Wednesday, May 10, 2017

How To Write That Novel You’ve Always Wanted to Write, and Other Fake News

Well, I did it. I boarded a plane and left Paris. I also completed most of the items on my Yeah-No-I’m-Really-Done-With-Paris To Do List. Plus, I drank plenty of wine, so the way I see it, I came out ahead.

In the mean time, let’s discuss my Novel In Progress. This seems like a good time for a Development Update:

I no longer have a working title. In fact, I have no title whatsoever. My novel is now a liberated file on my hard drive, not constrained by fake headlines.

Two months ago, I started over at the beginning. Yes, I’ve done that before. But this time, I flipped my first-person narrator from a kind, innocent, intelligent hero to his loathsome, conniving, thieving, older brother. I had been struggling for a long time writing from the perspective of the “good guy,” and I wondered what it would feel like to write from the perspective of his enemy. Now, I am much more interested.

My revised outline is completely complete. By that, I mean, it’s really fucking complete. I can’t stress this enough, for the simple fact that I have never before reached a point where I can say this about my outline. To have it complete feels, well, very complete.

I have written and edited 12,000 words. I am still a slow writer. What can I say? It’s a start. And by “a start,” I mean, it’s like my fifth or sixth draft of a start.

Next, let’s discuss my other creative writing projects. I finished a short story last week titled “And Remember Where You Came From.” It took three days to write and edit, which is swift and risky, but I like it. This might be my new personal favorite piece of fiction. I submitted it to a regarded publication, and I’ll anxiously await their rejection reaction.

And last, allow me to brag for a hot minute. My short story “Quittin’ Time” has been published in O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal for veterans and their family members. I am psyched. Positively psyched. I originally wrote this piece two years ago, workshopped it in Paris, and revised it approximately four times. I believe I submitted it to six or seven literary publications before it was picked up by O-Dark-Thirty. I am grateful and honored.

Finally, let’s discuss what I’m reading. At this moment, I am 75% through American Rust: A Novel by Philipp Meyer. It has taken me months to get here. That’s not good, although it’s not necessarily bad either. The book itself is highly recommended literary fiction, and there are things about it that I love, which explains why I continue to torture myself with it. When the novel debuted in 2009, The New York Times said, “Meyer writes about his characters’ lives in Buell with sympathy and unsentimental clarity, conveying both the suffocating and supportive aspects of small-town life and his people’s disheartening sense that they have somehow wound up on the wrong side of history, sidelined in a forgotten industrial town in the shiny new information age of globalization.” I think that sums up why I continue to muddle through its pages. But American Rust ain’t for everyone. It is slow - sometimes painfully slow - without much plot, nor suspense, nor lust. It does contain a good bit of violence (which I can get behind), but its cyclical, repetitive nature is grating on me. That’s why I’m reading other things simultaneously. Having said all that, there is something worthy about this book. It takes the right reader.

I got my most recent issue of Carve nearly two weeks ago and have devoured most of that. Carve is by far my favorite literary journal, and my conviction is reaffirmed every quarter when it comes in the mail.

I have no fewer than ten “New!” downloads on my Kindle, many of which I may never open, thanks to BookBub, that electronic literature crackhouse that keeps sending me links to free e-books. Damn you, BookBub. I can never retire from reading as long as I subscribe to you!

Anyway, that’s most of what I can tell you about my reading and writing habits over the past few months. How are your goals coming along in 2017? It’s always refreshing to hear how other writers are forging through their year. And, I like to know you’re out there.

Now, it’s back to writing. But first, lunch with The Bestie.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Things to Do in Paris After You’ve Seen Everything There is to See

I’m scared to death to return to Paris. I know what you’re thinking, but no, that’s not the reason. I suppose there’s plenty about which to be nervous. Those things do make me nervous. But the truth is, I’m afraid that if I return to Paris, I will never want to leave.

Next week, I am going back to Paris. It’s an unexpected trip. A surprise of sorts.

I spent ten days in Paris this past December, when The Hubs and I locked up our apartment for the last time and gave the keys back to its rightful owner. I’m a cold resilient person, and the experience itself was emotionally tolerable, but during the last seven days of that trip, I contracted the world’s most horrible case of Food Intoxication, which - for my American readers - is synonymous with food poisoning. Therefore, my final days in my adopted city were spent in a hotel room (our apartment was infested with movers)… puking, coughing up blood, pooping, shivering, cursing, puking some more, crying, and lamenting my unfortunate situation. There was this one time - and I had to - that I left the hotel to manage our movers, and I literally shit my pants on the metro. But yanno what? We don’t have to talk about that.

So a few weeks ago, I learned I would get another shot at it. Because Paris is always a good idea, and all that. Of course, I’m happy to see my old friends, who supported me during a time that is almost unthinkable now, so horribly debilitating, and yet, while I was living it, while I had the devotion of these extraordinary women, seemed an absolute cinch. (New to my blog and don’t know what I’m referring to? Click here). But visiting Paris now will give me one more chance to explore this city, this refuge, this womb. Like a tourist? Perhaps. I suppose I will be a tourist who speaks French slang, drinks carafe d’eau, and avoids the Chatelet metro station, but the fact remains, I will be a tourist. Because Paris is no longer my home.

