Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mad Rad

AMC has a brilliantly fun marketing campaign, Mad Men Yourself, to celebrate the upcoming third season premiere of Mad Men. It's one of my favorite shows, so I gave it a shot. You can make avatars of yourself in different outfits, with different accessories, and in different settings... I made three for myself, here's one of them:

Figures that a show about ad executives would have some of the best marketing campaigns out there...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The X-Files goes acoustic

As an X-Phile and guitar player, I feel it is my duty to post the following: an acoustic guitar cover of The X-Files theme. Pretty neat:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

France Travelblogue: Leftovers

While I've had a lot to say about my trip to France, I obviously haven't gone into every single detail. But I do have some final observations and thoughts about other places I visited and things I saw.

I'll start with a little bookshop I was dying to visit...

Shakespeare and Company

This English-language bookshop, which happens to be within walking distance of the Notre Dame cathedral, opened in 1951. Its name can be traced back to the another English-language bookshop of the same name. That bookstore — opened by American Sylvia Beach — was open from 1919 to 1941. The original Shakespeare and Company was home to all the major expatriate writers of the Lost Generation (a group of writers I love). It eventually closed when France was occupied during World War II.

So years later, the current Shakespeare and Company opened (and took on the name when Sylvia Beach died). While it's not the original bookshop, it also has a very interesting history since it served as a base of sorts for Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

The shop is cramped and quaint, and definitely a great place for bibliophiles to visit. And you can also get your books stamped in there, in case you'd like to get a souvenir that feels a little extra special.

Another neat thing about Shakespeare and Company is its "tumbleweed" program. Young writers can stay above the shop in exchange for doing a little work around the bookstore. I actually met one of these tumbleweeds outside, while she was filling a coffeepot with water from a public "fountain" outside the store. (Apparently Paris is filled with these little water dispensers — many of which look like pretty sculptures — that people are welcome to gather water from). A Princeton student, she said she was spending her summer in Paris doing the tumbleweed thing after spending a semester abroad. I have to admit, I was pretty jealous — tumbleweeding honestly sounds like it could be a ton of fun. And a great story to tell people when you're older and living the not-so-bohemian life.

Final Thoughts and Impressions

So all in all, I'd say that my first trip to Paris was a great success. We were only there for five nights, and yet we saw all the major sights and even ventured outside the city. And I even wandered through the St. Germain area a couple of times to get some sense of what Parisians do in their spare time (answer: eat and drink a lot, while sitting outside).

I didn't get to shop that much (aside from buying souvenirs), even though I would have liked to buy myself something "chic" from Paris. I blame this partially on our busy schedule and partially on the fact that I didn't really spot anything unique enough to justify dropping Euros on. But maybe the next time I'll go, I'll try looking more into the whole shopping/fashion scene.

I found traveling through Paris relatively easy. The Metro is a great resource and well-priced (people can also buy a "book" of 10 tickets for a good rate instead of wasting money on individual tickets every single time). Tickets can be used on the buses and trains alike, the map is relatively easy to understand (though if you suspect you might need to make a million transfers, you're better off double-checking with a local).

It's true that you can get by with English, but I still have some knowledge of French from my school days, and I have to say that this came in very handy. I wonder if I would have had a tougher time if I'd had no knowledge of the language whatsoever. But even though I used gestures and spoke broken French half the time (though it was incidentally pretty good when I was ordering food), I found it easy to get directions and basic information from people when I was using French. And it does help to use a little French to break the ice — people will honestly do their best to communicate with you and help you out even if they don't speak English.

Meanwhile, I also found everyone I encountered perfectly polite. Though my poor mother apparently had to deal with the "rude French" stereotype when she went into a restaurant asking about vegetarian food — even though someone brought her in saying that they served vegetarian food, the next person she encountered basically shoved her out the door as soon as she tried asking him a question. However, I'm not going to damn the French based on one impolite person because I'm still looking forward to going back someday.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

France Travelblogue: Venturing Outside Paris

Even though Paris is filled with a never-ending array of shops, monuments and activities for tourists, there's plenty to see in other parts of France too. So I ventured outside the city twice to get a different taste of French history and life.

