Last week I had a bit of an adventure. I (and almost my entire lab) was accepted to present a poster at the Mariani Foundation’s Neuromusic conference in Dijon, France. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal, but it meant a lot to me since I was presenting my first neuroscience poster as first author, with new data that’s a bit controversial (in some very specific circles), and all the important neuroscience and music psychology people were there. So I was nervous but excited at the same time, and it was icing on the eclair that I’d never been to France before. It turned out that the cheapest way to get me from Helsinki to Dijon was to fly to Paris and bookend my trip with a day and night there each way, and take the Paris-Lyon train to Dijon through the French countryside. Two extra days and nights in Paris? I wasn’t going to complain!
I ended up trying AirBnB for the first time and if you haven’t used it, I really recommend it. You get hostel prices but with none of the hassle of comparisons and trying to figure out whether the dates you’re looking for are the prices listed; the interface is really intuitive and has maps and calendars right there, along with bios of the listing hosts, their amenities, and reviews from previous guests so you can see who is really active and has good reviews. They verify everyone with government-issued documents–for example you can upload a picture of your driver’s license or passport (the picture is only used for internal verification and they don’t share it with hosts or guests), and you can link to other social media accounts so there are multiple ways of not getting catfished. All the payment is done through the site, so you don’t have to worry about the host changing the price at the last minute or the guest skipping out–it’s done at the time of booking and once you book, you can contact the host and talk about when to arrive, etc. I found it a really convenient and fun way to meet locals, which is a nice way to stave off loneliness if you’re travelling alone, and everyone knows the locals give the best advice.
Wednesday was an early morning but the sun had come up hours before my 4am bus ride to the airport. Around lunchtime I arrived in Paris, nervous but excited about a lot of things. I got a week-long unlimited Navigo card, which I would highly recommend since it works on all forms of public transport and you don’t have to worry about topping up or buying new tickets if you’re in the city for a while. Although the ticket machines are also very easy to use, and have fun little rotating cylinders to mark your choice instead of the usual buttons. They also work in English, so no worries for tourists!
I took the airport shuttle to Opera and walked around until I was hungry. I was looking for a crepe place a friend had told me about, but ended up settling for a little cafe on a corner. I sat outside even though it was chilly and spitting rain, and it felt good cooling off after carrying my backpack and poster around. A very insistent little bird kept jumping up on my table trying to steal my sandwich. I eventually tossed him a crumb and he flew away. I can’t say I blame him–it was a tasty sandwich.
While walking through the busy, noisy streets I could hardly believe this was Paris. I had this idea of Paris in my head as someplace small, a posh, snobby place for posh and snobby people where you could always see the Eiffel tower as you sip your midday chablis and make judgmental comments under your breath, in French of course, as people go by. But it’s so much else and so much more.
I shamelessly watched Sex and the City as a teenager (and I shamelessly rewatch it now) partly because it’s just fun, but also because it’s unexpectedly inspiring. In one episode Carrie is talking about the stigma of being single and the need we feel to always have an excuse for being alone, to always have something to do. A book, some work, a friend. Nowadays, a phone or a tablet. She says there’s real courage in having lunch with yourself–no book, no excuses. I think it’s true in traveling too, and it’s a huge step to sit by yourself and just be for a while.
I had a hard time reading the maps around town, which I think was because they were all oriented differently and that plus the very un-gridlike organization made it really difficult for me to even find cardinal directions. I feel a little bit like three Restaurant Days in charge of baking macarons make me a bit of an amateur expert in them, with about 50 batches under my belt, so one of my missions in Paris was to seek out the best macaron.
I ended up wandering around a fairly non-touristy neighbourhood for a while and came across a little shop called Leonie with some macarons that looked particularly good. I bought a noisette, cassis, and a framboise. The cookies were all good, nice flavour, just the right height and an nice smooth texture on top. The hazelnut was very good, very nutella-y and much better than my failed attempts at the cursed chocolate flavour. I also liked the cassis (blackcurrant) and its buttercream filling, although the coloring of it and the strawberry put me off a bit. The strawberry was the least successful unfortunately: the cookie was very good, but the filling had solidified into a fruit gum-like consistency, and tore the cookie in half as I was trying to take a bite.
