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January 2015

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Our daily bread.

The oddest thing about our apartment in Paris is that it is located right beside one of the most famous bakeries in the world, Poilane. Yes, we live beside Poilane, the original one, no less. When I started researching apartments I never dreamed we would live beside an icon of a French bakery. When I called Monsieur F, the owner of our apartment, to inquire about the place, he mentioned the name of the bakery as you might mention a famous movie star living next door, the pride and joy of the neighborhood, as they raise the real estate value.

Poilane is that much a symbol of the beloved traditional way of life here. In a certain sense, it has made moving onto this stylish little corner of Paris more comforting. What could be more comforting than sensible matrons in white aprons wrapping up warm bread in paper, twisting the ends so none falls out and handing it over to you with a nod. Yes, you can purchase a Hermes scarf around the corner for $748 euros (yeah!) but this good sturdy P bread goes for about $2. This keeps things down to earth, what with the ingredients being stone ground flour from small farmers, sea salt from Guerande, all thrown into a 16th century wood-fired oven. Pretty traditional.

Apparently, it was also a tradition of Pierre Poilane (the founder) to accept paintings of bread as payment for the real thing from the impoverished artists of Montparnasse. You wonder if this kind of generous spiritedness contributed to the establishments’ long ranging success? I like to think so. I like to think that a sense of humor and a sense of generosity pull the tides of this world, even if it’s not always so. Story is, when these artists became famous, like Salvador Dali, they remained long time friends with Pierre. So, you see why it’s fun to pop over for some apple tarts and the daily loaf. There is  history and art and relationships embedded in the crust of the thing.

Speaking of, our dog likes Poilane too. Whenever we pass, if we are heading south, she noses the patrons legs and pulls on the leash wanting to stop at the door which is often open. If we’re on our way somewhere else, it’s almost always a game of dodge with fancy coats and scarves as people go in and out. If we happen to be stopping after being out for the day, our dog often must wait for us tied to the hitch outside while we get in line which is sometimes out the door onto the narrow rue. Sometimes she barks, especially if she can’t see us. But she knows eventually there might be crust.

As I was walking back along rue Dragon today after running up to the store to pick up apples and cheese and chocolate (the other essentials!) after a morning of unpacking our sea shipment which had finally arrived (!), I was thinking about the sweaters in piles and the stuffed animals that had taken over the beds, about our belongings that had suddenly been restored to us. For the past six weeks, we’d been living with what had fit into three small suitcases. We’d each brought about a weeks worth of underwear, outfits, a few books. Today, we’d be re-united with our other shoes, coats and personal favorite bed sheets. There were my boxes, the ones I’d randomly collected that I liked to keep my jewelry in, there were the bins of Playmobil that had acted in a hundred plays. Like photographs reflecting a small trace of a sunny afternoon in June, we’d rediscover ourselves in the boxes and bins.

Then we’d need to dust.

 

 

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Frenching it by the seat of my pants.

View from la Grande Roue (ferris wheel) looking out at the Jardin des Tuileries on a Sunday afternoon.

Five weeks in Paris. Where did the time go? I’m not sure. It’s like going to see one of those long Linklater movies in the afternoon then emerging in the evening not sure where you parked the car. Like maybe you were in there since last Tuesday and now it’s a Thursday. You know what I mean. It feels like we’ve lived in Paris forever. And we didn’t even bring a car.

It’s pretty prosaic to say, but the weeks have involved a fair amount of shopping and figuring out where to shop and devising plans and lists to shop.

Shopping for the daily meals. Shopping for all the stuff we couldn’t bring over in 3 small suitcases while we wait for our sea shipment (where IS our sea shipment??) shopping for stuff like pouches for the girls filled with their own maps, bus tickets, a few euros, phone numbers and lipgloss. Shopping for the French equivalent of American lunch boxes. Shopping for lined notebooks and dog poo bags, pencil cases and pyjamas again (someone is growing!), jog bras and all-natural deodorant.  It’s a long list. I won’t bore you with more details.

I will say, in these 5 weeks, the daily shopping has been my entry into native Paris (as opposed to expat Paris, which is another post), along with walking the dog, sheparding the kids down the rues to school and lessons and cafe-ing it at the bar side with the morning workers. So, I’ve nabbed these moments of regular chores and looked at them as chances to get to know the people.

Paris can be intimidating for the feint of heart. It’s intimidating to walk into a ‘room’ of good looking people who sound really smart in clipped confident accents, but you have no idea what they are saying. Living smack dab in the heart of this sophisticated city that is so gorgeous in the milky afternoon light, that sometimes you think you’ve stepped into a dream, can make matters worse. It’s so pretty you can feel dwarfed by its magnificence. The avenues are filled with people in height of fashion clothes, swishing by in rich fabrics and leather. The buildings themselves are grand and elegant. And people smell really good here too. What is a regular person to do in the face of such grandeur?

My Paris approach can be summed up with a motto – “Chat em up.”  To feel at home, you’ve got to start to know the people. And to know the people, you’ve got to start the conversation. When I’m shopping and walking and stopping by the cafe or boulangerie, I make conversations – simplistic ones, spur of the moment ones, investigative ones… And so, my newbie abilities to converse in French (not to mention, to mime) have grown by newbie leaps and tiny bounds.

Chatting makes the world go round. It connects us, inspires us, brings us back to our roots, takes us out to lunch, rings in hope, joins us like family. We could all use a daily dose of some kind of conversation.

