Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Riding high on camel's back

No, we didn't actually go to the middle eastern desert to ride camels. 

Last week, Eric and I went for our annual "date" event, spending three days together in Vermont by ourselves while the kiddos spent some alone time with their grandparents.  At this point, we are less nervous about doing so as we had similarly left Tamar when we had our date in Hawaii in 2011 and in Maine in 2012. Of course we missed the kids, and found ourselves singing children's tunes in Tamar's high pitched voice, but we did have a good time. 

Vermont is perhaps my favorite state in the US. We've skied here in the winter, went leaf-peeping in the fall, and now we've hiked it in the summer.  In spite of the heat, we went hiking on all 3 days. The first day was just a short, liesurely hike at kingsland bay, while we did a longer history-laden 5 mile hike on the 3rd day at little river state park. But the 2nd day was the one to remember. On that day, I summited Camel's Hump. 


Blood, sweat, tears and milk

Five months post-partum, I found myself rock scrambling to Camel Hump's peak. At 4083 feet, Camel's Hump may not be the highest peak in Vermont, in fact it is 3rd behind Mt. Mansfield and Killington, but it is the highest undeveloped mountain in the state. Presumably this is because the other two have been developed for skiing.

I can't say that we really planned this hike ahead. We intended to go to the green mountain club to get a decent Topo map, but since it was getting late in the morning, we went straight to the park and hiked using a generic map instead. Eric really wanted to hike along the Long Trail, which is the oldest long-distance trail in the US and extends north to the Canada border, so we did. The plan was to go on Monroe Trail to Dean Trail, and at Wind Gap, we can decide whether to go left to Mt. Ethan Allen summit (3688') and back to LT to Camel's Hump summit (2 summits!), OR turn right and just go straight to Camel's Hump (1 summit!).  

The climb started cheerfully enough.  We stopped a few times to take pictures of the flora and little brooks.  We also stopped so that I could pump milk since I'm still nursing Maya. Thankfully, my breast pump is a backpack and not in a purse form or I would have been stylin' up that climb.

Dousing myself with cool water from the stream 
Well, we found out that we chose the most difficult path to take to the top.  This became apparent about 2 hours into the climb at Dean trail. The ascent became slow and steep and there were no switch backs to soften it. Instead, big rocks started to appear and soon enough we had to scramble up or around them.  I still have the bruises on my shins and knees to show for all that rock scrambling. 


When we finally reached Wind Gap, I knew there was only one choice to make: go to Camel's Hump.  Thinking that we could climb 2 summits was overly ambitious of my dear husband. As much as I love him, I will only climb one mountain a day for him. 

This was serious business, so the chit-chat had ceased somewhat.  We climbed, and climbed, and just when we thought we reached the top and tried to take in the breathtaking view...

We looked up and saw this:

"Is that the peak?" between huffs and puffs was probably the only thing I could utter at this point. And so, we continued climbing up.

"We made it, right? This has to be the summit. Surely, it can't go higher than this." After all, there were no more deciduous trees in this part, only conifers. But I had a sinking feeling it wasn't the summit still. After rounding the corner, this thing loomed in front of us: 

This one's from the web; I think I was threatening to pass out at this point.
After a short late lunch break of bread and 3 kinds of cheeses, we started off again.  We met 2 hikers climbing down, and they were commending us for taking the steepest and longest route to the top.  "WHA..??" Poor choice, dear Watson, poor choice.

Slowly, we climbed again. I felt like we were Frodo and Sam from the Lord of the Rings. Our water supply was low, and we're trying to save the remaining 750 mL for the way down. And here we find it, the part where the trees no longer grew. Our mission is to just climb up the rocks.  Up, up, up, my precious, without getting blown away by the wind. And yes, it is quite windy when there are no more trees to shelter you!

As I struggle between breathing, swinging my feet here and there, and hanging by my nails, I saw her waving at me. Ugh. Someone has witnessed this graceless effort. Thought bubble: Well, to my defense, I have only given birth 5 months ago. Truth be told, I am not (yet) in great shape. I have only managed to rejoin the gym early this month, and had only gone to work out a handful of times... I could have told her all that, but I was too busy catching my breath and keeping my heart from beating out of my chest!  Too busy to notice her ax, in fact.

