France

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March 26 marked the beginning of my travels and my first official solo travel. I walked through a gray and drizzly Bologna, neon orange backpack stuffed and on my back, tote-bag in hand, to the train station, where I caught a bus to the airport, and from there I boarded a plane to Paris.

Yes, you read that correctly, my travel plans began with spring time in Paris. I have been to Paris only once before as an awkward middle schooler, complete with braces, a younger brother, two parents, and two grandparents as travel companions, so right off the bat I knew this experience would be drastically different.

The flight was fairly short, but getting to the hotel was most definitely not. It took nearly an hour to get out of CDG – I had to wait in line to buy a metro ticket since I didn’t have 10 euros in coins and the machine would not accept my credit card. After about 40 minutes on the metro I got off at Notre Dame and attempted to find the hotel. Easier said then done. Armed with the address and the map, finding the hotel was still an hour long endeavor, since the street the hotel was located on was not printed on the map. Eventually I found it, checked in and deposited my bags – which at this point were so heavy to carry, I was convinced they weighed more than my full-grown golden retriever right after she had eaten far more than just dog food.

I walked around, across the seine and ended up in front of the Louvre. In the golden light of the setting sun I spotted the Eiffel Tower. Despite having seen it before, the sight nearly took my breath away and I made it my mission. I walked forward through the Tuileries, back across the river and onward. I arrived just as night was setting in and rewarded myself with hot chocolate buried under whipped cream which I drank directly beneath the tower. Later in the light of the glittering tower, admiring it from across the street, I indulged in a nutella-almond crepe before making my way back to my hotel.

The next day I spent meandering around Ile St,Louis – a place I would describe as the epitome of Paris magic. I shopped, wandered into bakeries and then took myself out to a delicious lunch. Later I walked back along the left bank to the Sorbonne and the Luxembourg gardens. In the late afternoon I returned to the hotel and gathered my things before making my way to the train station to catch a train to St.Pierre des Corps.

My train was was easy enough to find, but once aboard i ran into some trouble. About halfway through the train broke down. I and no wifi and no way to communicate to the people I was meeting that I would be late. After about 20 minutes I took the plunge and turned on roaming data. For those who want to know: it worked…for about 4 minutes before shutting off (which gave me enough time to send the appropriate messages). Fortunately my train was not stalled too long and I arrived only 30 minutes late. Upon arrival I was greeted by my friend Rebecca and my dad’s friend Peter, who was hosting us at his vineyard for the weekend.

The weekend at La Meslerie was truly exceptional. Peter and his partner Juliette are two of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met. Juliette is also a phenomenal cook – she made lamb one night for dinner and it was probably the best meal of my entire 9 nights in France. Their 3 year old daughter is one of the most enchanting and playful little girls. While we were there, Peter took us on a tour of the vineyard and showed us where the wine is made and stored. We did a tasting of still-fermenting wine, as well as of several different bottles. In case you were wondering, the wine from La Meslerie is utterly fantastic. If you even sort of like white wine I would highly recommend it. Our weekend also included a trip to Chenonceau – a gorgeous Château nearby – and a trip to the town of Ambois, where we visited  Clos Lucé – the Château which served as a residence fro Leonardo Da Vinci. The grounds at Clos Lucé were almost fairly tale like, complete with live peacocks wandering around.

After two marvelous days, I returned to Paris. After checking back into my hotel (and feeling successful because I knew how to find it this time around), I took myself out to dinner at Cafe Flore. The next day (monday) I walked across the city, up to Sacre Coeur and Montmarte and then to the Orangerie where I gazed at Monet’s water-lillies for a very long time. Truly, nothing compares to Monet. After a wonderful Parisian day, i decided to throw myself a Parisian picnic. I bought wine, a baguette, cheese, and a small chocolate cake and camped out with it in the hotel.

Not fully getting my Monet fix at the Orangerie, I decided to spend the next morning at the Musee d’Orsay. The impressionist floor was well worth the hour long wait for museum entry. After much Monet-gazing, I finally left and headed down the Champs Elysee over to the Arc de Triomphe and then over to the Latin quarter. For my last night in Paris, I took myself out to dinner again. The food was delicious, but the real star was the Crème brûlée I ordered for dessert.

I don’t know if words can fully explain my Paris experience, but I will say this: In some religions you make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in others to Mecca, but in mine: Paris.

On Wednesday morning after checking out of my hotel I double checked my train ticket to Nice. April Fools to me! The train was scheduled to leave from Gare de Lyon not Montparnasse. Looking at a map and my watch it seemed do-able. I had about an hour. I walked onward and slowly became more anxious as the minutes ticked forward. I tried and failed several times to hail a cab. Towards the end of the hour I was running – a nervous ball of anxiety, absolutely certain i was going to miss the train. To my intense relief I walked on board at 9:14 and at 9:17 we were pulling away, bound for the south of France.

Immediately after checking in and dropping my bags off in Nice, I wandered down to the waterfront. Everything was beautiful and blue. The water was a brights shade of aqua and glittering in the sun. People were lying out on the beach in swimsuits (note: I did, during my time in Nice see people swimming, but it was probably only in the lower or mid 60s while I was there). I walked down to the port and back to the beach. After taking myself out to dinner I walked on the beach some more in the twilight before going back.

The next day I walked around the old city and the open air market. I bought myself marzipan and raspberries, which I promptly brought down to the water and ate with and oceanfront view. Afterwards I climbed up “the rock” to  a small castle perched on a boulder. From their I got amazing views of the city and the ocean. behind the castle was a park and a waterfall.

I spent the next morning wandering around the city and the oceanfront again before meeting up with Rebecca and her friends who just arrived in Nice for their vacation. We did some shopping and then went out to dinner. Dinner started late and became a very long two hour affair due to slow service, but the food and the company were both wonderful!

The next morning I made my way to the train station and proceeded to take three trains – Nice to Ventimiglia, Ventimiglia to Milan, and Milan to Bologna – before returning to my apartment for a short break after my first week of travel.

