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!

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!

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…