Thursday, September 29, 2011

French Visa Redux

Chapter One: make an appointment at the French Embassy in Washington, DC, submit to the paper-laden process and receive our long stay/long séjour visas for France.

Chapter Two: arrive in Paris. As far as we were concerned, this was going to be the end of our visa saga. Our passports appeared totally official with our silver-stamped visas, and even though no border control agents looked at them, we were good to stay for a year, right? Wrong! There’s a second step to this long séjour visa thing that had we read the fine print on our paperwork, we would have understood. As Joe so concisely put it in one of his daily updates he sends our kids:

Our cartes de long séjour (for which we completed multiple forms) require that within days of arriving in France, we submit brand new forms along with copies of the old forms plus copies of copies of said forms in triplicate so that they can all be paired up with the copies of the (almost) same forms we had previously submitted to the French Embassy in Washington in order to get our original visas. Once gathered, this assembly of forms then has to be mailed to some nondescript office of officialdom in Paris to be scrutinized and then filed away until at some indeterminate, and necessarily inconvenient, time in the future we will be summoned without delay for an audience with a Parisian functionary so that s/he can demand that a medical exam be performed by a French doctor to determine that we are healthy enough to stay in France. Excuse me? Might we have contracted TB on our trip across the Atlantic? (If consumption is their concern, they may want to check on the-woman-who-coughs living upstairs.) Unfortunately, when the time for our bloody interview comes up, we’ll likely be in Sicily or Sevilla or Marrakesh and thus our hard-earned visas will be summarily revoked, INTERPOL will have us on their most-wanted list and the current leaders of Al Qaeda will be after our heads.

But even this grim possibility doesn’t deter us from being dutiful citizen expats and going through the motions of completing and filing our papers. So, we head off for the Hôtel Pullman Tour Eiffel, just around the corner and a few blocks from our studio. Like all good travelers, we know that such modern, charmless hotels are good for two things: hailing a cab and providing a business office. So, a few euros later, we have all our required copies in an oversized envelope and we’re off to La Poste to mail our dossier. We cross our fingers as we drop the packet in the yellow boîte aux lettres and continue with our day. We’ve followed the rules, done what we’re supposed to and now it’s up to them to track us down.

We know that cutting through the inevitable red tape (la paperasserie) that precedes getting something from officious French civil servants is infuriating. We wonder, however, how persistent they’ll be about getting what they want from us. How hard will they work to contact us and lasso us in for our “mandatory” visa hearing? We’ll be leaving France in early November, will return for a week in April for the marathon and then won’t be back until June. They can’t deport us if they can’t find us, isn’t that right? In the meantime, we’ll carry on with our trip, not worry about visas and read the financial pages as we selfishly watch as the euro continues to fall.

Financial note: France is still a long way from cheap, but everything costs a bit less as the European debt crisis persists. The euro has gone down .10 points since we arrived such that the one-euro baguette that cost us $1.45 when we arrived three weeks ago is now down to $1.34. It’s anyone’s guess how long this will continue and who knows what will happen if the euro (and Greece) fall off a cliff? Perhaps the French won’t worry about dragging in expats for health inspections if the entire government is focused on bailing out their euro partners.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Merde, Alors!

Paris is a dog’s city. They are everywhere. And not just the little frou-frou, fit-in-a-purse, powder puff variety you’d expect. There are lots of yorkies, dachshunds and papillons, to be sure, but there are also shepherds and labs, boxers and bulldogs, golden retrievers and all kinds of mutts. And the stories you’ve heard are all correct: they are allowed in restaurants and there are doggie droppings everywhere!

Joe and I have been quite diligent about exercising (to work off and not feel too guilty about all the delicious calories we’ve consumed) and even I have started to run. We’ve signed up for the Paris Marathon next April 15 – a heroic or foolish decision, depending on how you look at it. Our itinerary has us somewhere in Greece next April, but with the dirt-cheap intra-Europe fares on Ryanair and easyJet, we should be able to fly back to Paris for the race. It will be Joe’s third and my first marathon, if I manage to make it through the training. I must say that getting motivated to run in Paris is not a particularly difficult thing. As Joe likes to say, “it’s the best manmade landscape in the world.” The Eiffel Tower is in our backyard, so all our runs begin with a circuit of the expansive Champs de Mars park. From there, we can run as far as we want along the Seine, past the Quai Branly, the Pont de l’Alma and then onto and over the ornate Pont Alexandre III with its gilded statues and shiny sculptural details. Next up is the Place de la Concorde, former home base for the guillotine, and then the broad entry to the gorgeous Jardin des Tuileries that leads to the Louvre courtyard.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that Paris and her gardens have never been more beautiful. It is clear that France has spent piles of money to make its crown jewel sparkle: the gardens are manicured perfectly and are bursting with multi-colored flowers, the sand-blasted buildings and bridges are a creamy French vanilla and the work of the Propreté de Paris (the keep-Paris-clean squad whose trucks, barrels, aprons, garbage bags and bins are all kelly green) is evident everywhere. With so much to look at and so much beauty to observe, I can almost forget my sore feet and wheezing lungs. I do my best to avoid pavement and stay on sand or dirt walkways to lessen the shock of every step, but on occasion I find myself on cobblestones – high on charm but terrible for my feet. And at this time of year, the châtaigniers have dropped most of their chestnuts, so running on the garden paths can be a bit dodgy as well as I try to avoid the hard, brown gum balls and a twisted ankle. But these hazards aside, I’m not complaining. The views and the people-watching are priceless.

