Category Archives: Travel

How to Dress Like A French Woman: Classic and Casual

I don’t pretend to be French, but during the five weeks I lived in Paris, I picked up quite a bit on French fashion. So I’d like to share some ways that we can all attain that “je ne sais quoi” that is both desired and way too overused.

1. Never, ever leave the house in sweats, or looking like you just woke up. If you must wear work-out clothes, go straight to the gym, and then go straight home. Better yet, just change there.

2. Wear stripes. Thin stripes. Black on white, usually. Navy on white if you’re feeling a little crazy.

3. Don’t wear shorts. They are not fashionable or classy.

4. Try a minimalist look of just bold red lipstick and (maybe) mascara.

5. If your hair is down, it should look like it was combed and then blown in a light breeze. It is never shiny and sleek. If your hair is up, it should look like it’s supposed to be that way, not a messy last-minute updo. 

6. Wear solid colors. At most you are allowed one patterned piece, and it is usually an accessory, like shoes or a scarf. Sometimes a skirt, but rarely a shirt or dress. For some reason this doesn’t apply for older women (40+). It’s as though patterned clothes detract from the natural beauty of younger women, but older women need vibrant clothing to look more attractive. 

7. Wear a good pair of shoes – preferably heels. That’s not to say that French women walk around in stilettos all day. They usually have a cute wedge heel or a stylish boot that really pulls the outfit together.

8. When in doubt, show less skin. French women dress quite conservatively, so when in doubt, show shoulders, OR back, OR thigh – never all three (though you could probably get away with two at a club).

9. Spend more money on fewer, more classic pieces. This has several advantages. One, you can mix and match more. Also, your clothes will last longer because they are more durable, and your clothes will flatter your body because they will really fit you well.

10. When in doubt, think Classic and Casual. Classic in the clothes you wear, but not casual clothes. Casual in the way you wear them. Americans (in my experience) are constantly fussing about their appearances – adjusting belts, combing their hair, reapplying mascara. French women create their appearance with care only once, in the morning, and then forget about it. 

*Tip for men: I don’t notice men’s fashion as much, because I am not a man, but I did notice that French men dress better (obviously). Buy clothes that actually fit your body. If this means that your shirt shows your shoulder outline, or your shorts are a little shorter, that’s fine, because at least you won’t look homeless from your too-loose pants. But also remember that there’s a different between fitted and too tight.

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La dernière

Last night when I was sitting on the terrace to watch the sun set on Paris one last time, thinking a dozen thoughts, I saw that the sunset was softer than it usually was. It spilled baby blue, lavender, pink, and pastel orange onto the sky, and I felt a deep sadness sweeping over me. The colors got darker and filled the sky long after the sun dipped below the horizon. My camera couldn’t capture the view, and so all I have left of that sunset is what’s remaining in my memory. It was the most beautiful sunset I had seen throughout my stay in Paris.

While here, I have learned so many things about myself, other people, and the world. Some of these things can’t be put into words eloquently enough, but those that can, I’ll detail here:

1. French people are nice – if you are nice. If you walk into a shop and don’t greet the sales representative, complain that no one speaks English, or just act entitled in general, don’t expect to be treated like royalty. And even a little French (merci, au revoir) goes a long way, because once you get through to them, French people are incredibly kind. They will go completely out of their way to help you, something I have never experienced with an American.

2. I’ve learned how to dress well (a whole post about how to dress like the French is coming up soon).

3. As famous as France is for its food, it cannot produce anything but French food. I’ve eaten two Italian meals here, and both were dismal. If they can’t even cook food from Italy right, which is a bordering country, how can they hope to attempt other, more difficult cuisines? The problem is that the French are too set in their ways. I blame Louis XIV. Him, and the dozens of foreign countries that have invaded France over the years, instilling in every French person a deep-set xenophobia that, no matter how hard you try, you will never truly rid them of.

4. Finding peace with myself means that I can be just as comfortable in a group of people as I am by myself.

5. History matters. Just look at France’s history with the arts and education, and how that is reflected in today’s society. But think about America’s beginnings. Everyone started off the same way, and everyone was in the same boat (quite literally) to begin with. To succeed, it wouldn’t matter if you were educated or talented, because that wouldn’t make you successful. Hard work made you successful, and that’s why the USA values hard work, and has such a strong work ethic. France values talent and intelligence for reasons of her own.

6. Art should make you feel something (even anger, sometimes).

7. Sometimes, it’s okay to not obsessively plan, and to be spontaneous instead. You hear this a lot, but it’s totally different coming from me, because I usually plan everything down to the tee. But while it can be helpful to try to control everything, sometimes you just need to take life as it comes.

