Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Bird Room

someone else's picture of La Chambre aux Oiseaux

Paris doesn't feel how it looks.

I spent months leading up to the trip looking at Paris on Pinterest and Instagram. You know filters are being used, but what you may not be aware of is that these pictures are also edited. Every time someone takes a picture, something has been left out. What lurks just beyond the frame of all those white-washed photographs you see is the filthiness of the streets, and the madness of them. They are teeming and chaotic. Only by throwing yourself headlong into the fray can you become a part of it and, when the time comes, hold your ground. Don't alter your path for a Parisian. They aren't expecting you to, and it can throw off the rhythm of the entire boulevard. One full stop can cause a fifteen Parisian pileup. Stay on your path, and they will dart around you at the last second. HOLD YOUR GROUND.

On my first morning in Paris, I had just slept twelve hours after enduring the overnight flight. They served us wine by the bottle but it was still tough. The seats were tiny and hard as rock, and I had put my ass much closer to the sweet Spanish young man next to me than I should have, turning on one side, under the guise of being "asleep". I could see Paris outside my windows, the Haussmann boulevards, the racket, the sun. Paris looked the way it looks but it felt overwhelming and vast. I felt ridiculous. Who comes to Paris alone? The night before, I had walked along the Seine and seen lovers upon lovers posing with their favorite child, the selfie stick. I had seen families too. Who comes to Paris without their family? I felt selfish and absurd. There was a definite desire to hide all day, and I had to force myself to leave the apartment. "You did not come to Paris to sit in an apartment," I told myself. I put on my black jacket and Rick Steves into my purse and threw myself overboard. Immediately outside my apartment building, I saw a father buckling his toddler into a bicycle seat. I took comfort in that. Look, Parisians are just people too.

I had nothing to do and nowhere to be. Two weeks seemed like an impossibly long time to be alone in Paris. Endless. That night I would email my husband and beg him to come be with me. But now it was morning, and there was Paris to see. I set out down rue Bichat, headed toward the canal. I passed a few cafes and a lot of Parisians hurried past me, the way they do. The thought of entering any establishment was intimidating, but I needed caffeine and something in my stomach. This infused me with what I call 'the coffee bravery'. I came to the bird-adorned window of La Chambre aux Oiseax. Because it was familiar from my research before the trip, and because there were two people sitting outside, I forced myself to go in.

"Bonjour!" I announced immediately upon entering the room, sunlit and full of empty tables, as I had read was necessary Parisian etiquette. There was one man working there and when I proclaimed my bonjour, he was on all fours in a storage closet with his head beneath a shelf. Perhaps it would have been better to wait for him to emerge before bonjouring him? Leave it to an American to turn etiquette into an assault. Never mind. After a moment he did emerge, and I managed to take a table by the window, in the sun. (Sit anywhere you want is the prevalent routine in Paris, but it took awhile for me to feel comfortable doing it) "Je voudrais le petit dejeuner," I said. Which was a thing on the menu, I promise I wasn't just saying "I would like the breakfast." "Avec un cafe creme." Nailing it. 

I was the only person in La Chambre, and I regretted sitting facing away from the window and into the cafe. I felt like I was staring at my waiter and making him uncomfortable, with his large and serious brown eyes. I felt large and bumbling and gauche. I busied myself taking out my journal and the book I'd brought, but soon enough the room began to fill up with other tables, and the man brought me my French breakfast--good bread and good jam and something hot to drink. I cradled my coffee in my hands and settled my back into the window and the sun. I am doing it. I am sitting in a cafe in Paris. Never mind the Americans to my left and the Germans to my right--are there any French people in Paris? I stayed as long as my nervous energy would let me. This would be the greatest angst I would experience in Paris, and I'd feel it repeatedly. Stay and linger or go and do? Having entire days to yourself alone in a foreign country can unmoor you completely and make you ponder all kinds of questions like who am I really and what do I even like to do and WHERE THE HELL are these people getting those jackets? Eventually I went. Later that day I had a flat white at Craft where another brown-eyed French man spoke two languages to me in gentle tones. I'd wander until I ended up in the Marais and have lunch at Breizh cafe--which means Brittany Cafe in the language of Brittany, which is confusing--a buckwheat crepe stuffed with raw milk gruyere that I didn't enjoy as much as I'd expected to, a glass of dry cider that I did enjoy, a salted butter caramel crepe that was so sweet it made my mouth pucker. That evening was the food tour I blogged about, the fear the Australian couple was being nice to me because they pitied me--alone in Paris! Where I would knock over a glass of wine and swear in French as a joke and nobody but the tour guide would get it, and the tour guide wouldn't think I was all that funny. I'd had such a pleasant morning at La Chambre aux Oiseaux that I knew I would return. But somehow, I never did.

