Happy Thanksgiving!

I will continue with the second half of my Paris adventures tomorrow. For now, I’ll share news of my Thanksgiving in Canterbury.

My three friends and I decided a few weeks ago to celebrate Thanksgiving. Rather, I told them how awesome it’d be and they came around. My dear mum had sent me a turkey centerpiece and tablecloth of appropriate gaucheness earlier in the season, which I saved for the occasion.

Yesterday afternoon, my hardy friend Hannah and I took the bus to Sainsbury, the “nice” grocery store in town. I didn’t really make a list; I just tried to remember what all we usually ate. Hannah’s a vegetarian, so I brought her along so she could pick out her own meal.

For the grand total of £22, £5.50 a pop, we bought the following: turkey breasts for Rachel, Deborah and me; a pie for Hannah with pine nuts, spinach and feta; whole potatoes for mashing; butter and cream for the mash; fresh raw carrots for steaming; dinner rolls; cranberry sauce; cranberry-and-orange stuffing; turkey gravy and vegetable gravy; and a whole orange-and-raspberry cheesecake.

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After my class ended at 6, I went over to Rachel and Hannah’s kitchen and we got to work. While they peeled potatoes and carrots, I put the table together, took photos, prepped the stuffing and put the turkey and vegetable pie together. We baked each separately in the oven with stuffing. I also did the gravy. Mmm gravy. Ill-advisedly, we mashed the entire bag of potatoes and ended up with a sizable mound. Hannah steamed the carrots together with leftover green beans, and I baked the dinner rolls.

We each agreed that this was probably the best meal (“best” as in hardiest) since we’d arrived here. I said a (slightly awkward) grace beforehand, and we tucked in. Everything was really good; the turkey was even properly moist. We all ate way, way too much and had to sit to digest it all. Deb gamely did most of the washing while Rachel and Hannah dried and I cleaned the table off. After that we had cheesecake and some delicious sugar doughnuts that Deb had brought back from a day trip to Lille yesterday.

Everything worked out well, and I realized that this was the first Thanksgiving I’d spent where I was in charge of the most of the planning, coordination and cooking. And I didn’t screw it up!  I’m just glad I got to spend it with good friends who were happy to share our overeating tradition.

My mother has also informed me that several people read this blog but don’t comment. Please comment if you see something you like or have questions! I like feedback and I like knowing that someone is reading.

Paris: Day Two

Read about the first day in Paris here.

Saturday was our second day in Paris, and was our busiest day. Luckily it was extremely warm and sunny, so it was a great day to be outside.

We had breakfast at a little cafe down the street from the flat. Lauren had a macchiato and a Nutella crepe, and I had a hot chocolate and a chocolate-and-chantilly crepe. I love crepes and it’s hard to find good ones outside of France, so I knew we had to take advantage.

Our first major stop of the day was the Catacombs. They are not for the faint of heart. Basically, a couple hundred years ago, the cemeteries started overflowing and neighborhoods were getting diseased. Officials cleared out a lot of the cemeteries and deposited the bones in the remains of the city’s underground quarries. You can walk through the Catacombs and see piles and piles of bones and skulls “artfully” arranged, each area marked based on from which cemetery the bones originated. It’s dreadfully dark, dank and creepy, but really cool.

After that we headed over to the Louvre, where we were pleasantly surprised to get in free based on our EU residency visas and ages (under 25). We landed in the middle of the Carousel, a large shopping center complete with an Apple store and McDonald’s, that adjoins the museum. We saw the major pieces — the “Mona Lisa”, the Venus de Milo and the statue of Nike. The Louvre traditionally “frowns on” modern and Impressionist art and trends toward classical art. No Monet, Van Gogh or Cezanne to be seen.

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Next was the Tuileries, a lovely long stretch of garden with fountains, cafes, hedges and flowers. We got drinks and sat watching the birds, then headed down to the Champs-Elysees. The Parisian Christmas market was on, and there were dozens and dozens of stalls selling chocolate, hot mulled wine, pastries, meat, cheese, arts and crafts and all sorts of other items for the holidays.

We crossed the river to see the National Assembly building, crossed back over between the Grand Palace and the Petit Palace, and continued down the Champs-Elysees. We stopped at the Ladurée bakery, reputed to have the best macaroons in the world. It was packed, and while we waited in line we looked at the wares. Tarts, croissants, pastries, pies, cookies, macaroons, puffs and sweets of all kinds. The shop itself is very ornate and prettily decorated. We each got some macaroons and headed out.

