Where’d the peppermint go?

22 12 2010

I tried to make this chocolate-dipped peppermint biscotti recipe (picture above from recipe page) and was unable to find one of the main ingredients: peppermint.

I checked ALL the grocery stores in my neighborhood and they had vanilla, lemon and almond extracts, but no peppermint extract.  The Al Natura shop (kind of like Whole Foods) had some sort of strong peppermint oil but it is not meant to be eaten.

My boyfriend said the pharmacy might have some sort of peppermint oil that’s more edible, but I was tired of searching and decided just to go home and start baking, and use vanilla extract instead.

At least I had found some candy canes to crush for the topping.  There were also none of these in the grocery stores, nor in the Starlite mint form.  But there was a gift shop near the train station that had them, so I picked up 12 of them for 25 cents each.  (Euro cents, yo.  That is not cheap!)

So I was baking and unwrapping the candy canes and I licked my sticky fingers and realized that these candy canes don’t taste like peppermint. At first I thought I was crazy, and so I took a bite of one of them.  And my suspicion was correct.  They were cherry-flavored!  I was perhaps a little too upset about this.  I must admit that I pouted for a few minutes and may have said something along the lines of, “WTF, Deutschland!” – but I felt defeated.  I really wanted to try this recipe!  So much for peppermint biscotti.

So I made do with what I had and modified the recipe.  I still covered them with chocolate, and used the rest of the leftover pecans I had chopped up for the Turtle Graham Bars.  They’re still good, but a totally different feeling.  Not as Christmasy as I would have liked!  Oh well.  C’est la vie. Good thing I wasn’t planning on making my mom’s famous peppermint fudge this year!  I’ll just have to figure out where I can get me some peppermint extract and stock up.  Even if I have to bring some back with me from the States next time I visit.  :)

This afternoon I was annoyed, but now it’s kind of funny.  Life is just like that when you live in another place: you have to get used to new things and/or not having the things you’re used to (or having them in a different flavor!).  The great thing about that is that it brings a great opportunity to be creative and try something new.





Too much of a good thing

13 08 2010

I like feeling clean.  I love the fresh feeling after coming out of the shower and putting on nice, clean clothes.

That said, I am thankful for soap.  It keeps all the important things – like dishes, clothes, & my body – feeling fresh and clean.  But, of course, too much soap is not such a good thing.  Especially in your load of laundry…especially at the laundromat.

Oops.

As I watched it through the window on its last few cycles, I thought: oh geez.  I hope this soap goes away.  There’s not that much soap in my other machine.  But when all was said and done, all of that soap foam was on the door.  And of course, it spilled out onto the floor when I opened the door.  “FAIL,” I muttered to myself.

I didn’t notice at the time (I was a little too embarrassed), but I quickly snapped a picture from my cell phone and, upon further examination, these soap bubbles formed a very monster-like shape.  (Friday the 13th???)

My soap monster looks kind of like a cat.  Or Pikachu.

Well, there’s another life lesson learned: use less soap.





Hacked!

18 06 2010

A few days ago, I received an email from my good friend Peter that was highly unusual:

As soon as I read the first line, “with tears in my eyes,” I knew that his email account had been hacked.  In April, Tobias received an email from one of his colleagues that said the same exact thing. (But at the time, it made more sense because that was the weekend the volcano first started spewing ash into the skies and cancelled all sorts of air travel across Europe.)  Guessing it was a hack, but not wanting to be a bad person if she was really in trouble, Tobias responded to her mail.  His doubts were confirmed when the hacker replied with instructions on how to transfer money to his “stranded” contact.

So I thought, uh oh – this is bad for Peter.  Some connard hacked into his gmail account! I posted on his facebook wall to let him know of this…and several other people had done the same. Worse, he had no access to his gmail account.  Unfortunately, the hackers also used his information to take control of his facebook account, locking him out of both of these services.  In fact, as of yesterday, Peter is no longer anyone’s friend on facebook – we think the hackers deleted his profile altogether.

