Loire Valley and a race!

I can’t believe it’s already halfway through October! We’ve already finished off two classes and are deep in the thick of it with the others. This semester has more projects and less classes than last year, which is great and also means that there are always more things that could be done… It made me really happy to look at egg white foam under the microscope!

Outside of school things, my sister and her husband came to visit me! In classic fashion, I have lots of pictures of the excellent buildings we saw and zero of the three of us. Luckily my brother-in-law is much better about photos than the rest of the family and took some essential vacation selfies. We went to the Loire valley, known for castles and wine–what more do you need? It was such a great weekend! We rented bikes (including a fun stint where I got to stand in as translator for another American family and got offered a job in the small-town bike shop- tempting!), spent a day riding through idyllic French wine country to one of the most amazing castles I’ve ever seen, and then finished the day with wine and the sun setting on a different castle.

The next day we decided that all of these 16th-century buildings were a bit too modern, so we went to the medieval city of Loches and climbed a 5-story keep built in the 11th century. Of course, all of the wooden floors have disappeared, and let me tell you, 5 stories feels like a lot when you’re looking straight down!

In other very exciting news, I ran a race yesterday! It was the 20 km de Paris (about a half marathon), and it was incredible. It started and finished at the Eiffel Tower and was a gorgeous day, so it was amazing to run along the Seine and see all the sights along the way. I wouldn’t say I was exactly adequately trained for the distance, but I finished and am even pretty happy with my time– 1:48! I’m walking like a champ today and not too sore, but I’m pretty excited for some time off from those early-morning runs.

Hopefully things will quiet down a bit over here for the next few weeks– finishing up modules was pretty intense! We have a bit of reprieve now and then everything is due at once on November 15 for some reason. We’ve been lucky with the weather for the last few days and it’s been glorious to go back to one of my favorite activities: eating pastries in Parisian parks!

New favorites

This week felt like the real back to school–we went from having some things to do to being buried in endless papers to read and presentations to write. But I’m actually excited about all of it (you guys, I could read about egg white foams for a really long time. I mean, I did. This week.), so it’s overwhelming but still good.

I did manage to sneak away for a few fun things this week, including making a new friend! Look at this champion! His name is Helios and he’s the mascot for a board game cafe I visited this week, where we were conveniently sitting next to a group that ordered a meat platter. But he was there to hang out with us, I’m sure of it. (Also at this board game night, I met a girl from Portland! Talk about small world.)

Maybe the best thing I got to do this week was a visit to the museum of fairground art, which had a bunch of old fairway games and an incredible collection of carousels. I rode on the bike carousel, a hilarious creation from 1897 with a bunch of bikes in place of the horses so that you’re powering the ride. We got going so fast! I’d never seen anything like it. They also had the people working on restoration open up their workshop, and it was amazing to hear them talk about the different pieces they’ve worked on and how they go about bringing these horses (and cows, and all sorts of other creatures) back to their former glory. So cool!

And we closed out the week with the most French activity I know–sitting on the banks of the Seine, drinking wine and eating kugelhopf and watching the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower. Sometimes it really is magical here 🙂

Equipe de France and hiking to a castle!

I’m doing my utmost to take advantage of our (relatively) slow start to the year and doing lots of fun things before more classes start and I can’t go gallivanting every night of the week. This week started with pub trivia run by an English guy in a Scottish bar in France with a team of Americans during which we had to identify flags of South America. (We weren’t very good at the flags, but honestly, do you know what the flag of the South Sandwich Islands looks like?)

Tuesday I headed out to the Stade de France to see Les Bleus play! I’ve heard rumors that men do, in fact, play soccer sometimes, and apparently it’s all true. France took on Andorra and won 3-0 (with more than 80% of possession, crazy), and it was awesome to be part of the crowd even though I couldn’t make out any of the words to the cheers. I was into the jumping though!

And because I have friends who are much fancier than I am, I got to attend a theater premier! A friend here just established a new theater and they just opened their first show, which was also the world premier of the play–so many firsts, and what a cool thing to see. The play was SO good, and it was so fun to see a friend making big things happen!