The other sweets shops in the posh districts barely turned my head; as I took a closer look at them, I saw many of them looking suspiciously soggy, fluorescently coloured and obviously full of artificial dyes, and over-processed or oddly flat. Many had extra toppings of chocolate bark, which I think kind of defeats the purpose of a macaron and hides their deceptively simple aesthetic, and I even saw some (being sold for the paltry fee of .60) that had bubbled and frothed on top like a battery cookie dough with too much baking soda. It made me feel much better about our “discount broken macaron bin” on Restaurant Day. At least mine (for the most part) turn out recognizable, and I left that shop in a hurry without buying anything.
My first AirBnB was in Ivry-sur-Seine, which turned out to be a really interesting district in the south-east part of the city. It was a mix of winding old cobbled streets and ivy-covered stone facades, a random windmill in the square, and modern industrial buildings smattered with some more interestingly modern architecture. It reminded me of Elephant and Castle in a way, some older cafes and pubs and a lot of different cultures represented.
My host was warm and welcoming, and recommended that I try the nearby Chinatown for dinner. Yes, Chinatown. Twenty minutes’ walk or so away I crossed a main road and found myself in a bustling neighborhood of bright neon signs and all sorts of Asian food everywhere.
It was a weird sort of Alice in Wonderland moment. I walked around Parisian Chinatown thinking about all the good that has come from choosing to say yes to (almost) everything, and on a whim, I went into a small tackily decorated Vietnamese place that looked like it had been repurposed from a laundromat. The people I could see from the window were smiling, so that was a good sign at least. As soon as I stepped inside I knew I had made the right decision. As I sat down a huge wave of nostalgia hit me; this place smelled exactly how I remembered my grandparents’ house to smell when I was a child. Slightly damp from the old basement foundation sinking, the dust and ancient wood of a thousand priceless stories trapped in shelves upon shelves of mysterious and antique treasures, the sharp dusty tang of tobacco smoke, a fishtank with a single algae-covered bottom-feeder bubbling contentedly in the corner, and the warm savoryness of something hearty cooking on the stove, filling the air with delicious steam. In a weird way I needed that, unexpectedly finding a childhood memory that meant safety and comfort to me, so far from my first home, and still feeling far from the home I’m seeking.
The food was incredible: I ordered something like meat on skewers in leaves, and it came with salad and a huge pile of mint and sweet basil, thin rice noodles and sweet chili dipping sauce. I told the waiter I didn’t speak much French, and he asked where I was from and if I was studying here, if I liked it in Paris. I think it’s that reminder we all need, to realize that even if you’re wandering the streets of Parisian Chinatown alone, people are the same everywhere, and will reflect the same kindnesses that you project to them.
I think it’s these little bits of love from random strangers that keeps the world in balance. I’ve heard so much about how Parisians are snobby to Americans, but I had nothing but kindness when I was there. Maybe it was that I was alone and generally appear unthreatening, or maybe it was that I tried to avoid the really bad tourist areas where I’m sure the locals are constantly fed up with the stupidity. I could only handle about 10 minutes of the Eiffel Tower, just enough time to scarf down an overpriced street waffle with chestnuts and snap a picture just to say I was there.
On the way from the metro I saw too many Americans in tacky berets and tie-dye, or shirts with the names of American cities printed on them in big, bold letters. I’ve never understood that–no one else travels with a giant label of where they come from on their shirts, so why do Americans? It’s like putting a target on your back that says “scam me, be rude to me, I’m oblivious and probably ignorant of your culture.” Honestly, the fanny pack, ugly jeans shorts and baseball caps are enough of a clue. It’s not that I’m so offended by the way tourists dress (although… no one really needs to wear matching hot-pink track suits, do they?), it’s more of a self-fulfilling prophecy and a trend that I see, that no one dressed like that will want to get to know the locals or go off the beaten path. And because the locals have generally had bad experiences with that kind of tourist, they aren’t motivated to be overwhelmingly nice to you.
