ALSO BY DAVID LEBOVITZ
The Sweet Life in Paris
My Paris Kitchen
Ready for Dessert
The Perfect Scoop
The Great Book of Chocolate
This is a work of nonfiction. While all the events in this story are true, some identifying details were changed, including names, to protect the privacy of individuals.
Copyright © 2017 by David Lebovitz
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
CROWN is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Lebovitz, David, author.
Title: L’appart : the delights and disasters of making my Paris home / David Lebovitz.
Description: New York: Crown, 2017.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017009159 | ISBN 9780804188388 (hardback)
Subjects: LCSH: Lebovitz, David—Homes and haunts—France—Paris. | Apartments—Remodeling—France—Paris. | Cooks—France—Paris—Biography. | Americans—France—Paris—Biography. | Paris (France)—Social life and customs. | Paris (France)—Biography. | Cooking—France—Paris. | Cooking, French. | BISAC: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Personal Memoirs. | TRAVEL / Essays & Travelogues. | COOKING / Regional & Ethnic / French.
Classification: LCC TX649.L43 A3 2017 | DDC 641.5092 [B]—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017009159
Ebook ISBN 9780804188395
Cover design by Alane Gianetti
Cover photograph by James Roper
To Romain, who made it all possible.
(Well…the good parts, that is.)
Index of Recipes
“Pee in this cup.”
The stern doctor sat behind the desk in her dim beige office, under-illuminated by a metal desk lamp fitted with a bulb that cast a dull glow over everything and seemed to have been last changed when De Gaulle was president. She handed me a paper receptacle that felt like it was made of newsprint and averted her eyes—somewhat.
It had been eight exasperating months since I’d signed the first promesse de vente and finally, I was close to the day when I would sign the acte de vente, the deed to my apartment in Paris. Or as time-pressed Parisians shorten it: l’appart.
And here I was. The last acte I had to do was…just…relax…Which, considering the circumstances—being vaguely scrutinized by a doctor while standing in the middle of her cabinet, anxiously trying to fill a paper cup that threatened to crumple in my free hand—is not an easy task.
Maybe if I’d had a grand café crème beforehand…or better yet, a big glass of rosé, I thought, while she—and I—waited for me to breathe a shudder of relief, so she could go home and I could get the final approval on my bank loan. We were in the same position (well, not literally), waiting for the same thing. She’d already taken a blood sample and rigorously checked my vital signs to make sure I was in the bonne santé required by the French bank to approve my mortgage.
I’d applied for a few mortgages before, in the United States, but a medical screening had never been part of the approval process. I was puzzled, until a banker explained it to me: “Monsieur Lebovitz, we don’t want you to die.” Which was something I couldn’t disagree with—they wanted confirmation that I would live long enough to pay for the place. (Later I learned that they had good reason to worry, because that almost didn’t happen.) I urgently needed to complete this final task before they’d release the funds for the loan and I could finally take possession of the apartment I’d spent years looking for.
Ever since my arrival in Paris a decade earlier, I had been living in a charming chambre de bonne, one of the minuscule top-floor apartments tucked just under the curving roof of a blocky yet regal Haussmannian building in the Bastille quarter of Paris. Chambres de bonne are single rooms where the maids (les bonnes) once lived. Nowadays, they’re sought after by Parisians because they are often the cheapest places to buy, especially the ones in buildings without elevators. (Which is why you rarely see Parisians needing to engage in the unsightly spectacle of le jogging—although I’d recently spotted one woman running in the Tuileries, doing her laps in espadrilles.) Other advantages are the spectacular views, and best of all, there are no neighbors in heels clomping around above you.
In Paris, the more high-strung the woman, the higher the heels, which I know from firsthand experience. And not just from one of the many narrow misses I’ve had with them playing the Parisian version of “chicken” (not sure if they call it poulet…) on the sidewalks to see who will move first. (I’ve learned that holding a baguette and swinging it parallel to the ground, just below waist level, gets anyone you’re up against to move first.) But because there was one living below me who was so hyperactive that I could hear her racing around at all hours—most often between one and four thirty in the morning, when her heels resonated so loudly that the noise woke me up a full floor above her.
Another thing that made it hard to sleep in that apartment was the weather, though I didn’t mind staying awake, listening to the pounding thunderstorms that lash down on Paris. The pelting rain in the fall and winter drowned out the traffic noises on the busy boulevard below and would eventually soothe me to sleep. But come summer, sleeping—or doing anything else—became impossible, as the temperatures soared under the zinc roof (which I lived directly beneath) to as high as 110°F. The only upside was that I had a lot of premelted chocolate always on hand.
The chambres de bonne were built to house the help, so were intentionally Spartan. The apartments didn’t have kitchens and some had separate back staircases so the domestics could discreetly slip into the family’s apartment without having to pass through the front door. Bathrooms were shared Turkish toilets in the hallways. So next time you’re in Paris and lusting over a rooftop apartment listed in a real estate agency window, check to see if there is a bathroom…and an elevator, unless you don’t mind climbing up seven flights of stairs. More and more of the buildings do have elevators now, but many still share one bathroom with everyone else on the floor. (And speaking of floors, they’re often Turkish toilets, which consist of a hole in the floor with two places to stand your ground.) Fortunately, my landlord had previously lived in the apartment, so I wasn’t sharing any bathrooms, which was good for my neighbors considering the length of time it was taking for me to finalize my real estate transaction. Sure, the chambres de bonne are charming, or “cozy,” as they’d say in American real estate lingo, but most are just a single room, 200 to 300 square feet (18 to 28 square meters), or roughly the size of an American kitchen.
I tried to buy the apartment I had been living in, because it was incredibly well situated. My place had been joined with another chambre next door, so I actually had two rooms, which made all my other friends who lived in a chambre de bonne (singular) jealous. It also had a phone booth–size elevator that I took for granted—until it broke. I was crammed in there when it malfunctioned, and barely managed to crook my elbow to lift the emergency phone to my ear to call the elevator company. Eventually, someone picked up, but the woman on the other end told me to call back in two hours because all the repair people were at lunch. Then she hung up. I broke the door to get out, which I didn’t get punished for, but walking up seven flights of stairs for the next four months was definitely punishment enough.
The apartment was in the Bastille, a lively neighborhood adjacent to the Marais and the Place des Vosges, and is a major métro hub with lots of connections so I could easily hop to anywhere in Paris. I was just steps from the largest outdoor market in the city. I could grab my market basket, which I kept next to my front door, and be perusing a spectacular selection of French cheeses, wines, pâtés, fruits, and vegetables within minutes. But best of all, it was the unbeatable view of Paris that I didn’t think I could ever leave. Each day I’d wake up and unlatch the wooden shutters, and after I adjusted to the barrage of light, I was presented with a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower and a collage of small and grand buildings in the foreground, with Sacré-Cœur church off to the right and the Seine to the left; a spectacular mosaic of Paris that seemed like it was all mine. At night, just before closing the deteriorating shutters, which I was sure would one day blow off in one of the abrupt storms that whips through the city without notice (during one such storm, I almost lost an arm trying to close a shutter that wanted to play tug-of-war with me), I would take one final gaze at the twinkling lights before climbing into bed. If you’ve seen the movie Ratatouille, I shared the same view that Chef Linguini’s apartment had (people even say I resemble the movie’s main character—the cook, not the rat). One night, I was lying in bed watching the film on my television, which was just next to that window, when I sat up in surprise—at that moment in the film, my doppelgänger’s Pixar-perfect view was an exact replica of my Paris panorama. How could I ever move?
One of the few concessions to modernity in the apartment was the dishwasher (which, to a cookbook author, is the most important concession), but with a little polish, the apartment would have been the perfect home for me in Paris. All it needed were new floors, paint, an updated bathroom and kitchen, and air-conditioning (my French friends chided me for being très américain when I broke down and bought a portable air conditioner after searing my fingertips on my computer keyboard during one of the withering summer heat waves). Alas, it wasn’t to be: the landlord didn’t want to sell, and I couldn’t blame him. So after seven or eight years of living life at the top of the most beautiful city in the world, it was time to get back down to earth. Unfortunately when you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.
I’d moved to Paris from San Francisco, which, like Paris, is a collection of neighborhoods, or little villages, surrounded by water. Paris is a clearly defined area outlined by the périphérique, an always-clogged highway that circles the city where tempers flare as people seethe behind the wheel, heady from diesel fumes, lighting one cigarette off the stub of another as they inch forward, moving through the congested highway at the pace of an escargot. Le périph separates the city from the inner banlieues (suburbs), which are not to be confused with American suburbs, with their lush lawns, kids running through sprinklers, and minivans parked in driveways. These banlieues are notorious for their grim housing projects, inhabited by many immigrants and disenfranchised people, known as les banlieusards.
