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As this miserable month rolls on (yes, it’s still raining!), I’m working away on a series of posts about Provence. First up is the town of Orange.

There have been places I’ve been to throughout Europe where it hits me with a wallop that the Romans didn’t just take a quick, grand tour of the continent like the ones we take nowadays and then scurry back to Rome. No, they stuck around. They settled down and they governed people and they built things.

Orange is one of those places.

Triumphal Arch

Orange is located in Vaucluse, one of the six departments of the administrative region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. (France has 18 of these regions and, in case you’re wondering, yes, French bureaucracy is legendary.)

The borders of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur align pretty much with those of the historical French province of Provence. And here’s where we get to the point I’m trying to make: Provence was the first Roman province beyond the Alps. The Romans called it Provincia Romana, giving Provence its name.

Roman soldiers built Orange, around 35 BC, and they built it to look like a mini-Rome. The Triumphal Arch (above ) and Théâtre antique d’Orange (that’s a part of it, below) are pieces of that Roman legacy. (The theatre is now a site of an annual summer opera festival. Note to self: go check that out sometime.)

Provence is staunchly Catholic (more about that next post) with one exception: Orange has Protestant roots. It was part of the principality of Orange, a holding of the House of Orange-Nassau of the Netherlands from 1544 until 1713. (The Dutch Royal Family are still, all these centuries later, members of the House of Orange-Nassau.)

One last bit of trivia to torture myself with on this rainy night: Orange receives an average of 2595 hours of sunshine a year. That’s a far cry more than we ever get in Vancouver.

Théâtre antique d’Orange

A Month in Provence

It’s November! My favourite month!


To make it worse, Vancouver had a record 28 days of rain in October and we’re already well on track to beat that for this month. Which means it feels like November started a month ago.

To cheer myself up, I’m going to spend this miserable month revisiting Provence. Some years ago, I spent a week there near the end of September, right in the middle of the grape harvest. This was in my pre-digital camera days, so my selection of photos is far fewer than usual, but I did find a handful worth sharing.

Here’s one.

Provencal Gate

Through My Lens: Bayeux


Heh. Why Bayeux? Why today?

Wait for it. It’s because this history geek can’t let the day go by without acknowledging the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.

Yes, 1066 and all that. The Battle of Hastings is when William the Conqueror of Normandy changed the course of English history.

I haven’t been to Hastings ― yet ― and not so much as the southern coast of England. So here’s a photo of Bayeux, a Norman town in France.

What’s the link between Bayeux and the Battle of Hastings? There’s a pretty famous tapestry in Bayeux called the Bayeux Tapestry. It tells the story of the Norman conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings. I didn’t actually see the tapestry when I was in Bayeux, but I did take this photo.

Au Revoir, Paris

Five years ago today, I boarded the London-bound Eurostar at Gare du Nord in Paris. It was my last day after spending three months in the city.

Three months is a long time. Even so, I remember that last week as a frantic one because I was running around trying to do everything I wanted to do and see everything I wanted to see before it was time to leave.

One of the privileges of spending a winter in Paris is getting to experience scenes like this one. This particular street corner is opposite Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20e arrondissement.

Paris Snow

Merry Christmas!

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Parisian Cafés

Les Deux Magots

Every year around this time, I get homesick for Paris, but this year, my mind has been on Paris far more than usual.

I’m sure it’s obvious why: the media coverage on that city has been pretty much nonstop since the Paris attacks a month ago. Attention ramped up again this past weekend when 195 nations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, adopted what’s being called the Paris Agreement.

In short: all eyes ― not just mine ― are on Paris right now. And so, bear with me as I write (yet) another post on my second-favourite city in the world.

Le Depart Saint-Michel

Whenever I think back to my winter in Paris, I think of the impressive light displays put up to celebrate the holiday season. The many elaborately decorated Parisian cafés were particularly impressive, with nothing ever done in half measures. (Is that a French thing? Or a “keeping up with the Joneses” thing? I dunno, but I sure enjoyed the results.)

Grand Café Capucines

Parisian cafés are special places. In the mind of most visitors to Paris, there is nothing more French than sitting down in a café and ordering un café or un verre de vin. One quickly learns ― and adapts to the idea ― that your one drink buys you the table for as long as you want it.

Café Interior

Which could be hours. Whether you sit there alone, reading or writing or people-watching, or sit there with your family or friends, it doesn’t matter. You will not be rushed. Time stops.

Wine, Tea and Raspberry Flan

Because they serve beer and wine in addition to all manner of caffeine, Parisian cafés are, technically speaking, café-bars. They also have complete kitchens, which means you can get a three-course meal any time of day. (Cafés are open from morning until late at night, whereas Parisian restaurants generally close for the afternoon.)

Foie de Veau

As an oftentimes solo traveller, what I especially like about Parisian cafés is the lack of stigma to eating alone, which has not been my experience in other European countries.

