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my name is lesley stern and I am an addict

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My first taste was during the Menton Citrus Festival in February.   Some pusher on the street was handing out samples. I guess you could say it was peer pressure…I was trying to be agreeable. I generally pass on samples because I’m afraid they’ll make me buy something. That was the least of my worries.

The substance? Mille et un miels, Delice au miel au Citron de Menton (Honey with essence of the coveted Menton lemon). I’m pretty sure whatever they put in Starbucks Mocha Frappucinos (a habit I had to move to France to break), is also in this honey.   Something evil and irresistible.

I remember the flood of pure bliss when the honey first hit my lips.   My body was unprepared for the seratonin surge of lemony-honey goodness.   I think I blacked out for a few moments.  My friend Angela found me dazed on the sidewalk with a huge smile on my face and the plastic spoon still in my mouth.

I talked her into trying the honey (please don’t judge me, my intentions were good—I just wanted her to experience the pleasure, I swear!). The next thing you know we were both in the store buying a couple of jars each.

Since then, all my thoughts and actions have revolved around this nectar of the Gods.

Honey paraphernalia

Honey paraphernalia

I’ve been stocking up on honey paraphernalia.   I’ve googled the health benefits of honey.   The side effects.  Honey recipes.  The dangers of eating too much honey.   The history of honey.   Honey as medicine.  Signs of an overdose.  You name it.  Sometimes I have to rush home and indulge when the vague thought of a baguette, goat cheese and lemon honey has me jonesing for a hit.

Two jars don’t even last me through the following week. Granted, the jars are small (about 2/3 of a cup per jar) but it’s clear this is going to be a problem.   Especially since the minute I opened the second jar, I began to worry about how to get more.   As the jar empties, my worry rises to panic. The voice in my head becomes shriller:   Gotta get more.   Gotta get more.   GOTTA GET MORE!   QUICKLY, BEFORE I RUN OUT!    The mere thought of facing a morning without lemon honey slathered on toast/yogurt/fruit/ricecake/oatmeal/baguette/croissant/my hand… fills me with despair. I long for simpler days, when a cup of coffee was enough.

I make the 50 minute train ride to Menton a few days later under the pretext of visiting the Cocteau museum on the waterfront. It’s very nice; a glaringly modern (yet elegant) building that stands out with Menton as its charming old-world background.   It seems entirely fitting. There’s a lot of art, ceramics and stuff.   But enough about Cocteau!

I buy four more jars of honey and head on home.   On the train, I begin to worry that four jars isn’t enough. I’m already giving a jar to a friend as a thank you gift.   Oh jeez.   That only leaves me three jars.   And I will probably give another jar as a birthday gift.   Two measly jars?   That won’t last two weeks!   They need to make these jars in a large economy size!

I consider getting off in Monaco and going back for more, but I’m tired and the four jars of honey are pretty heavy.   And then there’s the embarrassment of going back in and buying more jars the same day. The shop girl will judge me.

Then I notice the flyer in my shopping bag.   There’s a website .   Maybe they sell this stuff a little closer to Antibes.

I hurry home and peruse the website over a refreshing cup of iced honey.   I discover there’s an online boutique and immediately order five more jars which will be delivered in two days.

The e confirmation arrives.   For the first time in weeks, I have this overwhelming sense of peace and that all is right with the world.

 

Postscript: I gave one jar to Michel, who called me immediately after trying it and told me his mouth had an orgasm and he was about to smoke a cigarette and take a nap.   I gave another jar to my friend Joc.   The following day, she chased me down the street holding out wads of cash, asking me to get her more next time I go to Menton.   Hmmmm, this might be a good way to support my habit.

my lavish lunch at the hotel du cap (or thereabout)

hotel du cap eden roc exteriorThe Hotel du Cap Eden-Roc is a landmark.   Well, it should be a landmark.  Maybe even a UNESCO world heritage site.   It was built in 1869 by the founder of Le Figaro newspaper as a sanctuary for writers seeking inspiration.

In 1889, it was sold to an Italian hotelier and became the Grand Hotel du Cap.

Up until the 1920’s the hotel was a winter escape for the wealthy and was closed for the summer.  Until Cole Porter introduced Gerald and Sara Murphy, two wealthy American ex-pats to the Cap d’Antibes and they fell in love with it.   The Murphys begged the hotel management to keep the hotel open for summer to accommodate them and their friends.   The management was more agreeable back then —  in 2011, they refused to open for President Barack Obama during his visit to the Cote d’Azur for the G20 conference in Cannes (maybe the current owners are Republicans?).

The Murphys brought F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and ultimately ushered in a resurgence to the area.

Fitzgerald immortalized the Hotel in Tender is the Night as the Hôtel des Etrangers. Marc Chagall sketched from one of the shady beachside cabanas (now over 500 Euro a day) .  Kennedys had trysts here.   World leaders negotiated here.   Everybody who is anybody in Hollywood has stayed here, from Gene Kelly to Cary Grant to Robert Redford to Johnny Depp.

