ON RUE TATIN
SUSAN HERRMANN LOOMIS
Musings about Life in France
I’ve lived in France a long time, mostly so busy that I tucked my observations and thoughts in the back of my head, or jotted something down in one of the hundreds of slim notebooks that serve as my constant companions. Of course I wrote On Rue Tatin too, which is the real introduction to this life in France. If you haven’t yet read it and you are here, I think you’d like it. It was a true pleasure to live and to write!
Many years have passed. Fiona, a baby at the time, is about to turn twenty. Joe is a full-fledged member of the U.S. workforce. I’m dividing my time between my lovely home in Normandy, and Paris, the city of my heart.
It’s easy to muse on a French life when you’re not living it. I’m in Los Angeles for a cooking class and a variety of book signings. I love trips like this; I’m in my home country, easy and familiar with systems, signs, and stoplights. But there is something strange about it too. I’ve become so accustomed to France and the French life. I wonder if I’ve become French.
I don’t think so. When I first arrived in France in 1981, everything was bright as a new penny. I lived in a cloud of misunderstanding at first, while all that gorgeous language I’d studied for so many years swirled around me but refused to enter. When it finally did, the penny became shinier, more valuable, more accessible.
Fast forward. I’ve been in France for nearly thirty years, something I would never have predicted. But we all know time does so much to lead us on our way. One thing leads to another, one dream becomes another, and pretty soon, the kids are gone to college!
This sounds like the musings of an old person. I’m not old. But I’ve lived a lot. We all do, we all have. I want to write about some of that life here, and you’ll let me know if it interests you or not.
I bought a house in a lively country town about an hour from Paris – you know it, On Rue Tatin. Louviers is a town like many others yet it isn’t. It’s fully country – you’ll find men at the bar early, sipping a coffee and a small shot of Calvados. But not too many of them because Louviers is just an hour from Paris, so the rusticity of country life hasn’t stayed as fully as it has in, say, Le Neubourg, my favorite market town 20 minutes deeper into the countryside. There, people’s cheeks are more ruddy, hands are bigger, the dirt under the fingernails harder to clean away. Because Le Neubourg is truly country.
I have developed a solid group of friends in Louviers, oddly enough centered around a wine tasting group. It includes a doctor, a farmer, several engineers both male and female, a teacher, a retired chef, a retired accountant, and an independently wealthy landowner. There are others who come in and out – a cheese importer, an international business development director who specializes in African affairs, a fine artist, an entrepreneur who made a million with a good idea, an IT specialist. It’s reflective of the rural nature of the area in that we have a farmer among us, but he’s not the ordinary country farmer. He grew up in the country and became a farmer to save his uncle’s land. He is trained as a civil engineer.
In any case, this group has become the cast of characters in my French life. Most of them can understand English but when they hear me speak it – with my children or my fluent friends – they shy away. My jokes? Forget it. It’s a rare person, fluent or not, who laughs. I’ve gotten used to that, and have some American friends who save my day, because they not only laugh at my jokes, they make their own and I can laugh with them. Humor is hard to translate from one culture to another.
One of my favorite friends is a doctor with three young boys. She is passionate about her work as a country doctor – she still makes house calls even though this is hardly the norm. But she believes that her patients need her time. So she runs herself ragged because she schedules a million people a day then gets caught in their stories and heartaches, wishes and desires. She’s from Brittany where people have the reputation of being kind, warm-hearted, hard headed and hard partying. She fits all those categories.
My house is on her butcher route What this means is that Wednesdays, one of her days off scheduled so she can spend it with her boys (which means ferrying them around like any mom with kids and a day off), inludes a walk to my next door neighbor, the butcher. More often than not it includes a knock on my front door for a coffee. She could get a coffee across the street at the café, but it’s more fun to spend a half an hour catching up. I have a wonderful espresso machine (no pods so I choose my own coffee), and I always have cookies. (I used to think I made them for the kids, but I actually make them for myself!) We sit iat the kitchen island sipping and nibbling while her youngest runs outside in the garden playing with Coco, our cat. Nathalie has a headful of frizzy hair that sticks out wildly if she doesn’t corral it. She has freckles and blue eyes, so she could be my younger sister. And that’s our relationship. I listen to her woes and her delights, I share what I can, we laugh, I give her advice which she never listens to.
One of the things I love about Nathalie is that she loves every taste she has at my house. My ginger cookies? She’ll eat four and ask for the recipe. They have molasses in them – not a very French flavor, but Nathalie was born with the wind blowing through her mind, so it’s clear and open, ready to try anything. And she loves food. And she loves wine. And she married a man who loves to cook. She always stays longer than she has time for so when she looks at the clock, she panics, grabs her son, takes a handful of cookies and starts to fly. I keep my clock set ten minutes ahead of real time – someday I will talk about that – but when I remind Nathalie it’s as though I’ve given her reprieve from prison. She laughs, she calms, she gathers her things including the meat she just got at the butcher which might as easily be ground beef as it could be pork cheeks, calls her son and off they go. The rest of her day? Cooking, cleaning, ferrying, eating those cookies which she’ll never make, because she knows she can always stop by and get one.
To be continued….
Since living in France, Thanksgiving has taken on an extra importance for me. I think it is because I live a French life among French friends, and as such feel like an ambassador for the best of the United States. Thanksgiving is my chance to celebrate my traditions and share them with those around me.
It took me a few years to get my Thanksgiving ritual organized, for it is almost impossible to get a whole turkey here in November. They’re all still being fattened in the barn because the French only eat roast whole turkey for Christmas.
I did finally find a farmer who could sell me a big, fat turkey in November, if I ordered one in time. Each year I order an 8 kilo turkey (16 pounds), but somehow the farmer can’t get mine to stop growing, and I’ve never gotten home with one that weighed less than 10 kilos (about 20 pounds). That’s an impressive bird, by anyone’s standards.
I love going to the market to get it. I stand in line, and when it’s my turn the young woman who sells me the turkey looks up and breaks into a big smile. I don’t’ have to say anything. She stops what she’s doing and opens the cooler. There is my bird. She hefts it out and the other customers in line are riveted. By the bird, by her, by me. I can see the chips falling – Thanksgiving is all over the French radio and they realize I’m getting the turkey for this event. They watch with curiosity and I wish I could invite them all to join us. They’d be amazed to see that an American can actually produce a delicious tasty meal, and they’d love seeing the golden roasted bird some out of the oven. I know it would do much for foreign relations.
By the time I wrangle the turkey into my market basket, the whole group of clients is somehow involved in the whole transaction. They see the young woman carefully trim the bird, they watch as she includes two chicken carcasses in the package because she knows I’m going to use them for stock. And this year, she asks if I want extra giblets. I do, so she adds a big handful of gizzards, and one of livers. The stuffing will be extra good, thanks to her!
I start the meal the day before, like we all do. I toast the croutons for the stuffing; peel the potatoes, and the chestnuts if I’ve got them. I trim the Brussels sprouts, slice the onions and the mushrooms, measure out the ingredients for the pastry, make sure I have all the butter, milk, eggs and cream I’ll need. The kids and I set the table, though Fiona is in charge of decorating it, and we make sure all the candles are ready to be lit, because our Thanksgiving meal happens at dinner time. There would be no sense doing it in the afternoon – the French wouldn’t eat a meal in the afternoon, and there is no football game to watch afterwards.
Guests bring the wine and the champagne, as part of the ritual. The appetizers are set out in the kitchen, where a fire burns in the woodstove and the wall sconces hold burning candles. The turkey is already roasted and resting on the cutting board, and everything is keeping warm in the oven while we open champagne. We toast each other, then I clink my glass, because I have a performance planned. I do the same one every year, for new people, but even faithful friends who’ve celebrated with me for years stop to listen.
My performance is simple. I explain Thankgiving, mention the significance of each dish, then I read a short passage from a children’s book about Squanto and the pilgrims. Each time, I get a catch in my throat and when I look up, I see I’m not alone. This story, and this meal, speaks to the best in us and it leaves no one unmoved. I finish the story, and we all toast again, to Thanksgiving, to the turkey, to the simple values that brought cultures together over a significant meal.
And then we fill our plates and sit at the table and while away the evening. I love the spirit around the table, the one that makes my eyes, and the eyes of everyone who is enjoying this moment with me, shine. And I like to think that we carry just a bit of this spirit with us into the coming year.
Life, no matter where you live, is always full of surprises, positive and less positive. Let me tell you about two recent ones.
