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an american girl in paris (and a bunch of other cities)

Somehow, I’m fortunate enough to be living my dream life. I just got home from the trip of a lifetime—three weeks visiting Cheltenham, England; Gijon, Spain;  Strasbourg, France and Kiel, Germany for work, as well as enjoying vacation time in Brussels and Bruges, Belgium; Amsterdam, Netherlands and Copenhagen Denmark—and I can’t even tell you how lucky I feel to have had such an amazing experience.  But that won’t stop me from trying to tell you all about it in this novel blog post.

Traveling is hard.
Nothing is familiar in a foreign city. The language is different. The culture and customs are different. Even the electrical outlets are different, for heaven’s sake.  When I arrived in the UK Sunday morning, I was so sleepy and out of sorts that I accidently went into the men’s bathroom in the airport—and not just into the bathroom and right back out. I walked in, saw the urinals and thought, “Huh, that’s weird.” But where I was didn’t register with me until I was all the way into the stall and I realized that there was a man in the stall next to me. Oops! I got out of there as fast as I could and hoped that nobody noticed.

For the first week of the trip, I was by myself. I had to navigate through unfamiliar airports in foreign cities on eight flights in less than a week, mostly going through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. In each city, I was having meetings, lunches and dinners with my European colleagues, and making those connections and getting personal tours of each city was awesome. Then, I was working until at least midnight each night to type up meeting notes and answer emails from America because I couldn’t sleep anyway—stupid jet lag.  By Thursday, I felt very far away from my friends and family, and even though I’d been having lovely experiences with nice people, it’s not the same as being home. I had a tougher time adjusting to being away than I thought I would. At my hotel in Strasbourg, I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the shower, and I had a sobbing meltdown right there in the bathroom.

Traveling is wonderful.
That said, it was totally worth it. Tony met me in Brussels on Saturday, and I was really pleased to see him.  A couple of our BFFs who moved to Germany from Gainesville last year also met up with us in Brussels, and we had a blast. Belgian beer, shopping, absinth, sightseeing, chocolate and catching up with old friends—nothing could be better.

A few other favorite moments include riding on a Vespa-ish motorbike with one of my co-workers in Gijon (I felt so European); getting to see the gingerbread-like architecture in Strasbourg; climbing to the top of old buildings to get a panoramic view of the city in Bruges and Copenhagen; visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam (it’s really sobering); biking in Amsterdam with the crazy-aggressive cyclers.

Traveling is delicious.
Nearly every.single.thing. I ate in Europe was outstanding. The yogurt and the coffee are about a million times better than their American equivalents. I ate more Danish cheese, Belgian chocolate and pommes frites and drank more fantastic beer and wine than I care to think about now.

And the meat—oh, my god, I ate every part of every animal (and fish) under the sun: beef cheeks, veal cheeks, pork cheeks, beef cooked in Belgian beer, wild boar, ham, ham, ham, pork knuckle, sausage, lamb, foie gras, chicken, chicken liver, ostrich, lobster, mussels, squid in squid ink, whole fish, fish fillet, clams, baccala, salmon, salmon roe, herring and I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting. I don’t typically eat a lot of meat unless I know where it comes from because factory farming practices are so bad in America, but that wasn’t my concern in Europe (obviously!). Plus, I knew that when I ordered a meat dish from a restaurant, it likely would be wheat-free and safe for me to eat.

The food was so amazing that it actually became harder and harder to impress me with restaurant meals. I ate some really good lobster in butter sauce in Brussels—food that would have blown me away at home—and I thought it was “meh.”

Some of the stand-out meals include fish and steak in a tiny restaurant in Gijon; deconstructed paella, salad with Serrano ham and blue cheese ice cream (much tastier than it sounds) and a ice cream sundae featuring a giant disk of chocolate with hot chocolate poured on top of it to melt down into the ice cream at a progressive restaurant in Bruges; a giant omelet at a pancake restaurant in Amsterdam (Tony got a banana and Nutella pancake, and I was so jealous);  a crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside pork knuckle in Kiel and baccala cooked in tomato sauce along with a crème caramel at a restaurant in Copenhagen that served only three (amazing) dishes for each course on its menu.

