Paris: Eating Like a Local

I’ve been thinking about my trip to Europe last October because my sister, Cheryl, will be traveling there soon. We’ve talked about how food is a major part of the travel experience. And we definitely love food.  What does it mean to “eat like a local”? It can mean eating where locals eat; eating the way locals eat (with locally-used utensils or hands) and even eating at the time of day locals eat.

Of the three European cities I traveled to, I spent the most time in Paris. I love French food, but my diet has changed over the past eight years. No béchamel sauce, crêpes, croissants, pastries, and baguettes for me. So I thought. But, I also figured I could navigate my little food quirks, even in Paris.

The French take their entire culture — language, art, music, wine, and food, very seriously. They are clear about what it means to be French. France has a Minister of Culture presiding over touchstones of French identity and French contributions to the arts. French words pertaining to food, like restaurantgourmet, café, connoisseur, and cuisine are commonly used in English language.

French cuisine has always been a gold standard for trained chefs; and I have read that the cuisine is in crisis.  So what does that mean? Food at an authentic-looking bistro may have been previously frozen, perhaps pre-assembled, and not totally prepared in-house with raw ingredients. Read about it here.

(Good lord…that sounds like American restaurant chains! I didn’t have to leave home for that!)

So, with that awareness, I decided to be discriminating about where I would eat in Paris, same as I am here. I would not eat at bistros with burgers and pizza on the menu. I can get that food here (if I were so inclined — which I am not). But, then again, when you’re fresh off the plane and it’s lunch time, you might just bust those standards and eat anywhere. People who know me know that I go from very hungry to “hangry” fast.

I found Bistrot La Bonne Cécile a mere two blocks from my Airbnb and ate lunch there. The menu is rotated seasonally. The restaurant served fresh food made in-house. I could not have been more delighted with my first meal on the Continent, and glass of Sancerre. The restaurant was charming and the service was exceptional. (Tip: you do not tip in France.)

Soup course - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Soup course – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Entree seafood pot and rice - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Seafood pot and rice – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Coffee is big in Paris, but I don’t drink it. I indulged, instead, in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) made with milk and cream. Made right, it’s oh-so-rich. I’m lactose intolerant and didn’t get a stomach ache from drinking it!  Best cups are made with chocolate, not cocoa powder. As noted in this blog, using a powder instead of a high-quality chocolate bar with its rich cocoa butter, is really hot cocoa and not hot chocolate.

Paris has an abundance of ethnic restaurants. I enjoyed them, too. I also had great meals at very casual restaurants. One of them was Le Pain Quotidien. My friend, Charlotte, asked me to meet her there. We have one in D.C. — that I’d never been to — and I didn’t expect to go to that chain in Paris. Well, it was a cut above and delicious! I had a great salad, gluten-free bread, and a bowl of soup. I’ve since been to Le Pain Quotidien in D.C.

Some other casual restaurants in Paris:

Divin’ Art, near Arts et Metiers Metro, is a gluten-free crêperie in walking distance of my Airbnb. I ate a savory crêpe (smoked salmon, soft-boiled egg, and peppers), carrot soup, green salad, and a chocolate crêpe.

Savory gluten-free crepe - Divin Art

Gluten-free crepe from Divin’ Art in Paris (Marais)

While walking in search of Paris’ street art in the Oberkampf neighborhood, I found this vegetarian and gluten-free restaurant. I had a fresh juice, carrot soup, and a vegetable rice and almond dish. Simple, healthy, and delicious. And the meal was cheap!

Vegetarian gluten-free in Paris

L’esprit Tchaï – Paris

Rice and vegetables

I also ate food that was a little out of my comfort zone. The complete meal here was the salade niςoise and escargot, with a glass of white wine.

Salade nicoise

Salade nicoise with anchovies

Eating escargot was a challenge. I eat escargot because they are a super-beneficial food for my blood type. I take an almost medicinal view toward it.  I don’t go into a swoon over the taste, but escargot is more than just palatable. The challenge was dealing with the little animal in its shell, which was a first for me. The escargot I’ve eaten has always been hidden — thankfully, because they are rather ugly — under a garlic, parsley and butter sauce in a snail plate. No shells included.  But, I had on my big girl panties and would eat escargot like the French.

