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3 Sep 2012

I’ll Have a Suze, S’il Vous Plaît

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This, my friends, is a bottle of Suze, a French aperitif I’ve been drinking for the last two weeks in Brittany and Paris.

I’d never heard of Suze before it was suggested to our group of hikers at the hotel Manoir du Sphinx in Perros-Guirec on the Côte de Granit Rose in Brittany. Suze was listed in the drinks menu in the section devoted to Ricard and other pastis, pommeau (more about that in a minute), Campari and Pimms.

My first Suze

Normally I’m a pastis drinker myself, but Suze sounded interesting.

It was served chilled on the rocks (well, in France, on the rock, since they rarely give you more than one small ice cube) with a slice of lemon. The taste was bitter but light and refreshing – less cough-syrupy than a first taste of Campari, for instance. I later learned it’s distilled from gentian roots with other herbal and citrusy notes. Perfect for summer, and it was soon my before-dinner drink of preference.

Before learning about Suze, my friends and I drank a lot of pommeau,

A small glass of pommeau before dinner

another aperitif, made only in Brittany and Normandy, composed of unfermented apple cider mixed with Calvados, the apple brandy. It’s a dark warm color, sweet but not cloying, and the Calvados gives it a bright kick. Pommeau was served chilled, neat. Calvados itself, we found, was just too strong for us.

And, of course, because we were in Brittany, we drank a good bit of cidre brut,

Cidre brut, with kouign amman, a Breton pastry made with lots of butter and caramelized sugar

the dry alchoholic cider made locally. The organic versions, labeled bio, had a bit too much of the barnyard still lingering on the tongue. But I liked the fizzy stuff with my galettes, the buckwheat savory crepes people eat in Brittany.

Buckwheat galette, this one with salmon and dill.

5 Aug 2012

Seven Memorable Days in Paris

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Fifteen people joined Donna Morris of Best Friend in Paris and me the last week of July. Some of us knew each other, but no one knew everyone in advance. We quickly formed a group of both shared and independent interests.

Not a single one of us had the same trip. Every day, people chose what they wanted to do…a visit to the Rodin Museum, or the Louis Vuitton/Marc Jacobs exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs? Take the train to Giverny to see Monet’s house and garden, or to Mont Valérien to see the Resistance Memorial?

The Japanese Bridge at Monet's Giverny

Each person found the things that interested them most. Gail was delighted with the Palais Garnier and its new costume exhibit. Phyllis searched out art and architecture; Diane and Anna found jazz clubs in the evening. René and Carol went to the Sèvres museum; Ruth and Emily shopped in the enormous flea market just outside Paris. Frank and Dorothy celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary; Barbara and Kathleen ate dinners with a friend who lives in Paris. Harper couldn’t get enough of Paris; she stayed on an extra week. Stephanie went out to Versailles to see the evening show of light, music and fireworks in the gardens. Jean graciously recovered from being pickpocketed by a 12-year-old girl in a crowded Metro car.

In the salon before dinner.

Every evening, we gathered in the Salon Chinois at the hotel for wine and charcuterie, to tell our stories of the day and plan for our next excursions. Donna supplied restaurant recommendations and made reservations when we needed them. We ate meals at all kinds of places, from the very inventive Bar Le Passage to the traditional country cooking of Le Coin to elegant salads at the Jacquemart André and the very sophisticated MiniPalais in the Grand Palais. Much chocolat chaud africain was consumed at Angelina. We shopped in street markets and Printemps and Bon Marché, in museum gift shops and boutiques on the Ile St. Louis and in the Marais. We learned to navigate by Metro and bus, and we walked…and walked…and walked.

There are lots of photos of our trip at http://www.flickr.com/photos/scampbell-wby/. Best of all, we all made new friends…and memories we’ll enjoy for years.

Everyone loved Donna's wine-tasting tour.

18 May 2012

Road Trip to Bentonville

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It started with a phone call from Robin.

Crystal Bridges American Art Museum, our destination.

“Hey, you want to drive over to Bentonville, Arkansas to see the new Crystal Bridges art museum?”

