La Bastille

I head toward the Place de la Bastille where a tall column stands inside a traffic circle.

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

This is the previous location of the infamous Bastille prison. Stones in the pavement here show the outline of the old fortress. One fateful day, in 1789, the French reached their boiling point–so sick and tired of watching the King pass by in his golden carriage as they were starving to death in the filthy streets. They grabbed their pitchforks, attacked the prison, grabbed the guns and declared a revolution.

Place de la Bastille is a time-honored place to fait le grève (to strike). The CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail) is a French labor union that’s been around for more than a hundred years. People of all ages are walking around the plaza with red stickers on their jackets. A music truck is blaring music. Booths, banners and flyers. Snacks, drinks. It’s a lot more fun to fait le grève today in Paris compared to 1789.

I walk down Boulevard Henri IV, then turn south toward the Seine. Over the Pont Sully, and past the Arab Institute. To my right is the Lambert building where Voltaire once lived. Everything seems much sweeter when I get to Ile St Louis. Beautiful shops, quiet streets, and pleasant cafés. I bet no one is allowed to fait le grève here.

The little bridge called Pont Saint-Louis is a favorite place for les accordéonistes to gather; they play the old  French songs like La Vie en Rose for the tourists. I stand there, breathing in the crisp air, gazing at this gorgeous city built by kings.

Just then at my elbow appears the most weather-beaten, old woman I have ever seen in my life. She is short, bent over, hobbling along, and holding out a tiny, paper espresso cup that’s dirty and wrinkled. She bumps her cane against her bandaged leg as if to show me a good reason to give her money. No problem – I want to give her money just for having lived so long. She was a little girl when electric toasters were mind-boggling, new inventions.

I drop enough coins into her cup so she can buy something in a boulangerie, but when she smiles up at me, there’s something about her that makes me wonder. Is “madame” really just a young man in heavy theatrical makeup?



Good Morning

This morning, the workmen are arguing about something. One guy has that bird-like chirping accent from the south of France, so he always goes up at the end of every sentence like he’s asking questions even when he’s yelling. His buddy drawls out his words in a deep baritone. Actually, they are loud and boorish, but since they’re speaking French, it sounds adorable to me.

After getting dressed and drinking another cup of coffee, there’s still a lot of yelling going on. I go to my window to investigate. The chirping man is standing in the bed of the truck. He’s shouting and thrusting his arms toward the sky.


Morning in the neighborhood

I look up to see a toilet hanging on a rope. It’s coming right at me. The man in the truck yells out “Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!” which is French for “Why did you pick this moment, lady, to look out your window? Put your head back inside!”

The baritone is mumbling something. Lucky for me I can’t understand him; he’s probably cursing me for having too much curiosity.

I wave down to the man in the truck. He waves and smiles like we’re great friends now. I duck my head back in and watch the toilet go past my window.



Getting lost

This morning, I make a pot of coffee to un-fog my brain. But I don’t leave the apartment. I start writing again. The words are flowing magically. The story is writing itself.

In the late afternoon, I know I want to get a walk in today. I close my laptop and prepare to be seen on the streets of Paris. I look in the mirror, fix my scarf, brush my hair and grab my bag. Yes, I’ve finally gained enough confidence to leave my apartment like a normal person.

Downstairs, as I open the big, wooden door and exit the building, I catch a whiff of the cold air, fragrant with delicious smells—roasting duck, chickens, beef, onions, mushrooms, celery, consommé—cooking in an oven somewhere. Perhaps that’s why Paris is so beloved—it smells so good.

I begin my walk down rue de Rivoli. These old stone pavers feel good under my feet. I walk, turning onto different streets, left and right. I want to just melt into this beautiful city and get lost today.

PARIS near Shakespeare and CoThere are so many people on the sidewalks. I want to disappear into the crowd. I want to be the mysterious woman wearing black, eating confit du canard with a glass of pinot noir in the back of a dark café, writing about a tragic love affair during the Resistance. It’s easy to feel tragic on a cold winter’s day when Paris is like a scene from a Jean-Luc Goddard film.




