LIKE / WANT / NEED
Bonjour! I’m Erin.
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Sometimes, you really just have to drop everything and move to Paris. Follow along as I move to my favorite city for eight weeks to work on my novel, wander the city of light, and become fluent in French.
It’s not that I don’t like Le Marais, but it isn’t a neighborhood I’ve spent a lot of time in, so I’m not overly familiar. I like that it feels different from the rest of the city; there are fewer grand Haussmann buildings here, and the streets feel older, more historic and medieval. But if I’m being honest, I never feel a pull towards the 3eme the way I do with other neighborhoods. Our macaron making class was held at La Cuisine Paris, right along the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, so it made sense for us to spend the morning and early afternoon in the quartrier. My mom was disappointed that in the 16 years since her last visit, the last remaining vestiges of what was once the true “Jewish quarter” have all but disappeared, save for a few bakeries and falafel shops along Rue des Rosiers. Doors with ancient mezuzahs still affixed to the door frame, or stars of David carved over the entry had long ago been turned into clothing stores. We had falafel for lunch and strolled through the Place des Vosges, fighting off the bitter cold of this particular day.
The macaron class itself was the highlight of the day, though. All of the classes at La Cuisine Paris are taught in English, and ours was led by a French pastry chef (Romain, a total dreamboat) who had worked at both Ladurée and Pierre Hermé. There were only eight of us in the class, which made instructions easier to follow and everything more hands-on, and the two hours flew by in a whirlwind of boiling sugar, powdered food coloring, and my inability to remember directions clearly resulting in one giant macaron shell on my silpat (two inches apart, merde!). Having survived the course (with edible results!), I can safely say there is a reason macarons are so expensive; that is not an undertaking for the timid, unskilled, or impatient. Mon dieu. Don’t let me deter you, though! It was such a fun experience and I want to do it all over again with Jamal the next time we go, because I know he’ll excel at it. And ladies, if there is anything sexier than your man making macarons for you in Paris, I don’t know what it is.
Oh! Did you know the French created a verb specifically to describe the function of folding the meringue/boiling sugar/food coloring mixture into the almond flour? It’s macaronage, and it’s one more reason I love the French language, even if my own macaronage skills could use more work (my wrists get all floppy the moment I hold a spatula, likely from fear).
The light in this town is going to give me a heart attack one day. I’d round a corner, or come up from the metro, or it would be overcast all morning and then: LIGHT. Glorious, blanketing, hazy, early-Spring sunlight, so different from the light in June or December. I can’t help but gasp every time I see a sun-soaked street, or the light filtering through the Eiffel Tower. I’m worried one day it will all be too overwhelming, and I won’t be able to take it, and my heart is just going to burst. Death by Paris.
We went to four museums this trip: the l’Orangerie and the d’Orsay in the same evening (the latter is open until 10pm on Thursdays, and they are directly across the river from each other), the Rodin the next morning, and the Louvre later in the trip. We struggled with how much to do, because it was so tempting to just sit in the Tuileries all night and stare into space, or linger too long at a café. The Parisians are so good at balance; it’s one of their skills among many that I’d love to steal. Sure, you have places to go and things to see. But the light is so gorgeous right now, maybe you should stay to enjoy it just a while longer. Pourquoi pas?
The siren call of my old neighborhood became impossible to resist after only one day.
So I gave in, and we took the 80 bus from the 7eme to Place de Clichy. In terms of favorite bus routes, the 80 is my favorite. It snakes all the way up to Montmartre from the left bank, taking the swanky Avenue Montaigne, around the 8eme, past Saint-Lazare, and all the way up to my little village on the hill via Rue Caulaincourt. Between that route and the 95, which plops you more centrally in Saint-Germain, I could get anywhere I needed to go when I lived there. I like the buses more than the metro; the metro is generally more efficient, and, given Parisian traffic, undoubtedly faster, but you get to see the city from the bus. And there is nothing like taking the 80 south and crossing the Pont de l’Alma and seeing the Eiffel Tower from your seat. Like, pop! There she is!