For me, the best part of visiting new places is getting to experience the food culture, and what an experience it was. Just in case you’re wondering—my clothes still fit (barely!), but I haven’t wanted to eat anything but vegetables and fruit since I got home. Again—totally worth it.

Traveling is hilarious.
There also were several “what the hell” moments on this trip that made me laugh. On my first night in Brussels, I was eating alone in a restaurant, and an old French man sent flowers over to my table. Then he asked the waiter to buy me a drink. Then he got a guitar, walked over to my table and proceeded to serenade me in French. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or creeped out, but I certainly was embarrassed.

In Amsterdam, of course we checked out the prostitutes in the windows at the Red Light district. In my mind, I’d pictured the Red Light district as a Prohibition-era brothel, and I kind of expected the women to be sporting pin curls, wearing silky robes and smoking from long cigarette holders. Imagine my surprise when the ladies looked more like Sopranos-style strippers than Boardwalk Empire-style working girls. “I thought they’d be wearing more clothes,” I said to Tony. He looked at me like I was crazy.

Tony and I did more partying during the last two weeks than we’ve probably done in the last two months at home. It was really funny to see how prevalent American music (especially ‘80s and ‘90s music) is in European bars and clubs. We went to hip-hop night at a club in Copenhagen, and they were playing really good, old school hip hop—Snoop Dog, Lauren Hill, Puff Daddy. It was rather early in the night and not many people were dancing. Then the DJ played Here Comes the Hotstepper and a whole bunch of people came on to the dance floor. Jokingly, I said to Tony, “Watch…he’s going to play Informer next.” And sure enough, the very next song was Snow’s Informer, and the dance floor was flooded with people getting “licky boom boom down.” Also, both of those songs have been stuck in my head ever since. Go ahead, click the links above, and you’ll need to wash them from your brain too.

Traveling is inspiring.
I came home with so many ideas from things that I saw in my travels, and I can’t wait to incorporate them into my life.

In fashion, I there were a few European looks that I’m eager to try—shorts with tights, ankle socks with sandals or loafers, super skinny jeans tucked into boots, higher-waisted, wide-leg jeans and scarves, scarves, scarves. The shopping in Europe (especially in Copenhagen) is beyond reproach, and all I’m going to say is that my suitcase was a lot heavier on the way home.

Amid all of the cheese, chocolate, meat and wine, we kept it a little healthy by going to a few very good juice bars, and the first thing I bought when I got home was a juicer. I’ve got so many ideas for fruit and vegetable juice combos that I can’t wait to try.

For work, my to-do list is very long, but I feel energized and ready to tackle it. I was so impressed with the multilingual nature of most Europeans, easily switching from Dutch to English or Danish to English or Spanish to English. It really made me want to get serious about learning another language. Spanish is most likely, since I’ve taken lots of Spanish classes, and I already know just enough Spanish to be dangerous. Time to hop to it!

out of order

Business travel seems glamorous (and it is mostly pretty darn great), but it can really throw off my routine. I took a work trip to San Diego for a week in February, and I’m getting ready to visit four countries in Europe for work (plus three more for vacation) later this month, as well as a possible trip to the Philippines for a meeting in June. Whew! That knocks visiting someplace I’ve never been (#4 on my 35 Things list) out of the park.

Last week, I took a sewing class at UF (#5), and I felt like a granny lugging my sewing machine across campus among all the college kids. (“Legit sewing machine,” one girl said to me. Really? 2 Legit 2 Quit?) But, a little embarrassment was totally worth it because I made the coolest zippered bag. I think the hardest part of sewing is battling with the machine, so I wasn’t expecting the bag to come out so professional-looking, especially since I’ve never worked with a zipper before. Of course, it helped that the instructor perfectly cut out all the fabric beforehand and was right there to help as I had questions.

I crammed a bunch of list activities into this past weekend as well. On Friday, I ate jerk chicken from the Chow Now food truck (#7) that comes to my office a few times a month. I try really hard to only eat clean, humanely raised meat, but I have to admit the potentially dodgy food truck chicken was fantastic, and although the portion was only supposed to be for one, it ended up being enough food for three full meals.

