Sunday, January 29, 2012

Forever 25

If you’d please be so kind as to bear with me… This is a longer entry… I’ve broken it up into sections for you if you want to read smaller portions throughout the work day without feeling like you’re cheating too much on your employer.

People might tell you that you can’t put a price on a generous compliment, but it turns out that you can. The cost is approximately 110 Euro ($140 USD).

Bri and I arrived early at the train station this past Thursday to board our train for Paris, tickets purchased from a lackluster, bilingual ticket agent boy and pocketed. We arrived early, boarded and settled down.

About a half an hour into the countryside with its green hills in the drizzly mist punctuated by Cypress trees, a brusque ticket agent stopped at our row and requested our tickets, which he processed and then asked for identification, which he looked over rather snootily.

“That’s going to be 55 Euro,” he said.

“No, we already paid,” I explained – pointing to the little bill of sale.

“No, this is a ticket for someone who has less than 26 years. You cannot have the youth price.” We looked at our orderly tickets with the word “Jeune” stamped traitorously at the bottom of the page.

“So, it’s 55 more Euro?”

“For each.”


“Each of you. Each way.”

Thanks Thalys – that’s about $263 total for a two-hour train ride that we weren’t anticipating. We huffily paid out and bemoaned the doubling of our expenses, but with a twinge of conceit, we both realized that it was rather pleasant to be mistaken for 25-year-old girls traveling through the country on a student visa by our ticket agent, even if we couldn’t fool the attendant on the train.

It turns out that the cost of a bus ride is about a quarter of what it takes to travel by train between Brussels and Paris. And rather than spend the supplemental 55 Euro to get home, we decided to stay an extra day in Paris and attend a dinner party with some friends on Saturday night and save some money on the ticket home.

Lose five years on your age, gain a day. We decided there’s nothing wrong with being “forever 25.”


When we arrived, we followed the instructions that John had emailed us and made our way from the Gare du Nord to the West side of the city where John lives. After a long bus ride with adorable old women jostling for position with their many bags and hauling our carry-on luggage around behind us for several blocks, and a tour through some beautiful, old romantic buildings, we arrived at John’s apartment and shed our bags before heading back into the heart of the city, desperate for food.

So far, at the center of everything in Europe for me, is food. I am a slave to my local patisserie. Even if I exercised every day, religiously (as I surely won’t) there is no way that I won’t gain weight on this trip. I’m in love with dessert, with chocolate, with pastries, with tiny piles of salad and rich appetizers. The other night I had a raspberry meringue tart, the meringue gently toasted and so light and buttery and fluffy that I swear it was more marshmallow than cream. In Brussels, Bri and I stop frequently at chocolate shops and look at their well-ordered selection with a shy sort of greed.

The other night when Bri and I ventured out into the city for our tour of the old quarter, I sampled (for the first time) one of the traditional Pralines – one that has a history that is over 50 years old (invented for the world’s fair in 1958)– the praline’s name was Caprice. It was a chocolate-wrapped nougat filled with vanilla fresh cream. That recipe pre-dates the Beatles, 80’s shoulder pads, my birth, Sesame Street and more. And I thought about it in the days following, wondering what other dangerously-titled foods I might sample.

I also didn’t realize that chocolate was such a recent development in Europe, really. The cacao bean itself wasn’t even discovered in South America by natives until 2,000 years ago (does that mean Jesus never tasted chocolate?), but Europeans didn’t get their first taste until the 17th century when Spanish explorers came back and started making hot chocolate for the nobility at court. Belgian chocolate didn’t come of age until the 18th century and it wasn’t until the past century that Belgian chocolate distinguished itself from the rest of the chocolatiers. It was actually Jean Neuhaus who invented pralines as these dynamic candies that could take on a variety of other flavors (coffee, hazlenut, raisins, etc.). And Belgian chocolatiers are fanatics for quality in a way that the automated corporate industry could never appreciate. In an age where everything is mass produced to meet demand, Belgian chocolate (true Belgian chocolate) is still made by hand. Another distinction is that while most chocolate companies receive their shipments of chocolate in solid form as bars to be reheated when necessary for their recipes, I read that Belgian chocolate companies receive the tempered mixture of cocoa, sugar, and butter in heated trucks and the warm tempered chocolate retains aromas that cooled chocolate just doesn’t have.

I have to remember that during my time in Europe I’m on a budget. I cannot be as capricious as my chocolate wants me to be. So I have been making a lot of meals at home. In fact, I’ve only eaten out for four meals the whole time that I’ve been here which is well below the average when I’m at home. I’ve had lasagna, quiche, casseroles, pastas, quinoa, cassoulets. And they’ve all been made by people’s hands.