As most of you know, France is undergoing a revolution, one longed for by many. No one wants violence or destruction; almost everyone wants change, and feet-on-the street can make that happen. So, as the “gilets jaunes” ( the actual translation is “yellow vests” but yellow jackets sounds better) demonstrate, the government is figuring out how to address the issues, which include unemployment (more than 20% in some regions), the wealthy-poor divide, the concentration of power in Paris which has dogged France at least since Napoleon decided not to put his government in Lyon, the price hike on diesel (the drip that made the glass overflow), and more. If you listen to the “gilets jaunes”(yellow vests) who have mobilized the revolution and represent the working class, retirees, and people living outside major cities, many of their complaints are justified. If you listen to the government, many of their plans are sound.
I was walking to the train station last Saturday after getting ejected along with hundreds from the metro because of a “manifestation” by the “gilets jaunes”. I didn’t mind walking but I would miss my train unless it was late, a frequent occurrence late trains being one of the issues fueling the manifestation). I hurried across les Tuileries, only to find major exits barred by the CRS (national police) in their ominous-but-chic uniforms and helmets, their Plexiglas shields. I found an exit and continued. As I approached la Madeleine I heard huge noises which came from protestors stomping on fallen barricades. I turned a corner to find myself in a war zone. Tear gas, a stranded van from the fire department being assaulted with the petrified driver inside. (He finally drove away). Fireworks were being thrown, people were yelling and climbing on barricades and the street lights that hadn’t been ripped out and thrown down, bus stops and shop windows were shattered, glass was everywhere. The CRS, who cannot attack unless there is mortal danger or until someone touches their shields, were alert, solidary, at the ready. I kept walking, following a man who was on the phone telling someone he was trying to get to the train station. I figured two was better than one, but soon lost him in the chaos of the crowds, cars, bicycles. A friend called and I told him what was happening. He said, sanguine, “Ah yes. Just keep walking. This is a Paris demonstration.” I got to the station, my train long gone. No matter. There was another. But I was shaking. I’ve lived a sheltered life and being in crowds that are almost out of control is horrifying.
Positive surprise? I got hit this week with “la grippe,” the flu that is rampaging through Paris. It’s like having an elephant or an eight-wheeler sit on you. My neighbor and close friend called to invite me to a movie and I croaked that I couldn’t go. Not long after, I heard a rap on the door and said, “Come in,” which he did. In his hands? Homemade soup, baguette, and a bag of clementines.
So, the moral to this story? No moral, just the observation that life is full of surprises.
We’ve all been affected by the “gilets jaunes” movement, if only by seeing windows boarded up on the streets of Paris or listening to speeches by the far left and the far right, denouncing everything the government does. Now we’re also hearing about interference by Russia in the movement…it seems so much of the world is suspicious of the same things. Is this the global world we’re talking about?
To actually live in France and experience this is both unsettling and extremely thought provoking. France has been moribund, economically, for decades. I have a friend in politics who was talking fifteen years ago about the bankruptcy of the country. No one addressed it. Today, Emmanuel Macron is not only addressing the situation, but trying to rectify it. He’s moved quickly, in large ways. But not quickly enough in small ways, and his speech Tuesday was a humble attempt to affect that. To make the changes he proposed – more money in the pockets of those who need it – he has asked Europe to accept that France take on more debt. Europe acquiesced, which is good for the French, short term. Long term it removes some of France’s power and prestige in the European community. We all hope things will right themselves quickly, and that France can reassume its authority and stature.
I’m watching a ballet in the sky out my Parisian window. Little fluffs of early morning pink clouds punctuate the sky as the yellow morning turns to a soft orange with the emergence of the sun. Contrails – travelers coming and going – seem to just miss each other as they emerge and slowly disappear. Closer to home a roof garden is being created, and a huge crew is out there unloading bags of soil (who, I wonder, carried them up the stairs?). A table and six chairs have been set out, and everything seems to be in preparation for what I assume will be early spring planting. I’ll have to wait, and I cannot wait, to see the result.
I live in Paris more than half time now, and each time I enter this urban haven I am filled with delight and pleasure. I lived here when I first came to France, for four years, and the city is as much a part of me as my heart. How wonderful it feels to walk the streets I know so well, discover all the new things, revisit many of the old. I have a bicycle and the joy of winging my way through the streets, day or night, is incomparable. Last night after a gorgeous meal with friends in a cozy little spot tucked away on a side street, I got on the bicycle and began to ride. It was bitter cold, but I was dressed for it. With the memory and tastes of the meal, the snippets of jokes and conversation still fresh, I cycled past shop windows glittering for Christmas. I stopped for a moment in front of the Bon Marche to look at the Christmas trees in the windows, animated as though they were alive. It was late, there was little traffic, the cares and woes of the world seemed so far away.
This weekend I will be in Louviers, for a private class that has been in the planning for weeks. I’m thrilled at the prospect. The Louviers market and my favorite vendors welcome me like family after 25 years of full-time living there. I will revel in the produce, the seafood, the meats and cheeses that are produced within mere kilometers of where I purchase them. It is a privilege I never, ever take for granted.
I wish that the good feelings and the loveliness of this country were the same for all. I feel for those who don’t have what they need; for others who want but cannot have. Tonight, I will sing with a chorus in the American Church of Paris, and we will raise our voices in solidarity with each other, but also in dedication to trying to make the world a better, more beautiful place for all.
And these are my musings today….
2019…how did this year get here already? I was having dinner with a friend last night and she marveled at the obvious with me. Time flies, races, runs. It’s so…unremarkable. But so remarkable all the same because while time is doing its thing, we feel basically the same inside, at least I do, and my friend Claire does too. We have flashes of teenage emotions, young adult enthusiasms, mid-life desires. There are some physical changes of course, some emotional changes, though not so many. Many wisdoms, for certain. I use the plural intentionally. Wisdoms are moments of wisdom, wonderful when they occur. I sometimes have one. But do I have wisdom? Not sure.
2019 already feels like a big year. There is no concrete reason for this except that, with all the turmoil around, I for one am filled with resolve to attempt to smooth out turmoil around me. I also see with greater clarity something I’ve always believed: when faced with world events that seem out of my control, I focus on the small things that make the world fine. This has always included good meals with friends and family. More resolve. More reaching out, more tending – to new and old friends. What else? Give a few dollars and euros; deliver a meal to a sick neighbor; write a letter to someone who is lonesome. For each to discover what that more is.
Sometimes I feel obsessed with weather. As I walked back from the market this morning, a heavy basket in one hand, the newspaper in the other, I was thrilled because the air was crisp, the blue sky shredded with wispy clouds. I stopped in the café on my corner for an “allongée,” an espresso with an extra shot of hot water, and said to the barman, “It’s cold out there.” He went off on a riff about how it was cold but would get colder, and what a relief after the unseasonable warmth, and …I realized I wasn’t alone in my weather obsession. Are the French more weather conscious than Americans? I’m not sure. But maybe because we meet each other more often and more casually – at the café – we talk about the weather more because personal subjects aren’t appropriate.
Speaking of which…our president, Emmanuel Macron is attempting and, it seems, succeeding to work miracles. He spent seven hours responding to questions from 600 mayors in Normandy the other day. Seven hours. He did so in shirt sleeves, noted in every article I read. I believe there is an unwritten French rule that the president keep his suit jacket on but like so many rules including dancing to the African beat in Africa, that is not for this president. In any case, after seven hours of answering questions with an aplomb and an inside knowledge of the region’s problems, he was given a standing ovation. This from a region that is, well, not exactly in his camp.
So, naturally, after Macron’s big night I was in the café sipping my allongé, and eves- dropping on conversations at the bar. There was a male duo talking politics. I noted that the father-in-law of the barman stepped into the conversation at one point to add a far-right statement. When I mentioned this to a friend later, he told me that most bar keepers in Paris lean to the right, a diversion but an interesting one, right? Anyway, once the duo left I asked the barman what he’d been hearing about Macron. “Everything,” he said, his eyes sparkling. Sparkling. I hadn’t seen that before. “You haven’t noticed a “for” or “against”?” I asked. “No, I hear everything about everything, which is why I love my job.”
He was being discreet, of course. He can’t say what he’s heard. Because if he did no one would speak at his bar anymore. He is like the hairdresser – you can tell him anything because you know it will go no further. So, my informal poll taught me nothing except that barmen/women are discreet, and they tend to the right.