8. People are nice. Other people are not as nice, but I’ve learned when to let it go, rather than get angry.

I am excited to see my family, but sad to leave because I don’t know when I will be back. All I know is that Paris has left an indelible mark on my soul and changed me in a way that I would have never expected. Maybe someday I will come back here and be able to share my love for this city with my family, or my dear friends. But I don’t know when I will return, and so now I must say goodbye. À la prochaine.

Until then, we’ll always have Paris.

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Of trains, castles, and fondue

I came back from Switzerland a week ago, and since then I have been thinking about how to write this blog post. I kept putting it off because I couldn’t find one unifying theme for the whole trip. Finally I just had to give up and admit to myself that a string of experiences doesn’t always have to have some great overarching meaning. Sometimes, it’s enough that they just make you happy.

The journey started off on a crowded bus that was far too small to accommodate my long legs. It was a long bumpy road to Geneva, but I slept a surprising five hours before arriving at 7am in a city that had not yet woken up. After a not-so-pleasant interaction with a rude attendant at the Eurolines office, I picked up a pain du chocolate at the only shop that was open. Tired and weighed down by heavy backpacks, we headed uphill away from the mountains, and towards our home for the weekend. Just as it was beginning to get hot, we reached the lovely apartment tucked away in a residential area with a beautiful view of the mountains. Barely registering our surroundings, we crashed on the large (but more importantly, long) queen bed to take a much needed nap.

That day, we spent a significant amount of time in the old city (which was fine, but had nothing particular to recommend itself), and then in the evening went to the northern part of the city, where we got to visit CERN (and the science nerd in me proceeded to freak out). Dinner that night was fondue at the Cafe du Soleil, which made us feel heavy and drowsy and completely content.

The next day was a blur of amazing things. In Vevey, we stumbled upon a farmer’s market where we pounced on the free samples: mango vinegar, bread and olive oil, apricots, and cheese. At one stand, I asked the man to give me a Swiss cheese that wasn’t too strong. Without saying a word, he cut a small piece from a large block of cheese and gave it to me to try. Heaven melted in my mouth. It was fresh, and delicious, and I immediately said I would take it. Of course, I didn’t ask the name of the cheese, so now I’ll never be able to have it again.

Our next stop was Montreux, where we somehow managed to find our way into a famous Chateau without buying entry tickets. The Chateau was situated on a lake, just in front of the mountains, and I noticed that Switzerland is exactly like what it is on the postcards. It is nothing short of incredible, because it makes you feel small. It makes you realize how beautiful the world is, and how insignificant all your worries can be.

We got back to town in time for a free outdoor concert, part of the Montreux Jazz Festival. There were people dancing by the stage, their feet tapping back and forth, and the girls’ skirts swishing around when they twirled. Everyone looked so silly and ridiculously foolish, but they were having so much fun.

On the way back to Geneva, we stopped in Lausanne. There, I had the best ice cream of my life while watching the sunset.

Sunday was a lazy day filled with more free samples, the jet d’eau, souvenir shopping, and Indian food (which was a blessing after weeks and weeks of sandwiches and crepes). The bus ride back wasn’t nearly as fun as the ride there, but I was able to sleep soundly with the wonderful memories I made on the trip floating around in my head. When I stumbled into class just a few hours after arriving in Paris, I was forced to admit that I was back in reality.

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A Study in Macarons

My first experience with a macaron, sadly, wasn’t all that it could’ve, and should’ve been. I walked into Ladurée full of hopes and excitement to try my first macaron. The shop was filled with rows and rows of the colorful biscuits (what an inadequate word to describe such a delightful treat) in all sizes – small, medium, and large. My first instinct was to buy one of everything, but I managed to restrain myself, and after five agonizing minutes of trying to decide which flavor to get, I finally settled on the rose flavor.

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The only problem was that it looked too good to eat. So I put it away in my bag, telling myself I would eat it when the time was right, convinced that I shouldn’t waste the experience while walking through a crowded part of town. It was only when I got home that evening, tired and hungry, that I pulled the bag out of my bag. This was the perfect moment, I thought. I would be able to enjoy the macaron, to fully taste and relish the flavor, using that enjoyment to wipe away any less than satisfactory memories from the day.

When I looked inside the bag, I saw that the macaron had completely deflated, and was broken into hundreds of tiny little fragments. I pretended it wasn’t broken. I pretended it was what I wanted it to be, the perfect little bite-sized piece of heaven. So I scooped up the pieces and ate them, trying to look past the fact that while I was able to taste the glorious flavor, I was gaining nothing of its appearance and texture. Half the experience was missing.

It was at this point that I decided to taste macarons anywhere and everywhere I could find them (which is just about every block – macarons are more ubiquitous than Starbucks outlets in Paris), in order to find the perfect macaron.

