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?

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.

100_9651

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.

penguinfishing.2014

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.