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.

WP_20180127_17_20_49_ProWP_20180127_13_55_10_Pro (2)100_8348WP_20180128_17_47_20_Pro (2)WP_20180128_18_07_38_Pro

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.

WP_20180127_17_22_51_Pro100_8319WP_20180128_18_07_26_Pro

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.

 

Planning the perfect vacation . . .

I don’t think it used to be difficult to plan a vacation. There was once a time when it wasn’t even about the destination — we just picked a place and figured out how to get there. We often didn’t even think about being there, or what would be involved in finding lodgings and food. Getting away was the focus.

Lately, however, no matter how much I would love to be my former spontaneous self, I find that planning is necessary. And therein lies the problem, as they say. Planning ahead (the old visual joke comes to mind) has never been my strong suit.

The dilemma — and a solution

As always, there is much too much world and far too little time. Comfort rules today. Long flights are no-no’s. Even long, leisurely road trips are less appealing than they once were. Packing and unpacking was always a pain, but now it’s a great turnoff!

Schedules, for the most part, are just not happening. Quick weekend trips are perfect, sans crowds and traffic. That all adds up to some serious travel limitations.

So, in considering where to celebrate an upcoming anniversary, my spouse and I started planning early. Many possibilities came to mind.

Cruises — of course! An island — conducive to relaxing days of little more than beach-sitting and book-reading — always a good choice. A long weekend in New Orleans — tempting because it’s been too long since we were there, but again — the drive!

What then; and where?

Paris!

We laughed. Then we laughed harder. And it was settled.

You see, we were married in Paris! Yes, that Paris!

But that Paris is not where we’ll be headed the end of this month. A trip to that Paris will require considerably more advance planning. It will have to wait.4289545362_a3906198e6_o

Instead, we’ll be spending this anniversary in Paris, Texas, only about two hours from our home, reasonable enough for a quick getaway.

We settled on Paris, Texas, with some giggles and guffaws. There is not a single scene of the town in the movie that bears its name; there is, however, a “quaint downtown square” with a pint-size replica Eiffel Tower. It’s notable because of the red cowboy hat perched at its peak, even though it’s only about 70 feet high.

We have always enjoyed small Texas towns — our favorites have quirky personalities that fit well into our idea of fun. This Paris fits the bill nicely.

So, we’ve booked a stay at a local B&B and run an online search of eateries and attractions, in addition to the Eiffel Tower. It all sounds promising!

As for eats, we expect Paris is much like other small Texas towns. We’re sure we’ll find the local coffee shop and favorite burger joint. There’s also a catfish cafe, a Japanese/sushi spot and a traditional steak house. We’ll be looking for others.

For this weekend, at least, we won’t have to brush up on our French or pack any “goin’ out on the town” clothes. And that’s just the way we like it!

Photos by Joseph Novak/Flickr

Digesting art and history — good memories

Two menus occupy special places in my heart and in my home. They couldn’t be more different.
20160110_114516

When in Rome

The first is a colorful, poster-size graphic from Da Meo Patacca, a memento from a first “Roman holiday” when I was 21. I still smile every time I look at it, remembering how impressed I was with the white-shirted waiter who unfurled the almost three-foot-long roll of paper with a deft flick of his wrist.  I don’t remember the food of that long-ago dinner table, but I can’t forget the experience, and the framed menu has graced my kitchens and pantries for longer than I care to admit.

The classic restaurant is still serving its traditional fare in Rome and, by all accounts, still delighting tourists from all over the globe. It is now possible to purchase the extravagant vintage menus on ebay or etsy, and I suspect that many, like mine, are still kept as keepsakes.20160110_120156

I treasure the memory; I also delight at the items priced in Lira. A mixed salad for 250, garlic bread at 100, saltimbocca a la romana at 950, gelato for 300 and a bottle of wine at 2500 – dinner easily required counting out bills running to multiple thousands! Truly, that was culture shock. However, the exchange rate at the time was around 600 Italian Lira to a single U.S. dollar. My dinner, I am sure, was quite a bargain! I returned to Da Meo Patacca a few years ago and came away with a later version of the menu, this time with prices in Euros. I also took away a renewed appreciation for this lively eatery that has served generations of diners during its five decades of operation. I know there is better food in this ancient city, and trendier trattorias. But this is a tradition of sorts and, on a pleasant evening, the patio is friendly, the wine is abundant, and the music can be fine!

Viva la France

The second menu is not as vibrant in color, but it boasts fascinating pastel drawings of animals around its edge – elephant, bear, camel, kangaroo, cat and rat – along with frivolous hot air balloons floating over the countryside. It is dated “25 Decembre 1870 – 99eme Jour du Siege” from Voisin in Paris. It is in French. And, no, I did not eat there. Rather, I was entranced by the images and by the subject.

I have loved this menu for years, knowing it was not a real menu. I thought it was simply a quirky take on French culture and paid little attention to the actual items: Haunch of Wolf with Venison Sauce, Cat flanked by Rats. Jugged Kangaroo and Elephant Consomme20160109_171810Among the Hors d’Oeuvres: Butter, Radishes, Stuffed Donkey’s Head, Sardines. It includes other food choices as well: Wild Mushrooms Bordelaise and Rice Cake with Preserves. Again, I thought, a nod to French ingenuity, or an attempt to be entertaining. I thought nothing of the English translation at the bottom of the poster. I investigated no further, and simply enjoyed the artwork of my charming wall hanging. Until just recently.

The Back Story

Around Christmas, I happened across a blog post with an intriguing title. With an audible gasp, I realized that it was the story of my menu. I now know about the Franco-Prussian War, about the long and celebrated history of Voisin Restaurant, about how adaptable French cuisine can be, and about the suffering and endurance of a proud people during hard times. I know about how a renowned chef was truly creative and managed a Christmas dinner that must have been quite a treat for wealthy diners, and that at least one other restaurant routinely served equally bizarre dishes. By discovering the history of “my menu,” I have gained a new understanding of life, and of war and survival. During this siege, not even the well-to-do were spared hunger and deprivation.

The City of Light has known some very dark times. The French surrendered to the Prussians in 1871, when the citizens of the city were truly half-starved. I still love the depictions of the animals in their faded watercolor reality. But I will never again look at this menu in quite the same way. And I now view history very differently.

Learn more about the war, the zoo and the dinner.

Also included, between the French and English versions of the historic menu, is a letter to “Dear George,” signed “See you in Boston. Hopefully, Charles.” Perhaps it’s a figment of someone’s imagination. Or not.

Among other things, the letter states: “The Prussian encirclement of Paris is now so complete that no word is getting out except by carrier pigeon or balloon. As the besiegers have become increasingly adept at shooting down the balloons or tracking them to their destinations, the government will probably soon abandon the balloon service.”

It continues with the odd statement: “I think you will enjoy the enclosed Christmas menu from Voisin’s where I dined yesterday. As you can see, hunger forgets squeamishness.”