Homeward Bound

So ten weeks of travel are at an end. I am happy and relieved that I managed it all, with only a few low moments. It gives me confidence going forward. No matter where I go, I reckon I can handle it.

There were so many memorable moments…

Spain: watching flamenco dancers in the upstairs room of a Madrid restaurant, part of the welcome reception for the volunteer program. Playing the role of newscaster in a skit as part of the program. Running around the resort grounds taking group pictures in crazy poses (e.g. “pretend you are flying” below.) Jiving with my new friend Toby in the bar, far too late into the night. Saying good-bye to the Spaniards and volunteers, with hugs and tears and promises to reconnect.

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France: Walking the streets of Paris, the morning light reflecting off the freshly washed cobbles, glancing off the rooftops. The waiter in a Menilmontant café persuading me to try the luncheon special and very good red wine. Giggly glances shared with students in our French classes as the teacher explained an exercise we couldn’t made head or tail of. Struggling to master the subjunctive tense and the use of the word “dont”. Learning about French cinema and the music of Serge Gainsbourg.

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Paris

Standing outside the house I lived in as a child in Montmartre, and remembering youthful escapades. Dining with family friends from that time, laughing and catching up as though no time had passed. Visiting Stratford friends in their beautiful flat in the banlieue and stuffing myself on excellent food and wine. The cafes of Paris, the Seine, the parks and vast squares.

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Door in Montmartre, but not “my” door

The exquisite light in the south of France, casting a magical glow on everything. Walking along the canal du midi, basking in the sun overlooking beautiful gardens. Gazing out my all bedroom windows, all the way to the snow-capped Pyrenees.

IMG_1503fullsizeoutput_f0eAmsterdam: Oh the canals! And bridges! And the chill truth of Ann Frank’s attic and all that went on in that stifling space. Van Gogh’s wild artistry. Playing dice with Scarlett in a coffee house, dodging the fierce cyclists (there are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam).

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Scarlett in Amsterdam

Scotland: Wandering the streets of dramatic Edinburgh, meeting the world’s best tour guide, Robert, on the steps of the Scottish Academy (‘wearing a wide-brimmed hat’). Listening to Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament. Trying haggis. Soaking in information while on coach tours. Standing on Hadrian’s Wall. Gazing out from Queen’s View over Loch Tummel. Scotland’s wild beauty.

IMG_1718IMG_1754England: Reconnecting with people from Atlantic College (where I did my last two years of high school) – not only Scarlett, but our room-mate Kate – with whom we saw Travesties and a 60’s V&A Exhibit. Lunching with our housemistress in Stratford-upon-Avon, 45 years after we’d last seen her. Driving to Norwich to visit another friend from the College and his wife. Motoring on the Norfolk Broads in their boat, sipping wine. Wandering through Norwich.

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Scarlett, Mary Ann, Bruce & I at Norwich cathedral

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Norfolk Broads

Reconnecting with my daughter-in-law’s parents, whom I only met at the wedding, at their lovely home in Saffron Walden. Meandering the English countryside with them.

Seeing theatre. Walking in Hampstead Heath, many times, with Scarlett. And especially spending time with Scarlett (probably rather more time than she wanted!) It is a bit mind-boggling to be so close to someone I met when I was fifteen, who has always lived at least an ocean away – and yet, here we are in our sixties, still having a great time together.

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Hampstead Heath

IMG_1856Of course there were less positive experiences, like sweeping up piles of foul dust in a dark attic in Ventenac-en-Minervois. And I must say the actual travel was less than inspirational. I spent a total of 12 days (out of 70) in transit. Enough to last a lifetime, really. Most irritating was the time spent getting to and from airports – particularly in London where it is both expensive and time-consuming to get into the city from ANY of the 4 airports. I will not miss the travel days.

And today is my last one (for a while). Stratford, here I come, with a great sack o’ memories slung over me shoulder. Thanks to everyone who made this trip special – not least of all, you, my blog followers! I’m ready to be home.

