My (Mis) Adventures in France

One of the major perks of the whole overseas Ph.D. thing was increased travel opportunities. There was even the opportunity for us to tag along with Tim to study French in Paris for a month with the bill largely footed by a grant! Sounds perfect, right?

Perfect, it most certainly was not.

In August of 2009, we Stones availed ourselves of this opportunity and booked what seemed like a reasonably decent apartment in the 2nd arrondissement. To tell the truth, I had a weird feeling about the apartment and the character that we were doing business with, a feeling that was confirmed when, upon being dumped by our shuttle taxi, we proceeded to sit with our two tiny kids and four huge suitcases on the grimy sidewalk for two hours before a man in a down vest and wool pork-pie hat (ahem. IN AUGUST.) finally arrived to let us into the apartment.

{This is for the search engines: Gilles Bourgogne Paris apartment rental scam warning. Consider yourself warned.}

It wasn’t that there was no apartment. It was that the apartment in question was completely filthy dirty to an extreme degree. As in, only dirty sheets. As in, rotting food in the fridge and garbage cans. As in, piles of junk everywhere. As in, no toilet paper or towels. And the person we were dealing with was really obviously untrustworthy. As in, lied to us. Obviously. And a lot.

So we did not stay there. Well, we did. For the night. On sheets whose cleanliness status was decidedly indeterminate. Having nightmares of bugs crawling on me.

{Not exactly Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Bonjour, Pah-reee!}

The unfortunate housing disaster turned into a happy event because I got to meet the legendary Nora, who resides near Paris, and stay with her for the month, during which time my dear husband demolished her deck and built a new one, my son slipped on a wet floor in Franprix and broke his leg, an old man exposed himself to me while I was walking with my (mercifully oblivious) children, the Franprix denied any liability for the unmarked wet floor because we didn’t “report” the accident at the moment it happened (we needed to report a 4 year old shrieking in pain as uniformed employees gaped at us?) My other son got heatstroke, and, THANK GOD, my mom visited for a week.

take it from my son. never let a broken leg stop you from taking the opportunity to sit on larger-than-life bear statues.

Because we were headed to Germany next, we sent our luggage on with a baggage service, Sernam, that somehow managed to “lose” the one bag with lots of adorable petite ladies’ clothing from my sister-in-law’s store.

{I do not think that was an accident. Sernam, I won’t go all Mattie Ross on you because when it comes to revenge I’m much more Les Miserables than Comte de Monte Cristo, but stealing that bias-cut polka dot dress with the red sash that made me feel, however improbably, like a 1950s film star? That? That was cold.}

Oh, and then, on the taxi ride from our beautiful guardian angel Nora’s to the train station, Graeme vomited all over himself and me. And then, when we arrived in Goettingen, Tim got stuck on the train, leaving me with several small bags and two small boys, one of whom had a thigh-high cast. (The other was a mere 16 months old.)

And yet? I still think fondly of our time in Paris. Why?

Well, our friend there. What a gift to have met her. We clicked immediately and laughed ourselves silly over everything and nothing and ate and drank and enjoyed life together. When I think of her hospitality in contrast to the series of unfortunate events we experienced in France, I am as profoundly grateful as I was on that August Sunday when her adorable convertible pulled in front of that crazy apartment in the 2nd arrondissement. More so, actually.

And, yes, you knew it was coming: the food. It’s not that every meal in Paris is haute cuisine. It’s just that the food there, to a much greater degree, is raised and prepared and served with so much care, so much attention to detail, so much love. So much joy. I’m not sure what magic they’re working with food there, but they even have a whole store of frozen food that’s quite delicious, Picard.

{David Sedaris mentions his love for Picard in his hilarious contribution to the Americans in Paris episode of This American Life. You can listen online for free here.}

Yes, good French baguettes really are that amazing. And the breakfasts we shared each day–nothing fancier than coffee with cream and baguettes with sweet butter and various delicious preserves–were some of the best breakfasts of my life. And then, of course, there was the pain au chocolat. And the beautiful, fresh summer salads. And the filet of beef Nora made, barely cooked. And the gratin d’endives au jambon, made by the same lovely person.

Not fancy food. Not “healthy” food, to our American notions of health. Just simple food, prepared well, and enjoyed in good company.

Oh yeah. You knew it was coming. French goats!

Sure, we visited the Louvre, Notre Dame, Versailles, and so on. It’s not that the food was better than those things, or even in the same category, really. But when I think of our time in France, in the cost-benefit analysis, what balances all the crappy things is not having seen the Mona Lisa, or the Louis XIV’s palace, though that was cool (but the Musee d’Orsay was cooler). It’s having made a friend, and, for a time, having lived as a family with that friend, and the means of that grace was then–and is now, when I make Nora’s potatoes to remember–food.

Food, a means of grace and remembrance?

(Sound familiar?)

Tomorrow I’ll try to post a recipe for pain au chocolat.


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