gift guide 2012: books

My mom gave me great advice yesterday. She said the best gift is something frivolous (lipstick, handbag, ridiculous kitchen goods) and a good book. Here’s my favorites from 2012.

Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, Jonathan Safran Foer

This book had me laughing and crying on the same pages. I couldn’t put it down, because I fell in love with the main character. While some complain it was hard to read, the curiosity and innocence of the main character stole my heart and reminded me that working with kids is truly a gift. How Safran Foer did it, I’ll never know.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And other Concerns) Mindy Kaling

Mindy writes in the opening that her book is not better than Tina Fey’s. I would beg to differ. She is funny and wise, a gift that rarely coincides. I loved her witty writing and refreshing take on life. Similar to Bossypants, I love that Mindy also struggled through her 20’s just like the rest of us, and made it out on top. The rest of us can only hope that survival equals a book deal. Girl power!

Every Last One, Anna Quindlen

This is not  a book I would usually read, as the protagonist is a mother of 3 in her 40s. Somehow Quindlen managed to create a deep bond between the main character and I, only to tear my heart in two. One of those books that stays with you long after the final page has been read.

Heaven is for Real, Todd Burpo

One of my girlfriends in Philly recommended this book to me. It’s a true story about a boy who “dies” during surgery and goes to heaven, able to recount specific details to his family and friends. Inspiring to read, even through the dramatized passages.

The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins

Apparently Collins stole the idea behind this book from someone else: guess what? I don’t care because I skimmed through these three babies in only a few days. Definite beach reads but totally worth it. #teamgale

Bonne lecture 😉




My mother’s last words were to be careful in sin city. I somehow had no trouble abiding by her advice, as I acted as more of a scared puppy trying to avoid noise, flashing, and crowds for the majority of the trip. As we were flying in, I longed to be dropped off in the mountains and gorgeous gold deserts we passed by. Instead, we landed on the strip.

I got to Vegas and got the taxi-cab spiel about the greatest city in the world. Movies were mentioned, the fanciest hotels, the city that never sleeps. The car door opened and the doorman commented on the lightness and portability of my bag. I told him real women pack light, and could he please take me to the lobby so I wouldn’t get lost. I got lost anyway.

Vegas is the land of frivolousness, of course the gambling and the drinking, but also the expense of indulging in just about anything. Shopping, massages, entertainment, partying: it seemed to me that some people live for that kind of stuff.  I weaved my way in and out of the casinos, watching ladies in bikinis deliver drinks at 9 in the morning.

I tried to envision it, and if I had a million dollars, I would book a room at Caesar’s Palace for a week with four of my besties (yes I said besties). We would rock bikinis and drink cosmos in the pool, just like another episode of Sex and the City.

Instead I snuck out before the conference to read at the pool before any hungover 20 year-olds could block my sun rays. Vegas just wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m glad I saw it, even though I was forced to listen to “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” jokes from my co-workers for a solid month.


So I’m still not in France. What gives? I’ve been wearing my scarves around town, drinking expresso and talking to myself in French but nothing seems to change. I started a 9-5  job, live at home, and my dreams of countryside living become more and more distant.

What I have found so interesting during my transition back to the states is friendships. The best friends I had before I went to France are still my best friends. We may not talk everyday, every week, or even every month. But when we see each other, it’s like no time has passed at all.

This is completly opposite of the French way. In France, friendship is like a prestigious elementary school club where you have to wear friendship bracelets and become blood brothers before engaging in any kind of serious relations. If you don’t hear from your friend after two weeks, something is up. Live on the other side of the world? Doesn’t matter. Your friends are like your brothers and sisters.

I have more friends than the average French person – but are they superficial relationships? How many friends does the average person need or have? Can you be close friends with someone that lives on the other side of the world?

While I am transitioning, I came to realize that I don’t know what system is better. What I do know is that there is no better therapy than a night out with your friends, and that there is a little French wanna be is still dreaming away in philadelphia.

labor day weekend

Long walks from Georgetown to Glover Park make up for froyo and pastry consumption, right?

Please note, when I finally get around to visiting the National Cathedral (ran out of time during my 4 year stint), it was closed because of the earthquake.

I missed my friends. I missed cooking and dancing with them.

It feels like just yesterday I was posting about Memorial Day from Verdun. Now the summer is over?

from verdun, paris, scotland, ireland, philly, and jersey, it was one sweet summer :)


What to do in Dublin, Ireland

After the passing of my grandfather last summer, I knew I really wanted to go to Ireland, where his grandparents were from. I decided that from Scotland I would fly into Dublin, and spend a few days there before heading back to the states. I knew I would have good luck when I arrived at the airport in Dublin, and a strapping young Irish man, tall dark and handsome with a sparkle in his eye, stamped my passport.