 

 

 

 

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The Lives of Others

Most of the new people I have met over the past two months are not living in their home countries. Either they are travellers or expats. As a traveller who has often imagined, at least, having a place in the south of France, for example, I found myself quite interested in finding out more about people who have chosen to relocate to a different culture, or who are inveterate travellers.

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on the front terrace

My hosts on the canal du midi were an older couple (she is 77, he is 70). They met in later life. He’d never been married; she’d already been married twice and had three children. She had a colourful and challenging life, which included growing up largely in Australia, leaving school at age 14, returning to Glasgow on her own to attend drama school, working as an actress and single parenting. I learned all this in the car as she drove me from the train station to the house. She was talkative, someone seemingly accustomed to having an audience. She’d changed her name twice: the first time to a stage name, the second time to a name bestowed upon her in India by her yoga master. She wore “young “clothes, burned incense, and loved her garden. She and her current husband also play in a jazz quartet – she sings. They have us a half-a-quartet mini-performance. Interesting. He is a retired professor of geo-physics, quite no-nonsense and still very involved in research (anti-fraking).

They bought the massive house in which they live about 14 years ago – and I suspect are beginning to wonder how long they can manage it. While we were there volunteering, he had a very badly smashed toe and was unable to drive or walk much. She was not a very confident or eager driver, but fortunately had just been given back permission to drive after having a brain operation early in the new year. She experienced some dizzy spells while we were there – and I think both of them, while happy to have volunteers doing heavy work for them, found the experience rather exhausting – all the interactions etc. I know I would have. Her children are all in Scotland, and she said if anything happened to her husband, she would go back.

They have quite a community of friends – many Scottish expats, all living the life in big old French houses. The last night that we were there, they hosted a dinner in our honour and invited an American and a Canadian couple. The Americans were…very American and wealthy (he was a Trump supporter – having been forewarned , no one mentioned politics throughout the evening). They had purchased an actual chateau in Ventenac and were in the process of massive renovations with plans to offer deluxe accommodations.

The Canadian couple were fantastic – he is a retired Canadian lawyer/ambassador, Francophone (actually born in Belgium). She is originally from Finland and speaks multiple languages. He is her second ambassador husband, so I guess it’s been sort of a career for her. They bought a house in a nearby village several years ago. Both have children still in Canada. They were super lively and I connected with them closely over books – they read a lot, we found we had many favourite books/authors in common. We’ve exchanged suggestions via email and I think she is coming to Stratford in the fall with her daughter, so I hope to see her there

There was also a tenant living on the second floor of the maison, paying rent to my hosts, a German woman in her late forties (I’m guessing). A big boisterous gal who’d left Germany now that her children were grown and come to the south of France as a sort of new beginning – to work as a host/receptionist at a chateau in a neighbouring town. She hung out with us when she could and was very high-spirited and entertaining. She’d only been there a couple of months but had just purchased a small house in a medieval stone village, for 35,000€. Unbelievable! Yes, she said she’d have to put some money in – maybe another 30,000€ – but still! I began to dream again.

Although really I found I did not envy any of them their lives. Clearly almost all had plenty of money and the south of France is lovely – but expat communities are a bit like islands. If you’re lucky, you get along with the handful of people you meet. But the pool is small. And everything is challenging because of language and bureaucratic differences, not to mention the rural setting…and if you’re from the UK like my hosts – with Brexit looming – or are not getting any younger, who knows what further complications may be in store?

My fellow volunteers were an entirely different story. Both Quebecois, in their early twenties, they were on a major adventure. Upon graduating from university a couple of years ago they’d gone on a 4-month backpacking trip to Europe and Asia, then returned to Montreal, taken quite good jobs, worked for a year and decided they hated their jobs. So they quit, packed up and headed off for 15 months of travel and volunteer work – in France, Italy, Sicily and then Asia again. They had little money, lots of energy and curiosity – and spent a huge amount of their time planning the next step, trying to work out the cheapest way to travel and stay. I totally admired their spirit, enjoyed their lively company, and learned about things like BlaBla Cars from them (long-distance ride-sharing). But again, I would not want to live that close to the line or wander for such a long time.

