Another late November, before I had ever tasted a flammekueche, a friend and I took a day trip to Strasbourg from Paris. Was it because we were naïve or enthusiastic or wanting the least expensive train ticket that we took a train before 6:30am? I can no longer remember, but I do recall arriving in the eastern French city before 9am and realizing that not only was it threatening to rain, but also the city had not awoken yet. Perhaps people were at work already, but it seemed pretty quiet.

Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region, which borders Germany. Most relevant to our trip was that it touts itself as the capital of Christmas. In late November, it opens what it proclaims is the oldest Christmas market in France. I wonder what the Christmas market in 1570 was like. You would not have found an Asian American and a Trini girl wandering it. And in another 450 years, who will be shopping for their trinkets?

We bought a 1 euro city map from the tourist office in the train station. The city center is quite small. You can walk from the gare to the center in 12 minutes, and across the whole center in about half an hour.

We headed to the Petite France area, which had charming architecture flanking canals and cobblestone streets.


Do you see the French/English play on words at this café?


We saw a bridge with a green gnome painted on it, and I crouched down and posed to imitate him while my friend took a picture of me. A group of school kids and their teachers walked up to us, and one of the teachers asked if I could pose again with my friend taking a picture so they could include us in their art class film about the types of people in Strasbourg—residents, tourists. Clearly we were representing the tourists. She spoke in English, not too badly, until she realized we spoke French. My friend and I recreated the scene as requested. Afterward the kids clapped for us. I was tickled by the whole thing. Now we’re in some random Strasbourg art school film.

See how the teacher has caught sight of us? You can tell she’s thinking, “Jackpot!”


We walked through a Christmas market that had just opened for the day. It would be the first of many Christmas markets we visited. We browsed the marchés de Noël at place Broglie (the biggest one, called Christkindelsmärik), place de la Cathédrale, place Kléber, in front of the gare, and others.


We had a snack at a brasserie, and I was amazed at how much cheaper food was than in Paris.

The tall Christmas tree at place Kléber stood above a lit up village scene. According to a brochure, it was the tallest natural Christmas tree in Europe.

At the marché de Noël at place Broglie, I bought a bretzel (pretzel). In addition to bretzels, we saw a lot of pain d’épice (gingerbread) and St. Nicolas cookies (kind of weird to eat a bishop).

We walked to the cathedral. By this time it was raining and pretty miserable.

We met up with my friend’s acquaintance, a woman from Trinidad and Tobago who had been living in Strasbourg for ten years. We looked around a book fair at the l’Aubette shopping center in place Kléber. Strasbourg is the birthplace of printing, as it is where Gutenberg printed the first bible!

On our way to a café, a woman asked us if we wanted to take part in a cheese and flammekueche tasting. We thought we were going to do a quick tasting inside a food place near where we were standing, but the woman led us to a building and up to the second floor. What an unexpected experience. We didn’t even know where we were or what organization was organizing the tasting. We tried three different kinds of Muenster cheese, which is a specialty of Alsace and spelled munster in French, and two kinds of flammekueche. Surrounded by fellow tasters, we filled out surveys on each sample.

Let me explain about the flammekueche. I had been very curious about this fun-to-say food long before I moved to France. I used know a Russian in the States who had lived in Strasbourg for a few years. He talked about how a specialty of the region was flammekueche, a hot dish that resembled a pizza but without tomato sauce. The standard one was topped by crème fraiche or fromage blanc, onions, and lardons. This Russian friend, who came from Siberia, said a lot of things that made us go, “Huh?” He was really nice, and it was him that I called on via email to recommend a joint for some good flammekueche, also called tarte flambée.

With this adresse in hand, my friend and I settled into the cozy, dimly lit brasserie for dinner. I had an onion, mushroom, and lardon flammekueche called a Forestière. When the bill came, I was surprised that it cost only about 3 euros, because it was happy hour and therefore half price.

On our walk to the train station, we were treated to Strasbourg’s Christmas lights, which were so pretty at night. Every street had different kinds of lights. One had red and gold lights in the shapes of stars. Another had boxes with lit chandeliers inside.

