There’s a woman in my spin class — our spin class — who rarely smiles. Her face is usually set in a mien of unsettling intensity, her eyes always agog at..something.
She is as lean as a whippet, her muscles shorn of all excess fat, all softening curves. She carries a large bottle water with ice cubes in it.
She’s in her 50s, maybe retired or self-employed or doesn’t have to work. She appears to live at the gym, working out for hours.
Culturally, as someone who needs to shed at least 30 pounds, if not more, I should envy her, despising my own excess adipose tissue — a tummy whose additional flesh I can still grab (OMG!), despite three months now of two-day-a-week calorie restriction (750 per day), no alcohol until Friday evening and two to three spin classes a week plus lifting weights.
(I do see a difference in my shape and size now, as do my husband and friends. It’s just sloooooow. This morning in the mirror I saw…shadows in my cheeks. Definition?!)
I’m working it.
She’s working it.
The day after my left hip replacement….Feb. 2012
Another friend of the blog, a fellow journalist named Caitlin, writes Fit and Feminist — and is now doing (gulp) triathlons.
We’re all headed to the same place eventually, some much faster and more heart-breakingly so, than others.
I live in an apartment building where we own our homes, so I’ve stayed for decades and have gotten to know our neighbors.
It’s also a building with many — most — residents in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
Death stalks our hallways.
But in the past decade, we’ve also lost two lovely men, both mid-life, to brain tumors. One man on our floor died of cancer, at least three women in our building, (those that I know personally), are dealing with it.
It’s deeply sobering — (a fact I spend a lot of time denying!) — to stop and realize how fragile our bodies are, prey to genetic shit-shows we didn’t choose and must face nonetheless; my mother has survived at least four forms of cancer so I’m hyper-vigilant with mammograms, skin checks, Pap smears. I smoked once, for about four months, when I was 14 and am very careful about much alcohol I consume.
The weight I’m working so hard to shed is less for cosmetic reasons than for health.
And yet, life also offers tremendous sensual, shared pleasure in the form of delicious foods and drinks, which (yes, I admit) also include alcohol and sweets.
Some people dismiss this idea — sucking back juice or Soylent — treating food as mere fuel.
Not I. Not ever.
I was in great shape in fall 2014…then spent three weeks in Paris. Ooooohlala.
I look at young women, and men, in shorts and tank tops on the summer streets, carelessly luxuriating in their unlined, unscathed beauty, and wonder if they’ll look back in a few decades with rue or remorse, or happy memories of having savored it all while it was theirs to savor.
It’s a fine balance, this, between the mortification of the flesh, the discipline and self-denial to keep (or regain) a lean physique — and the slothful joys of long naps, a slice of chocolate cake or pie, hours on the sofa watching terrible television or playing video games instead of lifting weights or running or yoga.
Having worked non-stop to meet a magazine deadline, (the story for Chatelaine, a major Canadian magazine, which I’m really proud of, a medical one of course, is here), I ended up in the hospital, in March 2007, with pneumonia, and spent three days there on an IV, coughing so hard I could barely sleep. Drenched with fever sweat, I staggered into the ward shower, and — out loud, alone — apologized to my poor, aching, weary, worn-out body.
It was not, I finally and belatedly realized, a machine to be run until it smoked for lack of grease in the wheels.
Our bodies are the greatest of gifts, to be cherished and held and adored.
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…
Paris is a city I know and love. I first came here in my early 20s, returned for a year when I was 25 on a journalism fellowship, and have come back as many times since as time and budget allow. I speak fluent French, so I love having the chance to use it and hear it once more.
It’s a city known for the ferocious impatience of its inhabitants, especially to those who speak not a word of French. Maybe it’s me, or the holidays or something in the water, but everyone, this time, has been welcoming and patient, even when (quelle horreur!) I asked to take home the delicious left-overs from a restaurant dinner a few nights ago. They were offered to me in a tidy plastic box, and I was still enjoying them two days later…
The past few visits — the most recent October 2009 — we’ve stayed in a rented apartment on the Ile St. Louis, in the middle of the Seine, with easy walking to the Marais. This time, we’re in the 7th, a quiet, bourgeois, mostly-residential neighborhood. The apartment we’ve borrowed is on the ground floor, absolutely silent, facing a courtyard; the view from bed as I write this is of an ivy-covered wall through tall four-paned windows; it belongs to a photographer and photo editor we know professionally.
Like many such Paris homes, we enter through a heavy door facing the street, using a code on a keypad, then step through an outdoor entrance way guarded by Marie, the friendly concierge. Through another heavy door and we’re into a large, airy courtyard, faced by many other apartments, some with tiny balconies, some of which have a small tree on them.
Maybe everyone is away for the holidays. Or maybe they’re just French — but it’s soooooooo quiet! No traffic noise. No shouting or kids yelling.