At the market

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It’s evening and I need to go the grocery store and stock up for the next few days. But I don’t have my cloth shopping bags with me. They don’t hand out plastic bags in Parisan markets—you are forced to “go green.” So I go back to my apartment, walk up the sixty-four steps, huffing and puffing, grab the bags and stuff them in my big purse.

I go into a market called The G20, which sounds rather communist. It’s a small, cramped place that smells like old fruit. I see a long row of vegetables and fruits from Morroco and Africa and I buy two kiwis because they’re firm and cheap. Then I walk to the dairy case. I get some yogurt and cheese, but I don’t see any milk. That’s odd.

In the cold case, there are boxed meals like chicken with rice or beef bourgignon. I turn a package over and read the ingredients of chicken, rice, onions, celery, garlic, cream, butter, salt, pepper. That’s it?

Where’s the sodium benzoate and maltodextrin? No disodium guanylate? Then I notice the expiration date is at the end of this week. This is like cooking a meal from real ingredients then putting it in Tupperware for a few days in the fridge. I’ve got to try this French processed food.

I notice the milk is in opaque, white, plastic jugs on a shelf. They look like bottles of bleach. Ew, I’m not buying that.

I stand in line. Watching all the people in front of me, I figure out I will have to bag my own groceries and do it quickly. That cashier is going a mile-a-minute, flinging all my stuff to the end of the chute like she’s paid a bonus whenever an item hits the metal barrier.

For all their languorous ways, Parisians don’t seem to want to linger here. The people behind me don’t bear down on me in an ugly way, but they are bearing down on me nonetheless. There’s not much personal space here at The G20. I’m bagging as fast as I can. I look at the lady who was behind me in line. Her jar of wrinkle cream is there, next to my yogurt. She smiles at me, but I know she’s really thinking, keep your paws off my wrinkle cream.

I had always thought it would be romantic to shop at a Parisian market and walk home with my purchases in the evening. Of course, that sweet image included a baguette, a bottle of wine, cheese and stalks of lavender blossoms in my lovely straw basket.

That fantasy dies when your bags are sagging with toilet bowl cleaner. As I lumber along the street like a pack mule, a French woman asks me directions to rue Charlemagne.

With all these bags hanging off of me, yes, I definitely look like a local but I have no idea what to tell her. I do a French shoulder shrug and say, “J’ le sais pas, Madame, desolée.” I’m quite proud of my casual, mumbled French now.

I begin the long climb to my apartment. This is a fantastic cardiovascular work out, I tell myself, if I don’t have a heart attack. By step thirty-five, I’m huffing and puffing.

By step sixty, I am truly dying. I can’t breathe. What a stylish obit I could have: She died in Paris, surrounded by a fine selection of French cheese and wine.

(Please don’t mention the toilet bowl cleaner.)



Love in the afternoon

After walking a bit, I head toward Place des Vosges and consider Ma Bourgogne. I know this is considered a good bistrot, and might cost a bit, but I need some pleasure. I walk in and stand at the entrance. I try to sound confident as I say, “Bonjour monsieur, une personne” to the waiter, a man in his 60s. He nods and takes me straight to a place in the back of this cozy cafe with 17th-century stone walls. There is banquette seating along the back wall where he seats me. He hands me the large menu with a slight bow, then promptly leaves. A man and two women are seated next to me.

The pale pink cloth napkins have the words Ma Bourgogne stitched in white thread. The white plates show Ma Bourgogne printed in black. I see the typical red and yellow zig-zag pattern of Burgundy on the ceiling between dark wooden beams.

I’m starving so anything on the menu will do, but I decide, close the menu and lay it on the crisp white tablecloth.

Vous avez choisi?

Vous avez choisi?



I look out the window. I read my Kindle. I feel odd. Everyone else has a partner. I was so confident in my twenties and thirties. When I was younger, I could eat alone in a nice restaurant without thinking twice about it.

When the waiter returns, I speak French and it’s good I get no puzzled stare from him. I order the salade de tomatoes et haricots verts and also the risotto des poissons.

I try to read my book again. I hope I appear calm, but inside I’m screaming. I should have grabbed a take-away dinner and gone back to my room. What was I thinking to come here to a nice place all alone? Is everyone talking about me?

The waiter places the salad plate slowly onto the table in front of me. It’s a movement so gentle and careful, I feel as if he cares about me. I know that’s ridiculous, but that’s how it feels to have someone be so gentle with my salad.

