Souvenirs from Paris

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my favorite memories of Paris, and what souvenirs might help me remember those moments after we return to Texas. In the French language, the word “souvenir” means both “little gift to remember your trip” and “memory.” That’s so perfect. Souvenirs should be a doorway back to the time you spent somewhere, always reminding you how you felt when you were actually there.

Certainly, the perfect souvenir of Paris would have to be something beautiful, something elegant or artsy, and of course, it would have to be incredibly special. I’ve always been a big fan of the Hermes scarf — or any beautiful scarf, really. Parisians, both men and women, wear scarves everywhere all year long, so they make a great memory of Paris. They’re also lightweight and don’t take up much room in your suitcase, which is a total plus. And you can enjoy them forever.

Jewelry is another wonderful souvenir — a little bit of sparkle to help you remember the City of Light. You can find something classic and elegant or funky and eclectic. Prices run the gamut, everything from high-end platinum and gold, to estate pieces that you can find for a song at the Parisian flea markets.

If you’ve got a little more room in your suitcase, you can always go for a beautiful wallet or even a handbag made by a French designer like Lanvin, Chloé or Chanel. Another French designer, not as well known in the States, but huge here in Paris is Gerard Darel. He designed an adorable BoHo Chic style bag called “the 24-hour bag.” Celebrities back home love it, I’m guessing because it’s almost impossible to find in the States. The bag has as much personality as it does room, and it’s lot of fun to carry around. It’s a beautiful, utterly Parisian souvenir.

Perfume is another great way to remember Paris. And here’s a fun secret that no one ever tells you. Since many perfumes and colognes are fabricated here in France, they are quite often, much less expensive here than in the United States. For example, my favorite perfume is Creed’s “Pure White.” Here in Paris, it costs about half of what it is back home — a perfect excuse to indulge myself. (In fact, I made my husband into a hero, by buying the largest bottle they make, as “his-gift-to-me” for Valentine’s Day!) “Must de Cartier” is another scent I just adore: spicy, dark and rich -with a hint of vanilla and cinnamon. It’s wonderful for a date night.

Every person, male or female, ought to have at least two great perfumes at home that are totally different: one light & fruity for wearing in the heat, and one that’s spicier and more exotic for wearing at night and in cooler months. Collecting a wardrobe though, of six or eight really, great perfumes is a lot of fun. That way you can change them up to suit whatever mood you’re in.

Buy a big bottle of your favorite scent- one you normally wouldn’t get for yourself. Even better, pick out a brand new one — something that you will associate exclusively with your memories of Paris. Find something that is extraordinary, something that reminds you of romance, indulgence and possibility — because those are the things you will remember about Paris.

You can even go to a custom perfumerie and have the atelier there help you create your own unique scent. There are several places in the city that carefully coach you through every stage of designing your own custom perfume. It can be a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

A lot of tourists prefer less-formal souvenirs, however, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Paris has lots of great choices for typical knick knacks: special coffee mugs, placemats for the kitchen table, aprons, caps, berets, hoodies and t-shirts. They’re not expensive, and children love them. You can find them at ANY tourist shop in Paris: Montmartre, Quartier Latin, La Defense, even the Champs Élysées.

Personally, when I’m looking for something less formal, I love beautiful, artsy dishtowels for the kitchen. They make a great every day memory of Paris. Not to mention, they’re a terrific, little gift to bring home for friends. You can get gorgeous ones at Galeries Lafayette here. People tend to forget about the dishtowels in their kitchen, ignoring them and letting them grow threadbare and ugly. But when you have a really pretty one, it makes you smile every morning. They’re easy to transport in your luggage, and they are pretty reminders of the places you’ve traveled. I have a drawer full of them from all over the world.

Whatever you choose as your special memory of Paris, be it perfume, a scarf or even a simple coffee mug, make sure that it’s something you treasure. That way, every time you use it, you’ll take a moment to remember your time here…and smile.

Links you might like…

Some of the best perfumeries in Paris
Hermes Paris:
Guerlain Paris:

24 Hour Bag by Gerard Darel:

Day Trips from Paris…Barbizon

Just about an hour outside the city of Paris lies the sleepy, little town of Barbizon. A lot of the great Impressionist painters used to live and work here in Barbizon, and this little village has never forgotten that. Main street is crammed full on either side with art galleries and small museums. Every so often, tucked in between them, you will find an adorable gift boutique or ice cream shoppe. There are also charming restaurants and beautiful homes draped with ivy. But this town is really all about two things: art…and the forest. We’ll get to the forest later, but first things first.

