Sunday, December 28, 2008

Decisions, Decisions

With the end of my self-imposed buying freeze approaching, I have a very important choice to make: What should I buy first? The way I see it, such a monumental achievement deserves some kind of reward, one purchased online at 12:01 am on January 1st. Naturally, I have some ideas.

It occurred to me recently that the one thing my collection of fabulous shoes was missing (besides more fabulous shoes) was a little black dress to show them off. Far to often, when presented with an occasion for which fabulous shoes would seem to be called, I have been stymied by the lack of an appropriate accompanying outfit.

I like this one for its simplicity, and the fact that it's an additional fifty percent off. So is this one, which is a little bit longer, but I'm not sure about that empire seam.

The other thing I've been doing lately, what with having so much time off work and being totally disinclined to do anything productive, is check out the jewelry sections of various cool websites. Which is how I came across this necklace with blue beads and a tiny gold starfish held loose inside a glass window. Or there's the elegant simplicity of this necklace with a circle of clear glass, or the charming badassery of this tiny chef's knife pendant. Sadly, the AK47 earrings are a little more than I'm willing to spend.

On the slightly more practical side, I've been thinking I need a new carry on/weekend bag, and this one caught my eye. It's a good size, has a removable shoulder strap, and seems like the sort of thing one could carry through an airport in France without looking like a total tourist rube.
Or, on the slightly more eccentric side, there's this, which makes up for in unusualness and sturdy construction what it lacks in shoulder straps and classic style.

And then, of course, there's the shoe option. (There's always a shoe option.) For some reason, right now I want a wedge ankle boot for everyday wear, and they're surprisingly hard to find. (Surprising because you can't throw a loafer these days without hitting an ankle boot, and you'd think a certain percentage would be wedges.) I think I'd get a lot of use out of these; they'd work with pants or a skirt, and I know this line makes really comfortable shoes. The only other pair I found that I liked are these, and I'm not sure I'm crazy about that pinking detail.

They're all good choices, right? So, what do I do?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Final Days!

Four days.
95 hours.
5707 minutes.
342430 seconds.

As you may recall, back in September I instituted a buying freeze, good through the end of the year.

The end is coming.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Strasbourg, Day 6-- Mostly About Food

For our last day in France (not counting the anticipated early-morning stagger to catch a train we are not one hundred percent sure we have tickets for), we made a more detailed exploration of the central town of Strasbourg. It was Sunday, so most places were closed-- restaurants, shops, even the big chain stores. The bakeries, however, were open for business. Apparently, nothing gets between the French and their pastries. Which is understandable, considering the pastries. We were getting pretty attached ourselves.

I believe I have expounded sufficiently only the delightful ancient charming delightfulness of the city at this point, so I'll spare you the effusing and just summarize: half-timbered buildings, touches of snow, river, islands, bridges, churches, cobblestones, setting up of Christmas decorations, Gutenberg.

Then, when the land-based charms got to be too much for us, we took to a tour boat (also, though the snow had stopped, it was still very cold, and the boat was enclosed) on the river and canals that wrap around the old part of the city. The guided part of the tour came through headphones that plugged in by our seats, and the onboard entertainment from a free-range toddler who bobbled up and down between the seats. We rode through ancient locks that seemed to now exist primarily to raise and lower tourist boats, and out to see the buildings of the European Parliament, possibly the grandest assemblage of pointless bureaucracy the modern world has yet to produce, with appropriately architectural buildings (by which I mean ugly, and probably leaking). It was a fine and interesting tour, and by the time we were done it was time for lunch.

We chose a place not far from the boat dock, with an ornately carved front and a menu of what we were coming to recognize as the regional specialties. As it happened, despite our three days of dedicated eating, there were a number of apparently key dishes neither of us had tried yet, and this seemed like the place to do it.

The interior of the restaurant was low-ceilinged and tightly packed with tables. The woman who greeted us put us at one near the door. The place was nearly empty, so we asked to move to another table across the room. She agreed, but a moment later changed her mind and came over to explain, with much hand-waving, that this table, though further from the door, was actually less protected from the draft, due to the way the curtain hung across the doorway. She had a point, so we agreed and moved back to our original table. Overall, it was a less than thoroughly elegant maneuver, particularly since I hit my head on a light fixture both ways.