The people next to me are speaking so softly in French, I can barely hear what they’re saying and I’m only three feet away from them. In fact, everyone is speaking so softly, it melts into a low, constant rumbling, like the purring of a well-oiled motor.

I feel my nerves begin to relax. The lights are low, the décor is dark, and I sink slowly into the sweet calm of this good French bistrot. Now I nibble on the vegetables like a contented rabbit in a quiet meadow.

When the waiter sees I’ve put my fork down and stopped eating, he quietly comes to my table.

Vous avez fini, madame?” he asks in a soft voice reserved for lovers and dying mothers.

Oui, monsieur, merci,” I purr at him, smiling. We are all purring now. He carefully takes my plate away as if it’s a fine objet d’art that he will return to the Louvre. He loves me. I know it. He comes back with a bowl of seafood risotto that he places before me carefully as if I am the Queen of Sheba. The bowl is the size of a large casserole dish.

Bon appétit, madame,” he says, bowing his head, and then leaving. No judgment, no attitude, no comment. This bowl is enormous. I hope he assumes I’ve been starving in the forest for days. I swirl the creamy concoction with my spoon, looking for seafood. The smell of la marine wafts up to my nostrils. I slip a chunk of lobster into my mouth and flavor explodes with rich cream, wine, butter, and this sweet flesh of the sea. Mmm, a scallop, here a mussel. I nibble like a drunken kitten with milk-covered whiskers.

He gently takes away the bowl, he asks if I want the dessert menu. I laugh. He smiles. This man doesn’t tell me dessert is bad for me. He loves me. He wants me to enjoy life. He thinks it would fine if I wanted some chocolate now. I love him with an undying love. I will never love a man as much as I love this man. But I know I must stop. Gluttony is a sin.

Oh, non, non, non ! C’est trop !” I say. (Oh, no! That’s too much!)

Voulez-vous un café, madame?” he asks, tilting his head to the side like a puppy. Yes, I do want a coffee, my darling, if only to see you tilt your head to the side again.

There is no struggle to get the check this time. As he takes away my empty espresso cup and saucer, he purrs quietly, “Quelque chose d’autre?” (Something else?) and in my stupor of lobster, cream sauce, wine and love, I manage to say “Non, monsieur. L’addition, s’il vous plait?”

He bows again before the queen and returns with the bill on a porcelain tray. I slowly pull euro notes from my wallet, and in a daze I lay the bills down, including an extra tip for him, because I know he loves me and I love him. Ours was a brief affair.

A little kindness

Unfortunately, a group of amusants kept me awake until 2am last night. They got smashed, then walked home, singing French nursery songs which, of course, was hilarious to them.

Carefully I walk down the sixty-four steps, and then out the door. I quickly pull the door behind me and walk south on rue Turenne. It’s a beautiful clear, cold day and I’m in a great mood now after a few cups of coffee. I head toward rue Beautreillis to see where Jim Morrison lived.

Come on baby, light my fire. Yes, I wanted Jim Morrison to light my fire in 1967, although I had no idea how he would go about doing that.

Enchanted by his full lips and dark eyes, I put that famous poster up in my bedroom, declaring my womanhood, while my mother let it be known how much she hated his “long, nasty hair, weak chest, and those stupid hippie beads.”

He died in Paris on the third floor of a big, creamy-white building that looks like a vanilla cake with thick icing. His favorite café is still there. He took long walks around Paris but he basically stayed in his apartment because he was drugging and drinking himself to death. (Not a great role model, I’ll admit) As I walk along rue Beautreillis, I see a family of four in front of me. I hear New England accents.

“Oh, you’re American!” I say to the mother. “Did you know this is the street where Jim Morrison died?” I ask cheerily.

“Oh?” she says in an icy tone of voice that lets me know she’s horrified that I dared to speak to her. Obviously she is on her fabulous vacation with her husband who is undoubtedly a famous heart surgeon who plays handball with the President of Yale. Her two perfect, sun-kissed, blonde children stare at me, channeling the Ivy League vibe with their leather boat shoes and pastel button-downs.

“Well, it’s just something interesting about this street,” I say softly.