I finished off the week with a big hike today about an hour south of the city at Les Chevreuses, and I even convinced a bunch of other students in my program to come! They trusted me to navigate, though, and we may have done a little more than we intended… But we did find the castle (the most important part of French hikes) and it was a great day.

Just to remind you that my life isn’t all adventures and croissants, we enjoyed a lovely strike day Friday that completely shut down public transportation for the whole city, and I’m currently trying to access four different articles in Poultry Science, which is weird for me. Although to be honest I do eat a lot of croissants 🙂

Paris week one

I’m back in Paris! It’s been a great first week, full of old and new friends, great pastry (duh), and a running start back into the school year.

The week was a mix of class (molecular gastronomy with the legendary Hervé This), introductory activities (convincing the first years to sing, dance, and generally be ridiculous in a public park), and finishing activities (thesis presentations and graduation for the cohort above me). It made me really excited for everything to come this semester, and also made me remember that this class-all-day-every-day thing gets really busy…

I did manage to get out for some fun this weekend, and because it’s me I decided to run to Versailles with my running group on Saturday (11 miles) and go for a 14-mile hike (well, nature walk) on Sunday. Both were very excellent ideas, although I’m definitely heading for an early bedtime tonight. As a bonus, the hike passed through a pick-your-own farm near the end, where I got to pick apples, green beans, and lettuce straight from the fields! It was a great start to a great year!

Merry Christmas!

I’m in America! Currently sitting in the San Francisco airport, slightly delirious from the first leg of the journey home (11 hour flight, oof) and SO READY to be back in Portland. I’m super excited that I get to be home for the holidays, partly for the whole seeing family bit and partly because I’ll have a real kitchen! I have big plans. Also, one of the best parts of school is this two week Christmas holiday—incredible.

The last few weeks have involved making several thousand cookies in a baking lab and writing a 20-page paper about everything we learned. It was a lot, to be sure, but I also had more fun than expected because I genuinely could talk about gluten proteins and dough hydration for a very long time. It’s interesting for me to see this process from a research angle because the work is pretty similar to what I’ve been doing for the past few years, but the approach is totally different. Rather than designing trials to get to the best product in the shortest amount of time, our focus now is more on making sure that we’re generating data that can answer the questions we want to ask. We also got to feed our cookies to a whole bunch of people for sensory testing, which was very fun. It’s not too hard to recruit people when you’re basically just giving out cookies.

Paris does its best to live up to its “City of Light” nickname in the Christmas season, and from what I saw they did a pretty good job of it. I loved getting to my destinations early this month so that I could walk around different neighborhoods and see all of the lights hung across streets, decorated shops, and elaborate window displays. Plus, knowing that I was coming home gave me an excellent excuse to explore chocolate shops and Christmas markets—my friends joked that half of my suitcase is food (not quite, but I’m not exactly coming home empty-handed).

My semester finishes up mid-January and then we’re off to Dublin! That last week and a half will be a doozy (we have a whole new class for a week plus two final projects), but the finish line is so close! I’ll miss Paris for sure—the baguettes and croissants more than all of the quality time on public transportation—but I can’t wait for Dublin.

Merry Christmas! Have a great holiday season!

Cats & Castles

It’s been busy over here! Last week we had a field trip, an exam, and two presentations, so most of my past two weeks has been spent either frantically reading about hydrocolloid structure or editing powerpoint slides. The madness ended Friday, and I’ve very gratefully spent the weekend relaxing. And I’m cat- and apartment-sitting for friends for the next couple of weeks, so I have a cat to snuggle and a kitchen to spend all my time in. The goal is to use every kitchen tool they have during my time here, and I’m happy to say that I’m making good progress!