The hotel is now owned by an elite German hotel chain.  It may be the only place left on the Cap not owned by a Russian or Saudi.  These days, a room goes for 830E -6150/night.   Cabana not included.   And don’t even ask about the Villas.   No prices are listed and I assume, they’re going by the philosophy that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

Up until now, I’ve walked by the gates of the hotel, but was afraid to go within 10 meters of it for fear of setting off some poverty alarm and being tackled by the security guards flanking the gates.   But today, dammit, I’m going in.  Even if I have to shell out for a 90Euro lunch!   Rumor has it, the food is impeccable and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a room (hell, I’ve stayed in hotel rooms that are cheaper than lunch at the Hotel du Cap).

I take the number 2 bus from the Antibes Gare Routiere to the tip of the Cap (probably not the most elegant vehicle from which to make one’s entrance to the hotel, but what the hell).   It’s about a 10 minute bus ride.

I get off the bus and walk confidently towards the hotel, getting closer to the gates than I’ve ever been before.   My heart is racing.hôtel du cap Then I read the sign:   Fermature Annuelle.    Sigh.  A couple of gardeners open the gate a bit to roll out a dumpster of leaves.  I consider making a break for it and running through the gates, but figure I’d be shot.    Damn, I’m going to have to wait til April to see this place. And I’m as hungry as hell all of a sudden.  And there aren’t a lot of (any) restaurants here on the tip of the Cap d’Antibes. 

My plans are ruined.   I intended to eat a lovely, civilized  lunch, walk the grounds, look for famous people and walk back to Antibes.   But here I am, locked out, starving and weak.    How will I make it back without sustenance?   Maybe I’ll collapse in the middle of Boulevard Kennedy and get run over by a rich handsome man with an exotic accent in a Ferrarri.   Maybe he will stop, pick me up and gently deposit me into his Ferrarri,  drive me to a hospital and never leave my bedside until I fully recover and by then of course, we’ll be madly in love even though I’ll never walk again.  That sounds great!   Clearly I’m getting light-headed.

IMG_5880Then I remember that I wisely put a banana in my purse before I left.   I find a nice spot across the street from the hotel, which just happens to be the garden of Les Chenes Verts, the villa where Jules Verne lived and worked.   I sit down and elegantly devour the banana (pinky finger out) and savor the sweeping vistas over the Golfe Juan.

I still can’t speak to the splendor of the Hotel du Cap or the skills of its chefs. But I can honestly say, this is the best damn lunch I’ve ever had.

eating for two

Today I’m eating for me of course, but I’m also eating for Wayne.   Wayne is…was my often partner at the San Francisco company where I do a lot of freelance remotely.   His last day is Friday.  Since I just can’t bring myself to fly 6000 miles to attend his going away lunch,  Wayne and I decide I’ll eat a bunch of French stuff for him over here and chronicle the deliciousness.  So I take a stroll through the Antibes Marche Provencal to find some goodies.

I start by raising a mojito macaron to Wayne’s new job.   It’s surprisingly good–tart but sweet with a subtle whoosh of mint.   Damn, I’ll have another.   Oh, make that four.   It’s for Wayne.

Wayne is experiencing a bit of a sugar rush so I race past all the gorgeous fruit and vegetables (you can get them anywhere) towards the Socca oven that’s up and burning at the other end of the Marche.   Yes, Wayne must have a socca.   It’s distinctly from this part of the world!   Socca is basically a crepe made from chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt and it’s much better than it has a right to be, especially with a healthy shot of black pepper.   It’s a specialty of Southeast France and the Ligurian Coast of Italy.   It’s like a tidy falafel.    It’s a particularly good choice if Wayne happens to be on a gluten-free diet.

Next up, the Grande Aioli lunch.   Very South of France.   Very traditional.   It’s basically boiled cod and vegetables with an aoili dipping sauce.     It would be very healthy if Wayne didn’t insist on slathering it with the aioli.

Now I figure Wayne could go for something sweet, so I pick up a pack of the nougat that is popular here and in Provence.   I get the multi-flavored assortment to try all the nougaty essences.   It’s sort of a sophisticated version of Turkish taffy.    While there’s a similarity, it’s not as sweet and much more, as the package says, “tendre”.   Also, the flavors are more subtle and natural tasting.   The roasted almonds are a nice touch.   I get another pack for Wayne to enjoy later.

As I make my way out of the marche, all the people selling cheeses, olives and tapenades invite me to sample their wares.   I’m kind of full, but it’s a good opportunity for Wayne to try a lot of delicious Provencal products for free.  He particularly enjoys the the sundried tomato,caper, anchovies, basil, garlic tapenade and the brebis cheese.

