Sunday, December 25, 2011

christmas time in the city

Our first gift of the day came in the form of sleep.  Annabelle awoke very early but wisely decided to go back to bed.  She woke again two hours later, refreshed and eager to make up for lost time. 

does a smaller tree give off the illusion of more presents?  we think yes.

Annabelle’s first stop was the kitchen window, where her stocking had been hung with care.  On the floor, a plate scattered with cookie crumbs and a drained glass of French milk… Pere Noel (Father Christmas)  had come at last!

DSC_6349  was the dolls’ height order intentional?

Ever the strategist, Annabelle neatly arranged her dolls in advance, before joining them on the sofa to survey the contents of her stocking.  She soon moved on to bigger presents tucked beneath the tree.  This was the year of dolls and their ensembles.  Annabelle’s sheer delight was contagious and spent most of the day ambling about with big dopey grins on our faces.

DSC_6352 one happy kid

We may have eaten our weight in chocolate, this Christmas.  We didn’t have much time to shop for gifts for one another.  Naud has been busy working and Annabelle has been sick; then there’s that little detail about us moving our family across the ocean.  Suffice it to say, we skimped on grown-up presents.  Neither of us minded.  We at least managed to get our hands on some good chocolate, so there was that. 

At lunchtime, we nibbled hors d’oeuvres and sipped champagne while Annabelle hosted a dolly tea party.  Miniature tomato tarts, baby quiches and thumb-sized croque monsieurs proved the perfect size for the occasion.

christmas tea party

The afternoon was spent in true Christmas style: Annabelle played with her new toys and we, the weary parents, lounged excessively.  When the rumbling of our bellies announced impending mealtime, we ate French cheese and I prepared a simple yet elegant Christmas dinner for three.  There was duck breast with espelette (sweet pepper) sauce, spicy roasted sweet potatoes and caramelized brussels sprouts with pancetta and shallots.  The dinner was a perfect blend of comfort and decadence.

DSC_6374  not too shabby

As tempting as it was to settle in for the night, we unanimously decided to change out of our pajamas and go for an evening stroll.  We were so glad we did.

DSC_6386 crossing the seine on christmas night

DSC_6387 christmas night at the louvre, photo by naud

It was almost balmy as we made our way toward rue de Rivoli.  We may or may not have had destination in mind…

DSC_6391 mini arc de triomphe, photo by naud

We did, in fact, have a plan.  We were headed for the giant Ferris wheel at the far end of Jardin des Tuileries.  We couldn’t think of a better day than Christmas to ride to the tippy top, so we crossed our fingers and said a little prayer that it would be open…

It was!

DSC_6406 this could be anywhere, but it’s at the tippy of the jardin des tuileries ferris wheel (annabelle is hanging on to my arm for dear life)

DSC_6411 what we saw from way up there

DSC_6409 two happy campers and one eiffel tower

It was late when we headed for home.  Annabelle was getting squirrelly and asked is she might climb on a statue in the park.  Despite the fact that it was probably totally against the rules, we let her do it.  She thought the whole thing was hysterical.  So did we when we took a closer look at the photo.

DSC_6414 nudity is literally in your face in france

There was only one thing left to do and we did it.  We had our buche de noel and ate it, too.  We think Marie Antoinette would have approved.

DSC_6419 there was a dainty meringue mushroom on top, until somebody ate it…

We hope your Christmas was as merry as ours! 

Joyeux Noel!

xoxo Sarah, Naud and Annabelle

a lot like christmas

Christmas Eve began with a scenic run on a gorgeous day.  From the moment I stepped out of doors, I was greeted with bright blue sky and cheery December sunshine.  For whatever reason, I was feeling particularly fast.  It’s possible that my extensive holiday to-do list had something to do with it.  The sooner I returned, the sooner I could cross ‘go for a run’ off of my list.

on my run
i live near this building.  i should know what it’s called. but i don’t.

