Archive for April, 2010

I think that many people (especially Americans) have a Paris Dream.  Even if they haven’t realized it, it is a city that inspires us to believe that it can always offer a haven when life doesn’t go as planned.  “Paris is where I went to find myself when I didn’t know where to go,” Molly Wizenberg wrote in her book A Homemade Life, and its true, Paris draws in the lost and wandering and fosters dreams that you forgot, or never knew you had.  It is a safety valve of sorts, an Elysian escape from real life where we imagine that we could flee and rediscover ourselves among the backdrop of artists and gypsies,  centuries old architecture and modern philosophies, color, light, smells, and sounds.

I love when I have visitors, because I often see them discover that they have a little Paris Dream.  Last week my friend Jenny came to visit and we enjoyed running after her Paris Dream, even if just for a week.  Integral to this search is that of discovering one’s “Inner Pastry” for lack of a better phrase.  Who could think of France without thinking of bread, and moreover, who would want to?  I love the boulangeries in Paris, and I am only slightly ashamed to admit that while in France I feel entitled – not just inclined but obligated and justified – to eat one yummy treat a day.  This could be a pain au chocolat while I walk to work, or a little chunk of baguette with Nutella at night.  After visiting many boulangeries, I have come to two conclusions. The first is that not all baguettes are good baguettes. Many are really  and truly awful and require extra Nutella.   It seems that most Parisians know the particular boulangerie near them capable of turning out a good baguette. This piece of information was map-quested to me by the father for the family I babysit, along with the girls’ school address and swim lesson schedule.  (A Tip:  I find that if I don’t think the baguette looks good, but have to buy bread at an inferior place, it is best to go with the Tradition over the baguette.  The margin for error is smaller.)

The second conclusion is that everyone has an “Inner Pastry,” something that you instinctively crave each time you stand before the trays of flaky perfection.  Mine, after much research and self-reflection, is the pain au raisin, a spiral of flaky dough with sticky raisins lining the swirl.  This doesn’t mean I don’t flirt with a croissant or brioche but I will always return to my first love.  While Jenny was here, we endured rigorous research to discover her pastry*.  The first day, we started with the three basic breakdowns of dough: brioche – sweet and puffy, croissant– light and flakey, and the gooey almond saturated dough of the croissant aux amandes,  etc.  The second day we added some other classics like the pain au chocolat and various more eccentric brioches and croissants.  By the end of the trip our studies showed that Jenny’s Inner Pastry was a brioche Suisse (sometimes called a gourmandise, drops, or pepitas), which is a long rectangle of brioche folded over chocolate chips and some simple pastry filling.  This means that if Jenny ever gets to come back and live her Paris Dream, at least she will know what to eat.

*Vocabulary note:  What I am referring to as pastries are actually viennoiseries in French and pastries are things like tarts and cakes. Whatever. My stomach knows no distinction and my mouth doesn’t take the time to care.


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I am usually a color person.  By that I mean that color is the thing that stops me and holds me still.  Bold colors, complimentary colors, primary colors, or that perfect punch of pigment in an otherwise dull space.   But this week I have been struck by some wonderful textures. Color draws us in, but texture is what drives our hands forward from our sides, whether it is the delicate papery petals of a poppy in the gardens of Versailles . . .

Or the wrinkled faces of vegetables in a wooden crate . . .

Or the perfect silky smooth skin of a tulip in Monet’s gardens at Giverny.

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Getting tickets to the Paris ballet is a lesson in the intricacies of achieving tasks in a society where the answer is always “C’est pas possible” (That’s impossible) but where in fact there is always a way around obstacles.  When I studied abroad I failed repeatedly in going to the ballet because I had not learned this art.  I now know that you have to go on line at a specific time, or show up hours early on a specific morning, or wait in a long line outside a specific door. Tickets go on sale at different locations, venues, and times depending on the price, and thus I found myself up early on Monday morning to try to obtain tickets for Bayadère. I went online the first day they opened sales, but already all the tickets were gone as “members” (one must be invited to be a member) can claim them weeks earlier.  I knew that I had to be there on the day that the final round of tickets went on sale.  These would be the tickets where you fold yourself into a human pretzel to fit in the seat and you are high enough that at least if the chandelier fell Phantom of the Opera Style, you would have nothing to fear.

