Saturday, October 29, 2011
So this brioche - well not exactly the one featured here - but the brioche made at this boulanger won the best in Paris prize. So did their baguettes, both of which Larry and I sampled. Of the baguettes there were 165 entries. Now I am trying to understand how a baguettes or brioche competition is judged. I get wine, cheese, tea, even dogs. But how can you judge, let alone sample, bread.
We tried to do our own tasting test. The bread was very crunchy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside. This, we decided, was a crucial feature. After that we were stumped. And beyond that we could bear eating any more bread.
I couldn't help wondering if, as with wine and tea, you spit the bread out. Well, you must. Otherwise you'd explode. But spitting out bread, I dunno. It seemed kind of gross.
Still we very much enjoyed the bread and the brioche and the amazing croissants from the bakery right across from where we were living and more or less everything else we tasted, sampled, and alas, never spit out.
A few weeks ago at my gym I mentioned to the guy who works at the front desk, (I'll call him D), that I'd be away on vacation. "Where are you going?" D, who is a tall, handsome man from another country, asked me and I said Paris. Then he asked if I could bring something back for him. "Just a little souvenir," he said. "A small Eiffel Tower."
"Of course," I told him and off I went on my vacation. D and I have a kind of friendship that revolves around the gym and the fact that I speak his language. We have joked together. I saw that he wanted me to bring him this and I set out to do it.
As you can imagine in Paris there are thousands of little Eiffel Tower souvenirs sold on every corner, yet I set about my task in a serious way. Whenever I came to a souvenir shop or the bookstalls along the Seine, I searched for an Eiffel Tower for D. I rejected keychains and holograms. In the end I landed on just what he asked me. A small, two-inch tall tower.
It was about a week after my return that I managed to get to the gym. D was there, but I'd forgotten to bring the tower. "I'll bring it tomorrow," I told him and his face lit up. "You remembered," he said.
The next day I did bring it by. I put it on the counter in front of him and again his fact lit up. He turned it in his hands. He liked it he told me. Something occurred to me at that moment so I asked him if he collected souvenirs like this. "Yes," he told me, "whenever someone tells him they are going away, I ask them to bring me back something small. I have a collection..."
Then he went on, "You see," he said, "I cannot travel. I can leave the country but I cannot return." He explained to me then his visa issues, that he had been waiting for a long time for them to be resolved. That he has been living in this limbo for a while. "So I like to have these souvenirs to make me think about the places where I haven't been."
I had just returned from a glorious week away while D only traveled by looking at the souvenirs that graced his dining room table and of the journeys he took in that the world in miniature he had created for himself.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Travel, for all of its pleasures, has its disconnects as well. Which, of course, can be a certain kind of pleasure as well, but of a different breed. Travel puts us face to face with certain realities we might never encounter and at times, such as the other day in Paris, these realities can be diametrically opposed.
We'd been walking for a long time and were ready for lunch so we sat down at Cafe Panis for a meal. It's right across from Notre Dame and we knew we were taking a chance. Tourists would be everywhere and, as fate would have it, we sat down beside a nice couple from Athens, Ohio who asked us to take their picture which we did. Then we asked them to take ours and pretty soon we were having a conversation.
We hadn't gotten very far when they asked us where we were from and when we said New York, they asked where we were on 9/11. Larry and I both tensed. Here we were in Paris, a glorious October afternoon, having a glass of Chardonnay and onion soup, and two strangers are asking us about the worst day in our lives.
"I was there," Larry said.
The man sat back a little as did his wife, a triage nurse, it turned out, "You mean there?" They'd never expected this response.
"I worked downtown," Larry replied. He didn't go into the rest of it, nor did I. How for five hours I had no idea where my husband was. How he did worked right across the street and was in fact standing beside the Winter Garden as the towers came down. Neither he nor I explained that he was very very lucky to be alive.
