where we've been and where we're going

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

After that crappy ordeal of flying Jet4You, we rode a taxi into Casablanca and arrived at Hotel Kizmi Basra around 1:30 Moroccan time. The staff was very friendly, the hotel was beautiful and comfortable, and the price was great for a 4 star hotel: 68 euros! It's also in a nice location, close to the Medina and the Marche Central. A relief after disappointment.

In the morning (we only had a morning left in Casa after the lost evening hours), we took a tour of the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the Islamic world and one of a very few that allows non-Muslims to visit. It was absolutely stunning. It can hold 25,000 worshipers at once. It is constructed of all Moroccan materials—wood, marble, granite, glass, etc.--except for the chandeliers of Murano glass. It's an architectural and artistic wonder, with amazing woodwork, tilework, stucco carving, etc. I can't really describe how beautiful it is, and how awe inspiring the work of those Moroccan artisans. It was amazing.

Under the mosque is the ablution room, where the worshipers go to wash before prayer. The room is so cool, not only for the fountains which spew water for cleaning, but more (for me) for the columns made of a mixture of materials which absorbs the moisture in the air, preventing the brass light fixtures from ever oxidizing. So cool.

There's also a Turkish bath, not yet open to use, but which will be open even to non-Muslims soon. Incredible.

Post-tour and picture-taking extravaganza, we walked around the Marche Centrale, where lots of vendors of all types of food (I saw a box of live turtles!) congregate to sell their wares to the locals. It's a frenzy of colors and smells and textures. Each vendor also seems to have a stray cat associated with his niche, which we found to be the case all over Morocco.

Across from the market, we ate traditional Moroccan food for lunch at L'Etoile Centrale. The place is beautiful, with carved stucco and beautiful tile work. The guidebook noted that it is rarely busy, though it should be, and I agree. We were the only customers, and the guy seemed to shower attention on us (we left him a hefty tip). Darick had a lamb tagine and I ate the recommended couscous royale, and both of our meals were delicious.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The worst travel day in my history

We bought a one way flight from Paris to Casablanca, in an attempt to pay as little as possible, with the airline Jet4You. I name it now, and several times throughout, to try and impress upon you a company from which you should NOT purchase tickets. The first trouble was in getting from Charles De Gaulle, where we stayed, to Orly, from where our flight departed. This was a pain because none of the ticket machines accept American credit cards, so we had to stand in long lines everywhere, and the train ride itself (which is actually two train rides) took over an hour.

Once finally at the airport, at which we miraculously arrived with plenty of time to check in, we waited in line to check in for over an hour (and, by the way, there were three check in lines, all of which as long as ours), which would have made us miss our flight had it been on time. But it was not. Once finally checked in, and through passport control, and through security, we arrived at our gate, packed with people and many screaming children. The gate then changed twice.

We finally boarded the plane 3 hours after it was scheduled to take off and listened to the safety instructions only to taxi to another part of the airport and sit on the tarmac for an hour, due to continuing technical difficulties. An hour elapsed, and they declared the plane unfit to fly, unloaded us onto buses and took us to an unoccupied section of the airport.

Here's where the incompetencies arise. I am very understanding of airlines: difficulties arise, delays happen, long lines can't be helped. Okay. And all along, the employees had been very polite to everyone, and I was still feeling generous. However, once herded into this space, three employees were places there to placate the crowd but gave out no information. Despite the presence of a PA system, the employees made no announcements to tell the angry passengers whether there would be another flight, they should book hotels, anything. In fact, they did pass along that we could get a free sandwich for dinner, but only by telling the passengers swarming them for information, NOT announcing it for all passengers, particularly those attempting to be patient.

Still so many screaming children, and now also angry, screaming adults.

We spent another hour and a half in this space, ate horrific excuses for chicken salad sandwiches, and paid an exorbitant amount for the internet so that we could arrange for our hotel to still allow us to check in despite what would be a very very late arrival into Casablanca. Finally, we were bussed to another plane, loaded up, and then proceeded to sit on the tarmac for, I kid you not, another 2 hours. This was the worst delay of them all. Again, no information as to why we were waiting, except to those passengers who demanded answers and passed them along to those waiting. Turns out, two passengers had called it quits while waiting in the airport and had decided to leave. However, we could not take off while their baggage was on board, so we had to remove all baggage from the plane, find theirs, and then put it all back on. It was unbelievable.