I asked the server to show me how to use the snail tongs. First, you grip the shell, which is when I had the Pretty Woman moment. The shells are indeed “slippery little suckers,” but at least they didn’t go flying across the room. Next, you use the little fork to pull the critter out. After an embarrassing struggle, I managed to grip three shells and pull out three escargot. I couldn’t get the last two out of their shells.  As far as I was concerned, no one was home. The server was watching me, so I asked him to try. I wish I’d taken a video of him trying to find the snails. He probably thought it was just me. He gave up, too, and put in an order to replace the two snails that had gone missing.

Escargot

Escargots

See this video for how to eat escargot.

Another outside-the-comfort-zone food was this dish of wild mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, and parasol) and poached egg.  I don’t like poached eggs, but I gave this dish a go.  It was a work of art, interesting and tasty. The restaurant, La Mazenay, was lovely; and the service was meh.

Le Mazenay - wild mushrooms and poached egg

A highlight was lunch with Charlotte at elegant Bofinger’s near Place de la Bastille.  I had this delicious fish and vegetable dish.

Fish and vegetables in sauce - Bofinger's

I also ate this dish of sauerkraut, or choucroute. It was not part of my order. It came from the table of diners next to ours. I was eye-ballin’ their sauerkraut because they weren’t eating it, and it looked good. They were eating the pork all around it instead. Charlotte asked the diners if I could have a taste. That was a little tacky, I know, but I guess they decided to help the American out.

Choucroute

Another food that is not everyday fare in the U.S. is  rabbit, or lapin. I had this very tasty rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichin 3 — a family-owned restaurant in the City of Chartres near the Cathedral. Damn, it was good!

Lapins at the market

Lapin at the market before one was turned into stew

rabbit and prune stew at le pichet 3

Rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichet 3

In addition to chocolat chaud, I enjoyed two other kinds of sweets:

Macarons — looking like colorful little hamburgers, these gluten-free cookies made of almond flour have a flavored cream filling. They are everywhere in Paris. Quality matters. Eat enough of them and you can distinguish the mediocre from the sublime.

Macarons

Les Macarons

Panna Cotta — the best I’ve ever had in my life came from a tiny Italian restaurant Charlotte and I ducked into to escape the rain. This was Charlotte’s dessert. After a taste, I had to order my own. The texture was perfectly smooth, and the sweetness came from the berries and sauce.

panna cotta in Paris

Panna Cotta

My main dining event was a six-course dinner at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. The hostess took everyone’s food restrictions and preferences. You don’t order from a menu. The six courses are the chef’s choice and everyone gets the same dish, customized as requested.  The hostess answered our questions about what we had eaten afterwards. I was fine with that. It was part of the experience. Reserve a seat at the bar so you can watch the chefs and talk with other diners, especially if you’re solo.

I was thrilled that the Pierre Sang experience was only €45. For the same price here in D.C., a diner could pay that or more for uninspired fare.

There are so many options for dining in Paris. You can dine satisfactorily or fabulously for good value in this city.  Challenge your food comfort zone when you travel, and eat like the locals!

 

 


Planes, Trains, and Vehicles – Getting Around Europe (Part 2)

Onward to Brussels!

I thought three weeks would be enough time to make a train reservation from Paris to Brussels. The cities are less than 200 miles apart and a high-speed train could get me there in an hour and a half. My plan was to arrive in Brussels early on Friday and leave for Amsterdam on Monday. My new friend, Mollie, was expecting me. Plus, I wanted to get there in time to check out Marolles Flea Market at Place Jeu de Balle.

Alas, travel by train was not to be. I scoured train schedules, and a 10:45 p.m. arrival on Friday was the best I could do. I was on the phone with my sister, Cheryl, as I waged battle with the Thalys reservation system; and then surrendered. She knew I was frustrated when we hung up. How else could I get from Paris to Brussels?  About a minute later, I had my answer. I was excited! I immediately called Cheryl to tell her I would be traveling by….

Megabus

Megabus! This is the same bus company I use to go to New York. It’s cheap and comfortable on the East Coast. And it’s really cheap and comfortable in Europe. My bus ticket from Paris to Brussels cost just under $13! For that price, I didn’t care that the ride would be three hours longer than the high-speed train. My Megabus was going to get me to Brussels by 12:20 pm!