On Saturday, Tony and I ventured to the retired horse farm in Alachua (#8), along with a couple of our friends. It was a beautiful day to be hanging outside with the horses, who ate carrots right out of my hand. I’ve never really been around horses up close before, so I was unprepared for how big and powerful they’d be (city girl!) and I found them a little scary. The donkeys and the mini-horses, on the other hand, were terrific.

I also tried miracle berries (#9), which make sour food taste sweet. I ate a sliced lemon like it was an orange, and it was delicious. I drank bottled lime juice that tasted exactly like key lime pie. The miracle berry magic also works on grapefruit juice, black coffee and pickles–amazing!

All this traveling and listing is keeping me busy, but I’ve had to do a few of the items out of order. I wanted to ride on a sailboat in San Diego (#7), but it didn’t work out, so I’ll have to try to fit that one in some other time this year.

Instead, I had the wonderful opportunity to have a photo taken of myself that I really like (#28) as part of a photo shoot done by my super-talented friend who’s getting her photography business off the ground. It was so much fun to dress up and strike poses. My moment as a model also presented the perfect time to wear false eyelashes (#19), which were so pretty and so much more natural-looking that what I’d expected. More to come about this when I get the final pics back from her. Until then, au revoir!

the cheese stands alone, part 2

Aww…”The Cheese Stands Alone” was the first post I ever wrote on this blog back in June 2007. I was so pleased with myself for learning how to make homemade ricotta, and that was some dang good cheese. But for my 35 Things list, I wanted to make real cheese, the kind that takes days to make and requires weird ingredients like bacteria and rennet. I only wish this cheese making attempt had gone as well as the last one. I tried three different recipes for two different kinds of cheese: feta and cream cheese. Unfortunately, all three were utter failures.

The feta tasted good, but it was way too soft, more like the texture of ricotta, in fact. The first cream cheese recipe I tried never came together; it was like the texture of really loose yogurt and ran right through the cheesecloth when I tried to strain it. (By the way, what is commercially sold as cheesecloth must be good for something, but it sucks for making cheese. The holes are way too big, and using a double layer proved to be messy and ineffective.) The second cream cheese recipe showed a lot more promise. It strained nicely, and it looked like cream cheese, but the texture was gross–lumpy in some areas and grainy in others. So, I’m glad I tried it, but it looks like my cheese making days are done. I’ll stick to easy, delicious ricotta, thank you very much.

I’m doing well on the rest of my list. Tony and I went to a Gator basketball game: Florida vs. Arkansas. (The Razorbacks are my favorite college sports mascot–so fierce!) I enjoyed it a lot more than watching a live football game, but I’m just not into sports enough to ever go to another game, I don’t think.

The shopping hiatus was painful, but it went well too. I only made two exceptions–a Groupon for Mother Earth Market (counts as food, if you ask me) and a Groupon for the Ayurvedic spa (on my list for July, so it’s totally legit). I tend to shop when I’m bored or when I’m going out and just want something new to wear, so I’m hoping this exercise will make me more mindful of my purchases. We’ll see if it worked when I head to the outlet mall in Orlando tomorrow. Yes, I planned a big outlets trip for the first weekend after my shopping hiatus ended. Shut up.

35 before 35

Love 2011Oh, wow. The year 2010 flew by in a blink. Some really fantastic things happened last year: I got a job that I love; I became the president of ACEL; I spent a wonderful week in Boston. And some really horrible things happened as well, the worst of which was losing Barkley to Cushings disease in July. I still miss that guy so much every day.