Of course travelling at length or living in a foreign country would no doubt be more appealing with a partner (and I seem to have carelessly lost mine) … but even so, I think at this stage of life I would not want to undertake such a dramatic relocation or prolonged period of travel. Fascinating to see how people manage their lives though – and to get a better sense, at least, of what I do NOT want to do with what remains of mine.

As in Spain, I felt lucky to get to know such a disparate group of people and gain insight into their very different lives. And now, really, I am ready to go home.

But first, a week in Scotland. I fly tomorrow.

Volunteer Challenges

I applied for this volunteer placement in the south of France because the house looked fabulous in the photos, the reviews of the experience by other volunteers were positive, the hosts are my age (in fact older) and I wanted to spend some time in the south of France. I somehow failed to fully register that since the hosts were Scottish, I would not get to practice the French I’d worked on so hard in Paris. I knew I’d be doing manual labour, but rather imagined it would not be too demanding. I think I forgot that Scottish people like to get their money’s worth…

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Canal du midi (all photos this post taken on my walks)

A young Francophone couple from Montreal also volunteered for the 2 weeks I was here. They are travelling for a year and a bit, doing a number of ‘workaway’ gigs. I enjoyed their company very much – and we were, at least initially, in agreement that despite the gorgeous surroundings, this volunteer placement was a tad disappointing. Largely because the hosts expected too much of us (or so we thought, no doubt the hosts had a different perspective!)

Our hosts met in Glasgow later in life. They moved to the south of France fairly soon thereafter – about 15 years ago. Both work very hard: she gardens all day long, he works both on the house and in his study. So it’s not like they sat back, lord and lady of the manor style, and watched us work. In all fairness, they stipulated in their posting that volunteers were expected to work 5 days a week, 5 hours a day. Upon arrival they told my young friends that in addition to the 5 hours, we were to help make and clean up after meals – which added at least 2 more hours per day.

The first day the three of us went to an utterly disused but quite massive attic to clear it out of bricks, junk, mostly dirt. The windowless, airless space instantly became so full of dust that I was soon coughing uncontrollably – despite wearing the mask which the young folk had insisted the hosts provide (the young lady has worked in health and safety). Once we bagged the debris, we had to carry the bags down what amounted to 5 flights of stairs. The sun shone outside… we felt rather murderous inside.

IMG_1582I bailed on the project after a couple of hours and was sent to work in the garden, which was much better. The kids spent most of the two weeks up there, although once the debris had been cleared out, the work became less unpleasant, I think. We’d work from 9:30 to 1:30, then help with the large midday meal (served at 2:00 on the dot), and then were expected to go back to work for another hour at 3:00 – basically working all day.

Our lady host complained about how much the young man ate. He complained of being constantly hungry. Both were right: he did eat a lot, but she did not serve lavish portions – and he was working very hard. We ate a light supper at 8:00, accompanied by very nice wines. As time passed, we all consumed more and more of it – and the evenings became jolly. I grew quite fond of the hosts and the place – but I am certainly ready to leave now the 2 weeks have ended.

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I learned a number of lessons.

Physical labour is not my thing – nor a particularly good use of my talents. The jobs I did included gardening, housecleaning, washing windows, digging up piles of pebbles, cleaning them and carting them to a new location. The work made me tired and grumpy. This was not, of course, the hosts’ fault – obviously they wanted workers to help with house and garden projects. I knew this was an experiment; it is not one I will repeat (although in the end I decided not to work so hard as to become bad-tempered, and that made things more manageable). I might take another workaway posting, but would be more selective about the kind of work required – and maybe a little less easily seduced by location!

Those of you who know me will be astonished to learn that I also do not like being in a subservient position. I found myself irritated by having no say in menus or meal times. Both the hosts were good cooks, though the suppers were a tad dull (variations on salad, bread and cheese every night). But I realized how much I enjoy cooking and planning meals and having some flexibility about what and where I eat. They have a gorgeous outdoor patio but never ate there. When they went away for a few days, we three volunteers ate lunch outside every day, at a slightly earlier hour.

I guess I had imagined we would all work collaboratively – on the projects and on meals. We did work together preparing and cleaning up meals, but always under direction, direction I did not always agree with!

