Monday, January 23, 2012

foreign affairs

Paris is full of surprises, some more charming than others.  These idiosyncrasies are elusive and come to light over time.  When at first something seems out of the ordinary we think, ‘how odd’.  With the second occurrence, we marvel at the coincidence.  By the third time, it’s ‘Aha…’ And that’s what I call the slow reveal.

With each passing day, the underbelly of Paris comes to fruition in new and baffling ways.  Before long, I’ll likely lose the ability to call out these cultural quirks.  In the meantime, I consider it my duty to document all that is new and unusual, as well as any misnomers I encounter along the way.

time traveler

So this is Paris

Men over age 50 have the most appalling after-lunch burps.  Beware of garlicky downdraft in passing.  It’s seriously gag inducing. 

Elderly women are fast-moving and wield oversized purses like weapons.  Stay out of the way or they’ll mow you down without batting an eyelash.

French women are often petite but there are women of all shapes and sizes in Paris.  I’ve asked and the most popular size in women’s clothing stores is a size 8. 

Eggs are not refrigerated in the grocery store.  Weird but true.

Coffee is downright disgusting with very few exceptions.

best to drink it at home.  trust me.

The after school snack (le goût) is far from a healthy affair.  Mothers, grandmothers and nannies dole out cookies (straight from the box), baguettes and pastries with reckless abandon.  There is nary a whole grain in sight.

School children write nearly everything in cursive, with a fountain pen and accompanying ‘marker’ that erases mistakes; but only once.  After that, they have to rewrite with a permanent pen.

french hello kitty endorses cursive.  how about that.

The supermarket sells whole, skinned rabbits, eyeball sockets intact, wrapped in plastic on yellow styrofoam trays.

Nearly every breakfast cereal is studded with chocolate chunks or nuts.  Or both.

Organics are few and far between.  Our neighborhood produce vendor laughed out loud when I asked for organic broccoli.  Before we left Seattle, we were eating about 75% organic.  Now, we eat less than 25%.   

Parents rarely shop with children in tow.  It’s unusual to encounter children in grocery stores and clothing boutiques.  This is brilliant, when you think about it.

unhappy camper
shoe shopping at the camper store: not a happy camper

Waving is a dead giveaway that you aren’t French.  Parisians are all about nuances, such as nods and tiny smiles of approval.  I’ve managed to curtail my wave reflex but for the first few weeks, I would catch myself mid-wave and then run my fingers through my hair in a pathetic fake out attempt.

Ironing is a national pastime.  Dryers are small and often combined with washers.  Laundry emerges looking like you’ve slept in it, hence the French infatuation with ironing everything from kitchen towels to boxer briefs.

back to the ironing board

Twice a year, there are huge sales called Les Soldes, when virtually every store in Paris offers drastic discounts.  These bargains are thrilling yet dangerous.  As my dad always says, “Show me the money you saved.”

Whenever we stop yammering and start listening, we notice how eerily quiet it is on the streets, in stores… practically everywhere.  We aren’t especially loud people but we felt loud when we arrived in Paris.  Either we’ve gotten quieter or we’ve stopped caring.  It’s hard to say.

Despite their general adherence to convention, Parisians aren’t afraid to make loud statements in clothing and decor.  It’s not uncommon to see mousy types and models alike rocking black leather pants or cobalt blue stilettos.  But never at the same time.  The rest of the ensemble tends toward understated.  Confidence is key to making it work.

yellow dress
step aside, little black dress. 

Decor is often monochromatic with injections of color from, say, a hot pink chair or vibrant throw pillows.  This allows for changing the overall look while maintaining a neutral backdrop. 

knit balls 
très original : enormous knitted beach balls to accent the home

Most Parisians like to excel at whatever they do.  Perfectionism is pretty much the cultural norm.  Before we moved here, I thought of myself as borderline OCD.  Now, I’m not so sure…

That’s all for now.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

put an egg on it (aka: ‘le weekend, part II’)

Every Sunday, we scarf down a few breakfast pastries on our way to church.  These are mandatory indulgences, not because we are expending energy but because riding the metro is exhausting.  I kid.  Really though, the service lets out at lunchtime and our mid-morning goût (snack) tides us over nicely until we figure out where to go for brunch.  I love Sundays.