And so I bring you…

An Ex-Ex-Expat’s To Do List while Visiting Paris

Take The Hubs to Lafayette’s Grave (Picpus Cemetery)

Really, Picpus Cemetery deserves a whole ‘nother blog post where I can properly explain just how special it is. I will write that someday. In the meantime, here’s the dumbed down description. A whole buncha decapitated people were buried here - in mass graves - during the French Revolution. This is reason alone for visiting Picpus Cemetery and reflecting on the insanity of human history. But the silver lining of this elusive place is that General Lafayette is buried here, and an American flag continuously flies over his grave, which is maintained by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Why is this an elusive place? Unfortunately Fortunately Unfortunately, no one seems to know about it (or care). It’s a bit off the beaten path, and it’s opening hours are few and far between.

I visited Picpus Cemetery solo in July 2014, but The Hubs has never been. The two of us are mildly obsessed with Lafayette, so I need to get his ass to Picpus.

If you go, Opening Hours are very limited: Tuesday through Sunday, usually from 2-6, mid-April to August. From October to mid-April it is open 2-4. It is closed on holidays, Mondays, and in September, and for the U.S. Fourth of July celebration when there is a ceremony featuring the US ambassador and high ranking Embassy officials. It’s best to call first, because these hours are not guaranteed. Vive la France.

Photograph Rue Crémieux

Rue Crémieux is one of the most beautiful residential streets in Paris, mostly because the houses are delightfully colorful and decorated with beautiful flowers and vines. This is unusual for Paris, whose standardized Haussmannian buildings are uniformly the same design, size, and color, and that color is grey, which on a lot of days, matches the color of the sky, and every day, the color of Parisian fashion. I’m generalizing, but if you’ve spent any significant amount of time in Paris, you know what I mean. Rue Crémieux is a lovely technicolor escape to a whole different world.

But how would I know? Even after living in Paris for 3+ years, I never visited Rue Crémieux. It’s slightly off the beaten path with no metro station in the immediate vicinity and not a whole heck of a lot of other tourist destinations within walking distance. It’s one of those places I always said the-next-time-I’m-over-in-that-direction, but it never happened. Since this could actually be my last trip to Paris (at least for the foreseeable future), this gem is definitely on my To-Do List.

Leave a Note for Marie Curie

The Panthéon, located in the heart of the Latin Quarter, houses the graves of the most noble scientists, artists, historians, philosophers, writers, and highly regarded intellectuals in France’s recent history. It’s a powerful place, not only because the likes of Voltaire and Victor Hugo are buried there, but also because it’s a stunning work of architecture. The magnificent dome of the Panthéon offers superior views of the Paris skyline, but the dome was closed for renovations almost the entire time I lived there. It reopened shortly before I moved back to America, but I had just been to the Panthéon the week before that, and I wasn’t quite ready to pay another admission fee, so I resigned myself to “missing out.”

This time, when I go back to Paris, I definitely want to climb the stairs to the dome of the Panthéon and experience that beautiful Paris skyscape. But more importantly, I want to go down into the crypt and leave an intimate note on the tomb of Marie Curie.

My youngest son was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma while we were living in Paris. He was treated at Institut Curie, which is mere steps from the Panthéon. For six months, while my son received his chemotherapy infusions, I looked at the Panthéon through a hospital window. In every kind of weather, through winter, spring, and summer, the Panthéon was my view. I took my son to the Panthéon to see Marie Curie’s grave, but I regret that we didn’t leave a note. This time, I will.

I’m not sure what I will write to Marie Curie, but I will definitely thank her for boldly breaking gender boundaries and for creating the teaching hospital where my son was cured of cancer.

Write in a Café on the Place de la Contrescarpe

Walking along Rue Mouffetard is one of the most charming things you will ever do in Paris. This ancient, cobblestone street is located a few beautiful blocks from Institut Curie, meaning the soles of my shoes became quite familiar with it. My son’s absolute favorite crêperie, La Petite Bretonne is located dead center. Near the end of our time in Paris, we fell in love with the Café Delmas on the Place de la Contrescarpe, at the heart of Rue Mouffetard. My son and I enjoyed many leisurely dinners here after long days of doctor's appointments and tests. Of course, any writer worth her merits knows that Ernest Hemingway lived footsteps from this bustling square, and he commonly spent his afternoons writing in the cafés here. Since I was always with my son in this part of town, we spent more time conversing than creating. But next week when I visit Paris, even if it’s just for an hour, I intend to sit my ass down and write at least 500 words toward my novel while conjuring up the ghost of Papa Hemingway. I owe that to myself.