Wine Glass

The oldest café in Paris is Le Procope in the 6e arrondissement. It opened for business in 1686, shortly after coffee was introduced to the French. My New World brain can’t quite fathom a restaurant that’s been around since a century before the French Revolution.

Le Procope

In time, Parisian cafés became the centre of French discourse and intellectual life, the place where politics and art and philosophy were discussed. Today, there are more than 12,000 cafés in Paris ― one on every corner, it seems, in some arrondissements.

Chocolat Chaud

The Paris attacks of last month were horrific and shocking. What was especially horrific and shocking is that Parisians were attacked while enjoying the very essence of what makes them Parisian: having a drink in a café.

Just as I cannot imagine Christmas in Paris without dazzling light displays, I cannot imagine a Paris where fear and trauma have overtaken the café experience. I hope and pray that the magic I felt five Decembers ago in the City of Light is still there. And my Christmas wish for all Parisians is simply this: that they spend the holiday eating and drinking and laughing and loving.

In other words, that they have a Joyeux Noël.

Les Deux Magots Close-up

City of Light

My sister and I, along with one of my closest friends, were wandering the streets of Paris, admiring the lights of the season in the City of Light. It was magical. It was Christmas Eve, 2010.

We made our way to Notre-Dame Cathedral. The streets radiating away from the square in front of the cathedral were filled with French police officers sitting in well-lit white police vans, each one eating a rather fine-looking dinner from a take-out container. We approached the cathedral. A pair of cops eyed us carefully as we walked between them to enter the church.

It was unnerving, to say the least. The scene was repeated on New Year’s Eve when my friend and I crossed the Seine in front of the Eiffel Tower. We stopped to take photos of the tower, then I began taking photos of the police officers once again eating fancy dinners in white police vans parked along the bridge. I hadn’t taken more than one or two shots when the driver’s door of the van I was photographing opened. The officer got out and began to walk towards me, and I quickly tucked my camera into my pocket and turned away. Message delivered, the cop returned to the warmth of his van and his waiting dinner. My heart was pounding.

On Christmas Eve, after we exited Notre-Dame Cathedral, my friend marched up to one of the police officers standing nearby. These were big guys. They had big guns ― bigger than any I had ever seen up close. I had no idea what she was planning to do. But as soon as my friend asked (in French) for directions to the nearest Métro entrance, the cops smiled and laughed and showed us their friendly side. It was a welcome relief from the gravity of their security duties.

“I was beginning to feel so uptight,” my friend told me later. “I had to put a voice to the men with the guns.”

As it turned out, the officers sent us around in circles ― to be honest, I think they were less familiar with Paris than we were because they pointed us in the exact opposite direction that we needed to go ― but eventually we found the Métro and made our way home.

This was five years ago. It seemed to us like your usual Christmas Eve, but we were intimidated by the heavy police presence. Thinking about it later, I surmised that the high-level security must be routine near Parisian monuments on nights that attract large crowds. But because it was unlike anything I’d seen in my own country, the sense of intimidation I was experiencing made me feel like a naive Canadian who knew nothing of the real world.

If my heart was pounding then, what would it be doing now, in Paris’s current state of emergency?

Ten months ago, I wrote about how I was at a loss for words to express what I was feeling about horrific events in Paris. This week, once again, I am feeling just as lost. I contacted my Parisian friend who lives here in Vancouver, anxious about what he would tell me because I knew he, being of the same age and social stratum as most of the victims, would know someone affected by the attacks.

I was right. He did. Although all of his friends and family are safe, one of his friends lost someone at the Bataclan. What is that ― three degrees of separation? It feels closer.

The arrondissement that was attacked last Friday night is not one where tourists typically hang out ― it is where young Parisians of all backgrounds live and work and play. It was a neighbourhood not unlike the one where I spent three months ― what Parisians refer to as bobo (short for bourgeois–bohemian) ― and not unlike my own neighbourhood here in Vancouver. All weekend I wondered how I might have reacted had attacks of this nature occurred while I was living in Paris, while my friend and I enjoyed our glass of wine in a café in my arrondissement.

And, as I wondered, I thought again of how inadequate words can be at a time like this. This time, however, as soon as I heard about the attacks in Paris, I thought immediately of a photo I had taken that holiday season almost five years ago.

It was the one I took just before the French police officer frightened me into putting away my camera.

Eiffel Tower

If you take anything away from the words I’ve written here, it’s this: Paris is, and always will be, my city of light.

And only light can overcome darkness.

Armistice Day

Armistice Day Arc de Triomphe

With a bit of a shock, I realized this morning that exactly five years ago today I stood shivering for several hours in the cold and rain across from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Just as it is in most provinces of Canada, including my own, November 11 is a public holiday in France. The French refer to it as Armistice Day, in recognition of the end of World War I, whereas in Canada we call it Remembrance Day. In both countries, tribute is paid to our war dead and our veterans, and the sacrifices they made on our behalf. This year, in particular, remembrance is being paid to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The reason the French perform this tribute beneath the Arc de Triomphe is because that’s where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located. I didn’t have a great view of the goings on near the tomb that day five years ago (see above), but I was able to walk over afterwards and take some photos, which I’ve posted here.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The largest wreath is always laid by the French president. The ribbon below reads “Le Président de la République.”