We started off our day by strolling along the main drag, wandering from one little gallery or museum to the next. Sculptures here…paintings there…the home of a brilliant painter across the street. Everywhere we went was uniquely beautiful. Even the homes we bumbled across looked like something from a fairy tale.

We ate lunch at a stone cottage-turned café called La Boheme. The name should tell you all you need to know about the love of the arts that this town demonstrates at every turn. The beautiful restaurant simply dripped character: clay roof, stone facade and gobs and gobs of wisteria crawling all over it.

The restaurant had a homey feel to it, complete with original oil paintings that decorated every buttery-yellow wall. Our quiet table in the corner was right next to a big picture window with a view of the back-garden dining room. It was simply bursting with flowers of every color: violet, indigo, bright yellow, orange, red, pink and of course, a myriad of greens from the ivy and plantings all along the way.

The waitress set down an assortment of nibbles: olives, french bread and butter, and several tamponades. And that was just to say “hello.” The food was very French, of course: duck, lamb, filet du boeuf and salmon. For dessert, we ordered a couple of almond-cherry tarts and the classically French dessert of profiteroles (cream puffs swimming in dark chocolate and covered with vanilla ice cream). A little while later, after a few more stories and a lot more laughs, came the cappuccinos and espressos.

Cappuccinos, by the way, are drunk only by Americans; the French wouldn’t be caught dead drinking anything but an espresso to finish off a meal. (I’ve long since given up trying to fit in on the coffee front. Cappuccinos are a vice I can’t do without.) After our lovely lunch, we were ready for our hike through the forest.

Barbizon’s fairy tale park is called the Fôret de Fountainbleu. It is filled with hundreds of slender, sky-reaching pines and birch trees. There are two trails to choose from (the blue or the yellow) depending on how long and how difficult you want your hike to be. We chose the yellow trail which meandered by the local landmark, “Elephant Rock.” A gigantic boulder, shaped exactly like an elephant -with his trunk lowered to the ground. Of course, my husband, Leon, couldn’t resist, and I have the photos to prove it.

We wandered through the forest for almost two hours.The weather was gorgeous, the temperature was perfect, and the company could not have been better.

Barbizon is a village perfectly located for a day trip from Paris. It’s artsy, it’s elegant, it’s laid back and it’s fun. I can’t wait to go back. Next time, who knows…I might climb “Elephant Rock” myself.

Let’s Go To Venice!

Venice, Italy has been on my Bucket List since I was a little kid. I have always wanted to see it in person. Since Venice is only about a three-hour flight from Paris, it’s VERY doable as a weekend trip! Hallelujah!

We had Easter weekend free this year, so we decided to head southwest to where the Old World meets the Adriatic sea. Our goals were simple: to eat beautiful Italian food and to watch the world glide by — while we relaxed in the sun and sipped Soave. It was going to be a quick trip, but I wasn’t worried. I’m a girl who knows how to plan.

Our flight landed at two in the afternoon, and we immediately took a water taxi to the hotel. Sure, there are other ways to make your way from the airport: cab to the train, then a train to the island…even a water bus. But when your time is limited, there’s nothing that gets you into the mindset of Venice faster than a private water taxi. You fly across the water at top speed from the airport to the entrance of the city. Then your boat slows to a crawl, and everything changes. It’s like being transported back in time. There are no cars, no motorcycles, no bicycles. You hear almost nothing but the waves lapping up against your boat, the low hum of the now-quiet motor, and of course, the gondoliers singing Italian arias and playing accordions as they float past you along the canal.

The moment you make the turn onto the Grand Canal, you see Venice exactly as it is in the movies. The view takes your breath away, and that boat ride makes you feel like an old-fashioned film star. What’s more, before you’ve even unloaded your bags, you’ve already had the perfect introduction to Venice, cruising along the Grand Canal like people have done for centuries.

As we eased over to the dock of our hotel, we were greeted by the concierge. The Hotel Canal Grande is named for the canal on which it sits, and we chose it very carefully. It’s about a half hour walk from where most tourists stay, so it’s quiet and peaceful. And of course, it’s beautiful: an ancient building decorated with classic antiques and pale silk fabrics. The people at the hotel are kind and completely charming. In particular, the manager was amazing; his name was Alessandro. (How sexy it that?)

When we arrived, he told us that he was upgrading our room…HIS TREAT. I had been emailing him back and forth, asking for ways to make our short visit more fun: private tours he recommended, restaurants he loved, etc. Long story short, he ended up giving us the only room in the hotel with a private terrace. This sweet little space sported two chaise lounges with a gorgeous view of the Grand Canal, and it even came with a bottle of Prosecco on ice. Needless to say, I fell in love with Alessandro, the hotel, AND Venice immediately.

