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In Paris, I had decided that there were no … how shall I say? generously sized people in France. I’d seen a few folks who maybe could stand to lose 10 pounds, but no more. Most Parisians are stylishly svelte, and overweight foreign tourists stick out like sore thumbs in a crowded cafe.

In Paris, there is no scrimping on flavor or richness, either, although portion size is more moderate – more realistic – than a typical American restaurant or even private home portion. Still, most restaurants and homes serve dinner in multiple courses through an entire evening – there is an entrée, which is an appetizer course – this may be a simple salad or a fine pate. Next, there is a main course – always a meat (the French are mainly confirmed carnivores) served with some potatoes and vegetables. Next comes the cheese course, which is always my favorite – usually a selection of three or more cheeses, served with a basket of crusty French bread. And sometimes, if the cheese course is not taken as the last course, a dessert, which is a very small portion, and exquisite – the finest chocolate, rich creme brulee, a fine tarte of fresh berries or apple – you get the picture – and served at last with coffee and/or liqueur.

When you are dining out, or dining in a French home, if you don’t finish your entire meal, the waiter or your host will probably ask you (with some consternation) if something is wrong! (I don’t know about other women following this blog, but in Houston, I am the queen of the doggie bag; I seldom finish an entire dinner – not here in France!)

So how in the world do the Parisians do it? Not by going to the gym; I only saw an ad for one “gymnasium  de fitness” in Paris, and if you ask a Parisian if he or she “works out,” they just look at you uncomprehendingly.

I got a clue when I came down to the French countryside of Provence, and began seeing overweight people on the streets, in restaurants … and a few were pretty obese. The diet down here is much the same as in Paris – the Provencals also dine in multiple courses, as described above (although I do not see many cheese courses on the menus). The portions are the same, and the chefs here are obviously making a point not to be outdone by their Parisian counterparts for richness or imagination.

The only difference I can discern is … the walking.

Parisians, I am guessing, easily log at least 5 miles per day just walking around the city. Not powerwalking … but brisk, purposeful walking from point A to point B and beyond. Despite a wonderful Metro system, they usually prefer to walk if the walk’s not more than 20 minutes … and it shows.

Here in the provinces, I am guessing here, the villages are small and there is no need to walk 20 minutes across town to meet friends or get to work or shop. There are no shortages of cars here, either, while Parisians may not even own a car because of the trouble to park anywhere on the crowded French streets. So, I am thinking the Provencals eat pretty much the same – drive much more – walk much less – and are experiencing some of the same problems that we in America are experiencing in terms of weight, health, lifestyle.

Although I walked every day in Paris until my legs literally ached … I am driving much more as well in Provence, and walking less … so I am scaling back on the dessert option and (alas) the cheese as well. And that is a tough one, because those of you who know me well know that I am a notoriously picky eater, having sworn off red meat some years ago, and having a livelong aversion to eggs in any identifiable form.

So, here I am, in meat-and-egg land.

The other evening, at a really fine little French cafe, I ordered the dinner that I thought consisted of a salad appetizer, then morrel mushrooms in sauce, then a mild whitefish, then a dessert.

I got a serving of pate (which Len, who was given my portion to eat, assures me was really quite wonderful, if you eat pate, which I do not); then I got the sauce on which morels were arranged all right; when I plunged my spoon into it, I also discovered a poached whole egg beneath the sauce, and I almost fainted. I managed not to pass out, carefully ate the mushrooms (because by then, damn, I was hungry), and was really grateful when the next course was, indeed, fish.

So, even though there is no such thing as “eating light” down here, I doubt I will be in much danger of gaining a lot of weight. No, I am not even overindulging in all the fabulous wines of the region … when you are driving in a foreign country in an unfamiliar car down tiny, winding roads that are dark by the time you are ready to go home … you don’t drink much.

Vive le France!

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I don’t think I can say a lot more about the landscape of Provence – so many have rhapsodized about it. A really fun book to read sometime is Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence – about his journey from life in London as an advertising exec to life in the Luberon region of Provence. Quite a leap of faith, but this country inspires faith.

We are staying at simply the most beautiful B&B we’ve ever been, or at least one of the top 3. It is Chateau Talaud, and their Web site really doesn’t do it justice, so here are some photos that other guests have posted on TripAdvisor. The main house is quite large, divided into two areas – one for the couple who own and run the place, and the other side for guests. The Chateau is now owned by a very pleasant Dutch couple, Hein and Conny Deiters-Kommer, who have enhanced and cared for this property with much love and grace that permeates every step.They own two big Sharpei dogs – sisters – who are friendly and who prance around to greet the guests, then settle down on one of the little dog beds placed in the front yard where guests are taking the sun in one of the loungers. It is so quiet – you can only hear the trickle of water from the fountain feeding the pool, or the whoosh of the Mistral blowing through the leaves of the tall trees.

