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?

Pushing Pause Mid-Bite

1747288One of the ongoing scenarios that I take pains to describe in the France-set mystery series I write is the one where people make a big deal about sitting down together and breaking bread. Food is important to the French so dining is a BFD in all its forms–at home, in restaurants, on park benches or cafés. When I’m writing about characters who live in France I like to explore as many of those forms as possible because I’m so attracted to the style and ritual and pleasure of slowing down. And I can’t do that here in the States.

Six years ago, an anthropologist named Cheryl Swanson, a partner in a trend-tracking firm, was quoted as saying that  Americans are now processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors. But we haven’t yet adapted physically or mentally to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise our health.

When you add that 400 times more information we are all attempting to process with the fact that we don’t have 400 extra hours in the day to do it, you see where the problem is. If you’re not mindful of your habits and of what you’re giving up to get those extra hours inevitably the things you lose will be those things that used to enhance your life and heighten your quality of life: sleep, staring at a sunset, walking instead of riding, watching a chrysalis hatch, eating a slow meal with a friend.

Here's what the family table looks like now that we're all off doing other things.

Here’s what the family table looks like now that we’re all off doing other things.

I’m an amateur chef and a baker. I used to fantasize about a place-setting for twelve for Thanksgiving dinner complete with matching turkey saltshakers at every place. I have always been drawn to beautiful tableware in stores and catalogs and imagined wonderful meals chez moi with family and friends about me. And yet, the year before my son went off to college, our family meals consisted of the three of us standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down our meals. (Honestly, half the time John Patrick took his plate to his bedroom with his calculus homework.)

Swanson’s research indicated that in the sixties, dinner was 45 minutes long. By the nineties, it had shrunk to fifteen minutes and today—fewer than five minutes. It takes more time to make the meal and clean up after it than to “enjoy” it. And of course, food manufacturers have been hard at work to help us with that part of the equation by creating cheap mix-and-go food that’s a snap to make and even digest.

It's a fact: you don't have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

It’s a fact: you don’t have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

Naturally, it tastes like donkey vomit and brings no moment of pleasure or satisfaction beyond killing hunger pangs but at least you can skip the wash up and just dump the cartons in the trash and call it done. (What next? An IV drip?) I guess there was some important reason that forced us to live like this. There was obviously some important trade off that made it worthwhile. I quake to think it was just so we could get extra time in front of the computer terminal or worse, the TV set.

Let’s face it. Wasn’t the last time we all slowed down, lit a candle and stared peacefully into space sometime during the last power outage? Or how about that time you got sick and stayed in bed with magazines and a box of tissues and just the sound of your own sniffling and the cat purring? Wasn’t it kind of wonderful at the same time it was miserable?

Let’s all take a breath and slow down.

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…

Vive la France…where food meets style

In excited anticipation of my upcoming Provençal research trip, I’m going through my cookbooks and scanning favorite recipes to be uploaded to my iPad. I expect to live in the daily food markets in Aix and environs and–if just for a few weeks–live the life I write about and love.

I  stumbled across a recent article that said the French were annoyed because there was a grass roots movement to close some McDonald’s restaurants in France. And while granted, if you read the piece you’ll see that their Mickey D’s are nothing like ours, it was still a shock.

IMG_4348I hate to think that our American way of eating is leeching across the Atlantic to the land of food and style, but there are some things that seem to be the same no matter where you live and the combination of holding down a job and raising a family while attempting to bring good nutrition (and taste!) into the equation seems to be one of them.

I don’t think it’s  impossible to eat healthily and work full time, but it’s hard. That’s because here in the States our “convenience” foods—frozen processed foods and snack-packs (which tend to be tasteless and generally bad for you) are often the only things we have time to “make.”