Hike - One Last Time - in the French Countryside near Paris

One of my favorite activities while living in France was taking long hikes in the countryside. Once a month, my girlfriends and I met at an RER station early in the morning, and we didn’t return to Paris until dinnertime. We logged between 10 - 15 miles and tried different trails and locations each time. It happens that this month’s Girlfriend Hike is planned for next week. I feel very fortunate that I can come along, one last unexpected time!

Find My Name in Shakespeare and Company

Well, I mean, where my name will eventually go.

Eat a Fucking Cauliflower at Miznon

Do you even know me? Then this requires no explanation.

Reflect in the Jardin Anne-Frank

The Anne Frank Garden was opened ten years ago near the Pompidou in the Marais. This neighborhood was a frequent stomping ground for me during my tenure in Paris, and I always told myself I would stop by the garden, but I never did. Truth be told, it’s a little hard to find - not that I actively looked for it, but you don’t just happen to wander past it. You really need to load it into your smart maps and promise yourself to go.

From the pictures I’ve seen and personal anecdotes from my friends, the Jardin Anne-Frank is splendid. Perhaps one of the most meaningful things about the garden is the chestnut tree, which grew from a sapling taken from the chestnut tree Anne Frank repeatedly mentioned in her diary. I think that’d be kinda special to see, so since I’ll be in Paris and all, I should see it, right?

Besides that, it’s springtime, and all the pretty flowers will be in bloom. The only thing better than Springtime in Paris is… Steve Levy. (It’s a Philly thing. Never mind).

Cross Every Bridge on the Canal Saint Martin

I’ve probably crossed every bridge on the Canal Saint Martin at one time or another, but just for the heck of it, I’d like to do it in sequential order. That has to be good exercise.

Attend Morning Mass at St. Joe’s

An average of two mornings per week (sometimes more, sometimes less) over the course of three-plus years, I walked to the 8:30 AM mass at St. Joe’s. I started doing this the very first week that I arrived in Paris for the simple fact that I wanted to hear English, and I wanted something that felt familiar. Over time, it became my favorite way to tackle the sunrise. Attending early, English-speaking mass on a weekday kept me grounded, gave me a basis on which to start my day, and got me out of the apartment even on the ickiest, greyest, rainiest Parisian mornings. To be honest, one of the things I miss the most is this calming, centering ritual. I need to make the time to attend a morning mass at Saint Joe’s every return-trip to Paris. It’s great for my mental health!

Allow Myself To Say Goodbye Gracefully

I don’t need to walk past my old apartment. I don’t have to visit my old haunts. I’ll remind myself those kinds of endeavors are nothing more than a waste of my time. I’ve moved on from Paris, away from Paris. Now, I live in suburban Philadelphia. I drive my son to high school every morning. I play roller derby. I see my mom and dad regularly. And The Bestie? Shit. She’s just down the road. We’ve had so many lunches in the past six months, I’d actively blame her for my five pound weight gain, except that we always check the calorie counts, which is just one of the many reasons I love her. These are truly great things. These are things worth coming home for. Home. Which is. Pennsylvania.

Not Paris.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mostly, It's Roller Derby

I have an apology to make.  I moved back to America, and then I abandoned this blog.  I don’t know why I haven’t written or posted.  I think I’ve been assimilating.

We loved Paris.  We wanted to stay in Paris forever.  But it was time to come home.  And for those who’ve been following, my son is in remission.  He’s getting outstanding medical care here in Philadelphia.  He started high school in September.  He talks back to me.  He does all the things.

Coming home was weird.  For a long time, The Hubs was still working in Europe, and I was flying back and forth to Paris.  It felt like taking a bandaid off slowly, or easing my way into a pool of ice cold water.  Here in America, I started wearing workout clothes to the grocery store and carrying my Starbucks cup into the gym.  I was buying California wines.  My memories of Paris eventually became silent motion pictures in my mind, not me, but someone else I watched on a screen.  At some point, I contemplated calling a life coach.  Because I was like Shit.

I missed Paris desperately.  And I didn’t know who I was in America.

Then something happened.  I woke up on a Saturday morning, poured myself a cup of coffee, and thought, I should try Roller Derby.  I can’t explain where the thought originated.  I mean, I did spend the majority of the 70s wearing roller skates, and I have a scar on my chin to prove it.  But as an adult, I didn’t know anyone involved in derby.  I had never seen a bout, or a flier for a bout, or a Facebook post about a bout.  In fact, I knew nothing about roller derby, except that you tie on a pair of quads and pray you don’t get hurt.

I know what you’re thinking.  I was losing my fucking mind.  I’m 45.  But when I emailed my local league, they invited me to a Fresh Meat practice, no questions asked.  That was five months ago.  Now, I don’t know what I did before derby.

