Monday, January 11, 2010

Christmas Vacation - Part 1

Friday, January 1, 2010

Today was my first full day back in Rabat after over two weeks of traveling. It’s always a great feeling to come back home after traveling and I think this last trip was one of the longest I’ve ever done.

Mau and I started our voyage in Marrakech since the best flight we could find to Paris was from there. Our flight left on Wednesday so we took the train to Marrakech early Tuesday morning. Since our time there was brief, we weren’t able to do any of the day trips that Marrakech tour offices offer. So, we stuck around the city Tuesday afternoon and evening. The big square in the medina of Marrakech is famous for its fortune tellers, snake charmers, and monkeys accompanied by their owners. Since snakes and domesticated monkeys gross me out, the big square (Djemaa el-Fna) wasn’t a great place for me. Apparently it is a famous area for nighttime story telling but since I don’t speak Moroccan Arabic, I wasn’t going to be able to appreciate it. In all, Marrakech was surprising for its sharp distinction between the poor medina area which was just a few minutes walk away from the fairly wealthy Ville Nouvelle. Mau and I walked from the hustle-and-bustle of Djemaaa el-Fna (where our hotel was) to a nice café in the Ville Nouvelle in just about 15 minutes. I’m very grateful that I don’t live in Marrakech because so many tourists pass though that I would never be able to distinguish myself from them if I were to live there. What’s nice about Rabat is that it’s really not a big destination for tourists. I can walk though the market of the medina and enter my neighborhood without people hassling me to get a henna tattoo or to sell me a rug. Tuesday evening Mau and I decided to do the double-decker bus tour of the city since we weren’t going to be able to explore it well with the little time we had. My general conclusion of Marrakech, architecturally, is that it’s an Arab version of Phoenix. All of the new buildings are made of the same desert red and a lot of the city is newly developed and quite sterile compared to other Moroccan cities.

Our flight was with Easy Jet. It sounds like a pretty sketchy airline but a lot of my coworkers here have used it so we decided to go with them. The flight was fine and the service was pretty straightforward. Ryan Air, which we came back on, was a lot stricter about boarding passes and weight limits. We got to Paris in the late afternoon. I think our first impression of Paris was the prices since we had to take the train from Charles de Gaulle into the city. A one-way ticket cost us €8.50 ($12.25 US)! The train took us into the Les Halles station and Mau and I got out there to find a place to have lunch. We were surprised at how cold it was but assumed that it was normal temperature for that time of year. My first meal was a Croque Madame (open faced ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top) and Mau had a ham and cheese crêpe followed by a chocolate crêpe. While we were eating we were eyeing a man next to us who had ordered “vin chaud.” It came in a wine glass with an orange and he mixed in some sugar as well. Since the man ordered two, we were able to watch the process of how one prepares vin chaud. After eating, Mau and I split one. It was delicious! It came with cinnamon in addition to the orange. This lunch was absolutely necessary because it was my way of celebrating being out of an Islamic country. I ate ham and drank alcohol at a corner café!

We met up with Claire later that night. She lives in a great little apartment across from the Chateau Vincennes. It was great to see Claire and it was especially nice to see her living her life in Paris. The first thing we talked about was how cold it was. Mau and I were relieved to hear that it was particularly cold for mid-December and that our sentiments about the cold were shared by many Parisians. Next, Claire explained to us that if we needed to crank the heat up in the living room where we were going to be sleeping that we didn’t have to worry about her energy bill since she gets a hefty discount for working for the electricity company itself! We agreed that it wouldn’t be very green of us to do that but I assured her that the three years I’ve been living without central heating will offset her carbon footprint for putting the heat on high.

Thursday morning Mau and I woke up see the streets and the castle outside Claire’s apartment covered with snow. It was beautiful and I was so excited to explore the city in a way I had never seen it before. We hit all of the major monuments that first day: the Arc de Triomphe (including another vin chaud along the Champs Élysées), the Eiffel Tower, and Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur. Everything was so beautiful in the snow and it was neat to take pictures of the monuments because all of my pictures seem to have been taking with the sepia setting. We had a late lunch that day. Our meal was memorable not so much for the food but for the hospitality of the two young guys that work at the café. Mau and I were near the Champs Élysées at the time but we were able to find a place nearby that had set menus for fairly cheap. Mau got a quiche and a duck dish, and I had a chicken dish and an apple tart. We were the last customers of the day but didn’t feel pressured to leave at all. In fact, the two guys working there started their huge meal as we were finishing. They were curious to hear about Morocco and Mexico and we had quite an interesting conversation about the geology of the land in Morocco, Mexico, and Arizona. That night we went to the movies at the Forum Les Halles. We saw Big Fish (which I hadn’t seen) at an art film type of place. To see movies in English in Morocco you have to go all the way to Casablanca. Needless to say, Mau and I were excited to be able to go to the movies.