Yes, Paris can be a runner’s paradise. If only they could keep the merde off the sidewalks.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rear Window

We awaken each day to the morning banter of our next-door neighbors. We have yet to see them, but we clearly hear their conversations coming from their apartment. Our one window and their kitchen window are just a few feet apart on perpendicular walls in the corner of the building’s courtyard. Because the weather has been so lovely, most of the windows, including ours, have remained open all day and through the night. We guess that our neighbors are an older French couple in their 60s and we hear them discussing the weather, their breakfast and plans for the day. It’s not a bad way to start our mornings. At the end of most days, we hear them preparing a late dinner (usually when we are climbing into bed) and discussing the day’s events. It makes me happy to hear them chatting.

The building’s courtyard is small and functional, perhaps 30 feet by 50. Our window is on the ground level of the shorter wall, so we have a good view of what is going on behind most of the apartment windows. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I enjoy trying to figure out the stories of the other tenants. Unfortunately for Joe, there has been no sighting of a “Miss Torso” dancer character or anyone who remotely resembles her. There is a “Mr. Lonelyheart,” however: a 30-something Asian man I often see looking out his window, always alone. While we’ve only had the occasion to say hello to one or two neighbors in the foyer, we’re aware of their activity in the courtyard and the sounds from their windows. There is neither garden nor benches in the courtyard enclosure. It’s simply a functional open area that allows windows to let in a bit of daylight, tenants to put their potted plants in the sun and trashcans to be stored in a gated shed. The space is impeccably clean but the concrete patio doesn’t entice you to go out for some fresh air.

Overall, our studio is very quiet, but we hear the daily comings and goings of our fellow apartment dwellers. There’s the young guy in his twenties who brings out a black plastic garbage bag every afternoon at about 5. There’s the older woman with the tubercular cough who periodically comes down to the garbage shed and whom we often hear hacking through her upper level window. If she’s home, she’s coughing. We’ve heard children speaking American English scurry past our door and up the stairs but we never hear them otherwise. There is one apartment from which the sounds and smells of cooking emanate most evenings; we see the shadows of whoever must be the cook, but we’ve never seen a face. Our noses tell us, however, whether s/he is having bouillabaisse, steak-frites or poulet au curry. On occasion, we hear a heated conversation from a kitty-corner window above. It’s hard to hear the specifics of what they’re debating and even harder to tell if they’re arguing angrily or are simply discussing. The French love to debate almost any subject you can imagine (the weather, the corner boulangerie or the latest political scandal), purely for the pleasure of a lively exchange of ideas. It’s a national trait, which has kept the café culture strong for so many years.

And then on one memorable morning, the sustained female cries of lovemaking emanate from the floor above us and echo through the courtyard. Are they aware that their window is open and that their private pleasure is now communal? Which of our neighbors might they be? We’ll have to observe those we pass in the hallway more closely to fathom this one. Well, this is France, after all, where love is everywhere and is often a community business. The public display of affection is abundant and it’s not just between the pretty young things. Young couples and old, glamorous and bohemian – all share kisses and embraces in public, many of them passionate: on the metro, on street corners, on park benches and in cafes. Ardent romance is for everyone, everywhere. Perhaps it’s because everything, including love, is better in Paris.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lunch in Fragonard’s Chair

“I have very simple tastes – the very best
satisfies me every time.”   Oscar Wilde

We’re having lunch at Le Grand Véfour. A prix-fixe dinner at 282 euros each is out of the question, but we can justify lunch at 96. It will be our only meal of the day, after all, and we’ll simply have to eat bread and cheese for a couple of days – hardly a sacrifice when the bread is a baguette and the cheese is French.

This is our second visit to this monument to French history, art and cuisine in the gilded northwest corner of the Palais Royale. We first had lunch here on our 25th anniversary trip to Paris just over five years ago and promised ourselves we would come back. It was simply one of the best dining experiences we had ever had. Not only was every delectable bite and sip memorable, the grace of the orchestrated service was the perfect combination of professionalism and warmth.

We take the #69 bus which leaves us by the Seine in front of the Louvre and then walk across the museum courtyard, past the I.M. Pei Pyramid. We anticipate the meal ahead as we cross the Rue du Rivoli, pass in front of the Comédie Française and head around into the the Palais Royale. We breeze past the low black and white striped pedestals in the initial courtyard (I’ve never quite liked the effect and pretend I don’t see them). The symmetric columned arcade of the final dénouement in one of our favorite films --- Charade with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Walter Matthau -- is to our right. I have never seen Paris so beautiful. It shimmers, no matter what the light, and today is a glorious, sunny day. The palace gardens are at the end of their summer brilliance but the colors remain intense, giving the flowerbeds the soft effect of a Monet painting. We wander through the gardens until just before 1pm and then head for the distinctive black and gold painted glass entry to Le Grand Véfour.

Our experience begins even before we enter the restaurant. A uniformed gentleman opens the door for us and after passing through the plush burgundy drapery into the foyer, we are greeted by no fewer than three staff, one of whom takes us to our table. There are two small dining rooms, one behind the other and as on our last visit, we are seated in the front room. The gentleman proudly informs us that we are in the favorite seat of the French artist Fragonard (a painter and sculptor who worked with Jacques-Louis David in the first half of the 19th century). For our first meal here, we sat at Napoleon and Josephine’s preferred table – quite a lucky draw for first time diners. Behind the seats of these famous patrons is a small brass plate with each of their names inscribed. We settle in, order two kirs and discreetly survey our fellow diners. We are sitting next to a single French gentleman who we decide is on a business trip to Paris and is treating himself to a fine lunch. The two French businessmen on our other side are sparing no expense. The man in his 40s is paying and he insists that his older companion have the finest of everything on the menu, including a huge piece of lobster tail. No prix fixe menu for them. It appears that they have just closed a deal and a big one it must have been. This lunch is in celebration. Several couples arrive in succession just after we are seated. There are two separate American couples – three of the individuals “of a certain age,” and one gentleman close to 80 sitting across from us. Next to them are two more individual couples, both of them British. An Eastern European man and woman, not quite dressed for the surroundings, are seated diagonally from us.  And that’s as far as our sleuthing has gone. We make our selections from the prix-fixe menu and our lunch officially begins.