Many people also contacted me, when they couldn’t contact Peter, to see if he was alright.  One friend called me and was worried for him – believing he really might be stuck in Wales.  My mom was also confused – she thought Peter was at home?  I reassured her, and the others who contacted me, that this was a hacking situation and that Peter is, in fact, safe at home in the USA.

Peter and I agreed that the email wasn’t even that convincing (even in a stressful situation, Peter would have had better grammar and spelling in that email!) but I guess some people just don’t know the difference.  Or, like Tobias, they may have had doubts, but also cared about their friend and wanted to make sure he was okay.  Peter’s parents even got two phone calls from friends asking where they could send money.  Yikes.  Well, the good thing in this situation is that a lot of people tried to contact him – otherwise, he wouldn’t have known he was hacked and been able to warn people.  (Until he was locked out of his account, that is.)

But the email thing is the most distressing.  He has absolutely no access to his emails.  He filled out gmail’s account support form and input his information several times, as people in online discussion communities with similar problems had done.  He entered in a secondary email address (a “safe” email he has access to; he put in his dad’s address), and they sent an email saying they received the form, etc.  He said that eventually, as your information gets more and more accurate on your form, they’ll send you a code to get back into your account.

So that’s how he got back in.  Initially.  And then, even after changing his password twice more, he was kicked off right in the middle of a gchat conversation with our friend Paula, and he hasn’t been able to get back in since.  He filled out the form several more times, but thus far, to no avail.

I’m not sure if he’ll get his gmail account back.  He even changed his facebook password, but not the email address linked to it.  He wishes he had, because now he has no facebook either.

Peter won’t be going back to gmail, but instead decided to pay for Apple’s MobileMe ($99/year).  One benefit is a live helpline he can call in case something like this happens again; that is something he wished google had in this situation.  It’s true that sometimes talking to someone about problems can be much easier and much more direct than scouring discussion boards and help articles online.

But there are certain things you can do to make your gmail account safer: enabling “secure” sessions only (https:// instead of the usual http:// – this is the same thing you [should] see on online banking!).  And entering a phone number and a secondary email address that will receive the password reset codes.  But the most basic thing you can do is to create a strong password.

Time for a change (of password).

Peter admitted that his password was weak.  Very weak.  No numbers, no capitalization, no special characters.  Just two small words that were too easy to hack.

Click on this image to check your own password on this secure site!

This situation has convinced me that it’s also time for me to change my own password.  Even though my own password is considered “strong” by Microsoft’s secure password checker, I’ve had the same one for over a year, now.  While writing this post and researching this topic, I’ve found sources that recommend changing your password every couple of weeks.

Perhaps it’s also a good idea to have not just one password for all your online services.  In Peter’s example, he’s now locked out of his email and facebook accounts, which both had the same password.  I think it’s especially important for any secondary email addresses to have different passwords, in case the hackers check the secondary email address as well.

Now it’s your turn.

Is your password a simple word or two?  Is it your birthday?  A maiden name?  Your ATM pin code?  BAD idea.  Go change your password.  You’ll be glad you did.

I’d love to hear from you guys about this – has someone ever hacked into your account?  Has it happened to anyone else you know?





Crazy night at Sacré Coeur

3 06 2010

Last Friday night, my friends and I held a good-bye party at Sacré Coeur.  Libby and Kate left to go back to the States on Monday, so we wanted to have at least one last night together before our group got smaller.  (Although we ended up spending Saturday and Sunday together too.)

A little bit about Sacré Coeur

Sacré Coeur is a beautiful place.  It’s a very touristy place with artists and the beautiful church and a nice view of Paris.  People like to go there and hang out with friends, drinking wine and snacking on cookies or chips.  It’s always pretty crowded.  Because of all the tourists, it’s a great place for street performers to get a lot of spectators.  Unfortunately, it’s also a great place for scammers and pick-pockets.