I arrived at the back entrance of the opera on Rue de Scribe at 9:30, one hour before the ticket office even opened, and already the line wrapped all around the building. Now obviously, there are not enough seats with decent visibility for everyone. This does not sway the Parisian. Waiting in line in Paris is a battle of wills and a lesson in psychological warfare.  It begins subtly and full of goodwill.  The people around you start chatting about how someone should hold places while the others get coffee.  Then the pessimistic lamentations start: “Franchement, c’est pas possible, ce queue.” (Frankly, this line is ridiculous.)  Next the horror stories set in as the rumor begins to circulate that the person in the front of the line came in on the first metro.  People begin to ask if the line is always this bad.  As someone who has done the line thing a couple times, I contribute to the negativity in which everyone is reveling by declaring that the line is often bad, but not (pause for the Parisian “Beh . . . ”  with frustrated head shake) this bad.  The goal of course, is to drive others from the line.

But a Parisian waiting in a line is an immovable object.  I have seen them wait stubbornly beside a sign that says a bus is not running that day without a thought of budging.  They love letting all their neighbors know that the wait is futile and the end is hopeless but no matter what, they will not leave that line.  For all their doom and gloom, the idea that they will be ultimately denied whatever they are waiting for doesn’t occur. After all, they are Parisians.  No tickets will be left by the time we reach the window, they are all saying and I know that they are right, but I just can’t leave the line, just as none of them would dream of budging.  One pulls out a foldable chair, another a copy of a Camus novel.  They are ready to wait it out, all the while discouraging all around them to abandon ship.  As I said, I have done this before and succeeded. But this time, they got the best of me.  After an hour or more we had just entered the building and I could see the line snaking all around the inner lower section.  As I had to meet a friend before noon, I finally had to cut my losses and go.  My decision was accepted with choruses of regrets and condolences from my new friends/ enemies who assured me that the wait was after all hopeless.  But not a one followed me as I left.  Instead their smiles told me that they were just one person closer to victory.

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Mes Cléfs: My Keys

I was recently given keys to my school.  Yes that is right, with two months remaining in the school year, I am finally able to access my schools without having to wait for someone to come let me in.  One principal tried to give me keys in September, only to look in his drawer, shake his head, and declare very nonchalantly that “I forgot that all the keys are stolen right now.”  Yet at long last, I have my own pair.  Every time I pull them out I can’t help but giggle because they look more like keys that would open a prison door or castle keep than ones that would access an elementary school.  Keys, like many aspects of French life, still remain in another era.  And really, why bother changing?

At long last, I also have a pencil case, my very own trousse. Sent by my friend Megan, I at first had nothing to put in it as I lose all my pens.  Now however, I have 2 blue pens, one green pen, one red pen, a tube of chapstick, nail file, and white out. Previously I had never used white out, but the French love it. They think it is totally acceptable on even important documents, and now I find myself compulsively needing to correct the slightest mistake.  When I showed my pencil class to the class which had advised me as to getting one, they applauded.  Then they proceeded to ask why it was so small.  Where, they asked, did I put my scissors, compass, glue, colored pencils, and markers? Alas, I will forever be unprepared for scholarly life in France.

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Sometimes great days are nothing more than the sum of small things, the conglomeration of lots of little good moments.  Often I find that is the case with some of my favorite days in Paris.  They are the little details that are impossible to repeat, the moments that I hope tourists stumble upon, the moments that make Paris seem perfect.  I think my first such moment was when I came to Paris about 8 years ago. It was about to storm and we were walking through the Palais Royal, the wind picking up and the sky turning that exciting dark grey. As the first drops started to fall, we ducked into the colonnade and there a lady stood singing in a long silk dress.  The wind and rain, the song, and the moment of perfect beauty brought tears to my eyes, and I was not the only one.

