The last few visits here we’ve rented an apartment. Unless we suddenly (hah!) come into millions, I suspect we’ll keep making that same choice, for a few reasons.
We stayed in a hotel for one night seven years ago. It was gorgeous but minuscule — and our own bathroom at home is 5 x 7, so I know what small looks like!
I’m also a homebody, so I like being able to laze around for hours in the morning, or afternoon, without the need to get dressed to eat or wait for a maid to come clean the room. I like listening to music on my computer (check out TSF jazz, a local station here I discovered this trip.)
I really enjoy having a home to come home to after a fun/exhausting day bopping around Paris. I love the city but — between crazy shoving crowds, the endless stairs of the Metro and the general pace — it’s epuisant!
A few thoughts for those of you considering it:
You can choose a neighborhood and get to know it
We rented on the Ile St. Louis twice, a two-bedroom with a large and comfortable bathroom and super-deep bathtub. We literally overlooked Berthillon, the famed ice cream maker, and could hop across the street for a boule of mango or passion fruit. The ISL is a quiet and bourgeois neighborhood but it’s perfectly located in the Seine, with easy walking access to the Left Bank and Right Bank (the two halves of Paris.) There are plenty of restaurants.
This time we’ve been in the 7th., also quiet and bourgeois. I’ve loved every minute of it and will miss it. It’s not a spot I would have chosen, (we were offered it by friends), so it’s been a great discovery.
I fail to see the point, or pleasure, of traveling the world only to be surrounded, in a hotel or hostel, by fellow North Americans — I travel to flee my normal life and its references! By renting a flat, whether you’re alone or with your family, you’re choosing to plant yourself into the country, culture and neighborhood, not cling to the safe and familiar.
You’ll live like a Parisian for a while
Not a bad thing! You’ll shop every day or so for freshly-baked bread, produce, flowers, and the many delicious cheeses. You can stop at a traiteur offering an array of delicious prepared foods, from a roast chicken to a quiche to salads. You’ll line up at la boulangerie for your daily fresh baguette or croissant.
You can cook!
Maybe your dream is to fully escape the kitchen. But if you love great food, what better pleasure than waking up to a fresh croissant and some runny cheese in the comfort of your temporary home? Making a tisane from some tea you bought around the corner and settling into the sofa? Enjoying a yogurt or fromage blanc? Fresh figs, the fattest asparagus you’ve ever seen…
It’s cheaper and healthier to eat even some of your meals at home plus the added sensual joy of shopping for lovely food in the city’s many street markets…not just racing around an enormous, soulless American grocery store jammed with nasty, useless, fattening junk food. (Yes, I loathe them!)
I pigged out our first week and could barely get into my stockings as a result. The second week, alone, I ate more often at home, consumed less, and many fewer sweets and wine. Voila!
I was amazed by my friend Rebecca — one day after arriving from the U.S. this week, and using a one-burner stove, she made a fantastic meal: bruschetta, green salad, fish stew and a bakery-bought galette du roi. (See, you won’t find that classic dessert on a restaurant menu!)
If you speak French, allez-y! If you don’t, you’ll pick some up quickly
I speak French so I really enjoy chatting to people here, whether asking a law student at the landromat to help me figure out to open the washer door (!) to buying new shoelaces. The city gets so many tourists you’ll find many shopkeepers and retailers able to converse en anglais — but so much better if you quickly adopt the essential habit of saying, every single time, Bonjour monsieur/madame! and Au revoir, monsieur/dame! It’s comme il faut and just a more civilized way to behave.
If you have fantasies of living here more permanently, (as we do), you’ll quickly get a better feel for the place
The sun rises here in late December at 8:43 a.m. Seriously. This city is much further north than you might expect, so days are short and often very cloudy. If you take the bus and Metro as locals do, you’ll experience the utter insanity of rush hour and can enjoy getting lost within the bowels of Chatelet Les Halles mid-renovation — all joys you’d miss if you cab everywhere.
