Halley Knigge (Griffin)

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Hotel in Seattle’s French sister city lets you live life of hamster

KOMO News, CNN.com, April 19, 2012]

We’d had the reservation for nine months when April 2 finally rolled around.

Terrified of repeating my mistakes in late, lackadaisical booking of summer 2010 and missing my chance to live like a hamster two Europe trips in a row, I’d frantically emailed the proprietor of La Villa Hamster the same day we booked this year’s tickets to France.

A rodenty night for two in April 2012? Booked in July 2011? No problem. My bimonthly email confirmations were overkill, perhaps, but set my mind at ease.

I’d been dreaming of a trip to the famed hamster hotel for years. And by years, I mean ever since this November 2009 Guardian article first caught my eye.

The vision was realized by Un Coin Chez Soi, a company that hosts a variety of offbeat guest rooms, with themes like school, Captain Nemo’s voyage, and, of course, hamster, throughout the city of Nantes. (An otherwise average Bretagne city, Nantes is known mainly for being the birthplace of Lu cookies. It’s also one of Seattle’s 21 sister cities and regular host to a University of Washington study abroad program.)

The arrival

It wasn’t particularly simple to make a one-night detour to Nantes as we made our way from Italy back to Paris, but I was bound and determined to finally have my night in the hamster hotel – and my patient fiancé Chuck knew better than to argue.

We arrived in Nantes on a Monday afternoon, busing our way to the city center and dragging wheeled suitcases through winding cobblestone streets (even better than the Shake Weight, I tell you). All we had was an address and a printed email with cryptic French instructions.

On your left when you enter the courtyard, you will find a small crevice in the wall, containing a small lockbox. Enter the following code to find the key to the Villa Hamster. When you depart, simply leave the 109 euro on the counter, and return the key to the lockbox.

We knew we were on the right track when the lockbox popped open to reveal a key simply labeled “Hamster.” A few steps into the courtyard, and we found ourselves facing a nondescript door with a small red sticker of a hamster over the handle. Bingo.

La vie hamster

From the moment we stepped through the door, the villa was more hamstery than we had ever imagined – right down to the musty hamster smell. We immediately donned the furry hamster headdresses, opting not to touch the hamster tail belts that were also provided for us.

A human-sized exercise wheel fills most of the room, strategically locking and becoming a bench to maximize space.

Next to the wheel is a ladder extending up a bed that hangs suspended over the room. A plastic headboard filled with sawdust and a pile of blankets with the instructions “faites votre lit comme un hamster,” or “make your bed like a hamster.”

Sawdust, cages and hamster toys decorate the rest of the tiny studio, which also features a corner water trough so you can drink like a hamster.

A sprinkle of sawdust splays out from the sawdust wall behind the toilet, dusting the plunger, toilet brush and scrubber with delicate shavings.

A frightening piece of hamster art in the corner features a giant, metal rodent face with two LED as eyes.

The villa is centrally located and fully equipped with a kitchenette, so hamster-loving guests could conceivably live there for weeks.

We spent a good portion of the evening mulling over the perfect farewell message to add to the chalkboard wall, already covered with chalk illustrations of hamsters and scrawled messages from visitors all over the world.

“Vive la vie hamster!” declared one.

“I don’t know whether to use the sawdust or the toilet,” wondered another guest, giving Chuck and I pause while we considered the potential sources of the villa’s musty scent.

In the end, we opted for simplicity – and then promptly forgot what we’d chosen. Surely it was poignant, whatever it was.

One night was more than enough hamster for us, but now we’re haunted by the question: “what next?” A night in the Jules Undersea Lodge? Zip-lining through the tree tops at the Treehouse Tresort?

For now, we’ll just keep dreaming in hamster.


Hello all.

It’s been almost a year since I last updated this, so I figured it was time for an update.

