Magical Montmartre.

I thought the magic of Paris was wrapped tight in the Eiffel Tower; intricately woven, measured but unexpected. Then i thought it was a potion concocted by the Seine wrapping itself around the islands in the middle of the city – the candles glowing in Notre-Dame casting a final color-coded spell. I suspected the secret ingredient to Parisian magic was the wine and the food, flavors bursting and lasting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But it was when we strolled through the mountainous alleys of Montmartre that i learned where the real magic of Paris is tucked away. And it’s here, the neighborhood once home to Ernest Hemingway and Vincent van Gogh and Satine. (Okay okay, Satine is fictional. But you can’t talk about Montmartre without the Moulin Rouge!)

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Montmartre is the Paris of absinthe stupor, of romanticized memory. It’s where my mother bought her most treasured keepsake from Paris: an acrylic painting of flowers in a vase. It hung on our dining room wall, the blues singing harmony with the white curtains. She’d told me over and over the place i had to go was Place du Tertre – a cobblestone square where street artists gather, luring tourists into buying caricatures and twenty-minute portraits. My favorite artist stall had done a series of cats sleeping around Paris (so out of character for me, i know) but since J and i had already bought our recreation of van Gogh’s sunflowers i was merely window shopping.

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But Place du Tertre is not the only place in Montmartre where art is to be found; the metropolitan signs themselves are works to behold, adjacent to ivy-colored buildings covered in graffiti.

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The Scottish flag hanging in Paris! Viva la Scotland!

The Scottish flag hanging in Paris! Vive la Scotland!

Hand-in-hand we strolled along the lanes of art on display, covetously sneaking glances at the cafés offering wine under checkered umbrellas.

Just up the hill we could make out the silhouette of Sacre-Coeur white against the blue sky. It was the last church on our list of Parisian places we wanted to see – making it the sixth church we’d see on our trip.

And it turned out to be our favorite.

Sacre-Couer is unlike anywhere else i’ve been; it has the enormity and grandeur of Notre Dame, but the intimacy and quiet contemplation of a smaller church. The windows are dazzling, bathing the whole place in the lux nova that made gothic architecture such a sensation in medieval France. No photography was permitted inside and, while i am sad to have no photos to remember it by, i was glad for the forced contemplative time. It allowed me the full breathing space of presence.

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Awed and quieted by the beautiful building, we meandered back to Place du Tertre for a final glass of wine. Our walk overlooked the whole of the city spread below, the Eiffel Tower stark against the skyline. Paris had enthralled us, the clutter of art and mash of accordion metro musicians just the backdrop to the hum of the city itself.

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“We’ll spend a whole week just in Montmartre when we come back, someday,” J mused. Our last Côte du Rhône of the trip was poised in his hand. In the Scottish wool scarf he’d snagged from my wardrobe, he looked downright European.

I scoffed-laughed, a knot of broke-soon-to-be-grad-student-woes clamping in my stomach. I knew what he meant, though. That Montmartre was the neighborhood you wanted to live in a little- learn the streets by heart, pick a favorite haunt for late-night drinks. I felt the same way.

And i knew that this trip was such a gift. A privilege to have the time and money at all to travel. But a gift to spend such time with J, who hadn’t been able to study abroad. A gift to be in love in the city most famous for romance. A gift to stroll alongside the Seine on a sun-dappled afternoon, with no agenda but being in Paris. I was grateful for all we’d seen – the snafus in getting to Paris, the chance to see my dearest Saran at the Eiffel Tower, the sore feet and the sappy smiles.

Mostly, though, i was simply grateful to share in it all with the dimple-faced man wearing my scarf sitting across from me.

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current jam: ‘lullabye’ billy jowl

best thing: freshly-downloaded boarding passes…

Aimless in Amsterdam: An Arrival Gone Astray (And Other Alliterations)

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It was nearing 11 pm, the Amsterdam air was bitingly frigid, and we were hopelessly lost.

Having taken the advice of a tourist information man upon our arrival in the city, Abby and i had elected to take the Metro instead of the tram. We’d arrived, some five blocks away from our hotel, at a station i could only assume is pronounced “Wheee-sper Plain!”

We should have taken the tram.

I’d carefully traced my fingers around the contours of the map before we left. Studied the route from the main train station to our hotel. Yet somehow, in the darkness, all the streets didn’t seem to line up with our disoriented departure from the metro station. A lot of asking people on their bikes for directions ensued. The streets of Amsterdam are all well-lit, because everyone rides bikes until, you know, the wee hours of the morning. But lamps do little for the cold.

So while we were grateful for the lamps, our toes were going numb and our patience was wearing thin.