We toast to the magic of being together at Le Grand Véfour for a second time and then to our lovely daughter, Caroline, who turns 24 today. Bon anniversaire, Caroline! How we wish that she and her brother, Chris, could be with us. We could then take over the next two places on the upholstered banquette and channel the spirit of its favorite patron, Jean Cocteau. Perhaps it’s the kir, perhaps it’s the sun filtering through the window or perhaps it’s every little thing about this perfect afternoon. I’m suddenly overcome with emotion and the tears spill over. Joe takes my hand and I know I have to recover quickly. The food is starting to arrive. There are four official courses on the prix fixe menu: an appetizer, a main dish, the cheese plate and a dessert. But we know from experience that we will be given multiple additional tidbits, thereby turning lunch into an eight- or nine-course meal. I dab at my tears as the amuse-bouches are placed on our table with quiet ceremony. Each time a course or a little special something is put in front of us, we are told exactly what it is. We are served by no fewer than six gentlemen and despite the fact that they all speak English (albeit with heavy accents), I’ve done my best to continue to speak to them in French. They follow my lead and present their descriptions in French. While Joe is hesitant to use the French he knows, his ear miraculously understands the explanations from waiters when the subject is French food. He has to ask me for clarifications only now and then.

The amuse-bouches, the chef’s complimentary hors d’oeuvres, are a miniature vegetable spring roll bursting with grassy flavors and a demitasse of cold yellow tomato soup dotted with crispy little croutons. A delicious start. I always maintain that you can judge a restaurant by its bread. We’re given the choice of whole wheat or white mini-baguettes and as expected, they are perfect: crisp and crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. Butter is normally not served with your bread in France, and thank God for that. For me, French bread with no butter is delicious but I can muster the willpower to say no; however, when butter is on the table, I’m be a goner – it’s simply irresistible. At Le Grand Véfour, not only is butter served, it arrives in sizable silver crocks in two varieties: salted and unsalted. By the end of our meal, most of both will be gone.

The bottle of Chablis we selected arrives and the waiter proceeds with the graceful ritual of presenting the label, opening the bottle, and then allowing us to taste the wine. Joe gives the nod that the wine is bon and the gentleman puts our bottle on ice, waiting to pour our initial glasses until we finish our kirs. The restaurant staff notices our every move and anticipates our every need, sometimes before we recognize the need ourselves. There’s a hierarchy among the 10 or so staff serving the room, but it is not easily discernable. The forthcoming, diplomatic gentleman who brought us to our table is clearly the maître d’ since he has nothing to do with the food itself and the quiet, sweet man who took our wine order is the sommelier. It’s difficult to determine the exact roles of the others since they fluidly work like clockwork as a team and each has brought something to or taken something away from our table. The highest ranking appear to be those privileged with taking patrons’ orders and presenting the food. Those more junior replenish the silver serving platters with bread, butter and cheese for their seniors to present to diners, and clear away the empty plates. All wear tuxedos; all carry themselves with distinction. One of the busboys is the spitting image of the American actor, Adrian Grenier, and there is one young woman busgirl among the otherwise all-male staff.

We’ve both ordered the foie gras as our appetizer (l’entrée en françis): foie gras de canard et pressé de cuisses de volaille de Bresse aux épices et herbes fraîches, sur un radis “daikon” acidulé et poivre long.

The log of foie gras arrives atop pulled duck mixed with various herbs and spices and pressed into a thin rectangular cube. All sits on a think slice of vinegary radish. We remind ourselves to take our time. We have all afternoon to make this experience last as long as we can. The remarkably creamy texture of the foie gras is nicely juxtaposed to the coarser pressed duck and we savor every bite. A chunk of baguette, a sliver of butter and a slice of foie gras is a heavenly mouthful. Is there a better taste than this in all the world?

Our main dishes (les plats en français) are up next. I decide on the monkfish (lotte cuite meunière, fenouil et tomate légèrement pimentés, jus péquillos.  Joe chooses the veal: onglet de veau poêlé, courgettes et câpres à la coriandre, jus à la badiane.

My fish arrives on a large white dish. The presentation is an edible work of modern art in a palette of bright red, orange and yellow. The chunk of white monkfish is draped with a flaming red pepper coulis, with broad strokes of delicate orange tomato and yellow fennel sauces painting the plate. In separate little bowls are a mix of sautéed mushrooms and two precise, mini-football scoops of mashed potatoes. Joe’s veal looks perfect: three lovely pieces surrounded by a brown sauce flavored with capers, coriander and anise. He also receives his vegetables on the side. All the flavors are subtle and marvelous. We trade bites and “hmmms” and “ahhhs” and try to make our main dishes last as long as possible.

Next up is La Table de Fromages de France. The “cheese waiter” rolls the chariot with two large platters up against our table. The dozens of choices are arranged in descending order of size, from the huge wedges of hard cheese from the Alps down to the little rolls of goat cheese from the Lot. Hearing the waiter describe the selections reminds me of our visit here five years ago. Joe understood our thick-accented server to have said something about “cheap cheese,” and Joe said with a smile, “no cheap cheese for me.” No, replied the waiter with a laugh, articulating as best he could, “these are sheep cheeses.” We each make four selections, knowing this is the polite maximum, although it would have been easy to say, “one of each, s’il vous plaît.” As we savor our cheese course, we comment that the conversation level in the room has risen. After some wine to let down their guard, the two American couples and the two British couples have started separate converdations. The Americans are sharing Parisian experiences and political thoughts and the Brits are discussing the food. We hear the American woman whose companion is quite a bit older than she say, “My husband’s Buddha belly cost us a lot but it’s not worth anything.” Made us laugh. We also observe that the staff has dwindled down to half the original number and the earlier hustle bustle has slowed to a gentle calm. With all patrons having made it through their cheese, only a skeleton staff remains.