As I sat in the Bercy train station waiting to depart, I put on some music. Of course the first song to come on was Runrig’s “Travellers.” I love travelling on trains, and the feeling of going somewhere new. I may not have everything I want out of life yet: my career is still in a fledgling state, and it’s going to be a long time before I feel secure in being able to support myself with it. Though oddly enough, for as much as I talk about imposter syndrome, I’ve never doubted that this is the professional path for me. I’d also like a partner eventually, and some children, and to know that I’ll have a place to call my own. But for that moment, as I sat on a train heading through the countryside, sipping an espresso and getting croissant crumbs all over the attractive young stranger sleeping next to me (sorry sir, but you did hog the armrest), I had everything I needed.
The next song was also perfect for travelling: “The dear green place” by Battlefield Band. Everyone should know by now that I believe that there is something more than natural about music. Just as the refrain rose to a swell, my train broke through the trees to pass over a bridge looking out over a valley, the sun a bright, perfect circle through the rolling mists which glowed and lit up a little town with charming, quaint country houses, a little creek with lilypads and red poppies, the forest and the meadow on the other side, and rising up out of the mist and the trees, grey and ominous skyscrapers. You have to listen to the song to see it, but it gave me chills. As we passed the little town of Joigny, the song was Runrig’s “Going Home.” Going home… as summer’s coming in… It made sense in a philosophical kind of way. I’ve been trying to find my home state of mind as much as I’ve been seeking a physical home, and feeling a sense of overwhelming comfort whilst travelling alone through Europe toward things that progress my career–that’s a good, homey feeling.
Dijon is so different than I expected. It was beautiful, yes, but in an almost sterile way, and reminded me of Tallinn old town. Something about the perfect shiny white streets and perfectly manicured parks under stern Gothic architecture made me think of an older time when much of being human was frowned upon. It’s extremely touristy and I didn’t expect to have to really work to find the good food. Just goes to show what idealizing a place does–they think they can get away with anything. The first afternoon I went alone to an Italian place that looked pleasant enough, and there were locals there. I ordered tagliatelle with chicken and mushrooms, with a wine sauce. It was okay, but overpriced and underseasoned, and I could have made it better at home.
That evening I went with a small group of colleagues walking around and we eventually settled on a little French place. I got the special menu, which was disappointing. The starter was a weird sort of terrine with chunks of salty ham floating in unappetizing green jelly (I’m assuming it was aspic?) with tasteless foam on top, I guess some kind of misguided attempt at gastronomie.
The main was actually quite good: escargots in risotto, although I would learn later that these escargots were a bit mealy in comparison to others in town. And the dessert was disappointing as well, called a “cassis tiramisu” but in reality, more a ramekin with an inch of jam on the bottom and some artificial-tasting whipped cream on top. The whole meal took several hours, and the waitress apparently forgot about us between the main and the dessert.
The next night, a colleague of a friend (who was also a local) pointed us to this place out of the tourist way, called l’Epicerie. We sat on the terrace and the server was very kind about bringing English menus for those of us who wanted them (I always refuse on principle, and anyway half the fun is trying something if you’re not sure of what it is, although I found out on this trip that my French is much better than I had thought it was). We ordered a bottle of wine for the table, and then much like the night before we watched the table next to us get their second and third courses while we had yet to get our first. Eventually we flagged the server down but the rest of the meal took maybe three hours or even more.