Parisians have never made it easy for outsiders to become part of their city, as all of us who have gone through the process of renewing our visas can attest. One year, the folder of documents that I’d spent six months meticulously compiling and organizing to meet the unpredictable demands was folded in half and slid into the garbage can by a poker-faced bureaucrat without a second thought. (I swear I detected a bit of a smirk, though.) Being from California, I probably would have felt better if she had separated the paper clips from the pages and tossed them into their respective recycling bins.
I went through a lot to get to Paris, starting my life over again not just in a new city, but in a new country, plunging into another culture, with a language I didn’t speak. (I could see my teacher at the Alliance Française, where I crammed for my move by taking a two-week intensive course before I left San Francisco, crying a little inside every time I tried to form a complete sentence in French.)
People have asked me repeatedly why I moved here, but I could never provide a more satisfying answer than “For the croissants!” But upon reflection, I’d ended a nearly thirteen-year tenure at Chez Panisse in California, a restaurant strongly influenced by market-based French country cooking: la cuisine du marché. The climate and ingredients of Northern California were similar to those you’d find in the south of France, whose residents are similarly smitten with the exuberant foods from their region—dewy goat cheeses (back in the ’80s, people in Berkeley assumed we were serving them rounds of tofu), olive oils that resonated with the terroir of their provenance in each glossy puddle, fresh herbs used liberally, robust wines, crates overflowing in the summer with pulpy, deep-red tomatoes, and a mutual love of aromatic garlic permeating everything, from aïoli to agneau. All those ingredients figured heavily into the cuisines of France and the San Francisco Bay Area, two places where people are obsessed with what’s on their plate. The transition was natural for me.
Another obsession shared by both San Francisco and Paris is real estate: it’s rare that you attend a party or gathering in either city and the subject doesn’t eventually become a topic of discussion, with plenty of grousing about the rising prices of homes and apartments. Because of fixed boundaries, including oceans and périphs, which won’t be changing anytime soon, prices in the highly desirable city of Paris will only go in one direction: up.
Decades in San Francisco made me realize that those who predicted prices were too high and would surely drop were setting themselves up for disappointment. It’s wishful thinking, but people have convinced themselves it’s going to happen, much like the communists who meet in their Paris offices under posters of tightly clustered workers marching in the streets alongside their comrades with raised fists, in the belief that France will move toward the ideal of communism. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but communism hasn’t worked out quite as expected elsewhere in the world, and France will likely remain a capitalist country. Few are willing to give up the fashionable black coat they saw in the window of that boutique in the Marais which was un must because it looked so good on them, or give up their maisons secondaires, the vacation homes that every French family seems to have, where they retreat to every summer. With Paris being such a desirable place to live, rising housing prices are here to stay.
As I learned in San Francisco, if I was going to remain in Paris, the best assurance of staying for the long term was to own a place of my own.
So in spite of folder-folding bureaucrats, I decided to stay in Paris. I’d acclimated to life here. I was on a first-name basis with the clerks in my local shops, especially the ones at the office supply store where I replenished the supply of paper and ink cartridges one plows through by photocopying the slew of paperwork that becomes a part-time job. I’d also become friendly with the vendors at my local market, where my life revolved around my twice-weekly rounds of shopping for fruits, vegetables, sausages, pâtés—whatever caught my eye—and stopping off at the bakery on the corner for a bien cuite (well-cooked) baguette (which to me are the only kind) on the way home.
The longer I lived in my neighborhood, the better I knew the vendors: Who had the strawberries that would be bright red all the way through when I cut into them later. Whose Comté was aged longer, giving it a sharper, nuttier flavor. Who would give me a better price if I bought several kilos of apricots because I was testing recipes and needed an entire case. And most important of all, who would let me pick out my own fruits and vegetables in a country where picking out your own produce can trigger a blistering reprimand (or even a hand-slapping, as a friend in Provence found out). It’s a good thing they retired the guillotine in 1977 before I arrived, because even though I know I’m not supposed to, I can’t resist touching and selecting fruit that I’m buying. It’s too frustrating for me to order fruit and vegetables by pointing and saying, “I’ll take that one of those…and three of those, no…not that one, the lettuce on the left…and a few of those nectarines, oh…no, wait…I want smaller ones. Can you rifle around for some that are riper? Or ones that have a redder blush, for a photograph?…Okay, now that I’ve asked you to do that, can I get four of those pears? I’m testing a recipe and need pears that weigh 125 grams each…and two need to be ripe right now, and two that will be ripe for tomorrow. Sure, I can wait…”
As I got to know the sellers, I’d banter and chat more freely with them, sometimes to the consternation of those waiting behind me. But the part of being French that I’ve definitely mastered is that when it’s your turn, you don’t think about anyone behind you. Lines in France are like the ones for bathrooms on airplanes. When you’re waiting, you’re impatient: What the heck is taking the person in front of you so long? But when it’s your turn, you take all the time in the world and forget about everyone else behind you. If you’ve ever waited behind madame at the market, selecting her two figs as she ensures that each one is free of even the tiniest of scratches, inspecting every cluster to find just the right nine grapes, or wanting only half a head of celery (which they actually do sell), you might swear they’re cookbook authors, too.
It took me at least a year, but I became the master of my market. I knew where the ripest Brie de Meaux was, which Camembert was primed to give up its gooey center when I sliced it open later that evening. I’d shuffle forward in line, and when it was my turn to speak to the fromager, I would stand in our isolated bubble, having a tête-à-tête with her about which particular cheese was exactly the right one. If madame started nudging me forward with her wheeled shopping trolley (which, I finally figured out, was how I got those skid marks on the backs of my socks), I’d be certain to ask a few additional questions, ones that would provoke thoughtful—and very, very lengthy—answers.
In time, the egg fellow began to give me a discount on the dozens of eggs I cracked my way through testing recipes. And eventually, by unspoken agreement, the fruit sellers conceded to letting me pick my own pears, nectarines, figs, and apricots, once they realized I was more discerning than they were.
As much as I like to pick out my own fruit, and as much as I like to cook, it’s hard to replicate the market’s spit-roasted chickens, with skin so crisp even after being wrapped up in a stiff paper sack with a 1970s-style black-outlined orange-and-yellow graphic of a chicken bronzing over an open flame. As soon as I got home, I slid the chicken out of the bag, the salty skin so delectably crunchy that if I pulled off even a single piece before I unpacked the rest of my market haul, I was powerless to resist wolfing down the entire poulet rôti right then and there. Some people eat peaches leaning over the sink, with the sticky juices running down their arm. For me, it’s the fond de poulet—the naturally thick jus that saturates the meat—that I’m fou for.
In France, being exigeant, or discriminating, is considered a positive quality, as is complaining: both put vendors on alert that you expect the best. I knew how to time my arrival at the bakery so I’d get there when the baguettes were still warm. The apron-clad clerks were used to my request for a bien cuite baguette and would dutifully burrow through the basket of baguettes to find just the right one. Once the clerk found a baguette that met my rigorous standards, they would wrap it with a small square of paper just large enough for my hand to grab the baguette, but no more, as excess is frowned upon in France. (Look what happened to Louis XIV and his wife.) As soon as I got the baguette outside, I’d pinch off the crusty end—le quignon—squeezing the tip with just the right grip…not too high, because you don’t want to end up with a few dry crumbs, but not too low, because you don’t want too much of the softer inside of the bread in relation to the crust. Years of experience has taught me precisely where to grab and twist the tip with just the right amount of torque so I end up with a perfect balance of crust and crumb, before popping that bite of warm, supple crunchiness in my mouth as I head home.
I could go on and on about living in a city with streets lined with chocolate shops and pâtisseries, where it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy a lengthy, wine-fueled lunch rather than racing back to work. When summer means picnics by the Seine accompanied by icy glasses of rosé, and no meal is complete without a platter of spectacular cheeses, a baguette (or two), and dessert afterward. I could keep going, but I’ll stop, because you might start packing your bags and move here, too. Which would jack up apartment prices even further.
(Pizza aux pissenlits)
MAKES ONE 16-INCH FLATBREAD, SERVES 4
Dandelions are called pissenlits in French. Due to their diuretic property, they’re reported to have the effect of making someone pisse en lit, or wet the bed. (The Swiss call them by the less-graphic name dents-de-lion, or “lion’s teeth.”) But I’ve eaten a lot of dandelions in my life—I pick them up whenever I happen to see them at the market in the spring—and I haven’t had any nocturnal issues. The only issue you might have is that they usually require a good washing. The smallest leaves are the most tender, so I try to find those. (If you can’t get dandelion greens, arugula or baby spinach leaves make a good substitute.)