This may seem unimportant, but it is one more tiny little brick in my Frenchness. I can never unknow this, and it will come up in conversation at one point, and I will be in the know. And a French person will raise their eyebrows and say something like “You are more French than the French.” And I will get a little “frisson” of pleasure that only I will know about.
How do I explain? Well, I’ve lived in France nearly 30 years. I had four years in Paris, then nearly 26 in Louviers, my lively town an hour outside the city. Now, I’m back in the city part-time. In Louviers I am a mom. And an anomaly. I work at home; I host foreigners who came to learn how to cook French cuisine; I write books. For a million years I walked my kids back and forth to school many times a day; I hosted birthday parties, taught English in the kids’ schools, was a parent representative, going to meetings to try to understand the French school system and get my two American cents in. I either lived with an American – the kids’ father – or by myself so I missed a big slice of Frenchness. I didn’t miss it in an acute, personal way. I just know I was missing it now that I’m often in the company of a French man, making my Parisian world even more French than my Louviers world, if that is possible. So, I pick up bits of information such as “Most bar keepers are right wing.”
I love delicious tidbits like this. They’re useful only to me, really, until I whip out the information somewhere and I get those raised eyebrows. It’s like speaking authoritatively about Boeuf Bourguignon. That raises the eyebrows, too, because I know more about it than most people born and raised in Burgundy. Because it’s my job to know. But I don’t let on. I just act like I know everything and leave it at that! The glories of living in a country not my own…
Fiona, my daughter, was just home for a week, studying and practicing for her driver’s license exam.
It’s so much fun to revert back to being a hands-on mother. She comes home and, bam! I slip right back into the role of laundress and cook, listener and back rub go-to. Though she has been away over a year, I still get a big piece of her presence, some of her secrets, a lot of her thoughts, and many of her hopes, fears, ideas. They flutter around me as she talks, drifting, diving, soaring like the spring birds in our garden.
Being a mother is my favorite life role. I wouldn’t have guessed it would be. And maybe I think this now because the kids are not living with me anymore. But mothering is far from over. My parenting “skills” are called into use, often. Telephone calls, visits, messages among us all on various platforms…I am still the Mom. And I love it.
My career has been driven by a consuming, fulfilling passion. And I love it too. But being a mother is so compelling. I’m always so curious – a good thing in my career, a not so good thing as a mother, and I’ve learned to zip it. But the curiosity is lively – what will they end up doing, who will they end up being, how will they go about things, did I teach them good and useful stuff? It’s like a constant theater production with actors who are funny, have repartee, needs, desires, and lives of their own. Pure fascination.
I watch my French friends, those older than me, gracefully slipping into roles as grandparents, those younger than me seeking “me time,” which they manage by sending the kids to the grandparents or cousins. I’m betwixt, still heavily into the Mom thing with kids who aren’t at home. Unlike French friends my age I’m not pining for grandchildren – to each its season. I am in a precious moment, observing the theater piece unfold. And how do I measure it with the rest of life? I don’t. It’s part of the whole.
P.S. The text just came in: “Mom! I got my permis.” Whew.
My blog post is about making bergamot marmalade, one of my favorite things to put on toast, serve with poultry, eat from a spoon. It’s not for the faint of heart because it’s slightly bitter like a great English marmalade, but it’s also quite tart so that you’re caught between the pucker and the delight.
As I was going about my business, I might almost call it a routine since I make marmalade each year, I was struck. A Parisian friend called and I said I was making marmalade. The phone went dead. “Are you there?” I asked. “Yes I’m here, but I’m just shocked you’re making marmalade,” he said.
When I asked what was shocking about it, he said that Parisians don’t make marmalade. They buy it in a jar. They’re too busy working, riding the metro, going to philosophical conferences, or big dinner parties where the politics of the day are discussed with great drama and cigar smoke.
I laughed. As I juggle my new life between country and city, I’m often caught off guard by my city friends. I don’t have a million, for one thing. Those I do have are so busy and…urban. Of course they are. I was when I lived in Paris. But all those years in the country, raising kids, looking after a big house, working around the clock to produce books and teach classes, has given me another dimension. That includes making marmalade when bergamots or bitter oranges are in season. In the summer I make apricot jam, and red currant jelly. As sure as the weather gets better, I’m preparing jars for jam and waiting for the right moment.
Parisians not only don’t make marmalade, they tend not to have dinner parties at home, either. I was invited to a dinner party not so long ago at some friends’ home. I asked if I could bring anything and they didn’t miss a beat. “Dessert”. I said yes, of course, then panicked. I have a stove in my apartment that up until then had defied comprehension. It went off after ten minutes; it heated to one million; it just refused to cooperate. That’s because it’s electronic, not gas. And if there isn’t fire involved in cooking, I have a hard time. So, bringing dessert was a huge challenge. After some discussion with the hostess it turned out that she loved the idea of home-made cookies, and those I can do in my oven. So, I made a big batch, speckled them with chunks of yummy chocolate, baked them (miracle), and tied them into a beautiful package. I added clementines, then off I went. When I arrived at their apartment the aperitif hour was in full swing. I handed over dessert and both host and hostess looked at me sheepishly, while their other friends looked on. “Susan, we’re taking everyone to a restaurant,” they said. “But we wanted your cookies so we didn’t tell you.”
I laughed, they were relieved and we did the Parisian thing, which is walk down the street to a fabulous restaurant, put our feet under the table, and enjoy ourselves immensely. I heard later that the cookies were much appreciated.
And why not, when in Paris, go out to a restaurant since there are a gazillion and most of them are excellent to fabulous? Still, I have that country habit of loving to cook and wanting to share what I cook and I’ve noticed that an invitation is always accepted. I wonder if I’ll start a trend?!
To get back to the marmalade, I took a jar over to my non-plussed friend, the one who couldn’t believe I was making marmalade in the city. He’s a marmalade fanatic who always buys his at the store. I didn’t know if he’d like the homemade variety. It’s always more intense, less standard and, to me, more interesting because you’re never sure of the result. I left it in his bicycle basket because he wasn’t home.
He called later, after eating some marmalade on bread slathered with butter.
“Oh, please make some more, it is so delicious,” he said. Life – and marmalade – in the city.
February 5, 2019
I’ve heard it said that Paris is fusty, old-fashioned, behind the times. I don’t think so. I’ve been back living here for about 8 months, and I’m stimulated every day. Perhaps not by the things that people come here for, though.
Of course, the food here delights, every meal, every day. The markets are beautiful, the sights and sounds of the hawkers, the fragrance of everything from bergamot to basilic. Chocolate shops shine, pastry shops tempt, fabulous food is everywhere. But I’ve lived in a bustling country town for a quarter of a century, where the market is unparalleled, where authenticity and flavor overflow. Everything in Paris is more beautiful and better presented, but when you scratch the surface it’s not always what it seems. Honestly, I’ll take the market in Louviers any day.
So, for me it’s not just the food in this glorious city. It’s the beauty, everywhere you look. The geographic position of the city is gorgeous, which is why the Gauls and then the Romans settled here. They got it not only from a practical standpoint, with the Seine running through it, but because it lent itself to graceful expansion. It’s perspectives, its buildings (Merci, Baron Haussman), it’s ancient streets and leaning staircases…the glimpses of gardens behind giant double doors, the cobbles on the streets…beauty is everywhere.
What also binds me to this city is its argumentative nature. I’m not talking about the current gilets jaune movement, though I am empathetic with its beginnings.
No, it’s the daily sort of argument that thrills.
It’s the argument you get when you sit with friends at the Jardin de Luxembourg on a sunny afternoon. One friend arrives, then two, then three and pretty soon there is a lively discussion that has bounced off of: the weather (turns into a discussion on climate change); the book in one person’s hand (turns into a discussion on the merits of mid-century French literature); the curly endive poking out of a sandwich that suddenly reminds someone they prefer butter lettuce, and a tiny argument is put into motion. Or, the conversation at a café table about Emmanuel Macron and the way the person at the next table joins in. Everyone leaves such arguments a little more informed.
I find this kind or arguing enriching. Perhaps because I didn’t grow up arguing, and we don’t really argue very well in America. We get emotional, we get mad, and then we aim. The beauty of arguing here is that it doesn’t get personal. It’s about ideas. They are unfurled, they can be disagreed with, and everyone make shake their head or stomp their foot. But everyone leaves friends, with a new thought and, who knows, the possibility of a changed idea.