On Saturday Román, Claire’s boyfriend, took us to visit Versailles. It was great to see him and spend the day together. Unfortunately, the gardens of the castle were closed due to the snow so the most beautiful part of Versailles, so I hear, will have to be seen the next visit. That night, Mau and I went with Claire to see her dive in a show she and her teammates put on for the kids that swim at the community pool where she trains. Not only were we impressed with the diving, but Mau and I were amazed with the facilities. There were jumping castles in the water and a great water slide that went all around. People were even taking scuba diving classes there. After the show, we ate raclette in Claire and Román’s apartment. Raclette is a Swiss/French treat, usually eaten in the winter. There is a special raclette cheese that is used because it melts without burning or sticking to the pan and it pours easily over the potatoes. Claire and Román have a special round raclette grill that they put in the center of our table. We grilled a bunch of different meats on top, such as jamón Serrano, ham, and salami. Having just been in Morocco, this was an especially great dinner for the pork products. As you grill the meats on the top part of the grill, the cheese melts underneath. It was so delicious and kept us quite warm at the table.

Sunday morning, I slept in late while Mau went to the Louvre. My intention was to get train tickets to nearby Compiègne but the SNCF (French train company) was packed with Christmas travelers and the automated machines didn’t take my foreign credit card. The SNCF trains ended up being a big source of anxiety for me during the trip. The snowy highways during Christmas caused a lot more travelers to choose train over driving their own cars and the lines to buy tickets were horribly long. In the end, all of the tickets we needed were bought but I learned from this trip that flying into Europe is the easy part. It’s getting around once you’re there that’s expensive and time consuming.

That afternoon Mau and I met up with a friend of his from Mexico. His friend, Beto, is currently in Paris during an internship in his field of medical neurology. He lives in the Cité Universitaire so we met him there so he could give us a tour. The Cité Universitaire, for those who don’t know, is an area where students in various schools throughout Paris live in beautiful historic dormitories that represent different countries in the world. Beto lives in the Casa de Mexico, which houses 80% Mexican students. The other students are either placed there or chose to live there. Across from the Casa de Mexico is the gigantic building for Americans, and next to that, is the British dormitory. We walked all around and saw many architecturally important buildings. The Brazilian house, for example, was built by a Brazilian architect who worked with Oscar Niemeyer in the construction of Brasilia. I would have killed to have lived in an area like the Cité Universitaire during college. Each building hosts parties and students gather together to eat at the many cafeterias and stroll within the few parks on campus.

On Monday, Mau and I took a day trip to Compiègne* to visit Pierre. He picked us up at the train station and we walked through the town a little bit. We stopped in café to have a coffee but as soon as Pierre ordered a beer, I opted for a Leffe beer and Mau got another vin chaud (the best of the trip according to him). After enjoying our drinks, we walked to Pierre and Odile’s house which I had never seen before. Odile was very nice and it was such a pleasure to meet her and to see their house. We all had an aperitif in the living room and chatted for a while. After that, we headed to the dining room where a grand meal awaited our unsuspecting palates. I’m going to list the meal and let the items sink in. It was hands down, one of the best meals I’ve ever and probably will ever have in my life.

appetizer: mâche (lamb's lettuce) with foie gras and an aperatif.
main entrée: roast beef, sautéed green beans and fresh peas, roasted potatoes, and red wine (it was a nice wine but I was so overwhelmed with the meal at that point that I couldn’t focus on the wine to remember how it tasted or what grape it was)
salad and cheese course: platter of four different cheeses, including an incredible Roquefort (not only was it the first Roquefort I liked, but I LOVED it), and a tasty gruyere, accompanied with more mâche and a light dressing.
dessert: apricot tart and coffee.

It was sad to leave Compiègne after such a short visit but the next day we were headed to the Haute-Savoie region and we had to get back to Paris.

* Compiègne is a town about an hour from Paris where I did a two-week cultural and language exchange as a junior in high school. I have still kept in contact with Pierre, the high school English teacher who does the French side of the exchange, but I hadn’t been back to Compiègne since 2001.


  1. Hurrah for ham and alcohol, I know what you mean. Sounds like a good trip. I can't read it all now and comment again when I revisit the blog.

  2. For food and company, it's hard to beat Pierre and Odile's table. I wish I had been there with you.