Sweet!

Megabus departs from Porte Maillot, which is on the Metro line. The station is within sight of the Arc de Triomphe and the cars racing around L’Etoile.

Arc de Triomphe et L'Etoile

I left the apartment around 6 a.m. and walked along empty streets to the subway. It was still dark outside when I arrived at Porte Maillot. I didn’t know the lay of the land so I gave myself plenty of time to get lost. At Porte Maillot, I glommed onto another traveler, who was also looking for her bus. She was headed home to Germany on another cheap ride — FlixBus. Europeans really know how to get around, don’t they?

Au revoir, Paris! A bientôt!

The bus ride was relaxing, and I was able to sleep a bit. We had one 30 minute stop for water, snacks, and the restroom; otherwise, we went straight in to Brussels. I snapped photos of the scenery along the way.

The bus pulled into Brussels Nord (North) Station. I missed an opportunity to photograph the train station exterior because I was desperate to find le toilette. Durn! Now I need to return to Brussels someday to photograph the train station. Speaking of les toilettes, keep coins handy because a trip to a stall will cost you.

There wasn’t a lot of action at the train station when I arrived. Why? Train employees were on strike that day. Strikes are planned in advance and probably the reason why I couldn’t buy a ticket for a train that would get me to Brussels at a decent hour. No matter… I had discovered Megabus.

I took the flea market off the itinerary. I was starved and needed to meet up with Mollie. She’d given me instructions on how to reach her office building via Brussels Metro. The Metro is great, and includes subway and tram lines. Have I mentioned before that I love mass transit?

Brussels Metro stations have interesting artwork. I remembered that from when I was there in 2007. Photographing the art in all the Metro stations is another good reason to return to Belgium. (Every excuse will do.)

Metro station - BelgiumBelgian Metro station art

Although mass transit factored large in getting around cities, I’ll give a shout-out to walking as an underrated mode of transportation. Mollie and I enjoyed a long walk to National Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It’s popularly known as Koekelberg Basilica.

The Basilica is a marvel of Art Deco-style architecture, and it is the fifth largest church in the world. Construction started in the early 20th century, but was interrupted by two world wars. It finally opened in the 1970s.

Basilica - BrusselsBasilica interior 2Basilica interior - BrusselsBasilica exterior - Brussels

After visiting the stunning Basilica, we took Metro into the city.

Metro stop with Basilica in background

Metro stop with Basilica in background

With Mollie in Brussels

Grand Place is an iconic Brussels site I wanted to see again. This town square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its scale, compared to other town squares in Belgium, or elsewhere in Europe, is immense and majestic. Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), constructed in early to mid-15th century, is located there.

Hotel de Ville is surrounded by guild houses because tradesmen and merchants were held in high regard. Guild houses are sort of like trade unions in the U.S.  The great French writer, Victor Hugo, had a house on Grand Place as well.  You can find Grand Place in miniature, along with other iconic European Union structures, at Brussels’ Mini-Europe.

Day trips are incredibly easy from Brussels because of its three major train stations: Nord (North), Zuid (South), and Central (Central).  Back in 2007, my mother and I took day trips to Brugge, Antwerp, Ghent, Liege, Namur, and Tournai. Those cities, along with Brussels, are in six of 10 Belgian provinces and Brussels-Capital Region.

Mollie and I went to Brugge for the day. It’s a city in West Flanders province, popularly known by its French name, Bruges.  You can reach Brugge from Brussels in a little over an hour by train for about €30 roundtrip. Advance reservations aren’t necessary. (Tip: Check the website’s Stations and Trains page for a list of “Disturbances.” It will notify customers of strikes.)

Once in Brugge, you can rent a bike, take a boat ride, or walk. This small city is perfection.

Brussels is a wonderful destination in its own right. It is also a great base for day trips throughout Belgium. I highly recommend it!

Next … the finale of Getting Around Europe (Part 3).

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On the Paris Attacks

I had already written a three-part series on “Getting Around Europe” based on my recent travels to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam, when Paris was attacked by terrorists. I decided the timing was wrong for publishing these posts. They might seem frivolous in the face of world-wide shock, and the suffering of those living through this ordeal and those who lost loved ones.

