Love Lessons in Paris

This post comes after a long break; I was in Paris, one of my cities. There are three metropolises in the world that are mine. Three places in which I feel, not perfectly at home, nor perfectly at ease, but perfectly at unease: where the strangeness of city life is exactly the strangeness that I can embrace, or tolerate, or endure. I love people for their faults -- I can admire a person's great qualities, accomplishments, and virtues, but I can only love them if I find their self-deceptions, insecurities, and character flaws heartbreaking and sweet at once -- and the same goes for places. New York I love for its inhumanity, its cruelty, its rush of people and traffic and money and words; in that inhuman place I can operate invisibly, part of the world but not of it, in a little bubble that gets knocked around and ignored but out of which I can see the most amazing things. Bombay I love for its claustrophobic-inducing crush of beings, its predilection for wearing people to the bone, its hungry hordes (not simply hungry from lack but sometimes instead from ambition); in this place where no one feels they have enough -- and where many genuinely don't -- I can recognize my own satedness, but I can also feel fully spent, exhausted, stripped to the bone.

Paris is more complicated for me. Beyond the romance and wonders and beauty of the city (which hardly need enumerating, so I won't try), it's the snobbishness, the sheer elitism, the ingrained sense of cultural superiority that energizes and enervates me. Paris resembles the people in my life whose faults I devoured because they confirmed my own insecurities: whose rigid standards and harsh judgements and snobbish pretensions and over-exacting taste found me lacking, and whose propensity to find me lacking was only encouraged by my own feeling of lack. I lack culture, I lack a place in the world, I lack the ability to operate with grace, I lack manners, I lack even grammar and language and words. I run to the arms of Paris the way I run into the arms of these people who tell me I'm not enough: I love their conditional acceptance of me because it's as far as I'm willing to go in accepting myself. Paris despises me in the precise way I want to be despised. It represents for me a level of correctness that I will never achieve. It is the city of the "just so." I am never just so: I'm always too much or not enough.

So: for all the years I've been going here -- since that blond-lit first summer of life with the man who would become my husband, living in an apartment that overlooked a leafy courtyard and from which you could see the dome of the Pantheon, listening to Miles Davis and preparing dinner in the tiny kitchen and drinking inexpensive wines from places we would mark on a map of France -- going to Paris has been something I've faced with joy and love but also a great deal of anxiety. An anxiety about stupid small things, because of course that is the nature of the snobberies of belongingness, isn't it: the nineteenth century in Europe famously ushered in a moment where the merest cut of a coat or the choice of flower in a vase or the selection of the just right word when telling a joke was a matter of grave import, because these were the things -- now that everyone was shopping at the same department stores and strolling the same streets and going to the same cafés concerts -- that would identify one's entitlement. We still live in that moment, of course. And so, in those days leading up to each trip I've taken there, I sweat the small stuff: What will I wear? How will my French sound? Can I wear these shoes, or will they look too American? Should I buy a new book bag -- something that looks less like what a visitor might carry? Will the workers at the libraries bring me my books or will they require me to fill out a million forms and present a thousand justificatifs only to inform me in the end that the book is indisponsible? Will even a little blush and eyeliner make me feel overly made up? (The answer to this last is always yes: French Women Don't Wear Makeup.)

I react to my visits to Paris, that is to say, the way I react to meeting a man I've secretly fallen in love with who hasn't yet made clear his feelings for me: with all the butterflies and the pleasure and the building desire and the excitement, but also with the nervousness. The terror that he won't find me worth loving. The terror that I am not worth loving. Paris: the city of dysfunctional romance.

This time, though, this trip -- it was different. It was the first I made there after my marriage ended. I calculated recently that in total I've probably spent three years of my life in Paris; two weeks of those were without my ex. The last time I was there, it was for a brief "save the marriage" trip; though we settled into a routine that marked, in the past, our happiness -- time with our dearest friends (my daughter's godparents) and their son, strolling through the familiar neighborhoods, dinners at our favorite wine bar -- it was that city and that routine that was coercing us to seem, look, act, maybe even briefly be happy. We split up weeks after we got back. And now, almost four years later, a return. 

