Last spring I found myself in Amiens, in the north of France for a few days. The Silent One had a business meeting there, so I tagged along. During the day, I took a long self-guided walking tour of the city, went to see where Jules Vernes lived most of his adult life, and of course spent many hours in the cathedral, the largest and one of the very finest in the world, built mostly in the 13th century, and with an intriguing labyrinth set into the floor.
Frankly, I think in my memory, I had confused Amiens with some other northern city I’d passed through in the 60′s when I’d moved from Paris to Brussels for a few months. I expected it to be gray and depressing, most of the old part of town had either been torn down in the 70′s or bombed to pieces during wartime. Northern cities are sometimes poo-pooh’d as backwaters populated by inbred hicks on welfare since the coal mines closed a while back. My expectations were not high, but since I’ve enjoyed so many places that get lukewarm reviews, I was confident that I’d manage to find something interesting in whatever dismal setting I’d find.
And quelle surprise! Plenty of the ancient houses remain, many of which have been restored to their former…modesty. Little narrow houses, 3 tiny stories tall, shutters painted to indicate the trade being exercised within. Tanners, millers, weavers and dyers all color-coded for ease of reference. The little back alleys and neighborhoods are so unselfconscious, so real, I was perfectly transported to a delightful world of times gone by…and in a good way! Most of the the new parts of the city center are in keeping with the old bits, which creates a fairly harmonious backdrop to a lively city on the move.
Amiens has a complicated web of canals and rivers, and an island of a whole big vegetable farm only a couple feet above the waterline. Which I visited by tourist boat, along with another couple and a hapless guide who showed us around the byways for 90 minutes under a relentless downpour, as I peeked from under my not-quite-large-enough umbrella. After which the sun promptly re-appeared for its afternoon session of bright illumination, suitable for much stained glass window gazing despite my soggy jeans.
I’d researched, of course, where we should eat, and by and large we did pretty well. Since there are a lot of university students in Amiens, we found lots of ethnic restaurants we don’t have near where we live, so that was nice to get a proper curry dinner. On the last day of the business meetings, my significant other was to meet me for lunch on one of the river quai’s, sitting outside with a lovely view of the cathedral and the colorful riverside houses. As I showed him the postcards I’d bought that day, he looked closely at one of them, and said, we are sitting exactly on the spot from which this shot was taken. And he was right! How bizarre! Only the flowers in the planter boxes had changed.
We ordered the local specialty of Ficelle Picarde, which translated literally means String of Picardy. Apparently, it was only invented in the 70′s when a chef had to make a meal for his staff from the leftovers of a large businessman’s lunch. It’s a crepe made from white flour wrapped around a whole lot of sauteed sliced mushrooms and chopped ham, bound with a little well-seasoned bechamel, then the rolled crepe is placed in its own little oval casserole dish and covered with shredded gruyere cheese and broiled to a fare thee well. That particular combination of bosky mushrooms, smoky ham and gooey mountain cheese… heavenly! The soft crepe…browned cheese…it was one of those dishes I’ll never forget, the pleasure of every bite is unforgettable.
Some months later, we made plans with friends visiting from California to spend a few days together in the north, and I started looking forward to that ficelle picarde many weeks in advance. We met their train in Arras, checked into our creaky chateau digs, and had a couple days visiting the region before we got to Amiens. Come the day…. the restaurant of my dreams was closed! Day off! Nooooooooo! Reluctantly, we moved on and soon spotted another place, slightly more trendy looking, bigger menu, another flower-decked terrace on the other side of the narrow river. We snagged one of the last tables and to my delight, the local specialties included…ficelle picarde! Reader, I am happy to announce that it was at least as good if not better than the earlier one that had fed my culinary fantasties all those months!
Honesly, sitting in comfy chairs on the sunny banks of a river with close and familiar friends, surrounded by colorful pots of flowers and assorted happy eaters, with cold white wine and steaming melted cheese before you, is there anything better than this?