So we went to Montmartre, and walked and walked and walked. Because that is what you do there. You climb the winding, steep streets, you make your way to the top of Sacré-Cœur to take in the view. We stopped in the church itself (something I admittedly hadn’t done in years) and got to hear mass in about six different languages (the priest switched from Spanish, to French, to Italian, to Hebrew, to Arabic while we made our way around the periphery of the monument). We rewarded ourselves with lunch at Le Nazir, my favorite salad with a poached egg and copious lardons and baked wheels of goat cheese thankfully unchanged. I showed my mom my old apartment, giving my sweet little balcony a wistful wave from the street.
On our way to Ladurée near Madeline (we took the metro) my mom said to me, “I can see why you love it. It’s a fabulous neighborhood.” And it so is. And not just because you get an impressive thigh workout just from exploring, either. That little pocket of the lower part of la butte was my home, and will be again one day, too.
Oh, this city. Every time I come I find new things to fall in love with, new angles to photograph, new perspectives and changes in light that thrill my heart to no end. There is something calming about returning, almost as if everything up to the moment just before the wheels of the plane touch down on French soil had been a little off balance, and with each trip back my equilibrium is restored. Walking the streets, getting acquainted with our new neighborhood (even as jetlagged as we were the first day) I felt a warming comfort, a homecoming as visceral as ever. The nervous, fluttering excitement that precedes a trip had been replaced long, long ago with a sense of rightness, of feeling whole again. My French came back to me fluidly, like riding a bike.
Three years ago, also in March, Jamal and I stumbled love-drunk into a restaurant on Avenue de la Motte-Picquet after just getting engaged minutes before, and ordered one of everything off the menu. A simple avocado, drenched in house-made vinaigrette, had stuck in our minds ever since, though we’ve never been able to replicate the exact tanginess of the dijon, or find avocados as creamy. I’m happy to report that, like everything else wonderful about Paris, that avocado is still has amazing as I remembered it. A dish so nice we ate it twice on this trip. (It helped that we stayed directly across the street.)
What else? I took significantly fewer photos this trip than I have previously, in an effort to be more present and soak it all in out from behind my viewfinder. I still took hundreds of photos, though, but this time I didn’t worry about making sure I got every single shot. I took a lot more photos of people, too! More to share this week.
I missed you guys! Tell me, what’s been going on?
Yesterday marked 100 days until I head back to Paris again, but who’s counting. (Me. I’m counting.) I leave after Thanksgiving, which sounds so far away, but with the way this year has been moving I know I’ll blink and be boarding a plane, embarking on my second solo trip to what, honestly, feels like home. It will be my second time going in winter, too, though I think late November/early December tend to be more temperate than the deep midst of March (at least, that’s what I’m hoping). I love winter, I love everything about it; the cold, the damp, the early darkness, so I’ll welcome the grisaille that Paris is known for at that time of year with an almost emo-kid excitement. Blue skies, like the ones above I experienced last spring and this one, aren’t bad either, though.
I’ve stayed true to the promise I made myself when I started this new job, and have spent a ton of time working on my novel, dedicating solid, uninterruptible chunks of time to it (along with starting my real estate license studies!), which somewhat explains my extended absences around these parts. I have a nine page outline, going chapter by chapter, of how I want the book to come together, with questions for myself, things I need to fill in, flesh out, rework. There’s so much editing and cutting out and paring down. When I first started three years ago (!!!), this was just about a French girl. Now, she’s just one character in a story that has evolved past her, into something entirely different.
The one upside to taking such an extended break from working on it for the better part of the last year is that I can approach the draft with fresh eyes, and less of an attachment to passages and portions I previously would have been unable to chop. And chop I have, to the tune of roughly 20k words. Before, I had one massive, 183 page, 80k word document with virtually no sense of cohesion, and I would rely on my memory of specific words or phrases in each scene, to ctrl+f whichever section it was I wanted to work on (author’s note: I do not recommend this strategy). Now, I have a new document, organized by the chapters I’ve set up in my outline, and have been placing in large blocks of text that I’ve already written, tweaking them, cutting extraneous backstory that, while helpful to me originally, doesn’t help the story as it stands now. I am really happy with the way it’s coming along, and am aiming to have a completed, presentable first draft by the end of the year.
