Les pensees introspectives: Je ne regrette rien

Non, rien de rien

Non, je ne regrette rien….

“Je ne regrette rien” is a famous French song, sung by the late and great Edith Piaf.  The beginning starts with a grand orchestra, strings in a crescendo, brass leading the march as the melody begins.  It’s a beautiful song, recently resurrected for the American public by the film, Inception.  Please listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZPXbKoRfIk

The song is used to express the singer’s lack of regret.  She doesn’t regret anything she has done and she’s sweeping the past under the rug to begin again.  While I have no intention of sweeping my experiences anywhere but close to me, I’ve adopted the song as an anthem for the past year of my life.

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Ethnographie: 14 juillet! (Bastille Day)

July 14th is the day that France celebrates it’s independence from the former monarchy.  In 1790 the people of Paris stormed the Bastille Prison.  Popular teachings state that the common folk meant to liberate the prisoners who were being wrongfully held by the monarchs.  However, more accurate historical facts show that the Bastille was a rich person’s prison.  Inmates had private rooms, visitors, and maids.  The common people of the city, who were living in poverty and disease due to the huge taxes and expenses of the king and queen, stormed the prison, meaning to punish the rich inmates, and later razed the structure*.  La Fete Nationale, it’s official title in France, commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution.

Before the festivities, on the evening of 13 July, the biggest fire stations in each arrondissement host a ball.  The fire stations open their doors to the public, host food, games, and music.  I live several buildings over from a fire station.  I left my apartment at 21h30 to meet a friend.  As I walked by the station I went inside to see the DJ stand, the bar, the lights, and the beginning of the party.  When I returned around midnight the street was blocked off to traffic, there was a line of several hundred people waiting to get in, and the music was blaring bass-heavy clubbing songs.  With the strobes lights and the amount of beer bottles strewn everywhere it looked like a giant night club.  Unfortunately this went on until 3h in the morning (I had planned to get up early for the parade).  It was an interesting form of celebration, hard to envision the same thing happening in the US.

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Les pensees introspectives: Maintenant (Now)

It seems ridiculous to think that this time a year ago I was sitting in a ‘cube’ in an office park in Framingham, MA, staring at Excel and PowerPoint.  Now I am interning at a cafe and wedding cake bakery in Paris.  I’ve spent the past year studying at a foreign university, meeting people from all over the world, and practicing a foreign language.  I’ve seen wonders – incredible mountains, rivers, and fairytale castles.  I’ve had adventures, both with others and alone.  I’ve tasted delicious food and sat in cafes all over Europe, slowing drinking up the new environments, smells, and sounds.

My flight back to Paris from Dublin was the twenty-second plane I’ve been on since flying out of Logan last August.  I’ve traveled to nineteen different countries on two different continents.  I spent Christmas eating ice cream in Marrakesh and Easter week bundled up in Helsinki.  Now I’m looking forward to a reflective summer in Paris learning the art of professional baking and cafe hostessing.  If someone had told me one year ago that this would be my story, I would not have believed them.  All of this never seemed truly possible from my vantage point in Leominster.  It always felt like another person’s adventure, someone else but me.

But now that I’ve done it, that I’m still doing it, I truly believe I could go anywhere.  And I want to go everywhere.  I wouldn’t call it fearlessness, it’s more a type of self-confidence.  I’m comfortable traveling, I enjoy new places, and I love the responsibility of planning a trip and seeing it through all the way there and back again.  I appreciate wandering, spontaneity, and getting lost.  I see value in passing hours at a cafe with a single cappuccino and a good view of a sidewalk.  I consider spending an afternoon in a park with a book time well spent.  I’ve found new ways to enjoy life.

Most of all I realize how extraordinarily privileged I am to have had these opportunities.  This entire study abroad experience has been more fulfilling and more enlightening than I ever expected.  I had lots of help, both financial and emotional, along the way and I worked very hard to get here.  It took years of planning, years of saving, years of maturing to make it possible.  Now that I’m here it’s feels like I’ve been here forever.  I love Paris, for all its perfections and flaws.  I know the culture, but I still learn and see new things every day.  I know the streets, the layouts, and I’ve grown used to some of the surprises the city can create.  And every time I get on a train or a plane and hear “welcome aboard this train, destination to Paris” I smile because it feels like going home.

When I arrived in the airport in Prague we took a bus straight to the train station.  It was nearly eleven o’clock at night and the bus dropped us off on a poorly lit street next to construction equipment at the back entrance of the train station.  We walked through a door that was not clearly marked and found ourselves standing in a giant circular foyer with nothing but dim lighting to illuminate the painted fresco and old wooden carvings on the walls.  The quietness and the shadows dissolved into an ambiance of mystery and curiosity.  It’s moments like this, the unexpected wonders that no camera can capture, that seem so unreal they almost – almost – feel staged… the feelings of seeing something new for the first time, of knowing that I’ve stepped into a piece of history, a place of age and authentic, original beauty, that have been the most inspiring.

And looking back on where I was, breathing in where I am now, I see that life is meant to be an adventure.  And there’s still more to come.

