i got my handbag.

IMGP1508

If you check out the menu bar on the right, you’ll see a new feature: places & travel. I realized that this is basically becoming a travel blog, despite previous incarnations as a skiing blog and a cooking blog – and I became curious about how many places I have blogged from. It turns out, a lot! It was a good reminder of how incredibly lucky I have been in these last few years to be able to see so much of the world – and at the same time how much there is left to see!

For now, though, a few last thoughts on Corsica. As I said, I know I’ll be back! I’d really like to explore the mountains more, because there are a lot of them and they are big and awesome. I only got out hiking on my last morning, and headed up the closest peak to town. It doesn’t even have a name on the map, that I saw, yet it’s a hugely prominent feature rising a bit over 2,200 feet from the sea. No matter where you are in Calvi, you’ll see it. I sent one friend a photo the first night I arrived, and his question was, “are you going to hike up that big rock tomorrow?”

Not tomorrow, but before I left. I faced a conundrum the last morning, though. I had to pack up and check out of my hotel room, which meant that my backpack was full for the flight home. No problem, I thought – it’s just an 8 k round trip, 2,000 feet, how hard can it be? After all, I’ve done a lot of stuff way more extreme than this. It’s not a 20+ mile ridge run mostly above treeline, and it’s not like that time Andrew and I almost got stuck on Wheeler Peak in a lightning storm and then he got altitude sickness.

Feeling cocky, I tossed my camera and wallet into a cloth bag, slung it over my shoulder, and set out.

My foreshadowing here was not particularly subtle, and as you may have guessed, the hike was a little harder than it looked. I started out way down the flank of the ridge so that I could visit Notre Dame de la Serre, a chapel overlooking the harbor. It was beautiful! As you can see below.

The closer I got to the peak, though, the more rocky, ledgy, cliffy, and scrambly it became. Really, it wasn’t a problem… but I probably would have been better off with a pack that was securely attached to me, so I could maintain a center of balance, and also protect my camera better! Yikes! I also didn’t have any extra layers with me and as the weather turned from bright sun to sprinkling rain and back again twenty different times I would get cold, hot, cold, hot, and freak out that my camera was going to get wet. In places the rocks were slippery, and hands and sneakers skidded along, looking for traction.

Lesson learned: even old farts have to plan ahead. Stop being stupid.

It all worked out though, I didn’t get stuck in a storm and I got to enjoy the hike as well as some time at the top taking in the incredible views in all directions: out over the semi-circular bay of Calvi, looking down the peninsula I had run around on Friday, and into the mountains. There were so many of them, just sitting there teasing me.

The plus side of the handbag scheme was that I marched straight down off the mountain, into town, and bought a huge ice cream sundae overlooking the port. Great recovery. It was so much ice cream that I literally felt sick afterwards. Now that’s what vacation means.

Here are the photos from my beautiful wander! Click to enlarge into a slideshow.

une evasion de la vie quotidienne.

intro

As soon as I stepped off the plane in Calvi, Corsica, on Thursday night, I let out out a sigh of relief and wonder. Six hours earlier I had been in the lab, sweating and stressing over locusts. The project wasn’t going well; coordinating with my supervisor wasn’t going well; communication between us and the other research team sharing the lab space was downright horrible. This setting is not good for your health.

But as I stepped onto the tarmac, I absorbed the sun. I felt the mountains. I smelled the sea. Life was about to get better.

By the time I took a taxi into town, checked into my hotel, dumped my stuff, and headed out the door, dusk was coming and there was about to be a sprinkling of rain. Clouds were rolling in, but it didn’t matter. I had no idea what the city held, so I hiked up to the most obvious interesting part: the citadel. The wind blew my hair as I looked back over town, across the bay, and into the mountains. I was free from locusts, on my own, in this beautiful new place. Why weren’t more people up here!? (Probably, the rain.)

Then I walked down through the port and out onto the rocks. There’s no better way to calm yourself down than to sit by the water, looking at the horizon and listening to the waves. This was just what the doctor ordered.

first night 1

first night 2

And so began three days that I would call one of the best vacations I have ever taken. I don’t spend much time vacationing in warm places – usually I’m chasing snow – but Corsica was a reminder that focusing solely on winter is a mistake. Between this and the trip that I took to the canyons of southern Utah last spring at about this same time, warm places are asserting themselves as pretty darn great.

