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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Taking Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

I arrived in Paris on a weekday afternoon. This time I was here on vacation, my first trip back after having moved my life and luggage out of the City of Lights.

Excuse me while I râle:

I was sorely disappointed by almost no one offering to help me with the suitcase I was clearly struggling with up and down the many metro staircases. So many able jeunes français passed me by. Only one man helped me, at the end of my trajet. And no, I did not have the closed off, unapproachable face we sometimes make on public transportation. I was sending out the open-faced, help me vibes of someone who hadn’t realized how difficult lugging around a suitcase and full hand carry would be.

It made me think: Should I have been surprised or not? I didn’t remember this from my previous years in Paris. On the other hand, I lived on the train line that went straight to the airport, so I only had to go down one escalator and never needed help. Second question: Were people in the NY subway any more helpful? Is that why I expected aid? Well, not necessarily—at home I offer to help people with big suitcases or strollers, but that is because I notice that often no one else around is making a move to offer assistance. And what is true is that we don’t notice whether people have a tendency to help if we don’t need it. It’s when we need it that we realize whether people offer it.

When I told friends who live in Paris about my experience in the metro, one said, What do you expect, that’s the way Parisians are! Another was more surprised and said that people offer to help her. I don’t know. To people who have called Parisians rude or cold, I have always insisted that they are not so bad. I still stand by my statement that there are some really nice, warm people there, but my defense of the general population will be less staunch next time. I was tempted to give them a second chance, but after my experience the first day, I unhesitatingly booked a SuperShuttle to the airport for my departure day from Paris.

On the people who volunteer to help:

That same day, after getting through the metro; rendering speechless the young man at Orange with my ability to speak French after he had gone on his spiel in English about their “holiday” phone plan (while his colleague who could tell I spoke French chuckled the whole time and finally burst out laughing when I responded in French); meeting the friend I was going to stay with outside his building and catching up in his apartment—after all that—I headed out into the early evening to the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at every week.

I had told one of the volunteers there that I was planning on coming, but I still surprised her by sneaking up on her and exclaiming, “Hello!” in English. She made all the fuss we make when seeing a friend after a long time, then asked about my trip over. I started telling her about it in French, to which she responded with a big smile that my accent “New Jersey” had come back since my time away. Gee, thanks! She is one of the warmest people of the group and a wonderful presence for both the volunteers and the people who come to eat, so I knew her ribbing was good-natured even though I think she was serious about my American accent being more pronounced than before (though I can’t explain that?? I still speak French daily in my current life!).

I did the ‘bise’ with the other volunteers, who greeted me in slightly wide-eyed recognition. I didn’t chat with them that much, save for a woman with whom I had kept in touch after moving to the States. I had always enjoyed the work itself; after the repas came the socializing.

I made a beeline to claim what used to be my usual post—the table with hot food. Donning one pair of latex gloves and sticking a pair in my back pocket for later, stacking plastic bowls, breaking open the packet of spoons, deciding with the volunteer next to me who would serve the protein and/or vegetable and who would serve the grain. Gladly letting her choose the bulgur because she wanted to avoid the smell and splash of fish sauce because it meant I didn’t have to say bulgur (there ain’t no persnickety French ‘r’s in poisson). Saying “Bonsoir” and smiling hundreds of times. Once in a while, telling someone who tried to cut the line that “Il faut faire la file d’attente.” Responding in English to the occasional immigrant who didn’t speak French. Directing people to where they could find soup and coffee. It felt like home.

After serving the food and picking up trash, there was always a lull before the nearby boulangerie’s unsold bread, pastries, and sandwiches were picked up and distributed. This was the time that I loved shooting the breeze with the people who came to eat. A main reason I had come was actually to see how one of the bénéficiares was doing. I sidled up next to a volunteer who was still serving cereal and asked her, “Where is he??” As I scanned the area and felt dismayed over missing him, she pointed him out. He had just arrived. Of course. I forgot that he usually showed up late, after the main meal had been served. It seemed like he came more to chat than to get food.

I greeted him, and we had an enthusiastic reunion. “How is California?” he exclaimed. I laughed. “Wrong coast.” No offense taken. In the beginning of our friendship, it had taken him weeks to remember my name, though he associated me with Mickey Mouse. He also asked me multiple weeks in a row if I was Chinese and then asked me if I knew anything about qi (he sure did). There were key identifiers that somehow took a long time to imprint on his brain, so I was tickled but not shocked that he had missed by a long shot where in the United States I had moved to. And yet, on this night, he asked, “Où est ton pantalon rose?” I was surprised. I had completely forgotten that I used to wear my pink pants a lot to the soup kitchen during a period of time.