This would be different, of course -- not only because of the "without him"-ness, but because of the "with her"-ness: I went with my almost-nine-year-old daughter, who had heard about and seen pictures of her summers in the city back when she was almost one and almost two but had no direct memory of playing in the park under the shadow of the Tour Eiffel and speaking baby French to the ladies at the best bakery in Paris and eating orange buns and running in the fountains of the parc André Citroën. She went back, I think, with a sense that it was part of her history, the part of the story where both of her parents were with her everyday: it was for her a mythic past. She made me tell her endlessly how she would mimic the people who left work in the courtyard under our apartment every night just at her bedtime; she was speaking French words before she spoke English ones, and it was only when a French friend heard her babbling that her talking was recognized as such. She made me mimic her asking "Une baguette, s'il vous plaît" to the women at the boulangerie in her baby voice, tickled at the idea of shopping in Paris.

I'm not sure that I can write about what going with her was like -- not adequately, of course, but then writing never is, is it? It was joyful, put simply. Her enthusiasm, her willingness to try anything and do anything once I actually got her out of bed in the morning, her interest in the things she was seeing, her energy, her intelligence: I saw the city with new eyes. With innocent ones. She swooned over the baguettes at Eric Kayser -- she had never eaten such good sandwiches IN HER LIFE EVER -- and became a connoisseur of macarons -- the best, in her opinion, were jasmine tea-flavored and a mix of apricot, peach, and saffron, both from Pierre Hermé. She insisted on getting audioguides to every museum we went to, and would methodically listen to every recorded narrative; at the end of the day, when her godparents asked what she had seen, she would tell them with real understanding the stories of the Egyptian artifacts, the Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun portrait, the uses of the Melanesian ancestor carvings, the layout of the Roman baths. When I refused to get the audioguide at the Musée d'Orsay -- "I'M your audioguide, chickadee" -- she made me give her an exhaustive museum tour, complete with cultural history and visual analysis of the pictures and objects on display. She walked with minimal complaint for so many hours a day that she wore through the soles of a brand-new pair of shoes over the course of two weeks, and though she would pass monuments seemingly uninterested in them, later she would recall some detail that would have required close attention to see. She attacked the "soldes" -- the semi-annual sales -- with the enthusiasm of a professional shopper, and tried to convince me to buy her Pucci dresses and prescription glasses frames and high-heeled shoes. She ate rabbit (with olives and preserved lemon) for the first time; she relished a macaron filled with boudin (blood sausage) that we tried at L'Avant Comptoir; she ate raclette (potatoes covered with melted Gruyere) every time it was on the menu. (Why this winter comfort food was on the menu so often in Paris in July is itself a mystery). She was shocked that everyone smoked and that there were so many naked ladies in the ads. She got obsessed with tearing strips off posters pasted on hoardings. She became my guide on the Métro, learning all the stops on all the lines and pronouncing them like a Parisienne. She puzzled over the word "Parisienne." She embraced our friends, her godparents and their son, with a natural affection that was returned tenfold. 

I watched her love the city unconditionally, and saw the city love her back. After all these years, it was this -- this experience -- that changed Paris for me. It wasn't that somehow I suddenly felt I belonged there, that I was now at ease: I will never feel these things because unbelonging and uneasefulness is part of who I am. But now, being with her, watching her experience this place as a new world and take it at face value, the good and the weird both, I no longer cared whether I looked or acted or ate or strolled or sat or savored correctly; it was enough that I did those things with an enchantment that matched hers. I loved the city unconditionally, and it didn't matter in the least whether it loved me back. The joy was in the loving, as it is with a parent towards a child, or a child towards a parent.

Soupe au Pistou
Serves 6

Louise made me a lovely version of this Provençal summer soup one night, reminding me how much I love it. It is a simple preparation, a clean, clear broth full of summer vegetables and topped with a dollop of pistou, a pesto that most often dispenses with the pine nuts used in the Italian version in favor of the sunny taste of basil, olive oil, garlic, and cheese. I used some homemade Italian-style pesto in my bowl; you could use a good store-bought variety as well.