The first stop was a pretty "typical" place for a first-time visitor to check out. Yes, I'm talking about...

Château de Versailles

The Palace at Versailles is legendary. I've been wanting to visit it ever since I was about nine or ten-years-old, the age when I read (and reread) an adaptation of The Three Musketeers. A few years ago, my desire to visit Versailles came back full force after I read a biography on Marie Antoinette. While the palace does not have the happiest history, it has an amazing history — especially considering it was really only used for about a century, a relatively short period of time compared to other historical places in France.

All I can say is, visiting Versailles was definitely worth it. Yes, it was extremely crowded (and even a bit stuffy), but if you're the least bit interested in the history, it's most worthwhile. And even if you aren't that into it, you might learn something from it! I had the opportunity to visit the King and Queen's respective apartments, saw certain portraits I read about in the previously-mentioned Marie Antoinette biography in person, and also visited the Hall of Mirrors. I also had the chance to look into part of the chapel that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI got married in. This was neat, not only because of the royal connection, but also because of its connection to the arts. Apparently, Mozart once played the organ that still lies within that chapel!

We wound up seeing Versailles with a tour group, which I would recommend because it will help you get through the massive lines to enter the palace a lot faster. The only regret I have is that our tour ended up being a half-day tour, not a full-day tour (we weren't made aware that two options existed since a travel agency booked the tour for us). If I'd had more time, I would have been able to explore the gardens more extensively, and would have also visited the neighboring estates. I'll have to go back someday, since I'd really like to see Marie Antoinette's little "hamlet." But I'm still glad I had a chance to see the palace at least once so far.

Claude Monet's House at Giverny

We ventured even further away from Paris during our last full-day in France. This time we decided to go somewhere a little less decadent, so we wound up making a trip to Giverny, which is also home to Claude Monet's house and gardens. (Monet and several members of his family are also buried in the local church's graveyard). The village itself is a lovely, quaint area that happens to be approximately 50 miles away from Paris. I personally found it a pleasant break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Meanwhile, visiting Monet's house and gardens seriously make you feel like you're walking through a life-size painting. The Japanese Garden is the instantly-recognizable one. It still houses the beautiful water lilies and mini bridges that became famous in Monet's paintings. And each bit of wildlife is simultaneously tranquil and vibrant, even while other people are trekking all over the property.

The garden outside Monet's actual house is a little more haphazard and European in nature, but also very colorful due to the flowers that are everywhere. And then there's the house itself — a beautiful, charming, cozy place with cheerfully painted walls and matching furniture. Being inside that house and walking through the gardens, I could see why Monet was so content to live there for so long.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

France Travelblogue: Monuments Galore in Paris

Paris is home to a number of monuments — with interesting and varying histories — that are incredibly famous throughout the world.

The Eiffel Tower exists thanks to the Exposition Universelle of 1889, the Arc de Triomphe honors those who have fought for the country, and Notre Dame de Paris has origins going back to the 1100s. It's no wonder that these structures have become so iconic and popular to visit for those passing through Paris.

Of course, these are not the only major monuments worth visiting (though they really are magnificent and worth one's time). Here are some of the other places I enjoyed seeing during my trip:

The Pantheon

Funky architecture? Check. Foucault's Pendulum? Check. Religious iconography and famous dead people's tombs? Check. Originally built as a church, the Pantheon is currently the final burial place for many of France's finest minds. Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Jean Jacques Rousseau are just among the few buried here.

The building itself is a fascinating place to visit. When you walk in, you'll see a ton of religious imagery in the form of paintings and sculptures. And there's a giant Foucault's Pendulum for everyone to see. The arches and domes are beautifully detailed as well. And then there's the crypt, which happens to be a much quieter, darker area of the Pantheon. It's certainly atmospheric, but not necessarily as unnerving as the Catacombs might be for some people. While it might be sobering for people to walk through a burial place, it's also really neat when you realize exactly whose tombs you just walked by.

Les Invalides

Les Invalides is home to another famous dead person — Napoleon Bonaparte (whose sarcophagus is pictured to the left). He isn't the only person buried in the area — family members like Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon II, and other military figures are in numerous tombs and vaults at Les Invalides.

