The Week of Living Normally

The view from our apartment window.

The view from our apartment window.

The plan was simple. Go to Paris for two weeks so you can spend the first week doing all the irresistible tourist stuff you can’t not do no matter how many times you come here. (And yes it takes a full week just to do the minimum.) Normally my husband and I hit all the sights and museums and then drag ourselves exhausted and bleary-eyed back onto the airplane when the week’s up to head back to our daily round and life back home.

Not this time baby.

This time I was smart.IMG_6271
I booked us—for the first time since our honeymoon 25 years ago—two weeks in Paris. Yesterday we finished the first week of walking everywhere in town. (Fitbit claims we averaged 13K steps a day. If only exercise was so effortless back home!) We’ve hit every chocolate shop, stuffed down pain au chocolat at every boulangerie on every corner–even when we weren’t hungry—(what’s hunger got to do with it?) and made lunch a bigger deal than Henry VIII in his great hall.

On literally every street corner...

On literally every street corner…

We went back to the old haunts so we could reminisce (“Oh! Remember when John Patrick was little and he fed the sparrows here in front of Notre Dame?”) and to visit favorite restaurants and neighborhoods for that sense of familiarity and—in the case of Paris—awe.

So now we’re ready to be normal.

Except I’m not sure, after three years of the kind of work schedule both my husband and I’ve had, if we know what that means. My first inclination is to say, “Let’s look it up on Google! I’ll type in normal and see what we get.” That got us nowhere. (Although I’m glad to report we’re nowhere near normal.)

Le Roi du Pot au Feu! And trust me, they don't lie.

Le Roi du Pot au Feu! And trust me, they don’t lie.

But one thing I knew was that waking up at ten every morning and eating flaky pastries two hours before a gargantuan lunch was not normal. For the last seven days I’ve told myself that a year of tuna salad sandwiches and yoghurt cups await me back home so eating pot au feu TWICE in four days was okay. (Honestly, I still don’t see the problem with it.)

But being normal for this last week in Paris is important to me. While not the reason for the trip (that’s to research my current novel) it is the whole point of coming for two weeks. The second week is the part where we stop feeling like tourists and start feeling like we live here! And eating big heavy lunches every day and a pound of artisan chocolate doesn’t fulfill that—even for a Parisian.

So today I’ll get up early, work for a couple of hours in the morning then wander about the neighborhood just to wander. I’ll go hang out at a café and people watch, and not see a single thing all day that’s famous or is featured on a postcard. I’ll take pictures (covertly) of the every day things that will remind me of this week-as-a-Parisian (because after all I do know my time here is finite and the Florida suburbs await me). I’ll eat when I’m hungry and stay my hand on all the amazing and omnipresent sweets—just like I’d do “normally.”IMG_6322

Instead of endlessly revisiting Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower, I’ll memorize the bones of the beautiful Haussmann apartment buildings that line almost every avenue in every neighborhood I walk through and I’ll watch the faces of the Parisians hurrying by. I’ll concentrate on the fragrance of the coffee in the cafés, the rolling burrs of the natives speaking all around me, and I won’t look at my blasted smart phone once.

Well. Just to get the GPS coordinates to find my way back to the apartment of course. I mean getting lost is fun with you’re twenty years old but I’m wearing very fashionable ankle boots with two-inch heels on cobblestones here. (A lot of things may have changed in Paris since you were here last but trust me on this, Parisian women are not running around Paris in sneakers.)

So wish me luck on being “normal” in Paris this week. I’ll report back as to my success. Who knows? If I can manage it here, I might try it back home too. I mean, that’s the perspective shift we all get from going on vacation, right? The way we can see our lives back home so much more clearly? And then make the changes to fix the things you didn’t even know needed fixing?

What could be more Parisian than a perfect scoop of ice cream on a cold day?

What could be more Parisian than a perfect scoop of ice cream on a cold day?

Or maybe I’ll just focus on café-sitting and people watching.

That would be good, too.

And of course, it wouldn’t be truly Parisian if I were to eschew all chocolate…

 

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.

 

 

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?

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.

The places travel really takes us to

I write a lot about travel and how it affects us because of the perspective I think it allows us when we get away from our own little corner of the world. I always re-enter my daily round with a fresh way of seeing things after I’ve been outside the US. It’s easy to construct a simplistic mental picture of what “out there” looks like from the vantage point of our front porches and I think a lot of us do that because it helps to manage day-to-day stresses  if we can just compartmentalize and reduce the larger world. To that end, I find I often fall into thinking of certain countries in stereotypes in my mind—until I visit them again and am reminded how basically alike we all are after all.

One of my favorite memories, and one that I hope I will keep vivid in my mind until I’m an old bent-over crone with pins in my hips, is the forty-five minutes I spent in Venice between midnight trains one night many years ago.

The forty-five minutes is a bit of an exaggeration but not by much. I was traveling Europe with my mother and my paternal aunt and I’d miscalculated the timing between trains for our trip from Nuremberg to Prague. A five-hour layover in Venice was the result. Later,  I realized I should have just booked us a couple of rooms and gone with the flow but at the time, staying to our schedule seemed important.  I parked my elderly companions at the restaurant, where we later had a memorable pasta dinner watching the cold drizzle  (it was October) from our table, and trotted the half-mile back to the train station to grab tickets for the next train. It was only a few blocks but it was already dark when I left the restaurant and the fog had dropped heavily onto the streets like a wet drape.

19212830I slipped down an alleyway that looked to me to be a short cut to where I remembered the train station was and when I came out of it, I saw I was standing in front of one of those arching stone bridges that crisscross back and forth over Venice’s canals. I took one step onto the bridge and stopped, for what reason I can’t imagine since I am nothing if not single-minded, needing constantly to be reminded to look around me. I realized that I was totally alone although it wasn’t late. I stood on the bridge, stopped in my mission and just needing to pause and look into the murky fog that blanketed the water below. As I watched, a single gondolier emerged from the mist—his back straight, his hat at an angle, the pole fluid in his hands. He began to pass beneath me on the bridge and just before he did, he looked up at me and languidly blew me a kiss.

Then he disappeared beneath the bridge and back into the mist.

If I hadn’t  continued to stare after him as he retreated, I might have convinced myself I imagined it. The feeling that that gesture evoked in me—so cavalier, so Italian, so romantic—registered an emotion in me that made my heart ache.

I’ve thought about it so many times since then. Why did it affect me so? Was I longing for love? Was I needing an affirmation of my youth? My attractiveness? And more than just what I felt when he did it, what about why he did it? Who was he? He certainly wasn’t expecting me to throw him a tip. I couldn’t see that he did it for any other reason than just the fact that we were both alive and the night was young.

I used to try to imagine who he was. Was he a complex man? Did he have  a wide range of deep emotions? Could he be the sort of complicated  individual who could have a fight with his wife that morning, maybe worry about paying an electric bill in the afternoon and then coast through the eerie mist and spontaneously blow a kiss to a lone woman on a stone bridge? Or was he simple-minded? Did he blow kisses to everyone he saw?

GondolierI honestly don’t know why the experience arrested me so. Or why I still think of it to this day. I just know that sometimes when we travel away from our own streets and subdivisons, we can find ourselves  mindful of the world around us in ways that we aren’t normally, and magic—unexpected and potent—can come drifting by in front of us where, for once, we actually see it.