I slept so late on Saturday, waking up just in time for the hotel’s breakfast. It was bright and sunny and I needed to get out exploring. A quick look at the map revealed a huge peninsula just south of town: Punta della Revellata (things are always mixed up French and Italian). That’s where I headed, running along the road for ten or fifteen minutes before dropping down onto a dirt track along the coast. Every time I turned a corner I wanted to stop and take in the view, or take a picture. It took some discipline just to get 20 minutes before taking a water/photo break. It felt like forever to get to the next acceptable break.

run 1

run 2

At the end of the peninsula is an oceanographic studies center of some sort, so I started finding dirt roads to follow. I followed them, winding back and forth up the steep slope, until I got to the top of the hill, almost 500 feet over the Mediterranean. The great thing about being a retired athlete is that every day doesn’t hinge on executing a well-conceived workout. I set out to go on a run. But everything around me was too much to take. By the time I reached the top, I had to stop and appreciate what was around me. I climbed up onto the rocks and lay in the sun for a long time, succumbing to the reptilian warmth-seeking genes I inherited from my mother. (Love you, mom!)

punta 1

punta 2

punta 3

punta

Finally, I ran home. I’d probably run just an hour and a half, maybe 1:45, but I was tired – the sun takes it out of you, as does a week of getting only five or six hours of sleep per night. I hadn’t been taking care of myself, and part of the point of this vacation was to fix that.

For long periods of my life, I did not take vacation. After I entered middle school, we barely ever took family trips; in college, I visited some amazing places, but my travels always had a purpose, whether it was work or training or racing. The idea of just taking vacation – to do nothing – was foreign.

Now, as an adult balancing school and a job and living by myself, I have a different outlook. The harder you work, the more you need a break. Think of it like intervals as an endurance athlete: you can do long threshold intervals with short rests in between. Or you can do really hard, short intervals, where you need rest more frequently. At this stage in my life, I’m doing some very high-intensity intervals. I can go on one weekend trip and feel like I’ve come to a revelation about some aspect of my life; apparently it took five to realize that I need to keep taking these trips.

I needed recovery, and I am going to keep needing it. I have to build it into my plans. Burnout is not an option; periodically doing nothing is a very good one.

I arranged the trip less than a week before leaving. With my current project, I have to work most weekends and holidays. In theory I split these obligations with my supervisor, but I’m never quite sure what her schedule is, which leaves me in the lurch and often on the hook. So, suddenly, it was a mad dash: I need to get out of here. I can get out of here! Train tickets, a plane ticket, a hotel reservation. And here I was, running back along the rocky coast of a famous island. (Besides all the Napoleon stuff, Christopher Columbus was apparently born in Calvi.)

And it’s amazing that I have the opportunity, and the means, to something like this. I am a lucky girl. This semester my trips have never been more than long weekends, but they have gotten progressively more expensive: each time, the hotel ten Euros a night more than the last. After a few trips, that adds up. And Calvi was the worst; you can stay somewhere cheap, or stay somewhere decent. I’ll be skimping for two weeks to make up for it, but it was completely worth it, even the ill-advisdely pricey last dinner I ate at a restaurant in the citadel, overlooking the harbor.

The island has incredibly natural beauty. I wish I could have spent a week, or a month, exploring it all. With little public transportation, I was limited to forays on foot from town, but even just in three days, just around Calvi, I was amazed by what I could do. I would spend the mornings running or hiking (I’ll post a separate photo gallery from my last hike), and then make sure to spend each afternoon on the beach.

beach

stone pier citadel

beach 2By the time I left on Sunday, I was in a different state of mind, a more calm, relaxed, and centered state of mind. It was hard to say goodbye to Corsica, because I really fell in love. I want to come back in two months, when the Tour de France rolls through with three long stages. (I can’t; it coincides with the week my project is due.)

I want to come back every spring for the rest of my life.

That probably isn’t possible, but I know that I will be back. So in that way, and with my newly zen outlook, it wasn’t so hard to say goodbye after all.

goodbye

goodbye 2

cuisine sans cuisine.

mise en place

(that’s “cooking without a kitchen” for you Anglos.)

Even casual readers of this blog probably know I love to cook… and since I don’t think anyone reads this besides my friends and family, hopefully some of you remember a meal I cooked for you, hopefully with fond memories.

When I was accepted into grad school, I knew that a major part of my life was going to change. I’d be moving every six months to various cities around Europe. There would be no more cob ovens in the backyard, no more potluck pizza parties; no more summer nights concocting each new flavor in the hand-cranked ice cream maker; no more spring days sweating over a boiling vat of water as I pressurized cans of newly-cooked-up jams.