However as time passed the hosts relaxed – almost as though they felt they had to start very tough in case we were lazy buggers, and once they realized we weren’t trying to duck out of work (or at the least the young ‘uns weren’t), they eased up.

So although I did not love the work and got rather annoyed with the set-up at times, in the end it was a stunning location, the weather turned beautiful and I continued to enjoy fantastic long walks along the canal in the late afternoon.

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I also got to know some people I would never otherwise have encountered and obtained some fascinating insights into their lives … more on that next post!

 

 

Grand Living in the south of France

So here I am, volunteering as a “workaway” in a maison de maître on the canal du midi in the south of France. Not so sure about this particular leg of the experiment, although the setting and house are stunning. For the moment I’ll concentrate on the positive.

The house is like a small chateau (minus the turrets and towers): truly grand proportions, broad patio with balustrade overlooking the canal, vineyards, and tree-lined roads stretching off to the Pyrenees.

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The house – seen from pool level 

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IMG_1503It is three storeys high, every floor with immensely high ceilings, extravagant moulding and trim, all floors tiled, the halls wider than most rooms in my house. The staircases could have been used in Gone with the Wind. There is a tiny door off the (seemingly unused) dining room that leads into the “original’ part of the house, which is older and consists of a kitchen/living/dining room with wooden beams on the (considerably lower) ceilings – but still magnificent views. One imagines that once the grand house was added on in the early 1800s (I think), this part of the house became the servants’ quarters. The couple who are my hosts have reclaimed the area for somewhat cosier living.

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My room

IMG_1526IMG_1518IMG_1510IMG_1514Down one level from the main floor, there is a pool, surrounded by lavish gardens including a massive palm tree – and beside the pool is small building which contains a full kitchen, bar and ping pong table – with a large wooden outdoor table. And there is a gigantic garage with steep steps up to the gardens. They rent out a number of parking spaces there. So it is vraiment an estate. My room is on the third floor (where there is also another fully equipped kitchen, a yoga room and 2 other bedrooms.) I have an incredible view, heated bedding and en suite.

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Pool (frightening colour just now) and gardens

The town of Ventenac-en-Mirevois is tiny and hugs the canal (along which I walk each day). The ‘commercial area’ (sorry, can’t stop laughing) consists of two café/restaurants side by side, next to the cave where you can fill up plastic jugs with wine for 1.50€ per litre – and it’s not bad at all. The two cafes face the store – which is open for 4 hours each morning and sells a few basics plus bread and croissants (I think there may be a law in France stating that everyone must have easy access to a boulangerie). And that’s it.

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Ventenac

I took a bus, for 1.20€, into Narbonne yesterday morning just for a change of pace. It’s quite a charming town with a lovely cathedral and chateau and some Roman ruins – also a huge indoor market where I was tempted by cheese and artichokes, etc. etc. The canal runs right through Narbonne and there are wide patio spaces and treed pedestrian walkways on either side of it.

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Narbonne

IMG_1555IMG_1556I am here for another week – and starting to get a bit of tan. Next post will share more re. the work situation, hosts and the young Canadian couple who are volunteering with me.

Au Revoir Paris!

I can’t believe I’m leaving Paris already. Where did the time go?

I have walked and walked and walked some more. To the Marais, the right bank of the Seine, the Tuileries, the Jardin du Palais-Royal, the Cimetière Père Lachaise, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Parc Belleville, Montmartre and Sacré Coeur. I did not do anything indoors! I have been to pretty much all the galleries and my favourite museum (the Musée Carnavalet) is closed for renovations for 3 years – so very French. Three years!!!

IMG_1436IMG_1486The fact is, I love walking and being outdoors (and yes, taking the odd café crème or glass of wine in a café) and I tire of museums and galleries almost instantly. I had moments of thinking, but you should do something…and then I thought, why? I didn’t come to Paris to SEE things, I came to enjoy the aura of the city and to brush up my French. Also to see friends – and it’s been wonderful to spend time with Stratford friends Marcia and Roger, Sue K. and her daughters from Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Parisian friends from my childhood Berry and Claire Hayward.