What I did remember was that for the first weeks that I knew him, I assumed that he was from a foreign country because of his accent when speaking French. I was taken aback when I finally asked him where he from and he responded “Toulouse.” I guess I had never heard a toulousain accent before. And I remember periodically moving a few inches away from him while we talked because he was taller than me and my neck was strained from looking up at him, and not understanding why he kept moving closer, until one day I realized that his eyesight was very poor.

I remember never questioning why some days, his hair was disheveled and his clothes were scrappy, and then once or twice he came wearing a suit and his hair neatly tied back.

I clearly remember opening up about my own stresses while I was looking for a job and seeing him really thinking about how to help and suggesting ideas. For the first months we had known each other, I had let him do most of the talking because I figured that was what I was there for. To be a listening ear, not even about his problems, just about whatever he wanted to talk about—tai chi, how food is cooked, cultures, what was going on in the city, anything. He is a very smart person and often knew things that were new to me.

It was only when I started talking more about what was going on in my own life that I realized how good it felt to talk to someone who really cared and who would ruminate over how I might solve a problem I had. Where I didn’t feel like we had to move on from the topic because it was a downer, but that he was completely engaged in the conversation and came up with ideas specific to my situation.

I remember the last night I had volunteered there before moving back to the States. I spent longer than usual chatting with him after the other volunteers had moved on to the nearby bar we frequented every week. Then we parted and I was completely touched again as I arrived at the bar and the volunteer organizer presented the tarte aux pommes he had been waiting to take out, along with a thank you card for me.

You can see why I have a soft spot for the residents of Paris, who are human, after all.

Another person who greeted me warmly for my return was the long-haired, gentle Peruvian man who regularly came to eat. On my last day volunteering a couple of years ago, we somehow struck up a conversation for the first time after having seen each other for about a year. I told him that I was actually leaving France soon, and surprised by the timing, he said he was glad that he had talked to me then, that he had wanted to say hi for a while but somehow was timide to approach me (as someone who in some situations can be timide myself, I have never understood that someone might see me as in any way intimidating).

I’m not sure there is anything better in life than being embraced by good people. You can see why I fought back my travel fatigue to go dish up some fish and conversation.

Glass

I think this sign at the Madrid airport was made for me. I once walked into a clear glass boulangerie door in Paris. I mean, the surface was clean and the éclairs beckoned me. I could have used a warning like this.

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(No, I am not in Madrid. This is from my stopover on the way to Paris earlier this summer. And yes, it is still summer for another day. It was 78 degrees Fahrenheit in New York today, after all.)

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.

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.
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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.

The Sunday Roast Mystery

On the last day of my long weekend in Yorkshire, my friend took me on an amble through the Shambles, a charming historic street of shops in the city of York. 100_6738100_6736

We saw the York Minster cathedral exterior, the Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, which are now part of a public park, and other sights in the area.

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I could have stayed and wandered in and out of little shops for hours, but we had to get on to experience my first Sunday roast. I remember when a British friend from Birmingham first described the concept of Sunday roast to me. “It’s a big meal with meat, potato, and some kind of veg…” You mean like a normal meal!? I did not really get it. Meat, veg… this is what I’d usually eat for lunch or dinner, except that I’d call them “vegetables.”

At the restaurant, the server went around our table of eight or ten people to take our orders of appetizers and entrees. I was the last one.

“I’d like the summer tart,” I said.
“The what?”
“The summer tart,” I said a little louder.
The waitress paused uncomprehendingly. I was equally confused, as others had ordered the same appetizer before me.
“The summah taht,” the native Yorkshireman sitting to my left repeated.
“Oh, the summah taht,” the server noted.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt like English wasn’t my native language. The disbelief on both of our faces leading up to the clarification still gives me a laugh today.

I also saw for myself what makes a Sunday roast different from any other meal with meat and veg. My roast beef and gravy was topped by a huge Yorkshire pudding made from eggs, flour, and milk or water. Quite a sight to behold. 100_6744

Yorkshire was a lovely peek into a different lifestyle and landscape (and accent). I now understood why during my hostess’s visit to Paris, she remarked that we walked a lot, more than she was used to, that Parisian parks were small, and that she’d be more comfortable taking a taxi from Montmartre to her lodging even after I assured her that it would be simple to take the metro, just one switch involved. In Yorkshire she has to drive to get anywhere from her village home. She walks her dog in a vast, wild field rather than on a busy city sidewalk. Her furthest immediate family member lives only an hour away. Her wonderful swinging bench on her back patio negates the need to seek out restaurant terrasses. I certainly fell in love with her backyard features that she designed herself. Ain’t nothing like jumping into someone else’s pond for a few days, especially a saucy British lady’s.

A Day at the Races

During my trip to Yorkshire a while back, I went along for a day at the York Races with my host, one of her daughters, and her daughter’s fiancé and friend. I had brought my bright coral dress to England expressly for this event. That morning, my friend tried on several of her long summery dresses, asking for all of our opinions before settling on her red flowery maxi dress.