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After a tearful goodbye, I picked up my pillow and carry-on bags, handed my passport to the security agent, and trudged through tedious airport security. I turned back to wave to my mom one last before starting to my gate, but she was already gone. That’s when the realization set in- I was on my own for the next 18 hours. The airplane cabin was spacious; however, legs were crammed between itchy seats. The icy air circulating throughout the plane would be the air every passenger breathed for the next nine hours. Little screens glowed on the backs of every seat and children stretched their tiny arms out to touch them. Massive engines roared powerfully to project the Boeing 747 37,000 feet above the ground. Settling at the desired altitude, the engines became softer and all that was heard was a gentle hum throughout the cabin. Voices became whispers and the cabin was lit with an eerie glow from the few windows that remained uncovered. Dinner carts rumbled down the walkways and the smells of burnt plastic and processed food crept throughout the cabin. Those around me had slipped into restless sleep, as I remained wide-awake. My heart was racing just from the thought that in nine hours, I would be in my favorite city in the world: Paris, France.

A glimpse of Paris peaked out from the top of the dirty staircase. I felt myself ascending, and watched the City of Lights unfold right before my eyes. Ancient buildings loomed over noisy streets and crowded sidewalks. Street music could just be heard off in the distance. Thousands of Parisians and tourists circulated throughout the district. As I stepped onto solid ground, a blast of fresh air encompassed me, and the distinct smell of warm coffee and freshly baked bread greeted my sensory nerves. I slowly turned around and drew in my breath. Right before my eyes was the famous Palais Garnier (Academie Nationale de Musique). The glistening gold angels glimmered in the sunlight, watching down on the picturesque streets from many stories above. The ornate detail on the building draws tourists in with one quick glimpse. People of all ages gathered on the colossal stairs eating lunch in the presence of the most striking building in all of Paris. Time seemed to stand still and my surroundings began to blur- I could not tear my eyes away from the beauty of l’Opéra.

Darkness swelled around me as I descended back into the hectic tunnel. My train pierced through the blackness that had engulfed it. Brakes screeched to a halt, and a whirl of people rushed around me. I stepped off, and was welcomed by warm sunlight seeping down the never-ending staircase. Lush trees and opulent buildings lined the street. Middle-aged businessmen briskly walked past in a hurry to get to work. An elderly couple was at the next table having a conversation I couldn’t quite understand. Frustrated people were honking their horns in a traffic jam. And there I was, soaking it all in, planted at a table outside the renowned Café de Flore. A flaky croissant sat atop the dainty table along with a pot of their notorious coffee everyone made out to be the best in Paris. The scorching hot liquid did not taste as wonderful as I expected, but the essence of drinking pure, black coffee on one of the most prominent streets in Paris made me feel like a true Parisian. I tossed a few euros on the table for a tip, and began sauntering down the street.

I took the last train back home to my little suburb right outside of Paris called Antony. A crisp breeze swept through the quiet streets and tousled my freshly brushed hair. Cold air forced its way through the microscopic holes in my sweater causing my muscles to contract and release a shiver down my spine. A few days prior I had made an acquaintance with whom an instant connection was formed. Mon noveau ami1 was waiting at the metro station to accompany my walk back to the flat and bid me une bonne nuit2.

“Tu es froid mon coeur? 3” he whispered sweetly.

“Oui, un peu, mais ça va parce que tu es ici avec moi, 4” I replied.

My heart fluttered when I felt his arm gently pull me closer to him. The street lamps seemed to glow a little brighter and warmth rushed over me. The softly lit homes and his protective arm created a safe atmosphere around me. Trying not to think about the fact I would be leaving in just ten short days, we let silence encircle us as we enjoyed one another’s’ company. I had never experienced any place quite so comforting and blissful.

            On the morning of my dreaded departure, the mood in the metro car was melancholy as it rushed under the streets of Paris. I was dazed, and everything inside the car seemed to melt together. The many unforgiving plastic seats became one red, hazy shape. The filthy silver poles disappeared before me, and all of a sudden, I was alone. Gazing out the window at the landscape of the city so dear to my heart, I couldn’t fathom leaving it all behind. Their laid-back culture, delectable food, high-end fashion, bustling streets, and gorgeous language was all already a distant memory. I could see Palais Garnier shining bright in the distance. I could hear low conversations in French all around me. I could feel the soft material of the beautifully made Parisian clothes in Galeries Lafayette. I could smell the distinct aroma of warm bread coming straight out of the oven and into waiting customers’ hands. And concentrating hard enough, I could briefly taste the sweet vanilla macaroon dissolving inside my mouth. Squeezing my eyes shut and tuning out the monotonous grinding of the train car against the track, I reminded myself, Paris isn’t going anywhere, and I’ll soon be back.

Title Translation: In Paris

Translation 1: My new friend

Translation 2: A good night

Translation 3: Are you cold, my love (or heart)?

 

Translation 4: Yes, a little, but it is okay because you are here with me.

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The year 2013 was a bad year, to say the least. I had nothing to show for it except a failed marriage, the sale of my first home, and the emotional baggage that could rival that of Britney Spears, circa 2007. And all before the age of 30. I had hit a very low point in my life and the few friends and family that did know about my situation only knew what was on the surface; I couldn’t explain to them why I had actually seemed to make such a mess of my life. For reasons that go very deep, it had dawned on me that I was merely sleepwalking through my life, not actually living it. The things I said and did were to appease others, I had grown passive, and my life had become someone else’s; someone I no longer recognized. At that point, I needed something drastic, something completely out of character…something life-affirming. And I wasn’t going to find it living where I was. I needed to escape for a while, if only to think. So, a month before my 30th birthday, I booked a 12 day trip to Europe…by myself. And I learned more than I had ever expected.

Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris were my destinations. Just me, myself, and one big open mind to keep me company. My first stop was in Amsterdam, and the next three days that I spent there were eye-opening, to say the least. Wandering the streets of the unknown was quite exhilarating and I wanted to take as much of the city with me as I could. Same with Brussels. Once I arrived in Brussels and dropped my luggage at the hostel, I was off and running. There were sights to see, things to be tasted, people to encounter, and history to learn. And as I immersed myself in each city, I began to feel a sense of awareness, empowerment. Any anxiety I had felt before I left began to evaporate and for the first time in months, I was beginning to see myself again.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Paris that that concept really hit home. It was my second day in the city and as I was wandering down side streets in the 1st Arrondissement, looking for this hidden gem of a restaurant, everything suddenly came into focus. Here I was, in a foreign country alone, my mediocre French just barely getting me by…and I was not afraid. I was not afraid of where I was, what I was doing, or where I would end up. It was as if I truly discovered who I really was in that moment. And I cried. Cried for letting myself get lost in the rat race of life. Cried for not having had the strength to realize it sooner. Cried for finally having the guts to admit that I hadn’t failed; I had learned. Through all of the heartache, the sorrow, the stress, and the overwhelming emotion, I was stronger than I gave myself credit for. The life I had known up until this point had crumbled. But now I knew that I could rebuild it on my own. It was time that I stepped up and became master of my own destiny.

We find our bravery and inspiration in times of despair. While my entire trip taught me life lessons, it was in Paris that I came full circle. A calm had descended upon me as my self- realization took hold. I was brave to walk away from a marriage I had convinced myself I wanted. I was brave to jump head-first into a Euro-trip alone, much to the discontent of those closest to me. And I was brave enough, and inspired enough, to look inside myself and find that woman I had given up on; the strong, independent woman who was perfectly capable of hitting the reset button and forging a new life for herself, on her own terms.

I am Paris and Paris is me. It will forever be my touchstone, my comfort and my future travels there will always hold a certain excitement and a sense of belonging. Prior to my excursion, I had left pieces of my heart fractured and broken. Paris made it whole again. And I became my own hero once more.

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It doesn’t sounds so scary, moving to Paris. For most, it sounds like an exotic adventure, hardly the stuff that should fill a 33-year-old global nomad with dread. It’s not the place that frightens me, it’s the expectations I set up for myself here. “One of these days,” I arrogantly bragged, “I’m going to Paris and I’m going to write a book.” Never mind not having any writing experience or training – I’d convinced myself that purely by being there, I would through osmosis soak up the talents of the literary greats who called the city home. Unfortunately when one is speaking whimsically, it is often interpreted literally, and before long people were enquiring about this book. So in the height of the glorious Australian summer I packed my bags, abandoned my job and rented out my flat in Sydney to fulfill my promise. No more excuses.

Making pilgrimage to the cafes that lent shelter to Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, de Beauvoir, Sartre, these unremarkable places where remarkable things happened, I hunted osmosis. And I realise my folly – for nothing will reveal with greater intensity ones’ own inadequacy than standing in the shadows of literary legends. Racked with fear of failure, I shrunk under the weight of a single, debilitating thought: What could I possibly contribute that could compare with those who have preceded me?

In a fog of despair I clamored out of the Montparnasse district, desperate to escape the oppressive weight of it’s heritage. I crossed the Pont des Arts, the bridge where lovers attach padlocks onto the handrails as a declaration of their devotion. Contemplating the void where two of the handrails have collapsed under the burden of padlocks, I felt a great kinship with the bridge – it was also struggling under the weight of greatness.

In Pere Lachaise cemetery, where neatly organized footpaths belie the chaos of life and death, Oscar Wilde lies. His tombstone, suffering erosion from the lipstick kisses of admirers, is now wrapped in prophylactic plastic. Even in death he is eroded by admiration. “Oscar, my love,” I ask, “Did you ever get writer’s block?” A fellow tourist, overhearing my conversation with myself, inches ever so slightly away.

I drift down the Rue Rivoli into the Marais. Here, the gothic walls are rendered less oppressive – even cute – by street art depicting little mosaic space invaders. The fog lifts a little – this city has a place for the profane. Number 59, an art gallery/squat house showcases art from found objects. Each room is a fantasy world, carefully constructed from old candy wrappers and beer bottles, and it’s beautiful. Diamonds from dirt.

 I turn my back on the greats and seek refuge with the ordinary, the scum and the grit in Montmartre. Following the fading strands of sunlight trickling down from the Sacre Coeur, chasing it through little dog-poop lined alleyways, tiptoeing discretely past the strip clubs that pave the streets of the Pigalle, it was no surprise that I found myself in a bar. I ordered a glass of Bordeaux and the barkeep placed the bottle on my table. It wasn’t exactly the kind of osmosis I was looking for, but nevertheless, it would not go astray.

The girl at the table next to mine spills her drink on the notepad she’s been scribbling in. She curses, desperately trying to wipe the notebook dry with her scarf. I pass her a stack of paper napkins.

“Anything important?” I gesture to the notepad, taking the opportunity to be nosey.

“I’m just trying to write some song lyrics.”

“Oh?” I press on with the dreaded question. “How’s it going?”

“Terrible.” She wailed in a familiar tone. “It’s all clichés and flowery metaphors.”

I poured her a glass of wine. “It can’t all be coffee and croissants.”

She smiles at my lame attempt at comfort. “That wasn’t a cliché, but it’s still pretty terrible.”

As the retreating sun lays waste to the failings of today, we toast in solidarity to our mediocrity, and beg of tomorrow to make mountains of us little molehills.

 Back in my tiny unremarkable room I wonder if something remarkable can happen. I look out the window to my neighbours across the road, silhouettes backlit by art deco lamps, they put dinner on the table like hungry shadow puppets. In the deserted street below, a stray pedestrian walks stoically home, footsteps tapping out a steady rhythm, a rhythm which is echoed by the tapping of keystrokes on my laptop as I tentatively begin to write. Bon courage, la petite Australienne. Lets do this thing.

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Just the thought of moving back to France nearly gave me a panic attack.  All the work I had done over the past two years, living on our homestead in Virginia, raising chickens, Square-Foot-Gardening, being the PTA president of my kids’ school—all I had built with my hands and heart were supposed to have healed the gaping hole with which I left France.  France is a baby killer.  I knew it was melodramatic to think that way, but hadn’t I already lost two babies in two years there?  I looked down at my second trimester belly.  Now we were moving back.  Would France take this baby, too?