Last week we had a few days off of classes (theoretically to study for aforementioned exam, etc) and I took full advantage: one day at a chocolate expo and another at a castle. My life is hard 🙂
The expo was mostly a retail show for brands selling new products, so we got to wander around, talk about chocolate, and eat lots of samples–pretty incredible. But the BEST part was watching part of the World Chocolate Masters, a competition of international chocolatiers doing sculptures and dishes with all sorts of techniques. It was so cool! Watching the chefs create and plate their desserts was amazing, and I immediately wanted to go to learn how to do it all. Sometimes I’m bad at focusing when chocolate is involved.
The next day, a few friends and I went to the Château de Chantilly, about an hour north of Paris. It’s one of those classic European castles where we mistook the stables for the castle itself and the art collection inside casually includes 3 Raphaels. Also, there were kangaroos? That part was confusing, but it was a great day of wandering around and getting outside the city for a bit. And it was stunningly beautiful, so that helped.
It’s turned quickly to autumn weather here in the last week, getting cold and drizzly. Luckily, I’m perfectly set up in my own little apartment with couches (!), a kitchen to myself (!!), and a cat who loudly protests when you’re silly enough to stop petting him for more than a few minutes (!!!). It’s kind of the best. I spent most of my day making food for my birthday dinner tomorrow–can’t wait!

My life revolves around food

Big milestones over here: successfully found both decent peanut butter and a neighborhood bar to watch soccer games. Doesn’t hurt that my local team happens to have several of the World Cup champion team stars on it! Oh, also made my first tarte tatin and confirmed that I will be making it again as soon as possible.

The actual big event of last week was SIAL, an enormous food show that took up 8 halls in a conference center. Eight. Halls. It’s a completely overwhelming but amazing experience, and it means that you spend the whole day just wandering around, talking to people about food, and eating. In other words, all of my favorite activities. This show was particularly cool because it had companies from all over the world and you could see products and trends from everywhere. When you’re a sucker for samples like I am, you end up eating some pretty amazing things (margarita ice pop, sheep cheese, all of the chocolate), but also some really questionable products. It’s always a gamble.

I also did a cooking competition! This was the classic move where I signed up when I saw the email and then completely forgot about it until the day before. The theme was eggs and my team was two other students from AgroParisTech, and two of us were very disappointed that the dish had to be savory. Our dish was way out of my comfort zone, but it came out great! Watercress foam, toasts with teriyaki-glazed eel and fish roe, black radish and egg white mayo, and a poached egg. It was so fun!
This weekend was one of those where you get to the end of the day and try to figure out if you ever left your room. We had a massive statistics project due Sunday night, so the last few days are a blur of excel spreadsheets. In the interest of trying to get out of the dorm, a few friends and I went to brunch on Sunday. We weren’t totally sure what was happening (definitely never saw a menu), but things kept appearing on the table and we were definitely not mad about it. The best moment was when we thought we were done and the server came out with dessert plates for each of us. I think we audibly gasped, and we could not get over how happy we were about it.
The temperature here dropped about 30 degrees overnight and I’m predictably sniffly–off to bed before this gets any worse.

Making progress

Tuesday marks 2 months since I left the US, and it feels both like it’s been a week and a year. And we only have 12 weeks of Paris left before heading to Dublin! I am taking that as a sign to increase my pastry and cheese intake, and I feel very confident about my abilities in those areas. I’m trying to get out exploring as much as possible, at least taking my runs through new areas, but there’s still so much to do. (For example: restaurants to try, neighborhoods to wander, museums to visit. The hard work that I do.)

We had our first final this week, a presentation on sustainability strategies in our countries. This is one of the ways that the internationality of the program really strengthens it: hearing about the problems and strategies from all over the world was amazing. One down, six to go…

Thanks for the photo, Nala!
There’s an incredible show at Notre Dame right now, a light show projected on the facade of the church. Think the Disney fireworks show minus the fireworks plus 13th-century Gothic architecture. It was stunning and very well done, and also they made the king statues dance. As proof that I haven’t changed, after the show I pulled nutella out of my coat pocket and a banana cake out of my purse for a little snack to eat by the Seine. My friends were shocked, but they’ll learn.
On the schedule for this week: a cooking competition, a visit to Europe’s major food product show, and a Democrats Abroad debate before the midterms. Should be a good time!