I had never stayed in a room with a private terrace before, so I had no idea what I had been missing, but it absolutely MADE the trip! Whenever we came back to the hotel in the afternoon, we’d sit out there for an hour or so, resting our feet while we sipped Prosecco or a cappuccino. And every night before bed, Leon would ask the bartender for a snifter of Sambuca for him and a pot of hot tea for me. We’d lie out there under a big blanket, staring at the stars and the beautiful marble bridge across the canal while we watched gondola after gondola pass our way. It was heaven!

Venice is simply gorgeous. It is a collection of 117 small islands connected by 409 bridges. Now, I feel compelled to point out something about Venice that no one ever tells you. Walking there all day is like doing 12 hours on the stairmaster at the gym. Every 100 feet or so, there’s a bridge, which you expect. What you don’t take in to consideration is that almost every bridge is a flight of stairs up and a flight back down. Sometimes on the bigger canals, it’s more like two or three flights up and down. I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had. But it was totally worth it!

One of the few things I booked for the trip was our own private gondola tour of Venice — with the only female gondoliera in the city: Alex Hai. We took her Romantic Sunset Tour. This private tour is scheduled for 6pm, to allow you to watch the sun set from the boat while you sip Prosecco from crystal flutes. For a slightly higher fee, she even agreed to extend the normal tour from one hour to an hour and a half. We cuddled together in the gondola underneath a big, cozy blanket while we glided through the city. By the time the tour was over, we felt like we’d been on vacation for a week! We’d explored not only the Grand Canal, but also many of the smaller canals that are less traveled, and somehow she avoided all the gondola traffic jams that other tourists complain about. It was marvelous. As we floated along the water after sunset, we watched the city grow dark and the street lamps begin to glow pink. Do you know why they glow pink? It’s the gold dust. All the street lamps in the city are made from glass, hand blown in Murano, and the gold dust that’s blown into the panes tinges them a light pink. What a fairy tale!

Alex kept quiet most of the time so we could enjoy the romance of it all, but whenever we passed something especially interesting or had a question, she would explain the history of that part of the city. She even pointed out the building where George Clooney got married, and I had my very own moment of silence – to mourn the loss of one of my favorite singletons. At the end of the cruise, she handed me a long-stemmed, red rose and wished us a lovely night, which, of course, it was.

In all honesty, just the gondola ride and sitting on our terrace would have been enough to make this one of our favorite vacations, but then there was the food. The first night we ate at a place called Bistrot de Venise. There were no reservations available, but the owner, Sergio, told me to come at 9:30 and he would fit us in somehow.

Since we knew we didn’t have to be at the restaurant until 9:30, we wandered over to Saint Mark’s Square to listen to the live orchestra at Cafe Florian. I sipped some of the world’s best hot chocolate and Leon had one of his favorites, Lightning Sambuca. The night felt absolutely magical, and we hadn’t even had dinner yet. At around 9:15 we headed back over to the restaurant, figuring the place would be empty by then, but boy were we wrong. Sergio wasn’t kidding, there wasn’t a table available anywhere; they had reservations scheduled until 11:30! But true to his word, they gave us the very next table — one in the corner of a romantic room lined in red velvet. I had a bellini while Leon chose red wine, and we feasted on tempura calamari and shrimp that dissolved on your tongue, homemade linguini with scallops and baby asparagus, and for dessert, white chocolate torte with rose gelato. We strolled back to the hotel (and…you guessed it) spent the next hour star-gazing from our terrace. (Thank you, Alessandro, for the best room in the world!)

The next morning was Easter, so after breakfast, we made the long walk to Saint Mark’s Square for our pilgrimage to the Basilica. Standing there in front of that gorgeous cathedral on Easter morning, listening to the bells peal and echo throughout the square, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. It felt sacred. I prayed for all our friends, our families and just for everyone on earth. I prayed that each of us would take moments in our lives to realize how blessed we are just to wake up each morning, just to be part of this beautiful world for the time that we’re here.

Later, we took a tour of the Doge’s Palace to study its art as well as its history. As we walked across the Bridge of Sighs to the prison, we learned how seriously the Venetians took their politics. If there was a politician who ended up being bad at his job, not only was he killed, but so were all the people who voted for him! The result? The minute a politician did anything wrong, his own supporters killed him. And we think American politics is cut-throat!

After the tour, we sought out a hidden little gallery with a glass blowing shop upstairs. There were no slots available in any of the exhibitions that day, so they made an exception and fit us in between two tour groups, giving us our own private glass blowing lesson and tour. It was fascinating.