The apartments I’ve been staying in here are both on the ground floor. Easy for luggage and shopping — but they don’t get much daylight. I now realize how essential it would be to rent or own on a higher floor to access the maximum precious sunlight as winter days here also tend to be overcast.
You’ll feel the rhythms of the neighborhood and the city
Almost every building has a concierge or gardien, a man or woman, (like a superintendent), who keeps a careful eye on the building and its inhabitants. In the 7th, our gardien was Marie, a lovely African-American woman with a rocking collection of sneakers, (les baskets!), who also delivered the mail.
You’ll see when shops open and close, and get to know your local merchants a bit as you buy your food and drink. You’ll see dog-walkers and babies in their carriages and kids on their way to and from school.
Don’t expect to find a washer, dryer or dishwasher
Most Paris apartments are small, and appliances and furniture scaled accordingly. Many homes will have a small washing machine for clothes, but fewer will also accommodate a dryer and I would never expect to find a dishwasher. Bring enough clothes and/or be prepared to spend an hour at the laundromat or do some hand-washing.
Things will look different — like electrical outlets!
French appliances use a two-pronged plug whose prongs are rounded. Be sure to bring a set of electrical converters with you. I’d also inquire before you arrive about how much power you can safely use before blowing a fuse. (See below!)
Don’t forget — you’ll be thinking and shopping in metric!
So if you want a small portion of meat or cheese or loose tea, think 100 grams, (cent grams, s’il vous plait!); a kilo = 2.2 pounds.
Also, in euros!
So don’t forget that it’s not $10 you’re spending but $13 or $15 or whatever the rate is that week.
Is there an elevator?
I made the mistake on a prior visit of taking a friend’s advice to stay in a flat he had enjoyed. I didn’t even think to ask…and it was a sixth-floor walk-up. Make sure, if you dislike hoofing it with tons of luggage up a narrow staircase, there is un ascenseur.
Is the flat properly heated/cooled?
I’ve been wearing a lot more clothing than I expected to sleep in.
Beware of minuterie
This oh-so-French invention is lighting that only stays on for a few minutes, saving costs for the building. You have to find the hallway and/or stairs light button outside your apartment, (not easy), push it, and move fast! Best to carry with you a mini-flashlight or headlamp.
How good is the apartment’s lighting?
We had only one small bedside lamp. Bring a mini-flashlight — (how to unlock that unfamiliar door in a dark hallway?) — and a headlamp, available from any camping supply company.
Don’t lose the keys!
Don’t forget the door code!
Remember your address and memorize the nearest Metro stops; functioning while jet-lagged and disoriented and non-French-speaking, (let alone drugged or drunk), is not a great combo.
Bring a large, light, capacious bag for food-shopping. You’ll need it.
Carry a Metro map and Plan de Paris, (or whatever app suits you), so you can always orient yourself quickly. You do not want to be the hapless tourist whose bag is snatched, backpack plundered or pockets picked while you dick around on the Metro or street corner. It happens!
And don’t — as poor Jose did — bring a power strip and try to plug it in. Nope. Blew a fuse and that introduced us to the (very nice) people at our local electric supply shop…after photographing the fusebox, which we did not understand, and emailing the image to our friend whose apartment it is…
For those of you who don’t have one — and I’m guessing that’s most of you — here’s my current sewing box: needles, thread, ribbon, vintage and new buttons, a bit of vintage cotton, my beloved and very un-PC pincushion of Chinamen (wrong phrase, yes I know) holding hands. My thimble appears to have gone missing, but I rarely used it anyway.
I pulled it out the other day to repair a cotton rug whose edging, after only a few washings, had begun to come apart and fray. I think there are people who would have kept it looking crappy and others who might have simply thrown it away. Not me.
I also have some mending on my to-do list, old cashmere with a few holes.
I love using my hands to make and repair things.
Some of the things I can do, or have done, very happily far away from a touch-screen:
— cook a good meal, with sauces or nicely plated
— bake quick breads, cookies, cakes, pies
— sew and mend
— take photos, draw and paint, (both artistically and walls/furniture, etc.)
I love cooking, and cookbooks and folders filled with recipes clipped from everywhere.