Yesterday I had one of those perfect days, full of little shining moments.  After a long run in Luxembourg (after which I did not go to the boulangerie, lesson learned) and leisurely morning, I spent all afternoon at the Louvre, first attending an amazing art history lecture then spending the afternoon sketching one of the new exhibits.  I never get tired of the Louvre, never lose the thrill of seeing things that I have studied for years hanging before my eyes.  Doing master copies is always a humbling experience.  Later that afternoon I showed one of the little girls my drawing offering the apology that it wasn’t near as good as the original (which happened to be a Dutch wood cut – very hard to replicate).  She offered the very French response of “Évidemment” which is kind of like “no duh,” to put it in nineties English.  But that didn’t stop her from offering the very earnest compliments that only 4th graders can give.  But just having the privilege of attempting to make a master copy is thrilling because it implies close proximity with the masters.

After the Louvre, I treated myself to my favorite post-Louvre treat, which is a fraisier, one of my favorite pastries, and there is a little boulangerie near the Louvre that makes the best ones.   On my way there I had a wonderfully childish moment watching a man make enormous bubbles in the street.  Who doesn’t return to a childlike state when there are giant bubbles? Sitting in the sunny stone courtyard of the Louvre, eating my fraisier while strains of Vivaldi echoed from a nearby street musician, I felt the perfection of the moment.  The fact that some Parisians made fun of me for my pre-eating photo shoot of my pastry could not dampen my happiness.  When they asked if I was going to eat it, I shot them an icy “Évidemment!”

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Sunday was one of those perfect puffy cloud days and I got off the metro early on my way home form church just so I could walk in the sun.  Surrounded by families enjoying the weekend with their kids and couples basking in the fresh spring day, I paused to take this panoramic shot of one of my favorite views in Paris.

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It seems widely accepted that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  Everything contributes to its splendor, from the grand spirals of the cathedrals, to the perfectly designed flowerbeds, to the doorways with their embellished woodwork and scrolling trim.  Sometimes I am left with the impression that it is impossibly unreal, this city, like when I walked around the corner of my building and saw this shiny vintage car parked next to the freshly painted épicerie which had replaced the old draper’s shop. In fact, this was un-real, as it turned out they were filming a movie on my street so WWII era store fronts replaced the slightly more commonplace setting.

But still, the beauty is such that you find yourself conforming to it.  At least, this is the logic I give to the legendary Parisian fashion.  If you just saw an average Parisian on any given day, you might wonder if the hype of Parisian style was a myth.  But if you observed said Parisian throughout the course of a week, you would notice that they never have a fashion lapse.  They never have “scrub” days, and years of being slaves to a culture that demands dressing the part 24/7 means that they effortlessly portray the image of eternal fashion and poise.  They are as beautiful as the city that surrounds them, because they realize that they are a part of its magic.

I get this, I really do, and for the most part, I do my part.  I have some bad days, but I would never go out in public in a t-shirt, sweats, and tennis shoes.  I wear them to run, although even there I am shown up.  I will never understand how Parisian women run in flowing scarves, loose hair, jewelry, and faces free of makeup, but equally free of sweat. Sweat turns to Chanel perfume on a Parisian woman’s face, of this I am convinced. I have yet to see one running in high heels, but I won’t be surprised when it happens.

