Oh la la! An indulgent post about my love affair with France

I was in advanced French in high school, a very green sixteen, when I told my French teacher I was going to live in Paris one day.  She looked down her square rimmed glasses and asked why.  Because I love it there, I answered in text book français.  Have you ever been before?  Mais, non!  Then how do you know you will love it?  I just will, I responded stubbornly.

My first trip to France was later that year, an optional school trip. I’d saved the money to go by tele-canvassing for the liver foundation and working a retail job part time.  When my father found out I was holding down two jobs in my final year of high school, he was so outraged, he coughed up whatever money I was missing.

La Belle France did not disappoint.  The shops were beautiful; all the designers I’d memorized from Vogue were to be seen (but not bought).  I bought a cheap vintage trench coat, wore tortoise shell glasses, and hunted down a black beret near Sacre Coeur.  My totally romantic- everything was perfect- pastry is awesome- trip was all I hoped it to be.

I went back three years later. Five days, this time all by myself.  No organized itinerary or bossy Madame Bird or ten girls from another high school who just wanted to go to the discotheque.  If the first trip was an awakening, the second was an initiation into a brave new independence.  When I arrived, none of the bank machines would take my bank card; I had no francs.  I was convinced someone had stolen my wallet on the metro (turned out it was hiding in my handbag).  I spent eight hours in the Louvre, six in the D’Orsay.  I braved eating alone in a café, ordering the dish of the day, an indigestible fish mash thing, which I have yet to identify.  I slept with 20 backpackers at a hostel and found a group of random Argentinians; we ended up at the softly illuminated Eiffel tower at midnight dancing to some Rastafarian’s drum beats.

My third trip to Paris, I was 20 and in love.  I had a boyfriend-oh la la!  Together with some friends we spent three days being merry.  We ate croissants under that same Eiffel tower.  We had a ritual of opening Baci chocolates and reading amorous quotes to one another.  There was good drama too because some Finnish boy who said he loved me was actually sharing the hotel room my friend and I had booked.  (The boyfriend was sharing with another couple).  But how can you love a guy who thinks you can sprint through Versailles and drags you to Hemingway’s hangout for a coca cola and then insists on McDonald’s for dinner?  One night we (minus the Finn) stayed out so late the metro stopped and the taxis hid, and we had to march back to our hotel.  It took at least two hours.  To keep ourselves awake, we all sang songs, our voices loud and bawdy as we trudged through the City of Lights.

Locks to lock in your love along the Seine

Once I started working, trips to France became shorter but just as monumental: now living with the boyfriend in Belgium, he looked at me one day and said, how about we drive to Paris for lunch?   Two hours, no passport.  It was the first time I understood I’d really left Canada.  I took my family to Paris, escorting them from sight to sight, from Notre Dame to my favorite fountain at Pompidou, listening to their cagey French.  Paris is where I learned my father shared the same interests as me (let’s just walk around!), that my mother didn’t like Impressionism.  I remember my stepmother running for the train while trying to eat an enormous nutella filled crepe, waiting an hour while my dad tried to set up a night shot of the Eiffel tower (it twinkles every hour now); chastising a waiter for being rude to my sister.  Eventually I even went to France for work, organizing an event for 200 real Parisians. It was my first time taking a French taxi.  I was driven all the way to Deauville for a conference once and ordered sole meunière from a chic hotel and saw the gray Brittany coast.  No more hostels, no more worries about rejected credit cards.  My husband (that boyfriend) and I have taken his parents on holiday to France (good karma!), had our share of weekend getaways in dimly lit bistros.

Over time I’ve learned France is not always la vie en rose.  Like all desirable mistresses, France can be fickle and cruel.  I’ve come to accept humiliation is part of our affair.  I’ve butchered sentences, mispronounced words, made a fool of myself, if only to myself.  I once racked up 100$ on a café bill because I was scared they’d kick me out otherwise.  I’ve been felt up by a stranger while crossing the road, made fun of for being Asian by French people.  Eight years ago, while my husband biked the Mount Ventoux– the beast of the Tour de France, I thought it’d be a swell idea to just walk up.  Several terrifying hours later, up a steep peak of shale, there can be no better manifestation of what can happen to me in France; a case of biting off more than one can chew.