Patty and her ax
Her name is Patty, and she's not a crazy ax-weilding person who would toss the dead bodies to the side of the mountains, as I had initially imagined. She's actually the keeper of the trail, and carries the ax to clear blow downs (fallen trees). And she hikes up Camel's Hump EVERYDAY. Show-off.

Just briefly after getting to the top, the wind started to pick up. Patty warned us that we should head back down soon as the bad weather was rolling in, and that she was climbing down shortly herself. And we looked out ahead of us, and we saw the thunderstorm coming.  BUT I JUST GOT HERE! Well, I'm certainly not getting stranded in the alpine trail in that thunderstorm.  

We clambered down Monroe Trail as fast as we could. But the trail, while more forgiving, was still steep and rocky. In less than half an hour, the rain poured. Rocks + Rain = very slippery slope. Not good. And soon enough, I slipped flat on my back. Thankfully, my pump pack and hip pack cushioned the fall, but I got a really bad bruise and scrape on my elbow. And then... I slipped again... And again.   

Three times. That was my quota of fall I could handle. My back took a beating; my elbow was swollen, and blood was trickling out. I was so frustrated, that I seriously began questioning each step I took. This did not make for a quick pace at all, but we eventually made it down safe and sound. 

Who conquered who?

It was truly a proud moment having summited Camel's Hump. I can't say I enjoyed the view well enough to make the pain worthwhile since we were only up there for a couple of minutes. Still, I hiked up for 5 hours and down for 3, all of 7.4 miles of its steep, rocky slope. I have to say though that this was also a humbling experience. Climbing the path we chose requires more preparation, physically and mentally. And even then, you can still find yourself ill-prepared for what mother nature could throw at you.  

So, will I climb Camel's Hump again?  

Only time will tell, kiddos. Only time will tell. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nice diary - parting thoughts

Mark Twain once wrote that "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." I dare add it is also fatal to ignorance.  At first glance Nice la belle lives up to its reputation as the seductress. But if you spend a couple of days, you will find that it is more than just the reknowned pebble beach, the turquoise sea, the friendly Niçoise who have embraced tourism, and spoke melodious French and impressive English.  No, it is so much more than that. It is immersing yourself in the market with lavender, wine, and olives, and enjoying a conversation with the friendly server, without having to pay for a criminally overpriced meal.  Nice's history boast of how it withstood the war and plague and revolution. How Napoleon Bonaparte once stayed here and fell in love with the innkeep's daughter. The ruins atop castle hill does not make it to the guidebooks, nor the time when the war had turned its hotels into infirmaries. Only if you go will you experience Nice's Sardinian and Italian roots before it voluntarily joined France.  This city is a survivor.

Now I can say that I share something in common with Princess Grace Kelley, Matisse and Queen Victoria. We have all breathed Nice's salubrious air, and were enchanted by its beach umbrellas, palm trees and le soleil toute l'Anneé (sun year round). Ok, so the palm trees were a bit confusing to me. Not surprisingly, I found that these are not native to the area, but planted to convey balmy exoticism and make Nice exude that 'tropical' atmosphere. And given the moderate climate here, I'm sure it was no problem growing them. It's neither hot nor humid, the weather has been referred to as "perpetual spring", with the temperature dipping below freezing only 5 days a year! No wonder the houses do not have airconditioning.

Clearly, 3-4 days is not enough to see everything here, especially if you're traveling on business, which I was. There is still the Marc Chagall Musem, and the biggest Matisse collection to see. There's also San Remo in the East and Cannes in the West to visit. So, I will be happy to come back here again someday, perhaps to create a lovely Mediterranean memory with the family. As one author warned about Nice:

"You will come back - because this sky, this sea, this sun, these mountains, exert an allure whose force you will feel when you are away. You will come back" - Leon Pilatte
Accordion music or iPod? I prefer the former.

I found a red pebble.