Then, I thought of what I’m trying to share in my posts — that travel is a good thing, and there are many marvelous places in the world. Paris happens to be one of them. No acts of terrorism can change that.

Inevitably, some people will think the world is too unsafe and unpredictable for them to leave home. Or, they might think Paris is particularly unsafe because 2015 opened with the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack and closed with more of the same. Some of my sister’s friends know she is going to Paris in the spring and asked her to reconsider. She won’t, and I don’t blame her.  Unless there is a State Department warning or alert, we would not hesitate to return to Paris. These terrorist attacks could happen anywhere.

Cheryl and I talked about the relative danger here in the U.S.  Do we tell kids and teachers not to go to school because there might be a mass shooting? Do we decide to work from home because our office building might get bombed? Do we forego Bible study at our church in case someone in our group will open fire on the rest of us?  Do we stop training for, and running, marathons because they might end in bedlam and carnage? Terrorism and hate crimes have happened here, too.

You can’t stop moving, living, or experiencing regions and cultures because of these frightening events. There’s a reason why they are called acts of terrorism. When dealing with adversity, resilience trumps all.

Resilience is already evident in Paris. The people there are determined to press forward in the act of living, even though they’ve been asked to remain indoors. They mourn and stand vigil in various places around the city. And, eventually, Parisiens will regain their trademark joie de vivre. They know that if they give in and give up, then terrorists win after all.

Playing in a park near La Tour Eiffel

Vive la France!

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How to Live like a Local When Traveling

Staying in an apartment gets you into a neighborhood and off the beaten path. You can become part of the neighborhood, if only for a little while. I stayed at an Airbnb in Paris for 10 days, and one in Amsterdam for three days. It was my first time to use Airbnb, and I loved the experience of having an apartment as home base.

After I dumped my bags in the apartment, I explored the neighborhood. I wanted to check it out during the day so I could feel comfortable returning there at night. I wanted to see what restaurants were nearby; and the nearest laundry, yoga studios, public transportation, and food markets.

Amsterdam canal

An Amsterdam canal in Oud West area – Airbnb apartment was one block away.

Random arch in Paris

Street arch near the Airbnb apartment in Paris

Synagogue in North Marais

Synagogue de Nazareth in Le Marais – often guarded by soldiers

The Paris apartment had a “full-size” refrigerator — still tiny by U.S. standards — and I went to markets for breakfast foods, snacks, and beverages.  I was able to eat bread and cheese as the French do because I found a market that sold gluten-free baguettes.  They were delicious — crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, as a regular baguette would be. I noticed that cartons of eggs in markets are not refrigerated. Eggs were on shelves just like cans of peas. I bought and ate a half-dozen unrefrigerated organic eggs. I live to write about it.

Organic market in Le Marais

Organic market in Le Marais (Paris)

Gluten-free baguette and log of chevre cheese

Paris market purchase: Gluten-free baguette and chevre

Market mural in Marais

Market Mural in Le Marais

To feel like a local, I cultivated favorite places. In both Paris and Amsterdam, I was recognized as a repeat customer at some neighborhood cafes. It was great! Although, maybe it was my poor French and lovely — as opposed to “ugly” —  American-ness they remembered (??)

Anyway….

In Paris, I found a charming creperie called Divin’ Art close to Arts et Metiers Metro station. The restaurant was a straight shot from the front door of my apartment building. Divin’ Art had only been open for business a week. It worked for me because all their food is gluten-free. It was reasonably priced and the restaurant had a small bar with a nice selection of hard cider.

To think that, before I found Divin’ Art, I had spent hours one Sunday trying to find a gluten-free creperie I’d read about. That creperie’s website claimed it would be open on Sunday. It was closed when I got there. I was starved and indignant!

Divin Art exterior

savory crepe

Savory crepe: fried egg, caramelized onions, and smoked salmon

In Amsterdam, I found a great breakfast place and became a “regular.” The second time I went there, they remembered my special order from the day before. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, check out Ted’s All Day Brunch in Oud West (Old West) Amsterdam. It has wifi and is two blocks up the street from my Airbnb apartment.

