Want to Really Experience Paris? Bon Appetit!

After visiting a city like Paris, most people when they return home will talk to friends and family about the famous sights they saw.  Why not?  Paris is filled with internationally-famous landmarks, museums, churches, historic places, and all kinds of other attractions.  My wife and I took our first but hopefully not our last trip to Paris during the summer of 2016, and as anyone would expect, we spent plenty of time planning our visit to ensure we saw as much as possible during the short week we were there.  Several weeks before we left for Paris, we were talking to a colleague about our upcoming trip and all the sightseeing we had planned.  He had been to the city more than once, and as a travel veteran, he gave us some valuable advice.  He told us to schedule plenty of time to sit at a sidewalk café and soak up the Parisian atmosphere – the people, the sounds, the smells, and of course, the flavors.  At the time of our conversation, I was thinking “we have too much to see to waste time sitting at a table sipping wine.  We can do that anywhere.”  I was wrong.

As is the case in many European cities, a meal in Paris involves much more than eating and drinking, especially in the evening.  It is an opportunity to relax, reflect on the day, participate in engaging conversation, and enjoy some of the best food anywhere.  There is absolutely no rush.  The wait staff is not the least bit concerned, as in America, about turning the table.  There is no sense of urgency to order as soon as you are seated, but getting a drink to start things off is certainly not a problem either.  Depending upon the establishment, its location, the time of year, and the weather conditions, you may prefer to dine inside, but almost every bistro has sidewalk seating.  We had some of our best meals in Paris at tables set just outside the door of bistros.  There were a few exceptions, such as the Metropolitan, located in the section of Paris called The Marais a couple of blocks from where we were staying.  This cozy little restaurant lives up to its name with wooden benches and other interior décor that are reminiscent of the train platforms from the early years of the Metro transportation system in the city.  Chef Paul-Arthur Berlan, a semi-finalist on Top Chef in 2011, creates a limited but impressive collection of dishes.  The menu was printed completely in French, and we were clueless.  But, when we asked our attentive waitress for help, she was so gracious and said, “Even French people have trouble with our menu!”  The food was excellent, and the atmosphere in the restaurant was perfectly reflective of what we observed about Parisians in general: they are such happy and vivacious people.

Metropolitan Restaurant
Metropolitan Restaurant, Paris

A significant part of the adventure of visiting a city in a foreign country is trying something new, and for me in Paris, this meant eating escargot for the first time.  Someone told me that ordering escargot is simply an excuse to eat lots of garlic butter.  I’m fine with that!  Actually, the snails reminded me of another mollusk, saltwater mussels, that I have eaten many times on the Atlantic coast in the U.S. – incredibly delicious.  Another important aspect of dining in Paris is the variety of cuisine you find there, which is usually the case in most cities with such ethnic diversity.  One of our best meals was at a Roman bistro on the sidewalk under a large canopy within sight of the Arch de Triumph, where we feasted on grilled chicken over pasta with the lightest and most flavorful cream sauce I have ever tasted.  Magnifique!

One day around noon after taking a dozen photographs of the Eiffel Tower, we wandered across the Pont de Bir-Hakeim (a bridge crossing the Seine River near the Tower) and up a series of steps just beyond the Passy Metro station where we discovered what was once a separate village known as Passy before it was incorporated into Paris in the 1860s under Napoleon III.  At a round-about intersection, we walked up to a bistro to have lunch.  We didn’t know at the time, but the place is called Le Passy.  We had scrumptious salads at a small sidewalk table, and I indulged in a Mojito (or two).  We were fascinated watching people walk by, coming from local markets and stores with packages in their arms. Other patrons were also having lunch, reading, or chatting. We were doing exactly what our colleague back home had suggested, immersing ourselves in a neighborhood of Paris and soaking in the culture of the place. To my way of thinking, this kind of experience makes the difference between touring and traveling.

Le Passy Bistro
Le Passy Bistro, Paris

I cannot end this recollection without mentioning our favorite breakfast spot, a small bakery just a few blocks down from our apartment.  Miss Manon is not unlike a hundred other bakeries all around the city, but this one was so convenient, and the chocolate-filled pastries were exceptional.  The women who manage the shop (could one of them have been THE Miss Manon?) were patient with us, even though it took us a few visits to understand the proper dine-in protocol: patrons look at the mouth-watering selection of goodies in the glass cases, make their selection, then find a seat and wait for the staff to bring their food to them.  I think they told us several times, but here again, we don’t speak French, and their English was limited.  We still got along marvelously.  It was a bit cool in the early mornings, so we sat inside.  It was fascinating to hear the interaction of the women out front with the men who were baking in the back and bringing out trays of fresh pastries, breads, baguettes, and tarts.  At times the women sounded irritated with the men, but then they would laugh and shake their heads, and greet the next customer with a cheerful “Bonjour!”