What is the perfect macaron? To me, there are three important features for a macaron: appearance, taste, and texture. The macarons should look smooth, without any cracks, bumps, or weird spots. They should have a slight sheen or gloss over them, but not too much that they look metallic. The taste, of course, is entirely subjective, but it should never be so strong that it overpowers the slight almond flavor of every macaron. The texture of the cookie part should be slightly crunchy, but should melt in the mouth. The ganache filling should be creamy and fluffy, and should definitely not feel anything like jam. All of these things make the perfect (unattainable?) macaron.

My first taste test was at Dalloyau, a patisserie/boutique dating from the late 17th century. I got four flavors: pistachio (a rather common flavor for macarons), orange, cherry and cream, and caramel salted butter. The flavors were well balanced, and not too strong, but the texture and consistency were all wrong. It just tasted like a regular cookie to me.

My second taste test was at Pierre Hermé, a rather famous establishment lauded for their interesting and creative flavors. The macarons had a strange glossy finish, which made them look metallic. I tried the yogurt and lime; caramel salted butter; and yogurt rose litchi strawberry. The last one tastes exactly like how it sounds – too many flavors! The macarons had a good consistency but the filling and flavors were all wrong.

So, on to the next test, from Georges Larnicol, more famous for their chocolates than their macarons. Here, I only got two macarons (clearly I was starting to lose faith, as the number of macarons purchased at each patisserie was decreasing). I tried lemon and strawberry, and both were too soft – and there is such a thing. It’s when the macaron doesn’t quite make the trip from the box to your mouth without falling apart. The ganache filling felt a bit pasty to me, and it felt like a chore to finish it.

By this point, it was safe to say I was sick of substandard macarons. I wanted to stop eating them. I wondered if the perfect macaron was just some dream I made up in my head. I was just about ready to give up on macarons, and switch to another, less exotic treat, one that I was more comfortable with.

Then, I bought a Ladurée macaron, wanting to give it one last shot before admitting defeat. I bought a vanilla macaron – a plain, almost clichéd flavor – and made sure to eat it right after buying it, to avoid making the same mistake I had made the first time. I sat in the parvis of the St. Sulpice church, watching the pigeons flutter around an enormous fountain. I took the macaron out of the bag, took a deep breath, and took the first bite. And it was perfect. The wafer part melted in my mouth, and the vanilla flavoring was at once understated and over-the-top. I took smaller and smaller bites of the macaron because I didn’t want it to be gone.

Now that I have the memory of that one perfect macaron, I feel gratified. I have faith in the macarons of this world (read: Ladurée) and I am content again. It takes a while to find the perfect macaron, but once you find yours, you will never forget it.

P.S. For the less astute reader – yes, this is a post about macarons, but more importantly, it is a metaphor for my experiences in Paris: my initial delusions, slowly losing faith, and then finally, discovering that I belong.

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A Fairytale in Provins

Yesterday I, along with my friend, took a train that took me away from Paris, and back in time to the medieval city of Provins. As we got further away from Paris, the buildings got smaller and smaller until they disappeared altogether.

When we got off the train station, we were at the edge of the city, and had to find our way to the center of town. I had counted on being able to use GoogleMaps to find my way around, but my phone seemed to think we were still in Paris. So we had to use the Caesar Tower as a kind of north star to orient ourselves. As we walked, we had no destination in mind just yet – we were pulled into the roads that seemed as though they had been there the longest. After getting sidetracked (more than once) we found our way to a market in the center of town, where we bought cheese and fruit for a picnic lunch. We followed signs that said “Rosarie” to a small garden with a watermill, rose bushes, and swans. Yes, swans. We had stepped into a fairytale, it seemed (the young knight in shining armor was to appear later on in the story).

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At this point, we decided it would be a good idea to stop wandering and start making our way towards the medieval city, starting with the ancient city walls. As soon as we walked past the ramparts, towards the wall, and through the archway, everything stopped – time, sound, and civilization. For miles and miles all that could be seen were fields of wheat and grass. And off in the distance I saw a woman standing outside a small cottage with her dog, hair blowing in the wind. All I could think was that in another life, that could have been me. How different my life would have been.

I stopped fantasizing and snapped back into the present, as we headed back into the city. At one point we walked by an interesting door that said “Banquet des Troubadors.” Peeking in, I could see stone walls, and a smoking cauldron with something purple bubbling up inside. We were intrigued. We descended the steep stairs and saw tables lined end to end with place settings, in a room that looked like a mix between a Gothic church and palace dungeons. A dashing young man in a tunic and jester’s shoes came out from behind a curtain to greet us. He explained to us that they put on a medieval banquet every Saturday, complete with a five course meal and entertainment from jugglers, musicians, and troubadours. Before we could express our excitement that we were in Provins on the very day that there was a banquet, he told us that it was completely booked for that night. We were sad, but talked to him for a while longer, telling him where we were from, and hearing that he is a student in Brussels. After thanking him for his kindness, we climbed out of the hall, a little flushed, both thinking the same thing.