The city was relatively quiet, with less traffic and fewer people milling about.  It was nice.  The predominant language on the streets was English and the overall vibe was decidedly un-French.  I was surprised at how much freer I felt among my own people, as if I could belt out a Christmas carol or do something entirely non-conformist without anyone looking at me funny.

near tuileries she’s an expert lounger

Despite the aforementioned sense of urgency, I decided it was high time I found the Eiffel Tower.  Prior attempts had turned up nothing, though I’m fairly certain it was under my nose a number of times.  I’d just run out of time and turned back too soon.  As luck would have it, I had both speed and a sense of direction on my side and as I rounded one final corner, there it was in all it’s much-lauded splendor. 

tour eiffel
joyeux noel, tour eiffel (that totally rhymes when you say it in french)

Back at the ranch, we cleaned our apartment like mad to prove to our cleaner that we were clean, in case she was spying on us for the owner.  She never showed up.  At least our place will be spic and span for Christmas. 

We headed out for the afternoon to gather food for Christmas day.  I was banking on a rumor that nothing is open in Paris on Christmas, and went into full-on gourmet survival mode, hunting and gathering enough delicious goodies to get us through the day.  I brought along my Sherpa/husband and a pint-sized person who occasionally helps but mostly just complains.

nope, not poo.  those are marrons (chestnuts) from a tree at the park

Our first stop was my new favorite bakery, Secco.  I discovered it last  week, near the Eiffel tower, and it is very cool indeed.  There are two sides: the patisserie, filled with irresistible baked goods and several daily lunch combos, such as salmon with ratatouille and haricots vert or roast chicken with chutney, potato beignets and asparagus.  They don’t speak English and the lines are ridiculous, particularly at the adjoining boulangerie (bakery), where I’d gladly take one of everything.  I especially adore their rye raisin bread and traditional baguettes. 

Earlier in the week, I pre-ordered a buche de noel, but I needn’t have bothered.  They had cleared out every bakery shelf in the shop to make room for row upon row of the traditional Christmas cakes with their rustic log shape and beguiling meringue champignons (mushrooms).  I left with the cake, an hors d’oeuvres  platter and a second sack, filled to the brim with baguettes, brioche, madeleines, pain au chocolat and chausson au pomme (apple turnovers) pastries.  There would be no shortage of butter at our house, come Christmas. 

DSC_6295 get your buches here.

Next stop, the infamous boucher where chickens don little blue jackets.  I did not buy a chicken.  I think the butcher thought I was a total bore when I ordered magrets des canard (duck breast) for Christmas.  It’s pretty much everyday fare for the French.

i love my new butcher, even though he has no idea what i’m saying

I stocked up on chocolates for our stockings at Chapon and then we headed home, just in time to change our clothes and take the metro to church for the Christmas Eve service.  But not before I oohed and ahhed over the impressive decorations at the corner seafood market.

DSC_6310 seafood was not on the menu, but this made me wish it was

The Christmas Eve service at The American Church in Paris was absolutely stunning and packed to the rafters.  The program consisted of a retelling of the Christmas story with traditional carols and corresponding text from the Bible.  It ended with a candlelit rendition of silent night, including one verse in French.  There was a powerful feeling of solidarity as we united with fellow believers and shared our collective light for one brief moment.

DSC_6317 this little light of mine

I stood between my husband and daughter, grateful for my family and friends, life in Paris, our new church, and for all that Christmas means to me.  My heart was full.

all is calm, all is bright

Afterward, we said hello to friends (the ones we met at the park in 2007) and snapped a few photos of Annabelle by the glowing tree.  It dawned on me then, that she was finally over her illness.  I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas gift.

christmas best

Every good story needs a happy ending and this one has two.  After the service, we were headed to the legendary Allard, in what was sure to be a meal to remember.

Annabelle created quite a stir when she asked in perfect French if she might have a chair for her poupee (doll)… Our good-natured waiter obliged and announced in a booming voice that in his 21 years as a waiter, this was the first time he had ever been asked to provide a chair for a doll.  The people around us smiled and some even clapped.

Escargots were had by all, as was sole meuniere, very good steak and to finish, tarte fine (crisp, delicate pastry lined with overlapping slices of caramelized apple, browned to perfection).

