Week Twenty-Three in France: Stroopwaffels, custom cocktails and Cognac
It's February vacation! I'm warning you now – you're in for a long-winded account of my travels this week. Read on if you dare.
22/02/2020: After waking up at the butt crack of dawn for my flight, I was finally strolling the streets of Amsterdam with my high school friend C., battling the wind and rain. Sadly, due to a wrong turn, the streets just so happened to be those of the Red Light District. A bit less seedy during the daytime, but still jam-packed with sexual imagery and shops selling porn, bongs, dildos and more, the neighborhood didn't offer me the best first impression of the Dutch city. But when we finally arrived to the front of the line at Omelegg, a hole-in-the-wall breakfast spot in the city center, the tide began to turn. My halloumi omelette filled with spinach, pesto and tomatoes was showstopping, the squeaky and salty cheese on top griddled to perfection. C. and I then stumbled across a cheap boat tour and traversed all of the quaint canals in our warm, cozy bateau before meeting up with our friend M. for stroopwaffels. Quite unlike what I was expecting, these stroopwaffels were crunchy, sturdy yet slim biscuits sandwiching a luscious coffee caramel center, and they went perfectly with my cappuccino as we watched the rain fall in buckets outside.
M., who is currently working as an au pair in the Netherlands, then showed us the city's streets and canals, and we ended up yanking furiously on what we thought was the door to a cool-looking bar. However, we eventually realized that we needed to walk around the corner to find the real entrance – and when we walked in, we discovered an enormous, beautiful bar, hotel and restaurant that took up the entire city block. At Pulitzer's Bar, they took immaculate care of us, providing us with salty and sweet snacks as we sipped our delicious cocktails, including a free drink the bartender had spilled as he set it down on our table (we're talking a a tiny drop). I got The Maid, featuring vodka, saffron, egg white and lemon sorbet. After our luxurious happy hour, we headed to a classic Amsterdam spot (IFKYK) and I nibbled on a – surprisingly – very tasty brownie with strawberry icing, which made our dinner at the trendy small plates restaurant in De Pijp, Little Collins, taste that much better. From the orange wine to the crispy paratha to the smoked burrata with grapefruit, every bite was exciting. Let's just say I slept very well that night.
23/02/2020: The three of us fought our way through violent wind to make it to the most Wes Anderson-esque restaurant I've ever seen, a rotund pancakes joint with floor-to-ceiling windows perched somewhat precariously on the edge of the river. I opted for a pancake with spinach, cheese and a fried egg, and the crispy, almost burnt yet still fluffy circle of dough was a good start to our day of travel to Paris for the second leg of our trip together. One long bus and train ride later, we threw our things down in our budget hotel and set off for Montmartre. Nothing makes me happier than recommending a good restaurant, and, once we were finally seated, Le Refuge des Fondus turned out to be an absolutely perfect choice. Between the stifling hot and sweaty atmosphere, the uncomfortably cramped tables you have to climb over to sit at and the baby bottles of red wine we ordered, things took a turn for the giddy. We sat chatting and laughing for hours, getting redder and redder by the minute, as we tore voraciously into our slices of baguette, cheese and beef fondues, and accoutrements (cornichons! olives! tender potatoes!). To keep the fun going, we stopped at Bisou., a relatively new cocktail bar in the 10th arrondissement on our way home, and each ordered a custom drink tailored specifically to our tastes. I asked for a sweet, floral cocktail with gin and was not disappointed by my elderflower-infused, glitter-dusted concoction. So not disappointed, in fact, that I ordered another.
24/02/2020: Big city Paris means big city bougie brunch. (I'm so sorry.) So, I took C. and M. to Fragments, a very hipster café in Le Marais, where I literally had avocado toast and an iced latte – ah, it's been so long. Another win for me – M. was entranced by her colorful yogurt and granola, and C. couldn't stop complimenting her soft scrambled eggs. Quick stop for my favorite éclairs from L'éclair de génie, ordered in fifty shades of pink, check. Take pictures at the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries, check. (Window) shopping and a tarte flambée (!) snack on the Champs Élysées, check. (Who knew they had an Alsatian restaurant there?) Mini wine bottles and self-timer selfies at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, check. And finally, we ended up first in line to dine at the Big Mamma group's Pigalle restaurant, Pink Mamma, which, based on my love of the color pink, was already a 5-star meal in my book. Our dinner was even more life-changing than imaginable. Every detail was flawless, from the design of the wineglasses and napkins to the orgasmic bread and olive oil to my unique squash, basil and burrata pizza. I need to go back. Now. We giggled all night like we were at a middle school sleepover, and I fell asleep thankful for friendships that pick up right where you left off.
