Archive for the ‘Travel’ category

What we can learn from the French

February 25, 2011

What we can learn from the French

It’s been seven years since I last lived in France, but I picked up on a lot while I was there. Plus, I’ve visited France a few times since 2004. I know you can’t clump everyone together and say they’re all one particular way. But you can point out things you noticed about many of the people you encountered.

  • The French know how to eat healthily.

This has been written about a lot (e.g. French Women Don’t Get Fat) so I’ll stick to what I observed personally. I noticed that French people (in general):

  • Don’t snack between meals (and when they snack they just have a cookie or a few pieces of chocolate)
  • Eat big lunches and relatively small dinners (That way, they have something to look forward to during the work day AND don’t go to bed on a full stomach.)
  • Have small breakfasts with coffee (Because they have big lunches, they don’t need a huge breakfast. And, coffee helps suppress your hunger).
  • Drink water with their meals (much healthier than soda, of course)
  • Eat lots of vegetables
  • Eat a wide variety of foods (For example, they don’t just eat chicken and beef. They eat chicken, beef, ham, pork, duck, rabbit, horse, fish, bull, boar, guinea fowl, oysters, mussels, shrimp, sea urchins, etc.).
  • Finish most meals with a dairy item (yogurt or cheese) and a piece of fruit
  • Take their time eating

I think all of these habits are good for you.

  • The French exercise less than we do.

But, because they eat healthily they don’t really need to exercise. I mean, their daily activities (walking, doing chores, etc.) are enough for them to get their daily dose of movement. Maybe we should follow their lead given this recent Wall Street Journal article.

  • The French take time to cook.

Obviously, this point relates to the first point I made. But I will expand on it a little here. Most of the French people I encountered just go out to eat for special occasions. The rest of the time they make their own meals. This allows them to control what goes into their bodies, save money, and go out to nicer places when they do go out. They also have a fair amount of dinner parties; those provide a great opportunity to see their friends and share their favorite recipes.

  • The French are polite.

OK, maybe this is a real stretch. And maybe their politeness often masks their true feelings. But frequently I observed French people saying (or doing) the right thing at the right time. Say your brother-in-law just died, for example. The next time they saw you they’d start off the interaction with a “Oh, I’m so sorry about your brother.” Or when they are invited to a dinner party they bring along a gift. While these might seem like obvious things to do, I’ve noticed this type of behavior isn’t always practiced here (and yes, I’m guilty of not being polite as well).

  • The French are experts in their fields.

In France, it’s really hard to get into a particular field when your degree is in something else. So, you’re forced to find a job in your area of expertise. While this certainly limits you choices, it helps ensure you’re good at your profession (or at least better at it than your average bear). Here, you might just get a sales job because you’re deemed friendly. But you don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of how to be an effective salesperson.

  • The French are into equality.

I’ll always remember this one particular experience I had while teaching English in France. I was in a fifth-grade classroom, quizzing the children on their knowledge of animal vocabulary. One of the students– Yoan (pronounced “Yo-on”)– was answering practically every question correctly. Each time I interrogated the pupils, his arm would shoot up in the air. Sometimes no one else would raise their hand, so I had to pick him. He’d get the answer right, and I’d congratulate him.

Well the class’s main teacher (a French woman) was not a fan of Yoan’s behavior. Whereas I viewed his ability and willingness to answer the questions as a positive thing, she viewed it as a horrible thing. She started screaming at him, saying it was not his place to answer so many questions. The others deserved a chance, she said, adding that he couldn’t participate any more. While most Americans would consider her reaction unfair or harsh (I think), it actually worked. Once he stopped raising his hand, the other students began participating in the exercise.

  • The French are fashionable.

They don’t necessarily have many clothes, but they know how to pick out items that fit them right. Sometimes this means spending more money on individual garments, but overall they might even spend less than your average American.

In a future post, I will write about what the French can learn from Americans.

Photo credit:

A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

February 8, 2011

I am in the midst of reading A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton. I heard about the book on the “On Point” radio show. As you can guess, de Botton (a Swiss-born philosopher) spends a week at an airport. In this case, it’s the Heathrow Airport in London. He’s actually asked by the company that owns the airport to partake in the project. They sort of want to show off the new Terminal 5, but also provide the public with an in-depth look at an airport.