As I stagger food-drunk through the old town, I make my customary stop at the window of the bakery and ogle the michettes.  Only today, I go inside and order an assortment.   For Wayne.   They’re yeasty little rolls filled with all kinds of savory things.   Onions, saucisses, chorizo, tuna, spinach, ratatouille, several varieties of cheese, etc, etc.   You could definitely make a well-balanced meal out of them.   The chorizo and chevre ones are particularly good.

I’m not sure if it’s me or Wayne, but one of us is starting to feel a little sick and needs to lie down.    On the way home, I can’t help noticing a beautiful little cake in the window of another bakery.

I start thinking that we really haven’t had any fruit and this cake is full of fresh strawberries.    On the other hand, it’s a little pricey, I’m pretty stuffed, and I think I’ve fulfilled my going away lunch commitment.   But it looks so delicious.

Then it hits me.    I think Wayne’s birthday is coming up.   So I buy it.   Anything for Wayne.

my latest sources of intense sensual pleasure

Ulti Jus d’orange, pamplemousse et frambois. 

Nectar of the gods, I tell ya!   Monoprix makes one that’s equally delish under the “daily monop” label.    And not terribly easy to find outside of big cities.   So far, I’ve only encountered it in Paris, Nice and Marseille.   It’s fresh and so good you want to savor it like a fine wine (or in my case, chocolate milk).   With every sip I take, I’m boggled by its deliciousness anew.   I think there must be something in it like crack.

A friend of mine tried it when she was visiting France and is showing signs of a burgeoning addiction.   Now when she calls me, her first question is “are you drinking that juice?” her voice thick with desire.     She’s now planning to retire here, in part, I believe for this juice.

Domaine Ramateulle 2010 Rose

I am by no means a wine connoisseur.   In fact, I never been a big wine fan.   Until I met rose (with an accent over the “e” — someday I’m going to have to figure out how to do a accent grave on my computer).   I always thought they were the white trash of wines, but boy was I wrong (well, either that, or I have white trash taste).   They’re dry but refreshing.   Light, but fuller bodied than white.   They’re jush desilicious.

So far, this is my favorite.   It’s hauntingly good.   I find myself thinking about it at various points during the day, looking forward to the moment my lips touch its cold, dewy glass.  And the best part is, it not only tastes ambrosial, it gets me drunk!    I never want to be without it ever again.

Sun dried tomato/anchovy tapenade

I can’t vouch for all of them, since every recipe is different (and they often have different names such as bagnattou, or croistillade.”   I’m in love with one at the Antibes Marche Provencal that has olives, sun dried tomatoes, basil, anchovies and god knows what else.  They call theirs “bagnattou d’angele”, which seems apt.    Everytime I eat it, I’m surprised at how utterly freaking good it is.   I find myself having it for dessert.   Who knew something without chocolate in it could be so addictive?

Rotisserie chicken from a truck

I have yet to eat a chicken as perfect as those from a truck in France.    I don’t know if it’s that the chickens are better, or fresher, or better prepared but dang, those are good chickens.   Perfectly seasoned, moist, flavorful.   I have sought tastier chickens all over the world and have yet to find one.   Particular kudos to the hot guy and his pretty wife at the Vidauban market (not pictured here).   The best of the best, IMHO.

Oreillettes de Languedoc

I happened upon these babies while waiting in line at Monoprix to pay for my Ulti jus d’oranges, pamplemousse et frambois.   They’re one layer of pastry drizzled with lemon juice and sugar.   I ate the entire box in an hour an am now planning to go to Nice first thing in the morning to stock up on more (I’d go right now, but it’s Sunday).   I guess they’re a specialty of the Languedoc, which is making me consider moving there.

Meil de lavande from La Maison du Miel in Vidauban

I always thought honey was honey.   And lavender honey just sounds like so much BS.   So when Gilli told me people travel from far and wide for this honey, I took it with a grain of salt (or pollen).

Well, over here they have honey degustations (the next gourmet preoccupation?) which I’m glad to take part in (hey, free food!).   After tasting honey from across the land, I’ve come to revise my thinking.   Honey is not honey, and this stuff is amazing!!!  I wish I could describe what it is exactly that makes it taste above and beyond every other honey–a subtle hint of spicy-ness?  The round, almost buttery depth of flavor?   Yes, it’s a miracle honey.   I think it probably cures illness and eliminates wrinkles when applied topically.

Produce

Holy shit!   So this is what these things are supposed to taste like.

macarons I have known and loved

My love affair with macarons began on a rainy afternoon in Paris four years ago.   It was a chocolate macaron at Dalloyau that was so perfect, so dark, so rich I became obsessed.   I would only eat the chocolate ones for fear of being disappointed by a lesser flavor.

