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Friday, December 30, 2005

wake up and smell le cafe

The other day I crawled out of bed, and a heaviness that had been weighing down on me was gone.

It's amazing having my family here, as well as time off to appreciate their company. These past weeks I've been reminded of all the good things life has to offer. I've been reminded of everything Paris has to offer.

Food for instance. From the box of chocolates I devoured Christmas morning, to the delicate little chocolate ball presented with my coffee at delicabar (the Bon Marche's uber hip cafe), I've realized that Paris knows chocolate. If I don't make it to heaven it's okay, because I'm going to stuff my face with this stuff until I die.

I've also been designated as the chef for all the nights we eat in. This is a role I enjoy, especially when I can use as many herbs and spices as I please, without the whine of children saying "Ew, what's that?!"

And then there's fashion. I spend most afternoons with my mother, wandering the boutique lined streets or shopping with our eyes in the grands magazins of Galleries Lafayette or the Bon Marche. We try on a dozen hats, slide our fingers over beautiful shoes, zip open hand bags, and are happy leaving without buying anything.

But we do splurge occasionally. Paris is all about luxury items, and it's wrong not to sample a few. So we bought wooly gloves, sexy underwear, and had our dirty nails transformed with French manicures.

I've spent a couple of evenings with my brother, in search of a cool Parisian scene. We've dined at Lo Sushi, where each customer gets a computer screen and can chat with other people in the restaurant. We've done dessert at the Palais de Tokyo, our favourite modern art museum. We visited the famous Oberkampf area, for it's cool bar scene. We even got out to see a French film, Luc Besson's newest creation, Angel-a. It was impressive, and slightly out of this world. You have to love an angel who looks about seven feet tall, chain smokes and dresses like a prostitute.

In just over a day it will be 2006.

Let's celebrate this past year and brace ourselves for a new one.

my bro and i
metro girls

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Monday, December 26, 2005

i woke up, and there was Paris

We took a train to Paris after midnight.

The station in Toulouse was freezing. Groups of people stood around with their luggage, bundled up in winter jackets, scarves and hats, rocking back and forth to keep warm. I covered my blonde head with a black hood and jumped up and down to keep my toes from going numb. Everyone seemed impatient to get somewhere with their bags full of gifts, while others arrived and fell into the arms of their awaiting families. I watched one young woman, who came up the escalator, saw her mother, and started crying. That’s when it started to feel like Christmas.

Eventually our train came and rescued our cold bodies. My family and I climbed on, found our couchettes-a room of small bunk beds for night trains-and fell asleep as the train rocked back and forth.

We woke up after very little sleep in the morning light of Paris, Christmas Eve day.

Paris is much warmer than the South. Here we walk around without shaking, comfortable in our winter jackets. It was a relief to step off the train and feel the warmth of the air, and to enter a heated train station.

After a petit dejeuner of buns, croissants and cafes, we climbed into a taxi (a gift for my metro worn legs) and sent the driver to my apartment.

It took five days away for me to appreciate the beauty of this city. Driving through the dim morning light, we followed the Seine as our eyes followed the sights. Le Grand Palais and Notre Dame struck me like a tourist, and somewhere within me I felt the romance that Paris offers to unfamiliar eyes. Sometimes I hate how accustomed I've become to its beauty.

Back at the apartment we sandwiched ourselves into my small room before we could take over my French family’s apartment. My apartment isn't meant for more than two people, and it was quite a sight to see my brother and I crawled up in bed while my parents filled the small floor space, seated with their laptops and suitcases.

Eventually we got to settle ourselves in the comfort of the family's apartment. It is modern, spacious, and most importantly: warm. The South of France was beautiful and still, but we were never comfortable. We were always cold, trying to keep the fires going and fighting to get enough hot water for a warm shower. I would pace the room as I ate my breakfast in the morning to keep warm.

