Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Your English is so great; you don’t even have an accent!

Every time I tell people that I moved to the US from the Philippines, that's almost always the 1st or 2nd thing they tell me, without fail.

Mind you, I don't get this just from folks who grew up speaking English -- although I could argue that I'm a much better English writer and speaker than Americans who think "your" and "you're" are interchangeable -- but from fellow immigrants as well. Every time, I feign a polite "thank you" and go into a short explanation I’ve perfected over the years, of how English is a 2nd language for most Filipinos, and how I grew up watching Friends to mimic their accents, that flat, nasally, non-accent accent with a bit of upspeak?

Truth be told, my feelings about this seemingly innocuous comment are as complex and varied as there are accents in an episode of Downton Abbey. The only US show I can come up with for analogy is Modern Family, which I refuse to use because even they make a caricature of the one person who “sounds different” (looking at you, Gloria).

I can settle one thing right now, though: I love the English language. I love studying it, reading it, writing it, hearing it. As a child, I read English so well that I vividly remember my late uncle Jordan, who was a high school English teacher, drag my 9-year-old self in front of a group of high school juniors to read an excerpt from a book. Afterwards, he told the class “that’s how you read English.” I love the language because of its complexity, its vastness, and its messiness. You think there are rules, but then there are loopholes and exceptions to those rules! English is the US Tax Code of languages, basically.

And because English was such a foreign language that was a challenge to master, I had put it on a pedestal that made me feel falsely superior because I spoke it eloquently (relatively speaking). I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that felt like this, and there’s probably a better anthropological explanation to it, but that’s how I felt about English growing up in the Philippines. English was my skill and my pride, my passion and my conceit. 

Having a good command of the English language also made the transition to the United States a bit easier. Being a teen was hard enough; can you imagine being a teen and moving to a new country? Welcome to the United States of Insecurity, population: me. So back then, when people told me I spoke such great English “with no accent,” I beamed. It was the one thing I could be proud of, the one thing I had control over. That compliment – as I saw it – was a sign that I was assimilating to the American culture seamlessly. Look at you speak perfect English as you order a large pepperoni pizza from Costco. Would you like a giant soda with that?

A funny thing happened on the way to growing up, though. See, coming from the outside, I imagined the US as a homogeneous society, that there was only one way to communicate and fit in. I wasn’t exposed to the diversity that is the United States. Thankfully my family moved to San Gabriel CA, which had a euphony of accents found in the Chinese restaurants, the taquerias, the banh mi shop, the nail salons, Gabrielino High School, my parents’ workplace, everywhere. I started to appreciate the way someone’s native language influenced the way they spoke English, whether it’s Spanglish (only second to my favorite hybrid language, Taglish), or the brisk way a native Chinese speaker talked to me. Most importantly, I realized that my old notion that someone who spoke ‘perfect English’ was somehow better was wrong. It does not matter as much how you speak, but what you choose to speak about. I mean, the Kardashians speak ‘perfect English’ and I could probably gain more knowledge by moving a cat’s mouth apart. When I went to UC Berkeley, I met so many wonderful, brilliant friends from Thailand, Indonesia, Ukraine, France, etc. I loved listening to them in their accented English as we talked about college courses, economic theories, or just life. Throughout my career at Target, I’ve worked with highly skilled, intelligent individuals from East Asia and I’d much rather talk to them than listen to another mind-numbing conversation about the Bachelor.

My simplistic ideas of the value of the English language evolved over time, and I’m the better for it.

Which is why I have such conflicted feelings towards that comment: Your English is so great; you don’t even have an accent!

Nowadays, if someone tells me that, my first thought is that they’re really saying, “Your English is so great; I’m so glad you’ve learned to speak in a way that doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable.” Everyone should know by now that we actually live in a diverse world, and not everyone talks like your local news anchor. But, if I were to pass judgment that quickly, then that makes me no less prejudiced than my old self, when I used to smugly mock folks who can’t differentiate their “fees” and “pees.” 

Maybe the person telling me I speak ‘good English’ really meant it as a compliment, like the time one of my ESL students showed genuine admiration for my immigrant story. I volunteered as an ESL teacher for a few months, and I could see how difficult it is to pick up a new language – any language – especially for an adult. So, I know their hearts are in the right place. I could only hope to share my knowledge of the English language with them as they try to make a new home in this strange country of ours.

Or, maybe someone is really surprised that I speak ‘good English’ because he or she thinks that every immigrant from a non-Anglo country speaks ‘broken’ English. If that were the case I would never know because either a) they’ll never admit to thinking that or b) they have that stereotype imbedded in their subconscious. Whatever assumption they make about me then is their burden to bear, though. It has no bearing on my self-worth, either positive or negative. I could only hope that they would be more exposed other languages and realize, just as I did, that it doesn’t matter as much how you sound, but what you sound out about.

Your English is so great; you don’t even have an accent! English is my skill and my ambivalence, my passion and my uncertainty.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Love is love is love.

I'm not a politically savvy person. Hell, sometimes I think I'm not even qualified to talk about anything remotely debatable or controversial at all. I don't claim the ability to make in-depth analyses on today's pressing issues, and admittedly there are times when my opinions are based on nothing more than thinly-researched information (thanks for the easily digestible articles, Slate). 

But, there is a particular issue that I feel passionate about that doesn't need much explanation, except to say that it's driven by this simple rule that governs us all: Do unto others what you want others to do unto you. I'm a supporter of LGBT rights, because I believe we should all treat each other with the same respect and love. I am invigorated by the changing attitudes about LGBT rights in the US. The Supreme Court ruling on DOMA and dismissal of the Prop 8 case just show to me that we're evolved enough as a people to understand and uphold something as pure and straightforward as the Golden Rule.