We’ve been at our table for over three hours and it’s time for dessert. We first receive two little cups of pureed fruits and a refreshing citrus granita. Our palates are now ready for some sweets. We both order the chocolate and hazelnut option: palet noisette et chocolat au lait, glace au caramel brun et prise de sel Guérande. While milk chocolate is almost always good, and this is indeed delicious, I have another close-my-eyes-and-savor-the-moment experience when I taste the quenelle of salted caramel ice cream. It is simply the best ice cream I have ever had. I am addicted to salt and will almost always choose a savory option over a sweet one. But this frozen delicacy has the best of both: sweet and salty in one delicious mouthful. As we’re enjoying our desserts, the waiter brings us two long, narrow trays of petit fours: mini macaroons, lemon tarts, cream puffs and madeleines. When our Eastern European neighbors are given their petit fours just after us, the woman takes a quick look at the additional sweets and asks the waiter in accented English, “Do you want me to die?” But dessert is not yet over. We are next presented with rectangular grapefruit and strawberry sugared jelly cubes. Once again, I need a superlative. While the fraises are lovely, the grapefruit jellies are the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. I always enjoyed the overly sweet candied half-moon jelly slices my great aunt Didi used to bring us when she visited from Brooklyn in the seventies. But these jellies have no hard candied edges and the combination of grapefruit tartness with the sugary crystals on the surface is perfection. We each let several melt in our mouths. The dining room is now down to a handful of staff, each apparently charged with delivering a new bit of après-dessert with the potential to send diners into hyperglycemic shock. The penultimate offering is a tray of chocolates (we each choose a mint-flavored square), and the final presentation is a variety of nougats. Faithful and courageous ‘til the bittersweet end, we each take a caramel and manage to put them in our mouths. Joe decides to have coffee, the thick, strong French kind, served without milk, to finish his meal properly. I’m happy for the opportunity to just sit and digest, although I am looking forward to a post-lunch stroll around the Palais Royale.

Our second visit to Le Grand Véfour was a delight. Yes, you can indeed go back and yes, it can be as good as the first time. In fact, our second meal was perhaps even better than the first since we were able to anticipate the culinary glories that awaited us and be a little less nervous than the first time around. Some may question the expense of such a luxurious meal, but we know that we paid for not only a temporal pleasure but a cherished memory that we will share together forever.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Things We’re So Happy We Brought

We did our best to think of everything we’d need before we left the U.S., and so far, it seems we were pretty good scouts. There have been no agonizing laments of, “Mon Dieu, I forgot the blinking truc (the very useful French word for whatchamacallit)!” I would expect to have arrived well equipped since we had over a year and a half to compile our list of things we must bring. There are a couple little items for insurance that we could have added to our bags, like an extra plug adapter (the fuse blew on the one we’ve always traveled with after just two days) and an extra pair of reading glasses (mine just broke in two in my overstuffed fanny pack). But so far, I’d give us girl and boy scout “A’s” for being prepared.

Here are just a few not-immediately-apparent things anyone thinking about doing what we’re in the early days of should consider packing:

 office supplies: A 10” x 10” zip-lock bag is the perfect caddy for a traveling office. We’ve already used most of the things in our kit at least once and the only thing we might have added is a couple envelopes. We had to mail our post-arrival visa paperwork to the French authorities and had to go in search of a #10, but more on that in another entry. Post-it notes of varying sizes, push pins, a mini-stapler and extra staples, scotch tape, scissors, paper clips, a glue stick and of course, a variety of pens, pencils and highlighters have all come in handy for helping us stay organized. And thank goodness I brought along the white-out. I wouldn’t want to mar my classy leather-bound gap year calendar with ugly cross-outs when we change our minds about what to do for the day.

 personal cards: We were inspired by the Australian couple we met when hiking the Grand Canyon two summers ago to print and carry personal cards with our picture and contact information. Carol and Bruce Fox, from Australia’s Gold Coast, were traveling in the Americas for almost two months and gave out their cards to friends they made along the way. We decided to follow suit and created calling cards of our own before we left. We included our email addresses and blog site but the phone number posed a problem. We didn’t know our European cell phone number until we received our international SIM card just before we left, too late for inclusion on our cards. I went ahead and listed my U.S. cell phone number even though it won’t reach us while we’re away. I left a voice message on my U.S. number when we were at the airport, directing any callers to my email address. A little messy, but it was the best we could do. An unanticipated benefit to having personal cards that include a color photograph of the two of us is that we have readily available images for any identity cards that call for photos. Our Paris metro passes Navigos (see below) now sport the images from our personal cards. With the use of a pair of scissors and a glue stick from our office supply bag, we quickly had regulation metro pass identity cards -- photos and all.

 a small, travel-sized power strip: These days, we all have at least a half dozen electronic gadgets thirsty for ongoing daily juice. With a power strip in hand, we can plug our international adapter into the foreign country’s wall outlet, attach our power strip and voilà: our cell phone, computer, camera battery, Kindle and any of our other modern conveniences (except our hair dryer!), can work off of just one adapter in one outlet.

