Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bastille Day 2014

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know that yesterday was Bastille Day (said no French person ever), or as it is more commonly known "le quatorze juillet".  It's my favorite French holiday, and this year in particular I have especially been looking forward to it because of our view.

I love me some good fireworks, and long before we found our apartment, I often dreamed of us watching the fireworks from chez nous, like I used to be able to do from my shoebox.   So that was my immediate thought the minute I stepped out on the balcony during our first visit here. I could literally already see us popping a bottle of champagne and enjoying the view.... which is exactly what we did last night. And it was magical.
I actually got a little teary during the middle of the show.  I'd been dreaming of this night for so long, and here it was. I could feel my happiness building along with the crescendo of the music, like the culmination of all of our hard work over the past few years that had brought us to this exact moment.
And it was perfect.
Thank you Universe.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hello Paris

So I survived my six week traveling spree, and now have a glorious 8 days at home before leaving on another 2 week trip (1 week in France, 1 week in Russia).  I'm so relieved to be back home and sleeping in my own bed that even the grey skies can't keep me down.

A lot of positive stuff came out of my travels, namely some changes in my job functions that will likely mean even more travel abroad and less direct employee supervision, which should take care of most of my late-night meetings.  Having to supervise people who are working in the US and with a 7hr time difference has definitely been one of my biggest headaches over the past few years, so it's a welcome change.

Here are a few pictures to sum up my various trips - what a strange few weeks it has been, going from the "bigger is better" American culture to the middle of nowhere Morocco to discovering Taiwan and Bali.

Also, as a side note, this was my first big long-term challenge of staying fit while on the road since losing all that weight.  Before I left, I was feeling pretty nervous about it, as it meant a month and a half of eating 3 meals a day in hotels and restaurants.  It's still a work in progress, but in the end though, I'm fairly proud of how I did. C & I recently started doing TRX classes at our gym, and I soon realized it was also a workout I could do in my hotel room when no gym was available, so I purchased an inexpensive set of bands to keep in my suitcase.  Between that, 10 min abs, and a few other YouTube workout videos, I managed to maintain my weight for 5 of the 6 weeks.

Things kind of fell to crap the last week in Bali though despite my daily workouts because there was just so much fried food and rice everywhere.  I don't even really like fried food at all, but I was wary of eating some of the fresher stuff/street food due to the fear of spending my week in paradise cooped up in the hotel room with Bali Belly.  I also may have indulged in a few cocktails... So I gained about 1.5kg in the 7 days I was there, but now it's back to the grindstone and the extra weight should fall of quickly.  I guess that's really the moral of the story, isn't it?   Ie. staying on top of it and not letting small setbacks get you down.

PS. I was also nervous about being mega sleep-deprived after traveling through all of those time zones, so I purchased a new travel pillow to help me sleep on the plane.  I did a lot of research on frequent flier travel forums and finally found one that seemed to fit the bill. I didn't want one of those C shaped ones since I feel like they keep my head too far from the seat and don't stop me from falling forward.  The squarer foam ones looked more comfortable but would also take up a good chunk of my carry-on space.  So I settled for this pillow.  It looks a bit silly, but when it's blown up, it's sort of like sleeping on someone's shoulder, and it was nice to be able to wrap my arms around something too.  It honestly helped me get the most sleep I've ever had on any long-haul flights, and as an added bonus, it's easy to pack and even fit in my purse. Something to think about if you fly a lot or have trouble sleeping on planes...

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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Carb Cycling review

Disclaimer - if you aren't interested in diet or nutrition, you may want to skip this post. :)

I'm leaving for the US tomorrow, kicking off a 6 week traveling spree around the world. My bags are packed, and I'm all prepared for my work presentations, but what has been keeping me up at night is this - in a few days, I will have to be in a swimsuit in front of my co-workers and a few important customers.

Duh duh duh....

Oh yes, swimsuit season is upon us again.  I've never been a big fan of swimming - lakes in MN often have strange creepy crawlies and too much time in pools leaves my hair tinged green.  So I usually avoided swimsuit-wearing, preferring to stay in the boat and let others do the tubing, water-skiing, etc.  But this time, due to the corporate activities we have planned, it is unavoidable, and it's left me a bit stressed out.

