Monday, May 28, 2012

American in Paris, Part IV: Epilogue

A brief note: the italicized portions below were taken directly from the journal I kept during my trip and on the flight home.


I've tried to write this a dozen different ways, searching for a way to express what this trip meant to me. I keep coming back to four words: I fell in love. I realize how silly and trite that sounds, but it's really all I've got. I found a place, a routine, a complete way of being, that suited me unlike anything I've experienced before. It was entirely new to me, from the urban environment to relying on public transportation to viewing the city through a pedestrian's eyes, and yet it felt so comfortable and familiar and right. It felt like home.
"I've decided I really do love it here. The walkability and good mass transit make it easy to get the feel of each part of the city. Each neighborhood café and patisserie feels truly local and special, even if they do all sell more or less the same menu of goods. I love that within a few blocks you have your local cheese shop, butcher and pastry shop, with produce markets rotating through a few days a week. It feels like a more intimate way of living - actually interacting with the people who make and sell what you buy.
"It all seems to lend itself to a deeper experience as well. Walking everywhere forces you to move through the city more slowly, allowing you to notice more - which blocks have more bookstores, which cater to specialty foods, which are tourist meccas. And while I'd say people aren't overly friendly here, walking past people on the street at least allows for interaction. None of that is possible in a car, where you're hermetically sealed and protected from interacting with other people between destinations."


"I love the food culture here: a belief that one should be allowed to linger, savor, enjoy the nuances of the meal. No one rushes me, no one even brings the check unless I ask. I'm allowed to sit and digest, and write, and I love it."

 

I was a different person there.

No, that's not true.

I was a fuller version of myself there. I thrived on being immersed in such a rich, vibrant environment. I soaked it up. I reveled in it. I felt adventurous and stimulated. I was fearful and brave at the same time. I felt like I was really living life. I felt happy. Really happy.
"I have mixed feelings about returning home. On the one hand, I miss Juliette and my friends, though I haven't once been lonely here. And I'm eager to get back to roller derby and all that fun. I'm sure that if I stayed more than a few more days I'd begin to get bored and/or lonely, without a job to go to every day or friends to chat with. I wonder if all the things I find so endearing about this place - the way it lends itself to wandering, the leisurely afternoons in cafés, the lingering over a meal for hours - would fade away if I had the demands of everyday life to attend to here. It seems possible, even likely. And yet I also wonder whether I could cobble together a life here that lends itself to all those things I like. Freelancing would allow me to work from cafés, and I could make a point of seeking out new spots in various neighborhoods. Trips to neighborhood patisseries, markets, etc. would satisfy the desire for something local and walkable. That's what I speculate, anyway. I have no idea whether it would be true."
My heart tells me it would be true, that I would be happy and fulfilled there in a way I didn't know before.


"This trip was never about anyone else; it was only about me. In that sense, it was an entirely selfish endeavor, and it couldn't have been more successful. I have a clearer picture of what drives and thrills me now. I know myself better now, in a way I never could before. But I also wouldn't have been ready for this trip before. I needed the loss and heartbreak of failure, to have put myself back together again in a new way - the same pieces, but rearranged - in order to get everything I've gotten from this experience. It all had to come first for this to come now.
"It is so disgustingly Eat, Pray, Love that I could vomit. 
"We're in the air now. I'm going home.
"I'm already there."

The requisite fine print: if you click on the final link above it will take you to Amazon.com, where you can purchase the book. If you do purchase the book using that link, I will get a small commission for referring you to the site. I did not, however, receive any compensation for simply including the link. Disclaimer done.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Week 25 Update

I finally figured out something I like about exercising: I can eat candy at work and not throw my diet into a tailspin. Yesterday I went to circuit training at lunch and planned on eating a light dinner. Implication: I could have a Snickers bar in the afternoon and not exceed my 1600 calories for the day. Score!

Bonus: lost another 2 pounds this week. Not gonna lie, I'm pretty damn proud.