I arrived before my friends, and I sat on the steps and listened to music on my iPod.  Of course some random guy came and started hitting on me.  This happens every time I’m alone in Montmartre.  (That really gets on my nerves…)  But I’ve learned to be more assertive and not put up with that.  I told him after a minute or two that “I don’t feel like talking with a stranger.”  Well, that’s what I wanted to say, but said the wrong word for stranger and said “Je n’ai pas envie de discuter avec un…étranger.”  A “foreigner”, I had said.  Oops.  He got defensive and was like, “Je suis français, moi! I’m French!”  I corrected myself and he didn’t put up too much of a fight; he got up and left.

Then my friends came and we moved a little further down the steps to where this big balcony is, from which you see an amazing view of Paris.  (Sacré Coeur is up on a big hill.)

We drank a lot of wine and snacked on Haribo gummies, cookies, bread, cheese and strawberries.  We were having a grand old time, and then two guys in fedoras and superman t-shirts set up their pyro show.  They had these big batons that lit on fire on either end, and they did all sorts of whirls and twirls with those.  Sometimes it looked like they were on fire!  They were also really good dancers…oh là là!

Here is a little preview of their show — this is actually the grand finale, and my favorite part!

That was definitely the highlight of the evening.  Sara and Kate asked for a picture with them when their show was over, and then later they came over and talked to us for a while.  They even invited us to a party afterward, but we didn’t go.

From left to right: Paula, Hannah, Libby, Kate, Sara, and moi

Now for the CRAZY stuff

I’ll try to make a long story short.  In between the two shows the pyros did, some guy tried to steal Paula’s iPhone.  Paula stood up and realized her phone was no longer underneath her scarf, and made a big scene when she accused the guy in front of us of stealing her phone.  “Don’t let him get away!” she yelled and Kate stepped in and held onto his shirt.  The guy didn’t try to run.  Paula looked for her phone while I decided to call it to make sure it wasn’t just in her bag or something.  Sure enough, the guy’s PANTS lit up and started buzzing.  He DID have her phone!  She yelled at him and took her phone back, and then shoved him away and yelled to everyone, “THIS MAN STEALS PHONES!”  The guy slinked away, embarrassed.  I snapped a photo of this incident.

I decided to keep my eye out for that guy (and anyone else who might try to steal stuff from us) and kept looking around throughout the evening.  Then, a little while later, I realized that he was sitting on the steps above Sara and I.  When I looked at him, he quickly shoved his hands behind his back.  “No way, give that to me,” I said.  I grabbed his arm and he had a wallet in his hands that looked like a guy’s wallet, so I felt a little awkward, but then I asked Sara, whose backpack was wide open next to her (and unwisely unattended), and she said, “YES, that’s MINE!”  I yelled at the guy, “CASSE-TOI! (Basically, “piss off!”) and he went away.  We couldn’t believe he came back to the same group to steal from, and we caught him both times.

A few minutes later, some guy in a hoodie and jeans came down to us and said that he was the police, and that they arrested the guy who stole for us.  We were confused until we realized there was also a uniformed police officer with him, and he was an undercover cop.  (It makes me feel so much better to know that there are undercover cops at Sacré Coeur!)  He asked if we had all our stuff, and we all looked and said that we did.

