Boba

I’ve been on a quest for some time now to find the best boba tea drinks in the city. Back home in the Bay Area, it had become a ritual to drink boba several times a week, so naturally I had to find a way to continue this behavior in Los Angeles.

At first I was pretty casual about finding boba. I took a few trips to Sawtelle, a restaurant-filled street near campus which holds a few boba shops. But each of these mini-outings produced so-so results. Pearl drinks in San Jose are freakishly delicious, and I was simply not getting that transcendental boba experience I was used to getting weekly at home.

I expanded my search to include boba tea places in other neighborhoods. A friend who grew up in Koreatown spoke to the quality of the boba there, so I filtered my Yelp searches appropriately. The bubble teas I came across in Ktown were certainly better, but making the trek out there on a biweekly basis was not a sustainable endeavor. I had to figure something else out.

There are always a number of groups out and about on campus selling food to raise money for whatever cause or clubs they are looking to support. Today a group called Project Wild was selling pumpkin pie and apple juice in the Court of Sciences and Hillel sells challah every Thursday on Bruin Walk. Luckily, boba is the most popular of the fundraising foods, and practically every day of the week there will be a club selling milk teas or Thai iced teas with boba somewhere on campus. And even better – these drinks come from all over Los Angeles. I asked one girl I was buying some tea from where it had originated, and she said Alhambra, a neighborhood that’s a 45-minute drive away on a day without too much traffic. Another group had bought their boba from a shop in Mid-City and another from Culver City.

With the help of these student groups, I’ve been able to consistently get my fix both for delicious pearl drinks and for LA exploration. Even though I may not be driving myself out to these boba places just yet, I still get to sample their drinks and perhaps decide which ones are worth going to. It’s almost as if the cosmos aligned, knowing I had a need for boba that couldn’t be met  by frequent 45-minute drives and then meeting that need by bringing the tea to campus.

Of course, I still try new places from time to time, but being a UCLA student has helped me realize my true potential of drinking boba to and from my classes on a regular basis. I’ve achieved my milk tea fulfillment.

Apartment Decorations

Royce Hall ceiling fresco --- Photo Credit: UCLA Image Library

The largest wall in my living room is, at the moment, pretty naked. During the summer I had hung up two large banners my roommate had swiped from a UCLA Catering event that had pictures of green food on them and advertised a patio dining space for (what was probably) a fictional tennis club. I had also put up a few dozen yellow Jarrito stickers in the shape of a large smiley face on the adjacent wall but had taken down both the banners and the smiley at the start of the school year to make room for more tasteful decorations. The Jarritos stickers were replaced with a large framed map of Paris that, after several tries, we had managed to affix to the wall despite its extreme heaviness. My roommate’s liberal application of command strips to the back of the frame probably means that we will never actually be able to remove the Paris map, but I think that’s fine with me. We tried putting up a portrait of Daniel Webster (a senator from the 1800s) on the wall where the patio dining banners had been, but such a heavy frame again gave us problems, and my roommate’s supply of command strips was used up after Webster’s second attempted hanging. For now, he’s sitting on the couch next to a striped throw pillow from IKEA. In the corner of my living room, there’s a holographic picture of Jesus in a gold, light-up frame that I found at the flea market on Melrose and Fairfax. The weighty gold frame, too, doesn’t like to stay hung up.

The only piece of decoration that my roommates and I are really pleased with (beyond the permanent map of Paris) is my wall of plants. This summer, when I was fantasizing the most about interior decorating, I decided that I wanted one of my walls to be filled with vegetation. I had been obsessively saving jars during the course of my fridge cleaning and had amassed quite a collection by the end of summer. I planned on filling the jars with some cute little shrubs or flowers or something and then displaying the fruits of my green thumb by adhering them to the wall. Wanting to avoid the now-overdone succulent-in-a-jar thing and feeling insecure about my ability to keep flowers alive, I opted finally to use air plants which I bought from a nursery off of Sunset. I also found some yucca plants in the free section on Craigslist from a man who lives in Venice who, when I went to retrieve my yuccas, also gave me a few cacti and another huge air plant. Armed with the necessary fauna, I constructed my plant wall (using the last of the command strips I had, effectively ending any chance for Danny Webster or Jesus to make it back up on their respective wall spaces). And like I said, I was quite pleased, but having just one nice wall doesn’t really outweigh a huge, blank one.