I mean, really! Doesn’t preparing, then cleaning up after evening meals (if you bother to do it before slumping  in front of the TV set) wear you out? You work hard all day and then there’s all that chopping and prepping in order to put out a seasoned, cooked piece of meat—hopefully with some kind of sauce on it—a vegetable (better make it two, we didn’t get anywhere near our quota of fruits & veggies today), a salad, a starch (rice or risotto—both of which take at least forty minutes to cook), a piece of bread or a roll to help move it all around the plate with, and something to drink. And it’s all eaten in less time than it takes to change the channel.IMG_3209
If you have  a full time job, any kids at all, and maybe a spouse  who expects your occasional participation in his/her life AND you have the least desire to stay up with current events, friends, extended family, a clean house, and keeping your family’s shirts and shorts laundered, not to mention possibly writing a chapter in your latest murder mystery, you will be, without question, no two-ways-about-it, totally crunched for time all of the time.

I  love to cook  my family’s favorites: cassoulet, chicken and dumplings, etc. But if I do it on a weeknight, I end up agitated and grumpy—if I’m able to pull it off at all. So I reserve the creative cooking for the weekend when I have a little extra time (in between soccer games, birthday parties, church, and yard work!) and during the week I take a page from how the French dine when they dine simply and perfectly.
30770518It doesn’t take an elaborate morney sauce or a counterful of mise-en-place bowls to make an exquisite, satisfying meal, (and I’m not leading up to take-out here). Sometimes the simplest meals are the best. If you can get your hands on really good tomatoes, for example, you needn’t do any actual cooking.

The French can do wonderful things with a cold plate of pickles, a little pâté and a hunk of fresh bread. It takes seconds to assemble. (Be sure and give everything a finishing drizzle of your best quality olive oil.) Set a pretty table, open a decent rosé wine and voila! Nothing simpler.
Come to that, it’s hard to beat a good couple of cheeses (say a Brie or Gouda with a blue cheese, varying the hard and soft cheeses) with a salad, fresh bread and maybe a simple tapenade.  All of which you just pull out of the fridge and put on a plate.

Now, if you want to do a little something ahead of time—say, on the weekend when you have all that extra time— roast some peppers or shred a bunch of hard cheese or pre-bake some eggplant and store them in the fridge. Then, come Tuesday night, you can get a little jiggy with dinner without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. You’re still just assembling, but some of your ingredients have been pre-assembled.

I guess I hate the thought of anyone longing for McDonald’s–even if they do have McCamemberts instead of Monster Macs–but especially not the French!

At least not until I have one more perfect summer in fantasy land.

Why do we love Europe so?

19007453Is it weird that Walt Disney, among his fantasia rides and fairyland worlds, also re-created Europe at one of his theme parks? I try to imagine what I would think if I found out that a bunch of Europeans created an amusement park where bears talked and pirates roamed, cartoon mice and castle princesses cast spells and in the midst of all this fantasy was a replica circa 1975 of my suburban neighborhood in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. I think I might be a little insulted.

Is it presumptuous to think of another culture as our idea of an amusement park? I think some Brits and Europeans come to New York City on holiday and I’m not quite sure why. The bagels, maybe? It can’t be the history, like us with Europe. New York is, like, five years old compared to what they have back home. It can’t be the friendly natives or the pastoral vistas, the geological landmarks or the food. I’m frankly stymied. Is it just to be someplace different?39194840

The last time I visited London, I was disappointed to discover it looked and sounded a lot like the US. (Come to think of it, Paris last year felt a little too much like Epcot Center for my comfort too.) I found the charming English accents blunted by watching too much American television. I found the architecture modern and attractive—but hardly English. I found the pubs, for the most part, a strident attempt to be pub-like for all the tourists, and the department stores, although fun and attractive, devoid of everything that had set them apart—except for their names—from American retail.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the Internet is turning us all into one big homogeneous blob of diluted Americana. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. The last time I was in Germany, my husband—who is fluent in the language—never found a single opportunity to speak it. Everyone spoke English.