DSC_6328 snail face

The people-watching at Allard is unparalleled.  There was the loud, friendly American ex-pat couple with their well-behaved beagle, the Italian family with teenage sons wearing (ack!) matching turtlenecks, a canoodling couple with mismatched ages (him- 65, her- 27) and a smattering of quirky French folk.  One portly Frenchman at a nearby table kept passing bits of foie gras to the beagle and the woman two tables down wore a pillbox hat and appeared as though she had just returned from a democratic convention, circa 1965.

DSC_6327 we clean up alright… some of us even match the wallpaper

We headed home with full bellies and the promise of a Christmas day filled with good food, fun presents, sweet family and lots of love. 

We are blessed.

slowly but surely

Much to our dismay, Annabelle’s illness rebounded, mid-week.  She wasn’t sick enough to go to the doctor, nor well enough to go out and explore the city.  I felt like a caged cat, while Annabelle was content to play dolls and read like a maniac.

I will dole out too much information for a moment and elude to her symptoms by referencing the BRAT diet, also referred to as the BRATY diet.  The BRAT diet consists of B(ananas), R(ice), A(pplesauce), T(oast) and sometimes, (Y)ogurt.  It relies on the blandest of bland to reset the digestive tract.  In other words, decadent French food be damned.

DSC_6275  if you must eat boring food, at least make it look fancy

In the afternoons, we managed to get out for a little fresh air and stroll through the neighborhood.  Annabelle was lured by the prospect of taking out her stroller, which had just arrived in a box we’d shipped from Seattle. Little girls with strollers make people happy, even the surly French types.

DSC_6270 a breath of fresh air

Many storefronts were bedecked in greens and shiny glass balls, and Laduree, the posh tearoom with its famed macarons, had a special station set up for ordering their decadent Christmas confections.  Even the Parisian dogs had a jolly air about them. 

DSC_6273 jolly old pooch

In a bold move, we subbed yogurt gelato for plain old yogurt (the ‘Y’ in the BRATY diet), much to Annabelle’s delight.  On Thursday, it was 52 degrees in Paris.  That’s just plain hot for December. 

DSC_6280 pure joy

My thrill of the day came in the form of a lovely Christmas bouquet to grace our holiday table.  Although many things are pricier in Paris, flowers are relatively affordable. 

DSC_6283 les jolies fleurs (pretty flowers)

After dinner, we sprawled on the couch and watched ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’.  Nothing evokes Christmas nostalgia quite like Burl Ives singing ‘Have a Holly Jolly Christmas’.

movie night, rudolph-style

into the wild

How, you might ask, do Parisian parents entertain their children over Christmas break?  Some head to Deyrolle, as we did, on Tuesday.  Welcome to the weird and wonderful  (PETA members take heed), where barnyard animals, woodland creatures and savage beasts all mingle together with astonishing ease.

window deyrolle
all i want for christmas…. 

Deyrolle is a very special place; a zoo of sorts for the living dead, though not nearly as macabre as it sounds.  Part taxidermy shop, part museum, it is a shrine to birds, bugs, reptiles and all manner of (once) living mammals.

deyrolle birds welcome to the weird and wonderful

Though we discovered the shop several years ago, this was our first Christmas visit.  The main level is a relatively unassuming garden shop, with little to indicate the strange and curious world which exists just one floor above.  We mounted the winding staircase, greeted at the top by a hand-hewn wooden table set for Christmas dinner, its many guests decked out in fur and feather finery, frozen in time as if they will spring to life any moment.

photo 2 dinner is served

We slowly moved from room to room, taking it all in with equal parts awe and morbid fascination.  I like to tell myself that every animal died of natural causes.  My backup excuse is that these must be relics from a bygone era.  Some of them surely are.  What I find most astonishing is the fact the all the animals in Deyrolle are available for purchase.  I kid you not.  From the smallest shiny beetle to the adorable baby elephant, you can take anything in the shop home with you, for a price. 

elephant dumbo immortalized

Annabelle wanted to drop 20 Euros on a colorful butterfly but wisely decided otherwise, seeing as we can easily stop by and visit whenever we get a hankering for the absurd.

deyrolle annabelle shellsdeyrolle giraffeblue butterfliesbutterflies 
deyrolle: the animal activists’ nightmare

Next door to Deyrolle is ‘a nom de la rose’, beautiful floral shop specializing in none other than the ubiquitous rose.  Their simple, vibrant arrangements speak for themselves.

