Month: February 2016
Valentine’s Day — Ten Years Later
Our move to Paris got put off so many times, we thought it might never happen. After 18 months of negotiations, the deal finally came through. I knew our moving to Paris was a “God-thing” when it turned out that just by chance — the day we finally moved here to live as man and wife, was ten years to the day after Leon proposed to me on the Champs Élysées. In fact, our new apartment was just an 8-minute walk from the very spot where he popped the question way back on Valentine’s Day in 2005.
Now, this isn’t going to be a big, over-the-top Valentine story like the day we got engaged, but to me at least, it’s just as beautiful and every bit as romantic — in a different way.
We should probably start this story on the afternoon of February 13, at about 3 o’clock. That was when we left our home in Dallas to make the big move to France. We loaded up the car with six large suitcases, six carry-on bags, two coats and, of course, our two little furbabies, GizMo & Molly, and we headed off to the airport. Then the flight got delayed…and delayed…and delayed. About three and a half hours later, the plane finally took off, winging its way to Paris. Thank goodness we had the dogs to cuddle with because I was a nervous wreck at that point. I didn’t speak French at all at that point, and we were headed to a new apartment which I had not yet seen — a place where we hadn’t signed the lease, or even been given a key. The realtor was going to meet us there once we landed to handle all of that. If she didn’t show up, we were going to have a very bad day.
But all turned out well. Leon phoned the realtor when we landed at around noon. She was waiting at a café around the corner from the new place, (huge sigh of relief.) When we pulled up to the building, she met us and helped get all of our bags upstairs. (We must have looked like the Beverly Hillbillies hauling all of that luggage, I swear.)
Leon was proud of having landed us such a great apartment, so he wanted to be the one to walk me through it for the very first time. Wow, did he ever hit a home run. It is ENORMOUS…at least by Parisian standards. There’s a foyer with a walk-in closet, a huge salon and dining room with a marble fireplace, two bedrooms (both on a quiet little courtyard) and an adorable and totally tricked-out, little red kitchen. Every room has those beautiful floor to ceiling windows so common in French architecture, and the apartment is completely furnished, with basic, but very comfortable things. The best bit? It has eight closets with custom built-ins. I have to admit, when I saw those closets, I swooned. My husband really knows how to nurture my inner organizational goddess. Like I said earlier, total home run.
We signed the papers, got our keys and started unpacking — for five and a half hours straight. We even went to the grocery store and stocked the pantry and the fridge with everything we needed to start cooking together. After that was done, we took a walk with the babies to get them used to their new neighborhood (which we all fell in love with immediately).
Then Leon told me about his surprise. He knew we couldn’t leave the dogs alone in a strange apartment all night after they’d been trapped on an airplane for 14 hours, so he had arranged a Valentine’s dinner for us AND the dogs, at our favorite Parisian hideaway, Mon Bistrot.
When we walked into the restaurant, the kissing started. First Yann, the chef and owner; then Julien, our favorite waiter; and finally, Martial, the sommelier who always demands four kisses from me whenever I go there. By the way, they even kissed the dogs. That’s how sweet they are. Then they walked us to our table, and I laughed out loud — It was a table for FOUR. How adorable is that? After Julien pulled out my chair for me, he ran back and got a bowl of water for the dogs because he thought they would be thirsty after their long trip. (Didn’t I tell you he was the best?!?) The dogs laid right down and slept all through dinner –never even moved a muscle. (I suppose jet lag is just as tough on dogs as it is on people.)
I felt like I was in a romantic comedy. We were so exhausted we were giddy. I couldn’t believe it. We were finally here. We actually lived in Paris! (Only for about six hours at that point, but still.) It was a wonderful night: funny and fun, and romantic and well, in a word, perfect.
Now, Mon Bistrot’s dining room is always beautiful. The walls are painted this dreamy, robin’s egg blue. There are massive, gilt-framed, art gallery originals lining the walls — vintage ads for liqueurs and absinthe; I lust after them every time we have dinner there. As if that weren’t enough, in one corner, there is a huge crystal vase simply packed with cherry blossoms. The flowers float across the ceiling in the corner of the dining room like a giant canopy of pink butterflies. And every table was awash in candlelight. (I think that’s a requirement for any restaurant on Valentine’s Day, but Mon Bistrot does it especially well.)
