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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The largest wreath is always laid by the French president. The ribbon below reads “Le Président de la République.”
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.
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.
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.
There is one scene in Julie & Julia that cracks me up every time I watch the film because it’s so far off from the truth. It’s when Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle are (supposedly) shopping in E. Dehillerin, the famous cookware store that has been supplying French chefs with the tools of their trade since 1820. The store in the movie is pristine and light and airy, with lots of room for Julia Child to wildly swing her shopping basket.
That scene wasn’t filmed in the actual store, as anyone who has ever shopped at E. Dehillerin can tell you. The actual store is much darker and dingier and more cramped than the one shown in the film.
In the words of David Lebovitz, the only way to enter E. Dehillerin is to “brace yourself and step inside.” My sister and I stumbled upon it quite by accident one afternoon in December 2010, moments after we had stumbled ― also by accident ― into Saint-Eustache, a magnificent church in the 1er arrondissement.
Here’s how I described my introduction to Dehillerin in the journal I kept that winter:
We came around a corner and there was heaven: E. Dehillerin, which I had read about. It’s the cookware store in Paris where all the pros shop, including (it’s been said) Julia Child.
But it was massively packed; I’ve never been in such a crowded store. The basement was dusty and musty and filled with massive industrial-sized stock pots (and not as crowded as upstairs).
Upstairs, I tried to look at the knives, but you could barely get past anyone to get near the counter where they were displayed. (And “display” is a bit generous. They were simply plunked in wooden bins of various sizes and in various groupings.) We got out of there and decided on lunch in a place in Rue Montorgeuil.
A week later, I returned, this time with a friend who was spending Christmas with my sister and me. Not only did I want her to experience the store for herself, but I had decided I was going to buy me some knives as a Christmas present to myself. We wandered in and out of several cookware and bakeware stores that morning ― they are all congregated near E. Dehillerin because there used to be a giant market nearby where all the Parisian restaurateurs used to shop for their daily menus. The market is long gone, but the shops ― and the restaurants ― remain.
Dehillerin was insanely crowded on my second visit as well and my friend and I quickly gave up on my plan to buy some knives.
But, I was determined. I did some online research and learned that persistence was the only way to get results when shopping at E. Dehillerin. And so, I returned.
Back to my journal:
January 29. Saturday. I still wanted my knives from Dehillerin and, as they are closed on Sundays and I was leaving on Monday, this was the last possible day I could buy them. I’d put it off as long as I could as it seemed so intimidating, given everything I’d read about the place, and how crazy crowded it had been on my two previous visits. But … I persevered. In I went, and it seemed a bit crowded at first, but then all of a sudden it emptied out and I had all the room I wanted to pick out the knives I wanted.
I checked the price of one in the book at the end of the aisle, went back to the bins of knives, decided on another knife and then thought, “Oh, I don’t care how much it costs. This is the one I want.” That was the 20 cm chef knife. I then chose a 10 cm paring knife, and a sharpening steel, and took them to the table where they wrapped your purchases.
The clerk said something to me in French. When he realized I hadn’t understood a word, he said, “English?” “Yes,” I replied. He then explained that the sharpening steel I had selected was too small for the size of my knife. For only a few euros more, I could get the right-sized steel made by the same company. I said, “OK,” he went to grab the right-sized sharpening steel, looked up the codes in his book posted on the pillar at the end of the aisle, wrote them down on a slip of paper and handed it to me.
I took the slip of paper to the woman behind the counter and she took my payment. Two knives and a sharpening steel for 86 euros. Earlier that month, I had checked the prices of knives in the housewares department at Galeries Lafayette and a chef knife there went for 100 euros alone.
So, very pleased with myself, I took the receipt back to the table, another clerk jammed each knife tip into a wine cork and then wrapped the knives in brown paper. Off I went, the happy owner of some proper kitchen knives at last. The fact that I bought them in Paris, and that they have the Dehillerin name engraved on the blade, is a bonus.
That afternoon is one of my favourite shopping memories while travelling.
No, wait. It is one of my favourite shopping memories ever. And the best part? I get to take an imaginary walk through Dehillerin every time I use those knives.
Which is every day.
I had the opportunity this past week to introduce some friends to the film Julie & Julia. I was secretly pleased when they selected that DVD out of the pile I had brought, but I had no idea when I grabbed it at the last minute that most of the group had never seen the film.
Julie & Julia was Nora Ephron’s last film and stars the legendary Meryl Streep and the charming Amy Adams. It was Ephron’s producer who had the brilliant idea to combine into one screenplay two memoirs published around the same time. Julia Child’s My Life in France is about her life in post-war France, and Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen evolved from Julie Powell’s blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in post-9/11 Queens, New York. Beyond their names, Julie and Julia had in common the love and support of a devoted husband, a love of food, and the need to find some meaningful work to fill their days.
Early in the film, Julie Powell’s husband declares that “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child” ― and that’s precisely what makes the film so entertaining. Although I’m as fascinated as the next traveller about the daily routine of life as a New Yorker, the depiction of Julie Powell’s long subway commute and soulless work cubicle ring a little too close to home. But when the action switches to France, you’re transported to another time and place to witness the transformation of Julia Child, ex-pat American wife, to Julia Child, chef, author, and TV star.
Julia Child’s introduction to French food ― mere hours after she arrives in France ― is sole meunière. The epiphany she experiences in the look, smell, and taste of that first meal is, for me, the essential moment of the film. And it reminded me of the moment when I had my own epiphany about French cuisine. It was in a small restaurant in Perpignan where two friends and I shared a meal after a long day of sight-seeing. I ordered a tomato salad. It looked so simple ― a single layer of tomato slices on a small plate, sprinkled with an herb vinaigrette ― but I knew with my first bite that I was tasting something unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. The French don’t make simple tomato salads; they create spectacular tomato salads.
As much as my friends enjoyed Julie & Julia, they were a little more circumspect than I about the film; one remarked that she wouldn’t have reacted nearly as well as Julie Powell if the first words out of her partner’s mouth after disappearing for two days following a heated argument were, “What’s for dinner?”
As for me, whenever I’m homesick for French food, I’ll be (re)watching Julie & Julia.
I think these photos, which I’m posting today in honour of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, pretty much speak for themselves.
I took them in December 2010 at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. There are almost a dozen Holocaust memorials in Père Lachaise, each of them as moving and sombre as this one, which is dedicated to Buna-Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III.
Built to house slave labour for the Buna Works industrial complex, Buna-Monowitz was part of the Auschwitz series of camps and, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated 70 years ago today.