l’anniversaire

One year ago today, a young woman stepped out of an airplane and in to the international terminal of the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France.  Slightly overwhelmed and completely exhausted, she collected her bags, passed through customs (where her passport received its very first stamp,) and hailed a taxi.  Ready or not, she had arrived in the City of Lights.

What did that young woman expect, you ask?

She expected to explore new frontiers.  She expected to meet new people.  She expected to eat lots of pastries.  But she didn’t know that four months in Paris would be a life-changing experience: that she would make life-long friends and gain a brand new outlook.  No, that would all be a surprise.

When someone asks me “how it was to study abroad for an entire semester,” I always tell them that it was the best decision that I ever made.  That it changed my life and that I am chomping at the bit to go back.  But it’s funny: nobody asks me how my semester in France changed my life.  What I learned.  So for those that asked, for those that didn’t, and for myself: the lessons I learned in Paris.

Slow down. In Paris, there’s no such thing as “taking your coffee to go.”  Instead, true Parisians sit in a café and sip leisurely, savoring every drop of their tiny espresso.  Parisians prioritize their own happiness and well-being over all else; the American “hurry up and go” attitude is nowhere to be found.  I admit that I haven’t exactly perfected (ha!) the Parisian way of stopping to smell the roses, but well…  I’m working on it.

Un cafe au lait, enjoyed while people-watching at a café.

(Try to) speak French.  I would be the first person to tell you that French is not an easy language to master.  There are tons of verb tenses (some rather useless, in my opinion,) and EVERY noun has a gender.  Essentially, every sentence presents countless opportunities to say something completely and utterly wrong. Despite all of this, after a bit of coaching (and reassurance) from my fabulous host mom, I learned very quickly that speaking bad French is better than speaking no French at all.  After all, how else can you expect to learn?  Sounds like a lesson that might be applicable in lots of situations, doesn’t it…

Translation: Caution, Weird Dog.

French pastries taste every bit as good as they look. This may be self-explanatory, but just in case you need a little more convincing…

A crêpe. With Nutella and banana. Just as heavenly as it sounds.

Macarons. The little sandwich cookie that could.

Every girl needs a little support. Plain and simple, my experience in France would not have been the same without my amazing host family and friends.  I miss them every day and I consider myself one lucky little Texan to have spent four months in their company.

The best host family a girl could ask for.

My Parisian other half.

Basking in the Grecian sun: spring break in Athens

And perhaps most importantly, Beauty is everywhere. You just have to open your eyes every once in a while in order to see it.

Sunset over the Aegean Sea

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité:" the national motto of France.

The Jardin du Luxembourg

Salzburg, Austria

Today, I celebrate the one year anniversary of my arrival in France.  It seems only fitting to propose a toast: to Paris, to family, to friends, and to adventure.  Santé!

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reverse culture shock?

It’s harder than I could have ever imagined to describe my “study abroad experience,” so I’m getting very good at responding to big questions with tiny answers:

How was Paris?  AMAZING.

How does it feel to be back in Texas?  WEIRD.  DIFFERENT.  HOT.

I’m glad to be home in the land of cowboy hats, Mexican food, and Target superstores, but now that I’ve been back in Texas for two weeks, I can honestly say this: I miss Europe.  I miss Paris.

I expected to have life-changing experiences in Paris.  I expected to step out of my comfort zone.  I even expected to make amazing friends.  What I didn’t expect was to feel so completely at home in Paris with my host family, “my” métro system, and my amies (translation: friends).

I know you’re probably expecting a blog post to “sum it all up;” to make some final, overarching comments on my Parisian experience.  Well, sorry.  What I can tell you, however, is this: I made an amazing decision to study in Paris this semester.  I now feel like I have a second home on the other side of the world, and I absolutely loved everything about my experience (ok, ALMOST everything.)

I can’t wait to go back.

just call me “jetsetter”

I have officially added “traveling” to my list of favorite hobbies.  Or maybe my list of obsessions.

My mom arrived in Paris on May 1, ready to embark on a mother-daughter whirlwind tour of Europe.  (Actually, it was a tour of Austria and Italy with a little bit of Germany thrown in, but who’s counting?)  We were both SUPER excited and ready for an amazing experience, and that’s just what we had, even with a few minor speed bumps along the way.

