Un Brunch

On a recent weekend, a friend and I caught up over brunch. I say that casually, but actually I have never been a go out for brunch person. I’ve always figured that I can make fried eggs and toast at home and it’d be equally enjoyable and less expensive. No travel time, no reservation, no waiting, and as much milk as I want. Brunch out always seems to be a prix fixe of a seemingly long list of items that are actually mostly liquid—coffee, orange juice, mimosas (well, mimosas in the States—there is no tainting of champagne in France). However, if visiting friends suggest brunch to me, I’m up for it—I’ve done it in New York. For groups, it means that no one needs to host or clean up.

Likewise, I was enthused when my friend suggested a brunch place in the 14th arrondissement that she had found online. When she proposes a restaurant, bar, or café, I always say yes without researching it first. I trust her to make a quality choice. She’s the kind of French person who will not snub Angelina’s because it is touristy or the glossy bar at the Louvre because it is at the Louvre. She takes pleasure in food and places that are nice, and while her choices might cost a few euros over what I would suggest, they are never out of my budget and usually worth the experience. And precisely because they are not necessarily what I would have proposed, all the more I am glad we went.

The restaurant offered a choice of brunch terre (earth) or mer (sea), meaning meat or fish. We both chose land. I was curious about what brunch in France would be like, as portions in general are smaller than in the States. Well, this place went overboard. They started us off with complimentary fruit juice while we waited for a table, then served coffee and a basket of mini pastries and bread with butter and jam, a huge platter that we could not finish (and that is saying something for me), and a thick slice of pear and prune tart.

I had never had mozzarella sticks in France.113.brunch.2015After, we parted and I walked through the slight drizzle to meet a date at George Brassens park. He and I walked around a bit before hitting this book market I didn’t know would be there but was of course delighted to find.113.bookmarket.2015a

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Nimes

Last Friday I hopped on the TGV (high-speed train) after work to take the train to Marseilles. My friend picked me up at Gare Saint-Charles as he always does, and we caught up on the drive to his place.

Saturday morning he and his family and I had oeufs à la coque—I’m pretty sure it was my first one ever. He couldn’t find the egg cups, so to my amusement, we passed around this chicken his son had made in preschool and took turns eating our eggs.112.marseilles.2015aWe then headed off to Nimes, about an hour and a half drive away. I found it to be a charming town. My friend and I both remarked several times how clean it was.112.nimes.2015bThe small, gently winding cobblestone streets with little boutiques reminded me of Aix-en-Provence, though my friend told me that Nimes was less bourgeois.112.nimes.2015c 112.nimes.2015dWe entered this Romanesque church called Saint-Paul. A Romanesque church with a palm tree in front! May I never lose this sense of wonder upon seeing places like this.112.nimes.2015eAnd what about an arena in the middle of the city? The official symbol of Nimes is the crocodile, but the bull is close behind. This figure in front of the arena is partially composed of nuts, bolts, and keys that melt into the material.112.nimes.2015fWithout a doubt, for me the crowning experience of the day was experiencing the Jardins de la Fontaine. Before entering, you walk alongside a canal with a fountain at the end.

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112.nimes.2015h112.nimes.2015iThe public park has many varied features, all equally stunning. There was this basin with many orange, white, and gray fish that we watched for a while. 112.nimes.2015j112.nimes.2015k112.nimes.2015lThese staircases are not just staircases. They’re works of art.112.nimes.2015mBeyond the steps, there are ascending paths surrounded by greenery and flowers. None of it is apparent from down below, which gave me a sense of discovery as we turned each leafy corner. At the top is the Tour Magne, which dates back to the third century BC.

Sunday was rainy, so it was mostly spent in the car and indoors, but I didn’t mind. There is a road I love that curves along a rocky hill with the Mediterranean Sea on the other side, so when my friend lamented on the weather, I requested that we take that drive. What a delicious pleasure to be driven around. I tried not to feel too guilty that if I weren’t there that weekend, they would definitely have been at the motorcycle convention taking place.

My friend’s daughter holding my borrowed umbrella provided additional entertainment, first by being so cute and second by being knocked to the ground by a gust of wind. Her dad and brother certainly had a laugh. The poor kid—she wasn’t hurt but from her sulky face I could see her pride was. It didn’t stop the pint-sized fille from frolicking with the adult-sized umbrella again, though. I will have to tell my mom that story, as my cheery flowery umbrella was a Christmas gift from her.112.noyon.2015It’s amazing how a weekend can feel like a vacation. Life can be a bit stressful at times. I find that what helps is not necessarily physically getting away from your problems (unless your problem is cold weather or a specific person, you’re not going to escape them by running away), but rather spending time with people who see the best version of you.