Nine frustrating hours after we were supposed to take off (and to think I had been glad it was late), among the loudest and angriest Moroccans I'd ever seen, we left Paris for our three hour flight to Casablanca. Note also that though we sat on the tarmac for 2 hours and the flight was 3, the serving staff never offered the passengers water. I understand that normally there is no drink service on this commuter flight, but these are extenuating circumstances.

At any point, the only compensation for this ridiculous delay and the amazingly frustrating lack of information given to passengers was a horrible sandwich and a can of coke.

Never fly Jet4You. Never.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Belgian beer tastings

We arrived in the late evening in Brussels, and walked a ways over cobblestones to get to our hotel. Since it was late, we didn't really go to dinner, but instead had “beer for dinner,” or went to a bar for beer and light sandwiches. It was a beautiful old bar, one we had visited last year. After that, we went to a bar closer to our hotel with hundreds of beers on the menu and almost all Americans as patrons (or at least on a Tuesday night). It was a cool bar, but don't go for the locals.

In the morning the next day, the group had a visit to NATO headquarters, where we had two briefings. One on NATO in general, and how it has changed since the end of the Cold War required a different mandate, and one on the NATO mission to Afghanistan. They were both really fascinating. NATO is an organization I know less about, given that it's not really a human rights institution, but it was really a cool site visit.

After the meeting, Darick and I went to the comic strip museum. It was a really great museum, but it was all in French, with a particular focus on Belgian artists. It was still great to look at all the incredible art. And there was a special exhibit on the Smurfs! I used to love the Smurfs, so I thought it was thrilling to see them in their original language...French!

After comics, and keeping Darick from buying out the gift shop, we met my mom's former French teacher, Nicole, for a drink at Roy d'Espagne, which is a cool little bar on the Grand Place. It feels a bit like Pirates might have drunk there, but I doubt it. After a lovely drink with Nicole, we walked, a long way, to the restaurant for our last group meal as a study abroad program, Ultime Hallucinatie. It was a beautiful place, with art nouveau decorations and a lovely green tint. The staff was also very friendly and helpful, particularly to an obnoxious group of Americans. The food, however, did not live up to the price. Darick had a perch filet served cold (unintentionally) and my coq au vin was good, but not great.

The next day was our last day as a group, but for us it was our last day in Europe, essentially. We slept in and then headed for a very Belgian lunch of moules frites, or mussels and fries. We walked into one of the multiple restaurants on the Grande Place, I couldn't tell you which. Darick had fried scampi as an appetizer, deliciously breaded, and then helped me eat a giant container of mussels in white wine. It was super delicious. Darick drank a Warsteller, in his effort to try dark beers, and he liked it as much as the Leffe. After lunch, we wandered around looking for the Mannquin Pis.

We then went to a mediocre exhibition of Dali prints and met some of the group members to take a tour of Cantillon, the last remaining brewery in Brussels. It's a family-owned brewery which uses all organic ingredients and does all the brewing the way it used to be done one hundred years ago when the brewery started. They make lambic beer, using spontaneous fermentation, and then use the lambic, or flat, beer to create geuze and fruit beers. After the self-guided tour we had a tasting, and it was really delicious! Even I, the non-beer drinker, enjoyed this beer. It was really sour, with many flavors. It was great. We visited one more bar on the way back to the hotel, and Darick tried another geuze beer, the Mort Subite, and it was perfect...just as flavorful as the Cantillon, but less sour. Lovely.

Train ride back to Paris, and the group disbanded. A successful study abroad program concluded. And tomorrow off to Morocco...wait till you hear the travel story...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The home of Vermeer

Just to clarify, Darick and I are already home! I didn't have access to the internet for about two weeks, so I'm catching up now. There isn't any missing time in what you read...just a delay in putting it up.

So today I'll catch you up on our two days in the Hague, Netherlands.

On Sunday night, we traveled to the Hague with the group, and checked into our hotel, a Mercure. Given that these are very nice hotels, and it was raining. We stayed in and did nothing but watch TV for the evening. It was awesome.

On Monday morning, the group had a visit to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. We had a briefing on the Court and its workings and cases, and we were able to observe a witness examination for one of the ongoing cases. It's really fantastic for the students to study things like this and then to be a part of it, and observe how it functions. It's a verification process, of sorts, and I think it inspires some of them interested in choosing their career paths in human rights. I love this job. (While at this meeting, Darick went to the Het Mauritshuis to see the Girl with the Pearl Earring. He was more impressed with the Vermeer landscape, and I can't say I blame him.)