Why not chandeliers outdoors, I say?

Home Away From Home

The night after the recent attacks in Paris, I attended a concert with two friends in New York. The performer, Jon McLaughlin, is one of my favorite artists, so when he is on tour, I am there (except when I am not. I still haven’t done the whole groupie thing for anyone). This was my fourth time around.


During the concert, I felt a sadness and happiness. If you have been moved by music, you will understand what I mean by happiness; it rises up within me sometimes when a voice, an instrument, words fill the room. It happens most often with live music. Murmured recognition and delight as a song begins, the feeling of being encapsulated in the sound, remembering each time why live music is delicious.

The sadness I felt during the concert was ever-present, not one that I could shake off or forget for more than a moment.

The conflicting feelings didn’t compete with each other but rather, filled me right up. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. I had done that the previous night and during the day. There is a lot to think about if one starts: the attacks in Paris, the bloodshed, the individual stories, the aftermath, attacks in other countries, other types of killings all over the world, what individuals can do, what governments can do. One can’t think about all the problems at once. It becomes too much for one person that way, but no one said that one person has to carry the burden.

I remember what it was like to walk outside in Paris after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo and before the hostage taking in Vincennes. Exposed. And the following week, when for those who did not know someone killed, the physical motions of life had returned to normal, and yet my perspective on daily life had changed.

Surely when the shooting on the train from Amsterdam to Paris happened, I thought about how a friend and I had not long before taken that train, peacefully sleeping side by side in the early hours.

This time, I was not in Paris, but rather following the news from afar and checking in with friends. The next evening, I was going to a restaurant with friends, attending a concert with no more security than having my last name checked against a list, and walking to the subway nearing midnight while people spilled out of bars. Activities that many of us expect to do without wondering whether we’d be better off staying at home.

Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ve all had moments when a horrible event shifted how we saw the world. We witness violence in its different forms in every country. The world is still beautiful, but frightening as well and terribly sad.

One question now is what we can do going forward. I’m going to think about that.

Stags and Hens

The first time I saw a young man dressed up in a rabbit suit surrounded by peers in broad daylight in Montmartre, I didn’t know what was going on. They were not performers. And why was everyone but one poor guy in regular clothing?

By the time I saw this penguin fishing under impassive eyes a couple of years later, I knew that he had found his mate.


In France a man or woman who is engaged to be married may be made to wear a costume or embarrassing outfit while accompanied by his or her friends in daytime or nighttime activities, often involving the public. Once, a group of girls approached my companion and me and asked us to sign the bride-to-be’s notebook with a message to wish her well.

If not in costume, the bride-to-be may be wearing one color (for example, a white t-shirt) while her following of friends all wear another (likely pink).

In the U.S. grooms and brides-to-be often have bachelor and bachelorette parties, but they usually take place in the evening. A typical one will be at a bar or someone’s home or if it is an overnight trip, Las Vegas. The friends of the star of the party may try to make them engage with strangers, but it will be in an enclosed space, as opposed to in the street. While it is often obvious who in the group is engaged to be married, because they will be wearing a sash or tiara or other indicator, animal costumes are not a tradition. Alternatively, some people opt for tamer celebrations, like a dinner with their friends of the same sex, a spa day, or another group activity. I am sure this is true in France as well, that some people prefer to have a meal instead of pretending to fish for one in the Seine as their friends look on.

Bref, that is all to say that I’ve seen many costumed characters in the streets of New York City, but I’m pretty sure that none of them were getting married.

This Provincial Life

In the dead of winter a couple of years ago, a friend and I took a day trip to Provins, a medieval village about an hour and a half from Paris by train. It was very cold, and there were no other tourists in town.

It was charming.

There were stone buildings on the quiet roads that sometimes ascended and descended.

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Doors about five feet high were everywhere. Why?

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We walked to the northern edge of the town, where the ramparts are. After passing under an archway to the other side, I was amazed. Before us were fields. Vast fields. The landscape was like a beautiful painting.