Week 25
Total weight loss: 15 lbs (down another 2 pounds!)
Number of workouts: 3 (1 workout on the elliptical, 2 30-minute circuit training sessions)
Number of days at or under 1600 calories: 4

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

American in Paris, Part III: Monuments and Museums (or, I Hate Americans)

Here's a secret: I hate Americans.

More specifically, I hate American tourists while I'm on vacation. They inevitably seem stupid and obnoxious, shouting things loudly in English instead of attempting to speak French. They wear tracksuits and jean shorts and ask what I perceive to be really, really rude questions. And no, I'm not exaggerating. Those are all things I spotted while in Paris.

Despite my aversion to Americans, there were a few traditional tourist sites I wanted to check out. I generally don't gravitate toward traditional museums because I find them sterile and dominated by art, and I don't really connect with high art very well. But there were a few things I knew I wanted to see, so I put on my game face and braved the lines.

I started at the Musée d'Orsay. It's home to a lot of amazing paintings, but I was most interested in the architecture. The museum is located in an old turn-of-the-century railway station, and I was hoping it would be cool to look at. It didn't disappoint.




That last picture is a view of what I think was Montmartre through the clock that forms one wall of the museum café. It might be my favorite photo of the entire trip.

Next stop was the Musée de l'Orangerie, which houses Monet's enormous water lilies paintings. They were absolutely stunning. You can get within one foot of them and really see how he layered the paint in thick schmears (I bet you didn't know that was the technical term). The colors were so saturated and rich. They were just gorgeous. You should go to Paris just to see those eight paintings. Really.

The next time I worked up enough courage to brave the tourist crowds, I visited the Eiffel Tower. I didn't feel like standing in lines (I hate Americans, remember?), so I didn't go to the top of the tower. But I got plenty of pretty pictures from the ground.






I spent the morning of my last full day in Paris at the Musée Rodin. I went for the same reason everyone goes - to see his sculpture "The Thinker" - but I ended up being much more interested in other works of his. "The Gates of Hell" was amazing to look at: human figures intertwining and writhing up from the surface of the doors, with a surprising level of detail for a supposedly unfinished work.




I made stops at other significant landmarks, too. The Grand Palais hosted an exhibit about animals in art that I wanted to see, and I wandered Pere Lachaise Cemetery a little, too (no, I didn't visit Jim Morrison's grave).


(I promise, that will be my last foray into photo editing.)

As I mentioned before, I didn't go to the Louvre or Versailles, and I don't regret that. I saw the significant things that interested me, spent the rest of my time wandering, and that was more than enough: it was fabulous. 

The trip changed me, but I'm still processing exactly how. Hopefully I'll wrap up with that next time.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Week 24 Update

I've gone from slow progress to no progress. It's ridiculous. I've been eating out and missing workouts and even though I could make excuses for it all, the answer is, I've just been choosing to eat (and drink) badly and not exercise. Not acceptable anymore.

Week 24
Total weight loss: 13 lbs (no change at all this week)
Number of workouts: 1-ish (1 circuit training session, 1 afternoon of wandering around the trails of Tyler State Park - not strenuous, though)
Number of days at or under 1600 calories: 1 (pitiful)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

American in Paris, Part II: I Go Out Walking

I purposely left most of my time in Paris unscheduled. I prefer to wander and get to know the feel of neighborhoods, discovering little neighborhood cafes and shops along the way. Being tied down to a schedule is too much real life for my taste.

Since I never adjusted to Paris time, I often woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. By day three I decided to take advantage of my strange schedule and used the morning hours to stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens, just a couple blocks from my apartment. From my journal:
"I walked part of the Luxembourg Gardens, which were more or less empty except for the joggers and what I think was a tai chi group. I mostly just wandered the paths and took some photos: the dreary gray skies and even grayer statues contrasted beautifully with the green grass and brilliant colors of the tulips."


