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.

Is Paris Drowning?

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

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

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

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

These. Things. Happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 ways to bring France into your life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Paris. No Matter What.

I waited as long as I could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ultimate shopping experience

Le Printemps: The ultimate shopping experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little did I know.

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

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

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

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

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…

 

Getting ready for Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings up another food observation I have about Paris.

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

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

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

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

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

À bientôt, mes amis…

Seeing Paris through young eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door to my next adventure!

The door to my next adventure!

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

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

I’m  moving to Paris.

For a month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound good?

I can’t wait.

 

 

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.