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Archive for May, 2010

Julia’s Paris

Back in February I mentioned that I had just finished reading Julia Childs’ memoir My Life In France to my friend Nina (also one of the best cooks I know, and a big Julia fan), and I had recently wandered past the building where Julia and her husband Paul lived in the 1950’s.   I promised her I would go back and take a picture, so she could see it too.  But, not one to stop at the exploration of just one semi-historic site mentioned in a book, I decided to take a little tour of places Julia liked.  Of course, despite appearances, Paris has changed quite a bit in the last 60 years, so many of the exact places she mentions are gone now.  But, after wandering around for most of a rather rainy day searching them out, I figured I should share what I did find…

Our tour starts at 81 Rue de l’Universite, in the 7th Arrondisement, where Julia and Paul lived for most of their years in Paris in the 1950s.  They affectionately nicknamed it “Roo de Loo,” which is possibly the most adorable nickname for a house, ever.  Julia mentions that it was not far from the Assemblée Nationale – what she doesn’t specify is that, from where I was standing to take this picture, I would have to go about 20 feet to the right and across one small road in order to walk smack into the side of the building.  It’s also two blocks from the Seine, and about a ten minute walk to the Musée d’Orsay (then just the somewhat out-of-comission Gare d’Orsay – but, still).  Nice digs.

From Roo de Loo we head right, around the back of the Assemblée Nationale, to Rue de Bourgogne, where Julia did most of her daily shopping.

Today it’s no longer a market street, and is full mostly of shi-shi furniture stores – the kinds that only sell, say, mid-century style chairs in blue upholstery.  But, back in the day I imagine it looked much like this –

That’s actually Rue Cler, on the other side of Les Invalides, but a market street is a market street, really.

Julia talked a lot about discovering the joys of shopping at the small shops in Paris – the boulanger for your bread, the fromagerie for cheese, and the epicerie for produce and other staples.  She frequented one particular fruit and vegetable shop run by the formidable Madame Les Quatre Saisons.

“Four Seasons” is a fairly common name for greengrocer’s shops in France, so there is probably no relation, but whatever, go with it, ok?

Julia believed, like any cook, that good ingredients were the basis of good cooking.  But an artist can’t paint with out a brush, and a chef can’t cook without tools.  So Ms. Child developed quite a habit of visiting Dehillerin’s shop near Les Halles, which, thankfully, is still there in all of its hodge-podgey glory.

As soon as you walk though the doors you enter this dimly lit, slightly dusty cavern of unfinished wooden shelves loaded with mounds of cooking equipment.  Stacks of muffin tins.  Heaps of cookie cutters.  Piles of casserole dishes.  Not a safe place to go if you have money to spare and space in your suitcases.  Thankfully, I had neither, but those mini springform pans were still awfully tempting.

You can understand how Julia ended up with so many pots and pans, whose outlines Paul drew on the peg board where they hung in every kitchen they ever owned.

The problem with trying to tour Paris (or anywhere, really) from a historical source is that nothing ever stays the same.  Case in point:  I walked for an entire afternoon trying to find the location of the school where Julia first started learning french cooking.  Le Cordon Bleu still exists.  I knew this for a fact, and I had the directions that were spelled out in the book – Julia would take their car, The Flash, across the bridge to Place de la Concorde, turn left up Rue Faubourg St. Honore, park and walk up to the school near the backside of the American Embassy.  All of these places still exist, but could I find Le Cordon Bleu?  Mais, non.  And here’s why – it’s now on Rue de Leon Delhomme, across the river in the 15th Arrondisement.  Oh well, she never liked their kitchens anyway.

To make up for my Cordon Bleu fail I hopped on the Metro and went over to the Palais Royale (which I knew I could find, reaffirming my confidence in my Parisian geography).  Julia and Paul had several favorite restaurants in Paris, but this one, on one corner of one of the most famous courtyards in Paris, was also the first grand public restaurant ever opened in Paris, in 1784.