Annabelle lucked out when her Sunday school class made king’s crowns in honor of Epiphany.  She may not have found the fève in her galette this year but she still managed to don some seriously regal headgear.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her she looked more Old King Cole than Wise Man.  Maybe it’s the missing tooth?

a merry old soul was she

The walk home from church is fairly long but punctuated by deliberate detours as well as the unexpected.  Fueled by the aforementioned pastry consumption, we are primed to explore until the collective rumbling of our stomachs catches up with us.

Sunday before last, we stumbled upon an unofficial gathering of antique car aficionados.  There were several clusters of them near Les Invalides.  One group, dressed in head-to-toe fur, was having a champagne picnic in the grass.  My favorite was a jovial bunch donning tweed caps and rosy cheeks.  Their Crayola hued, toy-like automobiles made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  I’m a sucker for curvy old cars.

DSC_6717 car talk: le paris edition

The absence of commerce on Sundays is still so odd to me.  It’s at times jarring the way otherwise recognizable locales are rendered altogether unfamiliar.  Point in case, I led Naud and Annabelle down a charming street I’d discovered only to find it completely void of the bustle of activity I’d witnessed during the week.  On the plus side, I peeked into the window of what appeared to be a vintage furniture boutique and promptly decided I should like to live there.

DSC_6727 let’s move in!there’s even a garden out back

Eventually, hunger came calling.  We unanimously decided it was time for something different.  We didn’t want anything too French or touristy or fussy and something affordable would be nice.  Asking for down-home was pushing it and we were running out of time.  Naud is the worst when it comes to hunger.  His blood-sugar plummets roundabout 12:05 pm, hence the pre-church fortification.

I had an idea.  I’d read about a place called Coco&Co. where everything on the menu is served with an egg.  That’s about as down-home as it gets.  Still, I had reservations and not the kind that get you a table… the kind that involve fretting.  Past experience gave me cause for concern as the French are notorious for undercooking eggs.  Truth be told, I could care less about salmonella.  What I was worried about was the quivering, gelatinous, egg white membrane sort of thing.  I can’t stomach that.  It might as well be mucous.  For whatever reason, the French egg is more often than not a pallid, oozy affair and that’s just not my cup of tea.

Egg qualms aside, we were hungry and Coco&Co. sounded like a brunchy nearby solution.  There was a brief moment of confusion when we arrived and the sign said, not Coco&Co. but Eggs&Co.  “This is the wrong place,” I panicked, proving Naud isn’t the only one with a lunch-o-meter.  My brief freakout was resolved when we discovered that it was indeed one and the same.  Coc0&Co. is Eggs&Co. and they have the four signs to prove it. 

DSC_6730 the restaurant (formerly?) known as coco & co.

The place was hopping.  Eggs were flying out of the kitchen and hopeful diners were crammed in the entry like sardines.  Naud and Annabelle waited outside while I squeezed in and put our names down for a table.  The wait was long but the interior so adorable that we (I) decided to weigh lay our hunger just a little longer.  While we waited, I managed to snap a photo of the kitschy wall art and some seriously burnt brownies.  Hey, at least they were brownies.  Never mind, I was there for eggs and from where I was standing, those looked mighty fine.

don’t order the brownies

We ordered the Eggs Benedict, which have a different name in France and that name now escapes me (Oeufs Benoît?).  There were many, many egg options to choose from with names that sounded charming yet entirely unfamiliar.  If only I knew what they were.  None of them sounded like scrambled, fried or over easy.  Our hip server, who looked eerily like Amy Winehouse, gave us the rundown in French but in my famished stupor, I lamely resorted to pointing and miming. 

it’s even more adorable upstairs

The eggs Benedict were a delicious choice, albeit runny in places.  Annabelle was less enthralled with her scrambled eggs which looked like they’d been pureed into smithereens.  On the plus side, buried under the scrambled eggs was a treasure trove of bacon and sautéed mushrooms.  Miam, miam (that’s French for yum yum).