“It’s funny,” Bri said on the way back from the market the other day after we had purchased breads and soups and other things for our evening meal, “that a trip to the market in Europe can make me feel so indulged.”

It’s true. I don’t feel the same after shopping at Safeway as I do after shopping here. At the outdoor market, there is no self-checkout stand. I speak to a person who tells me different ways that I can fasten and wear the new vest that’s being purchased. I am pointed in the direction of the nearest bank by a helpful shop keeper and even the cute bakery boy wishes me a good afternoon in English when he notices my trouble with the currency. It’s human and colorful and personal. When selecting food for the evening meal I can look down a row of hand-picked produce and ask the girl to give me a head of garlic while delicately testing out the word for one of the first times: “l’ail.”

It’s hard when you’re on your own and a bit lonely and you’re floundering a bit in your late twenties, wondering what life really is since it’s not everything that they told you it would be – it’s hard not to fall in love with your food. This thing that pulls the day together from three sides, like a ribbon around the things that make you feel good, that reminds you what’s pleasurable about life, that ties you to the entire tactile experience of touch, taste, sight, smell, even sound as the meal comes together – knives chopping on a board, onions frying in a pan, glasses and dishes assembling on a table. It’s the best part of the physical world in some ways.  


In Paris, Bri and I settled for tourist food a few times since our proximity to certain monuments didn’t leave us a whole lot of options, but I also bought pain au chocolat and croissants with fruit salad for our morning breakfasts. John also took us to his favorite restaurant Les Bougresses where we sampled a salad that was topped with a large toasted crouton filled with goat cheese and drizzled with raspberry vinagrette, where we each sampled each other’s desserts, where thinly sliced vegetables were arranged in a petaled pile at the center of my plate with little crevettes all around the periphery and the slightest hint of a sweet balsamic vinegar.

We walked the Champs Elysées in Paris without purchasing a thing. We visited the Eiffel Tower, both at night and with our pre-purchased tickets the next glorious day. In mid-January, there aren’t as many tourists as the various monuments and historical landmarks around the city, because you have to gamble that the weather will be acceptable. When Bri and I woke up on Friday, the sun was already blazing and for the entire eleven hours that we traveled the city, we weren’t cold.

We stopped at Notre Dame, we considered visiting the original Chanel, but my favorite area in Paris has always been Montmartre, with its peculiar little side streets that lead you uphill and take you past surprising, but small vistas with a view of the city like you’re in the clouds, so Bri and I agreed to head to Sacré Coeur before the sun set.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do love Paris, but it’s probably not my kind of city. It’s dirty, and brusque and in a totally different way than New York. But in spite of all that, when I imagine the place that I’d like to live, I think of an apartment on Montmartre, to the East of the Sacré Coeur, somewhat at a remove from the rest of the action, but if you strained perhaps, you could still hear the calliope of the merry-go-round playing at the base of the steps. Bri and I picked out just the building – an old pink apartment with hanging baskets of flowers at its windows, stooped little roofs, and a tiny veranda where one could watch the sun set over the Eiffel Tower. We told each other that when the time came, we’d move in there together with our cats.

We spent the rest of the afternoon abandoning all of other tourist plans and simply wandered through the area: window-shopping at boutiques, buying my new favorite skirt, watching painters in the square behind the church imagine rain on the cobblestones that we were standing on. We watched a pack of children running up the hill after being let out of school for the week and took out our journals in a little café with a loaf of bread on its sign. It is a reminder that sometimes the best introduction to a city happens when you put away your maps, sit down, and find Paris at the bottom of your demitasse of café on a dead end street lined with wrought-iron gates and broad-windowed apartments.


The next morning we woke late and spent some time just bumming around John’s lovely apartment listening to Who’s The Boss? dubbed in French while we typed, ate croissants and recovered a bit.

Then we set out into the city for a walk through the flea market and then the Père Lachaise cemterery. There, we visited the graves of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, and Fréderic Chopin. We wandered the long avenues of the sprawling, many-tiered cemetery in virtual anonymity since the cemetery was so vacant in the January drizzle. The very modern marker for Oscar Wilde is large and clean and is now a historical landmark surrounded by plexiglass that is covered in the pink lipstick of kisses left for the poet. It is obviously a much-frequented destination, but my favorite part of the grave marker itself was the excerpt from one of his poems:

“And alien tears will fill for him
  Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
  And outcasts always mourn.”

