Tuesday, March 6, 2012

too much vacation

DSC_7376 wheeeeeee, it’s vacation!!!

Annabelle’s school has a whopping two weeks’ vacation (les vacances) nearly every six weeks.  That’s a lot of vacation.  Granted, French school is more challenging with longer hours and just two months off for summer holiday.  Still, two weeks of interrupted schedule is a hefty imposition. 

If we were real Parisians, we would head to our ski chalet in the Alps or drop our kid at the grandparents and enjoy a blissfully child-free sojourn.  Alas, we are not Parisian.  Not one bit. 

Initially, I took pride in those moments when people assumed I spoke French but I soon realized they were only speaking French to me because they didn’t know English.  I do my best to dress the part, speak in hushed tones, walk with a graceful stride and abide by cultural norms, yet my lack of French-ness is undeniable.  I am petite, yes, but not brunette or peroxide blonde and I am too curvy to pass as a bona fide French woman.

DSC_7297 french bistro: check. french scarf: check. french blazer: check. french lady: nope.

It helps that when Annabelle is in school I don’t have to talk much.  Sure, I have the skills to interact with salespeople and when all else fails, I play the, ‘I am the silent-type’ card.  The French are rather aloof, I reason, therefore simply not talking is a brilliant foil.

The clincher is the moment I open my mouth.  I sound American.  I tried to hide this initially by over-enunciating in French but that only led to puzzled musings as to where I might hail from.  People would scratch their heads in bewilderment and comment on my unique accent.  Was it Spanish or perhaps Australian, they would inquire. 

My decision to own up to my rightful nationality was spurred on by Annabelle.  I could go an entire day convincing myself that I had everyone fooled until I picked up Annabelle after school and had to throw in the towel.  To put it mildly, she has a lot to say after a day of immersion in French grade school.  Walking beside your kid while they yammer away in English is a surefire bust and more than a little confronting.  Who did I think I was fooling?

I have since come to a place of ambivalence.  I still do my part to fit in but I’ve stopped trying to kid myself.  I have never personally begrudged someone their country.  Why should anyone begrudge me mine?  It helps that the French aren’t as anti-American as they were during the Bush administration.  I’m not raising the American flag or anything drastic like that because, ‘when in Rome’…

Like all kids, Annabelle was ecstatic for her break from school and with good reason.  French schools are tough.  I can see why they have breaks as often as they do.  The homework load alone is enough to cause a nervous breakdown.  These lengthy vacations signify the French notion of working hard and playing hard.  It’s not a bad concept, really. 

jump for joy

We were one of few families who actually stayed in Paris during the break.  Naud is new at work and the French have a silly rule about not ‘officially’ taking vacation during the first year of a new job.  It’s not written in stone but we figured we could hold out until summer.  There’s plenty to see and do in Paris, as it is.  In addition, Annabelle’s teachers had the gall to assign homework… over vacation.  Now that’s just cruel.

Annabelle had no qualms about spending vacation at home.  She spent her days alternately reading, writing letters, and playing dolls.  We slept in, spent leisurely mornings in our pajamas and ventured out in the afternoon.  We frequented parks, lingered over late lunches and made a point of slowing down and taking it all in. 

considering the possibilities (with saint sulpice cathedral in the distance)

My child has become a champion letter writer since moving to Paris. She uses her adorable French fountain pen and writes all correspondence in neat cursive.  In fact, I don’t think she even knows how to write ‘not in cursive’.  What is that called, anyway?  Normal?  Well, cursive is the new normal and letter writing is the pastime du jour.  The criteria for her chosen recipients: either you’ve written already or she has a notion that you will write back.  If you are reading this and never receive your letter, just assume it got lost in the mail. 

IMG_0275 view from the post office.  for real.

As of vacation, I am beginning to think that Annabelle might be a director when she grows up.  Whenever she finishes reading a book, she spends hours creating miniature sets, costumes and props in order to act out scenes from the chapters, using dolls as actors.  She narrates and does voices for each character, relying on her books for inspiration.  Who needs television when dolls are reenacting the Thanksgiving feast in uber-chic Native American ensembles?

DSC_7318 what native americans would have worn had thanksgiving been in paris

After reading a book about a depression-era birthday celebration, Annabelle conjured up an entire scene using our drying rack as center stage.  So much for hanging laundry.  There was a full-on party in session.  She even made an itty bitty piñata filled with tiny candies and she fashioned festive party hats from recycled magazine pages. 

DSC_7289love the piñata  

In addition to our daytime antics, we dined out on several occasions.  Nothing says staycation like throwing in the proverbial spatula and boycotting kitchen duty.  There was ‘bad pizza night’ at a jam-packed place with high ratings, followed by ‘mediocre pizza night’ at our mainstay ho-hum pizza joint.  With France’s proximity to Italy, I can’t understand why it’s so hard to find decent pizza in this city.