Matisse apartment can't be missed when you jog along the Promenade des Anglais.

View of Vieux Nice

The French Alps

Bread and pastries

Marzipans and chocolates

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Day 3: Nice diary - The tourist and the tart

Eventhough I didn't get to sleep until half past 1 last night, I still woke up at 6.  There was no use going back to sleep, so I went out for a jog heading eastward along the promenade towards castle hill. It was so peaceful. When I headed back, I went down the beach and touched the water. It was my way of exchanging pleasantries with the Mediterranean sea, as I did with the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico when I moved to Florida from the Pacific.

One thing that makes this sea different is its sound. Because of the pebbles, whenever the tide crashes on the shore, it makes a distinct sound of rolling stones (not the Mick Jagger tunes).

I headed back to the hotel to get ready and went to the conference.  Around noon, I went to lunch at Au Moulin Enchante with one of the conference speakers. I ordered the sea bream, which is one of the most popular fishes on French menu here I am told. The fish was good, but the sides and the wine fell flat. After last night's wonderful meal, I held this place at a higher standard given the 4.5 rating online. My take: 3.5. 

Here in Nice, the establishments are open until late. So, although the conference did not end until the afternoon, I still had enough time to roam. I decided to embrace  being 'the tourist', and hopped on the petit train. Sure, it was a little embarassing, but no one knows me here anyway. Joie de vivre! The train costs 8 euros, and takes you around the East side of Nice, passing Old Nice, Place Garibaldi and Castle Hill, all while you listen to a recording in a language of your choice regarding the history of la bella Nizza.

Le Petit Train de Nice

Monument of Garibaldi faces Italy. Born in Nice, Garibaldi was responsible for the unification of Italy.

In the flat city of Nice, one area stood high - Castle Hill. It used to be a fortified site, but now there's no longer a castle which was destroyed in 1706. Instead, one will find a cemetery for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews with ornate tombs. On top, there is also a playground and a picnic ground. The top of the hill offers views of the bay of angels on the right and the Nice port on the left as you face the sea. If you turn around, you see the bustling Old Nice below, and the alps at the background.

A cannon is fired exactly at noon everyday on the hill.  As the story goes, this originated when a high ranking official requested to fire the cannon everyday at noon to remind his wife, who likes to take walks during the day, that it is time for lunch. A bit extreme, eh? Firing the cannon has been carried over ever since and has now become a tradition in Nice. How would you like to be called to dinner with a cannon?

Although I couldn't go to Marc Chagall museum since it's a bit far and closes early, I decided to go to the small Molinard perfume museum near Cours Saleya. Had I known ahead of time, and what the schedule was, I would have signed up for the perfume making workshop. For 40 euros, you can make your own blend of perfume, the museum will keep it in file so if you run out, they can remake the blend and ship you a bottle. The museum was still interesting.  Although small, you learn a lot about perfume making and where the floral scents originated from. Obviously, most scents come from Europe, then Africa and Asia.  Two scents originated from the Philippines - Ylang-Ylang and Patchouli.

Since lunch was not exactly satifying, I walked around Zone Pietonne (pedestrian zone) and found a boulangerie patisserie that had a sitting area, from which I can enjoy listening to the street musicians.  I was intrigued with a pastry that seemed to have greens in it in the middle called Tourte de blettes. The server had a hard time translating it, but finally came up with "spinach, but sweet". He also said that it's a specialty in Nice, and that you will not find it in other region of France, including Paris. So I decided to try it, and found that it's not spinach, but rather swiss chard. This swiss chard tart is interesting. Aside from swiss chard, it had pine nuts and apples, and the pastry is topped with confectioner sugar.  It's definitely different, I may even try to make it one time.