The quarter is already about a third of the way through, so any hope of having had a beautifully decorated apartment when school started has been more or less lost. Even if we had found a way to make his portrait stick, our dear friend the senator would have been lonely on the wall that had previously been filled by two large banners. There’s still more shopping to do around the Melrose flea market and more browsing through free Craigslist (which, actually, I’ve still been doing – I almost managed to win, for lack of a better word, a two foot python but was late by about two hours). But still. At least I have my wall of plants. And at least I’ll always have Paris.

Exploring LA

It was a ritual freshman and sophomore year to talk about exploring Los Angeles. At the beginning of each quarter, each one of my friends and I would promise each other that we were finally ready to start taking LA discovery seriously and that we would Yelp as many restaurants and museums as we could, slowly devouring all of the city’s cultural offerings. But each quarter we would follow the same patterns of sticking around in the Westwood bubble, maybe hanging out in Santa Monica once or twice but mostly eating in the dining halls and fabricating elaborate horror stories about the public bus system to avoid having to ride it. On rare occasions I would find myself eating somewhere fun, like a Peruvian restaurant in Beverly Hills or a hotdog place in a railroad car, and my sense of self was so inflated by these types of outings that the non-exploration I was doing felt fine. I didn’t have a clue where Koreatown was during my first two years, but at least I went to a museum every other month. Having an OK knowledge of museums is sufficient in a big place like LA.

Now, though, I have a car and any excuses I used to make for myself about the difficulty of navigating bus schedules don’t make sense. The city is finally accessible, and after some time spent in a city abroad, I’ve internalized the importance of taking advantage of the cool, fun stuff that cities have to offer. Since school has started, I’ve ventured into the Angeleno landscape almost every day. Last night I went to a boba place (my fifth in the past month) and this weekend I visited the Craft and Folk Art Museum for LA’s free museum day. I’ve tried Korean barbecue in Koreatown and expensive iced mochas in Silverlake. I went to a plant nursery in Echo Park for some foliage for my apartment, and I drove over to a man’s house in Venice to pick up some Yucca trees I found on Craigslist. I’ve even started visiting downtown, which has historically been uncharted territory for me. I remember once during freshman year I made my way to Olvera Street, the Mexican street market across from Union Station. The bus commute took up most of my afternoon, effectively placing the downtown neighborhoods on a do-not-visit list. Even during summer, when I had the time to spend sitting in traffic on the 10, I still avoided venturing too far away from Westwood. But recently I’ve opened up to downtown. Last week I went to a gallery opening in Chinatown just a couple of blocks from Union Station. Two nights ago, I went with my roommate to an open mic night in Little Tokyo which is just a stone’s throw from Chinatown. I’m not only going to fun and easily accessible places, like Main Street in Santa Monica or Abbot Kinney in Venice, but now I’m also making my way downtown and beyond, past the comfortable Los Angeles that’s knowable by bus. And I’m having a lot of fun doing it. Hopefully my momentum won’t break any time soon and I can continue on my path of LA exploration. Because really, after having talked about it endlessly for three years, finally I’m doing it. I think that this really will be the quarter that I get to know Los Angeles.

Sprouts Superiority

 

Choosing

Slowly but surely I am becoming good at feeding myself. Eating in the dorms was (perhaps surprisingly) very complex. The decision of where to grab lunch on the Hill almost always involved a series a calculations that included things like the number of stairs on the way to the dining hall, salad bar choices,  and the cheeriness of the dining staff; the list goes on. At first, eating in an apartment was anything but complex. Some nights I would find myself eating a pan-fried combination of whatever I had in the fridge (green beans, a slice of provolone cheese, a scrambled egg, hot sauce) that I would assemble in a hurry as my episode of Grey’s Anatomy buffered in my bedroom. Sometimes, if I was feeling especially domestic, I would make actual meals with side dishes and complete proteins. But a carefully crafted and well-planned dinner is still, really, not complex. And the only emotions I found myself experiencing swayed between vacancy and ambivalence. Cooking is fun, sure, but for the first part of summer it lacked spark. It was strangely robotic. And therefore while I was empirically good at nourishing myself, I was having a hard time feeding myself.