DSC_6736 this is what we came for

The real gem of the day was the coffee.  According to our barista, there are only a handful of places in Paris with really good coffee, and Eggs and Co. happens to be one of them.  He wasn’t kidding.  It was the first time I’ve had Seattle-caliber coffee in six weeks.  Annabelle’s gem of the day was the egg shaped gummy they handed her on the way out.  Miam, miam!

amy winehouse lookalike, eggs&co. owner and my dashing dutchman

The owner of Eggs&Co. is quite possibly the nicest guy in Paris.  He doesn’t crack under pressure (har, har), makes a mean coffee and hands out candy.  Seriously, what’s not to love?  Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a Sunday brunch winner. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

le weekend, part I

Our weekday routine is in full swing.  Annabelle’s school days are long, Naud’s work days even longer and I am the juggler of all things new and foreign.  I have yet to unveil the many mysteries of Parisian life and there’s always enough on my plate to keep me on my toes.  We fall into bed each night with heavy eyelids and little desire to do more than keep house and brush our teeth.

The harried pace of our week necessitates that Saturday and Sunday remain relatively free form.  For now, we’ll take it.  Or at least some of us will.  Annabelle prefers to map out the weekends and struggles to grasp the notion of fluidity.  By the time Saturday rolls around, she’s aiming for ‘all fun all the time’ in what I liken to a bad case of ‘tourist’s syndrome’.  We know it hasn’t sunk in that we live here when she refers to the past month and a half as ‘this trip’. 

DSC_6688 not just passing through

We can’t blame the kid.  It’s not as if Naud and I have fully adhered to the bizarre notion of Paris as 'home’.  The difference is that we have to be grownups about it.  We have to say, hey, if we don’t buy more toilet paper, the rolls that came with our apartment will run out.  We have to do the work.  So we buy toilet paper and change the light bulbs and do all the normal stuff.  We still haven’t been to the Louvre.  Not on this trip, anyway.

Saturday before last, we had no plans as usual.  Somewhere along the way, we stumbled upon the entrance to the BHV (bay-osh-vay).  The BHV (Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville) is a legendary Parisian department store (equivalent to an upscale Target) with seven floors of everything under the sun.   Nearly everyone goes there for essentials, whether they want to or not.  The alternative is to spend twice the money, time and effort at some obscure store that carries just one thing.

DSC_6702  we went all the way to the BHV (pronounced ‘bay-osh-vay’)

The French are lovely, gracious people but efficiency is not in their veins, bless their souls.  I have accepted this fact yet the longer we live here, the more I find myself cutting corners to avoid waiting.  Unfortunately, this method is short-lived and all roads eventually lead to the BHV.

Despite its reputation as a catchall for everything you might need, kitchen sink included, I’d been avoiding the BHV for weeks.  Shopping tends to bring out the worst in me, so I figured I would hold out for as long as possible.   As if the magnitude of the store weren’t enough of a deterrent, rumor on the street was that it was hotter than hot sauce in there.

As I stood before the threshold, armed with moral support and two additional sets of hands, I knew my time had come.  “Let’s take a quick peek,” I suggested.  They bought it.  Heck, I bought it.  It wasn’t until we were sucked into the inner vortex that I realized there was no getting out empty handed. 

There we pillows on sale.  We needed pillows!  We found storage containers, wine glasses, table linens and a handy folding cart with wheels for the kitchen.  We bought an even smaller cookie sheet because the last one we purchased was two centimeters too big; and in a moment of weakness, we succumbed to the wiles of a new-fangled can opener. 

It was hot in there.  Really hot.  We cast off gloves, scarves, coats and sweaters in feverish succession.  Relief came in the form of a cracked window on the back wall of the kitchen department.  My theory is that the stifling heat is the store’s way of saying, take your coat off and stay awhile.

DSC_6695 walking home with our loot

After what seemed like an eternity, we emerged from the sauna-like conditions with full hands and empty bellies.  Dinnertime was approaching.  Annabelle was in a mood and I can’t say I blamed her.  She sometimes does this unnerving thing where she acts the way I feel.  It really gets under my skin.  I want to say, “Grow up!”, but I don’t because that is the inevitable.  Instead, I dole out consolation carousel rides. 