 the expectation that you’ll buy a hair dryer once you arrive: Hair dryers are powerful creatures that suck up an amazing amount of electricity. If your daily karma depends on having blown-dry hair, your best bet is to buy a $20 European dryer once you arrive. Otherwise, be prepared to short out the entire electrical system of wherever it is you’re staying. Even if you think you’re prepared with a plug adapter or electrical converter, your beloved Conair 2000 will likely go up in smoke. I bought myself a European travel hair dryer while on a business trip to Frankfurt several years ago. The minor investment in this little appliance has made our overseas trips so much more enjoyable. I may not be a style icon as I wander through Paris in my khakis and Keens, but at least my hair looks good.

 a jacket with a hood: There are times when you just don’t want or think to carry an umbrella. The Paris weather has been fickle so far – changing from sun to rain to clouds to drizzle, and all in the space of an hour – and I’m sure we’ll find this throughout our trip. We packed one large and one compact umbrella, but I’ve been content on many occasions to simply stay dry under my hood.

 a good camera with a versatile, compact lens: On the able advice of our brother-in-law, Frank, we bought a Sony A55 DSLR with an 18-250mm telephoto lens. In a word, it’s been awesome. The camera is perfect for travel as we easily zoom in and out and snap close-up and distant photos with no need to cart around and change cumbersome lenses. The Sony has a panoramic feature that lets us take multiple pictures across a wide subject and then stitches together the frames to form one perfect image. Incroyable.

And now that we’ve been here for a full two weeks, we’re so happy we bought the following soon after we arrived:

 passes Navigos: The Paris metro is simply the best public transport network in the world. Granted, that’s only my opinion and I haven’t traveled to every major metropolis across the globe, but I have been to several. Unless there’s a city that pays people to take advantage of its transportation system, I can’t imagine that any is better than what you find in Paris. It’s safe and efficient and is accessible from virtually every corner across town. The price for a single trip on the metro is 1.7 euros (about $2.38 compared to $2 for the NYC subway). Buy a carnet of 10 tickets and the price drops to 1.25 euros (about $1.75). We each bought a passe Navigo for unlimited metro and bus use for the month of September for 67 euros (62 euros + 5 for the rechargeable plastic card, or about $94). We figured that if we use public transportation a couple times a day (which we have), it would be well worth the fee and bring the per trip cost down to closer to $1. We’ve found that having the pass gives us a psychological edge for exploration since many times we’ve just jumped on a bus to see where it takes us and gotten off at a metro stop because we’ve never been there before.

 a coffee mug: Our studio is equipped with just enough silverware, plates, bowls, and glasses for two, but the coffee cups are simply too small for me. Joe is fine with refilling his espresso-sized demitasse a couple times in the morning, but I need a great big coffee mug to start my day. When we first arrived, I was jumping up after every two gulps to refresh my cup with hot coffee, but I now have a nice big, comforting mug of steaming decaf to go with my all-bran and yogurt in the morning. We all need a few familiar little creature comforts, especially when we’re far from home.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ode to Époisses

The first time I had the wonderful, runny époisses cheese was two years ago in a small country restaurant just outside Amboise in the Loire Valley. The Auberge de la Croix Blanche in Veuves was not far from the gîte we rented with Chris and Caroline for a week two summers ago. At the end of our dinner at the auberge, which happened to be our last on that particular trip to France, the waitress brought out the always-welcome cheese platter. We each made our selections and mine included what the server called, “époisses.” As advised, I saved the époisses for last, enjoying the milder goat and sheep cheeses first. There are few initial tastes that have startled my palate such that my eyes close and I am left yearning for more, but this cheese was one of them. I immediately requested details because I knew that I must have époisses again. And again. And again. I asked the waitress to repeat the name of the cheese several times, as well as spell it, to make sure I could remember the source of this newfound taste sensation. Époisses is indeed a “smelly” cheese, in only the best sense of the word, that runs on your plate, begs to be eaten on crusty bread and whose distinctive flavor and creamy richness stay on your tongue for a long time. A soft cow’s milk cheese, it has its own regulated appellation (Appellation d’Origine Protegée), much like the government-controlled labels for wine (AOC). One of 43 French cheeses with the AOP designation (out of about 400 total), it was originally made by Cistercians monks (who else?) in the small town of Époisses in Burgundy.

A few days ago, Joe and I walked down the boutique-rich rue St. Louis en L’Île, enjoying some lèche-vitrine (licking the windows, the French expression for window shopping). One of the themes running through the photos Joe has taken on our trip so far is the gorgeous food displays in shop windows along the streets of Paris. The pictures he took on the main, but narrow, artery running the length of the Île St. Louis, an island in the Seine in the center of Paris, included one of a cheese shop, La Ferme Saint-Aubin. We stepped into this cremerie after “licking the windows” for several minutes and lo and behold, there was a beautiful round of époisses just waiting for me. I’m sure the shopkeeper was perplexed as to why this particular balsa wood cheese box elicited my audible gasp of pleasure, but seeing it did almost bring me to tears. I had only found époisses once in the U.S. at a gourmet market at Christmastime and to find it again during our early days in Paris was a gastronomic surprise. We proceeded to buy $35 worth of cheese and sausage, including the wheel of my beloved époisse, paying a premium, I’m sure, for making the purchase at the fashionable Île St. Louis shop. We let the cheese sit on our kitchen counter at room temperature for two days, allowing it to ripen and become perfect to eat. Along with some sweet butter, a fresh baguette, paper-thin slices of salami and a bottle of Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, our époisses was the centerpiece of a perfect meal.

Friday, September 16, 2011

In Search of Writers

Yesterday was a glorious, sunny, literary day. Paris of the 1920s fascinates me and we did our best to pretend we were there with the prohibition-refugee ex-pat writers, artists and composers. We wandered for hours and visited Hemingway’s haunts in Montparnasse – Le Select, La Coupole and Le Dôme cafes -- and stopped at 10 rue Delambre, around the corner from Le Dôme, where he first met F. Scott Fitzgerald. Previously The Dingo Bar (a play on the word dingue, French for crazy), number 10 is now an Italian restaurant, L’Auberge de Venise. We had lunch at another of Hemingway’s favorite cafes on the corner of the Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail, La Rotonde. The red velvet-upholstered place was packed, our goat cheese and niçoise salads were delicious, and we heard not a word of English. A perfect lunch in Paris.

