Departures and Arrivals, Paris and Athens

July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

The first striking thing about Athens is the heat — it hangs like a heavy blanket over the city, beating down not as the scorching sun but more like a sluggish lag that permeates all movement. But despite this, activity is not smothered. At the corner of my block, a man stands at the window, roasting meat on a large stick, surrounded by trays of various sauces, creamy white ones and pasty, hot reds. He beckons me to come in with a smile and a nod, but I’m more focused on finding the grocery store, which is just across the street.

Before diving into the local cuisine, I was more eager to get back to cooking. It seemed a bit crazy to arrive and immediately turn on the heat, but there’s currently a batch of walnut-fig granola, dusted with Greek honey, roasting in the oven, and I’m now enjoying — despite the lack of pans and cutting boards in the kitchen — the feeling of having a knife in my hands again and being able to just eat slices of raw tomato, dipped in honey mustard, without getting weird looks from a waiter for not ordering the four-course menu. I already can’t wait to make breakfast tomorrow morning.

I had a lot of misgivings about coming to Athens, which consisted of the now commonplace warnings of protests, economic collapse and all-out disorganization, but also of several lackluster, or downright negative, accounts of the city from people I have met on this trip, and also from some very good friends back home. However, the drive through the city from the airport, and then the quick three-block walk to the grocery store, were reassuring. The streets may twist and branch off every which way and some of the sidewalks may have garbage piled up on them, but there are smiles everywhere. I don’t even know how to say hello, thank you or excuse me yet, but it doesn’t seem to matter to the old women debating types of grains in the grocery aisle.

Before I sign off and head out for drinks with the owner of my apartment, I thought I’d share some Paris moments. I spent the majority of my (unexpected and unplanned) time in Paris sitting in my hotel bed, or at the small table on my balcony. I spent some time reviewing posts from last summer, particularly one I wrote following a weekend visit to Paris. Last summer, I commented that revisiting Paris, after having spent the fall semester living here, was slightly bizarre, like experiencing a past life, only this time behind a plane of glass. Walking by my old apartment, the patisserie where I used to buy tri-colored slices of Turkish marzipan, my favorite street-side crepe stand, with the orange awning, inspired a bout of homesickness. But I don’t think it was ever really homesickness for my life in Paris, but rather an inability to imagine living that over again, a feeling of exile from the city I once fought really hard to call home. This time around, I lay around in bed in front of my computer, feeling pretty alone in a city that people always say, in adoring tones, is full of light and love and unparalleled opportunities of discovery, whether your passion is art or architecture, or eating.

And then, finally, I shook myself awake and went out. I walked to the Pierre Hermé boutique by Saint Suplice and ordered myself five macarons, some dusted with edible glitter, in flavors such as jasmine tea and peach cardamon. I laughingly remembered the feeling of never feeling like I was chic enough to be in the store, feeling like the ladies behind the counter could see right through my clothes and knew that my underwear isn’t 300 euro lacy lingerie from the boutique down the street. Then I wandered over to Les Deux Magots and had a café crème next to a dapper old man who had to lean in an inch away from the paper in order to read the morning news.

My Paris

January 12, 2011 § 3 Comments

My Paris. It doesn’t even feel strange to use the possessive when referring to the city. Ironic though it is that I say this right as I am preparing to leave, I am not leaving with a neatly packed, cohesive New York Times article “Paris in 36 hours.” Indeed, my list of favorites may at first seem random, packed full of tiny places where this little American was once happy, often clustered in quartiers the tourist wouldn’t often happen upon, unless he was the type that could stand being out of sight of the Eiffel Tower for significant periods of time. It doesn’t include many decadent cafes (though Café de Flore was a lovely experience), where one dreams of sipping a chocolat chaud à l’ancienne and eating a croissant on a lazy Sunday morning, reading the paper, whose headlines scream updates on the French grève. Much of the eating centers around 3-course lunchtime meals and snacks snatched from the streets. And the shopping, well that’s another story altogether but needless to say I didn’t spend a lot of time on the Champs d’Elysées.

I’ll start with the food, because that’s the reason people come to Paris, no? I haven’t done a lot of croissant testing so I am afraid I am ill-qualified to recommend the best when it comes to them; Just be sure to get them in the morning, and only a croissant beurre, as a standard croissant is made with margarine and therefore, not as good. However, I have made the crepe rounds here and now get all my crepe Nutella and galette oeuf-jambon-fromage from the vendor with the little orange storefront on the Boulevard Saint Germain (at St. Michel), right next to the Haagen Dazs. You can tell the guy with the unibrow behind the counter a little blond girl from San Francisco sent you. There’s usually a couple of people in line, as they make the crepes on the spot (many places these days seem to pre-cook and re-heat on the skillet) but there are a few seats inside and the prices are right (crepe prices go up by about 5 euro if you order them in a restaurant).

Eric Kayser (8 rue Monge) makes excellent pain viennoise (long, slightly sweet loaves) with nuts, chocolate and dried fruit varieties. The patisserie opened up a small café a couple of storefronts up the hill, where I spilled an entire café crème on one of my first days in Paris trying to sit down at a wobbly table. In contrast, I’ve spent some pleasant mornings on the circle at the bottom of Rue Mouffetard, reading with a coffee and half a baguette spread with butter. Their bread and butter is quite good, and all I can attest to, besides good service, by a pleasant, smiling blond girl, which is in itself, a rare find here. In you’re in the area, Les Caves de Bourgogne across the street is worth the wait for dinner. I had a perfectly cooked fillet of fish served with butter-herbed pasta and a summer rosé when I was there in September. Another good restaurant in the area, and a bit higher end, is L’Agrume, which has a five-course tasting menu (45 euro). When I went, it included a tuna-mango tartare, stewed lentils with truffle shavings, and a poached white nectarine with crème Chantilly served alongside a slice of crusty puff pastry.

There are a couple other good places to eat that I recommend across the river in the 9eme. Tout Autre Chose (13 rue Rodier, M: Cadet) is the restaurant front worked by volunteers which funds a non-profit run by an American woman. They serve a daily set menu (entrée+plat+dessert or any of the two) of simple, in-season cuisine, which may include a brothy soup of only green vegetables, poached salmon on a bed of wild purple rice, and a syrup soaked orange cake for dessert. Coffee during the holiday season comes accompanied by house-made caramels au beurre salé.

Another good restaurant in the area is Cacahuete, where the chef himself came out with an extra bowl of crème Chantilly after my French colleague smothered her face in the first spoonful off of our perfect moelleux au chocolat.

And then in case you ever get sick of French food — which is more possible than you would think — there’s Aux Delices du Liban (3 Rue Estrapade). You’ll find a lot of Lebanese, Thai and North African restaurants scattered around different neighborhoods especially around Place d’Italie, where you’ll find Chinatown, and in the 20eme. When a friend of mine lived in the 20eme, we frequented a bar called Les Deux Marches (M: Alexandre Dumas), where our favorite bartender is there every night but Monday and the last drink of the night is always on the house (presuming you pay for all the others, which we never did). We spent an incredible amount of time in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres area, where you’ll find rue Princesse (M: Mabillon) with the hopping Frog and the Princess, usually bartended by several English guys. On Friday and Saturday nights, the crowds spill into the street between the bars and the people you meet outside can be the start of some very interesting, random nights. I’ve always been curious about the mozzarella sticks at the Frog but our late night eats have always been frites at Café Mabillon, which is supposedly the “place to be seen” though I never would have guessed it at 3 a.m.

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