I’m ready to tell you about my life again.  It’s different now, but I’m still the same person.  I write, and I get rejection letters here in America too.  More and more often, I get acceptance letters too.  If you weren’t hell bent on reading about Paris, maybe you’ll stick around.  I’d like that very much.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Every Night, The Eiffel Tower Twinkles

In January 2016, my son, Ryan was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.  He had just turned fourteen.  At the time, we were living in Paris for a job reassignment.  He came home from school on a Monday afternoon and pointed to a lump on his neck.  A few weeks later, he started chemotherapy in a French hospital.  People commended us for being strong.  Friends and strangers called me a “good mom,” and they labeled Ryan “brave.”  But people living with cancer know one thing:  We don’t have a choice.  Survivalism is not the same as courage.  Ryan is now in remission.  After he got the all-clear, we moved back to the USA, where he’s a ninth grader at our local public high school.  Unless he tells them, none of his classmates ever has to know he survived cancer.

The following essay will soon appear in a popular literary journal.  It appears here with permission from my publisher.


“Is there ever a time when a person needs to be put down?”

My fourteen year old son asked me this question in April, as I packed his belongings - computer, dirty pajamas, toothbrush, antibiotics, steroids, acid reflux reducers, anti-nausea medications, laxatives - for discharge.  He was three months into chemotherapy when he developed an infection.

“Let’s talk about this later.” I zipped my jacket.  “Five days in the hospital is a long time, kiddo.  I’m tired.”

He sat down on the stripped bed, looked out the window.  We had been living in Paris for two years when he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.  He came home from school on a Monday afternoon and pointed to a lump on his neck.  Two weeks later, he was in surgery to biopsy a tumor and insert a catheter for intravenous drugs, and by April, he was a familiar fixture in the most renowned pediatric oncology unit in France.

I knew what he saw outside.  I looked at him, instead.

“Sometimes,” I said.  “Sometimes, if a person is elderly and they have a terminal disease.”

“Like cancer.”

“Well, yes.  But if they are elderly, and have lived a full life, if their cancer isn’t curable, if they are in a tremendous amount of pain, if their doctors agree they won’t live long, and their family thinks it’s for the best.”

“That’s legal?” he asked me, shifting on the bed.

“It’s complicated.”

He moved his gaze from the window to me.  “It must happen,” he said, “that a parent puts their child down.  I mean, not frequently.”

“Rarely.  Very, very rarely.  Almost never,”  I said.

“But it does.”  He lifted the collar of his shirt over his face and wiped his eyes with it.

Last year, we didn’t talk about things like euthanasia.  Our conversations were simple, and when we practiced French, they were simpler still.

“Ça va?” I’d asked, after I’d returned home from a food tour in South Pigalle, or an excursion near Saint-Germain, or a lunch in the Marais.

“Ça va,” he’d reply, then go back to his homework or his video games or his Skype conversations with old friends in America.

A few days after he was formally diagnosed with cancer, I took my son to a fertility clinic.  “I don’t want to do this,” he told me.

“Just talk to the doctor.”

“I know what to do,” he said.  He’d already sat down with my husband, who verbally recapped the process of male self-gratification and the depositing of sperm into a clear plastic container and why, just in case chemotherapy and radiation took away our son’s ability to produce viable swimmers, it’s beneficial to have a stash available.  For the future.  Frozen in a lab.  In France.  “I just don’t think I want to,” he concluded.

As it turns out, the doctor was a beautiful French girl no older than thirty.  And while their reputation for rudeness precedes them, the French are among the most empathetic, compassionate, emotionally generous people on this planet.

“I can adopt,” my son told her.  “I don’t see anything wrong with adoption.”

“It is a respectable option,” the doctor said.  Then she leaned forward in her chair.  “But not everyone wants to adopt.  Many people - most people - want to conceive their own babies.”

I closed my eyes.  I imagined my son, happy, in love, on the verge of marriage, needing to have a certain conversation, another difficult dialogue created as a result of all this.  I intervened, to save the lovely doctor from what she needed to say.

“What the doctor is telling you,” I said, “is that your future wife might want to have her own babies.”

My son crossed his legs, turned his back to me, looked out the window.  I followed his gaze.  When you live in Paris, you never grow old of that view.  After a few moments, he said, “Then she’s not my future wife.”

The doctor and I looked at each other across her desk, the distance and years between us suddenly shorter.  I blinked, and she blinked, and I saw my reflection in her wet, black pupils, parentheses around my mouth, papery skin under my eyes.

“You know,” I said, “We don’t have to decide right now.”

“Exactly,” agreed the doctor.  “Today is Friday, and your chemo starts Monday.  If you change your mind this weekend, call me.”  She wrote her mobile phone number on the back of her business card and passed it across the table.  “I live in Paris.  I can be here in twenty minutes.”

On the Metro, I asked my son, “Ça va?”

“Ça va,” he replied.

In April, by the time he had developed the infection that landed my son in the hospital for five days, he was already a familiar face in the pediatric oncology unit.  “Look what the bird dragged in,” said a nurse as she replaced one bag of antibiotics with another.  And when he woke from a morphine induced intermission, “That was quite a power sleep.”  I felt the weight of his discharge papers between my fingers when his lead Intern showed up after lunch on the fifth day to tell my son that his infection was gone and he could go home for one week before his next round of chemo.

“And I want to tell you I’m leaving,” the Intern said.  “I’ve been transferred to Bordeaux.  They move us around comme ça.”

