Hello Again, Marseille

After just one full day in Paris, I took the train down to Marseille (I’d be back in Paris for the latter part of my France trip). I’ve been to Marseille a number of times, but there is, refreshingly, always something new to discover.

Like the nice man who struck up a conversation with me as I ate sweet, smushed wild strawberries while sitting on a ledge across from a café a ways down from the train station.

Like this giraffe.

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Like this church with Joan of Arc rising in front of it.

Like these whimsical umbrellas.

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Like this shopping street (yes, I deliberately timed my vacation to coincide with the biannual soldes).

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Like this view that reminded me of San Francisco.

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And a rediscovery of Le Vieux Port.

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And an exploration of its environs.

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And an intriguing alley.

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And a huge inflatable duck to ponder while perching myself on a cement block and waiting for my friend to pick me up. Trying to discreetly peer at every male driver with sunglasses to see if he was my ride. Hint: One cannot both be discreet and peer at the same time.

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Another discovery: My friend’s son, the kid I once bent down to to faire la bise, is now taller than me. His daughter, thankfully, had not lost the excitement she had for things like sitting next to me at dinner.

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A Screwball Comedy

What is, My life as a film?

I have been wearing tall black boots almost every day to work. I like them a lot, but I’m tired of wearing the same thing. They’re just the best winter footwear I have that are appropriate for work.

One night this month, I was inspired to dig out my black loafers from my closet. I’d worn them probably once or twice in the past eleven years. Overall I had used them for only one or two years in high school. My little Catholic grammar and high schools required a uniform, and for years I had worn variations of black laced shoes and black loafers. While it was exciting to make the change from laced shoes to loafers in seventh grade, once I went off the college, I never looked back at those loafers.

Once in a while, when going through my shoes, I would take them out, admire how new they still looked, and decide to keep them for when I needed an extra pair.

That moment finally came recently. I thought they looked pretty smart with my jeans and black turtleneck.

The next morning, I took the bus, then the subway. Halfway through my walk from the station to work, I felt a loosening around my right foot. I looked down, disconcerted.

My shoe had come apart around my foot.

I couldn’t believe it. The edge around the toe of the shoe had partly broken off, and the sole had broken in half. I could see the bottom of my cat socks.

I knew that rubber band in my purse would one day come in handy. I wrapped it around my shoe and gingerly walked to work.

At my desk, I contemplated how to go about the rest of the day. Unfortunately, I had a meeting in about fifteen minutes across the street and had to remedy the situation immediately. It was clear that one rubber band wouldn’t prevent the half-sole from slipping away from my foot.

I started to color a rubber band with a permanent black marker, then quickly abandoned that idea. Did you know that the texture of a rubber band doesn’t lend itself to marker?

I stuck some scotch tape on the bottom of my shoe. It was like dropping a square of toilet paper in a large puddle.

I wrapped about ten rubber bands around the top half of my shoe. That should hold it together for  now.

Now, how to disguise my collapsed footwear?

I looked at the stash of small plastic bags on my bookshelf. A standard white plastic bag would make it too obvious that I was trying to hide a problem. I decided to go in the other direction and selected the bright red plastic bag and tied it around my shoe, knotting it at the bottom. Maybe it was so flashy that people would assume it was a style choice. This was New York, after all.

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My brief foray across the narrow street to my meeting made it clear that there was no way I could walk all day in this shoe, let alone commute home. It was falling apart.

Luckily, I work in a neighborhood with a lot of stores. DSW, the shoe mecca, is under a ten minute walk away if you’re walking at a normal pace. I, however, was walking with a slight limp to avoid creating too much movement of the various separated pieces of my shoe. This did not work at all, and I ended up stopping six or seven times on my walk to readjust the tectonic plates, which were rapidly slipping away from the desperately clinging rubber bands and now tired-looking red plastic bag.

My low point was when the plastic bag blew off, and after quickly considering whether to let it go, I ran to retrieve it and wedged myself between a mailbox and a trash can to retie it under my shoe. It had torn from the walking, and I wasn’t sure if it would make the block and a half to DSW. At this point it wasn’t just to keep up appearances, but to keep the moving parts together.

The employee at DSW looked down at my shoe as I walked towards the clearance section. To her credit, she greeted me normally. I responded brightly.

I scored silver booties for $17.98 after a 70% reduction. I’m not sure it was fair to be so richly rewarded for my foolishness.

I don’t know what the lesson is here. Choose one that suits you: Always keep an extra pair of shoes at work. Shoe glue expires. Things aren’t made the way they used to be. Don’t neglect a pair of shoes for eleven years without expecting a revolt. Always stay within half a mile of a DSW. Shame is real. Leave loafers in school.