I wandered into a night time craft market where this band was playing.
They sounded just like the band that's playing in that Japanese
night club in Kill Bill, before The Bride takes on the
Crazy 88. One lyric I caught was, "you fucked
my mother with your sister!" which sounds, you know,
like a really raw deal.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pain of Pain au Chocolats

final morning in Paris

This morning I took a chocolate croissant from the Target Starbucks and put it under my broiler in attempt to make the top crispy, the way they are served in Paris, rather than mushy and doughy, the way they are bafflingly served here. Two days before I had gone to my local bakery for their version of a chocolate croissant, which is not quite the pain au chocolat I had in Paris. It was crispy on the outside, but filled with far too much chocolate, and had chocolate drizzled across the top, making it all too rich and too sweet. The pain au chocolats of Paris have a small amount of bittersweet chocolate, so you don't get a major sugar hit in the morning, when they are eaten--but you do get a pleasant hit of sweetness between bread that is first light and crispy, and then collapsing and melt-away, to start out your day.


Returning from Paris is every bit as hard as I knew it would be. But what remains is the fact that I was there. I spent two weeks running around Paris and even though it hurts to know that the city is carrying on without me, all those hurried masses eating pain au chocolats and tarte citrons and warm baguettes even though I am not there--I was there, and I have left my imprint all over it, in tiny pockets: there in the window of La Marine, there beside the espresso machine at Craft, there in that one open green chair at the Luxembourg, so that Paris will not forget about me. It will remember me when I return.

This was breakfast on my last full day in Paris. It was a miserable day. Icy rain was falling, and my umbrella kept blowing inside out from the wind, desperate to be a tulip. I took the metro to Hotel de Ville and from there walked a few wet, freezing blocks to a coffee shop I wanted to try. It was closed inexplicably. Maybe a little bit sorry for myself, I walked aimlessly until I saw this bakery, lit up gold in the gray morning. I went inside and ordered in French. When I was asked if I wanted it "sûr place ou a emporter?" I knew I wanted it sûr place, and when the total was "two four twenty ten" I knew that meant 2.90. Next to me a father and his two children were eating the same pain au chocolats before hurrying off to school. I was sad to be leaving and my toes were numb. But that accidental pastry turned out to be one of the best I had the entire trip. The next morning I would hurry one down in the Starbucks at Charles de Gaulle airport in between Chanel and Longchamps. And even that stupid airport pastry was pretty damn good.

After all, it was still Paris.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Streams of Parisian-ess

Today was intense. I went out looking for the Village St. Paul to buy latte bowls (?) but I couldn't find it. I made my way to St. Germain des Pres. Ultra touristic (in Paris they say touristic, not "touristy"), super chic, classic Paris. You know. The Paris you think about when you think about Paris. I had been warned waiters would be rude to me here. I was looking for the Cafe de Flore--because you have to. They all used to hang there, the Lost Generation. Of course now it's full of tourists but I still had to go. I came to the Deux Magots, which does not mean the Two Maggots. Magots are the Chinese figurines inside. The sun was shining and I wanted to sit in the sun there in front of the cafe. There were no seats so I kept walking. But as I passed, the couple at the front and center table--the point of the triangle--stood up to leave. I wasn't quite sure how to get a seat in these busy cafes. Do you just sit down, do you ask for a table, do you say one word and the waiter starts screaming at you in angry French? A waiter was clearing the table and I walked up behind him. "Excusez-moi, monsieur," I said, and since I don't know the French for this, I pointed to the table and said, "May I?"

"It was waiting for you!" he replied, a kind and friendly smile, and held out an arm for me to sit. "Merci beaucoup, monsieur," I said, feeling like the man had just handed me the world on a plate, and I sat down. And then I was at the front and center table of Le Deux Magots on the Boulevard St. Germain on a spring afternoon. The sun was shining on my face. The whole world was walking by. I paid five euro for an absolutely terrible coffee and I never wanted to leave. Luckily, I didn't really have to. That's the thing about France, at a cafe you can nurse one drink probably all day long if you want and they will never pressure you. They're not working for tips, they don't give a damn how many tables they turn. I wrote in my soft cover Moleskin and read my book, How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti, which by the way is hitting me in my very core, it is my skin and soul set down in paper and ink, Sheila Heti is the voice of my generation done deal. I worked up the courage to ask the older couple next to me to take a picture of me there, and subsequently look THE MOST annoyed anyone has ever been to be sitting in front of the Deux Magots. Having strangers take pictures of you by yourself is very weird and it shows all over my face.