Across the little driveway that borders the main house and the guest houses, there are acres of vineyard – Hein has also created a thriving wine business. His wines have evidently won a number of awards, and he is currently marketing and exporting them to, of all places, Africa. We will be tasting some of them Wednesday night at a dinner at the main house.

[Vivian, as a sidenote: I the first morning we were here, and were having our breakfast at a sunny table on the front lawn, I asked Conny what was her favorite espresso maker. I had noted that in our apartment, she has carefully placed only the finest, from table linens to china (Villeroy & Boch) to comforters, so I knew she would have an opinion. She loves her – guess what? – Nespresso machine! She raved about it – says she has had it for 2 years, it’s so clean, makes great coffee, never has had a problem with it … I don’t know … we may yet become Pod People …]

I really love this place – here is a picture of the apartment in which we’re staying, the Talaud. It is quiet, tastefully decorated with the finest, and every detail has had loving attention. Conny says they are booked for the next 8 months … I don’t doubt it for a minute.

Sunday was a quiet day in Paris. The morning was rather gray – it rained hard early in the morning. Again it has become my habit to wake up much earlier than Len, and I read quietly in the living area while he dozed.

The clouds were still low and gray when he woke up, but we headed out anyway, and visited L’Orangerie museum, near the Tuileries and the Louvre.

I haven’t mentioned the Tuileries or the Louvre in this blog, I guess – we went through the both during our last visit to Paris a few years ago. The Louvre was at one time the royal palace of the French kings – think Louis XIV, a.k.a. The Sun King. He loved the best of the best in life, and the beauty of the building and all the wonderful art he collected and that had since been collected inside the Louvre reflects that. I saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, for example, and much more.

And what can I say about the Tuileries? It was the royal garden of Louis XIV, and bien sur, it is large and filled to the brim with roses, fountains, trees, shrubberies and topiary. The French love their gardens to hold an abundance of fragrance and color, a cacophony of beauty that is envisioned, planned achieved and maintained, like a piece of fine art or sculpture. They come to this place often, to sit quietly on one of the park benches and read a book, or talk to a companion, or just to be with nature in the middle of the city. In the midst of Paris, here is this marvellous garden that reflects the French aesthetic mirrored in any Renoir, any da Vinci.

The Orangerie was also very worthwhile. It contains many Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh. When we walked into the first room, I caught my breath: Each of the large, white walls of the room displayed a wall-size iteration of Monet’s water lilies. You may know that Monet had a home in Giverney, in the French countryside, and there, he tried to understand the subtle nuances of light and color as it changed natural scenes on his estate from season to season, and from time of day to time of day. So, he painted a number of versions of a large bale of hay, for instance – and I saw several of these in an exhibit that went through Houston about 10 years ago. Each beautiful – pale in snow in the winter, warm and golden in late summer sunshine.

But Monet’s waterlilies really became internationally famous – placid, elegant, and sometimes mysterious. And here were four, wall-sized paintings of the lilies, surrounding and engulfing me. I have seen the lilies when the pond is a rich shade of sapphire, catching the waning rays of a July afternoon and reflecting the green branches of trees overhead in its depth. And I have seen the lilies floating in water that is more like a mirror, a silvery gray and absolutely still, as if they are floating in time, during that brief space of dawn after the darkness of night and before the full sun of day. An amazing moment.

Early Monday morning we packed up our bags, pulled them out to the Taxi queue on the street, and headed back to de Gaulle airport, where we caught a flight to Marseille in southern France. There, we picked up our rental, silver BMW (with automatic transmission!), and headed off to the next phase of our adventure – Provence.

One of the cool items we seem to have in the kitchen of our tres chic St. Germaine des Pres apartment is a Nespresso machine.

Nespresso machines, I’ve come to learn, are all the rage in Paris. They are the latest advancement in the art of making l’espresso magnifique. It is quite easy to make a lovely espresso using this machine, I must say – simply ensure there’s water in the water reservoir, press the “on” button, insert one of the convenient Nespresso coffee pods into the pod holder, snap shut, and when the “on” button blinks on and off, press firmly on either the button emblazoned with a demitasse (to make an espresso) or a small cup and saucer (to make a cafe au lait or similar). A minute later, the dark, creamy liquid pours silkily from the spout, and you’ve got coffee.

Because guests at the apartment are asked to replace whatever staples they use (quite rightly), and because we are going through a number of these coffee pods, I went with our friends Jean-Pierre and Francoise yesterday to visit the Nespresso Store in our neighborhood.

The atmosphere inside the store is quiet – people who speak to each other are whispering.

On one side of the store, there were shelves displaying the latest models of Le Machine – many sizes and prices, starting at around 200 euros.