For those of you who’ve just found this site, it’s a blog chronicling 11 months that I spent living in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris from August 2006 – July 2007. While I was there I worked as an au pair for a Franco-American family with four children, and lived rent-free in a studio apartment they also owned, while studying political science at l’Institut des Etudes Politiques de Paris, or Sciences Po.

Since I began writing this I’ve had so many e-mails from people letting me know that it’s been a helpful resource for them. Many of them will be attending Sciences Po, or studying abroad in Europe, or just planning a trip. I never thought anyone would actually find this useful, but I’m so glad it has been! For this reason, I’ve decided to leave this particular site up as it is. If I embark on any new adventures I think are worth recording, I’ll throw a link up here.

I’ve been back in the United States for 11 months now, finishing up my B.A. at the University of Washington. On June 14th, I graduated with a major in international studies and a minor in French. I was originally a French major, but realized hastily upon returning from studying abroad that I’d need to add a fifth year to complete all the required coursework.

Last fall I did an internship at Seattle Weekly, an alternative newspaper, and I wrote for my school newspaper for the last few months of school.

At the beginning of July I moved to Moscow, Idaho to take a job at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. I’m now a legitimate journalist, being paid to write stories. I even have my own beat (education). So far I love it.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

If anyone’s interested….
Seattle Weekly articles
The Daily of the University of Washington articles


I’ve only been home for a week and I’m already up to my ears in two questions. How was Paris? and Is it weird to be back? For the record, France was good and it’s weird but nice to be back in the states.

These aren’t bad questions – on the contrary. It’s just that they’re, well, very large questions. Paris was friendlier than I’d expected it to be, Paris smelled like urine, Paris’s air was dirty, but its parks and sidewalks were clean. Paris was exhilarating. Paris was hard and scary and amazing. Yeah, Paris was good. What else is there to say?

As for being home, It’s been surprisingly easy to fit back into my Tacoma routine – hanging out with my mom during the day, running with the dog and driving to Seattle to meet friends in the evening. I’ve lived here all my life, so being home is just like being home. The only oddnesses arise when my mind tries to superimpose Parisian life on Tacoman.

Driving through a parking lot in Gig Harbor a few days ago, I was positive I’d seen a young guy wearing a Front National tee shirt. The Front National, for those who already find Paris slipping away from them, is the right-wing extremist party in France, the one whose chef has been called everything from racist to xenophobic to anti-Semitic.

Mom, that guy’s wearing a National Front shirt, go back, go back! After a furtive circle back through the parking lot, with me hanging out the window with my camera, we determined that he was actually wearing a Sherwin-Williams paint shirt. On second glance, it looked nothing like the FN logo, my mind was just compensating for what I’d expected to see.

Then there was the day I realized I’d bought a shirt in the wrong size – the only problem was that I’d bought it on clearance on a second mark-down. I was ready to just throw it away and go buy a new shirt, but my mom stopped me. What are you talking about, of course you can exchange that. I could hardly believe it. In France, I’d thrown away purses and given away a replacement part of a coffee pot that I couldn’t exchange without receipts or because I’d waited too long to do it. In the U.S., you can take anything back, anytime. I remember once in middle school I’d bought a pair of new white Jack Purcell sneakers from Nordstrom, and worn them for two months before they started to disintegrate. My mom sent me back to the store to complain about the fact that they’d only lasted two months, and I walked out with a brand new pair of shoes. I suppose I’ve gotten used to stricter policies.

A few days later, my mom and I took the dog (Scout) for a walk. After winding our way down by Stadium High School, around Wright Park and down 6th Avenue, we stopped at the Corina Cake Bakery for some pie. Scout is a very small dog, and quite enjoys being carried, so without thinking, I bent to scoop him up, asking It’s fine to bring him in if I hold him, right? Judging by the incredulous look on my mom’s face, it apparently wasn’t. They serve food here. Instead I tied him up outside, but right next to the door so he could peek in at us while we snacked. After about five minutes, an employee went outside to move him farther from the door. The no dogs in restaurants rule should be so obvious – I don’t want to eat next to someone else’s pet, but a year of an anything goes attitude on the pet front has conditioned me otherwise.