37743092Even the bathrooms have done a tip of the hat to the Americans. A few years ago, one was always challenged, especially in France, with public toilets and usually had to take a moment to negotiate even hotel room bathrooms. No longer. Europe now out-Americans the Americans for modernized bathrooms. There even seems to be fewer and fewer bidet sightings.

Not that Europe’s charm was all in its bathrooms, but it did help make the whole experience feel foreign. And that’s partly the reason I travel—to jump outside my comfort zone, to struggle to order from a menu, to snap out of the somnolent death-march that marks much of my daily round in the States, and to find the unexpected around every corner.

Jeez. Is that too much to ask?

A calorie is a calorie—but thankfully not in Paris

Food is everywhere in Paris. Even here.

Food is everywhere in Paris. Even here.

It’s true Paris is a moveable feast and I’m living testimony to that since I’ve moved it right into my 1950s American suburban house and parked it on the chair beside me as I type. It clearly takes some time to flush the sweet smells and sights of Paris from your brain—or at least it does for me. The photos from our Christmas trip save my screen and take me back there in a flash and to make matters worse, I’m finishing up my latest novel which takes place in Paris so trying to come up for air is just not going to be possible for awhile.

Having said that, I wanted to talk about an amazing feature of travel to Paris that I’ve always been thrilled exists and that is the fact that you can go there—eat everything they have available to eat in the entire city—and not gain a pound.

A whole shop full of chocolate!

A whole shop full of chocolate! This store was nearly a block long. It was FULL of people, too!

Now I’m not so bad that I plan my trip  around French food shops and bakeries and the like although I did ditch my son and husband one afternoon as they headed toward the Arc de Triomphe (huh, been there, photographed that) to race over to Fauchon’s for a mind-swirling self-tour of the cakes and canapés and hams and macarons and buche de noels and oh! did I mention the hand made chocolates? They were laid out in row after dizzying row in different shades and shapes and such subtle flavors and spices—each with the promise to totally change your life with just one bite. I watched the Fauchon ladies—like angels bestowing gifts—plucking each delectable morsel one by one from its line of army chocolate brothers and placing them in big white tissue-lined boxes as patrons selected “this one and oh! that one and maybe two of those!”

I ate these every single day I was in Paris.

I ate macarons every single day I was in Paris. I think I ate this tart, too, now that I think about it.

I know it comes as no surprise to anyone that Paris is about food (well, really all of France.) But knowing it and seeing it are so different. The care and respect and appreciation that the French treat their food makes anyone want to slow down and savor and relish their dinner. We are such different animals, the French and the Americans. Never in a million years could they have invented the fast food restaurant. And while it’s true they do have fast food  in France, I’m convinced mostly tourists go there when they’re too worn out from choosing and discerning, marveling and being transported to culinary nirvana. (Hey, like anything else, it’s tiring day in and day out.)

I can't remember if this was breakfast or just a midmorning snack...

I can’t remember if this was breakfast or just a midmorning snack…

It’s not really a French paradox along the lines of eating all the butter and foie gras you want and not succumbing to heart disease at the rates Americans do, but it is still a delightful state of things that you can eat yourself into oblivion in Paris and not gain weight because the city is such a wonderful walking city. I spent one day the week after Christmas shopping on the rue de Rivoli, Les Halles, the Galleries Lafayette all by myself. I noted to my son and husband later at dinner that, as many times as I’ve been to Paris in my life, this  was the first day I was alone without my parents, a friend or my husband. I found the experience one of the most intensely perfect of my life. I also astounded myself by checking my pedometer when I got back to the apartment and realized I had walked over fifteen miles that day (and I wasn’t done. Our evening restaurant was deep in the Latin Quarter.) As I walked, I couldn’t help but compare my exertion to the ten thousand steps I try to clock in on my daily round back in Atlanta.

My birthday meal. Chateau briand with pommes frites.

My birthday meal. Chateau briand with pommes frites.

