Posts Tagged ‘paris’

Mal au Pays

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Warning Mean Dog

My Marc Jacobs pumps are packed inside a storage locker on the West Side Highway. And we saw Sex and the City, the three of us, and there, spread out, were my restaurants and streets and cab drivers. And even on a night like tonight when the sky was streaked with technicolor clouds and the cafes hummed like machines and the city of light actually was, I wanted to go home.

I want my clothes back. My actual clothes. Not the grim sampler that came along with me, clinging like a drab shadow, everything black and cotton and wrinkle-proof and practical.

It worked in winter, when I was feeling likewise dreary on the inside, when this entire country was sealed and caulked with a fat layer of gray clouds for weeks on end, when rain pelted hard and loud enough against the windows to justify the raising of voices. A black t-shirt, in April, though, will only get you so far.

Exams are done. I almost speak French. I don’t think I speak it well or confidently, but I can ask to mail a letter to the U.S. and I can understand when a woman says, “Is anyone using this chair?”

I can, in the words of my sister, get around. And getting around is the thing.


Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

And then I loved Paris, fierce and protective and absolute, in the very moment before it slid through my fingers and disappeared. The sun only dazzles, only allows you to look it dead in the eye, as it’s setting. So it’s fair, what’s happening now. Or maybe what I’m sensing, all this weird sadness, is a beginning and not an end.

I embark on June 3 for paradise or hell. You will read about it here.

In My Mother Tongue

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

Glass on Glass on Glass

In the so-so boulangerie on the Avenue de Saint-Ouen, B______ is ordering a smushy almond croissant when a little girl walks in behind us. She wears a pink winter coat with its hood laced up to her runny pink nose. I noticed her on the way in; she was sitting on the sidewalk with her mother, begging for centimes in the rain. Somehow she has wrestled some of them out of the cup, a sticky handful of 5- and 2-cent pieces that she dumps onto the counter.

The man smiles and says, “Ah, bonjour Mademoiselle!” and she points to a jar behind his head. It is full of enormous pink jawbreakers, all of them individually wrapped in gleamy blue paper.

He counts the centimes with his index finger and shrugs. “It’s not enough,” he says. She points to the jar again, more persistent this time.

I catch the look on his face as we leave. He will give her one. He will pull the change out of his own pocket, or he won’t. But he will give her one.


When B___ and I enter the bar, everyone looks at us. It is early and pouring, as it always seems to be in Paris. The light fixtures are plastic and yellow. Wood paneling abounds. The men, there are only men, do not stop looking. Torn away from their before-noon shots and glasses of kir. There is a horror-movie-style tarantula, thoroughly dead, framed and behind glass, on one wall.

I lean against a Monster Mash pinball machine while B___ orders a coffee and sucks it down while standing at the bar.

Eventually, all of the men except one will go back to their conversations about rugby and Sarkozy. One though, who seems to have Down’s Syndrome, keeps staring at B___ as though has never seen anything like her before. Every time a new person enters the bar, he greets them with a cheery “Ca va?” but he says nothing to us.

The only other woman in the place is the loud-talking bartender. She has dyed a thick streak of gray into the front of her hair and she knows everyone’s order before they sit down.

We try to exit, but cannot figure out the door.

“Pull!” she shouts behind us, the way I would imagine she talks to very small children. “PULL.”


Learning French is getting in the way of things, just like in Eat, Pray, Love. I will never again, for the record, reference that book. Even though I like it. Even though it’s sort of, but only sort of, my life right now.

I sit in class and I look at the map of France on the wall and I want to go everywhere. Clamped under headphones and doing tongue-twisters in the phonetics lab or conjugating verbs in my notebook or sitting through lectures on dead kings.

I have decided to be patient. This is an adventure in several chapters. One thing at a time. Imperfect tense first, Riviera second.


I miss cupcakes. Not Magnolia because those are death-by-frosting in a bad way and the yellow cake is dryish, but I miss Sugar Sweet Sunshine on the Lower East Side, all the flavors but mostly the lemon. I miss the Rustic Tea at Podunk and the owner who gets genuinely excited when you pay with exact change. I miss the arancini at Perbacco (even though they’re not like the arancini I remember, the ones at home) and the tattooed waiter who only gets your order right about 75 percent of the time. I miss Washington Square Park and the windows at Joyce Leslie and running into famous people. I miss cheeseburgers. I miss the bridge. I miss sharing a table while eating shrimp dumplings that are so hot that they burn the top layer of skin off your tongue.