Aside from these brief moments of confusion, I haven’t yet felt a real explosion of culture shock. The fact that everyone speaks English here seems totally normal, as did the fact that SeaTac airport customs was crowded with high school students in cut-off miniskirts trying to sneak their duty-free alcohol back into the U.S.

It’s more the little things that, while they don’t exactly shock me, definitely remind me that I’m not in Paris anymore. The fact that I’m now carded everywhere I go, but that bars are required to be smoke-free. That chocolate chips go for two dollars a bag, rather than seven euro, and I no longer have to spend half an hour chopping up Nestlé chocolate bars before I can bake cookies. That it’s okay to venture outside in sweatpants – heck, I could even go out to dinner in sweatpants if I was so inclined. Having a real-life boyfriend, and a car to drive. Not being referred to as Anglo-Saxon five times a day.

Rather than a clash of cultures, it’s hundreds of these little things every day that remind me where I am and where I am not, and make it impossible to decide if I’m happy, sad or “weird” to be back.

••• I’m having a bout of indeciciveness, so if you’ve got the time, check out these new title options and tell me which you like best!


Anecdotes from Paris: Dernière partie

Airport fiascos

As smoothly as our trip to Israel always seemed to go, Rachael and my flight home was another story altogether. Tuesday morning we left Tel Aviv with more than three hours to spare before our flight left – but a Hebrew/English miscommunication at the train station sent us nearly an hour in the wrong direction. By the time we figured it out (a security guard kicking us off the train at the last stop on the line) and made it back to Ben Gurion International, we had just 50 minutes to spare before our flight was scheduled to leave.

At Seatac Airport this would have been stressful but not a huge problem. The intense degrees of security in all of Israel, however, ensured that there was no possible way we could get through the numerous security checkpoints, have our bags searched, be patted down for weapons and be interrogated about our reasons for traveling to Israel, and still make our 14h30 flight. After being yelled at by airport security for arriving so late, we were informed that there was no possible way we could get on the plane and were sent to the ticketing offices of Malev Hungarian Airlines to try and change our flights home.

Malev was absolutely no help – the earliest flight they could book us wasn’t until Saturday, a full day after R and I were both supposed to be flying home to the U.S. Unable to take that flight, our only option was to buy completely new tickets, so we headed downstairs to the last-minute flight deals counter. There we found an extremely helpful young guy who informed us of what no one else had – that there was an Israeli airport (among other things) strike planned to begin the following morning. If we didn’t make it out of Tel Aviv by midnight Tuesday, we’d be stuck in Israel indefinitely.

With the help of a colleague, our last-minute flight guy found us a last-minute flight. So last minute that we only had a half hour before check-in was scheduled to close. At $450, it was a pricey unexpected expenditure, but far cheaper than any other ticket options (most running upwards of $800). The only problem remaining being that I didn’t have the money – with only 3 days left of my year in Paris I was down to the last centimes of my budget for the year, and definitely hadn’t factored in an emergency plane ticket fund. I ran upstairs to collect-call my parents for a money transfer while R got our names and passport information into the computer.

Once I’d hung up the phone, I raced back downstairs and our last-minute ticket guy finished processing my ticket. Then he took R’s card to swipe and we got some disturbing news – she didn’t have any money either, but with only 10 minutes left before check-in was to close, had no time to rouse her parents at 4h asking for a money transfer that would (because of her bank) take 5 days to process anyway. She ran back upstairs to call and get the number of her dad’s credit card as I ran to check in and tell the Lufthansa people that a second late traveler might be arriving.