Mt. Ventoux

From the top

What is it about France?  At first, it was a naïve fascination with fashion and art and sophistication, of a world very different than my middle class suburb.  That delicate language that sounded like little kisses. Now, in spite of how gritty my experience has sometimes been, and maybe even because of it, France is an attitude, a way of being.  When I go, I no longer sight see, it doesn’t matter to me the name of that church.  I’m more interested in just being around it.  Snippets of conversation.  The secrets of living there, fitting in.  If before France was to be admired from afar, now I am constantly looking for infiltration.


And then there’s food.   I knew nothing about food when I first showed up in France.  Who knew you scraped the pepper off the steak au poivre?  Now, a lot of my French memories are now marked by its gastronomic delights.  That fish mush of innocence.  An ingénue, her croissant, and her grand amour.  Lavender ice cream.  Some miraculous fattening thing called aligot.  Jam.  Don’t get me started on jam.  A trip to France now, and I become a walking epicerie.  And of course, those beautiful macarons.

Français : Macarons, Paris, France

Eighteen years after insisting I would live in France, last year I got a one month job teaching in Paris. Finally, I could legitimately say I lived there.  And for the first time, I had to solve real problems, other people’s problems too, in my still not perfect French.  I had to buy twenty flashlights an hour before the shops closed.  Explain to a train master, while on the train to Lyon, why our professors had not validated the tickets and had bought one ticket too few.  Exchange French IT talk in order to rig a room for an audio visual slide show (the French word for remote control?).  Discuss campus security with a man who had a hotline to the mayor of Paris, who told me these girls in miniskirts they’re just asking for trouble, tu comprends?  Never mind trying to explain to the Americans why the threat of litigation doesn’t work on the French.  Or reminding the French, the Americans expect someone to be accountable for a problem (a word that in French does not really exist).  Not a lot of room for parlez- vous anglais?  After a month, I was sick of macarons, knew how to order a baguette properly, had adapted to the force of a café crème, and found a café to call my own, sparring with its waiters.   A woman bought me a glass of champagne when I told her she must go to the Rocky Mountains as she has always dreamed.  I gave a woman the chocolate that came with my coffee after we discussed the metaphor of the millefeuille I was eating in light of the fact I was a writer.  And my food moment?  Being able to buy 180 euros worth of Pierre Hermé pastry for a school event.  What we all admitted was the taste of heaven.

My cafe cat

I like to think that everyone has a place where they return to once and a while and realize how far they’ve come in life, where in one big whoosh, we are reminded about time and youth and mistakes, and where gratitude or awe come into play when we think about what’s ahead.  Maybe it’s an old oak tree, a lake, one’s childhood bedroom, or the narrow halls of one’s high school.  Mine, just happens to be France.  I come often enough to have great love for her but infrequently enough there’s always something new and different in the way we embrace one other.

As I write this, I am in Provence, in the south of France on holiday.  I’m trying to work on my book.  My in-laws were here for a few days.  My dog is here.  We took her to eat at Paul Bocuse.  My husband keeps dreaming about getting up that mountain again. I sit in this stone house nestled in the Dentelle mountains, considering fans of lavender and the basket of blushing apricots left by the man who we rent the house from.   And I wonder what magic memory, what milestone is unraveling this very minute, what delightful vignette will sneak up on me the next time I cross the French border.  How will life be different? How will I be different?

I’m already looking forward to finding out.

Do you have a place that reminds you of you?


28 thoughts on “Oh la la! An indulgent post about my love affair with France

  1. i seriously need to get a plastic baby necklace! i enjoyed hearing about your love affair with paris. i’ve never been (except to the airport) but it’s on my list. my place is uganda. i don’t know if it reminds me of me, but it’s where my heart feels at home 😉

    • That cat has his portrait up on the walls of the cafe. He sits on the zinc bar, he sits in the booth. And all the grumpy waiters who would never smile at a patron, never mind their cat. Thanks for reading

  2. Oh, how I love hearing about your French adventures! Incidentally – I found a post-card from you to me during your second trip to Paris.