We ordered the escargots as a starter, two of us huge fans and two having never had them. They were amazing, better texture than the night before and the sauce was buttery and creamy. There were chunks of bread in it, and I will say (with some reservation) that I preferred the bread in the escargots at l’Albatros in Cleveland, because it was sort of crusty and chewy and held up to the sauce. It’s a different dish when the bread dissolves into it, and it was good, but could have used the contrast in texture.
Overall though, it was excellent in flavour and brought back a lot of memories of other evenings of good French food in Cleveland, in Holland, in Brussels. I had the “salade Yvan” for main, and it was a lot of food, nice greens and endive, rotisserie game hen legs that were roasty and smoky, some marinated chicken (which might have been livers, I don’t remember), and a big round of foie gras, which was incredible. Like farm butter, really, perfectly smooth texture and no sharp or gamey aftertaste, pleasant and sophisticated and perfect for a summer terrace evening sipping wine with friends.
One afternoon during the conference a friend and I stopped by the little shop near the Grande Theatre to buy some mustard, and they had these little collections of four or eight flavors for three or seven euros. The little jars were so cute and convenient for my carry-on at .8 ounces each, so I was excited to find them. I called them my travel mustards because they were so adorable and portable!
On Sunday I skipped the last symposium to take a walk around town and stumbled by a pop-up art festival in the Parc Darcy. One artist’s work in particular caught my eye and I stopped to admire the paintings. They were in a style inspired by abstract expressionism but with a geometric flair, and each series was in a different palette. There were nudes in a warm tangerine and peach spectrum, abstract musical instruments in earth tones, and a series of poppies in red and another in grey and white. But the one that really caught my eye was a seaside landscape, very simple with a horizon separating the sand and sea, and the deep blue sky. There was a woman sunning herself on the lawn nearby and she came over when she saw me pausing at the paintings. We chatted for a while and she told me her inspirations were in fashion, and family holidays, and her young son. She showed me a series of ancient buildings around Dijon that she had painted as little fanciful mushroom houses that reminded me of Kabouter Plop.
I spent a while looking through her portfolio and really loved her style–texture and light and shadow, shapes and colours that somehow just went together, that reached out of the canvas and said something different if you stood far away than when you stood close up. I asked if she shipped internationally and took her card.
My friend and I took the train back to Paris together, and apparently everyone wanted to go to Paris because we couldn’t find seats. We ended up sitting in the corridor for three hours, but it was okay because we could chat. A French man travelling with his friend asked if we were English girls once he heard us speak, and I said to my friend later that we should take it as a compliment.
I always get philosophical when travelling. It’s a good time to be alone with your thoughts, and kind of re-evaluate yourself. I think in the last few years one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that if you give up all of yourself to someone or something else, you have nothing left. And if you are nothing to yourself, what can you really be to anyone else? I think this especially applies to travel, and one of the things I believe in most about travel is to resist the pressure of people who feel the need to tell you what to do. By all means take suggestions, especially from locals or like-minded travellers, and of course if you want to go see the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace, do it. But if you’re the kind of person who comes back from a trip with no souvenirs and zero pictures of historical landmarks, or even no pictures at all and only stories, refuse to feel bad about it. How many millions of people have the exact same pictures of the same tourist attractions? Make your own adventure, live your own story.
But also (and yes, it’s a bit contradictory), don’t put pressure on yourself to have that adventure. The best adventures happen when you’re not looking. If you feel like having sushi in Paris, do it. The most important thing is that you are doing what makes you happy. And if you’re on the fence about it, walk around a bit. Good ideas have a way of popping up. Don’t put the pressure of a once-in-a-lifetime experience on it, and don’t worry if you didn’t get the experience you planned: life is unpredictable, and seems much less stressful if you shrug and say “next time!”