Dandelion’s assertive flavor works as the perfect foil to this crispy, cheesy flatbread. Topped with fresh greens, it resembles a bountiful salad piled on bread, with a bonus layer of melted cheese between the two. I toss the greens in a strong dressing, with a heavier emphasis on the vinegar than a traditional vinaigrette and a touch of garlic for extra zip. You can bake some country-style ham, such as prosciutto, on the flatbread, under the cheese, or drape very thin slices over the top. Cooked cubes of crisp bacon could be tossed with the greens in lieu of the ham. Whatever direction you decide to go in, be sure to prepare the salad ingredients before you bake the flatbread, so you can toss everything together shortly after the flatbread comes out of the oven.
The great thing about this flatbread is if you find yourself, um…delayed for any reason, it doesn’t need to be eaten warm. It’s great at room temperature, so you can take your time, and relax…and not worry about the wait.
¼ cup (180ml) tepid water
1 (7g) package active dry yeast (not instant; 2¼ teaspoons)
Pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ cups (210g) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
⅓ cup (45g) whole wheat flour (see Note)
¾ teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
1 garlic clove, minced
1½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
1½ tablespoons olive oil
Dandelion Flatbread Topping
5 cups loosely packed (80 to 100g) dandelion greens (or arugula or baby spinach), torn if large, well-washed, with tough stems removed
12 cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
8 to 10 radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
½ bulb fennel, tough outer layer removed, very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
Freshly ground black pepper
Cornmeal, for the baking sheet
2 cups (6 ounces, 170g) grated Fontina, Gouda, or Swiss cheese
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water, yeast, and sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes to proof the yeast, until it starts to bubble.
With the dough hook attached, on low speed, stir in olive oil, then mix in the all-purpose, whole wheat flour, and salt until they’re incorporated. Turn the speed to medium-high and knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. (Alternatively, you can make the dough in a large bowl and mix and knead it by hand.) Cover the dough with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1½ hours.
While the dough is rising, make the vinaigrette: In a large bowl, combine the vinaigrette ingredients and mix well.
When you’re ready to bake the dough, be sure to have all the ingredients for the topping prepared and in a large bowl so you can toss them with the dressing when the flatbread comes out of the oven.
About 20 minutes before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C) with a pizza baking stone or steel in it. If you don’t have a baking stone or steel, put a sturdy baking sheet in the oven on the lower shelf to preheat it.
Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Roll and stretch the dough into a circle about 16 inches (40cm) round (or oval, or to whatever size will fit on your baking stone or sheet), as thin as you can make it. If you have a pizza peel, sprinkle the peel with cornmeal and transfer the dough to the peel.
If using a pizza stone or steel, sprinkle the dough with the minced garlic, then top it with grated cheese. Slide the flatbread onto the hot stone or steel in the oven. (Use the rack level recommended by the manufacturer of your stone or steel.) If you don’t have a pizza peel, you can use a rimless baking sheet or carefully but quickly transfer the dough with your hands to the baking sheet or stone, then top the dough with the garlic and cheese after you’ve transferred it. Bake the dough until it’s crisp on the bottom and the cheese is melted and bubbling, about 10 minutes, but check before that time as pizza stones and steels vary. If using a baking sheet, remove the hot pan from the oven and sprinkle it with cornmeal. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet, being mindful that the pan is very hot. Top with the minced garlic and grated cheese. Bake on the bottom rack of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, then turn on the broiler and place the flatbread dough on the upper rack and broil until the crust is browned and crisp around the rim.
Remove the flatbread from the oven and slide it onto a wire rack. Toss the salad ingredients with the dressing and heap them on top of the dough. Cut into wedges to serve.
As any American knows, leftover cold pizza (which this flatbread resembles) makes a great breakfast. For a next-day lunch, reheat the flatbread on a baking sheet in a 350°F (180°C) oven for about 10 minutes. The greens will flatten and become more integrated with the flatbread crust, but c’est comme ça…
NOTE: If you don’t have whole wheat flour on hand, use a total of 2 cups (280g) all-purpose flour.
There I was, standing in the doctor’s office, finally relieved. I carefully handed over the buckling paper cup. My fate was now in her hands. (And I hoped, for her sake, that the thin paper cup would hold up long enough so nothing else would be in her hands.) I walked out of the dim office, my eyes readjusting to daylight as I joined the fast-paced Parisians crowding the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding being run over multiple times, looking around for the closest bakery where I could grab a baguette to help me clear a path home.
I’d been through a lot in the previous months—no, years—before my full-on medical exam. I was happy that the doctor called off the cavity search, but still, my eager-to-please nature had me worried that I was going to die and upset the people at the bank. A few days later, though, the doctor gave me a clean bill of health. I was, once again, relieved, and ready to sign the papers.
I haven’t been a lifelong Francophile, one of those people who kept a poster of the Eiffel Tower by his bedroom window. I never imagined that one day the real thing would be right there. I didn’t devour books about how effortlessly chic Parisians are, and never envied how French people could tie a scarf with a certain je ne sais quoi that I could never hope to achieve. (Well, maybe I was a little jealous.) But I did learn that living in France required some adjustments.
In California, I was used to sloughing through the aisles of the supermarket in ratty sweats, a T-shirt, and flip-flops. Danielle Steel, another San Franciscan who moved to Paris, raised the ire of fellow San Franciscans when she said of the Bay Area, “There’s no style…you can’t be chic there…” before she bid au revoir to the City by the Bay. She took quite a bit of flak for that, but if I sold 800 million books, I’d be dressing better, too.
My frumpy Bay Area fashion notwithstanding, I had been cooking in Northern California for so long that it was natural I’d eventually fall for France. My life revolved around my cooking and baking, and in France, everyone seems to be either: 1) talking about what they had eaten, 2) eating, or 3) talking about what they were going to eat. Food is everywhere—in the windows of charcuteries and boulangeries, at the sprawling outdoor markets, and on the tables of the cafés and restaurants that line the sidewalks of Paris.
And after my trial period in Paris, I decided that we were a good fit and it was time to move in together for good. I just had to get Paris to agree.
When you live in Paris for more than a couple of years, you see a lot of people come, and you see a lot of them go. It’s a great city to visit for a week, or even a few months, traipsing from museum to café to pastry shop, tearing into baguettes, and capping off the day with steak frites in a bistro with a remarkably decent pitcher of vin rouge maison that’s so cheap, you wonder if you should toss away your return ticket. I lived that way for a couple of years, exploring chocolate shops and lining up at Berthillon for my favorite cone: a scoop of chocolate sorbet paired with a scoop of caramel ice cream. As soon as the scooper, wearing her well-fitted blue uniform, handed it over, I’d race to my special spot on the nearby Pont Marie, where I would luxuriously enjoy my cone, watching life float by on the Seine. But no matter how much we like to imagine ourselves as “living like a local,” even if we’re just visiting for a week, I was living like a foreigner in Paris. I was a long-term visitor.
Life abroad isn’t for everybody. Americans invariably miss customer service the most; not being questioned under a bright lamp in the back room if you want to exchange a shirt for a different size, for example. Or not having to make an appointment in advance to withdraw money from your bank, as I learned when I needed to make a larger-than-normal withdrawal to pay a contractor who wouldn’t take a check. I had to go to the bank twice to meet with bank officers so they could get to the bottom of why I wanted to take money out of my own account. (Which tells you why there are so many stores selling home safes in Paris.) They weren’t buying my story. After a few rounds of tough questions in a glassed-in cubicle, I finally said I needed the money for a sex change in Thailand, thinking they’d realize their inquiries were a little overly probing. There was silence for a moment as they considered what I’d told them, then they agreed to let me withdraw the money. I was just hoping they weren’t going to require post-op proof to verify that I had gone ahead with the procedure.
I navigated the idiosyncrasies of life in France as best I could. I don’t want to say that I’d become Parisian, even though like my French friends, one wall of my apartment was lined with bookshelves, each shelf weighed down by three-ring notebooks organized by year and subject, containing every gas and electric bill (which you’re required to save for at least five years), bank statement, store receipt, and official document that had ever arrived in my mailbox, which you need to keep for eternity because you never know when someone will insist that you produce an electric bill from exactly four years and eleven months ago. (And trust me, they will.)
In America, your driver’s license or passport is the most important document in your life. In France, it’s the electric bill. Your facture d’électricité is the document that proves that you live in France. You will need to produce a copy of your latest electricity bill to do anything, from getting a visa to opening a bank account or getting telephone service. The catch is that you can’t rent an apartment to live in France in the first place if you don’t have a bank account, but if you’re not already renting an apartment, then you wouldn’t have an electric bill to open a bank account. (And if you don’t have a phone, how can the landlord reach you to let you know if you got the apartment or not?) It’s a cercle vicieux, and if you’re confused, don’t feel bad. The French are, too. It’s part of living like a local.