There were multiple cashiers working in two different areas, and customers lined up politely and waited for their turn to be served, like waiting to check bags at an airport.

While waiting in line, one could browse through a brochure that explained the different types of coffee pods available for purchase – Ristretto (regular espresso), Roma, Livanto, Cosi, etc.

You can also read all about the history of Nespresso, and the advantages of joining the Nespresso Club (membership has its privileges, to coin a phrase).

At last, one cashier became available and gestured to me. I paid for my two sleeves of coffee pods, 6.50 euros, and we left.

Late last night, as some of my clothes hummed in the washing machine in the kitchen, and Len slept in the bedroom, I indulged in some Internet shopping for, among other items, Nespresso machines; I was curious and admittedly on the verge of being seduced by the delicious ease and, well, modernity of it all. I was on the verge of joining the Nespresso Club.

No more grinding espresso beans with my little Krups coffee grinder (so old now that the white exterior has turned a sort of yellowy cream color). No stuffing the ground coffee into the holder and smoothing it down with the back of a spoon or your index finger before carefully snapping it into position. No unscrewing the lid to pour water in, no watching nervously as the little machine starts making ominous noises and trembling as steam builds up dangerously inside the magma chamber. And after making the espresso, no emptying the coffee grounds from the holder by banging it against the side of a bowl and occasionally having the grounds go flying out to decorate one of your kitchen walls, etc.

With a Nespresso Machine, I could stand in the kitchen in a pale, silk Dior gown, daintily touch a few little buttons, tap the counter for a minute with bored insouciance, and voila, I’d magically have my cafe au lait.

But somehow, in the midst of flirting with the idea of joining the international Nespresso Club … there’s something about the whole thing that, well, just doesn’t seem to work for me.

What if Nepresso suddenly fell out of favor with the stylish set, declared bankrupcy, and you couldn’t buy the pods anymore? Or worse, what if the company were taken over by an American conglomerate like PepsiCo or Kraft Foods; the new corporate owner would start stuffing those little pods with Maxwell House and raise the price as well, n’est pas?

In the end, Consumer Reports recommends a little Krups espresso maker as a good buy for the money ($60) – it’s the same model of espresso maker I’ve owned on and off for 20+ years, and the price is around the same, too.

I’ll need to go to a coffee store and talk to the clerk about the type of beans to buy – go home and grind it with my little warrior Krups grinder (which I may have to will to my niece someday), stuff it into the little coffee holder, the whole mess.

I won’t get to join the Nespresso Club and stand in lines of elegantly dressed shoppers, sipping complimentary espresso offered by girls holding round trays loaded with steaming demitasses.

I won’t ever be one of the Pod People.

But, you never know … I might just go into that Dior shop across the street today … if they let me in. 😉

Terresa moves through the cobblestone streets like a Parisian – that is to say, she walks fast, and purposefully, she knows where she is going and aims to get there tout suite.

Terresa Murphy is an American expat living now in a quiet neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement Paris for nearly 15 years. Yesterday, when she was showing me all the best she knows of what this city has to offer a foodie like me, she always walked ahead, despite my best efforts, waving at one shop that sells “exquisite macaroons,” at another that deals in “the best artisan cheese in Paris.” In and out of the little neighborhood shops we went, tasting, talking, greeting shopkeepers who are passionate about the food they share and who take my interest and Terresa’s enthusiasm as high compliments.

She is tall, and as she walked ahead of me, her long hair flew all around her as she fearlessly crossed congested streets and commented on world politics, society, her dreams for the future, gliding effortlessly between English and French, between what was, and what is, and what may be to come. Terresa makes her living as a cooking teacher, and between shopping at the Marche of the Bastille and leading me on the gourmand’s tour of Paris, we cooked some of her recipes in the small, sunny walk-up she calls home.

We cooked a spicy  bruchette with arugula pesto; a savory salad with roasted olives, tender lettuces, lemon, shavings of rich Parmigiano Reggiano; gnocchi with herb-infused oil and fresh, baby peas; and a to-die-for blancmange of cool, creamy almond milk with sweet basil pesto sauce and chunks of fresh cherries. We ate our lunch as Terresa’s cat Ciceron slept in on his customary bookshelf perch and the midday breeze dipped and draped her muslin curtains around the pots of fresh herbs on her rod iron window balcony.

Terresa became a citizen of France sometime during her long sojourn, and now knows the labyrinthine streets like the back of her own hands. As we walked back toward my apartment in the 6th arrondissement – she was afraid I might get lost trying to find my way alone – she pointed out the oldest tree in Paris, the very best place to get hand-ground coffee, and buildings that date back to the Middle Ages. We passed some girls, smoking cigarettes and laughing as they idled on the stairs of an apartment building; workmen  repairing the side of a building, the sights and smells of neighborhood Paris that you might miss if you only frequent the stylish stores and cafes where most tourists stay.

