Straight to the Heart

Let me start from the end. My last day in Paris this past vacation found me sitting at the bottom of the long staircase at Montmartre, crying my eyes out with the beautiful Sacré-Coeur Basilica in view at the top of the hill.

When I recounted this story to my friend a week later, back in our routine of Tuesday lunch in New York, he laughed and said, “That’s so Parisian!”

I had to laugh. I know he didn’t mean it in an unsympathetic way, and I wasn’t in an emotional state at that point. I guess it was quite an image. I hadn’t seen it from his perspective since I could hardly see through my own tears while living it.

No, I hadn’t fallen down the stairs of the Sacré-Coeur. I had had an unexpected negative interaction with a close friend, and in that moment, it knocked the wind out of me and seemed to put a damper on my whole trip, which upon reflection during my flight back to the States, had actually been full of beautiful and fun and pleasant moments in addition to the disappointing and frustrating ones.

Some vacation, eh?

I have traveled quite a bit, and I realize that my experience on this trip was due in part to my ties in France, which have loosened from being away but are still rooted. Ever evolving and changing but still existent. I was coming back to a place where I have history, a place that I love where people I love live, but once in a while who and what you love can hurt you.

From what I’ve seen, most expats and immigrants have a multifaceted relationship with their adopted country. It is enriching and spectacular and difficult and challenging to make one’s life in another culture. I admire those who do so to escape a precarious political situation, for their safety, or for a better life. When I moved to France, it was just for myself, and indeed there were still hard moments. I know that I was lucky in that despite the frustrations of applying for visas and getting paperwork through and dealing with administrative systems, I had a country to come back to where I have citizenship and the right to work.

Let’s go back to the bottom of the staircase. I thought of calling someone to talk to. Who would be available back in the States? Mon copain ? I considered. I wasn’t going to call my friends in France, who would be at work. As I sat there, lo and behold, a French friend called me to ask how my trip was going. The poor guy, who was probably expecting me to tell him I was gallivanting around Paris eating pastries, got a blubbering explanation of my tears. He gave me some words of strength and insight and comfort, and after patiently listening to me a little more, kindly told me that he had to get back to his meeting and that he would call me that night. He had phoned me during a break and they were waiting for him.

I contemplated what to do next. Nearby, a girl started to play the piano that was set up at the base of the staircase. It was composer Yann Tiersen’s song from “Amélie.”

How magical.

If you’ve watched “Amélie” starring Audrey Tautou, you will know why. There is a scene in this classic film where a character runs up this very staircase. We are held in suspense along with him as he darts up to the top, wondering and hoping to find what he is seeking. I love this song in general, and to hear it here—well, I hope you can imagine. It was the stuff of dreams.

Paris, what you do to me.

DSC01066DSC01067

Read Between the Scarlet Letters

During my trip to France this summer, I saw this sign on a school’s front door in a Parisian suburb.DSC00727

“A case of scarlet fever has been detected at the school.”

No explanation accompanied the sign. With its bright red writing, it may as well have said “Enter at your own risk.” What did they advise? Were any precautions being taken? Was there any reason to be act differently than normal? It reminds me of when the police told me the Bois de Boulogne were dangerous and then drove away.

Did you know that scarlet fever was still a thing?

A day or two later, the sign was gone. Crisis averted, on espère.

The Delights of Anticipation

In a few weeks I plan to return to France for a couple of weeks. For work? some have asked me. Purely for pleasure, I respond gleefully.

I bet you can’t wait, my colleague says. I can, I say, I’m enjoying the anticipation.

You must be excited, my friend tells me over lunch. I’m so excited to planifer my train trips, I nod. He laughs. You’re excited to planifier? he says, emphasizing the last word and implying that that’s not what he thought I’d be excited about.

I was never in a rush to move away from my family and go to college. To be of legal drinking age and go to bars. To graduate from college. To get to second base. To start the weekend (except that time I hated my job).

Don’t get me wrong, I looked forward to these things. I was ready for them when they came, and I dove right into the next stage with oomph. But I didn’t wish for them to come quicker. The way I see it, we live in a moment and then it passes, and we won’t get it back, so I don’t want to live for the weekend if it means I’m not enjoying my weekdays.

What this post is really about, though, is something I picked up from Anne of Green Gables. I must thank my uncle and aunt for sending my sister and me the movie based on the book by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The story is about a young orphaned girl named Anne who ends up living with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who are sister and brother and quite a bit older than Anne’s birth parents would have been. Anne is a chatterbox and dramatic and, well, a kid. Marilla is a stern, no-nonsense figure who tries to rein in Anne.

The scene in the story that stuck with me was a conversation between Anne and Marilla. Anne is wildly excited about an upcoming picnic. She must go! What can she bring? What can she wear? She has only ever dreamed of going to a picnic! She goes on and on about it.

“You set your heart too much on things, Anne,” said Marilla, with a sigh. “I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life.”

“Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them,” exclaimed Anne. “You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs. Lynde says, `Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.”

I have always remembered that line: Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them.

I was only a kid, but the concept resonated with me.