Les Invalides is an interesting place. While you can visit Napoleon's tomb, which is inside a beautiful domed church, you can also go through France's military museum and museum of contemporary history. Even if war isn't typically your thing, there's a lot to see. I saw cannons going back to the 1400s, as well as a large number of World War I and II tanks. The gift shop is also neat since you can buy everything from Napoleon paraphernalia to postcards of French advertising during both World Wars.

Palais Garnier

This is the beautiful, famous opera house in Paris — the inspiration for The Phantom of the Opera. It's open for visitors to take a tour, though there can be times when the auditorium is closed for rehearsals. (That's what happened when I visited, so maybe I'll try swinging by someday when the auditorium is open). But whether or not you get the chance to see the auditorium, it's still worth one's time to visit this opera house. The Grand Staircase is magnificent in person, and every inch of the opera house oozes with opulence. It's no wonder it took approximately fifteen years to complete the building!

Sacré-Cœur Basilica

Located in the village-like Montmartre district of Paris, the Sacré Cœur is a beautiful white basilica that also happens to be built on top of the highest point in the city. Though it's a relatively young structure compared to some of the city's other houses of worship, it still has the majesty and beauty found in older churches. And while the steps leading up to the basilica are filled with people selling souvenirs and playing music, the building itself is pretty quiet, even with visitors shuffling through. (You're also not supposed to take pictures inside). It's definitely worth stopping by the Sacré Cœur if you're looking for some history and an opportunity to visit a different part of Paris.

Monday, July 13, 2009

France Travelblogue: An Introduction to Paris in June

Ever since I graduated from college a couple of years ago, I've been working hard on one of my life goals — traveling. It's a topic I keep coming back to whenever I take some time to update this blog. Previous entries have focused on international and domestic trips alike.

I had the chance to expand my traveling horizons recently while taking a family vacation to Paris, France at the end of last month. Since I went with my parents, who opted to get some help from a travel agency, I didn't have to plan things as extensively as I would have had I been traveling on my own. But I did still take some time to map out an itinerary on top of the loose one we already had in place. Paris is one of those cities where you can never run out of things to do, but because there's so much to do, it's a good idea to figure out what you're most interested in seeing while you're there. This is a philosophy I tend to follow whenever I'm traveling somewhere for the first time anyway, especially since I never really get to spend more than a week or two visiting a particular destination. I feel there's more time for aimless wandering during repeat visits.

We naturally covered the basics during this particular trip by visiting the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, and more. All of these places were definitely worth visiting, and I'm already mentally prepared to go back to the Louvre someday in the future. But Paris has even more to offer — enough for me to decide on writing a series of blog entries about my travels through the city, instead of the single entry I was planning to write when I first started this post.

Over the next couple of days, I'll write about some of my favorite sights while traveling through Paris... and I may or may not have some useful travel advice to dispense.

Until then!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Finally - some great radio in the NY area

Even though there's a ton of music in New York City, I haven't really listened to any of the radio stations in the area since I was about 12 or 13 years old. That was the year that my station of choice, Z100 — a pop music station, went a little too pop music for my tastes. I'd just started playing the guitar, and while I wasn't only interested in guitar-driven music, I was definitely more interested in a less-manufactured sound. Sadly, an overly-manufactured sound had become extremely popular at the time, so I gave up on Z100. The rock stations had started playing an abundance of nu-metal, hip hop stations didn't interest me much at the time, and the rest suffered from easy-listening syndrome.

So a few months ago when a friend of mine told me that there was a new rock station that she'd stumbled across while looking for something to listen to in her car, I was really excited. And when I finally checked it out, I think I heard something like David Bowie and Radiohead back-to-back with each other.

The station I'm talking about is 101.9 RXP, and I've been listening to it more frequently over the past couple of weeks. There are times where it just reflects my early music collection (in the past hour, I've heard everything from The Verve to The Doors and Moby circa-Play). And there are times where I just get to hear some great classic rock tracks and some awesome new stuff.

It's really exciting... even though I've started listening to some international and out-of-state radio more over the past couple of years, this is the first time in nearly a decade where I find myself listening to a local radio station. Maybe there's still some hope for radio and the music biz after all!