Miss Manon Bakery
Miss Manon Bakery, Paris

We were able to learn about Paris from tour guides, museums, books, maps, and videos.  We saw the amazing attractions, walked through the churches, strolled around the gardens, and wandered through the streets to experience so much of what the city has to offer.  Even then, we did not get the sense that we were connected with the city. Only when we stopped, sat at a table, ate and drank, and watched and listened did we begin to hear the heartbeat of this enchanting place.

The Garden at Musée Rodin

Visitors to Paris will often want to include in their itinerary a side trip to the Palace of Versailles, which is about a thirty-minute train ride from the city.  The round trip isn’t so time-consuming, but actually seeing the palace and grounds takes a minimum of half a day, even more if one truly explores the garden, which is 800 hectares (over 1,900 acres) in size. Unfortunately, some travelers are on a tight schedule and hardly have enough time to see the major attractions in Paris, much less places outside the city.  There is no substitute for seeing the Palace of Versailles, which is quite magnificent and offers a visual representation of the wealth and power of the monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The garden is certainly spectacular and difficult to match; however, if there is a substitute in Paris that can serve as a rival, albeit on a smaller scale, the garden at the Musée Rodin must be near the top of the list.

Rodin gardens from mansion balconey
Rodin gardens from mansion balcony

The Musée Rodin is housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, now known as the Hôtel Biron. Auguste Rodin was a 19th-century French sculptor who is known for creating several iconic works, including “The Age of Bronze,” “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Burghers of Calais.” The collection in the restored mansion is interesting for the novice and probably a treasure for artists and art historians, but almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the garden.  Its size is minuscule compared to Versailles, but it is still impressive. The grounds are divided into a rose garden, north of the mansion, and a large ornamental garden, to the south, while a terrace and hornbeam hedge backing onto a trellis conceal a relaxation area, at the bottom of the garden. Two thematic walks are also part of the garden: the “Garden of Orpheus,” on the east side, and the “Garden of Springs”on the west side.

Rodin garden roses and shrubs
Rodin garden roses and shrubs

In addition to the abundance of plants, the garden is also decorated with some of Rodin’s sculpture.  Rodin started to place selected works in the garden in 1908, together with some of the antiques from his personal collection. Male and female torsos, copies made in the Roman or modern period, after Greek works, were presented in these natural surroundings. Other pieces were added after his death. The first bronzes were erected in the gardens before World War I. Since 1993, they have been regularly cleaned and treated so as to preserve their original patinas.

Rodin mansion 3

Anyone who has visited Paris knows the frustration of wanting to see more, to do more, than limited time will allow. Tourists have to be selective, discriminating, and reasonable about what they will be able to cover during the time they are in the city. Any attraction that offers more than one type of experience is probably worth including. The Musée Rodin fits that description with historic architecture and provocative sculpture but also a landscape that is in itself a work of art, offering the visitor an opportunity to rest and reflect.

Art and Social Change

Do artists have a social responsibility?  That was the question posed for discussion to participants in lunch breakout sessions at the recent Symposium on Arts and Social Change sponsored by the Lillian E. Smith Center of  Piedmont College, a small private liberal arts college in Demorest, Georgia.  The Symposium, titled “Between Dream and Reality,” focused on public art as an inspiration for social change and was held at the college’s second campus in Athens, a town dominated by the presence of the University of Georgia.  Each breakout session had no more than a dozen people, so the conversations were manageable but lively.

Jen Delos Reyes
Jen Delos Reyes

The Symposium featured keynote speaker Jen Delos Reyes, Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago. Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, and radical community arts organizer. Her practice is as much about working with institutions as it is about creating and supporting sustainable artist-led culture. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially-engaged art that has been active since 2007 and hosted conferences in two countries at locations including the Queens Museum in New York.  In her early-morning presentation, she highlighted three artists who are also community activists, people who have used creative approaches to address serious challenges in their neighborhoods with projects such as restoring row houses to safe, habitable homes that had become drug-infested death traps.

Other featured speakers at the Symposium included Ellen Elmes, a retired college art instructor who has painted twenty-five plus murals in several different states that celebrate community. Another presenter was Hope Hilton, an Athens-based artist, educator, designer, and writer who works with communities and students of all ages to inspire and facilitate a sense of place, history, and agency.  Broderick Flanigan is a freelance artist in Athens who is a community activist and the founder of Flanigan’s Portrait Studios.  The event was moderated by Barbara Brown Taylor, the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College and author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Altar in the World.  All of the presenters at this Symposium are devoting significant time and energy in their capacity as artists to promote, encourage, and facilitate positive social change.

