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?

When Memory Lane is Land-Mined…

Plane with smoke bombThere was a best-selling novel a few years ago called “The Thirteenth Tale” in which the protagonist states that everyone mythologizes his or her childhood. I think there’s some truth to that but I have to say there was a three-year period in my childhood when I didn’t need to embellish the things that happened to me.

I was nine years old the first time my brother placed a live bomb in my hands. It was the Sixties and I was living in post-war France with my parents and three brothers. My dad was the acting commanding officer at Chambley Air Force Base, an American air base situated in Alsace-Lorraine that had originally been used by the Luftwaffe during the German occupation.

Chambley was war-damaged and geographically remote (basically, it was no where near Paris) but after the war it was deemed ideal for the purposes of the United States Air Force who, under NATO, flew its F-86 jet fighters from there during the Cold War.

The unexploded bombs my brothers and I found—and we found dozens during the year we lived in France—were the result of an Allied bombardment in November 1945 when the 8th Air Force dropped 3,753 tons of bombs in our backyard in one day… resulting in the ultimate scavenger hunt 20 years later for four Boomer kids.

A few other memories in my scrapbook from the time include:

  • The fact that I attended the girls-only village convent school—built in the 1300’s—which had no toilets but a very nice straw-filled outdoor stall.
  • My first kiss which I got from a French boy (named Laurent) in a stone washhouse built by the Romans in 300 AD.
  • Being shot at by an angry French farmer who patrolled his vineyards in an effort to keep out pests (i.e, wily American kids)
  • Playing a game in the hills with my French pals that involved teasing wild boars with rocks and sticks until they chased you intent on ripping you to bloody pieces. (Fun!)
Gosh! What a fun playhouse! Wouldn't you want YOUR children frolicking here among the vipers & wild boars?

Gosh! What a fun playhouse! Wouldn’t you want YOUR children frolicking here among the vipers & wild boars?

I once tripped over a dead body in a snake-infested World War II bunker that my brother and I discovered and were trying to fix up for a clubhouse. (The Mouseketeers was real big back then.) It was a skeleton, wearing a molding German uniform. (Showing an early entrepreneurial streak, my brother tacked up a sign at the entrance to the bunker to sell tours to the local French kids—”Ten francs to see the dead kraut.”)

When my father was later transferred to Germany, I had a full-scale castle in my backyard—built in the 1200’s—complete with dungeons, stone balconies and crenulated towers—that my brothers and I played in almost every day of the two years that we lived there.

We moved back to the States when I was 12 at which point I began a fairly conventional adolescence, but I’ll always be grateful that there was a time in my childhood when I was not only allowed to discover the world on my own terms but was able to experience history and true adventure as a part of my daily round.

How about you? Original WWII AN MK-43 Dive Bombing Training Practice Bomb
Anybody else have a few years of your childhood that would make a decent adventure story? Love to hear!

Is Paris Drowning?

Excuse the hyperbolic headline but I couldn’t resist. With most media headlines and startling photos all over the Internet these days about the flooding in Paris—happening smack dab in the middle of prime tourist season—the City of Light has been on my mind too much these days not to write about it.

Paris, France - June 01, 2016: Seine river water flooding after major rainfalls.

Paris, France – June 01, 2016: Seine river water flooding after major rainfalls.

The thing that truly horrifies me is not so much that this beloved city is dog paddling like crazy trying to hold it’s head above water or that it’s being forced to make emergency runs to rescue the best bits from the Louvre and the d’Orsay—although that’s bad enough. I understand when natural disasters happen and there’s nothing for it. That’s life.

These. Things. Happen.

No, that’s not the thing I hate to see the most about Paris treading water during the biggest tourist month in their calendar year.

I hate that Americans are using the floods as one more reason why they won’t visit.

This is a one-two punch for Paris after the November attacks. I know it’ll rebound. After all, it’s Paris. But it makes it so much harder to overcome, to clean up, to rebuild, when they lose the tourist dollars that let’s face it, are integral to helping Paris stay…well, Paris.IMG_1633

While I love being in Paris any month of the year, it seems like I’ve tended to be there in June the most.