Our life is governed by rules, both universal and specific. I think the reason why people have such a strong opinion on this issue either way is because it either challenges or reinforces the rules they choose to live by. I know of people (relatives, family friends, acquaintances) who oppose same-sex marriage due to religious codes they follow. I can relate; I used to attend a church that espouses (no pun intended) that marriage is between a man and a woman. So, these recent rulings, as well as the same-sex marriage victories in 13 states + DC (so proud to live in Minnesota), can be really startling to people who have this narrow definition of marriage. Startled, maybe even angered, but I really don't think they will be harmed by it. Honestly, how can my two gay friends getting married be a threat to your marriage? I mean, I can see a fierce competition in the wedding planning business once we have more gay weddings (just remember to take your Xanax for Gay Summer Weddings). Kidding aside, what opponents of same-sex marriage fail to see is that while allowing same-sex marriages will do nothing to harm heterosexual unions, banning it can and does cause great injury to LGBT individuals. Again, think of the Golden Rule, or alternately "putting yourself in someone else's shoe." How would I feel if I was wantonly denied the right to marry someone because of their gender? I know of many solid, committed same-sex relationships that have the requisites of solid, committed marriages, so I believe they should be given access to the personal, social, and economic benefits of marriage accessible to opposite-sex couples.

I could definitely keep talking about the different reasons why I support gay rights, but I'll end with this:

Growing up in the Philippines, we were fortunate enough to have two housekeepers live with us, Ate Liza and Ate Jenny. I love them both very dearly, and they were great at running the house, picking us up from school, watching after us as we skated outside our apartment building, etc. Ate Jenny is what I'd call a tomboy; short hair, boyish clothing, and I was aware at a young age that her and Ate Liza were an "item." One day, when Ate Jenny picked me up from school (I must've been around 7 or 8), she went to use the restroom. I was confused as to why she went to the ladies' restroom; I remember asking her why she did that. I thought Ate Jenny and Ate Liza were a couple, so why would Ate Jenny use the girl's restroom? Like any 7-year-old, though, I quickly forgot about that moment and just went on my carefree, innocent life. Ate Jenny and Ate Liza remained a couple for a few more years, even after Ate Jenny stopped working for us. They would sometimes get into fights and break it off for a while, then get back together. I remained unfazed by it all, because really, what 7-year-old cares about adult stuff? It wasn't until years later that I finally realized that they were a gay couple. When I put this together, I different. No different towards Ate Jenny and Ate Liza, who I still keep in touch with. No different towards their relationship. No different towards my relationship with them. I did, however, start to question my relationship with the church I was attending. It wasn't heavily discussed, but I knew where the church stood on homosexuality, and I was confounded that they taught us to "love one another," unless you're gay. I also became more cognizant of family members who are gay, and wondered what would make them any less deserving of anyone's love and respect. I couldn't come up with any reason, because there was and is none. So, I started thinking for myself, and realized that I don't have to accept tenets that frankly don't make sense to me. It's been a looooong while since I've been to a church, and I don't feel compelled to find a new one, although I think it is beautiful that there are plenty of denominations that embrace the full meaning of 'love one another.' 

It's really that maxim, along with the universal Golden Rule, that has guided me to a strong and steadfast position on gay rights. I may not be the most active supporter out there -- my contribution to defeat Amendment 1 in MN was modest -- but it is individual voices like yours and mine that create this tide of change. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Things I'm Thankful For, Thanksgiving Ed.

I'm lying in my bed, getting my pillow wet from my still-soaked hair. I really shouldn't go to bed with a wet head, but I'm too lazy to blow dry it every night. Plus, I think it ruins your hair's cuticle if you use a blow dryer every night...or is that just something I made up? Then again, shampooing your hair every day is also pretty bad for your hair. That I'm pretty sure is true. I know all this because I read way too much useless crap on the internet. That's at least what I tell myself, but actually some of the stuff I learn end up being useful. If not for serious things, like saving a life, at the very least it's been useful for saving conversations that are clearly in need of a lifeline.
I'm thankful for: The Internet, hot running water, a comfortable bed to sleep in at night, (water-soaked) pillows, and for having a good job that allows me to have all these things in an apartment I can afford. 

I'm listening to "Calm My Soul" by Paper Route on Spotify. Spotify is amazing; it's introduced me to so many great artists, and have turned me into a certified lover of any artist anyone suggests I listen to. Most of my friends and co-workers have good taste in music, so now I'm really into the Black Keys, Angus and Julia Stone, Mayer Hawthorne, Mumford & Sons, Fun., Ellie Goulding, Alex Clare, Swedish House Mafia, Regina Spektor, Lumineers, Of Monsters & Men, and my all-new obsession, The Civil Wars. I love this duo so much that I've pushed for my a cappella group to cover their beautiful, haunting song "Poison and Wine," a song I will never tire of. I'm really sad they stopped touring together. At least they're still releasing new songs in 2013. While I won't get to see them in the near future, I am super stoked to see Muse in Target Center next year. Yet another new (for me, not for the world) artist for me to love. 
I'm thankful for: Spotify, amazing friends with really good taste in music (including, but not limited to, the Tune Ups), amazing friends with bad taste in music but who I love anyway, concert venues around Minneapolis that attract top artists (e.g. First Ave, Xcel, State/Orpheum), and music. Music is everything. I seriously don't know what life would be like without music. I bet you it's sad. Which is why I'm thankful for music. 

I'm thinking of my trip to Chicago this past weekend. It was a marvelous short vacation. The weather was surprisingly warm all three days I was there. And spending those three days with my sister, her hubby, and her baby made the trip sweet perfection. It was great showing them around the parts of Chicago I'm familiar with -- the Loop, Wicker Park, River Architecture Tour -- as well as places we explored for the first time together (Lincoln Park Zoo). It was priceless seeing my niece Olivia smile so brightly every time I smile at her; it's impossible not to cheer up when that happens. Then, when she giggles and rolls around the bed or crawls up to me really fast, my heart just melts. I can't wait to see my entire family again for Christmas. It's going to be such a riot fest; my nephew Matthew will try his best to make his cousin laugh, my parents will spoil the entire family rotten with way too much food, my brother will take beautiful photographs, and the entire family will be together. Which is what matters above all else. 
I'm thankful for: my niece, my sister, my brother-in-law, my parents for raising such good daughters and son, my brother, my nephew, my entire family, Chicago, photographs, facebook, cheap flights, airplanes, California, surprisingly good weather, and that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you're with family. It's inexplicable. It's irreplaceable. 