Settled, we all took off our separate ways and joined back for dinner. I made a Greek feast for Christmas Eve. We began with grilled pita, vegetables and a Tzaiki made from scratch. For the main course we had roast chicken in herbs and garlic, slices of potato fried in spices, and a feta laden greek salad. It was good. To mark the holiday we finished with a box of Patisserie desserts and a Christmas movie.

In the morning my parents made another trip to the Patisserie, and returned with our Christmas breakfast. I sat with a giant grin on my face as we indulged in a tray full of pastries: pain au raisins, croissants, pain au chocolat, and a chocolate almond croissant. "It feels like Christmas now," I smiled. We exchanged small simple gifts and lay around until afternoon.

We then took off into Sunday's quiet streets, ate lunch by Luxembourg gardens, and wandered through afterwards. We walked around the fountain where a boy controlled his motorized sailboat with a controller. We walked under the leafless trees, cold wind blowing through my tights, while tourists posed for pictures around us.

We were lucky and found reservations for dinner at Le Procope, an old French restaurant with great ambiance and even better food.

Our Christmas feast was perfect. We all raved about the taste of our meals, the memories certain bites brought back, and happily dug our forks into each others plates. I savored my duo of pike with delight: two small pieces of fish baked in a heavy cream sauce. It tasted like gourmet fish sticks, something like childhood, only more elegant. We ordered jugs of house wine, and toasted consequently, to my missing brother, to happiness, and to our wishes for the New Year.

My wishes: to make the best of my job, to be healthy and happy, to write as much as possible and to continue pushing my boundaries.

We clinked our glasses, drank more, and carried on conversation.

When we left the restaurant we were stopped in our tracks by a street musician, viciously playing the piano in a contagious jazzy beat. My mother and I locked arms, wiggled back and forth, and she dropped a few coins in his hat.

We took the metro home, getting off a stop early to walk across the bridge where the Eiffel tower sits glowing in the distance.

"We're in Paris!" My mother keeps chanting. I laugh and tell her that the novelty of that phrase is wearing off on me. “I live in Paris!”

My head is floating with wishes for the New Year, with changes I'd like to make, with dreams I'd like to pursue, and with everything I’m thankful for.

Another year is coming. I plan on making the most of it.

peeking into the castle
brendan walks the grounds
the scenery
mother and daughter
luxembourg gardens

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

and so this is christmas

It doesn't feel like Christmas.

We're playing Christmas carols, there's mistletoe on the table, most houses are covered in decorations and a large tree sits in the well of our town square...but I don't feel it.

I don't know what it is. Maybe it's lack of eggnog, one brother, a tree, stockings or gift giving this year. Maybe it's just that my childhood innocence is fading. Or maybe that sweet anticpation that once filled our young hearts leaves us all at some point.

This town is locked with memories for me, and I find it hard not to dwell on summer. Most people have gone away, and those that stay here hibernate in their homes, close their shutters and try to keep their fires going. The bar is closed by nine every night. My favourite restaurant has closed it's doors until another season.

I miss warmth. I miss wanting to be outside. I miss the freedom I felt this summer.

After summer, a change in season and a job as an pair put a load on me. Everyday I'm filled with duties. Everyday I try and be responsible of other people, and start to forget about myself. My body, which was light and free this summer, has become strong and sturdy, and is more used to walking up stairs and carrying knapsacks than dancing and taking long walks. I don't feel light and free. I feel heavy, and so does my heart.

These days I feel like I need to be taken in someone's arms, and held for days, allowed to be weak and vulnerable, allowed to be loved unconditionally. A part of me is aching inside, and I don't know how to heal it. I crave love, passion, lust and beauty. But sometimes everything seems so bleak. Sometimes I feel like the frost that covers the ground is resting on my heart.

Luckily I'm in good hands. My family always manages to make me smile. Last night my brother and I poured vodka after vodka and poured our hearts out a little. It feels good to say how you really feel. It doesn't feel good waking up with a pounding head, but nothing comes without a price.

Life isn't always kind, but if offers itself to you daily, and you can't ignore it.

And so this is Christmas, and what have I done? I pushed my boundaries, moved to Paris, and have made a daydream a reality.