While not exactly loathsome, I can’t say I look forward to my walk as the high point of my day. 10,000 steps is right at five miles. I couldn’t help but think how easy it would be to walk five miles a day if you were striding down the Quai de St-Michel under the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral.

In any case, I am back to the real world of trying to artificially create a calorie burn while I labor to concoct food that’s delightful to eat. It’s all so much easier in Paris. Eating and walking are organic to how one lives there. And when you try it on for size for a bit (oh! the macarons!) and find that you do not pay a price for the pleasure later, well, it’s enough to make you realize what Hemingway really meant by a movable feast.

  By the by, if you struggle to keep yourself slim while forcing yourself to eat “diet” food, you might find my book The French Women’s Diet  helpful. I wrote it when I came to the point where I refused to give up bread or chocolate, when I figured I was old enough to know the favorite foods of mine that I wasn’t going to eschew any longer, and when I was determined  to stay a size six in the process—all by eating like the French only doing it here in the States. If you get the book and try it, I’d love to hear from you!

The first time I saw Paris–and lived to tell the tale

Christmas Eve 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Having just returned from spending Christmas in Paris with my family, I have all-things-French on the brain and thought I’d publish a post of the first time I  saw Paris when my family moved to France in the early sixties.

There were four of us children living abroad in rural France in 1962. At twelve, Tommy was the oldest. I was next, the only girl, then Kevin, and finally Terry the youngest at eight. In September of 1962, my father, a Major in the Air Force Reserves, had been transferred along with us, his family of five, to a small tactical fighter base in western France. War-damaged and remote, the airbase that would become Chambley A.F.B.—and eventually our home—had originally been used by the Luftwaffe during German occupation in the 1940’s. It was situated twenty miles southeast of Nancy, very close to the German border, in Alsace-Lorraine. After the war, Chambley (named for the village it is nearest to) was abandoned. Its runway was considered too short and its location nonstrategic now that France and Germany were friends again (sort of). It was, however, ideal for the Americans and so, the United States Air Force set up housekeeping under NATO and began to fly its F-86 jet fighters from Chambley as our contribution to the Cold War.
When our plane landed at Orly Airport in Paris that September afternoon, I had seen enough film clips of Jackie Kennedy poised at the top of the non-motorized gangway to take a moment and strike a similar poise when I “saw Paris for the first time.” This was, of course, before the days of the equipment scooting right up to the gate. In 1962, you still had to climb down to the tarmac and walk across the runway to get to customs. It would be a little harder for a romantic child today to weave her way through the Pizza Huts and magazine stands and moving sidewalks inside Charles DeGaulle airport, past customs and baggage claim to where the Metro opens up to take her into the heart of Paris before she ever got to say “I am now on French soil!” There’s a reason the Pope doesn’t fly Coach—he’d never find an empty spot to kiss the ground upon debarking.
Paris in the sixties was, to a starry-eyed nine-year old, the perfected picture of Paris in my dreams. It even smelled different from America, or at least New York City, from where we’d just flown. I’d been practicing my French vocabulary for months, but it was pretty clear, right from the beginning, that learning and speaking a foreign language was not going to be as easy as I thought.
As soon as we landed on French soil, it was clear that we had all taken a huge step back in time. Gone were the neon signs of Rome, New York, from where we’d moved. Gone were the super highways, the outdoor movie theatres, the McDonald’s hamburger stands and early morning television cartoons. Gone also were the bright colors that had earmarked the beginning of the new decade. France was tired and gray and, more often than not, black.
Paris was Paris, however. When I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, I gasped as if seeing my favorite fantasy character come to life. My memory of the first time I saw Paris always has a cheesy, scratchy-record Edith Piaff song playing in the background. Absolutely magic.
Our view of the French countryside was a very different one from the countryside we’d left back home in upstate New York. Although we traveled on the equivalent of an interstate highway in France, it was, in some stretches, little more than a dirt road. The villages looked uninhabited, with dark, largely windowless stone buildings, linked together in long, uninterrupted expanses of filthy, quarried stone. The village looked less like a place where normal people lived and more like a movie set from the eighteen hundreds. It reminded me of the field trip my class had taken the month before to Jamestown where we saw how the pioneers made butter and forged their own buttons and stuff.