Even if I'm satisfied with where my weight is at, I'm pretty sure like most of you ladies out there, I wish my legs were a little leaner.  I've been doing squats, lunges and leg-lifts to my heart's content, but it hasn't changed a damn thing.  The other odd thing is that for the past few weeks, I've also had really intense cravings for processed sugar, specifically for gummy bears and cereal. It was getting to be a bit extreme, to where C would find me in the kitchen eating cereal straight out of the box. Granted it was Special K, but still.  I really wanted to try to lose some fat before my trip and get my carb cravings under control, so I decided to try something that body-builders have been doing for years now pre-competition :  carb cycling.

The basic idea of carb cycling that you eat 5 meals a day and vary your carb intake in order to control insulin levels and to force your body to burn more fat on certain days (but not long enough to go into ketosis like you do with Atkins).  As you all know, I'm not really a fan of any fad diet really since I don't think they are sustainable for the long term, but I decided to give it a try out of curiosity, especially since I knew it would only be for 7 days.

After doing some research, I decided to go with 3 low-carb days, 1 high-carb day, 2 low-carb days and 1 high carb day (knowing this would be my flight day). Then came the question of what to eat?  I was shooting for around 1200 kcal on the low-carb days and 1400-1500 kcals on the high carb days.  I've never seen it, but apparently the trainer on the Extreme Weight Loss Makeover show also has his participants follow this diet, and he's come out with a few books on Amazon explaining how to do it.  As I said, since I wasn't planning on doing it long-term, I didn't want to spend 24€ on it, so I cobbled together a week's menu from carb cycling diet plans I found online.

Here's what a typical low-carb day was like for me:

Breakfast: 2 breakfast sausage egg muffins + mix together and heat: 1 TBSP nut butter, 1/3c unsweetened almond milk, 1/3c oatmeal with a sprinkle of cinnamon, 1/2c water (beverage: 1 c of tea w/1 tbsp almond milk)

AM Snack: 2 Ham rolls made with 2 slices deli ham + 2 laughing cow wedges + 1/4c diced cucumbers (plus a sprinkle of garlic powder, salt and pepper).

Lunch: 4oz chicken with 1tsp mustard and a sprinkle of parmesan and then pan-fried, 2c spinach, 1/3c pepper, 1 tbsp red onion, 6 radishes, 1 tsp balsamic vinaigrette

PM Snack: Blend together 1 scoop of low-carb chocolate protein powder + ice cubes + cinnamon

Dinner: 150g cod filet with 1 med zucchini noodles + 1/4c skinny alfredo sauce

Water - drink at least 12 glasses of water throughout the day

And a high carb day:

Breakfast: 2 breakfast sausage egg muffins + 1/2c avocado (plus tea w/1 tbsp almond milk)

AM Snack: Mix together - 1 yogurt, 1 scoop chocolate protein powder, 1/2 banana

Lunch: 1/2c hummus with unlimited cucumbers and celery

PM Snack: 1 small apple cut up and heated with 1/3c oatmeal, 1/2c water and a sprinkle of cinnamon

Dinner: 4 oz chicken, 5 oz sweet potato hash (4 oz sweet potato diced and cooked with 1tsp red onion, 1 tsp garlic, and 1 c wilted spinach)

Water - drink at least 12 glasses of water throughout the day

So what's the verdict?  

I was most nervous about getting headaches and/or feeling tired on the low-carb days, but I am happy to say that didn't happen at all.  I was also nervous about feeling light-headed during the high-intensity cardio workouts, but it was also not an issue, and the massive carb cravings I'd been having basically disappeared.  I didn't really notice any changes in my energy levels either.  One of the most surprising things to me though was how full I felt all week long, despite consuming roughly the same amount of calories I normally do.  There was likely more bulk with all of the veggies, and of course protein takes longer to digest than carbs - and I'm sure the 5 meals a day helped too.

C was actually really nervous about me trying this diet, likely because he knows how I get when I'm "hangry", but he ended up raving about all of our meals.  He told me he would happily eat like this every day (FYI - he added some kind of grain to every meal since he doesn't need to lose weight/fat).  

Practically speaking, I lost 2.2 kg (4.8 lbs) and 2% body fat.  So that's actually quite a bit for one week (maybe a lot of it was water weight??), but either way, I definitely feel a bit better about having to show up to work in my swimsuit. :)

However, despite all of that, it's not like an experience I will repeat because 1) it required tons of prep work for all of the meals, which isn't very practical for most weeks, 2) it would be almost impossible for me to eat like this while traveling for work, 3) having to drink tons of water meant I woke up pretty much every night to pee and then couldn't fall back asleep for ages and 4) all of that protein (protein powder, chicken, sausage, tuna, salmon and cod) was pretty pricey.  We don't normally eat that much meat, and thus ended up spending twice as much as we normally spend on food for the week.