When I moved back to California, I tried to substitute them with cupcakes, but quickly grew bored.   I tried desperately (sometimes on a daily basis) to recreate the perfection of that chocolate macaron in my kitchen, and failed miserably every time.   Now that I think about it, I really had no choice but to move back to France.

When I returned, I vowed to try every flavor.   I figured that given all the macaron colors I’ve seen in Paris patisseries, it will take awhile before I get to the flavors that sound really disgusting to me (fois gras, for example)

One thing I learned quickly is that the assortment of flavors of macarons you can find in a particular village or ville is directly proportionate to the number of people who live there or visit.   Vidauban, with a population of approximately 10,000 really offers a selection of six flavors:   chocolate, pistachio, lemon, vanilla, coffee and strawberry.   After sampling all Vidabuan has to offer, I began to travel further afield to broaden my horizons.

Once again, it’s in Paris where I’m able to rediscover that total bliss I experienced with that first chocolate macaron, not once, but twice in one day:   First, by the Bon Marche food hall, La Grande Epicerie Paris (how I love that place) rhubarb and vanilla macaron…OhMyGod…and later that day by Laduree‘s caramel beurre de sale…OHMYGOD…   The Laduree Cherry/almond macaron is a close third.

I’m partial to the macarons that don’t have jam fillings.   I prefer something creamier like ganache, nougat or caramel.   Jam seems so common, like someone grabbed a jar of Smuckers and slathered it on.   Even a curd or paste will do.

A quick note toLaduree:   Yes, your store is beautiful.   Yes, your macarons and packaging are to die for.   But why can’t I take a picture in your store?   It’s not like you’re the freaking pentagon, for godsakes.

A note to places who sell very expensive macarons and yet when you buy four, they get shoved into a little prissy bag that will get your macarons crushed if you were to carry them any distance: put ’em in a box!!!!   I’m talking to you, Jean Luc Pele.   Do you think these flimsy bags are going to get these macarons from Cannes to Antibes unscathed?   And while we’re at it, Laduree, anybody who spends 10 euros on four macarons deserves a box, carrying case or jeweled encrusted chest with built in refrigeration.

There are two macarons vendors with excellent selections in Antibes who concoct these nifty little carrying cases from the larger casings.   I want to bedazzle one, put a strap on it and carry it everywhere so I’m always prepared for an unexpected patisserie event.

So far, here are the macarons I’ve tried and a review of whether or not the flavor works for me in macaron form or not.  Basically they fall into 4 categories.

  • ****OMG i will spend the rest of my life trying to recreate this experience.
  • ***this is really good.   I’m not obsessed, but I will want to have another..
  • **Good.   Been there done that.
  • *Ewww, this is disgusting.

***lemon (citron)   I have yet to have a citron macaron I didn’t like.

***mandarine  I feared it might taste like cough medicine, but it was pretty dang good.   I’m not obsessed, but I’ll definitely have another.

***yuzu   Very good.   Citrusy with this tantalizing whiff of something good.   A rare example of a slightly perfume-y flavor agreeing with my taste buds.

**bergamot   Bergamot is weird.   It’s a citrus, but it’s more perfumey that it is citrusy.   Twice I’ve had a bergamot macaron and promptly forgot what it tasted like.

***chocolate   What’s not to like?

****rhubarb vanilla:   There it was behind the counter at Bon Marche epicierie.   It wasn’t the brightest macaron, but something about it spoke to me.   One bite and it was all over for me.   Bliss.   Perfect combo of sweet/tarte/creamy/crunchy.   I may never see another rhubarb vanilla macaron, but I’ll always remember the brief time I had one.   I’ll live my life as it never happened but deep in my heart, around every street corner, in every window a vague wish will flicker through my heart — that another rhubarb vanilla macaron will be there, waiting for me.

***chocolate noir  What’s not to like?

****caramel beurre de salle I pledge thee my troth.

***coffee (cafe):   Come to think of it, maybe it’s only two stars.   Oh I don’t know.   It just seems unsophisticated to not like the coffee flavored one.   Whatevs.

**lime (citron vert):   maybe it was the patisserie (Jean Luc de whatshiznosis cannes)

**mint (menthe):   It’s kind of a two and a half.   I’ve had one I loved and one that was okay.   The one I loved will induce me to get another.   I won’t take it over a beurre de salle or even ginger, but it’s not bad.

**vanilla   good, but I don’t really need to have another unless someone tells me that so and so makes the most delicious one in the whole wide world.   Or they add rhubard.

**strawberry (fraise) Jam filling.  Need I say more?

****cherry almond (griotte amande):   Oh laduree, I will put up with your slightly snippy sales girls and high prices for little miracles like this.

***pistachio (pistache) Anything pistachio is good.   But when you get right down to it (and I’ve given this a great deal of thought), I’d rather have pistachio ice cream than a pistachio macaron.