Oh, the weather. Why does it have such a big influence on the morale? Today it is one of those Parisian days where the sun splashed in the windows this morning filling everything it touched with joy. Now that it’s the blue hour the sun is gone, and the sky is responding with its own very special Parisian grey. Which is the greyest grey I know.
I don’t know if you live the blue hour, but I always have. You know what I mean by the blue hour? The French refer to it as the transition from day to evening, and it’s noted that people’s moods fall then. Energy ebbs, and the little dark thoughts can begin to creep in. It’s so widely recognized here that there is a program on France Inter, a radio station, called “L’Heure Bleu” that always features an interview with a lively and provocative personality, as distraction.
I’ve always been subject to the blue hour. When the kids were little it came early, around 3:30, just before they returned home from school which signaled the end of my work day, and the beginning of their evening. In those days I kept it at bay then with chocolate and caffeine.
Today my schedule is my own, and if the blue hour decides to chime, it always takes me by surprise. I’m working along, or making plans, or texting with someone, or answering emails, or writing the great Franco-American novel and wham. The blue hour rips the rug from under my feet. I have a great antidote, though. It’s my dear little bicycle that waits for me, like a puppy, whenever I need it. I invent an errand as far away from this apartment as I can, hop on and I’m off. The air might be polluted, the buses huge and agressive, the cars jumpy, and those little electric scooters deathly but I love it. Because around every corner there is something amazing, like a private courtyard with mimosa just starting to bloom, Les Invalides with its shiny gold dome and massive park, a Japanese tourist dressed in an outlandish outfit that is impossibly stylish, a packed café terrace that emits the aroma of exprès onto the street.
When I get home from my errand, breathing hard from my ride and the four flights I climb, that blue hour is GONE. It’s not that anything has changed. The uncertainty, the small Everest of work, the re-writes, the recipes needing more testing, the outstanding proposals that haven’t yet been confirmed are still there, and so are all the other things that make up the life of an expat, single mother who now does the job by phone, an entrepreneur in an uncertain world. Une vie quoi, as the French would say.
Getting out into the fray of the world works its charm, every time. Better than chocolate, better than caffeine. I hope you’ll try it should you come nose to nose with the blue hour.
What an interesting week so far. First, the moon is full. Second it’s the official equinox and beginning of spring. The combination makes everything acute, from the colors of the sky and the soft tendrils emerging from the earth, to the emotions roiling around like little tornadoes. Food tastes better right now, evenings are softer, stars are brighter, love is more intense. It’s a glorious moment!
As part of this interesting week, I had the good fortune to listen to sociologist/philosopher Bruno Latour as he spoke to a group of journalists in Paris. His theme was based on his new book entitled Ou Atterir? (Where Will We Land?), where he discussed and tried to shed light on the direction of current political movements.
He began by explaining the global retrenchment towards nationalism as a normal phenomenon. “We’ve all been aiming at globalization basically since the end of the First World War,” he said. “Globalization has taken us further and further away from the soil we depend on. People feel duped by globalization because they’ve worked for it, but it is not helping them; they are desperate for one thing they can return to, their ethnic identity.”
This, he postulates, also explains the rejection of migrating populations. How can established people share what little they have – their plot of soil as it were – with newcomers who also need their plot of soil, because the plot they used to have was taken away from them?
“Look at Brexit,” he said “Brexit was the idea of going back to the nation state but it won’t work. The British have realized that they had no plan. And that they have too many globalized links to be able to simply retreat into their nation. They didn’t think about all the trucks that bring them things they need from other countries.”
His theories are fascinating and after an hour of his lucid conversation and the many follow up questions, I came away thinking that the food world as a whole is focusing on so many of the pertinent issues he discussed – the loss of soil, of our planet leaving us – in an immediate way. We need to do more, but our whole notion of local and seasonal, of putting money in the hand of the person who grows our food, of growing our own food, is putting us on a track we must follow.
The other idea he articulated so well was that of betrayal. We feel it here in France in such an immediate way as we see the “gilets jaune” turning in circles as the government turns in opposite circles, “the dumb speaking to the deaf,” as Professor Latour put it. “They don’t like the government,” he said. “But then they want the government to give them more.”
For an interloper like myself (I have my French citizenship, but I’m an interloper), it seems the government gives so much already. One example for me is a recent visit to the eye doctor, where I had a long battery of tests which cost nothing, because the French social security will pay the 130€ bill. This is marvelous, I think, but something is clearly awry in other realms, when people with jobs don’t have the money to make it to the end of the month.
And who will make it better? This is the big question, too big for many. So what can we do right now? What we’ve been trying to do. Take time for others, appreciate and love our neighbors, buy our food from the people who produce it, prepare it with love and invite someone new.
I was headed to Asheville two weeks ago, with plans to do a blog about the experience of teaching in Barbra Love’s wonderful kitchen, there, something I’ve done for the past seven years and love. I was so excited, I had some favorite repeat students coming, the menus were planned, the ingredient lists made and sent, and a list of equipment was ready too.
Then I got the call. My mother had asked for last rites. She’s 97. This is really no surprise. But still. I called her immediately. She answered with her usual vibrancy. “Mom,” I said. “What’s up.”
“Oh, I’ve been so tired. I know where I am in life so I called Father Jim. I don’t want to get up to heaven without my passport being stamped. You know what I mean,” she said.
I did, and she sounded fine. But I looked at my schedule while in the U.S. I’d planned two weekends with Joe, to bookend my Asheville visit. The last was three days – it was just enough time for me to fly to Portland, Oregon to see my mother. So, I explained to Joe, and booked tickets. Miraculously, times and flights worked out perfectly.
My entire visit, from visit with Joe to wonderful, happy class was done with the backdrop of my mother’s impending demise. I called her daily and she kept sounding great. I mentioned to a friend that she’d asked for last rites. “Oh,” he said. “My dad’s 99 and he’s asked for them at least ten times.”
This lifted my heart and made me laugh. I didn’t know last rites were given at will. Maybe mom wasn’t on her way out; maybe she was just typically playing it safe.
But one never knows, so off I flew. Mom looked great, a little more transparent than she had at Christmas, more tired, more…calm. But there was no loss of verve – my mother is a very lively person. “Listen Susan,” she said. “I’m ready. But we won’t say goodbye this time.”
I agreed, of course, but my eyes were wet when I left her. And the emotions weren’t finished. As I waited at Dulles (interminable) for my flight to Paris I was taking a walk when I saw the TV screen, and on it Notre Dame de Paris in flames. I think I screamed out loud. No one heard me because everyone else was busy watching sports on the screens adjacent – I was alone in my horror. Simultaneously, my phone began to vibrate as people messaged me. It was a nightmare, not true, couldn’t be true.
By the time my flight left I knew the walls were standing, the spire was gone, the organ that I had just been next to a week before was intact though damaged. I’d been invited to a private, insider’s tour of the cathedral just the week before, and we’d had champagne next to the organ, had walked among all that wood.
I landed in Paris, got to my apartment, threw down my bags and raced out because I had an immediate rendez-vous. I rode down Boulevard Saint Germain to where I was headed and I could see Notre Dame, steaming. On the way back around midnight, I rode on the quai right by. She was dark, a small beam of light was tracing the walls. I asked the closest gendarme why she wasn’t illuminated. “There’s too much danger, and that little light you see is to help us find any leftover sparks or flames,” he said. There were crowds even at that hour on the bridges, and a small vigil in front of an altar that had been set up to the Virgin, where the faithful were kneeling to pray.
Oh…what heartbreak. But, as we’ve seen, the indomitable spirit of the French – and the world – will mend it, with integrity we hope. And meanwhile, the beautiful 13th century Cathedral – without the contemporary addition of the spire – is still there, dark but still glorious.
What a trip; what a homecoming.
Tonight, I decided to take the late train from Paris to Louviers, because I was caught up in work that I had to finish before leaving. I bought my ticket through the amazing SNCF/OUI phone app which is so efficient it defies imagination, and when I double-checked the train departure saw it was leaving five minutes late. A normal person might say “Oh, I’ll have to wait five minutes more at the station.” I said Oh! I get to spend five more minutes at home.
I arrived at the station just in time for the five-minute-late train to find it had actually left on time. This left just one more train, not a good situation because SNCF can cancel trains at will. But I had hope. I approached a group of red-jacketed SNCF agents huddled together gossiping and laughing, and when I finally got their attention I explained my plight. Which had to do with having a ticket for a train that was supposed to leave late and had actually left on time.
