As the clock hand approached 10am, the City began to wake. In my druggily drowsy state, I could faintly hear the mumblings of French speech from patrons visiting the pâtisserie across the street, the “honk, honk, honk” from weaving motorcyclists zipping down the alleyways, and the “rumble, rumble, rumble” from construction crews working tediously outside our hotel window. With that, I threw myself out of bed, onto my feet, and exclaimed to my boyfriend,
Just a few short weeks ago, I was cozied up on my couch under a heavy wool-knit blanket wearing deeply set frown lines, pondering life. I had just quit my job due to a classic case of shitty boss disease, an epidemic affecting many New Yorkers, in which one’s workplace is plagued with bullying, belittling, and disrespect. As of late, there had been a few misbehaving bosses and I was growing nostalgic for a time when seemingly all the people in my life acted as mentors and teachers, shining light along my path. I was familiar with the commonality of it all, having listened to friends share similar tales over mojitos at the local taqueria on a Friday night. However, this time felt different. At this juncture, I was questioning my life’s purpose and my life’s work. After four years of undergrad, three years of law school, and trading my dream of running an NGO for Wall Street so I could, you know, afford food, I was questioning all of it.
My boyfriend arrived home that evening, plopped next to me, threw his arms around me, and said, “I know you feel lost right now, but I have some news that I believe will help.”
He revealed that he would fly to his head office in Paris to introduce his newest IT solution to his colleagues there and he encouraged me to join him. My ears perked upon hearing this news. It would be a distraction, a time to be alone with my thoughts, an opportunity to discover a new city and really, to re-discover me.
I immediately threw myself into the fury of planning an impromptu vacation, studying guidebooks, researching restaurants, and setting reservations. Within a few short weeks, the day for departure had come. It was 6pm on a Friday evening and we were sitting at Bobby Vans in JFK airport, sucking down a bottle of cab and a couple shrimp cocktail appetizers, toasting to our forthcoming adventure.
On our first day, we planned to visit a local market in Parc Floral de Paris. I was jumping with excitement. The event was hosting 560 booths of food and wine vendors from across France. No language barrier was going to stop me from having a taste of the local produce, preserves, oil, herbs, and wine… but boy, never did I expect the hurdles we would encounter on our way…
As I stepped off the curb outside of my hotel, while my boyfriend analyzed the map, I began to study my surroundings in the heart of the Opera District. Apartment buildings lined the streets, all of them showcasing dulled white paint and spotty glass windowpanes. Every building was adorned with beautifully designed wrought-iron balconies, one after another, each distinct from the last. Fall leaves dusted the entrances of brasserie after brasserie. Hundreds of souls, braving the chilly weather, sat comfortably in their oversized wool coats perched on basket-weaved chairs under large awnings inlaid with heat lamps. In these sanctuaries were small wobbly metal tables decorated with clean white linens, baskets of bread, and petit wine glasses filled to the rim with vin rouge (red wine). Smells of smoked fish and rich beef broth wafted in the air from the nearby kitchens.
Parading into the station, I immediately spotted the attendant. She was a slender woman with rusty gold locks pulled back into a neat bun. Her thin lips, bright with red lipstick, were tightly pursed, as though she were forbidden from speaking. Hunched in her booth, she sat grumpily, wearing a scowl. I reluctantly peered through the hole in the glass divider.
She bitterly responded by ripping the brochure from the side of the booth, opening to the page that displayed the ticket options, and pointing to “Metro.”
She shook her head sharply and pointed to the ticket machine. Suddenly, I was thrown back in time to my Catholic preschool days. One look from the nun wielding her sharply pointed finger and I was shivering in fear, following any direction without contest. Although I had a suspicion that she was misleading us, my PTSD led me toward the ticket machine to obey her order. So off we went, grasping our Metro tickets, to board the next train.
When we reached Vincennes station, we were greeted by angry transportation officials, awaiting our arrival with a 70 Euro penalty!
Apparently, we were supposed to purchase the RER line tickets instead. A word to the wise traveler to pay close attention to the Metro boundaries…
With the map printed off the event’s website growing soggy from the thick droplets of rain, we entered the suburbs of Paris. Soon the map was soaking wet and unrecognizable, and SO WERE WE. I began thinking a cheesecloth would come in handy at that moment to strain out my sopping wet hair.
To top it off, we did not know where we were. We took turn after turn, no end in sight and no proof of a market anywhere. At that point, we were snapping at each other like two parakeets.
It took us about an hour in torrential rain to find this event. Still, finally, we spotted a palatial blue tent standing regally in the center of the park.
When we walked through the entrance, it was a sight. There were in fact hundreds of booths demonstrating the fruits of the countryside. Patrons lined up, listening to the experts speak about their products. There were winemakers from Bordeaux to Burgundy, olive tree botanists gifting tastes of their infused oils, cheese connoisseurs marketing a variety of stinky cheeses, and spice vendors offering herbs in a myriad of colors. Now this, to me, is real beauty. At that moment, my frustration compounded by the anxiety of my unknown future began to slip away, entranced by the enchantment of this place.
With only an hour remaining before close, the event was filled with enthusiasts scurrying from booth to booth like they were chickens escaping slaughter and the booths were their salvation. I felt thrown back to my college days, moshing at a “Kings of Leon” concert, being pushed, and pulled in all directions.
Amidst the chaos, I caught the eye of a middle-aged woman. She was one of the spice exhibitors. I was drawn to her immediately, with her kind eyes and pleasant smile. There, at her shop, were about fifty vibrant spice blends from Thym de Provence (also known as Herbes de Provence) to Vadouvan (French curry-like blend of herbs).
Relying on my sight alone, I examined each concoction. I pointed to the blends that I was interested in and pointed to my mouth to request a taste. She happily nodded and proceeded to the back of the shop where she retrieved a mason jar and some small spoons.
Placing a lump of herbs at the bottom of the jar, she motioned for me to first smell, and then taste. I took a deep breath in. The scents of cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and nutmeg came roaring into my nostrils. Then, coating the spoon with the same concoction, I tasted it. And “OH MY GOD,” Janice moment (FRIENDS fans, anyone?) I was astonished by the depth and range of flavor; fenugreek, turmeric, curry leaf, garlic, and mustard seeds, all pronounced. I began picturing a beautiful leg of chicken dressed in all these flavors.
Suddenly, I was wearing a smile from ear to ear. Then, she waved me closer to her. I took a step toward her and leaned in. She whispered, as though she were sharing a secret,
My spirit was awakened, and my heart was warm. After all the day’s misfortune, not only did I take home some amazing finds, but I also had a newfound sense of clarity. Despite decisions to quit my job and subsequent feelings of uncertainty like a rudderless ship, perhaps there was a more worthy direction yet to be explored. I left the marketplace fulfilled and never forgot this special day.