I will however likely incorporate some of the snack and salad ideas I came across into our regular diet since they were super tasty and filling, and I need to eat more protein anyways.  Et voila - likely more than you ever wanted to know about carb cycling.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

4 Day Lisbon Itinerary

With this trip, I was looking for some fun in the sun and C was looking for a lot of relaxation time, so I tried to schedule our time in a way that accommodate both of those.

Day 1:
  • On our first full day, we visited the Jeronimos Monastery in the AM, and then walked over for an early lunch & pastries at the Pasteis de Belem. (FYI - you can either wait in line to get takeaway or walk past those folks and eat inside.  It's a bit of a maze in there, but they have an AMAZING amount of seating, and you can also see into the kitchen where they are prepping the pasteis). 
  • We took a little walk down to the Discovery Monument and then visited the Belem Tower.
  • Then we hopped on the train at Belem to Cascais to spend the afternoon at the beach. There are a couple of them, so it's worth walking a bit farther to the less-crowded ones. 
 **Everything on Day 1 is free with the Lisboa Card

 Day 2:
  • We walked all the way up to St George's castle, and had a leisurely stroll around the grounds, enjoying the various views over the city. 
  • Then we walked down to the Alfama neighborhood and checked out the flea market (Tues & Saturdays only). 
  • From there, we walked on to the Sé's cathedral, and then down hill to the Placa de Commercio.  We hung for a little while down there, first at a café and then on the small beach. 
  • After that, we walked up the Rua Augusta to the Santa Justa Elevator. 
  • It may seem like a lot of walking, but it was at a leisurely pace - an alternative would be to take the famous #28 tram and the metro to get around - this would also allow you to visit a lot more monuments.

**The Lisboa card would get you a -20% discount into the castle, plus a bunch of other museums around the city.

Day 3:
  •  Get up early and take the train from the Rossio train station out to Sintra.  As a side note, this - and most other train stations - was not sign-marked, or at least not in any way that was recognizable to us.  So if you are at the Rossio square, with the theater in front of you, the entrance to the station will be on the left, right next to the Starbucks.  Then take the escalators up to the top and hop on the next train to Sintra (from what we saw, all trains went to Sintra, with ones leaving every 20-30min). 
  • There are plenty of other sites out there that talk about which of the 5 palaces to visit, so I'll just cover what we did. I wanted to do a lot of walking, so we decided to visit just two - the Moors Castle and Pena Palace, and to reach them both by foot. Let me just put it out there that even though I knew it was a hike up, I did not realize this would entail climbing a mountain...
  • Anyways, we walked about 10 minutes from the train station to the little village at the bottom of the mountain, and from there, we got a little hiking map from the tourist office.  We also stopped to pick up a sandwich, because I wasn't sure what would be available for food up top (and nothing stresses me out more than being out in the middle of nowhere and not having any food - a traumatism left over from my early work travel days).
  • Then it was off to start hiking.  Let me say ladies - if you are going to Lisbon and Sintra, do not be vain like me and bring only stylish shoes.  Granted, I knew a lot of walking would be involved, and a friend wisely recommended to bring hiking boots, but I chose to ignore her sage advice.  I mean, I brought comfortable shoes, but definitely not shoes that were meant for climbing multiple stairs/a city with only cobblestone streets/hiking mountains. I spent a lot of time looking at other women's shoes while cursing my own, and it's true that most were wearing either tennis shoes, hiking boots or serious walking shoes.  But onwards and upwards, in my cute ballet flats.
  •  I was also a bit nervous about the hike since I'd read a lot of stories about people giving up in the middle and catching the bus, but to be honest, it was totally doable if you are in decent shape. It's a long walk, but I didn't even really break a sweat going up.  I also didn't consider the considerable amount of walking that would be required at the Palaces, especially at the Moors Palace if you walk all the way around the castle walls.  Totally worth it though, with views that reminded me of visiting the Great Wall of China. 
  • If you aren't interested in walking, or your goal is to see as many palaces as possible, you can also take a bus that leaves from the train station and does a circuit between all of the palaces. 
 **Train travel is covered under the Lisboa Card and it also offers 2€ discounts into the various castles.  Note too that there are combined tickets offering better deals if you want to visit multiples palaces.  The circuit bus however is not included. Also, the day we were there, the credit card machines were not working, so be sure to have enough cash on hand to pay for all the entrance fees, as they can add up fast - I think it was 18€/person for the two we did, and I can tell you I would have been pretty darn cranky had I hiked all the way up there only to find out we didn't have enough money for the entrance fees....