But recently I believe I have found the answer to my culinary conundrum. My grocery store. I’ve gone almost exclusively to Trader Joe’s until now and while TJ’s is a lovely alternative to either Whole Foods (too nice) or Ralph’s (not nice enough), something about it didn’t seem right. I think perhaps a big part of it was that during the time I lived on the Hill, Trader Joe’s was my safe haven. I would take bi-monthly treks into Westwood to forage around the snack aisles of Trader Joe’s in search of dorm-room treats. I waddled back to campus with bags full of pistachio-laden chocolates and peanut butter-filled pretzels. And each trip left me with a fierce sense of accomplishment. But now shopping at Trader Joe’s with a certain regularity has begun to make me feel alienated. While during freshman and sophomore year I consistently crowded the free sample counters, I now avoid it almost every trip. I rarely buy snacks and instead fill my cart with lots of veggies, lunch meats, and boxes of almond milk. But that’s not what Trader Joe’s is for! I like going there to buy food that isn’t quite food, more of a cute, surreal treat (where else can you buy multicolored candy-coated sunflower seeds?). And now buying real food is freaking me out.

A couple of blocks past Wilshire on Westwood Blvd sits the solution to my dilemma: a nice but not too nice grocery store called Sprouts. Having never stepped foot in a Sprouts before just a couple of weeks ago, the novelty of it is thrilling. I’m not constantly berated by reminders of the empty calories I consumed as a lowerclassman in the form of Trader Joe’s brand snicky snacks, and the store itself is spectacular. You can buy vegetables that aren’t shrink-wrapped or already pre-washed and sealed in plastic bags (which is all that I found myself buying lately). The selection offers you a much wider variety of things to make for dinner, and each aisle is filled with fun, new, exciting Sprouts brand things to try. But the best part isn’t even the great food. It is absolutely that now the process of “going to the store” is exciting. It’s complex. I have to time my shopping trips around the rush hour traffic that manifests over the course of the 8-block drive. I see new faces with every visit – true Westwooders and not just UCLA students and the few adults who live among us in the small area surrounding campus. I mean I’ve only been a couple times, but the change of pace has been thrilling. I have a renewed energy for cooking, and feeding myself in an apartment is now starting to be more fun than eating on the Hill was. A new grocery store is exactly what I needed to (quite literally) spice up my life.

Still Transitioning?

 

I’m not quite sure how to describe being back at UCLA. I keep telling myself that I’ve long since left my transitional period and that I’m all settled in and that things are going great and that I’m getting things done and then I find myself having an existential crisis much like the ones that were so typical of my first semester in France. I’ve taken to listening to a lot of poppy self-empowerment music just to remind me to Be Good To Myself, as I often kind of forget to. Yet at the same time I’ve never felt so right. My days abroad were often spent aimlessly, riding buses just to ride buses and eating sandwiches because they were there to be eaten. Here in LA everything feels purposeful. Or at least everything is meant to. Restaurants in Lyon were elusive, and happening along a cute new coffee shop was an accomplishment that was milked over and over again (“this is the third time this week I’ve eaten a pain au chocolat at this cafe because I’ve just found this cafe and there’s pain au chocolat here”). Restaurants in Los Angeles rarely pop up on corners as you make your way about town. No, they start out on lists that you make after visiting endless Yelp pages and food blogs. Angeleno epicureans practically shout to you the various places you should be eating, and going out for food isn’t something to pass the time, it’s a race to explore the city. Eating at a new restaurant feels bizarrely productive, like I’m aptly performing my studentness and my Americanism. In fact, much of everything I do feels like that. Going on walks around campus is part of a regime that I’ve set for myself to get reacquainted with UCLA. I listen to music, I get the chills, I sigh heavily, I finish and pat myself on the back for the job well done (“wow, Charley, look at you, finding your way through campus again, right on schedule”). I’ve gone to the honors office to chat about getting credit for my special study project from second semester. I’ve turned in my notes from my anthropology class to my advisor so he can review them. I’ve decorated my room, and I’ve dutifully done all of my schoolwork for session A. And it all feels good? I mean, I suppose I am really very happy to be back, to be being productive and to be participating again in the same culture that I left behind. Purpose is good. And having so much purpose all the time feels very foreign that whenever I have a day that is markedly purpose-less (read: for fun only) I always sit up in bed that night completely surprised at how much fun I had despite not having finished all my readings or not having left Westwood in my never-ending conquest of California’s largest city. France was hyper unproductive, empirically speaking. I didn’t even gain any weight despite the sharp uptick in my caloric intake. But France was also the most in touch I’ve ever been with myself without the distractions of to-do lists or assignments or idealized visions of senior year. And so I’ve been working on keeping that sincerity, keeping up with my contentedness and my feels and me despite now also keeping up with a packed work schedule and regular outings in Santa Monica and biweekly parties and apartment decorating.