We recently had two very different dining experiences, one right after the other, with Americans who are here for long stays sitting next to us. The first was with a couple in their 60s from Reno, Nevada who have been coming for to Paris for several years at the end of every summer for six weeks. The second was with a couple in their fifties from unknown parts (although her accent gave her away as coming from the deep south). He teaches something somewhere in Paris and she was stating indignantly that she “could not take another year over here – one year was enough.” Everyone has a story. Some of their details they shared with us and other bits we overheard. What absolutely amazed me, however, in fact made me wince, was that none of these four Americans even attempted to speak French to the waiters. I totally understand not knowing a language (just wait ‘til we get to Greece!) but all of these people had spent significant time in France.  Would it have been so difficult to read off the menu and say, “la salade” and ”le poulet” instead of “the salad” and “the chicken?” Could the guy who’s been teaching here a year at least have learned to say, “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” instead of “the bill, please?” I’m a bit more sympathetic towards tourists here for a brief visit, but six weeks every year and a full twelve months? There’s just no excuse.

After our lunch with Ernest, we headed down the Boulevard Montparnasse past the lovely lilac and wisteria covered La Closeries de Lilas,(another favorite hang-out of Hemingway, Picasso and other notables and at which we had a nice dinner a couple trips to Paris ago). We made our way down to the Boulevard St. Germain with a leisurely stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens. I’ve always loved the beautiful flowers in this park, more English than French in their natural style. Exploring Paris is the never-ending peeling of an onion with something new to discover with each layer. We’ve walked through these gardens on dozens of occasions over the years but for the first time we came upon the Medici Fountain in a green grotto just to the east of the palace. In the cool shade of a canopy of trees, the surprising Italianate fountain and its long, narrow pool has a completely different feel from that of the rest of the park. We then walked through the Place de L’Odéon, admired the recently sandblasted stone of the Odéon Theater, and crossed the Boulevard St. German to the narrow streets of the neighborhood between the Boulevard and the Seine. We made our way to the understated elegance of the difficult-to-find Place Furstenberg, suggested by some writers as a “lovely place for a kiss.” We happily followed their recommendation and then enjoyed the quiet of the small, paulownia-shaded square in the middle of the otherwise bustling quartier. Next up was a walk along the narrow rue Jacob and rue de Seine to see the former residences of Colette and George Sand. I had little difficulty imagining them writing in the 19th and early 20th centuries ago behind the ashen walls and white shutters of the ancient buildings.

We returned home after a peripatetic day to take care of some mundane chores. Our first experiment with the washer/dryer combo had its problems. My sister Peggy, who lived in London for many years with her family, always bemoaned the unforgiving nature of these appliances. A complete cycle takes about 4 hours, makes as much noise as if there were soup cans in the drum, and leaves permanent wrinkles if clothes aren’t removed the very second the drying is complete. The water heats to the point of boiling and destroys the personality of any fabric it touches. My crisp, pink and white striped Victoria’s Secret pajamas are now dingy shades of rose and gray more fitting as prison garb in Papillon than for evenings in Paris.

From Ernest Hemingway to Colette to Henri Charrière, and all in the space of one day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Let the Pictures Begin...

Here is the Shutterfly site with our first album of pictures:

Our Paris Apartment

All is magnifique here in Paris, although the weather's been a bit gloomy with only one truly sunny day. But we have absolutely no complaints. We love our cozy little pied à terre on the rue de Suffren, as well as our new neighborhood. Yes, I'm in francophone heaven. We moved in on Saturday, September 10 and will be here until we rent a car and head for the southwest of France on Monday, October 10. The apartment is terrific: small but so sweet, and the location is awesome. It’s a one-room studio (5 meters x 5 meters) with a larger-than-expected bathroom. Next to the entry door, which opens right into the apartment with no foyer, is about 2.5 meters of kitchen space with a small fridge, microwave/grill oven, a sink, a two-burner stove and several cabinets. The studio is a marvel of efficient design in terms of the storage space it provides. We managed to unpack and put away all our belonging quite easily. There is a built-in floor-to-ceiling closet with just enough of a bar for hanging items and adequate shelving for the rest of our clothes. The plastic bag system has been a godsend and helps keep our clothes compact and organized. When we had looked at dozens of possible rentals online, we found that most were decorated in either stark white, black and chrome, or a jarring kaleidoscope of primary colors. Part of why we chose this apartment was the lovely, soothing decor; its muted browns, beiges and whites leave us feeling calm and welcomed. The neighborhood is quiet, on the western, non-touristy side of the Tour Eiffel, but there is plenty of residential activity with boulangeries, cafés, super-marchés and the métro close by. Right around the corner is the Champs de Mars, the vast public garden between the Tour Eiffel and the Ecole Militaire. No, we have no panorama over the rooftops of Paris, but the convenience of being on the rez-de-chaussée (the ground floor) and the fact that the Tour Eiffel is in our back yard outweighs the missing views.

Since we moved in, we’re continually pinching ourselves and asking, “Are we really here for a full month?” If this were a “normal” vacation visit, we would be packing up to head home already since we arrived a week ago today. Seven nights in a row is the longest we’ve ever stayed in Paris but this time we still have four more weeks to go. And we have plenty of ideas for filling those 28 days. Little things are helping us believe that we're true residents of Paris. I received an email from Paris Groupon yesterday, inviting me to join, we got our loyalty discount card for Monoprix (the French version of Safeway) on our last visit and we’ve started running/power-walking every day.