1. Cover 1 c dried cannelini beans, cranberry beans, or flageolets (or a combination) with 3 c boiling water and let soak for 1-2 hrs. Rinse, put in a saucepan, cover with about 6 c cold water, and bring to a boil on the stove; let cook until tender. If you can get fresh shell beans, however, skip this step and add 1 c of these in step 2 where indicated.

2. In 3 TB extra-virgin olive oil, sauté 1/2 onion, diced, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 diced celery stalk and 2 diced carrots. When soft but not browned, add your other vegetables: one large potato, diced, a 1 good handful of green beans cut into 1/2 inch pieces, about 1 c diced zucchini or yellow summer squash (or a combination), and the same amount of shredded Savoy cabbage works. Sauté for a few minutes, adding a couple of large pinches of salt.

3. Add 8 c pseudo-brodo (see below), low-sodium chicken broth, a half-and-half combination of canned beef broth and water, vegetable broth, or water to the pot, along with 2 small ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped. Add a small bouquet of thyme, parsley, and bay leaves tied with kitchen string, and a good pinch of salt. Add the soaked dried beans or fresh shell beans. Bring to a simmer and let cook for about 20 minutes. (If you've used fresh shell beans, cook until the beans are just shy of tender). Salt generously.

4. Add 1/2 c small pasta, such as ditalini. Allow to simmer at a lively pace until pasta is cooked and vegeables are tender. Taste for salt.

5. Serve in shallow bowls, topped with homemade or store-bought pesto to taste; I prefer to have my guests add the pesto themselves at the table.

Pseudo-Brodo or White Stock
Makes 2 quarts

This is the broth that I prefer to use for soups like this -- not quite as sharp as chicken broth, and light, made with more meat than bones. I call it pseudo-brodo because it's inspired by Marcella Hazan -- the recipes are nothing alike, but she insists on a meat-based broth, light on the chicken, for her soup recipes. The recipe is quite impressionistic, because (contrary to popular belief) making broth or stock should be a quick, easy, and forgiving process, something to do when you've gathered enough bits of stuff -- bones, scraps of meat, vegetable remnants, etc. -- that it's worth throwing them in a pot and turning them into something delicious. There are things to avoid: unless you're making Chinese soups, don't add pork to your broth, and avoid lamb, too. Strong-tasting vegetables (including most of the cruciferous ones) will add a bitter taste. No starchy ones, either. I avoid tomatoes, too: I'm looking for a pure, clean broth with little acidity. Because it doesn't cook as long as a traditional chicken broth or beef stock, the meat you use comes out useable, so don't be shy.

1. Put a combination of meat and bones -- more meat and bones -- into a large stockpot. You should have about 1.5 lbs of chicken/beef/veal if you use it in the pot. For today's batch, I used beef marrow bones and about a pound of boneless skinless chicken breasts.

2. Add aromatic vegetables: 1 peeled carrot broken into chunks, a stalk or two of celery cut into big chunks, the leftover greens from a leek if you have it, half of a small yellow onion. Tie up a small handful of parsley and a small handful of thyme with kitchen string and thow it in, along with one bay leaf. Add cold water to cover, 3 quarts if you can manage to get it in the pot; if not, add what you can now and keep adding the balance of the three quarts as it bubbles and evaporates over the course of cooking.

3. Slowly bring to a simmer. As the broth heats, skim off the "scum" that rises to the surface using a slotted spoon. The more of this stuff you can skim, the clearer the broth will be in the end, but don't be OCD about it (or really, about anything). Don't let the broth boil, or it will churn that stuff back into your pretty soup.

4. After the meat is cooked but not inedibly dry, you can remove it and continue to simmer the broth with the bones and vegetables. Let simmer for about 1.5 hrs.

5. Strain through a fine sieve lined with paper towels or cheesecloth into a large glass bowl. I often use unbleached coffee filters for this step because in addition to catching impurities, it catches the fat in the broth. You have to change out the filter a few times during the straining process if you use this method.

6. Cool the broth. Use immediately or transfer to containers and freeze.