That week in Paris already has its work cut out for it.
August 21, 2015 / Travel /
It’s morning, too early for the office commuters, the receding dawn quiet broken by the faint hiss of water from the street cleaner’s hose at the next intersection as he washes down the sidewalks. The waiters are setting out chairs, wiping their tables down, tucking the towel back into the waist of their freshly starched aprons. The regulars start appearing, like actors in a well-rehearsed play, hitting their cues and marks, shuffling out of buildings, past the sleepy concierge leaning in the doorway with her arms wrapped around her, a thick sweater keeping the morning chill at bay. Shutters unfold on the windows above the café, arms disappearing back into the drowsy warmth of bedrooms. It’s a daily symphony: the clinking of cups and saucers being stacked next to steaming espresso machines floats out of café doors, accompanied by the mechanical hum of an idling car, the rough crinkle of a heavy paper bag, overflowing with still-warm baguette, as the baker’s assistant makes his deliveries, and, distantly, the faint murmurs of two lovers on the third floor, starting their day tangled up in each other. Martin will order an espresso, hesitate over a croissant, and end up eating two, the crumbs falling into his newspaper and getting caught in the folds. Martin dans le matin, they call him.
Before we even left for Italy I’d made a long, detailed itinerary for what I wanted us to accomplish in Paris. We would be there for a little over 50 hours, which is a cruelly short amount of time when you get right down to it, which I was still grateful to have at all because Jamal didn’t have to change our flights to include the stay in Paris, but he did, and besides, 50 hours in Paris is better than 0 hours in Paris, non?
Looking back at that itinerary now, I wonder how I thought we could feasibly accomplish everything given that we are not yet blessed with hoverboards nor the ability to Apparate a la Harry Potter. It was ambitious and adorable to expect to cram so much in, when I should have known that the best part about being in Paris is just slowing down and spending way too long over lunch or flâneuring aimlessly in the shade on one of the leafy avenues.
We didn’t get to Le Marais, we didn’t visit le Musée Carnavalet nor the Béroud painting I was so desperately intrigued by. I didn’t get to take Jamal to La Grand Épicerie or Rue Cler, and we didn’t even visit the Eiffel Tower. Quel dommage!
But if you think I’m seeking sympathy for a trip that didn’t live up to my advanced expectations, let me assure you: I’m not. Despite all that we didn’t do (this trip), we still had an unbelievable time. We ate so, so well; at dinner on our second night, at a classic bistro on Rue Caulaincourt, we split a dozen escargots to start, which Jamal declared the best thing he had eaten on the entire trip. Not just in France, but Italy too. Out of the two weeks we swooned around Italy, inhaling everything in our path, eating fresh pasta and pizza every single day, the best thing we ate were escargots in Paris. That should tell you how good they were. Buttery, garlicky, steaming hot, and just out of this world.
I also did a fair bit of shopping this trip, including finally getting my greedy little paws on that Dior “Oui” ring up there. I posted a photo of it on Instagram, but it bears repeating here, too: I have been lusting after that ring for years, going back to my LiveJournal days pre-LWN, even. Shopping at the Dior on Place Vendome made me feel like royalty; we were offered champagne and attended to by white-gloved sales associates. Then there was a stop into Louis Vuitton. And then Colette. And then Mariage Frères. And Maille. Je ne regrette rien! (My credit card regrette tout.)
But after our whirlwind shopping tour, there was lots of ambling around Montmartre, reminding ourselves why we love it so much.
There was also bread. Lots and lots of fresh bread.
Paris, I love you. I’ll see you again soon.