Back to My Casa

Before my return flight from Casablanca to Paris, my friend and I had the morning and afternoon to squeeze in a few more activities. Not that it felt rushed at all (not until later, anyway).

We had breakfast with her friends at their usual spot, then took a long walk to a market so I could buy dried fruit and nuts to bring back to my friends and volunteer group.

I was in heaven. Dried fruit is usually expensive in France, but in Morocco not only was it a reasonable price, but also the number of choices boggled the mind. I filled clear plastic bags with dried figs, dates, kiwi, pineapple, papaya, and almonds. At the time I did not realize that the figs would later become an obsession due to their deliciousness; I would grab two or three each time I left my Paris apartment, savoring them and trying to stretch out the bag as long as possible.

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Next was a shopping trip to an open-air bazaar, during which my friend coached me on the art of haggling. As I expressed interest in items, she told me what she thought they should cost and advised me to keep in mind the highest amount I’d be willing to pay. I bought one leather bag for my sister and one for myself, as well as three little money pouches for friends. I was happy with my purchases, but that was enough haggling for me—I don’t think I would enjoy shopping at the more touristy cities like Marrakesh, where the sellers are more aggressive.

I was kind of surprised how quiet the market was, given that it was a weekend.

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We drooled over the rugs and vowed to come back one day when we had more money. As we browsed, the shopkeeper asked, “How’s your friend?”  At first we were confused until we realized that he remembered that my friend had previously brought other visitors and was asking how one of them was!

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Another square of the market featured platters of olives. On shelves nearby were bottles of Argan oil, which is supposed to be good for the skin. I bought a small bottle. Since becoming aware of it I’ve seen big brand shampoos in France and the United States featuring it as an ingredient.

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Of course, I had to have one more taxi story before leaving Casablanca.

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After a quick snack and gathering up my belongings, my friend and I headed out to hail a red taxi to the train station, after which we’d buy tickets to the airport. I mentioned before that taxis in Casablanca are shared. That means that a taxi that is already carrying passengers going to different destinations may stop for more passengers who are going in the same direction. We stood at the side of the road, and my friend hailed taxi after taxi, but they were either all full or not driving on a route that included the train station. After being turned down by cabs in a span of time that felt like an eternity, my friend informed me that she’d put me in the next one that had one spot going to the train station. Time was now tight. I knew I could figure out how to buy tickets to the airport at the station, but I really didn’t want to lose my guide and have a quick goodbye as a full car of passengers waited for me.

As luck would have it, one of the next cabs she hailed took us, and we were off.

I got a little teary at the airport as my friend handed me a bag of food that she had been toting around, waiting for this last moment to give it to me. Along with it she told me what questions to expect at customs. It was easy to answer truthfully: No, I am not transporting a large amount of dirhams out of the country. I spent it all on figs and taxi rides.

An Ordinary Day in Cardiff

The morning after my arrival in Wales, my friend drove us to Cardiff, where we went to a mall. This may sound like a generic activity (plus I’m from New Jersey, the capital of malls), but since we were in the U.K., I found a number of novelties.

Outside, I exclaimed at this billboard. Are there any John Malkovich fans out there? He is my favorite actor. 100_2737

Why he has his own hotel suite in the capital of Wales, I do not know.

At the mall, for the first time I had a pretzel from the chain Auntie Anne’s and entered the clothing store Hollister. Both are American brands. I suppose it’s not any stranger than the fact that I tried Kraft macaroni and cheese for the first time in Paris, in spite of the fact that many American kids grew up on it.

At a discount store, I went a little nuts buying cute greeting cards that were as low as 29 pence. Can you blame me? I had just come from Paris, where 5 centimes is considered a discount.

At Marks & Spencer, my friend showed me food items I was unfamiliar with, such as Madeira cake and Victoria sponge. I was also charmed by cakes in the shape of characters named Harry Hedgehog and Percy Pig.

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“Percy Pig flavoured icing”… whatever can that mean?

We paused at Marks & Spencer’s upstairs café to share a slice of Victoria sponge, which is a vanilla sponge cake with cream and strawberry jam filling. My friend also had tea, of course.100_2745

We strolled on High Street, a cute pedestrian street that reminded me of Dublin, before going to Primark, a huge inexpensive department store that I first encountered on Oxford Street in London some years ago. In my memory, cute tank tops for four pounds, bathing suits, pajamas, and all types of clothing abounded, and I didn’t even in make it upstairs to look at shoes and bags. Unfortunately, the line to the fitting rooms was so long that I ended up just getting pajamas for my sister and booking it. Since then, I had been dreaming of Primark. This is before they opened in a suburb of Paris.

Perhaps I had built it up too much in my mind, or my style had changed or Primark’s selection had, because my friend and I spent a long time in the Cardiff location, and we only walked away with socks and a couple of other ordinary sundry items.