Resigned, we hailed a cab. Four euros and two blocks later, we were deposited at the elusive Hotel Prinsenhof.

Oh.

As frustrating as it was that we’d been so close and yet so lost, i definitely do not regret those four euros being spent on the security of being dropped off precisely where we needed to be!

A note tacked to the door of the small bed-and-breakfast style hotel told us to ask the bartender at the café adjacent to the hotel for our keys. From over the bar counter, he produced an envelope enclosing both our keys and vouchers for complimentary wine from the bar (score!). Eager to defrost from the sub-freezing temperatures, we made our way up the three most narrow flights of stairs i’d ever beheld before beholding our room.

A re-creation of Rembrant's "Night Watch" in the hotel's dining room!

A re-creation of Rembrant’s “Night Watch” in the hotel’s dining room!

For all the strife of finding the place, the Hotel Prinsenhof was worth all the wait. Our room overlooked the canal, the reflections of lamps and house-lights glittering in the water between docked boats. We’d learn the next day that the breakfast served was delicious and simple, made all the better by the cappuccino machine (accessible all day!).

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But for the night, there was a much-needed drink to be had and food to be found. The café, Onder de Ooivaar, turned out to have the most incredible cheese-and-sausage platter i have ever had. After what had been such a stressful night getting into the city, my first real bite of Holland was this incredible Gouda.

And just like that, i was in love with Amsterdam. The infamous “they” say the way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach (or whatever). I say it’s through cheese. Or wine. Or, you know, both in a picturesque European city glistening with stars in bike-lane lined canals.

The next day was going to be a packed one – a bike tour, the Van Gogh exhibit at the hermitage, and more eating (naturally) – but after our second glass of Spanish red and second platter of cheese, we were ready for much-needed sleep.

We awoke the next day to sounds of dinging bike bells and shopkeepers opening their tulip stalls, ready to see the splendor in a new, and warmer, light.

current jam: ‘same love’ macklemore + ryan lewis.

best thing: bagels and cream cheese.

Maps & Gastronomy: Eating and Reveling in Edinburgh

Edward Tufte says maps are metaphors. I’m no infometrics whiz, but i like this idea – if, for no other reason, than my affinity for maps. Splayed across my wall before me is a map of Edinburgh i peeled out of my guidebook. Adjacent to it is a map of Durham, North Carolina that i plucked from a visitor’s desk downtown. Though these maps are from far-away places, the greens couldn’t be of a more identical hue.

I love this metaphor within a metaphor: a town that is known to me and a town that is new are not so very different that they are required to clash. Durham’s streets are reminders of the world that has nurtured me, and Edinburgh’s closes and squares nurtures the at-times-overwhelming feeling of falling in love with a new world.

Yet falling in love with a new place means i need to share this love with the people who make up the home in the map of my heart. I sometimes fear my noticing of the very-matched greens will be a noticing only for me. That while this world i’m coming to know in Edinburgh is vast and exciting and beautiful, it starts to make my own dot on the globe all the farther from the world i knew.

This fear, though, was deeply assuaged this past weekend: i had the delight of sharing my budding romance with Edinburgh with one of my dearest, dearest friends – Nora!

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As she is also studying abroad in the UK, Nora and i threw together a weekend excursion about the city on a whim – a marvelous, serendipitous, and delicious whim. Because i’ve been so focused on making myself feel at home in Edinburgh, i haven’t necessarily done all the typical tourist-y things one might explore on holiday. Having a guest, though, was the perfect excuse to give myself full permission to go light on the schoolwork and heavy on learning all the reasons you should holiday in Edinburgh.

And easily ranked in the top ten reasons to visit Edinburgh would be the food! Thus, this is the first of two blog posts chronicling our weekend together. And it’s all about the food. (Don’t worry, the latter will be about the actual tourist-y things we did!)

Our gastronomical tour began with the comfort food haven, Mums. “Top nosh at half the cost,” according to the website, Mums boasts of a vibrant and edgy charm: they’re home-cooked comfort mixed with urban attitude. I mean, the mac & cheese has a spice kick to it and comes with chips!* Who doesn’t love drowning in cheese and carbs? Their food is locally sourced, their service impeccable, and the deal incomparable to anywhere else. Eating there with Nora was my first time, but it will so most definitely not be my last.

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Having sated our need for traditional fare, the next evening’s meal was one reminiscent of home: Southwestern American cuisine. Living in North Carolina for so long spoiled me, with taco stands and sit-down Mexican restaurants on every block. So to tend to my poor, burrito-deprived needs, we ventured to the local Tex-Mex joint: Illegal Jack’s. It was all i wanted and more, guacamole included.