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I had never been to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (pictured above), but it is lovely, very large, and has a promontory with a great view of Paris rooftops and the Sacré Coeur. It was a sunny day and the Parisians were out in flocks, sunning themselves.

I had, I am sure, been to the Père Lachaise cemetery before but like Buttes-Chaumont it is close to my flat, so I wandered through en route to meet Marcia and Roger. It is not like any cemetery in North America…more like a small city of monuments. I did the obligatory stop at Jim Morrison’s grave (bottom left above), now fenced off and not particularly impressive, but still a tourist destination.

IMG_1447And Parc Belleville is small but also lovely, and about 2 blocks from my flat.

The Tuileries remain magical and I took in a fabulous Paris Art and Design show there (above). The Seine and its bridges are gorgeous. The Parisian architecture, streets, light are all enchanting – so just walking was its own delight.

IMG_1389IMG_1433So far, I would say this experiment in solo travelling has been a success. Travelling alone is certainly not as enjoyable as travelling with someone else (and it is more stressful, as there is no one with whom to discuss options or to help figure out problems, like where the hell I am) but it is not bad. And travelling with someone new would have its own issues.

I have found myself missing Jay a lot. I’ve spent far more time in Paris without him than with him … but he loved Paris as much as I do, so there is a hole here, and I have had lonely moments.

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2006?

But overall, much better to travel alone than not travel!

I ended my time here last night having dinner with Roger and Marcia at their new lovely apartment in the Balieue (suburbs). These suburbs bear no resemblance to North American suburbs, they are quaint quiet little towns a couple of centuries old. We sipped bubbly on their little patio and then had a 4 course feast, including truly spectacular cheeses and pastry. A perfect finale.

This afternoon I take a train to Narbonne and begin quite another leg of the journey, volunteering with a family in a maison de maître on the Canal du Midi. Who knows what that will be like!

Of Parisian Schools, New and Old

Yesterday was my last French class. As it was also the last Friday of the month, and a number of students were finishing their time at the school, we had a potluck pique-nique after class in the grand salle. Everyone brought food: cheeses, baguettes, fruit, salads, charcuterie, dips, cake – and the school supplied other treats and very nice wine. It was a lovely way to end the course.

I think my French has improved. Certainly my vocabulary has, but the intricacies of French grammar often still elude me. We had a strangely discombobulating final week. On Tuesday our teacher Vanessa was ill, so did not show up to class. The director/administrator of the school, Annabelle, was also ill. Désastre! Another teacher, Anne-Sophie, came to tell us we had a choice, to join her higher level intermediate class or to get reimbursed for the day. She warned us she would not be able to adapt the material, so it might be difficult. Most us went to her class and it was very challenging, despite Anne Sophie’s welcoming manner. I had a headache by 1:00pm. Then Anne-Sophie reported that Vanessa would not be back for the rest of the week, but she had no idea what the plan for us might be. We left feeling inordinately downcast. I couldn’t believe how attached to Vanessa I had become in a single week, and how difficult it was to imagine continuing classes with anyone else.

On Wednesday, no one came to talk to us. Three of us had decided if the only option was to continue in the higher level class, we’d ask for our money back. We waited for about an hour. Then Annabelle showed up and told us we should join Anne Sophie’s class again, but that she would adapt the material this time. Feeling apprehensive, we obeyed the directive – and it was, in fact, much easier. We left under the impression we would get a new instructor for our final 2 days. As it turned out, the director, Annabelle, became our new prof. We certainly bonded as a group (at least the four of us who continued to attend classes, including a 16-year-old Brit, here for a week to improve his French for A-levels) – and the quality of instruction was high…but the lack on continuity was a challenge. Nonetheless I felt sad saying good-bye to everyone today. Much kissing on both cheeks!

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en route to my school 

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IMG_1436I feel like quite a local and hardly needed to think about my route as I walked back and forth to school. Honestly walking anywhere in Paris is a treat, the architecture is so grand, the avenues so wide and light. The weather this week has been fantastic, warm and sunny – so Paris at its best. I have my favourite boulangerie and supermarché (where I could fill a bottle with orange juice, pressed from oranges while I watched – and excellent wine could be purchased for $10 or less. And the cheese! Say no more.).