The prices, me thinks, have gone up a bit since the Childs spotted Colette eating there at a corner table by herself.  Either that or Paul’s government salary as a mid-level diplomat was nothing to sneeze at.  It also, to much shock and dismay, lost one of its Michelin stars in the mid-’80s.  Quel horreur!  Still, its probably worth a visit if you have a 100-euro/lunch budget.  And who doesn’t?

The wonderful thing about Paris is how it’s managed to retain its historical flavor without turning into a museum of itself.  So, Julia Child’s Paris was a lot like mine in many ways.   Her’s had more mom-and-pop stores, a lot fewer grocery chains, cooler cars and more post-war decrepitude, but you can still walk to Montmartre for dinner, if you feel inclined, and the bakers will still yell at you if you get to the counter and don’t know which kind of baguette you want.

“Lipstick on my belly button, and music in the air – thaat’s Paris, son.  What a lovely city!  What grenouilles a la Provencale!  What Chateauneuf-du-Pape, what white poodles and white chimneys, what charming waiters, and poules de luxe, and maitres d’hotel, what gardens and bridges and streets!  How fascinating the crowds before one’s cafe table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues.  Those garlic-filled belches!  Those silk-stockinged legs!  Those mascara’d eyelashes!  Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work!  Hola!  Dites donc!  Bouillabaisse!  Au revoir!”

-Paul Child, in a letter to his brother Charlie, as quoted in My Life In France

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A Moveable Life

I’ve been thinking about how to sum up my time in France.  I’ve been back for two weeks, and people keep, unsurprisingly, asking me “What was it like?”  No one actually expects you to sum up seven months in a foreign country in a sentence or two, and I’m still working on my Life in France elevator pitch, so I mostly just enthuse at them – “It was great!  It was France!”

The Garonne River in Toulouse

I don’t tend to be a person who spends a lot of time processing new phases of my life.  I try to take new things in stride, which makes it easier to adapt  (and means, No, I’m not experiencing much reverse culture shock), but also makes it hard to reflect on something as a finite, definitive period of time.  I’m working on that, though.  I think it will be one of those things that settles into my consciousness gradually, until one day I realize, “Oh, that’s the defining thing about my time in France!”  For now it’s all nice memories of walks taken, food eaten, classes, horses, exploring, investigating,  new experiences, new friends (and old!), and the feeling that Paris, in some small way, belongs to me now, which is really very cool.

What, you thought I meant spiritually, or something? The window has my name on it!

I’ve been back for two weeks, one of which was primarily spent curled on my parents’ couch fighting off strep throat.  So, that was awesome.  Before (well, mostly before) my body was attacked by streptococcus, and two days after getting back from France, I went to the lovely wedding of two friends from college (a first!), which took place in Ohio, and was also a great excuse to have a mini reunion of Vassar friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since graduation.  I would post pictures, but most of the ones of me are terrible.  It’s a hazard of having friends who are shorter than you – group photos make me look like the representative of the sub-species Homo Sapiens Gigantus.  Not flattering.  But, the wedding was lovely, the party fun, and the company excellent.  All the better because three days earlier I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it.  I came *this* close to being Eyjafjallajokulled.  If not for the miraculous last-minute availability of a high-speed train ticket from Paris to Frankfurt, which got me to Germany just in time to catch my Frankfurt-to-Boston flight home, I might still be in France.  But, no giant ash cloud was going to stop me, no siree.

Paris under the...seriously, there was a giant ash cloud up there?

So, now I’m home and looking for a job and thinking about my future.  Wait, am I 22 again?  No, but I have the perspective to know that this probably also won’t be the last time in my life that there are many roads open before me, and I just need to decide which one to go down next.  For the moment that freedom is exciting, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to wait, at least for a while, until the right thing comes along.  In the meantime I’ll be bouncing around the northeast a bit, from Deerfield to Boston to DC (for the CARE National Conference and Lobby Day, next week – stay tuned, it’ll be exciting), back to Deerfield, then to Ithaca for my cousin’s graduation, and after that who knows! I’m going to keep the blog going, and try, as always, to be better about updating. It’s going to be a very peripatetic May.

However, Ernest Hemingway had it right…

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