We’ve celebrated Independence Day. Last week, the French celebrated Bastille Day on July 14th. This holiday celebrates the storming on the Bastille on July 14, 1789. In France, it is called La Fête Nationale.
In honor of Bastille Day, this week’s column will focus on my favorite things about Paris. I have spent a great deal of time in this beautiful city, and I hope that you, Reader, will some day journey there and see for yourself. Here are “a few of my favorite things.” I am so thankful for Paris, and I’m also thankful for you, dear Reader.
1. The bouquinistes along the Seine River in Paris. A “bouquiniste” is a seller of used and rare books. As a lover of antiques and rummaging through lost treasures to find home décor, books, vintage clothing, and record albums, walking along the Seine is such a pleasant diversion. The various booths set up along the sparkling river sell anything from vintage rock band posters (I found a perfect 1964 Beatles print on my birthday in 2010.) to books to paintings to vintage photos. One can spend the entire day walking along and making conversation, en français of course, with the fascinating shopkeepers. If you find yourself in Paris, do not miss this! You might just find some trésors of your own!
2. The pastries. There is nothing more divine than a French pastry. Nothing. Not “the pizza.” Not gelato. Not even your mama’s biscuits and gravy. Sorry. There is just nothing more divine and decadent than a French pastry. Mmmm. I love coffee-flavored réligieuses, mille feuilles, tartes aux pommes, and the list goes on. Also, this is an excellent moment to explain the difference between a macaron and a macaroon. A macaron (pronounced “mah-cah-rohn”) is a sandwich-style cookie made from egg whites and ground almonds. A macaroon (pronounced “mah-cah-roon”) is a dessert made with chocolate and coconut. I often hear people using macaroon to describe what is, in fact, a macaron. They are two different things.
On Valentine’s Day 2010, when I was studying in Paris, I forewent lunch and dinner and ate three of these pastries in one sitting. (And yes, I had just been in Rome a few weeks earlier and indulged in much pasta and tiramisu ... oops.) No, I do not usually eat this way. You would think I would look back in regret, and yet ... no. No, I don’t. The day you find yourself in a French pastry shop and feel the dripping sugar seeping into your veins and turn around and walk away unfazed, you should probably make sure that a Dementor has not sucked out your soul, because, let me assure you, the day French
pastries stop being made will be the day that all of the happiness disappears from the world. (Note: I do realize that health conditions do prevent some from eating sugar. Please do not throw tomatoes at me.)
3. Finally, the language itself. There is something elegant, graceful, and dazzling about the French language. It takes an inordinate amount of time to master, but such delicate beauty is locked away in every syllable and each grammatical structure. Have you ever heard “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf? If you have not, I encourage you to venture on to “the Youtube” and take a moment to listen. If this song doesn’t give you chills, again ... check for Dementors and perhaps rehearse producing your Patronus.
If you can’t make it to Paris, be an armchair traveler! I highly recommend all of the Rick Steves Europe programs. They air on both PBS and Create, and you can also purchase the DVDs from the PBS shop. Many of the videos are also available for free on ricksteves.com. In addition, there are various travel programs that air on Create every single day. Studies prove that simply gazing at exotic destinations releases oxytocin, sometimes known as the “cuddle hormone.” Wrap yourself up in some armchair travel and feel the happiness!
Want to taste some of those pastries? Try baking your own, using Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” or Ina Garten’s “Barefoot in Paris.” You can even order macarons from the La Durée website. Top secret tip: I found some macarons at Sam’s Club last year that were scrumptious and more budget friendly!
Before you start lamenting the fact that you can’t read all the French words I’ve included in this month’s column, try translate.google.com or better yet wordreference.com. And if you’re feeling really inspired, take a class. These days there are many ways to learn languages on your computer or your phone. And remember, not only does being bilingual make you a cooler person, it connects you to other people in a meaningful way.
Remember that even if you cannot travel, these alternatives can bring you great joy. Try something different! Step outside your comfort zone. Learn about other people and their traditions. Remember, Mark Twain said it best when he remarked “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I am thankful for all of the people I have met around the world, coming home, and doing it all over again.