I'm slightly nervous about hosting my first Thanksgiving dinner, but I'm way more happy excited. I'm going to stop by Lund's tomorrow to buy the last few ingredients for my side dishes...actually, let me just update my calendar reminder and to make sure I have the right ingredients on my list... done. Here's hoping I can get vegetable stock from Lund's, because I definitely couldn't find it at my Target. I did get almost everything there, though, including turkey in a bag. It's like a fail-proof way to make turkey -- at least, that's what I'm hoping for. I also got the exclusive edition of the Hunger Games DVD. I'm planning on having us watch it after we've stuffed our faces with Thanksgiving food. I'm really not trying to go for irony here, or making parallelisms (like we're the Capitol citizens or something), I just want to see Hunger Games again. I've already moved my tables to make more room in my living room. I have a lot more cleaning and sprucing up to do, including (oddly enough) lowering my canvas painting a few inches down so it's more at eye-level. It shouldn't be too hard because of that leveler thingie I got a few months ago. Best $10 investment if you're going to hang a lot of wall art in your house/apartment, by the way. 
I'm thankful for: that new Lund's on Hennepin, google calendar, turkey in a bag, home decor, Thanksgiving-themed paper partyware, crockpot recipes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, Hunger Games DVD, and friends to spend this special holiday with. I love Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for Thanksgiving. 

Lastly, I'm thankful for this opportunity to just blab about things I'm thankful for. I'm so grateful to live such a comfortable, blessed life that gives me the time and the content to write random notes like this. I'm thankful for friends (real and imagined) who will read this and reflect on what they're thankful for in their own lives. There's just a lot of negativity going on around us every day, so it's important never to take the positive things for granted. I'm grateful for all the things that are right in my life, and there are a lot of them. And I'm thankful for that. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Running Around Reykjavik, London, Paris: The Travel Journal, Part II

Day Five: Notre Dame, Latin Quarters, Rue de Rivoli, and Montmartre

Still in Soho, London... 

11 PM – we should really be getting back to our hotel, since we have a train ride at 7 AM. Oh, wait, “We Found Love” is playing. OK, back to the dance floor!

11:30 PM – OK, one more song…

12:10 AM – Seriously, this is the last – OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS SONG!!!

After finally dragging our butts away from the dance floor, we made our way back to the hotel (after witnessing a massive fight and a guy dancing in his underwear), knowing we were going to pay hard for this the next day. Or really, in a few hours at this point.

An hour and a half nap later, we got up at 4 AM to get ready for our trip to Paris. Eurostar leaves from St. Pancras station, which is directly across from Kings Cross. While I didn’t get to see Platform 9 ¾, it was still tickling knowing that it was just right next door. St. Pancras is a gorgeous station, prettier than some airports; it’s got amazing lighting, wonderful glass walls, and lots of stylish shops. None of them were open, though; we were there around 6 AM. At 6:40, they finally started boarding, and as I went up to the train track, all I could think of was the super ominous soundtrack from Bourne Ultimatum. You know, the one at the Waterloo Station and Jason Bourne is telling that journalist guy to hide and duck from the bad guys and stuff? Man, I love that movie.
St. Pancras International Station
Anyway, we finally got into the train car, and as much I would’ve loved to see us going through the English Channel, I knew I needed to get any shut-eye I can get. So, I doze off for most of the 2 ½ hour, 180 mph ride to Paris.

When I finally woke up, it was gloomy and wet outside, but who the hell cares? We’re in Paris! I’m in Paris! Look at me, dragging my bag on these Parisian streets.  Watch me say “Je ne parle pas (Francais)”… in Paris! Actually, I could only muster out “Bonjour” before the person I’m speaking to replies in English, to save me from myself. Is it that obvious I don’t speak French? Apparently, it is. Anyway, because we had all our bags with us, of course we had to get bad directions and make a wrong turn, again. This was the second time it happened to us. One more and it would be a “thing.” Thankfully, we found our way to the bus stop and made our way to Danny’s friend’s apartment. We barely had time to unload our bags before we were out on our way to the Latin Quarter.

So, at this point, we’ve been operating on less than 3 hours of sleep, and the toll of traveling was starting to show on our faces. But, as soon as we emerged from the Saint-Michel metro station, it was like a switch turned on in our brains when we saw the wide Boulevard Saint-Michel, the River Seine, the cafés and the cobbled sidewalks. The cobwebs were swept away from my sleepy brain, and I began to really take in Paris – with a silent “s.” Danny saw how fast Margaret’s and my face lit up, so he told us to shield our eyes and led us a few steps forward to the intersection of Boulevard and Quai Saint-Michel. “Now look to your left.” And there it was. The Notre Dame Cathedral. You want to know what a gasp sounds like? It’s when you see the Notre Dame for the first time in your life. (Boy, little did I know I was in for more moments like this the next day. I’d have brought an inhaler, I’d be gasping so much.)

Holy crap, it's the Notre Dame
The cathedral was majestic, as expected. The Gothic architecture, the intricate carvings…the gargoyles! Don’t forget about the gargoyles! We went inside, and it immediately took me back to when I was inside the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. I was most enthralled by the stained-glass windows; the different colors of glass created such a beautiful effect. I’m not religious, but I appreciate how someone can be really moved by visiting the cathedral, on a spiritual level.

By the time we exited the cathedral, we were famished, so we tried to pass a couple of the cafes before finally relenting and went for a “touristy” spot, to the Esmeralda Café. This was it, my first Parisian meal. Of course we had to sit outside; there was a perfect view of the street where we can watch people, the cathedral’s south side was to our right, and people were smoking into my hair. And, to put a cherry on top of this epically awesome sundae, there was an accordionist playing on the other side of the street. Seriously, can it get any more “Ratatouille” than this? To all my Francophile friends, please know that reference is given endearingly. I ordered a sandwich mixte with fries, and I love love LOVE that they have mayonnaise as one of their condiments. The sandwich was just eh, but I was too hungry to care. A tub of mayonnaise would’ve been awesome at this point. And, again, bigger picture here people…there’s a freaking accordionist playing something French across the street. And I’m people watching. I seriously had to pinch myself. 
Le view from the cafe

