My 25 Euro Cornetto

I just missed my train and am drowning my sorrow in a giant cappuccino at the station café. Is there anything more depressing than a train station waiting room at 7:00am? Maybe the Reg bookstacks during finals week.

My original plan for this morning was to stopover in Florence for 2 hours before my train to Naples. I had already day tripped there last week but I did not get a chance to see the Galleria d’Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s David. But this dummy here just had to stop to get the pisctacchio cornetto she spied in the bakery window, didn’t she? So now I get to spend two extra hours in Bologna Central Station – 25 Euro poorer and kicking myself over and over again for making such a rookie mistake. I am angrily chewing. The brioche should taste perfectly sweet and doughy, but all I taste is salt.

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Sometimes these were filled with strong rum cream. Venice was pretty great because of that.

I should rewind and first say, Buongiorno! Back in November, I spotted a $350 round-trip ticket from Cairo to Rome for January and I went for it. The great thing about working at AUC is that we get the American, Coptic, and Islamic holidays off, allowing me to take a 15-day (!!) vacation this month. What’s not so great is the little spending money I have saved up from my job. But through proofreading and babysitting gigs, I’ve managed to scrape enough together to travel quite comfortably for two weeks.

After five months of living in a Muslim country, I kicked off in Rome with a huge fanfare of prosciutto. Melon-wrapped prosciutto, prosciutto Panini, prosciutto and mozzarella sampler plate, cheap supermarket prosciutto on a 1Euro baguette – alas, I am now officially done with prosciutto.

From Rome, I went on to Florence and then Venice, which together constitutes the holy Trinity of any Italian trip. Though each city has a distinct individual history, they all are located in Northern Italy and you just feel the reliance on tourism in the restaurants, stores, and sights. Well of course there are natives (even native Venetians though they only number 66,000), but I couldn’t easily shake off the “Disneyland” vibe from any of those cities. If you will allow me a few myopic generalizations, Rome is for the famous monuments, Florence is for Renaissance art, and Venice is for honeymooners.

Thus, I’m dedicating an entire post just for Bologna because:

  • I think it’s under appreciated.
  • I had to hunt for the Bolognese tourist attractions amongst a sea of local spots, whereas the exact opposite was true for the Trinity.
  • There are already thousands of travel articles written about Rome, Florence, Venice.

I’ll definitely get that Bologna post up soon. Recently, a lot of my friends are planning trips to Europe and have asked me for backpacking advice. As I wrote my lengthy replies, I realized that I actually am qualified to share practical tips and design itineraries for 20-something kids who want an exciting yet affordable travel experience. A lot of travel sites with lengthy forums and discussions seem to be dominated by an older demographic and those with families. It’s probably because us youngins’ tend to wing it, which I’ve come to believe is always not the best way to travel.

But for now, I will say ciao to the North as I make my way South to the sun-drenched region of Campania. I’m planning on hitting Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast. It’s also going to be my first time Couchsurfing! Please pray that no pistaccio baked good will cause me to miss another train. Grazie.

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The coat of arms for Rome, Florence, Venice, and Bologna. Sorry Rome, but why are you so basic?

An Egyptian Family Christmas

It was the morning of Christmas and my apartment smelled like cat piss. My refrigerator was painfully similar to that of a fraternity house – half a whiskey bottle, a couple of eggs, and some mushy apples. Scholarship applications rested unfinished somewhere on my Mac desktop, probably floating (sinking?) in my Chicago River screensaver. Worst of all, the meet and greet service guy who was supposed to pick up my parents in 12 hours still had not confirmed. But that was okay because all this stress meant that I would be with my family for the winter holidays, Egyptian border control be damned. 

It’s daunting to wake up knowing that you have all this stuff you must get done. Suddenly the world outside our bed just seems incredibly frightening. Nonetheless I dragged myself up and out the door to give my life and apartment a parent-friendly makeover. I started by waiting an hour for the Syrian pastry shop in Tahrir to open. Take note – almost nothing is open in Cairo before noon on Fridays. But the barista at the chain cafe across the street put a cute animal face in my cappuccino foam as I waited and apparently, that’s all it takes to brighten my day.

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I forgot to take a picture, but it looked as adorable as this one.

With a delicious assortment of honey drenched sweets in hand, I headed down to the jewellery stores in Maadi to pick out delicate silver bracelets for my mother, and to eat hearty Chinese dumplings with my Egyptian friend who made sure the meet and assist guy confirmed.

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Let it be known that the Chinese food in Cairo tastes better than most Chinese food in America.

By early evening I was back in my apartment and everything had turned out fine – I got the piss smell out of my apartment by thoroughly washing the litter box and throwing open all the windows. I even had time to whip up a quick dinner.

