Thursday, April 16, 2009
Sunday, July 13, 2008
I knew upon arrival into Paris that this trip would be different than my week spent here in October 2006. I felt heavier this time and with a certain knowing of Paris. The first week was spent shaking a stupor not only due to jet lag but weeks of angst, raging insomnia, and a chaotic heart. I knew Paris would do something and that all that turmoil had to give at some point. But it was just such a heavy feeling to enter Paris with.
In my first week, I openly cursed Paris, felt incredibly awkward and self-conscious about being different here, and often found myself lost and hungry at the wrong hour to find food. I accumulated numerous blisters, two of which I briefly convinced myself would require amputation of my feet. I also saw beautiful sights and enjoyed lovely gardens like Tuileries and my favorite, Luxembourg. I returned to the Louvre and walked along the Seine. I enjoyed fresh baguette, great coffee, macarons, and the always gratifying experience of wandering the streets of Paris (well, only gratifying when I wasn't causing seemingly irreparable damage to my feet).
Please do not despair, dear reader. I have not lost my love of Paris. I have only had to earn its love for me. It is true that we take our "baggage" with us everywhere and anywhere, Paris being no exception. That initial week was one of emerging awareness, struggles rising and giving way. The "what does this all mean" questioning forming blisters on my brain that easily rivaled those on my aching feet.
But patience has always been a virtue (and a detriment in its own right, too) that has always been a bit too plentiful for me. As Chicamericaine and I sat out on her terrace looking toward Père Lachaise on Thursday evening, we briefly touch upon the grand and yet ever-simple observation of how difficult life is for anyone and everyone and I said half-jokingly that I was fortunate to possess too much patience to be suicidal; that and a passion for life which, in its optimism, always allays whatever struggles try to overcome me.
So, I entered Paris, feeling battered and bruised on the inside somewhat. After cursing Paris last Monday, everything started to shift. I stopped hearing that incessant string of questioning in my brain. I stopped feeling as awkward and conspicuous here, and with each moment, an increasing lightness is overtaking me. It came upon me and not just in grand, historic buildings and awe-inspiring museums. It came upon me in some of the most simple ways: a Frenchwoman stopping near Musée Rodin and asking me for directions in French, thanking me sincerely when I managed to actually guide her in my broken French. It came upon me when a homeless man held the door at Saint-Sulpice for me and then teared up when I gave him some change upon leaving. It came upon me when a baby with her grandmother sat nearby at the Luxembourg Gardens and would stop crying when I would look at her and smile. It came when I knew how to get home without consulting my map once. It came when this bird perched right next to me for quite some time on Pont Royal.
Wherever we are and however we are, that lightness comes about when we give into moments with absolute wonder of the possibility, simply being present. So much of what I took back with me from my last trip was the physical beauty of Paris.... the majestic architecture, the way the sky looks draped in Paris light, museums housing countless works of art that are so moving to the soul. And while that beauty is still here, still Paris, still so appreciated and loved by me, I feel so enchanted by the little details of moments and not just the pleasant moments, but also the real moments.
Sitting at the café downstairs, enjoying steak Bearnaise this week, I see something move out of the corner of my eye and a man sitting with his girlfriend at the next table shrieks and points, uttering something indistinguishable. I didn't need to hear or understand the word, I knew it was a rat. He smiled nervously and said that he was scared of them. Then, he proceeded to finish his meal calmly. It didn't put me off my meal, either. I laughed out loud as I climbed the stairs back up to my apartment. Ah, the real Paris!
And as I climbed the spiral staircase up to my apartment the other day, I came upon that third step above the final landing and I suddenly knew ahead of stepping on it that it was a tricky step, with an awkward slope to it. That step made me wobble for days but in no time at all I knew that step and I was ready for it.
I have come to realize that in cafés and restaurants, the servers will seldom check in with you or ask you how you are doing. Rather, the customer needs to be more aggressive here in getting the server's attention, in asking for l'addition (the check), and that the customer often needs to initiate the greeting in small shops. Assertiveness and honesty is appreciated. Servers and proprietors warm up to you over time, and so you develop a relationship with them here.
A Parisian server at one of the pubs on the street tells me that in French culture, friendliness is not immediate, even for service employees. Rather, that degree of friendliness develops over time. But when people know each other or even see the same customers repeatedly over time, that friendliness grows. As it should. And yet, in my growing assertiveness here, I continue to smile freely and easily. In passing proprietors along my street over just ten days' time, I am already greeted with friendlier smiles each day.
All these seemingly little experiences/idiosyncrasies/observations make for the most wonderful sensation of being here and I finally feel that I am experiencing what I wanted most out of this trip: living fully in the moment. And so I don't curse Paris tonight. I don't feel compelled to plan out my remaining days here. I'll get to those other sights and such, just as I'll get to making decisions about the future when the time comes and not a moment sooner. All I can feel right now is an incredible contentedness as I lay on my sofabed and listen to the humming of people on the street below and the occasional roar of the métro passing underground below them....