Before indulging in lousy pizza, we kicked off vacation with an authentic bistro dinner.  The food wasn’t noteworthy, save for an absurdly charred bone protruding from our cassoulet.  It was no fluke.  Shortly after our meal arrived, a South American woman at the next table received an equally blackened femur.  Like us, she eyed the bone with equal parts horror and fascination before fearlessly digging in.  It was my first cassoulet and, blackened ‘leg of whatever’ aside, it wasn’t half bad. 

DSC_7304  on the plus side, i got to sit across from this guy.

Two weeks with my constant companion was a loo0ng time.  Fortunately for us, Annabelle and I are a good team.  We cleaned out the desk because three months is how long it takes for clutter to take over.  We tackled a mountain of homework (Can that be my vacation highlight?).  We made new friends, had park play dates and did our part to keep the post office in business.  We went a little collage crazy with two pairs of scissors, a glue stick and a pile of magazine cutouts.  We slept in.  We discussed plans for someone’s upcoming birthday and that someone got a long overdue haircut. 

IMG_0338 after her haircut, annabelle said, “that was sooo luxurious, mom.  whatever you paid, it was totally worth it.”

And just like that, it was over.  We didn’t get one of those telltale ski goggle suntans.  We didn’t eat fondue in the French Alps.  We didn’t spend our vacation driving out of the city and back into it.  We were spared the hassle of packing and unpacking suitcases and there was no airport security to contend with.  We did right by vacation, by George. 

annabelle’s newly shorn locks.  stop growing up, already.

Of course, if we had gone somewhere, we’d probably be feeling sorry for people like us. 

That’s all I have to say about that.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

where the wild things are

My absolute favorite thing about Paris is not having a car.  Have I mentioned that before?  I don’t miss driving for a minute.  It helps considerably that we live in the center of it all.  We are mere minutes’ walking distance from sprawling parks, art museums, cafes and stunning cathedrals.  Our grocery store is around the corner as are two pharmacies and countless specialty food shops. 

In the course of daily activity, we cover a lot of ground but Saturday is reserved for venturing out and extending our scope of the city.  The metro occasionally comes into play but we travel by foot whenever possible.  We see so much more that way.

On one such outing, we made our way to the menagerie (zoo) at Jardin des Plantes.  Our path to the zoo took us through the charming, cobbled streets of the Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter), where tourists and students mingle amongst a sea of cafes, crêperies and Irish pubs. 

gothic spires and gargoyles sprout from saint séverin cathedral

Along the way, we passed Saint-Séverin cathedral, with its gothic spires and menacing gargoyles.  The church’s location in the heart of the Latin Quarter seems out of place in an area best known for its raucous nightlife.

It never ceases to amaze me, the way ancient history exists intact around nearly every corner in Paris.    The city’s past is well-preserved and mingles seamlessly with modern day life.  I am humbled by all that there is to know and learn.

DSC_7172 a fitting juxtaposition of old and new

Just past the Latin Quarter, we stumbled upon a smaller, less imposing church, Saint Julien Pauvre, and traipsed through the surrounding courtyard.  This simpler stone structure is one of the oldest churches in Paris, dating back to the 1300’s.

the grounds at saint julien de pauvre

Annabelle was intrigued by an old stone well turned planter box.  She was curious as to how life might have been centuries ago when water was drawn from it. 

DSC_7175 a wishing well, perhaps?

Near Jardin des Plantes, we passed through an unassuming arched doorway and found ourselves standing on the ruins of an ancient Roman arena dating back to the 1st century AD.  Later research revealed that the Arena of Lutece had once housed upwards of 17,000 spectators.  It served as a place where gladiators waged battles and actors performed before the masses.  Originally, the arena was surrounded by stone walls with high arches and bleacher-style seating extending up to the rafters.  It was restored in the late 1800’s due in part to the tireless efforts of Victor Hugo. 

DSC_7271  view from the nosebleed section at arena of lutece

Eventually, we reached our destination, the Menagerie des Jardin des Plantes, a small zoo situated in the heart of the park.  We had been to the zoo on past vacations but this was our first visit since moving to Paris.  Winter at the zoo takes some extra gumption and proper layering and this chilly February day was no exception.

annabelle at the menagerie

Unlike most animal friendly zoos in the States where you pay to see expansive habitats and few visible animals, this French zoo is of the old school variety.  In other words, not so good  for the animals but great for getting your money’s worth.  Such is the paradox of zoo enjoyment.

DSC_7233 i am monsieur ed.