But then, about 10 minutes later, Sara realized she didn’t have her phone!  The guy had stolen that, too.  So Kate, Libby and I ran up to the top of the stairs and knocked on the window of a police car.  We explained that the guy also stole Sara’s phone.  I ran back down and told Sara she needed to go up there.  Then Libby came back down a few minutes later and said that Kate had called Sara’s phone and a policeman picked up.  He said the thief threw the phone over the balcony into the park when he was arrested.  The phone broke into 3 pieces, but still works.  But then Sara had to come down to the police station to make a statement, and Kate went with her, as Sara’s French isn’t very good.  I won’t go into too much detail about their experiences at the police station, but it was pretty traumatizing.  This was the guy’s third offense, and he will be going to jail.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are hanging out on the steps, waiting for Sara and Kate to return.  It took them a long time, though, and we had to leave.  We learned that you really shouldn’t be at Sacré Coeur after midnight (especially if you’re a group of all girls).  After the pyro guys left, and warned us we shouldn’t be there much longer, it wasn’t long before we were surrounded by about 8 guys who were harassing us.  We finally had to get up and leave, but they followed us to the metro.  Trying to touch us, and one guy had his arm around Paula.  I was really pissed off about this and screamed at the top of my lungs at them.  That scared most of them away, but the one who had his arm around Paula stayed around.  I cut in and said, “She’s mine, go away” but he kept following us.  He actually got onto the metro with us.  Paula got off to transfer to go back home, and at the last second, as the doors were about to close, the guy jumped off and followed her.  We called her right away to let her know he was following her.  To make that long story short, she did end up ditching him and got home safe and alone.  My goodness.  We were all very afraid for her.  I went back home with Libby and Hannah, and spent the night there.  Sara arrived around 1:30; the police got lost when driving her home.  Good grief.

Crazy stuff.  One thing is certain: we will never forget this evening.  If you’re interested to see more of the pyro show, click below for the rest of my videos.  They were really awesome!

Read the rest of this entry »





Taxes

31 05 2010

Thanks to the last-minute antics of Alex and Kate, a Franco-American couple I’m friends with, I was not late on declaring my French taxes.

I must admit I’m not very connected to French society.  Yes, I live here, but all of my close friends are American.  Some are assistants like me, some are au pairs and some are here for grad school.  I don’t listen to the French radio, because it’s mostly American songs anyway, and I’d much rather listen to my MIKA cd or other favorites on my iTunes.  Occasionally, I’ll pick up a free French newspaper in the metro – Direct Matin or Direct Soir, or À Nous Paris*.  But I’ll also admit that I usually just look at the pictures without reading many of the articles.

So it’s no surprise that taxes caught me completely by surprise this year.  It’s a little my fault; I should have asked about taxes when I received a document in the mail a few weeks ago that I would need for taxes.  I meant to ask, but I am too organized: I filed it away in my “important things” binder and promptly forgot about it.  Oops.

So last night, when I was hanging out for the last time with my friends before Kate and Libby left for the states (early this morning), Alex and Kate mentioned that they had to sign taxes before the deadline.  Today, May 31st, by midnight.  I freaked out quite a bit because I knew nothing about the system or what I needed to do.  Alex was a life-saver, though, and emailed me the link to the forms I needed.

I printed them out at school today and checked with the secretary at the Inspection, who helped me figure out where to put the right info.  I filled it out during my lunch break, and got some advice from my other teachers (such as attaching a letter to inform them to change my address to my future German address so I can get next year’s tax info at the right place).

Where’s Waldo?  I mean, the tax center?

So when I got home, I finished up the paperwork and called Alex to ask about where to find the tax center (centre d’impôts) for my arrondissement (neighborhood/zip code).  I had to bring it directly to the tax center because I heard from the teachers that it had to be stamped by the post office before 4:15 p.m., and I got off work at 4:30.  I had done an online search and was confused because there were three or four different addresses on different sites.  Alex had the same search problems, but recommended I go the the closest one.

Luckily, I ran into the concierge on the way out and I asked her about it.  She answered right away: 9 rue du Docteur Lancereaux.  That was also the conclusion Alex and I had come to, so I felt extra-confident.  I hopped on my bike and pedaled up to the aforementioned street.  17, 15, 13, 11…7.  Where was the 9?  There was a door where the 9 rue du Docteur Lancereaux was supposed to be, but a homeless man had set up camp there, and there was no sort of signage at all.  Confused and frustrated, I asked 6 different people on the street if they knew where the tax center was for the 8th arrondissement.  (I’m not exaggerating at all…I asked 6 people and had 6 negative responses.  One lady said that the tax office moved a long time ago, but she wasn’t sure where it went.)

