mediterranean magic: a walk around monaco

Monaco sparkles.

That is my first impression, both times I’ve visited. Passing from the dark train tunnel and into the light, I see a scrubbed-clean city, feel the sun on my shoulders, and hear the many proud flags whipping in the breeze, the red and white color block stark against the blue sky.

These are, of course, the impressions of a mere visitor to this independent city-state, the second-smallest country in the world, of which millionaires comprise thirty percent of the population. I won’t pretend to know how much everyday life here could differ from where I live (or anything else, really). But I do know this: it makes for one hell of a walk.

From the train station it’s a quick climb to Monte Carlo Casino. Climb is surely the word: it’s unavoidable unless you know where to find the public escalators, established to make the hilly terrain more navigable. I’ve only seen a few, but there are 35 total: a great deal for a country the size of Central Park. Perched right between the mountains and sea and highly developed, Monaco has no agriculture to speak of: there’s simply no room.

The climb up is lined on the left by designer stores, labels with enough classe to entice with bold and cheeky window displays. Sometimes ridiculous, still they are fabulous (it must be admitted). There are skulls and metallic balloons and sea creatures, high heels like an art piece. These displays wouldn’t be out of place at the Pompidou.

On the right is the bay, and then the sea. img_6539-3

Entering the casino, I saw that the atrium and rotunda, which visitors are free to explore, were dressed for the holidays: draped in red and white diamond-patterned fabric. Artist Charles Kaisin designed the temporary installation to evoke both Monaco’s coat of arms and card games. The effect–to this viewer, at least–was of a surrealist dreamscape: something between Alice in Wonderland at Christmas and the Twin Peaks Red Room.

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Outside, palm trees and fake snow mingled with giant dice, the mirrored faces reflecting the blue sky and few clouds above.

Neighboring the casino is Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, a super chic spot at the Hotel de Paris. The current menu includes pigeon breast with quince, milk-fed lamb, and Passe Crassane pears with ginger ice cream. Absolutely dreamy, but I wasn’t really dressed for it.

Back down the hill, I stopped at the Christmas market for a Savoyard burger. It was 63 degrees out, but the cold-weather Christmas kitsch lived on: a scary grinning Santa spun in a slow circle, children dressed as gold stars danced through the market, and the voice of Bing Crosby rose above it all. Stands sold plates of raclette and confit de canard, and a large pig turned on a spit.

My next stop involved a climb up the opposite side of the bay to the Musée Océanographique, an aquarium and museum set into seaside rocks, founded in 1889. The building is grand and palatial, with stately staircases, big windows, and the occasional giant squid hanging from the ceiling.

Downstairs in the darkness is the aquarium, where I saw piranhas and parrotfish and came face-to-face with the spectacularly ugly moray eel. I found a seahorse that wrapped its tail around a plant and hung upside down and a tank of bright clownfish as tiny as goldfish crackers. Starfish of all colors and sizes stuck like wall clings. I watched the jellyfish for a long time as they twirled around their ring-shaped tank, trailing their tentacles behind them, as translucent and impossible as ghosts.

Upstairs, in the Salle de la Baleine, the skeletons of sea mammals dangle overhead, poised in graceful flight. From their plus-sized skulls protrude long jaws with sharp teeth, and in the case of the narwhal, a fearsome tusk. Elegant and enormous, the specimens might drift away at any moment, inhabitants of some undersea underworld.

Outside the museum sits Jacques Cousteau’s mini submarine. Cheerful and yellow, its cuteness belies its significance. Built in 1966, it could reach a depth of 100 meters.

I continue my walk in the Old Town, quiet streets where graffiti and trash are notably absent, an area that also holds the Prince’s Palace of Monaco. img_6321-2 Suddenly twinkling with light as night fell, sparkling a soft pink, le palais recalled my first visit to Disneyland last fall. It was a fun, memorable day with a best friend, but wasn’t what I would describe as magical: not the long lines or screaming children or people stepping on the back of my shoe. The main attractions struck me as unsettling. A man-made mountain. A castle with no history: no bloodshed, no strife, no monarchs born behind its walls. (It is the Happiest Place on Earth, after all). I thought about castles and cathedrals I’ve visited in France, hundreds or thousands of years old. I thought about Paris, its patchwork of struggle and triumph and cobblestone, and then about Tianducheng: a Chinese replica of Paris in the suburbs, complete with an Eiffel Tower copy, created to cash in on francophilia. img_6310-2

There’s a difference. I tried to appreciate what I saw on a purely aesthetic level, but felt about fifteen years too old for that. Old enough for X-ray vision: I could almost see the sweating, tired human inside the Goofy suit. Maybe that’s when the magic goes. The beauty for beauty’s sake (for profit, really): it didn’t quite work for me. It happens all the time, I suppose, but rarely is it so transparent.

Monaco, like Disney, is pastel and lovely and speckled with flowers, but it’s real. It too has a palace that lights up at night, only this one dates back to 1191.

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I finish my walk as the sun sets, sparking color in the sky. It really is beautiful.