I knew Jose, my husband, was a potential keeper when he had the same 1989 cookbook I’ve used for years, and love, written by American ex-pat Patricia Wells, “Bistro Cooking.”
We once had friends over for dinner and the recipe — flambeed chicken with mushrooms — contained the unforgettable phrase “Avert your gaze” for the moment when you ignite the bird. (Or singe your eyelashes and eyebrows.)
Two cookbooks I’m getting to know and enjoy are so utterly different. Even their covers and photos are as unalike — as the British would say — as chalk and cheese.
One, Tamasin’s Weekend Food, is written by Tamasin Day-Lewis, sister of the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis. I have no idea where I bought it — probably on a visit home to Canada, where it’s much easier to find books by British publishers than here in New York.
I love everything about this book, from its silver end-papers to the way it’s structured: Friday Night, Saturday morning, Saturday lunch, Tea time, Saturday supper and Sunday lunch.
I love her elegant assumption, (so not true for us), that one has fled the craziness of city life for a weekend spent with kids and dogs in some crumbling 16th century rectory with muddy Wellies in the entryway.
It has a soft red ribbon with which to mark your place.
I love the photos of her — no make-up, lean-limbed, clutching a bunch of carrots in her blue jeans like some Celtic Scarlett O’Hara, long hair askew. Even on the cover, she’s looking down, not smiling and looks tired.
The recipes, each quirky enough to be interesting, are a mix of humble — home-made bread — and vaguely exotic, like pan bagnat., one of my favorite French things to eat.
I recently — on a weeknight even! — when it was rainy and windy and the night air smelled of woodsmoke, tackled her salmon fishcakes with creme fraiche tartare sauce. All of it made from scratch. She insisted on wild salmon — and, indeed it had a wholly different consistency than the filets we usually buy. The tartar sauce, as promised was “moreish, the sort of thing you have to dip your finger into.” Indeed! It was light, creamy, tart and unlike any gummy, nasty bottled tartar sauce I’ve eaten.
The other book, “The barefoot contessa back to basics” is very American, from its cover image of jolly, not-thin Ina Garten looking into the camera with its perky lime-green lettering, spine and end-papers to the photo of her gorgeous country house — a mansion in the Hamptons and super-elegant kitchen. It was a wedding gift to us from friends who, like us, love to entertain guests.
I like that she includes recipes for cocktails, one of which we served at a brunch for friends — mango banana daiquiris.
I like her list of 10 things not to serve at a dinner party, including garlic and raw onions, nuts and two fish courses. (We now make sure to ask every guest if there is any food they loathe, having once made a fantastic salmon dish at which my friend J [sigh] sniffed: “I don’t eat fish.”)
Not the right answer!
The recipes offer a nice range of choices and the color photos are terrific. I’m looking forward to exploring it further even as, (yes, somehow), I try to shed 30+ pounds over the next few months.
When Jose and I started dating, it was a very short time before I put him to the acid test — helping me throw a dinner party.
I love giving dinner parties!
They satisfy many urges: to make people happy, to feed them well, to set a pretty table, (candles, flowers, home-made place cards, linen or cotton napkins, colorful plates, shiny silver), and to create new connections between the people I love.
We had two couples over recently who had never met, but I knew would get along and enjoy one another, (another key to a great dinner party. No random guests!) The two women, even with a 15-year age difference, had both worked in book publishing in Manhattan. Their husbands are quieter, but both have a dry sense of humor. They all love to eat well and everyone loves to laugh.
tomato soup (with a touch of gin!)
salmon with tangerine/butter/soy sauce glaze
chocolate ice cream with my invention, (what I call drunk fruit), served hot on top. (Throw blackberries, raspberries, apple, pear, butter, cloves, cinnamon, maple syrup, lemon or lime juice, scotch and/or Marsala and/or sherry into a heavy pan and boil. Yum!)
The best part was remembering that one of the women had cut a CD a few years ago, a gift from her family. So we all listened to it, and the other woman happily sang along.
