Friday, June 28, 2013

Driving in France

Scary as it may seem at first, to truly "profiter" of some parts of France, you're going to need to suck it up and get a car. (I'm looking at you, Provence). Getting to know a new car in a new land is no simple feat, but totally worth it in your quest to scour every nook and cranny of France's landscape.

Here are some helpful hints we learned the hard way, so that you can learn the easy way!

Maps: dust off those 9th grade cartography skills because your GPS system has the potential to SUCK. Ours was a slow poke and didn't have satellite in many small towns, and of course the iPhones we've become accustomed to relying on were unable to save us. Close to tears from exhaustion and being turned around on the countless roundabouts led us to a gas station where we quickly made our first, most useful purchase of the trip.

Highway numbers: highways are assigned their own codes (D114, N113 for exemple). Check the map before you head out and make a mental note of the major highways you'll be traveling on that day.

Roundabouts: they're everywhere! At first, they freaked us out and we would panic and go the wrong way. Just keep your eye peeled for the highway numbers indicated at the top of the road signs; usually you'll be going straight, which is like a semicircle around the roundabout so that you continue straight ahead rather than veering off in another direction.

Towns you're heading towards: like American highways, French roundabout exits are marked with the next major towns you're heading towards. Check the map and see which towns come between you and your destination so you can have the security of knowing you're heading the right way.

About the cars: even automatic cars are really hybrids! They're not what we're used to. Mom and I had a few heart attacks the first few times we parked and the car seemed to be inexplicably continuing to roll! We figured out that there's a safety break you always need to engage. Also, "A" is forward, "R" is reverse and you have to park and start the car between the two.

Vocabulary for driving:

Rondpoint: roundabout 
Sortie: exit 
Première, deuxième, troisième, quatrième, cinquième: first, second, third, fourth
L'embrochement: Split (in the road).
Tournez à droit/gauche: turn right/left
Ou est ______?: where is ______?
Automatique: automatic
Voiture: car  

Remember: don't stress out! Getting lost is half the adventure. Happy driving!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Gorges Ardèche

Have you heard of the Ardèche region of France? Me neither, until my friend, Constance, invited me to her wedding there. It's in the west and marked by winding paths through the incredible gorges. You really need a car to enjoy this region so you can explore the valleys and crags to their fullest. My mother and I spent an entire day just driving along the highway and admiring the picturesque towns we passed through and discovering the natural beauty. 

Wearing: gap shorts hand-downs, thrifted floral blouse, bed stu brand loafers from Bridge Boutique, vintage sunnies.

In France, lunchtime is over by 2 PM. Restaurants usually close by then, and reopen later for dinner. Our jet lagged tummies rumbling at 3, we had no real hope of finding an open restaurant along the sparsely populated Ardèche gorges, but the trees parted to reveal this precious little spot tucked away along the winding highway. It's called Auberge du Pouzat. To our surprise and good fortune, the kind owner and waitress (and adorable dog) welcomed us. We had some cold white wine and toasted to our delicious salad and our good luck. 

The pies were of course staring at us the entire time, and when the waitress told me the cherries had been picked from her own garden that very morning, we couldn't resist. 

Kind of like we couldn't resist these eyes that said "throw my bone ONE more time?" 

If you'd like to travel in Ardèche, here is some useful vocabulary for you: 

Un carafe du vin rouge/blanc/rosé - a small pitcher of wine. Trust me, you want a small pitcher! SOOO inexpensive and good! Just be careful driving along the cliffs!
Grottes - caves... Famous naturally forming underground masterpieces, really worth a visit.
Carte - map. Get one. Learn to read it. Foreal doe.
"Ça vous a plu?" Servers might say this to you. It means "did you enjoy it?" Say "oui" or "ça m'a plu" if you like a challenge. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pack green, pack light, pack right

Holy smokes!  I am going to Europe for 5 weeks.  In that time I will be attending a wedding in the South of France, living large in Prague with my childhood BFF, and presumably walking and biking my tuchus off all across the continent (destinations include Barcelona, Berlin, and Paris). So how on earth does a fancy gal like me manage to pack light, stay green, and overall, remain classy?!  Here are my top packing techniques, honed to near perfection over years of trial and error abroad. 