“Madame, never get here just in time to take your train,” one said. “SNCF might say a train is late, but that doesn’t mean it actually IS late.” Another said “Madame, the rules of using the train say you must always present yourself at the station at least 15 minutes before the train, everyone knows that.” I asked him were those rules were written. To my surprise, he told me. “They’re on the website, page ‘rules of the traveler’.” he said. Rules of the traveler? I admitted I’d never read that page and thanked him. “Go to the ticket office,” he said. “They will make you buy a new ticket since it’s your fault you missed the train.” No point in arguing his brand of logic. Off I went.
It wasn’t busy so I got right to the guichet and the woman there panicked when I explained the situation. I handed her my SNCF card where my ticket was registered, and she refused to take it. “Oh no,” she said. “Our system is ‘bugging’ tonight and I cannot read that. You have to buy a new ticket,” she said.
I said “But madame, I was here on time according to the new hour posted on the SNCF website, and besides I think my ticket is refundable, thanks to Mr. Macron our President.” I was referring to very recent reforms which has every ticket refundable or exchangeable, an excellent measure in my opinion. She just looked at me and repeated “Oh no, our computer is bugging, I can’t help you. You have to buy a new ticket.” I insisted. She asked the harried colleague next to her who, apparently accustomed to being harassed, told her what to do. But she didn’t want to do it. I looked at her. She wasn’t being logical. Like the agent who told me I’d just have to buy a new ticket regardless of what the SNCF had posted on its website. I wanted her to AT LEAST look at my ticket. But I could see I was wasting my time, so I turned away.
And got back in line. I wound up at another window with another person and an entirely other reality. I explained my situation, and the young woman took my card, inserted it into the computer, looked at it and then at me. “Madame, you won the lottery. Not only can I refund your old ticket, but your new ticket is cheaper. You get money back.” She laughed. I laughed. She printed out a ticket, I wished her a lovely evening and went on my way. I had an hour to a wait, so I went to the café behind the bar which looks out over a tree lined place, and spent my winnings on a beer.
And this is life in France. If you don’t get the answer you want, just turn your back, wait a minute, and go ask someone else. Did the rules change in that split second? Did the computer quit bugging? Or did I just have the good fortune to stumble onto someone who was having a good day? Whatever it was, her good day became mine.
July 11, 2019
I wonder why life gets so busy. Does it for everyone? So many people who write to me or come visit think that life in a small French town mixed with life in the most gorgeous city on earth is calm, languid, and filled with food and drink. On one level, that is absolutely true. But on another level, French days are only 24 hours long, and fitting everything into even half of one is not always easy.
My French sister Edith came for dinner the other night. I was testing recipes, Fiona was home from her day job of harvesting vegetables for Baptiste – she’d worked an extra two hours to get ahead of the green beans. My day had been filled with the aftermath of classes, which means putting the kitchen back in order and uncovering the office from the avalanche I throw in there when I’m teaching. Fiona had soil under her fingernails and a sunburn on her cheeks, and Edith was claiming how tired she was from her day of driving grandchildren and organizing her world. We all were so happy to sit at the table in the courtyard, protected from view by the fig tree which will soon take over the entire neighborhood. When we raised our glasses to “Tchin Tchin” we all, I believe, felt that we’d fought the battle and won.
We sipped the fantastic 2009 Burgundy that Edith brought, accompanying it with dukkah and just-picked-by-Fiona baby carrots, and toasted, spicy almonds that one of my courageous students had made. We’d each had a busy day but somehow, the tension and busyness faded away with the aperitif. That is, after all, what aperitif is for.
Eating at the turquoise table in the front courtyard is a very special event which everyone loves, but it is not without a major pitfall – the ringing of the bells. Depending on the resident priest, the bells are more or less vigorous. We’ve got a particularly intense bell-lover, so come the Angelus – just before 7 – and we’re into bells for about 20 minutes. Same for the pre-mass bells on Sunday morning. The regular on-the-hour bells seem to last for 10 minutes but it may only be five. In any case, they stop conversation.
And perhaps that is what they are for. Not just to call the faithful, but to remind them of a deity? Or to just make us stop and be quiet? Or to make us note that they are so musical and while it can sometimes be annoying (I’m sorry to admit this, but a phone call when the bells are ringing can drive a sane person mad) it is also glorious.
So we laughed off the bells. And then something very special happened. The swallows, missing for more than five years, arrived. And began their evening acrobatics, twirling above the fig tree, chasing each other around the bishop’s statue at the front of the church, racing through the flying buttresses, weaving over and under the intricately carved gargoyles..
We always had the dance of the swallows then they simply disappeared. We were sad. Swallows are magical birds; their presence is linked to hope, prosperity, and healing. And they’re graceful. And now they’re back. And we’re not just happy, we’re enchanted. Every evening as long as the weather holds, we’ll have our meals outdoors, putting up with the bells which isn’t the toughest duty, and watching the dance of the swallows.
I grew up in a big, Irish family. We were five children; we went to mass every Sunday morning, Father John/Jim/Michael/Seamus usually joined us afterwards for Sunday brunch, and came to our dinners and parties. We fasted during Lent, grace was said before every meal, we were all baptized, communioned, confirmed….and we lived under the iron hand of Catholic rules which turned 16 into the magic age: before that no dating, no pierced ears, no make-up, no short skirts, no backtalk and plenty of prayers.
My father was an officer in the military and we moved every few minutes, engendering many schools and several countries. We were a unit, but we had mythic Irish relatives. They were in Chicago; they’d been friends with Al Capone; they’d lost everything during the crash and earned it all back. We really only knew uncle John and Aunt Mary, rosy-cheeked, white-haired, blue-eyed Dolans who drank, smoked, and said “Begorreh” when something surprised them, and “Slainte” before they lifted their first – of many – glasses.
I saw my uncle John everywhere I went on a recent trip to the Ancient East, of Ireland. He was such a hail-fellow-well-met, fast talking, fast winking, never met a friend he didn’t like, person. My dad was like him too, one in a million. The other 999,999? I think they’re all in the Ancient East.
Our Irishness came from both sides. My mother is a Celtic Beauty, with a delicate sprinkling of freckles over her pale skin. Among us all, we have just enough freckles and red hair to pass for Irish (if you ignore the dark hair and olive skin of a couple of us). We were the Irish Herrmanns.
Ok. My dad was adopted. He was born to an Irish lassie (all he knew of her was her family name on his birth certificate), given away to a Catholic orphanage, adopted by a devout Catholic couple with German/Irish origins. Their name was Herrmann.
Dad was happy to be Irish, and didn’t want to look beyond the name on his birth certificate. He’s been gone awhile, and DNA testing is de rigeur so to satisfy some curiosity, three of us took a test. We’re Irish alright, a pinprick from here and there. But we’re a big percentage of Jewish from Eastern European too. That Black Irish dad? Probably not much Irish in his blood at all. What does this go to show? The sparkle in the eye, the humor of the Irish, the readiness to dance, to laugh, to party…are learned as well as ingrained.
I’m like my dad, happy to claim what Irish heritage I can. After my visit there, I’m ready to go back and see “my” ancestors, and be with “my” people. I’ve got red hair and freckles; I pass. And around a pint in the pub, I can pretty much hold my own. So I raise a glass to the fighting – and the laughing, joking, back-slapping – Irish. Glóir a bheith! (Glory be, in Irish…)
Make no mistake. Northern France, from Paris on up, is the place to be in August. Here is why. Nearly everyone who lives here during the rest of the year has gone on a sun-seeking mission to the south of France, and beyond. Fed-up with what they think is poor weather, intent on doing “la bronzette” which means lying on a beach and baking in the sun, they’re gone.
This means many things to the fair souls who stay, or visit, the north.
If you’re a bicycle rider you can do wheelies in the middle of the Boulevard Saint Germain and no one will even notice, stop you, or get in your way.
If you love Pierre Herme’s pastries, you can get one in an instant. There are no lines.
You can go to your favorite boulangerie or patisserie anytime and get what you want, along with more gratitude than usual.
If you want to take the metro anywhere, you get a seat. Except to and from the airports. Oh well.
If you want to go to a great café, you’ll find a table on the terrance and everyone around you won’t be smoking, because they’re likely to be tourists like you, from countries where people know smoke can make you sick.
If you want to buy something, clerks are even more adorable and helpful than usual. Wink. They’re bored, and delighted to explain the fine points of everything from the Dyson fan to the latest book by Senoué. And you can try on clothes ad infinitum.
