Monday, April 28, 2008


My last day in Paris I decided to walk all the way across the city to Montmartre, the distant and distinct little bohemian enclave of Paris. It was raining slightly but I plodded along for over an hour, refusing to catch a metro so that I could watch one neighborhood blend into the next, the cityscape changing with each arrondissement. Montmartre is something special, though, high up on its hilltop, the only place in Paris where a vineyard still thrives and you can find silence broken only by birds’ chirping. It’s dense with the histories of Renoir, Eric Satie, and Edith Piaf to name a few, plus the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. The tourists, thankfully, cluster at the tip-top of the hill around Sacre Coeur Basilica and the most stunning view of the city, but what amazed me most is that aside from that spot, Montmartre retains a peaceful detachment from the rest of Paris.

I immediately entertained fantasies of living in this little oasis like the heroine in the movie Amélie. The full French title of the film, which I count among my all-time favorites is Le Fabuleux Destin de Amélie Poulain and how could you not have a fabulous destiny in Montmartre?! For all who have not seen it, well, see it, ok? She is a quirky, shy waitress with a clever and eccentric style of generosity and a will to help those around her. It’s a beautiful story and I was thrilled to find the actual café where a great deal of the movie took place, Café Deux Moulins. Other than a large poster of the film’s main character, the café did nothing to tout its fame; a down-to-earth, chill spot, it was probably the most comfortable one I’d found in Paris yet. The tables were intimately close, yet the diners pleasantly aloof, everyone seemingly lost in their own little pools of contentment. The waiter danced over with my espresso, w inked, and was gone, and I was overcome with the impulse to be part of this place. I visited the bathroom upon paying my bill (you must see the movie to get the hilarity of that) and floated out the door with the conviction that I would return. Someday. As a Parisian.

$$$$$hit! The current state of currency

A brief and sorry note to Americans everywhere: our Dollar is one wimpy piece of legal tender. And the Euro is one merciless bully. Multiply everything by at least 1.56 and watch your bank account dwindle. Cringe at the cost of cab fare and mourn the museum entrance fee. It makes you sip your wine a little slower and choose your extravagances carefully, which is not a bad thing, I guess. The only kicker is when your company (ahem, Cirque du Soleil) pays you in dollars while you work in Europe… and that is fair how???

La Langue Française

For one week, I took the metro across town to the France Langue school near the Arc de Trimophe. It gave me a sense of purpose as though I were commuting to my “job,” and not a bad job, either, getting to listen to and try to speak the language I most adore. I think I’d renewed my determination to learn French when I met a guy named Roberto in Mexico City. He was a few years younger than me yet spoke Spanish, English, Italian, and French, purely out of his own will to speak the languages of the art and music he so loved, mostly piano and opera. He explained that mastering these languages, he could integrate some of their cultural elements into his own life, adopting words and phrases and concepts into his own understanding and expression.

Well I wanted to do that, too! I realized that without becoming a “-phone” you couldn’t be a true “-phile” of anything; without the language of a culture’s expression, you couldn’t get inside its collective head. So I dove into French, which I hadn’t touched since Cornell, where there hadn’t really been time to absorb it anyway, since it was often more about getting assignments done to merely survive to the next semester. I re-opened my daunting grammar book, downloaded the “French Pod Class” podcast from iTunes, and made an appointment for a manicure with my friend Isabelle, an esthetician from Quebec who I made promise to only speak French with me while doing my nails.

This all gave me at least a refresher before arriving in France, where I found that all those warnings I’d received, that the French would be intolerant of anything less than perfect pronunciation, were unfounded. I received much more encouragement than snubbing, found that I could ask questions about menus, sizes, directions, opening hours, all the necessary stuff with no problem at all. I even bought a pair of shoes once because the store owner I chatted with declared my French “formidable!” (This compliment had the effect of boosting my confidence yet making me temporarily forget my budget).