Here in Paris.
After gorging (well, hardly for what I had planned to do here in Paris!) on my box of Pierre Hermé macarons that I last featured, I gave myself a couple of days (you've got to be impressed by that) before walking down rue Bonaparte to find Ladurée's Saint-Germain pastry shop. The shop is so very lovely, opulent and feminine, loaded with sweets and pretty boxes.
I entered and after gathering my bearings amidst all those beautiful boxes and assorted sweets, examined the selection, which was quite extensive. I selected seven flavors: violet, rose, dark chocolate, caramel, vanilla, café, and chocolate. I don't know why I didn't go with more fruity choices like raspberry or lemon, but I guess I wasn't feeling it. Loaded with anticipation, I headed back to my apartment. I stopped into Eglise Saint-Germain des-Prés, claimed to be the oldest church in Paris. I marveled over the architecture and history, as I always do in churches here. Walking back down rue Bonaparte toward my apartment, ready to devour my first Ladurée macarons, I quick grab a French Elle from a kiosk and then vow not to make any more stops.
I threw down my purse and magazine and hastily took this photograph of my wilting macarons. As you may know, macarons are delicate and only briefly fresh. Of course, you can eat them within days but they are truly at their peak when absolutely fresh and they are very delicate, their outer shells cracking upon slight impact. My Ladurée macarons were roughed up a bit from that jostling while walking, but not overly so. So, I quickly photographed the macarons and then started with the rose. Hmph.... I bite into the rose and it is not a bad macaron, but it just isn't that great, like Pierre Hermé's rose macaron is. The outer shell texture isn't as pleasant as PH's either, more crunchy and crumbling more roughly in my mouth. Pierre Hermé's macarons seem to have this ideal transition from slightly crunchy to soft center. They are definitely different!
Highly curious and certainly motivated, I try the chocolate, then the caramel, then the violet. Some are better than others (the violet is good but a bit too sweet; the café is good, the chocloate alright) but just not that "wow" factor I imagined and had experienced with Pierre Hermé. Truly, the Ladurée macarons are nothing to spit on and kick in the gutters. I'd still take their macarons over many other cookies and sweets. But just not WOW at all for me.
Next up is Gérard Mulot, also conveniently around the corner from my apartment here in Paris... which, I honestly didn't plan for this access to macarons so nearby but being the macaron seeker I have become, it is quite fortuitous! Gérard Mulot has been recommended to me by bloggers and Parisians. His selection of macarons is supposedly more creative and in walking by his shop the other day, he has these beautiful and delicious looking sweets in his storefront. I know... this is a truly hard gig that I've got here, isn't it?
Saturday, July 12, 2008
I was delighted when Chicamericaine (who sadly does not have a blog but kindly comments on many Francophile blogs) emailed me about meeting up in Paris. We met at the Métro station near my apartment and then decided to head up to Montmarte (her old stomping grounds) for a drink and perhaps some wandering. We sat outdoors at a bistro and she introduced me to menthe à l'eau, a very refreshing beverage which is made with a bit of green mint syrup and water. Such a simple concoction and so delicious! We sat for quite awhile, eagerly sharing stories and our love of Paris. She so graciously brought me gifts: a guidebook for the city's bus system and a dual language copy of Colette's Chéri.
She told me about her life in Paris and gave me all these great insights into things to do, great Paris reads, and guidance on picking up the language. In no time at all, it felt as if we'd somehow known each other for many years. Our leisurely afternoon at the bistro gave way to the wonderful idea to go back to her neighborhood and purchase some cheese, bread, and champagne to enjoy on her terrace. I enviously listened to and watched her interact in French with the cheesemonger, the smiley wine and champagne shopkeeper, and the chilly woman at the boulangerie (chilly because she knows Chicamericaine usually purchases her baguette elsewhere). When I applauded her on her French, Chicamericaine laughed and told me that she had her priorities with the language... namely, being able to order food! Always the best place to start!
We talked about so many things and so freely in our afternoon and evening together. It was nice to hear someone else affirm the day I cursed Paris, Chicamericaine telling me that one hasn't truly experienced Paris until that day! Carra also reiterates this to me in an email following her read of the post and I so appreciate the truth in that now more than ever. I am always so grateful for these moments of connection. How little I had known about Chicamericaine before our visit and how wonderful of her to share glimpses of her life with me and to listen to pieces of mine. We share an appreciation of the dark side of life... well, maybe the more somber and imperfect side of life. I laughed so heartily and ate and drank eagerly, feeling absolutely welcome. And she sends me home with her copy of Véronique Vienne's "The Art of Imperfection" - soul food.