The idea is that travelers, in their rush to get to their destination, often overlook the ins and outs of what’s going on around them (including the philosophical questions that airports and travel evoke). So de Botton is assigned to a desk in the middle of the terminal, where he makes observations, interviews travelers and airport employees, and takes notes. He put his thoughts into the approximately 100-page book. The book includes many colorful photos from his time at the airport.

I’m about halfway through A Week at the Airport, and I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. Sometimes I like de Botton’s excrutiatingly detailed observations/long sentences, and other times I find they get in the way of my interpretation of what’s going on. In other words, I’m expending so much effort trying to understand what he’s saying that they slow me down. This description of de Botton’s hotel (and its surroundings) reflects his style:

“The hotel and terminal seemed like a giant machine poised in standby mode, emitting an uncanny hum from a phalanx of slowly rotating exhaust fans. I thought of the hotel’s spa, its hot tub perhaps still bubbling in the darkness. The sky was a chemical orange colour, observing the final hours of the fragile curfew it has been keeping ever since it had swallowed up the last of the previous evening’s Asia-bound flights. Jutting from the side of the terminal was the disembodied tail of British Airways A321, anticipating another imminent odyssey in the merciless cold of the lower stratosphere.”

I enjoy de Botton’s frequent philosophical musings. Like when he writes about a man who screams after arriving at the terminal too late to board his Tokyo-bound plane. The man is very upset that he can’t fly for another 48 hours, and that he’ll miss out on a day of meetings. De Botton follows the little anecdote with these two paragraphs:

“I was reminded of the Roman philosopher Seneca’s treatise On Anger, written for the benefit of the Emperor Nero, and in particular of its thesis that the root cause of anger is hope. We are angry because we are overly optimistic, insufficiently prepared for the frustrations endemic to existence. A man who screams every time he loses his keys or is turned away at an airport is evincing a touching but recklessly naive belief in a world in which keys never go away and our travel plans are invariable assured.

Given Seneca’s analysis, it was ominous to note the direction that the airline was taking in its advertising. It was promising ever more confidently to try its very best to serve, to please and to be punctual. As a result, in an industry as vulnerable to disaster as this one, there were surely many more screams to come.”

I also enjoy how de Botton’s ruminations patch together different times and places. For example, he discusses how the wealthy carry the least amount of luggage because they believe they can now buy anything anywhere. He goes on to say:

“But they had perhaps never visited a television retailer in Accra or they might have looked more favorably upon a Ghanian family’s decision to import a Samsung PS50, a high-definition plasma machine the weight and size of a laden coffin.”

While that passage referred to another part of the world, the one below refers to another time– the future. De Botton has just discussed the casual way in which ground staff and colleagues in a plane greet one another after an 11,000-kilometer journey:

“Then again, the welcome may be no more effusive a hundred years hence, when, at the close of a nine-minute voyage, against the eerie blood-red midday light bathing a spaceport in Mars’s Cydonian hills, a fellow human knocks at the gold-tinted window of our just-docked craft.”

Overall I’m enjoying the book, though I sometimes have a problem with its overly windy passages, and lack of action. De Botton muses over the simplest-seeming of gestures or happenings, but sometimes I find myself wanting to draw my own conclusions. Tell me what’s happening, and I’ll make my own interpretations. But maybe he hasn’t seen enough in a week at the airport to provide enough good stories.

It sure is snowy in Somerville

February 1, 2011

When I left the house at 7:15 a.m. to go to the gym, the roads were clear. When I got out of the gym at 8:30 a..m, they were covered in snow and ice. Not only that, but snow was streaming down, vehicles were moving slowly (good thing!), and pedestrians were struggling to get to work. Here’s some of what I saw:

On Elm Street in Somerville

An ambulance headed out of Davis Square (toward Elm Street)

A woman walking in the road on Willow Avenue

A vehicle being towed on Willow Avenue

A guy with an umbrella (smart idea!) on Highland Avenue

People crossing the street on Highland Avenue

Vehicles backed up on Cedar Street (right before the intersection with Highland Avenue)

Home sweet home

Talk about a lot of action for before 9 a.m., huh?

Simon Winchester gives a good talk

November 15, 2010

Winchester talked about his latest book, "Atlantic"

I love seeing authors speak about their works, or scholars lecturing about their areas of expertise. But for some reason, I haven’t attended many of these talks over the last couple of years. I ended a long drought on Thursday when I saw Simon Winchester discuss his new book about the Atlantic Ocean at Porter Square Books in Cambridge (check out Winchester’s website to see what he looks like).