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6 rue Nicolet, where I lived in 1963-4

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view down rue Nicolet, my house on left

On Monday afternoon I walked from the school up to the area of Montmartre where my family lived for a year when I was eight. I first learned French there, via brutal immersion, at a school where even the teacher declared me an imbecile because I could not speak a word when I arrived. The neighbourhood has changed quite a lot, but the house where we lived is still there, as is my old school. I went in and talked to the school secretary, hoping to speak with the directrice to see if she could find class records from my time there. I have written a memoir of that weird year – but cannot recall the surnames of my friends. The directrice was far too pressée to see me (some things never change) but I did get a peek into the old courtyard where we spent recesses. It has not changed at all!

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my elementary school in Montmartre

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the school courtyard 

The two schools could not be more different: the most recent one cosy and inviting, hidden on the first floor of an anonymous building; that elementary school cold and forbidding … although memory does tend to cast a golden glow over childhood years.

Paris, je t’aime

I always forget that initially Paris is rather formidable. I forget because that memory is later overshadowed by the light and beauty and joie de vivre of the city, but at first….ooh la la.

Everyone is Paris seems to be in a hurry, moving quickly and purposefully. No lollygagging here. People seem to have a sixth sense about when the streetlights will change or even when waiting is simply not required. I patiently watch for the little green man, as most people do, most of the time – but at other times it’s like the crowd has been given a silent sign and they surge forward regardless of the colour of the little man. I run the risk of obstructing the flow if I don’t go with them, so I do, feeling just a little anxious that a gendarme or angry motorist will upbraid me.

Pausing to check my map makes me feel quite out of step, so generally I too try to stride along purposefully. The street names are clearly posted high on the sides of the buildings (although some signs are old, worn and a bit tricky to decipher), but of course Paris was not built on a grid, or indeed according to any plan. The first day I set off to find my school on foot, I made a wrong turn because I misread a street sign. Feeling panicky that I’d be late for class and have an irate professeur, I thought about asking the people rushing past me for guidance, but really they seemed so pressés, I didn’t dare. I found a Tabac and asked if I could buy a map. 5€ later, I had a fantastic little book with maps by arrondissement. As it turns out, I was about 2 blocks from the school, and made it exactly on time.

Some things have changed in Paris over the past 50 years (I lived in Montmartre for a year in 1963-40, when I was…quite young.) It does not smell the same at all. I have the most distinct memory of the smell of Paris from my youth – a strong and somewhat repulsive mixture of French cigarette smoke, garlic and urine. I don’t miss this odour. Well, maybe I do, just a little. The air seems very clean now. Fortunately so do the sidewalks, although even today the French do not clean up after their dogs as well as, say, Canadians do – so it is worth watching one’s step.

What I miss most are the little specialty shops, which used to populate every street. Some few remain: the ubiquitous boulangeries and pâtisseries (usually in the same shop) and the boucheries. But I have not seen a single charcuterie or epicerie, shops that sold charcuterie and lovely little French shredded salads, nor any papeteries or fromageries. In their place are many supermarkets, where the food is very good, but…it is not the same. It is, in fact, easier to shop in such all-in-one places as a foreigner, but it lacks the intimacy of the Parisian shopping of old. Still, the food is fresh and good. I bought a very basic package of chicken thighs – not organic or expensive or anything, cooked them quite simply and could not believe how good they tasted. Like chicken, not…whatever it is that most chicken tastes like at home.

The metros are cleaner and more automated, of course, but there are still long walks within metro stations to get from one ligne to another. The streets remain either very narrow – and the sidewalks even narrower – or wide – beautiful boulevards; there is little in-between. People are still both friendly and formal: “Bonjour, Madame (or Monsieur)” is de rigueur upon entering a shop – and they are rather more forgiving of bad French than in days of yore.

My first week here has been grey and rainy, but tomorrow, it will be springtime in Paris and I have the whole weekend to explore old haunts. Fantastique, alors!