We chose a little place called Trattoria Povoledo for lunch. It was right across the Grand Canal from our hotel. The maitre d’ Roberto, had reserved a table for us right on the water. The people were friendly and welcoming. The food was light and delicious. and the view was so gorgeous that we ate there three times in two and a half days! We sat in the sunshine, sipping Soave right on the Grand Canal, and ate beautiful, grilled, flakey white fish, homemade pasta and real Italian pizza. All the while, our adorable waitress, Ivanka, gave me Italian lessons. I couldn’t have loved it more.

Afterwards, we wandered back to our beautiful hotel – to our tiny, private terrace to drink our final bottle of Prosecco and gaze out at the Grand Canal. What a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.

And Venice…What a wonderful way to travel back in time.

* If you want to learn more about our beautiful hotel, the Canal Grande, click here:
* If you want to learn more about Venice’s only female gondoliera, Alex Hai, click here:
* If you want to look over the menu of the wonderful Povoledo restaurant, with its huge outdoor dining room on the Grand Canal, click here:

The Best Restaurant in Paris – Mon Bistrot


What do you call a Guide Michelin restaurant that breaks all the rules, but still manages to treat you like family, and consistently turn out gorgeous French food paired with beautiful wines and champagnes? You call it Mon Bistrot. And my husband, Leon, and I call it our favorite restaurant in Paris.

Mon Bistrot is owned by two remarkable men: Yann and Franck. Franck works the bar and the front of house. He’s a real sweetheart and is a lot of fun to hang out with, not to mention he pours some pretty great cognacs, armagnacs and calvados from behind that bar. Yann is the genius in the kitchen, creating beautiful food based on the French style, but with his own unique flair — every dish, a bit unexpected and fun. Since Yann has a young daughter, he doesn’t want to work on the weekends, so the restaurant is only open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday. They’re also closed the entire month of August so Yann can go on holiday with his family. Told you they pay no attention to the rules.

The waiters here pamper you within an inch of your life. (I won’t insult their level of attention by simply calling it “service.”) Julien and Etienne cater to your every need. They are both wonderful. And Marciel, the brilliant sommelier, is a charming flirt. Everything about this place is fancy but informal. It’s a wonderful contradiction.

Leon discovered this little gem through tripadvisor. (It’s one of our favorite resources for finding “the great and unusual” wherever we travel.) We were still living in Dallas at the time, but Leon had to travel to Paris every couple of weeks for work. Since he’s a real foodie at heart, he was looking for something extraordinary near his office. Boy, oh boy, did he find it.

The first time he took me here was about six weeks after his first visit, when I tagged along for one of his business trips. At that point, Leon had been here four times already. The second I walked in the door, Yann ran over to kiss me, saying, “Madame Leon! Madame Leon! We have the best table in the house just for you!” Thank goodness everyone falls in love with Leon the second they meet him. I was golden by association – even before I said hello.

That first night, when I was leaving, I was still confused about the whole French “kissing on the cheek” thing, so I asked Marciel, the sommelier, “I forget. When I am leaving, is it one kiss or two for goodbyes?” Without missing a beat, he very seriously replied, “Pour moi? Quatre!” Since then, every time I see Marciel or Julien (our favorite waiter) they get four kisses each. I forgot once, and Marciel was actually shocked and hurt. I can’t tell you how much we love these guys. They are just like everything else here, very elegant but at the same time, wonderfully friendly and welcoming. The interior design of the restaurant manages to walk that line perfectly as well.

It’s beautiful here. 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 here. 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.

Dinner that first night was incredible, and to this day, every time we visit, we have a ball. The food is always special. Whether it’s lobster, smoked duck, risotto with grilled shrimp, or tuna tartar, everything here has Yann’s special magic. His menu changes constantly, but two dishes are ever-present. One is Leon’s favorite main course, and one is my favorite dessert. Let me tell you a little bit about them both and you can see why everyone raves about the food here.

We’ll start with Mon BIstrot’s famous steak called the “Johnny.” Yann flies all of his beef in from Argentina weekly, and the meat is so tender you would almost think the cows got spa treatments every day. The “Johnny” is a filet mignon, barely seared on one side, then covered with a mustard sauce to allow the rest of the steak to warm. This dish only comes one way — bleu. (“Bleu” means practically raw but warm.) You cannot order it medium, or even rare. It is ALWAYS served bleu. (I truly believe you could get this steak up and walking if you had to, so it’s not for the faint of heart.) Leon gets the Johnny almost every time we visit, and he always recommends it to friends. Once they’ve tried it, they’re totally hooked.

