Monthly Archives: July 2010

A Pittsburgh Weekend (and Winery)

Going to Pittsburgh this weekend, the town I grew up in.  Always fun to visit of course but one of my favorite things this time of year is how green it is- our house is in a very leafy suburb, so not unusual to see sights like wild turkeys running across the lawn.

Plan is my brother will finish driving from North Carolina and we’ll have a dinner at a local winery of all things, called the Narcisi Winery about a 15 minute drive from our house.  I know what you’re thinking and I agree- a winery in Pittsburgh?!– but all the grapes are from Pennsylvania and the wine is passable.  And when you’re with good friends and there is good wine and food who cares where it’s from right?

From the front, with an obligatory Italian flag!

My sister Linda and her best friend from high school, Jackie, when we visited last month.

Anyway, have a good weekend guys and when I return I will have stories of things like Kennywood and the Pittsburgh Pirates- I’m told tomorrow is “Italian appreciation night” at the latter and when I asked who we’d be playing my brother responded “does it really matter? We’re going to lose anyway.” Gulp!

Sampling French Food in Paris

I read a book once in which the main character had a French mother who would cook up a storm whenever she and her husband visited.  The girl would always say about all the meats and cremes and everything “mother, you’ll be the death of us,” to which the mother retorted “can you imagine a better way to die?”  Indeed.

It’s hard not to love France because good food is everywhere, even in a tiny convenience store.  See this sheep cheese?  I bought it in a tiny convenience store that had a better selection than a gourmet shop in the USA would for cheaper than it would be here!  It’s just so much easier to eat well in Europe honestly… and yep before anyone asks, the cheese was delicious.

But of course the food only gets better from there.  For starters, who can resist a crepe in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower?  Banana and chocolate in my case, cooked while I waited so there was the additional benefit of a piping hot snack on a cold day.

Another great street food on a cold day- this is one of many, many roasted chestnut vendors in Paris.  It is a great sadness that the concept of roasted chestnuts is nonexistent in the USA because they are absolutely delicious so whenever I see a seller abroad I can’t resist buying some, served straight from the fire in a sheaf of old rolled newspaper.

Ok, off the street and into the cafes!  Things get interesting because as a traveler you should always go into places that only have menus written in the local language, and even if my name implies I should I don’t speak French.  The thing is by this point I can read it and all the other romance languages pretty well due to a combination of a year of French in 6th grade, several more later of Latin, and the simple fact that we know most international foods by their names anyway.  So when a waiter slaps down the daily specials board next to you clearly expecting you to know what the hell is going on you pick one that sounds like you have a chance of knowing what you’ll get because whoever heard of bad food in a French cafe anyway?

The above result is what happened when I saw the word “pesto” and figured I should go for it- the pasta was tossed with pine nuts, prosciutto ham, and cheese that melted as you ate it.  Tres bien!

A side note by the way- see the Kindle on the left?  I got one for Christmas this year and brought it to Europe with me to see how it would fare while traveling, and in short I recommend it because in addition to the weight factor you get free wifi everywhere!  So it was great for quick email checks during the day and looking up details plus had the additional factor that every French waiter got really excited and struck up a conversation as I guess they’re not sold there yet.  It probably won’t last long, but even the most huffy waiter seemed to melt at the prospect of inspecting new technology.

Lots more delicious meals along the way but I’ll just stick ahead towards the last night where I treated myself to a beefsteak, aka steak tartare.  It’s definitely one of those foods that you either love or are horrified by- raw beef?!– but I honestly don’t see how people can embrace sushi and not this stuff.  Plus trust me, it’s delicious!

So what we have here is a “before” and “after” picture of the tartare I got in a swanky Parisian cafe-bar because there’s definitely a do it yourself quality to the meal. (Yep, they just crack an egg on top of the raw meat and give you various things like onions and spices to mix in.) The strangest thing to me was how this giant plate arrived without the traditional toast or in fact any other starch product to spread the meat on, as whoever heard of just eating this stuff by itself?  That might make you sick actually… Anyway I made my complaints to the waiter known, and after being a little confused he brought out a few slices for me.  Sooooo good…Last but not least, the chocolate mousse.  I’m not sure why but I’m not much of a dessert person- I guess my sweet tooth just isn’t terribly developed- but one huge exception to this rule is chocolate mousse.  How can you resist?  Particularly when you still have some French red wine left and happen to know that chocolate and red wine are superb together?

Now with that you’ll have to excuse me, as reliving all these delicious meals has made me extremely hungry.  Time for dinner!

Versailles Palace and Gardens

Continuing my Spring Break in France series of posts…

There’s something to be said for being a French monarch.  Sure you’re the last one holding the debt your head gets chopped off, but on the bright side you get to live here!

I came out to Versailles on the train from Paris that swiftly takes you out of the city and deposits you a five minute walk away from the palace, which is just enough space for touts to warn you that you should sign up for their tours to avoid the lines.  They do this all over Europe at the main sites (such as the Vatican Museum) but I knew from my prior European romps to not pay attention in March- I’m sure it’s terrible in summertime, but how many people do you see around me in this picture?  That’s right, enough to sort out tickets and the audio guides in five minutes!