We both stared at her.

“I know it’s weird,” she said.  “It feels very weird.”

She was gone fifteen minutes when my son asked me that question.  “Is there ever a time when a person need to be put down?”

A few minutes after that, after our talk, he wiped his eyes with the collar of his shirt.  I secured my backpack over both shoulders, and we looked around his room to make sure we didn’t leave anything behind.

“After you went home last night,” my son said to me, “after it was dark outside and I was almost asleep, the Eiffel Tower twinkled.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed.  “Did you take a video?”

“Nah,” he said.  “That was just for me.”


In February, my mother sent me a green scapular.  It was made in China, mailed from America, and arrived in France one month after my son’s diagnosis.  She also sent fifteen printed pages of Internet research, which included the history of the scapular and directions to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on Rue du Bac, where I could have the scapular properly blessed and converted into an instrument for the Virgin Mother’s healing powers.  For good measure, she included the Paris Metro map, on which she highlighted the route from my apartment in the 16th Arrondissement to the church in Saint-Germain.  As if I didn’t know my way around Paris after two years.

My son spent eight months fighting cancer.  Fighting cancer includes chemotherapy, of course.  It also includes a constant barrage of physicals, blood draws, pharmacy runs, and diagnostic tests.  It’s a time consuming battle.  Frustrating, tiresome, painful, humiliating, and downright annoying.  He was hospitalized twice.  He spent thirty-three days hooked up to intravenous drips of chemicals farmed from the earth’s disappearing rain forests.  He spoke - in French - to doctors, nurses, technicians, and interns about side effects and his bowel movements.

Somehow during that time, my son also managed to complete eighth grade and graduate with his class.  He hugged and kissed me every night before bed.  He gained a greater understanding of global issues and human compassion. He expressed guilt that his cancer was curable, while other children faced their mortality daily.  He also recognized that feeling guilty doesn’t mean you want what they have.  Because he didn’t want that.  No one wants that.

It was two weeks before my mother sent me the green scapular that a pediatric oncologist sat me down in the only available room she could find on the fifth floor of of a French hospital, closed the door, and said things no parent wants to hear.  I don’t remember her exact words, but she didn’t say Cancer, and she didn’t quote Survival Statistics.  She didn’t need to.

The green scapular that my mother sent to me from America sat on my desk since the day it came in the mail.  I looked at it a hundred times, held one finger in the air, nodded my head and said to myself, “Right, I have to take care of that.”  A few times, I even placed it into my purse when I had plans on the left bank.  But fighting cancer is a time consuming effort.

By the end of July, my son was feeling much better.  He had finished his last cycle of chemotherapy, and his hair was growing back.  On a ninety-four degree day, we went for a bike ride in the Bois de Boulogne.  When we returned to our apartment, I poured two glasses of ice water, shuffled some medical bills, and wished we had air conditioning.  Then I noticed the green scapular on my desk.  I thought about my mother buying it, packaging it, mailing it to me in February.  I remembered that I wouldn’t always live in Paris, that I couldn’t jump on a Metro and visit places like the Chapel of the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul when I returned to suburban Philadelphia.

Two hours later, I found myself kneeling at the porcelain feet of the Blessed Mother, asking for her healing gifts.  I had left my son in our apartment, endured body odor on the Metro, and eventually sat through a Mass, in French, on a balcony where it was a hundred degrees, inches from pilgrims who visited from every country of the world, who wore matching tee shirts and held their scapulars in the air when it came time for the blessing.  I held my scapular tightly in my palm, folded beneath my other palm, firmly near my abdomen, until I was brought to tears, and until I could blink away those tears and look like a person who would go home and cook dinner and read a book and sleep.

The next day, my son rested on a table behind lead walls, his veins pumped full of radioactive dyes, a technician instructing him to stay still while a robot took pictures of his insides.  At the end of the week, we met with the pediatric oncologist, the same one we had gotten to know so well since January, the one who laughed at our jokes and sported a tattoo on the inside of her wrist... the one who told my son he would not need radiation...

He was in remission.

After our appointment, my son and I spent three hours walking through the Luxembourg Gardens.  We ate French patisseries and drank sodas in glass bottles.  Occasionally, I reached into the pocket of my jeans and gripped the green scapular.  I didn’t bother to tell my son I had brought it with me.  He beat cancer on his own.  The scapular was just for me.

On the first anniversary of November 13, 2015, this essay is dedicated to the victims of the Paris Terror Attacks.  We will never forget.  Fluctuat Nec Mergitur.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How Living in France for Three Years Changed My Food Habits

Happiness is portion control and eating slowly.