This was a culinary exploration, and we had a lot of ground to cover. So I ordered the bacon and onion tart, with foie gras to start* and Cameron had a different kind of onion tart for an appetizer and the choucroute plate. That, along with the wine and beer, seemed like it would probably be enough.

I was expecting, since the foie gras here was listed for about half the price that seemed standard at the other places we had been, that it would be about half the amount. I was wrong. It was a full slab of the stuff, like a small piece of bread, accompanied by toast points and little cubes of Gewurztraminer jelly. Cameron's appetizer tart was more like a slice of quiche, with lots of onions, while my entree was almost pizza-like: a thin crust the size of a serving platter, covered with creme fraiche and studded with slices of onion and a generous amount of very good bacon. The choucroute (in the smaller size, I might add) was a plate heaped high with sauerkraut, with two potatoes and five kinds of meat crammed around its edges. With what I thought was heroic effort, we were able to get through the great majority of this feast, leaving only about a fifth of my tart, some sauerkraut and most of the blood sausage behind. But the waitress was not impressed. When we said we were done, she looked at our plates with dismay.

"You eat like leetle boys!" she declared.

Of course, since this was France, the fact that our plates were cleared away had nothing to do with anyone bringing us the bill**. For that we had to signal, which I did, since I had the better view of the dining room. This was apparently also incorrect.

"Non," she instructed me, placing the bill firmly in front of Cameron. "You do not ask for the check. You say, le garcon," she pointed to Cameron, "Le addition pour le garcon, s'il vous plais." Then she had me repeat it, just so we were clear.

Foreign travel is very educational.

We had had grand intentions of sight-seeing and museum-visiting for the afternoon, but after that lunch it was clear that anything more intellectually strenuous than getting me a snowglobe for my shelf at work was out of the question. It was also cold, so bitingly cold that I bought a paper cone of roasted chestnuts from a man selling them out of a cart even though I could hardly even bear the thought of food, just to keep my hands warm. (Besides, roasted chestnuts in a paper cone? How could I not?)

In anticipation of not finding much open on a Sunday night, and in keeping with our record of not really making it out in the evenings, we picked up a baguette and some desserts at a bakery that had already become a favorite, to serve as supplies. We already had some cheese and foie we had picked up at a very fancy supermarket (which was located in a fancy department store, for some reason) as our post-wine-adventure dinner the night before. It was a fine plan, marred only by the fact that the only utensil we had been able to acquire from the front desk was a fork, which is not the ideal tool for cutting and spreading.

And really, that was that. I'm leaving out a lot, not the least of which is the entire return journey, with the train ride that we may or may not have legitimately been supposed to be on, but no one threw us off, through the tiny commuter plane out of the Stuttgart airport and the approximately eighteen security checkpoints in Munich, up to the generous onboard alcohol policies of Luftansa, the nervous moments about how much wine we were bringing through customs and staggering, jet-lagged out of our noggins, back to San Mateo. It was a wonderful trip, and I have only two regrets. One is that I didn't get this blogging done in anything approaching a reasonable amount of time, and the other is that it wasn't nearly long enough.

I think a year would be about right.

*Yes, I realize I have already eaten foie gras on this trip. The point is, I haven't eaten all of it.
**Also true in Germany.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Day 5, Part 2-- More Wine, More Snow

The next place we tried, after the tasting shed, looked to be a larger operation. For example, it had its own building. But the person in charge was out for lunch and it occurred to us that we might be seeing a lot of this for a while, as the French take their lunch breaks fairly seriously. So we decided to have one of our own, and stopped in the next town we came to.

