From the monthly archives: "September 2014"

After my first research trip for 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, I learned to pack an extra suitcase. A duffel bag from REI folded into its own little zipper case that slips right behind the rest of the stuff on the way over. The extra baggage fees are awful, of course, but 70 euros is a relatively small sum to pay to carry home postcards, flyers, business cards, hotel stationery (guilty – I love the envelopes in France, and they are useful for gathering research- more below) books, trinkets, a random bottle of Calvados, those pretty tins from Belle Îloise, a tube of Homeoplasmine skin ointment, mascara from Serge Lutens, something from the flea market. Much as I’d like to, I’m not talking a Rick Owens leather coat – my idea of fashion perfection – from his store on the Palais-Royal or something more colorful from the Dior boutique on Avenue Montaigne. No, for designer extravagance, I’m strictly stateside and usually on-sale.

Belle-Îloise's pretty packaging

Belle-Îloise’s pretty packaging

When I open up my extra bag at home, even something I’d picked up a couple of days before incites a rush of memories, even a bit of nostalgia for the person I was earlier that week – the woman who woke up early on Île d’Oléron and rushed into a brocante, and scooped up 3 euros in change from the bottom of her purse for an aging cookie tin. The woman who stuffed bits of paper into an envelope in her bag, ticket stubs from churches and museums and cartes de maison from little stands next to the cash registers at bakeries, boutiques, cafés and flower shops. All this, so I can remember where I was those endless days traveling around France.

Collages: memories, ideas, inspiration.

Collages: memories, ideas, inspiration.

It all added up to something: my book. I bought a pamphlet at the Saint-Pierre Chapel in Villefranche thinking, maybe I’d include it in a chapter on Jean Cocteau? I did. I gathered post cards at Sainte-Chapelle after a concert there, where the sun pierced the stained glass windows upstairs, fracturing sunlight into a million glowing shards. Would I consider an entry on seeking out music in Paris’ churches? Yes, I would. I grabbed the pretty card at Odile de Changy, a lingerie boutique on rue du Pont aux Choux, the narrow street in the Marais where Mark and I lived when we were married. What about a story about how to shop for the most important part of dressing? Okay, done.

My office bulletin board, full of booklets, pamphlets, postcards, ticket stubs, cards.

My office bulletin board, full of booklets, pamphlets, postcards, ticket stubs, cards.

In this respect, writing this book was like writing my yet-unpublished novel. Back then, I had a dry-erase board full of ideas, arrows, categories, subcategories. Characters big and small. Plot lines underlined and circled, names in big red letters. This time, I hung a large bulletin board and stuck totems, maps and mementos into collages on the cork. When that real estate was taken, I spread out, tacking things right onto the wall. Some were names or places I scribbled onto index cards. Camille Claudel. Simone de Beauvoir. Colette. Vézelay. Étretat. Bordeaux. Others were colorful reminders of the places I’d been, enchanting enough to remember, enticing enough to urge other women to go there. A ticket stub from the Musée de la Chasse in the Marais. Where and how could I fit that in to a list of 100 places? Somehow, I did.

As for the stuff, I used it – the creams, the scarves, the lingerie, the Calvados. The bottles and bibelots and antique postcards from the marchés aux puces are another story. They are dispersed here and there, in my office or home or given as gifts, keepers of two stories. The one about where it came from, and the one about the woman who saw it, bought it and took it with her.

Pencil case? Waste of space? Just a simple memory from a morning in France.

Pencil case? Waste of space? Just a simple memory from a morning in France.

Five hundred years ago, when Christopher Columbus sailed into the port of Barcelona with a few sacks of cacao beans, Europeans had never seen or tasted anything quite like them. A drink made of the crushed beans, sugar, and spices became a favorite of the Spanish court, and two centuries later all of Europe had surrendered to the pleasures of chocolate mania.

For a while Spain was a major producer, opening one of the world’s first facilities for transforming liquid chocolate into solid. But by the 19th century, countries such as Switzerland, Belgium, England, and Holland had surpassed it with more sophisticated technologies and, ultimately, better distribution to the rest of the world. Spanish chocolate-making carried on, small and artisanal, but its reputation and international profile languished for almost two centuries. These days Spain is again emerging as an innovator in the industry it created, coinciding with its ascendancy in architecture, design, and gastronomy.

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Pastels and hollyhocks on Île-de-Ré

Pastels and hollyhocks on Île-de-Ré


A year ago, I had not yet begun to research my book, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go. In fact, I had a beautifully empty slate, a 4-week residency at Ragdale, a memoir I was itching to write there and a novel I was desperate to revise and get back into the market. Hard to believe, in hindsight, that I hesitated for one second when my friends at Travelers’ Tales asked me if I’d be interested in taking on France. That week of deliberating was a futile exercise in not trusting what fate had in store for me. Now, almost a year later, after I’ve edited and re-edited and re-edited the manuscript, the book is at the printer as I write this. The list is final – at least for this project. In this context as with most obsessions, letting go is tough.

Échiré butter from Poitou-Charentes. Best in France, some say.

Échiré butter from Poitou-Charentes. Best in France, some say.

And yet, I am still researching France, ever surprised by the colors of the shutters on whitewashed coastal houses. I still hope to try every cake and local pastry, and I still want to follow France’s great women whose footsteps continue to resound all over the country. In towns like Poitiers where the teenager Joan of Arc was vetted for the almost-king she had come to save (and as the Commander of his army, did) by driving the British out of France.

Joan of Arc in Poitiers

Joan of Arc in Poitiers

Mark Twain’s biography of her is sensational – he was obsessed by Joan and after writing this book, so am I. Poitiers is also where Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine, as Queen of France and then of England, still ruled over her vast ancestral lands, entertaining with medieval royal flair from the Palais de Justice that still stands today.

Palais de Justice, Eleanor's  old seat of power

Palais de Justice, Eleanor’s old seat of power

One of France’s less-frequented regions, Poitou-Charentes, is France for women in a perfectly compact microcosm. It extends inland from the Atlantic coast above Aquitaine, is geographically diverse, there are history, wine, and some of the most pristine expanses of sand in Europe. I’ve just returned from a delirious spin around its beaches, islands, and ancient towns of Cognac, Poitiers, and La Rochelle.

Oyster huts on Oléron

Oyster huts on Oléron

Beautiful seaside La Rochelle

Beautiful seaside La Rochelle


Several, not enough, of these places are in the book – it’s kind of the tragic nature of lists that not everything makes it, and by far the hardest part of writing this book. But some things did: the laid-back islands strewn with bike paths, salt flats and painted shacks, and of course Poitiers that stands in the shadows of its great women, Joan and Eleanor.

It’s still astonishes me: how everything coexists so beautifully in a place like this. How we can walk the medieval streets laden with history and buy roses at the market in the morning, drink cognac from the source at lunch, stroll hot beach sands in the afternoon and relax with a plate of oysters in the evening.

My discovery of the summer: Philadelphia is my favorite American city. Gritty, authentic, with real urban flair. Kind of what New York used to be. Plus the food is incredible. I spent six weeks there, during which time I was editing 100 Places in France, and I had the feeling I was in a French city. Two rivers, street life, packed cafés, I could have been in Lyon. Happily, I had the good luck to contribute this piece for Yahoo on some of the best parts of this great city.

Macarons from Sugar Philly

Macarons from Sugar Philly