Day 4:
  • We slept in a bit and then took another day trip out to the little village of Obidos.  It was a little over an hour bus ride from the Campo Grande metro station. The bus is a little difficult to find as it is not sign-marked (story of our life in Lisbon), but if you look out the left-hand window just before your metro car enters the station, you can see the bus stop down below.  Don't get confused by the city busses that are also outside of the station on the right-hand side - the bus to Obidos leaves off on a small side street, and is called "Rapida Verde".  Tickets can be bought on the bus (cash-only). 
  • So what to do in Obidos?  If you're up for a walk, there are ramparts that surround the city, and it will take around 1h-1h30 to do the full circuit.  There are no barriers around them, so it's definitely not child friendly.  But the views are great from up there. 
  • There's also a big chocolate festival in March, and many shops on the main street sell various types of chocolate.
  • They're equally well-known for their cherry liquor, and a lot of restaurants will sell you a shot of it in a chocolate cup for 1€. (No need to go in, they will sell it to you directly in the street).
  • I had read beforehand that there wasn't a supermarket in town, so we packed a picnic lunch and had a leisurely meal in the sun while sitting up on the castle walls.  
  • Then we had a drink at the one outdoor café in town, before hopping on the bus back to Lisbon.
  • We rested up a bit before heading back out to a Fado club for drinks and dinner.  C was on a mission to try the Bacahlu à bras, which was recommended to him by a Portuguese colleague.
We had an early flight back the last day, and the metro doesn't start running until 6:30am, so we debated long and hard about taking the metro or a taxi.  In the end, we went for the taxi, and it was really reasonable - about 10€ from the Rossio square to the airport.

Regarding where to stay - we stayed just off the Rossio square, on a small side street, in a little AirBnB apartment.  The owners were half-French, half-Portuguese and they were absolutely lovely.  The location was great too - within walking distance to the castle, the placa commercio, the train station, etc, which was what allowed us to skip taking the metro on most occasions.  It was also easy to get to and from the airport, had a good internet connection, and had a supermarket nearby.  We really felt like we were in the heart of a real neighborhood, instead of being in a hotel on a busy street.  It was also really inexpensive - around 30€/night, plus we were able to use the kitchen to eat several meals in.  The stairs up to it also provided a good butt workout. :)
The last thing that surprised me was how many people spoke French.  We got through the entire weekend on French-only, and not even on purpose.  There were just that many people who spoke French extremely well, be it at the monuments, the bus drivers, in restaurants, or random folks in the street that we stopped to ask questions. It was pretty darn crazy, and not something that I expected at all!

Anyways, this ended up being a long post, but hopefully it will be useful for anyone planning a trip to Lisbon in the future (assuming there are actually people out there who haven't been yet lol).

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Getting around Lisbon

One of the most confusing things about getting around Lisbon was their metro system - the lines themselves are super simple, but I still don't really understand how payment worked, even after 4+ days in the city.  The practical thing though is that one of the metro lines goes right to the airport, so you can get to the city center within just a few stops.
No matter which option you choose, you'll have to buy the little metro card for 50 cents.  Then you can either get a one-way ticket, a day pass or just put a sum of money on it (similar to the Oyster Card in London).  Then you scan it as you would your pass Navigo in Paris - but be sure to leave it on the scanner for a few seconds, as it can take time to read the card.  If you're quick, when the light turns green, you can also check your remaining value on the card reader.

But this is where it gets confusing - I never really understood how much we were paying for what.  Sometimes it would only debit 60 cents and sometimes way more. So I never did figure out if that was for transfers, or distance or time of day. But to make a long story short, we put 10€ on each of our cards (and got 75 cents free as a credit), and that gave us 4 metro trips, 1 tram ride, round trip train to Sintra and back, plus the train ride out to Cascais. We had to add a bit of money on our cards to get back from Cascais.  The main thing I wanted to highlight though is that you can also use the cards to take short day trips to many small town outside of Lisbon.  We did have to pay separate bus fare however for our day trip to Obidos.

Also, as a caveat, we walked pretty much everywhere (in an attempt to burn off the calories of everything we were eating lol).  And I didn't realize how dang hilly Lisbon was - if you decide to walk it, you'll have no problem getting your 10,000 steps in!  I'm pretty sure most folks use the transport systems than we did, but we enjoyed exploring on foot, and it was easier on the budget as well.