That night, we had one of the most beautiful meals I’ve ever eaten in my entire life: champagne, truffles, duck breast with balsamic reduction, and a chocolate dessert that I still have dreams about to this day. Then we went home…to our perfect little apartment in Paris. Best day ever. It’s still one of my favorite memories of Paris — or anywhere else for that matter. Life is good.
It’s Not All “Ooh La La!”
Americans seem to think the phrase “Ooh la la” is very French — a perfect expression used to describe something unusually sexy or beautiful, like “Ooh la la! What a gorgeous engagement ring!” That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
First of all, the expression is not actually “Ooh la la” at all. It’s “OH la la.” Parisians use this expression all the time, but only to describe something negative. I’ve never heard a French person use it to describe something positive. It’s always used for an unpleasant surprise. What a great expression it is, though! You hear it all the time in Paris – from absolutely everyone. Oh la la! when someone trips or falls. Oh la la! when a person drops something. Oh la la! when you hear bad news. It is used constantly.
I cannot tell you how adorable it is to see a grown man in a business suit calling out “Oh la la!” in a high voice when he realizes he’s about to step in dog poop. It’s hilarious.
It’s so cute, in fact, that it magically softens the blow of whatever just happened. And these days, it is my favorite expression.
“Oh la la!”
Our First Valentine’s Day In Paris
Believe it or not, the very first Valentine’s Day that Leon and I ever spent together was actually here in Paris. We’d only been dating for about three months at that point, but Leon had some work to do here in February of 2005, so he asked me to join him in Paris for two weeks over Valentine’s Day. I agreed with one condition. I made him PROMISE me that he would not ask me to marry him while we were here. I know that sounds crazy, but I was afraid we would both be swept up with the romance of Valentine’s Day in Paris, and I didn’t want us to rush into marriage before we were absolutely sure we were ready for that.
You see, I’m not a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of girl at all. I’m much more of a plodder. Since Leon was used to my inner control freak at this point, he happily agreed to that condition. He promised me that he wouldn’t propose, and we flew here for the holiday.
The weather in Paris for the month of February can be cold, dark and very rainy. But for those of you who want to visit, rest assured that there is no time of year, nor any weather when this city is not romantic. It’s magical that way. When people are coming to Paris for the first time, they tend to worry that the weather will be bad and spoil their trip. My reply is always the same. “Rain or shine, Paris is still Paris.” There’s just something in the air that floats over everything, leaving a rose-colored haze of romance in its wake.
Given that it was February, we were especially lucky with the weather. It was sunny and gorgeous every single day — but one. You guessed it…Valentine’s Day was dark, dreary and achingly cold. There were so many black clouds in the sky, it felt like twilight even at noon. Not to be deterred, Leon came up with a plan for the day. We would visit the Arc de Triomphe and then wander down the Champs Élysées doing a little window shopping. (A Texas girl getting carte blanche to shop all day? The man is a genius.)
When we arrived, we just huddled there under the shelter of the Grand Arch for a while and thought about how great this trip had been. Each day was better than the one before. As the clouds grew darker, we started walking down that beautiful boulevard, just peeking in shop windows and enjoying the day. Suddenly, in the window of a little jewelry shop, I spotted a gold Eiffel Tower pendant and squealed like a little girl. I thought it would be a perfect gift for my mother. But seeing how excited I was, Leon changed my mind. “Nope,” he said. “This is going to be for you.” Then he led me into the store.
We chatted with the sweet man behind the counter, and Leon told him that he wanted to buy the pendant for me. Then the little guys eyes started to sparkle and he rummaged around until he found a beautiful, red leather jewelry box etched in gold. He placed the pendant inside and wrote out some sort of certificate. (I have no idea what that was about. It was all in French.) When we stepped back outside into the darkness of the afternoon, I giggled and said, “Show me! Show me!”
Now, hand to God, this is the absolute truth. As Leon brought up the box between us and opened it to show me the pendant, suddenly one of those dark clouds split apart, and a beam of sun burst through. It was like a spotlight about ten feet across — with us in the center of the circle. The timing was so surreal that we both just started laughing. Then Leon caught my eye, smiled and said, “I know I promised, but it ain’t getting more romantic than this. So always remember this is where I asked you, and this is when I asked you. And you can answer me anytime you like.” At that point I got all weepy.
But of course, my inner control freak kicked in. I must say, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant compromise at the tiime.
Me: “OK. We can be engaged for 24 hours. That way, we can have the big, romantic Valentine’s evening, but we aren’t committed to anything when we get home. What time is it?”