VANILLA ÉCLAIR PUFFS WITH BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SAUCE
MAKES 35 BITE-SIZE PUFFS
One thing I’ve learned from the French is that not everything needs to be reinvented. Sometimes, what already exists doesn’t need to be improved upon. (But I am keeping a list of a few things that could stand a little improvement, just in case they ever ask me.) Young Parisian chefs trying to break away from classic French cuisine attempt to make statements by spewing foam onto square plates and dusting plate corners with powdered mushrooms. And no matter how much I want to dive into a slab of juicy côte de bœuf, I’ll never get used to the sound of a steak knife screeching across the slate plate underneath it. I’m happy with a (round) plate of fish or vegetables, properly sauced, or a steak presented on a wooden board, ready to be devoured.
I feel the same way about pastries: sometimes, it’s best to stick with the classics, and there’s nothing I love more than a good éclair. For home bakers, though, éclairs can be tricky to pipe and fill, so I call these mouthfuls éclair puffs and douse them with warm chocolate sauce, which I like better than the usual chocolate glaçage. (So I guess I am guilty of a little tradition-tampering, too.)
French bakers use vanilla beans, while Americans favor vanilla extract in their desserts. Like my life as an American in France, I straddle two cultures, appreciating the qualities of each. In this case, the bean adds an earthy, floral vanilla flavor, and extract introduces a brighter vanilla note to the pastry cream filling, so you can get the best of both worlds in one perfect bite.
Vanilla Pastry Cream
2 cups (500ml) whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
⅔ cup (130g) sugar
6 tablespoons (50g) cornstarch
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pâte à Choux
1 cup (250ml) water
8 tablespoons (4 ounces, 115g) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 teaspoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (250ml) water
½ cup (100g) sugar
½ cup (160g) light corn syrup, rice syrup, or golden syrup
¾ tablespoon (75g) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ounces (55g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
Toasted sliced almonds (optional)
Make the vanilla pastry cream: Have ready a clean medium bowl with a mesh strainer set over the top.
Pour the milk into a medium saucepan. Scrape the vanilla seeds from the beans. Add the vanilla bean seeds and pod to the milk and heat over medium-high heat.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. While whisking continuously, gradually pour the warmed milk into the egg mixture, then scrape the mixture back into the saucepan. Cook the custard, stirring continuously with the whisk, until it comes to a boil, then cook, whisking continuously, for 1 minute, until the custard is quite thick.
Pour the custard into the strainer and press it through with a flexible silicone spatula. Stir in the butter and vanilla until the butter is well incorporated. Press plastic wrap directly against the surface of the pastry cream and refrigerate until cool.
Make the pâte à choux: Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
In a medium saucepan, combine the water, butter, sugar, and salt and heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter has melted.
Add the flour all at once. Reduce the heat to medium and stir vigorously until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a smooth ball. Remove from the heat and let rest for 2 minutes, stirring it once or twice to help it cool.
Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring quickly to make sure the eggs don’t cook. (You can also do this step in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment…as long as your mixer hasn’t been buried when you’re packing up for a move.)
Scrape the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a wide plain tip and pipe the dough onto the prepared baking sheets in thirty-five 1-inch (3cm) rounds, evenly spaced apart. (If you don’t have a pastry bag, fill a zip-top freezer bag with the dough, snip off a corner, and squeeze the dough out through the opening. Or use a spring-loaded ice cream scoop to shape the dough.)
Bake the choux puffs until deep golden brown on top, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the baking sheets in the oven halfway through baking. Let cool on the baking sheets.
Meanwhile, make the chocolate sauce: In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, corn syrup, and cocoa powder and heat over medium heat, stirring continuously with a whisk, until the mixture comes to a boil. Remove it from the heat, add the chocolate, and stir until it has melted.
Scrape the pastry cream into a pastry bag fitted with a small plain tip. (If the pastry cream is very stiff, you can beat it by hand or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, to smooth it out.) Poke a round hole in the bottom of each puff by inserting a paring knife and rotating it. Fill the puffs with the cream. You can also split them horizontally and spoon the cream in the puffs.
Serve the puffs, three per plate, doused with warm chocolate sauce. Scatter toasted sliced almonds on top, if desired.
When I began searching for an apartment, I had no idea what I was doing, or what I was getting into—kinda like how I decided to move to Paris. I just did it, then learned the steps along the way, aka, the hard way. I’d never left my home country before, except for an occasional vacation, and hadn’t considered all that was involved in making a definitive move overseas. To say that I was unprepared would not be an exaggeration. The learning curve was so steep that I often fell off with a thud. And I have the bruises to prove it.
As much as Americans envy the French way of life—from a health care system that is one of the best in the world to the lengthy vacations—few actually think about everything else that comes with it, namely steep social charges (that pay for the health care), waiting for hours in disorganized lines to throw yourself at the mercy of les fonctionnaires (bureaucrats) whose job description begins with telling you non right off the bat, bidding à bientôt to being able to do errands quickly, and saying au revoir to returning anything you bought.
And then there’s the eternal question: Are Parisians rude? On one hand, online travel boards are filled with visitors exclaiming how friendly and kind Parisians are, but Parisians see themselves rather differently. Le Parisien newspaper brought up the subject of whether its citizens were friendly to visitors, prompting one Frenchman whom they interviewed to laugh, then reply, “Rude to tourists? Why don’t they talk about how rude Parisians are to other Parisians?”
To the best of my knowledge, the city hasn’t launched a guide with tips for how Parisians should treat one another, but the Paris Chamber of Commerce did launch an initiative called “Do You Speak Touriste?” to make sure they were nice to tourists. The pamphlets they published (I don’t know if they were ever distributed) included guidelines for taxi drivers, salesclerks, and others on how to properly treat visitors. (After what I went through, I would suggest they add guidelines for real estate agents, too.) In the guide, the spectrum of foreign visitors was classified according to their likes, dislikes, and peculiarities, to help Parisians better understand them.
Italians were characterized as “exuberant and spontaneous”…but also “impatient.” Germans were said to be “precise.” The favorite activities of Japanese visitors are luxury shopping and not complaining. Americans expect “full service” and like “nonsmoking spaces.” We also “appreciate Wi-Fi” and “easily call each other by first names.” I’d have to agree about appreciating Wi-Fi, especially after mine went dead for three months and the company refused to come and fix it, which is particularly challenging when you work online. (I almost went broke calling their customer service line and waiting on hold for twenty minutes, only to be cut off and have to call back again, and again, and again, for months…at 34 cents a minute.)
After living in the same building with my keep-to-themselves Parisian neighbors for nearly ten years, we still addressed one another as “Monsieur” or “Madame,” which I actually found easier since I didn’t have to remember their names, first or last. Although no one in the building ever introduced themselves, or offered up either one of theirs.
I do, however, politely disagree with the Chamber of Commerce’s overall sentiment that Parisians could use some help in dealing with visitors. Shopkeepers have told me that they love Americans (with Australians pulling up a close second), saying we’re polite and appreciative, which could have something to do with the fact that we arrive ready to spend. Our high approval rating is partly due to the fact that it’s been drilled into us to be extra polite when we come to France so we don’t risk the ire of the fastidiously polite French.
Just like so many Americans dream of packing it all up and moving to Paris, the rêve of many Parisians is to live in the United States. Specifically, in “Brook-leen,” as they call it. But as much as we admire the French and they admire us, each of us ultimately thinks our way is the best way, and the majority of us stay in our respective countries. Having lived in both places, I’ve seen that each country does some things better than the other. (Exhibits A and B: the French health care system; American customer service.) But I’ll say one thing with absolute certainty: the American way of finding an apartment is better.
I wasn’t one of those who only rêve’d about living in Paris. I did it, and somehow it worked out. It was even going well. My life had turned out pretty sweet. I was renting, so my roots weren’t deeply planted. I could have left at a moment’s notice on the next flight home. But instead, I decided to buy an apartment.
Aside from an expanding waistline from all the cheese, chocolate, and wine, a few other things had changed after my first few years. Most important, I met my partner, Romain, a native Parisian, who I continue to suspect may actually be Italian. (Exhibit A: His name means “Roman” in French.) He smiles frequently, is quick with a laugh, and fits the Paris Chamber of Commerce’s description of someone who’s “exuberant and spontaneous.” A short, slender-waisted Frenchman with a round face and a bristly moustache framing his prominent lips, he was nothing like the kind of person I thought I’d be with when I packed up my life in San Francisco.
When we met, he spoke eleven words of English, four of which were “Can I help you?” possibly learned from a school filmstrip highlighting common American expressions. (For some reason, we didn’t learn that same phrase when I was learning French.) But who was I to talk? My French was appallingly bad at the time. A lot of it was me using my high-school Spanish and Frenchifying Spanish words, rolling my R’s, lisping my C’s, and enunciating in staccato tones, thinking the French would get the gist. They didn’t. Many, in fact, assumed I was Italian, due to a habit I developed of talking with my hands to fill in gaps in my vocabulary.