I expected the conversation to go on from there and was relieved when they seemed to respectfully skirt it. I could tell they wanted to know more. But I could also tell that they realized we were on vacation and we didn't want to "go" there.
Our lunch was finished. They were nice and, as often happens on the road, we said our good-byes and wandered on. I bought a hat. We stopped at Shakespeare & Co. where Larry picked up a novel he'd been wanting to read. Larry was cold and getting sick so we took some steps down to the lower level walk along the banks of the Seine to the end of the Ile de la Cite.
Here it was sunny and there was no wind. We ambled. We talked about our lives, our plans. Then right at the tip of the island we sat down, just resting for a moment in the sun.
It wasn't long before a very cute pit bull puppy came sniffing around behind us. He was curious, going around a tree, checking out a man's backpack, and we were amused. Then its owner came by and struck it on its back with its leash. We heard the slap. I turned away but soon I heard another and another. The young man was perhaps trying to discipline his young dog, but in the wrong way.
I know this because we've been trying to train our hound puppy for weeks now. Cheese treats work. My French which had been coming back more and more was almost fluent. And I couldn't bear the thought of another slap on that poor puppy's back.
"I'm going to tell him about cheese treats," I told Larry who nodded because at times I can be a little crazy and I was at this moment.
"Sure, go ahead."
I got up and found the young man at a tree behind me, once more about to slap his dog. He was with a group of three or four friends and, there is no other way to say this, but because it is part of the story I must, they were clearly from North Africa. I said what a cute puppy. Can I pet him? Do you give him cheese treats?
The guy laughed. Fromage. Pourquois pas. After a moment I asked the young man his dog's name. The man gave me a blank stare. "Atta," he said.
"Oh," I replied, momentarily stunned, "that's a nice name."
Atta, of course, as most of the world, but surely any New Yorker, especially survivors of 9/11 knows was the leader of 9/11 contingent that flew into the World Trade Towers. He has also been elevated to a martyr but much of the anti-American elements of the Arab world.
Atta, I thought. I hadn't really figured that the dog would be named Atta. I was suddenly a long way from cheese treats and some discomfort over a man, beating his dog.
Walking home, Larry reminded me of the couple from Athens, Ohio who wanted to know about 9/11, then respectfully declined to ask. And how just an hour later we were speaking with an angry man with a dog named Atta.
Two experiences of the same momemt, diametrically opposed. We walked over the small bridges on the Ile St. Louis, thinking how we were living in a bipolar world. A world whose polarity would not have been made clear were we not in another country, away, raw and exposed. It was certainly not something that would happen at home.
Friday, October 21, 2011
I am trying to deconstruct the reasons why I actually love Paris and why I am contemplating for the first time since 1968 when I took my exams in a restaurant and was more or less airlifted back to New York (a decision I have always regretted)living here again. I never thought I'd want to live in Paris. I had a million reasons most of which boiled down to the French being too grouchy.
But on this trip I am seeing something else. Or perhaps it is what I am not seeing. I have been here a week and I realize that I do not see people running around with big papercups filled with coffee. Indeed I don't see anyone running around with coffee at all. Instead they are sitting with friends or alone, drinking it out of ceramic cups. They are sitting in the sun. They are reading a book. They are chatting. And they are drinking coffee without being in motion.
I have been thinking a lot about the cafe culture (and the fact that it is called a culture). And I remember something I learned in 2008 - my last trip here when I was in a wheelchair. Larry and I realized that it was fairly easy to get in and out of cafes. They all open up right on to the street and they are set on corners.
It turns out this isn't an accident of fate but actually a carefully conceived urban design. When the city was developed a few hundred years ago, cafes already existed on corners. They were drinking houses, places to socialize, etc. And somewhere along the line it was decided that they should be protected. That is on corners where cafes exist (and I believe there are over 1000) a cafe will always exist. A GAP or Prada isn't going to come in and take over that corner.