“Oh! Like there is nothing else interesting to be seen here?” she says, whipping me with fifty lashes of disdain against my unprotected good mood. Perhaps her children do not know that death exists. And of course she doesn’t want to tell them about a rocker who sucked down peyote and LSD with Jack Daniels. I understand that. But why did she have to be so mean to me? I feel rejected. I’m going back into hermit mode, back to my apartment.

But then I see a music shop on rue Beautreillis. Maybe looking at musical instruments will comfort me.

I walk into the small shop, and the owner greets me warmly. He is a tall, handsome Frenchman wearing a tailored black jacket, jeans and black boots. Of course he wants me to buy something, I know that, but his soft smile and brown eyes are so sweet, they help me to forget the mean, rich woman.

We speak French, then a little English, then a bit of French again. As I look at the leather-bound scores on the shelves, he notices my interest in Bach. He shows me a score of the St Matthew Passion, considered to be the greatest accomplishment of the German composer, published in Leipzig a few years after Bach’s death.

It costs 150 Euros (about $200). I want it. But I know I won’t buy it. What would I do with it? I smile at the man who has been so kind and gentle with me, after my encounter with the mean, rich woman. I thank him and walk out, telling myself I should return tomorrow and buy it. But that’s an expensive way to say thank you.

Kindle me

Back in my apartment, I brew a cup of black tea to warm me up. I get in bed, grab my Kindle and begin to read a new edition of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.

A Moveable Feast is the first book I ever read about Paris when I was sixteen years old. Back then, my Scribner’s edition was fresh and new, just like me, ready to taste the love and joy of life. I fell in

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg

love with Paris, and the idea of being a writer, as I read Hemingway’s description of the writers and artists he knew, and his strolls through the Jardin du Luxembourg, and the streets of Montparnasse and St. Germain.

Physical books are like people because they age like we do; they become wrinkled, yellowed, and fragile. They are loved, but one day, the time comes when they are too fragile to be touched and they are put away on a shelf, often forgotten in the stream of time.

But this e-book will never become yellow and musty-smelling. It will just be downloaded from the cloud, fresh and new, onto the next generation e-reader.

If only I could be an e-book.




At the corner of rue de Turenne and rue St Antoine, I decide to head south on rue St Paul. This looks like a nice little street, but for no reason, as I walk along I begin to feel sad. A deep, unexplainable melancholy overcomes me until I reach quai des Celestins. I turn right, going toward a bridge to cross the Seine and I begin to feel better.

It absolutely creeps me out later, when I read about the area between rue St Paul and rue Beautreillis. It was the official burial ground for Paris from the year 600 AD, during the reign of King Dagobert, until it overflowed, and countless bones had to be transported to the Catacombs in the 1700s. This area was a place of grief in Paris throughout the Medieval Era and the Renaissance!  My guidebook tells me that rue St Paul is a delightful street for shopping.

So I do not believe that I felt the mourning of souls throughout the ages — because that would be spooky!



You want a what?

This morning, the delicious, flaky pain au chocolat is gone. Yes, I succumbed and gobbled the pastry down last night. There’s nothing to eat in this apartment.

I take a shower and get dressed in my black slacks, black top, black coat and black-and-white scarf. I feel most comfortable wearing black. In Paris in the winter, everyone wears black and I like that. My mother used to say in her Southern drawl, “Darling, just remember, black covers a multitude of sins.” (By that she meant bulges.) One day I might be bold enough to wear my red scarf and draw attention to myself, but not now. These days I want to hide. I get my bag and nervously check its contents. Here is the key to my apartment. I have my key. If I lose it, I will have to sleep in the Bois de Boulogne tonight and nobody wants to do that.

Just down the street from my apartment is a little café. I push open the door and sit at the first table. This place is more like a long hallway. From the menu, I order the lemon piccata chicken and a cup of coffee.

The waitress looks at me like I just walked out of a spaceship.

Un café?” she asks, her eyes big. I wonder what the big deal is. Yes, sometimes on a cold day, I like to have a cup of coffee with a meal. I reassure her that Oui, je veux un café, s’il vous plait. She blinks, shakes her head and goes away.