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It was very cold. But I said that already. We climbed a staircase up the ramparts and walked along the edge.


Through another gate of the fort, we found a path leading to the tourist office. An odd location I thought, rather than near the train station or the main square Place du Chatel, which was our next stop.


On a covered heated terrace of a resto, we ordered galettes (buckwheat crepes) and were given red blankets to warm our laps. The cream to accompany my smoked salmon and spinach galette perched on a curved spoon.


Provins is a walking town. We reached the Tour César easily from the square. Atop a hill, it reminded me of the tower in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I pretended to ride an invisible horse with coconuts knocking for the hooves. I suppose saying ‘pretend’ is redundant since the horse was invisible.


We climbed the twelfth century tower and paused for a view of the village.


For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered and visited a park and a couple of churches, including the Eglise Saint-Ayoul, which had beautiful stained glass windows in a low ceilinged wing of white arches. There was one window of yellow stained glass, and others with red or orange or purple glass.

The stained glass I love is light. It creates light, filters it, plays with it through color. A photo never captures it but makes me remember how it felt to stand in its light.


By a quarter to five, we were back to the train to Paris’s Gare de L’Est. It was not the first day trip I had taken to medieval times, though it was probably more authentic than the dinner theatre of the same name in New Jersey.


Fall: a season that I built up every year that I was in France. Not because it is my favorite season there—that would be summer—but because I missed the autumn of my native Northeastern United States. Changing red and yellow leaves, pumpkins, apple cider and doughnuts, Halloween decorations.

This year for the first time in a little while, I walked through those crispy leaves and rolling acorns.

130.fall.2015aI looked up at these leaves and in my mind’s eye they transformed into butterflies flitting up a tree.

130.fall.2015b 130.fall.2015c 130.fall.2015d 130.fall.2015e 130.fall.2015f 130.fall.2015g 130.fall.2015hHappy Halloween!

City Citrouilles

Pumpkins are ubiquitous in the U.S. during the fall season. They certainly are cute as vegetables come. One Saturday in Boston some years ago, I came upon a massive tower of pumpkins by city hall.


They were trying to achieve the Guinness World Record for number of jack-o-lanterns, which are carved pumpkins.

129.pumpkinsboston.2015bOn the steps and ground in the plaza were hundreds of pumpkins, all sporting carved faces.

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Notice that the pumpkin in the top left of the picture above says “SOX.” For those unfamiliar with American sports, the Red Sox are Boston’s baseball team. From a young age, people from the Boston area are raised to be avid sports fans. I learned this when I was a high school senior staying overnight at a Boston area school that I had been accepted to. When the students hosting me learned I was from New Jersey, they asked, “Are you a Yankees fan?” A New York Yankees fan was apparently an undesirable thing to be, as the Red Sox and the Yankees are fierce rivals. I actually hadn’t heard this when I was in the New York area, but I sure did when I was in Boston.

In the plaza, action was still happening; children and adults carved pumpkins to add to the assembly.


Do you see the lights strung through these love pumpkins? As evening fell, they lit up the jack-o-lanterns, which I caught a glimpse of before heading home.


Do You Have to Let It Linger

Soon after my move to Paris, I was out and about and came upon a person distributing sample-size cups of dried cranberries with a brochure titled “Connaissez-vous les cranberries des Etats-Unis?” (Do you know about American cranberries?).


Note the striped fields and star-strewn sky that form a brilliant American flag motif.

The brochure was divided into sections: Caractéristiques (what they look like and when they are in season), Cuisine (good with muesli, yogurt…), and Santé (why they are healthy for you). The benefits of cranberries were laid out, along with recipes for cranberry sauce and smoothies.


It is true that while many French people have heard of cranberries, just as many have never tried them. I sometimes shared my warehouse-size bag of dried cranberries with French friends who visited me. On the other hand, most French people of varying ages are familiar with the Irish music group The Cranberries.