Being back at UCLA, my life has direction again. I’m no longer on an extended vacation. My days are there to be used. Now I’m just figuring out how to achieve the same excitedness for living that I had when there was nothing there telling me that being alive was exciting. I’m well on my way, so be expecting some posts that are more about the living I’m actually doing here at school and less about whatever funny post-abroad feelings that go along with them. I could be wrong, but after having spent a full session here I think I may finally be done transitioning back into normal, beautiful, UCLA life.

Summer is upon us

It is finally here. The abstract and unknown “UCLA summer” that I have been dreaming about since fall semester in France has arrived, and I am very quickly getting deep into it. I’ve started my linguistic anthropology course (an exciting and oddly familiar way to jump back into things (academia, I’ve missed you)). And, I started giving tours again this week. I’m really looking forward to starting my RA position in July. I get to read up on Madagascar and look at the language used in the politics of its capital city. Cool stuff.

But summer is also much much more than doing cool research or taking a fun class or giving tours. I finally moved into my new apartment, which (I hope) I will begin decorating very soon in preparation for having friends over for potlucks and soirees. I’ve already went on a summer weekend trip to San Diego to watch baseball, hang out at the beach, and go jetskiing (a fantastic way to get reacquainted with American Summer). I’m meeting new friends and getting to know old ones better.

My favorite thing, though, is being on UCLA’s campus again. I have gone on a walk every day, most times twice a day, to check in with my oldest college pal. I have taken many strolls through the botanical garden and will, of course, continue to do so until I’ve touched every plant in the place. Since I’ve been gone, the garden has gotten two new succulent plots with some of the cutest miniature cacti and trees I’ve ever seen. I’m redoing all of my favorite walks and making news ones up. Lots of the construction projects that were happening my first two years at UCLA have been finished and now I can walk freely in spaces that were formerly blocked off with orange tape and chainlink fences.

This weekend I’m going to the Marina Aquatic Center to go kayaking. Today I visited a friend’s apartment. It is summertime. Finally, after having the longest vacation of my life in France, I am on my last UCLA summer break. And while I’m still transitioning over into a new normal, everything feels very hopeful and very exciting. I’m back, babe.

Back to L.A.

By the time that you read this, I will be back in Los Angeles. It is the night before I make a sort-of-a-surprise trip down to L.A. to see my friends and see my campus who I haven’t seen for a very long time. And it’s more or less overwhelming. I spent much of my first semester dreaming about seeing UCLA again. I would take walks through south campus in my head during archaeology class. I would imagine tasting the first, hot bite of a Cafe 1919 pizette when I was hungry. If I was feeling especially fragile, I would look up UCLA’s campus on Google Maps and sit on street view, gazing at Royce Hall while my eyes got fuzzier and fuzzier.

But I haven’t felt like that in a long, long while. Sure, there was a time that going back was all I wished for. Food was better back home, memories were better, the earth was prettier. But second semester wasn’t like that. Walking around Lyon felt like walking in a giant house, everything was comfy like being indoors. I missed UCLA, sure, and my friends of course, but I was thriving without them. My mind had replaced the bricks of north campus with the intricate rooftops of France. My heart found the Red Bridge on the Soane and allowed it to take the botanical garden’s place, if only for those few months.