I am not sure what part I liked best about yesterday – cooking (and eating) so many delicacies made from the finest and freshest ingredients, getting to know this talented free spirit who’s been a cafe singer, a photographer, and now a gourmet and teacher, or getting to know Terresa’s Paris. Bon journee, Terresa; I hope I’ll get to cook with you again on another trip to Paris, or maybe I’ll visit you when you and Ciceron and Missy find a new home in the Italian countryside. Until then, I hope all of your days will be sunny, and all the food you prepare will nourish many more novices of the neighborhood life of Paris.

In the city where I live, when you drive beneath a number of highway overpasses, you will see people standing nearby, holding little signs, staring blankly into the eyes of passersby. Despite the best (?) efforts of local cops, they’ll sleep there at night, on little cots with ragged blankets, with whatever belongings they can gather surrounding them. I have been to a number of cities in the U.S., and you will find this scene in all of them.

The question of homelessness resonates with me.

Not so many years ago, someone whom I love had some problems – I won’t go into that. Let’s just say that whenever I saw the homeless men and women standing near the overpasses or dark street corners of Houston, I wondered whether this person I loved may be sleeping under an overpass in his city as well.

So, I don’t avoid the faces of the homeless, whether in Los Angeles or Chicago, or my home city – or in this City of Light.

Yeah, there are homeless in Paris. This wasn’t something I knew about before I came here for the first time, a few years ago. I wonder if many people in the U.S. are aware of it – with the wonderful social safety net we’ve heard the Europeans have – free basic health care, free education, good pensions for retirees – somehow, some people still fall through the net into the abyss that is homelessness.

When Len and I were last in Paris, there was an old man who came every morning to the steps of an imposing government building in a square of the city near the La Marais district, where we were staying. With him was an old, yellow lab – most of the Parisian homeless have dogs, I’ve observed – I guess everybody needs a friend. Together, they’d sit quietly, staring at nothing and no one in particular, a little metal box beside them where passersby put coins. Usually, this is the particular, passive kind of begging I’ve seen here. It became my habit, whenever we passed the man and his dog, to drop some coins into his metal box. On our last day there, when we had a number of Euros left in our pockets, I put a rather large bill into it, and he finally looked up at me, and murmered, “La la! Madame!” But I just bowed my head and murmered, “Au revoir, monsieur,” and walked away.

In this part of Paris where we are staying this trip, I have seen 4 groups of homeless so far. There was a sad, little woman with a hat pulled down almost over her large, dark eyes – she sat pulling her coat close around her, on a curb across the street – she and a equally sad, little dog with her.There were a man and a woman, sleeping side by side on a little grass embankment near the sidewalk on one of the side streets – they and their two, little dogs, all fast asleep. Last night, when Len and I were walking back from having had dinner with our friends, we passed three men, making “camp” for the night in a shadowy recess just near the stairs of an office building, Two of the men were already stretched out on cots, while one man was feeding three, happy, wiggly little puppies.

A long time ago, Jesus of Nazareth said (a little sadly, I’ll bet), “The poor will always be with us.”

It is early June here, but it was cold last night, and I thought about the men and women and their pets who slept in the dark corners of the City of Light. I titled this entry “Darkness, the City of Light, and the question of homeless” because, if homeless is a question – what can be the answer?

Well, it’s already Wednesday – the time’s flying by!

On Tuesday, we took care of apartment business in the morning – found the Monoprix, a sort of super, French supermarket just across the street from our apartment. There, you can find everything from toothpaste to men’s and ladies’ underwear to fresh produce. Tres bien! We stocked up on fresh bread and butter, cheese and wine, and some special confiture, by request (Reine-Claude, success!). I decided to practice my French when I couldn’t find on which aisle there was milk. “Pardon, monsieur, ou est la lait?” I asked a man unboxing some bottles. He looked puzzled. I repeated my question, starting to feel pretty unsure. “Oh!” he cried at last. “The milk!”

Enough said. We got our groceries and headed back to our apartment.

In the afternoon, Len and I made our way to the Musee d’Orsay, which houses the largest collection of Impressionist paintings in France. It was really wonderful – we saw Rembrandts, Bonnards, Degas, and of course Van Goghs. It really was a bit too much to take in all at once – so many vibrant colors juxtaposed with the subtler tones – watercolors, oils, pastels. I only know that when we left the museum, my legs ached from walking so much, and I was really filled with amazement.

Later that evening, our friends Jean-Pierre and Francois came by to pick us up for dinner, and we headed to their apartment. It was a lovely dinner, in a lovely apartment, with special friends. Merci, nos bons amis!