I did a farewell tour of my favorite cookbooks, then packed my bags for Europe.

At first it wasn’t so bad. In Sweden I had a great communal kitchen and great hallmates; I’d whip up huge curries and soups that I’d eat for days, and I’d bake strange and adventurous desserts to share with my friends. I’d leave cakes on the counter with a note that said “eat me”; one morning, I found a note back that said, “thanks, mysterious cake baker. you saved my day!” (I still have the note.)

For my friend Katie’s birthday, I made a cake, frosted it, and we had a great time decorating it with pink and purple sprinkles, flower-shaped sugar candies, and Disney princess candles. It was a hit.

Then I moved to France.

Not only do I not have a kitchen in my room – that was fine in Sweden – but the group kitchens are atrocious. There is one kitchen for thirty people; it has no ovens. Just a few stovetops and a few sinks, and one table, and sometimes some chairs. There are no cupboards, so you can’t store anything there; by default that means no communal cooking equipment. You own all your own stuff and store it, with your groceries, in your room. Luckily, we have small refrigerators. But our rooms are tiny enough as it is (mine is just nine square meters). So you don’t keep much.

The one time I have used the kitchen, I made donuts – well, beignets, with a nod to Todd – for my classmates. We drenched them in vanilla sugar. They were delicious. Other than that, the kitchen is just too much of a pain in the ass.

So what’s a gourmet addict to do? Believe it or not, there’s a lot you can cook without a kitchen. Am I happy? No. Am I eating? Yes. Tonight’s dinner:

meal

Pretty romantic. And yes, my whole room, basically, is lime green. It’s not as jarring as you would imagine.

If you are in a similar situation (with the kitchen – not the lime green paint, you’re on your own for that one), the most important thing to do is to buy an electric kettle! You need to be able to boil water. Other appliances are great too, but that’s the bare minimum, and that’s what I did, for not too much money at the Casino Geant. It’s like a Wal-Mart. Yes, first I lost my kitchen privileges, then I started shopping at the French equivalent of Wal-Mart. What is my life coming to!?

So when the shit hits the fan, here’s how to eat. A guide to cuisine, sans cuisine.

Sandwiches

If you’re not American, skip this part. Apparently everyone else thinks sandwiches are stupid. I used to agree with them; I just never liked them that much, and then I went through this summer where I could eat at a dining hall but I was always gone for mealtimes so sometimes I’d eat PB&J three meals a day, and that did not improve the sandwich outlook.

But: sandwiches can be great. If you put no effort into a sandwich, it will suck. But think how much time you put into making a “normal” meal. Now put half that time into a sandwich. It’s going to be great! Even if it’s not even half the time.

In Sweden, I had great combinations of soft cheese, lingonberry jam, chicken, and cucumbers. In France, it’s a paradise with which to make a sandwich. You have great bread. Amazing cheese, of every provenance and type. Mustard? heck yeah! Cured meats sliced thin. Sauces and spreads. Olives and pickles and fresh vegetables. I like to throw in apple slices. You can make a different sandwich every day, practically.

Do not fear the sandwich. Turn it into a meal. The sandwich is your friend.

Cold Things in Bowls

Basically everything else I eat is a pile of food in a bowl. I don’t own a plate; I own two blue ceramic bowls that I bought at IKEA. So, food in a bowl. The first category is cold things in a bowl.

The most obvious answer is salad, but as a single person, I don’t buy greens; they always get slimy before I eat them all. So my cold bowls have other bases, and are usually topped with a homemade two- or three-ingredient vinaigrette that sometimes contains mustard. Some recent ones:

Avocado, pear, hard-boiled eggs (made in your electric kettle!), cheese

Purple cabbage, lentils, apples, nuts

Tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, tuna

Panzanella: bread salad with tomatoes (like this)

Use your imagination and go wild. Vegetables are your friends; so are fruits (fresh or dried); so are canned beans and legumes. Meat and cheese are good additions. I’m inspired  here because soon it will be so damn hot that you won’t want to eat anything cooked anyway; salads are the way to go. If you think at any point, “I’m spending this much effort on a goddamn salad?” think of the Salade Nicoise, which is delicious, famous, filling, and has a ton of stuff in it. Seriously. A meal.