After a satisfying lunch, Danny showed us around the Latin Quarter, and it was just so nice walking around these narrow streets and witnessing life around me. We stopped by a boulangerie for some baked goods. I got a pain au chocolat, which was buttery, flakey awesomeness. And when I saw the chocalaterie Maison Georges Larnicol and its displays of pastries, I knew I just had to go in and get some of those haute French macarons.
Mmmm, macarons
From the Latin Quarter, we took the metro to Rue de Rivoli for some retail therapy…and wine therapy. At this point, Margaret and I were crashing fast (even after I chugged a grande Americano from Starbucks), so Danny proposed we get some drinks and go from there. Now, I realize that wine makes you sleepy, but eh, whatever. It has sugar, so that’ll keep me up? We sat outside a café, this time with all our chairs to the back of the restaurant so we were facing the street; this was so fascinating to me, having chairs literally set for people watching. So, there we were: ranking the hotness of people passing by, Margaret sipping on her coffee, Danny drinking his wine, and me snapping in and out of sleep.

Perfect people watching spot on Rue de Rivoli
After we finished our drinks, we walked – well, I hobbled, really – to the many shops on Rue de Rivoli. I’m sure we only did a tiny fraction of this famous shopping street, but some treasures were found. I finally relented and bought flats from Zara, after a few days of varying feet pains; really anywhere from slight discomfort to a deranged monkey stabbing my toes. It’s the first time I’ve bought anything from a Zara since Spain, and sadly it was men’s shoes, because they didn’t have my giant ogre foot size in the women’s section. Thankfully, they look more unisex and actually look pretty hip (or so I tell myself). So, after relieving my Clarks (which I still love and will do to the end of its life), I happily sauntered to the rest of the shops, until it was time for us to grab dinner.

Dinner was at a lovely brasserie called Aux Trois Maillets, which had open air seating in the middle of this pedestrian street in Les Halles. Like most restaurants, they had a prix fixe menu, and for about 13€ you have an option of appetizer + entrée or entrée + dessert. I got the confit de canard (sautéed duck) and a chocolate crepe. The duck was absolutely delicious; fall off the bone, fatty, salty dark meat. And then there’s the crispy fatty skin, of course. Why don’t I have more duck more often? I live in Minnesota for god’s sake; we have hunting season! The crepe was just OK, but it definitely left me wanting more.

With a belly full of goodness, we set out to meet Danny’s friend, and our hostess, Ida. We walked past a couple of shops and restaurants and arrived at an open space where we found guys…practicing roller derby? And a few more steps down were a group of girls and guys doing a dance routine in roller blades or skates. We were witnessing a Wednesday kind of activity done by Parisians; it’s like running into a group biking or running session by Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. After Ida wrapped up, we met another one of Danny’s friends, and we headed over to the Pigalle neighborhood to see the Moulin Rouge. Funny moment happened on the way, though; so we were walking down Rue de Rivoli to our metro station, then out of nowhere BOOM. There was the Eiffel Tower from afar, lit up beautifully. Margaret and I literally stopped in our tracks. Meanwhile, the locals and Danny kept walking and talking, oblivious to these two yahoo American tourists taking pictures of this thing they’ve seen so many times.   
Really crappy shot of the Eiffel Tower at night

It was fascinating how much the Moulin Rouge contrasted against the other clubs and restaurants near it. There were hordes of people crowding around the famous cabaret, even buses (seriously, there was a bus) of Asian tourists clawing for pictures of that recognizable windmill. After a snapshot or two, we were done with all that, and started walking towards a bar for some drinks. Now, I may not remember 100% of what happened in that bar because we were seriously sleep-deprived at this point – we were definitely paying for staying out the night before – but I do remember thinking “this feels so ‘Friends.’” Or “Amis” I guess. It was nice observing these tables of friends, chatting over glasses of wine, laughing over who-knows-what, nodding along to the soft music. I also remember that the house wine was very good, and that a man should be pouring it at all times. It was a warm, fuzzy, local feeling. That’s probably also just the wine talking, too.

12:10 AM Day Six It’s time to go back to Ida’s apartment. Good night, house wine. Good night, Montmartre. Good night, turnstile jumpers. Good night, Paris.

Day Six: Postcard Paris
Pinch me, I’m in Paris. Even after a half day in Paris the day before, today was a showcase of Paris’s greatest hits. Danny was such an awesome tour guide, and I do feel like I was shielded from the oft-heard comment about the “snobby French.” Although, as my new friend Guena pointed out, most French people actually will talk to you in English, as long as you make the initial attempt to speak in French. Even using “je ne parle pas (Francais)” can go a long way in making that first interaction courteous. It’s when people barge in and start blabbering in English that most French get annoyed, which makes sense. I mean, how would we feel if someone comes up to our faces and begins blabbing in another language, expecting that we understand what they meant? It’s all about respect, people.

Anyway, that was a big tangent. We started off our packed day with a stop at the Place de la Concorde, which had a great view of the obelisk…and half the Eiffel Tower. It was very foggy, and for a moment I was scared that we weren’t going to get that gorgeous view of la Tour Eiffel. From there, we walked through the Jardin des Tuileries and ran into the Louvre. In the words of a 13-year-old girl, OMG. I could see how someone could come in, kill an old man and put him in a Vitruvian Man pose and disappear without anyone catching him; it would take forever to find him in this huge museum. (Da Vinci Code, anyone?) I’m glad we didn’t go in – that’s for an in-depth Paris tour – I would’ve walked for hours. We did get some lovely glamour shots from outside the museum, before proceeding to the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, where a lot of lovely interior decorating shops were located, including a home decor store where I found the cutest reusable tote bag. 

Tom Hanks went underneath through that pointy thing in the back. Yay!