    I also know that feeling of wanting to fit in somewhere else – to belong to a place I don’t actually live. I would love to have that feeling in Paris, or anywhere in France. And I must confess that I slightly envy you getting to have conversations about IT and be a regular at a cafe there. Delicious! The first time I went to New York, I was determined to fit in like a local. I thought I was doing a pretty good job until someone on the subway asked “are you Canadian?”. He later told me that my MEC back-pack had given me away. He was Canadian as well. 🙂

  3. I remember the exact moment I stepped out of the Eurostar station at Gare Du Nord in 2001. I couldn’t believe somewhere so perfectly stylish, and therefore wholly intimidating, actually existed in real life. It was better than a movie set. And I was overcome with a fever of intimidation and excitement and nerves. Paris is the only city in the world that has made me feel that way. So, I think I know a little of what you’re talking about! I’m much more lazy and easily distracted than you, though; so I never really tried to learn French (although I began lessons at least 6 or 7 times over the years, and would quit after a month in frustration that I couldn’t yet read Baudillaire or watch Le Mepris without translation/subtitles).
    Before I forget, what is aligot?
    What an amazing feeling to finally “conquer” a culture, a language, a city. I can say after 10 years in New York I have pretty much done so – the things I don’t understand are the things I don’t want to understand. But English is my tongue, and Americans are fascinated with Australians so I have that advantage.
    I began a new job 2 weeks ago that is a senior role with responsibilities for functions across “Latin America and Canada”. Even writing it feels ridiculous. How the hell am I going to even begin to understand the challenges and complexities of doing a business in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Chile, (+ a dozen other countries) when I can’t speak a word of Spanish and the closest I can say I’ve been to “Latin America” (wince) is Playa Del Carmen or Aruba. Oh and then you can add Brazil/Portugese to that. Never mind that I have a team of 15 direct reports who can’t understand my accent to save themselves and all I seem to do is confuse everyone with my long-winded questions. Conference calls are exhausting, lengthy, and take up about 70% of my time.
    I start Spanish lessons on Monday. Only this time I can’t quit! I’ll remember you when I step off the plane in Buenos Aires in a few weeks. You’ll continue to be my role model, yet again.

    • Aligot- is a kind of mash potato that is mixed with a particular kind of cheese and whipped until it has the consistency of melted mozzarella but the taste of butter and potato. The kind of thing that sticks to your ribs!
      Yes, definitely New York is yours. I can vouch for that in an instant.
      When you said you were going to buenos aires, how exciting is that? Never been myself. Sounds like there are some great adventures ahead for you, and some good laughter too. Enjoy it. Think of it as one big adventure. I would offer some smart spanish expression, but well, I don’t speak any!! bonne chance!

  4. It strikes me that ‘place’ plays such a large part of Mothersugar. Over and over again our posts address the importance of the places we love, live and have claimed as our own. Even the contributor descriptions largely focus on where we are from and where we are now. Of course, the places of our lives define us but maybe being virtual makes us want to spell out those places in a concrete way for one another. Without the luxury of sharing real space and place we create community through evoking (in our writing) the spaces we love.

    Thank you for a beautiful post. It makes me want to fly across the ocean. I’ve never been concerned with France, it would fall somewhere between number 10 and 15 on my list of places that I have to see, but I would love to see it through your eyes and with you.

    • O God, I would so love to take you around Paris!! It would move up your list for sure! We should set a milestone date and do it. Or if not there, than somewhere else in your top ten.

      I think what you said about space and how it’s manifesting here is spot on. Whether its a new country, or a little nook and cranny of one’s home. Space is never empty, and especially as we get older, spaces either come to mean something in terms of what we remember about it, or what we do to be in that space. Can you define someone by the space they inhabit? I’m not sure. But are we in some ways, defined by the space we habit? Yes, I think so.