Outside, we saw Cardiff Castle as the sun was setting. 100_2749

After dinner, we went grocery shopping at Tesco for my friend’s granddad. I was excited to go, as I had good memories of browsing there when I visited a good friend in Edinburgh, Scotland a few years earlier. 100_2752

I was shocked to notice a sack of 480 bags of Yorkshire tea. Why would anyone ever need that much of the same kind of tea?? A couple of months later, I mentioned this to a British acquaintance, who didn’t think it was a big deal and said that it can go fast if you drink it regularly. Still, I can only imagine buying this if I had a family of ten or hosted a tea party for the block. 100_2756

Perhaps these tea drinkers have the same appetite for their national drink that I have for sweets. I went for the bourbon creams and custard creams. Funnily enough, I hardly ever bought packaged cookies in Paris, choosing the fresh pastries instead, but in the U.K. the biscuits appeal to me. I think the cookie itself is softer—not like the chewy American cookie, but not as crunchy as the chocolate-topped French biscuit.

My friend and I said “Hwyl Fawr” to Tesco for the night. I found it interesting that their sign was in Welsh, then English underneath in slightly smaller letters. English and Welsh are the country’s official languages.100_2755

We headed to her granddad’s house and unloaded the groceries and sat with him for a little while. He was very sweet. He wore a dark pompom topped bonnet and tartan scarf. He was hard of hearing, so we yelled to have a conversation. I later learned that he tells the same stories over and over again, but since it was my first time hearing them, I found it novel when he told me that he had built houses in the neighborhood. By the fireplace was a black and white picture of him and his late wife as young people.

That night, my friend and I had planned to watch “Gavin and Stacey,” a Welsh British comedy, but we ended up Skyping with my her long-distance boyfriend and friends instead. We left the DVD on the main menu. Her poor mom, or should I say mum, told us the next morning that the continuous loop of the show’s theme music drove her crazy.

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.

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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!

City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks

Shortly before heading home to the States for the holidays, I took a long walk in Paris, soaking in the Christmas décor.

My first Christmas in France, I went to almost all the Christmas markets in the city (there are about a dozen). I strolled around the decked out department stores. I saw the impressive Nativity scene at Notre Dame. I attended a couple of Christmas parties. My friends and I had a Christmas dessert fest and exchanged presents. In the middle of the week, a friend and I took a day trip to Strasbourg, where the Christmas market originated. We also went to Lille and saw the lights and decorations.

This year, I have been busy at work and either prise in the evenings or tired and ready to go straight home and have dinner. I still visited the main Christmas market on the Champs-Elysées one Saturday night at a friend’s prompting, where we shuffled alongside the crowds and enjoyed the outdoor Christmas music (in English!) and a glimpse of the Père Noël. I certainly gazed at the streetlights whenever I passed by them on bus or foot. I attended one lavish party and one wonderfully homey one. However, on the whole I certainly didn’t devour Paris at Christmastime as I did two years ago.

Hence, the Saturday before Christmas, I ventured out in search of festivity. I started in the Marais, the oldest part of the city, to check out French artist Mathilde Nivet’s lit display at Hôtel Jules & Jim. The hotel is so inconspicuous that I passed it and doubled back to find the entrance. Inside was a lone receptionist in a quiet and deliberately dim compact woodsy lobby. Nivet’s work was fun and international.100_7453I continued to the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) where figures built of Christmas balls adorned the façade. This girl looked ready to party.100_7455The Hôtel de Ville is really quite something. It dates from the 14th century.100_7456I hopped on the metro and got off at Sèvres-Babylone to see the decorations at the department store Bon Marché and watch the crisscrossing escalators.100_7457Outside, the sun set over the illuminated city. 100_7460 100_7461The lights and sparkle and spirit were still there this year, I just needed to go find them.

Brocante-ing

This past weekend I went to an enormous flea market in Courbevoie, a suburb a stone’s throw from Paris. There were over 100 stands.

Often I walk around these markets and find nothing worth bringing home, but this was an exceptionally fruitful trip. I bought:
– a cozy fitted short-sleeved sweater with big buttons for 3 euros
– a red long-sleeved button-down Uniqlo blouse for 2 euros (!)
– a sleeveless short blue dress for an upcoming costume party for 3 euros
– an unopened copy of Bastille’s two-CD album “Bad Blood” for 1 euro

The only drawback to flea markets is that there are no fitting rooms. Luckily, I was able to slip on the clothes that interested me over my summer dress. Because there were no mirrors available, I asked the sellers to take a picture of me so I could see how the clothes looked. They were nice and happy to oblige. One of the Frenchies with whom I went to the brocante later told me that a French person would not have done that. True or not? It’s what I do when I choose eyeglasses too.88.brocante.2014a 88.brocante.2014bAfter we had exhausted almost all the stands, we took a cat nap on the green overlooking this long bike and roller blading path next to the Seine.88.brocante.2014c

French Ikea

For a long time I have been curious about how Ikea in France compares to Ikea in the United States. When a friend asked me if I wanted to join her in her shopping expedition in the suburbs, I jumped at the chance.