The thing about Versailles is it has played such a huge role in the history of the world that it’s hard to say something incredibly unique.  After all, it’s big.  It’s ostentatious.  It’s a place filled with so many details both in decor and history that you get overwhelmed trying to take it all in.

Take this room, the famous Hall of Mirrors, which was originally a ballroom but then took on a scattering of functions such as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  Not only are we talking about a room literally fit for kings, we’re talking about the one where World War II and the fate of the world was set in motion!

The view from the second floor of the king’s private chapel, which only he and his family would use.  If you were lucky and a favored courtier you might be permitted to hide up here on a second floor side balcony.

What I really liked about this chapel was a picture of a photo exhibit currently going on at Versailles which was showing important moments since the palace has been a museum. (Which, it’s curious to think, it has been much longer than it was ever a palace.) This picture took place towards the end of World War II and showed American G.I. soldiers who had liberated the palace.  What I loved about it so much was the expressions on their faces that was a mixture of amazement and awe, as the bunch of boys off the farm clearly hadn’t even considered that there might be places in the world such as this.  But there are, and the amazement of the modern age is we are all allowed to see them.  As long as you have about 20 Euro that is.

Now I may get carried away by history sometimes, but forgive me as it’s kind of hard.  For example, can you imagine the absolute horror of Marie-Antoinette if someone had told her that in the future thousands of commoners would be filing into her royal bedchamber and it would be exposed for all the world to see?  And about half of them would have nothing more interesting to say then “hey Annette, look at that fancy wallpaper!  Doesn’t it look like that stuff your great and Gertrude wanted to hang in her second bathroom?” The horror!

Plus really now, the wallpaper isn’t the most interesting thing in this room anyway.  You know what is?  It’s that little door in the lower left of the jewel cabinet that looks completely hidden when closed: Marie-Antoinette escaped from the Parisian mob calling for her blood through the secret passageway it connects to during the French Revolution of 1789.

It took a few hours to get through everything in the palace, but I headed out afterwards into the garden to explore a little.  The grounds of Versailles are huge- it would take more than one hour to walk from one side to the other easily- and they’re also free so the locals make good use of what is essentially a giant park as well.  Makes me wish I had the former grounds of a palace to go biking and jogging in!

Also, it should be noted that the trivia fact of the day is the reason aristocracy trimmed their bushes so precisely like in the picture above is because it was supposed to symbolize their triumph over nature.  Something to think about next time you trim the hedgerow!  No word on how that triumph over nature thing worked out when it came to the physics of sharp slicing blades though.

There’s a fair bit of the grounds itself to see- I ended up doing a bit of geocaching as it was a perfect for it- but the best thing about the grounds of Versailles this time of year were the snowdrops.  Thousands upon thousands of snowdrops blanketing the ground and covering everything in sight.  I was in love, and can’t imagine the forests are half as pretty in summertime!

After that, footsore but happy about how the day was turning out, I headed back to the station for the ride back to Paris.  Feeling plenty hungry too, and sat down for a dinner which I’ll detail later!

Center Harbor, NH Fireworks

There are a few things I know in life, and one of them is that you will never, ever find a better place to watch 4th of July fireworks then Lake Winnipesaukee.  You might call me biased in this since this has been a tradition in my life since I was a little girl, but maybe I can convince you!

The story begins on the dock at sunset.  Our destination tonight is the little town of Center Harbor which is a 10 minute boat ride away because the rule of the lake is the second conditions get good you do everything via motorboat, and this being New England we’re pretty liberal in the definition of “good.”  Typically it’s still plenty cold in early July so that having the big summer holiday so early on seems like a terrible mistake by the Founding Fathers who were clearly thinking of such things (you couldn’t bear the yoke of tyranny until, say, mid-August?), and one can’t rule out bad weather either.  In fact, in what was arguably the worst firework year ever they started an hour early without warning so we only saw the last few!

Luckily there was a heat wave this year so weather was no problem, and probably the prettiest 4th of July sunset I’ve ever seen too.  These first two pictures are basically looking straight ahead off the dock and then turning 90 degrees to the right.

Anyway, we’re off!  And very, very quickly while heading towards Center Harbor it appears that we’ve got company as so many other people know the magic of fireworks by boat, making an impromptu regatta on the water amidst the rolling waves.  So beautiful and magical, filled with people in good spirits waving to each other and singing America the Beautiful (ok I don’t know who else did, but my rendition got a few fist pumps) and enjoying the holiday.

Finally we pass the buoys (rocks are a definite problem around here) to enter the bay and set up anchor a fair distance away from the fireworks barge.  There are hundreds and hundreds of boats bobbing in the water all around us as far as the eye can see- keep in mind that if you saw ten boats in this same shot on a normal day it’d be considered quite busy!  A real party on the water if there ever was one.