The post office is empty; Fnac is empty; Uniqlo is empty; the Bon Marché is empty. Go. Enjoy.
There is lots of free entertainment. http://www.parisetudiant.com
Warning. Do stay away from monuments of interest. The list above is intended for those of you who already know that if you want to see La Jaconde, the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre et compagnie, you come to visit in February. It’s the opposite end of the year from August, but aside from traffic, the lines are short.
Traffic on the Autoroutes flows like liquid honey.
Streets in charming towns are empty so you can stroll down the middle of them if you want. And you won’t be run over by electric scooters. They haven’t made it there yet.
Farmers’ markets are gorgeous, never better, because everything is in season so you can get the best. And short lines, remember, one of the glories of life.
Cafes and restaurants are open, because in the provinces people need and want customers.
There are dozens of hidden-away beaches, so stay away from the tourist places like Honfleur, Deauville, Trouville, and enjoy moments on the coast. And the water is a respectably warm temperature, so you can swim.
The other thing to know about August in northern France is there might be a rain storm or two. Which is a blessing because it means the temperatures come down from those which, in July, can be suffocating.
All in all, August is a blessed month to be in Paris and in the north of France. Normandy, particularly, beckons because it’s empty. But all the things that are meaningful, from bakeries to restaurants, to cafes, gardens, and beaches are open.
We gather around the idea of seasonality as though it is something new and precious. But rural people have always lived with the seasons. In France, eating seasonally is as ingrained as singing the Marseillaise at a national event, or dipping a buttered “tartine” into a steaming bowl of coffee. Beyond the reverence accorded to seasons in France, though, is simple good sense. Seasonal foods have more taste, are more abundant, and more cost effective. And there is another element: when the season is over and you’ve had your last bite of scallop, or strawberry, or rhubarb, or oyster then it’s on to something new. And you’re left with the delicious nostalgia of what you’ve just lost.
Around this seasonality hovers the lunar cycle. If you live in France long enough, you will come to take for granted that most people around you check out the moon before they… till the soil, plant seeds, water and fertilize plants, cut their hair, shave their legs, make cakes, do a detox, wash their windows. We all sense the importance of a lunar cycle – think moodiness at the full moon – but here it is an active, guiding principle and one of the subtle charms of living in France.
Being in season is one thing, timing during the season is another. Take the tomato, which needs sun and water to develop flavor. This means that in the northern hemisphere, the tomato is a summer fruit, though usually not an early summer fruit. The ideal time for tomatoes is from July through September, depending on the year. A June tomato is exciting because we haven’t seen a tomato for eight months. But if you really taste it, a June tomato will be more fun than flavor. Consider the strawberry too, which has become a fruit of spring and summer thanks to botanical tinkering. But no lab work so far has produced a strawberry that tastes like anything in winter. And take foie gras (fattened liver). Yes, even foie gras has a season. It can be produced year-round, but it mostly isn’t because in the summer heat, the birds have little appetite, let alone the energy to convert their food into buttery liver. The humane foie gras producer takes a warm-weather hiatus, giving the geese and ducks time and place to “chill”.
Seasons are perhaps most obvious when it comes to seafood, because most of the seafood we eat is wild. Each species has its moment of abundance, peak health, reproduction. This, and much more, affects what we see at the fish market.
Seafood seasons in France might be compared with holiday seasons. Seriously. French eaters look forward with anticipation to that day in November, for example, when the first scallop appears at the market, in its gorgeous, pale pink shell. From November to May we can all luxuriate in fresh scallops which we will eat raw, sautéed in butter and garlic, baked with cream, braised in fish broth for a beautiful soup or stew. Then, come May 15th, there won’t be another French scallop to be had. Why? Because once the waters warm, the scallop needs to be left alone to reproduce, sending energy from its meat to its bright, orange egg sacs, which makes the muscle we enjoy leaner and less rich.
Fishing is subject to governmental regulations, in an effort to protect both stocks and fisheries. To continue with scallops, the regulations are strict. Fishing licenses are doled out each year in accordance with the strength of the population. When stocks are low, fewer licenses are given out. Those with licenses have severe restrictions, as they’ve got just forty-five minutes per day to haul in scallops. The natural cycle is respected, the shellfish is protected.
For the most part, all wild fish stocks are protected by governmentally regulations, which tend to respect the natural cycles of the species. In theory imposed seasons work, but every country has different laws, and there aren’t enough “sea police” to make certain that all boats respect all laws. So, fish stocks are often over-fished. Many organizations monitor this and publish lists of which species have healthy populations. A good list comes from the Monterey Bay Aquarium https://www.seafoodwatch.org/
FISH FARMING AND THE SEASONS
When it comes to fish farming, we consider that seasons don’t exist, but they do for some species. Take oysters. They are farmed, their life cycles controlled. And they’re on offer year round. But the oyster remains a wild creature, with a cycle of its own. It’s easy to farm because it has a natural instinct to survive – when the tide is out and it’s exposed to the air the muscles of the oyster clamp its shell shut, keeping sea water inside so it can survive. When the water warms the oyster wants to reproduce so it develops spawn and becomes very soft. Some people don’t mind eating a soft “spawny” oyster, which is why oyster vendors can sell them year-round. But their natural “season” isn’t respected. And if you’ve got crisp oysters on your mind, then you want to pay attention to the oyster, and it eat it when the water is cold, during the months with “r” in them. The same is true for mussels.
Aqua farming erases seasons, because fish are available by simply dipping them out of the water at will. Thus, farmed fish provide constant and relatively inexpensive protein to a wide population. But fish farming is controversial. Take salmon, which is farmed throughout the northern hemisphere, making it one of the top four farmed fish (along with tilapia, catfish, and carp). Environmental issues swirl around salmon farms, including changes in water temperature, high concentrations of waste, the use of pesticides to combat parasites, farmed species that escape and mate with wild species. It’s a can of worms, so to speak. All of this is watched by various governmental and other organizations, who impose rules and regulations. Yet, yet, yet…if you can, opt for wild fish. It may be around less often, but when it is…quelle regale (what a treat)!
The current meme is “Make America Great Again.” But America is already great. Despite current affairs that can drive the sanest person mad, Americans keep their senses of humor, their constant striving for better, their warmth and generosity.
I had a busy schedule in the U.S. but took an afternoon to play tourist in Washington DC, with a leisurely stroll down the mall. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I was particularly moved by a visit to the Supreme Court. From the minute you go to the left of the building and the public entrance, it is an august experience. Yes, there is the security check, but once through, it is awe inspiring to think that any American citizen can take part in the events in this hall of justice. It’s a marvelous testament to transparency.
I’ve stood in front of the Lincoln Monument at all times of day and night, always inspired by its majesty. This time I was particularly struck by the epithet: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.” Amen.
After a tour of the World War II monument, appropriately timed for Veteran’s Day, we ambled over to the Willard Hotel for a cocktail at its iconic Round Robin Bar. There bartender Jim Hewes froths up cocktails and friendly banter, keeping political secrets, serving everyone equally. While we recognized no one, that didn’t mean that greats weren’t elbowing their way to this busy bar which has been the scene of vital political activity and secret making since 1847. Sly good humor was everywhere, including in the aptly named No Borders cocktail: Altos Tequila Reposado, Mezcal, Pineapple, Ginger, Habanero Tincture. As a French person might say “Il fallait oser” or “that’s daring”.
I spoke at the Smithsonian and while in the green room I read the upcoming schedule and wished I could camp out for the next two months. From Genghis Khan to the wine industry, each talk open to the public promised a unique learning voyage.
Then there was dinner at Ris Restaurant, : 2275 L St NW, Washington. Disclosure: Ris was part of the inimitable group of apprentices at La Varenne while I was there. We spent our days in the offices and kitchens; I continued my road to the office while Ris Lacoste headed to the kitchens. Ten years ago, she opened her restaurant, which serves food reflective of her personality – warm, delicate, smart, delicious. Ris sponsored a lunch for FRENCH GRILL and we had the time of our lives. Visit when you’re in DC – it’s a walk from the Mall too.
If you find yourself with an afternoon and a beautiful day in the capital, walk to Bethesda on the Capital Crescent Trail. It follows the beautiful Potomac, a sight for sore eyes, balm for the urban soul.