I’m no idealist. If I lived here, I know real life would surely creep in, like anywhere, the haze of la vie quotidienne dulling the wonder. Often, the scarcity is what makes something magical. It’s amazing to what extent we can become accustomed to beautiful things: whether that be love we take for granted or the Mediterranean sea on our doorstep. The New is easier to appreciate, with its power to surprise and delight, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised again. Of course, nothing can stay new for long.

That’s what I remind myself. Living in Monaco would be like living anywhere. Maybe with a better view.

But on a day trip, walking the paths overlooking the bay and the sea, wandering amidst the soft pastels of the Old Town, feeling the warm sun and crisp breeze and watching the lights click on as the sun sets, I forget that for awhile.

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bon vivant on a budget, or, how to be broke in Cannes

There are (literal) costs to living where everyone wants to be. When I learned I will be paying six times what I paid for rent last year with my modest teaching salary, I glumly reported the news to my parents over FaceTime.

“I guess being poor isn’t all bad.” Dad shrugged. “Makes things simple. Less choices.”

“Wrong,” I joked. “Plenty of choices. I’m currently deciding whether I should embark on a career as a streetwalker or just try my luck at the local casino.”

We agreed that neither path seemed a particularly sustainable option. In lieu of compromising my morals to afford a baguette, I should probably take the decidedly less-exciting approach and just learn how to budget.

Budget. Is there an uglier word in English? If it had a color, it would be an institutional tan. “Budget” is a room with drab carpeting and flickering fluorescent lights. The word brings with it visions of missed opportunities and crushed dreams.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t they. On my first week in France this time around, in search of an apartment and unsure about upcoming expenses, even the cost of basic groceries posed a threat. So I didn’t buy them, and lived off of irregular meals of fruit and the occasional 2€ piece of boulangerie quiche.

Finally, awakened several nights by a grumbling stomach, I had to admit that feeding myself properly was worth the “cost” of budgeting, and wiser than the classic move of crossing my fingers and hoping everything turned out okay.

This year will be a challenge, and much less full of Mary&Jessica-Style Impulse Buys such as artisanal rose petal jam, Chanel nail polish, or a tutu. I am excited for the life skills this experience will undoubtedly teach me, though, of course, there will be sacrifice. The first thing to go is travel. I had big dreams. Italy! Germany! Portugal! That is quite clearly not going to happen. I have chosen instead (as if I had a choice), to see and do and enjoy as much as I can in this beautiful region.

Luckily for me and my lovely budget, my friend Erika, who is living and working near Paris for the year, decided to visit me for the first week of our mutual teaching vacances. She rented a room in the AirBnb where I’m still staying and we traveled up and down the coast, taking advantage of the South of France’s excellent train system to explore small towns and little-known spots and coming back to sleep in our own beds at night. We rarely ate out, instead splitting the grocery bill at Grand Frais and cooking up a storm throughout the week. We ate chanterelle omelets and creamy sage pasta and caprese salad and perfect tiny strawberries. We enjoyed Rosé, fresh plums and clementines, and a tempting array of cheese. With the money we saved, we were free to treat ourselves to some gelato taste-testing. See Erika’s post on our kitchen wizardry.

We spent next to nothing on entertainment, but instead indulged our inner flâneur. The idea was to get to a new place (by train, bus, or boat) and explore it on foot. Luckily, experiencing natural and architectural beauty is free, and the Côte d’Azur is filthy rich with it.

I’m learning that budgeting, that least-sexy of terms, a word that would wear tube socks and sandals and khakis, can actually help create a more conscious, intentional, and enjoyable (!) lifestyle. Really. There is freedom in learning to ask: do I really need this? Or even want it? Am I even hungry?

I’m learning that oftentimes, when you “deprive” yourself, you don’t even notice the sacrifice. We could’ve dropped 30€ on a couple of beachfront cocktails, but I am confident the bottle of inexpensive Prosecco we shared on la Plage des Rochers while we watched a brilliant sunset from a rock was in no way inferior.

And cheers, truly, to that.

gypsy jazz

A lazy Saturday afternoon, some gypsy jazz, and flowing champagne. Taylor and I stand in la Chope des Puces, a tiny, ancient jazz club in Saint-Ouen in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. We are crammed against the wooden bar, standing-room only. The bar isn’t packed but it’s tiny, and several families and couples have already claimed the tables and are enjoying late lunches or glasses of wine. On the walls, the guitars of jazz greats share space with black-and-white photographs of Django Reinhardt, the French jazz guitarist with the Dalí mustache.

Following his tradition, two men play gypsy jazz guitar in a corner at the front. I lack the ability to speak deftly of arpeggios or ostinatos, to grasp the logic of this skillful improvisation. I know only that this music sounds like Paris, golden-age Paris, and that it is frenzied and joyful and fills up the space.

I shout our order to the bartender, a statuesque gray-haired woman who looks like she’s seen it all. She hands us our frosty glasses of white wine and sets down a cheese plate. The heavy wooden board is crowded with soft triple-cream cheeses, sharp semi-hard cheeses, and a hunk of knife-sharp Roquefort. Scattered handfuls of fruit and nuts fill in the gaps. There is jam and butter and a basket of bread.