On our first date, I made the classic Anglophone mistake of saying “Je t’aime,” which translates literally to “I like you.” But in one of those language quirks designed to make non-natives feel like nitwits, it actually conveys “I love you.” (Just in case you ever find yourself in the same situation, “Je t’aime bien” means “I like you.”) The poor guy was alarmed by the suddenly stalkerish American sitting across the table. Fortunately, he’s not only exuberant and spontaneous, but understanding and patient with my faults, and we’ve been together ever since.
Thanks to Romain, I saw Paris from an insider’s perspective. We’d walk by buildings that I normally would have brushed past, rushing to the chocolate shop down the street, and he’d remark on the iron fence or the doorknob, noting what century it was made in and how unusual it was to find one from that material, from that particular era, in that specific neighborhood. Wooden floorboards we walked over in lobbies took on historical provenance—I was charmed. A stroll through the Marais, where he was born and where I’d normally be bounding by monuments to get to Pierre Hermé’s macaron shop, or to Jacques Genin for a bag of mango-passion fruit caramels, turned into a history lesson. I also learned, as one does when one dates a Frenchman, that he wasn’t afraid to express his views. Americans will politely say, “It’s okay,” even if it’s not. The French don’t mince words. They’ll not only tell you that they don’t like something, but why—with a frankness that takes adjusting to. They consider it “helpful” to you, to let you know that the new shirt you’re wearing proudly makes your stomach look like you’ve eaten too much Camembert, or how the dinner you’ve spent all day gathering the ingredients for and cooking was pas terrible—which literally means “not terrible”…but is the French way of letting you know there’s room for improvement. To the French, there’s always room for improvement. Although I wasn’t sure how hearing my sexe was moche—or ugly, because I was circumcised—was particularly helpful to me. Nor did I want to take any steps to “improve” it. (A point which was moot, since I’d already used up my goodwill at the bank, and couldn’t go back and ask for money for any restoration work.)
Romain is especially frank (which confirms that yes, he’s definitely French), and will go into situations with an abruptness that startles me. The French don’t mind provoking others, which isn’t considered a fault, but part of the jeu (game) of everyday life. I’m an easygoing Californian and not used to quarreling with others. But you never know how an interaction will go in France. Of course, there are things you do to pave the way for success before entering into one, like saying “Bonjour, madame” when walking into the boulangerie to pick up your baguette, or beginning a request with “Excusez-moi de vous déranger”—“I’m sorry to bother you”—leading off with an apology, letting a salesclerk or receptionist know that you recognize their importance over yours. But the politesse doesn’t necessarily guarantee that things are going to go your way.
So the French enter into situations assuming things aren’t going to go well. When things do go well, you could not ask for more wonderful people to help you. When they don’t, like when you’ve interrupted a salesclerk’s important conversation with a coworker about their weekend plans because you want to pay for a new shirt (which you pray your partner will like), or used a staple rather than a paperclip to attach two pages together when presenting your dossier to a bureaucrat, well…you’ll understand why it’s important to always be ready for anything.
Parisians also have a reputation for not being overly enthusiastic. A sticker you’ll sometimes see around the city reads: J’ rien. J’suis Parisien, “I love nothing. I am Parisian,” a self-acknowledgment of their reputation for dissatisfaction with everything. Appearing enthusiastic can come off as unseemly, often construed as being très américain. If you do like something, it’s pas mal (not bad), which also works in the other direction: if you don’t like something, it’s pas terrible (not terrible). But while the Parisian penchant for modération keeps things centered, one thing Parisians don’t feel neutral about is real estate agents. Partially because agents charge money for their services, which puts them in the distasteful category of someone who makes money, but also because of their reputation of not doing such a great job.
Unlike in the United States, there’s no MLS, or multiple listing service, in Paris that features all the available apartments in one central (and extremely convenient) place. In France, only sellers have agents, who only represent their own listings. (And, as such, are only looking after their own client’s interests, not yours.) If you want to buy something, such as a one-bedroom apartment in the Marais or a three-bedroom overlooking the Seine, you’ll need to find it on your own.
Paris is often referred to as the City of Light, thanks to its status as one of the first cities to introduce gaslights, which they use to such great effect. But the evening illumination that captivates Parisians these days comes from real estate agency windows that highlight apartments for sale. Walk down any street or boulevard in the evening and you’ll see Parisians pulled like moths toward the bright lights, drawn toward apartments for sale, then shaking their heads before walking away. “C’est trop cher!” they’ll groan (“It is too expensive!”). “C’est ridicule…”
Coming from San Francisco, I’m used to crise cardiaque–inducing prices. What amazes me more is that people sometimes don’t bother tidying up their apartments before the photos are taken. I’ve seen pictures in real estate listings with underwear and bras dangling from drying racks, bathrooms with towels piled up on the floor, kids’ toys spilling out of a crammed-in closet, coffee tables with half-empty glasses of the previous night’s red wine (accompanied by last night’s dinner plates) still on the table, and kitchen sinks loaded with pots and pans in need of scrubbing. Romain told me those pictures were better than staged photos because they give buyers a more accurate idea of what it would look like if you actually lived in that apartment. I haven’t worn a bra since I tried on my mom’s when I was seven, and would not leave my undies in the middle of a living room for all to see (even though I’ve gotten used to the changing rooms at yoga and fitness facilities in Paris and mingling with others—men and women—in various states of undress).
Because real estate agents in France only represent sellers, and only their own listings, you have to go from agency to agency as part of your search. The properties lit up in the windows at agencies across Paris are only for places in that particular neighborhood, listed by that particular agency. The agency next door will have a completely different list of apartments for sale that no other agency will have any knowledge of. Or will say they have no knowledge of.
In their defense, they have no reason to know about them: their job is to sell the places they’ve got listed; they get zero commission for helping you buy a place from anyone else. But even if they do have the listing, selling it doesn’t always seem to be their priority, as anyone who has left multiple unreturned calls to a Paris real estate agent can attest.
Unlike in America, where the real estate agent handles some of the legal work, once the first round of papers are signed in France, the rest of the work is passed on to the notaire. Then the agents are free to go outside for cigarette breaks and wait for their check.
And thus, I started my own multiyear search for an apartment. From the moment I circled the pen back, looping the slash from the final Z, back over the T in “Lebovitz” to complete my signature on the apartment that I finally found, I was committed to shelling out beaucoup de bucks for the seller’s agent, which was especially distressing because by the day of the final closing, none of us—the seller, the agent, or me—were on speaking terms. We were on yelling terms.
THAI CURRY WITH LAMB AND HARICOTS VERTS
Curry d’agneau aux haricots verts
SERVES 4 GENEROUSLY
Although the French can be fiery at times, Thai food, with its heady mixture of heat, is elusive in Paris. The day I realized Romain was a keeper was when he took a bite of authentic Thai curry. His face turned a rosy shade of red, and with beads of sweat moistening his forehead, he declared Thai cuisine to be his favorite in the world. My friends who have French partners and spouses say I lucked out, because theirs won’t eat anything spicier than a buttered potato. Anything with even a hint of spiciness always comes with a reassuring note on a menu that it’s légèrement pimenté!, lightly spiced, to warn that it’s okay.
Spicy foods may not be their thing, but the one food the French rally around more than any of the others are haricots verts, or green beans. They can’t imagine them not being available. When they’re not in season, the popular frozen-food chain Picard, which has nearly a thousand stores in France (and has everything from framboises to foie gras), carries them. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that green beans are their bestselling product.
I’m someone who likes to cook with things that are locally sourced, or in season, although as an expat, I do know the joy of a bag of Texas pecans or a roll of heavy-duty American aluminum foil, so I don’t have to struggle with the tissue-thin sheets of French alu that tears into silvery wisps whenever I try to pull a piece off the roll.
If you can’t find the vegetables I suggest, don’t worry; you needn’t rely on frozen. If round Thai eggplants aren’t available, slender Japanese ones work fine. If baby corn (canned or otherwise) isn’t available, you can substitute a peeled, cubed sweet potato. Other swap-outs include fresh pineapple chunks; peeled, cubed turnips or butternut squash; and perhaps fresh spinach; use your intuition as to when to add them so they’ll all finish cooking at about the same time. Hard vegetables will take 10 to 15 minutes to cook. Pineapple and softer vegetables will take less time. A handful of spinach can be added at the last minute.