DSC_6703 somewhat consoled by a double decker carousel

The walk home was no picnic.  We made quite the entourage, lugging our goods by Notre Dame, across Pont Neuf, along the Seine, and back to our apartment.  Naud gripped the folding kitchen cart in one hand and a bulky plastic bin in the other, Annabelle toted the salad spinner and I’m pretty sure I sprained my finger carrying an odd-size storage bin filled with all manner of kitchen gadgets.  As we trudged along, I felt a twinge of satisfaction in the knowledge that I was no longer a tourist and I had the can opener to prove it. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

we had an epiphany

Last Friday was Epiphany and that’s a big deal around here.  In other words, there’s a pastry for that.  In this case, the corresponding dessert is galette des rois or king’s cake.  Epiphany is officially the sixth of January, but galettes are eaten throughout the month to celebrate the arrival of the three kings who were believed to have visited baby Jesus around that time.

DSC_6682 epiphany evening in paris

A galette des rois is no ordinary cake.  In fact, the French word for cake is gateau, whereas galettes are generally comprised of a puff pastry shell with filling .  Galette des rois is a slightly sweetened, flaky pastry round, traditionally filled with frangipane (almond cream).  Other popular fillings are pomme (apple), framboise (raspberry) and poire-chocolat (pear chocolate).

The galette des rois craze is inescapable in France.  They are omnipresent in bakeries, grocery stores and even at the school cantine (cafeteria).  The allure for children is that buried somewhere inside is a small glass or plastic fève (charm) and whomever receives said charm is king or queen for the day.  To make things more festive, every galette comes replete with golden paper crown. 

galetted des rois look at all those frisbees

Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of flaky pastries.  You can keep your croissants and fruit filled fritters.  I prefer something a little less greasy.  This is probably downright blasphemy in a city where every bakery display spills over with all manner of pâte feuilletée (puff pastry).  Despite this constant bombardment, I was content to stand my ground and observe the craze from a distance until Annabelle begged and I caved.

Traditional almond cream was out of the question due to my pesky nut allergy.  I wasn’t gung-ho about the fruit options either, so it came as a pleasant surprise when one bakery offered a ‘nature’ or unfilled version.  This afforded us the luxury of  adding the filling of our choice.  We broke with tradition entirely and filled our galette with gelato from the neighborhood gelateria.  That’s right.  Ice cream and puff pastry.  If that’s not redemption, nothing ever was.  The three kings probably rolled over in their graves, but we were quite pleased with the final result.

who will find the fève…

Annabelle was adamant that the fève be a surprise but I knew how badly she wanted it.  I intended to slip her the charm but my plan was foiled when she insisted on a different piece.  Instead, Naud found the fève and fortunately didn’t swallow it or break his tooth, as some have done.  He made a charming king and Annabelle was perfectly content to be his little princess. 

royally sweet

Sunday, January 8, 2012

tales of a french schoolgirl

monday morning jitters

Annabelle is rapidly learning French like the little sponge we had hoped she would be. In addition, she has picked up a few choice expressions, compliments of the British contingent. According to her seatmate and first mutual crush, using the bathroom is going ‘wee wee’ and erasers are ‘rubbers’. Pencils are ‘sticks with rubbers’. And yes, Annabelle has a reciprocal crush.

It went something like this:

When the two found themselves alone outside the bathroom, the British boy said to Annabelle, “I know you like me.”
To which she brazenly replied, “I do."
The boy answered back, “I like you, too.” And that’s all. Or, at least, that’s all I know. She obviously has a thing for accents.

French school is a goldmine for writing material and un-PCness. It's like traveling back in time to my childhood, when boys pounded one another on the playground and gave girls wedgies at regular intervals. Annabelle says that French schoolboys take play fighting much farther than boys back in the states do. She was initially astounded by this but is now accustomed to their antics, having concluded that they need an outlet to offset the confines of apartment living.