The last thing I wanted to mention for transport was that there is also a Lisboa Card that is valid 1, 2 or 3 days, and includes transport and free or reduced entry to many of the main monuments.  I added up everything we wanted to visit and how much we would use the metro, and it was pretty much break-even between the two.  In the end, I didn't end up purchasing it however because I was worried I would get lazy and take the metro everywhere, plus C only wanted to do a limited amount of sight-seeing. But if you are going to Lisbon for 3 days and plan on seeing as much as you can, I think it'd be worth getting.  Plus it would mean not having to worry about how much credit you have left on your metro pass, and that alone would be one less headache.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Getting out to Orly Airport

Like pretty much everybody out there and their dog, C & I just came back from Lisbon.  I swear though that we weren't just hopping on the travel bandwagon - I booked this trip six months ago, when I was in the throes of my thesis project and needing something to look forward to.

I did a lot of research on travel blogs etc to figure out the best way to get around, and some things weren't always super clear, so I thought I would share my travel tips here, starting with the best way to get out to the airport.

We flew from Orly, and decided to test out the new tram line T7.  This tram goes from the end of the metro line 7 at Villejuif and takes you out to the airport. The tram line goes through zones 3 & 4, so we were initially a bit confused about what kind of ticket you would need, but the RATP agent just had us buy a regular T+ metro ticket from the vending machine, so I think overall this ends up being the most cost effective option for getting to Orly (1.40€ for the metro ticket if you already have a Navigo vs 7.50€ for the Orly bus or around 10-11€ for the RER B + Orlyval option). 

As a side note, the T7 goes to Orly Sud, so if you are going from Orly Ouest, you'll have to hop on the (free) Orlyval train once you arrive at the airport. (Once you get off the tram, if you look up, you will see where the Orlyval leaves from - you'll need to go into the airport in order to access the escalator up to the platform).

For the return trip, it wasn't very well sign-marked, but the T7 leaves from door G, level 0 in the South Terminal.

Total transport time was around 1 hour from the Place d'Italie, including taking the Orlyval train to the Western Terminal, though maybe leave 1h15min the first time you do it since you won't really know where you are going. 

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Sticking it to The Man?

I don't pretend to be an expert on French politics by any means, but during my 11 years in France, I have had the chance to see a few elections come and go.  And what I've noticed is that most times is that each election, there is just a flip flop between the winning and losing parties.  ie the voters get disenchanted with the current president and fall for all the promises of the opposing party.  And then they are disappointed with the new president's performance, so the next time around, they vote the other party back in. 

This time however, it seems the general population has had enough of the two main parties, and the few people who did turn out to vote voted for the Front National as a measure of protest, to show their unhappiness with the current state of French politics. 

My FIL was here a few days this week to deliver our office & balcony furniture that he had lovingly handmade, so I don't want to slag him off too much, but a discussion we had about how their town (and whole department) voted overwhelmingly for the FN has really gotten my goat.  Given where they live, it's not really a surprise, but it's more-so his justification for it that has gotten my riled up.

In his mind (and the mind of many of my customers with whom I've also had this discussion), voting for the FN was the only way to manifest his unhappiness with the current situation.  I counter-argued that this wasn't the first round of elections, this was an actual election and they just voted a whole bunch of FN politicians into power.  Of course this was for the EU parliament representation and not a pure France election, but it is exceedingly frustrating for me that they cannot seem to understand how their actions can potentially affect France long-term.   The FN is for protectionism, anti-EU, anti-Euro, etc, and history has shown that isolating oneself from the world generally does not improve the economic situation of one's country.  Just take a look at Marine LePen's victory speech:  "The sovereign people have proclaimed that they want to take back the reigns of their destiny into their hands. Our people demand one type of politics: politics of the French, for the French, with the French. They no longer want to be directed from outside."

Granted, as I mentioned the other day in my movie post, there is a growing anti-foreigner sentiment in France and across Europe, but I do think the general French population is just so tired of political parties not doing much of anything that they don't really believe any changes will come about even if the FN was in power.  But that way of thinking still makes me angry.  If you're not happy with the powers-to-be, get out and do something about it or at least vote for one of the other parties that are out there (of which there are many). If anything, now's the time for those parties to really make a push for popularity.  But don't vote for the radical right-wing party just to "stick it to the government", because in the end, you're just sticking it to yourself.

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