The curry will also be fine without the lemongrass or galangal: many Thai curry pastes include them as an ingredient. But be sure to buy good-quality curry paste. Cock Brand is a favorite, even if I worry my Frenchman might find it ugly.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound (450g) boned lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch (3cm) cubes
1 (13.5-ounce/400g) can coconut milk
2 tablespoons good-quality Thai red curry paste
1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste (optional)
2 lemongrass stalks, cut into thirds, crushed with a mallet or the bottom of a cleaver handle to release their fragrance
3 slices galangal, rapped gently with a mallet or the bottom of a cleaver handle to release their fragrance, but kept whole
1 cup (250ml) low-sodium chicken stock
5 or 6 Thai eggplants (8 ounces/240g), unsliced, or 2 slender Japanese eggplants, unpeeled, sliced ¾ inch (2cm) thick
8 ears baby corn (8 ounces/240g), preferably fresh (if using canned, drain before using), halved on an angle
4 ounces (120g) fresh green beans, trimmed and sliced into 2-inch (5cm) pieces
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon palm sugar or dark brown sugar
2 or 3 long Thai chiles, sliced into rings
1 cup (25g) loosely packed fresh Thai basil leaves
Cooked Thai rice, for serving
In the Dutch oven or similar-sized pot with a lid, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the lamb pieces and cook, stirring frequently, until they are seared on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove the pieces of lamb from the pot and set aside on a plate. Add one-quarter of the coconut milk, the red curry paste, and the shrimp paste (if using) to the pot. Stir continuously until the coconut milk comes to a boil, then add the remaining coconut milk, the lamb pieces, lemongrass, and galangal. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.
Add the stock to the pot. If using Thai eggplant, quarter them (if sliced in advance, they’ll turn brown) and add them to the pot, giving them a stir right away to coat them with the curry liquid. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the eggplants submerged, until the eggplants are partially tender, about 6 minutes.
If using sliced Japanese eggplant, add them to the curry, along with the baby corn, green beans, fish sauce, and brown sugar. Cover and simmer gently until the corn and green beans are cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the chiles during the last few minutes of cooking. Remove from the heat and stir in the basil leaves.
Serve with Thai rice, alerting guests not to eat the batons of lemongrass or disks of galangal. They can be plucked out before serving, if you wish.
I started and stopped my hunt for an apartment more times than a terrified American driver behind the wheel of a Citroën (who shall remain nameless) attempts to enter the chaos of traffic encircling the Arc de Triomphe, the famed (and feared) roundabout that caps off the Champs-Élysées where all bets are off, and so is your automobile insurance: Many policies have an exclusion if you drive there. I’ve stopped pushing my luck and avoid the traffic roundabouts in Paris, but Romain just steps on the gas and goes for it without a second thought. I don’t know how he does it, but as soon as he accelerates to enter, I close my eyes, and sometimes hit the floor until we’re safely out of it.
Apartment hunting in Paris is just as stressful, but at least they make it easier by not making a lot of listings available for you to look at. You have to patch together a mélange of methods to see what’s out there, because there’s no user-friendly MLS that shows all the available apartments in one convenient place.
Real estate agency windows are one place to start. But when I started my search, newspaper classified ads were one of the primary places to sell an apartment, along with De Particulier à Particulier, which means “From Person to Person” and is efficiently abbreviated to PAP. Like a Pap smear, reading it could also be considered a test for something potentially hazardous. The weekly catalog of real estate listings, in which individual sellers listed their places without the use of an agent, was printed on no-nonsense newsprint. It was imperative that you picked one up as soon as the tied-up bundles were dropped off at the newsstands first thing Thursday morning, because anything good would be snatched up between the time the stack hit the pavement and the moment the string holding the bundle together was snipped open.
When I moved to France, it was almost unheard of to have Internet access at home. “It will steal your soul!” people in Paris warned me, and I chuckled at their naïveté. (Who knew that later they’d be right?) As the rest of the world rushed online, France eventually followed, and classified ads have now moved to the Internet. Whether they’re listed on paper or online, nearly a third of the places in Paris get sold by their owners, sans agent.
Adding to the challenge, many of the best apartments in Paris are sold without ever having been listed anywhere at all. So as part of one’s search, you should include the time-honored bouche-à-oreille, or “mouth to ear.” (The American idiom for the same idea, “ear to the ground,” alarmed Romain when I explained how I was going to search for an apartment by pressing my ear against the pavement. He was especially concerned because of what’s left behind by so many dogs on Paris sidewalks.)
The French proclivity for discretion, especially when it comes to discussing anything that has to do with money, extends to not being so gauche as to put a sign on your apartment window, which would let others know that you are willing to take something as distasteful as money for it. If you do see a “For Sale” sign, consider it an indication that the owners are having a hard time unloading the place.
Pavement-ear-pressing aside, it’s not uncommon to walk around a neighborhood you’re interested in and ask in cafés and shops, stop people on the street, and even query the vigilant gardiennes of buildings to see if they know of anyone selling their place. It’s the gardiennes’ business (or they think it is) to know everything about everyone in their building. Since they keep such good tabs on the goings-on of their building’s inhabitants, they can likely guess—based on, say, a spouse who has a frequent midday visitor who slips away, down the stairs and out of the building, with wet hair from a hasty shower before returning to work—whether an apartment might be available in the future.
During my search, exasperated by the system and fearful of an angry ex showing up at my front door if I went the gardienne route, I asked a real estate agent why they don’t just use a multiple listing service, where everybody could see all the homes that were available in one convenient place. It would benefit both buyers and sellers; agents would split their commission, which would eventually even out because there would be twice as many agents who got work. Which probably should have been my first clue as to why it wasn’t that way already: twice as much work.
“Why would I want to share a commission with someone?” an agent remarked, startled at the idea. I explained that not only would it be easier for everyone, but there’d be a lot more business to go around, which, as expected, further confused her. I left her office to continue my search, and she went back to her desk to not answer phone calls.
Real estate agents in France don’t fill the same role as they do in America. You don’t have the same relationship with an agent, where you might go out for coffee to discuss your dreams and goals for finding the perfect place. You don’t share family stories or swap cooking tips with someone who is helping you, whether you’re dreaming about a nice balcony to have your morning coffee on or looking for a place with a nice kitchen to bake in. There are no smiling headshots of well-groomed agents, ready to do anything to make sure you get just the right place to call home. French people avoid real estate agents as much as possible, viewing them with suspicion. I soon learned why.
As with any major purchase, the first thing one needs to do is to figure out a budget. But for the Paris apartment hunter, it’s just as important to start off deciding which neighborhood you want to live in. Each arrondissement has its own personality, and Parisians are defined by their quartier.
I’d been living in the 11th since moving to Paris. Though it’s one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods, it’s less known elsewhere: While speaking at an event in the United States, I was asked where I lived. When I answered, “The eleventh,” the woman who’d asked looked confused, then followed up with, “So…do you take the train into Paris every day?” I didn’t want to sound like a wise-guy, so I let her know…“I usually just walk.”
Many visitors stay in the upscale 6th and 7th arrondissements, close to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area on the Left Bank, but it’s become prohibitively expensive to buy there and the neighborhood is not a quartier populaire, as they say in French. That doesn’t mean it’s not “popular,” but that it’s not where a cross-section of people live, and I wanted to live like a local. (Minus the bureaucracy and paperwork.) The Left Bank is historically mesmerizing and sumptuous, but if you live on one side of Paris—say, on the Left or Right Bank—you rarely cross the river to visit the other side. Once you’re in a neighborhood, that’s where your life is. It helps to think of Paris as a collection of small villages bundled together, each one offering its own butchers, markets, bakeries, pharmacies, and even its own city hall. When you get to know everyone, you don’t want to leave.
Whenever the annual winner of the Best Baguette in Paris competition is announced, visitors will ask me if that’s where I’ll be going to get my baguette from now on. No one in Paris would ever dream of getting on a métro, or even stepping out of their neighborhood, to pick up a baguette. I do enough walking just going to Paris every day—which is just outside my front door, literally.
I hoped to stay in the 11th arrondissement, one of the largest in Paris, spanning from Père Lachaise Cemetery to the Place de la République, as well as bordering the Marais. It’s considered hip, or bobo; les bobos are the upscale Parisian version of a hipster—although none are knitting bonnets, like they do on the subways in Brooklyn; or raising chickens in their henhouse, like they do in Oakland; or building smoking and curing sheds in their backyards, like they do in Portland. Their primary activities are smoking (not the kind that flavors artisanal bacon) and drinking beer, not making it. Still, it’s a very diverse neighborhood that has a lot going for it; it borders the multicultural Belleville quarter and is a short walk to the 10th arrondissement, where many of the best new chefs in Paris have opened their restaurants. And because the 11th is quite vast, parts of it are (or were) affordable because there are so many apartments there.