We love remembering dinner parties we held a decade ago, like the one that included our minister and his wife (in their 60s), a young photographer and journalist, a Times shooter just back from Afghanistan and my web designer. One couple locked eyes across our table — and married a few years later.
The mix matters!
No boors/bores. No mean jokes. No one smokes. No one drinks to excess. We’re passionate about the news and current affairs. Aggression, whether passive or active, is deeply unwelcome; here’s a sadly accurate blog post about watching three sorts of moribund marriages across the table.
Our friends have generally traveled the world, are educated, read widely and avidly, share enough cultural references we’ve got something in common but enough (civil!) difference of opinion to enjoy talking to one another.
We’ve got it down to a science, helped by the fact I work at home and can easily make time for fussy niceties like ironing a tablecloth and napkins or re-filling the votives. I love settling in with my recipes and cookbooks to plan a meal that’s balanced, interesting and good-looking. Our kitchen is very small, so we do it restaurant-style, with prep work in advance, and plating on the kitchen counter.
I grew up in a family that frequently had friends over for dinner, and Jose’s Mom, as a small-town minister’s wife did often for family and church visitors.
It’s one of the happiest traditions he and I now continue. (I do know that having kids, especially small ones, makes this sort of thing more difficult. We don’t have kids.)
I love throwing dinner parties. If I were rich, and less busy, I’d have one almost every single week.
They combine all the things I love most: creating and setting a pretty table; choosing recipes and shopping for good food and wine; cooking; making people happy — and spending quiet, uninterrupted time face to face with people I care about.
I use a collection of antique and colored plates and glasses, new and old linen napkins, and love to sit by candlelight as we all share stories.
As I write this, I’m sitting at our antique farm table, the one I bought in Montreal in 1985 and still use, layered with a blue and white vintage cotton tablecloth.
We sit on a bench my ex-husband made that stores all our hardware and tools, and top with custom-made cushions covered in lime green cotton with cobalt-blue piping. I turn the ugly glass balcony divider into a wall by throwing a pretty coverlet over it and lining up big, soft cushions covered in a variety of fabrics, from a 1930s floral print I found in a Paris flea market to a great blue and green check I found in Fredericksburg, Texas (where else?)
Instant outdoor restaurant!
My friend Tamara, whose fun cookbook is here, holds dinner parties in the backyard of her Queens, NY apartment. I attended the first one two summers ago and was instantly charmed — strangers pay $40 per person and sit at a motley array of tables, set with mismatched china and cutlery, and eat great food and get to know one another. It’s very un-New York to travel from one borough to another, let alone risk an evening with people you don’t know. But Tamara’s crowd is smart and fun and creative: I’ve met everyone from radio reporters to a dentist to attorneys.
I made a new friend there whose career as a singer of 1920s music is rocketing along; if you’re ever in New York, you’ve got to hear the Hot Sardines and Mme. Bougerol. The woman rocks a washboard! (Turned out her mom, also at that first dinner where we met, went to the same school and camp as I did. Small world.)
This is the whole point of dinner parties — unlikely combinations, the germination of new friendships with people you would never have met elsewhere. We held one, midwinter, about eight years ago that included our Maine-born minister and his wife; a war photographer, a British journalist and his girlfriend; an interior designer. Ages ranged from 30s to 60s. We ate chili and rice and salad — and a man and woman who met there that night have been happily married for years. Ka-ching!
I grew up in a family that loved to entertain, and eat well, so it all feels like a normal and lovely thing to do. We also don’t have kids, and so it’s easier for us than for those who do, especially little kids or lots of kids.
Having recently gone through all my Mom’s things, fast, as required to move her into a nursing home, I’ve been thinking much harder about what possessions I value most, and why.
I was awed, and saddened and humbled, by my Mom’s willingness to sort through soft red leather boots and Japanese prints and clothes and say “Toss!”, knowing there was simply no room in her new room and no extra storage space there.