We were amused the first week, when Annabelle relayed her experience playing tag at recess: Because the school yard is much smaller than playgrounds in the US, being ‘it’ is a walk in the park. She claims she could tag “at least 10 kids in one fell swoop”. She exaggerates. The space isn’t really that small. The best part: In France, when you tag someone, you say ‘touché!’

IMG_0151 wednesday at the park

I still can’t get over the fact that French children have a four-day school week. It’s bizarre, yet surprisingly pleasant to have a day mid-week to break the monotony of the school routine. It affords us the opportunity to reconnect and to take a deep breath. It is also our unofficial letter-writing day. We are determined to keep in touch with friends and family abroad and I'm all for reviving the lost art of handwritten correspondence.

bringing back snail mail

My favorite aspect of school is the lunch routine. I either leave Annabelle at the cantine (cafeteria) or pick her up for an hour and 45 minutes. In other words, I never have to pack a school lunch. Hallelujah. On the flipside, non-cantine days are quite a trek, with eight 15-minute walks to and from school for me, and four for Annabelle. My feet protest but the scenery is terrific. I vary my routes as much as possible and manage to take in many interesting sights along the way. Annabelle, on the other hand, has an annoying habit of scrutinizing the prolific piles of dog poo and exclaiming over their various attributes. She’s closer to the ground, so it’s hard to miss, but I could do without the lively commentary.

DSC_6671 a beautiful day in the neighborhood

One of Annabelle’s school highlights is wearing her smock. She absolutely adores it. Rather than a full-on uniform, children wear mostly navy or complementary shades of blue and a mandatory navy blue ‘smock’. A lot like it sounds, the girls’ smock is a long-sleeved navy affair with a button placket down the front and white ric-rac accents. The boys’ version is shorter and without frills. Many children have their names embroidered on the front. I’ve heard a rumor that their French grand-meres (grandmothers) do this for them.

The most fascinating tidbit about school occured shortly before winter break. At the end of each term, the school director visits every classroom and orally relays each child’s ‘report card’ to the entire class. This is equal parts brilliant and outrageous, but mostly brilliant. It borders on public humiliation, but it's not as if fellow classmates aren’t aware of one another’s foibles. Annabelle gave me a play-by-play, as translated by her boyfriend/seatmate, who wasn’t, by the way, in the clear. So, that’s just great. She’s already gravitating toward the bad boys. Fortunately, her crush’s biggest fault is talking in class (according to his translation). Annabelle has clearly met her match.

In reality, my child clings to English-speaking children because they are her lifeboat in a sea of Frenchies. Her French classmates are sweet, welcoming and eager to know her, but the language barrier does pose a challenge. In order to break down the barrier, she is embracing language with great ease and determination. One French girl spent an entire recess teaching Annabelle how to tie her scarf and count past 39 in French. Whenever she and her French friends can’t find a way to communicate, they seek out one of the British children to act as translator. Those British kids deserve a medal. Annabelle would be lost without them.

the final leg: heading home

We are grateful to be a part of such a wonderful school, though it wasn’t by chance. Back in 2007, we vacationed in Paris and met a lovely American mother and daughter at the park. They were from New York and had been in Paris for seven years. I expressed my desire to move to Paris and we exchanged contact information. I kept in touch once or twice over the years and held on to her business card, just in case. When we decided to make the move , I wrote once more and was thrilled to hear back and receive a glowing recommendation for their children’s school. We couldn’t imagine not taking this advice when everything else felt like a shot in the dark. We are so glad we did.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

when you say nothing at all

Paris is getting naked.  In a striptease of sorts, the city is slowly, methodically shedding its holiday attire and resuming normalcy.  As the rhythm of daily life ensues, I find myself with feet planted squarely in the present and I like it.

back to the grindstone

Just last weekend, English was the predominant language on the streets.  Now, most tourists have vacated, locals have returned from their ski chalets and French is once again the language du jour.  I’d better get cracking and learn how to say things like, “Watch out for that pile of dog poo!” and “No thanks, I’m still browsing.” and “Does this orange have seeds in it?”  Last week, the butcher stared at me blankly when I asked him to “papillon” (butterfly) my pork roast.  I need to find out how to say that, too.