I especially liked one statue in particular, which (according to Google's translation of the plaque accompanying the sculpture) "represents the character of Silene (foster father of Dionysus) nude, drunk and unsteady on his ass." I'm not sure whether "ass" refers to his buttocks or the donkey in the statue. I suppose it could be both.


 I loved the jovial look on his face. That's how I imagine I look when I'm drunk too.


A few joggers ran past me as I walked, but I mostly had the garden to myself. It rained the night before, so the paths were damp and the air was still cool. Statues appeared around every corner. Some were displayed prominently in the middle of lawns, but others were tucked into corners, framed by trees and shrubs.


The quiet, early morning calm made it feel like I was the only person in the entire place.

I only made it through half the garden that first day before I decided that I absolutely had to eat breakfast - immediately. I went back to meander the second half of the garden a few days later, on a weekday. It was busier then, with people cutting through on their way to work and school, but still beautiful and relatively quiet.



I branched out of the garden and walked plenty of city streets too, poking my head into shops and stopping at cafes to read and drink a noisette (an espresso with just a tiny splash of milk). At the start of the day I'd pick a neighborhood (or a neighborhood surrounding another destination I wanted to see) and then wander it aimlessly. Even though I generally had an idea of where I was going, I liked the idea of getting just a little bit lost and discovering something new along the way. There was a feeling of adventure to it all.

The majority of the times I got lost, I managed to do it two blocks from my apartment. I'm used to city streets that are laid out on a grid, a model Paris doesn't seem to have even attempted to adopt. For whatever reason, there was a two-block area between my apartment and the Metro station that was my own personal Bermuda Triangle. I knew I was close to my apartment, and I recognized landmarks - shops, intersections, buildings - but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to get back to my apartment. Every single time I wound up in that area, I had to resort to Google maps on my phone. I ended up purposely avoiding it after getting lost three separate times.

Once, when I was really, truly turned around, I must have really looked it too, because a woman finally stopped and asked me, in French, "Perdu?" I speak zero French, but thanks to The Food Network, I recognized that one word. "Pain perdu" translates to "French toast," or literally "lost bread" (since it's traditionally made with day-old, or wasted, bread). The woman was asking me if I was lost. At first I shook my head, not wanting to look like an idiot, but then I pointed at the street in front of me, which was the one I thought I was looking for, and said its name, "Rue d'Assas?" She nodded yes, and I was back on my way. Whoever said the French were rude clearly wasn't speaking to the right French people.

Despite my useless internal compass (I'd make an awful migratory bird), I found that I loved walking everywhere. Each little neighborhood felt like an independent community, with its own bakeries, butchers, and markets. Someone would pop in at the patisserie on the way home from work for a loaf of bread and chat with the woman behind the counter like they knew her. People stopped and talked in front of buildings while they waited in line or headed home for the evening. It was such a stark contrast to my own life: traveling to work every day in my little hermetically-sealed car, without interacting with anyone along the way; coming home and parking in the garage, shutting the door without talking to my neighbors; dashing in and out of the faceless, maze-like grocery store as quickly as possible, never even really learning the faces of the people who work there. In Paris, daily life felt much more intimate; you're forced to interact with other people, bumping elbows on the Metro, making eye contact on the streets, talking to the person behind the counter as you pick up the ingredients for that evening's dinner. It felt like a life that was much more connected to everyone and everything around you.

I'm certain I'm romanticizing it. Cars in Europe are small and parking is scarce; it would be a royal pain in the ass to try to lug anything home from IKEA, let alone drag it up seven flights of stairs. Relying on public transportation leaves you dependent on someone else's schedule and majorly inconvenienced by labor strikes. It takes time to go from the butcher to the bakery to the market to collect fresh ingredients for dinner every evening, and French supermarkets seemed not to have as much selection as their American counterparts.

And yet, there's still something about walking those streets every day that's so appealing to me. Being surrounded by the sounds and smells of the city, connecting with other people as you go through your routine, feeling immersed in a place that is steeped in history at the same time that it's buzzing with daily life - I loved all that.

It felt vibrant and alive, and I felt more engaged with the world around me than I have in a very, very long time.