**cherry (cerise)

**chocolate banana

**cassis

**champagne   Here’s the thing.   It tasted more like roses than champagne.   I don’t like eating flowers, so it’s not my favorite.   But I wonder if he gave me the wrong one?   It’s really pretty pink with a slight golden glow.   May have to try again.   I like champagne.   I even like roses, i just don’t like eating them.

***gingerbread (pain d’epices)  This is really good.   Like three and a half stars good.   Kind of like a pumpkin pie only better.  Really, really, really good.   I wonder if the store is still open….

**raspberry (framboise)

**blackberry (mure)

***passionfruit chocolate   I’m not sure if I like it or hate it.   It’s intriguing, possibly because I both love it and hate it.   I might have to try another one someday just to figure it out.

***amaretto Nice and almondy.

***bitter orange (orange amere) Much better than I expected.   Delicious, in fact.

***nutella I’m not a huge nutella fan, but these are good!

***peanut (cacahuette) these will be my replacement for Reeses peanut butter cups, when I get a craving.   Do you know how hard it is to find anything peanut butter related over here?

****Bitter orange ginger (orange amere gingembre) One of Laduree’s monthly specials.   Definitely an eyes rolled into back of head moment.   My first impulse is to go back, buy the whole stock of them and start hoarding.

change you can believe in

You’re looking at approximately $23 worth of change in Euros (16 Euros).   By tomorrow, it should be worth more against the dollar.

With my 16 Euros I can buy a roast chicken, loaf of bread, cheese, coffee and still have money left over for dessert.

In San Francisco, a roast chicken and bread salad at Zuni Cafe costs $49.00 (and isn’t nearly as tasty as the $7.00 roast chicken from the rotisserie truck here.

Why am I telling you this?   Because I’m pissed off.   I’m pissed off because I can’t afford to exchange all my hard-earned, increasingly worthless US dollars into Euros at the moment because of poor money management, not on my part (and believe me, I’m no financial genius), but on the part of the US government.   The government that I just paid tens of thousands of dollars to on April 15th… or else.

Thanks to their poor management and favoritism to the very rich (I’m talking to you Geithner, Bernake et al), I spent the past year slaving away 24/7 to earn money, much of which is now being spent on wars, bank bail outs, interest rates to China and corporate tax breaks.

Sure, the French will tell you their taxes are high, but it seems they’re getting some value for their money.   Their healthcare system is rated number one in the world, so they don’t live in fear of being bankrupted by illness.   Their roads are well maintained so they don’t blow out their tires on a simple drive to the grocery store (and get taxed when they’re forced to buy new tires).   They don’t work inhuman hours for an ever decreasing wage.   Public servants, teachers and people who actually produce things aren’t treated as second class citizens to be bilked by the rich and powerful.

So where’s the change (aside from the pittance in my hand), President Obama?  I understand that Bush got us into this mess, but from where I’m sitting, which is thankfully far away, things are only getting worse for the working class.

Ironically, the only way I can live the American dream these days is to be in France, where while I still can’t afford to buy a home, at least I can afford a chicken.

what kind of paradise is this?

One of the recurring themes in all the articles and books I’ve read on Croatia and Slovenia is that it’s a “foodie paradise.”

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but in order to qualify as a foodie paradise, don’t you have to achieve total dining fulfillment at least 4 times a week?

I’m eating at the same places Travel and Leisure, Fodors, Lonely Planet and the New York Times are waxing poetic about, and I’m just not tasting the poetry. No paroxysms of sublime pleasure wafting over my tongue. Maybe I need to adjust my prozac doseage.

Are these travel writers just blissed out by the environment? Are they that starved for good food? Or do they just read the same damn articles and travel guides we do and regurgitate them back to us? Have they even BEEN here?

The food is good, granted. Seafood is the main lure and it’s all fresh. Really, really fresh. In Rovinj, to inaugurate the seafood portion of the trip, we order the mixed seafood appetizer. When I finally summon the courage to try the “tartuffo” (a clam like item), I raise my fork to it and the blob visibly recoils. My niece and I respond by audibly recoiling. Our screams echo through Rovinj. That’s a little too fresh for my tastes.

There are only two times during the 16 day trip I rolled my eyes back in orgasmic bliss while eating something. One was the Calamari at Lokanda Fontana in Trogir. And the other was the fried rocket (arugula) at Sesame near the Hilton in Dubrovnik — it’s the only time I’ve ever seen fried rocket on a menu and now I crave it. If they sold it in grocery stores and fast food places, it would be my favorite snack.

My first sour cream and onion Pringle in Porec also rocked my world, but I’m told Pringles is not a strictly Croatian delicacy.

We also had a really great dinner at Hanibal in Hvartown and a terrific lunch in Cavtat at Leut on the waterfront past the little market.

But a couple of really good meals does not warrant all the foodie paradise blather I’ve been seeing, I’m sorry.