Enjoying Tourte de blettes with my trusted companion

I walked around for a few hours more to buy some presents, marzipan and chocolate. The macaron in Nice are not as good as those in Paris, but I couldn't resist getting a small box for my dear hubby. After that, it was time to go to my dinner meeting with my colleague, which was really more social than formal. We went to a restaurant that was tauted to be "as local as it can get". L'Ovale  offered a great prix fixe menu. And since I haven't had a real Salad Nicoise, I decided to try it there.  I was not disappointed.  They also had a great duck cassoulet, which I couldn't even eat half of because it was such a huge portion.  Another reason I couldn't eat as much is because I began to have a headache from the cigarette smoke from the person behind me.  We moved to a different table, and the person next to us lit a cigarette too. I guess I've been spoiled here in the United States, and no longer used to being surrounded in a cloud of smoke. In the end, I couldn't even touch my dessert. I wanted to have it to go, but in Nice, and perhaps in Europe in general, they're not really big on taking home food.  You enjoy it in the restaurant, you don't bring it home. Anyway, they did not have a box for us to bring our cakes in, so I tasted a teaspoonful, and left the rest. If only Eric was there to share it with. 

Cassoulet de canard
Tomorrow, we go home.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Day 2: Nice diary - You're turning lavender, Lavender!

Today, I had a mission. In spite of the full conference schedule, I vowed to explore Vieux Nice (Old Nice). But first, off to work. 

The science talks today did not disappoint. Top notch research on drug discovery kept me not only awake, but inspired. Perhaps moreso, I enjoyed hobnobbing with the researchers. This group has a very laid-back attitude that it's turned this conference into such a pleasant work travel for me.  Topics of conversation easily shifted from the lack of research funds to neglected diseases to multiple rejections (yikes!) to awkward questions such as: "Are you Japanese or Chinese?" and "How do I get a job out of research?"  

Chickpea crepe?  I can hear my sister laughing right now.
I generally dislike chewing food while engaged in a stimulating discussion, so I passed on the lunch. We just had pastries for the morning break anyway. As expected, I got hungry by mid-afternoon, so I took the tram to Cours Saleya, considered the heart of Old Nice, and went anywhere my feet led me. Henri Matisse lived in Cours Saleya and painted many of his arts here.  The name derived from "soleil" or sun, as the flower market is pretty exposed. A lot of tourists flock Cours Saleya for its vibrant shops selling food, antiques, local arts,  and souvenirs. I had lunch at a crepe place, ordering the savory vegetarian socca, the chickpea crepe specialty here in Nice. Uh, to be honest, it was just ok. It doesn't hold a candle to the crepe carts in Paris.

In Cours Saleya, Lavender is pretty ubiquitous. Apart from the flower stalls, it also adorns restaurant tables and shops. As I continued to explore, I happened upon Fenocchio, the famous gelato place, which has 86 different flavors. Although I wasn't exactly in the mood, I had to try a boule since even my French friend had suggested this place. The flavors included unexpected ones such as cactus, verbena, olive, rose, jasmine, and... lavender. Guess which one I had? FYI, the boule is about 1/2 or 1/3 of American scoop, which is just about what I could handle. Verdict: the lavender gelato smelled good, and it is delicious too. I had to fight the urge to dab my wrists with it.

'Twas a tough choice between the lavender and violet.
I started heading back to the conference, but stopped at the herb shop to pick up a particular herb. Guess what you'll be trying in the coming days, sweetie?

After the conference, I went back to Old Nice for dinner. I am so happy that I made a reservation at Oliviera. This family-owned and run restaurant is the perfect place to end the day. When I told Nidim, the owner, how much I've heard of his restaurant.  He said "Don't believe it.  We are a simple place." And yet, I knew he was lying. Mind you, you should not be in a rush if you want to eat here. Nidim takes pride in his oils, and the oil tasting is such an experience. He is also very gracious. The place was fully booked, and he was apologetic to the people who walked in without reservation. I looked at the menu, which was in French, and picked the first one that appealed to me. Nidim said "No... ask me, ask me." So, I confessed that I forgot my French dictionary, and I couldn't understand half of the items on the menu. He described everything in detail and with great patience. While I am slowly giving up meat again, I decided that I will have the beef canneloni; the beef was simmered for 8 hours. They really are a patient bunch! I also had my first red wine after a long time, and I'm glad I waited to try it here. The Corbière is earthy and not tannic. The best part of this dinner, however, is the array of olive oils I tasted - one tasted like unripe banana, while one is a late harvest black olive Nidim drizzled on Tiramisu. In the end, I bought an oil that tasted like a combination of almond and artichoke, the Olive Oil Nicois. Mind you, this is not an infusion. It's just the type of olive that they make here - apparently harvested just 10 km away. I cannot wait to use it. I'm sure it will go perfectly with the lavender-scented salad I'll be making next week.