DSC_6240 a rose by any other name…

We had lunch at a charming corner cafe, where I finally satisfied my longing for a hunk of red meat.  As luck would have it, my steak came with a side of frites (fries) and a hunky French waiter.  Annabelle was happy, I was happy.  It seemed an appropriate meal to follow up our visit to Deyrolle.   

DSC_6234 two happy carnivores

In other news, Annabelle is over the moon because I bought her a turtleneck.  I have never been a fan of the turtleneck.  It’s the name, to begin with.  Then there’s the feeling they give me of being strangled or of having my head lodged in a small opening.  Maybe it conjures up suppressed memories of being stuck in the birth canal… who knows.  I don’t like them and I don’t understand the French people’s obsession with them.  Regardless of my opinion, Annabelle desperately wanted one because, according to her, ‘all the kids are wearing them’.  I relented.  She’s thrilled.  I’m complacent.

DSC_6239 all the cool kids are wearing them

peeling back the onion

Annabelle is home this week and next, for Christmas break.  Naud’s time off starts Friday, so I’m running in the wee hours before he leaves for work.  I like it.  Many mornings, it’s still dark when I leave the apartment.  It’s quiet in the streets and I feel as though I’m waking up with the city.   

sunrise tuileries  here comes the sun

On Monday, I awoke to find that the streets of Paris had frozen overnight.  When I left on my run, it was 29 degrees outside (Naud keeps telling me that I need to learn Celsius now that I’m in France).  I was dressed for the weather but soon found myself slipping and sliding down the sidewalks and across the bridge over the Seine.  Fortunately, Jardin de Tuileries has numerous sand covered paths where I could run with relative ease.  

morning at tuileries sunrise at jardin des tuileries

I’m still playing tourist on these runs, stopping frequently to capture some thing or other that I find truly remarkable.  The views from the Tuileries are breathtaking and Monday morning was no exception, with cold clear skies and a watercolor sunrise.  The neighboring Louvre was bathed in sumptuous pink light as I exited the gardens and headed home.

louvre sunrise 
early morning at the louvre

My tourist French is quickly losing its charm.  I figured I could wear it like a trainee badge for as long as necessary but it’s already wearing thin when I need it most.

For about a week, I had a bag sitting by the front door with a couple of items I’d bought at a children’s clothing store and needed to return.  When I purchased the clothes, I had asked about returns with a little help from an English-speaking customer.  I was certain they had said both exchanges and refunds were possible.  Of course, this was not the case.

Baffling was the fact that the store in question was not a boutique, but a well-known French brand with international locations.  Despite this, they kindly but firmly explained that refunds were impossible because their computer wouldn’t let them do it.  Aha.  The ‘technology is to blame’ catchall never fails.  After an hour of back and forth with several failed attempts to find suitable alternatives, it was suggested that I waltz on out with my existing purchases and try another location for my exchange.  In other words, I left with my return items in hand.

If only I could have explained myself instead of smiling and nodding and sputtering in sub-par French which prompted the saleswoman to remark in perfect English that she had never heard an accent quite like mine.  This after she had failed to speak of word of English for the first half hour.

After my easy breezy return at Le Bon Marche, I was under that assumption that annoying returns were a thing of the past.   Au contraire!  The aggravating French return is alive and well.  On the plus side, the customer service wasn’t half bad.  They still tell you you’re wrong, but at least they say it a smile. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

baby, it’s cold outside

We skipped church on Sunday.  Annabelle still wasn’t in top form, so we figured we’d do the other parents a favor and not infect their children with whatever she had.

DSC_6160 this is not our church- it’s st. germain de pres, the oldest church in paris 

By lunchtime, we could no longer resist the temptation of a cloudless blue sky and bright winter sunlight streaming through our windows, though we were unprepared for the biting cold which greeted us outside.  I suppose it would have been too much to ask for sun, blue sky and warmth in December.