But, it’s a new year with a clean slate and all that jazz, and this year, instead of making resolutions that I’m not likely to keep, I put together a list of 35 new things that I want to try before I turn 35 on Nov. 12, 2011. Would you like to see what’s on the list? Hold on tight, here we go:

January
1.    Learn to make cheese
2.    Go on a shopping hiatus for the entire month (except for food)
3.    Attend a Gator basketball game

February
4.    Travel someplace I’ve never been (San Diego!)
5.    Take a sewing class
6.    Ride on a sailboat
7.    Eat something from a food truck

March
8.    Visit the Horse Retirement Home
9.    Try miracle berries
10.    Apply to be a contestant on a game show

April

11.    Volunteer at a community garden
12.    Go on a manatee tour
13.    Learn to change a tire

May
14.    Get a ridiculous pedicure (maybe with some bling)
15.    Watch the Kentucky Derby while wearing a fancy hat
16.    Have an unplugged weekend (no computer, BlackBerry or TV)

June
17.    Go to a food festival
18.    Give up chocolate for one month
19.    Wear false eyelashes

July
20.    Learn to can jam
21.    Send a care package to soldiers in Afghanistan
22.    Spend the day at the Ayurveda Health Retreat

August
23.    Watch the Godfather trilogy
24.    Go to a movie by myself
25.    Write a fan letter

September
26.    Collect my favorite recipes into a cookbook
27.    Swim with the fish at the Georgia Aquarium
28.    Have a photo taken of myself that I really like

October
29.    Crochet a scarf
30.    Read a book that I don’t think I’d like

Ongoing, finish before Nov. 12
31.    Go to Quaker church at least three times per month
32.    Learn gluten-free baking
33.    Be able to do a handstand with ease
34.    Take a burlesque class
35.    Pay off my student loans

I’m very excited to tackle some of the things on this list (see #6, #15, #22) and others might be more of a challenge (see #2, #18, #35), but I like the idea of giving them all a whirl. Maybe I’ll even write about it in this blog. No promises there, though.

One thing is for sure, I’m looking forward to 2011 and all that it has in store. Happy New Year, lovelies!

2-0-0-9 in review

So, plenty of things didn’t go as I’d planned in ’09. I didn’t really start running consistently again; I didn’t end up doing that 50-mile bike ride; clearly I didn’t write in this blog as much as I wanted to. But, but, BUT…I did accomplish heaps. And I love year-in-review lists, so let’s take a look at the positives, okay?

  • I signed up for a CSA and learned to cook and love greens.
  • I learned to make homemade yogurt and kafir.
  • I went to hot yoga at least once a week, unless I was sick or traveling, and I’ve improved my practice by a lot.
  • I started working out with a personal trainer and saw the tiniest bit of a six-pack in my abs.
  • I went to fitness Boot Camp at 6 a.m. and survived. <–Would like to do that again (and again and again) in 2010.
  • I biked 32 miles all at once.
  • Other than my summer of partying like a rock star, I did better with moderation this year.
  • I learned to play blackjack and actually won some $$$ at the tables in Vegas.
  • I saw my favorite band of all time and made loads of happy memories with some of my favorite people at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Lollapalooza in 2010, perhaps?
  • I ate one of the top 10 meals of my life in Charleston.
  • I found many fabulous vintage frocks and had so much fun with dear friends in Lincoln, Nebraska.
  • I watched Barkley and Bella frolic in the snow for the first time in North Carolina.
  • I got a promotion and was happy at my job, despite making less money.
  • I appeared on the radio multiple times, got a story on the news, secured coverage in the local paper and learned a lot about how to use social media effectively, all for ACEL. And I was honored with ACEL’s President’s Award for all my contributions. Very proud!
  • I figured out how to use Twitter, professionally and personally.
  • I read 44 books.
  • I tried out purple, red, blue and magenta highlights in my hair.
  • I expanded my shoe collection, including these, which were the perfect Christmas present from Tony.
  • I bought a new car, for the first time in 10 years. Hoooray!!! Check it out:

Here I am in my hybrid on my way to the farmer’s market to pick up my locally grown produce. Oh, boy.

I’m enamored with the idea of a brand new year (and decade!). Starting with a clean slate is so appealing, and I do have a couple of goals/resolutions: 1. Be kind, always. 2. Floss, seriously. 3. Yoga, yoga, yoga. 4. Visit somewhere I’ve never been. 5. Really learn to use my camera.