By the time I made it to the gate though, having been rushed through back passages by a kind security guard, it was clear that no second traveler was arriving. What could I do? I had to board my flight, and spent the next 12 hours thinking Oh crap, I’ve left Rachael in Israel. What on earth am I going to do? on repeat. Thank goodness for wine on airplanes, eh?

I made it back to Paris at midnight and crashed immediately. R finally appeared around 4pm with wild stories of her own to tell. With no way to get money for a ticket, she’d called the only person she could think of – the Israeli film actor we’d met during our first few days in Tel Aviv. Let me just say that he is one amazing guy. After knowing R for only a few days, he forked over $450 to buy her a plane ticket to Paris (with promises of Western Union payback transfers, of course). She had another stroke of luck when the start of the strike was pushed back to 6h, to allow all travelers time to get out of the airport – her flight left at 5h45.

Bum pizza

R and I had a lot of errands to run today, it being our last day in Paris and all. Some errands were imperative, like closing our bank accounts and canceling our Internet services, while some were of the more frivolous variety (buying the latest Harry Potter book to read on the flight home). We had a lot to accomplish, but they were all handily located in the Saint Germain/ Saint Michel area, so we were able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time.

After picking up our final grades and diplomas from Sciences Po, and before picking up a Western Union money order for Rachael at La Poste, we stopped near église Saint Germain for a pizza lunch. Since it was already nearing 15h, the dining area of our favorite student-y pizza place was closed, so we took our pizzas à emporter and found a bench to eat them on.

What we didn’t notice when we sat down was that we’d chosen a dining seat directly across from three hungry-looking homeless men drinking beers. I was about halfway into my first slice when I glanced up and saw them eyeing us. We couldn’t have picked a more awkward spot to eat. Not only were we weirded out being stared at while we enjoyed our lunches, but we felt like jerks flaunting our delicious pizzas in front of three guys who had probably gone a while since having a good meal.

We ate half of our pizzas, then carefully consolidated the rest into one box and balanced it carefully on the top of a trash can as we left. We’d considered walking over and offering it to them, but decided it might come off as somewhat insulting and demeaning – after all, they hadn’t asked us for any food or money. As we walked away, I glanced back once and saw the men already diving into our pizza.

Saying goodbye…or not

So this is it for me and Paris – my airport shuttle arrives in just under seven hours, and from that moment on, I’ll forsake all my claims on this city. I spent the day wandering around the city and the evening relaxing in R’s apartment. For whatever reason, we didn’t feel any pressure to go out and have a real “last night” in Paris, or do anything in particular “for the last time.” Over the course of a year we’ve had the chance to do most of the things we wanted to do as many times as we wanted to do them. We felt no need to do it up big, and said our goodbyes to Paris by watching Friends and eating ice cream in R’s living room. It wasn’t the most spectacular of evenings, but it was pleasant all the same.

It doesn’t matter anyway: We’ll be back.

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Pictures Pending: Until blogger lets me upload them, check them out here.

Sitting cross-legged on a bed in a kibbutz in northern Israel last Saturday night, squinting and sewing a missing button back onto an Israeli army uniform was definitely one of the more dramatic how did I get here moments of my year. Come to think of it, I’ve had a lot of those moments over the past two weeks.

From spending the night at a free hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City run by Orthodox Jews who kept us up half the night debating Torah; to sitting on the couch next to an Israeli boy whose name I still can’t quite pronounce as he casually flips through TV channels, pausing to say, Oh, that’s my show!; to being cheered at bars for the simple fact of having come to Israel to “hang out” rather than find my heritage: It was a strange and enlightening vacation.

Rachael and I arrived in Tel Aviv on a Thursday and spent our first few days there, hanging out by the beach, exploring Jaffa and going to the Shuk (market) by day and spending our nights with an old friend of R’s who was living in Israel for a few months. He’s apparently friends with a big group of Israeli movie stars, stage actors and musicians, because every time we saw him, whether it was hanging out at the apartment of an actor our age, whose latest movie just went to the Cannes Film Festival, watching the Brazil-Argentina football match or going to the theatre, we were recognizing (with help) people from movies and previews we’d seen back in Paris (and elsewhere).