Following DC, I went to visit my son in Dallas. He’s settling into his role as professor at Great Hearts classical school, and lives in his car and his classroom (yes, he has a very nice apartment, but no time to be there!). Speaking of souls, mine had to become accustomed to the world of the car and the freeway. While the roads are empty compared with L.A., they’re worlds away from my snaky-laned life in France, where I’m either walking or bicycling.
I walked off the plane after a very busy week in DC, to the strains of country music by a performer on stage right before the exit. I love airports that offer live entertainment. Yay for Texas!
I had nothing on my agenda except the desire for barbecue, and wasn’t disappointed by a visit to Hickory House BBQ, 600 Riverfront Blvd. 214-747-0758. We stumbled onto this remote spot that is somewhere under freeway bridges. Lost though it may seem, the parking lot was far from empty and the group sitting outside with their bucket of iced beer couldn’t have been more welcoming, nor more reassuring: “Best BBQ in Dallas,” one of htem said, raising her bottle of Lone Star. Inside, we were treated like family by cook and server alike, who divulged the fine points of their barbecue, pinto beans, flat green beans, Texas toast. Fine dining it wasn’t, with the roll of paper towels on the table, but the heart of America it was.
I’ve always loved cowboy boots in fact I have a pair from Texas. Being back in the land of boot-wearers of every station, from be-suited gentlemen to be-skirted women, is an American thrill. Yay times two to Texas.
We did spend a lot of time in the car, and I was treated to the skyline of Dallas, which was a huge and beautiful surprise, as well as the stately homes of Highland Park, a Texas (ie. Independent) minded town in Dallas which, every so often, tries to secede.
My visit was short, but I had enough time to feel the spirit. We are having a rough time, something we share with most countries around the globe right now. But we do it with humor and generosity, the ability to talk about our differences and our commonalities. America is great.
I awake to the radio each morning because I like to be informed before I start my day. But for the past…many weeks the radio wakes me with the announcement: “Because of a workers’ strike, we cannot broadcast all of our usual programming.” Fortunately, the important news of the day IS broadcast, but mostly there is music, most of it unlistenable.
This strike is part of what began last year as the Gilets Jaune, or Yellow Vests. They’re angry about so much, and what set it off before Christmas this year was the government’s announcement that it would change the overall retirement system in an attempt to make it simpler and more fair. Instead of having forty-two different retirement regimes, the government wants to cut it down to a more manageable number. Instead of being able to retire at 52, the government would like to raise the age to 64. This is unthinkable , unimaginable, an affront, another excuse to take to the streets, sometimes violently. Of course the issue is much more complex, but I wish every French person could sojourn in a country where comforts were fewer. They might then agree with revered writer and explorer Sylvain Tesson, who put it this way, “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they’re in hell.”
During the strike most metro and train personnel stayed home, which affected Paris greatly, and other large French cities too. Except for the two automated lines, the Paris metro was literally closed for weeks; bus service was reduced to almost nothing so that if you glimpsed a bus it was so packed that riders oozed out the windows.
This sounds awful and it certainly was annoying and sometimes catastrophic. I belong to a choir and we were never at our full complement because people simply couldn’t get to practice. Restaurants usually bursting were half full; small businesses shut their doors, some market stalls remained empty as vendor and growers couldn’t get into the city. The sidewalks were choked. Bicycle lanes were too, mostly with wobbly, frightened and inexperienced riders. Never get in a bike lane with such riders – it’s more dangerous to than negotiating Paris traffic.
There were positives. Those walkers on the sidewalks? They talked with each other! The bicycle riders? They were generally decent when they weren’t simply trying to survive, and drivers were patient. Neighborhood cafes like mine, the Bistrot des Amis, 67 rue du Cherche Midi, was filled all the time as locals stayed close to home for their express and omelettes rather than going further afield. So noticeable was the increase that the bar now has a subscription to Le Parisien (the city newspaper) each day. One is no longer enough!
There are still strikes, like the radio and vestiges of the transport strike, though it does seem things are pretty much back to normal. And the government has backed off on legislating a specific retirement age. We’ll see how it all turns out. Meanwhile, Vive la France!
This morning I am home-bound, my favorite way to be. I’m waiting for someone to come and install a new wifi line.
The technician’s arrival has been carefully programmed. The provider called at least three times during the week to be sure that I remembered the date. This morning, there were two calls already when I turned on my phone, despite the early hour of the rendez-vous. I appreciate such care; this bodes well for the service. Then came call three. “Madame, are you there?” This was the provider. When I replied in the affirmative, she said the technician was downstairs and couldn’t get in. She cited the door code to see if it was correct. It was. I hung up. Ten minutes later, no technician so I called the first number that showed up from one of the early morning calls. “I’ve been ringing and ringing,” he said in soft, haltingly sleepy French. I reminded him there was a code, recited it, and waited while he pressed the numbers, then hung up and returned to what I’d been doing.
Another ten minutes passed. This was too much time, even for the slowest stair climber. I called back. He’d missed the instructions and was on the fourth floor of the front building. His voice was so low and slow that I got nervous. He sounded…unstable. I’m alone here; all my neighbors work outside the home during the day. I’d given crystal clear directions and he was lost in another part of the building. Should I worry? Should I call the provider?
Instead I gave him the instructions, again. And chided myself. I read too much bad news in the paper. Just because someone can’t figure out door codes and directions doesn’t mean they’re dangerous.
When I heard the timid knock on the door I opened it to find a wiry young man, his head topped by curly dark hair that matched his eyebrows, his brown eyes cast downwards, nearly doubled over with lack of breath. Hanging from his thin shoulders were two very heavy bags of equipment.
“Bonjour, Madame,” he said softly between deep breaths as he stabilized his heart. “Je suis desolée – I’m sorry.”
I asked him in, offered him tea and he shook his head, still too out of breath to utter a word. Then he asked for water and got to work, utterly competent and assured.
I’m sure this young man was French, but his language skills were limited. I know nothing of his story and I never will, because he went about his work quietly, not talking unless he needed me to do something. He made a few phone calls to the main office as he worked, slowly reciting the necessary numbers and letters to identify equipment and communication lines. Within thirty minutes the job was done, the wifi was working, his equipment was packed back into his bags. He smiled without lifting his eyes, wished me a good day and was gone.
I’ll never know his story, but I might imagine it. He may have been born and grown up here, but he wasn’t raised in the French language. He doesn’t look French. His name is probably not that of a Catholic saint. I’ve talked with enough people born in families like the one I imagine he grew up in to know that if you fit in this category, life throws up roadblocks that someone who has light brown hair, white skin, no accent and a name like Pierre simply doesn’t experience. My initial impatience and frustration with his difficulties in finding my front door, which I kept to myself, are most likely all too often expressed.
I got a change in internet providers this morning. What came along with it was an unexpected lesson in tolerance.
Day Eleven. Someone turned on the sun, and someone else added a crystalline blue sky for good measure, both present since confinement began, minus one grey day. What a miracle for us shut-ins.
Though we’re not really shut in. We’re allowed to go outside for an hour each day, as long as we stay within one kilometer of our homes. This for those of us who work at home, are newly working at home, are retired, aren’t necessary or needed for the basic running of the country. We have a raft of papers to bring with us so that if we’re stopped, we can prove who we are and what time we left the house and whether or not we’re within the legal parameters.
Naturally this doesn’t include postal workers, who are bravely walking the streets with their blue and yellow bags on wheels, or riding their bag-heavy electric bicycles. Most of them have neither mask nor glove, both being in short supply and reserved for health workers. Along with their mandate to deliver the mail, they also fulfill an essential role, which is checking in on the elderly. It’s as much a part of their mandate as delivering the mail, and it has been extended throughout this crisis. A blessing for so many.
While this time feels apocalyptic, there are good things happening amidst the horror. People are smiling when they meet here in Paris, at least incrementally more than before. Air pollution is down, birds are trilling, a quiet has settled on the city. That it is punctuated by sirens is heart breaking, lest we forget why this is happening. At 8p.m. in cities throughout France (and in Italy), people open their windows and clap, sing, bang pots and pans so all can hear. This, to support the health workers, and everyone else out there taking risks. I look at all the silhouettes in the windows, some of whom wave between claps. It’s a five minute reprieve from solitude, nice to know that there are others in proximity.
My upstairs neighbors, it turns out, are amateur bakers and cooks and so far I’ve sampled their warm banana bread, and a lovely vegan chocolate cake. Not only that but when I mentioned my wifi (which powers my printer) was down and I couldn’t print out my “permission slip” needed for walking in the neighborhood, within five minutes I had 20 copies to fill out.