I’m so excited to go back to France. I remember vividly the flight to move to Paris several years ago; it was nighttime, and the future seemed to be as black a void as the sky outside. In a good way. A blank slate with unknown adventures to be had. No apartment secured, a job that could very well turn out to be ill suited for me, and only a friend, an acquaintance, and a former host family as ties.

This time I am going back after having created a history in Paris. Friends, lovers, and colleagues, current and former, will be roaming around the city. Every park and metro line has a memory. I have a long list of people I want to see, food and drink to enjoy, and places to revisit. This is by no means a written itinerary or a crazy schedule; it mostly consists of sitting along the Seine with fondant au chocolat and cidre rosé and people who love me and whom I love.

I can’t wait. But I can.

Night Lights

After my Spanish class last week, I walked through Herald Square on my way home. The temperature was freezing (literally), but I stopped and took in the scene. I crossed the street, then turned to look again and take a picture, then walked a few steps, then stopped one more time before continuing on my way. A passerby would have thought I was a tourist in New York for the first time or a resident New Yorker on her last night before moving to a new city. I’m neither, of course. I can walk here whenever I want, and I do, at least once a week after my class.

DSC00288

I’ve passed through this touristy area many times, but for some reason the atmosphere of colored lights and city night reminded me of certain evenings near the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Some Monday nights, one or two British girl friends and I would meet at the same café for a slice of quiche or a hot chocolate. I’d walk there from work, when it was almost dusk, and by the time we emerged from our chats, it was nighttime. I’d turn the corner to walk to my bus stop, pass lit up commercial stores and theatres, and there would be the Opéra Garnier. Like Herald Square, it was a normally busy area that cleared out on cold nights but kept its buildings aglow.

I think I just realized why I like Hopper paintings. Or do I feel myself expand in these real life scenes because I like Hopper? Rhetorical questions. Words rarely encompass feelings.

I’m not as head in the clouds as my writing makes me out to be. Not all the time, anyway. If anything, my feet are firmly planted on the ground, looking at what’s around us.

Do you get those moments
in between all the running around and responsibilities and worries
too?

Bordeaux

Around this time last year I took a weekend trip to the city of Bordeaux with five friends. I had just come back to Paris from attending my sister’s graduation in the States, and it was the perfect way to mitigate the sadness of leaving my American home. One friend had found cheap train tickets weeks earlier and in her knack for organizing groups, gotten four of us to commit to a specific weekend and a rental apartment she had found online.

After four and a half hours on the train, we arrived in Bordeaux midday. During our relatively quiet walk from the train station to the apartment, a French man on a scooter zoomed up from the opposite direction and stopped next to us. He said my friend’s name in the form of a question. She answered in the affirmative, and we quickly realized that he was not a stalker who had followed her from Paris, but the owner of the apartment. He was afraid we would get lost on the way to his place and so had come to look for us (clearly this was not Paris, where looking for five girls with suitcases would have yielded too many results).

He needn’t have feared because we were just fine. Realizing this, he said, “Ok, à tout de suite !” and turned around to drive back to his apartment and wait for us.

Upon our arrival at the apartment, we were greeted by him and his partner (wife?), who each made their rounds with the five of us to faire la bise. That out of the way, they gave us a tour and chatted with us a bit. Of course, we didn’t know them personally, but without knowing their real life problems, we could have easily believed they were living the dream life. They were both tall, good-looking, had a child, owned a beautiful, beautiful apartment with a backyard deck, and were off to Paris for the weekend to celebrate his brother’s birthday. They were like those magazine feature articles of celebrities. Like those stars who are interviewed at home, they were not wearing fancy clothes, but casual clothes that still made them look effortlessly chic. Good grief.

After cool couple relinquished the keys, we were free to let the excitement bubble over at our place for the weekend. As the weather was warm, we shed our Parisian scarves and sweaters before heading out into the sunshine.

On our way to the center, I was charmed by this small lending library. I have seen one of these in New Jersey too, in exactly the same type of enclosed shelf.
100_8251

The main streets were animated, with a multitude of restaurants, bars, and shops (including a shoe store with the amusing English name of “Size?”). After an unfortunately mediocre lunch, we continued our exploration of the city. 100_8254100_8256100_8259100_8263100_8264100_8266100_8268100_8270100_8272100_8273100_8275

Our day closed with a dinner that made up for our midday meal. Triple threat: the service, food, and ambiance were all good. My positive opinion was clinched by a dish featuring duck served three ways. I never said I believe in restraint when it comes to food. Moderation, yes, but decadence too.

We took a nighttime walk and had a quick drink at a high table outside a bar before calling it a day. Day one of a luxuriously lovely yet inexpensive weekend with four fun girls, pas mal.

People sometimes ask me where I would like to live in France if not Paris. I love getting acquainted with different regions but never had a desire to live in another French city. However, since visiting southwestern France I usually have to add, “But… I could maybe see myself in Bordeaux.” The main streets were lively and the weather was amazing. Sure part of the reason why we were so relaxed was that we were on a brief getaway from daily life, but it was also that Bordeaux had a laidback vibe that was conducive to loosened muscles and sandals flapping against the sidewalk.