25/02/2020: This nostalgic afternoon consisted of lunch in the Bastille neighborhood with my former study abroad program leaders. Despite an initial brain fart in French (humbling...), we had a wonderful conversation about our memories, a little gossip, the program's growth and my hopes for the future. Here, this will shock you – I ordered a salad. But, more unsurprisingly, my salad was topped with ham, crispy garlic parsley potatoes and a pocket of gooey cheese wrapped in pastry dough and fried. So... can we even call that a salad? We finished with a café gourmand, featuring an impossibly smooth (and green) pistachio cream, a dry piece of chocolate cake and a mini crème brûlée. I was sad to see these familiar faces go, and even more sad after dropping 80 euros on a manicure and pedicure, but my mood improved when I met up with M. on the Île Saint-Louis to visit some old haunts from when I lived there three years ago. We closed out the night with escargots and moules frites at a simple brasserie in the Marais. I'm already exhausted from vacation and the real reason I'm in Paris – our mid-year Fulbright meeting – hasn't even begun yet...
26/02/2020: Goodbye budget hotel, hello friend's apartment floor. Back aching, I headed to the 16th arrondissement to check into my new hotel with other Fulbrighters. Several episodes of Narcos Mexico later, it was time for the first event of our mid-year réunion – a concert and photo exhibition by other grantees at the Fondation des États-Unis. The sometimes strange-sounding contemporary piano and cello music echoing in my ears, I headed upstairs with friends for the photo show and fancy finger foods, marveling at the musicians' pure talent. The thoughtful photos, portraits of Black-identifying people in France, were accompanied by wonderful storytelling, and the free crémant and colorful, geometric bites made the whole evening flow wonderfully. It's nice to catch up with all of the other Fulbrighters living in France and share experiences. More "networking" tomorrow.
27/02/2020: Donning my newly purchased pink pants (probably the twentieth pink article of clothing I've bought in the past few months), I sat down with a few other English Teaching Assistants in front of 50+ amazingly smart Fulbright research scholars and grantees to lead a panel on our experience in French high schools. An hour later, I took a breath of relief that it had gone well and smiled proudly – I was so grateful to have been chosen and trusted to put together this presentation. Highlight of my year, for sure. Even the sad sandwich lunch didn't put a damper on things, and our visit to the Assemblé Nationale at the end of the day was fascinating. In classic French fashion, the delegates yelled, groaned and shook their fists during their session (I bet you wouldn't see that in Congress!).
Finally free, I sprinted a couple blocks away to W.H. Smith, a bookstore in the 1st arrondissement, to see one of my favorite authors, David Lebovitz, talk about his new book, Drinking French. He was as dynamic and funny as I'd imagined from his other books, blog posts and Instagram stories, and I even asked a question during his discussion! After breathlessly introducing myself, getting my book signed, and tasting Comté cheese and stereotype-busting cognac from Maison Ferrand, I grabbed Chinese food on the way home to celebrate this successful and exhausting day.
28/02/2020: Several panels and presentations later (including one on demographic data on race and discrimination in France – rare to see actual numbers!), it was lunch time. The impressive buffet lunch featured quiche Provençal, mâche with beets, quinoa salad with kiwis and golden raisins, pesto pasta salad, and many, many different tartes for dessert. We couldn't help ourselves, each getting at least three different types to try. On my plate, tarte citron, a very original pistachio flan and a creamy chocolate tart. Selfies and fun with my fellow ETAs then ensued (I'll miss them and wish them all luck on their future endeavors!), ending with a tour of the beautiful and historic Hôtel de Talleyrand, where the Marshall Plan was signed in 1948.
Then, soppy goodbyes, and I headed to the Gare de Lyon with another ETA to catch our trains home. Except that the Gare de Lyon was closed for "security reasons," a loudspeaker voice boomed at us as we were about to step onto the metro there. Heart beating fast, we stood at a standstill trying to figure out exactly what to do as we searched for answers on Twitter, where we learned that protestors against the Congolese government had set cars on fire outside of the train station. I quickly made a decision, bought another ticket home from a different station, got right back on the metro and elbowed through crowds with my suitcase. But the travel nightmare didn't stop there – after waiting an hour for my connection in Strasbourg, my TER stalled for almost half an hour in Colmar at 12:30 AM. Nearly in tears, just wanting to be home in my bed after a long week, I sighed in relief when the train shuddered to a start again.