Paris. What is there to say, really, that I haven’t already said before ad nauseam? By now, we’ve established how I feel when I’m there; there’s a deep sense of right and comfort the moment my feet hit the soil, like I’m not so much visiting but coming home. It’s a chemical, almost biological feeling of of solace that’s hard to articulate but so easy to get swept up in. Paris is home for me, in a way that’s matched only by my love of Philadelphia.
We landed mid-day on Thursday and flew out at the same time two days later, giving us a little over 48 hours to soak up every ounce of this city as I could. I did a lot of shopping, and lot of eating. We stayed in Montmartre, bien sûr, and even Jamal made mention of the fact that we just feel so comfortable there. We don’t need maps, we don’t need translations, we don’t even need good weather (but we had it in abundance; someone said last year that Paris really seems to “turn it on” for me whenever I’m there, and I can’t help but agree. This city knows how to woo you, and while it rains more in Paris than in London per year, historically, it seems to always be blue skies and sun for me.) We just need Paris.
We took a sneezy stroll through the Jardin du Luxembourg, since Jamal had never been, and then wound our way back up through Saint-Germain (where I jettisoned my poor husband and ducked into City Pharma to load up on all the beauty products I’ll need until our next visit). We had drinks at a new bar in Montmartre, where they make their own juices and herbal, vegetable infusions for their cocktails, and I realized: my quaint little neighborhood is becoming cool. At some point, just like our gentrifying neighborhood in Philly, we’ll be priced out. Even the neighborhood near Rue des Martyrs, in the 9eme, has its own hip name now: SoPi, or South of Pigalle. An area once known for prostitutes and vagrants is now a trendy hotspot for les hipsters, or however you say it in French.
Speaking of French, a highlight for me this trip was that not one, not two, but three separate Parisians told me I speak excellent French. One even stopped me, as I switched to translating in English for Jamal, and asked, “Vous êtes Américaine? Vraiment?” To be mistaken for French by a Frenchman even for a brief moment, is something I’m going to put on my résumé under the ‘Special Skills’ section. Life goals: realized.
My favorite, and oft-recommended, “perfect Parisian morning” circuit is as follows: breakfast at Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur, flowers from Monceau Fleurs across the street, and then a morning at le Musée Rodin around the corner. That was a requirement on our second day there, and everything was as perfect as I remember, except the brioche aux pralines tasted even better than my memory accounted for.
In today’s “WTF, No Way” news: it was one year ago today that I embarked on my two month solo journey to Paris. I recognize the cliché inherent in saying, “It couldn’t have been a full year already,” and, “It feels like it’s maybe been a few months, at most,” but in this case those empty platitudes are so appropriate. How has it been a full year? How could 365 days have passed, when I can still feel the bite of the early morning cold on my cheeks as I made my way down Rue Blanche to the city center, when I can still hear the repetitive rumble of children’s scooters on the cobblestone street out of my apartment windows, can still smell the dusty, closed-in stairwell, as if these memories were from just last week. How? I remember things about those days more vividly than what I wore to work yesterday or ate for dinner on Monday, can recall the specific sound the thick white butcher paper made as the girl at the fromagerie folded it around my order every few days, can still conjure the scent of the wet concrete in the late-afternoon rain showers, am still comforted by the dizzy, exultant feeling I got from seeing the Eiffel Tower pop up around corners, above buildings, always asserting herself in my periphery, how it never got old being surprised by it. How can I still feel so close to those eight weeks, when they started a year ago today? It’s almost as if I absorbed them into my being, took them with me in my suitcases, wrapped the sounds and the smells and light into my clothes and brought it all home.
I remember oddly not crying on my last day, not feeling immediately nostalgic and wistful, but understanding in a truer sense than I was capable of before, that it wasn’t really goodbye.
I remember that, one year ago today, I was sitting in the airport, alone, and I’d called my brother to say goodbye, and I remember how soft his voice was when he said to me, “Pop would have been so proud of you,” and I remember the tightening in my throat, the pressure at the corners of my eyes.