June is a great time to jaunt over to Normandy because it’s an easy day trip and being American I like the idea of visiting the D-Day beaches around the anniversary dates of the landings.

June isn’t blazing hot yet so if your hotel doesn’t have AC—and some of the really charming ones don’t—it doesn’t matter. It’s still comfortable for sitting out with an apéro and watching the street life, or taking a cruise down the Seine or just relaxing by the fountain in the Tuileries.

Okay technically this is Aix-en-Provence but you get the idea. Oui, c'est moi and oh how I wish I were there this June!

Okay technically this is Aix-en-Provence but you get the idea. Oui, c’est moi and oh how I wish I were there this June!

Plus June is when all the best veggies and fruits are busting out all over the great food markets in Paris. Again, not to take anything away from October or Christmastime or April (OMG can anyone take anything away from springtime in Paris?) but June flower and food markets pretty much trump any other month and in any other place.

I know some people think I’m weird because I see all these photos of the river rising around the Seine embankment stairs on the Ile de la Cité and people coasting down city streets in little rubber boats and I still ache to be there.

Floods or not, whacko terrorists or not, the City of Light draws me.

What about you? Glad you dodged a bullet by not being there this summer? Or wishing you were there anyway—maybe somewhere on high ground—with a café crème in one hand and a pain au chocolat in the other? Like maybe the Eiffel Tower? I hear it’s still open. One thing is sure, you’ll definitely keep your feet dry!

(I’m including a blog post by one of my favorite bloggers, French Girl in Seattle, which was written a few days after the terrorist attacks last November but which is an open love letter to Paris—and I thought the Grande Dame could use a little love at the moment!)

10 ways to bring France into your life

Since my husband and I’ve decided to skip a year before returning to France—which has nothing to do with the fear of getting blown up and everything to do with paying down our mortgage—I’ve been more desperate than usual to get my France Fix. As a result I’ve spent a good deal of time researching how to feel like you’re in France when you’re not, and and I’m happy to present to you my ten foolproof ways of feeling like you’re in France until the happy day when you can actually be there.

26668996Eat French. This might be my favorite. Eating comme les françaises is more than just marcarons and brioche (as lovely as they both are.) Eating French is a way of eating. The French have a ritualistic attitude toward eating. They believe that taking the time to set a pretty table and stylishly presenting the food is nearly as important as the food itself.

Dress French. Simple, elegant, never trendy, always vogue. I remember my mother telling me when I was young that even shop girlsScreen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.53.45 PM in Paris dressed beautifully because they would save their money to buy one single thing of value—like a gorgeous belt or an Hermés scarf—and that one thing would boost the look of any outfit they wore with it. While this link to une femme d’un certain âge  is a favorite French fashion site for French women “of a certain age,” I do believe that true French style is timeless and much of what the blogger purports would work for any age.

Read French. I don’t mean the language here. I mean English language magazines and newsletters about France. Or come to that, books that “take” you there. Examples would be any of the Maggie Newberry Mysteries of course, but also A Paris Apartment, or David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris. Trust me, you’ll feel like you were just there!

Talk French. Join a language club, preferably in your town (as opposed to online) so you can fumble your way through conversations in preparation for the happy day when you do it for real in France. There’s nothing that says someday I’ll go back like falling asleep to the sounds of French phrases floating through your head.

Act FrScreen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.48.58 PMench. Check out this video since it pretty much tells it all.

Walk French. A recent magazine article I read compared two women’s lifestyles—one a Parisian and one an American—for one month. The American worked out like a maniac, depended on processed and fast food and semi-starved herself to stay slim. The French woman kept her weight down by exercising organically (as it happened naturally in her day) and by preparing three meals a day and not snacking. So for example, instead of beginning her day on the elliptical like the American did, the Parisian walked twenty blocks to her office. She waved hello to the people along the way, stopped and picked up a baguette to add to her lunch and enjoyed the weather no matter what it was. Lo and behold the article revealed that both the American gym-rat and the Parisian ended up at the same weight. But the American was grumpy and stressed out while the Parisian tended to have a more upbeat outlook on life.