Monday, May 14, 2012

American in Paris, Part I: A Carb Lover's Paradise

Let's get a couple of things out of the way up front: I didn't see the Mona Lisa. I didn't even go to the Louvre. I didn't walk the Champs-Elysees, or see the Arc de Triomphe. And I didn't go to Versailles. 

I did, however, have a fabulous time.

I did the things I wanted to do. I saw the sights that interested me, but I mostly wandered and ate (a lot). I soaked the place in, exploring neighborhoods and shops, people-watching in cafes and reading on park benches. I got a little lost, and more than a little confused a few times. Even then, it was wonderful.

I've struggled with how to write about my trip. A day-by-day account? Something more thematic? Or just excerpt straight from my journal? I'm thinking that I'll probably combine the approaches. There are some days I want to recount in full, from beginning to end, and other things, like museum visits, that can be lumped together in one category. And sometimes, when it isn't too embarrassingly saccharine, I'll excerpt from my journal. Good luck following all that.

I wanted an immersive experience, so I rented a flat in a real neighborhood, away from the major museums and tourist hotels. I stayed in the 6th arrondissement, located on the Left Bank (south of the river) between the Eiffel Tower and the Latin Quarter. Artists and ex-pat Americans loved the area in the 1920s (Hemingway frequented a cafe I walked past often), and I stumbled upon Gertrude Stein's former apartment just around the corner (literally) from my own.


It was also the perfect neighborhood for an aspiring foodie. Farmer's markets several days a week were just steps from my door, and some of the best patisseries and chocolate shops in the city were only a few blocks away. Every day I passed windows filled with glazed tarts and candied fruits, tender-looking cakes and crumbles, and fresh-baked cheesecakes and pastries filled with praline cream.

 

One day I stopped at La Patisserie Viennoise for their Cake Chocolat Vanile - a tender cake shaped like a mini loaf, with chocolate and vanilla cakes marbled together. I spotted it in the window and it called to me; I just couldn't resist. I didn't know it at the time, but La Patisserie Viennoise is one of the best in town, and pastry chef David Lebovitz sings the praises of their hot chocolate. If the cake is any indication, I imagine everything there is excellent.


As if all that wasn't enough, I walked by two of the best chocolate shops in the city every day. One of them, Christian Constant, was directly across the intersection from my flat. The other, Patrick Roger, was a couple blocks away. I sampled the chocolates from both (I mean, really, how could I not?), and they were both delicious. But the most impressive thing I saw was at Patrick Roger: a chocolate sculpture of hippos, partially submerged in a river, sculpted from chocolate. It was gorgeous. And strangely delicious-looking. I've never wanted to eat a hippo before, but this could change my mind.

This hippo's head was easily two feet long, and there were two of them displayed in the shop, plus the partial bodies you see in background.
I settled into a routine while I was in Paris. I didn't sleep very well, so I was usually wide awake by the time the patisserie down the block opened at 7am. From my journal:
"It's first thing in the morning and I'm deep in the midst of my newly-minted morning ritual, rushing the half block to the patisserie soon after they open at 7 a.m. Some days there is no wait, but today there is a line a few people deep. Regardless, I'm never the first one there. I peer through the shop window from the sidewalk first, staring at the fruit tarts, shiny with a sugary glaze on top. There are cheesecakes and crumbles, too, but the fruit tarts are always front and center: berry, pear, apricot, all delectable looking. And as I'm staring through the glass, practically salivating already, it hits me: waves of warm air drift up from the grate below the window, carrying all the smells from the basement kitchen: sugar, butter, caramelized pastry. It drives me into the store.
"What I'm after is toward the back of the shop. On the counter is a case of breakfast pastries: croissants of various kinds (plain, almond, chocolate), sugary breads (pain de sucre), pistachio rolls, chocolate rolls, and what have become my two favorites: pain au chocolat and pain aux raisins. They call to me, so much so that I virtually ignore the golden brown baguettes and many loaves of sandwich bread lining the back wall.


