Food

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?

 

 

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.

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.