As we eat, I look around some more. The club is long and skinny and gives the curious impression of being slightly tilted, like someone picked up a shoebox diorama and shook it, scattering posters and paintings, rippling the tiled floor.

I notice one man in his forties. It’s hard not to: he’s wearing dark sunglasses and a snazzy silk button-down, dancing and snapping his fingers and exchanging cheek kisses with everyone he sees. A loyal fan. He tips the musicians extravagantly between sets and keeps the wine coming, and he’s generous. I notice him holding up a dripping bottle of champagne, tipping it into the glasses of everyone nearby. I nudge my friend–”want some champagne? Hurry, finish your drink.”

I catch his eye (as much as is possible behind the dark sunglasses) and sure enough, he approaches. We shrug, laughing. Santé ! He orders another bottle for the room.

A few seats open up and we share a table with an older woman wearing a bright turban. She has her dancing shoes on and she twirls and shimmies in slow circles as the men play. When they take a break, she leans over the table, and tells me in French how this is her kind of exercise, this is what keeps her young. She has a constant contented smile and a look in her eyes like a Christmas character: “a twinkle in her eye” is the phrase that springs to mind.

Taylor, my friend from childhood, is visiting Paris for the first time. Though she’s new to the French language, she’s been ordering for herself in restaurants and bars and her accent is great. I rarely need to step in for simple interactions. She wonders if the musicians know a song that she likes, so I tell her to ask, pronouncing for her the conjugation of the verb “to know.” She does and they do.

We leave a big tip and say goodbye. I’m reluctant to go, but these melodies will dance in my head all day. We have a train to catch.

 

 

la gourmandise (what to eat in Toulouse)

In French, the word for “greedy” has richer connotations than its English counterpart. Tu es gourmand probably doesn’t mean: listen, you’re a greedy pig, but rather: you know how to enjoy something. You have joie de vivre. I like this, the concept of eating well, with moderation and with gusto. I like that this can be something to notice and compliment.   france-patisserie

La gourmandise is a good theme for a trip to Toulouse. It’s the perfect destination for the lazy, hungry traveller. There’s no need to pore over restaurant reviews or splurge on an out-of-budget dinner. Just take a walk and scan restaurant windows for the brightly-colored travel guide recommendation stickers (they’re everywhere!).

Toulouse is small and central enough that it’s easy to navigate on foot. It’s a good place to wander, where you’re more likely to stumble upon a charming little salon de thé than the outskirts of a creepy neighborhood.

All these chance encounters had me doing the math: how much could I possibly eat in a day? I didn’t spend much on entertainment: visiting museums, galleries, and cathedrals (all free or inexpensive), so I was able to taste quite a bit of what Toulouse had to offer.

Marché Victor Hugo

a covered market near St Sernin. Good place to buy stuff for a picnic and talk to the vendors about their food. Buy some local cheese and fresh bread!

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Santine

near the river, a perfect place to have dinner. It’s cozy and packed. Classic French food with a twist, like lamb and tagliatelle in a sauce with zucchini and honey. They do brunch too.

Cave au Cassoulet

Cozy restaurant near the river serving the specialties of the region (foie gras, cassoulet). You eat downstairs in a former wine cave. Reservations required. Come with a huge appetite.

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La Brasière

Super classe. We had oysters that tasted just like the sea and I had a salad with chèvre toasts cut in little hearts. And cassoulet, because it’s my new favorite comfort food.

Mami-Wata

You can only go to a French bistro so many times in a row. This African-Carribean place offers something different. I had a bissap cocktail and banana beignets to start, then chicken with coconut milk and tomatoes, followed by house-made mango yogurt. The plats come with sweet potatoes, rice, and bananas. The restaurant, on a nondescript little street, is dark, elegant, and cozy. A great date spot!

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Boli Café 

This Korean café is just adorable, and a great location near le Capitole. Get the bibimbap and a pot of tea. It’s served with a bowl of nori soup and a clementine for dessert. A nice break from heavier stuff.

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Cafe des Artistes

Just a good place to grab a coffee and read. Great ambiance and location, just across from the Garonne.

Flower’s Café

A local favorite, this place is always packed for lunch. It’s hard to get a seat even on the terrace. If you want to avoid the line, go around 10am and get some of the best chocolat chaud of your life. It’s the real stuff, so thick you need to eat it with a spoon. You can get it with banana or fleur d’oranger, among other choices.

Pillon

Crazy-good pastries with multiple locations around Toulouse. Try the little tarts topped with fruit or an éclair in an interesting flavor. Some days they have brioche à la violette (specific to Toulouse!).

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Moloko

A local guy brought me to this cute cocktail bar near a busy restaurant area. I tried the fresh tomato martini: foamy with basil syrup, vodka, and a cherry tomato. Weirdly good. Some dancing does happen here when it gets late. Soundtrack: The Cure.