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!)

Pushing Pause Mid-Bite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s all take a breath and slow down.

The Merits of Losing

There’s this building on Peachtree Road in the neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta. It’s a very old apartment building called the Al Hambra. I lived there in the mid-eighties. The Al Hambra was all hardwood floors and Mediterranean-styled rounded doorways. My apartment had a stone balcony that faced Peachtree Road and I could sit out there with my friends, drink beer and watch the Peachtree Road Race every year, or just sit out and drink beer.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I've set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I’ve set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I’d wrap up in a comforter and sit out there and watch the night life happen right in front of me and I always felt perfectly safe. The sounds of sirens and horns honking were background noise to my life  for the three years I lived there.

Because the Al Hambra is located in Buckhead near Garden Hills, I could walk to the neighborhood restaurants, mom ‘n pop grocers, pubs and outdoor cafes. The city’s first Fellini’s Pizza opened up next door to the Al Hambra and although in the beginning it was tattered and dark and bare bones, it was also exotic and earthy and quickly became popular. I liked meeting friends there to sit outside, eat pizza (and drink beer) because you could feel the hum of the busiest street in the city as it flew by. Living at the Al Hambra made me feel alive. It  made me feel like something exciting was about to happen.

I loved the Al Hambra. And I loved living there. But more interesting, I think, is the story of how I lost it. And how losing it became a major turning point in my life. In fact it became the final event in a series of four events that happened over a six-week period that changed my  life for good.

The first event that happened was when I lost my job as Creative Director at the ad agency that had the Hardee’s Hamburger account. It was the only account we had and when we lost it, we closed the doors. Like most out-of-work writers, I just turned my hand to freelancing with no real financial hardship.

A week later, the second event happened when I saw the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Seeing that movie was significant because it lit a fire under me that helped push me over the line right when things needed to happen. That movie illustrated to me that I was young and free and there were adventures in the world to be had if I would just tap into the courage needed to find them.

The third thing that happened was that a good friend of mine introduced me to a man who was visiting him from Auckland, New Zealand. We hit it off and as I didn’t have a job to worry about, I made plans to come “down there” and visit him. I bought a round-trip ticket to Auckland for a month’s visit. I began to view my coming visit to the South Pacific as the Big Adventure I was looking for.

My parents weren’t thrilled.

Auckland is a long way away, even for a visit. It was in fact the furthest point on the globe, except for Adelaide, Australia, from where they lived in Jacksonville, Florida. In those days—before computers, before cellphones, before LOTR—most people I talked to didn’t even know where NZ was on the map.

As it happened, my folks were right to be worried. And that’s because two weeks before I was to board the jet to LAX that would take me to Auckland, I got a letter from the management company of the Al Hambra telling me to vacate the premises. They were turning the building into condos. If I—and everyone else—would clear out within thirty days, we’d get our deposits back no questions asked.

This was the fourth and most crucial event. With no job and now no apartment to come back to in ATL, there was no reason not to stretch my visit as long as I wanted to stay. With my stuff safely in storage, my plants donated to friends, a hunky new love-interest with a really cool English accent waiting for me, I was able to turn away from all the security, comfort, and familiarity of my life in Atlanta—in the States for that matter—and prepare to embrace the unknown and experience the thrill of discovering the larger world that was out there.

My parents nearly went nuts.

But it was one of the very best things I’ve ever done.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my living room window in Parnell.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my balcony in Parnell.

If I hadn’t lost my apartment at the Al Hambra, I wouldn’t have taken that last step—to find a job down there, which I did, or to spend the next two years living abroad and traveling the world solo—Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, Tahiti, Fiji, London, St-Tropez. The experience changed me fundamentally—as travel always does. The things I saw, the people I met, helped make me the person I am today.

My grand adventure came together in a series of coincidences combined with lucky kismet over a six-week period. But I was ready for it. I was looking for it.

I didn’t make it happen. But I knew to let it happen when it came.

I’ve recently moved away from Atlanta—my home for more than thirty years—but when I used to drive down Peachtree Road—to take my son to some piano competition or football practice, or to meet my husband for lunch (not the same fellow I should add)—and pass by the Al Hambra, I always felt a rush of gratitude when I saw it.

I felt gratitude for the joy I had living there, once upon a time when I was a single girl in Buckhead, unfettered and alive.

But also for the thrill I once had leaving there, too.