Saturday, March 30, 2013

a day in douro

Guys, gals, I'm writing a thesis. Well, not yet, but I will be in the fall (or spring?!). I've simply decided I can't not do so. What a nerd, huh? Indeed. And still a wino, too. I'm highly considering studying wine production in the "New World" (e.g. Chile, South Africa) and how it provides cultural capital in perception of place. Not sure whether that sounds painfully academic or super interesting to you, but I'm excited. 
As you may remember, I kind of love this kind of research :). I had a very recent taste of it, too, when I spent a day in "wine country" with a guide from my hostel in Porto. 'Twas a magical day in the Douro Valley...
[Tasting #1 at Quinta de Pégo]
[Lunch: vegetable soup, fried octopus, rice]
[Tasting #2 at Quinta do Portal]
In the sun, surrounded by wonderful people, I felt so, so happy. Kind of how I felt earlier today in the company of the boy's family (minus the sun--it's cold and cloudy in Paris!) Although I'm missing my fam extra this Easter weekend, I'm glad to have spent some of it with his and with my extended family (more to come on the incredible meal we shared). I can hardly wait to spend the holiday with ma famille française tomorrow.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

modern porto

As I've said before, I didn't know what to expect from Portugal. I did get a preview in Up Magazine, TAP's in flight publication as I eventually flew to Porto, though. Well-written articles with a Portuguese focus were laced with creative references to art, architecture, cuisine, and design. And accurately so.
What I found was that among the sometimes tragic beauty of "old Porto", there are modern galleries, innovative restaurants, and boutique hostels that tell a more optimistic story. These were my favorite venues:
On my first day, by the time I got from the airport to my hostel, I was more than ready for lunch. Lucky for me, Bugo Art Burger was right down the street. Made with local ingredients in very creative ways, these burgers--beef, fish, black bean, chicken, lentil, etc.--are served alongside fresh sides like roasted julienned vegetables, green mesclun salad, and hand-cut french fries. I ordered the chickpea burger (prepared with feta cheese, onion, and fresh coriander) with the yogurt and mint sauce, the sides described above, and a Super Bock (a standard Portuguese beer). Fresh bread with an olive oil & vinegar dip came, too for a small price.
So small, in fact, that even with a black espresso for dessert, my bill was just shy of eleven euros. This kind of price "discrepancy" was true throughout the country; beneficial for budget visitors like me.
Following lunch, and a 4-hour hike stroll through the city (photos here), I intended to retreat to that hostel of mine. Then I realized I'd misplaced the key. The "key" was, in fact, a white and inconspicuous card I'd placed in my coat pocket alongside my iPhone. I'd noticed it seemed to jump out each time I reached for my phone throughout the day, but apparently I hadn't realized the one time it'd fallen on the ground. So, I retraced each step. I also went through my iPhone photos and paid special attention to the ground at each spot I'd photographed. No luck. Please note: I was in the city center at rush hour. And it's only when I was just about to give up, leaning against the same wall I'd leaned on at least two hours before, that I noticed it, at my feet.
Relief swept over me. A celebration was in order! ...if only I had someone to celebrate with. Since I didn't, at least not at that time, I headed back in the direction of my hostel. That is, until I saw Linha 22.
It just oozed quaint-contemporary cool. There was a sign outside inviting passer-bys in for a glass of Portuguese wine or a snack. I wanted the former. I walked in and sat down at the first table. A women came up to me with a smile, and asked me what I'd like, first in Portuguese, then in English. I told her I preferred dry reds but didn't know Duomo wines well. No, thank you, I didn't want anything to eat. She returned with a delicious 3-euro glass.
She even waited around as I told my victorious story and pretended to be enthusiastic about my luck, too. And soon after she left me to revel in that fact, she sent over a Portuguese cheese tasting, just because.
Extra positive interactions like these continued throughout my trip. I found Portuguese people to be extremely helpful and kind, always willing to answer my questions, whether or not their English was "very good." The same was true of all the staff that worked at my hostel. They suggested I visit the Mercado Ferreira Borges, a Beaux-Arts-style covered market which has since become Hard Club, a bookstore, exhibition space, restaurant, patio bar, and concert hall (pictured above), in addition to the Center of Photography. Un/fortunately, I didn't make it to the latter due to two exceptionally sunny days that kept me from most indoor activities. I got my art-fix by window-shopping at the galleries along Rua Miguel Bombard instead.
It's no wonder my choice of lodging, located on that same street, was called Gallery Hostel. Situated within a renovated early 20th century building, the space itself hosts more than just backpackers in dorms, it features a bar, cinema lounge, library, garden, karaoke nights, football match parties, wine tastings, and tours. At the time of my visit, they also had a collective exhibition by Rita Stravinsky and Aurelia Brysch on display.
And have I mentioned their breakfast? Fantastic. A spread of Portuguese bakery-sliced breads, fruit salads, deli meats, cheeses, and spreads--like butter, jam, and Nutella--were available each morning until 10:30am. Coffee and a variety of teas could be found to the right. Eggs or sausage were served on request. It's probably the best "free" breakfast I've ever had. I only had two qualms: no fresh juice, nor community.
One of the biggest appeals to the hostel (for me as a solo traveler) was that it was best "for meeting people." I'm disappointed to say that I didn't find that to be true. The other women in my 6-person dorm were nice enough but hardly friendly, and the groups I met at in the dining room pretty much kept to themselves. By my third morning in Porto, I was painfully aware of how lonely I felt. Thankfully, I had a train ticket to Pombal that evening, not to mention the most lovely company in a tour of the Duoro Valley before then. Stay tuned...