Happy, happy New Year!

greens, greens, greens (or, wait…you can eat that?)

The most frequent question I’ve been asked about the CSA is whether I used all the items in my basket of veggies. I’m happy to say that the answer is yes, mostly. I have one sweet potato left from last week, but that’s it.

What did I do with all that produce, you ask? Well, let me tell you. As planned, I did make a pesto-inspired arugula, basil and avocado sauce and served it with cold roasted chicken. (It was meh; as hard as I try, I still don’t like avocado.) I also cooked a fantastic pumpkin curry and pumpkin soup, radishes sauteed in brown butter (heavenly!) and roasted sweet potatoes with greens, peppers and bacon.

This photo looks pretty decent, huh? I\'m getting better with the Photoshop, and Tony bought me an *ahem* idiot-proof camera for my birthday. Love!I don’t have experience with turnip greens (or many other greens either, for that matter), and I was quite skeptical. The raw greens are rather prickly, and I was afraid it would be like eating a plate full of weeds, but they cooked down to be tender and lovely. Which is a good thing, because turnip greens made an appearance in my CSA basket this week as well, along with: arugula, a mix of lettuces and herbs, more sweet potatoes, more radishes, lemons, pomegranates, Chinese Honey tangerines and sweet peppers.

Speaking of greens, I also just discovered that it’s possible to eat the green tops of radishes too, which makes sense, but it never would have occurred to me to try and cook those before. I’ve always tossed them into the trash. Whoops.

I have a feeling we’ll also be eating a few salads this week; perhaps I’ll make a pear, blue cheese and walnut salad with pomegranate seeds and tangerine vinaigrette. Doesn’t that sound good? Otherwise, I’m not sure what to do with the other pomegranate or all those sweet potatoes, but figuring it out is all part of the fun.

CSAwesome

I am so pleased to be participating in a CSA (community supported agriculture). I just love the idea of getting a surprise box of produce each week–whatever’s growing at the farm–and trying new things while literally learning what’s in season. Today I picked up my first crate of vegetables. Let’s look at what was inside, shall we? Pumpkin, sweet potatoes, arugula, kale, collard and turnip greens, basil, sweet peppers and radishes: I can’t wait to cook up some of this stuff. I’m already thinking of arugula/basil pesto, roasted sweet potatoes, greens with bacon and balsamic, and coconut/curry pumpkin (one of the recipes that came with the veggies–bonus!) or perhaps a fresh pumpkin pie. Drooooool.

bonnaroo superlatives

Ever since the first Lollapalooza when I was in 10th grade xxx years ago, I’ve wanted to go to a music festival. For one reason or another, it’s never worked out–until last week when I was fortunate enough to attend the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. It was four days of sweaty, camping fun with some of the most fantastic live music (and most horrifying port-a-potties) I’ve ever seen. Shall I break down my favorites for you?

Best Overall: Nine Inch Nails
I’m sure this comes as a surprise to exactly no one. It’s true, I’m a big NIN fan and would have enjoyed the show even if Trent Reznor sang a duet with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (more on that later), but this performance was phenomenal. They sang almost all of my favorites and didn’t play Closer, which I thought was kind of awesome. Trent Reznor said it was their last show ever in the United States, and I’m very glad that I got to see it.

Best Stage Presence: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
It is so nice to see a woman with as much rock star power as Karen O. Her outfit was amazing, and she was lots of fun to watch. The band played an impromptu, acoustic version of Maps that just blew me away. We stood through the awful Animal Collective show in the hot, hot sun to get close to the stage for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and it was worth every minute.

Best Surprise: Raphael Saadiq
I’m not really a fan of R&B, but I thought Raphael Saadiq and his band were great. I really like watching musicians like these who clearly love what they do and enjoy performing.

Second Best Surprise: The Dirty Projectors
This was another band with powerful women on vocals, and they had David Byrne of the Talking Heads join them on stage for one song.

Best Show: Of Montreal
Of Montreal always puts on a really creative, theatrical show, and this was no exception. They were having problems with the sound, and the band members seemed to be getting more and more irritated. I think that’s the reason they smashed all their instruments and jumped into the crowd while playing The Past is a Grotesque Animal at the close of the show.