Big metal jars of Olive oil harvest

The second oil smelled like rainforest.
The canneloni I'll remember.

Nidim and Mr. Toutou parted as friends.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Day 1: Nice diary - Cote d' Azur

It is 10:30 pm in Nice, and I am nursing a slight headache.  I think it was the 3rd glass of Le Vin that did me in.

July marks the beginning of the conference season, which brings me to the French Riviera for the gathering of European's brightest in the medicinal chemistry field.  Leaving my 2 kids (and hubby) was extremely hard for me given how young Maya still is, so I didn't particularly look forward to meeting THE Queen of the Riviera, Nice (pronounced 'niece').

My dear husband was supposed to come with me for a short quality time together while my in-laws look after the kids, but our little tyrants sweet young children made it clear that it was not going to happen this year. In hindsight, I am glad hubby has stayed home with the kiddos.  With Maya still so small, I am at ease that at least one of us is home with her. But here I am, and it is quite nice indeed to meet you, Nice.
Before I left, Tamar asked me to bring Mr. Toutou on the airplane. Eric insisted that I leave him so that I don't lose M.T. However, when I told Tamar that I will bring her octopus instead, she cried and pleaded that I bring Mr. Toutou. So, how could I not? Amelie, meet your precious gnome's competition.

Monsieur Toutou
I arrived in Nice after an uneventful flight, and went straight to my hotel at the Promenade des Anglais.  I could have taken a cab. After all, I wasn't paying for the trip. But I decided that taking the bus is more practical and fun. As the bus 'coasted' along the promenade, the blue coast, Côte d'Azur, greeted me with its brilliant hued water and wonderful breeze.  I threw the pity party out the bus window right there and then.   
And I first saw the Sea!
The Sea!
The bright colored Sea!
Mile after mile in the fresh afternoon breeze.

My hotel is along the Promenade des Anglais. Across the street is the mediterranean sea. I checked in and rushed out the door to take the tram to the Acropolis, where the conference is being held. I drank and schmoozed with the European scientists about the fantastic science (Sorry, can't talk about it here) coming out of the region, then it was time for some relaxation.

Place de Massena, where you can pick up the tram

Chilin' like a villain

I walked along the promenade by the beach, then after a while, I just sat down and stared into La Baie des Anges or the Bay of Angels as they call it.  I've always been magnetized by the ocean. Eventhough I've never been here before, it feels so familiar.  Could it be because it's in my blood?

But that Sea! That Sea!
That light Sapphire Sea!

I have to confess, the pebble beach didn't really have that much allure to me.  How comfortable can it be to lie down in that with just a towel beneath you? I can't imagine it is. You can rent a chair, but for me, I prefer the powdery sand. Either the white or the black volcanic sand is better than pebbles.

After a while, I walked to the west side to Hotel Negresco, Nice's finest hotel, which is also now a historic monument, and boasts of 16,309-crystal chandelier. I didn't count to confirm. This chandelier was built for the Russian czar's Moscow palace, but because of the Bolshevik Revolution, it was never delivered.

Soon I realized that it was 9 pm already and I have not had anything to eat since breakfast.  I looked for the restaurant La cave de l'origine which came highly recommended by my guidebook, but when I got there, it looked pretty stuffy and not too friendly.  I decided to skip it and look for some place more enticing. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a warm little bistro, Le bistrot de l'atelier.  Their vegetables were so fresh and delicious, and Le vin rosé was divine, and the staff really friendly (and forgiving of my French).  I later found out that this is a new place.  You wouldn't know it from how efficiently they worked.

To top the day off, I went and had this chocolate hazelnut gelato. It was like eating cold ferrero rocher. Bonne nuit!