At the end of the Champs-Elysees is the Arc De Triomphe. We climbed it — too many steps, a few hundred at least — and got nice photos of the view. I daresay the view is better than the Eiffel Tower’s; you’re able to see more clearly and recognize what you’re seeing. We ate our cookies atop the arch. I had: two chocolate, one raspberry, one red berry, one coffee, one lemon, one pistachio and one vanilla. They were absolutely delicious.

We had a late lunch/early dinner at an Italian restaurant near the arch. Lauren had a cheese pizza with ham, olives and mushrooms. I had a cheese pizza with prosciutto and we shared water and spent a couple of hours chatting, before we retired to the flat.

Whew! By this time my legs were getting quite sore. Stay tuned for days three and four.

Paris: Day One

I apologize for not writing for the past couple of weeks. I’ve been suffering from a nasty head cold and have had a lot of schoolwork to complete before the break. I’m hoping I can make up for it now.

This past weekend, I went to Paris to meet up with my friend Lauren, who’s living in Düsseldorf as an au pair. We went to KU together and worked on the Kansan. Lauren had never been to Paris before; I hadn’t been since March 2007. The planning and navigation fell largely to me because I was more familiar with the city. I also had the honor of knowing more French vocabulary with which to butcher the language by attempting to speak it. It was quite an adventure and we had a lot of fun. Rather than write a novel describing it all at once, I’ve decided to devote one entry and one photo gallery to each day we were there. This is day one.

I left Canterbury very early in the morning, taking a commuter train to Ashford and its Eurostar terminal. I enjoyed a much-needed cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant at the station before boarding a train to Paris’ Gare du Nord terminal. Lauren arrived a couple of hours after I did, so I killed time by going across the street to a McDonald’s, where I used the restroom, got something to eat (don’t judge me; the cafes around the station are all terribly overpriced) and made use of the free WiFi to tell my friends and parents that I’d arrived safely.

I’d bought a Metro ticket in Ashford (a wise move, in hindsight), so, after stashing my duffel in a locker at the station, I hopped on and rode down the line to Cité, the stop on the main island in the middle of the Seine. This island has several shops and cafes, as well as the Palace of Justice, the city’s police headquarters and Notre Dame cathedral. I strolled through the gardens on the side of the cathedral and walked across the river. I bought batteries for my camera and located Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which I’d read about in The Independent. We had decided to try to find it.

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Shakespeare and Company is a Beatnik-era bookstore packed with used books of all genres. Burroughs visited it to research Naked Lunch. The owner, George Whitman, lets writers stay and work if they want, free of charge, as long as they give him a photo and personal biography when they leave. Through the ages, these traveling writers became known as Tumbleweeds. According to the article, Whitman is 96 now, but still reads and still collects stories from traveling writers. The bookstore and its former owners/staff have connections to Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, among others.

After I located the bookstore, I went back to Gare du Nord to meet Lauren. By this time it was mid-afternoon, so we went back down to the island and went inside Notre Dame. After that we headed over to the bookstore.

Shakespeare and Company looks like someone’s bookshelf exploded in it. Books everywhere. The philosophy shelf has Hobbes, Locke, Sartre and Plato. The Beat writers and their contemporaries have a table in their honor — Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” and “The Bell Jar” and an anthology of Shakespeare’s poems, edited by Ted Hughes (aka Mr. Sylvia Plath). The wishing well in the middle of the floor (which used to be a heater, I believe) has coins strewn in it. Upstairs is a little cubby with a typewriter, a cot and a piano, along with more books and a children’s section. By the time we eventually left, I had selected a book — “The Maltese Falcon,” by Dashiell Hammett — to buy to commemorate the visit.

After that we headed down to the Denfert-Rocherau Metro stop, made use of McDonald’s WiFi again and then headed to the flat where we were staying. In summation, it was a lovely yet busy morning getting to Paris, and a lovely afternoon getting a feel for the city.

I’ll keep updating the blog with photos and stories about the other three days. Keep checking back!