Everything about that day was a welcome bombardment to my senses. It was hot, the British girls were out in their colored printed dresses and showing skin, and excitement surrounded each horse race. I saw a grown man dressed as a baby surrounded by his pals who were in button-down shirts, ties, and trousers. It was prime time for people watching.

Everything about that day was a welcome bombardment to my senses. It was hot, the British girls were out in their colored printed dresses and showing skin, and excitement surrounded each horse race. I saw a grown man dressed as a baby surrounded by his pals who were in button-down shirts, ties, and trousers. It was prime time for people watching.

Can you find the former jockey below?

And the baby-man?

At the end of the day, the Scottish band Wet Wet Wet gave a concert. It was fun to see my friend singing along and swaying to the music. She was in heaven. If you don’t know this group that was especially popular in the 1980s and 90s, like me you may at least have heard the song “Love is all around.” “I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes…”

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Afterward, we stopped in the pub where my friend’s other daughter worked.

Pubs. British fashion. The York Races. Wet Wet Wet. Everything about the day was out of the ordinary for me. Americans share many similarities with the British, but we still have our distinct cultural characteristics.

A Castle and a White Horse

As my guide to Yorkshire, my friend decided to take me to Castle Howard, whose construction began in 1699 and was completed over 100 years later. The exhibits inside included one dedicated to the adaptions of “Brideshead Revisited” that were filmed there. The movies and TV series are based on the 1945 book by English writer Evelyn Waugh.

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I enjoyed exploring the grounds and gardens. 100_6658100_6663100_6669100_6666100_6668100_6671100_6670

On the drive home, my friend pointed out “the white horse” to me. She told me that a teacher created it in the mid-1800s. How funny. Can you imagine saying to yourself one day, “I think I’m going to etch a horse at the top of that hill.” Why not? 100_6675100_6674

We had time to drive to Kilburn village and walk along a trail to catch a view that was hazy but somewhat romantic because of it.

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Yorkshire

Sometimes when I walk through a city park, I think of the time I took an acquaintance to the Place des Vosges in Paris. She was from Yorkshire, England, visiting Paris for the first time on business, and I acted as her enthusiastic guide. Place des Vosges, located in the center of Paris, has grass, benches, and a fountain and is surrounded by old beautiful architecture. The day we went was beautiful and sunny, and many people lounged on the grass. “I love this park,” I told my new friend. She laughed, and not one to mince words, said, “You call this a park? It’s so small!” I was confused and remained so until a few months later, when I visited her in Yorkshire.

I stepped out of the airport in Leeds, England, where my friend awaited me with the little blue Mercedes convertible she drove for her employer. I had never ridden in a convertible and was thrilled as we zipped away to her village, our hair whipping around as we caught up during the hour-long drive.

Upon our arrival at her place, I noticed that her house was neither isolated nor crowded because she had neighbors directly on either side but vast space in front and behind her property. Her home was lovely. A red roof topped a brick structure that featured a perfectly-sized back garden and patio along with a small pond and nursery.

Approaching the back fence of her garden, my jaw dropped when I saw what seemed like endless miles of cornfields. They didn’t belong to her but ensured that this amazing view would not soon be obstructed by new buildings. I suddenly understood why she thought Places des Vosges was small. If only she knew how Parisians considered a tiny balcony prime real estate. When her two young adult daughters arrived at the house to join us for dinner, she laughed and remarked to them that I had taken photos of the cornfields.

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From my time with my friend and her family, I noticed that most of them had lived in Yorkshire all their lives and were happy there. She told me that all of her family lived close-by except for one of her daughters, who lived in Leeds. Leeds was only an hour’s drive away! Her considering that as far made me think about how I was an eight-hour plane ride from my own family and how my parents were halfway around the world from their families. I love traveling and feel lucky to have lived in different places, but I also thought about how nice it could be to be the type of person who is content staying put. Not to say that my friend and her family didn’t travel—they had all gone on vacation to different countries in Europe—but it was clear that none of them had that yearning to move somewhere else. 100_6626

My friend served a pitcher of the English alcoholic drink Pimm’s to which she had added slices of cucumber and fruit. We ate dinner outside at the table on the patio: my friend, her two daughters, one daughter’s fiancé, and the other daughter’s new beau, whom I only realized was a new boyfriend when my friend started questioning him conversationally. My friend’s husband worked long hours on the field and would not be home until later.

As darkness fell we all sat in the living room that was in an extension of the house covered with a glass roof and walls. It was interesting having the light on and night around us, being inside and outside at the same time. I remember a similarly warm and pleasant night when my friend and I had reverse roles; she was the visitor and I was the host. I took her to a restaurant in Montmartre and we ate French food at small round tables outside on a steep little street, other diners seated closely on both sides of us. How different an evening may be in different parts of the world.

On my first night in the English countryside, I was kept company by this boy, whose name is Paddy.

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