My favorite dish is, of course, a dessert, Yann’s deconstructed lemon tart. It’s served in a beautiful, three-tier, crystal dish that looks sort of like a glass Christmas tree. The top tier holds a toasted, marshmallow-y meringue. The homemade crumble lies in the tier below that. And in the largest crystal bowl on the bottom is the silky, tangy, sweet, lemon crème. It’s served with a long wooden spoon which you draw through the meringue first, coating the spoon thoroughly. Then you swish that through the homemade crumble (which stays on the spoon thanks to the sticky meringue). Finally you scoop up the lemon crème. Once all three components are loaded onto your spoon, you get a bite of one of the most special desserts you can imagine. In each spoonful you get cool and warm, sweet and tart, creamy and crunchy. In short, it’s perfect.

And it’s not just these two dishes that blow everyone away. It’s the unexpected way that Yann puts everything together: fresh popcorn in a chilled, zucchini soup, veal carpaccio with fava beans, grilled polenta and smoked duck, glazed with a balsamic reduction. The dishes are all delicious, and they are so beautiful that they look like art on a plate. We have brought all sorts of people here, and whenever we bring a new group, Mon Bistrot becomes one of their favorite places in Paris too. The food is that good, the wines are that beautiful and the people are that special.

One time last year, we had brought two friends to join us for dinner. We had a table for four in the corner, and at the other end of the dining room, there was a party of about 12 people. Throughout the night, we noticed that the restaurant and bar were completely full, but the table for two right next to us was always empty. At the end of the night I asked Julien about it. He said, “Ah yes. Well, Yann didn’t want you all to feel crowded, so he told us not to seat anyone there for the evening. We turned away about 26 people tonight.” That’s the kind of thing that make this place so extraordinary. That’s why people keep coming back over and over — because they make you feel cared for, like family.

From Leon’s first visit, Mon Bistrot has been our favorite place in the city to bring friends, family, business associates, even neighbors. Everybody we can possibly bring, we have brought. When we found out a couple of friends of ours were coming to Paris for their honeymoon, we knew we had to give them a wedding dinner here, complete with free-flowing champagne. The guys here really know how to pull out all the stops.

Everyone we know in Dallas already loves the place, whether or not they’ve been to Mon Bistrot themselves. They love it just from the all the stories they’ve heard about how lovely these men are. It’s like going to a Michelin star restaurant that just so happens to be owned by your crazy-funny family. Serious food, but lots of laughter and irrepressible joy.

The next time you’re in Paris, stop by and tell them Leon and Grace sent you. You’ll be glad you did!

To read more about Mon Bistrot, or even see a video of Yann making the “Johnny” for the local news, check out their website.


Fajitas in Paris


After all these love letters I’ve written about Paris, you might think I never get homesick, but you couldn’t be more mistaken. Surprisingly, the thing I’ve missed the most while living in France for more than a year is good, old fashioned Mexican food: homemade guacamole and margaritas, mostly. As hard as I tried, I hadn’t been able to find a single, passable Mexican joint in this city of 13,300 restaurants…UNTIL I found a quaint little place in Saint Germain called Fajitas. My husband, Leon, and I did a lot of desperate research on the internet trying to find somewhere that I could get a decent margarita on the rocks. Finally, we stumbled across reviews for this cozy little hideaway on Rue Dauphine, and we decided to give it a try. I’m so glad we did.

The restaurant is owned by a wonderful couple, married for 22 years. Amy is from the United States, western Massachusetts to be precise. Her husband, Miguel, is from Vera Cruz, Mexico. He is the chef for this little gem, and Amy handles the front of  house. The main floor only seats about 30, and the lower level can seat about 15 more in a pinch, but it’s used mainly for private parties. Don’t even think about coming here for dinner unless you book a few hours ahead. I’ve seen them turn people away at the door more than once, simply because there wasn’t enough room. It’s not a “turn ’em and burn ’em” kind of place either. Once you are seated at a table, it is yours until you want to leave — no rushing allowed.

Fajitas opened in 2001 and has been sold out every night that I’ve eaten there. The regular crowd seems mostly to be made up of Americans: both tourists and Expats. You’ll get the occasional French couple, but primarily, the language you hear at the tables is English with an American accent, another unexpected taste of home! Amy and Miguel had another restaurant before this one, and from what I understand, it was also a big hit, open for years. But, I think Fajitas is the restaurant they always wanted: small, friendly, crowded and fun…Just my style.