 

            I waved the thought away with a chuckle.  I was being melodramatic.  France would be different this time.  This time, I had a purpose.  The food and curriculum situation at my kids’ school had become unlivable.  Pizza sauce is not a vegetable.  As much as I loved our 32 wooded acre homestead, I needed to get my kids to a place where food is sacred and religious dogma has no place in school.  Yes.  France held some bad memories, but it was also so full of promise for my three living children.  And for the one in my belly.  This helped me pack my bags.  It gave me strength as I traveled alone with my three and a half sidekicks.  It made my heart race with hope on the flight over.

 

            The reality was a thousand times better than the dreaded fantasy.  Lyon hadn’t changed much at all, making it feel familiar and home. The changes I did see were only for the better.  Everything seemed a touch more efficient.  The taxi was at the airport stop in seconds.  He was smiley and helpful.  The hotel staff were kind and welcoming.  My favorite pedestrian street had all of my old favorite bakeries, boutiques and bookstores but had new little nuggets of “home” like a Haagen-Dazs shop and a Starbucks!  There were Velov’ rent-a-bike stations on nearly every block and so many more people used them than just two years prior.  There were Bluely electric rent-a-car stations here and there.  A smoking ban made getting lunch or a coffee more pleasant while the kids were with me.

 

            The kids were ecstatic about being back as well.  Only my 9 year old son really remembered anything clearly, but his sisters soaked and mirrored his enthusiasm as we walked along the Saone and Rhone rivers, stopping at this playground or that one with the huge slides.  Or the one that had all the water fountains you could maneuver for fun.

 

            They gushed about the wide open green spaces of the Parc de la Tete d’Or, running headlong with their arms open wide as if they had just been liberated from their leashes.  As we strolled through the free zoo, they mimicked the playful moneys and marveled at the baby giraffe.  They had a contest with the crocodiles to see if they could keep their mouths open longer.  They laughed at the emus and running reindeer.  When the intrigue of the animals wore off, they strolled through the rose garden, drinking in the mesmerizing vapors of nature and talked to the bees, thanking them for their help.

 

            In the evening, spent from our walks but still buzzing with emotional energy, we made our way back to our pedestrian street where we sat on a bench and watched as the fountain played.  Arcs of water chasing each other and showing off their pirouettes.

 

            When I could see they were ready, we got up and made our way back to our little hotel, stopping only to stock up on fresh veggies and a crispy baguette for dinner.

 

            As they slept, I looked in on them, snuggled up against one another in the double bed.  I sighed with relief.  It was hard to believe I could have dreaded coming back here.  How could I have forgotten all that Lyon had given me?  Why had I only concentrated on what it had taken?  I patted my belly, excited and content that my husband and I had made the best decision for our little family in moving back to Lyon.

 

            In coming home.

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La Bonnotte of L'Isle de Noirmoutier, The World's Most Expensive Potato

Photo courtesy Tourist Office, Ile de Noirmoutier

by Paige Donner

Every year in France, when a certain season sets in, namely the Fall, a whole cadre of culinary enthusiasts await with bated breath their chance to devour cèpes and truffles and other richly aromatic tubers and funghi.

Windmill on the Islandof Noirmoutier, Northern France, Photo courtesy wikimedia Taxiarchos228
Windmill on the Islandof Noirmoutier, Northern France, Photo courtesy wikimedia Taxiarchos228

And while I enjoy these produits de terroir immensely, it is in May when this same sort of culinary fever washes over me in anticipation of the first tastes of the little yellow diamond, harvested by hand only, called La Bonnotte.

La Bonnotte, for those of you not familiar with it, is a little yellow gem that grows on the small, sheltered Isle of Noirmoutier in France’s northwest region of the Vendée. And while myself and other culinary gourmands can easily mistake this little tuber for the Royal Star of Paris diamond, it is, in fact, entirely edible. Yes, this little tuber is a potato.

Photo courtesy Tourist Office, Ile de Noirmoutier
Photo courtesy Tourist Office, Ile de Noirmoutier

But this little tuber isn’t like other little potatoes. Its taste, its consistency, its peak ripeness which lasts but a week, 10 days maximum, is highly prized and when brought to market is sold at Paris’ high-end art auction house, Drouot, in a partnership with luxury fine foods company, Petrossian, known primarily for their caviar.

And this brings us to the absolute perfect pairing for La Bonnotte, the little yellow hand-harvested potato grown exclusively on L’Ile de Noirmoutier: caviar.

La Bonnotte and Caviar

It is said that the only diet Jaccqueline Kennedy Onassis ever put herself on was a caviar-and-potato- once-a-day diet. I have not yet found a specific reference to the potato she used to frame her caviar, but I imagine it could very well have been La Bonnotte.

The first time I had the gastronomic privilege of tasting one of these treasures was at a reception held by LVMH. It was years ago and had something to do with fashion. Therefore, in a gesture of feeding a room full of beautiful people who don’t eat, it struck me as genius that they would serve a tiny little potato garnished with a dollop of fine black caviar, complemented with a touch of fresh Normandy clotted cream on top. Trust me. You have never had a mouthful of finger food so good.

Certainly, a company like LVMH can afford to serve guests the world’s most expensive potato. Coming in at around €500 per kilo, it often outranks even truffles in terms of price category. But for the unitiated eye, all attention was paid to the caviar. An irony, when, in fact, it was La Bonnotte which reigned supreme in the culinary hierarchy there with that caviar pairing.

What is the magic of La Bonnotte and what makes it so expensive?

Firstly, the Bonnotte is a Garden Potato. It demands as much attention from the grower as does a flower from a gardener. I’ve already mentioned two of its other hot-house qualities, namely that it must be hand-harvested and that it grows in a very particular soil, richly fertilized with wrack, whose mineral richness is found exclusively in this particular composition on the micro-climate, sunny northern part of the picturesque Ile de Noirmoutier. It is planted on February 2nd (France’s Candlemas Day) and precisily 90 days later it is in peak condition, taste-wise, and ready for harvesting.

A Brief History of La Bonnotte

The Bonnotte enjoyed an early success and is even credited with helping to build the reputation of The Isle of Noirmoutier. While its exact origins remains a debate between credit going to the Conquistadors who brought this little potato back from the Incas, to a Norman planter endowed with particular potato cultivating savoir-faire, it is generally accepted that in the 20’s or 30’s of the last century, a grower brought back to his island a particular potato from the Barfleur region on the English Channel. The growing conditions, with its briny sea-salt air and rich soils fertilized with wrack, proved exceptional for La Bonnotte and the little potato was crowned supreme by the French agricultural classification, DIEHL in 1938.