Of all of the cute towns we had been through, this was the first one that was clearly aware of its cuteness. Little shops lined the cobblestone streets, signs directed you to the old and impressive church and a Christmas fair was in the process of being set up in the town square. All morning we had been going in and out of the snow; getting ahead of it only to have it catch up to us again, and when we stopped for lunch it was definitely in the catching-up phase, with winds and a descending coldness. Which is why, when we had only done a partial survey of the local restaurants, I declared that it was time to go inside somewhere warm and picked the nearest place. Which wasn't a bad choice, but given the restaurant's large size and almost-trilingual menu (French, German, English via Babelfish), it did seem to be verging on the touristy. But this being France, that didn't stop the food from being just fine, from my grilled duck breast to Cameron's Stoneware Pot With Four Different Kinds of Meat and About Eight Potatoes Cooked In It. So at least they didn't short us on the portions.

The lunch stop was fine and all, but it happened to correspond with a moment of severe ambiguity in wine route map, where it was clear where we were expected to start from, and where we might hope to end up, but with little to no guidance as to how to connect these two points in space. Apparently, a certain amount of self-sufficiency is expected of wine tourists in France. Also, a GPS.

So, straightforward map usage was, at this moment, out. However, it seemed that if we were to head in the general direction of a place known to the map as Mont Ste-Odile (according to the map symbols, a religious site, and also possibly a mountain), we would be able to reconnect with the route. So we did, but having followed the signs for a while it seemed a shame to turn away from such a clearly-majorish site, so we went on to see what all the fuss was about. At the very least, we figured, we'd be able to get a nice view of the valley.

And we probably would have, since we ended going up quite high in elevation, only the storm we had been dodging in and out of all day happened to catch up with us on the way up, complete with snow, hail and some heavy cloud cover. The sight, when we got to it, appeared to be some sort of old convent, albeit one that had been converted into something involving a restaurant and tennis courts and a large parking lot. We got out, briefly, to look around, but it was very cold and even small hail can be kind of painful, so that didn't last. Still not sure what that place was, but driving up through the snowy mountain scenery was lovely, particularly since I was not the one doing the driving.

Coming back down, we found much warmer conditions and, after a few tries the wine route. Our next stop was the most corporate-looking establishment we found all day, a dedicated tasting room that did not appear to be attached to anybody's house. But even here, the guy working the counter (whose English was excellent) seemed to be actually involved in the operation of the winery (possibly a member of the family), and there didn't seem to be any question of charging for tastings. I did buy two bottles-- as an unabashed fan of the sweeter whites, I have discovered my happy place.

We were barely out of the one cute medieval town when we found ourselves in another one, and barely arrived there when we came upon a string of places advertising tastings. We parked and went in to the first one.

It was a combination home and winery, much larger than the first, and manned solely by the sister of the proprietors. Her sisters, she told us, were away in the south of France on a sales trip, and she had come over to mind the shop and keep an eye on the children. She was generous with her pourings of tastings ("Do you like to try them all? I can go get them all.") and information about life in the wine business, but wasn't able to tell us much about the wines themselves, as she didn't drink. She apologized repeatedly for her English, though I would have described her as fluent. The wines were uniformly fine, and my only regret is that we didn't buy more. We did pick up a late-harvest Sylvaner that reminded me of an icewine, but at a fraction of the cost. We stayed for probably at least half an hour, chatting and tasting in the stone-walled room filled with shelves of wine bottles.

Our final stop was just across the street. It was getting late and we were getting a little tasted-out, but we figured we might as well go into this one more place, what with having parked in their lot and all. Their tasting room seemed to be attached to a small hotel or house, a tiny but professional setup. There was a younger man who took his place behind the counter, and an older man (his father?) who would wander in and out and give orders as to what we should try next, and to demand that the young man break out the box of pretzels. Eventually, he settled in on a stool and took over the conversation, entirely in French, of course, which is why it took a little while to figure out that he was flirting with me. (It was the phrase "Une belle femme," that tipped us off.)

It was getting dark by the time we were done there, and even though we had barely done a quarter of the total route, it was time to head home. After all, you have to leave something for next time.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wine Glasses

A few places we went to had these squat little green-stemmed wine glasses (see below), and I kind of love them. They're so unpretentious-- wine glasses for people who don't think drinking wine is a big deal.