Yes, it’s cliché.  We are always hearing about how French people eat small portions and stay thin.  Let me debunk the myth.  The French also struggle with their weight and like all humans, they do not have the metabolic ability to eat without abandon.  Having said that, French diners understand the importance of portion control, and by practicing restraint at mealtime, they are able to enjoy more flavors over many hours of eating.  France is a country that honors the multi-course meal.  Their apéritif often happens on the way home from work, when everyday citizens stop at a café for a beer, spritz, or champagne cocktail.  This practice is said to ready their stomach for a meal, although they are usually not in the mood to eat dinner until many hours later.  A typical dinner starts late and always includes an entrée (what Americans call the appetizer) and the plat principal (or main dish).   Sometimes, in fancier restaurants, the entire meal is preceded by an amuse-bouche (just one or two bites to delight your mouth before the main event).  Dessert is never frowned upon and is often preceded by le fromage (cheese, of course).  All of this can be followed by un café (espresso!), or if the night is still young, a digestif (or after-dinner drink).

That sounds like a lot of food, and many times, it is.  But each dish is famously petite.  In fact, a good French chef will serve his meals in exactly the correct portions, which means that if you leave something on your plate, you do risk offending him.  This concept is difficult for Americans because we are accustomed to very large portions, and we often bring home leftovers in to-go boxes.  While to-go boxes are now an option in Paris, they are generally frowned upon.  To be honest, I wouldn’t dare ask for one.  Rather, I show up for dinner hungry and eat every delicious bite, just like my French counterparts.

While the above generally refers to restaurant meals, these concepts also carry over into the family meal prepared at home.  True, there might be three courses compared to seven, but the food is made with love, portion sizes are small, and conversation takes center stage.  I’d like to report that I was able to bring this habit back to the United States with me after I spent three years living in France.  Unfortunately, our shopping habits and our fast paced culture make it difficult.  Food in America has less flavor.  Yep, I said that.  We love spicy things (Yum!) unlike the French; however, we filter, pasteurize, skim fat, add sugar and preservatives, and substitute wherever we can.  Maybe it’s our lack of satisfaction that makes us want to eat more.

Digestion matters.

Within a week of moving to Paris, one of the first things I noticed in French grocery stores was the plethora of yogurt choices.  I am not just talking about a section dedicated to a variety of yogurts.  No, I am talking about aisles and aisles of good bacteria.  There’s yogurt from cows, goats, and sheep.  There’s yogurt from every region of France.  There’s yogurt that’s beyond yogurt (creme fraîche) and there’s yogurt that’s almost yogurt (fromage blanc).  Everyone knows French dairy products are delicious, so it’s natural to assume French people eat so much yogurt simply because it tastes good (and it does!).  But the real reason French people eat so much yogurt is to aid in digestion.

Digestion is at the heart of every Frenchperson’s diet.  It’s the reason each meal is prepared in courses and the reason French people enjoy eating slowly.  It’s cause for reprimand when a foreigner presents a cheese plate before the entrée (Oh, the horror, you haven’t even eaten yet!).  It’s the last question any good hostess will ask you at the end of an evening: “Digestif?”

Presumably, if a person eats in such a manner that it aids their digestion, they will have better gut health, feel full longer, and stay light on their toes throughout the day.  Here in the USA, we don’t have the same respect for this process, and to be honest, I hear a lot more people muttering, “I’m so bloated.”  The first thing I noticed when I returned to my homeland, again, was the difference in the yogurt aisle.  Here in America, we have lots of fat-free, light, and skim yogurts.  We also have a respectable variety of Greek yogurts.  You can buy flavors like mixed berry, vanilla, banana strawberry, peach, and pineapple.  I just made myself yawn.

More importantly, I have found that Americans are fond of eating throughout the day.  Even those of us who stay within calorie guidelines still like to enjoy lots of little treats every few hours.  We seem to think about food constantly, and many of us consider it a reward.  The French eat at mealtime.  They prepare their bodies for eating at the same time every day.  They feed their bodies a satisfying and wholesome lot of food in one uninterrupted sitting.  They allow that food to be fully digested before eating again.  The next time they eat, they are hungry, and not coincidentally, it’s mealtime.

Chocolate is sacred.

If you ask them, most Parisiennes will admit to eating a square of dark chocolate every single day.  They believe dark chocolate is good for your health and for your psychology.  Who doesn’t feel fabulous as they forget their worries and savor rich cocoa goodness in their mouth for a few blissful moments?  It is said that one square of chocolate can stop all other cravings.  I never believed it until I moved to France, though.  Here in America, our chocolate products contain less than 60% cocoa.  In France, a product cannot be labeled chocolat unless it contains at least 70% cocoa.

You haven’t enjoyed hot chocolate until you’ve ordered it in Paris.  Your traveling friends will babble on and on about Angelina and Ladauree, two iconic establishments known for their sepia colored drinks, but I will gladly tell you to skip the long lines and save your euros, because any respectable café, boulangerie, or restaurant will serve you an unforgettable chocolat chaud.  Unlike the powdered version you’ll find at home, hot chocolate in Paris means just that:  chocolate which has been melted and served to you in a dainty porcelain cup.  Order with chantilly (whipped cream) and add sugar to taste.  You’re thinking that sounds thick and sweet and really too, too much.  You’re probably right.  Most people can’t finish.