For lunch, we had a lecture, and we met our guest at an Indonesian restaurant called Garoede. The Dutch aren't known for their own food, but instead for the food of their colonial reign—Indonesian food. We had rijsttafel, which is rice with a wide assortment of types of “mix-ins.” I really like Indonesian food, and I made Darick attend the lecture to try the food—he enjoyed both.

After the long and late lunch, Darick and I broke off and rode the tram to Delft, the nearby town where Vermeer lived and painted. It was actually a horrible, dreary, wet day to be walking around, so Delft didn't end up being that attractive, but we did purchase some of the blue and white porcelain (Delftware) that Delft is known for, and we stopped for a beer in a Bierhuis near the tram stop. It was a very dark bar with only older, local patrons, with few beers available. No food, except peanuts on the table, and the patrons left their shells on the floor. It's been operating since 1651 or something ridiculous like that, and we loved it.

That night it rained like hell. Sucked. But we had to go out for food, so we found a pizzeria in the center of town called La Lanterna. It was pretty good, all told, though not phenomenal. But Darick had his first proper Italian pizza, and I was able to practice a bit of my restaurant Italian. A pleasant experience. We were soaked when we arrived home. Stupid rain.

The next morning, I wanted Darick to accompany us to the site visit to the International Criminal Court. We were allowed to observe the trial of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia. He's been tried in the ICC facilities by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes and crimes against humanity. We were there for the questioning of a protected witness, one fairly high in Taylor's army, attesting to the chain of command for war crimes. The witness was blocked form our view, the video was pixelated, and the person's voice was electronically distorted, so no one could identify him. It was fascinating.

Darick was then into the political visits, so he came with us to a briefing by a Dutch parliamentarian on immigration. After this, we went to the Escher museum. Escher specialized in optical illusions, and quite a bit of his work is in this museum. Darick loved it. There's also a floor of physical illusions, but that doesn't compare to how great the work is. Here's a link to some here.

To kill a little remaining time, we stopped for a beer (a Leffe dark beer, which Darick loved) and some bitter ballen—my favorite bar food, and now Darick's too.

Then off to Belgium!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Vermeer and Van Gogh

I'd never been to Amsterdam before, and we were excited to experience it. After checking into the hotel, we had the evening in front of us. My first sight of Amsterdam was the Red Light District. It's a cultural experience, but I think I would have preferred to see the pretty parts first, so I was a bit wary. The nightlife is great fun, though, and we found a nice bar and a delicious restaurant (Harlem) where they served vegetables!

The next day was museum day for us. We started at the Van Gogh museum, which leads you chronologically through his life and work , which is a fascinating way to see it. My favorite was the Potato Eaters, and I really liked his early work, of which I hadn't seen much before. On our way to the Rijksmuseum we had a burger at a stand between the museums, and it definitely hit the spot and didn't break our bank.

The Rijksmuseum was wonderful. I don't care much for older art, but I am a big fan of 17th century Dutch art. It was cool to see the Delftware, the old remnants of Dutch colonialism, and of course the art. It has a very impressive collection of Rembrandts, and especially Vermeers. I have a personal life goal to see all of his paintings (there are about 35 in existence) before I die, and I was able to check off four more from the list.

We then went to the Modern Art Musuem, or the Stedelijk Museum. Right now only a tiny piece of their collection is on display in a temporary location, until next year when they open a new facility in the Museumplein by the Rijks and the Van Gogh. Right now it's not worth visiting, but the permanent collection will be fantastic.

After buying Darick some much needed and nice-fitting slacks, we met up with the group for dinner at the Brasserie die Poorte. This restaurant was wonderful! We had a fixed menu of tomato and goat cheese soup, tilapia, and pear ice cream on a waffle, and every part was wonderfully delicious. And vegetables! It was marvelous, and at a nice price. I hope we return next year. They're known for Dutch food, so try it out. And the bar next door has beautiful Delft tile and looks like a great place to have a drink.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Paris with Darick

Things I've done with Darick in Paris since he arrived:

  • Pique-nique with cheese and baguettes and grapes under the Eiffel Tower to watch the sunset and feel Parisian. The tower turned blue instead of white in honor of the French taking the EU presidency as of July 1, and the train stopped working so we had to walk the long way home.

  • The Louvre, for a full day. It was overwhelming. The Louvre is meant to be done in many, many days, two hours and one wing/floor combination at a time. We did as much as we could in one. Saw the Mesopotamian, Iranian, and Egyptian rooms, as well as Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa (I don't find her disappointing, by the way, though most tourists do—she's beautiful).