This is their description of La Bonnotte:

DIEHL – Its tubers have smooth, yellow skin and dark yellow flesh, finely grained. They are round, and the eyes are semi-sunken. The plant is sizeable and upright with a pigmented stalk and fairly short leaves, marked with a very glossy dark green. The leaflets have an embossed aspect. The flowers are small and white, and the fruits are reddish. It is resistant to potato wart and also, it seems, to degeneration disease. Its period of dormancy is quite long and it is also fairly slow to sprout – a delay it catches up on later.

Mechanization Meant No More

But when mechanization came to the island in the 60’s, La Bonnotte suffered. Its low yield of 100g to 200g per foot meant that farmers could not make a decent return and with their conversion from handpicking to mechanization, other tuber varieties won out. This is why it disappeared altogether from the market by around 1965.

However, because Ile de Noirmoutier had become so famous from its Early Potato variety of La Bonnotte, a group of farmers were determined to resuscitate it. In the ’90s, the Agricultural Co-Operative of the Isle of Noirmoutier went to the INRA (French National Institute of Agricultural Research) in Brest and asked them to regenerate exact copies of La Bonnotte. This replication was highly successful and yielded this little potato that is true in taste as well as form.

“Now part of the agricultural heritage, La Bonnotte is an undeniable element of the island’s identity.”

The farmers of The Isle of Noirmoutier harvest 11,000 tons of potatoes a year from an agricultural area of 380 hectares. But only a very small fraction of these are La Bonnotte. Other popular varieties are the Sirtéma, the Lady Christ’l, Charlotte and Jazzy varieties.

But it is La Bonnotte harvested only between May 1st and May 10th that is the best known product of these farmers here on Ile de Noirmoutier, along with the island’s farmed sea salt. The other Early Potatoes, a category to which La Bonnotte belongs, are harvested between late April and early August and are defined as a potato that is fluffy because of the fineness of its skin and because it’s harvested before it reaches maturity.

Where To Stay: Autre Mer, a 2-star Hotel just past the town center. It has that Nantucket feel with reasonable rates and a friendly owner-operator.

32 Avenue Joseph Pineau, Noirmoutier en L’Ile

Notable: The Bicyle Rental Shop, Cycles Charier, is just across the street. Bicycling is a must while visiting the island. It’s the primary method of transport.

The Isle of Noirmoutier Agricultural Co-Operative

 

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As the temperature outside barely topped 10 degrees Celsius, and I found myself with a rare day-off, I happily spent the majority of the day at my grandma’s sitting inside with cat Sammie curled up on my knee. This was a moment that I had longingly craved whilst abroad, and in such a moment I found myself wondering if I could bear going away again.

I spent four months working and traveling across France during the northern hemisphere summer. When I returned back home to Australia in July, I was not only season-confused and flipped upside down, but also left wondering how to keep my restless feet fixed upon the ground. As I sat cuddling my cat, I thought to myself – surely this is enough. This is what I missed while I was away. Why can’t this be the reason to stay?

A similar feeling encompasses me when I take my beloved dog for a walk, or admire my horse and feed him carrots simply for being adorable. I grew up on property with sheep and chickens and ducks, being the weird horse girl at school with my best friend, and my life has always revolved around my pets. My animals are all the trusted care of someone who I know will give them the love and support they need. My sister, an avid animal lover, effortlessly looks after all the animals on our small property. And I will be eternally grateful to my grandma for taking in my cat, a decision I had to make when I moved back home before heading abroad. Giving up Sammie was tough, but I knew she needed someone more stable and settled than myself.

The wanderlust can certainly be difficult to carry. As it weighs pressingly on my mind, it always finds a way to insert itself into conversations, and encourages me to search regularly for airfare sales. This wanderlust brings with it so many sacrifices and so much guilt. Yet, it brings so many adventures at the same time. My young and restless gypsy soul can’t resist that.

Perhaps the guilt is just enhanced when I concentrate on how comfortable my life is in Australia. I know I have a good life here, a life that many desire. I have two university degrees and stable job prospects, yet I am too unsettled to know how to use it. My life isn’t perfect here, there are memories I long to move away from. But I feel guilty because I have so much to stay for but all I want to do is leave.

Aside from the pets that break my heart every time I leave them, my friendships suffer as well. I see my life moving in such a vastly different direction to my friends who have a stable life in our hometown. They see it too. They hear it in our conversations where I find a way to either talk about past travel experiences or discuss plans for new adventures. Meanwhile, they tell me about choosing tiles for their new home or progress on their weddings plans. This is a life so foreign to me. I love hearing about their exciting futures and the happiness it will bring them. But they see that I will not be settled for some time. I see it in myself as well which both frightens and entices me.

Sometimes it isn’t even me who brings up the travel discussions; sometimes I am encouraged to talk about my plans because they ask me. But I feel guilty for always reminding people that I am leaving, one day or another. I can’t deny the selfishness in my decision to chase a life abroad. And I know that eventually I may not have these friendships to return to, because their lives will move on without me. Because I will be elsewhere.

It surprises me then, when the wanderlust teaches me about the friendships that are true and valuable. Through flittering about in other parts of the world, I’ve found the friends that are prepared to stand by me, and mean it when they say no matter what.

My anxiety about leaving my pets and my friendships are not separate entities. As my friends ask me about my travel plans, they also ask me about my pets. They know how much these animals mean to me and how much I will miss them. ‘If you ever need anyone to take care of your cat, just let me know,’ many friends have offered. My grandma is a champion for taking on the responsibility of my darling cat. But she often goes away herself on little holidays. My best friend was more than happy to stay at my grandma’s house with my cat while she was away for a week and I was in Europe. She was first in line of a number of friends who offered to do the same. At this, my heart was filled with happiness to realise it is possible to have it all.

Essentially I feel guilty for this traveling lifestyle I desire makes me a selfish person. For this reason I am unbelievably lucky and grateful to have people in my life still standing by me, supporting me in these crazy plans I have to wander endlessly.

