Vroom Vroom

He drove up in his little Fiat and leaned over the passenger seat so I could see him. I rose from the steps where I was sitting and descended to meet him.

I don’t know why, but I find something so romantic about having a car pull up and getting in to commence a date. Every motion is enjoyable to me—the movement and stopping of the car in front of the curb, opening the door, slipping in and setting down my purse, closing the door, and zooming off.

Maybe it comes from scenes from the 50s-set TV show “Happy Days.” I do not recall specific episodes, but I have a vague impression that Fonzie picked up his dates in his car. Or maybe it comes from any number of movies I watched as a teen.

Maybe it’s because I’ve mostly dated in cities and so am accustomed to meeting at metro stops (which can have its own charm but is very different).

Maybe it’s because I like the feeling of trusting someone to take me wherever it is we will go.

Although he and I weren’t meant for each other, I have good memories of zipping around Paris as he worked the stick shift and I soaked in the city from the middle of the avenue.

Sweet Potatoes in the Woods

This past Saturday I spent a good part of the day with a friend at Bois de Vincennes, the largest park in Paris. We began by stretching out on the not-quite-green grass next to the lake and basking in the sun.

After heating up, we took a long walk that turned into what we dubbed a “tour du monde” (a trip around the world). In looking for the Buddhist temple located in the park, we stumbled upon a Tibetan festival. We didn’t pay to enter but peeked through the fence at the colorful flags and many stands.

Further on, we came upon a clearing and experienced a moment that I soon after pronounced several times as magical. A wooden structure rose up before us with people milling inside and around. Most of them were of African descent, and about half of them were in colorful printed loose clothing. Some of the men wore light blue button-down shirts and black pants. Women stood behind tables and served food. People stood under trees, lounged on the ground, or sat on the grass and talked and ate. The best word I can find to describe the atmosphere is peaceful.

We stood a close distance to look at the sign on the structure, and a French man in a fishing hat approached us and told us they were an association that recently built water-providing structures in Mali. It is a partnership between people there and French engineers who contribute their skills. They have been around for 20 years, and this was their 15th annual picnic. He explained that since Ramadan is next weekend, there were less attendees at the picnic because there were other events happening pre-Ramadan. He invited us to partake in their bounty.

My friend declined, but as food and I prefer to live in the same sentence, I climbed the several steps into the wooden house and approached the tables. Before taking a plastic plate, asked a woman behind the tables if I could contribute something. She said no, no.

I filled up my plate with a little of everything, not exactly knowing what the dishes were but eager to try them. As I descended with my full plate, a woman looked at it and said to me, “C’est tout ?” (That’s all?) She was serious, and I thought, That’s hospitality.

My friend and I sat in a shady spot on the ground, and I ate and marveled at this oasis that appeared right as my stomach needed filling. We agreed that with the landscape and African dress, it felt like we were far from Paris.

117.vincennes.2015a117.vincennes.2015b 117.vincennes.2015c 117.vincennes.2015d 117.vincennes.2015eMy favorite dish was composed of a kind of white sweet potato, carrots, and cabbage. I inquired about it, and a woman told me it was a Senegalese dish called “tcheb.” I wrote it down to ensure it would not be the last time I had it.

The man who had approached us at the beginning came back and asked me if I had tried the ginger juice yet. When I answered in the negative, he beckoned me back to the tables and asked one of the women for a bag of ginger juice—the other option was hibiscus. The juice was packaged in clear plastic bags for exactly one portion. To set it free, he held it over a plastic cup, pierced it, and handed the bag and cup to me so I could wait for the cup to fill up. I was surprised by the taste—at first, the juice was clearly sweet, then moments later became spicy with ginger. It was good.

Sated, we got up and continued on our way.

We later passed through a woodsy area with lines of tables with food and Latin American music resounding. Why not?

Our afternoon was punctuated by iced coffee outside at a café in the twelfth arrondissement—I have only recently discovered that some French cafes serve it—and watching people walk by. I find watching people’s summer fashions a wholly entertaining activity.

With hours of daylight still ahead of us, we walked to my friend’s suburb and stopped along the way to buy groceries for dinner at the kind of massive supermarket you will never find in the city.

At his apartment, we found his friend who is staying with him taking advantage of his large balcony. The three of us had the pleasure of dining en plein air as night slowly fell.

The night finished with my friend pulling out his guitar and singing songs by Georges Brassens, a classic French singer. It is not the first time I’ve kicked back in a French man’s apartment while he performed Georges Brassens on his guitar, and I have to say it is a rather pleasant experience.

Fly Me to Anywhere

When I was a kid, I dreaded plane rides. Plane rides were 16-hour flights to Asia cramped in the four middle aisle seats, my sister and I between our parents. One children’s movie available. I don’t know if this memory became exaggerated with the years, but I seem to remember us watching “Mulan” six times in one flight. Air sickness. Popping ears. Adjusting the small papery pillow every single which way but still finding no comfortable position to sleep. The only fun part was getting to suck a lollipop to help with the popping ears during the ascent and descent.

I always call those flights my formation (training). Anything less than 16 hours now seems like a breeze.