The single-digit arrondissements, including the Marais, are certainly more familiar to visitors, but are very, very expensive. The Île Saint-Louis in the 4th is another stunning area that’s popular with visitors—so popular that they’ve scooped up most of the places there as they’ve become available. While most of us think we could live on Berthillon ice cream, the streets are packed with tourists checking out the shops selling jewelry and Eiffel Tower–shaped staplers, and there are few, if any, restaurants or cafés of note. The last time I ate at a famed bistro on the island, my dining companion was dismayed by her soggy onion quiche, which was obviously baked in a store-bought crust and then microwaved. I can’t even remember what I had, which isn’t a good sign, either. I didn’t want that place to be my neighborhood cantine.
The double-digit arrondissements are more diverse, and each has a distinct feel. Being more working class, there’s a greater sense of community. Some are certainly less polished than the single-digit arrondissements, with narrow streets and passages instead of grand avenues, but they have a more neighborhood feel. And while the chicest chocolate and pastry shops are in the more upscale areas, young chefs and bakers have opened places in the outer arrondissements that are casually inventive, and less expensive.
I like the 20th, perched high above Paris. The Parc de Belleville has an unparalleled view of Paris (second only to the view I had from my rooftop apartment), and I could have easily imagined living there amid its rough brick streets and the human scale of the architecture. There are no imposing Haussmann buildings and many old storefronts have been turned into studios by artists. There’s a flourishing community of specialty food shops on the crest of the hill. But it is only served by one métro line and is a very steep walk home if you miss the last train. (And riding one of the city-owned Vélib’ bikes up that steep hill is impossible, although a good way to work off all those frites and Côtes du Rhône.)
The Butte-aux-Cailles in the 13th is charming (and flat), and resembles a mini village far removed from a big city. Few buildings are taller than three or four stories, and the cobbled streets wind their way around sweet little sidewalk cafés and low-key restaurants, shaded by trees. Flowering vines cover ornate iron gates in front of apartment buildings and houses, and best of all, to beat the summer heat, there’s an art nouveau building that houses one indoor and two outdoor pools to cool down in, all filled with water sourced from artesian wells, and open to the public. It’s truly très charmant, but insanely expensive, although you can get a little bit of respite from the high prices at the communist restaurant, Les Temps des Cerises, a quirky place that offers inexpensive, serviceable food and cheap wine by the carafe—along with the all-caps slogan LA LUTTE CONTINUE!!! (The Fight Continues!), in case you want a helping of politics with your poulet rôti. (Personally, though, I don’t choose a restaurant based on how ready the staff is for a fight.)
Paris offers so many special places, but like most Parisians, I didn’t like the idea of leaving my neighborhood. I wanted to avoid the bizutage (hazing) of adapting to a completely different community: going through the process of becoming acquainted with a new set of shopkeepers, market vendors, and—the most important friend you can have in Paris—your pharmacist, who might look aside and fill a prescription for you without an ordinance (prescription), or will diagnose that curious rash on your back right in their pharmacy. (As long as you’re not shy about taking off your shirt in front of everybody in the store.) Mine in the Bastille had a freezer for storing drugs, so they were the recipients of a lot of ice cream when I was testing recipes for a book. I saved hundreds of euros in doctor’s bills by dropping off ice cream, which worked quite well for both of us. So I decided to focus on staying in my neighborhood; it had a good location, a burgeoning pastry scene, and convenient (and reasonably priced) health care.
The mouth-to-ear method of searching for an apartment didn’t work for me. I’m too timid to walk up to a stranger and ask them if they’d like me as a neighbor. But being French, Romain likes to talk—and is one of the few Frenchmen who also listens—and will happily spend forty-five minutes chatting up someone at a flea market about a cracked plate that he has no intention of buying, with the seller responding, even though he doesn’t seem to care if he sells it or not. They’ll spend fifteen minutes discussing the color, the era the plate was made, how it differs from other plates of that era, where the dealer obtained it, and what it was used for (a big point of discussion in France, where putting things in their own specific category is important; each plate, piece of cutlery, bowl, or glass, has its own specific purpose). I keep making the mistake of calling an assiette à soupe (soup plate) a soup bowl (bol) because it has sides to hold in soup. Before I moved here, I had always thought plates were flat and bowls were rounded. There aren’t just one or two forks in France: there are salad forks, melon forks, oyster forks, fruit forks, cornichon forks, snail forks, fish forks, meat forks, dinner forks, dessert forks, and even cuillères-fourchettes (sporks). And then there are all the knives, and spoons.
Romain’s conversation with the seller might then lead to a discussion of the highlights of the region where the plate was made, the food that might have been served on that kind of plate (and the right wine to accompany it), as well as the topography of the region, then, finally, what kind of plates their respective families used. By the time their conversation is over, I’ll have combed the entire flea market and returned loaded up with starched ivory-colored French linens, a copper ice cream mold, several sizes of enameled gratin dishes, a few bistro wine glasses, a well-used wooden bread board, and a set of vintage pastry utensils, and he’ll be surprised he came away from the market with nothing.
I don’t use dating apps, but friends who do tell me when they meet someone and know it’s not going to work, they say good-bye and leave right away. I used to think, How cruel! I could never do that to someone. Until I started looking at strangers’ apartments and wanted outta there as fast as possible.
It’s hard to look at places with the propriétaire present, which is the case when the apartment you’re looking at is being sold directly by the seller. I found it impossible to walk around someone’s place and not to ask things like “It must have been a great party last night. Look at all those empties!” or “Those are some gray skivvies you got there. Have you ever tried washing your whites separately?”
In the United States, sellers and agents host open houses. If you don’t like a place, you can quickly move on. I wanted to tell Romain, “I don’t like this place. Let’s go,” but he wandered around and took the owners up on their offer to sit on the couch (after moving a pile of laundry that needed folding and a little bleach) and settled in for a p’tit café with them. While the owner was busy preparing the coffee, I’d frantically motion toward the door, trying to wordlessly transmit a message that I was ready to scram, which was ignored. Or he’d say, out loud, “Why are you gesturing toward the door, Daveed?”—while I tried to figure out how I could disappear into the folds of the sofa, in spite of my concern about what might be buried in them.
I tried coming up with a code word, like couples in America use if one of them is ready to leave a party or gathering. My favorite French word is pamplemousse (grapefruit), so I explained to Romain that when I said “pamplemousse,” it was a signal that I was ready to split. I don’t think I described the concept well enough, though, and was stuck on many sofas, wondering how many times I could weave the word grapefruit into a conversation, hoping he’d remember why I was talking about grapefruit juice (and grapefruit varieties, and desserts made with grapefruit, and grapefruit cocktails, etc.) when we were supposed to be discussing the apartment.
It never worked, and I had no choice but to sit and listen to the sellers talk, and talk and talk and talk, which is the downside of being with a Frenchman who doesn’t mind listening.
Like most Parisians, my decision as to which quartier to live in was heavily influenced by which outdoor markets were nearby. If I told someone I was interested in a certain neighborhood, they’d pause, then brighten up, “Bien sûr! There is a very good marché there. The poissonnière has excellent Belon oysters at Christmas,” or “Oh, the Bastille market—they have superb Brie on Sundays. And that farmer who brings the leafy Swiss chard…it makes a gratin that’s truly pas mal.”
Of (almost) equal importance to living close to a good Brie de Meaux was living on the top floor of a building with an elevator, which is what I had at the time. I had tons of light, spectacular views, and no manic neighbors clomping around above. Since I dislike le jogging as much as the French, having an elevator so I didn’t have to walk up seven flights of stairs meant I’d just had to live with the poignées d’amour (love handles) I had developed from all the cheese and chocolate. But I was willing to live with them.
Unfortunately, I discovered early on in my search that 98 percent of the people in Paris looking for an apartment were also hoping to live on the very top floor, the ultimate étage élevé.
Whether it was the lack of a multiple listing service, awkward visits with people selling their apartments, gray unmentionables, agents uninterested in selling you the apartment they’re representing, an exchange rate that I kept praying would get more favorable, or confusing Romain (who by now thought he’d ended up with an American who not only started off as a possible stalker, but was also weirdly obsessed with grapefruits), I spent a couple of years starting and stopping my search. The process was frustrating and overly time-consuming because it was impossible to filter places—you had to first find the apartment, then go through the arduous task of trying to make an appointment to see each and every one, leaving messages and waiting for a response, then trying to find a time that was agreeable to the seller, and doing that over and over and over again. It took forever. And unfortunately, most of what I saw wasn’t worth the wait.
The first apartment that seemed like it might be the right place for me was a short walk from the Marché d’Aligre, which I think is the most exciting market in Paris. It’s a lively mix of French and North African vendors selling just about anything you could imagine: white-tipped French breakfast radishes (which no one in France eats for breakfast); Iranian dates, squat pumpkins as large as a Michelin tire, sold by the wedge; nutty Argan oil (made from nuts pooped out of goats, which tastes better than it sounds); oysters offered up by the platter and eaten on the sidewalk chased with a bracing glass of Sancerre—this market has it all.