Me at age 10 on our first solo shopping trip to Paris with my Mother

Me at age 10 (on the window sill) on my first solo shopping trip to Paris with my mother

The clothes the villagers wore, from their ubiquitous berets to their old men’s baggy pants, were mostly ancient ebony wools. The village facades were dark with a thick patina of coal dust. The roads were unpaved, the villagers’ expressions untrusting and worn. It appeared that urinating in the street—in full view of the world—was de rigueur. Any restaurant or shop could have been easily transplanted back to the 1920s without any loss of believability in the dress, setting or food.
The fact was, from the moment I stepped foot in Ars-sur-Moselle, the remote and hilly village in Alsace-Lorraine that would be my family’s home for the coming year, it was immediately obvious that it was a fantasy world beyond my child’s dreams and expectations.
The house my father had rented for us was beautiful. I could almost hear the sigh of relief from my mother as we drove up to the crest of a long hilly street. The house was fairly large, with a bright orange Mediterranean tile roof. A wrap-around balcony gave access to each of the three bedrooms from the outside. There was a large side garden, a double garage and a full basement.
While it was true that France in the early 1960’s was a fantasy-come-true for us kids, the experience was a rather different kind for our parents. Considered the “arm pit” of France (and often even more colorfully referenced), the airbase where most dependents lived was unlovingly referred to by dependent wives as “Shambles A.F.B.” (Such a kinder, gentler time!) Chambley was too far from Paris, too small, and too much in the middle of nowhere. Plus, the French people in the area surrounding the base were not often terribly gracious with their American visitors. And although I have no doubt our hosts were usually justified in their pique, it definitely didn’t help make for Chambley being considered anything but a demotion or reprimand by the Americans who had been sent there.

My father, standing in front of our trailer on Chambley AFB. Believe it or not, officers quarters.

My father, standing in front of our trailer at Chambley AFB. Believe it or not, this was officers quarters.

There was no obvious standard of behavior for American-children-in-a-foreign-land and no visible enforcement even if we’d known what the rules were. Like the other recently shipped-in American wives and dependents, my mother was stressed out enough just trying to understand the toilets in post-war France without monitoring the movements of her four very active children. And so it happened, never to be repeated in any other time or venue, that my three brothers and I were given an unprecedented freedom. My parents’ desire to believe that no real trouble could come from such a pastoral setting combined with the anxiety of living abroad as part of a military installation—and make no mistake, there were plenty of rules for the grown-ups—allowed us children something I would never be able to offer my own child: the opportunity to roam freely and safely, and to discover the world on its own terms and in its own unique wrapping.
There is an argument to be made that this was simply a manifestation of the time we lived in. My husband, who spent his entire childhood living in one American city in the fifties and sixties, experienced much the same freedom of being able to ride his bike miles from home, or certainly over to a pal’s house, unencumbered by the need for cell phones, pagers, or having to check in with various minders. But even so, it is totally mind-blowing for me today to think that I, a dreamy-eyed nine-year old girl, frequently roamed alone for hours over a foreign landscape. Or that two little boys, aged seven and eight, with only each other as logistic or moral compasses, often did the same. (On the other hand, it’s less shocking to think of Tommy going off on his own since he was always so formidable. Tommy, like my father, had a bigger-than-life quality about him that tended to mitigate the necessity of worrying about his safety.)
I used to roam with my two younger brothers in tow for hours around Paris or Nuremburg or Berlin. Often at night since that was the time my parents were most ready for adult relaxation and socialization in the various restaurants and pubs. We spent many wonderful hours looking in shop windows, discovering alleyways and cobblestone mews, riding the buses, watching the bateau mouche go up and down the Seine. We spent most of our money at patisseries, once went to the cinema to watch largely incomprehensible (and more than somewhat rude) gibberish, lay on the grass in the beautiful city parks, and fed the thousands and thousands of pigeons the ubiquitous crumbs from the remnant pain chocolat that we were rarely without.
I remember sitting with the two of them at the back of Notre Dame Cathedral when it was cool and quiet inside and too hot and summery outside. I remember bargaining one snowy November with the sellers at the Christkindlmarkets in Nuremburg, the golden fairy lights dancing above my head on magical, invisible strings that seemed to hold the whole toy market together, and huge snow flakes falling in slow motion all around.

