It’s All About the Shoes

 

“With four pairs of shoes I can travel the world.”

Coco Chanel

 

It should probably come as no surprise that the Trip Advisor Forum is bursting with questions from women travelers about what to put on their feet.

Men, I’m guessing, find this a bit puzzling. For heaven’s sake, put on some Nikes and let’s go! But for women, it’s just not that simple. There are nuances when it comes to just the right shoes. After all, how many pairs are stacked in our closets, each with its own level of dress-up or dress-down, its own situational appropriateness? Really dressy, somewhat dressy, stilettos, kitten-heeled, just-for-work, just-for-weekends, peep-toes, loafers, Mary Janes, sandals, wedges, slides, low boots, tall boots… And this is just the black shoes, not the ones in other colors.

So, choosing just the right shoes for a month in Paris is no small task. Like Coco, I needed four pairs.

First of all, no gym shoes. Not the athletic type,  I’m not going to clomp around Paris, home of haute couture, in cross-trainers.

On the other end of the hell, no spectrum, anything with a heel. Sure, chic European women may stride along in their dizzingly-high Christian Louboutins, but let’s get real.

Hoping to find a pair of sandals and casual flats, I’ve combed the online pages of DSW, scoured their aisles, armed with this list of criteria.

Comfortable, really, really comfortable

Support so I can walk for miles

City-appropriate

Reasonably priced

Not too frumpy

And, if possible, cute

Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

First, I bought a pair of black leather Merrell’s sandals. They weren’t ugly and nothing rubbed. So what’s the problem? Seems that soft leather can be too soft – and stretchy. The straps keep getting looser and looser, and I keep tightening them. Now, my toes are now dangling off the fronts of the footbed, and my heels still slap-slap-slap.

Next, I purchased a trendy-enough pair of Clark’s, fabric Mary Janes with a good, solid sole. They felt dandy when I tried them on in the store. The online reviews were fabulous. “I wore them all day on the first day and never had a problem! The most comfortable shoes in the whole wide world! They gave me blisters in three places. I’ve worked on breaking them in, and  now they’re wearable, just not for the long haul.

Now what? The hunt continued, and I’ve revisited my list of criteria. Cute would have to go. I’ve settled on these.

bmev   sandalsbzees

Coco, I shudder at what your reaction would be to this sad selection.

And, for that fourth pair? Gonna throw in a pair of ballet flats, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Madeline: Books about Paris

“In an old house covered with vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines

They left the house at half past nine…

The youngest one was Madeline.”

Ludwig Bemelmans; Madeline

 

I met Madeline when I was a little girl, and she and the “little girls all in a row” enchanted me. I knew nothing about Paris then, but I coveted Madeline’s bright blue coat, her red bow, her jaunty hat with the black ribbon, and all of her adventures in Paris with friends just her age. I was a bit envious of her appendectomy — look at all the attention she got. Being an orphan didn’t even seem so bad, not that I had any real idea what an orphan was. Madeline is now seventy-five years old and still enthralling little girls.

With its rich history and beauty, Paris makes the perfect setting for a good read. What a delight it was to walk into my local indie bookstore, Anderson’s Bookshop, and find this display of books about Paris, presided over by Madeline herself!

photo (60)

Here are two more of my favorites, completely different from Madeline and from each other.

While browsing the “What’s New” shelf in the Sarasota Public Library, I found Paris Letters: One Woman’s Journey from the Fast Lane to a Slow Stroll in Paris, by Janice MacLeod. I read this little charmer in a day. The author describes her disenchantment with her job as a copy editor, and her decision to chuck it all and move to Paris. First, she figures out exactly how much this will cost and what she’ll have to do to acquire this amount. And then, in one year, she does it. Her story of setting off on her own in quest of her dream is a lovely mix of practical how-to’s, humor, and romance, with the vibrancy of Paris pouring from every page. Her descriptions of the market on Rue Mouffetard have put this spot on my “must-do” list.

A favorite from several years ago is Abundance, Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel of Marie Antoinette. In the voice of Marie Antoinette, the story is rich with intimate details of the often sumptuous, ultimately tragic life of this infamous queen of France.

Most of us know some basics about Marie Antoinette, typically characterized as a heartless royal who dismissed her starving subjects with, “Let them eat cake.” Naslund’s story debunks this myth and leads us into the glittering halls of Versailles to become acquainted with a sweet-tempered, gentle woman.