Side by Side

In New York recently, I looked skyward before crossing the street, and I saw an old and new building side by side that reminded me of two buildings I snapped a photo of years ago in Paris.

I love the long boulevards of Haussmanian buildings in Paris. I find them intricate and beautiful and harmonious. I am struck by the towering skyscrapers in New York that seem part of the same animal when night falls. People, places, and things have a large impact when they are uniform and numerous, as demonstrated by the Santa Clauses I saw near the Eiffel Tower and the Rockettes, known for their Christmas spectacular where a long line of identically dressed female dancers kick their legs in unison.

And yet diversity draws the eye as well. It’s why we may look a little longer at couples who seem mismatched to our perspective, at a tall man riding a small bicycle, or at a woman wearing clashing prints. I find it fascinating to observe older and newer buildings that exist next to each other on the same city block. A common sight in New York is a small church smack up against a soaring office building that was obviously built years after the church, which must have once been surrounded by structures that resembled its proportions more closely.

Diversity makes the world go round, I say.

Christmas Market-ing is not an Obsession

My first winter in Paris, I made it my mission to visit as many of the Christmas markets in the city as possible. They ranged from the most frequented one on the Champs-Elysées to the tiny bundle of stands in front of the Bercy 2 mall. I went to most of them, and the funny thing is that they all have similar products—delicate cut-out Christmas cards, big chocolate-covered marshmallows sold by the piece, painted ornaments, scarves fluffy and fine, mulled wine, churros. Each one has its own atmosphere, however, which is why I enjoyed walking through all of them. In my travels with friends, I also saw the marchés de Noël in Strasbourg, Lille, Marseille, and Nice.

What I almost forgot is that my love of Christmas markets was born in New York. During my first year of work after college, in December I walked through the Christmas market near my office almost every day during lunch break. Even on the very cold days, I ducked out for a few minutes for a quick walk past the stands selling jewelry, spices, puppets, and chocolate.

The markets in Manhattan were and still are located at Bryant Park, Grand Central Station, Union Square, and Columbus Circle. All are outdoors except Grand Central’s. This year I noticed a small line of stands forming a new (to me) holiday market in Times Square (there’s room for a market on the crowded sidewalks of Times Square, you ask? Yes, I was amazed too. This city can squeeze in skyscrapers in small spaces).

It wasn’t until spending a few years in France and then coming back to the States that I realized that New York actually has “holiday” markets, not “Christmas” markets. This is not to say that they’re less Christmassy than France’s marchés de Noël, they’re just more politically correct. Their signs call them holiday markets and holiday fairs. Which is funny, because all the pine and red and white stripes clearly point to a specific holiday.

140.christmasmarketsny.a140.christmasmarketsny.b140.christmasmarketsny.c140.christmasmarketsny.d140.christmasmarketsny.e140.christmasmarketsny.f

Happy Holidays!

Lille

To continue our gray daytrips, my friend and I visited Lille a week after visiting Strasbourg. Well, of course we didn’t plan for it to be rainy and gloomy, but we didn’t let it stop us, either.

Lille is in the North of France, part of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. Direct trains from Paris take only about an hour.

Their Christmas market welcomed us in French, English, and German.

138.lille.a

A bunch of little Santas were out and about.

138.lille.b138.lille.c

How can you not like things converted into other things? This museum in Roubaix, a city that neighbors Lille and is accessible by metro, is fittingly called La Piscine, as it is a former swimming pool.

138.lille.d

Back in Lille, I snapped this photo whose colors and shapes now remind me of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” For as long as I can remember, I have loved the combination of blue and gold, stars and moon.

138.lille.e

This outdoor scene resembled a party: the colorful square recessed lights, the decked out display windows and escalator, and the adorable little snack truck. It was actually just the entrance to a shopping center.

138.lille.f

We were mesmerized by this striking tunnel in the middle of the road and walked around it to appreciate it from all angles. The structure encompassed you. It stood alone and yet dialogued with its surroundings. Cars passed under it and pedestrians strolled alongside. It is always special to see the handiwork of someone’s creativity.

138.lille.g138.lille.h138.lille.i

Speaking of creativity, this Christmas tree plopped on a merry-go-round amused me as it rotated beneath the strings of lights.

138.lille.j

We revisited the main plaza we had walked through earlier. Pas mal, wouldn’t you agree?

138.lille.k138.lille.l

It was chilly outside, so after spending the whole day exploring the city center and its surroundings, we checked out the centre commerciale near the gare before taking the train back to Paris. Its holiday decor did not disappoint. And it had pink escalators!

138.lille.m

These chairs, table, and place setting for giants attracted us. I succeeded in sitting at the table, but my poor petite friend and I ended up cracking up when she tried to climb onto a chair and struggled before slipping off.

138.lille.n

The next time I went up to Lille was for a half-hour stopover halfway through a nine-hour bus ride to London, but that’s for another day.

Strasbourg

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.

136.strasbourg.a136.strasbourg.b136.strasbourg.c136.strasbourg.d136.strasbourg.e

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

136.strasbourg.f

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!”

136.strasbourg.g

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.

136.strasbourg.h136.strasbourg.i136.strasbourg.j136.strasbourg.k136.strasbourg.l

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?