And speaking of food... look at this beautiful assortment of cheeses that Chicamericaine selected. I simply told her my favorite cheese is most often a more semi-hard cheese. It was as though she had known me and my food preferences for years, picking out four cheeses... all of which I really, really liked. I was particularly fond of the Comté cheese (the upper left hand corner of the image), a semi-hard cow's milk cheese from Comté, an eastern region of France. It had a great texture and a nice nutty flavor. I will be consuming much of that while here! And I was so thrilled to see that the Washington Times recently featured an article on Comté with some great looking recipes I'll be trying at home! The cheese on the bottom right had, as Chicamericaine so aptly termed it, "a great salty sheepy" flavor. They were all delicious and washed down nicely with two bottles of champagne between the two of us.
We then proceeded to red wine, which I so elegantly spilled over the remaining cheese and on myself and Chicamericaine, breaking the glass. It was as though I had spilled water in a sink to her... she and her wonderful husband (who joined us later in the evening) were so very kind about it and even poured me another glass!
After a wonderful evening in wonderful company, Chicamericaine walked me down to the taxi station at the end of the block, we exchanged bises (kisses on the cheek) and I was whisked away at the midnight hour. In my delightful champagne, comté, Chicamericaine buzz, I felt so very much in love with Paris. The taxi whisked past illuminated historical buildings and cafés still buzzing with people, through tunnels and back up onto tiny, veering streets bearing a lovely midnight glow. It was exhilarating.... the feeling of really being here in Paris!
Many thanks to Chicamericaine for such a wonderful and memorable Paris experience!!
The café directly below my apartment in Paris serves espresso, coffee, crêpes, salads, galettes (buckwheat crêpes), and wines. On my second day here in Paris, I stumbled downstairs, jet lagged as hell, and had a galette with jambon (ham), fromage (cheese) and walnuts. It was good as far as galettes go. Nothing earth-shattering delicious but good. The owner was very pleasant and I fancied that this might be one of my regular spots on the street.
In thinking such, I returned to the café a couple of days following that first visit and tried yet another galette, this time with andouille and fromage. I knew that andouille was sausage and I could almost be certain that back in the States, I've had andouille sausage in some form (very important distinction!) and I do like sausage in general. The galette arrived and when I cut into it, there was the andouille, this spiraled pork product. It looked highly unappetizing and this odor started to permeate my nostrils. I took a bite. Chewy, highly smoky.... disgusting!! I was so revolted by the small bite I had managed to force down. I knew that I could not eat any more of it but there, hidden in the galette, were numerous spirals of andouille. And eating around the andouille proved fuitle, as its pungent odor not only permeated my nostrils but the entire flavor of the galette.
The owner knew I didn't like it but in fear of offending, I deliberated a few minutes, hoping that I might be able to bravely eat more of the andouille or even the crêpe around it. No. I just couldn't. And the absolute disgust I felt provoked me to be a little more French (i.e., assertive) and tell the owner that I honestly did not like it at all. She explained in English that it is a very traditional French sausage. I couldn't help thinking that this "tradition" might fall in line with other forced "traditions" like sitting on a creepy Santa Claus's lap at Christmas as a child. But the sausage was far worse than any department store Santa and smelled infinitely worse than Billy Bob Thornton must have smelled in Bad Santa.
The offending galette was taken away and a very plain and safe crêpe replaced it. Lesson learned. A few days ago when I met up with Chicamericaine, I told her about my disgusting andouille experience. She made a face and quipped, "I don't do andouille." We laughed (and simultaneously cringed) over our shared dislike. The next day she emailed me the Wikipedia page on andouille sausage:
"Traditional andouillette is made from the colon and the stomach of pigs.... The French andouillette is an acquired taste and can be off-putting to diners due to its extremely pungent odor, often compared to the smell of feces. (It is not to be confused with derivative andouille sausage, which is much spicier, but more mild in odor.) Andouillette is sometimes eaten cold but more commonly is grilled and served as a hot dish, which strengthens its odor and taste. While hot andouillette does smell of feces, naturally all such matter is removed from the meat before cooking. The aroma is due to the pig colon (chitterlings) utilised in the sausage, which incorporates some of the same compounds that contribute to the odor of excrement."
So, I suppose that I should be grateful that "naturally all such [feces] is removed from the meat before cooking." But I ate part of a pig's colon and believe me, it was no delicacy for my plain palate! While I appreciate that the French may not be as wasteful, finding use for all of the animal, I just can't comprehend how someone comes to "acquire" a taste for something so vile! But then, I can imagine that a person might stumble upon Taco Bell in the States and think the same thing!
A few days after my andouille experience, I walked past a bistro on my way home and that smell rose up from within. That smell. I will never forget it, try as I might.