Our first stop wasn’t really a stop at all; we stayed in Paris for three days so I could show Mom around and take her to my favorite places.

Paris highlights

  • Lunch at Crêperie des Canettes, my favorite restaurant in Paris, with my mom and Kelsy, one of my fabulous IES friends
  • Yet another visit to the Musée d’Orsay (good thing it never gets old!)
  • Seeing a ballet at the Opéra Garnier, the building that provided the inspiration for “Phantom of the Opera”
  • Eating macarons
  • A wonderful dinner with my host family and my “real mom”

On Tuesday, May 3, we flew from Paris to Dusseldorf to Munich before taking a two-hour train to Salzburg (the ultimate “travel day.”)  Unfortunately, our luggage decided to stay in Dusseldorf a little longer than we did, so we got the full “European experience” of being without our luggage for about 24 hours.  But surprisingly, not having our luggage turned out to be a blessing: Mom and I were free to explore Munich for a few hours without having to carry our (excessively heavy) suitcases from place to place!

Munich highlights

  • A sad realization that even though we had crossed the border between France and Germany, we couldn’t get our passports stamped because we had stayed in the European Union.
  • Lunch at the first restaurant we saw that had English translations on the menu
  • Seeing the Glockenspiel
  • Astonishment at the amazing complexity of the German language; very different from French and English, and absolutely impossible for us to understand

From Munich (and still without our luggage) we headed to Salzburg on a train.  We didn’t know what to expect from Salzburg (except that it was where “Sound of Music” was filmed—which, don’t get me wrong, is VERY important).  We certainly didn’t expect to fall deeply in love with the city, but we did.

Salzburg highlights

  • An over-enthusiastic tour guide on the “Sound of Music” tour, coupled with breathtaking views from the mountains and lots of Kodak (or in my case, Canon) moments
  • Some of the best food we tasted on the entire trip, including weinerschnitzel with cranberry sauce and Nockerl, an amazing Austrian dessert
  • Mozart balls, bonbons that are in EVERY SINGLE store in the city (Mozart was born there; it’s one of Salzburg’s “claims to fame.”)
  • Everything.  Salzburg stole both my heart and my mom’s; we’re already thinking about a return trip.

From Salzburg, we took a two-hour train and a four-hour bus to Venice.  Yes, you read correctly: a four-hour bus.  And it was just as wonderful (or in this case, not-so-wonderful) as it sounds.

Venice highlights

  • Realizing that Venice doesn’t have real streets with real street names.  (Disclaimer: this is NOT a highlight; this made finding our hotel a little more of an adventure than we would have liked.  And it was raining.)
  • There’s a bus system…  But the buses are boats!
  • Our first tastes of Italian gelato.  Oh heaven.
  • Beautiful architecture.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures of windows and buildings, even though I knew I wouldn’t remember what their significance was later.

After only one night in Venice, we headed to my favorite of the Italian cities we visited: Florence.

Florence highlights

  • More gelato (are you surprised?)
  • Danilo, the owner of our bed and breakfast, made amazing cappuccinos and gave amazing restaurant recommendations.  New best friend.
  • Tuscany.  TUSCANYYY.  We went on a day trip through Tuscany, where we stopped in three cities and went to a wonderful wine and balsamic vinegar tasting.  One of the highlights of the entire trip.
  • Seeing the “Birth of Venus” in the Uffizi Gallery.  I had studied the painting in high school, but it was incredible to see it in real life (even though most of the other paintings in the Uffizi were less exciting, in my opinion)

The last stop on our whirlwind trip was Rome, a very quick train ride away from Florence.

Rome highlights

  • Yet MORE gelato (again, this should not surprise you.)
  • We bought tickets on the city sightseeing bus, which took us by all the sights.  It was a great way to spend the first afternoon and to see the sights of Rome, which are very spread out around the city.
  • The Coliseum.  Wow.  It held 70,000 spectators, almost as many as Darrell K. Royal Stadium at UT, even though it was built nearly 2000 years ago!
  • The Vatican scavi (excavation site); we got to see the layers of earth and buildings buried beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.  We even got to see the bones of St. Peter!