Consuming one square of chocolate per day is perhaps the most easily transferable habit I’ve found between France and the USA.  I’ll admit, I need to go to a special section of my grocery store to find genuine chocolate.  I can’t stress this enough:  I am not referring to a Hershey’s chocolate bar or anything remotely like it.  If you can get your hands on European chocolate, do it and know that I am envious.  But practically speaking, look for anything with over 70% cocoa.  Swiss-made Lindt was my go-to grocery store brand in France, and I can find it rather easily here in America, although it’s manufactured in New Hampshire and might lose something in the process (tastes the same to me).  Maybe your community is lucky to have a local chocolatier, in which case, you should support him.  Godiva is overpriced, in my opinion, but San Francisco’s Ghirardelli is a good option. Remember: Go dark, one square, enjoy slowly.

Wine is reserved for meals.

While the French are known to drink copious amounts of wine, it is rare you’ll see a French person drunk in public, unless they are homeless (a problem in Paris) or have had an especially bad day.  French people are extraordinarily proud of their wine, as they should be.  It is a staple of their economy, and it is skillfully crafted with knowledge (and vines) handed down from one generation to the next.

Most French people reserve wine for meals.  And French women tend to drink far less than their male counterparts.  It’s true that you might see a carafe of wine at every meal, but it is shared by the table and will last until the food is finished.  The French savor the taste of their vin rouge or vin blanc served with just the right dish, and when their meal has ended, so has their drinking.  I have several French friends who are constantly surprised by how much wine Americans consume at a social gathering.  When they invite us to their parties, they often tell me they went to the store beforehand to stock up on extra wine, because Americans can deplete their supply.

This doesn’t mean that Americans are drunks, or that our French friends judge us when we guzzle (maybe a little).  But perhaps we could learn a thing from them.  At the very least, we can seriously cut our calorie consumption by requesting a glass of water between every glass of wine (a trick I learned from my lovely friend Véronique).

Keep it natural.

France is known for its beautiful outdoor markets.  On various days of the week, vendors will set up their stalls in designated areas so they can bring you fresh produce, meat, fish, cheese, and other specialty items.  The market is an icon of France.

By default, when you buy a food product in France, it is the original version of that product.  It is not skimmed, processed, or laden with fillers and preservatives.  However, we do live in a world where it is increasingly beneficial for farmers to use more pesticides, hormones, and GMOs, and France is not immune to this.  It is becoming a problem in Europe the same as in America.  But for now, anyway, it is still easier to find natural foods.

I’ll admit, when faced with fat-free, sugar-free options at my American grocery store, it is a dilemma.  The temptation to count calories, to lessen the grams of fat I consume, is so strong.  In America, there’s always a product with half the fat, half the calories, none of the sugar.  I think to myself, Girl, you could eat three of those single-packaged, fat free, sugar free, gluten free raisin oatmeal cookies instead of that one gooey, creamy, buttery, tantalizingly sexy chocolate chip cookie the baker just placed under a glass dome.  I know the latter choice would be more satisfying.  I know it would hold me over until dinner.  I know the ingredients are probably better for me.  But I still have to remind myself that in France, I don’t have these options.  At my local fromagerie, I buy real butter and full fat milk.  At my boulangerie, I buy a baguette every day.  At no point in time do I wonder about fat content or calories in any single food product.  I simply remember that I need to practice moderation.

The reward?  I can enjoy my food and feel satisfied.  This is French Food Culture, and it’s one of the greatest things I learned while living abroad.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Writing Procrastination Techniques During June in Paris: Sip Cocktails in Swanky Hotel Bars

There are lots of big news stories in Paris this month.  The EUFA Euro 2016 is happening in France, which means soccer fans from all over Europe have descended upon this beautiful country to drink too much alcohol and streak through our streets.  The summer labor strikes have begun, resulting in epic traffic jams and massive piles of rubbish along every curbside.  And most importantly, the Ritz Paris has reopened at the Place Vendôme.

For me, two things happen in June every year.  I celebrate the anniversary of my birth, and then I cry into my pillow when I realize another year has disappeared without a fucking novel to show for it.  So what’s a birthday girl to do?  Spend hours on her keyboard, or have cocktails at the Ritz?  In honor of these momentous June occasions, I present:

The Swankiest Hotel Bars in Paris (Alternate Title: Procrastinate Writing Your Novel by Drinking Stupidly Expensive Cocktails in Fancy Bars Designed for Traveling Rich People)

Le Bristol
112 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris

Yes, this is the famed lobby bar of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.  Offering impeccable white glove service, top shelf liquor, and superb snacks, Le Bristol embodies everything that is classical yet subtle about Paris.  Bask in the pink marble solarium while sipping Brad Pitt and Angelia Jolie’s perfectly chilled Miraval rosé.  Sit back and observe the socialites and celebrities who enjoy uninterrupted conversations with their loved ones, because here, no one would dare ask for autographs or selfies.  Although I’ll admit, I did sneak a pic of the quirky gentleman sitting to my left, who nibbled on a gold-flecked cloud of pink cotton candy and vaguely resembled… could it be… Quentin Tarantino?