Our final dinner was at a place i’ve frequented before: 10 to 10 In Delhi, a Halal Indian restaurant with excellent chicken roti and even better student deals. If you’re looking to stretch your pounds, three quid will get you a belly-stretching meal here. We particularly loved the pretty tapestries stretched across the ceiling and the cozy couches!

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Easily the best place we visited, though, was no foreigner to me: The Elephant House Café.

I met Nora in the fall of our first year at Mount Holyoke. She was wearing a Hogwarts crest t-shirt, it was love at first sight, and the rest (as they say) was Hogwarts, A History. Nora and i are no strangers to Harry Potter-themed adventures; in the winter of the subsequent year, we attended the Brooklyn Yule Ball together. On the last day of finals. In Christmas-themed ball gowns. We’d skipped dinner in an effort to catch the last train into the city, downing rolls of bread and Dr. Pepper’s in a convenience store outside the venue as substitutes.

There aren’t many people you can romp about New York City in a gold petticoat with, but Nora has always been an exceptionally genuine and beautifully adventurous friend.

I remember gleefully turning to her, as Harry and the Potters crashed and roared over their keyboard and guitar on stage. “I’m so tired, but i am having so much fun!“she mouthed over the din. It was a magical moment to share with a dear friend then, and it was just as magical to share the “Birthplace of Harry Potter” with her this weekend over elephant-shaped shortbread and excellent cups of tea.

We were sure to leave our own note in the bathroom – signed, as ever, with our nicknames for each other: Padfoot & Prongs.

(note the painting of JK Rowling writing in the café behind us!)

(note the painting of JK Rowling writing in the café behind us!)

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Feeling known is an immense gift. I feel known by this city – but part of this feeling known comes from sharing it with an old friend. Nora and i have a history of adventures (gastronomical and literary alike!) and to make this weekend a part of that map of stories was such a treasure. My green maps still match, and the loves in my life make the most beautiful harmonies when sung together.

current jam: ‘good morning sunshine’ alex day.

best thing: a beautiful place to be with friends.

p.s. you can always find my reviews of restaurants and attractions on my tripadvisor profile!

*for friends in the states: chips = french fries, just in case your daily dose of the BBC hadn’t kept you abreast of British slang!

Raison d’Être.

In all the whirl of getting here, moving in, trying to remember to breathe, making friends, and figuring out how to cook dinner for myself without setting the flat alight, i hadn’t really paused to think about the ultimate purpose of my time here.

Studying Abroad.

I feel, now, that the Abroad part is normalizing. The map only made its way out of my pocket once today, and that wasn’t even really a necessity. More of a security blanket thing.

The Study part, however, just kicked into full gear. Classes began today and, as ever an enthusiastic student i might be, it’s kind of come out of nowhere. Mount Holyoke has so spoiled me in giving us the whole month of January off in addition to Christmas, so to be back in classes so soon is rather jolting. As is, you know, moving to a new country. I’m terribly excited to get going on my classes – they all seem engaging and involved – but i’m still not quite ready to put a hold on wander-the-streets-for-hours-without-plans-vacation-mode.

That is, i wasn’t ready. Until i explored the interior of New College, where all my Divinity and Biblical Studies courses take place.

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As you can well see, it’s a stunning place. I confess i was nervous to bid farewell to my professors at MHC to whom i am quite close, but my lectures today were engaging and lively and i felt myself settling back into that comfortable Hermione niche. The books-were-my-first-love, perfectly-indented-notes feeling that comes when i’m scribbling down as many double-underlined ideas as possible. In some ways, being in the classroom is a relief. I may not know how to do Ceilidh dancing (yet) but i damn well know how to take exceptional notes with my preferred weapon of choice: a Pilot Precision V5 Black Ink Pen.

Easily what put me back in Hermione mode, though, had nothing to do with class.

And it had everything to do with my first-ever trip to the place where Hermione was written into existence by Her Royal Queen of the Majestic Universe, Jo Rowling. The Elephant House Café, after all my anguished and longing and unmitigated desires to visit, made its way onto my itinerary today.

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Needless to say, it was magic enough to kick my butt into gear. I only had time enough to buy a postcard, so i’ve not yet explored the Moaning Myrtle bathroom (where notes are written to JK all over the walls) or sat in her usual seat. But rest assured, i will soon enough!

current jam: ‘i will wait’ mumford & sons.

best thing: chicken with pesto & scm.

a loving encouragement: if you like the pictures, they are updated on the daily on instagram. perhaps in overdosing amounts. but, you know, castles.