I haven’t yet read the book. I knew nothing about Simon Winchester. But I sort of became enchanted by him over the course of his one-hour appearance. This guy knows how to tell stories. The words just flow. I wish I had written down some exact quotes of his. Instead, I just took notes on some of the interesting ideas he discussed.

Here are some things I learned:

  • The Atlantic Ocean formed about 200 million years ago when Pangea broke apart (I knew the Pangea part, but not when the separation happened).
  • Scientists project the Atlantic Ocean will cease to exist in about 175 million years once the continents have shifted and water from the ocean has been squeezed out.
  • Winchester organized his book using Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” model. Let me expand a little bit upon this:

Apparently Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” catalogs the seven stages of man’s life as infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon (an aging buffoon), and second childhood. So Winchester organized his book into these categories. The “lover” section, for instance, discusses humans’ love for the Atlantic over time. The “soldier” section describes wars that have taken place on the Atlantic Ocean. I thought this was a very interesting way to organize the book.

  • He told an amusing story about the Faroe Islands, an island group about halfway between Great Britain and Iceland belonging to Denmark.

He told us that the inhabitants of these islands are descendants of the Vikings. Because the men aren’t at war anymore, they have lots of energy to “purge themselves of.” They accomplish this through placing sheep high up on the sides of cliffs. They leave the sheep in these dangerous spots for months as the sheep eat the lush grass and fatten up.

When the men finally return to the cliffs, they knock the sheep into the water. The sheep die, come up to the water’s surface, and are collected to be turned into food. This means that if you’re ever on a boat around these islands, you should watch out for falling sheep!

The British needed a smokeless gunpowder called cordite, which was made from acetone. Weizmann developed a way to produce acetone through bacterial fermentation. British officials learned about Weizmann’s procedure from Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott,  and had him share his knowledge. The British set up a cordite factory in an old whiskey factory, and the rest is history.

To thank Weizmann, British officials wanted to knight him. But he didn’t want that– he wanted a Jewish state in Palestine instead. It’s largely because of his wish that this eventually happened.

  • Tristan da Cunha is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. According to Winchester, who has been there before, only about 250 people live there and it’s not that interesting. It’s a lot of people growing potatoes.

Anyway, Winchester told a really funny (and true) story about how he’s banned from the island.

  • The “Skeleton Coast” in Namibia is known for its shipwrecks. Winchester actually went there to see where a ship attempting to rescue another ship crashed into the shore. He visited the graves of the two brave souls who died during this incident, and mentioned them in his book. It’s a way to keep their memory alive as many seem to have forgotten about them and their heroic efforts.

I love how Winchester took us to different parts of the Atlantic we’ve never heard of and filled us with rich imagery, poignant stories and humorous anecdotes. I really want to read this book now! For a glimpse of how Winchester talks, check out this short YouTube clip about “Atlantic”:

Megabus rocks

November 14, 2010

Megabus dropped me off close to New York City's Penn Station

I took Megabus from Boston to New York City last weekend, and it only cost $17! The trip home was just $13! I’m used to taking $100 round-trip bus rides, not $30 round-trip bus rides. I guess if you purchase your Megabus tickets at least a couple of weeks ahead of time you can get an even better deal. A one-way trip may cost as low as $5.

Bolt also offers cheap bus service between Boston and New York. With these great deals, I don’t know how Greyhound stays in business!

A lackluster experience at Slainte Pub in Baltimore’s Fells Point

November 9, 2010

A picture of Fells Point, the neighborhood Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant is located in

During my Washington D.C./Baltimore trip a couple of weekends ago, my friends and I went to the Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant in Fells Point (Baltimore) to have lunch and watch some pro football.

Unfortunately, our experience wasn’t that great. We ordered spinach artichoke dip with baguettes for our appetizer. There were very few baguette slices so we ran out after a couple of minutes. I asked for another baguette and it took more than 20 minutes to arrive (so the dip was no longer warm). I had to mention something to the waitress several times and she kept giving an excuse.

The restaurant wasn’t even that busy for a football Sunday. For my main course I got corned beef, cabbage and potatoes.

My food

It was very bland. I know the Irish aren’t exactly known for their flavorful cuisine, but usually corned beef is at least a little tastier. I feel like the brine-curing process lends itself to yummy goodness. And provided the meat is scrumptious, the potatoes and cabbage can taste rather plain. So hopefully they’ll work on the meat!