Teds All Day Brunch

Ted’s All Day Brunch

Ted's All Day Brunch - my breakfast

My breakfast – scrambled eggs with sides of mushrooms, smoked salmon, and sauerkraut

Another way to live like a local is to continue your usual activities. In Paris, I took a vinyasa yoga class at Make Me Yoga. I was lucky to have stumbled upon a studio that accepts drop-ins. The studio was in an area called Oberkampf in the 11th arrondissement, and a walkable distance from the apartment. The teacher offered to teach the class in English because of me, but I asked her not to. I wanted to be guided through the poses and meditation in French. I followed along just fine by watching her and the others. I even started to understand the French instruction for sun salutations.

A bonus was seeing a French yoga student in an Ohio State Buckeyes shirt. She had no idea how it warmed my heart to see O-H-I-O, my home for real.

Make Me Yoga classOhio State Buckeye Fans in Paris

Now a few words about the apartments themselves:

The Paris AirBnB. I selected a studio apartment for the wifi, location, price, and full kitchen. It was a third floor walkup. My first impression was shock when I put in the door code at street level and entered. In the U.S., the building might be considered derelict based on the entry and uneven stairways. The lonnng walk from the front door to my set of staircases was creepy. Actually, that’s an understatement.  I dreaded what it would be like to enter the building at night. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

20150929_145245

Creepy hallway

Well, chalk this up as a bohemian experience in the Marais. I memorized where the lights were in the hall so I wouldn’t find myself in the dark, and set the fears aside.

Bottom line: the apartment itself was updated, unlike the common spaces of the building. I knew the building was seriously old, not that its ancient history should excuse chipped paint, falling plaster, hanging wires, and an epic lack of aesthetics. Regardless, when I returned to the apartment at the end of a day, I was “home.” The apartment was clean and the area was safe.The building itself didn’t lose its creepiness; but, as I always say … you can get used to almost anything. (However, if there had been any pests and bugs, I think I would have lost my mind.)

A note about the apartment’s shower stall: it was the tiniest ever — a perfect little 2×2 square. Unbelievably, it had a luxe array of shower heads, including the rainfall. I had to sidle out of the shower sideways to exit, and I’m not a big person.

Tiny shower stall

The street where I stayed had an entrepreneurial, semi-gritty, and artsy vibe. It was also near three Metro stations, which was a huge plus. A variety of good cafes, bars, Pilates and massage studios, coffee shops, boutiques, bars, galleries, supermarkets, and a guarded synagogue were in walking distance.

My building was next door to two bars, whose clientele gathered at tables and chairs set up outside. It seemed the courtyard below amplified the noise. Even with windows closed, I couldn’t sleep until the bars closed around 2 a.m. Being unable to sleep when I was ready to sleep was my deal breaker. Had I only known….

[BTW, my nephew and his partner stayed at an Airbnb in Marais also. It didn’t take long to figure out we were not only in the same part of the Marais, but on the same street! He said their staircases were so steep they had to hang onto a rope while going up three flights. They called their apartment Les Miserables.]

David's Airbnb

Les Miserables staircase.

The Amsterdam Airbnb.  I got great sleep at this apartment! The bed was so comfortable. The studio was a spacious and clean third-floor walkup. It was adjacent to the host’s rooms, and I had complete privacy, a bathroom and washing machine. I also had for my use a small refrigerator, electric teapot, and pantry. The apartment’s location was Oud West, near the city center and Jordaan. It was also a walkable distance from the main museum district. If I’d used my fitness tracker, I would have racked up the step count in this walkable city.

View from Amsterdam apartment

View from Amsterdam apartment

Amsterdam rowhouses, houseboat, and bike

Amsterdam row houses, houseboat on the canal, and a bicycle

The apartment building’s architecture and staircases were typical of Amsterdam. I had never climbed such steep stairs in my life. They were the closest thing to a ladder that a staircase can get. Thank goodness the host met me at the door and carried my bag up. He was very accommodating and helpful throughout my visit. When it was time to leave, I wondered whether the bags and I would both make it down the stairs. I admit I thought about throwing my bags down each flight. (See my Airbnb review of the apartment here.)

Amsterdam apartment staircase

Amsterdam apartment staircase

All in all, staying in apartments gave me a different way to experience Paris and Amsterdam. I was happy with the neighborhoods I selected and the price I paid for the apartments. And, I would definitely stay in the Amsterdam apartment when I visit the city again!