It was an absolutely amazing two weeks, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to do some more traveling before returning to Texas!  I’m already looking forward to having the chance to return to Europe and do some more exploring, but until then, it’s back to Texas for me!

time, where did you go?

I’m sharing this song with you for two reasons:

  1. I just love it.  And I have enormous respect for performers who can play the piano and sing at the same time.
  2. It seems very fitting for my last three days in Paris (before my mom makes the voyage over the pond and we embark on our European vacation!)  I can’t believe the semester has gone by so fast, and I feel so lucky to have had such a wonderful experience in Paris.  I am definitely going to do my best to “profiter” (make the best) of the rest of my time here!

(Time, as performed by Chantal Kreviazuk)

“why i loved london”

During my three day stay in London, I alloted one page of my journal for a list of “reasons why I love London.”  I was telling my dad about it a few days ago and he said “can’t you just include it in your blog?”

So here it is (just for you, Dad): Reasons why I love London.

  • Snacking isn’t “pour les enfants” (just for children); in London, it’s called “Afternoon Tea” and it’s very, very normal.
  • It’s clean!  I don’t think I smelled anything “questionable” even ONCE in the metro halls!  (This is a big difference from Paris, where unpleasant smells in the metro are an everyday occurance.)
  • The accent.  (Anyone who knows me should not be surprised by this one.  I love the British accent.)
  • There are real queens and princesses here, therefore, there’s still hope that I could be one and not know it.
  • They really do say “cheers!”
  • The musicals in the West End.
  • They eat eggs for breakfast!  And bacon!  Not just croissants and baguettes and juice!
  • Wearing sneakers and sweatpants doesn’t make people stare.
  • People smile.  All the time.
  • Lots and lots of Indian food restaurants.  And a WHOLE FOODS.  So essentially, London is heaven from a “Sarah food” perspective.
  • People rollerblade through the parks and the streets.
  • You can buy food and medication at the same store.  In France, you buy food at the grocery store and medication at the pharmacy.  I won’t lie, I miss the convenience of the “one stop shop.”
  • It’s illegal to leave dog poo on the street.  Enough said.

a sunny weekend in londontown

Last weekend, I was supposed to meet my friend Amy (www.besosfromespana.com) to gallivant joyously around London.  And then Eyjafjallajokull decided to send tons of volcanic ash in to the sky, causing continent-wide airspace closures and stranding Amy in Sevilla.

So what did I do?  I took my Eurostar train ticket, my hostel reservation, and my guidebook and headed to London anyway, of course!

I’ll spare you a play-by-play of my incredibly jam-packed and amazing weekend, and instead I’ll just share some of my favorite moments and places with you:

St. Paul’s Cathedral

My first thought when I walked in?  “The Londoners could really teach the French a thing or two about building cathedrals.”  St. Paul’s is absolutely breathtaking.  There’s light flooding in to the church from all directions (it’s not dark and somber like Notre Dame) and the golden mosaics on the ceiling are incredible.  I think I was probably looking up at the ceiling for about 80% of the time I was in the building.

St. Paul’s has one of the biggest domes in the world, and your ticket in to the church (yes, you have to pay to get in) grants you access to the tiny, winding staircase that takes you to the very top, where you can see an amazing view of the entire city.

Billy Elliot: the musical

After seeing it win the Tony for “Best Musical” and hearing rave reviews, I was so excited to finally see “Billy Elliot: the musical.”  I was NOT disappointed.  The combination of Elton John’s score, incredible dance numbers and an infinitely talented cast made for what is hands down one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen (and that’s really saying something…  I’ve seen a LOT of musicals.)

In case you’re not familiar with the show, here’s a video clip of Billy, the main character, singing “Electricity,” the show’s signature song (he starts singing/dancing after about 30 seconds of video):

(Tourist note: I also saw “Sister Act: the musical” while I was in London.  I was underwhelmed by the disco-y vibe of the show and the redundant song-and-dance numbers.  I wouldn’t recommend it.)

Fat Tire Royal London Bike Tour

I’m convinced there is no better way to see a city than from behind a pair of handlebars, and that is especially true of London.  Saturday morning, I met up with a big group of tourists outside the Queensway underground stop and embarked on a four-hour adventure through the royal parks of London.