"The pastries are cheap: only 1,20 euro for the pain aux raisins, and 1,10 euro for the pain au chocolat. They're still warm when the woman behind the counter hands them to me. I race back to the apartment, riding the elevator up to the sixth floor, willing myself not to nibble at the pastries' edges before I get home. I put on the water for tea, silently pleading with the kettle to hurry up! and boil faster. The water finally boils and the tea is steeping, but I can't resist any longer: I tear away a bit of the pain aux raisins, and the pastry uncoils as I pull and reveals the fluffy, flaky interior. The plump, sweet raisins burst in my mouth, intense pops of fruit surrounded by melting pastry with only the slightest bit of chew to it. The golden brown top and bottom give a bit more resistance, but ultimately yield a caramelized sweetness that enhances the fruitiness of the raisins. I unfurl the pastry until I reach the dense center, full of raisins and a small dollop of pastry cream. I pop the last bite in my mouth and savor it - the raisins, cream, and pastry all balanced in a perfect mouthful - then wash it down with a sip of tea.
"Next I turn my attention to the pain au chocolat. While the pain aux raisins wears all its bling on the outside, the top studded with raisins and the pastry wound into a beautiful coil, the pain au chocolat is more modest at first glance. It's shaped like a rectangular bun, golden brown on top and rolled like a croissant. There's only the slightest hint of what's inside: small bits of dark brown chocolate visible at either end. But this pastry is a sleeper - at first bite it tastes like a plain croissant, all butter and air, but then the rich chocolate flavor surges forward. The rich, slightly bitter dark chocolate cream takes over and fills my mouth, but lingers only briefly after I swallow. The intense flavor of the chocolate is perfectly balanced by the lightness of the pastry. I repeat the process over and over until it's gone. I imagine that explosion of chocolate is the reason pain au chocolat is a breakfast staple here.
"When the pastries are nestled safely in my belly, I turn back to my tea. I wonder briefly whether I should have picked up a third pastry - croissant aux amandes, maybe? - but then I feel it: the growing fullness, followed by an intense desire to return to bed. I call it the pastry coma. I cannot even finish my tea before I succumb."
And that's how I began every day. No wonder I fell in love with Paris.

Next time: more of the daily routine, and my wanderings.


Friday, May 11, 2012

We Are Fine

I'm in an awful headspace today. Frustrated all over the place. Kind of ready to strangle someone. Anyone. Just walk into my office right now. I dare you.

I've been trying to soundtrack my way out of it, listening to music that usually boosts my mood, but this dark cloud ain't budging. So instead I'm giving in just a smidge and listening to Sharon Van Etten. Her song "We Are Fine" came on, and it's been on repeat ever since. I can't say it boosted my mood, but it at least made me feel less alone in it.

Week 23 Update

Week 22 was spent in Paris consuming pastries and duck and pig's feet and chicken gizzards (more on those last two soon) and other delicious things, so, no, I didn't keep track of calories consumed or pounds gained or lost while I was there. It was a vacation, after all. And while I did quite a bit of walking - several miles a day - I wouldn't really count those walks as workouts.

Maybe the best number below is the total weight lost: 13 pounds. Not a hugely impressive number, until you consider that it's the exact same number as before I left for Paris. Somehow, with all the pastries and butter and cream I was eating, I didn't gain any weight. Don't ask me how the hell that happened, but I'll take it.

The numbers below are for Monday through Thursday. We'll get back to full weeks next week.

Week 23
Total weight loss: 13 lbs
Number of workouts: 3 (2 circuit training sessions and 1 90-minute roller derby practice)
Number of days at or under 1600 calories: 2

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I'm Baaaaaack....

...and not at all happy about it.

It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with home--

Wait, no, that's not true. There is something inherently wrong with home: it's not Paris.

I've been completely consumed with laundry and catching up on sleep since I got back, but I promise to start posting pictures and stories very soon. In the meantime, just a little tease:


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