  5. Ah, a post about Paris. And just when I was in need for a little adventure! Merci beaucoup mon amie! I have been saying I needed an adventure for about two weeks now – to everyone that I speak to, and voila, just like that, pictures and thoughts of Paris. I have only been to Paris once and France in general twice, and both times were a little dicey, so I long to return again and have my truly romantisized version of adventure amidst the beauty of it all. On my first trip to France I was at about 20 years old – I was working as an Au Pair – and the father of the house decided to confirm all stereotypes of French men and, how do I put this delicately, “made advances”. Added to this was the fact that I was pretty sure that Madame of the house knew all about it, and approved! It was all a bit beyond me at that age and I had to leave before my chance to see Cannes (whaaaah!), and before my chance to see more of Monsieur of the house than I cared to see. My second trip to France was on a tour bus from the Netherlands, alone (oh where is Monsieur when you are ready for him :)), and I had to translate the Dutch tour guide’s words into English for a Turkish couple who had for some wild reason understandable only to themselves had taken the Dutch speaking tour (welcome to Europe). We ended up staying at a very reasonably priced hotel, which was very reasonably priced because it was smack dab in the middle of the red light district, had no hot water, and the elevator didn’t work (not that one could fit in it regardless). Oh yes, and it also rained the whole time and was unseasonably cold – both inside the hotel and without. Magnifique non? Truthfully, I still loved it, so perhaps I just love Paris as much as you do and not even the damp could quash my spirits! I definitely need to find a way to return for at least a month, and truly get that “I can’t believe I live here” feeling. Being of Italian temperment, the French waiters do not intimidate me, but rather make me feel like I’m having a conversation with a close relative who isn’t at that moment interested in making me smile. Who cares when the food that they bring is so delectible. Oh, the butter!

    For me there is no one place that reminds me of the whole me at different stages – it is as if there are a few different places that immediately conjure up a different past form of me, and in all of those forms is a little girl that both knew what it would be like to be grown up, and yet had no idea what was in store for me. Perhaps a good thing at times – like my Au Pair experience in France – although it always makes a good story later on doesn’t it? Ah, Monsieur!

    • I’m so happy for your comment. I wrote this post with a bit of guilt as I indulged in a bit of narcisstic joy, but I hoped it just might bring people who read it something too. And the idea that it brings you closer to your own adventures (and what adventures, that au pair story is incredible and led to a long discussions about au pairs with my husband in the car the other day) makes me smile. And when you talked about how not even the damp could squash your spirits, that is EXACTLY what france does for me. It’s unrealistic, totally naive, but I don’t care.

  6. Oh, BeZ, let me start by saying: please can I have some lavender ice cream with you in Paris someday? I remember, while you were in Paris, you sent me a note about some perfect little linen shop you had stopped in that day. Swoon.

    I am so partial to this idea of places that remind us of ourselves. Like Bellcanto, I am of Italian temperament, and I lived in Italy for a time during college, and much of my family is from Italy, so I have felt very close to myself in Italy. I too had my caffe in Firenze– it was owned by a middle-aged couple who posted their two daughters’ crayon drawings behind the bar, alongside photographs of the gray-haired but well-built husband in his Speedo on the beach holding up very large fish. The tanned, brown-eyed wife memorized my order, and steamed milk and pulled a crostatina out of the case as soon as I walked through the door. I knew very little Italian, but enough to tell them how much I would miss them when I left. I have melted in front of the Piero della Francesca fresco in Monterchi, only to be revived by a sampling of chocolate and wine at the bar next door. It is difficult for me to top, in my imagination, those months of perfect days, wandering around, looking at art, eating bruschetta off cutting boards in the afternoon, drinking wine and eating pasta on small tables in the street at night, marveling at the age of the stones and buildings and streets, chatting with the owners of my caffe about the quality of the weather, being yelled at by the woman at the mercato who sold the miniature melons.

    I am also reminded of myself on the beach. Specifically: the beaches of Kailua, Hawai`i, where I grew up, and less specifically: anywhere where the ocean meets land at that fluctuating line of fine white foam. I grew up walking that line, swimming in the ocean, floating on the water with my toes the first to climb up and over each wave, resting in hot sand, with pediatricians always telling me that my ears were full of sand (but they would always leave it there because, they said, it was bound to fill back up quickly). Now, when I return to the beach, I see a younger, simpler version of myself, a more innocent and simultaneously strong version of myself, and I also see where and how far I’ve grown since that young girl sent herself cartwheeling through the shallow field of water left behind after a wave breaks.