1. The trusty, dusty Boy Scout roll. There is a reason this is the all American packing method of choice amongst our nation's patriotic outdoorsy youth. (Actually, I can't back that up... any Boy Scouts reading?)

Roll your clothes up tightly instead of folding to make the most out of your suitcase space. This allows you to squeeze clothes into every available square inch. It also reduces wrinkles and makes it easy to see at a glance all the riches you have packed.

2. Ziplock bags are your friend! They buy you beers, they laugh at your jokes, but most of all they help keep your stuff organized. I like to separate mine by garment type; i.e. blouses, skirts, undies. Anything that doesn't fit in it's designated zip lock is left behind, which keeps me honest in the packing-light department. This method has the potential to be wasteful so make sure you hold on to your ziplocks for reuse when your trip is over.

3. Have a gift suitcase. If you are seeing friends abroad, chances are you want to bring them treats from your homeland. Designating a separate suitcase for this purpose also ensures you have plenty of space to bring goodies for yourself and your friends back home, too. 

I like bringing local bath products (these lotions are from the Indie Pendent in Virginia Highlands), and small bottles of American bourbon. I scored these on my recent trip to Kentucky. The dream catchers are authentic (not made in china!) from Cherokee, NC. If you travel a lot, it's a good idea to pick tiny gifts up as you go about life to later share with friends in foreign lands.

4. Throw and go. I originally learned this from a girl traveling in Israel with me. At the end of the day, she threw her gym socks away rather than repacking them moist and stinky in her bag. Anyone who reads this blog knows that the thought of throwing away perfectly good gym socks makes my palms sweat, so I adapted this trick to fit my more green ways. If you have old, worn out undies you've been meaning to toss, save them for your big trip! It's not exactly wasteful since you intended to throw them away anyway, and it saves you the trouble and space of repacking used underwear!

[not pictured because, ew.]

See how easy it is to pack light and go green? It's the only way to travel! Now get out there and start planning your big trip to Europe so you can put my methods to the test.

Btw, hello from MFin FRANCE!!! Nothing tastes better than your first croissant of the trip, even if it is from an airport cafe. These are the faces of happy, green, light travelers. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kentucky Cool

Historic facades along Whiskey Row in down town Louisville

As I approach the little table where author David Sedaris is signing copies of his book, Lets Explore Diabetes with Owls, I see for myself that putting duct tape over his mouth for the signing "express lane" was no empty threat. He peers up at my aunt and me through kind eyes and a mouth strapped with pink floral duct tape and says "mmm mmm mmm mmm" which I think means "Hi, how are you." I look with surprise as he proceeds to write MY name in the book. We had come for my aunt. "It's for me? Aw, thank you so much, Ellen!" I say, and David says "mmm mmm!" (how sweet) and adds "mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmmm" (here's a kitty cat for you) and draws a cartoon cat under his signature. I happen to love cats. Could this day possibly improve?

This kind of cultural richness, a block party in honor of a vocally liberal and openly gay author, hosted by a tiny independent bookstore and a dusty old antique shop might not be the kind of experience you would expect in Kentucky... but that's Louisville for you! A little air pocket of liberal, walkable, charm in a sea of red, which still knows how to hold onto traditions like horse racing and bourbon.

KY bourbon at the Silver Dollar, served neat and on the rocks :)
In Louisville, you can laugh your butt off at a literary reading of one of your favorite authors, walk to a wine shop where an expert will sell you the perfect cheese to go with your tuscan wine, then go eat your fill of locally sourced vegetarian food (Roots - EAT HERE!). When evening falls, you can head to any of the unique little bars around town (the Silver Dollar!) and choose from an almost overwhelmingly large selection of bourbons at equally alarmingly affordable prices. 