A damp day in London

I get a bit of a rush whenever I step off the train at a London station. I got it when I went from Reading to Paddington, and I get it when I go from Canterbury to St. Pancras. I love going into London, because it exhausts me — I’ll sleep like a baby tonight — and it challenges me, as I try to find my way around, discover new places and keep up with the fast pace. Best exercise I’ll get all week.

I don’t get to go into London very often, about once or twice a month, so when I go, I leave early and come back late, so I get a full bang for my buck (quid?). Take today, for instance. Instead of leisurely seeing two or three things, I covered a lot of ground, most of it in the West End or in Chelsea/Knightsbridge.

First I hit Hummingbird Bakery near Soho, where I picked up a red velvet cupcake (the house specialty) and a cola cupcake (Friday special). I ate my red velvet cupcake with a peppermint mocha at Starbucks on Regent Street, and visited the Regent Street Apple store, the world’s largest by area.

After that I walked from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square, where I ducked inside the National Gallery to see a few of my favorite paintings: Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II and Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. I went to the National Portrait Gallery to say hello to the Tudors and all of their associates — Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Henry VII, Catherine of Aragon, Mary Stuart, Mary I, Catherine Parr, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Edward VI. They’re all there, although poor Anne Boleyn was getting her portrait cleaned.

It was lunchtime after that, but I was dismayed to find that Tsunami wasn’t accepting lunch walk-ins. Making a note to make a reservation next time, I braved the Charlie Foxtrot that is Tottenham Court Road(work) for the foreseeable future, and had tacos at the UK’s only Chipotle on Charing Cross Road. Verdict: Just as yummy as at home, but they get brown rice as an option!

I was in a museum mood today, so next I stopped by the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Natural History Museum has all kinds of animal skeletons, ecosystem exhibits and fossils, so it’s a popular place with school kids. The V&A Museum has a lot of sculpture, textiles and “industrial”/useful art. Harrods was just down the road so I went to look at expensive handbags, Seven for All Mankind jeans and the selection of dog collars. Harrods is already dolled up for Christmas, and the display theme this year is Peter Pan (when I was at Reading the theme was Casino Royale).

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Harrods was also unbearably hot, so after I finished there I went to Kensington Gardens and found the Peter Pan statue (I saw it once before but it was dark) and walked over to Hyde Park. By then it was getting a little dark and rainy, so I took the Tube to Covent Garden, where I promptly walked out onto the street, slipped on the wet stones and fell flat on my rear. How embarrassing.

There was another bakery near Covent Garden that I was going to try and find, but with the early darkness and rain I didn’t get to it. I grabbed coffee to give myself a boost and get out of the rain, before I went to a hopping Leicester Square to see “Let Me In” at the Odeon. The movie was pretty good and a nice twist on the vampire genre.

After the movie I took the Tube back to St. Pancras, where I observed the people just getting in from Paris and Brussels, grabbed some McDonald’s for dinner — first time I’ve had it since moving here — and caught my train home. Whew!

I’m going in again on Wednesday, and that day I’m shooting to see the Tate Modern, the British Museum and a few of the other parks, or at least St. James Park. Oh, and that second bakery …

(Today was also Guy Fawkes Night, but more on that tomorrow.)

How I would expand Foursquare

About a month ago, I wrote about how London could (and should) use Foursquare. I maintain that any or all of those suggestions would still be great. Today, Pew released a study saying that only about 4 percent of online users use location-based applications like Foursquare and Gowalla.

Tomorrow, I’m taking a mental-health adventure into London. At least two places I’m planning to visit — Hummingbird Bakery and Tsunami — I would not have known about had it not been for Foursquare. And that, I think sums up what Foursquare’s mission should be: helping people discover new places in their cities and giving them incentives to b adventurous.

So why do so few people use Foursquare and services like it? I’m a relative newcomer to Foursquare, but as someone who really enjoys using it and finds it addictive, here are a few suggestions on how to expand membership:

1. Move beyond New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Austin. Foursquare began in New York and obviously that’s where much of its infrastructure is, but if new users who aren’t from a major city see that few venues they frequent are listed or that all of the venues needed for a certain badge are located far away, they won’t want to join. It makes sense for brands like the Wall Street Journal or events like the Rally to Restore Sanity to have city-specific venues, but why should the Trainspotting badge be limited to San Francisco, or the Far Far Away badge be limited to above 59th St.? I ride trains all the time and I’m pretty far far away from home right now. Other badges that used to be city- or event-specific have since been opened to the general public; do that more.