I manage alright with my fledgling French, depending on who you ask.  The strange thing is, I’ll walk in one store and have a flawless interaction only to walk out of another wondering why I ever tried at all.  There is  a lot of miming involved.  Occasionally, I throw in the towel and conclude that awkward silence is better than opening my mouth and further embarrassing myself.  Most of the time, though, I risk humiliation in the name of putting forth a concerted effort.

Oh, I’ve been laughed at.  Once, for making up a word for the seeds in oranges.  Doesn’t pitou sound like a word for orange seeds?  It’s not.  Another time, I was laughed at for improperly conjugating a verb.  You’d think bakery workers would have better things to do than make fun of people who are actually trying to speak their language.  Apparently, they don’t.  The good news is, I am unfazed by this mockery and determined to return to these shops, armed with words like ‘seeds’ and ‘browsing’ and ‘baking sheet’ (try miming that).

Today, I am content to take in the soundtrack of city life from the comfort of my apartment, no speaking required.  Rain sputters from the sky at a sideways slant.  Horns honk.  Two construction workers deconstruct scaffolding, piling one tattered metal pole noisily atop another in discordant clanging succession.  Heels click-clack on the sidewalk, water sprays from the underbellies of passing cars and motorcycles whizz by at random intervals.  This is Paris.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

a little less structured

On Monday, the elephant in the room was 2012.  The year arrived right on schedule, with perhaps a little less fanfare than expected (we were informed, after the fact, that the absence of fireworks on new year’s eve was due to economic cutbacks), but it was here just the same.

January 2 marked the last day of vacation for Naud and Annabelle.  The forward motion of change was in the air and we all felt it.  Half of the city was back in the swing of things while the other half was soaking up one last day of vacation, a lot like us. 

DSC_6646  skip to my lou

The time had come for a different lunch spot, a change of scenery.  We’d been in the city just a day shy of one month and had yet to visit a museum.  So there were ideas.  Ideas with potential.  Calling them plans seemed a tad formal.

There are two little islands in the middle of Paris, behind Notre Dame (or in front if it, depending on your vantage point).  Just North of those islands, we unearthed a new favorite lunch spot.  Le Loire dans la Theiere has all the markings of a Seattle cafe: hipster wait staff that can’t be bothered with tourists or needy folk, unfussy, rustic fare that borders on comfort food and a cozy, worn-in interior with stay awhile appeal.  In other words, a little slice of home sweet home and a welcome departure from standard bistro fare.

DSC_6618 unassuming from the outside, le loire dans la theiere is my new favorite

I just about did myself in, eating spinach camembert quiche with walnuts (due to my nut allergy).  Noix are nuts in French but I could have sworn the chalkboard chicken scratch read mais, which is corn.  Fortunately, I survived and it was delicious (with a side of itchy throat).  For dessert, we shared a ginormous piece of lemon meringue tarte and it was alright.  I didn’t care though, because I’m in love with the place.  A slice of home isn’t solely about taste, it’s about a  sense of belonging and this cafe certainly has that going for it. 

DSC_6629 post lunch-rush dessert carnage

I plan on becoming a regular and charming the surly socks off of the plaid clad, tattooed waiters.  I also plan on trying the poached eggs with spinach and parmesan, which was sold out, and the chocolate mascarpone tarte, because, in retrospect, it looked a lot more enticing than what we had for dessert.

The day, like our state of mind, was very yin and yang with equal parts blue sky and dark foreboding clouds.  If I were chicken little, I would have made a mad dash for it.  Instead, we ended up with two crummy five-euro umbrellas that were better than nothing.

the sky is falling

Our unstructured agenda included a trip to the Museum of Natural History at Jardin des Plantes.  It is, in fact, a series of museums and we wanted to check out the Paleontology wing.  Sadly, we made a wrong turn and paid 14 Euros to see, not dinosaurs but three floors showcasing stuffed, dead animals in their ‘natural habitats’.  While our visit to Deyrolle was charming, this place was downright depressing.