I miss my grandmother. I miss the four windows in my bedroom, two on each wall, and the view of the intersection that made me feel dizzy sometimes, the sun flooding through, as though I were perched at the top of a tree. I miss the fire escape and all my books. I miss all the places I walked by a million times, for years and years, and only entered once or maybe twice. I miss being able to ask for things without having to plan out my sentence, its actual structure, for a full minute in advance. I miss complex construction. I miss Barnes & Noble.

And then I don’t.

An Hour of the Day

Monday, March 24th, 2008

Tomb Detail
I have my coffee only one way: décaféiné

At Les Deux Magots, we take the corner table that was Simone de Bauvoir’s and order coffees that cost approximately seven American dollars each. Rain splatters across the windows one moment and the next the sun is shining, spilling rainbows across the sky, the clouds churning like they’ve been shaken in a snow globe. The weather has been like this for a week — clouds, then pushy winter wind, then curtains of rain, then ice in little skittering pebbles, then sun again. At Simone’s table, we carefully peel the wrappers off little pieces of dark chocolate. I drop mine into the pocket of my notebook and J____ says, “It’s futile, you know. I have boxes of stuff like that from countries all over the world, and I always just end up throwing it away.”

At Deux Magots, they heat up the milk. This, and the starched-and-pressed regulars, makes me want to come back.

Last week in a beautiful little café near the Luxembourg, a waiter switched my coffee with J____’s and an hour later I thought I was having a panic attack. Sitting on the métro, watching the stations woosh past while my heart tried to kick its wayout of my chest, I wondered if maybe I was reacting poorly to all this. To the move. Whatever this is called, this thing that I’m doing. But then I remembered the coffee. That night, I slept for two hours.

We are not exactly on speaking terms, me and caffeine.

I do my homework at the table, pen in one hand and Becherelle propped open in the other. I am student and not, tourist and not, busy and not, in love and not, home and not.

100 Macarons

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

Several Circles, Wassily Kandinsky, 1926

Vanille: A macaron is not a cookie or a cake, but something in between. It is not a door stop of coconut and sweetened condensed milk, or anything special to look at at all, really. It is both crispy (but only just barely) and smooth, and not toothache sweet or unbearably rich. It is small — two-and-a-half bites exactly — and it is hard to sketch for its compact construction and hard to photograph for the watchful patisseurs, tongs in hand, who hover protectively over the stacks of them in starched aprons, frowning ever so slightly.

Done right, it is heaven. It is what makes Paris Paris.

Pistache: Rainy Champs-Elysees on a Tuesday at dusk when everyone is still hurrying, still in pumps. We try to see a movie — The Kite Runner — and fail because the V.O. is in Farsi and Urdu. We stand there confounded, staring at the kid behind the counter, and he just shrugs. I say to my frustrated friends, “Imagine seeing The Passion of the Christ subtitled in French.”

We decide to wander instead, to cruise through the Louis Vuitton store playing a game. Guess how much that dress costs. Still, though, I want to touch everything, to try on everything. A white wool sun dress with crisscross stitching and a dusky silk cocktail gown with a balloon overdress and a slip dress underneath with pale pink and violet feathers that peek out at the bottom. Jewels set in platinum marked only with, Demander pour le prix. And the inside-out chandelier, two stories tall, that looks like falling headlong into a diamond mine.

Afterwards, there is the tea room. It is the famous one, guilded and palm-fronded and starched and filled with women who are filled with botox. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette color palate abounds. I get a macaron because the menu says it is the specialty of the house and am somewhat disappointed when it arrives because everyone else has ordered enormous salads and teetering napoleons of goat cheese and sprouts and potatoes . Mine seems very flat, the plate very empty.

I forgo the fork and pick the thing up in both hands and take a bite and my life shifts a little bit. Before macaron and after. I offer a bite to a friend and she smiles. “Now that is a textural masterpiece,” she says.

I am chewing, lost somewhere in culinary heaven, when another friend says, “I’m going to start having more dessert. I mean, this is Paris.”