After a hasty hour of cleaning bathroom sinks and sweeping up mounds of cat hair, it was 8pm and I was in an uber on the way to Cairo International Airport. An hour ride later, and a half-hour of waiting outside later (for security reasons), I was in the arms of my mother and father. Just like that, after a six month absence, I was smelling my mom’s hair and kissing my dad’s cheek in the middle of the parking lot. It’s so weird.

We spent the last two hours of Christmas at my apartment unwrapping gifts and playing with the cat around my coffee table, spread with Syrian desserts and instant ramen. My dad had a cough for the past week and apparently all he ever felt like eating was instant ramen. As I watched my mom nibble at the kunafa, her shoulder hunched in that familiar slump- her mouth making circular motions as the chewed, I couldn’t stop thinking – one day, I will never sit across from my mom and watch her eat. Because one day she will die. Then I became obsessed with memorising the exact detail of how her face wrinkled and the color of her eyes and the movements of her hand as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

One day you feel infinite and then one day, you don’t. Over the past few months, I was so busy being annoyed at my parents and avoiding them that I overlooked their mortality. They’re getting older and it’s showing. Now everything seems like there’s a time limit, and I am fixated at counting the grains of sand I have left in the hourglass. Yes I know that that’s a rather morbid thought to end on, especially for a Christmas post, but it’s better to be aware of this now than to regret it when it’s too late. 

I am not a foodie but I eat well

I am not the person to whip out my DSLR camera to snap food before consuming it. I am also not the person to seek out restaurants known for their hip, new-fangled way of preparing grilled cheese or tiramisu. But I love eating well and eating diverse. Cairo is an amazing city for trying cuisines from all over the world. My favorite restaurant in Cairo (and one I already frequented four times) is Mori Sushi, and I am constantly getting recommendations for Thai places, Indian restaurants, Yemeni joints, and Syrian bakeries.

So enjoy this collection of my screenshotted snapchats, poor quality photos sent over Facebook chat, and my trademark unimpressed selfie face (but with food). I think this presents a more accurate view of my Cairo life anyway. Hover and click for captions.

Favorite Food Places in Cairo —

An American Girl in Paris: Part 3

I’ve officially now been to Paris more times than I’ve visited New York City. Then again, I’ve never been particularly drawn to the aesthetic of the Big Apple. Religiously watching Sex and the City is enough for me (snaps for you if you get the title reference). It’s one of those charming, life’s blessings to have experienced Paris in three separate seasons. I think I can do without trying Paris in the winter though – I hear the sun goes down at 4:00pm and after fall quarter, God knows that seasonal affective disorder is real. Anyway, being in Paris again felt so incredibly familiar. Each time, Paris is still a mecca for artists, it’s still incredibly stylish, its selection of perfectly baked carbohydrates is still fantastic – this city just perfectly fills the Eiffel Tower shaped hole in my heart.

Despite all that time clocked in Paris, this visit was marked by several firsts and I left with many things still on my checklist for the future. A mere five hours after arriving in Paris, I dragged my lazy-ass and my lovely host, Amy, up to Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre. Better late than never, right?

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But I’m also such a creature of habit. We went for my third time to Bouillon Chartier for lunch. It’s just such a rustic, typically French interior design with wall-to-wall mirrors and wrought-metal bulb lighting. Not to mention the free wifi.

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I took my last requirement for my Visual Arts minor last quarter on contemporary art and that made me all the more excited to check out Palais de Tokio. It went above and beyond my expectations. It also helped to share the experience with a cute art design school French boy. I know a lot of people are perplexed by contemporary art. Or more like, “What the hell is this crap?” But Palais du Tokio would impress even the most skeptical. From Jackass video installations to large-scale mechanical instruments powered by magnets to a freakishly realistic female robot, there is something for everyone. Outside of the actual exhibition space (which is huge), there’s also a café, restaurant, movie theater, and dance club. Everything is open late into the night. And is there a better time to experience art than in the creative vortex of after-sunset?

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Kenji Kawakami, the artist responsible for the famous series of “ingenious” inventions that went viral a few years ago, had his exhibition at Palais!

I finally found it, by the way. The best croissant in Paris resides at the Café St. Regis on Ile St. Louis. Dense and fluffy and warm – if this was the last croissant I ever eat, I’d contently state, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

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Other than that, most of my time was spent visiting the museums for my B.A. thesis research and shopping for warmer clothes as I completely underestimated Europe in early April. Being from Chicago kind of does that to you – you think nowhere is as freezing as Chicago but actually you don’t have a monopoly on annoyingly cold temperatures in spring.

I always fit in a dinner and walk through Paris at night. It’s not called the City of Lights for nothing.