It can be as simple as this American example: You’re standing in line at Target, and the person in line in front of you is buying the cutest baby clothes, and of course, you say, “Those are soooo cute, ow my gosh…. ” And they say, “I buy everything here.” And you say, “I loved buying baby clothes when the girls were little. It was so much fun to get them dressed and take them out.” And see, you’ve made a new friend. Or at least, shared a little moment.

Well, it’s the same in Paris. Only, it might go something like this:

You’re looking for a “sac a dos” (back pack) and go into Herve Chevalier near St. Sulpice and start to explain the situation and the next thing you know, you’re chatting about your kids and her kids and neighborhoods and sac fabrications in France. Or…

You’re waiting in line at the Monoprix and someone bumps into you from behind (this happens all the time) and you turn and say “pas problem” acknowledging that you don’t mind they bumped you and that it’s no big deal. Then you might say something more, like, “ou trouvez-vous votre parfum?” “where do you find your perfume” or something like that. I’ve found people really like to tell you about these small things.

In a world stressed out by fear of strangers, by long work hours, by political angst, it’s nice to make sheep jokes with the lady who is going to trim your dog because you describe your dog as a petite mouton (small sheep) and she laughs and says “c’est notre premiere mouton” “it’s our first sheep.” Little things can lighten the world’s load.

After all, we’re pretty much all suckers for cute kids, shaggy dogs, yummy food, flowery dresses, suspenseful novels, you know, the usual stuff, regardless of the accent.

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Paris. The March.

Andrew joined the march on Sunday afternoon, January 11 with more than one million others marching in Paris from place de la Republique. Media say the last time that many people marched in Paris was in 1944 at the French liberation from Nazi Germany.

For the first hour, there was not much movement forward, there were so many people, there were so many leaders from countries everywhere ahead, that at first, it was a million people standing together. A girl with a violin got onto someone’s shoulders and started to tune up her instrument. Then she played “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. People around sang with her. It was a nice moment. There were waves of other people starting up the anthem again and there was clapping. On the balconies of the surrounding white stone buildings, people stood and watched the crowd and waved. There were flags and banners and a lot of pencils. Women had many pencils stuck in their chignons. Helicopters circled overhead.

For the most part, people seemed relieved and glad to be there with others surrounding them, being together, showing support, joined in unity, sharing the belief that it is important to show up and be a part of the response. The mood of the afternoon was a sense of gratitude for those around, and perhaps an underlying relief that dissipates fear and anxiety when so many join together with others reinforcing the values of freedom of expression and values of a democratic society. It took 4 hours to march from the Republique to place de la Nation.

As the sun went down on the crowd of millions, the weather turned chilly. Many were stopping into cafes to warm up and order a drink. There were 3 rows of people trying to order. The waiters were snapping out coffees and drinks as fast as they could. Back out in the boulevard Voltaire, the sky was vivid pink and the pace was picking up. At the end, people went their own way home.

Earlier in the day, Andrew and I had walked through the the jardin du Luxembourg looking at the pear and apple orchard, the urns along the balustraded terraces surrounding the water basin empty now. In the middle of a grassy lawn, was the 1870 model of the statue of liberty my youngest had liked when we were in the garden last week; she had recognized liberty. Afterward, Andrew and I went to the Odeon theatre, to the ornamental cafe upstairs to have coffee.

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Paris. Finding yourself on the map.

When you step out onto rue du Cherche-Midi from our apartment, you want to remember to step high in order to miss the iron rail at the bottom which is part of the massive door frame. The door itself must be opened by either pushing the button on the wall beside it, which releases the lock or pulling the brass latch by hand. Either way, the door is wooden and heavy and must be pulled in toward you. But that is all a part of the step by step process of coming and going. When you return, you will enter a code on the small keypad that most buildings will have. Then you push the large door open slowly and walk on the cobblestones through the archway into a courtyard.

Sounds from the street dim as the door closes behind you and the first thing that you might notice are chirps of song birds and the greenness of the trees and plants in the courtyard that give a feeling of walking into a small oasis. The birds are really the main thing though. They seem to sing all day and lend a happy sound to the quiet space with all the shutters and windows looking on from the surrounding three sides. At this point, you will need a key. This time, to a regular sized wooden door which once unlocked will lead you into our part of the building. There you have a choice of walking up the narrow wooden stairs 4 flights or taking the very narrow elevator. The girls opt for the elevator every time. They already have established their own preferences.

The leaving from and arriving to anyplace expresses a mode and a lifestyle. We adapt to our surroundings and ready ourselves for the journey, so to speak, be it saddling up the horse, satcheling on the bike, loading up the van, or simply tying on the scarf and walking out the door.   Where we live gives us a chance to relate to our surroundings in intimate ways. We establish routines, usual routes, favorite pit stops, familiar landmarks that are distinctly our own. Even if we don’t realize it, our understanding of ourselves starts to mirror our relationship to our home address. Our identity is tied up in the usual stop for bagels at the deli on West 89th St or the line of pear trees that bloom around the second week of March and scatter white blossoms when cars drive by.

Yesterday, waiting for the light to change on rue du Four, a lady asked for directions to St. Germain des Pres. For a second, I thought, how should I know? I just moved here. But then, I turned and pointed, “C’est la.” It’s just there, I said. She thanked me and went on her way. It’s silly, but I was pretty happy about being able to help her. It made me feel more at home to send her in the right direction. It’s fun to hone in on that virtual map we have in our heads, that collection of impressions, smells, sounds that are keys to locating ourselves. And if part of the fun is in collecting all those impressions in the first place, well, even better.

So, wherever you are, please, remember… don’t forget the keys… and let the light shine…

Paris. A mosaic week of fashioning together a new life in the heart of an ancient city.

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“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Hemingway’s immortal line.

 

 

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