Living up 8 flights of stairs means you learn to minimize trips up and down.  I have a routine now of going running then ending my run at the grocer’s before heading home.  I am used to the weird looks as I wait in line, dripping sweat and proudly sporting my running tights and t-shirt. I have always noticed that I am the sole person shopping on a Saturday morning who doesn’t look like I will swing by a luncheon afterwards, but I just decided not to care. In this aspect, I remain American, where running errands is an extension of private life, thus it is acceptable – nay, almost “in” – to conduct errands like grocery shopping in yoga pants and a cute ball cap.  Yesterday morning I paused outside the grocery, only to run into the family I babysit for.  The mother, took one look at my red sweaty face and alarmed asked, “Hannah – are you sick???”  No, I explained, just running.  As I stepped by her to go in she looked taken aback. “Oh,”  she said. “You are going shopping . . ?” Afterwards, I resolved that I will try to do my part to not detract from the impossible perfection that is perfect.  I showered and put on a cute skirt.  Now I just need to learn to go jogging in heels.

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Let’s talk about dogs.

In my family, the topic of dogs is rather simple.  We have had two dogs. Both miniature collies, both abnormally large, and both named Django (after the Jazz musician, not the character in Star Wars).  Django the First was intelligent, had ears the size of sail boats, and died at a tragically young age. Django the Second just couldn’t get a grasp on the whole common sense thing. Loyal, yes, but intelligent, perhaps not.  He never mastered the art of living in harmony with our horses, repeatedly being kicked in the head, only to stagger back minutes later for a second go. Scared of storms, loud noises, cameras or any other box held to the face, and wind blown in his face, he nevertheless defended our home against every vicious deliveryman who dared come up the driveway.  He would occasionally sit on command, but Django the Second couldn’t heel, shake, roll over, or do any other refined dog trick.  We joked that Django was a dog very much loved, however little respected.  Yet no dog could have been more missed when, after a decade with our family, he died the day after Christmas this year.

Django the Second would have been a terrible Parisian dog.  I have expressed the fact that I find Parisian children to be on the whole defiant and disrespectful (though often endearing), traits which teachers and parents do little to temper. The teach them to toe the line, but not to obey because submission is a good attribute. In this respect, they teach them to be French.  Yet perhaps they also instill these behaviors less in their children because they are busy drilling them into their canines.

I like to jog laps in or around the Luxembourg Gardens and as my routine is pretty set, I have gotten to know some of the dogs.  There are the two golden retrievers whose owners unleash them and let them tumble in neat circles while they chat.  There is the miniscule pug being walked by the tallest man I have ever seen.  There is the prim Prada clad Parisian lady who has a Pomeranian who recently had something done so that he has to wear one of those cones that make dogs look so humiliated.  Not so this pooch; no, he rocks it with the bold confident attitude that only Parisians (and there dogs apparently) have. Pretty soon I am sure all the dogs will start sporting them. This is how stupid things become the fashion. (For proof of this, please note that shoulder pads and stirrup pants ate making a comeback.)  As they are always impeccably behaved, dogs are not restricted to the parks.  I see them under tables in restaurants, tucked into Gucci handbags, and waiting obediently outside of boulangeries.   On night I saw my dream dog, a cross between a golden retriever, Great Dane, horse, buffalo, and maybe a wooly mammoth. I could have easily ridden away on it while its owner selected a baguette. The point: Parisians LOVE their dogs.

They are also notorious for NOT loving to clean up after their dogs.  There are signs everywhere reminding people that “I love my neighborhood, so I pick up” but I see little fruit.  In fact, the little girls I babysit have a book about the adventures of “Supercrotte” (SuperCrap) who collects and identifies dog poop by night and shames owners into picking it up by day.  She is portrayed as a hero.  This is proof that civilizations will always create myths to escape from the harsh realities of their lives.

