France is a Dog Eat Dog Whirl

I’ve realized that most of the things I write about France inevitably come back to food. This blog post started out about food because that’s where I was—in a very cool little pizza restaurant on a cozy cobblestone alley in Aix-en-Provence—when I was reminded that in France you often share your meal with dogs.

I’ve always had dogs and honestly I don’t love leaving them behind when I go off to go enjoy my human life. (And considering the mild destruction I often return to in the form of ripped magazines and deposits in the middle of the floor (so I’ll be sure not to miss it, you see), they don’t love my leaving them either.)

When I was single, a thousand years ago, my dog Little—a rescue mixed breed terrier—was my constant companion to the point where she always sat on my lap when I had my hair colored (and as a result more than once sported a blob of brown dye on her whitish fur). My hobby at the time was horseback riding and so Little came with me every day and ran alongside me as I rode, rolled in horse manure while I was busy feeding or grooming said horse, and chased the barn cats with rampant glee. Like me, she had a great time.

I always took her with me to friends’ houses, smuggled her into department stores (she wasn’t tiny by any means but she knew how to be quiet in a knapsack), and generally made sure my best friend didn’t spend any time home alone if she didn’t have to. (I also was a freelance copywriter at the time so that worked out for both of us.)

The one place Little couldn’t come with me was to restaurants. Not even outdoor restaurants, at least not in Atlanta in the nineties, and I’d bet not now either.

But France has always had an open door policy with les chiens and I totally love that about them. How nice it must be to relax with a glass of wine, your dog at your feet, the evening before you and no concern about having to hose down your living room when you get home.

This dog is looking for more of those tasty pommes frites that the waiter dropped five minutes earlier!

Now my current dog (one of two) is a certifiable ratbag and I’d honestly spend too much time trying to make her behave than enjoying my moules frites but I think I might actually be motivated to train her up if I thought there were more places I could bring her.

In France, I’m reminded that these little animals are considered acceptable, viable companions and all the interactions I saw between them and any of their owners reinforced that notion.

After all, in a civilized world would you really leave your best friend at home all alone while you went out for your aperos and foie gras?

Hey, next blog post I’m going to tell you what I’ve noticed about the pigeons of Provence! Until then, mes amis, á bientôt!

NB: for my Maggie Newberry readers, my dog Little was the model for Maggie’s precious little Petit-Four.

Blast from the Past

I’m currently on the brink of another visit to Aix-en-Provence and I’m reminded of one of the major reasons I enjoy visiting France so much—particularly out of season.

The boulangerie in our village always had odd cookies--at least odd to American children--but that made it all the more amazing to us.

The boulangerie in our village always had odd cookies–at least odd to American children–but that just made it all the more amazing to us.

AFour years ago, I took a trip to Germany and Switzerland with an all-male entourage of two brothers, my husband and son.

My brothers hadn’t been back to Europe in years. My youngest brother hadn’t been back since he was nine years old when my father was stationed Stateside after three years in France and Germany. I mention this because until that trip I assumed that I was attracted to certain places for similar reasons that anybody else was—I loved France because of the lilt of the language, the amazing pastries, the quaint cobblestone streets. And since I’d heard other people gush on about those qualities too I assumed we were all on the same page for why we loved to visit Europe.

But it wasn’t until I went back with two of the people I’d grown up with that I realized that I had a hidden trigger that was personal and special when it came to Europe. I can’t even say I share this particular proclivity with people who grew up in Europe because it was the very point of feeling foreign—at nine years old—that not only made the experience so much more intense but also indelible.

At one point in our trip, we were in Murren in the Swiss Alps. We’d spent the night there and were up early the next morning for a walking trek we all wanted to take. This was early June but when we woke up there was snow on the ground in the village. My brothers and I happened to be the first ones up and as we waited for my husband and son, we three stepped outside into the cold.

Instantly, I detected a familiar scent—one I’d smelled on and off during my travels—and one that was exactly like the air on any winter’s day in Ars-sur-Moselle, the village where I lived as a child.

A street in Ars-sur-Moselle...my walk to school in fact

A street in Ars-sur-Moselle…my walk to the convent school in fact!

The scent was a mixture of burning coal, diesel fuel and urine. I’m sure it’s common in most villages—especially in the days a scant twenty years after the war.

The minute I smelled it, I saw both my brothers snap their heads around and look at each other with their mouths open.

They remembered it too.

“It’s Ars,” they both said at the same time. “It smells just like Ars.”

They hadn’t smelled anything like it in fifty years. But the second they did they were instantly transported back to the rolling hills and streets of our little Alsatian village with all the play and carefree adventure that our childhood could hold.

My middle brother Kevin with a French pal at our house in Ars

My middle brother Kevin with a French pal at our house in Ars

When my husband and son came out, they confirmed that they didn’t smell anything particularly unusual but even so I noticed my son wrinkled his nose. He smelled it, but it didn’t mean anything to him beyond being vaguely unpleasant.

My two brothers and I had just had a snapshot visit from the past, one as dramatic and real as a surprise meeting with a ghost.

