The Feast has Moved

September 8, 2008 at 9:12 PM | Posted in Musings, Paris 2008 | 1 Comment

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been home for a month. School has started and I’m sitting and working on a) an article critique for school and b) the last delicious bar of 76% cacao dark chocolate that I bought in Paris.

Two days before I left, I went to my favorite Anglophone bookstore and found an ancient copy of A Moveable Feast–the price listed on the cover was two francs. The book seemed like an appropriate way to end my summer, so I took it to Pere Lachaise cemetery (where Gertrude Stein, among others, is buried), sat on a bench, and started to read. It’s an account of Hemingway’s life in Paris right after World War I, as a young semi-starving writer and a member of the “Lost Generation.” The book is very much written for those who know and love Paris–or at least for those who are well-acquainted with Paris, for he says right up front that he believes Paris is a city that’s easy to learn but impossible to know (I agree with him, wholeheartedly). In the first chapter, he describes a walk he takes from Place San-Michel to his home in the Quartier Latin. With a start, I realized that the night before I had literally walked almost the exact same route (which is when I took this picture of the fountain at Place San Michel). In my bag I had my constant sidekick, Paris Par Arrondissement (a Paris map book by arrondissement and the only guidebook you’ll ever really need), and I used his narrative to trace his routes in my book. I could picture the walks by heart, but I still loved mapping his walk into my book that I used every day to get around. And then in the next chapter he talked about visiting his friend Gertrude Stein on Rue de Fleurus, and I realized that not only had Lisa, my advisor, lived on Rue de Fleurus a few houses down from Gertrude Stein’s, but that I was more likely than not sitting a few hundred feet from Gertrude Stein’s grave. And in the next chapter he talked about browsing through Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, which happened to be the exact bookstore where I had gotten the book.

Hemingway, for all his problematic viewpoints later in his career, was really able to capture the spirit of how it feels to live in Paris as a young adult, low on money but full of life. Sitting there in Pere Lachaise, I felt that he was able to encapsulate the sometimes gritty, often but not always beautiful, and absolutely visceral soul of the city. Experiencing all these interconnections with his memoir, the titular inspiration for my blog, was the perfect way to end my time in Paris.

And he’s right, that you really do take Paris with you after you leave. The best way I could describe it was that, after a few weeks of living there, Paris just gets under your skin (in the most positive way possible). The outlook on life, the expectation of sensory saturation in every experience, even that scoff that the most Parisian of Parisians pull off so well (you can probably picture what I mean, even if you’ve never seen it in person). Peaches are supposed to taste perfumey and melt almost without chewing and be slippery smooth and exactly the right kind of ripe when the fruit man picks them out for you, and anything less is a moderate disappointment. My first day back, I bought a peach at Stop and Shop, and maybe the French penchant for melodrama got to me a little, but I could have cried when I took a bite. Dry, sawdusty, tasteless, aroma-less. I spit it out on the sidewalk.

Now that I’m back and re-acculturated (interestingly I had almost no culture shock when I arrived in France but a definite case of reverse culture shock when I got home), I’ve been able to retain some of my Paris sensibilities. I appreciate the freshness and flavor of vegetables from the farmer’s market, and it’s so wonderful to actually be able to communicate with the vendors about how they make their goat cheese and what constitutes a good ear of corn. I have always loved exploring my surroundings, but I find myself wandering further into Boston neighborhoods I’ve never gone to and walking into shops just to see what’s on offer and chat with the shopkeeper (this is standard practice in France, and one that I always regretted I could barely partake in because of the language barrier). I had grown accustomed to having a camera with me and taking pictures of odd moments rather than iconic sights, and while there are fewer moments of unexpected beauty here than there were in France, there are also a lot more of those moments than I thought I would see.

My cooking has changed, too. I’ve backed off from the “kitchen sink” approach I often took before, and I think more about flavor and texture harmony, rather than blunt assault on the taste buds. But I also can see why my instinct is to just keep throwing stuff into a dish, whereas the French take a more spare approach to composition. Things just taste better there, period. When your bread and olives and zucchini and cheese are that good, you don’t need a whole lot of embellishment. To season her food, my housemate had olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and sesame seeds, and grew thyme and mint in her garden. Period. But when your eggs taste like eggs, you want to taste them for themselves and not as an adhesive to make other things stick together. That doesn’t really work here, because even if you get the $4 a dozen, free-range, organic eggs, they’re still just not a egg-y as they are there. I’m now starting to develop a hybrid style of cooking, one that blends my tinkerer’s tendencies with a respect for food’s cultural and agricultural origins and that adapts to the quality of the ingredients I have. Reality as a grad student in a Northeastern city is that I can’t always get or afford the best or freshest items available. But I now instinctively think of different uses for peppers from the farmer’s market (starring role in the dish) than for plasticky supermarket peppers (contributions of color and texture).

Paris…j’taime. But I love my life here too, and that has made coming home much easier. So this blog is now less of a travel journal and more of a post-travel journal, at least until I find a way to live there again. Which I’m hoping is sooner rather than later, because I am not nearly done feasting yet.


1 Comment »

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  1. mmmm. delicious. please keep feasting!

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