I love the apartment’s so-French design details — from the wide, smooth, bare herringbone wood floors to the egg-shaped doorhandles in the middle of the door at waist height. The whoosh of the water-heater in the kitchen is the only sound. The toilet is in its own separate small room — freeeeeeezing! The kitchen floor is red hexagonal tile. (We promised no interior photos, so as to respect our friends’ privacy.)
This is embarrassing! Butter, bread, pastry, pasta…No, we don’t eat like this at home. But a daily fresh baguette is something of a necessity here. The raisin bread at the top of the photo is from Poilane, considered one of Paris’ best bakeries. It’s sliced very thinly but is very satisfying and chewy. Yes, there is even a bar of Lindt chocolate in there as well. Sigh.
I have never seen meringues the size of a baby’s head. No, we didn’t buy them! There was a long line-up for the bakery where I saw these.
Some of you may know the clothing brand Petit Bateau, whose cotton T-shirts are popular for their quality. This is their shop on rue de Grenelle, in the 7th, a few doors from where we’re staying. It also has the most gorgeous baby clothes and shoes.
One of the many things I so love about Paris is color, and often deep, rich colors I rarely see at home in New York. Here’s a doorway in the 7th.
And the exquisite carving on some buildings….this, on Ave. Bosquet in the 7th (a bourgeois neighborhood.)
Those of you who know Paris know well some of the designs that are typical — like these broken-tile floors, often found in bistros of a certain era. This is from Le Baratin, a well-known resto in Belleville.
I was in a florist shop when this woman entered — wearing a long black shawl pinned atop her head, which sported a very tall pile of hair. She walked away down the street with an enormous armload of flowers and her groceries. Note the spectacular periwinkle blue of the shop exterior (a frame store.)
I love the scale and intimacy of the streets here, so very different from New York, where I live.
This quiche was our first food purchase, 13 euros, about $16. It’s salmon and spinach and baked within its own wooden hoop, like a culinary embroidery. One of the best quiches I’ve ever eaten! It’s been much more fun to buy and cook some of our own food at home than eating out three costly meals a day. The apartment we’ve been loaned is steps from the Rue Cler, a famous market street — with multiple wine shops, bakeries, a fish-monger and many other food vendors. Foodie heaven!
Al Araibya reports that women in Iraq now face the prospect of FGM — female genital mutilation:
The al-Qaeda-Inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has ordered all girls and women between the ages of 11 and 46 in and around Iraq’s northern city of Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation, the United Nations said on Thursday.
“It is a fatwa (or religious edict) of ISIS, we learnt this this morning,” said Jacqueline Badcock, the number two U.N. official in Iraq.
The “fatwa” would potentially affect 4 million women and girls, Badcock told reporters in Geneva by videolink from Arbil.
“This is something very new for Iraq, particularly in this area, and is of grave concern and does need to be addressed,” she said, according to Reuters.
And here’s a story from The Guardian about how men feel completely comfortable telling women they do not know personally what or how to eat:
That so many women have reported this frankly quite incredibly patronising experience, is testament to the strength of the myth that a woman’s physical form exists, above all else, to titillate men. It’s the same mistaken assumption that lies behind the command to “give us a smile”, or the belief that a woman in a low-cut top must be looking for male attention.
As incredible as it seems, some women actually experience moments in their lives when their entire sentient being isn’t focused exclusively on providing men pleasure. They might wear a strappy top because they are hot, for example; eat a burger because they are hungry; or drink a diet soda because they quite like the taste. Explosive revelations, I know.
You might laugh, but for some, the belief that a man has an automatic “right” over the body of any woman he encounters in a public space is worryingly ingrained.
Should we laugh, cry, get angry — or start an MGM movement in reply?
If you consider thick white tablecloths and enormous floral arrangements and black-clad waiters who wouldn’t dream of introducing themselves to you by name stuffy and boring….this post isn’t for you.
But if, like me, you adore a fine, old restaurant that still does things right, here’s a lovely paean to them, from The New York Times Style magazine:
In an age of studied casualness, of competitive waiting in line and chef-stalking and meal-Instagramming, of pedigreed pigs and forced intimacy with your neighbors’ elbows, it is novel to be served by a dignified career waiter in a jacket who knows his business. It is relaxing to look at a menu and (with the exception of certain démodé concoctions) know exactly what you’re getting. And most magical of all, it is astounding to be transported to a time when people not only dressed up, but also when your chair was pulled out for you and your cigarette (yes, cigarette!) was lit before it had reached your lips.
The writer, Sadie Stein, names a few old-school spots I’ve been lucky enough to eat in as well:
— After a meeting at the offices of Simon & Schuster, on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, on a bitterly cold, wet winter’s day in 2002, I knew they were going to buy my first book. I was insanely excited but had no one, at 4:00 p.m., to share that moment with. My agent had rushed back to his office downtown. So I went into the “21” Club, at 21 West 52d, and ordered coffee and profiteroles and sat by the fire and cherished this wonderful moment I had longed for my whole life. It was the perfect place to seal the deal.