Our backyard in Ars. Yes. It's an open sewer. We kids practically lived in it.

Our backyard in Ars. Yes. It’s an open sewer. We kids practically lived in it.

In our new home in Ars, we children made friends quickly with the  French children and sucked up the language from the first day. (One of my mother’s favorite early anecdotes involves my youngest brother, Terry, playing tag on the day of our arrival in the village and walking up to a French kid, tapping him on the shoulder and saying: “Vous it.”)
For my older brother, an intense and brilliant (if decidedly quirky) boy of eleven, this meant a serious and determined raid on the French countryside for any and all war artifacts, or what he ominously called his “souvenirs.” Tom’s hallmark at the time was his obsessiveness. This may have been what is today diagnosed as ADD but, in those days, simply appeared to be chronically, single-mindedly bad behavior. His obsessions ruled him. Mostly, these involved aviation, guns, bombs, World War II history, and (scarily) a few imaginary friends. He was highly uncommunicative with his siblings and lived, happily, (for him and us) in a world of his own. During our time in France, Tommy quickly developed a reputation for his exploits and weapons plundering. Later in the year, when my father became Acting Commanding Officer of the airbase, Tommy’s tenacity and inability to give up his munitions raids would prove to be one of the more difficult and frustrating footnotes of my father’s rule.
Besides the lack of structure, the other important discovery we made about our new country was the fact that aside from a few inadequate attempts at farming, the main thing that had been done to the countryside in recent history was that it had been frequently and consistently bombed. This translated into a treasure hunt for adventurous American children who had been taught the value of curiosity and adventure—unlike our petites French counterparts—and to whom the fairly recent events of World War II—in all their glamour—was adventure at its zenith.
There were unexploded bombs all over the place.
Our village, Ars, was very close to the city of Metz and, historically, was an important Roman city with plenty of evidence of its Roman roots. There was a humongous great aqueduct built in the fourth century which looms over a hundred feet on the outskirts of Ars. The stone was dragged from Gravelotte, nearly twenty miles away. This aqueduct was used for centuries and is in remarkable shape for a ruin. Its construction must have been a gargantuan task performed by the Roman army and led by hydraulic engineers of the time.
Another example of the Roman occupation is seen in the great wide boulevards leading to and from the major towns of the region: Nancy, Toul, Lyons, Verdun, Reims. They’re not only wide and flat but shaded by wonderful sycamores to cool the marching Roman armies. I always thought of the soldiers, first planting the trees and then trudging beneath them, every time we sailed under their leafy branches on the way to the base.
It seemed that Metz was constantly being fought over. It was defeated in 59 BC by Julius Caesar and was one of the last Roman cities, in 451, to surrender to Attila the Hun, after which it became German. During the War of Metz in 1324, cannons were first used in Western Europe. Throughout its history it ping-ponged back and forth between France and Germany. One of the reasons for this is that Metz is in Lorraine, the only French region to share borders with three other countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. (Belgium and Luxembourg always behaved themselves, it seems.) Since its location made it a strategic asset as a crossroads of four countries, it was always switching hands. Plus, it has no less than four major rivers running though it: the Rhine, the Moselle, the Meurthe and the Meuse.
With more than 1,350,000 killed in this area in World War I and another 700,000 in World War II, there definitely should have been plenty of ghosts visiting our playgrounds at night.