Next time I would like to make it to the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge forty-five minutes from the center of Nimes, and Arles, a town where Van Gogh spent part of his life.

(The Friday Before) Last Friday Night

Recently un copain and I went to an exhibit at the Hôtel de Ville called Design & Artisanat d’Art : Berlin et Paris exposent leurs créaturs. He always finds interesting free things to do in the city, although apparently he doesn’t have a secret; he searches online. This expo featured work by contemporary designers and artisans from the two European cities.

While works on display should stand on their own, one’s experience of them is inevitably affected by their setting. The contrast between the abstract, fantastic designs and the centuries-old rooms with lofty ceilings was noticeable but not incongruent. The modern-day objects, fashion, and furniture had room to breathe in the grand space.

We looked and remarked on everything on display, from the straitjacket dress suspended from the ceiling to the instrument made for relaxation therapy to the surprisingly sturdy cardboard furniture that we tested out.

We were both enchanted by this piece by designer Marbella Paris.    100_7635We found this stack of blocks by Astropol delightful as well. It reminded me of something, a childhood memory or a warm place. Perhaps a lamp in the house my mother grew up in or a diner my family had been to. I’m not sure, but the round colorful lights made me think of the 70s. Funnily enough, my companion said it was very Star Trek. I suppose there is something throwback and futuristic about it at the same time.100_7632I thought this guy was funny.100_7629I think these chandeliers are always here. Why hang one when you can have a whole family?100_7634Afterward, we had a drink and then saw a contemporary jazz concert in a church. It was really cold in the church, but afterward we were surprised to be welcomed into a large adjacent room with complimentary hors d’oeurves and tarts. Apparently the church shelters homeless people who in return prepare those snacks for a monthly concert.

A middle-aged man with a scraggly beard approached us and joined our conversation. We learned that he worked for the parish and that he sometimes invites people who live in the street to have a meal with him in a restaurant.

He then yelled at an old lady who accidentally knocked a pile of plastic cups on the floor and had kicked them under the table instead of picking them up. She snapped back at him. He told us that he knew her because she was a parishioner. I couldn’t decide whether their acidic back-and-forth was okay because they have an existing relationship. Or how I felt about the fact that he wanted to put those cups that had fallen on the ground back on the table.

There are all kinds of people, and all kinds of art.

Shades of Beige

A couple of years ago a friend gave me Paris in Color by Nichole Robertson for my birthday. A book of photos of the city seen through each color, it was the perfect gift for me. I had seen it in a bookstore before but wouldn’t have bought it for myself.

Yesterday I saw a huge block letter sign advertising “PHOTOCOPIES THESES,” which made me laugh. I suppose if your eyes are strained from writing that thesis, you will not walk by without realizing that you can copy it here. I wondered, has that sign been there for ages, or was it purposely made to look vintage? You sometimes can’t tell in an old city what’s really old.

As I took my camera out of its tattered black case (actually falling apart, not purposely vintage), a man drove up to park his scooter.

Sometimes the city seems perpetually gray, but yesterday it was definitely beige.110.beige.2015

Stranger Talk

A conversation I had at a recently opened British café chain in Paris, with my internal commentary (translated from French):

Barista: Bonjour.

Me: Bonjour.

Barista: How are you?

(I am thrown off because shopkeepers and cashiers in Paris almost never ask how you are unless they know you. This cafe’s employees must have different training due to its British origins.)

Me: Fine, how are you?

Barista: Fine. Of what descent are you? I’m just curious.

(??? Really, you are asking me this? This is an acceptable question in the context of a conversation but not as an opener by someone I don’t know. Nowadays I find this as a first question by a stranger odd or amusing, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. Before I can decide which pastry to order, I debate whether to answer “Chinese” or “American.” Asking what of what descent (de quelle origine) I am would indicate that you want to know what kind of Asian I am. And yet just saying “Chinese” with my American accent seems like an incomplete answer.)

Me: Chinese. Well, Chinese American.

Barista: Ni hao.

Me: Well, I’m American.

Barista [in English]: How are you?

Me: And what ethnicity are you?

Barista: French. Well, French of Portuguese descent.

I find a nice, brightly lit table in the corner and leave my coat there, then go back to the counter to wait for my order.

Same barista: What state are you from?

Me: New Jersey.

Barista: I heard a story about New Jersey.

(My interest is peaked. New Jersey is little-known enough abroad that I sometimes have to give a summary of it and place it “near New York,” but it’s also mentioned enough in popular American TV shows and books that sometimes people know snippets about it, sometimes true, sometimes wacky.)

