every couple of days for fresh bread and fruit
  • been shown important eating spots by our German teacher
  • eaten a proper German bratwurst
  • hung out with my flatmates in the dining area while they spoke German, catching about 45% of what they were saying
  • successfully avoided spending time with students who want to speak English
  •  walked up the hill outside of Freiburg with at least 50 other students to see the town from above
  • met more Japanese students than I can count
  • gone on an excursion to some towns outside of Freiburg with four other students (separate blog post forthcoming)
  • attended a German-English service at a Calvary Chapel
  • wandered here and there in the city without getting lost
  • been generally cold

So, what did I miss, guys? Any burning questions?

collard quiche with sweet potato crust

collard quicheWait! Come back! I know you’re about to click away. You saw the word “collard,” and it scared you. Maybe it brought back childhood memories of bitter, boiled leaves heaped in a sickening, faded green, shoved to the edge of your plate. Or maybe, like me, that’s what came to your mind, despite having never actually tasted that dreaded southern excuse for a vegetable.

Let me assure you: your fear is unfounded. Collards are like kale or swiss chard or spinach – perfectly palatable and delicious if you cook them right. If you boil them, not so much.

sweet potato quiche crustI doubt I would’ve ever escaped my sad ignorance of the versatility of collards, had I not asked Dad to pick up some swiss chard for me at the store. Ever absent-minded shopper that he is, he triumphantly presented me with a giant bundle of collards. So, I used them instead of swiss chard in the tart I was making. And you know what? They tasted just fine. No bitterness. No stringiness. Nothing. Deeeelicous! In fact, I’d say they were better than spinach, which tends to be mushy, and superior to kale, which can be a bit tough.

sweet potato crust

Indeed, I started eating sautéed collards as part my Whole30 breakfasts. Then I expanded to mustard greens and turnip greens. I’ve been having my own little renaissance of greens in the past several weeks.collard quiche with sweet potato crust

Naturally, quiche was the next step. As usually happens with recipes, I’d had an idea for one component floating around in my mind for a while: grated sweet potato crust. Mom makes quiche with shredded white potato for a crust sometimes when she doesn’t feel like dealing with making or eating a proper pie crust. Since sweet potato is the most scrumptious, sweet, versatile of starches, it was clearly an even better choice for a crust. Duh.collard quiche sweet potato

So, armed with my brilliant orange, crisped-edged super-crust, I browned some sweet red onions and earthy cremini mushrooms, mixed them my newly befriended collards, and added some eggs for cohesion. And there it was: one vegetable-packed, Whole30 compliant, dense quiche – with just a hint of rosemary. As I’ve said previously, I never eat quiche for breakfast; it’s a supper food to me. But I gladly ate this for both.collard quiche recipe

Appropriately enough, this is day 30 of my Whole30. It’s been a ride, but mostly an easy one. I made it through the extraction of all of my wisdom teeth, the mild temptation of all the normal food my family ate, and the boredom of the last couple days. But I did it. And I’m happy. My last official meal has been eaten, so now there’s just to wait for…

Tomorrow, tomorrow!
I love you, granola!
You’re only a night awaaaaay!

For now, I’ll have to content myself with sharing this quiche with you people. The directions look complicated, but really I’m just telling you to chop and sauté, chop and sauté.sweet potato crust quiche

Collard Quiche with Sweet Potato Crust

  • 1 ten-ounce sweet potato
  • 1 + 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large red onion
  • 8 oz collards (~6 large leaves)
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 small package crimini mushrooms (also called “baby bella”)*
  • 4 tablespoons coconut oil, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus a bit more here and there
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and some more here and there
  • 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk (nut milks would probably work, too)*

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Grease a 10-inch* pie pan with 1 tablespoon coconut oil.

Use a cheese grater’s medium-sized plane to shred the sweet potato. Don’t bother peeling it first; just wash it well. You should have about 3 cups of shredded sweet potato. Toss with the olive oil and a few dashes of salt. Press the sweet potato into the greased pie pan to form a crust. Bake for 20 minutes until the sweet potato is soft and slightly browned on the top edges.

While the crust cookies, dice the red onion into 1/4-inch half-moon pieces. Heat 1 tablespoon of coconut oil in a frying pan and sauté until browned and softened but not mushy.

As the onion browns, cut the tough ribs out of the center of the collard leaves. Slice into 1/2-inch-wide ribbons. Mince the garlic.

When the onions are finished, remove them from the pan and set aside. Add another tablespoon of coconut oil to the pan. Brown half of the minced garlic. Once the garlic is browned, add the collards and sauté until wilted and bright green, with a few dashes of salt. Set aside.

Slice the mushrooms into fourths or fifths. Add the final tablespoon of coconut oil and the rest of the garlic to the pan with the mushrooms. Cook until the mushrooms are softened and browned.

Combine all the vegetables with the salt, pepper, and dried rosemary. Spread evenly in the crust. Whisk eggs and coconut milk together, and pour evenly on top of vegetables, being sure that the mixture gets distributed evenly. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes until firm. Enjoy warm! Or cold – it’s marvelous leftover!

*Important notes:

  • You’ll have way too much filling and egg if you try to make this in a 8-inch pie pan. If you do, just leave out some of the filling and only beat 4 eggs or so. Eye it.
  • You could probably leave the coconut milk out entirely if you wanted to, but I think it adds a nice sweetness and flavor.
  • Substituting regular button mushrooms for the criminis would work just fine, I think.

toasted pecan spice cookies

pecan spice cookies up closeWell, it’s over. After a speedy procedure between 10:30 and 11:30 this morning, I stumbled hesitantly out of the oral surgery office, with a lot less smarts and a mouthful of stitches. Yes, yes, I just made the classic and corny you-must-be-less-wise-because-you-got-your-wisdom-teeth-out joke. I couldn’t help myself. My innocent little wisdom teeth were yanked from their happy homes; I need some puns for consolation.