It seems that my graduation from dreading flights to them being painless to enjoying them happened all of a sudden. Once, I had to take nausea medicine before every flight, then one day I didn’t have to. I could eat the food without feeling sick. The air pressure didn’t bother me.

Now I often fall asleep waiting for the plane to take off, and when I wake up we are already in the air.

Instead of viewing the flight as a necessary evil, I catch up with metro newspapers and magazines and read a novel. I think about where I’m coming from and where I’m going. I replay the last few days in the place I’m departing from. I think about the loved ones I’m leaving and the loved ones I’m going to see. On my way to the States, I think about big slices of pizza.

Rather than feeling cramped next to the window, it is my preferred seat, for cloud gazing and landscape searching.

My recent flight to Chicago treated me to striking bodies of water, curves of land, baseball fields, and cloverleaf roads.

100_8084100_8091100_8092 100_8087 100_8072 100_8088 100_8093

Like A Picture in a Frame

Sometimes the windows in museums are just as picturesque as the paintings on the walls.

The top floor of the Picasso museum in Paris offers up the city past its curly metal railings.117.windows.2015aIf you pause on the checkered marble landing before descending one of the side staircases at the Louvre, these lines await you.
117.windows.2015b 117.windows.2015cOh, those Haussmannian buildings.

A Preview Imprévu

Recently I wandered into an art gallery in the shadow of the Pantheon. Actually part of the fifth arrondissement’s city hall, the gallery’s unassuming entrance on a side street contrasts with the grand columned façade of the building.

The vibrant, colorful paintings by Zareh Mutafian formed an exhibit called “Peindre après le génocide” (Painting after the genocide). This year marks 100 years since the genocide in Armenia. Mutafian was a survivor. Without knowledge of the title of the exhibit, one would not know it; the paintings’ subjects are brightly colored figures and landscapes. They’re quite beautiful.

I was surprised to see some art supplies on the table in the center of the gallery. I walked around, looking at the works. There were a couple of people conversing in the otherwise quiet space. After a few minutes, the man who was there told me, “Feel free to look around, but please don’t go upstairs since we’re not done setting up yet.” “You’re not open yet!?” I said. “When do you open?” “Tomorrow,” he replied.

I finished my tour of the ground floor, thanked him, and left. I looked more closely at the banner outside, and effectivement, the exhibit was to open the next day.

116.art.2015

It is not the first time that I’ve walked through a door that yielded to me, then later found out that it was not open to the public. I highly recommend it. Of course, to avoid feigning ignorance, it must be an honest mistake, so the key is to not read signs too carefully.

Long Days and Long Nights

Last Saturday I went out into the sunshine. If you live somewhere where periods of the year are rainy or cold, you understand how glorious it is when a beautiful day arrives.

Sometimes when I see a church, I stop in and walk around the inside and look at the stained glass windows and statues of saints. How utterly tranquil and filled with light this church was.

115.church.2015

People who don’t live in France sometimes ask me if I shop at outdoor markets. The answer is: not often enough. Like many other city residents, I usually make a one-stop shop at the supermarket. But once in a while, I remember that there are markets open every day, in every arrondissement, and I go.115.market.2015a 115.market.2015b

My fridge is now stocked with broccoli, carrots, turnips, garlic, eggplant, tomatoes, and leafy greens.

I picked up mozzarella from a small grocery and fondant au chocolat from the frozen food chain Picard before heading home to make lunch.

Next was a stroll on boulevard du Montparnasse for a little shopping.

This month I didn’t buy the 70 euro monthly metro pass, so I am walking and biking everywhere. According to the weekly vélib email that shows up in my inbox, last week I biked 3 hours and 45 minutes.

My purchases and purse fit neatly in the metal basket of the heavy gray bike.

Unbelievably, the sun was still warm and shining at 7 in the evening. I took the opportunity to sit in the Luxembourg Gardens and finish Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I had borrowed from my favorite library.

After a quick munch on the broccoli I had cooked earlier, I headed out for a group rendez-vous at Belleville. A sit on a terrasse was followed by dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant and a night out.

Is it any wonder that this is my favorite time of year here? When the nice weather rolls around and the days grow longer, I struggle to think how I spent my free time during the winter season!

Look Up

This is how I am when the sun comes out. 114.sun.2015aAnd once I look up, I realize how pretty the tree against the sky is. And I remind myself to look up more often.114.sun.2015b 114.sun.2015cUsually we live life straight ahead. One day I realized that if, while on the bus, I moved my line of vision just slightly upward, the ride was a different experience. Instead of looking at the storefronts, which is interesting in itself, I was looking at the rooftops of the old Haussmannian buildings.

When I was a kid, I sometimes walked around my family’s apartment while holding a mirror in front of me with the surface facing upwards. When I looked down at the mirror, it felt like I was walking on the ceiling. When crossing rooms, I would instinctively step over the door frame although there was actually nothing but flat continuous floor beneath my feet.

I’m not sure how I started doing that. Who knows what inspires us to see the world from a different perspective from time to time? All I can say is thank goodness that it happens.

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

100_7746

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.

112.nimes.2015g

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.