The story begins when a fourteen-year-old Marie leaves Austria, after her mother, the Empress, arranges her marriage to the adolescent Dauphin, Louis XVI. Marie, duty-bound to produce offspring, immediately charms the French and begins her life at the Palace of Versailles. While opulence abounds and Marie is smothered by constant attention of courtiers, life is incomplete. Naslund creates a woman alive with passion. Yes, Marie has her vices, especially a love of gambling and extravagant clothing. But Naslund’s Marie is not flighty or cold; she is a kind friend, a loyal spouse, a loving mother to her children, and a devotee of opera and art.

The abundance of Versailles creates a sharp contrast to portents of doom as unrest festers throughout France. I was riveted and haunted by Marie’s terrible final months, days and hours. The steps up the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution have lingered in my mind long after the blade of the guillotine crashed down, and will impact my view of the Palace when we visit there.

 

 

Paris, encore

“Paris is always a good idea.”

Audrey Hepburn

 

Our first trip to France in 1996 was a doozie. Along with our best friends Mike and Mary Jane, we spent fifteen days seeing Paris, Giverny, Mont St. Michel, St. Malo, the Loire Valley, Angers, Albi, Avignon, St. Remy, Baux-en-Provence, Eze Village, Monte Carlo, and Cannes. This week, I dug out the little journal I’d kept so I could relive our long-ago adventure.

In Paris, on the morning we arrived, we hiked from our hotel near the Opera Garnier to Notre Dame, then headed for the Pompideau Center, took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower, and rode the Metro back to the hotel just in time to get ready for dinner.

On our second day, we explored the Louvre, toured the Picasso Museum, strolled the Champs-Elysees, and dined at a restaurant near our hotel. Up and at ‘em the third day, we took the train to Versailles, gawked at the Palace inside and out, returned to Paris for lunch and a visit to the Musee d’Orsay, a stroll down the Rive Gauche, and dinner.

Versailles, the Musee d’Orsay, and the Champs-Elysees all in one day? Were we insane? No, I don’t think so. After all, we were eighteen years younger, and we wanted to take in as much as we could. My journal entries sound lucid enough, and I can recall many facets of all of these wonderful places. Yes, we fell in love with France in 1996, but, holy cow! What a pace!Paris in 1998

We returned to Paris in 2004, when we took a barge trip from Strasbourg to Nancy. Only in Paris for one day, we wandered around the Tuileries, Sainte Chappelle, and the Right Bank. We viewed the Eiffel Tower from our hotel room. Once again, we were smitten.

paris pic 2004

Years have passed: the photo from ’96 shows just how much. Yes, we really did pound the pavement in white gym shoes, and we’d not been advised that women in Paris don’t walk around in shorts or bright colors. At least by ’04, our clothes were more subdued, and we girls had given up the gym shoes.

Some places we’ve seen fit into the “check it off” category. While I like Spain well enough, I don’t crave a trip back to Seville. But Paris? That’s different. It’s not a “been there, done that” kind of place. Experiencing Paris in ’98 and in ’04 only whet our appetite for more. This time, we plan to take it slow. With the luxury of twenty-eight days, there’s no need to power through two museums in one day. When September ends, will we be ready to “check it off” or will we be more enamored with Paris? Time will tell, but I’m guessing that we’ll have found even more to love about the city on the Seine.

Ou est la bibliotheque?

“Boy, those French. They have a different word for everything.”

Steve Martin

Dis donc! and something about des saucisses et des frites still rattle around in my brain decades after the ALM French I took in high school. ALM was all the rage in the 60’s, and our brand new high school was equipped with state-of-the-art language labs, rows of little cubicles with headphones that pumped in the dialog so we could ecouter et repeter.

Malhuereusement, I wasn’t much of a French student. In the lab, I huddled silently in my cubicle, writing notes to my friends instead of listening to insipid conversations about hot dogs and French fries. When the click sounded, signaling that my teacher had tuned in, I straightened up, and mumbled along until she clicked off. Dead language or not, I much preferred Latin, and can still rattle off some conjugations (amo, amas, amat)and some pithy lines (Gallia est omnia divisa in tres partes.).

When we went to Paris in ’96, I wished I had paid more attention in French class instead of writing notes about upcoming sock hops. One afternoon, we were looking for the Metro, so I approached two ladies. “Bonjour. Excuse-moi. Ou est le Metro?” I asked, pleased at my ability to form this question. When they answered, I stood there slack-jawed, completely at a loss. Luckily, the nice ladies recognized the universal facial expression for “Huh?” and with hand signals, directed us to the Metro.

For our four weeks in Paris, I decided to learn some French. Do I think that Parisians will be dying to chat us up at the local café? No, although wouldn’t that be fun? But, maybe I could learn to make a dinner reservation, speak with a merchant in a market, or ask a simple question instead of just pointing and gesturing.