Anyway, Metz was taken over by the Germans during the last world war and was important enough to serve as a Nazi stronghold full of Nazi party members, and officials. When things started to get hairy towards the end of the war, Hitler actually gave orders to hold Metz and “fight to the last man.” In order to fulfill this wish of der Fuehrer, the 17th SS panzer Grenadier Division joined the 1215th Regiment to defend the town against the obstreperous and very determined Allies. This was in November 1945. We’d taken Normandy seventeen months earlier and were painstakingly moving our way from the coast, through Paris, and on toward Berlin.
Metz sits exactly between Paris and Berlin.
On November 9, 1945, the Eighth Air Force put 1,299 planes, mostly B-17’s and B-24’s, into the task of liberating Metz. 1,233 of them reached the target zone (our new playground a mere seventeen years later) and dropped a total of 3,753 tons of 1,000 and 2,000-pound bombs. It’s no wonder we kids found so many unexploded bombs in the area. In one day, the sky literally rained upwards of five thousand of them. Most of the heavy bombers released their loads from a height of more than 20,000 feet with their targets often totally invisible through the clouds. As a result, most of the payload ended up in the fields and pastures that day with the effort marked, largely, by volume of bombing rather than accuracy. (The liberation of Metz was done by the foot soldier.)
In any case, the battle for Metz involved several skirmishes between the Nazis and the Allies which extended to the fields and vineyards surrounding Ars-sur-Moselle and environs. In fact, the route my older brother’s school bus took every day to the airbase tracked some of the most vicious fighting as it migrated from village to village…Argonne, Arnaville, Thionville, all bombed-out, shuttered near-ghosttowns in 1962, (although inhabited), were ground zero for this terrible battle as the Allies pushed to take Metz.
As recently as 1990, a tractor clearing some brush in a field outside Verdun dug up the skeleton of a German soldier, complete with dog tags and helmet. My mother remembers watching a French farmer on a tractor in 1962 carefully plow around a gigantic unexploded bomb in the middle of his field—as he had done for the preceding seventeen years. So it’s hardly surprising that a bunch of inquisitive, adventure-mad, ten-year old Baby Boomers would find war booty just seventeen years after the war.
Another interesting point about how history came alive for us was the fact that the entire area was a rabbit warren of tunnels connecting the many Nazi forts. The Germans were able to appear and disappear in order to harass the forward companies of the 379th Infantry. Later my brother Tommy would happily reopen some of these tunnels—at least the ones not crammed full of adders or snarling foxes or lynxs. (And more than a few that were.)
My maternal Grandfather fought at Verdun as a doughboy in 1917 during the First World War after the famous Battle of Verdun—waged 48 years before the last gasp at Metz at the end of World War II. Verdun is situated due west of Metz. The Battle of Verdun is considered the longest single battle in world history. It lasted from February 21, 1916 to December 19 of that same year, causing over 700,000 causalities.
Although we kids had been to Gettysburg battlefield back home, the Civil War always felt a lot like looking for Indian arrowheads—too far in the past to feel real to us. World War II was real to Boomer children. Even civilian kids were taught that the epitome of evil was Hitler. The cartoons we watched still showed goose-stepping despots as the bad guy. (Poor Germany sure took it on the chin in popular culture in America for a very long time.) To us, the war was very recent. And in 1962, living in still-war-torn France, we felt like we were right in the middle of it. Right in the middle of the stories our uncles told, right in the middle of America’s greatest triumph as the rescuing good guys. It was great to be an American in postwar France.
The above is a modified version of the first chapter of my memoir Air Force Brat.