The remaining sedative fog burned off on the car ride home, so by the time I walked into the kitchen, I felt pretty good. My face – from my ears and lower eyelids to below my chin – was still cold and numb, so the pain was minimal. Fortified by some ibuprofens, I decided to take advantage of my presumably short-lived comfort by making some cookies. Dad’s siblings and my cousin were set to arrive this evening, and one always wants to have cookies on hand when guests are coming. So, I stuffed a napkin in my mouth to catch my wayward drool (tmi?), strapped my ice packs to my face, and pulled out the mixer. Baking therapy. With a side of fruit juice to keep me going.pecan spice cookies on a platter

And the cookies? They’re delightfully chewy, warmly spiced, and full of nuts and raisins. You can’t go wrong. I first made them before Christmas, and between then and now I’ve whipped up a batch three or four times. I think they’re currently my favorite cookie. Their main flavor is reminiscent of gingerbread, but there are also oats for more texture, golden raisins for tangy sweetness, and toasted pecans for crunch and lovely, nutty flavor.pecan spice cookies

I have become loathe to include nuts in anything without first toasting them. They just have so little flavor if you don’t toast them; they’re just texture. But once you brown them a bit, suddenly the aromatic oils burst forth and fill the air and whatever dish to which you add them. It’s marvelous! Even the mild almond suddenly develops a personality. A quality raw pecan itself has a strong, woody flavor; add a little heat and it blooms beautifully.pecan spice cookie dough

Speaking of flavor, if you try these cookies, do use golden raisins. It really makes a difference. Regular raisins are to molasses as  golden raisins are to honey. There’s a brightness, a lightness in golden raisins that you just don’t get with the regular ones. And sometimes I think I can detect just a hint of tartness.pecan spice cookies in a box

Toasted Pecan Spice Cookies 

  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 1 + 1/2 sticks butter
  • 1 + 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup oats
  • 1 + 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 + 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup golden raisins

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Spread the pecans on a cookie sheet and toast them in the oven as it heats up, until deep brown a fragrant; time will vary according to oven, so be vigilant and check them every minute.

Using a mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs and beat until smooth. Add the oats, salt, baking powder, and spices (or combine separately in a bowl and pour into butter mixture) and mix until combined.

Chop the toasted pecans. Fold pecans and golden raisins into cookie dough.

Roll dough into walnut-sized balls and place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes. The cookie will be puffy. As soon as you take them out of the oven, transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool. They may seem undercooked, but they’ll be fine. It’s okay if they smoosh a little bit when you move them. If you leave them on the baking sheet, they will have crispy, thin edges when they cool.

Enjoy with milk! [Makes ~33 cookies.]

how to soften chilled pie dough

cold pie doughThere comes a time in everyone’s life, or so I most earnestly believe, when you accidentally makes twice as much pie crust as necessary. Or perhaps you do it on purpose: a “one pie for now, one pie for later” sort of deal. Regardless, you have to keep the excess fresh, so you stick your the lump of pie crust dough in the fridge, snitching a bit of buttery, salty deliciousness just before you snap the container lid shut and shove it onto the nearest shelf.

The days pass and suddenly you need that pie crust. You’ve got to throw an entire pie together now. It’s the only spare moment you have, and you need it for the church potluck tomorrow or that dinner tonight where you promised you’d bring dessert or you’re watching your favorite tv show and it requires a slice of pie to go with it. But the crust is cold. Cold! And you forgot to get it out earlier. Panic.soften pie dough

So now you’ve got a choice. You can wrestle with chilled pie dough and muscle it into some sort of crust-like shape while your fingers freeze, or you can soften it up right quick and go on your merry pie-making way. But you can’t just toss it in the oven or microwave. It’ll partially cook, and you’ll have rubbery crust. Nope.

Really, the problem is all that cold butter in your dough. It’s keeping everything stiff. So to solve the problem, you just need to soften the butter – but not melt it. This is where the marvelous microwave comes it. Toss that pie dough in the microwave on a low power setting, and the butter will gently soften until your pie dough has returned to its proper pliability. Phew. On with your life!how to soften pie dough

Maybe this is a no-brainer for everyone else on earth, but I’m assuming there’s someone else somewhere who’s as impatient and pie-focused as I am. So here’s my non-recipe “how to” for softening pie dough. The instructions look long, but I promise this isn’t complicated.

How to Soften Chilled Pie Dough

Ingredients:

  • 1 frustratingly cold lump of pie crust dough
  • 1 microwave
  • some knowledge of your microwave’s settings

Instructions:

  1. Place your pie dough in a microwave-safe bowl and stick it in the microwave.
  2. Somewhere on your microwave’s keypad, there should (hopefully, probably) be a button for “time cook” or “cook time.” If there is, enter 4 minutes. (If there’s no button like that, go straight to adjusting the power level – but don’t forget to switch it back when you’re done.)
  3. Before you press “start,” find the “power” button. Most microwave’s I’ve ever used have the power automatically set at the highest level: 10. You want to set it at 1 or 2. Do that.
  4. Press “start.”
  5. Every minute take the dough out to smoosh it around a bit to be sure everything softens evenly. You can even take off the chunks that are softened and warm, set them aside, and continue microwaving the rest of the dough. Repeat until all of the dough is softened – 3 to 4 minutes, depending on your microwave.
  6. Now go make that pie!

Or

  1. Find the melt/soften butter setting on your microwave.
  2. Steps 4-6 above.