There are four young, handsome men at the table beside me. And when I say “beside me” I mean I could lean my head on this guy’s shoulder if I wanted to. This is so different from the United States where our tables are set five feet apart. We don’t take chances with strangers putting their heads on each other’s shoulders. And it’s unusual to be this close to someone I don’t know—I can even smell his musky cologne.

Perhaps this close proximity is what has generated so many great ideas, artistic movements, and political changes in Europe over the centuries. This closeness allows easily made acquaintances, and intimate conversations.

These guys are speaking French so quickly that I’m baffled. I guess my listening skills are not as vigorous as I thought. The waitress brings my lunch on a beige plastic dinner plate, a presentation reminiscent of a school cafeteria. Not what is usually expected in Paris, but it’s cheap, and I’m starving to death, and…oh….oh! this lemon piccata chicken is the most heavenly morsel I’ve ever put in my mouth! It’s so delicious I might pass out.

After a few more bites, I’m convinced this must have been a happy, little French chicken pecking away at worms in the moist French soil. I’m sure it enjoyed the warm French sun on its fluffy white feathers every day. And it was loved dearly by the farmer’s little daughter who cried when this poulet gave its life for the great Republic of France.

As I’m gobbling down my meal, absolutely grateful that France knows how to raise delicious chickens, the gorgeous guys have finished their plates and are now sipping tiny cups of espresso.

That’s when it dawns on me. I forgot the French drink coffee after their meal. So that’s why the waitress looked at me like I was ET in the closet.

French coffeemaker

When I awake this morning, it dawns on me once again that I’m in Paris, and I’m far from everyone who has ever made me cry. No one can get to me here. This is the best use of a savings account I can think of.

I pad over to the windows and work the latch, opening the window and breathing in the crisp, cold air. I lean out and look around to see what’s going on. The sky is bright blue and I would guess it’s forty degrees Fahrenheit this morning.

Perfect weather for a nice, hot cup of coffee. I decide to teach myself how to use the French press coffeemaker. I pull the glass carafe off the shelf and take a good look at it. It’s the classic style, albeit the cheaper version: a glass cylinder with a black plastic handle, a chrome lid with a plunger apparatus. I’ve never used one of these before, but I watched a YouTube video before I came over.

I find a bag of Peruvian blend coffee in the drawer. This might be stale, but since I didn’t have the presence of mind to buy fresh coffee yesterday, this will have to do. I pour water into the British-made electric kettle. It heats quickly, and shuts off promptly, leaving me with only admiration for the British and their kettles.

I learned from YouTube that I’m supposed to swirl a small amount of hot water in the carafe to warm it up. I measure out four heaping spoonfuls of ground coffee and dump it in. This seems so wrong. Don’t I need a filter?

I pour the hot water right onto the coffee grounds. This seems so very wrong. I swirl a wooden spoon so the coffee grounds mix with the water. Then I put the lid on, push down carefully on the plunger until it reaches the bottom. The grounds are all captured there. I’m not so sure this plunger is going to hold back this wet mound of pulverized beans when I pour coffee into my white cup. I’m full of doubt this morning.

I look at the sketch of the Peruvian man on the package. He seems quite happy. I wonder what his secret is.

I find some sugar cubes in a wrinkled, worn box in the kitchen drawer. This is gross. Why am I doing this? Who knows who last put their dirty little paws in this box of sugar? Can bacteria grow on sugar cubes? I can imagine my obit: Apparently she died from ingesting an old sugar cube and moldy Peruvian coffee because she was too damn lazy to go buy her own.

I swirl the sugar, letting it dissolve into the black liquid. It smells great. Ah, it tastes great. In fact, this might be the best cup of coffee I have ever had! Who knew that the recipe for great coffee is a French press, no filter, stale coffee, and a bacteria-laced sugar cube?

I am so grateful I have this cup of coffee and the cold, fresh air. I breathe deep and fill my lungs. It makes me glad to be alive.

That’s it. Right now, in this tiny, cold Parisian apartment, all by myself, with my tasse de café cupped in my hands, I am very glad to be alive.

Perhaps this is the secret to happiness—a cup of hot coffee in your hands on a cold morning and no one bothering you. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be inside the heart of God!!

Then it hits me—is this euphoria the result of that sugar cube being laced with amphetamines?

It’s not easy being a paranoid in Paris.