Through R’s friend, we met an actor named Yoav, who invited us to go see him act in Plonter, a play (in Hebrew with English and Arabic subtitles) about the occupation – so controversial that a couple sitting behind me stood up and stormed out in the middle of a scene of an Israeli soldier harassing a Palestinian boy.

From Tel Aviv, we moved onto Jerusalem, where we spent one night in the clean (though slightly creepy) and free hostel before moving onto the floor of an apartment on the campus of Hebrew University. We spent a day exploring the Old City, another at Yad Vashem. We spent our third day floating in the Dead Sea, and a night seeing an Israeli band (who we’d met at a party in Tel Aviv) perform at a Jerusalem club.

After Jerusalem, we took a bus to Afula to meet another of R’s friends near his kibbutz. We stayed there for a weekend, hanging out with a group of young Israeli-born Americans who had returned to serve their time in the army (their rooms at the kibbutz are paid for by the Israeli army). It was an interesting experience for sure, but I think I might just be too used to my role in capitalist America to appreciate a place where everyone’s incomes go into a shared pot, and each family has a golf cart to drive around to the shared pool and dining hall.

We left the kibbutz Sunday morning to spend a day in Haifa and old Akko before heading back to Tel Aviv for two more nights out and one more glorious day at the beach.

Israel is probably the most westernized of any country in the Middle East – it has an Ace Hardware, for pete’s sake, but even so it’s like a different world. When R and I stopped to ask directions anywhere, the first question we’d get back was are you okay with buses? We weren’t particularly more concerned about being on buses than being anywhere else in Israel – yes they have, in the past, been targets for bombs, but so have coffee shops, restaurants and night clubs. The Tel Aviv beach is swept every night by a huge Zamboni-like machine that sifts through the sand checking for bombs. Still, most people are the wariest of buses – a guy we met in Tel Aviv told us that when he was in middle school he and his friends would insult each other by saying Go take the number five bus. Once on the buses, though, there are constant patrols by security guards, who hop on at one stop, sweep through the bus and disembark at the next stop to sweep the next bus that comes along. There was never a moment when I was seriously concerned about being blown up on a bus.

Something else that really struck me was the presence of religion – I mean obviously, Israel was created to be a Jewish state, and Jerusalem alone contains the holiest sites for three different religions. I knew the question of religion was a predominant one, I just wasn’t quite prepared for the question of my religion to become so important. At first it was just puzzled people trying to understand what I was doing in Israel. Do you speak any Hebrew? Wait, you’re not Jewish? Why are you traveling to Israel? Do you have friends there? Family? You’re not Jewish? These questions made perfect sense to me. I mean why was I in Israel? The honest truth sounded weird every time I heard it coming out of my mouth. Just hanging out, going to the beach… is definitely not an answer passport control at Ben Gurion International hears often.

Are you Jewish? was obviously the first question posed to me at Heritage House (the free hostel), but once they’d confirmed that I wasn’t, the question never came up again. This was where I’d expected to be the most rigorously interrogated, but the people I seemed to puzzle the most were actually the secular Israelis. Fascinated by the fact that I wasn’t, in fact, Jewish, they became obsessed with trying to figure out what I was. So you’re Christian, then, they’d state confidently, Ehhh, not exactly. I mean I have a Christmas tree every year…but I’m just not really anything. This is where they got really confused. I’m not Jewish, not Christian, obviously not Muslim – so what was I? Okay, so you’re agnostic? I tried my best to explain to each new questioner that while I don’t associate myself with any particular religion, I’m not atheist and not really agnostic.