When I was seventeen, I went to live in Paris for a year, ostensibly to go to school. As it turns out, the most important aspects of my education took place at the dinner table or in the kitchen. Up until that point, my idea of a culinary experience was extra mustard on my chili dog from Cupid’s hot dog stand. Julia Child had not quite yet tuned America in to the culinary treats that awaited. All I really anticipated in Paris, really, was the delirious joy of freedom from the domination of parents, neighbors and high school. Learning to speak better French was a dandy idea, but emancipation sounded even better.
My mother made a green tweed wool coat and matching moss green dress for me from one of those Vogue “designer” patterns, very citified and adult, I thought. For high school graduation, my father gave me a matching set of Samsonite luggage, complete with a little mirrored “train case” to hold a year’s supply of Ten-O-Six face lotion and “Tigress” toilet water.
Once finally arrived in Paris, I had to live like a petite church mouse américaine; my grandparents bought me the round-trip air tickets and my brother sent me $200 every month from his Navy pay, so my life in the City of Lights was lived at about 25 watts. Luckily, the French imparted to me in high school by Mademoiselle Farr together with my new snappy wardrobe proved their value on the Parisian social scene. It was a sort of cut rate Gidget Goes To Paris thing. Various low-key contenders for my attentions took the time to show me the sights — and the restaurants. Previously willing to pick every last mote of an offending substance from my plate, say icky diced green peppers or other particles of iffy origin, the natural Girl Scout in my new Parisian self rose up and took control. I ate rabbit, wild boar, oysters (raw!) and even snails. Not to mention fish that bore no resemblance at all to fish sticks or tuna salad.
Okay, sometimes I didn’t know exactly what I was being served, but I really do deserve credit for eating quite a number of theretofore unknown dishes even after I knew what it was. I was actually embarrassed to enjoy the weird food that I was being served. If you don’t know what it is that you’re eating, might a “good girl” be slipped something naughty? I felt myself yearning for yet more of this exotica and wondered if my copy of “Tips on Life and Love for Teenagers” back on my suburban bookshelf covered such wanton voluptuousness. My eagerness to dine was chalked up to excessive homesickness.
I was invited one autumn evening to the home of friends-of-friends for dinner, with a rather older crowd (almost everyone was older than me in those days) of genuine Parisians in a genuine Parisian home. A lovely meal was served, deliciously prepared. My hosts tried to look charmed when I refused wine with dinner; more likely they thought me only childish. I don’t remember, but I like to think I did not ask for a glass of milk with my meal.
Anyhow, after a long succession of plates and a change or two of flatware, the lady of the house went to the kitchen window, opened it, and retrieved a flimsy round box of what they told me was cheese. She kept her cheese on the window ledge. Very novel indeed. I thought surely this is some ruse meant to trick their invitée américaine, but the universal aura of seriousness and nonchalance said no. She simply keeps her cheese outdoors. Oh my. I had visions of what the elements might do to food left out. I knew for a fact that cats, birds and bugs lived out there. Nothing in my previous life, safely tucked away in the San Fernando Valley (twenty years before Moon Unit Zappa made the area like you know like oh my gawd famous like totally) had prepared me for the idea of keeping groceries on a window ledge outdoors. Yet, the gooey triangle served me was as exciting as any forbidden and possibly lethal fruit. Terrible and wonderful. I memorized the name of the cheese, and asked for it again. Camembert. Repeatedly. Just trying to overcome homesickness?
Many more culinary escapades passed during my Parisian year abroad. Once I returned home, the entire family repertoire of jokes about my persnickety eating habits had to be re-worked. Suddenly, I knew a few things. I was the only person I knew that had ever eaten a croissant, yogurt, a baguette, onion soup not from a packet manufactured by the folks at Lipton. A full ten years would pass before I again heard anyone use “goat” and “cheese” in the same sentence.
In the twenty something years after that Paris year, I kept up my eating adventures as well as one could. I moved from suburban Los Angeles to San Francisco, which opened up a whole new culinary world to me. Whatever else was happening in my life, I was always happiest when tinkering and munching in the kitchen. Cooking classes, dinner parties, putting food by, these were the bright spots in the vast plains of education, career, marriage/divorce and the rest of life as I knew it.