The language course at École France Langue was an eclectic mix of five Germans, one Moldovan, one Korean (who it turned out had seen Quidam in Seoul), one Swiss, and one Brazilian (who was a freelance writer eager to give me tips on breaking into the business). The school itself, in fact, is about half Japanese students, and the combination of Japanese accents plus all the other nationalities’ layered over French words filled the crowded hallways, making me feel part of a small-scale Parisian United Nations.

I still have a long way to go until I am fluent and no longer have to frantically conjugate in my mind before speaking, but it feels like the most beautiful, indulgent work to do, this language-learning. It’s like watching my mind grow, and discovering in myself new ways of thinking and feeling as I learn new words to express things. It makes me think of Steven Pinker’s theories on how language shapes thought and whether we are limited in what we can conceive by what we can describe, even within our own heads.

Bread of Fantasy

La quête du pain peut même être appréhendée comme le catalyseur de la grande histoire des hommes.

The search for bread may well be considered the catalyst of the history of man.

Le Pain Poilane, considered Paris’ “best bread” (which is one out-of-this-world distinction, really) takes itself very seriously, as you can see from this quote on the brochure that comes with your order there. But then, I take bread seriously, too. I’d choose a perfectly crusty baguette, a hearty brown pain de campagne or a traditional pain au levain over any decadent dessert or rare delicacy you could dream up to offer. Before the trip, I’d searched for some place where I could learn how to bake the good stuff, but it seemed that most cooking schools would rather teach how to roast a duck or prepare mousse au chocolat. I came to realize that, in France, bread is thought best left up to those bakers for whom it has been a life-long métier. So I opted for the much easier post as bread-taster and made an un-scientific study of the best boulangeries in the city.

Poilane is the only bread in Paris distinguished by its brand in the restaurants it supplies. Bistros and brasseries boast “Nous servons du pain Poilane” in their windows, and for good reason. Once at 7am and again at 4pm, a line forms outside the Left Bank bakery as they bring fresh loaves out of the oven and customers salivate in unison. Getting bread there, as I did one weekday afternoon, is choosing a diamond or deciding on a child to adopt; it’s that weighty. I wasn’t allowed to serve myself at all, but was assisted by a bread technician who spoke in one long string of descriptions of grain type, fermentation methods, baking temperatures, chewiness, density, flavor. I left with way more bread than one girl can eat, with loaves in a rainbow of colors and the most delicious scent wafting around me. I discovered that the best way to lighten one's load of bread is to share it with the homeless. It's more delicious than centimes and it makes everyone feel good.

And the thing about good bread is, it would be a crime to spoil it with anything other than pure butter. In France, this is a given. There’s an accept-no-imitation dogma that runs deep. PAUL Bakeries, the chain that produces what I’d consider the second best bread and the tastiest croissants, advertises Patisseries pur beurre, Pains de Fantasie! After just finishing Michael Pollen’s awesome treatise against the offenses of industrial food processes, I cringe to think of the enthusiasm over calorie-less “I can’t believe it’s not butter” spray. Putting it on Poilane bread would be like pouring paint thinner on a Picasso – unthinkable.

Friday, April 25, 2008


The cool thing about my job is that it allows for plenty of café time, something I consider one of life’s priorities. I have clear, linked memories of which cafés I have read certain books in, written certain journal entries in, met certain dates in, even thought certain personal revelations in. I spend hours in every city just people watching and sometimes bumming wireless internet while getting buzzed on caffeine. The French have a similar reverence for the café, and unlike in America, it’s not just a refueling station for commuters with 24-ounce cups; it’s a laboratory for philosophers, a sanctuary for newspaper readers, and a meeting spot for social papillons.