Le Meurice
228 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris

This is The Hubs’ favorite bar in Paris.  Of course!  Patrons actually sit on stools and chat up the bartenders, who expertly mix classic drinks like Old Fashioneds and Rum Swizzles.  The enormous mirrored shelves behind the bar contain a rare array of Kentucky bourbons and Japanese whiskeys, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll sip on a velvety port and wish you wore your flapper dress.

Paris Marriott Champs Élysées
70 Av. des Champs-Élysées, 75008 Paris

This isn’t a traditional hotel bar, but rather a massive marble lobby fitted with cushioned chairs and couches surrounding tiny cocktail tables.  Sit anywhere under the 7-story glass dome, and bartenders will bring your drink of choice along with an excellent assortment of bar snacks.  The hotel building was the original atelier for Louis Vuitton, and despite its touristy location, it’s quite exquisite, I assure you.  I sipped my margarita mere meters from Arab royals.  Stay for one glass of champagne.  Then you can say you enjoyed bubbles on the Champs-Élysées, because after all, that’s why people come to Paris.

The Peninsula
19 Avenue Kléber, 75116 Paris

After a massive renovation project, the Peninsula reopened a few years ago to critical acclaim and all kinds of dramatic hoopla.  There’s no doubt about it: this is an obligatory watering hole in Paris.  While the rooftop bar does offer fabulous 360 degree views, skip it for the uber cool lobby bar instead.  At street level, you’ll get chic, young DJs spinning jazz-inspired techno and sip signature cocktails in fancy glasses garnished with feathers.  You’ll be the envy of every European backpacker trekking down the Avenue Kléber.

Hotel Raphael
17 Avenue Kléber, 75116 Paris
Here’s your rooftop bar, my friends.  It’s strategically located right next to the Peninsula and offers equally fantastic views of the Paris skyline.  This quiet, romantic location allows you to gaze at the Eiffel Tower while you sip.  Does it get any better?

George V Four Seasons Hotel
31 Avenue George V, 75008 Paris

Yes, it gets better.  The George V may indeed be THE swankiest hotel bar in Paris.  Most importantly, you can sit right down on a stool at the bar and immediately strike up a conversation with the friendliest mixologists around.  Scan the room for celebs, because yes people, they are here.  Have you recently cashed out your tech start-up stock options?  Then drink to your heart’s content.  Otherwise, do like moi and hit the George V last, then order a nice port to enjoy… sloooooowwwwly.

The Ritz Paris
15 Place Vendôme, 75001 Paris

* coming soon *

Yes, I have enjoyed cocktails at all of these locations (except The Ritz) during June this year, instead of writing my novel.  No wait, I did re-write my opening chapter.  Guess what else?  Tin House rejected my short story Quittin’ Time not once, not twice, but three times in a row.  Hey thanks, Tin House.  Glimmer Train rejected Snakeheads, to which I was like, Huh.  Well, I’m in good company, because my youngest son also received a literary rejection from the American Library in Paris.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

I’m not necessarily proud of myself, but you’re welcome for the extensive research above.

***** IMPORTANT UPDATE ***** I have since drank plenty (plenty!) of cocktails at The Ritz.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Paris Is My Bitch

Reading is a form of procrastination.  Here’s how I’ve been procrastinating lately:

Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss.  This was a recommendation from an accomplished writer friend of mine who lives in NYC but gets to Paris from time to time.  The author is a colleague or friend or something of hers.  Doesn’t matter.  This book is excellent - modern and highly visual - especially if you appreciate the art world.  It leaves a lasting impression, which is after all, the job of a really good book.

Fractals by William Bradley.  These are personal essays by a cool literati type who also happens to be a Hodgkins Lymphoma survivor.  I laughed, and I cried.  Mostly, I laughed.

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino.  Set in Philadelphia, this is the story of an independent young girl who finds her way to an iconic jazz club.  Fresh and original, Philly is personified with crisp imagery and gritty realism.  The Bestie found this gem for me.  But of course.

Currently in my Kindle Queue: Cathedral by Raymond Carver and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  I also have several collections of classic American short stories that I work my way through in doctor’s offices and on long Metro rides.  Nothing mind-blowing, but you know, Poe and Hawthorne and O. Henry and jawn like that.

Anyways.  I do write sometimes, too.  I completed This is Not an Exit, a short story slated for my Guns of the Borough collection.  It’s out there awaiting rejections before I’ll edit the hell out of it and then let it marinate.  The rejections somehow give me that necessary kick in the ass to say, “Right, that was a piece of shit and I can make it better.”

And oh!  There’s my novel.  That thing is not dead, people.  In fact, I recently revised my elevator pitch, and guess what?  It gets better every fucking time.  Now if I could write the darn thing.  That will happen.

In the mean time, well, there’s Paris.

The Eiffel Tower

Flowers at the Versailles Market

The Louvre Paris

Mona Lisa

Sacre Coeur Paris