day 7 :
sunday, 3 may
Of course we figured we'd be bummed when vacation was over, like we are at the end of every nice vacation, but we never would have guessed that we'd be so sad to leave Le Perche for Paris today. Besides the relaxed atmosphere and simple beauty of the region, our hosts' hospitality and genuine caring at Chateau de la Grand Maison was unparalleled. For Eric, this was also mixed with a bit of nervous apprehension about heading into Paris. He was very much looking forward to being in Paris and enjoying the sights, but not the part about driving into the city, finding the rental car drop-off, finding a taxi, and lugging all of the bags to our apartment.
We put that out of our minds for a few hours and enjoyed the last of our lengthy, luxurious breakfast, then strolled up the street to the Bellême town square to shop at the petite marché artisanal. There were a dozen local producers in the square: a cheese maker; a poulterer (who even had huge ostrich eggs); an escargot producer (Les Escargot du Perche), selling ready-to-heat escargot/parsley/olive oil/garlic trays; a farmer selling beets; another farmer with chicken, butter, and eggs; and someone selling riz au lait. Dawn snapped up the rice pudding for a single Euro; she had the choice of "avec caramel ou sans caramel," and needless to say she chose the kind with caramel. Eric bought a giant beet, thinking that we could have it with dinner in our apartment in Paris. We found out later from Madame that it was actually cuit, cooked, which made it a little harder to keep for a few days.
We wanted a baguette to round out our lunch, but were concerned that we'd be out of luck since it was Sunday, a day when most shops are closed. But while shopping in the market, we noticed that most everyone had a baguette or three. So we walked in the opposite direction of the people carrying baguettes, looking for the source. We finally found an open boulangerie where the line was out the door. It turned out that this boulangerie was also the local pâtisserie and chocolatier, selling the same chocolates that we received each night in our room. They had great-looking tarts in their display case, and in fact the person in front of us bought the one and only large strawberry tart. Even though we had no intention of buying a tart this morning, Dawn was still a bit envious that someone else was going home with such a wonderful dessert. The counter was covered with cute children's birthday candle decorations, cases were filled with large displays of chocolates, and the shelves held freshly-baked baguettes. We paid our euro and Dawn walked away with a warm baguette in her arms, quickly blending in with everyone else in town. A regular local.
One experience we missed out on during our visit was a getting a taste of the regional baguette du Perche, which is the designation given to about 50 bakeries who are baking their bread using traditional methods and certified for doing so. Next time we're there, we intend to find one of these certified bakeries.
If we had had more time, Eric would have played a round of mini-golf at the Bellême mini-golf course that we walked by. Then again, maybe mini-golf isn't an adult activity in France, given that we only saw young kids playing the course, with the adults acting as chaperones. Instead, we opted for having our planned picnic lunch before heading to Paris. Madame insisted we eat in the grand room and was kind enough to put our market-bought items on plates. Being the great hostess she is, she brought a pitcher of water and four more cheeses, offered us frites (which we declined), wine (which we also declined, since we were about to hit the road), and so on. She took one look at our baguette and said non, we can take that with us, but we would eat her bread in her house. So much for the warm baguette!
Checking out was a near-disaster: the chateau's machine wouldn't accept our credit cards (is this story becoming familiar?). We had taken out the maximum daily amount of cash from the ATM this morning, and paying for our stay in cash would have emptied our pockets, with five Euros to spare for our trip into Paris. It suddenly dawned on Eric that our ATM cards were Visa debit cards (which we've never used as debit cards; only ATM), so we tried that and it worked. Phew! We made a mental note of this, since this was the third time we'd hit this problem in the past week, and curiously this had only happened to us at French gas stations on previous European trips. Like the gas stations, was the problem a lack of the special Euro-chip in our cards? Once we were finally paid up, we said our goodbyes, and our hosts asked us to not only send them a picture of our baby, but to also come back with the baby and stay with them. Perhaps we will!
The drive to Paris was thankfully uneventful; some traffic, but virtually no wrong turns and we navigated through Paris just fine. We dropped off the car with Avis, but didn't have any luck catching a taxi – no one would stop for us. (We later found out that taxis in Paris can only pick up from designated locations.) Fortunately, someone at Avis was nice enough to call a taxi for us. A rather nice Mercedes town car arrived a few moments later, and we were whisked to our apartment in the centrally-located 5th arrondissement, just minutes away from Notre Dame cathedral.
We lugged our bags up a couple of flights of stairs, and immediately fell in love with the apartment. It all began last fall, when we met David Tanis in Seattle while he was on his A Platter of Figs cookbook tour. David is head chef at Chez Panisse for six months of the year, and lives in Paris the other six months. We learned that while in Paris, he and his partner Randal occasionally throw dinner parties that you can sign up for. When planning our trip, Dawn checked out his website to look into the chiens lunatiques dinner club, but unfortunately, David would be back in Berkeley by the time we arrived in Paris. However, Dawn noticed that his 17th century apartment is for rent while he and Randal aren't in Paris. As luck would have it, it was available for this week – score!
The place has a cool, relaxed aura. Minimal decoration, with rustic wood and stone, simple furniture, and wall-hangings. Five of the six rooms are tiny, as one would expect in central Paris, but there are high ceilings throughout and an unexpectedly huge living room with tall windows (perfect for their entertaining). Even better is that the apartment faces the interior courtyard, so there is no street noise. And the place is outfitted with shelves of English-language novels, cookbooks, and Paris guidebooks, so there's no need to lug any in your suitcase. If you're ever in Paris for a week or longer during the warmer half of the year, we recommend checking it out. Here is the web site.
A bit before 8PM, we hopped on the Métro to go to a party at American ex-pat Jim Haynes' atelier. Every Sunday evening for the past 30 years, Jim has hosted dinner at his place, where friends and total strangers can meet, share some good food and wine, and swap stories of their lives (listen to his recent NPR This I Believe segment). Jim is a connector in the truest sense of the word, effortlessly remembering the names of sixty or more people at his party, where they're from, and getting everyone introduced. Tonight was no exception; within minutes of walking in, Jim had introduced us to David, a Mexican native who was attending culinary school in Paris for a year-and-a-half, specializing in French baked goods, but partial to American pastries like muffins, doughnuts, and pies. David explained to us that in Mexico, the average person can't afford to buy American pastries, which are typically only sold in Starbucks. His vision was to open up a bakery in Mexico where nearly everyone could afford to buy his American desserts. In between bites of salad and fish chowder, we chatted with Debbie and Charles from Arizona. Charles had been in Paris for a month teaching law at a university, and was flying back to the States the next day. They were both passionate about food, and provided us with a wealth of recommendations for places to visit this upcoming week for baguettes, croissants, pain au chocolate, tarte de citrón (lemon tart), and chocolat chaud (hot chocolate).
Late that night, we found our way back to our apartment, put on some classic jazz music, and basked in the simple pleasure of anticipation. Like the feeling you get on a Friday night knowing that you've got a whole weekend of possibilities in front of you, we had all of Paris at our feet for a week!