Living Your Dream at the Worst Possible Time

Ten years ago I  wrote a book called “Quit Your Job, Move to Paris.” I wrote it after a young dewy-eyed college grad interviewed with me at the bank where I was working in the advertising department. (Dear God, I’m depressing myself just writing the words.) She’d recently graduated with a degree in advertising and wanted to know what she should do to, basically, get my job. I looked at her and asked: “Are you married?” She blushed prettily and shook her head. I said: “So no kids?” She reddened not so prettily and frowned at me. “Of course not,” she said. “Do you own your own home?” “I’m only 21,” she replied, as if speaking to a seriously mentally impaired individual. (Kind of like how my teenager speaks to me all the time but that’s another blog.) I said: “So, no ties, no mortgage, no private school tuition. My advice to you is…” She poised her little pen over her little steno pad.

Well, you can probably guess what I said (see above title of aforementioned book) and she did not appreciate being led on as she put it. In addition to being a new college graduate, she also happened to be the daughter of the bank’s vice president so I’m not sure why she even bothered to get my take on anything. She should’ve just gone to her Dad and said: “I want her job, please, Daddy.”

But see, I had a mortgage and a kid (plus two step-kids, but again, another time, another blog) and the idea of “living my passion” or waking up and smelling the croissants on the Rue de la Paix or spending a year writing a novel was about as possible as starring in a Broadway musical. She was young. She had her whole life ahead of her. Her choices hadn’t been made yet. From my perspective, I thought she should take advantage of her freedom while she had it, as if passion—for writing or travel or acting or anything—would dry up or run out like sand in an hourglass.

When I wrote the “Quit Your Job” book, I ended up researching various chapters on different life situations to suggest ways and ideas of how moving to Paris for a period of time might be possible: married with kids, single with kids, etc. During the course of my research, I discovered how it would be possible for me to go, too. The  information I came up with for my own situation was good and bad. The good news was: I learned I could go! I learned how I could make it happen! The bad news was: I chose not to. Yeah, I know. That part sucked. But it still helped to know I had a choice. I didn’t pack up the kid and the husband and shoot off to France in 2001 because when I sat down and thought about it, I realized I wanted other things more. Things that couldn’t happen if I took the Paris option at that time.

Funny thing about passion, though. If it’s real, it tends to stay with you. I don’t work in a corporate advertising department any more. I write full time. As for the Paris thing, well, my son is sifting through his college acceptances even as we speak which means, next year, he’s launched into his grand adventure. And guess what? Turns out, Paris is still there!

Seems that silly college girl was right about one thing: there really isn’t a time limit on passions after all.

When Memory Lane was Land-Mined

I was nine years old the first time my eleven-year old brother placed a live bomb in my hands. I was living overseas as a military dependent in post-war France with my parents and three brothers. My Dad was the acting commanding officer of Chambley Air Force Base, an American air base situated in Alsace-Lorraine.

There was a best-selling novel a few years ago by Diane Setterfield called “The Thirteenth Tale” in which the author—and the protagonist in the book—states that everyone tends to mythologize 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 make up or embellish the things that happened to me. And most people have difficulty believing me when I tell them my story.

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 a total of 3,753 tons of bombs in our backyard in one day…resulting in what surely must’ve looked like a demented Easter egg hunt 18 years later when four Boomer kids went on the ultimate scavenger hunt.

(The  photo, above, is of my older brother and myself walking in downtown Vogelway in the mid-sixties. We were as confident and sure of ourselves as brash young Yanks in an occupied land could be.)

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

The fact that I went to a French Convent school—built in the 1300’s—where I spoke only French.

I got my first kiss from a French boy in a stone washhouse built by the Romans in 300 AD.

When I was ten, I was shot at by an angry French farmer who patrolled his vineyards in an effort to keep pests out (read: wily American kids.)

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 and we were absolutely a product of our culture.) It was a skeleton, wearing a molding German uniform. Showing an early entreprenurial streak, my brother tacked up a sign at the entrance to the bunker selling tours to the local French kids—”Ten francs to see the dead kraut.”

When we moved to Germany, I had a full-scale castle in my backyard—built in the 1200’s—complete with dungeons, stone balconies and towers—that my brothers and I played in nearly 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 without exaggeration and without mythology.