The honest truth is that I’m just not anything. The best way to classify me would probably be something like apathetic – I just don’t care. Most conversations ended with me saying something along the lines of religion is not a factor in my life, and I think at that point people just got bored, so I was let off the hook. I had imagined my visit to Israel as more of an outsider looking in, but once my plane had landed, my spirituality became fair game. It didn’t bother me at all – I had a lot of interesting discussions, but it was kind of exhausting. I think I probably discussed my “religious background” more in the past two weeks than in the whole of my life so far.

After determining my religion (or lack thereof), the next question was invariably pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Actually, this was never even a question – hanging out with Israelis, I was assumed to be pro-Israel and was thus included in disturbing conversations about things like the “unsanitary” nature of Arab restaurants. There were a lot of times I wanted to speak up and say no, I don’t agree with this, but as a Westerner just passing through the country I became a pansy in the face of the pro-Israel furor. The way this conflict has boiled down to the people who live in it has become almost a question of Jews vs. Arabs. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but it’s an easy distinction to make – we were warned not to go near the Arab quarters after dark, people make jokes like, Well if you’re worried, you can take one of the Arab buses… and we were confronted with people like the man staying in our hostel who came right out and said I hate the Arabs, but he also told us he hates Shiksa (non-Jewish women – i.e., me), so he was just bigoted in every direction.

Racial profiling is a disturbing but prevalent reality. R, whose ethnicity is not easily discernable (and could potentially be Arab) was stopped at every security checkpoint and quizzed about her origins, while I breezed right through. I guess these are the disturbing realities of living in a conflict zone.

Overall, the trip was fun, relaxing, and at times disturbing – partially because of conflict-related issues and partially because of the Crocs invasion. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many Crocs at once in my life. One notable quote heard on the street was This is Israel – of course everybody has Crocs!


Hey all, still alive. Been traipsing through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Afula, etc. hanging out with Israeli movie stars and stage actors…haha, no really. Now we’re visiting a friend of R’s on a kibbutz before heading back to Tel Aviv on Sunday for two nights and flying back to Paris. Updates to come: I’m alive.

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After 9 painful hours of sitting cramped in an airport in Budapest, I found a small shout-out to home when I was finally called to (crankily) board my flight to Tel Aviv. Above the cabin door was a metal stamp tagged with the words “Boeing, Co., Seattle, WA, U.S.A.” Yeah! This airplane and I, we were both Seattle gals, both a long way from home, but both keeping on keeping on.

After 11 more hours waiting for Rachael to land at Ben Gurion International, we finally stepped through the automatic doors and into the sun and heat of Tel Aviv – a welcome change from the rainstormy July that Paris has been enjoying.

We spent Thursday finding our hostel, exploring the beach and eating falafel with our new friend Jonathon, a Dutchman. At night we went out with one of Rachael’s friends (who’s been living here for the past few months)to an outdoor bar, complete with pillows to sit on as you perch in the trees and a rope swing to play on…or sit, I suppose, and demurely sip your glass of wine.

Today we explored Jaffa, relaxed on the beach and tonight are going to a party at the home of an Israeli movie star (he just returned from the Cannes film festival, where his new movie was premiering).

Tomorrow is beach bum day, and tomorrow night, who knows. What I do know is that Tel Aviv fashion is a far cry from what we left in Paris. I’ve never seen so many pairs of spandex pants, tube tops, platform sandals and Crocs (!!!) in one small space in my life. It’s very…uh…beachy.

Everywhere we go, Jonathon and I are being toasted by Israeli Jews, for the simple fact of being here and not being Jewish. This seemed weird at first, but as R and her friend explained it to us, there aren’t a lot of people who come to Israel just to hang out and vacation. Most people passing through are on religious pilgrimages or on birthright trips to see the homeland. When people meet J and I, two non-Jewish tourists, just here to see the sights and hang out, they get really proud that we came to see their home with no ulterior motives.

That’s all I’ve got tonight – we’re in Tel Aviv until Monday morning when we’re catching a train to Jerusalem, so shalom for now.