I may not always be happy, but every day I'm aware that I'm alive. I'll raise my glass to that.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

back where I belong

The other day an orange winged easyJet plane left Paris, took off into the heavens, and landed in the South of France.

I flew in the sky that I'd been staring at for so long, and landed on the runway of the Toulouse airport, where I was met by a smiling brother and father. We drove through the country for an hour, the fields now dead and barren, the air frozen, but as pure as I left it this summer.

Eventually we arrived in Castelnau de Montmiral, the small medieval town I've been coming to since I was four feet tall, and I was taken to our summer house, which I'm told is around 800 years old. I'll be staying here a week with my family, minus one brother, until we all head back to Paris, where they'll celebrate Christmas with me before going back to Canada.

It all sounds incredibly romantic. And it is. The house is old and crumbling, and although it's absolutely freezing, and not meant to be lived in during winter, I love it. My mother took me in her arms and I felt at home immediately.

Within minutes of my arrival, my brother and I ran down to the towns one small grocery store, the size of a living room, where I bought vodka so I could welcome myself properly.

I love my family. They are relaxed and easy. Everyone is allowed to be. Most arguments end in laughter, and everyone's opinion is always heard. It doesn't matter if my mother drinks red wine, my father drinks beer, and I drink vodka while my brother stays sober over dinner. We are who we are, and we all have our own tastes.

My second day here we took off to an old chateau, where you can book 24 hours in advance to have the owners prepare you dinner in the front room.

We drove for hours through winding roads to get there. Barren trees edges along the small country roads, which turned and turned, while we passed small country homes, smoke billowing out of the chimneys.

When we arrived, we walked around the frost covered grass and checked out the land. The owners rent out a lot of their property, and also raise lambs, which are always cooked up as part of the meals they serve.

Our meal was four courses. We were seated at a large table in front of a giant sized fireplace and greeted by the woman of the house, who shook our hands and brought us bread to begin with. We nibbled on bread, while red wine was poured freely, until the first course was brought to us.

First course was a crustless leek and salmon quiche. It was light, fluffly, and rich in flavour. It's all country cooking, but it warms the heart, and fills a hungry winter belly.

Next we were brought a large dish of scalloped potatoes, along with another dish of lamb and polenta stuffing. The meat was rich and tender, the stuffing light but savoury.

By this time we were all full, but were brought salad, to cleanse the palate, along with our own circle of goat cheese each. I wasn't in the mood for salad at this point in the meal, but happily dug into my goat cheese, eating its bitter skin and soft insides on its own.

By this time we were ready to burst. But on comes the real dessert. A tray of chocolate cake, laced with nuts, and a coffee cream sauce to pour over top. I couldn't do it. I didn't want the button of my jeans to burst. So I wrapped a piece in a red napkin, threw it in my purse, and finished off with an espresso.

Life here is different. It's slow. It's personal. The days go by quickly, and revolve mostly around the meals.

The town is freezing and mostly dead, nothing like the place I left this summer, but the winter light is beautiful, and I have my family.

It's far from the life I left in Paris, and a lovely escape. I'm catching my breath, as I huddle around the wood stove that heats our house, dancing to Christmas carols with my mom who attempts to pop corn on top of it.

As I write, my dad lies snoring on the bed behind me, after a large chicken dinner I produced, and Irish Christmas carols blast through the room.

I'm home. In some way or another. Back where the stars shine brightly, and the best memories of my life have been made.

Merry Christmas everyone, whatever corner of the world you're in right now.

chateau feast
leaving the chateau
my mentor Susan
miss Young

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

nannies talk

Today I met my au pair mentor.

After a morning of games, and then tears over stuffed animal ownership, I took the kids to Pierre Etienne's apartment.

Pierre Etienne is a year older than the young boy, a charming little menace, who thinks stealing and breaking things make for great entertainment.

In this other 16th arrondissement apartment, I met his one-day-a-week nanny, Dimitrina, a young Bulgarian woman who spends the rest of the week working in a clothing store.