Kiss French. I’m not sure this works here but I couldn’t resist.

Hear French I once got hooked on Patrick Bruel during a summer I spent hanging out at UCLA many years ago. For that whole summer, I felt an unmistakable aura of Frenchness because of the music I was listening to. Whether it’s music or audio tapes and podcasts—or listening to the news in French—even if you don’t understand what they’re saying, it will make you feel like you’re there. (Come to think of it, that’s usually how I feel when I’m there—not understanding a word of what’s being spoken around me. Hmmmm. Best get back to those French language tapes.)

61WHnlZzQHLSee French Watch a movie—either in French with English subtitles or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Either one will do the trick in ninety minutes or less.

Smell French Let’s face it: France, as a country, smells amazing. Close your eyes and imagine walking by the front door of any boulangerie in Paris (and they’re on practically every street corner). Does anything smell better than pastries? Plus, Paris is the only city I’ve been to where I do a double take with the women I pass on the sidewalk because no self-respecting Frenchwoman goes outside without wearing perfume.

Lavender! Buy it by the bags and put it everywhere! Pillows, lingerie drawers, your purse...

Lavender! Buy it by the bags and put it everywhere! Pillows, lingerie drawers, your purse…

The cafés smell of fresh brewed coffee, and all of Provence is redolent with the scent of lavender. To pull it off here in the States, just bury your nose in a lavender sachet (or grow your own in a pot!) before squirting on a blast of Chanel No. 5. You’ll enjoy the feeling of being in France all day long.

I hope these ten things made you feel a little more like you were in France but if you want to ramp it up a notch you can move on to ordering chocolates from Patrick Roger, overnighting stationery from Gilbert Jeune, or just going ahead and putting down the deposit on that Aix or Nice or Paris apartment rental for next year. What the heck. You know you’re going to do it eventually.

So did it help? Did I move you one step closer to feeling like you were in France? Do I need to do ten more steps? Because I think I can manage that…

In case you didn’t get enough, check out my French Store page for more ideas to make you feel like you’re in France!

My Paris. No Matter What.

I waited as long as I could.

I held off writing this post to get some distance from November 13 and also because there were already so many other really good comments on what happened in blogs and online news magazines that I follow and respect. As a lot of you know, I had just returned from Paris when the violence hit. I was immediately flooded with emails and texts from family and friends—most whom knew full well I was home and safe—but I think they just needed to reach out.

When something like this happens—tragic and senseless in a world so many of us work hard to structure and frame to fit our lives—I think a lot of people inevitably think of how it would feel if it had been a loved one of theirs sitting in Le Petit Cambodge that night, or who’d gone off to a concert full of good spirits and bonhomie.

My husband on a sunny, cool morning at one of the flea markets.

My husband on a sunny, cool morning at one of the flea markets.

When I look at the photos from my trip of the cafés I visited or the bookshops I wandered through, I can’t help but think that the last thing on my mind when I was there was that I might get shot. When I think back on that one perfect Friday—one week before the terrible one—when I strode down boulevard Haussmann on my way to Le Printemps for a blissful afternoon of shopping with magic sprinkled on every moment—it’s inconceivable that such determined ugliness could have been hiding down one of the picturesque alleyways.

When I look at the mind blowing Christmas decorations at Gallerie Lafayette—which I
saw three years ago on my birthday and the enchantment of which still hasn’t worn off—I can’t help but think what a perfect target it is. Because it’s beautiful and exists largely to enchant.

The ultimate shopping experience

Le Printemps: The ultimate shopping experience

So much of my life back home is utilitarian and structured to enable me more easily to get things done. But the idea of Paris isn’t like that. The idea of Paris is unnecessary perfection, of superfluous beauty.

Did you know there are lights hidden all along many of the bridges in Paris? And when it gets dark they light up so you can still see the exquisite details of the architecture? And even then only if you’re on a boat traveling under it? What other city do you know is show lighted—not so you can find your way around but so you can appreciate the details of its beauty even after dark?