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Today also marks the one-week checkpoint of my trip. I don’t know how those people who go backpacking for months do it. I have already developed a persistent tickle in my throat and a dull feeling in my feet. It’s the middle of Easter Break for most of Europe. That means more tourists but also more young people traveling which then means more random friends to make on long train rides. Oh, I forgot to say where I am at the moment. I’m sitting on the TGV from Strasbourg to Mannheim, having successfully completed part one of my two transfers en route to Berlin. First time in Germany! I will have to remember to not jaywalk.

Days of Happiness Update #9

31. Appetizer spreads. I’m just going to list all the things I love in a perfect appetizer table: bell peppers, assortment of nuts, camembert, a sampling of the best a charcuterie has to offer, peanut m&ms, petit ecoliers, grape tomatoes. Why eat real meals when you can just eat appetizers forever. Oh, we absolutely demolished it. Here’s a little peek at the carnage.

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30. I had the best apple at the market. Perfectly crisp, lusciously sweet. Devoured it like a mountain lion ripping into the flesh of a deer.

29. I know I mentioned it before, but I think petit ecoliers might beat even bueno bars as my favorite European treat discovery. Someone else agrees with me. Basically, they’re butter biscuit cookies with a slab of good quality chocolate attached to the top. I may or may not have had an entire box for lunch today.

This entire list was about food.

Alone in Strasbourg

No, Strasbourg is not in Germany. Once you get near Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), all the streets seem to alternate between German, French, and Dutch names. I really wanted to visit Frankfurt or Munich but there just wasn’t enough money left in the coffers so I cheated and went to Strasbourg, which is in the Alsace region of France – as German as you can get without actually crossing the French border. Luckily, it is also the “Capitale de Noel” or Christmas Capital.  Unluckily, I hadn’t the foresight to factor in increased levels of homesickness during the holiday season when I decided to be cool and travel solo for a weekend. Thanksgiving had just passed and I was hitting that three-months-away-from-everything-familiar mark. And you know what cures that, right? Three days in an even more unfamiliar city on the weekend that every European family and couple decides to go out and be merry together at the biggest festival celebrating the love of togetherness and friendship.

But no, all in all, my first experience traveling alone was relaxing and beautiful. Though I’m beginning to think that Europe is just beautiful everywhere. You can walk around a corner and oops, I ran into this 12th century perfectly preserved and still in use Gothic cathedral, my bad. Case in point:

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The entire thing – inside, outside – still overpowers my senses today in the same way it has for centuries. Let that sink in a second; before the world wars, before the founding of the United States, before the discovery of the New World, these walls already stood. Countless people throughout all that time have tilted their heads back at distressing angles for unforgettably long pauses to take in the ceiling’s criss-crossing beams, the exact same way I did now.  How many sick or dying have these candles burned for? How many echoes of whispered prayers have swept through the halls? Some human behaviors never change, such as the need for comfort from others, and hope, and community.

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Traveling alone gave me much more time to be with my thoughts. I realized I’m a sappy romantic, I can try to hide it behind this resting bitch face and monotone voice but just one solitary walk along a cobblestone river bank and I turn into fricking William Blake.

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And trust me, Strasbourg has a lot of rivers.

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And they don’t kid around when they say Christmas Capital of the world. Throughout the city center, there were probably five or six huge Christmas markets spread out and all with a specific theme. In my opinion, the theme of Christmas markets is food. I cannot tell you if I tried how many bretzels and manalas I ate over a three day period. This is what a manala/mannele (an Alsatian brioche in the shape of St. Nicolas) looks like:

Yes, raisins for eyes and buttons!! History and recipe here.

I definitely plan on traveling solo again but ecoutez, if you want a fun, social time choose your hostel wisely. The hostel I stayed in was not really geared towards youth as much as for group tours of retired elderly couples… Nonetheless, still met a Canadian woman I shared the room with who traveled alone in Europe for three months at the age of seventy. So all you wanderlust kids scared of being alone in a strange new world: if she can do it, you can too.

How to Make a Proper French Yogurt Cake

Host mother made this last week. I ate a good half of it.

Emilia Lives Life

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I have, for quite some time, been eager to join the French Yogurt cake club.  Excuse me, the proper French yogurt cake club.  There are plenty of good recipes out there for French yogurt cake (I’ve included some recommendations at the bottom of the post) but read any description and you’ll discover that a real one is made using a French yogurt jar to measure ingredients.  Much like a pound cake, come to think of it.

So, if you’d like to make the French version, you must find your jar of French yogurt.  This step is somewhat straight forward if you’re going to France and have the foresight to save some room in your suitcase for an oddly shaped, though not-at-all heavy, little glass jar.  Then, the jar sits on your counter; a trophy won with your vague knowledge of French.  Of course, this is a French recipe, so it…

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