Up until now, we’ve been lolling around for an hour or so now. However, that loll quickly turned into a sprint as we realized that it was nearing 1 PM. See, Danny planned to meet with a friend at the Eiffel Tower, but that thing was a freaking mirage. We would walk/run a couple of blocks and think we’re there. Psych! It’s still a ways away. I could always laugh about things like this after they happen, key word being after. To make things worse, it started to shower and we didn’t bring our umbrellas because the forecast said “zero” percent chance of rain. Kill the weatherman, seriously. As the shower turned into rain, we ran into the nearest café, as Danny continued his trek to find his friend. As we got settled into our table – it was lunchtime, anyway – Danny showed up with his friend, 30 minutes past their agreed upon time. It was fate; his friend was about to leave because we hadn’t showed up, but because it started raining, he decided to stay put. And then he sees his long-lost friend. Running towards him in the rain. And they shared a hug and laughed and cried. Ok, so I made a lot of that part up, but isn’t that reunion still the sweetest thing ever?!

Following a lunch full of merry storytelling – and a weird meal of hotdog and fries for me (who the hell orders frankfurter and fries for lunch?) – we turned the corner and met up with the granddaddy of all Parisian attractions: la Tour Eiffel. Unlike the White House, Disneyland castle and the Buckingham Palace, this one did meet my expectations, and then some. It is a magnificent beast of steel and lights, yet for all its enormity, there’s still something very delicate and smooth about it that’s reserved for the slenderest of structures. It’s hard to describe, but one thing for sure is true: it took my breath away.
Prince, glancing up at Eiffel

Of course we took a lot of pictures of this glorious beauty, including a unique one that ended with me getting hit in the face. It was totally accidental, and I couldn’t stop laughing after it happened, but what an awesome life story. Picture in front of the Eiffel Tower = priceless. Getting accidentally kicked in the face by a friend in front of the Eiffel Tower = FREAKING EPIC.

After building some fun memories with Eiffel, we bid goodbye to her and headed on towards the other stars of the show: Arc de Triomphe and Champs-“please don’t make me pronounce this again”-Élysées. It was amusing watching the carousel of cars circling the Arc de Triomphe; how they get in and out of that roundabout I never did find out. We crossed through a tunnel and emerged underneath the Arc, where we got a great 360-degree view of the avenues that jut out from this massive monument, including the most famous of them all, the Champs- Élysées. After some much needed foot break, we started walking down the shopping haven of old rich, nouveau riche, and us. Thankfully, Champs- Élysées had some stores that I actually could go into without feeling like I need to scrub up first. ProMod is a fashionable apparel & accessories retailer – think French H&M – where I got an adorable handbag/body bag. I bought it half because it was cute, half because I wanted to be able to say “I bought something from Champs- Élysées; look how en vogue I am. Now, kiss my ring.” Yes, in that sentence I was both fashionable AND the Pope.

Arc de Triomphe

Shot taken as we precariously stood in the middle of the Champs-Elysees
We walked one side of the grand boulevard, got some croissants from Paul, and then walked the other side of the street. Frankly, I liked the side with the ProMod and McDonald’s better. Had Ladurée been opened on the other side, it would’ve tipped my hat differently. Also, why is there a line of people waiting to get into the Louis Vuitton?

Tired from a full, amazing day of sight-seeing, we headed back to Saint-Michel to have dinner before meeting Ida and Guena. Because the heavens decided to open up again, we had to run into the first restaurant we saw, and that’s where we had dinner. The place was quaint, and the server was such a charmer, but the steak frites that I had were just OK. I was starting to get concerned; I wasn’t having mind-blowing food in Paris like everyone said I would. So, I made a mental note to actually search the internets for where to eat for our last meal tomorrow.

Like the night before, we did as the locals do; going to a bar and chatting about life. We went to a place called “The Gentleman” and had some pretty cheap (and good) beer – change the sport on TV to NFL and we could’ve been in any sports bar in Minneapolis. And, maybe nix the DJ in the corner, take out the smoke machine, and have people speak English. Ok, maybe not a sports bar in Minneapolis. And this city is so unlike any other.

Day Seven: Sacre Coeur, and almost home

We wanted to see the most of Paris from great heights, so we headed to Sacre Coeur on our last day. Now, I knew we were going up a long flight of stairs when we get to the base of the basilica, but I didn’t expect the long walk up from the metro station. There were 142 circular steps (we counted on the way back) to the metro exit – and no escalator – and it was kind of funny seeing all these people dropping like flies as we come around and corner to discover another set of steps. Thankfully, we made it all the way through to the bottom of the basilica, only to be faced with another gargantuan climb. It felt really good making it all the way up, though, because the view of the city from up here is unmatched. And, it was the perfect day to be up here, with the sun beaming brightly down on the City of Lights.  

Ah, Paris.
Sacre Coeur's newest fans
There was also a lively farmer’s market around the basilica, selling delectable foodstuff like sausages, different cheeses (of course), spices, mustards, and more. What a wonderful idea to buy some food, some vin, and then sit down on the steps of Sacre Coeur for a gorgeous picnic. We had plans for lunch though, since I actually used Trip Advisor to find a crepe place nearby that I was excited to try. So, maybe next time. The promise of a tasty lunch didn’t stop us, however, from getting lured into a stall with some delicious looking pastries. We got a pastry that tasted like donut with some custard piped in the middle. Yummy. 
Mmmm, not donuts that taste like donuts
Then, a few stalls later, I witnessed what was like a magic show: the vendor would pull this half wheel of cheese that’s been sitting under a heat lamp, slice a baguette in half, then cut some of the melting cheese and spread it into the baguette. It was spellbinding, and I knew I just had to have it. Danny and I split a baguette with cheese and prosciutto, and I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited watching my food getting prepared, as was evident by the ten or so pictures I took of the process. When I finally tasted the raclette (as I later found out it’s called), it was a revelation. This was the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever put in my mouth. It was cheesy, and creamy, and rich, and unctuous from the prosciutto, and salty, and a little tart from the pickle, and crunchy, and this is the longest run-on sentence but I don’t care because this raclette is the best thing since bread and cheese. It was a beautiful thing to hold in my hand as I bid goodbye to the wonderful views of Paris and headed down to Rue de Trois Freres for some crepes.

Melty cheese. Drooooool.
We were the first people in Creperie Broceliande, which opened at noon. Soon enough, though, the restaurant was packed, and it was easy to see why. This restaurant specialized in Crêpes Bretonnes, which are crispier and awesomer than any crepe I’ve ever had. I had the Crepes Parisienne, which had cheese, ham, and mushrooms. Jesus H. Christ, there was a party in my mouth, and y’all are invited. Then, for dessert I had the subtly sweet salted caramel. Wonderful. This was turning out to be the best food day in our entire trip so far. And, of course, it had to start in Paris.

