Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hunting for spices and Van Gogh

This week went by pretty fast, and it didn't take me too long to readjust to French living. Our daily dinner of meat and fried potatoes chez Mme. L (my landlady/hostmom)was actually comforting after the new flavors of Greece. I successfully explained to Mme. L that since I'm Catholic I can't eat meat on Fridays, so she made me an extra helping of canned green beans. Yum. (Actually I do like canned green beans. I just prefer fresh green beans. We eat a lot of canned food here.) A lot of people have asked me about how I like French cuisine, and I still can't give a good answer. The crepes are delicious and the meat has enough flavor that it doesn't need much seasoning, but from what I've been exposed to, the cuisine seems a little bit bland. While the flavors are good, I wouldn't say the food is flavorful. I have yet to eat at a real French restaurant and order the plat du jour, so I'm hoping once I save up enough money to do that I will be pleasantly surprised.

Among my American friends, our conversation often centers around what kinds of food we miss from home. To soothe our deprived tastebuds, we decided to have a taco and chocolate chip cookie night. This sounds easy enough, but when confronted with the limited selection of "foreign" foods at Monoprix (the slightly overpriced grocery store), this proved most challenging. My friends attempted to make the cookies, but had to do without key ingredients like brown sugar and baking powder (or was it soda?) I volunteered to make guacamole, but couldn't find green chilis or chili powder, and sour cream was nowhere to be found. I'll admit that part of our struggle (or most of it) had to do with the fact that we couldn't understand half of the food labels, but we tried pretty hard.

After a confusing, extremely disorganized hunt for taco food (failing to find grated cheese and settling for pre-wrapped slices of American), we gathered our materials and headed for a friend's apartment. In addition to our limited ingredients, we had limited cooking utensils, and I ended up mixing quac on a plate and eating salsa out of a sauce pan. Nevertheless, around 9:30 PM we finally sat down to eat our delicious spread of fresh salsa, guacamole, and tacos (on dessert-sized paper plates). I'm proud that we managed to pull it together and create some truly tasty food despite the challenge of the French grocery store. We're planning another "family dinner," thinking that next time will be a potluck where everyone brings whatever type of American food they've been craving.

On a completely unrelated note, yesterday we took another day trip to some nearby towns. We visited Glanum, the ruins of an old Roman city. For a history geek like me, it would have been fascinating, if I hadn't just returned from a trip to Greece where I gazed at much more impressive structures like the Parthenon.

After Glanum, we took the bus to Arles, another former Roman city. Unlike Glanum, Arles is still a bustling city/town and fun to wander through. Our program director gave us tickets to the ruins in the city and set us free, so we leisurely strolled around finding the amphitheater (where we pretended to be gladiators and witnessed what we think was the shooting of a music video), some underground crypts/forumlike structures (creepy), a smaller theater, and a beautiful church. On the way to our first destination some cheeky french kid approached us saying something about "fromage" and went up to my friend and took one of the french fries out of the sandwich she was eating. Needless to say, she was stunned. That doesn't happen in Aix. In Arles, though, I guess anything is game.

Although Arles may now be home to french fry thieves, it was once the home of Vincent Van Gogh. If any of you knew me in fifth grade, you know how much I love Van Gogh. He lived in Arles for some time and I was told that after he cut his ear off, he recuperated in the hospital there. He also painted many of his well-known works there, and I loved running into signs throughout the city that said "Van Gogh painted X painting here." And then I would look up and see a familiar scene that I never realized existed in real life. One of these scenes was the cafe scene of the "terasse de café, la nuit." Although it was raining and cold, we managed to find the very same cafe and take a picture. Sadly, we couldn't sit outside and had to get back to the bus, but I was thrilled to be there nevertheless.

On our way back to the bus we stopped into a patisserie and I bought a little piece of chocolate cake. I finally found something moist and fudgie, and it was a great way to make it through the rest of the rainy day. Because of the rain, after Arles we returned to Aix instead of continuing on to Pont-du-Garde, where there are Roman aqueducts. I think we'll return another day, though.

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