Dimitrina is as feminine and strong as her name. I felt safe around her. I felt I could take my first deep breath of the day. She commanded the kids with ease, telling them to play upstairs while we relaxed in the living room.

We sat on the sofa across from a giant dark portrait of Jesus. She told me about her past experience as an au pair, when she first came to Paris six years ago. She came to Paris because her friends were going. It wasn't uncommon at that time for young girls to use au pair jobs as an excuse to escape Bulgaria, which was much poorer at the time. They found jobs through agencies which presented the job like a dream. "I thought it would be amazing, a city of lights, an easy job," she told me, "but Paris was dark and grey; many of us girls felt like slaves."

She told me about working for a mother who played mind games, children who refused to listen, and a bond that never became solid.

Years later she is out of the au pair game, only dipping her toes in, and much happier. But experience has taught her to play the game with ease and expertise.

When the kids came down to present us "une spectacle" she told them to let us finish our tea and coffee first. When the spectacle ended up being repetitive, with the boys running after each other and ignoring the young girl, she told them we were unimpressed and walked out of the room.

I explained the pushover I had become, and she recommended I raise my voice a little more. If I was always cleaning up after them, they would never learn to do it themselves. "They are young, they need to learn these things now," she told me. And I felt the pressure of my au pair responsibilities rise. There's more to it than just making it through the day. You have to teach lessons at the same time.

On the way back to the family's apartment the kids started whining because I hadn't bought them candy. When we were leaving the house to go to Pierre Etienne's I had told them I'd treat them to a couple of candies if they got ready in time. The girl had been crying and was refusing to go, so I reached for the candy bribe. In the end we were late, and their was no candy. So heading home they still had candy on the mind. I thought of Dimitrina. "No," I said firmly, "you took too long getting ready. It's too late for candy. If you are nice, we can get candy tomorrow".

Walking up the stairs both children stopped. They wanted candy. They refused to move. So I sat down, said "Okay, we can stay here and whine and sob, with no candy, or head upstairs and get candy tomorrow." They stayed. I made myself comfortable, and started playing with my cell phone. "I'm comfortable here, so we can stay all night," I told them, "or we could go upstairs and play wolf." "Wolf?! Yes wolf!" The little girl chanted. She started running up the stairs. Eventually the boy came too, after a couple of choked sobs, and "I want candy right now"s.

I don't like being stern, because I'm the kind of person that wants everyone to love me. When you're stern with a child they will hate your guts for a good 15 minutes, maybe an hour, maybe a day, but in the end they forget about it and learn a lesson. I still had them smiling at the end of the night. Thank god for my immature sense of humour.

I went home exhausted, feeling I had made it through the day, conquering all challenges.

A few minutes later I got a message from Madame, "Did you make the kids do their homework, or did you forget?"

I forgot.

It's never easy.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

come on baby, light my life up

The light was incredible on Sunday.

It climbed up every surface; it painted roads, buildings, rooftops, and made even the palest faces glow.

I bought a bag of sweet Haribo French candy and walked for hours. I got lost, and actually felt my jaw drop when I ended up on the Champs Elysees, surrounded by a mass of tourists, when I had thought I was in a completely different location.

Christmas is alive in Paris, and everyone is running frantically to the big stores to do their Christmas shopping. Tourists empty their wallets for anything that says "Made in France", while Parisians race to find only the finest for their beloveds.

I think I'm the calmest person in the city right now. I wander dreamily, stare into store windows, and sing Christmas carols in my head. I let people push infront of me and look up at the sky as if it has the answers to all my questions. It seems my eyes are locked up there these days.

I walked until the blue sky was black and the sun had gone to sleep. I picked up small treasures to present to my family on Christmas morning, holding my breath as I walked into stores, prepared to be elbowed in the gut for wrapping paper.

That night I fell into a deep sleep, and woke up to a dark grey sky. I did the daily run of grocery shopping, and felt heavy under the darkness. The light came back when I picked up the kids after school, where both gave me smiles big enough to replace the sunshine.