Leon: “Four o’clock.”
Me: “OK then, we are engaged for the next 24 hours. And tomorrow at 4 pm, it evaporates.”
Leon (laughing): “Whatever makes you happy, honey.”
Me: “I love you so much.”
Leon: “I love you, too.”
And then we went on with our lovely day. We had a beautiful dinner in a quaint, out of the way restaurant that actually had a live accordion player just like you see in old French movies. We walked arm in arm along the Seine, cuddling together to stay warm and stay close. Later, when we got back to our hotel room, we stood on our tiny balcony and stared out at the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower while we talked about life. It was a perfect day.
The next morning, Leon took me shopping at Galeries Lafayette in search of a ring suitable for a 24-hour engagement. We found one. I still have it and still love it. Anyway, as we were riding on the escalator, Leon looked at his watch and said to me, “Well, it’s 3 o’clock. In one more hour, you’ll be free. How does it feel?” I thought about it for a minute and said, “Hmm. Not as good as I thought it would.” And that’s when he fist pumped the air with both arms and shouted “YESSSS!!!” at the top of his lungs. I really do think that was the moment I knew I was all in.
We’ve had other Valentine’s Days, of course. And I’ll tell you about them some day, but this one is still my favorite. Because this was the one where even though I was afraid, I knew I couldn’t let him go. That was the moment when I found my faith…and my future.
Medical Issues in Paris (aka The Agony and the Ecstasy)
You walk everywhere in Paris. It’s a pedestrian town. I love that about it. You feel much more connected to the city and its people when you are walking. You walk to the metro, to the grocery store, the butcher, the boulangerie, the wine shop. It’s a wonderful way to live — until something goes wrong. After we’d lived here for about six months, my right foot started hurting terribly; so badly, I could barely walk. So, I phoned a doctor at the American Hospital of Paris. Why there, you may ask?
Even when you speak French well enough to get along with day-to-day conversations, it is important to have a doctor who speaks your native language really well. There are too many scary discussions about symptoms, tests and complicated treatments. All of these things need to be understood completely on both sides of the desk. As a result, many Expats choose the American Hospital of Paris when they have a medical issue — even when they’ve lived here for years. Although the assistants at the hospital usually only speak French, the doctors there are required to be fluent in English.
Back to the foot. I booked the first available appointment with an internist. Normal waiting time for an appointment to see any doctor at this hospital is approximately two to four weeks. So, two weeks later I saw him, and he referred me to an orthopedist. I called and booked her first available appointment which was another two weeks away. So far, we’re a month into this, with my foot still hurting like crazy.
When I finally arrived at the appointment, the orthopedist began speaking to me in French. I asked her if we could continue in English since discussing medical matters was difficult for me in French, and she told me she didn’t speak English. Oh boy.
So, for the next hour, we had a consultation entirely in French. I was proud but needed a cocktail by the time it was over. Long story short, she thought the foot might be broken but she wasn’t sure. So, she gave me a list of four different tests I needed to complete at the hospital. After that, we’d meet again to go over the official diagnosis and treatment plan.
Due to overbooking and a broken MRI machine, the tests took about three weeks to complete. Then, it was another week before I could meet again with the orthopedist. We had another half-hour discussion in French about my foot. Turns out, I had a stress fracture of my right heel. The treatment she prescribed? No walking! The conversation went something like this:
Doctor: “Don’t walk.”
Me: “But I live in Paris. We walk everywhere.”
Doctor (laughing): “I know, it’s difficult, but just don’t do it.”
Me: “For how long?
Doctor: “I don’t know. Come see me in about a month.”
So for a month, I basically laid on the sofa and waited.
Total time to diagnose a broken foot and find out the treatment plan? Two months! That’s right…two months. To diagnose a broken foot. The foot still hurts, by the way. It’s still a problem. And I don’t have the heart to go through it all again to see if there’s anything else we can do to make it better.
Fast forward to about a month ago: My back goes out. This is not the first time my back has gone out, but it’s the first time in Paris. And here, when your back goes out, it’s even more complicated than the foot thing. The pain was so intense that I told my husband I might have to go to the hospital. He very sweetly pointed out that since I couldn’t walk, he’d need to call an ambulance. And since I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t take our tiny elevator downstairs, so the EMTs would have to carry me down five flights of stairs on a stretcher. They would take me to the hospital in the ambulance where I would have to stay until my treatment was decided. Then, if I still couldn’t stand, I’d have to take another ambulance to get home, and the EMTs would have to carry me back up five flights of stairs on a stretcher to get me into our apartment. Uh, no. There’s only so much humiliation a Texas girl can stand, after all. But what was my alternative?
