La Bonne Rentrée in Paris

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August is the month when France goes on vacation. “La Fermeture Annuelle” is a tradition which originated in the early 1900s to provide paid time-off for 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, the city of 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 sunny beaches, country homes, and relaxation elsewhere.

Then comes September and “La Bonne Rentrée”. Schools reopen and sleepy summertime is over. By the end of the first week, streets and cafés are full once again. Curbside parking disappears for another year.

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un café timeout

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une bouteille de vin rouge timeout

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 in Paris or even the most famous. The gigantic market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city, is where Woody Allen filmed scenes for his movie “Midnight in Paris”.

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I much prefer 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 both treasure hunting and people watching fun–crowded with locals and tourists.

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The entertainer,

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the daydreaming vendor,

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the watchful merchant,

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the consideration,

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the negotiation, and

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the transaction.

When looking for something special, like an antique enamel coffeepot for a story about Swedish egg coffee [An Egg in the Coffeepot, Oct. 4, 2014], I headed to the flea market. At other times, without a particular goal, I have stumbled upon useable finds such as porcelain towel bars or heavy glass candleholders or Japanese-occupation pottery plates which we began collecting in Taiwanese street markets twenty years ago.

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red is best

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japanese-occupation, circa 1895-1945, made in taiwan

Sometimes an excursion is rewarded with a beautiful signed vase or a framed picture for the wall. Or nothing at all.

Flea markets are recycled decorating ideas or collecting at its’ best. The sheer volume and range of objects astounds. Even keeping in mind the adage, “One man’s trash is another’s treasure”, it’s impossible not to be judgemental. 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.

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The odd,

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the quirky,

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the eccentric, and

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the useful.

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The cheap, for a discerning eye,

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the expensive, and

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the collectibles.

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The colorful,

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the playful,

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the beautiful,

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the strange, and

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simply, the weird.

Most of the time 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 coffee in hand or, in winter, a cup of vin chaud [hot wine] sold at the corner kiosk. On a perfect day, the corner café features a temptable lunch offering.

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The adventure never disappoints. It’s simply a rentrée ritual to remind me that I’m back in my favorite city in the world.

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I. M. Pei’s pyramid

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Mussel Memory, Revisited

Disclosure: A technical error sent an unedited draft of this story to readers on email, Facebook, and Google +. This is the version I wanted to publish. 

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Hotel de Ville [City Hall] on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

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 is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction. But the importance of Brussels, to me, is tied to memories of food I ate there thirteen years ago while visiting a friend. For the past five years we have lived next door to Belgium, in France. In February it was time to revisit. We set out on a little road trip.

In 2002, while we were living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels where she had moved several years before. She and her family lived in an attached row house of many ascending levels. The guest quarters were on the top floor, under the eaves. The ceiling angled sharply down from the peaked roof. A big skylight opened to fresh air, clouds, sun, or neighboring rooftops. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet covered in green and white gingham. An adjoining bathroom housed a large bathtub and towels that were warmed by a radiator attached to the wall. I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the Swiss children’s book by Johanna Spyri. I flew out of Asia into a fairytale.

A small boy who believed he was Batman also lived in the household. It was nearly impossible to separate costume and character from the child. I was the guest in a house-of-many-levels with a miniature black caped, masked action hero and his parents. At his French pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect accent that I can only dream about for myself. And, like everyone in Brussels, he adored pommes frites. 32965c

Frites are a national snack food as well as a side dish. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts are dedicated to selling paper cones of frites, right out of the fryer, with a choice of sauces. They are eaten with tiny plastic forks. Each order is freshly made and always just right–crispy on the outside, feathery light on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected making frites precisely because they know that eating them outdoors on a freezing day warms your insides. On our recent visit we shared a cornet on two bitingly cold days. And stayed warm to our bones.

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side by side friteries

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sauces are tastier than you might think

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cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce [delicious!]

When Nancy took me to the Grand Place of landmark architectural fame, she said, “Here. You MUST eat this. Right now.” I was handed a hot waffle, wrapped in paper, from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker, and more irregular around the edges. I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized crystals of sugar crunched and then dissolved into pools of syrup, filling my mouth with warmth and sweetness. In that moment, time, place and taste blended together. A blustery winter morning, an historic square with ancient cobblestones and gothic spires, and a mouthful of fresh waffle. I never forgot it.

My food writing mentor, MFK Fisher, has her own version. As a young woman living in France in the 1920s she belonged to an Alpine hiking club. Most of the members were much older. She felt a bit lonely as the only foreigner. One very cold day, reaching the top of a steep hill and catching her breath, an old general said to her, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate. She writes, “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.” Another member of the group came bustling up to say, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady! Very bad for the interior, very bad.” She continues, “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…”

MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Two fine food moments. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. She intellectualizes, “It is, I am sure as much a matter of spirit as of body. Everything is right; nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” Still, these moments are very personal and often hard to describe.

Return visit 2015, I learned that waffle vendors are no longer in the Grand Place. Nearby, shop after shop sold waffles, mostly loaded with extras. We snapped a few photos, but it wasn’t what I wanted.

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waffles +++

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Then, on a side street, I spotted a parked truck with the words, “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. The inside had a thin layer of sweetness but no crunch to the bite. Perhaps he used a finely grained sugar that readily melted on the griddle. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.

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the lone street vendor

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but not the same waffle

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The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. Moules-frites, en Français, because they always come with fries. I ate them for the very first time at Aux Armes de Bruxelles with Nancy. And then recently, I ate them at the same restaurant, three times in three days, with my husband. We found no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians go there for a mussel fix too.

September to April is the best season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, which is 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.

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They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. Determining the best flavor of sauce was strictly trial and error. My husband found his favorite on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. Second time, I asked for a made-up combination, which became my personal best–white wine, lots of garlic and spicy red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu, but the kitchen obliged.

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The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of plump jumbo mussels, steamed heat and aromas from the sauce wafting up, followed by the pleasure of eating them one by one. We smiled and sighed between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.

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two ways to eat: using shell as utensil

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or the conventional fork

The choice of accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of red Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. Unanimously, our recommendable favorite was a bottle of white burgundy Chablis. Order it immediately and begin sipping while you wait.

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Mussel memory was still great despite the intervening years. Sharing the experience with a loved one was especially poignant. Together, we know what it means to have a “Fisher moment” of complete gastronomic satisfaction. Mussels in Brussels. C’était bon.

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flowing chocolate, another story

  • Aux Armes de Bruxelles
  • Rue des bouchers 13
  • 1000 Brussels
  • Tel: +32 [0] 2 511 55 50
  • Open 7/7 from noon to 10:45PM, Monday to Friday
  • Until 11:15PM Saturday and 10:30PM Sunday
  • http://www.auxarmesdebruxelles.com