Barista: There are forests in New Jersey where people get attacked.

(That’s the first time anyone has ever made that reference to my state. Even fellow Americans have never given me that association with New Jersey. I quickly scan my brain. He must be referring to the Jersey Devil. I would bet that most Jersey residents don’t even know the details of that story. I certainly don’t. Suddenly I realize why our hockey team is called the Jersey Devils, though.)

Me: I don’t often go to the forest in New Jersey…

Barista: It’s a legend, of course.

Me: Well, yeah.

He proceeds to tell me that he’s been everywhere in the world but the United States. He said he wants to go but also kind of doesn’t because then he’d probably want to stay there.

I don’t know if I’m ready for this kind of hyped-up Anglophone service in Paris. The “How are you?” was like being in the States but the inquiring about my ethnicity was not. Ah well, I’ll take the smile.

Love is Kind

This time last year I would have already received a Valentine’s card from my friend Donna. She was already gone, but I didn’t know it yet.

This year I must content myself with reading her card from last year. The actual letter is safe in New Jersey, but I have a copy on my computer, too.108.donna.2015I remember, at the time of her passing, being struck by how kind my friends and family are.

– The friend who told me the news and later, attended the memorial service and recounted it to me
– The friend who had dinner with me when I arrived in Boston the night before the funeral, when I didn’t expect anyone to be able to meet up with me on late notice
– The friend who let me crash at her and her boyfriend’s apartment
– One of the career services people I knew who saved me from awkwardness after the funeral Mass; drove me to the cemetery, which was farther from the church than I realized and which I would not have been able to reach on foot; and dropped me off at a subway station so I could catch my bus back to New York
– The two friends who called me when I was in subway after the funeral to find out how it went
– My sister, who thoughtfully got a Mass card for Donna’s family
– My parents, who were supportive
– The friend who knew Donna too and with whom I could share stories
– The friends who sent me comforting words

Today I remember the envelope her Valentine’s card came in, with its pink script and matching pink postage stamp and pink return address label.

I remember sitting in her office two summers ago and her leaning forward with her whole body and laughing with her eyes all squinched up.

I remember sitting at my kitchen table and speaking with her on the phone before leaving for France.

I remember sitting in her office as a college senior, talking about the future.

I remember walking home to my dorm and talking to my college roommate about how awesome Donna was. I must have just had an appointment with her, and I can’t imagine what she would have said to leave me with that kind of enthusiasm.

I remember sitting in bed at night in Paris and reading her letter by lamplight and thinking, “Someone out there is thinking about me.” It made me realize how much value you can bring to someone from afar.

Today I think about her family and the people she touched.

Today I say to her, as I did a year ago, “Thank you.”

You Make Me Say “Ado”

Recently I interviewed a high school student who is applying to my alma mater. I have been an alumni volunteer for a few years now, and they get younger every year.

More likely I’m getting older.

It’s easy to forget what it was like be a certain age. It is in reading what I wrote at the time that I am brought back. A year or so ago, I read something I wrote in high school and was surprised to find that I was more insightful than I remembered. I talked about what I expected from college and what I wanted in the future. I may have been discussing things abstractly, since I hadn’t yet experienced what I was projecting, but what I wanted was on the ball with how things turned out. It’s as if I knew and didn’t know what I was talking about at the same time.

When I was in high school, I could not have envisioned how big the world was. And at the same time how accessible it was. Having a friend who was three years older, much less fifteen, seemed like a huge gap. Getting on a plane by myself hadn’t happened yet. If one day the friends I ate lunch with were absent, eating alone or joining people I didn’t usually eat with was unfathomable. My group of friends was nice but also a product of going to a small school. Selection was limited, and once you found a group, you didn’t move around too much. Applying to colleges was a huge deal, and every class you chose or didn’t choose seemed like it could make or break your future because of how it would affect your GPA and ranking.

I enjoy speaking with prospective candidates to my college. It’s interesting to hear about what they’re looking for, how they feel about leaving their family and friends, and how they spend their time. It also tickles me to be called “Ms. ___” by some of them.

The tables outside the café where I conducted my most recent interview had cheery little centerpieces. I thought this budding cactus in an orange watering can was out of the ordinary.

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Thank You, French Cell Phone Plan

The other Saturday I took advantage of the sunshine that made it just warm enough to sit outside, a rare winter treat.