And luck I had. I spent the few days I had touring Dublin and its surroundings. What a beautiful country! I stayed in an excellent hostel, the Ashfield House, which was right across the bridge from O’Connell street, and a few blocks away from Trinity College.

My dreams came true when we took the library tour at Trinity College. While most people were going crazy over the Book of Kells, an ornate religious book written by Celtic monks, I was secretly snapping photos in the library. Nerd alert!

I was excited to visit Dublin’s oldest church, otherwise known as The Church Bar (that’s right, now it’s a restaurant and bar). It being closed, I made my way up to The Writers Museum, a cute little exhibit about Ireland’s most famous author’s and playwrights. Don’t miss the café afterwards for a yummy lunch – and I snagged a copy of The Dubliners in the gift shop.

Finally, my favorite thing to do in Dublin was visit Kilmainham Goal. This former prison played a huge part in Irish rebellions as well as the War of Independence, where most of the famous revolutionaries were jailed and sometimes even killed. It is a crucial part in understanding the city as well as the country. I highly recommend a visit here!

Overall, I just loved Dublin’s warm and friendly inhabitants. Everyone I met there was so welcoming and fun, the best part about the city for sure.


Older…but wiser?

This weekend marks a year since my young-life crises. In May last year I was so confused; I was about to graduate college and leave my friends to start my life in the “real world”. I was sick to my stomach about my future. I ended up moving to France and having the time of my life. All that worrying for nothing! Yet a year later, I still have that same feeling – what will I do?

This year has definitely afforded me opportunities to reflect about what I want out of life. I have traveled over Europe and even to Africa, met some very interesting people, and even became a teacher! Let’s just say I leave French politesse aside when I ask everyone I meet for career and life advice. Of course, self-discovery is an ongoing process. But maybe I know more than I think.

These next few months for me will be tricky – I have no idea where I’ll be in three months. But as I enter my 23rd year in life, I am working on leaving my inner type A-must-acheive-everything-now personality at bay and giving myself time to figure everything out. That’s what your twenties are for! If all else fails, at least I have lots of chocolate, cheese, and wine to console me (if you don’t know by now, that is the trifecta key to my heart).

Here are some articles I have found to be inspiring to young enthusiastic hopefuls like myself. What to Know When You’re 25ish, talks about striving to be the best person we can be day by day, and from my Parisian writing idol, Lost in Cheeseland, Ten Pieces of Advice I Should Have Given Myself in My Twenties. Don’t hesitate to leave a lost little puppy in the French countryside some worldy advice in the comments section!

Heidelberg Germany, ja!

While my brother and Dad were here, we took a short trip to Germany. Living two hours from the border, we took advantage (for once) of my location close to Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany and headed off to Heidelberg.

Heidelberg is known for housing the oldest University in Germany. Even the Americans knew this city was special – it was spared destruction during World War II.

We walked up to the Heidelberg Schloss, castle, and got a beautiful view of the city. It was definitely different than the romantic Oise castle visit – the color and design were gorgeous! We couldn’t visit inside the castle, but the outdoor gardens and the view of the city was amazing.

For dinner, we went to Vetter, a brauhas and restaurant in Aldstadt, the old town. The food and beer was excellent. It was even in the Guiness Book of World Records for the strongest beer in the world in 1994 (33%!) We stuck with the light stuff. Let it be noted, the apfelstrudel was to die for…

The next day we walked up to Philosophenweg, where famous German philosophers and poets used to walk in search of inspiration. It was quite the climb, but it was definitely worth it! Look how cute my brother is.

Finally, we took a tour of the University. They had a cute tour of studentenkarzer, a student jail used all the way until the early twentieth centry. Students were sent to the prison for disorderly conduct – and marked the walls with images of their fraternities. I wouldn’t want to be locked up in there – but the graffiti was so cool!

We didn’t leave Germany without a huge box of pastry. We couldn’t get enough of that apfelstrudel! Or bretzel!

Have you been to Heidelberg?

What to do in Paris…with Two American Guys

My brother and dad came to visit me two weeks ago. I was so happy to see them, and get some much needed TLC from the men in my life. The first weekend we were in Paris. What do you do with a 17 year-old boy and wiser, elder man 😉 in the city of lights and romance? I spent a while before the visit agonizing over this. But I think I succeeded in showing my dad and brother a good time – and I managed to enjoy myself as well! Well, I did sneak off by myself to see the Hermès store in St. Germain and browse through a used-English bookshop – but the boys were napping.