It’s been wonderful not having to rush to fit in all we want to see and do (most of which boils down to where we want to eat). I believe I’ve already mentioned that our general approach to traveling is “eating purposefully and wandering aimlessly,” and so far, this attitude continues to serve us well. We spend much of our days researching where to eat, traveling to the places we've chosen to eat, eating and then discussing what we ate. We’ve become masters of this simple agenda. The other habit we’ve apparently embraced is getting a late start to the day. I’m typically an early morning person but I can’t seem to get myself out from under the cozy, white duvet at my usual 6:30 or 7am. Other than getting out in the late morning to run, we’ve been lucky to be up and out the door by noon. Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so critical about the late starts since our mornings in the studio have included catching up on emails, reading the news, doing our wash (our bathroom is equipped with one of those compact European washer/dryer combo machines), and eating breakfast. A quick note on the first meal of the day: I’m in petit dejeuner heaven! Anyone who has spent the morning with me in the past 20 years, knows that my breakfast of choice is a coffee yogurt mixed with Kellogg’s All-Bran. On previous trips, we’ve always stayed in a hotel and were on vacation, after all, so I never even considered having my regular breakfast instead of a buttery croissant. But we now have our cute little kitchen and can make our own meals when we choose. I was almost in tears when we found the cereal section stocked with All-Bran and the French version of coffee yogurt at the Monoprix. My treasured morning staples have added a touch of the familiar to my day but there’s room for modification. I’m sending Joe out for croissants tomorrow morning.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Arrival Logistics

The pressure is off. I’ve written and posted my initial entry from Paris and now that it’s done, I find it’s so much easier to write more. The details of our arrival might be interesting to some, so I’ll go ahead and relate a few logistical specifics.

We had never before flown Icelandair to Europe, but their prices were significantly cheaper than those of other carriers for our itinerary – perhaps because they have low one-way fares ($468 each, Dulles to Charles de Gaulle via Reykjavik). Two of our four pieces of checked luggage (the two large rolling duffels) were about 20 pounds each over the 50-pound limit, so we had $170 in excess baggage weight fees. We were expecting to pay about this much, so the charges weren't as painful as they might have been had we been caught unaware. Even if we add the $85 each to our fares, they're still cheaper than those of all other airlines. We had been warned that Icelandair was rather authoritarian about allowing only one piece of small carry-on luggage, but thank goodness, this wasn’t the case for our flight. We each boarded with a sizeable backpack, stuffed to the gills, as well as an oversized golf umbrella and a large fanny pack. We made it onto the plane with all our gear intact. The first big hurdle had been crossed.

Our flight was unlike any other we’d ever taken to Europe. First, the aircraft was a Boeing 757, a narrow-body jet with a three seat by three seat with one aisle down the middle configuration. Every other time I’ve flown overseas, it’s been in a wide-body 747 or similar jumbo jet, with two- by five- by two-seats. When Joe and I have traveled together, such planes are perfect, since we get a set of two seats together and don't have to worry about anyone else. We were lucky on this trip and the third seat in our row remained empty for both legs of the flight; in fact, the entire plane was only about three-quarters full. There is a lot of hustle bustle associated with most international flights as wine and dinner and then more drinks are served. And before you know it, the lights go on and it’s time for coffee and breakfast. On our 8:40pm Icelandic flight, soft drinks were offered and there was food available for purchase, but there were very few takers. We had eaten a very late lunch near the airport with Caroline and her boyfriend, Andrew, so we had no need for dinner on the plane. The significantly lower level of flight attendant activity allowed us to sleep fairly easily for a few hours on the 5-1/2 hour leg to Iceland. We sailed through passport control in Reykjavik, no questions asked, had just enough time to explore the terminal a bit, and then re-boarded the same airplane for the relatively brief 2-1/2 hour flight to Paris.

Charles de Gaulle
For the first time since I’d flown into this same airport as a student 33 years ago, we arrived at the original CDG Terminal 1. While not completely refreshed, we were in pretty good shape as we were ushered onto the moving walkway of the inclined clear plastic tubes in the center of the terminal. Unlike my arrival in 1978 when I was sincerely and naively amazed to hear French spoken all around me, I savored being surrounded by the sounds of this beautiful language. Our many pounds of bags arrived with little delay and we dutifully looked for the customs and passport windows. We were actually looking forward to answering, when asked by passport control, “we’ll both be here for a year.” But before we knew it, we were whisked outside onto the sidewalk and joined the taxi queue, no passport check needed! The cursory glance at our documents taken by the official in Reykjavik got us into Europe for a year. Once outside in the fresh French air, we looked at each other in amazement. Why, after all, had we gone through all we did to get our long-stay/long séjour visas? We felt as if we’d pulled all-nighters studying for an exam that never happened! We had truly looked forward to proudly flashing our visas that would grant us a year's stay in Europe. Could we have skipped all the hassle and simply walked on into France with no documentation? Apparently, yes!

Our flight arrived at about 1pm and after getting a taxi with a down-to-earth driver not just willing but eager to help with our two-ton bags (why is it they say the French are rude?), we reached the hotel at just after 2. On all previous trips to France, we arrived in the city center in the early morning and had to spend hours wandering the streets or nursing coffee in a cafe in a sleep-deprived fog until our room was ready. This time, our room was waiting for us and our luggage and within an hour, we were fast asleep.