The interior is charming. It feels like the back patio of a grand hacienda somewhere in Old Mexico. Hanging from the ceiling are thick, ropey braids of garlic, strands of dried peppers and worn, old, terra-cotta pitchers. Lining the stone walls are decorative planter boxes stuffed to the brim with dried wheat instead of flowers. And since almost all of the tables seat only two to four people, the restaurant feels very intimate even when it’s filled to capacity (which it always is).

I have to say, to have a woman like Amy, with a good old American accent come to your table and ask in English what I’d like for dinner — well, that makes my night, in and of itself. Not to mention the fact that she is always floating around the restaurant, making sure everyone is happy and well cared for. She runs the register, brings the food, mixes the drinks and handles anything that comes up -before it can become a problem. If she sees a scarf on the floor, she quietly drapes it over the back of the owner’s chair. The second someone walks in the door, she drops what she’s doing to greet them with a smile. She’s like the perfect blend of circus ringmaster, CEO and Fairy Godmother.

Miguel is no slouch either. He makes this spicy salsa from scratch with three different kinds of peppers. It’s totally addictive. I put it all over everything. My husband, Leon loves it so much, he eats it with a spoon, like soup. Oddly enough, I’ve never tried the namesake fajitas here. I’m sure I will, but so far, my cravings have been all about their chicken enchiladas and homemade guacamole. And, somehow, these cravings are always accompanied by the desire for a good, strong margarita. Amy, acting bartender, never disappoints. I like that gal.

There are a lot of wonderful things about Paris, but to me, the best thing about Texas is our Mexican food. And this cute, little spot helps me get over my homesickness every time. I’ll always be grateful for that…and for the margaritas!

If you want to check it out for yourself, the Fajitas website is

French Market Cooking Class


I often get asked “What’s the most fun thing you’ve ever done in Paris?” And in the past, my reply has been varied, depending on my mood and recollection. But from now on, I will always know exactly what to say! Last Saturday night was absolutely, without a doubt, the most fun we have EVER had in Paris.

We took a French market cooking class, complete with four-course gourmet dinner. It was so much fun! “Cook’n With Class” is the name of the company, and they’ve been really popular for years. They take a maximum of six people in any one class. That way, you get individual attention and have the ability to bond with all your other classmates, making the entire experience feel very personal, like dining in someone’s lovely home. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

First things first. We met each other on a street corner near the French market, and our “professor/chef” for the evening showed up with his shopping caddy. His name was Patrick (pronounced Pah-TREEK) and he was friendly, charming and full of great information! (By the way, each of the chefs for this school is very accomplished, and they are all fluent in English. They have to be.) All of the classes at this school are conducted entirely in English, which makes this a wonderful way for tourists to have a very French experience without the stress of actually having to speak French!

We went straight to the French market as a group, and hit the fishmonger, the butcher, the fromagerie, the produce market and even the boulangerie. Patrick showed us how to pick the freshest fish, the best quality meats, and even freshly baked bread. Wow, I learned things I never even expected.

I knew that a high-quality fish market should smell like the ocean, never like fish. But, there was a lot I wasn’t aware of. Who knew, for example, that when you’re looking for the best flat fish, you want it to be slimy? Weird, right? Patrick also showed us that when checking out the round fish, you have to look under the gills to make sure they’re still red and not brown. In addition, the fish should always look wet. Patrick was very insistent that you should always buy fish from the rear of the store, not the stall in front that’s on the street. (That’s where they try to sell the stuff that is oldest and about to go bad.) After learning all we could at the fish market, we moved on to the butcher.

At a French butcher, you’ll see a lot of things with their heads and feet still attached. I always thought this was just a creepy local custom, but man, was I ever wrong. Parisians know how to “read” these parts of the animals so that they know exactly the level of quality they’re buying.

We learned that chickens with yellow feet are the most common and usually lowest in price. Then come the chickens with black feet — higher quality, better taste, higher price. And finally, the rare blue-footed chicken with its gorgeous plumage is called the Poulet de Bresse. It is supposed to be the best chicken you can possibly eat. The quality of this bird is right up there along with Kobe beef from Japan. These beautiful birds are much more special than just a red label. Instead they sport a huge, blue, white and red label. The butcher even leaves the head on this guy with a ring of his beautiful plumage at the neck as double insurance that you’re getting a Bresse bird. When you buy one of these guys, you know you’re in for an insanely great dinner.