The other disappointing thing was related to football. When we arrived, we asked our waitress to put the Buffalo Bills game on one of the TVs (our group included a Bills fan). We were the only ones in the room so she gladly turned it on. About a half-hour later, the room was pretty full of people. One of the groups asked the same waitress to turn the same TV over to another game. She went ahead and did so for them.

When she came over to our table we told her we were disappointed she had changed the game when we had been the first ones in the room. She said she had completely forgotten we wanted to watch the Bills game, and was very sorry. But instead of changing the TV back to the game, she kept it on the game the other table wanted. That was too bad.

At least the restaurant had a cool view of the water:

Here are a few other pictures I took of Fells Point:

This was out for Halloween. It's pretty cool-- all the Fells Point shops and restaurants give candy out to children on Halloween.

I like how this looks.

Dogs get the royal treatment in Fell's Point.

What happens if I don't eat them (don't get me wrong-- I love mussels!)?


Pictures from the Jon Stewart rally

November 1, 2010

I wasn’t particular interested in attending the rally, but I did so because my boyfriend expressed an interest. Plus, it was a great opportunity to see two friends who live in the Washington D.C. area. So we went. Well, it was kind of a disaster for the first half. We, like thousands of other people, figured we could just hop on the subway an hour and a half before the rally was scheduled to start. Bad idea. We first arrived at the College Park metro stop. There was nowhere to park and a line encircling the lot numerous times.

A group of people waiting in line at the College Park metro stop

We decided to try out the Greenbelt metro stop instead. This is the first stop on the green line so we figured it’d have emptier trains and consequently shorter lines. Well before determining the crowd’s size we had to find a parking spot. There were none left at the metro stop, so we went to a nearby Marriott to see if we could pay for a spot. The guy inside told us that because we asked, he would allow us to park in a corner of the lot for free. But when we tried to do so, we were told by a security guard we couldn’t. We went back inside to tell the original guy what had happened. He told us he was sorry, but that he had to change his mind.

We ended up parking about a mile and a half from the Greenbelt stop at a Giant grocery store. This is my friend and her husband walking toward the metro ahead of us:

Once we got to the Greenbelt stop we realized this crowd was no smaller than the one at the College Park stop. The endless line resembled the long line of Zeds waiting to get haircuts (just one hair on each head) in Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”

We tried waiting for a few minutes to see how fast the line would move. Meanwhile, we chatted with a couple from Delaware behind us. They were starting to regret their decision to come to this stop. As we realized the line was not moving much at all, my friend came up with a plan. She works at the National Institute of Health, and has a reserved parking spot there. She realized we could park in the spot, and then hop on the subway right there. We had to get back to our car first, however, so we hailed a cab. He pretty much ripped us off, but it was worth it.

Inside the cab

We parked the car at the NIH, and got on the escalator bringing us down to the subway. Check out its size!:

There was practically no one in the subway– it was pretty crazy! We got tickets, and caught a train right away.

Me and my boyfriend riding the subway

When we got to the rally, it was super-crowded obviously. We couldn’t get too far up, but we got to see lots of interesting and funny signs. Here are a few:

The guy who made this sign wanted to take a picture of me holding it.

The best sign

There were people of all ages at the rally:

I like this shot I took from atop my boyfriend’s shoulders:

It was sooooooooo hard finding a place to eat following the rally. We must have stopped at 10 or so places, only to be told each time the wait was an hour or so. We finally found a place, the Haad Thai Restaurant, with a somewhat shorter wait. We did get seated fairly quickly, and our appetizers (We had Pinky, which is shrimp rolls served with sweet and sour sauce, and Hoy Jaw, which is minced chicken and crab cakes served with spicy, sweet and sour sauce) arrived promptly. Our main meals, however, took awhile. Oh well, they were delicious (I had Beef Pad Z-U, which is beef with wide rice noodles, Chinese broccoli, and egg).

My married friends (both medical doctors!) at dinner

One thing that surprised me about Washington D.C. is that the subway trains are few and far between. On Saturday night around 9:30 (mind you it wasn’t just any Saturday night– it was Halloween, the night of the Jon Stewart rally, and the night of Howard University’s homecoming), we had wait 20 minutes for a train. And we were at the popular Foggy Bottom (George Washington University) stop. It made me appreciate Boston’s frequent trains!

  • Peek Gai
  • Peek GaiChicken wings stuffed with crabmeat and mushroom served with sweet & sour sauce