August is the month when France goes on vacation. In the early 1900s, “La Fermeture Annuelle” was a tradition to provide paid time-off to factory workers. By 1982, laws were passed giving five weeks of paid vacation to all salaried workers.
From late July to the end of August, Paris is quieter, the streets emptier, parking–not a problem. There are still tourists and some businesses remain open. But most small shops and restaurants are closed and shuttered as Parisians head for beaches, country homes, and relaxation elsewhere.
Then comes September and “La Bonne Rentrée”. Schools reopen and summertime is officially over. By the end of the first week of la rentrée, streets and cafés are full again. Curbside parking disappears for another year.
La Rentrée is a time to reconnect with friends, re-establish routines and reacquaint to life in Paris.
One of my favorite returning rituals is to spend a morning at the “Marché aux Puces” at Porte de Vanves. This isn’t the biggest flea market or even the most famous one in Paris. The mega-flea market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city, is where scenes from the movie “Midnight in Paris” were filmed.
I like the smaller venue in the southern 14th Arrondissement. It lines only two streets, for half a day on Saturdays and Sundays, year round. There are professional merchants with covered tables and reserved spots. There are others who sell from a blanket spread on the ground. It’s treasure hunting and people watching fun. The crowd is both local and tourist.
When looking for something special, like an antique enamel coffeepot for a story about Swedish egg coffee An Egg in the Coffeepot, I headed to the flea market. At other times, without a particular goal, I have stumbled upon useful items such as porcelain towel bars or heavy glass candleholders or Japanese-occupation pottery plates which we collected in Taiwanese street markets twenty years ago.
Sometimes an excursion is rewarded with a beautiful signed vase or a framed picture for the wall. And sometimes–nothing at all.
Flea markets are recycled decorating ideas or collecting at its’ best. The volume and range of objects astounds. Even knowing, “one man’s trash is another’s treasure”, it’s hard not to be judgmental of some objects on display for sale. Odd, quirky, eccentric, useful, cheap, expensive, collectible, colorful, playful, beautiful, strange, or simply weird. It’s all there for a price. Bargaining is essential, bien sûr.
I go to the Marché aux Puces for entertainment, to see what’s there, to eavesdrop on interactions between shoppers and vendors, to stroll along and muse over oddities with a cup of coffee or vin chaud [in wintertime] from the corner kiosk.
The adventure never disappoints. It’s an annual ritual that reminds me that I’m back home in my favorite city in the world.
Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place central square is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.
For me, the importance of Brussels is tied to memories of food I ate there while visiting a friend years ago. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.
In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved there from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. An over-sized skylight opened to fresh air and rooftop views. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator.
I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little Swiss girl who slept in a hayloft. I had flown from Asia into a fairytale.
A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black-caped superhero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone else in Brussels, he loved pommes frites.
Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. A range of sauces is offered to go on top. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold February days. And stayed warm to our bones.
While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker through the middle and more irregular around the edge.
Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals crunched and then dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning on a cobblestoned square with gothic spires and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.
My food-writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.
“In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.”–m.f.k. fisher
Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”
“And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…” –m.f.k. fisher
MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, moments like these are personal and hard to describe.
In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.
On a side street, I spotted a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside there was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.
The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. “Moules-frites” because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.
September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.
They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side, and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu but the kitchen obliged.
The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo Zeeland mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.
The best accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.
Mussel memory in Brussels will always be one of my food highlights. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.
“...Everything is right. Nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” –mfk fisher
Fisher describes it better than anyone. Mussels in Brussels. C’est très bon.