The heads of the rabbits are left on as well. Why, you may ask? So that the customers know they are indeed buying rabbits and not cats. Yes. You heard me correctly. (I’ll wait here for a moment for your gag-reflex to settle down.) Evidently, during World War II, butchers in Europe were low on meat, and it was difficult to get wild game brought into the city, so some butchers decided to try to fool customers into thinking the neighborhood cats were rabbits — as they both looked the same without their clothes on. Yikes! Fortunately, the government intervened, forcing butchers to leave the heads attached, so that customers could look at the teeth in order to make sure that they were buying actual rabbit. THAT is why butchers leave the heads on their rabbits still today. After that rather macabre lesson, we went on to the boulanger, the fromagerie, and the produce market to learn about each of them in turn.

Armed with all our new information, we began discussing options for dinner. Patrick gave us a few choices based on what he thought was best at the market that day. After each person chimed in with their likes and dislikes, he then quickly settled on a menu. He purchased the ingredients for the gorgeous dinner to come, and we all headed to the “Cook’n With Class” kitchens. It was a lovely space: a cozy kitchen with a large center island, complete with a separate work space for each guest. Each work station came with an apron, a cutting board and an individual sets of knives. It looked like it was set up for a cooking party — and that’s EXACTLY what it turned out to be!

Before we got there, I had been a bit worried that the evening would be kind of like being the slave labor for some scary chef, barking orders at us the entire evening: “You! Chop these onions! YOU! Wash those vegetables!” I couldn’t have been more wrong, thank goodness.

From the moment we settled in, we felt at home. Our chef, Patrick was funny, charming, entertaining and made each person feel special and capable, no matter how much of a beginner they were. When we arrived, he showed us into the lounge where we could help ourselves to fresh coffee while he unpacked the groceries. Then we all took a seat around the large kitchen island, ready to work.

The entire evening went something like this. A one to two-minute lesson from Patrick on how to do each step, followed by each of us being given a small amount of the same ingredient, so we could get the chance to mimic his example. By the time we’d each had our chance, that step of the preparation was complete, and we would move on to the next one. In our group there were people who lived in Paris, Russia and the United States. Within a very few minutes, we were all laughing and telling jokes, feeling like family in no time at all. After we had prepped the dinner, Patrick again ushered us into the lounge to taste the wines for the evening while the island was cleared and reset for our beautiful four-course gourmet dinner.

We learned a lot in this wonderful cooking lesson, but what I remember most of all was the laughter and the fun, the free-flowing wine and the family-feel of the entire evening. At first, when Patrick taught us how to sharpen a knife properly, we were all intimidated…afraid we’d cut off a finger. But slowly, we grew more confident. And we laughed as we sped up the process, giggling at our own bravery. We learned how to prepare a chocolate soufflé and then all the girls ate the leftovers right out of the bowl until it was all gone. We learned how to cut and sauté scallops while we told each other stories from our favorite vacations. And when Patrick taught us how make a delicious candied orange peel, we snuck bites out of the pot all evening — because they were just too good to resist.

We all watched Patrick like little kids at a magic show, while he whipped a bunch of eggs into a perfect creamy hollandaise sauce. Then, as each of us tasted it, we freaked over how amazing it was. We learned a few great tricks for seasoning & roasting cherry tomatoes while the heady aroma of sautéed duck filled the little kitchen.

The best part of the evening for me — was watching my adorable husband as he got to flambé the pears. When the flames shot over three feet into the air, the expression on his face was priceless. I’ll never forget it.

We tasted everything as we went along which made every step of the process more fun. Of course, dinner was served with all the wine we could drink — It is France, after all! We ate beuatiful food, we laughed, we told stories, and we watched in fascination as we learned French cooking techniques. Most importantly though, we made new friends and great memories. It wasn’t just dinner. It was theater, and it was great theater at that.

Our menu for the evening follows:
I. Pan-seared scallops atop a zucchini flan, served with orange-hollandaise and warmed orange segments, topped with candied orange peel. I’ll tell you, we all had a heavenly moment when we tasted that hollandaise.

II. Sautéed duck magret au jus, served with haricot vert, roasted cherry tomatoes and duck fat-sautéed potatoes.

III. A cheese course as French as it gets — seven beautiful cheeses from which to choose: washed rind, goat cheese, cow’s milk, roquefort. They had them all.

IV. Finally, in honor of my husband’s birthday, individual chocolate soufflés, his topped with a single candle to mark the day.

The evening course that we took lasts about 6-7 hours from start to finish. And by the time you leave, you feel deliciously full, wonderfully pampered and completely entertained.

If I could suggest one thing for any visitor to Paris, this would be it. This class is a wonderful, completely French experience without the stress of actually having to speak French. It is a memory to last a lifetime. Bon appetit!