Seriously, check this place out when you're in Paris
Sadly, we had a 4 PM train ride back to London, and by 6 PM local time, we were back catching to catching a bus on the left side of the road again. We grabbed dinner at the Pride of Paddington, which was the restaurant where we saw the boxer-clad guy dancing his heart away from two nights ago. We were greeted by this cute Australian server, and had really good English pub fare one last time. I did have a bacon cheeseburger, but who said hamburgers are an American thing? Plus, the burger was pretty bomb. 

After taking the Heathrow Connect to the airport, we caught a free bus ride to our hotel. And for the last time, because we had all our bags with us, we had to do our signature move: get lost finding the hotel entrance, dragging all our stuff a couple hundred yards to the lobby, only to find out it was the wrong Holiday Inn. But of course! It wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t get misdirected one last time. This trip had been full of funny memories like that; new nicknames had been assigned (I’m Mariel “No Change” Lisud now, since I was always a couple cents short), new mantras had been established (“We stop when we die”), new phrases had been spoken (“OMG, it’s so cute I just have to beat it with a tire iron”).

That’s the best thing about taking a trip with friends. It’s not the sights you see, or the food you eat, or the stuff you buy. It’s gasping with your friend when you two see the Eiffel Tower for the first time. It’s splitting a raclette or a donut with your friends and watching each other’s eyes grow big as you both take a bite of all that awesomeness. It’s being relentlessly teased by your friends as you beg them for change to buy that purse. And, yes, it’s getting kicked in the face.

The Diversity Tour 2012: Margaret, Danny, and Mariel
My first time in London and Paris would not have been as delicious, as hilarious, and as memorable if it weren’t for my friends. And life wouldn’t be as full if I didn’t take chances like this. I look forward to the many travel adventures I see in my near future, and I can’t wait to get my passport bent and tattered as it fills up with stamps from all over the world.  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Running Around Reykjavik, London, Paris: The Travel Journal, Part I

It all started with a casual suggestion. You know when you’re having a lovely time with friends? You talk about big activities to do together, but most of the time these grand ideas fall by the wayside, until a few months later when you’re having dinner with them and someone mentions “Hey, whatever happened to our plan to do so-and-so?” Well, earlier this year I had one of those conversations with some friends after a great weekend trip to Chicago. “You know what? We should really go overseas together.” Can it really happen? Turns out it can.

There was a sale on Icelandair a few months ago, with flights from MSP to various European cities ranging from $600 -$900, round trip. I can’t remember exactly where I was when I decided to take the deal; I can, however, remember the adrenaline pumping as I clicked “confirm” on the purchase page and booked the trip for October 2012. Then, I texted my two friends, Danny and Margaret, my itinerary so we can all be on the same flight together. This was around May, so there was a bit of waiting for the actual trip. While it would’ve been easy to over-plan the trip – we did have a few months to do it – the three of us decided we weren’t going to hash out over every detail, because that’s not the type of vacation we wanted. True, we were going to pack two cities in seven days, but we also knew that living by the clock on a vacation would induce more stress than necessary. In hindsight, we could’ve benefited from being more mindful of our schedule (more on that later), but I’m glad that we didn’t bog down our itineraries with minutiae.

After a few months of calm, my excitement for the trip started to pick up a few weeks before the trip. I spent random nights sifting through travel blogs, looking for money-saving tidbits on transportation, admission tickets, etc. Travelzoo was a godsend, and government tourist sites are more useful than you think. And a week before the trip, I started packing. As anyone who’s packed for international travel knows, there are tough decisions you have to make. I was faced with the absurd dilemma of whether or not I should bring my sneakers. On the one hand, I could be completely comfortable walking around in my sneakers, because I knew there would be a ton of walking in London/Paris. On the other hand, it would mean I’d be in my sneakers ALL. THE TIME. In London and Paris. In the end, I thought I was making the right fashion decision, and nixed the sneakers. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Lesson learned: bring the damn sneakers. Or at least really comfortable, well-breathing shoes. More on that later.

Finally, after weeks of waiting, planning, and fidgeting, the day finally came. Friday, October 5th. With my checked luggage and two other bags on hand, I made my way to MSP Terminal 2, where I met up with my friends, had dinner at the only restaurant in the terminal (the only reason I don’t like flying out of T2), and at 7 PM flew a five and half hour flight to Reykjavik. Let the fun begin.

Day one: Reykjavik and London
Who knew Iceland was only 5+ hours away from Minneapolis? At this rate, you can probably be a weekender in Reykjavik…that is, if you wanted to spend your weekends in Reykjavik. We arrived in Keflavik airport before the sun rose, around 6 AM. The airport is beautiful; hardwood floors throughout, nice departure lounge, etc. We took the Flybus from the airport to downtown Reykjavik, and watched as the sun rose on the volcanic island. When we arrived at the city, we noticed that it was…quiet. We walked around for a mile or so, past nice houses and SUVs outfitted with off-roading tires, to a serene lake in the middle of the city. From there you can see the rows of houses and buildings dotting the city, but again not a single soul (save for one random biker). Finally, after grabbing a quick croissant and stumbling into an illy store, we found out from the store employee that people here don’t really come out until 10:30, 11 AM on the weekends. People don’t go out until after midnight to party, which explains why they wouldn’t want to wake up until after noon. To which my friend pointed out, this city was perfect for me. Finally, a place that doesn’t judge me for my offensively late sleeping habits.