    • Again, thank you for validating this post. I’m thrilled it brought you back to your Italy and your beaches. And I enjoyed being in that moment with you. I can just imagine your golden locks in that city with that ink black espresso. I love Italy, but something about it intimidates me. I can’t infiltrate in the same way as I can in Paris. I have a theory that Americans were always great in Spain and Italy, something about the exuberance and extrovert ism that went well. Whereas Canadians seemed to mesh nicely with the Swedes and the North of Europe- more conservatism. Maybe it’s all baloney. But you gotta be brave and bold to make Italy your own. In France you gotta be brave an sly.

      One day, we should do a Mother Sugar meet up. In France, with lavender ice cream. Or Italy. Hell, anywhere.

      but I have a feeling LZ you’ll be on this side of the pond soon, and we expect to see you….

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  8. Can I come to the big reunion in Paris? This post had lots of memories for me too – from high school French to climbing Mont Ventoux. I feel so fortunate to know about all these adventures or to have, even more fortunately, been there. Paris is always fun with you. (Holy smokes, I can’t believe I just said that. Who gets to say they’ve been to Paris at all let alone more than once with one of their friends?!)

    I love your passion for this place, how it makes you come alive, and how it is still enchanting for you even though you know it well enough to know it’s less than sparkling sides. It is a pleasure to see the people you care about so happy.

    After many years I have a greater appreciation for the City of Lights than I did when we were in high school. Maybe I’m just marginally more mature than I used to be, maybe I have a greater appreciation for the delicate details that make it so enduring -food, art, fashion, architecture and, yes, attitude. Wrought iron flowers… it seems a worthy metaphor.

    I remember visiting Le Printemps with you because you were determined to buy perfume and to this day the smell of Angel still reminds me of you. I remember hot chocolate every morning (we were too young to drink coffee), lying in a draughty old house turned hostel singing because you were terrified (and it was creepy), taking that damned clown painting off the wall because it gave our travelling companion nightmares, seeing our high school teacher hiding in a cafe with a glass of wine in the middle of the afternoon on a rainy Paris day. The black and white roll of film I shot years later (yes it was that long ago we used film) is still one of my favourite memories. Quoting the Princess Bride in the middle of the night after an afternoon that dispelled any doubt that you were really were in love with the trumpet playing, MBA student. Other memories? Baguettes on the balcony of an ancient hotel watching the old men play boule in la place below. Touring ridiculously expensive papeterie and breathing in the smell of fresh stationery. “Monsieur, is it always this noisy here?” “Mais non! C’est la fête des homosexuales ce soir!”

    FYI – Your postcard from Shakespeare and Co. is still on my fridge.

    • I remember all those moments too- the clown, the draughty house. And a few memories I’d forgotten until you reminded me- and thank goodness for that. lest we forget the day I walked into a stop light in Limoges, sneaking away for apple tart from the crowd. you, er, we all bought shoes!!

      one of those black and whites still sits on my windowsill and remains my ultimate favorite photograph of a certain mba student and me. I remain always grateful to have had that shot caught, two very very young and very very in love people.

      next time i see you I want a reenactment of that princess bride.

  9. Beautiful post. I am in Paris right now! Everything you say. Every little memory typed makes me feel that one day I will be as lucky as you (I am 18). I know someday I can look back on this summer in Paris and truly respect and appreciate it the way you do. 🙂 Thanks for making me take a step back and look down Rue Juliette Lamber and really let my heart fill knowing how lucky I am.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. It makes me so happy to think of what lies ahead for you in Paris, and you make me even more nostalgic. Last summer, when I taught there it was so important that my students got to experience Paris, to get beyond what’s comfortable, to have those ‘la vie en rose’ experiences and I wish the same for you.

  10. I am very last in writing a respose to this post. For that I apologize. I am amazed as always at how beautiful the visuals you create are, and how much I want to crawl in your world with you and live there.

    I love France. Ive been multiple times and it never ceases to amaze me. Though I am not sure Id ever feel at home there, its the place my best dreams are made.

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