“We don’t even know his name!” my friend said. How stupid, to not even ask his name.

The evening went by quickly. We tasted rose jam, rose soda, and rose ice cream (apparently rose is popular in places other than the Middle East). We danced at a concert held at the town square. We wandered through the charming streets and took pictures with several cats.

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When the sun finally came out after a cloudy day at 7, we made our way back to the train station, walking by the “Banquet des Troubadours.” The gate was locked. A little disheartened, we started to walk away when I suddenly had the brilliant and immature idea to leave a note. So my friend and I, giggling like young schoolgirls, wrote a note for the man we had talked to earlier. Here is what it said:

“Merci pour votre hospitalité. Nous sommes les deux filles de Californie – bonne chance avec vos études! Enchantée de vous rencontrer.”

We’ll never even know if he read the note, but it doesn’t matter; it was a nice way to wrap up a wonderful day in charming Provins. Along with everything else, it will remain in my mind a cherished memory from the medieval town of dreams.

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Artsy Fartsy

You know when you meet someone who loves the same book that you do, and you immediately get excited, talk about that book for ages, and a little spark goes off inside you which tells you that you’re not alone? That’s how I’ve been feeling lately. Only that friend isn’t a person – it’s a city. Paris really gets me.

Whether it’s stumbling upon tiny artists’ studios, admiring the Impressionist works at the Musee D’Orsay, or wine and mingling with fellow book lovers at Shakespeare & Co., I feel like I am always surrounded by kindred souls.

On Sunday, June 6, all museums in Paris were free. So I put on my explorer’s hat (but forgot my umbrella) and headed straight to the Musee D’Orsay, where I waited in the rain for 45 minutes to get inside. When I finally got in, I found myself in paradise. I sat in the Impressionism gallery on the 5th floor in a room filled with works by Monet, Renoir, and Degas, thinking how lovely it would be to have the room all to myself.

What I’ve been experiencing is so much more a feeling than a thought, so it’s hard to put it into words. Instead, I’ll share a few gems from the weekend:

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I keep discovering new places in this city, new things to delight over. I don’t know if I will ever get tired of Paris.

I will leave you with a small story I came across earlier today:
“Now that I have been here for a while, I can say with certainty that I have never been here before.”

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Le Premier

Paris. Lutecia, to the Romans. The City of Love to foreigners today. But La Ville-Lumiére (the city of lights) to those who know and love it best. And to me?

To me it still seems uncertain and murky – my allumeur has not yet arrived. Because at the beginning, it was terrible. I arrived in the city when the sky was overcast and it was raining, and my mood turned dark like the clouds. I repeatedly told myself that I was finally in Paris, that I should lighten up and rejoice. “You’re living a dream!” I tried to tell myself. But it only got worse once I reached the hostel and settled in for the night.

The bed creaked. The pillow was lumpy. The see-through curtains were full of holes. And the repetitive clicking sound coming from the fridge, which I thought would be good white noise to help me sleep, ended up preventing me from falling back asleep when I woke up in the middle of the night, jetlagged. The whole place seemed – and I’m totally setting myself up to sound like a brat, here – unclean.

When I woke up that night at 4:30am, I tried for an hour, to no avail, to fall back asleep. For the next hour I was on my phone, scrolling through Facebook and texting my mom. By 7am, I was crying. I hated this hostel, was disappointed by the city, was worried that all the cool kids were hanging out without me (a legitimate concern), and I wanted to go home.

So a few hours later, when I saw that the sun had come out, I decided to pull myself out of my misery and go outside – my spirits lifted immediately. I got out and explored a little on my own, and jumped at the chance to speak in French with anyone and everyone. I ended up at the Jardin du Luxembourg, where children were yelling and sailing miniature boats in front of the palace. Being there felt so peaceful – not necessarily quiet – just peaceful. There was activity everywhere, and yet the entire garden felt frozen in time and space, like a Renoir painting.

From there it got better. I have been to Paris once before, when I was 9. I was not impressed. This grand city that everyone gushed about just seemed overrated to me. So I was pleasantly surprised when, last night while picnicking by the Seine, I saw the way the light touched the rooftops and transformed the city. All of a sudden, I knew I was in the right place.

And then, just as quickly, it got worse again. I found that as much as I love exploring on my own, I get upset when I find out that the others in the group are doing things without me. I need time to myself, but I also want to meet people here. I can’t go through this entirely alone.

Everyone says that study abroad changed their life, but even after just three days here (has it only been three days?), I’m beginning to see that it may not be one constant whirlwind of adventure. It has its ups and downs, just like anything else in life. And rather than feeling too happy or just depressed, it’s about finding the peaceful moments, learning to accept things you can’t change, and taking risks. And I’m learning that it takes time to adjust.

Baby steps.

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