Wednesday, December 19, 2012

right to left then home

I'm thinking that there is a reason why the song Home for the Holidays became such a hit. It makes a good point: no matter how festive your surroundings, if you're away from home, you can admire all that pretty stuff -- the lights, the window decorations, but it seems (and it is) a world away from your holidays. It's someone else's show.

For those who think the Christmas season goes on for too long (I'm not one of them), I suggest taking a vacation break just before. It's very disorienting.

For me, Paris in December is the only time that I participate with pleasure in the act of shopping. Walking is a big draw. There is lots of walking, lots of looking, lots of looking, eventually picking up a few items -- holiday gifts, forthcoming birthday stuff, small treats for people who have done me tremendous favors lately. At least in the early hours, this was my right bank day.

Of course, one could shop at home. But Madison isn't a shopper's paradise (which is good: not much tempts and anyway the malls are crowded and the streets at this time of the year are cold) and Internet buying seems so instant and anomic. Click. I just spent $200! Without even running my fingers over the fabric and imagining what a daughter might look like wearing this scarf or that pair of socks.

Besides, we all know that our stock market does well when Europe shows signs of recovery, so in order to boost the value of your retirement savings, I may as well shop across the ocean. And the gift recipient is stuck with having to like and use said purchased items because there are no returns. That means a lot of thought has to go into the purchase. Which is a good thing.

But as I extol the virtues of December travel and being away and Paris and all that goes with it, let me mention a few things that I surely will not miss when I return in a few hours home. Smoking comes to mind. I must have inhaled the sum of a half a pack of cigarettes since I stepped off the plane in Warsaw and through my time in Italy and France. People in Europe just will not quit smoking. And because they've been kicked out of indoor public spaces, they smoke on the run. On the sidewalk. I can't count the number of times I held my breath and scooted past an offender. May I suggest M. Hollande (and all your European counterparts) that, after you've successfully distributed poop bags for dog droppings, put rental bikes on nearly every street corner, and given everyone free WiFi in the parks and squares, you launch a new campaign -- forbid smoking on sidewalks!

So, when I was not running past smokers, I did my right bank promenade. But first, breakfast at les Editeurs where I watch professorial types grade papers (knowing that this task awaits me when I get home).

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Onto right bank. With a glance toward the Eiffel Tower against a, once again, dramatic sky.

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I reversed my walk this time, taking it from the Louvre and ending with Bastille. That was a mistake, because the area next to Louvre and around Les Halles is so awful right now that it immediately put me in the mood to long for twin number one (the left bank). [Les Halles is where the Parisian market once was; the deteriorated set of blocks is being completely overhauled and in a year or so we will see a new and possibly competing with Lyon, market.]

But, there were highlights.

For example, people watching. I liked this couple, even though both the man and his poodle look terribly droopy.

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And this man studying the foie gras on display.

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And yet another guy, this one with motorcycle helmet in hand, examining for the whole time I was in this cooking store, the displayed baking molds.

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Here's a photo of a car that I would  buy in a snap if I was in the business of buying new cars which I am not as my 93 Ford Escort is so reliable, even as I bought it two years ago and paid only $600 for it. (I can even see myself driving around with the painted "Noel with style" ad on it.)

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Oh, and I am absolutely baking this cake for breakfast some time this week. Apple and cinnamon.

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In one shop I couldn't help but notice this waif of a French girl, trying on an exquisitely white coat. A coming of age movie in the making! -- she has that deep eyed look that makes you feel for her tortured soul.

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And finally I am at the Place de Vosges which is so pretty that it deserves three photos, including one that demonstrates the reach of Apple ads.

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I finish things off at the Bastille circle. This is the only photo for which I take a longer pause. Waiting for the moment where the cars, trucks and buses clear out and the sole cyclist remains. 

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Eventually I flip river banks. And it is getting late enough that I take the metro over.

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...alighting near to where I ate lunch yesterday. There is a twin cafe up the block which makes for a good alternative for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. This time a salad with warm goat cheese.

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These are the very short days of winter and you have to take comfort that in Paris it matters less as things look warm and pretty even after dusk.

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And now comes my final meal in Paris -- a dinner at a place I read about in the NYTimes back in October (Pouic Pouic -- just three blocks from my hotel). I love it when someone goes to the trouble of discovering a wonderful tiny bistro, even as it means that in a city like Paris, where there are always a ton of Americans, you're going to then find on any evening a whole bunch of them at the described place.

The food is truly great and main courses were mostly under 20 (Euro). Since I decided on this trip not to eat desserts (it seems somehow sad to indulge in a sugar overload alone -- I really like to share desserts), there were, as always, two courses.

To the food lovers out there, let me describe first the appetizer -- a thin ravioli stuffed with langoustine and infused with foie gras (truthfully, I didn't really pick out the foie gras infusion, but the dish was delicious and the broth so good that I had to bathe a whole chunk of bread in it -- something I rarely do these days).

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The main course was lamb chops. I hesitated over that one because lamb chops recall for me the 60s when they were the ubiquitous and uninteresting meat dish with mint jelly served in pretentious places. Besides, Ed always makes me feel bad about eating lamb. I mean, I have a weird meat eating justification thing going: I don't eat it at all unless I'm fairly confident that it was a happy (pasture raised) cow or happy chicken, but lambs never even had a chance at happiness. So there's a little bit of guilt there. Still, putting that aside, I thought the meat was exquisite and what I loved, too, was the huge red onion -- roasted and stuffed with mushrooms. Superb!

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Aside from the NYTimes patrons, there were the Parisians and I hope you take a look at the two men to my left. They were gruff but jovial and the one who isn't cut off in the photo (hard to be discreet in taking photos in such intimate settings and in low light too) had the biggest Dennis the Menace cowlick ever.

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What followed was the contentment that comes with a meal well eaten. And it leads me to think that Ed and I should not be so quick to watch library movies after (sometimes during) dinner. Some of the best moments of a meal come in the minutes after, when you sit back and think how good and precious life is.

And the minute I thought this, I remembered: the rush of a typical work day back home. Can I even imagine sitting back and doing nothing after a weekday dinner? Ridiculous, right? Perhaps that's why travel grips me so fiercely: I do the ridiculous.

So I sigh deeply when I leave Paris. No other city commands my affections in the same way. You could write a book about why this is so (and many have done so and filmed movies about it and written poetry and taken tremendous photographs). Me, I have this wee blog post where I can just state the obvious and let it go at that.