Symposium logo
Symposium logo

Throughout her career as a writer and humanitarian, Lillian Smith examined how the arts engage people around issues of social injustice, segregation, and isolation.  Art was her passion, and she held a deep conviction that the artist has a responsibility to engage her audience in the conflicts and struggles of her generation, an opinion not necessarily shared by the students of The New Criticism movement, the literary theory that dominated the mid-20th century.  Smith emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation laws and practices.

During the tumultuous years of the mid-20th century, when lynching, convict labor, and Jim Crow laws were still casting dark shadows across the South and African-Americans all over the country were pleading for justice and equality, there were plenty of elected officials and prominent leaders who were endorsing a patient, moderate approach in addressing the crisis.  Lillian Smith was not one of them. In a speech prepared for the Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change on the first anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Lillian Smith wrote these words:  “You have done many good things, down here in Montgomery.  But one of the best, one of the most valuable, has been the fact that you have dramatized, for all America to see, that in times of ordeal, in times of crisis, only the extremist can meet the challenge.  The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist?  The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?”

In a powerful essay titled “The Creative Process” written in 1962, James Baldwin made the following observation:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

There can be little doubt that, through her novels and nonfiction works, Lillian Smith was indeed trying “to make the world a more human dwelling place.”  Does art exist in a vacuum?  Should the artist seek to be completely separated from society, unattached and oblivious to the pressing social issues of the day?  The answers to those questions can be debated over and over again with no real resolution.  What is clear, however, is that art has the mysterious power to transform minds and emotions, to spark imagination, to inspire collaboration, and to motivate people to act.  Once the work is done and that power is unleashed, the artist has very little control over the ultimate impact of what she has created.  Perhaps recognizing that indisputable truth is where the responsibility of the artist begins.

“To find the point where hypothesis and fact meet; the delicate equilibrium between dream and reality; the place where fantasy and earthly things are metamorphosed into a work of art . . . this is what man’s journey is about, I think.” –Lillian Smith, The Journey

Short Hikes Are Just Fine

Hiking is an outdoor activity that covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively.  People who hike do so for a number of different reasons (exercise, health, nature appreciation, social interaction, competition, etc.), and they have so many options of how and where to do this activity.  Some folks only think of hiking in terms of backpacking and trekking out into the wilderness for days or even weeks at a time.  Others envision hiking as a journey that gets you from point A to point B, or they see it as a test of endurance and distance.  Hiking the Appalachian Trail comes to mind.

As with any form of recreation, there may be purists out there who maintain a set of standards or criteria for being called a real hiker.  I hope not, because we would certainly fall short.  When we hike, my wife and I are no longer interested in “pushing through the pain” to break any records of distance, speed, or difficulty.  We are simply enjoying the outdoors and the opportunity to see things for the first time while getting a little exercise.  As working professionals, we still operate on fairly busy schedules, so we often find ourselves carving out time to hike.  This may mean that we only have thirty minutes or an hour, and we often grab these opportunities while in route.  A perfect example was a one-hour excursion we took on our way from Phoenix to Tucson, Arizona, for a short up and back down hike at Picacho Peak State Park.


The drive from Phoenix to Tucson typically takes about two hours.  We left Phoenix at about 7:45 in the morning and arrived at Picacho Peak State Park at about 8:45.  We changed into our boots, pulled hiking polls out of the trunk of the car, grabbed water and hats and took off on the trail that leads from the parking area to the peak.  It is a very rocky but well-marked trail that zigzags up the west slope.  It is considered moderate in difficulty, which is a fair assessment.  With a few quick stops for me to take some photos along the way, we made it to the overlook in just over thirty minutes.  It was a sunny morning with temperatures in the upper 50s F, which was just about perfect.


We are not nearly young enough (admittedly a poor excuse), fit enough, or brave enough to climb rock faces, but we were perfectly satisfied to stop our ascent when we reached the overlook at the base of the jagged outcropping that forms the top of the peak.  The view was spectacular looking southeast out across the Arizona desert.  Of course, we took the obligatory selfie at this location and absorbed the experience for a few minutes before heading back down the slope.


This out-and-back hike took just over an hour.  We were back on the road to Tucson by 11:00 and made it to the city to see some close friends for lunch at noon.  More often than not, this is our hiking pattern.  We have decided that short hikes like this one satisfy our need to get outside and stretch our legs, breathe in the fresh air, and sometimes enjoy spectacular scenery. Someday, when we are retired, we may have more time for longer hikes, but for now, the short ones are just fine.

A Moment in Time

People travel for a variety of reasons.  Even people who travel for pleasure don’t all have the same agenda.  We may be looking for simple relaxation, thrilling adventure, outdoor recreation, breathtaking scenery, cultural or historical education, stimulating enlightenment, or something altogether different.  Generally, we are looking for an experience that transcends our day-to-day lives.  We seek a opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to be somehow transported if only for a brief time.  And, we really don’t have to be in some romantic or exotic location.  It can happen so unexpectedly, not because of our plans but in spite of them.  It can also happen in an unlikely place — not at all where we anticipated “the magic” would occur.