Every time I'm sitting down somewhere I never want to leave. I'm always afraid I'll never find a nice spot to sit down ever again. I forced myself to leave after a while and made my way to the Luxembourg gardens. Another stranger and I awkwardly took solo pictures of one another. No one has ever looked less thrilled to be at the Luxembourg gardens than the two of us. Then I didn't know what the hell to do with myself. Everyone was shopping everywhere and it made me depressed. All the tourist women were so showy and done up and it saddened me. I wished they could just dress normally and not put up these fur jacket and weird hat barriers between themselves and the rest of the world. Why do we have to project our goodness in this way? Why can't we all just be? I was sad about the women and the tourists and all the shopping and I didn't know where to go. I made a beeline for the Seine as the sun was setting but missed the colors. I headed toward Shakespeare & Co because I didn't know what else to do. I wanted to eat but the idea of being alone in a restaurant among all those women in fur coats was too overwhelming. When I got to Shakespeare & Co they were doing a reading, and I remembered I'd planned to go to the reading but had forgotten about it. They let me in even though I was late. A Swedish writer, Cecilia Ekback, was answering questions about her book, Wolf Winter. Because of the madcap architecture in the cramped and endearing ancient building, I could hear her but not see her. When it was over I stood in line to buy her book. Who should appear to ring me up but Sylvia Whitman. I was starstruck. She was very kind. I regretted deeply not bringing a copy of my book, though what would I have done with it? Lamely handed my book to Sylvia Whitman? I lined up to get the book signed by the Swedish writer. She was absolutely lovely. She asked where I was from and I told her, and then, feeling like an idiot, I said, "But my people way back were from Sweden." Her face lit up. "I was going to ask you," she said, and she gestured at her face. "Your face." I was happy to hear this. A Swedish woman had looked at me and identified me as ancestrally Swedish. It helps me understand my long face, my small eyes. It was good to make some sense of the way I look. "I've wondered if my small eyes are Swedish," I said, and she laughed and said, "They might be." I realized how unintentionally offensive I might have been. Then I needed to move aside for the next person in line.

They gave me a glass of wine and I wondered around the bookshop. I wanted to be one of the writers who sleeps on the floor. I wanted Sylvia to invite me to dinner. I wanted to be the writer giving the reading. I felt very, very alone.  I felt like crying. Upstairs was a reading room, the room where to this day the bookstore allows traveling artists and writers to sleep, and notes from people who have done so. I wanted to be a part of all that. It's the closest thing we have to Hemingway and Gertrude, I think. I went back downstairs. Sylvia and the writer were gone. Probably out to dinner, I thought. I didn't know where to have dinner. I had no idea where to put my body. The streets are so loud and overwhelming. I got on the Metro, back toward home. As I left the Metro at my stop, a woman looked at me. In a way people don't do in Paris. She did it again, and again. Finally I smiled a little and said hello. She was about my age, spoke English. French, but her mother has lived in D.C. She wants to move to America or London. "I love Anglophone culture," she said. "And I think the men and women are more equal." I don't know about that. My guard was up but I felt out the situation. It felt good. We are hopefully going to meet for coffee or to see a museum later this week. Suddenly the world was good again. Tiny bits of magic do occur, from time to time they are floating in the air. I walked down the street and bought a pizza. The man was very kind. I walked home holding the pizza box and my book bag and pretended I was living the life of my dreams, a confident and chic woman in Paris.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Delicious

It's almost 11pm here and I am exhausted so forgive my words and lets just jump in here, the Paris by Mouth food tour. C'est bon? We went to a bakery called 134 RdT (I think). The tour guide, Catherine,  explained that every year a baker is voted best baguette and best croissant and that whoever wins goes to the palace (which I am just now like, France still has a monarchy?) and provides all the food for the royals (?) (Kate Middleton?) and all the visiting dignitaries (Padma Lakshmi?). It is an incredible honor and, as Catherine said, "life-changing".  This bakery has won a few awards in the past. The newest winner will be announced March 26th, just a day too late for me to rush over there. Good thing I went here instead.

Catherine explained that when you cut open a croissant, it should be springy--it should bounce back into shape, not stay smooshed, which this one did. It should also be like honey comb inside, airy. They are baked throughout the day because the bakers feel they are only fresh for a few hours. A warm baguette came out as we stood there and we tried it. It was truly unlike any baguette I've had in America. I'm so so tired right now.

Easter goodies in the window at Jacques Genin. That is painted chocolate.  

Next we went to chocalatier Jacques Genin. He is famous here in France. Catherine told us that he grew up in an abusive home and left at age 12. He started working in butcheries (is that a word in English?) and then moved onto restaurants. His family was very poor and now he creates some of the finest chocolates, caramels, and fruite pates in the world, inspired by what he imagined the sweets would taste like when he peered into windows as a child, unable to afford the treats. Hearing that story made me emotional. It made the chocolate taste precious. It was already excellent but somehow that story made it magnifique.