Then several wrinkles suddenly shook out at the same time. A job change turned out to be a mistake, and I felt unappreciated and antsy. An acquaintance died suddenly. The trusty boyfriend took several steps backward and confessed to cold feet. I was starting to feel not young anymore. Someone (up there? in here?) was trying to give me the message that I needed to start doing the things I’d always wanted to do. I was stagnating, and needed to get passion and daring back in my life. Somehow.
Now, my life has not been without the normal ration of disappointment, and I am as careful as most people not to bite off more than I can chew (culinary term). So when I realized that at the top of my list of “things I want to do before it’s all over” was to graduate from a serious cooking school, and to spend another year in Paris, I had some concern that my grasp on reasonable expectations was slipping. Could a fortyish woman really start over as a chef? Or as something like a chef but easier on the feet? Where was this passion thing going to lead me, really?
I started to try to talk to myself in a calm voice. OK, it’s true that my job is going nowhere, so I wouldn’t miss much if I left the job. No mortgage, no kids, no pet. The object of my desires already has one foot out the door, and he will either wait for me or he won’t. (He didn’t.) If I sold my car, scraped together every last nickel and threw a big benefit dinner for myself, I could afford to live like a student for a year. Sure, I’d be broke in the end, but certainly I’d be happy and fulfilled, full of renewed enthusiasm for life, and ready to make a move into a glittering new career. Try as I might, I couldn’t come up with enough obstacles to keep me away. The whole thing added up to “I can do it.”
The hefty application packet went off to the fancy cookery school in Paris for a year-long spot in their work-study program. I was interviewed and accepted. Oh dear. I think I’m really going.
The next era could be characterized as the “I can’t believe I’m really doing this” era. Once I set my big flat foot on the path, I just kept on going. You know that kinda sick feeling you get when you get into a roller coaster car, it leaves the platform, and now that you’re chugging up the incline, you realize there’s no backing out of this one? Those big loops ahead are a done deal.
So it was with me in the months before I left. So much to do, so many expectations and fears. One day I was high on the idea of Paris, cooking, I am Woman, I can do anything, la vie est belle, etc., and then the next day I was tempted to bring that dewey-eyed train to a screeching halt before I totally ruined my love life, financial future and sanity. Friends told their friends about me. “She just always wanted to do something like this, she’s just dropping everything and going, isn’t that GREAT?”
Many of my friends are courageous and unique, and know what it takes to chase a dream. Somehow, they all recognized what I was doing and gave me incredible support. A veritable chorus of atta girl’s buoyed me up every time the prospect of poverty, loneliness or bad judgement slowed me down. How could I let them down? I had to finish my preparations, and get to Paris so I could be a success for us all.
My imagined future looked so good in my fantasies, the rosy dream fed me and gave me the tons of pep I needed to clear my cluttered runway so my future could land. (Sound of roller coaster car going up incline: clank, clank, clank.) I got up-to-date on absolutely everything, and put my life in California into suspended animation. I collected names, notes, information and advice about France, about cooking, about the life of an ex-pat from all corners. Bit by bit, everything I needed to do was done. Sock away my belongings, open the bi-continental bank account, get someone to forward mail. Renew the passport, line up the long-term visa. Store up kisses from my (recalcitrant but still supportive) guy. How can I do something this tough all alone, without my (supposedly) number one booster? (Clank, clank, clank)
Patiently, patiently, tick by tock my departure date crept up on me. I went to see my parents at the other end of the state for a last visit. (“We just don’t really understand, dear. You’ve already BEEN to Paris!”) I was a bundle of emotions inside, even while I carefully and methodically wrapped up all the loose ends. Anxiety and excitement fought for stage forward. The dream of a lifetime — what if I hate it — think of the French cooks I’ll meet — I’ve got so much to learn — what if I get fat (and I did) — I am so lucky to be free enough to go — where will I sleep — alone in the bed — but the bed will be in PARIS, FRANCE!