A long time ago . . .

No, it was not in a galaxy far away and, measured by most standards, it was not even so very long ago. But five decades is a long time for two people. That milestone just seemed to beg for special recognition.

So it was with a sense of wonder and mixed expectations that my husband and I set off in late January to revisit the city where we met some 51-plus years ago and married a year and a half later. As it turned out, our wedding date fell on the same day of the week as it had 50 years previous. We were astounded.

Paris, France

Oh, yes. Mais oui! It was Paris that brought us together, Paris that we loved, and Paris that was the destination for our anniversary celebration. Even though we have traveled abroad over the course of our 50-year togetherness, even to France, we stubbornly refused to book a trip to Paris, although we had repeatedly considered it. We were concerned that, after years of absence, it would somehow disappoint.WP_20180125_15_56_05_Pro

We held to the mantra: We’ll return for our 50th anniversary, although it was often in jest.

But return we did!

Paris has changed a great deal in the intervening years. As have we. Paris has changed not at all. And perhaps we are not so different either.

We visited the city as tourists on this trip, because even though the city felt familiar, and much of it looks the same, Paris felt different somehow. No longer home, we viewed the monuments and the avenues, the food and the traffic, the rainy mist and the sparkling lights through different eyes, and heard the sounds of a language we no longer felt quite proficient in. But we were nonetheless entranced.

The Essence of Deja Vu

I now know with certainty what Thomas Wolfe expressed. No, you can’t go home again.

Revisiting a place once so familiar and well-loved is always a new experience. It can be wonderful. And Paris does not disappoint.

Returning to the synagogue where we exchanged vows was an emotional experience. Rabbi and Cantor welcomed us, complete strangers congratulated us, and we were greeted and embraced by a community we did not know at all, but somehow knew very well! We will treasure the memory of that evening.

We drove past the Mairie in Boulogne Billancourt where our union was solemnized and recorded under French law. We barely recognized it.

We engaged in numerous “Do you remember” conversations, walked back streets and photographed favorite Parisian landmarks from afar.

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We felt no need to pay admission fees to revisit them. Nor did we set foot in any museums, pay the price for a gourmet meal at a renowned restaurant or spend a night “out on the town.”

Just as we had when Paris was our home, we savored the simplicity of life. Corner markets and flower stalls, changing light patterns, simple foods and table wine, parks and playgrounds are every bit as impressive as grand boulevards and monuments!

The Familiarity of Change

We did, however, make our way to Au Pied de Cochon, a landmark restaurant in the former district of Les Halles. WP_20180128_15_36_52_ProIt was once a regular late night gathering spot, and it has been open 24-7 since 1947. Onion soup and moules with frites are still good, but perhaps no better than at a local bistro. What is worthy of note is the redevelopment of this busy formerly bustling market area. It’s been a long time coming, but today the city’s major transportation hub has been transformed into an oasis of contemporary urban culture. It’s impressive to the max!

We stood in awe in the chilly dusk to hear the chimes of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and then we hailed a cab to return us to our hotel near the Etoile. WP_20180127_21_33_36_ProWe enjoyed a simple  dinner and a sinfully rich dessert at a small neighborhood eatery, charmed by the friendliness of everyone there: Italian chef, attentive server and fellow patrons alike. A couple at a nearby table could not fathom why we chose to stay away from Paris for 50 years. In the warmth of the moment, we didn’t understand it either.

We fell easily into our old appreciation for the cadence of life in this city. We walked in the drizzle, admiring the juxtaposition of centuries-old architecture and modern design. We marveled at the cleanliness, and were confused by the automation, of the modernized Metro system. We were impressed again by how small the core of historical Paris really is, and by the ever-expanding sprawl of the city and its suburbs. We were amused by the streetcorner sellers of crepes with Nutella fillings.

Memories to Hold

We photographed idled Bateaux Mouches excursion boats tied along the swollen Seine, picked out stairs, riverside walks and signs barely visible above the water line, and noted sandbags stacked to keep floodwaters out of nearby basements. Parisians flocked to the bridges and promenades to witness the swirling, fast-flowing water.