My brother Patrick, my dad and me waiting for the sunset to finish and the fireworks to begin.  We were kind of late coming to grab a good spot in time this year as we only arrived 45 minutes early- usually we stake out a half hour earlier than that!  But hey nothing like hanging out with your family to pass the time and the residents of the surrounding cottages keep everyone’s interest piqued by conducting their own mini fireworks shows going on the shoreline.  Very pretty, and no stray ones like when we did ours! *wink*

Finally at around 915pm the fireworks begins!  No more pictures unfortunately as the bobbing of the boats isn’t very good for fireworks pictures, but the funny thing is for all I’ve hyped this fireworks show I think most people who have seen them in big cities would be at all impressed by it.  You see Center Harbor is tiny- less than 1,000 people live here year-round though those numbers swell a few times in summer- so budget dictates a bit more modest affair than a bigger place.  I really don’t mind it though because it ends up fostering the philosophy that the Dutch had when they first brought tulips over from China- planting a field full was too expensive so you would only do one at a time to admire its individual beauty.  And trust me this works really well for fireworks- shooting off three at a time is considered to be a big deal so instead we have time to admire the ones we have until they disappear, hearing the rolling booms echoing from the surrounding hillsides and honking boat horns so the organizers know the favorites. I always wonder if they make a note of which ones get the most noise.

After 20 minutes of fireworks (it’s usually 30 minutes but it was short this year- town budget must be hurting due to the recession) the show is done and it’s time to head home- by this point it’s dark so the boats heading out go slowly so as to give ample caution to the not-really-visible buoys.  We end up spending over a half hour to weave home in the darkness while keeping an eye on boats, rocks, and the mini fireworks shows that have started up again at the shoreline cottages.

And that is what I look forward to every 4th of July no matter where I am in the world.  The astute will notice that this story isn’t even about the fireworks so much really because they themselves aren’t the most spectacular you’ll ever see or anything but rather part of the whole adventure.  After all, all good travelers know that the journey is as important as the destination, and who can object to such a fun journey and family to share it with?

Where is Yvette? Around the Net!

Forgot to mention this as I was too busy dodging fireworks, but Where Is Yvette? got featured in the Gen Y Travel Blog Carnival this month!  Take a look, lots of fun posts and interesting reads.

Also for anyone interested in stalking this blog, it’s gotten a little easier as now in addition to the RSS feed we’re on Twitter @whereisyvette and on Facebook.  Take a look!

The New Hampshire Fireworks Incident

In hindsight, maybe there’s a reason fireworks are illegal in most states.  New Hampshire is not one of these of course, a fact evidenced by how you can see several being shot off all over the countryside when flying in on 4th of July weekend, and our parents got me and my brother some to shoot off.  GOOD fireworks mind, the kind with several rounds and put us in great competition with those also on our lake!  So neighbors and relatives were invited, boats were moved away from our little point, and excitement and mosquitoes mounted in the humid air.

The first ones took off without detrimental incident and mounting excitement- we even had some passing boats pause to anchor in the water and enjoy the show, and positive comments were shouted around the lake in our direction.  Sweet!  But then around the sixth bundle of fireworks something happened- maybe it just got bounced around too much on the grass, maybe the person who lit the fuse with his cigarette accidentally knocked it, we won’t know.  What I do know is around the fifth or six rocket instead of going up in the air to explode like the rest it shot way to the right into the water, and I was vaguely thinking that wasn’t right for a few seconds until another rocket shot off in the distinctly wrong direction.  Over the heads of our invited audience.  Starting little fires behind where they were sitting in the forest.

Now let me tell you, when uncontrolled explosives are still being fired you run first and think of others later.  (I figured I could always say I was running to extinguish the little fires in the forest, which I did successfully after some stomping.) And then later downplay things and claim the divebombing mosquitoes are the reason we’re cutting things short, feeling sorry for the passing boaters who shouted “are you ok?!” and we never responded to- in hindsight a much more interesting story!  And then try to convince the neighbors you’re normal by playing a game of Ticket to Ride, a board game where you try to build railroads across the country, well normal as we get anyway-

As an epilogue to this bit of excitement, a friend pointed out there’s a joke in which a physicist, an engineer, and a mathematician go into a room and see a fire in it.  In such a situation, the physicist grabs a hose of water and douses the room quickly- everything’s soaked, but the fire’s out.  The engineer on the other hand looks at the size of the fire and calculates exactly how much water is needed to douse the fire, measures it out, and the fire is extinguished with minimum mess.  Lastly, the mathematician goes in and scribbles on paper, determines that it’s possible to extinguish fire with water, and leaves the room.  Guess we know which one I am!

Photo: Mount Washington Boat and Mountain

Off to New Hampshire in a few minutes for the long weekend (4th of July for the non-Yanks who read these pages).  Fireworks, lake, family, what more could one want?

The boat above is called the Mount Washington, named after the snow-capped peak behind it which is the tallest peak in New England and the site of the world’s biggest wind ever recorded at 216mph.  Trust me, it’s a lot bigger when it’s not so far away!