I chose a quiet spot in the Luxembourg Gardens and called my dad. Cell phone plans have made leaps and bounds here within the past five to ten years. All the major competitors offer calls to the United States at no extra charge, which means that with a regular cell phone I can walk next to the Seine and speak with my sister, who is in the States. My plan costs twenty euros a month and includes unlimited calls and texts in France, unlimited calls to all phones in the United States, Canada, and China and to landlines in many other countries, and data. It is amazing.

About a month ago a friend and I spoke about what happened to our relationships when we left our respective countries and came to Paris. She said that she cut off her ties there, not because she had any animosity towards her circle, but because she wanted to be fully present here. She was actually quite happy before she left, but now she is immersed in her Parisian life. Our conversation made me think of a fellow college student I knew when I studied abroad here; he was adventurous and liked Paris, but he spent a lot of time Skyping with his girlfriend in the States, whom he missed a lot.

I think it’s hard to have strong ties in your home country when you live abroad because you will feel a part of you is missing. On the other hand, I value those ties. As I told my friend, although my close friends and family are not physically in Paris, they are present in my life. At one point I realized that much of my emotional support circle is not here. However, I don’t think that depending on them prevents me from forming liens in my current adopted country. I have some close friends here and am always open to meeting new people and potential “kindred spirits,” as my friend Donna would say. At the same time, I don’t consider people replaceable. I’m of the mindset that once you find a good friend, you better hold on to them.

Certainly, I am not still in contact with every friend who has ever entered my life. Sometimes people are there for a specific period, even a very short one. Sometimes people are not good at keeping in touch or drop out of sight with no warning. I’ve learned to let those go. It’s precisely for that reason that the people who stick around are all the more important.

Later that day, after my foray in the Luxembourg Gardens, I took a long walk with a friend in her neighborhood. Then I had dinner with two other friends, the couple that hosted me during my first week in Paris while I looked for an apartment.

I leave you with a photo of the Luxembourg Gardens on a cold, clear day with an uncommonly blue sky for Paris.106.luxembourg

Chartres

Last month a friend and I took a day trip to Chartres, which is only an hour and fifteen minute train ride from Paris. It was a bit rainy and cold when we arrived in the early afternoon, but we took a walk around and ducked in some shops. We meant to stop by the tourist office for a map but never actually made it there.

We had a long leisurely lunch during which I looked out the window and noticed this amusing street sign.        100_7389Translated to English, it would mean “Perfect Christmas.” Apparently Monsieur Noël Parfait was a writer and politician born in Chartres.

The famous Chartres Cathedral was quite pretty by evening and night. We spent some time wandering around the interior, which was under renovation.100_7392100_7411We got to the Centre international du vitrail (International Center of Stained Glass) about an hour before closing time, just as a wave of people were coming out. It turns out that their departure left us as practically the only visitors, much to my delight. One hour in the small building turned out to be a sufficient amount of time.

I absolutely loved the underground temporary exhibit Les peintres et le vitrail, which featured stained glass by contemporary artists.100_7394100_7396100_7399 100_7401100_7403 The ground floor contained works from the Renaissance. This is a part of a depiction of the slaves escaping Egypt. The drama in motion is present.100_7405The Centre international du vitrail is a former barn. I am always interested in places that used to be other places.chartresWhen we left the center, the sky had cleared up, and we joined the people out and about for a stroll down the cute streets dotted with boutiques and lights.100_7424100_7413100_7417100_7421

One Week Later

Last weekend a former colleague and I walked past Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) and stopped to look up at these black and white banners. 100_7537A few days later, I happened to be at Place de la République, which served as the starting point of the government-organized demonstration a few days prior.100_7547 100_7546 Pencils and pens, candles, flowers, and messages were scattered around the base. People stood quietly or discussed among themselves.100_7543The statue in the center of the plaza is Marianne, the symbol of France. Seated below her are three females representing Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, the country’s national motto. In Liberté’s hand someone had placed a pencil.100_7545vvThe country is on an official state of alert. At every entrance of major department stores and malls are security guards checking bags of people entering. In metro stations, the police presence is less noticeable, though I wonder how many are in plains clothes. On entrances to certain buildings, including my library, are signs that say “Plan vigipirate,” indicating the high alert level in the Ile-de-France region.

On Friday midday two hostages were taken at a post office in Colombes, a suburb right outside Paris and only three train stops from Saint-Lazare train station. I immediately felt sickened, as I had one week before during the hostage takings. A couple of hours later, it was reported that the hostage taker was subdued and that no one was hurt. He apparently was deranged.

All of these are reminders that while for most of us here, life has returned to normal (the stores and main streets are certainly packed, as the big biannual sales have started), it is a new kind of normal.