This last time when I walked down its beautiful boulevards, lined on both sides by the classic Haussmann buildings that have defined Paris architecture for two hundred IMG_6338years, I saw so many things that had to have been created for the sole purpose to delight.

At one point when I was spending too much time in a perfume shop across from the Louvre (is there really such a thing as spending too much time in a perfume shop?) my husband—who was waiting outside—had the opportunity to note a very special design on the façade of the Louvre that he’d never seen before. Honestly, unless you were a bored husband waiting for your wife in a perfume shop or somebody just sitting in a café with the whole day at his feet, you probably wouldn’t even notice.

But it’s there. Waiting for you to see and marvel. Subtle and perfect. Like Paris itself.

The main purpose of this latest trip to Paris was to research the mystery I was writing which takes place in the Latin Quarter and centers around the German occupation at the time. Because of that I’ve read a good deal—both fiction and nonfiction—about the time period. After the November attacks, I couldn’t help but draw an indelible connection between what ISIS is doing and what Hitler did.

IMG_6359I spent a good deal of time this last trip wandering over ancient cobblestones, winding my way through the narrow alleys of the Latin Quarter, reading plaques that talked about young people who were shot down in the last days of the liberation of Paris, seeing bullet holes embedded in the stone façades of the beautiful Haussmann buildings, and reading signs that intoned how whole groups of people were murdered in the square by the Nazis. I shivered to think of this graceful and elegant city and how it had endured such terror.

Little did I know.

I’m not political but I think it’s safe to say that most normal people are against the kind of evil demonstrated by the monsters who destroyed so many lives in Paris on November 13. And I know why they continue to attack Paris as opposed to San Francisco or Miami or Seville—or even London.

It’s because killing innocent people isn’t enough for these kinds of terrorists. Robbing children of parents and vice-versa, ripping families and friends apart, of handicapping healthy happy people mentally and physically—that’s not enough for them.

IMG_6332They want to destroy the very essence of the good life. And where else in the world is that more true than in Paris? If you wanted to make a statement against the one place on earth that exists largely to give people pleasure, you’d have to pick Paris.

And I certainly will, time and time again, no matter what.

Getting ready for Paris

16449141Steve Martin has a comedy routine where he observes that “the French have a word for everything!” I particularly love this when I think of the French word for “diet” which is “regime.” Interestingly, what we Americans think of when we think of diet is “lose weight” (we are so straight-forward, n’est-ce pas?) and what the Brits mean when they say “diet” is “slimming.” (Less straightforward but still means basically the same.) But what the French mean by diet is NOT either of those two concepts at all but rather the way one eats.

I love this because “regime” doesn’t mean “change yourself,” as much as it means habit or just  “this is how I do things.” (So French!)

The reason I’m thinking of diet and “regimes” at the moment is because 1) I live in America and 2) I care about my weight since I care about how I look in my clothes (and oh yeah there’s the health thing) and 3) I’m headed to the food/fashion capital of the universe in 8 weeks.

There’s a reason why “diet” means something different in Paris and anybody who has spent longer than a weekend there knows what I’m talking about. I think the French paradox is more than just how do the French eat butter and not croak from heart attacks like Americans do? I think it also has to do with the fact that you can spend a week in the food capital of the world and eat the most high-calorie, high-fat foods there are and still come back to your own country five pounds lighter.

38065267It’s no wonder French women don’t get fat! (Well, at least Parisian women.) And the ones that do are probably bedridden or something. Because Paris is a walking city and not only is it way easier to lace up your Converses and walk to wherever you want to go (rather than study your Metro map or find a taxi or unlock a velo, start a civil war with Uber or God-forbid rent a car), it’s such exquisite fun to stride down just about any block in Paris. (You know this is true!)

Sometimes when I’m huffing and puffing away on my treadmill at the gym, counting the minutes until I can get off, I imagine how much more pleasurable (not a word I associate with my hour at the gym) my 10,000 steps would be if I were instead scurrying from the Galeries Lafayette to my favorite neighborhood café to a cute little boutique or bookstore or museum before meeting up with my husband for dinner at some amazing little bistro. Rather than begrudging this necessary hour at the gym I would be in a flurry of delight all day long—eating, shopping, and marveling at the history that surrounds me—before looking at my Fit-Bit to see that I’d logged in twelve thousand steps. Without even trying.