Musée de L’Orangerie


There is a treasured secret in Paris. It’s much smaller than the Louvre or even the Musée D’Orsay, but infinitely more fairytale and serene. The Musée De L’Orangerie is a charming, little jewel box of an art museum set just at the edge of the Tuileries Garden amid the chaos of Place de la Concorde. A calm oasis in the heart of the city, this sacred space holds Monet’s crowning achievements, the Water Lilies and Willows of his home in Giverny. They refer to all of these masterpieces as the Nymphéas here in Paris. (Nymphéas means water lilies in French.) And they are evidence of Monet’s lifelong obsession with the eternity of beauty.

Each of the canvases displayed here is six and a half feet tall, and if lined up side by side, they would be almost 300 feet long. To be surrounded by that size and scale of art makes you feel as if you are actually inside the paintings. The best way for me to describe it to you, is to ask you to think of the film “What Dreams May Come,” and the way it portrayed heaven as a world made entirely of paint. That is the feeling you get when you sit at the center of these masterpieces for an afternoon.  Heaven…made entirely of paint.

I will confess here and now that I am not much of a fan of Impressionism in general. I don’t feel any visceral impact from many of the paintings of that genre. Quite often, it feels as though there is no emotion or passion in it, nothing to hold my interest. But, these breathtaking panels of Monet’s are completely different.

They are huge, emotional works, designed to capture the changing qualities of light in his garden, passing through the hours of sunrise to sunset. And with no horizon to orient yourself as you study them, the elements of sky, earth, water and air seem to melt together, with only the water lilies and the willows to create a rhythm. The works are almost abstract, particularly the images of dusk. And they assault your every sense with their grace and power.

Monet willed these masterworks to the city of Paris with one condition. He wanted to design the architecture of the space so that the visitor would feel that they had taken a vacation from the city without ever having to leave it. Here is the journey he designed.

First, you walk across a glass-sided catwalk and into a stark white, circular vestibule. Monet demanded this space be devoid of any color. In fact, all three rooms in his design are completely white: floors, ceilings, walls, everything but the paintings. This vestibule is simply the first step in that journey. A blank circle, designed to empty your mind and help you decompress from the chaos of the city. Here, you take a couple of deep breaths and pay homage to the bronze bust of Monet that stands guard to the beauty you haven’t yet seen.

At the back of the vestibule, there are two 45-degree angle entrances that lead you into the first of two long, white, oval rooms. The first of these rooms is devoted to Monet’s Water Lilies. The four gently curving walls are a beautiful backdrop for the Water Lilies, which are the only source of color in the entire space. They surround you everywhere you look. It’s like climbing inside a painted waterscape.

Once you have experienced this first room, you move on to the second. You travel through two more 45-degree angled archways to arrive at another pure white, oval room, identical to the first. This space is where the Willows live. Equally powerful, equally beautiful, but darker, more brooding somehow.

These two rooms are each lit from above, through a white scrim which diffuses the light and makes the space feel otherworldly somehow. The only thing to see in these two large oval spaces is the magic of the water lilies and willow trees themselves, the interplay between color and light. And in the center of each room, rest two long benches on which the visitors sit while they meditate on the beauty that surrounds them.

In 1927, one year after Monet’s death, these eight masterpieces were actually laid into the gently curving walls of these two rooms at the Musée de L’Orangerie. The canvases cannot be removed. In fact, they remained embedded in the walls thoughout a huge renovation of this museum which began in 2000. Since it was impossible to detach the paintings from their home, demolition and construction had to take place around them. To protect the paintings from water, heat, dust and vibrations, they were sealed inside reinforced boxes, each attached to an alarm system.

The result of this six-year renovation is the addition of two lower floors, which now house a gift shop, a café and an entire floor devoted to other masterpieces by Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Soutine, and Derain to name a few. There’s even a space downstairs dedicated to temporary exhibitions as well.  Now that the renovation is complete, the museum is worthy of the beauty that abides within it; but the star, of course, is Monet.

Monet summed up his passion for the Nymphéas with this. “These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me…It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”  Well, render it he did. You don’t just see these paintings. You feel them. The violets and blues, greens and russet browns, they haunt you, long after you leave the museum. But it’s friendly haunting…and a beautiful one.

In his lifetime, Monet painted around 250 oils of his beloved Japanese-style lagoon at Giverny. And in my opinion, by far the most powerful are the Nymphéas displayed here. These eight panels, filled with light and reflection, are the crowning achievements of Monet’s garden. They are his life’s work. They are his legacy, and he bequeathed them to Paris, the City of Light.     How fitting.