2. Be more aggressive about weeding out duplicate venues. Cheating mayors’ days may be numbered, but that Starbucks on the corner is still listed as five different places, with five different mayors each getting 20 percent off their peppermint mochas (mmm … peppermint mochas). I also fail to see how each platform at King’s Cross needs its own venue listing.

3. Step up brand recruitment. There’s evidence that this is in the works, which is good. It’s not just about recruiting more companies or offering more deals. A lot of the issue is simple publicity — you can’t make use of deals that you don’t know about. I’d like to see a database or listing of businesses with specific Foursquare deals. Plenty of third-party sites offer this sort of thing, but there really should be an official listing. A decal in the window will only go so far. I’d also suggest inking more deals with tourism bureaus and universities.

4. Throw a bone to tip-writers. One of the cornerstone features of Foursquare — your ability to leave tips and advice for the people who come after you — goes unrewarded. Offer badges for 10+, 25+, 50+, 100+ and so on tips that you list. To prevent half-assed serial tipsters, necessitate that someone must have checked into that venue at least once before they’re allowed to leave a tip. Or go the Digg route and have users vote tips up or down depending on quality. If your tip gets a certain number of thumbs up, you get a one-time free drink or half-priced entry or a certain percentage off at that venue. This would give people incentive to leave numerous, quality tips and help solidify that part of the infrastructure. And because the tip would be voted up or down by fellow users, Domino’s couldn’t turn away your tipster reward if your tip said their pizza was, to quote Jon Stewart, a “#&*% disk.”

5. Expand the number of badges more often. I have 17 right now. Excluding badges that I won’t be able to get because of a one-time event or because I’m not in that city (see point #1) and any “surprise” holiday badges like the Halloween badge from last week, I have the potential to earn maybe 8-10 more in the next few months. Keep them coming and keep them fresh. Badges are a powerful psychological reward (trust me, I know), but keep them novel.

There you have it. I suspect that the vast majority of Foursquare’s problem — if indeed it has one — is lack of inclusiveness. It’s a fine line between being open to enough people and being too open. A lot of the perks are attractive precisely because so few people have them. But that’s a balance Foursquare must strike if it hopes to get beyond that 4 percent.

I’m not Canadian

Not counting the United States, I’ve been to thirteen different countries, the vast majority of them in Europe. And I remember, before setting out on my travels, reading and hearing the same vein of advice: Pretend to be Canadian. Tell people you’re from Toronto, or sew a Canadian flag on your backpack.

The obvious accent discrepancies aside — I don’t have a Canadian accent; that’d be like someone from London pretending to be from Ireland in another country — I’ve never done this and never would and never will.

Why?

I strive to be a “good American” while abroad. I read menus and signs in the native language, using a phrasebook if necessary. I try to converse in the native language, however badly (you oughta hear my French, sacre bleu). I try to be quiet and respectful and never push or shove or take photos where it’s verboten (tourist group in the Vatican, looking at you). I eat the local food if company permits. In short, I like to think of myself as a model traveler.

And why should Canada, God bless it, be the beneficiary of that good behavior?

It occurred to me that if all the well-behaved Americans masqueraded as Canadians while abroad to avoid anti-Americanism, and all the hubristic Americans, the loud, rude, pushy types that you do find in every country, were “out and proud,” so to speak, then of course foreigners would have a negative opinion of American travelers. All or most of the good examples are pretending to be from another country! More than that, I’m now curious as to how much of the stereotypical Canadian “good will” is down to well-behaved Americans passing themselves off as Canadian as much as it’s down to actual Canadians.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I tell them I’m American and leave it at that, or, if they inquire further (the ones who know that life exists outside of New York and Los Angeles are my favorite), I tell them I’m from Kansas City and “it’s right in the middle.” Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are destinations, not hometowns. I’d never pass off as a Montrealer anyway (again, the French). I then behave myself and act courteous and try to give them a good impression of Americans. And if they ask if I voted for George W. Bush, I can honestly tell them no — I was too young to vote then anyway.

So, my fellow American travelers, don’t hide behind the maple leaf. If enough of us act like “good Americans” instead of “ugly Americans,” we won’t need to pretend to be our friendly northern neighbors.