Catherine selected two flavors of caramels for us to try. The first was mango, tart, a little sweet, delcious. The caramels just melted in my mouth, they weren't stick at all. They didn't pull at your teeth. Just melted clean away. The second was a dreamy salted butter caramel. She asked us each which flavor fruit pate we wanted to try and all seven of us separately asked for lychee. She said that's the first time all seven people have asked for the same flavor.  We saved the almond and mint chocolates for last. The mint was like biting into something pulled from a garden. No extracts or syrups here. Fresh and real and whole as can be. Perfection.

Next we went to a spice shop with a "sniffing bar" where all the tiny jars could be opened and scented. Some kind of almond bean thing (guys I am so so tired) that is illegal here in the US because it thins the blood smelled so delicious and I bought some. I also bought some pepper that smelled like grapefruit, a big smacking kiss of grapefruit. Noah will know what to do with it. Don't worry about my blood and the almondy beans, you have to eat it by the handful to thin your blood. The U.S, so uptight sometimes.

Now we come to a place (marche?) off Rue de Bretagne, which you COULD call Rue de Brittany and not be stretching it too much. There are tons of these little places, selling prepared foods for Parisians to take home so they don't have to cook in their tiny kitchens. But they are intimidating to enter as a tourist--it's hard to know which ones are good, prices are confusing and by the kilogram, and it's like, what even IS that thing? That's why I was so happy to take this food tour. The people here were so friendly and I feel I can go back and manage on my own.

Our guide selected a terrine made with guinea fowl, artichokes, and asparagus. Also "duck butter", which is really rillette, which is meat cooked slowly in fat until a paste can be formed (pretty much). 

And next, everyone's favorite, la Fromagerie! Catherine told us to look for this sign that says "Affineur" for a reason that I can't remember. It definitely had to do with quality. This particular fromagerie had caves on site--in the basement I think--and the cheeses were aged there. It was run by a father and daughter. We learned that cheese has seasons--goat cheese, for instance, is not best in winter because the goats have been inside eating hay. Now that spring is here, the goats are outside eating lavender and other good things, and goat cheeses are just starting to become "in season". Also it's a good time for goat cheese because babies are being born, so milk is extra fatty. 

Some cheeses were covered in ash, and then on some of the ash was a thin layer of mold. Beneficial bacteria! I ate it and it was tres delicieux! The cheeses here are also made with raw milk, which is illegal in the U.S. (everything must be pasteurized) and the taste is much stronger and more complex for it. 

Oh mon Dieu! Next we are at a charcuterie operated by a man named Solo. (Probably I spell it wrong). He is so friendly and smiling. He doesn't speak English much but he knows our guide. She tells us that most charcuterie is from male pigs because, in the case of le cochon, pregnancy and childbirth has a negative effect on flavor. BUT! Someone runs a convent for virgin pigs. These virgin pigs, they taste quite lovely. Solo slices us generous portions. After the virgin, we eat a male who has been rubbed with wine and something else. It tastes sweet and salty. The fat melts in your mouth. Oh boy. 

It's kind of dark but that is a hoof. 

After guiding us through a smashing covered market that I could easily have missed on my own, and giving us some pointers on buying our own food from the market later, Catherine leads us to the grand finale, the wine bar! Catherine is from Boston but speaks to the owner in French, and he selects two whites to pair with the cheese, and two reds for the meats. Now I can not usually drink white wine, but these were delicious. Not too sweet, not that weird sort of syrupy alcholy taste I usually get in whites I select at home. I'm sure good whites are available at home, I just don't know them. #notallwines

Pictured above on the left is a Comte, apparently the most popular cheese in France. This one 30 months old. The brie was some special kind--melun!--that's where it's from. So Melun, probably. It was so runny and creamy and wonderful. It was what cheese is in your wildest dreams.

The round is a goat cheese from the Loire valley, 7 days old. It was so good. The round one on the far side is that chevre with ash and mold. Delicious, I tell you! Catherine asked at the fromagerie what was good today, and they were excited to tell her about the middle cheese, Tome de Chevre, one year old. Happy first birthday delicious little cheese.

 On the tour with me were an Australian couple and four gorgeous Brazilians, go figure. The Brazilians didn't speak much English, but the Australian couple was friendly as per their reputation, and the woman took this picture of me. "Thank you," I said. "My mom will be happy." All the food was included in the price of the tour, and even though we started at 3:30, we ate the majority of the food around 6pm, so hello, dinner! It was an absolutely lovely time and I'm so glad I did it.

 Bonne nuit. 
Good night. 

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