I make the same promise but silently, mouth too full to articulate the words.

Rose: I run between classes. I run. Back up to the Luxembourg. Enormous raindrops splash into the pool that today reflects back only gray sky and churning clouds. I fly by the pale, eyeless statues of French queens, the square-cut trees that are pruned back for winter. I splash through puddles that have collected in the gravel paths. A prommenade this is not. I have ten minutes to get back to the Panthéon, to my lecture in the auditorium where I will sit for two hours with 100 other not-French people and learn about French things.

The shop is tiny and has an automatic door that glides open when it senses that you’d like to enter. The first thing I see are the rose petals. Blood red. Sugared. Perched on the tops of little cakes and fondants. I want one of everything. But I have a mission.

Some of the macarons actually glisten under the lights, making a show off all their egg whites. Others are dusted with powdered sugar or cocoa. I choose two. A pistache and a rose. I have no idea what rose is. I have never eaten any except for those that have been dried and pulverized into tea. I eat it on the run, at a gallop.

Before I came here, I read so much about the French and their leisurely, seated, fully-savored, obesity-proof meals. This is a ridiculous idea. Lunch on-the-go is a way of life here. The city teems with take-away sandwich joints. Even the boulangers offer prepared lunches. You see everyone walking, on their way somewhere, clutching a baguette and chewing.

I clutch only a little cellophane bag and a napkin because I don’t have hands for anything else. I have my books, my purse, my umbrella. I balance the umbrella against one shoulder and fish out the rose one.

I make a noise. That’s how delicious it is. I make an audible noise. Like an “Oh!” but not really because my mouth is full. It is… roses. Roses roses. The ganache in the center holds hints of lychee and spring. I smile for the next ten minutes. All the way to class.

Framboise: Somewhere between my apartment and the Arc de Triomphe, before the gilded iron gate of the Parc Monceau or maybe after, I walk into the patisserie and I am the only not-Japanese person there.

I have heard this. That Japan loves French pastry more than France does. The shop is lovely and done up in a vast array of pinks and violets. The salesgirls speak Japanese to everyone except me. When it’s my turn at the counter, they shift without blinking into flawless French.

I point at a mountain of pink macarons and say, “Un framboise, s’il vous plait.”

Without a word, the girl takes a macaron from a different, slightly pinker pile on the other side of the counter. I feel like an idiot, as I do. As I always do. Until I realize that this miscommunication has nothing whatsoever to do with language and that I should stop projecting my bad-French baggage onto every macaron in Paris.

She hands me a little bag. She does not smile.

The macaron is light, a little sticky in the middle, as any good framboise should be. But there is something slightly weird about it. Is that a whif of artificial flavoring? Framboise en bouteille? This is something in the middle, then — not sawdust, but not heaven either.

Orange-Chocolat: In France, there is lovely-opulent and scary-opulent. The shop, with its gold-leaf logo, its cakes done in heaps and piles of molded cream, feels like the latter. It feels like an American’s idea of how France should be. Velvety and decadent and purple. And yet this place is wicked famous, so the guidebooks tell me.

But famous with whom?

The woman behind the counter speaks such heavily accented French that I can’t understand a word of what she says. When I point to a neon orange macaron and inquire about the flavor, she says, “Orange!” like I’m the stupidest person she’s ever seen in her whole life. “…Et chocolat,” she says finally, conceding.

I don’t have the guts to ask about anything else, so I take the orange-chocolat and am grateful, at least, that these macarons, despite the gourmet presumptions of their surroundings, do not come with a gourmet price tag.

The orange-chocolat is actually quite good with a dense center and a flyaway crust. I may get another one someday. At another one of the store’s many convenient Paris locations.

Caramel Burre Salé: The first time, I have it on a crêpe at a tiled, underground crêperie in the St. Germain and it’s called a “salidou” — melted caramel with salted butter. This is the French answer to the sweet/salty craving. Their version of, say, chocolate-covered pretzels.

Then I have it in a macaron at the shop near the Pantheon, which means I am not late for class. This, I am told, is where people in Paris get their macarons. All I really notice is that the boy behind the counter is shy-eyed and cute and that I cannot decide between the flavors, the mountains of pale colors behind the glass. Finally, I chose praliné and caramel beurre salé.