I have to mention that I believe Joe slept particularly well on arrival day because the three of us (he, I and our bags) had made it to Paris and into our hotel room with little difficulty. Because his strength (and certainly not mine) is needed to move our luggage in any fashion other than rolling, he feels primarily responsible for the transportation of our “stuff.” His fears about the transition from home to France came down to these basic issues:  Will the luggage fit in Caroline’s car for the drive to Dulles? Will we be able to roll it to the check-in counter with the muscle-power of just the two of us? Will the airline allow us to bring such heavy bags on board? Will the luggage make it safely across the ocean, seeing that it’s so heavy? Will we find a taxi into which the bags will fit? Will there be space in our hotel room for all our bags? Thank goodness for Joe's concerns and my sanity the answer to all the above was a resounding yes. But despite my assurance that our bags will get lighter as we move along (we have promised each other not to buy anything new; as we read the few printed books we brought along, we’ll leave them behind for other readers; and, as we make our way to each new destination, we’ll no longer need the travel literature for the previous location), Joe still fears that our rental car won't be large enough and that now that we've unpacked, we won't be able to fit everything back into our bags. Is there a name for the fear of unmanageable luggage?

All in all, our arrival in Paris has been a success fantastique and our Icelandair flight a major contributing factor. While I find flying west over the Atlantic a breeze, flying east through the night is always difficult. But this time it was less uncomfortable than usual – a fitting start to our year.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Our Arrival

How do I begin an essay on a dream come true? It has been challenging to write this first blog entry since landing in Paris because I just can’t decide how to start. I’ve had so many thoughts and felt so many feelings in these first few days and while I know that many will make their way into my entries, I want my first musings to reflect how we felt on arriving in this beautiful city. Paris was under gray skies on the morning of September 7 as our taxi made its way towards our hotel (Hôtel Caron de Beaumarchais) in the Marais. Rather than jump up and down, shout “Bonjour, Paris!” and do a happy dance, we glided into the city of light and made a gentle entry into our gap year. We exchanged frequent smiles (in fact, we couldn’t stop grinning), continually asked each other, “are we really, actually here?” and gripped each other’s hands whenever not dealing with our substantial luggage. Our Paris arrival was comfortable and familiar. Perhaps when we reach cities that are new to us – like Granada, Sorrento and Berlin – the reality of our year abroad will feel more incredible. But for now, being in Paris for a month is quietly exciting, and as always, magical. It feels like home; it simply feels right.

We spent the first three nights in a hotel to catch up on sleep. This part of the plan worked beautifully since it allowed us to take the time we needed to deal with jet lag. On past visits, we’ve never really given ourselves an adequate number of days to get acclimated to the new time zone, knowing that our time here was limited. This time, however, we feel no rush at all with a full month in Paris ahead of us. We slept past or close to noon on a couple days (on a fait la grasse matinée, as the French say), took leisurely walks to research places for dinner and gave ourselves the time we needed to settle in. There were international phones and all our other electronics to figure out and we’ve made great strides. Posting our pictures to our Shutterfly website is still a work in progress, but we’re getting close. We’ve moved into our lovely but little apartment at 49 Avenue de Suffren, right around the corner from the Eiffel Tower in the 7th arrondissement, and after a full afternoon of unpacking and organizing, we were ready for food shopping and exploring our new neighborhood.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Almost There

September 4

My nerves have made their appearance. I’ve kept them at bay for as long as I could, but with two days until departure, they’ve finally arrived. I’ve so often written that terror would not be part of this journey and so far I’ve been right. However, I never said – and certainly never imagined – that anxiety would leave me alone completely. And I don’t have to dig very deep to figure out where these last minute jitters are coming from. This morning I was paralyzed as I tried to actually start putting my carefully packed zip-lock bags into my duffle. I just couldn’t do it. Some people function well under stress; in fact, one of my brothers says it’s the only time he gets anything done. I, on the other hand, pretty much break down and my brain goes blank when time is tight and a deadline looms. And so today, with all the final steps of packing to be done, I couldn’t get myself to proceed. The thought of at long last filling my bags with all I had so painstakingly and lovingly gathered over the past year and possibly forgetting something critical – like phone numbers or bank account passwords or my leather date book – left me frozen, unable to move. I should probably be nervous about the things most people fear when going abroad, like pickpockets, lost luggage, or being cheated, attacked or swindled, but these possibilities rarely concern me. I could probably use a healthy dose of fear about such things now and then, but my last minute nerves are internally generated. They come from not wanting to disappoint Joe or myself in terms of having packed perfectly and being perfectly prepared with respect to the things I’m responsible for. Yes, I do have an annoying problem with perfection... (Joe’s in charge of electronics – our chargers, phones, electrical converters and all other gadgets with a plug – so none of that concerns me.) I’ve been getting ready for this trip for years now, and the tangible results of all my meticulous planning – books, maps, articles, documents, clothes, hiking boots and toiletries – are strewn across the bedroom. It’s all coming down to these final steps of putting what I’ve collected for our year in my luggage and the pressure is just too great. I don’t want something that goes wrong to be the result of my forgetfulness, carelessness or lack of foresight. Not all will go as planned, I’m sure, but I just don’t want the blunders to be my fault! Reminding myself that I still had two days ahead of me to go over my mental and physical checklists and to pack and repack as needed – we weren’t leaving in a matter of hours, after all – brought me back to reality and into action and the task of filling (stuffing) my bags was accomplished. I now have one duffle, one overnight bag, a backpack and a fanny pack, each filled to bursting and ready to go. The trick will now be remembering in which bag I put what and where I stored the bank account passwords...

September 5

No More Keys
We sold our car today on Craig’s List and with the sale, we said goodbye to our last key. As our departure day has approached, we’ve had fewer and fewer keys and as we've relinquished each one, the more free I feel. The first to go was the key to our second car last spring, then the keys to our home in June, next the key to Caroline’s apartment last week and finally, the key to our 1999 Chrysler. Homeless, carless, carefree. It feels good. We have no more keys and it's time to go.