DSC_6662 slowly going the way of the buffalo

The good news:  Our day included a carousel ride (for Annabelle) with an alien spacecraft and there was mile high meringue to compensate for mediocre lemon filling.  In addition, the two 5-euro umbrellas kept us dry and the man who helped us at the post office was disarmingly friendly (he swore us to secrecy in the name of disgruntled postal workers everywhere).  Last but not least, we finally tried out the bidet… as a footbath (thanks for the brilliant suggestion, Colin!).

DSC_6645  our little martian

For dinner, our neighborhood Italian deli provided handmade tortellini, parma prosciutto, oven roasted tomatoes and a nice hunk of parmesan reggiano.  I served the pasta over a bed of arugula tossed in olive oil and lemon, topped with slivers of  tomato, shaved parmesan and tissue thin slices of salty prosciutto.  Call it one happy dinner for three famished people with six tired feet.  It was the perfect meal to punctuate our last day of winter vacation. 

DSC_6663 bon nuit, paris.  it was a good day.

We fell into bed with light hearts, sore feet and much anticipation for all that lies ahead.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

a good year

After our short but sweet visit in Holland, we returned to Paris just in time for New Year’s festivities.  We weren’t sure what to do or where to go, but figured we’d find a way to celebrate, regardless.

Every good party deserves great champagne, a crusty baguette, some stinky cheese and frou-frou dessert to round out the offerings.   To this we added the necessary essentials to tide us over until grocery stores reopened on January 2nd. 

all dolled up for new year’s eve

When midnight drew near, we made our way toward the Seine, champagne in hand, and found ourselves situated squarely on the Pont des Arts, surrounded by fellow revelers.  This pedestrian bridge across the Seine was packed like sardines with friends, families and lovers all eagerly awaiting the stroke of midnight…

DSC_6598 this really is midnight in paris

As the countdown ensued, each and every gaze turned toward the Eiffel Tower.  Annabelle was giddy with anticipation as she awaited her first French fireworks…  3, 2, 1… “Happy New Year!  Bon Annee!',” everyone shouted as champagne corks popped and lips locked. 

DSC_6592 a pint-sized photographer captured our new year’s smooch

At midnight, the Eiffel tower sparkled with thousands of tiny lights.  People stared expectantly but no fireworks erupted.  Not a one.  It was strangely disconcerting, this relatively subdued entry into the new year.  On the plus side, we were in Paris, drinking champagne on the Seine, with a picture perfect view of the Eiffel tower.  Our bellies were full of good food and we had each other.  No fireworks display could top that.

bon annee from paris!

On January 1, Naud and I awoke on the kitchen floor.  This was no accident, nor was it a case of too much champagne at work.  It was a deliberate attempt to remove ourselves from the deafening street noise that had transpired the night before.  Naud preemptively lugged our mattress into the kitchen, which faces an inner courtyard, and we drifted off to the soft hum of our tiny refrigerator. 

At some point in the night, we awoke to the sounds of a lot of shouting and a loud crash.  An SUV had slammed into a nearby railing and a real live chase ensued.  Naud watched from the window as police pinned down and hand-cuffed two bad guys on the street, just below our apartment.  How’s that for a little new year’s drama? 

In less dramatic news, it was a tremendous relief to feel a sense of homecoming upon our return from Holland.  We weren’t sure if we would, seeing as the past month has had something of a nomadic feel to it.  In two days, Annabelle will go back to school, Naud to work, and I will find my rhythm, slowly but surely. 

Happy New Year, dear ones.

forget paris

DSC_6444 toto, i have a feeling we aren’t in kansas anymore…

The greater part of this past week was spent with my in-laws in Holland, or as the French say, les Pays-bas (lowlands).

As much as I love Naud’s parents, it was rough packing our bags for the third time in four weeks and leaving Paris behind.

I’m not complaining, mind you.   

Here we are, living in Europe, gallivanting across the continent with places to go, people to see… It’s just too, too much.  That’s what it is.

My in-laws are gracious, well-traveled, educated types.  They welcome us into their home with open arms and hearts.  Their mid-century modern dwelling is minimalistic, yet warm and inviting, with high ceilings and plenty of natural light.  “I would like that you are making yourself at home,” says my Dutch mother-in-law.  How lucky am I?!