Naturally most Parisians aren’t on vacation all the time and I imagine even they have to spend a certain amount of time sitting at desks. But a city like Paris is forgiving. You can lounge in bed (with or without your lover) until noon (or sit at your desk for seven hours) and still have plenty of time left in the day to walk everywhere and eat everything.

Which brings up another food observation I have about Paris.

Is it even possible to be hungry there? I’ve tried for years and have yet to succeed.

I’m pretty good “back home” only eating when I’m hungry or not snacking. But in Paris, how is your appetite ever ready for the next meal? How is it possible? (I’m seriously asking so please jump in on the comments because I would love to know.)

In Paris, if I wake up, enjoy an espresso or a café mocha and maybe a Nutella crepe at one of the convenient little crepe kiosks on every single corner in Parisbonbon or hit my neighborhood boulangerie for bread that is so amazing it will make me change religions and lead nations into battle, then how am I possibly going to be tempted by that amazing little macaron shop on the way to the museum? And once at the museum, how am I going to do justice to that life-changing quiche or boeuf daube I’ve read so much about? (I mean, of course I’ll eat the macarons and destroy the lunch—bien sûr!—but where’s the edge? Where’s the hunger?)

Bottom line—how can you be hungry in Paris when every step you take puts you in front of a dish or morsel that is the epitome of that particular food in all of history??? (I’ll look for your responses in the comments section but when answering kindly refrain from using words like self-restraint, hold back, or skip a meal. Thank you.)

Meanwhile, I’ll sign off for now. I have a standing date with a daydream of me striding down La Madeleine to Fauchon’s for lunch and turning the treadmill incline up to 6.0 as I do it. After all, I’m the practical sort and everyone knows certain neighborhoods in Paris can be quite hilly.

À bientôt, mes amis…

Seeing Paris through young eyes

Me at age eleven with my very-quotable father. At the Frankfurt Zoo.

Me at age eleven with my very-quotable father. At the Frankfurt Zoo.

My father had a very cool saying (one of many, trust me) that basically said “Paris should be seen through young eyes.” I don’t think he meant nine years old but that’s how old I was when I first saw Paris. Even though my folks took me to Paris several times during my childhood (my father was in the USAF and we were stationed in Europe in the mid-sixties) and I always felt an indelible connection to the city, I never went back as a young woman.

I don’t know why I didn’t. I had friends who went right after college but I never found myself thinking Oh, I should do that too! And that was odd because I defined myself as a Francophile from a very young age. We lived in a village in Alsace-Lorraine and I attended school in the village convent school, so when I returned to the States I always took all-things-French as my thing. Which is why it was so weird that all throughout my young adulthood—through moves and careers switches and various boyfriends—I kept Paris as my internal magic place…the place I imagined I’d l someday live when real life settled down—but never went.

When my husband and I married and talked about having kids, we always painted a picture of throwing the little fellow in a backpack and moving to Europe. My husband actually did live in Europe when he was a young man. He did see Europe through “young eyes,” Paris included. But as for tossing babies in backpacks and heading out to live an expatriate life of adventure, stepchildren, mortgages, aging parents and careers kept the concept firmly in fantasy realm.

I suppose if I’d REALLY wanted it badly enough I could somehow have made it happen. I wrote a book in 1992 called “Quit Your Job & Move to Paris” where I researched how it might be done. Like a lot of things—here comes another quote from my dad—I took the thought for the deed—and that satisfied me well enough such that I didn’t have to rip up my life (or need to talk my husband into ripping up his too) and actually move to Paris.

I had an expatriate experience in my early thirties—young enough that I wasn’t too set in my ways but still not really young—and coming back to the States after two years in New Zealand felt like taking off a hat that was three sizes too small. As much as I loved the experience and am eternally grateful for having had it, living overseas was harder than living here. (And that was in a (largely) English-speaking country!)

The door to my next adventure!