Today I passed an artisanal printshop in my neighborhood., one that has the most beautiful cards and posters in its windows. Today, the dusty-blue door was open, the printer clanking along inside. I looked to see if anyone was inside, doing the French “Cou cou” which is equivalent to the English “Yoo-hoo.”
A man came from back inside, near the printer. I asked if he sold paper. “What do you need?” I told him, and he said, “Wait a minute.” He went inside and returned with large sheets of different weights of card stock. “Is this what you want, or is it too heavy?” he asked. It was too heavy, so back he went returning with just the right thing. “What size do you need?” he asked, and when I told him off he ran (he isn’t a man who walks, I could see), returning with paper of just the right size. I had my wallet out, knowing that if I’d bought this in a paper store it would have cost about 15€, which I had in my hand. “Non, non, non,” he said, wagging his finger and shaking his head. “Oh non.” I insisted, he gave me more head-shaking “nons” and sent me on my way.
Not one to take defeat easily, I returned home, put some of the molasses spice cookies I’d just baked into a small bag, and returned. He was still there, with his partner and wife. I gave them the cookies, assuring them I hadn’t touched them with my hands which was true.
We talked a little, I suggested they sample the cookies with tea or coffee, and off I went. I was now going to be able to print out some of the college graduation announcements for Fiona. They, I hoped, would have cookies with their tea. It was a nice little connection, and I am thinking it, along with the new neighborly bonds that are forming, might just be part of the “something new” people are discussing after this virus has gone on its filthy way.
I was reminiscing with a dear friend and colleague from cooking apprenticeship days not long ago. She is a Stanford graduate equipped with several languages which she speaks fluently, the voice of a songbird, a mind that can untangle anything. With these gifts she decided to pursue a career in food. Her disappointed mother said, “Well, my dear, at least you’ll always have a job.”
That was always true. For all of us with dreams of the arts and training in the food business.
We always knew we could hang up our computers and put on our whites should push come to shove. Is this true right now? Will artists who love to cook, young cooking students enamored with the stardom and frippery of the food world, those gifted with true talent who want to charm and feed, be able to work? Restaurants are closed, world-wide. Did Covid kill our truth?
No, I don’t think so. I think that long before the specter of virus, restaurants were in danger. A friend of mine in Seattle, a restaurant king, said to me two years ago, “I’m going to close all my white-table cloth restaurants. No one wants them anymore; they want cocktails out, then food in.”
So our truths were shoved against the wall long before Covid. Concepts like “ghost kitchens,” where meals are prepared and shipped away on the back of a bicycle, or in trucks or vans, were proliferating. Michelin starred kitchens were sending food out, as were pizza restaurants, hamburger joints, sushi parlors. Right now, this is all we have, in much fewer numbers. So, will this become the norm? It’s certainly feeding into what was becoming an alarming trend.
Why alarming? Maybe it isn’t, but to my nostalgic nature, it is alarming because it speaks to isolation, and exclusion. A few friends get together, they order in, they stay in, they expand their own friendships, perhaps, but they don’t experience the the clatter of conversation, the back and forth with server and chef, the fresh thrill of just-cooked food.I fear losing this for every reason, in part because I’m a teacher and I see the hopes and dreams of young people aching to release their ideas and creativity on the eating world. I also fear losing sociability, the ability and desire to mingle.
That I’ve never understood the charm of take-out speaks perhaps to my delight in putting my feet under the table and leaving the cooking, serving, and clean up to someone else. Dining in a restaurant encapsulates everything I love – luxury (no matter the environment or food as long as it matches the goodness of the heart who makes it) a holiday from the usual, a chance to get out, learn, taste, see something different. I wonder if enough people are like me, or if most will say “Wow. That was easy. Why go out when it can come to me?”
What keeps me from being negative is the faith I have in my profession. Food people are ingenious, passionate, creative, artistic, and wild of nature. All of that commingles into hope for transcendence, into the life-giving nature of restaurants and other eating establishments that animate our public lives, that give such charm, such life, such aromas and delight. We don’t yet know what that will all look like when this situation is over and life takes on a modicum of normalcy. It will be a renaissance, and I have much faith in food and what it enables people to do.
Vive la Renaissance!
We have a new word in our vocabulary. “Dé-confinement,” the act of emerging from confinement. As we get closer to the magic date of May 11 when we’ll no longer be obliged to sign ourselves out of our homes, the skies are kindly blue, the weather sweetly clement as though enveloping our fears about the “time after.”
People are scared. Happy. Excited. Filled with trepidation for this next step. We’ve had just enough time to become accustomed to confinement, made our jokes, laughed our laughs, exhausted ourselves with virtual meetings, apéritifs, birthday parties, you name it. Now, we must adapt to another reality. And we are constantly warned that what comes now will have nothing to do with what went before.
As I walk the streets of Paris –I’ve become a street walker during my hour(s) of liberty each day – I feel the city emerging from that vast silence of confinement. The early days – just weeks ago but feels like months ago – felt nothing like today, where there is palpable movement, everywhere. The pizza place across the street lit up its oven to 500C. The mercerie –sewing store – is now open, a constant line of seamstresses (no men) wending down the sidewalk. Bakeries that were closed are open; restaurants that have remained lifeless now have cheery signs announcing ,“We’re opening for takeaway on May 11.” One restaurateur I spoke with, a neighbor, said “Honestly, I’m lost. I have two restaurants, should I open both? Is it worth it to make just 400€ each day when before the virus I was making 1500€?” Battered by the gilets jaune in the early autumn, strikes at Christmas and now the virus, he says he is “exangué,” or “bloodless”. = But so very cheery as he walks off with a wave to all on the sidewalk, “Come buy your lunch at my place! Help out a neighbor!”
An increasing number of cafés have placed tables across their doorways to prevent entry, but willing hands are pressing the buttons to make the coffee run, then passing hot espresso’s to customers standing on the sidewalk in loose groups – one meter apart, s.v.p. Those frites I yearned for? I can now get them at Le Chien Qui Fume down the street. It turns out I wasn’t the only one suffering from a “manque de Frites,” a lack of frites. Two of the dishes the most missed by the French during confinement? Mussels with frites and steak frites!
And ice cream. There has been none. Then last week as I marched towards Ecole Militaire , coming towards me were three cones, bobbing in the hands of a man with his two tiny children. As they approached, I tried to act calm. I asked, “Monsieur, where did you get the cones?” Like one believer to another, he answered with tolerance, almost tenderness. “Madame, just over there, the café with the red awning. The ice cream is délicieux, and the cones are just two euros.” I thanked him, then ran. There was no line because it was 1:30 pm. on a Sunday, when everyone in France is at table enjoying Sunday lunch. Lucky me. I got a double cone – 4 euros, chocolate and lemon-flavored bliss – and walked off down the car-less street towards my new best friend, the Seine, savoring every lick. Oh! Ice cream never tasted so good.
So many new/old things: bouquets put together by now-open florists have never been so abundant, nor have hardware stores ever been so oft-frequented, for they have cornered the market on latex gloves and masks, and acted as neighborhood therapist to the many who have no one else to talk to. New bike paths are being hastily drawn throughout the city, to follow the most popular metro lines in hopes commuters will take to their wheels. The city’s green mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is offering 50€ to every nascent bike rider to get their old bikes in shape, and bike shops are creaking open their doors to oblige.
Despite the joy of not having to sign ourselves out of our homes, people are nostalgic for what we’ve still got for the next few days – a quiet, clean, pollution-free city. Some say “Mais oui, but what ees Paris weethout eets cafes and restaurants?” They have a clear, good point. We want pollution free AND our cafes and restaurants, our concerts and our cinemas.
Politicians are touching right now, I find. They’re constantly taking to the radio to inform of us something they really don’t know anything about…no one does, but they’ve got to tell us what to do, what we’ll be allowed to do, how we’ll be able to do it. As thirsty for a good morning espresso at a zinc bar with neighbors as any of us, they’re hemming and hawing but not because they want to. They’re just not sure. France is undeniably enamored of science, so its leaders consult constantly, listening to all the discordant voices and trying to make their collective way among them, teetering like the small child who wants to jump off the high dive but is scared witless. Like the parent who always wants to say YES, but sometimes just has to say NO. Teetering.
Stay tuned. We all are.
Susan Herrmann Loomis | On Rue Tatin
Thanks for dropping by! Feel free to join the discussion by leaving comments, and stay updated by subscribing to the RSS feed.