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I love daffodils.  I know that you are thinking that I say that about every flower, but I really do like daffodils best of all, which is unfortunate as they only bloom for about 3 weeks every year.  During these fleeting weeks, I try to maximize my daffodil possession, which has taken me to many extremes.  At Hillsdale College, the administration generously planted hundreds of daffodils all over campus, and the fine for picking them was supposedly 25$ per flower. This did not deter me. My freshmen year, I, along with some other equally giddy girls, dressed in all black, crept up to the main buildings after darkand picked approximately 40.  But then we realized that to walk through the lobby, dressed like criminals, carrying stolen blooms, would surely result in trouble, so we forced a guy friend into bringing them to us as a “gift.”   My senior year of college, I actually cried when a late spring snowstorm (oh Michigan . . .) froze all the fresh yellow flowers, only to be restored to good spirits when my boyfriend dug through the snow drifts to rescue a couple daffodils.

Despite the fact that Paris has decided to reject spring and slide back into winter, the daffodils are in full bloom, which means one thing: I must have them.  I am all about nature, all about gardens, whatever — but when it comes to flowers, especially daffodils I don’t just like them in the ground. I want them in my hands, in my room, in a vase. I briefly contemplated picking them in the luxembourg gardens, but seeing as how the guards freak out at a mere foot on the grass I doubt they would take kindly to me uprooting the fauna. I am spared flower picking prison by the people who sell bundles of daffodils on the streets for 2 euros a bunch.   I don’t know if you read the book A Little Princess as a child, but there is a part where she sells bundles of yellow flowers in the streets then buys pastries, only to give them to someone less fortunate then herself.  I loved A Little Princess, and perhaps it was its impact on me that prompted me to not only buy daffodils from a lady on my street, but also to turn over a portion of my groceries when she boldly asked for them (not in general, as in “I’m hungry,” but specifically as in “Please give me that banana”).

Yet last weekend I saw flagrant daffodil waste that made me just the littlest bit less compassionate towards the daffodil sellers.  I was wandering the Rue Mouffetard with two guys from my college, one of whom teaches English in Bordeaux and the other was here visiting on spring break. As we got to the end of the street, I saw a vendor decide he was done selling, take his box of perfect blossoms to a dumpster and proceed to start RIPPING THEM TO SHREDS.  Naturally, I couldn’t stand by, so I dashed over and begged for the life of some bouquets.  Surprisingly, he agreed.  Beauty was restored to the world and I had a pitcher bursting with over 50 daffodils.  And because my friend Chuck has one of those wonderful sniper like lenses that can snoop on people miles away, the whole interaction was preserved.

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Maybe nothing says more about a place than who wants to be buried there, or at least, who ended up with it as their final resting place.  In Paris, the crème de la crème eventually come to rest beneath the stately trees that cover the hills of Père Lachaise.  From Héloïse and Abelard, the forbidden medieval lovers, to Jim Morrison of the Doors, to Chopin, Picasso, and a whole barrage of lesser-known artists. Solemn markers commemorate the victims of Ravensbruck, Dachau, and the massacres of La semaine sanglante (the bloody week) in 1871. Yet despite the fact that Père Lachaise is a sight devoted to death, nothing could be further from the impression you have when you walk through its winding paths. Flowers grow amongst the graves and blossoming trees remind you of the new life that comes with every spring.  It is a place of peace and calm, poignantly marked by the constant reminder of death.

There is one deceased who enjoys a much less tranquil rest than his neighbors, and that is the author Oscar Wilde.  After dying in Paris while in exile, Wilde came to rest under an art nouveau statue of an angel in flight.  I don’t really know why it has become tradition, but many pilgrims leave a kiss on his grave, preferably in a shade of red not often seen in nature.  My friend Bethany is visiting this week, and as a devoted Wilde fan, she brought a tube of bright coral lipstick just for this purpose. We thought there would be some sort of barrier protecting Oscar, and were fully prepared to trespass for the privilege of putting our lips where thousands of others have been, but Père Lachaise has very few restrictions or signs letting you know its occupants are anything beyond ordinary. It had been a windy week, and as we were walking to find Oscar, we came across a bouquet that had blown from somewhere unknown, thus armed with lipstick and flowers, we went to pay our respects.

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