— I’ve been to Galatoire’s, a New Orleans institution, several times. The most recent, in late January 2012, was three days before I would lie on an operating room table to get a new left hip. I needed a good stiff drink and a delicious meal. What if they were among my last? I’d been in town to address a conference of liquor store owners, offering my suggestions how to hire, manage and motivate their workers, (the topic of my second book.) Galatoire’s was absolutely perfect, filled with elegance and celebration and fantastic food.
— I’ve only eaten (so far!) once at La Grenouille, one of Manhattan’s true legends. It opened Dec. 19, 1962 in a townhouse in midtown. We ate upstairs, at L’Ardoise, and it was amazing. Here’s my post about it, from October 2009, a celebration meal in honor of my second book sale, treated by my father visiting from Canada:
Upstairs is a narrow room, with white-painted brick walls, lit by three 20-foot-tall lead-paned windows. A huge rug in the lightest shades of yellow, cream and green. A highly polished dark wood table marks the entrance. There are only five white-tableclothed tables, with another at the top of the stairs beneath a skylight, shaded by palms. Each has a small, perfect floral arrangement. There are paintings and drawing everywhere. You feel as if you’ve stumbled into someone’s private home, and you have. For many years, this was the home and studio of French painter Bernard LaMamotte — and before that, in the 1800s, the stable housing the horses of the owners of the mansion across the street, now the Cartier boutique. Those tall windows were once used to bring in hay.
It is, wrote Vanity Fair last year, “a private dining room of such beauty that one could be talked into becoming bedridden as long as one’s bed were there.”
Have you had a memorable meal in a place like this?
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.
I’m intrigued by what we eat, why we choose it and how challenging it is to eat (and drink!) very differently if you’re trying to lose weight.
Here’s a link to a new book that explains how major food companies carefully engineer things like potato chips so they are quite literally irresistible.
In 2002, I gained 23 pounds in one year, stunning both my GP and ob-gyn.
I hadn’t done anything very differently, (no entire-cream-pie-eating-sessions, for example), but two major events had happened in the same six months — I’d started research, and lots of travel, on my first book and my mother (who survived) was found to have a very large brain tumor.
I went out to Vancouver, British Columbia, (I was in Dayton, Ohio doing book research when I learned I had a few days to get there) to see her through the surgery. Oh, and, I’d discovered some cysts in one breast (turned out to be nothing) that was scaring me shitless.
My point is this — if you’d commanded me, then, to count every calorie I was ingesting, I’d have laughed hysterically. Every ounce of my energy and wits was already in play.
But I do live and work in a wealthy suburb of New York City, where the alpha women are all ropy arms, size 2’s in sheath dresses, their calves the diameter of my forearms. And, in America, being productive trumps everything, so we’re all running reallyfastallthetime, tending to the endless needs of our bosses, clients and families, usually in that order.
Oh…..and our needs as well.
I think this skewed order is very much a part of why so many people are so fat. When the only source of real, cheap, accessible pleasure is something in a crinkly bag you can cram into your mouth while driving/commuting/sitting at your desk, you’re going to take the path of least resistance.
If the only thing that day (or week or month) that is going to make you 100 percent happy, (without a fight or eye-roll or endless negotiation with a whiny toddler), is a doughnut (dopamine hit alert!), odds are higher you’ll reach for the easy, quick and cheap holy trinity of sugar, salt and fat than a pious, low-cal apple or pile of celery sticks.
Our choices are also deeply cultural. I recently interviewed a senior manager who tried to call a lunch meeting of her staff in Montreal, a city with French values (food matters!) in a nation much more committed to life balance. No one came. I love that!
We are all deeply hungry, throughout our lives, for many things — silence, beauty, kindness, understanding, stimulation, leisure, pleasure, solace. Many of us simply do not have enough of these things in our days, or lives. We under-value them, or refuse to carve out time for them or have made too many commitments to many other people. We’re lonely or bored or overworked or underpaid. Possibly all of these miseries at once!
Food becomes proxy for so many other things we really want but can’t get, often in public moments when we most need comfort or joy: Fries instead of a hug. A Coke instead of a compliment. A bag of popcorn, with butter, instead of ten (six?) hours’ unbroken sleep. A 20-ounce latte instead of 20 minutes’ walk in fresh air with a lovely view.
I’m trying, still, to lose that weight, upping my exercise routine and being more careful about intake choices. So fucking tedious!
Simply counting all those calories doesn’t address the fundamental and challenging issues of every single choice affected by our knowledge [or lack of] nutrition, our limits of self-discipline, our self-awareness, and the limited time many of us have to choose, prepare and consume affordably healthy food.