When I was about to run out, my friend who lived in Morocco came just in time with a plastic sachet of dried cranberries. Have you tried cranberries in more than one country? I noticed that the ones from Morocco were plumper, sweeter, and a brighter red than those from my local warehouse in the U.S. To my taste buds they weren’t necessarily better, but good and a rather exotic import that I greatly appreciated.

Dried cranberries are available in supermarkets in Paris but in very small packs and for a premium price. They’re not in demand, anyway. I brought mine from the States knowing that they would be a happy addition to my morning oatmeal.

A emporter

It is true that doggie bags are not part of French culture. That said, takeout is common. Many people buy baguette sandwiches, Chinese food by the kilogram, and Greek gyros to go. If an eatery offers takeout, then it follows that they have ways to wrap up your meal for the commute.

Even at these places, however, you may ask for a container of ketchup to go with your fries and receive this.


I appreciate that they didn’t blink an eye when I asked. I didn’t either when I received ketchup in a ball of foil.

Let Me Introduce You to Belfort

How I came to spend one and a half days by myself in the small city of Belfort, France is a story in itself, but perhaps one best told if we have coffee one day. Belfort is in the eastern part of the country and about a two-hour ride from Paris if you take the TGV (high-speed train) or four hours if you take Intercités (a slower train that makes more stops along the way).

At the small train station, I picked up a booklet of lodging listings from an employee. I asked another one, a young woman, how to get to the city center and whether I should get a single bus ticket or a daily pass. There isn’t much to do in Belfort, she said, Once you arrive at the center you can reach everything on foot.

The board the bus, you simply texted a code to a phone number when the bus arrived and showed the subsequent text you received to the driver. The cost of the ticket would be automatically added to your next phone bill. I was surprised that a small city would have such an advanced system, but now that I think about it, a simple transportation network must make it all the more easy to enact any changes. I would later also be wowed by the fact that merchants often just scanned the chip on my debit card to deduct the amount, without need for me to enter my PIN. To date I have only seen this in Paris once.

It was hot, and I rolled my duffel bag behind me. After walking for a little while and looking at a few restaurant menus, I chose a hotel restaurant terrasse off the main plaza that was flanked by a cathedral and city hall. Usually, avoiding such a main area seemed wise, but this place was perfect. It offered an array of huge salads for the right price. My three-duck salad with figs hit the spot.


I flipped through the lodging options—it was the first time I had ever shown up in a city without a place to stay—and chose a hotel close to the train station. A former colleague of mine told me that when he travels, upon arriving he asks his taxi driver where he recommends staying. That is certainly not my modus operandi; lodging is the minimum item I book when traveling.

I told the hotel receptionist, a young woman, that it was my first time in Belfort. There isn’t much to do here, she said. This seemed to be a theme. I was amused, as shouldn’t at least a hotel employee sell the city? She was, after all, in the tourism industry.

I could sell the city. Not as your first stop in France and perhaps only for a day or two, but it had its charm and the residents were nice.

As you may surmise from the “fort” in its name, Belfort is surrounded by a large, impressive wall.

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It is also known for its lion carved into stone. Its sculptor is none other than Frédéric Bartholdi, whom we have to thank for the Statue of Liberty.


I wandered up steps alongside a hill and came upon a vantage point of the city where there was also a huge truck parked. I asked the man inside it what was going on, and he said that that night the fireworks would be shot from there. It was July 13th, the day before Fête de la Bastille, a major holiday in France.


Flag waving is not a part of French culture, so I enjoyed seeing the rare displays all over town for what anglophones call Bastille Day. They flitted in the breeze, and you could not mistake where you were.

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In the early evening, I stopped at a café terrasse for a spot of tea to soothe my sore throat.


I made my way back to the main square for the Bastille Day Eve festivities. A deejay had already set up, and two men, one with a feather in his hat and the other donning a baseball cap, were dancing un-self-consciously. For the most part, no one else in the plaza was dancing, but we enjoyed their enthusiasm. At one point, a boy joined their dancing while his parents looked on. You know that he’s going to have fun in life.