Best Seen from Far Away: TV on the Radio
I really like TV on the Radio, and I thought we were in a perfect spot to see the band right up front. I was wrong. Although we had a great view, the bass was enough to rattle my eyeballs in my skull. I couldn’t handle it and had to move way to the back of the crowd, where I enjoyed the music a lot more.

Like it but Didn’t Love It: White Rabbits, Heartless Bastards, Chairlift
For these shows, either I was too far away to see properly or the bands didn’t interact with the crowd much, which made it more like listening to a CD than being at a live performance.

Too Crowded to Enjoy: The Beastie Boys, Wilco, Public Enemy
The area surrounding the main stage was massive and packed with about a million people for all of the acts who played there.

Best One-Man Band: AA Bondy
You’d never guess AA Bondy was such a talented musician; he looks like he should be working in a gas station. But I loved his soulful voice, and I’ve listened to his CD a bunch of times since I’ve been home.

Sorry I Missed It: Lucinda Williams, The Mars Volta, Ani DiFranco, The Features
With a festival of this size, there was bound to be some scheduling conflicts, and I missed out on a few of the bands I would have liked to see.

Biggest Disappointment: Neko Case
I love Neko Case, and maybe if I’d seen her on Day 1 instead of Day 4 I would have liked her show more but probably not. It really seemed as though she didn’t want to be there. She let her back-up singer do almost all of the talking, she kept fanning herself and adjusting her bra, and she’s the one who did the unforgivable duet with Triumph–Swing Low Sweet Chariot while the dog puppet was humping a puppet of Yoda. I am not making this up. Ick.

Even with the crowds, the mud, the heat and the hippies, I had such a fabulous time at Bonnaroo, and I’ll never forget it.

Psst…you may have noticed that I haven’t exactly been keeping up with posting here. I’ve totally been cheating on this blog with Twitter. If you want to hear from me every day, please follow me at www.twitter.com/colleen1112.

hello, cupcake

Oh, my goodness. My schedule has been even more packed than usual lately, y’all. Between work and ACEL, I have been one busy bee. For ACEL, I helped market and promote a panel discussion on Gainesville’s ever-controversial Charter Amendment 1, and as part of those efforts, I appeared on NPR twice AND on a conservative talk radio show (which could have been very interesting, but my goal was only to promote the event, not to debate the host). Although things got pretty tense between the panelists, the event turned out quite well, and all the PR attached to it was good experience for me.

And, now that it’s over, I have some much-needed spare time, which I spent recently making the most fabulous cupcakes and cookies that doubled as ice-cream sandwiches. Swoon. Otherwise, I’ve just been whiling away the hours by window-shopping on the Interwebz. Would you like to see some of the ultra-posh fashions I’m enamored with lately? Check it.

spring outfits
spring outfits – by Colleen Raccioppi on Polyvore.com

Take that, economic downturn.

porcine cuisine

I live about 500 yards from the best barbecue place in town. Because I am lazy and because it’s so convenient to saunter across the street to Chunky T’s, I don’t cook barbecue at home very often. But today, the sun came out, and after a week of frigid-for-Florida temperatures, we’re finally having some beautiful weather. It’s the kind of day that practically commands you to spend time outside with a beer and a pulled-pork sandwich. Unfortunately, Chunky T’s is closed Sundays through Tuesdays, and my barbecue craving can’t wait three more days to be satisfied. So, it seems as though if I want barbecue pork, it’ll have to come out of my own kitchen.

Luckily, it’s a pretty easy dish to make, especially if you have a slow cooker. I followed a loose interpretation of this recipe from Epicurious, except I used (gasp!) bottled (organic, naturally sweetened, of course) barbecue sauce. I normally wouldn’t condone that kind of cheating, but as I mentioned, I am lazy, and it’s really nice outside. Homemade barbecue sauce just wasn’t an option today.

The finished pork didn’t quite match up to Chunky T’s quality (my crock pot simply can’t compare to their awesome smoker), but it was still very delicious.