The door to my next adventure!

Which brings me to the present. It seems life has settled down somewhat and the roadblocks to moving to Paris have budged at least a little. I still have an aged parent I don’t feel I can abandon. Plus, I’m a little aged myself these days which brings with it its own level of hesitancy. (Bathrooms—location and cleanliness—matter more to me than when I was right out of college.) Also, while it’s true my son no longer requires my attention the way he did, I’m not yet at the point where I can comfortably live an ocean away from him—not for longer than a few months anyway.

But there is presently a bit of a gap through which I can see a possibility where moving to Paris might still be in the cards for me. Which is why I’m throwing hesitancy to the wind and finally doing it.

I’m  moving to Paris.

For a month.

Well, okay, not quite a month. In fact, just over two weeks. Not a life-changer. Doesn’t require visas or house sitters back home. But it’s as close as I can get—maybe ever—so I’m not waiting. It’s already too late for the “young eyes” thing. I don’t want to be looking into websites touting wheelchair access in Paris ten years from now.

A nutritious and healthy breakfast every single morning I'm there...!

A nutritious and healthy breakfast every single morning I’m there…!

Two weeks is better than nothing. And next time as God is my witness (as Scarlett used to say) it’ll be four.

I’m going to live in Paris with a boulangerie down the street that will become my boulangerie for fifteen full days. The ladies at the neighborhood Tesco will recognize my face, my body will memorize the steps to the Gallerie Lafayette (or Ladure!) and the Tuileries. I’ll write while I’m there, bien sur! I’m scheduling a big Maggie Newberry mystery for autumn—and setting it in Paris—so that I can walk in Maggie’s steps, imagine dead bodies bobbing up in the Seine as I walk alongside it each morning, and observe blatantly suspicious-looking Frenchmen plotting murders as they hunch over their morning cafés.

Hoping to find a favorite neighborhood café during my stay in Paris!

Hoping to find a favorite neighborhood café during my stay in Paris!

Sound good?

I can’t wait.

 

 

13 Ways to Celebrate Christmas

 Madame Renoir pulled out a tray full of Calisson d’Aix cookies. “I have much still from the réveillon,” she said, indicating the pale oval cookies. “You are familiar, yes?”

Maggie nodded. “The réveillon. That’s the thirteen desserts, right? The ones everyone eats on Christmas Eve?”

Exactement. Before the Mass. They symbolize Christ and his apostles. It is a Provençal tradition.”

“I see you’ve got a lot left over.”

Madame Renoir placed the tray of iced cookies on the counter. “The people of St-Buvard care little for traditions,” she said, frowning. “They will eat the cookies for the…little snacks, yes? Not for the purpose I am baking them. You understand?”

—-Excerpt from “Murder à la Carte

If you’re from Louisiana, you’ve likely heard of a French tradition that happens at Christmastime called the réveillon, which is a long dinner, or sometimes a party, held on Christmas Eve after midnight mass. The word réveil means “waking” which is appropriate since the dinner involves staying awake until midnight…and beyond. The reason you might have heard of this tradition in the States is because it’s still observed in New Orleans at various restaurants that offer special réveillon menus on Christmas Eve.

36849922In Provence, the réveillon is seven separate courses plus thirteen different desserts, which is totally my kind of tradition. Some sources say  les enfants are not allowed to have a single bite of dessert until they can name each one correctly. The number thirteen has to do with the number of apostles plus Jesus at the Last Supper. (The réveillon is also connected to Easter with some folks saying the Christmas Eve feast is a lead up to Mardi Gras before nose-diving into Lent and, traditionally, fasting and sacrifice.)

I loved using the réveillon in the Maggie Newberry mystery, above, first because one of the main characters in that book was a baker and the timing was Christmas. It would have been weird, especially in a small rural village, not to mention the réveillon. Besides, the tradition is so layered and visual, it was a delight to describe it and so, experience it.

Okay, what are these essential thirteen desserts that kick off Christmas and take us all the way to Easter?

Voilà mes amis, I give you, the réveillon!