Several years ago, my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco.  We stayed for about a week at a good friend’s house in Port Richmond, a neighborhood in Richmond, California overlooking the bay.  It was my first time to the west coast, so we acted like true tourists and visited Muir Woods, the wine country, various places in and around the city, and even took a drive down Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and spent the night in Carmel.  It was fabulous.  On one afternoon during our vacation, we met up with a young man who is a family friend who lives in the city.  He took us to some of his favorite hiking spots at Land’s End and other locations around the entrance of the bay.  We came back to the Port Richmond house and settled out on the deck overlooking the bay.  We had a few drinks and took the time to catch up with him as the afternoon drifted towards evening.  We were enjoying each other’s company and the comfortable weather so much that we decided to have pizza delivered instead of going out for dinner.

Sunset over San Francisco Bay
Sunset over San Francisco Bay

We continued to sit on that deck after the pizza was devoured and talked for hours.  As we sipped on drinks, we watched the sun slowly sink behind the top of the distant hills to the west beyond the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and marveled as the lights of the bridge and its endless stream of vehicles began to glow with evening’s approach.  We talked and laughed about life, our memories, our hopes and fears.  We soaked up the beauty of the bay at nightfall. There was nothing spectacular about the meal, although the setting was certainly enchanting enough.  We were together, enjoying each other’s company, completely immersed in the now — the right then and there.  We had not necessarily planned for the day to end this way.  There was no remarkable event, no famous landmark, no fanfare at all.  Still, it was somehow wonderful, and I knew it would be impossible to replicate.  I took a photograph of the sunset from the deck to commemorate the occasion. Anytime I can stumble upon a moment like that, I get the sense that I have done more than travel.  I have taken a journey.

Southern Word of the Day (Part 4)

Here is the latest installment of my favorite Southern words, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Ratified.  Usage: “I could have killed that ratified had my pistol with me in the kitchen.”

Fertilize.  Usage: “Earl’s gonna pay dearly fertilize he’s been telling about Billy Bob and Charlene.”

Barn.  Usage: “Times have been tough lately, and we’ve been barn money from my parents just to make payments on the truck.”

Bayou.  Usage: “Do you mind if I sit bayou at Thanksgiving dinner?”

Canopy.  Usage: “I know we’re in a hurry, but canopy before we go?”

Nominee.  Usage: “I fell off the four-wheeler and nominee is swollen and hurts something awful.”

Doctorate.  Usage: “Billy Bob cut his hand, and Charlene needs to doctorate before it gets infected.”

Commodious.  Usage: “Quick! Somebody run in there and tell Billy Bob that the commodious on is clogged up!”

Shawls.  Usage: “This casserole dish left from homecoming at the church last Sunday isn’t ours, so I guess its shawls.”

Automated.  Usage: “It’s almost midnight. Billy Bob and Charlene automated home by now.”

Benefited.  Usage: “Billy Bob’s already benefited for his tux, and he’s a-getting real excited about being the best man at my wedding.”

Coffin.  Usage: “This summer cold has got me coffin up a storm!”

Walasi-yi on the Appalachian Trail

Near a place called Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia, the Appalachian Trail makes a steep descent south towards a place called Neels Gap.  The Trail crosses Highway 19/129 just a few miles south of Vogel State Park at a historic site called Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center.  The stone façade of the Center has been standing at Neels Gap since 1937. Originally a log structure, the building took its present form when it was rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was a living quarters for corpsman working to reforest the Chattahoochee National Forest. It later served as a restaurant and inn until 1965, when it was abandoned.  By the mid-1970s the building was slated for demolition, but a group of conservation-minded locals lobbied successfully for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Spared from destruction, the building served as an irregular store to hikers and tourists until 1983 when Jeff and Dorothy Hansen took over management of what became known as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi. Although the store has changed hands several times, it still operates as a premiere full service outfitter on the Trail for thru hikers offering gear, large resupply options, lodging,  and an array of gifts.

View from Neel Gap
View from Neel Gap

Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center boasts a couple of interesting features.  It is the only place where the Appalachian Trail passes through a man-made structure.  It is also the home of what I call the tree of blown-out hiking shoes.  For years, hikers have been slinging their badly-worn shoes up into the branches of a tree located just outside the store’s entrance.  It caught me by surprise the first time I looked up and noticed what was hanging from the limbs.  I’m sure the tree stands as a monument to those who have passed through this section of the Appalachian Trail, whether they started in Georgia, Maine, or a thousand points in between.  Having one’s shoes included in the tree must surely be a badge of honor.  It almost serves as a footwear mausoleum, and perhaps a warning to those who think hiking the Trail is not so difficult.

Walasi-Yi Shoe Tree
Walasi-Yi Shoe Tree