Presidential Wreath

I don’t make it to the Remembrance Day ceremonies here in Vancouver every year, but every year I do proudly wear my poppy, even though, it seems, that simple gesture has become a political one. All I will say on that topic is this: there is nothing political about me being forever grateful to the Canadian soldiers who liberated my mother and her family from the tyranny of Nazi Germany. If not for them, I would not be here today.

For that reason alone, I will never forget.

Armchair Traveller: The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry as a Christmas present. She said she knew I would like it.

She was right. I devoured the book.

I picked it up again last month when I was writing my post about the film Julie and Julia. I flipped through it, rereading bits here and there, but was stopped cold by this sentence near the beginning of the book:

With that, I lost a job I was desperate to quit.

I immediately sat down and began to reread the book from start to finish.

Kathleen Flinn wrote The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in 2005. A journalist by trade, she based her account on the journal entries she wrote during her time in Paris, the audio tapes she recorded during demonstration classes, and the interviews she conducted with students, school staff, and alumni. The result is a highly entertaining and enlightening account of one American student’s experiences while studying at one of the top culinary schools on the planet.

Studying at Le Cordon Bleu is not for the faint of heart. The curriculum is daunting, the expectations are high, and the classes are taught in French. Flinn completed the three-part Diplôme de Cuisine (Cuisine Diploma); each part (Basic Cuisine, Intermediate Cuisine, and Superior Cuisine) is three months long. One can also study pastry and complete a three-part Diplôme de Pâtisserie, or do both cuisine and pastry, and receive Le Grand Diplôme.

The binder of more than a hundred recipes each student is given at the beginning of the course contains only lists of ingredients. Students are expected to make notes during the demonstration class, then repeat the recipe ― exactly ― during their practical class. Like I said, not for the faint of heart. When Flinn explains to the chef she has never filleted a fish before in her life, he replies, “I can tell. You should practice ― at home.” Another chef yells at her after a particularly trying class, “Vous perdez votre temps!” (You are wasting your time.)

I learned some interesting bits of trivia while reading this book. For instance, did you know that quiche comes from the German word for “cake”? Or that the sharper your knife when you dice onions, the less likely you are to cry? (Cue the book’s title.) Provençal cuisine ― with its olives, olive oil, tomatoes, and saffron ― has its origins from the time of the Romans, who occupied the region and named it Nostra Provincia (our province).

Back to the beginning: Flinn lost her job and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu (using up all her savings to do so) with the encouragement of her then-boyfriend (now husband) who remembered it was something she had always said she wanted to do. When she protests that she knows no one in Paris, he merely says, “You’ll know me. If you want me to, I’ll go with you.”

(Sigh. Not only is this book a food/travel memoir, but it’s a love story as well.)

“Living is like driving. You have to pick a lane,” Flinn’s grandmother used to tell her. At the start of Basic Cuisine, Flinn wonders if she picked the right lane, but by the end of this book, you know she has. The chef who told her she was wasting her time becomes her greatest mentor and she thanks him, in the end, for being so tough on her. She was already an accomplished food journalist before studying at Le Cordon Bleu; her culinary studies only cemented that career and proved to her she had found her bliss.

So why did the sentence I read earlier this summer (“With that, I lost a job I was desperate to quit”) make me drop everything and reread this book in pretty much one sitting?

It’s because earlier this summer I found out I was going to lose my job ― a job I didn’t know I was desperate to quit until I lost it. This past winter I was sinking deeper and deeper into a funk about what to do about this job I thought I wanted, and the only thing that was giving me any enjoyment was cooking.

Yup. I’ve been spending my weekends recuperating from my day job by hunkering down in my tiny condo-sized kitchen. Sadly, the most appealing aspect of all this cooking was that I was alone. Somewhere around Easter I realized I needed to avoid all contact with people on weekends, for the simple reason that when you’re an introvert, and you work in a small, high-energy office, it takes you two days minimum to recover before you are ready for Monday morning. Obviously, that’s not a tenable situation if you want to have any kind of social life.

Yesterday was my last day at work. I don’t exactly know what I will be doing next, although I’m pretty sure I won’t be running off to Paris to go to cooking school anytime soon. But this much I do know: there will be a lot more writing and travelling in my future.

And probably some cooking, too.

If you’re even minimally interested in cooking, I recommend you read The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. (Yes, there are recipes, too.) And if you’re at a crossroads in your life and are wondering what lane to choose next, I highly recommend you read it.

Through My Lens: Père Lachaise Métro Station


No sense fighting it. I’ve got Paris on my brain this week. So here’s another photo from the City of Light.

This was taken by the entrance to the Paris Métro at Père Lachaise.