It was then that I realized that a good part of my fascination with Europe was my desire to connect with my childhood—those happy memories that live in my mind—and are only released by a strange, indefinable fragrance (hey, sometimes the scents are pleasant!) or the random way the sun glimmers off wet dark roof tiles—all the things we noticed as children but stopped seeing as adults.

When you’re in a foreign environment, everything is so different from your usual daily round that the smallest things leap out at you. You tend to really see things. (And smell them.)

Me (age 10) and my father at the Frankfurt Zoo (Air Force issue glasses! Zut alors!)

Me (age 10) and my father at the Frankfurt Zoo (Air Force issue glasses! Zut alors!)

Maybe that’s another reason so many of us like to travel. Travel helps you see the world through a child’s eyes again. But for me, I now know there’s another reason, a much more personal reason—and why China or Hawaii or Singapore—as lovely as those places are—don’t cut it for me in the true wonder department.

For me, being in France or Germany really does feel a little bit like coming home again.

How about you? Anybody else able to pinpoint the particular wonder and joy of being someplace that reminds them of another place, another time?

An open love letter to the city of Aix-en-Provence

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In my mind, Aix-en-Provence is a city created for the way people should live. Should really live. I am finishing up a too-fast week in Aix but I feel pretty confident in my statement. Now it’s true I’m probably inadvertently, unavoidably comparing it to the city I’m currently living in back in the States. (A Facebook friend posted on my timeline yesterday the fact that north Florida was experiencing three digit temperatures and an outburst of yellow flies. She kindly didn’t even mention the humidity.) I’m not sure there’s even a word in French for humidity. (Well, I guess there’d have to be because of Tahiti.) The weather for mid-summer in Aix is probably described most aptly as pleasant, warm and breezy but more succinctly as perfect. I sat out evenings here in weather that just didn’t exist. It wasn’t hot or cold, wet or dry. It was exactly right. It was so perfect you didn’t have to think about it. It just was.

I’d have to say the key reason I think Aix is a city made for how people should live is because of the daily food markets. The idea that you can wake up and take a quick (and gorgeous) walk to an outdoor array of the freshest, best possible choice of seasonal food—is something we Americans have largely given up on and the French wisely would never.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

When did we Americans decide that we don’t need fresh-baked bread? Or to have strawberries that taste like strawberries? Or vegetables in season? When did we accept the fact that the way food should taste—succulent and specific—was something we could live without? (I have a French friend who did an internship at the advertising agency I worked at and she used to bemoan the fact that all American food tasted basically the same—like it was coated with a light caramel coating: sugar and salt but no real distinct flavors. Live a week next to an open air produce market and you’ll know exactly what she means. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my palate this week.)

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Not surprisingly, I haven’t seen a single seriously overweight person since I’ve been here. Could the availability of delicious, fresh food ingredients combined with a beautiful walking city have something to do with that?

Yuh think?

Okay, so now Aix has seen to it that you’ve gotten your cardio in such a way that you’ve window shopped and wound around and through ancient alleyways and streets. It’s de-stressed you by insisting you stop every now and then in your daily round to sip a cup of coffee (which everyone knows is good for you) and maybe nibble on a hand-made pastry (balance! Everything in moderation.) It’s made it practically impossible to find processed foods so you’re stuck with the real thing—ten kinds of olives harvested from the area, olive oil so pure it will make you weep even if you use only a dribble on your salads, tomatoes plump and red that make your plate look like a work of art (this is France after all) and that really taste like tomatoes.

Now on to the social aspect of this city. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time alone. When I finally break away (or come up for air as my husband puts it), I go to the grocery store or drive to a restaurant to meet with friends for an hour or so or maybe wander around St Augustine to find an art gallery.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In Aix in the summer time, because it doesn’t get dark until after ten o’clock each night, and because the city is made up of French people, the city markets are taken down and the cafes are re-erected so that people can come together—to eat, to drink, to laugh, to talk. It is such a healthy, amazingly fun, exquisite way for people to commune and connect that I literally found myself longing for anything similar in my life back home.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

How can you not relax and unwind in a café setting? You’re outdoors, the waiter is unobtrusive but ever-there, all the food tastes better, the warmth of the day has hardly dissipated but the most soothing of breezes has been added, and you’re surrounded by your friends. As I watched café life from my own café table, I noticed over and over again how people in the café were joined unexpectedly by friends or family members wandering by (usually with ice cream cones or Nutella crepes in hand). I couldn’t help but think how it would change a person to be enjoying the evening air with the expectation that they might well see, unplanned, a loved one or friend.

Community. Food. Beauty. And on that last note, I have to add one more thing: I travelled with two men this trip and one of them a photographer. I am sure he’ll be doing his own page about the beautiful young women of Aix but even I could not help notice them. I loved watching all the city life saunter by my café table—or balcony—but the exquisite Aixoise in their inimitable fashion and style, their confidence in their beauty and youth added a intensified sense of panache to the trip. In a phone conversation with my ninety-year old mother, she asked, “Are the French women still beautiful? (We lived in France in the sixties.) How do they wear their hair styles? Their clothes?” I was happy to tell her that while plus ça change, the facts were clear when it came to French women and style that plus la meme chose too.

I leave you now until next time, mes amis. I am off Googling immigration possibilities…