Of course I did. We both adore road trips. Bentonville, home of Wal-Mart, was a nice long distance – about 20 hours – from Washington, DC. We could stop and see friends in St. Louis and Memphis on the way out and back.

We have some road trip traditions, Robin and I. One is that whenever we stop for gas, the person not paying for the gas buys lottery tickets. We are not the lottery-ticket-buying type normally, but on a road trip, anything can happen. When it’s my turn, I go for the MegaMillions and Powerballs so we might win big.

We have a winner!

Robin likes the instant gratification (or, usually, the instant non-gratification) of scratch-off games. We had a big day in Bentonville, winning $10 on a scratch-off game. We have not, however, become zillionaires.

On long trips, we sometimes invent silly games: taking turns, for instance, claiming cities of the world to “own.” Not too long ago, in a sneaky move, Robin snatched Paris away from me. I should not have let her get away with that.

It's hard to work the New York Times Sunday crossword in a moving car, but we managed.

Another tradition: looking for local food. We try not to eat in chain restaurants, and we’re willing to saunter off the highway a good ways to eat local. This trip, we followed some signs to Funderburk’s in Pocahontas, Illinois. Frankly, when we drove up and discovered it was located in a Phillips 66 gas station/liquor store, we were doubtful. But we needed to use the bathroom anyway, and we bought a few lottery tickets for yucks. Then the woman behind the counter told us their fried chicken was hand-cooked to order, and they made the potato salad on the premises. Sold.

Yum! Funderburk's fried chicken.

And that chicken was good, fried crispy and spiced with something akin to Old Bay.

Funderburk’s has a slogan: “Fill your tank and fill your belly.” We can’t vouch for the gas, but we cruised on into St. Louis on very full bellies.

We managed on this trip to avoid one of our traditions: ignoring the GPS directions and improvising from a combination of printed maps, exit signs and billboards, and personal intuition. We are easily swayed, and we generally (and inadvertently) add at least a hundred miles or so to our ride, and then swear we will never do it again.

Our most wonderful food find, though, was in Brinkley, Arkansas, not too far from the Tennessee state line. We asked at the gas station, and they directed us to Gene’s Barbecue. You can get barbecue there, but the real specialty at Gene’s is fried catfish, and we snarfed it up.

Gene's fried catfish and me. Notice a fried theme here?

The fish was light and clean-tasting, rolled in well-seasoned cornmeal and fried – you never batter your catfish. The owner, Gene De Priest, was sitting nearby with a few of his buddies. When he heard we were from Maryland, he came over to show us pictures from his recent hunting (turkey) and fishing (rockfish) trip in our area.

Gene DePriest (far right) with his buddies at Gene’s Restaurant and Barbecue.

Gene’s daughter, Connie, was waiting tables that day, taking some time off from her job as manager of a Wal-Mart store after some foot surgery. Somebody from a visitor’s and convention bureau should hire this woman. Hearing that we were on our way to Memphis, she told us where to eat, where to listen to music, and looked up directions from our hotel to every place we wanted to go. Then she gave us her phone number in case we needed anything while we were in Memphis. Both Gene and Connie totally embodied the idea of Southern hospitality, and we stayed a while after the catfish had disappeared from our plates.

The friendliest person we met on this trip (and we met a lot of friendly people) – Connie DePriest.

 

If you’re ever there…

Gene’s Restaurant & Barbecue

1107 N. Main Street, Exit 216 off I-40

Brinkley, AR 72021

870 734-9965

31 Mar 2012

Some Advice for Travelers to Ethiopia, Part II

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As I noted in an earlier post, my friends and I loved our trip to Ethiopia.

Lunch outdoors with our driver Asrat in a small town.

And although we’re all experienced travelers, we learned lots as we went. Here are some more things that might help you enjoy your time there – and do go!

1) Talk to people and ask questions.

Not only is English taught in the schools in Ethiopia, but many subjects, like math and science, are taught in English. So younger people almost all speak English (and they want to practice). Although in the countryside we met people who didn’t speak English, we were often able to chat with people in the towns.

Some of our most memorable moments occurred when we when met a priest in a church and asked him questions about his life. He sent a young boy to fetch his most prized possession to show us – an ancient book of the Gospel John handwritten on parchment in Ge-ez, the precursor language to Amharic. Then he demonstrated for us how he prays and chants.