The other address that I had memorized for the occasion was 5 rue de Londres, which is not actually in the 8th arrondissement, it’s in the 9th.  It doesn’t really make sense for the tax center of the 8th arrondissement to be in a different neighborhood, but I had to try all my options and get this taken care of.  So I biked over to rue de Londres, in the old neighborhood I lived in during the summer I spent in a studio apartment after studying abroad.  That was the correct place, but they were closed, so I had to stick my envelope in their drop box.  Hopefully it’s all good.

Winding down

I stopped at a Subway on the way back and treated myself to a 12-inch sub.  It had been a stressful day.  I may or  may not have drunk some rosé wine directly from the bottle in my fridge….  And I watched this week’s Lindenstraße while I ate dinner.  For dessert I had three brownies.  I’m not ashamed.

Next year is going to be insane.  I will have to declare taxes in France, Germany, and the USA.  Luckily, I’m not getting triple-taxed…I think there are laws against that.  But I still have to declare everything.  I may need to get myself a tax advisor if I end up having to work a freelance job in Germany.  Oh là là!

Life lessons learned: stay on top of taxes and do it in advance if at all possible to avoid running around on tax day like a chicken with its head cut off!

*Cool link!  You can flip through a virtual version of the À Nous Paris newspaper!  Go check it out!





Next time, I’ll research before I buy.

11 02 2010

The other day, I noticed that I was running out of contact solution.  The last time I was in France, I remember having bought some at an optical store that was located in the Passage du Havre, near the Gare Saint-Lazare.  I think it was even a two-pack, and I don’t remember how much it cost…maybe something like 20-25€.  Which of course is more than you’d pay in the States (something like $8 a single pack?), but I have come to expect that for most things here.

Today, I decided to go out and buy some more solution before I ran out completely.  I had it in mind to go to the Passage, but the -2°C temperature and the little snow flurries whirling around made me change my mind and try to find something closer to home.

I should have known when I walked into the sleek, upscale optician’s, and saw two employees dressed to the nines, with their expensive suits, shined shoes, and silver cuff links, that whatever I bought there was going to be overpriced. Sadly, I was so focused on getting the language right, that I didn’t even realize how much money I forked over for one lousy bottle of contact solution.  Before I knew it, I had handed him a 20€ bill, and he handed me my change: two 2€ coins.  I walked out and realized, holy crap!  I just paid 16€ for that bottle of contact solution!  That’s like…$22!  Twenty-two buckaroos.  Ouch.

Before that, had I stopped in to Monoprix for a quick look-around.  I knew they wouldn’t have it, because grocery stores don’t sell over-the-counter medication or other medical products like contact solution.  You have to go to a pharmacy for that.  Chances are, the pharmacy near me would have had what I was looking for.  But I was already walking in the other direction, and I made a beeline toward the first green optician sign I saw.  Next time, I won’t be so hasty.

There are other [better] ways

When I got home, I did a quick online search: “où acheter otpi-free express” (“where to buy…”), hoping for a better result.  Among the hits, I found this useful site, which showed a bunch of places from which one can order contact solution.

It made me feel a little bit better that there are some sites selling this item for the same amount that I paid.  But there are definitely cheaper options, even with shipping costs!  Next time, with a little planning ahead, I could just order it online and have it sent to me.  That would be much easier on the mind, and on the pocketbook!

When you live in another country, there are a ton of different products.  Sometimes, you just don’t know which are the good brands and which ones will leave you disappointed.  Living in another country makes you re-learn certain things, such as where you can (or can’t) buy ___________________ (fill in the blank).  It probably helps if you have contact with natives, who can tell you where you can get things.  This time around, my connections with actual French people are few-and-far-between.  (C’est un peu dommage….) But the longer you stay in a place, the more you learn.  Now I know a little better.

Life lessons learned.








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