I consulted my friend Sue, a retired French teacher and francophile, who’s willing to get together for some practice. She also steered me to Pimsleur’s French. I checked out the 30 CD set from the bibliotheque, so each day, I listen and repeter words, phrases and sentences. Right out of the gate, I learned how to say “I don’t understand French” and “Do you understand English?” After I complete the two lessons, I pop the CD in my car and speak French wherever I go.

Facile ou dificile?

Dificile pour moi. First of all, my pronunciation. The French language is beautiful, gliding along like a prima ballerina en pointe. My sentences clunk along, a Midwesterner in Uggs. Then, the letter v is everywhere. Veux, va, vient, voyer, voudrais, vingt, and vin are a snarl in my head. And verb tenses? Mon deux! Can’t we all speak in the present, and let the listener guess if we mean today, yesterday, or tomorrow? I have a renewed admiration for the adult English language learners I’ve tutored for the past several years. It’s tough going.

I’m happy to say, though, that I’ve learned some soon-to-be useful sentences. C’est combien? (How much is this?) and Je voudrais un verre du vin blanc (I would like a glass of white wine.) should get me through the day.

 

 

 

Paris: Pinterest-Style

 

“Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”

Paul Theroux

 

Aaah, Paris…

The sophisticated cafés, the cobblestone streets, the grand boulevards, and the Eiffel Tower. In September, we’ll be immersed in this storied city, gathering memories at every turn.

 

Now, I’m feeding my hunger for the sights of Paris by scrolling through Pinterest. Hundreds of photos oozing with je ne sais crois are a feast for my eyes. I drool over every quaint nook and cranny, I ogle every grand magasin, I swoon over romantic rainy streets shrouded in fog. But, when we’re there, schlepping around from place to place, will I find the details as delightful? Or will my infatuation fade as we grapple with the not-so-perfect scenarios no one ever posts on Pinterest?

 

Squishy sandals and an inside-out umbrella are sure to dampen my enthusiasm for strolling along the Seine in a downpour. And what if that impossibly enchanting shop with the cheerful French proprietor is AWOL among graffiti-smeared burglar doors and dingy tabacs?

 

Getting lost and discovering that charming little patisserie is every traveler’s dream, unless you’ve gone hopelessly astray with my Type A map-clutching husband. Will we go with the flow of the moment, chuckling over our confusion? Or, will frustration erupt into one of those unfortunate teeth-clenched conversations?

 

“We should have turned back there.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said, but you ignored me.”

“Well, if you were so sure, why didn’t you insist that I listen to you?”

“Wait, it’s my fault you ignored me?”

 

Then, there’s feasting on French cuisine… what could go wrong? Two words: organ meat. What if le garçon serves up a steaming plate of pig’s brains whose true identity was cleverly disguised on the menu with elegant, incomprehensible French? No amount of sauce du vin could keep me from gagging.

 

And sitting at a sidewalk cafe sipping coffee? I hate coffee, no matter how much sucre or lait is poured into it. My daytime drink of choice is a Diet Coke, and in Paris, the price of a daily dose in a teensy, lukewarm can could translate into a Chanel bag. Besides, my Diet Coke is sure to provoke an eye roll from the chic Parisians at the next table. How will I quench my thirst for my bubbly thirty-ouncer while I’m quenching my thirst for the Parisian ambiance?

 

A month in Paris is sure to be loaded with hassles. Rick Steves says, “Travel, like the world, is a series of hills and valleys. Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic.”

 

So, we’re packing that fanatic optimism we need to take on the nitty-gritty and the glory of the Ville de Lumieres.

 

 

 

Doing My Homework

“The best thing about a vacation is planning it.”

Andy Rooney

 

With twelve months of anticipation to enjoy, I’ve fed my Paris obsession by stalking the France forum on Trip Advisor. What began as a once-in-a- while check became a daily check-in as summer rolled around.

 

Reading it is an education in all things Paris, and it seems no question lies there unanswered for long. Travelers love to advise other travelers, and say, “Here’s what we did.” A couple folks, with time on their hands and knowledge to share, respond to nearly every post. Just who is the guy who calls himself Kerouac? And is HappyGoin really that happy? Don’t know, but they sure know their Paris.

 

Some posts deal in minutia: “If I get off at the blah-blah Metro stop, do I walk left or right to get to Rue de la La-la-la?” Really, you’d go on a France forum for that? Why not look at a map, or ask the gentleman carrying home his baguette?

 

Other questions are wildly general and pretty darn stupid. “My boyfriend and I are going to Paris. What sights should we see there?” I roll my eyes at these dumb bunnies, but the kindly Kerouac patiently suggests buying a guide book, googling Paris sights, and figuring out what you would like to see or do.

