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Spring vs. Smog

Whispers of spring here are everywhere. Every time I go out for a jog, I see a patch of flowers that I hadn’t noticed before (hello forsythias!), or count a few more cherry blossoms opening on the patches of trees interspersed along the Champs de Mars. (Who knew there would be so many flowers that remind me of springtime back home in DC?!) On the few sunny afternoons we’ve had in the past few weeks, the parks and gardens have been packed with people piquenique-ing or just lounging on the grass (despite the numerous signs prohibiting anyone from disturbing the grass during the winter rest time from October through mid-April—seriously Paris?!). But those afternoons have been few and far between, and I get the sense that we are all waiting somewhat impatiently for that legendary Paris spring to make its appearance. 

Overall it’s been overcast and just blah—not freezing, but still cold, and no sun to warm you. Oh, and last Wednesday, Paris had the highest air pollution in the world. Turns out those overcast skies were actually smog. Apparently it’s been so bad that the mayor made public transportation free for a few days and banned cars with license plates that ended in odd numbers from the road in an attempt to improve the air quality. All of this I figured out Sunday after googling to find out why the metro was free, and after having gone for a nice 3.5 mile run. Whoops. I really need to do a better job of tracking down some English news sources here… 

Today we finally have some rain, which is supposed to clear out the air somewhat, so at least it’s good for something. And in the meantime, I’m going to send my mind back to a week or so ago, when the temperature hit the upper 60s, and we and everyone else in Paris packed up our baguettes, meats, and cheeses and went to a park for lunch. 

Baking for a Crowd

There’s nothing like baking 75 brownies and 250 cookies to show you just how small your kitchen actually is. And your oven, for that matter. Why would I do that to myself, you ask? Let me back up. Not long after we made plans to move here, I heard about the group Message. It’s a network of English-speaking moms and moms-to-be (and a few dads) here in Paris—there are meetups planned all across the city for moms with kids of different ages, working moms, and special interests. In addition, there is the “forum,” an online bulletin board organized into at least 50 different topics on life in Paris and life as a mom. Posts asking for advice, or looking to buy or sell something, or just commiserating about the joys and pains of living in Paris. And there’s a book called The ABCs of Parenting in Paris with all kinds of recommendations from topics ranging from medical advice to going back to work to kid-friendly activities. Two months into my Paris life, I had joined a book club and had already scoured the forum several times for restaurant recommendations, how to find an English-speaking doctor, where to buy cheap scooters and yoga mats, and what to do with your kids during the seemingly endless days of vacation. In short, Message made it seem like I wasn’t quite as alone as I felt, and even saved my butt a few times. 

So, when I heard about Message’s upcoming annual organizational meeting (combined with a dinner and a showcase for some of the artists and writers in its midst), I decided to contribute small goodie bags to the event. I wanted to bake American-style brownies and cookies, using two of my favorite recipes. Not that I am complaining about Parisian pastries, but you can’t get a decent deep dark fudgy brownie here, and the American-style cookies (which are actually still called “cookies”) are just bizarre (not bad, just weird). So I headed to the baking supply shop G. Detou and set about trying to convert my recipes into the metric system. This was harder than expected since the amount “1 cup of flour”, for example, can have a very different weight depending on how tightly you pack it in your measuring cup. And, there are no measuring cups or spoons here—I had to buy a baking scale, and eyeball teaspoon/tablespoon amounts using actual tea spoons and soup spoons. So the recipes became a mash-up of conversions, guesses, and my memory of what it was supposed to look like at different stages. And luckily, my family was still happy to eat some of the first few unsuccessful attempts. 

A Trip to Deauville

For the last weekend of Les Vacances, we decided to head out of the city for a few days. With not much chance of getting somewhere warm within a short train ride, we decided on the seaside town of Deauville, in Normandy. Friday afternoon, we took the metro to the Gare Saint-Lazare, and got on a 2-hour train ride to Deauville. It was our first time riding the rails, but we muddled through the inevitable confusions about how to find which track the train was on, and how to determine the car number on the train cars for our reserved seats. Piper was disappointed there was no dining car, but luckily we had stopped to buy snacks in the station before we left. We were quickly out of the city and rolling through smaller towns and farmland, and soon enough at our destination. Minor hiccup when we realized we were supposed to validate our tickets at the station before we left, but we played the clueless American tourists with cute kids card, and they let us out with no problems. 

We had a 10-minute walk to our B&B, the very charming La Cerisee. We had our own small house to ourselves, with a small kitchen and living area on the first floor with a pullout sofa/trundle bed for the girls, and a bedroom and bathroom on the top floor. 

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Seriously cute. We dropped off our stuff and headed out to find dinner. On the recommendation of our hostess, we went to a place near the port called Le Comptoir et La Table. Of course, it being barely 7pm, we were the only people in the restaurant for the first half hour or so. The staff was so kind to us (our waitress even praised my French!), and the chef kept coming out and teasing the girls about eating more, and brought them extra sweets at the end. And the food was just delicious. I had this lovely seafood appetizer before a delicious fish course. Chuck had a decadent pasta with truffles, and the girls split a perfectly cooked steak with fries. 

Les Vacances, Part I

We’ve had our first taste of the Parisian school schedule, and the kids likey. The parents, perhaps not quite so much. What do you do with 2 weeks off at the end of February, where almost every place within a few hours drive is equally cold, windy, and rainy? In our case, you send in reinforcements! Grandma and Grandpa P arrived a couple of days into the vacation, and we used our time off to play tourist around the city. We took a bus tour, went to the tops of both the Montparnasse and Eiffel Towers, and visited Versailles. The views from both towers were beautiful, and have the added benefit of having views of each other so you can wave to your past/future selves. And, bonus, while on the top of Montparnasse, where you could see the waves of weather sweeping across the city, there was a brief hailstorm which I believe has made the Paris highlight reel for the girls. 

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From the top of the Eiffel Tower, we could again see stormclouds here and there, but we also saw an entire rainbow arch stretching across the city. So I guess the rain is good for something! 

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We visited Versailles on one of the worst weather days of Grandma and Grandpa P’s visit. At least the palace itself was inside, and just as opulent as the first time I saw it 20+ years ago. We ended our visit with lunch and hot chocolate at the Angelina cafe there. There is no going back to Swiss Miss after you’ve tasted Angelina—it’s thick and rich and tastes like melted chocolate, not to mention that it’s served with your own dish of fresh whipped cream. We needed the sustenance though, because the walk back to the train station from the palace was brutal: rainy, windy, and around 40 degrees. We’ll go back and see the gardens in the summer, thanks! 

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The night before Grandma and Grandpa P left, I decided to send them off with Julia Child’s version of Beef Bourguignon. To start, I went to the butcher at the Sunday farmers market near us, and asked for beef to make bourguignon. There is actually a cut of beef here called “bourguignon”, but the butcher suggested I supplement it with another cut with a little more fat to it—that makes the stew just a little more velvety. In the end, it took two days to finish it, but the result was just what I wanted: rich, warming, and oh so French. I served it with some boiled new potatoes and red wine. I think Julia would have approved. 

e© Molly Pisula 2015