Now, pitch me an article about it being an ice cream paradise and I’m 100% behind you (that’s 124% with butterfat). I’m not sure what it is about the ice cream in this part of the world. The huge fluffy mountains in pretty colors, the endless assortment, the fact none of it is made by a chain so no two “berry jubilees” are alike. You eat it because it’s there. Soon it’s an integral part of your vacation.I guess you could say ice cream has been my significant other on this trip. Through thick and thin, darkness and light, it’s been there for me. Soothing me when I need solace, and heightening my joy during moments of happiness. And even with ice cream, it turns out I’m a fickle, faithless whore.

Up until now, I’ve always been pretty monogamous to chocolate. But somewhere between Ljubjuna and Rovinj, maybe it because it’s was hot, I ordered forest berry. After that, there was no turning back. There is no berry on the continent that I haven’t savored in all it’s rich creamery glory. I intersperse the berry flavors with an occassional Snickers, black forest, banana split, german chocolate, pistachio, mandarin, Almond Joy, tiramisu, macaroon just to keep things interesting. I don’t know whether I’ll go back to chocolate when I get back, but I do know I’ll regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t try the cinnamon.

I suppose if we consider ice cream cones a square meal, I might be able to accept the title “foodie paradise.” I guess it’s not too much of a stretch when you consider that a cone has dairy and grain (in the cone) and if you add some nuts and a fruit flavor, you’ve got the protein and fruit and veggie part of the food pyramid covered. I’ve long considered a scoop of chunky monkey an excellent well-rounded breakfast.

I’m not denying that Croatia is paradise. It definitely is. It’s a paradise for people who like a little history mixed in with their stunning natural scenery and beaches. It’s paradise for people who love to travel but hate tourists. And for people who have to plan birthday vacations for three generations of family to enjoy, it’s as close as you’re going to get to paradise. I happen to believe the place is magical. It would have to be. I just spent 16 days here with three generations of family and it only aged me a year.

the true meaning of fete de la cocagne

Today’s the big day. The last day of the Fete de la  Cocagne. Maybe today I’ll figure out what it is.

The main drag is closed and booths are set up for about a quarter of a mile. Booths selling stuff—yes, little make due shops! Joy to the world. I celebrate with a glace (ice cream cone) for breakfast.

There are Savoie cheese vendors, sausage and jambon vendors, vendors selling a variety of juices made in the region, arts and crafts booths, a booth selling beer made in the region, wine booths, a booth selling Auvers posters with Van Gogh paintings he painted while he was here, a bakery booth, and my personal favorite, a booth selling framed bugs and butterflies for a mere 10% of the price I’ve seen them sold elsewhere in the states or Paris.

An ooompapa band plays in the background as the tourists and natives wander the streets. Fortunately, only a few are in period costume so I don’t feel out of place or like a party poop.

I ask a few people qu’est ce que c’est cocagnes and most people shrug their shoulders. A few people answer, but I don’t understand a word they’re saying. Where is the French lesson booth when you need it?


My economic contribution is to buy two Auvers Van Gogh posters which I figure will be a nice memory of my time here and will look lovely on my refrigerator box wall when I return to the states. I also get a bottle of cherry/apple juice, a bottle of award winning Biere du Vexin (which is quite good, I must say), a delicious cheese and a small salami. There goes my grocery money for the week. But when I think about it, I’ve got all four food groups covered: dairy with the cheese, meat with the salami, fruit with the juice and grain with the beer. I’m set.

Everyone is jolly and friendly, although I don’t recognize any of them from Auvers.

All in all, it’s a lovely fete. And I think I’ve figured out what cocagne means: tourist trap.

dutch masters, ribs and self-pity

 

As one of Van Gogh’s neighbors, it would be remiss to visit Amsterdam and not see his museum.  Museumplein, home of the Rijks and Van Gogh Museums,  is a few blocks away, so I slip out before the Kellys are up.

I remember the Van Gogh museum from my last and only visit 20 years ago as the most spectacular museum ever. Max advises me that it sucks compared to the Rijks.   He also corrects my pronunciation of “Van Gogh”  (sounds like “Van go”)  with a harder slightly Germanic, totally Dutch “Van G-ahck,” which sounds like it’s stuck in his throat.   But he’s right.   Van Gogh was Dutch, after all.

I hate to admit that Max’s 8 year old impression of the Van Gogh museum is more sophisticated than my 20 year old memory, but he was sort of right about that too.    I love Van Gogh’s art but the crowd flow is awful. The lighting is dismal. And most unforgivable of all, the Auvers portion is scant.   But the fourth floor makes it all worthwhile.  It’s more personal, with his letters, sketches as well as  Van Gogh’s attempts at copying other artists’ paintings. It’s kind of like watching U2 cover Dylan, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cole Porter , and so on. I especially like Van Gogh’s interpretation of Japanese prints.