  • La Belle Ronde, my favorite little creperie in the 14th arr. that Kate found last year, for Darick's first crepes. Parrakeets chirped while D enjoyed the “inside-out pancakes,” as he referred to them.

  • The opening night of the world premiere of the Fly, the opera based on the movie, directed by David Cronenberg, musical direction by Placido Domingo, score by Howard Shore (he conducted himself!) and art direction by Dante Ferretti (who just won the Oscar for Sweeney Todd). With such an incredible background (and we're big fans of the movie), it was bound for greatness, though it disappointed. It was mostly recitative, with few moments for the singers to shine, and little emphasis on the emotional and important moments. A lot of lost chances for greatness. We did like some of the things they added, though, and it sure is a great story—one prime for adaptation to the opera form.

  • The morning doing the best we could to get through the Musee D'Orsay—the impressionism museum. It's packed with a lot of major works in a small space. Darick found a new artist he likes: Henri Fantin-Latour.

  • We walked our way (farther than I expected) to the Musee Quai Branly, the anthropological museum. I think this was Darick's favorite museum we visited, perhaps for the whole three weeks. He's really into Oceanic art, particularly since it is so integral in the lives of it's people, rather than a cultural luxury as art is in our society. It's a really great and packed museum, and I recommend it to everyone.

  • An evening in Montmartre, trying to feel a bit like Amelie. We had fondue for dinner at La Refuge du Fondue, which is certainly an experience, despite being filled with non-Parisians. We then walked around, listening to music, people watching, visited Picasso's first studio in Paris, and climbed the stairs of the Sacre Coeur to watch the sunset over Paris. We also were able to walk around in Sacre Coeur, which is a particularly unique church in Paris, filled with beautiful mosaics. It's no St. Louis Basilica, though.

  • After some administrative work for the program, we had falafel in the Marais and bought Darick some second-hand clothes at a Parisian thrift store. We then walked to the Centre Pompidou. With very limited time in Paris, we felt like we were shoving things in at the last minute. On the top floor of the Pompidou was a special exhibit on modern/contemporary sacred art, which Darick is really into right now. It was the perfect exhibition for him. He then powerwalked through the permanent exhibition of the museum, for lack of time. He said it was like gorging on art without chewing. I think we'll have to return there.

  • We visited Notre Dame, which was of course packed with tourists, ruining the effect of how beautiful it is there. I wanted to take him to my favorite church, Ste. Chapelle, but we ran out of time. I had a talk to attend, and then we all went out for dinner in Montmartre at Restaurant Chartiers, which is a very classically French restaurant in a lovely space. The food was mediocre, but cheap, so it was a hit. We ended the night with jazz at Le Caveau des Oubliettes. I think Darick really loved Paris, though we'd love it a lot more if we lived there...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Remembering Geneva

As an undergrad in Geneva, I attended Webster University Geneva, which is a very international school, with students whose parents are diplomats, foreign executives for multinational corporations, or running from retribution because they ratted on the mafia. This means most of the friends I had there have now moved away. However, I was able to see, stay with, and have a fantastic time with my friend G who still lives there, working for an NGO.

We met at the train station when we parted from students, and he and I walked to have a drink and meet others at La Terrasse, a bar on the lakeside where the Genevois come to drink and relax on the grass in the summertime. It was packed. Some of his friends from work filtered through, and we met up with three others I had known during undergrad: M, P, and N, all of whom work for different UN organizations.

We then walked over near Parc des Bastions to L'Incontro, an Italian restaurant in the plaza in front of the synagogue. Their specialty is penne siciliana, and the four friends insist it's the best in the city. You order it and then are given a second gigantic helping if you want it. Honestly, it's among the best pasta dishes I've ever had...wonderful rich flavor and zing, with the perfect bite from the added picante oil. Genius. Well worth the money and the subsequent bellyache from overeating.

G and I then retrieved my bag from the train station, traveled to his lovely apt, watched Family Guy, and hit the sack.

The next day we slept in late and had a brunch of cheeses, bread, tomatoes, scallions, peaches, eggs, and tea. That G, he knows how to treat guests. Afterward strolled over to the Rue de Marche to buy sunglasses for G and an English language book for me. Behind the rue is the old town, so we walked up to a bar with outdoor seating on the Place Bourg-de-Four. The bar started with a C, but I can't remember the name. I had a panache, something of which I had not previously heard, which is a mixture of beer and something sweet, like Sprite. Just enough sweet to cut the gross beer, and I liked it. Had 2.