 

Still, there’s plenty of useful info. Never rent from an outfit called Paris Attitude. Seems they really do have an attitude. Don’t eat at a cafe that has a “tourist menu” posted outside, unless you want over-priced faux French frites. And don’t try to zip through the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, and the Eiffel Tower in one afternoon.

 

Is it uncool to wear gym shoes?(Not that I would ever…) Well, as long as they’re not the big white ones, it’s fine. You have “American” stamped on your forehead anyway, so you might as well be comfortable. Strap on that fanny pack, grab that Big Gulp water bottle, unfold that tablecloth-sized map, and enjoy.

 

As for tips, a euro, maybe two is plenty … really! In Paris, cafes pay les garcons a decent salary, and it’s only the Americans who have been guilted into tipping. Of course, it’s best not to ask le garcon if tip is included. He might be “confused“ by your question and say “non”.

 

Avoid petition girls, who’ll ask you to sign their clipboards while their accomplices are stealing your wallet. Please don’t contribute to the Love Lock epidemic. Parisians despise the clods junking up of their lovely bridges. And, oh yeah, at a laundromat, put your coins in a central box; there are no coin slots on the machines themselves.

 

Armed with this insider knowledge and my sturdy cross-body bag, I’m just about ready to go.

 

 

Carpe-ing Our Diem

“Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only the moment, sparkling like a star in our hand and melting like a snowflake.”

Marie Beyon Ray

 

“We should have travelled when we had our health…”

“When we could easily walk around…”

“We’d love to, but…”

Illness, elderly parents, bum knees, money issues have a knack for waylaying plans.

Last summer, after a several years long hiatus, we went back to Europe, to Venice and Tuscany. This bucket list adventure made me long for more. But how many more trips could we manage? First, there’s the expense of travelling abroad, but there are also other sticking points. Right now, we can navigate the internet to plan a trip, figure out the challenges of finding our way, walk around for hours, and, yes, savor the adventure. But our stamina and wherewithal may be diminished in five years, or ten, or fifteen.

Sipping prosecco on a Tuscan terrace, we hatched a plan. Living for a time in Europe and not just passing through has always been a “wouldn’t that be great?” for us. Could we make this fantasy a reality? What if we rented an apartment in Paris and immersed ourselves in its way of life for a couple of weeks? How about three weeks? What about four?

No sooner were we back from our Italian trip, still gobsmacked by the wonder of all we’d seen and done, that we began to explore our options. September 2014, a year away, could be our month in Paris. Did I dare entertain such a vision? I wanted to act fast, to get this trip on the books, before life got in the way.

The research began. Where in Paris could or should we stay? And, good Lord, how much would it be? Websites of Paris apartments are all over the place, each promising the best accommodations in the City of Light. Rick Steves, the folksy guidebook author, steered us in a couple of directions, but the prices weren’t so folksy. I sniffed around on Trip Advisor just enough to find out about some must-be-avoided-at-all-costs rental agencies, and to soak up some paranoia about what could go wrong. My cousin gave me the name of an agency they’d used, and I studied the options, gave myself a quick course in Paris arrondissements, and zeroed in.

One studio looked darling… freshly updated albeit tiny kitchen and bath, clean, comfy-looking furniture, and cute curtains on the floor-length windows. Then I read about the street it was on, its sex shops and madames of the evening hanging out on the corner. Merci, non.

With “location, location, location” as our mantra, we settled on the Latin Quarter, oozing old Paris charm, and walking distance to most of the touristy stuff.

Some apartments in our price range were quickly dismissed, like sixth floor pied-a-terres in no-elevator buildings. Others featured sleeping lofts. With a charming timber-beamed ceiling a couple feet over the mattress, our heads would become nests of goose eggs. And a ladder to get up there? I pictured navigating rickety steps around three a.m. for our nightly visit to la toilette, and tossed loft-style into the reject pile. One place’s photos looked promising, but the zoom- in feature on my iPad helped me spot some black mold in the shower tile. Ugh. Another had molded plastic chairs as living room furniture, hardly where I’d like to plop after a long day of sightseeing.

After weeks of narrowing the search and vetting the agency, we were ready to choose. The Geneviev, as it’s named on the website, is a tidy second floor studio on Rue de la Montagne Ste. Genevieve, near the church of St. Etienne du Mond and the Pantheon. The shower stall and the kitchen sink are mold-and-dirt-free, as far as I can tell, and the furniture, including a Murphy bed, is simple and serviceable. Big windows open onto a winding little street, and there’s a cozy little restaurant across the way. We crossed our fingers, and with some taps on the keyboard, forked over a deposit on our dream.