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Le Cafe Diary: Sugarplum Cake Shop

For those of you who don’t know – I’m still here.  School has been done for over a month but I am happily sitting in my appartement in the 9em arrondissement watching Sacre Coeur dim into a glowing fortress from my window.

I secretly knew that I would not be returning to the states for the summer unless absolutely necessary.  I wavered between doing a summer study in Ireland, WWOOFing, or backpacking until I ran out of money.  But something told me to stay put, some internal voice told me to stay in Paris and something would work out.

Well, something pretty sweet (hehe) did work out.  I am now an official intern at Sugarplum Cake Shop in Paris.  Sugarplum is a bakery and cafe that I’ve been frequenting since October.  It’s run by three anglophone women and I often spent late afternoons sitting in the cafe with a creme, piece of cake, and some homework.  Sometime during April I asked if they were hiring for the summer.  They said no.  Several weeks later I asked again.  They said yes.  After a small paperwork hassle with Dauphine to get my ‘convention de stage’ I was officially taken on as a stagiere at the cafe.  In exchange for working at the cafe for free I get to learn professional baking – and enjoy leftover treats.

The entrance to Sugarplum Cake Shop
The entrance to Sugarplum Cake Shop

Sugarplum specializes in giant, American-style wedding cakes.  They also make fun event cakes and do special orders.  In addition to the wedding cakes there is a small boutique/cafe that sells American pastries.  Didn’t think America had pastries?  Think again.  Brownies, rice krispie treats, cinnamon buns, and homemade apple pie are all American treats that most French people have never heard of.  I enjoy explaining the rice krispies to people.  The cafe’s uniqueness makes it a great attraction for the local French people but also a home away from home for the tourists and expats.  It’s located in the fifth arrondissement, just a block away from the Pantheon on rue de Cardinal Lemoine (Hemingway’s neighborhood) which is a perfect location in the Latin Quarter.

The first cake I ever filled (frosted) - Chocolate Pistachio!
The first cake I ever filled (frosted) - Chocolate Pistachio!

The Sugarplums are three women, two American and one Canadian, who met in Paris and decided to open their own cake shop.  They’ve been quite successful – a visit from the people of Ace of Cakes, a photo shoot of gingerbread houses in Vogue, and numerous other media spots.  The shop has been open for a little over a year and, as it is currently wedding season, it is extremely busy.  Check out their website to see all the cool creations. www.sugarplumcakeshop.com

Here he is, proudly displayed with the rest of the boutique creations
Here he is, proudly displayed with the rest of the boutique creations

I started working at the cafe at the beginning of June.  On average I put in five days a week, two in the boutique, two in the kitchen, and one half and half.  I enjoy the variety, it prevents me from getting tired of one location.  In the kitchen I work with two wonderful baking interns, both of whom have gone to French pastry school.  I’m learning so much about professional baking and getting to work with real tools and professional materials.  It’s a pretty big improvement from my cupcake days.

Three lovely cakes - Red Velvet with Vanilla Bean, Almond with Cherry, and Raspberry Chocolate with Raspberry
Three lovely cakes - Red Velvet with Vanilla Bean, Almond with Cherry, and Raspberry Chocolate with Raspberry

In the boutique I meet a lot of interesting people.  There are the American tourists who are SO HAPPY TO FIND AN ENGLISH SPEAKING CAFE IN PARIS (capitalization to symbolize decibels).  There are the French people in two sub categories – the middle aged French and the French college students.  A lot of the French youth who come in like to practice their English.  It’s always funny for me during the first few minutes of conversation to see what language is most appropriate. Sometimes I can’t tell by appearance if someone is French or English-speaking so I welcome them with a “Hello-Bonjour”.  Explaining some of the pastries in French can be difficult but amusing and most people are happy to help me with strange vocabulary, like peanut butter and marshmallow. The boutique also recently got an Italian espresso machine and we are all learning how to be baristas!  There’s a skill I never thought I’d acquire.  Coffee brewing is much scientific than I originally thought.

Checking out that siding - three different styles!
Checking out that siding - three different styles!

At Sugarplum I feel completely integrated and welcomed.  Everyday someone on the staff makes lunch and we all sit down to eat together.  I think this is an awesome business practice!  I’ve also gotten to see the highs and lows of small-business management.  As the shop is relatively new many things are still on-trial or evolving.  We’ve been on several adventures of missing keys, power outages, and depleted butter debacles.  There is never a dull moment and from my vantage point, as an intern, running the small boutique and the cake orders looks like a huge amount of work.  But the Sugarplums are extremely positive, friendly, and dedicated.  It’s an awesome learning experience for me and I’m often amazed at how well they handle all of the curious situations that arise.

The best part is I get to take pictures of the stuff I help bake and I get to take recipes home with me.  I’m already trying to figure out how I can continue with my improved baking abilities once I’m stateside again.  It’s going to be hard once I move back on campus.  But everyone at Sugarplum is happy to answer questions, explain the science of baking, and offer their own advice.

So my summer will consist of filling cakes, mixing batter, whipping butter cream, serving espresso, arranging counter displays, washing dishes, squeezing juice, and spending my last two months in the most incredible city in the world – Paris.

La vie est belle…et sucre.

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