Cafés are everywhere in Paris, just everywhere! But I had only so many days there, and only the capacity for so much coffee, so I employed my nerdy tour guide, Rick Steves, and his guidebook’s tour of the “Grand cafés of Paris” to narrow things down. I hit St. Germain de Près first, home of the side-by-side institutions Deux Magots and Café de Flore. I randomly chose the latter, with its crammed-full outdoor tables and reputation as Picasso’s favorite hang-out. Without looking at the menu, I ordered my favorite, a noisette, which is basically espresso with a teeny dollop of foamed milk like the Italian macchiato. The whole beverage takes about three sips to finish off, but in this instance, I was paying dearly for sipping in such a prime location. Cafés in Paris may serve nice coffee, but your Euros are really going towards rent, which is why having your drink standing up at the bar can be a third of the price of sitting at a table. It’s all about real estate, and once you splurge on that table, it’s yours til the end of the day if you can sit that long. Once I got over the shock of the bill (€4.60 for those three sips), I milked my spot for all it was worth – wrote three postcards, visited the bathroom to wander around the art deco interior, observed my fellow café-sitters, and watched the frenzy of ancient waiters with extraordinary mustaches and penguin vests.

Because of the cold, it sometimes seemed that my time in Paris was just a race to see things between the many café breaks that were necessary to warm me up and keep me going. And they were sometimes strategically useful. I really wanted to visit St. Chapelle, the 13th century church of exquisite stained glass built to house the relics of Christ, only the wait to get in was outside and endlessly long. One morning, I got up early, found the entrance, and camped out in a window seat of a café just across the street. I waited cozily til I saw others start milling around the ticket booth, quickly paid my bill, and made it just in time to claim the first spot in line.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bikram Paris

The first thing that hit me in Paris was the cold – it wasn’t a touch of chill, either, but a full-on collision of freezing wind and rain that struck me dumb. I was used to the heat of Mexico, and my body had grown wimpy and complacent in the warmth. To think that I’d packed my favorite thin, strappy dress and even open toed shoes, I cringed at the wasted suitcase space and gave up on the idea of strolling elegantly through the city. I am a clothes horse and more than a little obsessed with my wardrobe, and layering everything I’d brought on top of each other wasn’t in the fashion plans for this trip. I had no choice but to bundle up til I was unrecognizable (though who would recognize me anyway...?) How you feel about yourself in a place is half the story, and both my pride and body were sore from being dorkily dressed and frozen stiff.
So I made a detour into a vintage clothing shop for some used and funky boots plus an eclectic, floppy hat that I will probably never wear again and one of those classy scarves that French women seem able to tie over fifty different ways. It was a start.

I’ve basically been doing the splits every day since I was six, so my joints were freaking out a little about being neglected and numb with cold. Luckily, I was pointed in the direction of a yoga studio in the wonderful Marais neighborhood. It was Bikram yoga, or “hot yoga” where the room is heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity while you sweat yourself silly for an hour and a half doing 26 postures and breathing exercises. I’ve usually hated this style, since sweating from my eyebrows and elbows isn’t really my thing, plus Bikram’s competitive philosophies and legal controversies over the copyrighting of the founder’s teaching turns me off. I walked in hesitantly, and almost made a 180º turn right out the door again when I saw the prices. €25 per class! And that’s for a group class with about 30 other students, not including the rental fee for towels and a mat. Still, I was intrigued because this place seemed mega-popular, full of steaming, fit yogis and a sense of vitality, and I needed to feel alive again. I went for the introductory special, that new-student hook 'em deal that so many studios offer but that was just the right length of time (ten days) for my stay in Paris. For €35 plus the cost of a giant water bottle, I could come to unlimited classes with the added bonus of practicing my French comprehension. I was in.
Bikram class was an ordeal involving massive perspiration, special attention to hydration, and a full shower afterwards, but I was so happy to do it! I came away glowing and buzzing with new French vocabulary for words like menton (chin) and phrases like étirez vers la plafond! (stretch towards the ceiling!) I discovered that the whole thing was more mental than anything (which is what they always tell us in yoga, isn't it?) and that if I could calm down about the sweating, it could start to feel good, amazing really... how could I not? I was a yogini with a Paris address!