And so now it is the night before I get on a plane that will drop me in LAX in the hottest weather I will have experienced in over nine months. And I will hop onto the blue Flyaway bus and make my way to Westwood, which I’m sure will seem as strange to me as France did when I first arrived. I mean, of course I expect to be overcome by happiness the moment on walk on campus and see the neuroscience building towering proudly above me. And I know that I will swoon at my first stop by the south campus student center. I’ll be taking every one of my favorite walks, and I will, I know, be absolutely adoring it. But if the “reverse culture shock” that I encounter when I get down there is anything like what I experienced coming home to the Bay Area, I also have to be prepared for the inevitable alienation that will happen when I am about to face.

They always talked about coming back and being blown away by how the familiarity seems so foreign, but before you experience it firsthand, there is no way of knowing exactly what it feels like. I wait in a confusing and surreal anticipation for my reunion with the place that I have missed and loved and not been to for the past nine months. I hope everything turns out OK, even though I know it will. And it will, especially after my mind is able to grab hold of those lovely north campus bricks. It won’t be until I’m there that I know I am back.

Self-study Abroad

I am done with school. More or less. I am still working on a research project I’m doing through my program, but all the other classes are totally terminé. I have now spent eight months in France doing lots of eating, a solid bit of traveling, and next to no schoolwork. This is, of course, not to say that I did not have any “study” in my study abroad experience, but I think that the name generally leads people to believe that us study abroaders are doing most of our learning in the classroom (which is just absolutely not the case). Sure, there are people who do enjoy and benefit from their classes. I even use the knowledge I gained during my French linguistics class on a biweekly basis. But one’s time in a foreign country features quite a bit more self-study and reflection. Without the handy extracurriculars of home campus and the quarterly events like Spring Sing, study abroad students are allowed a lot of time to sit and ponder their humanity. I think that during the first semester, I averaged around three existential crises a day. Last October, I watched more TV than I have ever watched in a single month, and I began to worry my host mom with all of the conversations I had aloud with myself. By second semester, first semester’s long and often bizarre road to self-discovery led me to a sunny patch where I could thoroughly enjoy the country I was living in because I was so thoroughly enjoying being myself. Sure, I enjoyed me back in LA, but how could I not when I spent my days strolling through the botanical gardens? Spending a semester in France showed me who I was when I didn’t have the luxury of weekly treks through the palm court of Bunche or delicious lunches from Cafe 1919.

And like I said, second semester was really one giant, comfy, sunny patch. Never has there been a period of time where I have found so much pleasure in eating food or starting new fun habits. The doodling I was doing in my school notebooks became increasingly stunning. Larger scenes, more detail, feeling! With my friends, too, I had become so happy, so satisfied. Everyone I talked to had something to teach me. I was hardly in a classroom, and, in fact, my courses were anything but intellectual (remember my puppeteering class?), yet day by day I could feel myself becoming more and more in tune with my academic interests. I was living in a party, one that was filled with beautiful, yummy, informative things.

And I suppose that’s what study abroad is. It isn’t about learning a foreign language or taking classes in another university system. It isn’t about getting to know a foreign culture or meeting the locals. It’s about meeting you, getting to know your own culture. It’s about having talks in your head, becoming fluent in your own voice. And it took me a while to see that and understand that, but now I know that what I learned about myself this year abroad was something I could not have found in a classroom back at UCLA.

It took me leaving to know exactly why I am more excited than ever to go back. So here I come, senior year. I know I will love you as much as I love me.

Pizza Quotas

 

In the midst of furiously editing a paper I was writing yesterday, I decided to take a break from using my brain to go grab some dinner. My friend Josephine and I took a walk over to Lyon’s seventh arrondissement where we decided on eating at a pizza place where we had gone earlier in the semester. And even though the pizza was as delicious as it was the first time, leaving the restaurant I knew that I would never come back. I had reached my quota for “that pizza place in the seventh.”

But that isn’t to say that I have totally reached my quota on pizza. About a week ago, my friends and I were talking about how completely over pizza we were, just absolutely done. We could wait until California to get a slice of Hawaiian  and for now we needed to get our fix for melted cheese elsewhere. But two days later I found myself excitedly digging into a calzone at a restaurant that overlooks one of Lyon’s rivers. Apparently my palate was still accepting pizza.