The second night in Paris I again asked my host for dinner recommendations. She suggested a place nearby called Gladines. I found it easily enough, but it was packed and there was a line out the door. I was hungry and tired and not in the mood for that many people, and started to head back towards a sushi bar I had seen on the way, when something kept me walking. Maybe it was the brisk Paris evening air, maybe it was the quaint little houses down the street with red-shuttered windows and lovely little window-boxes with red geraniums, maybe it was the traveller’s instinct. I passed a little innocuous-looking cafe and something made me turn around and check out the menu. I saw confit de canard, rillettes, and all sorts of delicious desserts and was immediately sold.
The place looked decidedly unstressful: there were two locals in the corner gazing at something on a desktop computer that had been set up in a booth, and the bartender was smoking outside. It’s easy to miss, just a little red facade and a very small sign at the top that reads “Maison Fahet.” In case you want to go, it’s closest to Glaciére metro station, on Rue des 5 Diamantes near the Passage Barrault (which is off Rue Barrault). I highly recommend it. The bartender didn’t speak English but I got the point across that I wanted dinner, and the waitress swooped over with a menu. She looked about my age, with a high, jaunty ponytail and a friendly smile. I ordered their happy hour special–three courses for €14. I considered taking things on the lighter side, but as it was my last night in Paris… I started with rillettes, which I haven’t had in years since I had made them by scratch for Christmas in Holland.
The dish was tasty, not too blended (I prefer my rillettes with a bit of a bite-it shouldn’t have the texture of cat food!), and it came with chewy brown baguette and a tiny salad of a few spinach leaves and half a cherry tomato drizzled simply with herbs and olive oil. It was so simple but the quality of the olive oil and the sweet tomato made me stop and close my eyes a moment. The second course was smoked salmon toast and mashed potatoes, called plat nordique or something like that, and I felt a little silly ordering it, living in Helsinki after all. It looked nothing special when it came out, the potatoes in a mound cafeteria-style and the salmon tossed on top of what looked like a slightly burnt grocery-store slice.
But I took a bite and had to close my eyes again. The salmon had an almost mesquite flavor, better than I’ve had in any Helsinki restaurant (not counting the markets of course), thick buttery slices of it coated in dill. The toast surprised me–it was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside, upon closer inspection was dotted with seeds, and had a pleasantly sweet, caramelly flavour that went with the smoky salmon perfectly. The mashed potatoes were out of those sweet waxy new potatoes, not the fluffy but mealy and tasteless Russets that we usually use in the States, and they were mashed chunkily, just the way I like them.
I had ordered the carte gourmande for dessert, which was two macarons and an espresso served in the most adorable tiny cup. It was a perfect end to my search for the perfect macaron, even more since I got a strawberry and a praline flavor. The strawberry was a beautiful dusty mauve color, obviously natural and not dyed like the shockingly pink, blue, and green macarons in the windows of the Champs Elysees.
The tops of the cookies were smooth but not perfect, crispy on the outside and chewy in the middles with toasty little feet just like mine. The strawberry macaron had a delicious berry jam that threw me back to summers as a child stuffing my face with strawberry shortcake. The praline was light but complex and nutty and went perfectly with the espresso. I left the cafe feeling content and joyful. That’s the thing about food: it doesn’t matter if it’s fast or slow, and it doesn’t have to be fancy.The best food is honest food, simple and made by people who care. It matters to connect like that, even for a moment.
The next morning I took my time getting ready to go out, and I think I needed it. It looked like it might rain anyway, so I wanted to be sure I was dressed for the weather. But it cleared up soon enough, and the day ended up bright and sunny and warm. I started out walking north to the Jardin des Plantes through the Latin quarter, window-shopping and taking in the atmosphere. I really loved that part of town; it seemed old, in a way, with little cafes and bodegas on the corner, and lots of trees and flowers. I took way too many pictures of the flowers, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear.
The Jardin des Plantes was fascinating, a really formal garden with a special section for roses, and lines of new growth tended carefully by gardeners. Children frolicked around on school trips and lined up for the menagerie and there are several special exhibitions in the area too. I would highly recommend anyone to go. I think the poppies are my favorite. Maybe most people think of waterlilies when they think of the Impressionists, but I think of poppies.