DSC_6488bedtime stories with oma

Each of us had a highlight for the trip.  Mine was sleep.  I probably slept more in four nights than in the prior three weeks combined.  I could make up all sorts of stuff about hospitality and family togetherness but it wouldn’t hold a candle to the luxury of feeling rested for the first time in two months.  I’m guessing Naud would choose family.  He’s been living 5,000 miles away for more than ten years and it’s awfully nice to finally have his family nearby.  Annabelle’s highlight?  Cycling with Opa and Oma, hands down.

the dutch aren’t big on helmets; we, however, remain devout

Our days were spent sleeping late, lounging in pajamas and spending quality time with family.  In between, Naud and I squeezed in a few runs together, which was ‘prima’ (that’s Dutch for excellent).  Naud complained a lot because he’s out of shape; but Holland is totally flat, so he managed.  The whole country is below sea level which makes running more difficult, in my humble opinion. 

DSC_6506 artsy post-run smooch (aka: when the kid is away, the parents will play)

In between lounging and sleeping, we called on family friends, walked in the neighborhood and celebrated a belated Sinterklaas (a Dutch holiday for children, on December 5).  Sinterklaas is the saint whom Santa Claus is based upon.  He comes from Spain, rides on a white horse and brings presents to good girls and boys, via boat, on the fifth of December. 

DSC_6457 sinterklaas did not disappoint

Naud’s parents live in a small town in the North of Holland.  The surrounding area is known as Friesland, where they even have their own language.  The center is densely populated, while outer lying areas consist of sprawling farmland dotted with traditional farmhouses.  Much like the US, farming tends toward passion over profit and many farms are nothing more than scenic pastures.  Old-style windmills are now a rarity.  The new-fangled, high-powered adaptations have all but replaced them. 

DSC_6514 modern windmolen (windmills) dot the highways

When our time with naud’s parents came to an end, we happily discovered that what was once a tearful goodbye is now ‘tot ziens!’ or ‘see you soon!’  A quick hop over Belgium and voila, we’re back in Paris.  But not before stopping in Amsterdam to visit with Annabelle’s Great Opa Schmidt, who has spent his entire life in the center of Amsterdam.

my dutchies  (naud was born in amsterdam)

During past visits, we were lucky recipients of personal walking tours through the city, compliments of Opa and his wealth of knowledge.  His charming manner and knack for storytelling made for a privileged backstage glimpse of Amsterdam, past and present.  This time, we were on our own with just shy of an hour to see what we could see.

amsterdam in a nutshell 

We managed to squeeze in a quick tour of the city for the sake of stretching our legs and soaking up a few rays of unexpected afternoon sunshine.  I was intent upon seeking out an olliebollen vendor.  Olliebollen (literally, oily balls) consist of yeasty dough rolled in a ball, deep fried and doused with poedersuiker (powdered sugar).  They are a New Years’ tradition in Holland and, I like to think, the last fatty hurrah before resolutions kick in.   

DSC_6559 annabelle’s olliebollen initiation in dam square

Then, over the canals and through brick roads to Opa Schmidt’s house we drove.  We were ushered in with big hugs and Dutch kisses.  Not to be upstaged by the French, the Dutch give three pecks instead of two, first on one cheek, one on the other and then back to the first cheek for a third round!  It makes for a lot of kissing, particularly at family gatherings. 

Naud’s grandfather is truly a remarkable man.  At 89 years old, he lives independently, practices yoga and often cooks his own meals.  He relies on public transportation to traverse the city and is fortunate enough to live in a country where this independent senior lifestyle is supported.

DSC_6563 opa offers to give annabelle a hand with her loose tooth

Our time with Opa is always a special treat, filled with happy memories and an overall feeling of warmth and love.  He is thrilled to have us living nearby and hopes to visit in the spring… It will be his first time traveling to Paris and we look forward to playing tour guide.  It is our turn, after all. 

In the meantime, we were ready to head back, just in time for New Year’s Eve in the city of lights…