Indeed, people started to come out around 10:30 AM, just as we were making our way to the Iceland Opera  House. It is a gorgeous architecture of glass and steel, with the inside as beautiful as its “honeycomb”-like exterior. Afterwards, we went to the tallest building in the city, which was a Lutheran church with an observation tower. From there, we had a 360-degree view of the city, which was breathtaking. The air was so fresh, the Atlantic Ocean so incredibly blue, and the city looked so quaint from hundreds of feet up, that it truly felt like looking at a postcard. There wasn’t a single bad shot that I could take on my camera from that viewpoint. It was the right way to end our short walking tour of the city. A city that struck me as a wee bit strange – it felt like everyone operated on a synchronized clock – yet mesmerizing.
View of Reykjavik from the Observation Tower

We arrived in London at night. After taking the Heathrow Connect (way cheaper than the Heathrow Express, and only 10 minutes longer) to Paddington Station, we had our first of many direction, um, challenges. Imagine, three friends lugging all their rolling bags down a cobbled alleyway, making the most ungodly noises through St. Mary’s Hospital (Fun fact #1: where Princes William and Harry were born), and finally coming out into a main street. Then, walking a few blocks down to see the main entrance of Paddington Station, and quickly realizing that had we just turned right when we got out the train, our walk would’ve been half the time and the pain. In the words of Homer Simpson: D’oh! But, we were too exhausted to care, so we just made our way to our apartment hotel on Gloucester Terrace, before going out for some food. Paddington is not a hotbed of London nightlife, so most restaurants were closed by midnight. We were limited to getting falafel and kebab from a tiny shop, which turned out to be very good. New way to eat chips (i.e. fries): vinegar, salt, and a garlic mayo so pungent I could still smell it in my breath, two weeks later. Right.

After a long 24 hours of traveling, walking around a cold and quiet city, and getting lost for the first time of many, we were pooped. Time to get some rest for our first full day in London.

Day Two: City of Westminster and Pub Crawl London
Buffer your time. I could not emphasize enough how important this travel tip is, especially if you’re traveling without the comforts of a data phone and google maps. Seriously, how did I function before the internet? While we had a pretty loose agenda for the week, Sunday was one of the few days we did have to be somewhere on time, as we wanted to do an 11 AM free walking tour. Alas, we did not anticipate how complicated it would be to get a travelcard, and by the time we were done, we knew we wouldn’t make the first tour. So, we decided to loll around Oxford Street until the 1 PM tour. Oxford Street reminded me a lot of Midtown Manhattan, particularly 5th Avenue, with your usual mid- to high-end stores. You also have brands we don’t see often (or at all) in the States, like Top Shop, Uniqlo, and Primark. Definitely a shopping haven, until you realize that the scarf for £15 is really more like $25. For that, I’m going to save my pounds and spend it on other stuff I can’t get in the US. Like an absolutely decadent Ben’s Cookie (a must; crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside. Drool). Or Strongbow on tap. Yup. It’s all about priorities.
The amazing Ben's Cookies on Oxford Street

Why do a tour bus, when you can ride on double-decker buses any time?

By 1 PM, we were running – yet again – to catch the free walking tour, which started by the Wellington Arch. There were a lot of people attending the tour from all over the world, including the two loveliest guys from LA, Mick and Tom. There was also an Irish guy, but I didn’t get his number. Damn. We even got into a big group hug with a group of university students who were on a scavenger hunt of some sort (we were: “Do a group hug with strangers”). The walking tour was led by Jo, a peppy British gal who took us mostly through royal landmarks in the City of Westminster. As it turns out, what is commonly thought of as “London” is all part of Greater London, and the City of London is the most ancient borough where the Tower of London is located. There’s actually no physical place called “London.” Mind blown.   

We started our walk from the edge of Hyde Park, through Constitution Road, and stopped in front of the Buckingham Palace. At this point, I thought I would be hyperventilating because, you know, it’s the freaking Palace. But I wasn’t as amazed as I thought I would be. It’s gorgeous and all, and the Victoria monument is beautiful, but much like the White House or the Disneyland castle, Buckingham just didn’t match what I’ve worked up in my mind. I guess I need to go inside to get the full effect, and apparently it isn’t that hard to do so by breaking in. Fun fact #2.  
Queen Victoria Memorial

Buckingham Palace

We also saw Clarence House and St. James’s Palace, both official royal residences. None of the royals were there, because their official flags weren’t hanging over the palaces. It was very busy in Trafalgar Square, and we saw some amusing goings-on as we took a break above the Churchill War Rooms. The Horse Guards Parade was a real treat, since it’s the only Olympic venue (beach volleyball!) that’s in a touristy part of London. After a few more yards of walking, we run into the Palace of Westminster, AKA Parliament, with the Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben hanging out on top ever so coolly. This one knocked me out. It was such a massive building – building seems an inadequate term – with its huge spires, tall towers, great sculptures, and sheer majesty. How I wish I could’ve seen it aglow at night. Definitely a to-do on my next trip to London. Across the street was an equally amazing structure, the Westminster Abbey. Of course, I was giddy as a high school girl because this was IT, you know? Where Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, where Isaac Newton is buried, and where William and Kate were married. How could I not be spazzing out? Freak out moment, checked.
Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben

