I’ve told this story before. In New York City circa 2009, Tina and I stopped at a little store on 9th ave near Hell’s Kitchen.
The store, the size of some people’s walk-in closets, was owned by a little Nepalese man, and the things that caught our attention were these knit hats with dangling ties made to look like animals, birds, dogs, cats, sheep, elephants, etc.
Inside the store we found things, like those Buddhist chimes that you rub a wooden tool over to create a meditative sound. We struck up a conversation with the owner, who told us after a variety of topics, that he sends his daughter on travels, because it’s as important or more important than education.
It’s as if he dedicated his little store and its revenue to the influence and education of his daughter.
In Italian culture, you have women who cook as a gesture of love. Or latin cultures give affection as gestures of love. I’m sure some cultures emphasize giving education as a gesture of love. I think my family’s gift was discipline. I’m sure they might have considered religion as a gift, and while it may have been, I grew away from that. I’ll likely never not feel guilty about that. But that’s on me.
Tina and I will never forget the conversation with the Nepalese man. At one point, he said, “Travel feeds the soul.” It’s those moments when the gray cloud splits in two, and beams of sun rays blast through in a variety of directions. The quote was what we already knew in word form. Then it became our live’s motto.
I don’t believe in the “soul” per se. But I believe there is a je ne sais quoi about our beings. But I don’t believe there’s an immortality to it. It’s a now totality that, should you be lucky, continues after you die in story, art, writing, etc. The idea that it lived for all time in God’s box of souls, was given life on your birthday and lives for eternity is romantic at best, and poorly thought out at most.
Before the Nepalese man, Tina and I both had been infected by travel bugs. We had both done Europe and elsewhere separately and together. And since then, it has only influenced our love for travel.
Yesterday, Tina and I returned from our sixth trip to France together. We’re celebrating our tenth year of marriage, and decided it was our gift to each other, Christmas and maybe even a birthday or two.
We landed a decent deal partly via Scott’s Cheap Flights. If you haven’t heard of it, use it to discover dips in airfare. It’s even listed in this badass book: Recomendo, which you should consider giving to your favorite people for Christmas.
This trip was one of our favorites. We both love French culture, food, art, and life. The architecture pulls at our souls. The food, the quality of it, the emphasis on it, the way it is art makes our hearts sing. It’s no mystery that this place is Café Witteveen. I love to cook. I love the art of it. I love that it’s creation and delivery. Not all meals are great, but all meals are art. And, for me, should be treated as such.
“French life is like an onion,” said Tina said yesterday on our way back from O’Hare Airport. Little nuances about the French and their quotidian life reveal themselves each time we visit. Like how cashiers will give you hell if you pay for a 0.90 Euro baguette with a fucking 10 or 20 bill. How if you don’t say “bonjour” or “bonsoir” before every conversation, you’re likely a rude fucking tourist.
We learned this trip that reservations, even at the smallest restaurants, are incredibly important. I’m not talking tourist joints. But restaurants. They want to know how much food to anticipate making. It’s an environmental thing. A climate change thing. A love for the planet thing.
It warms my heart that people pay attention to the environment. We Americans are way to extravagant with out use of utilities and waste. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Climate Change, being mindful of the environment, in my humble opinion, is just fucking sexy.
If you go to a restaurant and they’re out of specials, too bad. But if you’re lucky enough to get one, consider yourself a lottery winner. They say, “A bad meal in Paris is a crime.” It’s so fucking true. And if you have a bad meal, it’s likely a crappy restaurant that you shouldn’t have eaten at anyway.
Life there is not perfect. The French love to protest, and if it’s not violent, it’s not a protest. Any excuse to take a day off, voila! Sunday, most stores are closed, especially outside of touristy areas and very much outside of Paris.
I’ve wondered for years what the French do on Sundays. I could tell this trip that lots of families were on their way or way home from visiting family or friends. Most homes — if not all — have big metal or wooden shutters that cover their windows at night or during the day. It’s not uncommon to see entire apartment buildings with their shutters pulled all day on Sunday.
On this trip, we went to the Modern Art Museum and returned to an artist squat that we visited back in 2008 (we bought three pieces from the squat’s original founder Gaspard Delanoe). We fell in love with his work, made an appointment with him to buy some work, and found out only then that he is one of the original members of this artist commune that’s 18 years old, and for the first 8 years, the artists literally squatted the building, were kicked out as many times in those years and finally secured the building through a negotiation with the city. Now they pay for electricity, but the soul of the building and its original purpose has been maintained by Gaspard and his friend the Swiss Moroccan.
Tina loves to shop at the rough equivalent of our Target called Monoprix. They’re sometimes a grocery store and sometimes a department store. And if you’re lucky, both.
We met other American’s one night for drinks. We ate at our favorite bistro boulangerie Bechu. We ate at a couple different restaurants, including “La Petite Tour” and “Le Passy” which were located a few minutes walk from our 16th Arrondissement AirBnB, with views of the Eiffel Tower that were amazing.
We also ate dinner in the Latin quarter called “Le Relais d’Entrecote“. There are three in Paris and one in Geneva. We ate there on the recommendation of one of my favorite photographers, Jamie Beck at Ann Street Studio. In summery, it’s a badass experience. They ONLY serve steak and it’s one of the exceptions to the “you need reservations” rule.
You queue up outside of the restaurant around 7 and again around 9. You’re seated by a woman wearing a “French maid” outfit. And another French maid waitress comes and asks, “How would you like your steak?” You tell them. For me “saignant,” which is rare, more rare than we American’s would order. “A point” is more medium, but really medium rare. “Bleu” is still mooing and I think if you order it “bien cuit” or well done … you should kill yourself, idiot.
You also order a bottle of wine or drinks. You’re then served a simple walnut salad. Followed by a plate of the steak and frites served in sauce whose recipe is guarded in the brain of the restaurants’ founders. And when you’re finished with your first plate of food, they automatically layer on another serving of frites and meat. I think you can do all you can eat, but two servings are plenty. Then you choose a dessert, pay and make room for the next seating rush.
It was one of the best, most fun meals we’ve ever had in France. I wouldn’t say the sauce was amazing, but I wanna go back and experience again before I make that judgement. I was a little overwhelmed by the newness of the experience to really taste it for its honest-to-goodness greatness.
Staying in AirBnBs anywhere in the world has become our favorite way to travel. You literally live like a local. You have run ins with your neighbors, your super, the store owners in your hood. We frequent the same boulangeries, or wine shops or boucheries. Or if we’re in Italy or Turkey, the same thing. You become familiar with the locals and them with you.
Tina’s learning more and more French, and it’s getting to the point that more and more people don’t switch over to English when they talk to us both. Poor Tina doesn’t understand most of it, but she knows it’s important to me (and them) to keep the language native. We had a driver one day that wondered how I knew French so well. “People who live here 9 or 10 years don’t know French as well as you.”
I’ll work on a video and post it here when it’s ready.
Below are some street photos from our experience. Enjoy.