And when I reflect upon it too much, the guilt awakens and heightens the post-travel depression. That state of mind which is only present when I find myself with moments of rare free time. My mind finds it impossible to relax so it searches through these thoughts and analyses everything it can. Here the guilt takes place and I find the only way to ease it is to plan my next runaway scheme.

And I begin to wonder: how does one achieve happiness when one is always torn between two desires. When I am here, I want to be there. And when I am there, I long to return.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Vendangeur is what a grape picker in France is called. And if you enjoy drinking your champagne and your Beaujolais, these people are your heros.

Champagne Harvest, France photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Champagne Harvest, France photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014

by Paige Donner

Vendangeur is what a grape picker in France is called. And if you enjoy drinking your champagne and your Beaujolais, these people are your heros.

Many of us in the United States still harbor romantic notions of experiencing a wine harvest, preferably in the vineyards, joyfully picking grapes from morning ‘til dusk with a friendly group of brethren. Those dreams are completely unrealistic, especially in Champagne.

In Champagne harvest is industrialized, even if the picking is still done by hand. At least 100,000 pairs of hands are needed to harvest the grapes quickly during the one to two weeks when the annual harvest takes place. Time is very much of the essence as there really are only a few days when the grapes are optimal for picking. Busloads of grape pickers, mostly from Eastern Europe as well as large groups of Senegalese and other French-speaking Africans from Parisian suburbs, are brought in to the region just before harvest begins and are then quickly bussed out of the region after harvest ends.

Épernay, whose temporary harvest employment office operates as one of the main regional hubs doling out harvesting jobs, administered roughly 3,500 jobs and job-seekers during the first few days of harvest in Champagne in 2014. Pickers earn an average of about €9 per hour.

Oswald and Lina, two young Lithuanian students, who declined to have their photos taken, came for the romance of the experience. Oswald did the harvest last season (2013) in Champagne’s Aube region near Troyes, and this year brought his girlfriend Lina, a young architecural student, along with him to experience “the beautiful French countryside, the small charming towns and the quaint old churches.”

The tough conditions of the Vendangeur (grape picker) in Champagne. photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
The tough conditions of the Vendangeur (grape picker) in Champagne. photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014

The morning I spoke with them, Lina and Oswald had spent two nights sleeping in the park along with hordes of other hopeful harvesters who had also just arrived. Harvest had started only the day before. Lina was eager for a hot shower. Another couple, also Lithuanians, were taking her to the Red Cross which had set up hot showers and sanitary facilities for the few days of harvest period. I mentioned to them the modern public pool with hot showers at the far end of town. It was the first they’d heard about it.

According to Jean-Marc Biehler, a local resident of Mardeuil, a small village just near Hautvillers, where the famous Dom Perignon Abbey perches, explained that when he and his professor-wife were still students at university, they worked several harvests to earn extra money just before going back to « uni ». But now, in the past 10 or 15 years, university starts earlier and earlier in France, before harvest. This is why, he said, you don’t see many French people doing the picking in the Champagne vineyards these days.

Carole Grenier, who ran the the temporary harvest employment offices in Epernay for 2014, and her assistant, Charlene Tonnellier, explained that more and more in recent years the employment contracts go to large enterprises who loan out their workforce during harvest time. So rather than finding or filling jobs for individuals, she, for the most part, fills job contracts for 50 to several hundred people at a time. And this is all done through middlemen and labor brokers.

Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014

When I asked if harvest in Champagne is any more difficult than anywhere else, she replied, “Yes, it is. Champagne grapes grow low to the ground, so it’s hard on the pickers’ backs. It’s days of backbreaking work spent stooped over.” She also explained that food and lodging is provided less and less because of the social costs involved. “If you find a harvest job that provides you with lodging, you have done very well and been very lucky,” said Grenier.

The best advice for anyone who still wants to experience picking grapes during harvest time in France ? Go to Burgundy. It is much less industrialized and you are more likely to find small operations that are still run more like a family. One operator that offers his services to travelers wanting this harvest experience is Netherlands-based Appellation Controlée.

Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Sidebar 1

Hand Harvesting vs. Mechanized Harvesting

There are really only two regions left in France where picking grapes by hand is the law : Champagne and Beaujolais. All the other AOC’s and regions allow for mechanized picking.

In Champagne, just Northeast of Paris where AOC champagne grapes grow, you will see no machines harvesting grapes in the vineyards. Nary a one.

Why ? Because, it is against AOC regulations. Still. Which means that if you own a champagne vineyard and don’t abide by the strict, and strictly enforced, regulations, you can’t sell your wine with the golden little label of “champagne” on it.

Since last year, however, there has been much discussion about whether Champagne, as a viticultural region, will allow for mechanized picking. The community is divided. The die-hards say that it will be the last region to keep its harvest-by-hand customs. This is because they can afford hand-harvesting, what with the prices they get for their grapes. And because champagne grapes are so delicate, with most of them being pressed for their juice right in the vineyards, just after picking. This yields the best quality juice, it’s said. Which makes for the best champagne, goes the local wisdom. In fact, there are 3,100 pressoirs  or grape presses, spread throughout the vineyards of the 319 grape growing Champagne villages. This is for the roughly 403 million kilos of grapes harvested per year.

But the more modern-oriented grower-champagne producers and even some of the big négociants seem to be leaning towards mechanization. Why ? For one it will limit the influx of the 100,000 itinerant workers-grape pickers who “invade” the region every year. It will also cut down on the ” extravagant ” social costs that the champagne houses and vineyard owners pay to employ the pickers (legally) each year.

Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Sidebar 2

The Business of Champagne

Just a few facts and figures to set the stage for grape-picking at harvest time in Champagne, France :

First of all, Champagne is one of the few wine regions in the world where the people who grow the grapes used for the winemaking make a good living. Not only do they make a good living, with little or no government subsidy required as is the case for much of the world’s wine regions, they make an average of about four times as much as other profitable winemaking regions, like Napa. “Here in Champagne we are just simple farmers. Rich farmers, though, to be sure,” commented Cyril Janisson, fifth generation champagne producer, vineyard owner and native Champenois who heads the champagne house Janisson Baradon & Fils.