Westminster Abbey: Spazz out, check.
 After the walking tour, we joined a few fellow tourists at Ye Olde Monk Exchange for some classic pub grub. I had some bangers and mash (“Would you like some bangers in the mouth? Oh I forgot here in the States you call it a sausage in the mouth."), which were quite delicious swimming in a broth of brown gravy. Pair that with Strongbow, all for £9, and we were happily sated. Because we had such a good time at the walking tour, we decided to go for the company’s pub crawl, which got us into four pubs and one club (plus drink specials) for only £12. Paid tours are everywhere in London, but this turned out to be a really great deal for us. Once again we ended up running to the first pub because I thought we had “enough time.” SMH. Thankfully, Brits are really helpful…at least the ones I asked for directions as my friends were looking at the map. That couple seriously saved our asses; because of them we made it to the first pub, Belushi’s, with minutes to spare. With a free shot and a sigh of relief, we made our way to the next pub, where a football game was winding down. It was exhilarating witnessing an actual footy game with true fans (I think Barcelona was playing); people screaming at the TV, yelling obscenities at each other, waving flags, the whole gig. It did quiet down enough for us to mingle and chat with our fellow pub crawlers. We met a lot of engaging individuals from all over the world, including a couple of folks from Israel who had three-week vacations. Turns out it was the triple holiday bonanza of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot; one of our new Israeli friends was just on a three-week long trek across Nepal. From the sports pub we went to the Ruby Blue Bar in Leicester Square, and after that to a club called Zoo. It was awesome seeing a club so packed on a Sunday night. I don’t know if they were mostly tourists, or locals who knew how to party hard before a workday. If it’s the latter, I need to know their secret. The music was hopping, playing mostly Top 40 UK hits. I had such a blast hanging out and dancing with my friends, old and new, and as we made our way back to the hotel riding one of London’s many night buses (no, not Knight Bus), I couldn’t help but smile. I was slowly falling in love with the city.
Snakebite: Half cider, half beer, with grenadine. Works for me!
Day Three: City of London, Knightsbridge, and Soho
It was a foggy day in Londontown. Unlike the song, though, I didn’t let it get me down.  We were going to the Tower of London, come hell or high water…or slight dampness. But first, we stopped by our neighborhood breakfast joint, Raffles, for some traditional English breakfast. Man, best food discovery of my life. Baked beans on top of toast? Magical. Yes, like magic beans.
Beans on toast: Groundbreaking, earth-shattering, amazing
 The Tower of London is in the ancient City of London, and was located next to the Thames River. It was teeming with history, riddled with horror stories, and bedecked with décor clearly straight out of IKEA’s 1106 Fall Catalog.  The Crown Jewels are housed here as well, and while we couldn’t take pictures of these ridiculously opulent regalia, it was a treat just to see them, including the crown that Elizabeth II wore during her coronation. We also got to see the infamous Bloody Tower, the resident ravens of the Tower, as well as a perfect view of the Tower Bridge (which is often mistaken for London Bridge). I think history/military/royalty buffs would drool all over this place, and for me it was nice taking a few hours stepping back in time.
Tower Bridge, NOT London Bridge
After hours of walking, we were famished, and went to Brick Lane for some Indian/Bangladeshi food. Brick Lane is famous for its many curry houses, and the one we went to, Masala, was a really good find. I ordered the butter chicken, and it was by far the best rendition of the dish. It was sweet and creamy and buttery and just perfect. God, I want it in my mouth right now. I was seriously licking it off my fingers long after the garlic naan was gone.

After dinner, we went to the Knightsbridge area and Harrods. We only made it to three floors, but in a fraction of this department store I saw why Harrods is the mecca of shopping. That is, if you had about £2400 to spare for a scarf. Thankfully, they had a souvenir shop, although how odd is it that a department store sells its owned brand products? A good point made by my friend; you’d never see Macy’s selling Macy’s-branded magnets.
Harrods' chocolate section. 'Nuff said.
With our souvenirs in hand, we walked to the Piccadilly Circus area then the Soho neighborhood to go to our first (and my favorite) gay bar, Escape. While it was still pretty quiet when we got there, we got the party started with £1 shots. How awesome is that? It continues to prove my theory that gay bars have the best drink deals anywhere, either by having cheap drinks, or regular-priced ones that are really strong. That, plus music that I could scream/sing and dance to – yes, including Gangnam Style. Afterwards, we went to another bar called, simply enough, G-A-Y. Also a fab venue with good drink deals (£1.70 for Magners, what?!), fun music, and the friendliest bathroom attendant ever. After hours of shaking what our mothers gave us, we made a quick stop to Wok to Walk, which was a fast food stir-fry joint. It was the perfect after-drinks meal. With another successful night under our belts, we walked to the same bus stop by Piccadilly Circus, and caught a double-decker back to the hotel.

Day Four: Camden Market, London Eye, Soho once more
On our last full day in London, we started off at Camden Market for more shopping. I positively LOVED this neighborhood. It’s a colorful, expansive flea market with goods ranging from food to art to sculptures to accessories and more. I had to walk straight past some stalls just to keep myself from buying more stuff. Now this was the real shopper’s mecca. I got a couple of art pieces, as well as some gifts for my family, before finally saying goodbye to the lovely Camden Lock.
Best shopping experience ever.
 Our next stop was the London Eye, on the other side of the Thames. Before going up this giant wheel, we got a special gift as the sun broke out over the gorgeous Palace of Westminster (Parliament). Picture time! Stepping into the London Eye capsule, we were treated to the most breathtaking views of Greater London. As I snapped photo after photo of the great city below me, I couldn’t help but make mental notes of all the other places I want to visit on my next trip to London. Because I will definitely be coming back to London, the most diverse city I’ve ever been to in my life. Diverse in its people, its languages, its foods, its cultures, its neighborhoods…it’s the whole world in 607 square miles.
Palace of Westminster, from the London Eye

The London Eye
After stepping off the London Eye, we walked on Westminster Bridge back to the other side of the Thames. We had dinner at Chinatown in a Malaysian restaurant called Rasa Sayang. The service was ridiculously fast, and the food was even better. The roti canai was buttery goodness, and the nasi goreng istimewa was plain delicious. Afterwards, we went back to the same bars from the night before, to meet some of Danny’s friends. It was so much fun dancing the night away, but eventually we had to head back to the hotel to get ready for a 7 AM train ride to Paris. But not before we got some chips from the same kebab place we ate at on our first night. Talk about a nice, full circle. We did witness a bit of action, as one of the kebab employees got into a row with a jerk who pushed me aside and started ordering food. There were a lot of f-bombs dropped, some knife wielding, but we still got our chips. As if that wasn’t enough, on the other side of the street was a guy down to his skivvies dancing inside a bar. The bar was already closed, so I don’t know if the guy thought no one could see him, but we definitely could. What a way to end our London leg of the trip.
Funnily enough, the reasons I wanted to go to London in the first place aren’t the same reasons I would want to go back there now. I thought going to London meant hearing the much-adored British accent, especially the Daniel Craig variety. Instead, I found myself exposed to more languages with every person I passed by, which was beautiful. I thought London was all fish and chips and bangers and mash. It was that, but it was also beans and toast, and great Asian food, and amazing curry. I thought my favorite part of London would be the palaces and bridges. But it was the markets and the pubs where I had the most memorable experiences. I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by London’s organized public transportation, or its clean streets, or its friendly locals, but I was. I love London, for all the reasons above, and for more I have yet to discover. Or, as the Brits would say, I’m rather chuffed about London. 
Oh London.