The salidou is weird and yummy and undeniably salty, but is this really a flavor I want on a macaron? I walk back there after class and choose another: Sweeter. More my speed. Blackcurrant.

Fruit de la Passion: I walk and walk until the modern buildings start to crop up around me and Paris starts to feel like not-Paris and like a high-rise complex full of Brady Bunch architecture. This is the Paris that makes me uncomfortable. The dissolution of the fairytale and the abrupt return to urban wasteland.

The sign says. LUNDI – FERME.

There are macarons in the windows, in the glass cases in the darkened shop. I keep staring through the door, thinking someone will appear but clearly no one will. I am a knot of wasted longing and I can tell how I must look. Pouty, as though I want to tap a single finger on the glass all like, Pwease.

I get my fix back at the Luxembourg shop, twenty minutes later, after I have given up on walking and patience and restraint. After I have charged back to the métro in the frigid winter sunshine.

This time, I am absolutely not screwing around. I choose two. White truffle with hazelnuts and passion fruit with milk chocolate.

I eat them on a bench in front of St. Sulpice with the fountains gushing curtains of water and the church trembling, almost, against the very blue sky, the spires pressing against its curve. I am saved. Just a little.

Noix de Coco: I go back. Of course I go back. This time, the shop is open and the rows of tarts and cakes and custards stand in cheery contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, its relentless concrete.

When I ask for a cassis violet and a noix de coco, s’il vous plait, the guy nods and says, “You can speak English here. No problem. I wish more people in Paris spoke English.”

He then goes on to tell me about his friend in Philadelphia, his love of Bruce Springsteen, his surprise at learning that people from Texas are not really like people from New York, his ideas about American perceptions of pleasure and ambition. He tells me all this while he’s wrapping up my macarons, putting them in bag afer box after bag as though I’ve bought 40 instead of two. Later, it will take longer to unwrap them than it takes to eat them.

At the same time, I’m kind of in love.

As I’m heading out the door he nods and says, “I see you tomorrow.” And I wonder, for an instant, if maybe he will.

The Macaron Count

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Ladurée: vanille, citron, framboise
Pierre Hermé: pistache, rose

Leader Board:
Pierre Hermé rose
Ladurée framboise

But Really:
I almost-promise that this blog will not become as empty headed as Sofia’s film, or as flighty as the whisper-soft surface of a macaron itself. There are many stories to tell about a weekend in Belgium, an hour in headphones, and a lifetime in pursuit of family history, a spot in the world, and painfully good pastry. Stay tuned.

Laughing All the Way to the Bank

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I took the metro to Opera and followed the big sign and spoke English to the woman behind the counter because these kinds of transactions are still beyond my linguistic grasp. I put $300 through the slot under the little window. She handed me back €188.33.

Dollar Hits Record Low Against the Euro

Sugar Mama

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Sweet Stuff, originally uploaded by Miss Laura M..

Laura ate so many sweets today that she actually gave herself a bellyache. Like your Mom used to say. Like her Mom used to say. Goodnight. Goodnight. Goodnight.

Round 2: Laura vs. The Fly

Monday, February 18th, 2008

Butterfiles Are Not Free

I opened the door and he dive bombed my head. He was enormous. His buzz—stealthy and loud and entirely room-filling—had a French accent.

I have no idea how he got in and imagined for a moment that he spontaneously generated, Darwin-style, on the top of some soggy wedge of camembert I’d left lying around. Or that he entered through the water pipes or slithered under the door. I’d say he came in through the bathroom window, but there isn’t one.

He was bottle green and goggle-eyed and I told him what I told my pals, the industrial-sized roaches, in NYC: This is a small apartment. One of us has to go, mon amie.

I tried sneaking up on him and hitting him with a shoe, but I only put a dent in my wall for which I will assuredly risk losing my safety deposit and hurt my finger, which was already sore from the assemblage and dissemblage of my bed. (See below.) So I decided to do what I did when the asshole girls used to tease me about my glasses in the 7th grade: I decided to ignore him in hopes that my obvious lack of interest would make him get bored and go die in a corner.

Except that every ten minutes or so, he thought it would be cool to dive bomb my head again. So opened the window in hopes that he’d just politely fly out. After all, he’d banged into my mirror approximately 8,000 times thinking it was another part of the room (Flies are smart that way.) so maybe he could bang into the outside and stay there. After the temperature in the room dropped below about 9 degrees, I realized that I needed another plan, so I decided to open the door and swat him into its general direction with a towel.