I have good memories of Ikea. When I was a kid, my family would go there not only to shop for furniture and household items but also to eat Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce and buy ginger snaps. The location we went to was next to an airport, and since the eating area had large windows, you could watch the planes take off.

Even when my sister and I became young adults, we had fun poking around the showrooms and picking up the quirky stuffed toys available.

The French Ikea experience was… almost identical to the American Ikea experience. The layout was exactly the same, so I knew where to find everything. It was even a bit strange to hear the cashier speaking French because I could have believed I was in the United States.

There was one marked difference.76.ikea.2014aMy Ikea back in the States doesn’t offer croque monsieurs, crêpes, macarons, or cafés gourmands.

My friend bought quite a few things for her apartment. While I didn’t get anything household-related, I went a little crazy in the food section, or épicerie suedoise. It wasn’t so much that I crave these items, but they reminded me of home. Funny that a Swedish furniture store could hold so much nostalgia for an American in France, isn’t it?

As a bonus surprise, the cashier gave me a cute green insulated lunch bag for each almond tart that I purchased.

After we went through checkout, my friend realized that she had forgotten to get two items. While she fetched them, I sat with her bags in the area where customers wait to be called to pick up the furniture they ordered. After a while, an employee came by and offered me a piece of chocolate for waiting patiently. That has certainly never happened to me in the States.

On the platform waiting for the train back to Paris from Plaisir, I snapped a photo of these extremely regular trees in the distance.76.ikea.2014c

Food Trucks, Fringues, A Love Wall

Last week was not the greatest week. Oh, nothing terrible happened, but do you ever have those weeks when nothing goes particularly right, either?

The weekend rolled around, and I got out of the house and tried to lift my spirits.

On Saturday evening, I recruited a friend to check out a food truck event with me. I was quite excited for this—there would be barbecue!—but the lines were so long that we decided it wasn’t worth it, especially since we didn’t know if the food would be good. I was also surprised that there weren’t actual trucks set up, but stands.

My friend smartly suggested seeing if the food truck I had raved about, Le Camion Qui Fume, was open. It wasn’t that far from where we were, so we walked across the Pont de Bercy to the movie theatre outside which Le Camion Qui Fume parks. It was indeed there, but my friend was wary about waiting in the long line. I should mention that this was the first time he had seen a food truck, and prior to that night he didn’t know they existed. I skipped a beat when he asked me what the concept was—not because I was surprised that he didn’t know, but because I had never described one before. “You buy food… from a truck…”

My (American) friends and I had willingly waited for Le Camion Qui Fume’s delicious burgers many times in the past, but I decided not to make my (French) friend wait an indeterminate amount of time for dinner.

There were two new neighboring trucks that weren’t there the last time I was in the area, so we split up and ordered from them instead. How funny that this non-event was more of a food truck festival than the actual festival.

On Sunday, I sat on the steps beneath the Sacré-Coeur to soak in the view of the city. At the bottom of the staircase, a man carefully swept the length of the bottom few steps. In the beginning, I figured that he was preparing the space for a show he was going to put on using the contraption behind him. Almost half an hour passed, however, and he was still sweeping those steps.54.montmartre.2014aI stopped in the Sacré-Coeur, and when I came back he was setting up the stage. A fine illustration of wild animals in soft colors formed the backdrop. When he turned a crank, the scene rolled to the left and a new one appeared. It was quite impressive. A clock read, “Next Show 5:00.” It was only 3:30. This man certainly put in a lot of prep time! I found his concentrated attention fascinating. He was not a person who does things half-baked.ImageI continued my walk in Montmartre. I came across a small park with this quote on the wall:ImageTranslated to English, it says, “To love is a mess… so let’s love!” Does that seem reckless or wise to you? Or does it depend on who’s doing the loving and who’s being loved? Something to think about.

Below this glamorous bombshell reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn were blue tiles with “I love you” written in a multitude of languages. ImageAfter leaving the love wall, I came across a clothing shop whose dresses in the window caught my eye. I browsed inside while the shopkeeper ranted on the phone to her friend about someone she was angry with. She didn’t hold back or attempt to lower her voice. I tried on a dress and came out to look at myself in the mirror, as the fitting room inexplicably didn’t have one. As I turned this way and that to see how the dressed looked, the employee said, “C’est mignonne !” (“It’s cute!”) in the middle of her tirade to her friend. I had to laugh.

I bought the dress and snapped a photo of the shop’s furry resident on the way out.Image