In Lalibela, we chatted with a teacher from a secondary school, and the next thing we knew, he’d invited us in to meet the administration. They showed up their classrooms and told us about the lives of their students. We were struck by how dedicated to learning they were, while making do with the oldest of working computers and a shortage of just about everything.

Computer lab in a secondary school in Lalibela.

In the Red Terror Museum in Addis, a staffer related his personal experiences of imprisonment  and losing family and friends during the Communist rule of the Derg. The exhibits were moving, but his testimony made the horror truly come alive for us.

 2) Pack your oldest shoes.

Ethiopia is a very dusty country, and outside of Addis you’ll mostly be walking on dirt roads. We weren’t hiking, so mostly wore sneakers and walking shoes every day. I wore a single pair of sneakers every day, and at the end of the trip, I left them in Lalibela, where many young students need any extra clothes or shoes you can spare.

3) Don’t expect to use your credit cards.

Outside of Addis Ababa (and even there at many places), our credit cards didn’t do us a bit of good. Everything operates on cash. But the good news is that Ethiopia is a terrifically inexpensive country. When we arrived, I took a bit over $500 worth of birr out of the airport ATM. When we left two weeks later, I still had over $100 of birr to trade back in. On the way, I’d paid for all my lunches and dinners and tips to guides and drivers, and done a tiny bit of shopping. And I still had money left over.

4) Follow your ears and your eyes.

On several mornings, we heard chanting wafting through the air, beginning as early as 3am. In Lalibela, we asked to see the source. And there, in a centuries-old church courtyard carved out of the living rock, we witnessed a religious ceremony in which priests and monks chanted hauntingly and danced carrying brightly colored spangled umbrellas (part of their ritual vestments). It was a beautiful and moving scene.

Outside of Bahir Dar, high up on a viewpoint above Lake Tana, we spotted a herd of cows down below. “Can we see the cows?” we asked. Soon we were walking in the pasture, admiring the livestock and surrounded by young people who’d been playing soccer a few minutes before. In fact, we braked for cows just about everywhere and scampered out to get a closer look.

5) If you’re going as a group, use a “mommy wallet.”

With four of us in our group, we were constantly paying for meals or tips – and usually one or more of us didn’t have the correct change. So we designated one extra wallet as the “mommy.” Each of us put $100 worth of birr into this joint wallet, and we used it to pay for anything where we all owed about the same thing. When the “mommy wallet” ran out of money, we replenished.

One person we tipped was the young man who watched our shoes when we entered the rock-hewn churches -- and helped us up and down steep steps.

And at the end of the trip, we disbursed what was left four ways.

One person carried our “mommy wallet” the whole time, making it much more simple than for us to keep remembering who borrowed money from whom.

6) (For women.) Bring a scarf to cover your hair in churches.

Although it’s not required for tourists to cover their hair in churches, all of the Ethiopian women do, and we felt it was most respectful to do the same.

More to come in Part III.

23 Mar 2012

Cherry Blossom Dawn

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Before 8am, three days ago, I got a call from my friend Ann. “I’m down at the Tidal Basin, and the cherry trees are fabulous. You should be here.”

Ann remembers almost every year to make a pilgrimage to see the blossoms. This year, she was willing to do it again so I could go too. I left my house at 6:30 this morning, just as the sky behind the buildings was lightening to that beautiful Maxfield Parrish blue that makes everything look like a stage set. By the time I got to the Mall, the sun was an orange ball peeking around the Capitol dome.


We still had the morning light as we strolled around the Tidal Basin. Some of these pictures make it look like we were the only people around…but that’s deceiving. There was an army of photographers – people carrying cameras with long lenses and tripods, people who looked quite serious about framing their shots. I’m sure we walked into quite a few of them. Other people had brought blankets and were having breakfast picnics between the Roosevelt Memorial and the water.

This year, for the first time, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is on the cherry blossom path; the statue of Dr. King gleamed among the blossoms in the early morning light.

By the time we finished our circuit, tourists were arriving in force. We made our getaway, serene and smiling.