We then walked all the way around the lake, which was really lovely, though the sun was so hot as to be scorching. Once we made it to the shade of the Parc Mon Repos, the temperature was perfect. G snoozed a little, I read a little, and the Spanish ladies nearby shouted a lot.

Later we met M and N for ice cream at the outdoor bar next to the previous one, where I ran into a few students heading for dinner at Chez Ma Cousine. We thought about going there too, for old times' sake, but I preferred to go somewhere I had not previously been, so we had Indian at Bollywood (which is ironically the name of my favorite Indian place in Atlanta), in the Paquis. It really was quite delicious, with stuffed naan, and really spicy food. We stuffed ourselves to pain once again.

However, the gelato we obtained across the street at GelatoMania overshadowed the deliciousness of the Indian. I hear it's the best ice cream in Geneva, and I have to say it's at least the most interesting. Every week they have a different bizarre special. The chocolate was good, but paled in comparison to the canelle (cinnamon, my standard), the Pineapple Basil (which was really refreshing), and the Apple Celery (surprisingly wonderful). I couldn't bring myself to try the goat cheese and pesto ice cream, but I bet it was actually good.

We next traveled to the old town to a bar named something like Capaccio on the second floor of the Confederation Center. It was quite ritzy, but with inventive and really nice quality drinks. Unfortunately, it was just so hot that it was difficult to enjoy the place. The people, however, were very enjoyable. In our little group, there was an American (me), a Kosovar, an Indonesian, two Japanese, a Guatemalan, a Nigerian, and a Frenchman. It was very Genevois, as I know no Genevois other than internationals, and perfect.

G and I watched Across the Universe that night, which was exactly as I'd expected it to be, but I liked it more than I expected. In the morning, we had a similar, and just as delicious, brunch as the day before and then met S and P at La Terrace de Paradis, which is another bar situated next to the lake, but further in on the Left Bank, more towards the river. Nothing exciting in terms of fare, but a great spot to hang out and see the day and be with friends. I miss Geneva.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Back to Geneva

We went to Geneva for site visits, and within moments of arriving into the train station I felt like I was home. Everything felt familiar and warm. (For those of you who might not know, I lived in Geneva for a year while in undergrad. However, I never was there during the summer.)

We stayed in Webster Geneva's new dorms in Versoix, which were just lovely, particularly compared to the form we stay in in Paris, which are old and have encrusted dirt in the corners and cracks. Versoix's a sleepy little town, and it was nice to stay there. Thanks to them for helping us with wonderful accommodations.

Our site visits began on Thursday. We started with a briefing on international humanitarian law at the International Committee of the Red Cross, followed by a guided tour of the museum. The museum is really impressive, with a history of humanitarian law and all of the things the RC does (which, by the way, is a really wide variety of efforts), but do the museum on your own—the guided tour didn't add much.

After lunch in the cafeteria, we walked down the hill toward the Palais des Nations to our briefing at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It was informative, but we had at least one student fell asleep. Ah well.

With a few hours between visits, I took a few students on a walking tour of the lake and the Old Town. Geneva was stunningly beautiful while we were there, with gorgeous blue skies and hot sun. It was amazing to walk along the lake and toward the Old Town, past the old places Kara and I used to eat and around the Cathedral and the Parc des Bastions.

We met a person who works on child violence at World Vision for a talk over dinner at the Hotel Les Armures, known for the best fondue in Geneva. And it was, in fact, the best fondue I've ever had. Try the mushroom fondue. You won't regret it. Bill Clinton didn't, and neither did I.

At the end of the evening, we headed to the giant Fan Zone set up in Plainpalais. Switzerland and Austria hosted the Eurocup this year, and so Geneva hosted a FanZone, with two gigantic screens for the Spain/Russia game. It was wild to be there with that many people, almost all supporting Spain. It was awesome.

The next day we had a morning meeting at the World Health Organization, a flamenkuche at Les Brasseurs, and an afternoon meeting at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Afterward, we walked along Lac Leman through the Parc Mon Repos back toward the train station. With time to kill before meeting my old friend from my Webster days, we took the Mouettes (the public transportation boats) across the lake, spending about 45 minutes on the lake on the beautiful day. It definitely made me wish I had brought my swimsuit...