I can’t pinpoint when my obsession with Paris started, but I know it was fed and stoked by my father’s death, as a way to keep him alive, to cling to something he loved. Did I make him proud by going? I’ll never know, but if my own sense of (surely vaulted and perhaps undeserved) self-pride is any indication, then I like to think that it would have. My fixation on Paris is genetic, unshakeable, and maybe that’s why I’ve kept those two months so vividly in the forefront of my mind.
Those sixty-one days were some of the most transformative, beautiful days of my entire life to date. I’m grateful for them beyond words, grateful for the opportunity to spend every day writing, grateful for being able to soak up as much inspiration and magic as the city could offer. I’m grateful I’m going back in a few weeks. And in many ways, I haven’t had any closure on that time, haven’t been able to move on from it, because I don’t want to. (Can you blame me?) I still have countless (hundreds) of photos I haven’t edited or shared with anyone yet. These are just a few.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
“I dance ballet,” Rose said.
“Oh, good. For a moment I was afraid you were going to say you were ‘modern.’”
“What’s wrong with modern dance?” Rose asked.
“I prefer ballet. It’s more refined and elegant, more restrained. Modern dance is just…” Sylvie’s hands were rolling around each other as she searched for the right word, “It’s a mess. All over the place.”
“Don’t you sell modern art?” Rose asked, smirking.
“Contemporary,” Sylvie said, correcting her. “And you’re attempting to make a connection, but I don’t see it.” Mirette had abandoned any pretense of subtlety and was now turned fully around in her chair, facing their conversation. She suddenly felt like a line judge at a tennis match. Rose, to her credit, had realized she’d been snared on a conversational tripwire, and was politely trying to backpedal.
“You know, contemporary art just feels very frenetic to me.” She would have been fine, if she’d left it at that, but she had to accompany her pronouncement with a hand gesture that mimicked an explosion. “I know I don’t know anything about it, but from an outsider, art like Pollock seems so sloppy.” Mirette reflexively winced, bracing herself for impact.
“Sylvie, don’t bother. Rose is hopeless when it comes to this subject. I’ve tried,” Mirette said, aiming for levity and landing on desperation. Sylvie set her glass down with more force than was necessary. Mirette could feel the air seep out of middle of the table. Even Andrés, who was never more attracted to his wife than when she was passionately discussing art, became suddenly fascinated by the dark red fabric that was draped across the ceiling, feeling that certain spars were best held without spectators. Antoine leaned forward slightly, an amused and expectant smile on his face.
“This is the problem with people these days,” Sylvie said to no one in specific. She then looked Rose squarely in her face, settling the full weight of her glare on her, and leaned forward on her crossed arms. “A Pollock is more like a ballet than you understand. There is nothing ‘sloppy’ about it. Each single drop of paint is the result of restraint and composition and subtle poise, even though it looks like a bunch of unintentional noise on a canvas to most people.” Mirette was a few seconds away from throwing herself in front of Rose, who was shrinking back in her chair so dramatically she was sure to end up on the floor with a final swoop. Mirette motioned to the waiter with a quick circle of her hand that another round of drinks were necessary.
“You either buy into it or you don’t. You either go into a museum or a gallery an open, receptive vessel, or you carry in with you all the preconceived notions about how contemporary art is ‘weird’ or unapproachable or indecipherable, and then of course all the art on the walls–”
“Or the floors,” Antoine added.
“Or the floors –a pile of wrapped candy, a bed strewn with crumpled paper and trash– makes no sense. If you stand in front of a Jackson Pollock and you’ve already decided it’s paint splatters, random and meaningless, then what else could it look like to you?”
“Why doesn’t anyone have this problem with, I don’t know, someone like Monet?” Rose asked.
“Because everyone thinks a Monet is beautiful because it is, but it’s also been universally agreed that it is beautiful and everyone knows it. There hasn’t been the same unanimity about the majority of the art from the last 40, 50 years. Yet.”
“You think there will be.”
“I don’t know. And that’s what makes it so exciting. That frenetic uncertainty is exciting. It’s all guesswork, based on how much you trust your taste. On how much clients trust my taste.”
I’m writing a novel. You can read more about that here.