Warm Things in a Bowl (or Cold and Warm Things Mixed in a Bowl)

So let’s go over that electric kettle thing again. There are some obvious things you can make in there, without it even seeming to weird: ramen noodles. Just put ’em in a bowl, pour the boiling water over them, cover, wait. They’ll get cooked. Frozen vegetables, too. Powdered soups.  And more adventurous quick-cooking items like couscous, Chinese egg noodles, dried mushrooms. Pour, cover, come back in five or ten minutes and voila.

But I’ve been working to test the limits of what you can cook in an electric kettle. One thing is for sure: just boil things in water. You don’t want to boil anything else to the bottom of your heating element. Or, who knows, I haven’t tried, but it sounds like a big mess/burn waiting to happen.

So: pasta. Easy. You just have to make sure the water doesn’t boil pasta foam all over your counter, and that you wash the kettle well afterwards so your morning coffee isn’t made out of pasta water. Most even have a sifting spout, making draining super easy.

But also: vegetables. Think of ones that you would usually steam. So far I’ve had great meals with broccoli, green beans, and even asparagus that I cooked in the kettle – yes, asparagus, prepared in the least gourmet way possible. Which leads to lots of options.

Tonight’s dinner: tortellini, tomatoes, and green beans with olive oil

Last night: Chinese egg noodles with peppers (frozen), mushrooms (dried), green beans, and curry sauce (store-bought)

Penne with broccoli, tomatoes, pesto, and chevre

You get the idea.

Breakfast

This is no problem. You can’t fry up any eggs and bacon, but luckily, France has the biggest yogurt selection in the known universe. I could try a different kind every week the whole time I’m here and never get bored. I usually top it with either jam (or marmalade), fresh fruit, and/or museli.

Plus, I can always walk around the corner and get an amazing pastry, because I have the rocking-est local patisserie (bakery) in town. Maybe I’m biased, but I swear La Mie de Pain (get it?) is the best. I don’t even have to tell them what I want, they just give it to me. In other news, I’m probably eating too much pastry…

…. And Junk Food

This makes me sound incredibly healthy. Despite the two-week diet that was pretty successful, I’ve gained all that back… mostly in junk food. Shit. My life is stressful, okay!? You can buy individual-sized tiramisu in the yogurt aisle; that’s a popular dessert, or maybe just a tiny tub of Hagen-Daaz (they sell boxes with one-serving tubs of different flavors… yeah I’m screwed). There are so many kinds of chocolate bars to choose from. I try to snack on fruits and nuts but every time I go to the grocery store, I’m enticed by crap. Delicious, delicious crap. These people take their cookies seriously.

Finally: the two-euro wine in the story is way better than American two-buck-chuck. Heck, it’s often even made right next door. So if you’re food isn’t that great, rinse it down and you’ll be way happier.

Kitchen problem solved.

The End.

cevennes on the trail of RLS.

I have been hoping to write this up for some time and have finally given up…. so here it is, a quick note and a photo gallery. Last weekend I didn’t really have the weekend off from work, I had to give a presentation on Monday which I hadn’t started putting together yet! And also I wasn’t sure whether I would have to come into the lab on Sunday afternoon. So I put together an unusual travel itinerary: get on the train in Montpellier at 7 a.m. on Sunday, go to the mountains, have a nice night, and then get back on the bus there at 7:15 the next morning to return in time to do my work. Most people don’t plan 24-hour trips this way, but it was great!

I got all the way to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, about 1 1/2 hours away, for less than six and a half Euros, on the train and bus. I was staying at the Château de Cabrières, which I would highly recommend; as far as Chateaus go, it was pretty cheap, and an absolutely amazing location. There were extensive grounds to wander around and my room had not only the huge bed (my requirement for travel these days) but also a huge window, with big French shutters like you imagine in the movies. The Chateau was up on a hill, so the view out the window was over the village and then into the next hills and valleys.

I dropped my stuff off (they were nice to let me check in early) and then hit the trail: the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail. I am now dreaming of coming back and doing a through-hike when I’m in my 40’s. It would be much different than the American style – you can stop and stay at gites, in small villages, or even in chateaus like this one – but it is quite long and has a lot of elevation gain and loss. My out-and-back run on a small section was a blast.

After a great dinner in town, probably the fanciest food I’ve eaten in France at half the cost of a comparable meal in Montpellier, I nestled down, exhausted, to enjoy that big bed. The early morning light woke me up and it was back to Montpellier. Although I would have loved to stay longer, it was a great one-day getaway. The Cevennes National Park area is huge and I was just scratching the surface – I will have to do much more exploring if I have time.