In addition to the usual suspects, French zoos house a number of animals we’d never before laid eyes upon.  All the animals’ names are in French, so it’s often tricky to know what we’re seeing without looking it up.

DSC_7187this is what you get when you cross a house cat with a river otter

We saw everything from Chinese red pandas to good old American raccoons.  I’d like to thank whomever came up with the winning idea of shipping pesky backyard raccoons off to French zoos.  Brilliant!

I was particularly enthralled by the zoo’s impressive array of owl species.  Owls are cool.  Ironically, the French word for owl (chouette) is also the word for cool.  They have a heyday around here with this play on words.   Imagine if we said, “Owl!” every time something was cool.

DSC_7212 too cool for school (in french, that would be a play on words)

My runner up for best in show was the dromedary.  Now there’s an interesting animal.  Camels are alright but dromedaries are way cooler.  Their solitary hump is oddly endearing.  They have friendlier eyes with long lashes and are generally less smug-looking than their two-humped counterparts. 

DSC_7241 one humped wonders

The ape house was amusing as always.  One orangutan had a blue blanket, similar to the one Linus toted in the Charlie Brown comics.  He would cover himself entirely and then peek out through a tiny opening. 

DSC_7215 what the orangutan saw (as taken through the glass on the other side)

At first, I wondered if the orangutan might be hiding under the blanket to avoid attention but it was soon apparent that he enjoyed putting on a show for his rapt audience.

DSC_7217 giving linus a run for his money

We were too late for the reptile house, which closed its doors for the night just as we approached.  In fact, the whole zoo shut down rather efficiently.  French parks don’t mess around when it comes to closing time.  Park workers simply want to go home and eat a nice cassoulet with the family.

DSC_7264 well, that was fun.

When we left the zoo, it was cold enough to warrant fast walking and frequent toe wiggling in an effort to keep warm.  We vowed to return and visit the snakes in the springtime.

DSC_7184 we were colder than we look

The zoo is one of many activities located within Jardin des Plantes.  Jardin de Plantes has a less structured feel than some of the other major parks in the city.  It is not as manicured and has more trees, as well as numerous paths and walkways and even a good-sized hill with a gazebo at the top. 

On one side of the park, at least half a dozen stately brick buildings are filled with natural history exhibits, including dinosaur bones and an intact skeleton of a blue whale.  Like all good French parks, there’s a cafe for refueling, as well as a carousel and playground to satisfy its youngest patrons. 

DSC_7270   lovely statue in jardin des plantes

We don’t visit this park as often as we’d like because it’s a bit of a trek, but that makes it all the more special when we do. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

my new favorite

I am head over heels in love with what might just be the sweetest little lunch spot in Paris:  Mamie Gateaux.

For weeks, we hurried past on our way to ballet and each time I made a mental note to come back when they were open.  Finally, I decided to make it a mother-daughter date and take Annabelle during her one of her absurdly long lunch breaks.  We typically walk home for lunch or eat ham and butter baguettes, so this was a real treat.

my adorable lunch companion

Mamie, the French term of endearment for grandma, aptly describes the vintage vibe of this cozy spot (known as a Salon de Thé).  Gateaux is French for cakes, of which they have no shortage.  In addition to an irresistible array of rustic desserts, daily specials are written on an antique school slate, including several quiche-like tarts, salads, soup and my personal favorite, the savory cake of the day.  In other words, you can have your cake and eat it twice.

DSC_7139 hallelujah.  french carrot cake has no nuts or pesky bits of pineapple.

The owners, who also dabble in antiques at their nearby brocante (vintage shop), put their wares to work in every detail of the cafe.  Perched atop high shelving, an array of brightly colored cafe au lait bowls border the room, several complete sets of vintage canisters are prominently on display and a pristine old wood-burning oven is wedged between the tables.   Eating here is lot like dining in an old-fashioned, French country kitchen. 


Best of all, the food was delicious and the prices, reasonable.  Annabelle and I could have shared an entree had we known how generous the portions were.  Instead, I ordered savory cake with ham, dill and fresh tomato sauce and Annabelle opted for a spinach roquefort tart which she didn’t love.  I liked it but we both felt the savory cake was something to write home about.  A side of lightly dressed greens and grated carrot made for a lovely presentation and a well-balanced lunch.

DSC_7133 watch out mamie, i’m moving in.

With just enough room left for dessert, we surveyed the mouth-watering selection of cakes, pies and tarts displayed on a long counter at the rear of the cafe.  Annabelle chose a raspberry strawberry crumble presented in a dainty ceramic dish and I couldn’t believe my luck when our server vowed that the carrot cake was nut-free.  We were in heaven.

We returned with Naud the following week to be certain that our dreamy lunch date hadn’t been too good to be true.  Nope.  Not mistaken. 

We have ourselves a keeper.