So I returned home to my New York one-bedroom apartment and started thinking hard about what I value most, physically, and why:
Three small bears:
One is tiny, the height of my thumb, a Steiff bear in black and white with moveable arms and legs. I went off to boarding school at the age of eight, and every Sunday, was trotted off to church. I couldn’t stand it, so this dear small bear nestled nicely in my pocket or sat between the prayer books and hymnals in the shelf behind the pew. He kept me sane.
The small white bear is someone who’s been in my life as long as I can remember. He is very worn, his fur mostly gone, and has a quizzical expression I treasure, and often share. He’s been all over the world with me, stuffed uncomplainingly into a pocket of a suitcase, delighting and amusing chambermaids — who know I’m older than five.
The soapstone bear, aka Spring Bear, was carved in an Arctic village for me by an Inuit man my father met while making a film there. He fits into the palm of my hand and has a lovely shy aspect to him. I’ve had him since I was little, and he always made me deeply curious about the Arctic and all the people out there waiting for me to meet.
Indispensable. I’ve been traveling across borders since I was an infant and my parents drove from Vancouver, Canada (my birthplace) to Mexico (where I’ve since visited many times.) On any given day, I can easily misplace my cellphone or hairbrush but I always know exactly where my passport is and when it expires. Passport = freedom!
I started shooting when I was about 15, and wanted to become a professional photographer. A family friend loaned me his Pentax SLR and, while a high school senior, I sold three color photos to Toronto Calendar magazine. I realized early I had talent, and could sell it into a competitive marketplace. Cool! I’ve since had my photos published by Time, The Washington Post, New York Times and others. Some of my most precious items are the photos I’ve taken, whether the Eiffel tower under glass (in a Paris department store) or the Rockies at dawn. I use a Canon G7, digital.
I love my alumunim Lamy fountain pen, and its ink cartridges in blue, black and purple. As a writer, I always need a pen handy. I love how sensual and beautiful even the most mundane writing — the phone bill! — can be with a nice pen.
These are my number one style signifier: silk, cashmere, wool, cotton, linen. I am rarely, in any season, without a colorful muffler or scarf of some kind. Faves include a leopard-print linen (bought at Nordstrom), two Hermes carres (Christmas gifts) and four crinkled silk mufflers so long and wide they double as shawls, in cream, dark brown, fuchsia and ashes of roses. (Banana Republic.)
I have a tradition of buying jewelry to commemorate special occasions, so have rings I bought for my 26th. birthday (Montreal, antique cameo and marcasite) and a sterling one (Saks, Barry Kieselstein Cord, on sale), I giddily purchased the day I sold my first book. I love the heart-shaped pearl and sapphire ring my mom gave me many years ago, the one I’d already spotted in a favorite store and never told her I loved. She knew! On the most stressful days, I armor up with a few of them.
This started with my Mom, who traveled the world alone for many years. She came home with mantas, molas and exquisite cashmere Indian shawls, the original pashminas. Her love for these materials ignited mine, and I now buy early textiles whenever I can find them, wearing some, and using others to make throw pillows. These include an orange-and-cream crane-printed Japanese silk obi sash, 1930s blue and white check linen found in a Paris flea market and 19th. century paisley wool shawls, both printed and woven.
I love to cook! Having happy people eating food around our table is such a pleasure. I knew the sweetie and I had a shot (now 11 years together) when we started dating and had the same, fantastic cookbook, Bistro Cooking.
Being invited to someone’s home — as many of us will soon be for the holidays, whether for a party, a meal or a few days — is supposed to be a wonderful thing, a gesture of affection and hospitality. As we all know, it can also lead to sulks, sighs, flounces, shouts or worse.
Herewith a few rules for the host:
Make it fun. Really. Too many people stress themselves out to create Martha Stewart-esque perfection, determined to get it right, or else. I love to entertain in style, with candles and linen napkins, but if my guests aren’t having a good time, there’s not much point. Great music and soft lighting help. Delegate as many tasks as possible and allow plenty of time between the house-cleaning, food shopping, prep and cooking — and your meal or party. A pooped-out host(ess) is no fun!