But as I have mentioned, I deeply fear my French neighbors. Mostly because I don’t know how to say anything to them. Neighbor-to-neighbor diplomacy is a tricky business when everyone speaks the same language. And do I really want our introductory conversation to consist solely of:

C’est une mouche!

Because that’s the only way I know how to say it. I can’t elaborate any further. And then they would do what French people always do when I speak even one word of French to them. They rattle off a trillion French words at breakneck speed and at very low volume and entirely in the subjunctive.

French people—even small children—use the subjunctive all the time. French culture is the subjunctive. I can pick out its noises almost instantly—all those nasal-y Zs zooming all over the place, buzzing like my fly. And I know, as soon as someone starts in with, “Vous étiez…” I’m dead in the water. I won’t understand a thing.

So because my French class won’t cover the subjunctive for at least another three weeks, I decided to close my door and try to hit the fly with a French-English dictionary. Which is sort of amazing, because it’s a pocket-sized dictionary. But it’s still a dictionary.

It worked. I swung like the bases were loaded and that bad boy hit the floor, bounced once, and said au revoir to Paris forever.

Maybe I should have tried that with the girls who made fun of my glasses. Or maybe, sitting here in Paris with my fly and my couch/bed and my endless cheese and neighbors who use a verb case that has no English equivalent, in some dim sense, I did.

Round 1: Laura vs. Le Clickclack

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

My Tiny Window
In my apartment, my tiny square in the 18eme, there is a single significant piece of furniture. It is a bed and a couch, but not at the same time. In America, I would call it a futon, but that actually seems too simple a word, and conjures too specific an image, to describe the exact nature of this contraption. American futons seem so much like fake furniture, the domain of the unemployed and the in-transition. Mine, though, seems substantive, and thus successfully convinces and deludes me that I am neither of those things. When it’s folded up, it really looks like a couch. When it’s unfolded, it really looks (and more importantly, feels) like a bed. In France, this piece of furniture is called a clickclack, after the noise it makes when it is, itself, in transition. This is only fitting because, in my head, when I realize that I have only a foggy idea of how the next ten years of my life will go, I make the exact same noise.

There is nothing special about this clickclack at all (I think it’s from Ikea, so don’t blame the French for what I’m about to describe.) except that it’s quite comfortable and that it tried to kill me.

It is difficult to describe the specifics of the clicks and clacks of this bed/couch, but suffice it to say that it works on two big hinges that must be moved to and fro and bent back over onto themselves in order lock the clickclack in either of its beddish or couchish positions. Locking it requires catching tricky little latches in tricky little slots, and oh. Both of the hinges are spring-mounted. If I were a detective in the midst of an attempted murder investigation concerning my clickclack, that would be an important point.

Hinges that are also springs tend to want to stay in either one position or the other. I am not a mechanically inclined person, but I understand that much. So then imagine what happens when you try to move those hinges, which do not want to be moved. There is resistance. And stuff tends to get caught. In my case, stuff included an arm, three fingers, both of my legs, and—I’m guessing on this one, just based on the bruising pattern—a knee. At one point, I was completely folded up inside it with little hope of escape. I just tried to stay very still and prayed that my neighbors wouldn’t come up to complain about all the noise. At this point, things had progressed so many decibels beyond simple clicking and clacking, and I don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry. I’m just trying to put my bed away,” in French yet. Also, I was not entirely sure how I would extricate myself long enough to answer the door. Also, I was not sure if I could still walk.

I got it back together, finally, but not before catching three of my fingers in the latch. I took a victory lap around the apartment (elapsed time: 4 seconds) and pumped my fists in the air as though I’d just shattered a world record along with both of my femurs.

There is, of course, a way to put the clickclack back together that does not necessitate bloodshed, and I figured it out in about a day. After a week in the apartment, the whole process takes about a minute and causes, on average, one small injury a day instead of eight big ones, which feels like progress. Out in the city, on the way to the Metro, the boulangerie, I repeat it to myself constantly: This is all a process. The whole thing. It all gets better and faster with practice, the latches clicking neatly into place.