Our faithful tour guide, David, took us through the city, telling stories about famous Londoners and explaining the significance behind the sights as we passed them.  The weather was absolutely stunning, so as you can probably imagine, the tour was four hours of complete bliss.

My favorite sights included Buckingham palace (of course), the Princess Diana memorial, Trafalgar Square, and Hyde Park.

Changing of the guard

Cliché?  Yep.  Crowded?  Yeah.  Worth it?  Definitely.  I’m pretty sure the entire city of London showed up on Sunday morning to watch the changing of the guard.   I was super early (old habits die hard), but there were already hundreds of people lining the street outside of Buckingham Palace, even an hour before the guard changed.

What a cool experience!  I loved being in a city where there are real live queens and guards.  It was absolutely whimsical.  And to make matters even more wonderful, the royal band set up in front of the palace and played a set of songs from the musical “Chicago!”  Don’t believe me?  See for yourself:

The Tower of London

For a history buff like myself, visiting the Tower of London was totally worth the slightly absurd 14 pound entry fee.  The Tower is most famous for its role as a prison; three of Henry VIII’s wives were held prisoner and beheaded there.  I followed a free tour around the grounds led by a “beefeater,” a Royal Army veteran.  The beefeaters are paid to live on the Tower grounds, lead tours, and serve as the queen’s bodyguard (they’re the guys in uniform who stand closest to the queen and who yield swords.  Very macho.)

I loved learning about the not-so-glamorous side of the English monarchy.  (Especially since I just finished reading “The Other Boelyn Girl.”)

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I think you can probably gather from all the gushing going on in this post that I absolutely LOVED London, but just in case you’re unsure, my next post (once I get it typed up) will be the list that I made during my three days in the city describing why exactly I adored London.  Stay tuned!

a love affair with macarons

I’ve done it.  I’ve gone to Paris and fallen in love…  with a pastry.

In America, when we think of macaroons, we think of meringue-y coconut cookies.  The French macaron is completely different; I like to think of them as like Oreos (because they’re sandwich cookies with cream in the middle) only about 1,000,000 times better.

So what are macarons, really?  The cookie part of the sandwich is made of almond flour, egg whites, and sugar.  The filling can range from chocolate ganache to buttercream to jam to…  well you get the idea.

In Paris, the macaron is a delicacy.  They’re kind of like France’s version of the American cupcake: bakeries are always competing to come up with new flavors and beat each other out for the title of “the BEST macaron.”  The top three competing patisseries?  Ladurée, Pierre Hermé, and Gérard Mulot.

Macaron counter at Ladurée on the Champs Élysées. Yes, please!

Last week, I ventured between classes to Pierre Hermé.  (I had already tasted macarons from the other two patisseries, and I felt like I had to give them all a fair shot before picking a favorite.)  I stood in line for about ten minutes, then left the store with three little cookies, all wrapped up in plastic and calling out to me:

Flavors, clockwise from top: Milk chocolate and passion fruit, pistachio and sour cherry, and caramel.

To be honest, I was a little taken aback by the available flavors at Pierre Hermé.  I’m all about creativity, but strawberry and wasabi?  No thanks!  I went for the most normal flavors I could find.

The verdict?  The pistachio/sour cherry and chocolate passion fruit were just way too out of the park for me.  Call me a macaron flavor purist, but I would rather have just plain old normal chocolate than weird, fruity, sour chocolate ANY day of the week!  The caramel macaron was absolutely delicious, but not quite delicious enough to make me want to give Pierre Hermé another try.

My favorite macarons can be found chez Gérard Mulot.  The flavors change almost every day, but are much more “normal” than the ones that overwhelmed me at Pierre Hermé.  Some of my favorite flavors: noisette (chocolate hazlenut–think Nutella), green tea, nougat, and almond.

Almond macaron from Gérard Mulot.

Moral of the story: don’t leave Paris without trying a macaron (or many macarons.)  They’re amazingly delicious and unlike any other cookie you’ve ever had (or will ever have.)  This summer’s project?  Trying to figure out how to recreate them.  Dallas area guinea pigs–uhh, I mean taste testers–needed!