Offer a wide array of beverage choices. Pellegrino, lots of lime and lemon slices, fresh ice, freshly-squeezed orange juice, V-8 juice and brewed tea make a nice break from sugary sodas or liquor. (Most fruit juices contain way too much sugar for those trying to lose weight.) If you’re serving tea or coffee, it’s great to have half-and-half and skim milk available as well.
Determine food allergies — but set your limits. This is really tricky in an age of vegans, gluten-free adherents and people choosing to follow any number of exotic diets. I once prepared a great salmon dish to have my 25-year-old guests sniff “I don’t eat fish.” Yes, we made them something else, but they haven’t been invited back since.
Be clear about your expectations. If the cat will rush into busy traffic if a door is opened, make that known. If you won’t tolerate anyone else disciplining your children, say so. If the apartment door must be double-bolted upon exiting to be secure, tell your houseguests, preferably a few times.
Write stuff down. If you have guests with you for a while, a written list of tips can’t hurt — where to find the coffee, whether you compost or recycle, the location of the nearest pharmacy or grocery store. Most people hate to snoop or nag, and everyone runs their household a little differently.
Anticipate disaster. If you really don’t want a red wine stain anywhere, don’t serve it. If your best crystal is irreplaceable, don’t put it within anyone’s reach.
Stock your medicine cabinet. No one wants to come unprepared, but emergencies happen — aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, bandages, sanitary supplies, extra razors or toothbrushes are all very much appreciated by needy guests.
Don’t assume your guests know how to (safely) operate any of your technology. Explain clearly anything they might find confusing. This might be anything from your remote to your coffee-maker to your music system.
Let your guests know it’s OK to do their laundry (if it is) and have extra soap on hand. If they’ve been on the road for a while, or have little kids or work out often, it’s a relief to be able to keep up.
Make houseguests truly feel at home. Nice towels, a few new magazines, a box of chocolates, a pitcher of ice water and some pretty fresh flowers in their room will make them feel pampered. If you really don’t want people around, don’t invite them, or limit their stay. They can feel it. Fake or forced hospitality is a misery for everyone.
The London School of Economics has started a new study to link happiness to physical location, time of day and other factors.
If it’s Tuesday, they’ve discovered, people are least happy — and at 8:00 p.m. Saturday night, they’re feeling their best.
Another new study says six things make most people happy:
It turns out that you can be happy — without worrying — as long as you get enough sleep, spend quality time with your family and get home from work at a decent hour.
According to a new study, it’s the simple things in life that make us content: home-cooked meals, trips abroad, a night out once in a while. As for money, well, The Beatles said it “can’t buy me love,” and it doesn’t seem to do much for happiness, either.
On the list citing the keys to contentment, cash didn’t even make the cut.
Experts doing a study for Yeo Valley, a British dairy company, quizzed 4,000 adults on their lifestyles and asked them to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 5 — 5 being perpetually happy exercise guru Richard Simmons and 1 being Oscar the Grouch. The result was a formula that includes one night out a week with a partner or friends and a 20-minute commute to work.
According to the study, happy people have four alcoholic drinks a week. They also eat four portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Here are some of the things guaranteed to leave me grinning, no matter what the day:
Road trip! It can be almost anywhere
Travel, preferably overseas. Preferably Paris or Corsica. OK, anywhere in France! Using my passport makes me really happy
Hanging out with a dear friend over a great meal (or cold beer)
Cold beer — Hoegaarden, Blue Moon, Grolsch, St. Ambroise, Griffon…
An authoritative G & T made with original recipe Tanqueray
A very good pedicure
Scoring a treasure at a flea market or antique show
Watching the red hawks soaring over our balcony
Setting a pretty table and serving dinner to friends
Getting a book finished and into production
Patting a friendly dog
Looking at gorgeous art and well-made objects in a museum or gallery
Hitting to the outfield
A cuddle with the sweetie
A very ripe peach, mango or strawberry
The smells of dried, sun-warmed pine needles, Oeillet-Mignardise or Hesperides soap; horse; ocean; leather; “First” perfume; old stone
The sounds of a halyard clanging against a sailboat mast; water lapping against rocks; wind in the trees; laughter