School & cookies

I was finishing up cooking dinner last week when I looked down at my plate of mac and cheese next to the bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough and realized, huh. I think I’m a little bit homesick. I know I’m not allowed to complain about food in the land of the croissant, but I can’t remember the last time I went this long without peanut butter or Mexican food. The switch from my very own gadget-crowded kitchen to sharing a hot plate with 40 people isn’t helping much either. Today I went on a search for black beans and pumpkin puree and came up empty-handed on both counts. Luckily sugar, butter, and chocolate are staples here too and I reverted to childhood with chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven. Warm cookies make everything better.

Photo from Luana, who is now hired as my food photographer.

Even better than the cookies, I got the all-clear from my physical therapist to start running again! I’ve re-started my morning run routine and it feels so good. My roommate isn’t so thrilled about the 5:45 am alarm clock and I’m not near enough to anything interesting for good views, but I can smell all of the bakeries from a block away and it’s totally worth it.

School has really gotten serious in the last few weeks, which is very inconvenient for my plans to explore Paris. We have a group project working with an industrial partner to solve a current research problem, which is super cool, and mine involves reading everything I can find about the protein and starch structure of wheat. (I’m a little bit too excited about it.) We met with our clients last week and have our first final presentation for a different class this week, so needless to say I’ve been just a little bit busy. I’m not used to having homework again! Most of the time, though, it’s kind of surreal to be able to study and understand products I’ve used for years. I’m weirdly excited about starch functionality and designing milk heating systems. Doesn’t it sound so fun?!?
Luckily we still manage to get out sometimes and when all else fails, my study breaks consist of an eclair and a walk in the Paris sunshine. Theme of this post: baked goods solve all of my problems. Unsurprising.

La TraverSeine

At my very first Dragon Ladies of Paris dragon boat team practice (all of 2 weeks ago), I impulsively decided to join the team for an upcoming race. I didn’t get a lot of details, but I figured it would be fine. Fast forward to race day (today!), and it turns out this race was a 14 km paddle through the city of Paris. Um, the longest dragon boat race I’d ever done before today was 2 km. It was an adventure to say the least!

We all took home paddles and PFDs from practice yesterday, theoretically so everyone knew they had one but also so that some of us would get lots of weird looks on the train.

I was completely blown away by the scene at the start. It’s a race for all sorts of water craft and also a mass start, so the river was full of kayaks, SUPs, canoes, a couple dragonboats (one complete with reindeer and Mère Noël!), and outriggers of all sizes. It was chaos. To make things worse, our dragon head is exactly the height of a person sitting in a kayak and we aren’t super nimble. What can I say, the dragon was hungry.

Photo credit: Cristina

The race course was incredible: around the islands and through the center of the city, passing by all of the great monuments and bridges of Paris. It was gray most of the morning, but the sun broke through for a few glorious minutes just as we passed the Eiffel Tower–pure magic. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the best parts because I was slightly busy paddling, but it was really incredible.
Things got harder after that. Instead of famous monuments and surprised runners cheering from the bridges, we were in an industrial area with a headwind and some pretty serious waves. It felt like mile 15 in a marathon, when you feel like you’ve done quite enough, thank you, but actually there’s still SO MUCH LEFT. To make matters worse, I was in the first row, which sets the rhythm for the boat and can’t just stop to catch their breath. There was a lot of just staring at the bottom of the boat and counting to 10 in my head for this part.
Photo credit (both above): Dragon Ladies
But then we were finally (FINALLY!) at the finish line, and there’s nothing better than being done with a long-distance race. You can’t really move and everything hurts, but the sheer relief of getting to stop is an incredible feeling. (I’m re-reading this and it sounds more than a little masochistic, but I do run marathons, so…) In the end, we did 14.3 km in 1:46, which I have no frame of reference for but seems pretty damn good. Between a brand-new PR and a very cool way to see the city, it felt like a super successful morning.
Félicitations à toutes les Dragon Ladies de Paris! I’m so happy I get to paddle with all of you!