Near our apartment, we were treated to an impromptu jazz session, compliments of four brave souls with undoubtedly frozen fingers. 

i’ve got my little love to keep me warm

For lunch, I was craving steak like nobody’s business, so we made our way to Cafe de Flore, a Parisian institution where I was certain they could satisfy my hankering for steak frites (steak with fries).  We situated ourselves at one of the cozy tables in the glass enclosed section that wraps around the front of the cafe and perused the menu.  No steak.  We instead settled on a croque madame (sliced brioche-style bread with melted gruyere cheese, ham, and an egg on top) and a sandwich au jambon (ham sandwich on a baguette) for Annabelle. 

cafe de flore:  not a steak in sight

We people watched while people watched us as we sipped our coffee and Annabelle doodled in her mini cahier (notebook).  It was a Sunday-worthy activity, to say the least.  On a mildly amusing side note, our server bore an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Craig.  Unfortunately, I was not stealthy enough or brave enough to take his picture.

DSC_6164  la petite artiste

By Sunday, we had graduated from jetlag tired to a different kind of tired altogether.  It’s the sort of tired that creeps in when recovering from the daunting task of moving across an ocean and facing head-on, the daily challenges of life in a foreign land.  Fortunately, this feeling of exhaustion is countered by the sheer thrill of it all.  We are weary, but charmed by our new life in this grand city.

DSC_6167  still tired

After our steak-free lunch, we did some window shopping.

DSC_6189 this is harder than it looks

DSC_6191 she’s intently counting the many nesting dolls in this impressive set

DSC_6193 ordering macarons from the famed tea salon, laduree (chocolate for naud, salted caramel for me and rose for annabelle)

We had an actual destination in mind on that sunny Sunday afternoon.  We were in search of another baby tree, this time for Annabelle.  The first one bit the dust before we moved to temporary apartment #2.  Our official tree was already up, but we had another tradition to adhere to.  Beginning when she was just shy of two years old, Annabelle has always had a little Christmas tree of her own.  She has her own ornaments and decorates the tree herself.  It has always been in her bedroom and it seems that with every passing year, the tree and Annabelle both grow larger.  Not this year.  This year, we were back to square one.

The floral shop where we bought our first petite tree was all sold out but I had spied some prime candidates near Notre Dame and that’s where we were headed.  Along the way, we stopped in several pet stores with doggies in the window.  It took great restraint to leave without a puppy in arms, but our apartment is pet-free and I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea to buy a dog from a pet store.  There’s no telling for sure, but there may be a chien Parisienne (Parisian dog) in our future…

After diligently scouting out the smallest of small trees that the nursery had to offer, we came up with just two pathetic specimens.  A lady working at the nursery suggested using lots of ornaments to fill the gaps while another fellow offered flocking, which is quite popular here (the trees are sprayed from head to toe with fake, cotton-like ‘snow’ in white, pink or neon red, sometimes with glitter). 

It seemed as though we would have ourselves a Charlie Brown tree when, voila, the perfect tree appeared!  With two small trees instead of one big one, Naud was relieved of the yearly behemoth task of lugging an eight-foot tree from car to house and from house to curb and we had ourselves a double dose of Christmas cheer.  Hooray!

the perfect pint-sized tree

DSC_6197  accidental artsy shot of naud with a tree sprouting from his head

Back at home, we spent a cozy evening, trimming Annabelle’s dainty tree.  Naud played holiday DJ and kept Christmas carols on a constant rotation.  Dinner consisted of epicerie fare (an epicerie is a deli-type grocery with prepared dinner items), including the most expensive prawns we have ever eaten, thanks to my forgetting to check the price.  We’re talking 78 Euros/kilo expensive (that’s about $40/lb.)!  We escaped with just 20 Euros in prawn damage, which fit nicely in a plastic tub the size of a half pint of sour cream.  They were absolutely delicious and we will never buy them again. 

DSC_6208 trimming the tree

Many of you have been asking for photos of our apartment and I don’t intend to disappoint.  Here are some snapshots of our first Paris home, all dressed up in its Christmas finery. 

Home truly is where the heart is.


DSC_6210 annabelle’s petite sapin (christmas tree) graces the entryway bureau

 DSC_6214 the view from the entry into our living room

DSC_6220 our beloved nativity scene rests atop the dining room buffet

 DSC_6215 the view from living room to dining room

our grand little tree