  1. The pompe à l’huile is a flat bread flavored with orange blossom and brown sugar. (Some people believe cutting the bread (as opposed to breaking it as Jesus did at the Last Supper) brings the risk of bankruptcy in the new year. So watch yourself.
  2. Two kinds of nougats, white and black, representing good and evil.
  3. Hazelnuts which represent St. Augustin
  4. Almonds, representing the Carmelite Order
  5. Raisins for the Dominican order
  6. Dry figs representing the Franciscan Order
  7. Candied citron representing I honestly do not know what.
  8. Quince paste I assume one may get creative with this since all by itself it doesn’t feel like much of a dessert to me.)
  9. Pears
  10. Apples
  11. Oranges
  12. Dates
  13. Calisson d’Aix (this is a Provençal favorite any time of the year but I always send away for it at Christmas. It’s made of ground almond paste that’s been extruded into petal shaped cookies and frosted with royal icing.)

As you can imagine nowadays, people add many more desserts to this list to celebrate the réveillon. (I mean, come on, apples as a dessert? Where’s the buche de Noel?) But, however you celebrate your holidays, I hope there’s lots of good food and even more loved ones crowded around your table.

Joyeux Noel everyone!

 

When did our food all start to taste the same?

60502563A young French friend of mine did an advertising internship at my ad agency a few years back. During that time she used to say the food she ate in the States tasted “like it had been dipped in caramel.” She didn’t mean that in a good way in case you love caramel. She meant it all tasted the same, like one big cherry-cola-flavored piece of food.

Once I started looking for the differences in how American foods taste—this is especially true with fast food—I could see what she meant. Because I didn’t run into this situation when I traveled, I soon came to the conclusion that it’s a cultural thing: we Americans need salt to punch out the flavor to us and we need sugar because we’re like big babies who really want to eat doughnuts all the time. Because let’s face it, doughnuts taste so good.

But how did we get to this point?

untitled-324I got an inkling the last time I spent a few weeks in France. The food market was a major focal point to the whole town. I recently regaled American friends with the story of how every morning the town squares would be transformed in the wee hours to a bustling congress of produce booths, fishmongers, bread stalls, flowers, soaps, oils, olives and oh-my-God-the cheeses. It looked like the market had been there for years. And yet, every day at noon, it was all taken down, the cobblestones hosed clean, and café tables put up instead in order that people might relax, sip an espresso, eat a meal in leisure. My friends were agog with the titantic effort to recreate these two different settings every single day.  The fact is, we Americans wouldn’t go to the trouble.

And we are seriously suffering as a result of it.

When was the last time you ate a strawberry that really tasted like one? Or a tomato that made you close your eyes and taste the feeling of summer through your taste buds? You remember that scene in the movie Ratatouille where the evil, brittle restaurant critic came into the restaurant and chef made him a bowl of ratatouille where one spoonful instantly catapulted him back to his boyhood with a visceral reliving of some of the best moments of his life? Yeah, that.

Are you fueling or feeding your body?

Are you fueling or feeding your body?

Why did we decide in this country that food was really just fuel and it didn’t need to be much more than that? When did we decide that baby food and caramel coated meat was fine for a lifetime of nourishment? You know what I think? I think the insidious philosophy of our fast food nation has wheedled its way into our national psyche to the point that we want the very same eating experience in Boston that we have in San Antonia that we have in Miami. The first time I ate a McDonald’s burger in New Zealand, I could taste the grass in the burger. (McDonald’s burgers in the states are made from grain-fed cows not grass-fed.) I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to get the same burger that I got in Atlanta.

So what’s the answer? With no food markets to dilly dally in? No school system or family to educate us as to how to put food in proper perspective and enjoy what we eat without getting fat? Well, frankly, doing it the French way is as foreign as if you’d landed in a Bedouin tent and had to break up camel dung to start the fire for your morning coffee. 34853560So much work! And you’re all alone! None of the other moms are bothering with it and their kids look okay (a little chubby maybe but who isn’t?) And honestly, take-out and pre-packaged food has improved so much in the last ten years, right? Almost no transfats in them! And, really, food that tastes like caramel is delicious!

Right?