This is why some cafes such as the Wepler where we stopped in for oysters and searching for the ghost of Henry Miller who was conspicuously absent (and if you reread the open scene of Quiet Nights in Clichy you will perhaps see why)has existed on the same corner for almost a 100 years.
Cafes and their locations are essentially grandfathered into the city design. Landmarked. In this brilliant move of urban planning Paris will never become a mall.
But New York. Why can't it work there? Or in other cities? Because of real estate, because of the need to do sales of coffee in volume (ie papercups), because our particular brand of capitalism requires us to keep moving.
And the French, who certainly have their own capitalism, also have culture, a way of life, that contrary to our own is literally designed for them to stop. And maybe that's what culture is. It's not just the elites or intellectuals or students either. Today a Thursday coming home at six o'clock, a cold crisp evening, every cafe was literally packed.
In my neighborhood in Brooklyn there is a beautiful fountain at Grand Army Plaza. A gorgeous gushing shoot of water and its loneliness saddens me every time I drive by. I have this vision, foolish perhaps I know, of cafes all around it. I long for it in fact. Of meeting friends in the late afternoon, of bringing a book or my journal, and just for an hour or so in the course of our busy lives also coming to a halt as we sip our cafe cremes.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
In the past week or so that I’ve been in France I’ve encountered what I am considering the new French paradox. It has nothing to do with why French women, who eat cheese and fois gras and beef steak, are thin and American women who diet all the time are fat. This paradox is about giving and receiving directions. It has to do with the fact that when you are in a place where you are unfamiliar, people give you directions as if you are supposed to know where you are.
This is perhaps more prevalent for me in France because, for better or for worse, my French is quite good or at least my accent is - good enough so that when I ask for directions people assume that I actually know more or less where I am going and I am only asking for a little boost to my confidance. Or so that I can practice my French by asking needless directions regarding just where the Rue du Parc Royal or the nearest ATM or the Sorbonne really is.
The French think I just need a bit of encouragement. Oh it’s only two feet away. You could walk there in your slippers. Just go straight; you can’t miss it. You know where the Rue de Perle is, right? So just keep climbing, then at the top of the street, turn right. You can see our terrace from there. But in fact you can miss it. You can’t get there in your slippers. Unless you have escaped from an insane asylum. And as to the terrace you can see it if you know what you are looking for.
Then they rattle off numbers of streets addresses and codes you need to get inside a building and whatever else and tell you, “but there is nothing simpler.” They might as well as be talking about brain surgery or solid state physics. Just make an incision along the base of the skull. Il y a rien plus simple.
Really the problem is that I speak with such confidence. I rarely stammer or appear to hesitate. I don’t even seem lost. I nod my head and smile and say “bien sur” seven or eight times. Or on the phone until it is just assumed that I understand exactly where I am going and what I am supposed to do to get there.
Here is a case in point...The other night we were going to have dinner with Jean-Michel (my French “brother”). Four decades ago I lived with Jean-Mi and his mother, Joelle, and we have seen them often over the years. Every few years we go to his place in the Marais and so it makes sense that I'd remember more or less where he is. And this year in fact we have rented an apartment "just two feet" from his place.
On the phone he rattled off his address which I understood as #6 and the code to his building which I understood as 2087. After many missteps and stopping and asking at least two people who used their SmartPhones to help us find his street, we finally arrived at #6 and I punched in the code and bingo we were in the courtyard, but nothingn looked familiar. In fact I had the sense that I’d never been here before.
Now #16 had looked quite familiar, but the code didn’t work there. And, after several more queries on the street and a phone call from a drunk Frenchman's phone it turned out that I had the wrong address, but, by a strange twist of fate, I had the correct building code. It was like something out of some weird film noir.
When we finally arrived for dinner, an hour late, Jean-Michel laughed. Oh, you know, there was no rush. You could have taken your time.