If you're not too hung over, you can spend the next day at the adorable walking bridge that goes (almost) all the way to Indiana. When I was there, the bridge wasn't completed to actually let you walk off of it into Indiana, but it still makes for a charming stroll and a great way to test out your new KEENS and see if they are worthy of your upcoming European excursion. Okay, that last part might just apply to me. 

My KEEN CNX's on their first real trial run across the pedestrian bridge. Besides some new-shoe blister action on my heel, I'd say they passed the test!

If you want to get REALLY traditional, Churchill Downs, the famous track that hosts the Kentucky Derby every year, is not far away. Park for free in one of the neighborhoods and head in to catch a few races. It only costs 3 dollars to get in, and you can bet on a horse for a minimum of 3 dollars. Make sure you have your money out and your bet in your head BEFORE you approach the window. Apparently it's a total rookie move to stand at the counter hemming and hawing. Nope, you gotta march right up there, slap your three singles on the table and say something like "Three dollars on Stinky Sailor Smile to win!" That's how you come off as a local. Some advice: basing your bets on the weirdest horse name is not a successful strategy in my experience.

If you're just a tourist in gambling-land like me, your real expense will come from the pricy drinks. You can't go to the races and NOT have a mint julep, that's just not American. So shell out the $10+ dollars and enjoy the novelty glass that you get to keep. If you're lucky, you'll get a gigantic stalk of mint growing out of your beverage to tickle your nose with fragrance while you drink and yell obscenities at the track (depending on if this is your first or third julep). 

All in all, Louisville is a town that knows how to balance classics with contemporaries. You can walk anywhere you please, and you never know when you might run into one of your favorite authors! Comedian Jim Gaffigan is scheduled for later this month, so you might want to get to Louisville sooner rather than later. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Beltline Betty and Keens for Europe Testdrive (part 2)

Did I mention I love my job? This is what I did at work the other day: walked the Atlanta Beltline from the school I teach at all the way to Piedmont Park pool! I had a green tea in one hand, a cute kiddo paw in the other, and sunshine on my back. Basically, life was grand... and I did this all while testing out my Keen Newport H2 shoes to see if they will be invited to Europe with me in a few short weeks!

The results?

They are not invited :( 

As much as I love Keens, the Newport H2s were simply not a match for my feet. I'm a bit flat-footed, and used to thinner footwear with a bit more give. While the Newports offer great protection in their solidness, the firm plasticky interior with the "contour arch" was not a friend to my feet. By the end of a full day of walking in them, my aching arches were branded with a backwards "KEEN" logo. Not a good sign. 

But I am not a quitter! Determined to bring eco-friendly and reliable walking shoes to Europe, I took the Newports back to REI and exchanged them for the much more flexible and cushy Keen CNX. As soon as I slipped my tootsies into those babies, I heard my feet sigh with relief and say "we're home." 

Stay tuned as I take my CNXs for a testdrive in Louisville, KY, to determine if they will earn the coveted position of My Walking Shoes For Europe.

Should you buy Keens for your go-to travel shoe? Here's my rundown of your options based on my experiences.

Newport H2: The classic Keen. Most of my friends have this shoe and LOVE it. It has great arch support and is good for most feet (particularly wide feet). They are very solid and don't bend much with the foot as you walk, almost like a hiking boot. This would be a great shoe for rugged outdoor activities.

CNX: This incarnation of the Keen shoe is more flexible and has a more cushiony, forgiving interior that is good for flatfoots like me. It's a little bit more expensive, but well worth it for quality, ethical shoes from an amazing company with a more than reasonable return policy.

Emerald City Sandal: The blessed walking sandal that turned me on to Keens in the first place! SO comfortable, and NOT overtly athletic at all. Basic, cute, sandals that feel like walking on a cloud. A cloud with incredible, soft support, which I guess clouds don't have, so maybe it's not like walking on a cloud. Maybe it's more like walking barefoot on one of those playgrounds made of cushy recycled rubber. Yeah, that's it.

Do you have a preferred brand of walking shoe? Do share your secrets! And if you do the Google + thing, let's connect!

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