Everyday has its light.

retro paris
statue of liberty greets paris
sunday afternoon
the lone ranger
caught in the sun

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

spoiling my senses

It was hot in the kitchen.

I don't know if it was the oven, or the handsome French chef who kept standing so close to me, but I stayed rosy cheeked the whole time.

I took my first cooking class yesterday afternoon. I took two metros across town, then ran down a large street, through a market laced with herbs and spices, fresh fish, colourful produce and yelling merchants to Printemps, a Parisian department sotre. I went sraight to the fourth floor, where a stainless stell kitchen surrounded by glass awaited me. After washing my hands and tying on my plastic apron, I was ready to begin.

We started with dessert: un fondant au chocolat noir. "This is not like the fondant you find in a grocery store," explained the eye candy in the apron, "chocolate will not ooze out when you cut into your cake, it's fondant because it is soft inside, and will melt in your mouth."

We mixed eggs with sugar, melted butter and chocolate, and whipped it all together with flour. We poured the batter into a triangular plastic bag, cut the tip, and squeezed it artfully into molds for baking. With those in the oven it was time for our main course: cod in a honey and soya sauce and mushroom polenta (cornmeal).

We were taught to make our mushrooms young again by skinning them with a knife, to dice onions in an artful manner, and to sautee them together in peanut oil without throwing them all over the counter. I swooned as our instructor threw the mix up in the air and caught it in his pan. Chefs make me weak.

As the polenta cooked we fried the cod in a mix of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, soya sauce and honey. The aroma teased the senses as we fried the skin crispy, and then let the rest of the fish cook in the sweet mixture.

When all was cooked we placed a a flat blob of polenta-which looked like a mix between an omelette and mashed potatoes-in the centre of our dish, set a long piece of fish in the middle of it, covered it in the sauce, added a sprig of parsley, and were ready to eat.

All seated together around the stainless steal counter, a young man asked what kind of wine would go best with this meal. When the chef declared that a dry white wine would go best, I grinned and asked if he happened to have any. For a few more euros extra I had a glass with my meal, which brought out all the flavours of the fish and made the meal go down smoothly. I sat like a little lush, pleasing my senses, while the rest of the class stuck with water.

The fondant au chocolat was placed on a leaf shaped plate, on top of immaculate squiggles of caramel. The outside was hard, but right in the centre, was that soft chocolate dough that tastes something like love.

I left smiling, and walked for hours through the streets, the winter sun scraping the buildings, the sky a bright blue canopy above me. A young man looked at me and yelled "Beauty!" And I smiled the whole afternoon.

It was a delicious day. It ended just as tastefully, with a spicy dinner in an Indian restaurant with my friend Harold. He spoke to our waiter in Indian and told him I looked great naked. The poor man smiled, nodded, and treated me very nicely for the rest of the night.

Dessert was several shots of Jack Daniels in an Irish bar before we took off home giggling.

It was a beautiful day, to say the least, and all my grey skies turned blindingly blue.

a glimpse
living under an arch
buildings bathing in sunlight
dreaming of travel

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

i love you every day of the week

On Monday I felt like packing my bags.

A clash with Madame made me feel like I would never be understood in Paris. She wanted me to work on a day I'd booked a cooking class, and I took a deep breath and protested. She's been very generous with me on giving me days off when she can take the kids, and found it extremely rude of me to refuse.

I don't know French etiquette. I don't know when I'm being offensive. I don't know how to be the perfect au pair, or how to remember all my tasks of the day. But I know that sometimes you have to stand up for yourself.

Madame is a very generous woman, but she has sharp edges. She's not afraid to tell you what she's thinking, without any sugar coating. Sometimes I feel as if I'm always on tip toe, trying to say the right thing, use proper grammar, complete all my chores, and not break any of the fine china while I'm at it.

I've never had a job where my stress level rises and drops to this extent. I'm responsible for my own actions but also those of the kids. I have rules to follow, a schedule to keep, and tasks to complete. I have a culture to adhere to.