Monday, March 25, 2013

to be abroad

In August of last year, I couldn't remember why I wanted to be abroad again. I had a life in New York, it's where most of my family and friends were based... how could I pick up and leave it all behind to move to a city of culturally distinct strangers speaking a language I'm not quite fluent in? Wasn't traveling enough?
In my case, no. The challenge of creating a home in a foreign city has simply been too rewarding.
There's nothing quite like the satisfaction of successfully navigating seemingly tireless bureaucracy, for example. Living in Paris is no walk in the park for an expat; there is a ton of paperwork and forever a long process to legally reside here. But as such, earning a carte sejour is a celebration in and of itself. 
Efficiently opening a bank account and receiving an imagine-R card have brought about similar pride.
The same goes for uncovering Parisian gems and establishing neighborhood favorites. Although it's frustrating that the French (in general and in particular) have a tendency to superlative-ize their civilization, this city does boast a multitude of enviable museums and restaurants, amongst other venues.
Being able to critique such things is a very unique opportunity. I undoubtedly notice more here--whether it pertains to French art, American culture, or Mexican food. The daily grind has become intellectually stimulating, almost as much as my time spent within AUP's classrooms.
That's no coincidence. This is why I feel better abroad. And even in a constant state of missing, I'm not alone.
Being far from home has created wonderful communities of students, young professionals, fellow bloggers who--in many ways--have promoted the removal of "barriers of language, culture, and geography." It's an irreplaceable and invaluable experience to be exposed to such diversity. I've tried to enjoy every moment.
It's not easy. I wish I could see my family more often and spend time with my friends again. Instead, I seem to meet new people each week, and only if I'm lucky, consciously navigate my way into an authentic new bond. But it is extra special when that happens. Just a few weeks ago, as I stood in one of the most photographed spots in Paris with my German boyfriend and his brother, I couldn't help but think of all these chances I wouldn't have been given were I to have stayed at home. Despite the sometimes gloomy days, I am so grateful for them all. Stay tuned for more from spring break in Portugal with some of my favorites.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

vila nova de gaia

Portugal is perhaps the least well known country in Western Europe. And the language? My gosh, it gets me every time. I'll hear a Spanish word, my ears will perk up in recognition... and then my mind will be blown by the unfamiliar sounds that follow. I literally had no idea what to expect from the small sliver of Portuguese culture that shares the Iberian peninsula with the pride of Spain. Well, except that their food is really good.
What brought me to Portugal then? Good friends. Sixteen years ago, in my family's first home, a Portuguese family moved into the house across the street. My mom became best friends with the mother, my brother, with the son. Although there wasn't a friend for me, their eldest daughter took me to my very first concert: N'Sync at Macy's in Herald Square. Don't worry, I'm still cool and have the signed passes to prove it.
But in 1999, they moved. For the past 10 years, they've been living in a small Portuguese city in between Porto and Lisbon. They invited me to visit as soon as I arrived in Paris. So, for spring break, I planned an 8-day trip in which I flew into Porto and out of Lisbon, planning to spend a weekend with them in between.
I explored much of the city on my first day in Porto (see photos here), venturing from the Crystal Palace Gardens all the way Saõ Bento station. And on my second day, I sought out the port wine cellars. I walked down to the Ribeira and crossed the bridge over the Gaia to Vila Nova de Gaia to do just that.
Then, upon arrival, I realized I hadn't had lunch yet. It was 2pm. I stopped into the first restaurant I saw: D. Tonho, situated in a glass box of a building with fantastic views of Porto across the river. The friendly waiter served me water, bread, and butter (all of which I'd later be charged for, as is customary in Portugal). For my meal, I ordered a mixed green salad, glass of white wine, and the chef's suggestion: salted cod with potatoes.
It was phenomenal, infinitely more flavorful than the last time I'd had cod (in London). There was olive oil, slices of yellow onion, bits of hard-boiled eggs, a handful of green olives, and fresh parley in addition to it and the potatoes. The side of broccoli and dry white wine were pretty enjoyable as well. But the cod! Phenomenal, I tell you. It's no wonder there are so many Portuguese recipes centered around it.
{the boats which transported wine from the Duoro Valley, barcos rabelos}
And for dessert, port wine. The last time I tasted it, I was a college senior wine touring by Cayuga Lake. I don't recall liking it at all. I was eager to find out if my tastes had matured and decided upon Ferreira, the only Porto wine house to have remained under Portuguese ownership since its founding in 1751.
Of all the fun facts I learned about port wine during the tour of the Ferreira cellars, the most memorable was about its origins. In the late 17th century, the British began importing port wine. The trouble was, by the time the wine was produced inland in the Duoro Valley, transported in barrels by barcos rabelos , aged, blended and bottled in Vila Nova de Gaia, and then transported to England, the wine had spoiled.
Fortunately, somebody soon discovered that adding a bit of brandy preserved the wine. And as such, the distinctly sweet and fortified port wine became the port wine we know today.
I must admit I'm still not a fan though. The white port wine--which our guide suggested be served as an aperitif--was too sweet for me. As for the tawny, which I am much more familiar with as the quintessential "port wine", I found the brandy flavor too strong; even if a chocolate pairing does sound divine.
As much as I enjoyed the experience, my distaste for port wine kept me from visiting the other cellars. Instead, I ventured back across the bridge and into a classic Portuguese pasteleria. There was literally one on every corner of every street in Porto, sometimes two, and I found the same to be true as I saw more of Portugal. Each had a similar variety of pastries and breads. A cup of coffee and a pastel de nata quickly became my favorite afternoon snack. And with that sweet thought, it's time for tea in Paris. Be back soon!