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The Louvre relocated some of its priceless collection as a precaution. Ten days later, the city was paralyzed by record snowfall, and the Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors for safety reasons. We witnessed — and felt the effects — of both flood and snow! There was, in fact, some doubt that we would be able to drive back into the city after the blizzard! We flew out as the city still lay blanketed in white.

100_8385We visited the artists still painting caricatures and uniquely original art at Place du Tertre in Montmartre; the paintings we bought 50 years ago still hang in our home. We ducked out of the drizzle and into out-of-the-way brasseries for a warm cafe creme or a quick aperitif. The weather was damp, the skies were mostly grey. We were cold. And we loved every minute of the time we spent in the City of Light.

After three days, we left the city to explore new highways and byways in Normandy and Brittany. Yes, we’re happy we returned to Paris after all this time; we’re not sure why we waited so long.

But it was time to move on.

 

How to know if you’re a food snob

 . . . and what to do about it!

Some people celebrate their snobbery, of course, by reading restaurant reviews before making a reservation, cultivating their knowledge of the proper wine to accompany a rare steak or a traditional Welsh rarebit, diligently identifying every ingredient and perfecting the most unusual preparation techniques.

That’s okay — absolutely! The joys of cooking and eating are individual pursuits.

But good food is found in unusual places and, at least sometimes, under the oddest of conditions — on street corners, in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, in unexpected circumstances. Good food is also found, commonly and abundantly, around a simple family dinner table, whether it’s a hearty soup, a warm casserole, a generations-old treat, or a weeknight family get-together. Good food does not have to be fancy, and it can also be fast.

Food, at its best, is a celebration. Breaking bread together is an honorable tradition in every culture around the globe. It’s not in a literal sense that sharing food is so important, but in the wider sense of sharing a small slice of life with other people, be they family members or strangers, along with the slice of beef, the slice of pizza, or the slice of pie.

It’s the connection that matters; food is the glue that binds us together.

I happened to catch the last few minutes of a Jacques Pepin cooking show recently on PBS and was transported back to the time I spent in Paris as a young woman. French food was so good; learning how to prepare it properly seemed so unattainable. And then I learned.

What I learned is that French cuisine, at its heart, is simple food. It’s crafted from simple ingredients, picked fresh from the garden, or purchased fresh from the market. It’s peasant food and, as such, often there are no recipes, just general guidelines. It’s meant to be shared, with friends and family, both the preparation of it and its consumption. It evolves naturally from what’s available.

Iconic French onion soup illustrates the point — humble onions and a bit of butter combined with dry bread and a some leftover cheese! It’s a classic. But, at its heart, it is simply a “make do” meal for times when no meat is available.

Although I never met him, I feel as if I know him. Jacques Pepin’s brand of kitchen reality resonates with me; he is the chef I would most like to spend time with in the kitchen, or have as a guest at my dinner table.

Yes, I know that he once prepared dishes for the presidents of France. I know that he’s a renowned chef, and that he has written cookbooks and mastered all the fancy kitchen techniques. I know all that, but as I watch his shows, and see him interact with his family and friends, I can’t help but appreciate how this 80-year-old chef views food, with a sparkle in his eyes, and a smile on his lips. It’s always a celebration.

“The love of food, and cooking, is passed down from generation to generation, with favorite recipes at the heart of every family. What do you say to that? Happy cooking!” Jacques Pepin.

I am convinced again that this is the way we all ought to approach food — in our own kitchens, laughing and sampling and experimenting — tasting as we go along — just the way Jacques Pepin does. My grandmothers did that too. They sampled food with their fingers, added a “bit of this and a pinch of that,” rarely followed a recipe exactly, and always let the “young’uns” lick the spoon and sample the pie crust tarts hot from the oven. They also learned to “make do” when necessary.

PBS stations around the country air a final 26-week series on Jacques Pepin, “Heart and Soul,” this fall. Check local stations for scheduling. Segments from a previous series, entitled “Jacques Pepin: fast food my way,” are available to watch online.