Tuesday my world started looking up. My camera started working. My Dad arrived. He took me out for dinner, where a Cosmopolitan, a steak of red tuna grilled with sesame seeds and good conversation brought back my smile.

Wednesday I found that the way to the kids heart is by pretending to be a wolf and chasing them around the house growling. (Don't worry, I never had much self-respect in the first place.) I then had a walk around Montmartre, and more savoury food and conversation with my dad. He left to the South of France this morning, where I'll be heading soon.

Thursday, today, my phone started working. The little boy told me I was his favourite au pair, the little girl told me I was in her top three, and they cheered when they found out I'd be taking on more hours in the new year when the mother starts work. I actually had to hold back the young boy from coming home with me at the end of the night.

Tomorrow's Friday, which means French class, chores, a free afternoon and then a weekend to breathe.

I guess you just can't give up on the first day of the week.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

c'est la vie

My mother has come and gone.

She met me in Cafe de la Paix in la Place d'Opera, where the bus from the airport would drop her off. When she found me I was busy befriending the Irish bartender and my old friend Jack Daniels. My heart stopped when I saw her, standing with her suitcase, calling my name from a distance. I jumped out of my seat and ran towards her with open arms.

Soon she was seated at the bar beside me. Together, it seemed like we could finally breathe again, until my mother reached into her bag. Her wallet was gone. "A woman bumped into me on the bus," she said, "it wasn't natural. I know she took it."

I paid our bill and soon we were down in the metro. Two violins played sadly in the background as my mother left a frantic message on the answering machine for my father. "Cancel the credit cards, my wallet is gone." She had three credit cards and three hundred euros in her wallet.

On the metro home my mother sat stunned, with watery eyes, while a man in our car pulled out puppets which he made sing to opera music. I stared at my mother, smiling in sympathy, while the dramatic music played to the drama of our lives.

The night was spent running to phone booths in the cold-my cell phone is broken-cancelling credit cards, and trying to find a police station. We found out that the woman who stole her wallet had spent 3000 euros that night, within minutes of the theft. The police station was closed that night, but we made it the next day, and a police report will insure that this money will get back to my mother.

We had planned to relax the few days she was here. But our nerves were shot. I couldn't sleep at night, took on a cold, threw up my dinner one evening, and missed my period all together because my stress level was shooting up so high.

But I still had my mother. And we walked through the streets of Paris, arm in arm, like we'd dreamt about for so long. She bought me a winter jacket so I wouldn't freeze. We ate well. We had creme brulee her last night here, in a restaurant called Les Philosophes.

She held me one morning, when I came out the shower crying, my hair wet and a towel around my body. I was running off nothing, wanting to show my mother a good time, and afraid of the lifeless bitch my sleeplessness had made me. I was tired of running. Tired of nothing working. My body wasn't working, my emotions were a mess, my mother was robbed, and my cell phone and camera were broken. It felt like nothing was allowed to go right.

I took my mother to the train station at seven this morning. She needed help lugging her suitcase, and seduced me with the idea of a petit dejeuner complet. There's nothing better than sitting down at a train station with a croissant, baguette, butter, jam, coffee and orange juice. So I went.

She got on the train, pulling her body after two hours of sleep, and sniffling from my cold that she picked up. I hugged her one last time, so happy to be back in her warmth, knowing I'll be joining her down South in a couple of weeks.

I left her and walked slowly down the platform, dressed in black, my tired eyes watching people run to the train, lugging bags bigger than their bodies.

I walked back down into the metro, the lights blaring down on the mass of passengers in suits and winter jackets. People rolling suitcases, holding briefcases, or stylish little purses. People in a hurry to get somewhere.

Things don't always work out as planned. Sometimes you have to push yourself until you're practically empty. But it's life. You accept sad truths, work with what you've got, and move on.

The past few days have been crazy, but I had my mother. We still laughed, danced, drank, and found warmth in the other's company.

There's a time to grieve, and there's a time to shrug, pour yourself a glass of wine, and say: "C'est la vie."

maman and i
Le Polidor