Van Gogh does Hiroshige

 

portrait of van gogh by gauguin

There’s also Van Gogh’s art collection, consisting of gifts from other artists as well as trades.    Some wonderful portraits and self portraits of and by various artistic icons.

But here’s the real surprise as far as Amsterdam museums go. I like Rembrandt. A lot. I always thought he was dark and dreary, but he’s pretty awesome. The way he captures light seems almost magical.

When you’re up close and personal every line has power. And his subjects’ faces express more still than most peoples’ faces express in motion. (and I’m not just talking about botox users). I wonder where he died. Maybe I can go live there next. I run a quick check and find he died in Amsterdam. I can deal with that. I’ll become a dead artist groupie. My specialty will be Dutch artists, which will necessitate long stays in Amsterdam.

 

And speaking of  Dutch masters, who knew their spareribs would be timeless works of art?     Not your basic barbeque sauced to death American ribs. Perfectly seasoned lean but juicy spareribs made in a dark Dutch dive called the Klos, right off the leiderhosensplane. We ate outside, practically on the street where Max could practice his unicycle in between courses. Pretty blissful.

On my final day, Blake, Al and I go to the Oudekerk (old church in Dutch) to see a display of the top world news press photos.

In the 1300’s they started burying people under the church and there are over 10,000 people underfoot.   Some still haven’t been identified.   The inscriptions are all over the smooth stone floors, which are works of art in themselves.   I almost miss the art on the walls completely

Photo taken by Trey Ratcliff fromstuckincustoms.com.   Check out all his pictures of Amsterdam.

Some of the photographs are pretty stirring. Particularly the Iraq war widows and earthquake victims –those poor Afghanis just can’t catch a break. But for some reason, the photos of the evacuation of Gaza stir me up. Look at these religious nutjobs rending their clothes and wailing at God about the inhumanity of it all because they’re being evicted from their illegally obtained homes and getting PAID by the government to leave.

They aren’t fighting for their own survival even, yet they’re acting like they’re the only ones whose suffering should matter.

What about the Iraq war widows who lost their husbands for the wrong cause? What about the people in Darfur who face unspeakable horrors on a daily, no, hourly basis and keep going. How about the Iraqis? Or the Afghanis who have known nothing but war, famine, earthquakes and just about every other curse that can be put on a people, and these stupid settlers are just being relocated and you’d think it’s the holocaust revisited.

What is wrong with those settlers? Isn’t it time they get a grip and realize that they don’t have it so bad?

When we leave the church the sun is shining and I’m feeling lucky to be living in France and visiting friends who are living in Amsterdam.

And just at that moment, a cloud skittles across the sun and I feel a chill of fear.

I vaguely recollect that something’s not right in the world.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot.  I lost my apartment in NYC.   All my stuff is being moved into storage this weekend (a place called ASS storage in New Jersey, which seems very appropriate).   In four months I’ll be homeless.   It’s costing me a fortune in moving and storage costs alone(at least the Gaza settlers got paid to leave).  Mentally, I’m rending my clothes and wailing to the heavens: ‘Why must I bear such a burden? When will it end? Why me?’

aimless in amsterdam

Today I’m going to tackle Amsterdam on my own.

Blake shows me the map and points at all the straats, gradts and pleins and tells me where they lead to. I nod like I have a clue what she’s talking about.

One of the things I like to do in a new city (and Amsterdam is for all intents and purposes, new to me), is to go out and wander going whichever direction looks coolest and then figure out where I was on a map later. I’ve tried plotting a day on the map beforehand, but the end result (getting lost) is always the same, so why not just save on the preparation time?

The first thing I see that leads me to believe I’m heading in the wrong direction are huge parking garages in modern buildings. So I turn right. This is a lovely little treelined, area with canals and a lot of the signs say “Jordan”, but I don’t know why. I start seeing little bakerys, little cafes, little shops, little coffee shops. more canals and know I’m headed in the right direction.

I’m starting to notice something unusual…men are checking me out. Men of all ages, not just the decrepit ones. Not only that, a lot of them look really good. One of them is breathtaking (seriously, I can’t breathe when I pass him), with dark blondish hair and smoldering blue eyes. I can even overlook the fact that he’s a bum he’s so gorgeous.

I start to think maybe there’s hope for the old girl after all. Maybe there’s a chance I will have sex again in my life time. I mean maybe there’s a chance I’ll have sex in my lifetime, mom. Of course, I’ll have to move to Amsterdam, but hey, I’m homeless. I’ll tie my belongings to a stick, hop a train and find a refrigerator box. Actually a stove box might be better, it gets cold up here.

I find myself in a pedestrian zone with a whole bunch of little shops, but for some reason, I don’t like it. I walk quickly up the street towards what turns out to be a big square with a church with a big “kiev” poster out front, Madame Tussauds and some other huge building. I head back towards the canals where it’s more peaceful.