In 2013 there were 304.9 million bottles of champagne sold worldwide. That represents $5.4 billion global sales worth of champagne. Champagne is big business.

This year, 2014, champagne producers are aiming to reach a total sales output of 307 million bottles worldwide.

And none of this, not one drop of this golden elixir, would exist if it weren’t for the grapepickers, the « vendangeurs » as they are called in French.

Champagne grapes are the most expensive grapes in the world. The 2014 price per kilo was set at between €5.17 and €6.06 depending on the village the grapes are grown in. In Champagne there is a hierarchical classification of the villages with the top-shelf grapes coming from the Grand Cru villages such as Aÿ, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Ambonnay. The next tier are the Premier Cru villages and then there’s all the rest.

 

Sidebar 3

Champagne by the Numbers

There are 319 villages that are authorized as champagne grape growing villages in Champagne. This authorization comes from the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne), the Champagne Bureau who makes all the rules and enforces them. In fact, in Champagne, you don’t even have the right to harvest your grapes until the CIVC decrees that you can. The dates each year are set village by village by this God-like trade organization. They go back quite a ways, too. Champagne was one of the first wine regions – on Earth – to lobby for and get AOC status. So these guys are the big boys and they regulate the big business of champagne.

Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014

A few more numbers :

There are

  • 33,571 hectares (82,956 acres) of vines in production in Champagne
  • 15807 parcels of vines
  • 13,648 vineyard owners, of which more than half cultivate less than one hectare of vineyards
  • 13104 vineyard owners sell their grapes
  • 4629 vineyard owners commercialize their own champagne (that accounts for 65.7 million bottles)
  • 135 co-operatives for champagne grape growers
  • 43 co-operatives commercialize their own champagne (28.3 million bottles)
  • 392 négociants (the licensed agents authorized to buy grapes and sell bottles of champagne on the market, these include the big houses such as Roederer, Bollinger, Lanson, Moët, etc.) which account for 210.9 million bottles of champagne

Of the 304.9 million bottles of champagne sold globally in 2013,

  • 167.3 million sold in France
  • 74.7 million sold in the EU
  • 62.9 million sold in the rest of the world
Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Champagne harvest, France. Photo by Paige Donner copyright 2014
Sidebar 4

If You Go

I recommend staying in the lovely little Grand Cru village of Aÿ, France. It is situated between Reims and Epernay in the Montagne de Reims. Chamapagnes Bollinger, Deutz and Collet call the village home among dozens of other fine champagne producing houses.

The easiest way to get there is to fly into Paris. From Paris take the fast train, the TGV, to Reims, which is about 45 minutes or the slower train, the TER, to Epernay which is an hour and 15 minutes. Both leave from the Gare de l’Est in northern, central Paris.

Round-trip tickets Paris-Epernay cost €48.20 for adult, second-class fare ; Roundtrip Paris-Reims on the TGV varies in price from about €60 to €85 for adult second-class. Aÿ is a short 5 minute taxi ride from Epernay, another €10. From Reims a taxi to Aÿ will cost at least €30. There is a charming commuter train that connects Reims and Epernay which stops in Aÿ: €7.50 Reims to Aÿ. But the train departs only a couple of times a day so check schedules.

 

Where To Stay

There are at least three very good accommodations to choose from in Aÿ. The hotel Castel-Jeanson is owned by the Goutorbe champagne family and the renovations they’ve done to this property are extensive and even include an indoor swimming pool. From €127 – €225

Hotel Castel Jeanson 24 bis rue Jeanson casteljeanson.fr +33 326 542 175

For a homey, B&B experience, the Clos St. Georges is a gated estate. It has a separate little honeymooner’s cottage on the property in addition to its six rooms. Eric and Sylvie Aubert also offer one of the best tables for lunch and dinner in the region. €98-€150

Le Clos St. Georges 7, rue Jules Lobet Aÿ, France levieuxpuits.com +33 326 569 653

Just opened in time for 2014’s harvest is the Champagne Sacret Chambres d’hôtes. In addition to the B&B’s stylish décor and the smell of fresh paint, you have the added thrill of staying on a working champagne estate where the wine is vinifying in vats underneath you. €150-€200

Champagne Sacret chambres d’hôtes 3, rue Billecart Aÿ, France Champagne-sacret.com + 33 326 569 920

 

Where to Eat

In addition to Le Vieux Puits at Le Clos St. Georges, mentioned above, there is also La Maison du Vigneron and L’Assiette Champenoise. The latter (€200 pp with wine) got its third Michelin star last year and the former is a solid and simple country kitchen restaurant (appetizers €15, mains €30, deserts €12).

La Maison du Vigneron RD 951 Saint-Imoges lamaisonduvigneron.com +33 326 528 800

L’Assiette Champenoise 40, Avenue Paul Vaillant-Couturier Tinqueux assiettechampenoise.com +33 326 846 464 (Closed M, T , W)

 

To Learn More

There are several local tour guides based in the region. All are good, but Cris has been doing it the longest.

Cristourschampagne-ardenne.com +33 326 882 637

Brand new in Champagne is the Cité du Champagne. This historical and cultural center’s exhibit offers museum-worthy artifacts and photos and a cellar tour. Not to miss.

Cité du Champagne 14 Boulevard Pasteur Aÿ, France champagne-collet.com

+33  326 551 588

Consult these regional office of tourism sites for more information : http://www.tourisme-en-champagne.com/en, http://www.ay-champagne.fr/index.adml?r=235,

Paige Donner French wine, food and travel expert. copyright 2014
Paige Donner French wine, food and travel expert. copyright 2014

Paige Donner is certified champagne expert (by the CIVC) and writes regularly for USA Today and 10BEST.com as their Paris and France Travel Expert writer/photographer/editor. Contact her at About.me/paigedonner.

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I’m sorry I forgot to conform in France

When my best friend and I were 10 years old, we used to plan out our futures. We wanted to be married by a certain age; I think it was 24 we chose. We wanted to have a house, a career, and start popping out babies before we were 30. It all seemed easy. We drew up designs of our dream houses, chose our favourite baby names, and imagined our lives with a perfectly handsome husband. The only problem for me was; I never actually wanted this. I just thought it was what my life was meant to be like.