1.) Breakfast in America

My mom’s exact words: “Brenna I want you to take Luke and Dad here, and I don’t want you to be weird about it”. She knew I wouldn’t like the idea of any restaurant with the name America in it, but I actually loved it after spending six months in Verdun, I snuggled into a charming red booth and savored a bagel with Philadelphia cream cheese and a bottomless coffee mug; I almost felt like I was at the Broad Street diner in Philly. (of course the clientele was a teensy bit different ).

17, rue des Écoles
75005 Paris, France
Métro: Cardinal LeMoine or Jussieu

2. Fat Tire Bike Tours

I took a night bike tour with Fat Tire in 2009 and fell in love. I had already been to Paris before, so I was looking for a fun new way to see the city. Riding around the Tuileries Garden at night – and having the Louvre all to ourselves was something I’ll never forget. We did the day bike tour this time, and it was also really awesome.  Our tour guide gave us a great background about French history while showing us the major sites. I loved riding through the different neighborhoods and watching Paris change, my dad like learning about the Louis’ and Napoleon’s influences, and my brother liked making fun of the “less skilled” bike riders…a win for everyone, really.

3.) Boulangerie

Yes, their favorite part about Paris was indeed, the boulangerie. My family are simple people really – we didn’t get finely crafted pastries or the ever-popular macaron: a baguette with Bonne Maman jam did the trick every evening around 5 pm. Ok. Maybe 2 baguettes. And an after dinner crepe. How long can Luke’s growing stage be?

4.) Les Bateaux Mouches

We went for a 6pm tour of the Seine – just as couples were taking their after-work strolls along the river. It is delightful to see Paris from such a different angle, after we had been trudging through the metro all weekend. It’s also nice to just sit and relax on the boat and take in the scenery. I’d highly recommend!

Métro ligne 9 – Alma-Marceau
Métro ligne 1 – Franklin Roosevelt

So, even though my brother’s head turned in disgust at every couple making out on street corners, I think he got a good taste of Parisian life for only a short weekend. I hope they got to see why I love the city so much.

Have you ever traveled to Paris with an ‘American’ guy? Did you have to bribe him with pastries to go to museums? I’d love to know…


One morning we stopped in the village of Tinghir. Tinghir is home to nomadic berbers, who often leave for long periods of time during the year.

While walking around, I got a good taste of what community life is like for them. Of course everyone knows each other, but it seemed like everyone takes care of one another as well.

My favorite part about Tinghir was visiting a women’s Berber carpet cooperative. Our host invited us in for a cup of tea, as he explained the different symbols hidden in the thread of the carpets.

The carpets were made out of sheep and camel hair – each one cleaned and dyed by hand, and then woven into distinct patterns. He showed us depictions of sand dunes, tents, and animals; all of the critical factors of Berber life were intricately woven into each work of art. One unfolded after the next, all beautiful.

I wanted to buy one not only to support the cooperative, but also as a beautiful reminder of my trip. But as I am on a budget, and a nomad myself, I held back. I’ll just have to come back!

impossible n'est pas francais

Last night, I saw a sign! Le sign!

H and I started talking, and at first, I was skeptical. He told me about his fiancée, how they are in love and want to start a family, how it is so beau l’amour (just like a movie, right?) How love is the best feeling in the world, etc. Do people really say these things? Men?? Out loud?? To a stranger?

He asked me about how I am faring in Verdun, and I expressed my frustrations in getting French people to open up to me. He let me in on a little secret, la code secret, au fait.

H told me that when French people meet a foreigner, they are automatically afraid. He told me I must briser la glace. Break the ice. You can’t be friends instantaneously. Of course, I thought I knew this, but maybe I have been too hasty. I want to fit in and find French friends so badly, I have not put myself in their shoes. Americans are used to hospitality, plus I am pretty outgoing, so it is out of my comfort zone to have to work so hard to meet people. I knew cracking the French code would be tricky, but as my friend told me, once you break in, French people are very loving. It does make me sad that Americans who come to France for vacation never see that side of the French.

Today, au marché, armed with new knowledge, I tested out H’s theory. The woman whom I bought a pumpkin from last week was there again, and she recognized me right away! She asked me how I was doing this week, if I am liking Verdun. I told her I am well, and I made a delicious risotto with the pumpkin she sold me. She beamed, and handed me a bag full of fall apples, opening the bag and switching the bruised ones for the best. “See you next week”, she said, as I trotted off, ducking me head to hide the giant grin sprawled across my face.

I know I will make friends here, no matter how difficult, because as H told me last night, impossible n’est pas francais.