But I’m growing weak with hunger. And I have no idea where a good place to eat is. I stop at every place and stare, too faint and indecisive to go in. Finally I choose a little outdoor place on a corner by a canal because the sandwiches look delicious and so does the guy sitting outside having a coffee. I sit down next to him and he smiles and says hello in Dutch. Dang, I wish I knew some dutch. I smile back and not knowing what else to do, look for something in my camera bag. He returns to his newspaper. He helps me order. I thank him and look for something in my camera bag. He helps me order dessert. I thank him and look for something in my camera bag. The sandwich is quite delicious. I wish I could remember the name of the place, but I’ll just refer to it as the good sandwich place with the cute guy I could’ve had if I only knew Dutch. I refuse to even consider the possibility that he was nice to me as one is nice to an elderly lady who is having problems. I smile and say goodbye to him, and search my camera bag one last time.

Fortified, I hit the canals.

I remember seeing the Amsterdam historical museum nearby and head in what I believe is the direction. I wind up walking by a coffee shop the Dutch guy on the train recommended—Abraxas (at least that’s what I think he said, who can tell with those accents?). I decide to check it out, despite the fact I feel a little weird going in alone. I sit down and self-consciously survey the surroundings and clientele. It’s very casual with people from all walks of life. Some rasta types, college backpacker types, Ed Begley Jr types and regular old tourist types. Before I know it, I’ve become best friends with the people at the next table. They’re three alums from the Thunderbird school of business who are having their annual reunion in Amsterdam. All three of them live in London and all work in investment banking in one capacity or another. Jessica wants to quit and become a writer and meeting me is some sort of signal from the universe. Is the universe signaling me to become an investment banker?

When I find myself in a jewelry store with them picking out a necklace for Lloyd’s new girlfriend of three months (but he thinks it’s serious), I know it’s time to go to the museum.

I find my way to the museum with the skill of a local. And promptly get lost in the museum. 

The Amsterdam historical museum doesn’t contain art per se. It displays things pertaining to Amsterdam’s history. Some of the displays are sort of interactive, like a recreated 15th century room that the visitor can enter in and make themselves at home for a moment. During the Anne Frank portion of the museum, I stand in front of a roped off section contemplating it’s meaning. Is it a display showing how the Jews were isolated? Turns out it’s just a roped off portion of the museum. When I realize my mistake, I laugh out loud—probably not the best thing to do in the Anne Frank section.

After the people who give me dirty looks pass, I somehow lose my sense of direction. I feel like I’m in one of those crazy houses where all the planes don’t meet perpendicularly. I pass another roped off portion, and see two Japanese people on the other side, one riding a standing bike (a display, I believe), the other taking her picture. Are they a display? If they’re a display, why are they Japanese? Wouldn’t they be Dutch? Unless the display was about when the Japanese came here after world war II. Did the Japanese come here during WW II? I read the description babout how the bike riding thing in Holland started out as a playful protest against gridlock. Maybe the fact that the Japanese are riding the bike is a playful response to the onslaught of Japanese automobiles in the world?

I can’t stand it any more and ask the Japanese point blank if they’re a part of the display. I interpret their look of confusion, surprise and horror as an inability to speak English. Of course, it’s entirely possible their reaction is based on the fact that they DO speak English.

Their shocked, confused, horrified reaction shocks, confuses and horrifies me to the point that I lurch off in the opposite direction, like a drunk on a floor that’s shifting.

I find three plastic chairs in the next room. They’re facing a TV screen. Peace at last. I sit down and watch the screen. It seems to be a list of destinations and departure times. I look at all the cool destinations and I wish I was going somewhere cool and exotic. Ah, Madrid, Casablanca, Bangkok. Rio. Finally I realize I’m sitting in a display about Schipnol airport and I already AM someplace cool.

I feel as though I’ve been in the museum an eternity. I finally find my way out and stumble out into the light of day. It’s almost 4:30, so I head back towards Al and Blake’s. Through the bloomenmarket (the flower market) and the red light district, where scantily clad women (I think they’re women) stand in the window and try to sell their rather unattractive wares. I consider this might be a career opportunity for me since my old body still looks much better than most of these bodies for sale. But when I see a hooker gesture to a prospective client “five euros”, I decide advertising pays better.

Once again, I realize I’ve made a wrong turn and head in the opposite direction.

I fall in love about four more times before I get back to the apartment. I reverse direction about six.

Later that evening, as Al, Blake and I wander the streets and canals at twilight, I think Amsterdam truly is like Disneyland for adults. I expect to hear children singing “it’s a small world after all” around the next corner. Instead, we find a restaurant named Barok. I have perfect pink lamb with couscous and this amazing layered pancake dessert (these Dutch know their pancakes).  I don’t know if it was the lack of potatoes, or the “coffee” I had earlier, but it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

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