I had realized that most museums in Paris are closed on Mondays unfortunately, so the Musée Marmottan and the Musée d’Orsay, the two museums I had really wanted to see (owing in most part to my particular obsession with Monet), got moved to my “eventually” list. A quick Google search revealed that the Montmartre was open, so I began the trek in that direction. I stopped at a little cafe for lunch, and it was nice to eat on the terrace. Nothing special, but my first bouillabaisse and some fresh strawberries and espresso for dessert.
The Montmartre was at the top of a huge and very quaint hill of cobblestones and ivy, and brightly colored little houses. It was under construction so although it was advertised as Renoir’s old house, there wasn’t actually any Renoir on exhibition. But there was a contemporary graphic novel artist who had done a piece about Picasso and his friends and lovers, which was sprinkled throughout some period-specific rooms. I found a few new names to learn more about: Henri Rivière with an incredibly modern take on light, shadow and line; Pierre de Belay, who immediately attracted me with bold color and people painted in a simplified way but that kept the humanity in it; Andre Warnod, just for the movement in the lines.
The old house was gorgeous, set on the top of the hill with little signs everywhere giving facts about the gardens and the very old vineyard. The house itself was old and wooden, with a rickety narrow spiral staircase going up four floors and several rooms on each floor. The back yard looked out over the city and I could only imagine what it looked like in Renoir’s time. It’s no wonder these artists painted how they did–just sitting in the gardens makes you want to soak it all up somehow. I don’t know much about fine arts, only what I like and a tiny bit of how to explain what I like, so I recommend you go to the Montmartre yourself to get the full experience. At the very least, I can bet it’s one of the most beautiful views in the city.
My last snack in Paris was a little patisserie near the Glaciére station–a mille–feuille, at the request of a friend to live vicariously through me. It was caramelly and sweet, and definitely sent me over my usual sugar limit for the day, but it was worth it.
I was stressed getting to CDG for the flights back to Helsinki because it had taken almost two and a half hours to get from Glaciére metro station to the airport, and the flight to Frankfurt was so short that when I arrived, it was like breathing a sigh of relief to have an hour to just sit and watch the sunset. It felt oddly familiar to hear Finnish at the gate, and I laughed to overhear a chatty older woman telling her friend about her ilta kengät for the plane.
I always try to get a window seat, and this time it was a good choice to choose one on the westward side of the plane as we flew north. Frankfurt was already in total darkness as we lifted off, but as we flew above the clouds there was a rainbow of colours smeared across the horizon. The clouds were soft and grey and thin enough that we could see the city lights blinking through them at cruising altitude. The way the clouds billowed like waves made it look like the cities below were under water, so it gave the feeling of sailing instead of flying, and chasing the sun over some vast lost city under the waves.
I returned to Helsinki considerably more Rubenesque than I had left, which I guess is sort of appropriate. I’ve been so tired for the first few days back that I’ve been going through the week in a sort of haze, but finally on Thursday it was bright and sunny and hot, people and street vendors were out, and I felt like me again getting back into a work routine.
I didn’t set out intending to eat my way through France, although that’s what ended up happening, and I guess this post comes across more as a series of restaurant reviews than a travel blog, but that’s what I experienced. The conference went very well and I had a chance to catch up with people from years past, colleagues and friends and mentors, and meet new people and hear about the exciting things we’re all doing.
Things feel a little different now, and I know it’s partially because I have a lot of things to do and think about that I had sort of pushed to the back of my mind till the conference was over, but I think it’s also partially a little expansion of my world. I think whenever you travel, or do something new and amazing, it changes you, and you bring a little bit of it back with you. You’re never quite the same as you were, and that’s a good thing, even if it’s hard to adjust sometimes. And maybe a little of it is the summer, and the way that life always feels bigger and more expansive and full of potential for weirdness and wonder in the summer. Anything can, and often does, happen. C’est la vie.