Well, since my first orthopedist didn’t speak English, I didn’t want to go back to her. It was fine discussing a problem with my foot, but when we start talking about my spine and possible surgeries, I need a doctor who speaks English. As a result, I had to get another referral from the primary care physician for a new orthopedist. I just have to tough it out at home until then. Keep in mind that this means I have to be flat on my back in our apartment while I wait. The doctor referred me to another orthopedist, promising that this one would speak English. Now, it’s been almost a month since my back went out, and I’m still waiting for my first appointment with the new orthopedist. He will almost certainly schedule a battery of tests (three weeks for those) and then refer me to a surgeon (three more weeks). Then the surgeon will schedule a hospital procedure. Who knows how long that will take to schedule since they’ll need to book an operating room? I’m looking at three months of appointments, tests and stressful conversations about treatment. And, in the meantime, it hurts to walk. It hurts a lot. So, I spend many days lying either on the sofa or in bed.
Interesting plot twist: Did you know that spending weeks lying in bed can cause problems with your lungs? Well, it can. Thank goodness mine was limited to a severe case of bronchitis and not pneumonia. Nevertheless, every time I had a coughing and choking fit, it felt like someone was jamming a knife in my lower back. For two days and nights, this went on every few minutes until I finally decided to call SOS Medecin. It’s a service in Paris where doctors make house calls, you know, for when you’re sick and stuck in your apartment like a little old lady. I knew they couldn’t do anything for my spine, but they treat sick people all the time, so I thought they could help me with the coughing.
HOLY COW!!! Best decision ever! What a difference. It was the easiest, most amazing thing. It made me wonder why people in the U.S. ever let doctors stop making house calls. Within thirty minutes of calling the local number and giving them my symptoms and address, a doctor was ringing my doorbell. That’s faster than Domino’s Pizza delivery back in Texas! Funny sidenote though: Even though they promised on the phone that the doctor would, of course, be able to speak English, when he arrived, he spoke only French. (I’ve chosen to find that charming.) He was, however, adorable, efficient and very good at what he did. He examined me, diagnosed me and gave me five prescriptions on the spot (steroids, antibiotics, pills for my lungs, my cough, and an inhaler — the whole deal, baby). Total cost for his visit? 80 Euro. (Frankly, at that point, I would have paid a thousand.)
I shuffled downstairs to the pharmacy in the building and took my medicine within ten minutes of the doctor’s departure. My lungs are so much better already, I feel like a person again. That visit restored my faith in Parisian medicine, and it certainly saved my sanity. The moral of this long, sordid tale? If you’re sick, get a doctor to make a house call; you’ll be right as rain in no time. But, if you can’t walk, look out. Life can get really complicated.
Wish me well. It looks like it’s going to be a while before I can roam the streets of my favorite city! In the meantime, I’ll just write about Valentine’s Day, our favorite restaurant and all of the wonderful cities in this country that we’ve been able to visit. France is like a family of beautiful daughters. Each of the cities is different, but so lovely and utterly charming. I can’t wait to introduce you to them all. You’re bound to fall in love with at least one of them.
Chandeleur: Feast of Candles (and Crêpes!)
When the nights get long and the mornings grow dark, when the days are overcast and somber, the French have a wonderful solution: a celebration marking the return of light – La Fête de Chandeleur. It takes place forty days after Christmas, on February 2. This holiday marks both a Christian tradition (in honor of the day Jesus was presented at the temple) and a more ancient, Pagan one: the procession of the candles, to celebrate the time when the sun begins to lengthen the day, and light returns to France.
And as beautiful as all that sounds, it gets even better. The official food of this lovely holiday? Crêpes!
Why crêpes, you may ask? Well, the color of the crêpe and its round shape symbolize the sun. So, today on Chandeleur, the nation of France eats crêpes…lots and lots of them: savory crêpes filled with goodies like ham, mushrooms, cheese and egg, or dessert crêpes just dripping with nutella, chocolate, strawberries or apples, even Grand Marnier with Chantilly cream.
I love many things French, but a holiday devoted to the eating of crêpes!?!?! Hallelujah! Vive la Chandeleur! Et vive les crêpes!