Christmas in the City of Lights

Being Americans in Paris is one thing, being Americans-who-have-lived-in-Morocco-for-a-year in Paris is quite another.

On our first night in Paris, we ate at a diner called Breakfast in America. No regrets. A bacon cheeseburger and beer for Robert, a ham/bacon/turkey club sandwich and root beer for me. We overheard a funny conversation in which an American waitress explained to her French coworker what a root beer was. “No, no, it doesn’t have alcohol…”

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In 2011, when I was studying in Rome, I was so insistent on eating only Italian food. When my classmates went out to a Thai place in Trastevere, I adamantly refused despite my love for Thai food. “I’m in Italy. I’m going to eat Italian food,” younger and sillier Julie said. Not that I regret any bit of my carbonara and gelato diet, but Julie in Paris in 2015 is having a good laugh about it. Cos French food? Sure. But for real, this trip was all about Foods We’ve Missed. And you can bet that means we had Thai food.

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Christmas Eve lunch

It also means we walked down to the Quartier Chinois (Paris’s Chinatown) on Christmas Eve and ordered two large bowls of pho. As we walked back, I overheard a guy behind us say the word “Chinois” and my fight-or-flight response immediately kicked up as it does on Moroccan streets. I whipped around, my mouth automatically about to form some Arabic swear words. My heart rate beat back to normal as I realized it was just a Chinese-French dude talking about a restaurant with his girlfriend, and not a gaggle of Moroccan young men harassing me.

Whew, I thought. I needed this vacation a lot. 

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We split our stay into two parts. The first week, we sojourned at an antique hotel in the Quartier Latin, surrounded by stately aristocratic buildings and cobblestone streets. The second week, we rented a modern flat five minutes jaunt from the Eiffel Tower. It included a microwave, which we squealed over for a while.

One of the first things I wanted to do in Paris was spend an afternoon at Shakespeare & Co, the famous bookshop originally opened by American expat Sylvia Beach (who was the publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses). It was magical to walk through an English language bookstore—running my hands against spines, flipping through pages of possibilities. I was reminded of Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi lamenting the way bookstores are set up in Morocco (something I lament as well): “In Rabat, a bookstore owner might throw you out if you dared to touch any of his displayed publications: You are supposed to buy the book before enjoying the sensuous pleasure of opening it. In a country where bargaining and touching goods are an integral part of the buying game, books are probably the only items that escape these traditional rituals. You can’t touch the books and you can’t negotiate the prices, which explains the extraordinary pleasure I have in Western bookstores.” Morocco does fresh groceries and bread and fabrics and leather and even coca-cola better, but the Western world has them beat on bookshops.

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I spent a long time skimming books and scribbling in a corner of the shop. Although Robert kept asking me if I was ready to go yet, he ended up being the only one to buy a book. I refrained because we only brought two backpacks to France, but he couldn’t resist a science book he’d been wanting to read for a while. (Anyways, I had my iPad filled with books to placate me.)

In the Latin Quarter, we satisfied our peripatetic urges. We wandered the streets, no end goals in mind, and explored. We were only a few minutes from the Notre Dame and the Pantheon.

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On the night of Christmas Eve, we sat outside of the Notre Dame as the bells rang for mass.

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We found little corner cafes that appealed to our sense of coziness. We ordered Irish coffees and vin chauds (and sometimes crepes). Robert pulled out his find from Shakespeare & Co., and I downloaded a Fatema Mernissi book in which she in part talks about a book tour she had in Paris. We sipped our warm drinks and drank in our warm books. Mernissi’s book was so good, I kept scribbling down quotes in my moleskin (a goodbye gift from my bosses at the library I worked in during university). Every once in a while, over our cups and wordless wording, we’d look up at each other and just smile.

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Although our paltry paychecks prevented us from eating out every meal, we had no regrets. Visiting the Monoprix and Franprix (two top-notch French grocery chains), we loaded up our cart with all delights we’d been missing: charcuterie, cheese (brie for me, bleu for Robert), wine, etc. We added in some essential French must-tries like pate, fois gras, terrine, macarons. Then for good measure, we also grabbed all the making for hot toddies. Important note: France is full of CHEAP and extremely delicious wines and cheeses, because (surprise, surprise), this is where they come from and thus no import fees on them. We thought two-buck Chuck was alright back in the day, but in Paris, we consistently found 2-3 Euro reds that tasted a couple digits better. (Our method was waiting in front of the wine section until a confident-looking French person came up and grabbed a bottle. We’d just grab the same kind. 100% success rate.)

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Dinner one night: fondue, baguette, potatoes, broccoli (!!!!!), prosciutto, pâté en croûte, wine, and macarons for dessert.

Dinner one night: fondue, baguette, potatoes, broccoli (!!!!!), prosciutto, pâté en croûte, wine, and macarons for dessert.

However, this didn’t mean that we didn’t splurge a bit! And boy, were our splurges worth it. The first big one was at the world-famous Angelina, where we had lunch and then indulged (“drank” is definitely not the right verb) in cups of their hot chocolate.

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Fois gras cream soup at La Coupole on Christmas Night.

Fois gras cream soup at La Coupole on Christmas Night.

Veal and potatoes.

Veal and potatoes.

On Christmas Day, we reserved a table at La Coupole. Two glasses of kir royal and a couple of tastbud-heaven courses were pretty good substitutions for a home-cooked meal. Lunch had been a picnic of cold cuts, cheese, and crackers at the Luxembourg Gardens.

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On the day we had to check out of our hotel and head towards our other abode, we decided to nix the expensive taxi and continue our peripatetic theme. It took an hour and a half (including a stop for gingerbread lattes) to get across the city. We dumped our stuff at the flat, ran to the Monoprix and stocked up our fridge, and then went exploring!

We found some pretty cool stuff, I'd say.

We found some pretty cool stuff, I’d say.

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This half of the trip, we knew what we wanted: Christmas markets! And lots of them. The one down the Champs-Élysées was the best one. By this point, we’d already had quite a few glasses of vin chaud in cafes, but vin chaud in big plastic cups at an open-air market fair—well, it was tres magnifique. Other market delights: roasted chestnuts, beignets, gaufres with Nutella, churros, oysters, hot cider, raclette sandwiches, and walking in an extremely crowded public space feeling safe from stares & comments.

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On New Year’s Eve, we decided to avoid crowds and noise, and opt for some sparkle instead. We brought a bottle of rosé champagne, Robert’s favorite, and found a little spot where we could see the Eiffel Tower’s first glow of 2016.

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Paris was everything I’ve ever dreamed. We explored. We ate. We relaxed. I wore a different lipstick every day. We’re back to “real life” in Morocco now. Vacation was a taste of paradise. But our real lives are pretty nice too. As we trudged from the train station to our house, the call to prayer started and our neighborhood kids greeted us enthusiastically. The sun had been cold and winter-white in Paris, but as the golden shimsh beat down on us and the familiar palm trees and broken concrete rose up in front of us, we felt content to be home.

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Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

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