And so it goes. We missed the start of a film when the gendarme told us to just keep going, then make a left. You can't miss it, he said. Or when we found ourselves hopelessly lost in a subway maze. Oh just go back the way you came, then climb the stairs to the left, not the right. The bank? It is just down there. All these helpful directions left us wandering, bewildered, through charming neighborhoods, down many winding streets.
The next time a person in New York seems lost I will take him by the hand and lead him there myself. If he tries to repay me in some way for my trouble, I will explain that this is my contribution to karma. The next time I am in your country perhaps someone will not listen to my voice but to the pleading in my eyes, perhaps that person will take me by the hand and show me the way so that I do not find myself meandering, lost, hopelessly, down all those winding, not to mention charming little streets.
Or I will send Larry out to do ask the way next time because his French is not that good and perhaps the French will speak slowly and maybe even show him the way.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
It wasn't really my intention to travel light to Paris. That is, not this light. I had packed carefully. My suitcase of clothes and, as always, my backpack containing my journal, books to read, a folder of work to do, medications, chargers, hair brush, make up, assorted drugs and earplugs and what have you for the plane. But when we got to Newark Airport and I looked at the luggage in our car my backpack - the one item I never forget and never travel without, the one thing I consider to be essential not only to my journeys, but to life itself - wasn't in the car.
It seemed impossible. How could this happen? It is true that Larry packed the car. On the other hand I had walked right by my backpack on the way out the door because I wanted to dispose of a rotten avocado. An avocado? And for that all of my best laid plans - really months of planning - was pretty much out the door.
What did we have? Well, Larry had our passports because at the last minute I had given them to him. And he had my laptop which I only use for Internet and my camera. And that was it. I had nothing to read. No journal to write on. No pills that I actually need. Not the Murakami novel I'd intended to read.
I was hysterical. I said I couldn't go. I tried dozens of ways to retrieve my backpack including having a car service try and race it to the airport only to have the car get stuck in the Holland Tunnel.
As the plane took off, I was beside myself. At the airport, at my daughter's suggestion, I had gone into a bookstore and purchase a slim notebook, but not the kind I normally write in or paint in. I had one novel with me in my luggage - also a slim volume of Richard Yates. A backup novel.
I had no sleeping pill or earplugs for the plane, not short stories or ideas to work on, not the children's books I'd intended to work on.
I was for the first two days bereft, miserable, angry, laying blame. And finally resigned that I had to do what I had been avoiding for so many years.
That is, have a vacation. Travel just for the hell of it. Sit and stare into space. Sleep late. Stare at the Seine. Not look as the scraps of old short stories that had been sitting on my desk in lumps like unrising bread.
While it is true that trying to figure out how to get medication that I needed proved arduous, it is also true that wandering around the Belleville neighborhood of France and finding myself on the footsteps of the house where Edith Piaf was born - a more or less serendiptious event - probably wouldn't have happened if I had all my stuff with me.
Neither would a day of wandering along the Seine where Hong Kongese honeymooners posed for photo ops and someone was filming a music video and an old French singer crooned and lovers kissed and I just sat, head tilted back, basking in the sun. I'm not sure I would have gone every night to a different film at the Cinematheque or spent hours just hanging out in a cafe across the street from the apartment we'd rented.
As I watched all my plans disappear with the backpack left at home, a whole other trip evolved. Nothing I'd anticipated or perhaps even wanted, but the truth I found myself less burdened, less weighed down by the freight of my life.
Was I angry? Yes. Did I try and blame my nearest and dearest? I'll plead the fifth. But the truth is in time I let my anger go. I stopped dwelling on what I'd left behind and focused more on what I had with me. I felt lighter, more at ease.
I let it go. What I thought I needed. What I had to have. What I wanted. My expectations. Some notes I couldn't do without. A book I had to read. Lipstick, eyemake up. Some things I purchased. Others I forgot about. I stopped being angry. I started to have a good time.
Unencumbered and, perhaps for the first time in a very long time, I was in truth traveling light.