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The square was full but not overcrowded for the fireworks. I would later hear from friends that the fireworks in Paris were spectacular, but the Belfort firework experience was relaxed and a spectacle nonetheless. There was no mad rush to the metro after. There is no metro to rush to.


I walked back to the hotel. The poor night shift receptionist was running around because the room card system was down, so each time guests entered, he had to accompany them to their room to open the door for them. You can imagine that this led to guests arriving to an empty hotel lobby and waiting until the receptionist came down so he could go up again. I was sympathetic to him. He was the only employee working that night and had to also prepare the tables for breakfast. During the elevator ride up, he asked me where I was from. His French was Italian-accented. Oh, I know New Jersey, he replied, I have family there. Doesn’t everyone. No wonder it’s the densest state in the United States.

The next day, I unwittingly came upon a parade for Bastille Day. A variety of fire trucks and police cars slowly rolled by as people clapped. The mayor of Belfort shook hands with members of the military.


The festivities culminated in the city square, as all the town events seemed to.

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I sat on a bench contentedly and watched couples, mostly middle-aged and older, dance to the music and switch partners. They obviously all danced together regularly.

A man in his sixties sat down next to me and said, “Quelle ambiance.” I looked at him. The tips of his gray moustache reached down to his chin. He wore sunglasses and a white baseball cap, and a small cellphone hung on a string around his neck.

Yes, it’s great, I agreed. We chatted. He was a native Belfortian who had lived there all his life.

I told him that it was my first time to visit and that I liked the city. You are a grande voyageuse, he said.

He asked me if he could take my picture as a souvenir. I pondered for a moment. A very strange request, yes. But what the heck, I was leaving on a train to Paris in an hour, and this whole trip was pretty random, so why not. I then took a selfie of us for my own souvenir and a laugh later.


A Sunday Stroll in Parc de Bercy

After a crepe lunch in Montparnasse with a friend and her partner, I called another friend to meet up. After hemming and hawing for a few minutes about where to go, I apologized for not having thought beforehand. I hung up, and after a quick look my Paris map, called right back. Often a quick reflection alone is all it takes.

What about Parc de Bercy? I asked. I hadn’t been there in a long time, and it would be convenient for him to get to.

We met by the Bercy Arena, where I used to ice skate with a friend who would speed skate around the rink ahead of me. We would go on weekend nights, when the rink turned into a sort of club, with loud music, darkness, and buckets of teens on ice skates, plus us.

My friend and I spent a moment at the ledge overlooking the adjacent outdoor skate park, where skateboarders, bikers, and rollerbladers attempted tricks on the ramps. They’re just okay, huh? my friend said.

Continuing on, we reminisced about our previous rendez-vous in the area. Passing the quaint shopping strip Bercy Village, I remembered one of our outings early on in our friendship.

Crossing a bridge above the park, we stopped and looked on both sides; one showed the Seine and a shopping mall, and the other was this road of zigzags and a green city bus and bikers and still-summer trees.

125.parcdebercy.2015aMy friend vowed to show me the best place to draguer (hit on) someone.


I am still not sure why the pedestrian bridge Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir would be appropriate to bring one’s would-be beau, but I was delighted to walk on it for the first time. Somehow, in all my park and river wanderings, I had never ascended and descended the wooden waves of this bridge bearing the name of my beloved Simone.

On a related note, I once crossed the bridge Pont des Arts with someone who told me that it was known as being a place where men draguent women. I had never heard that before and was skeptical. Where do French guys get their information on bridge drague-ing? And here I am, perpetuating what is probably a myth.

We made our way back through the park to meet a friend who was joining us. On the way, I stopped to giggle at this large bunny that bounded next to the smaller carousel horses.

125.parcdebercy.2015cThe three of us were out of place at Parc de Bercy, as many of the young people walking around seemed to have just come from an anime convention.


We strolled in a garden within the park that housed a brick structure that made me feel we were far from the city of Paris.


Our afternoon in the park ended with us around a checkerboard table with stone seats and grass underfoot.