Pizza has been a standard part of my weekly diet this semester. Josephine and I made a deal back in January that we would have weekly dinner dates that switched between eating pizza and  eating burgers and that we would carefully make our way through all of the establishments in Lyon that served these delicious (American) staples. Just as it was for certain pizzerias, I have reached my quota on several of the burger joints I’ve been to. One place I refuse to eat another burger at, and I will only return for their Thursday night deals (where you can buy a pound of french fries for three euros).

But I have to wonder why I run into these quotas. Is it because I want to try as many restaurants as possible? Is having delicious food or a cute ambience not enough? For some places, a limit for visits does not exist. There is a cupcake place here in the city that I’ve been to more times than I can count, and I have eaten Vietnamese food at Petit Grain on many occasions. There are also places I strive to go to often, even if I can’t always find a reason to. I walk past my favorite boulangerie on a weekly basis just to say hi even if I am not going in to buy a baguette. There is a cafe a couple streets over that I wish I had made my regular lunch spot, but I discovered it too late in the semester, so now I try to go as often as I can. There are, too, places for which my desired number of visits is “once.” There’s a bar that I spent a lovely night at, huddled outside under blankets sitting next to a tree that was growing up through the terrace, but as much as I adored the bar, going that one time was enough. Why do some places beckon me back while others outlive their allure? Why do I have my “favorite cafe” or “regular joint” when at the same time I am so interested in trying a new restaurant whenever I go out for lunch?

I’ve had a heck of a time walking the streets of the Lyonnais peninsula searching for new pubs and new restaurants  and for the most part I’ve been able to try the ones I want to try. But sometimes it is worth it to forgo testing that new kebab place and instead snuggling up in the familiar environment of the cupcake bakery?

I don’t know. But for now, I guess I will try not to worry too much about quotas and pizzas and novelty. That is until I get back to UCLA where Los Angeles has more bars and restaurants to try than there are days in the academic year. Here’s to hoping my experience in Lyon prepares me for the food uncertainty I face in the future.

Dreaming of a taco

Since the day I got here, I have been dreaming of eating a taco. A salty, beautiful carne asada soft taco with maybe some guacamole and a side of rice and beans. Even thinking about it now is making my heart swell in anticipation (I go home in about a month to be reunited with my long-lost love, Mexican food). Of course that is not to say that I haven’t tried to recreate my old favorites over here. I’ve used my blender to make horchata and have tirelessly searched the produce section for non-rock-like avocados. I even tracked down a decent Mexican restaurant in Paris when I went, but having a chorizo taco on a sad, imported tortilla is not quite like home.

In the absence of chilaquiles, I’ve been eating other food. Every so often I walk past one of my favorite boulangeries and pop in to grab a cookie. They aren’t quite like American cookies, the dough is made with almond paste and bitter chocolate, but it is very very tasty. Sometimes, instead of a cookie, maybe I grab a pain au chocolat. Or perhaps I stick to a classic baguette to make a sandwich with.

I now regularly eat crepes and quiches. I have developed quite a taste for biscottes and cheese. And while it is true that I still stare longingly at the dry, unfortunate flour tortillas in the supermarket’s international section, I have gotten quite good at passing them up and grabbing charcuterie instead.

This year I’ve fallen back in love with roast chicken, a relic of my childhood that I swore off after having eaten it so many times for family dinners. I eat duck regularly now, not just for special occasions. And the amount of goat cheese I consume has nearly tripled in recent months.

But what does this all mean? This new-found appreciation of all food that is rich, buttery, and completely devoid of spice? Will I have trouble readjusting to my quesadillas? Will even eating a pepperoni pizza trigger memories of the pounds of salami I’ve had since being here in France? Is it possible that upon my return I will crave a pear tart in the same way I now crave the hot first bite of a burrito?

I think so.

And now, with my last month ahead of me, I plan to relish in the glory that is French food in the hope that when I get back to the United States my palate will be programmed to always remember the love I have now for the yummy things I’m eating. I am still going to enjoy that first taco though.