Jim Morrison’s grave is wildly unassuming, almost shoved in amongst the many other crypts and markers which only makes it seem all the more tragic. But, I think my favorite grave, was that of Fréderic Chopin. I have often imagined him as a character in one of my poems or stories – a little tortured, very human, never getting over George Sand even until his death and wanting his heart removed after he had died because he had a fear of being buried alive. He sounds neurotic and approachable and he made such dynamic, complex little compositions. As we approached his grave, I saw one old man under a gray umbrella gently arrange a rose in a single glass of water on the lip of his grave and stand back to look at the bust of the artist’s face for a long while. I wasn’t impatient for him to move away and waited until the man at last wiped off his glasses and moved farther along down the path.

If you are lost in your life a little bit, if you don’t know exactly what course you’ve put yourself on and you can’t see far enough down the road to where you’re going, you are sympathetic to people who mourn men they never knew for the art that they gave to us. The shared sadness that can span hundreds of years somehow seems like a comfort, if not an answer.

That night John brought us to a dinner party hosted by an American couple that he knows in Paris. I put on my new skirt, some beads, a shirt with high shine and regarded myself in the mirror: passable for a fashionable adult, even by Parisian standards. When John’s friend R arrived to ride along with us to M & C’s apartment, I answered the door full of anticipation for making friends with a true Parisian and kissed him lightly on each cheek – always unsure of how much pressure to apply, how much cheek to offer, how much my lips should turn towards a stranger’s face. In any case, we managed the greeting and handsome and slight as he was, I could immediately see that he was both funny and shy.

We all piled into John’s American car and tunneled through the crowded traffic of the city on Saturday night. We were in high spirits, warm in the packed little vehicle listening to the music of Kanye West as we careened around the large rond points at the Champs Elysées.

We arrived at M and C’s apartment – both professionals living in Paris (one a consultant/writer, the other a technology person). Their apartment was five floors up at the top of an old building in the Marais with a long city-sweeping view to the Eiffel Tower which twittered with sparkling lights every hour on the hour. They took our coats, complimented our clothes and smiled the whole time until, before I know it, a glass of wine is in my hand and we are all admiring their new microwave in such close proximity to one another that I’m surprised I’m not at all self conscious.

They had prepared an Italian themed meal with numerous little appetizers: foie gras, cheese tarts, spinach puffs and two different kinds of cheese to go with their crackers. They brought out a salad they had discovered in Sicily: an unexpectedly pleasant combination of oranges, onions, and Cayenne pepper that later introduced a simple greens salad. Pasta with red sauce and bread from the same market that Sarcosi buys from and then pear-chocolate tart for dessert. I might have busted out of my new skirt while their large orange and white cat strolled all around the table in a mute interrogation of the houseguests.

At two a.m., I realized however, that what was most pleasant about the evening for me was how I felt in that room full of deliriously affable people – many of whom were strangers. As M poured out another limoncello and C laughed genially as he blushed over a French curse word, I realized that I wanted to have this again, what they have, what we were having. To be a little bit older and still stylish, to be shifting through different languages (Italian, French, and English) with a group of people principally concerned with laughing, making each other feel comfortable, and the pleasures of a good meal. I would like to invite someone like me out on a night like that and keep her talking well past her bedtime and make her feel at home. I’d like to make her feel comfortable with herself again, even if she’s stretching the seams on her skirt, I’d like to talk about homemade limoncello while pouring a glass of it and discuss a particularly good book. It’s surprisingly overwhelming to meet one of your possible futures and live there for a minute. If you’re looking for it (or even if you’re not), if you shift slightly to the left of the center of your life, you can end up under the broad skylights in the roof of an apartment saturated with the sound of unrestrained laughter and you can meet yourself… even (or maybe especially) in a strange city.


  1. Lovely post, Jess. And I'm right there with you when it comes to food, particularly food in Europe where almost everything you put in your mouth is somehow special, and pleasurable.

  2. When we take a risk and put ourselves out there, it hardly ever lets us down. This reminded me of when I was at the monastery in Nepal and I kept telling people that if they were in the US telling me that they were in a monastery in Nepal I would be so interested to hear more and I would find them very interesting indeed. Turns out, I was there too. When we wait to become the future, the moment shows us that we have arrived.

    So happy for your time there Jess. It's said sometimes that, 'It really felt like I was there!' I, indeed, experienced that phenomena reading this. All sorts of love from Seattle!