When we were 17, my best friend started dating a guy. A few months later, I ended up dating a guy as well. Four years later, I went through the awful process of ending a long term relationship. Seven years later, my best friend is engaged and building a house with her high school sweetheart, the guy she started dating at 17. She’s 24 years old. She’s worked hard to be where she is and she is extremely happy. And literally living her dream.

I am single. I am free, independent, and the happiest I have ever been in my life. I will be 24 this year. I’m a primary school teacher and freelance writer. I am living abroad by working and traveling through Europe, literally living my dream.

That 10 year old girl who had assumed life had a script written for based on social convention had always wanted something else. I had been dreaming of otherness for a long time. As I went through school, I became fixated on learning about different cultures, the history of the world, and study cities on maps to gain a perspective of how small my hometown really was.

At high school, I started learning French. From age 15 I was dreaming of a way to get myself to France. Money, my family life, then my boyfriend, and university meant that this dream kept being put on hold. While I was in the long term relationship with my ex, I eventually convinced myself that I didn’t really want to go to France. I chose to put my money in savings so that we could move in together and we would travel later in life, together. We both wanted this. But I didn’t want it wholeheartedly. I became that naïve 10 year old girl again, wanting something else but believing there was someone I was supposed to be.

When you want something in life, you generally have to sacrifice something else. This is true. The key is to make sure that you don’t sacrifice the thing that will make you truly happy. This is what I did, while I was in a relationship.

When things ended between us, I was 21. My first reaction was to book a trip to India at the end of my university studies. I had graduated with two degree by this point, a Bachelor of Arts and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. But I wasn’t ready to settle down and stay in one place. I was ready to see the world, at last.

At age 22, seven years after my dreaming of France had begun; I booked a ticket to Paris. While my friends were getting engaged, building houses together or getting fulltime jobs after university, I was packing my life into a backpack and boarding a plane.

There is no right or wrong direction in life. I respect and admire my friends who are settled down and living out life the way they want. Many people tell me that they are jealous of what I’m doing and would love to have these adventures abroad as well. The reality is, however, that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. My world is a chaos of cramming clothes into space bags and hoping my backpack will zip up. My next destination is planned on airfare sales and catching an overnight bus to save money. My life is made up of uncertainty, filled in with contract jobs and wondering where my next pay check will come from, barely ever staying in once place for more than three months. People forget these aspects of a life abroad, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There are so many pathways of social convention. Rather than being faced with one assumed outcome, Generation Y is faced with too many options. What do we choose? Which way do we go? How do we have it all and make sure we live without regrets?

The one thing we all learn as we grow up is that there isn’t a solid answer to these questions. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to go in the direction your heart takes you. Just make sure you listen attentively to it.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Paris at Night

When I walked by the Pantheon in Paris the first time, I had no idea of the impact it would have on my memory.  Like most memories, it was one that I had no intention of holding on to, but ended up having it seared into my brain. One’s mind has a way of surprising itself that way.

So many things about Paris are memorable.  Paris is one of those cities that has seen such variances of people and cultures. If you could talk to the city of Paris, it could say some like, “Yeah – been there, done that. I’ve seen it all”.  Almost like an old cop training a rookie who just joined the police force.  And as a tourist, I was prepared for that awe of seeing places like Versailles or the Louvre.  As a tourist, I looked forward to seeing places with so much history. But these are not the things that leave a mark on a person’s memory, or conjure up the feeling that a person gets when thinking of a specific place.

To explain, I should inform the reader that I was traveling with my aunt, who has traveled all over Europe, and is a great lover of Paris.  She does not believe in fancy tours.  We set our own schedule, and plan out what we want to see and when.  It involves a lot of public transportation and walking.

Our hotel was located a little ways up the street from the Pantheon, near the Rue Mouffetard.  Every morning we would walk out the door, grab some breakfast at the nearby Patisserie, walk past the Pantheon, where the same boy was practicing with his soccer ball every day, make our way down the Boulevard Saint Michel by walking past Luxembourg Gardens, and head toward the nearest metro station to begin our quest for the day . Every day was a new adventure.  And every day we came “home” exhilarated and exhausted.  I was incredibly happy to be given this opportunity to see such a famous city, and experience all the awe-inducing sights.  I have many pictures of places I saw, but none that remind me of my Paris.  And yes, I know how that sounds.

We were not in Paris for more than a couple days when my aunt got sick.  Once we were done for the day she would be too tired to do anything else.  This was unlike her.  I was so used to trying to keep up with her brisk pace that I didn’t know what to do with myself in the evenings.  So I started to venture out on my own.  By now I knew the general direction that Notre Dame was from our neighborhood; I decided to walk there by taking the Rue Saint Jacque, which was new territory for me.

It should be noted that although this trip was an incredible opportunity for me, my life in general was looking quite bleak.  I was in my very early twenties and a couple years into college.  I was paying my way through community college by working at a video store.  The hours were rough, I was tired all the time, and more importantly I was at what I knew to be a critical juncture in my life – and I had no idea what to do about it.  The rest of my life was this huge, black vortex of emptiness that I just couldn’t picture, and I wasn’t feeling good.  Emotionally or physically.  It took its toll on my grades.  I was spiraling.

So as I passed the Pantheon on my way to Notre Dame, I came to love the feeling of something solid, friendly, and oddly enough – homey.  I loved walking down that street.  I loved looking at those buildings because they became so familiar.  And more than anything I loved to sit on the statue in front of Notre Dame and just look at everything around me.  At that moment in my life there was nothing more beautiful than Paris at night.  Especially sitting on that statue.  It made me feel unbreakable.  I did this every night until we left.

When I think of Paris, I think of the Pantheon; I think of walking past it every day on the way to just about everything, the boy always playing soccer, and I think of walking past it at night on the way to my favorite spot in Paris. Well, really one of my favorite spots in the world.  The mind works in odd ways, but it knows what it’s doing.  It gave me a memory that isn’t just a nice keepsake, but a memory that I needed.  And one that gave me strength.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.