On the ground floor was a place that sold homemade pasta, and three of the best bread bakeries in Paris were within a two-block radius. Like most apartments in Paris, the kitchen wasn’t large, but had more counter space than my current demi-kitchen. I was poised to make an offer on the duplex with no upstairs neighbors and just a short hop to the market. It was almost perfect…except for the hula hoop–size concrete post in the middle of the modest kitchen and dining area, holding up the floor above. Although the owner had already moved out and the space was empty, I found myself having to swerve around it every time I walked anywhere in the apartment. No amount of baguette swinging would have moved it out of the way.
The next apartment with potential was near the Buttes-Chaumont, a bucolic, lushly wooded park with grottos and a scenic man-made lake. The apartment was a loft: huge, wide-open, and brut (unfinished), a big plus, so I could create exactly the big kitchen I wanted, without having to worry about walls, or concrete pillars. The downside was that it was directly above a rap recording studio (which, oddly, wasn’t mentioned in the listing). The seller assured me that it was so well insulated you couldn’t hear a thing, despite disquieting thumps and vibrations coming from below as he told us otherwise. When we were leaving, we passed a few of the rappers, taking a break. Romain (naturally) started talking to them, and they casually dropped that they really enjoyed the neighborhood, liked recording there and did their best work after two A.M.
Next I went to look at a place beyond the Canal Saint-Martin in the northern part of Paris, which I didn’t consider to be a particularly treacherous part of town…until I turned the corner onto the street where the apartment was and surprised a pair of gendarmes in full-on riot gear, standing their ground in front of a building next door to the apartment I was there to look at. Each held a machine gun, pointed, cocked, and ready. They fixed their gaze on me as I hesitantly walked to the front door of the apartment building careful not to make any sudden moves. Once safely out of the neighborhood after I’d looked at the place, I called to tell the sellers I wasn’t interested, although I couldn’t have imagined a safer place to live. As long as I never left the house.
I grew excited about the possibilities of a place just off the up-and-coming Rue de Belleville, which Fox News determined to be a “no-go zone” in a rather odd reportage on the dangers lurking in Paris. Unlike the other neighborhood with machine-gun-ready gendarmes, this is one area where I’d spent a lot of time, and as far as I could tell, the biggest danger would be living close to stores selling sacks of bright green pistachios and dried apricots from Turkey, luscious figs and candied tangerines from North Africa, tins of Provençal and Tunisian olive oils, and fresh sheep’s-milk cheeses bobbing in vats of milky brine—and buying more than I could carry home.
The Belleville apartment close to all those shops had been transformed from an old print shop, and one of the photos in the annonce for the apartment showed a small patio, a big plus in Paris, where light and outdoor space command a premium.
The agent met me there at nine A.M., smelling as if he’d just spent the night at one of the nearby clubs in the gentrifying area. The place had looked nice in l’annonce, but the secluded courtyard ended up being tighter than the expansive-looking one in the photo. (Looking at apartments in Paris, I quickly learned the transformative powers of a wide-angle lens.) But still, it could be a nice place for a breakfast table for two…as long as you didn’t need to back your chair away from the table, or move sideways. We entered through the galley kitchen to the main space. The place had been listed as having a chambre (bedroom), which I found hovering over the living room; it was a bed held up by four cords on pulleys that needed to be moved up and down if you planned to eat, sit, work, watch television, or do anything other than sleep in the apartment. The agent looked like he would kill for a cup of coffee and another cigarette (he’d already gone out for two during the short time I was looking at the apartment), and he seemed just as happy to get out of there as I was.
Still hoping to find something around the Marché d’Aligre, I looked at another apartment on the top floor of a gorgeous corner building near Rue Paul Bert, a street lined with excellent restaurants and one of my favorite pastry shops in Paris. The rooms weren’t very spacious, but were bathed in warm natural light thanks to its triple exposition, which meant I could wean myself off the vials of vitamin D my doctor prescribes to me and 95 percent of her other patients, she told me, due to la grisaille, the gray skies of Paris that keep everyone in the city lining up at the pharmacies all winter.
During my visit, direct sunlight was already creeping into the apartment as the sun rose overhead that morning. When the sun hits a café terrace, sun-starved Parisians cluster at the tables where the strongest sunlight is, drawn to the light, and I imagined myself doing the same while enjoying my first coffee of the day on my own private balcony. To get a better look, I took a step outside without much thought. Fortunately, before I thought more about taking a second step, I looked down and saw that the only thing between me and a fourteen-story drop was a shin-level railing. The upside to moving into that apartment would have been that I wouldn’t have to answer the frequent interview question I’m inevitably asked about what my last meal on earth would be: it would be a café au lait.
After passing up the apartment with the death-drop terrace, I came upon what seemed like the perfect loft in an industrial building with a wall of windows. The large factorylike space was perfect and already had a workable open kitchen, and even built-in air-conditioning, unheard of in Paris.
The other units in the building were workshops occupied by artists, writers, and other creative types, who I figured would be great to have as neighbors. Since owners and agents in Paris are reluctant to disclose any flaws, it’s a good idea to talk to any neighbors for intel. Complaining comes easy to the French (which is why I didn’t have that much trouble adapting to life in France), especially on the subject of neighbors. When I took the language test for a visa, the proctor had to choose a scenario for us to discuss, based on something typical of everyday life. “Imaginez, monsieur,” she began, “that I am a friend who is having trouble with a neighbor.” Of course, I aced it, since that’s such a frequent topic of discussion.
On the way out, I ran into the woman from downstairs in the stairwell; she was talkative, and said it was a very nice building and that she was very happy there. She was also kind enough to invite me to see her apartment. She was an artist who had some of her work on the walls, which I glanced at but didn’t take the time to examine too closely—I was in apartment-hunting mode, not perusing art. After a look around, we parted with smiles and bisous, and exchanged cards. Finally, I’d found a great place with the perfect neighbor! I was so ready to take it that I could barely sleep that night and was prepared to make an offer the next morning. A place like that was sure to go fast.
The next morning, I opened my in-box to see she’d sent me a message. I clicked it open, expecting an invitation for a glass of Champagne to welcome me to the building. Instead, it was one of the most startling messages I’ve ever received (and having a blog, that’s saying something…), about how I didn’t appreciate her artwork, how rude I was, and how my behavior was absolutely a disgrace. I let that place go.
This went on for several years. I’d start looking, see a few places, get discouraged, and stop. I gave up on finding a top-floor apartment—not just because I learned that sometimes problems can come from below, but the competition for top-floor places was fierce and the scarcity of them was limiting my search.
I decided to expand my hunt to include espaces créatifs, thinking that I might find something more unusual or “creative” than the standard Parisian apartment. In a country where “thinking outside the box” isn’t always encouraged, I reasoned that it would help me score a place if I found one that was atypique, which would put others off. When I arrived in Paris in 2004, lofts and open-plan apartments weren’t very popular. Some had a hard time thinking that you could live in an apartment that didn’t have a separate kitchen (cuisine) with a door, where you prepare the cuisine; and a proper dining room, a salle à manger, specifically for eating. An eat-in kitchen? C’est pas possible…
Kitchens in Haussmannian apartments were separate from the family quarters to keep the help, and the smell of cooking, as far away as possible. When I moved to France, I found it odd that the smell of food cooking was considered intrusive to Parisians, whether coming from another room or a neighboring apartment. But then the odor of fried fish pervaded my hallway, lingering for days and days and days (not to mention a neighbor who smelled like very ripe Camembert), and I realized the French were right.
When I started looking at apartments, I’d also said to myself, I don’t want to buy an apartment that I have to do any work on. That was wishful thinking. There isn’t an apartment in Paris that isn’t in need of some sort of work. You don’t even need to look deeply to see what needs to be done. Minerals from the calcified water clogs pipes and leaves a heavy, impenetrable crust around the joints. Serpillières (tattered floor rags) are laid out on kitchen floors and in bathrooms to sop up the water that sprays from ancient spigots and showerheads. Walls in older places may be stained nicotine-yellow, and dark rooms are not brightened up by low-wattage wall sconces with burn marks surrounding the bulbs. And all the gray hair I’ve acquired since moving to France isn’t from frustration with the bureaucracy, but from plugging my stand mixer in to the wall and getting zapped by a jolt of ungrounded electricity every time I wanted to mix up a batch of cookies.
Then, at long last, I found it: l’appart. I had given up again and again, coming back with revised expectations, and still returned empty-handed. Juggling writing cookbooks, maintaining a blog, and keeping up with all the paperwork that I never seem to get ahead of, I had less and less time to go traipsing around town, hoping I’d eventually come across the right place. Dispirited, I engaged a search company, a type of business that’s sprung up in Paris due to the absence of a multiple listing service. Frustrated Parisians are starting to use them more and more, but it’s foreigners who’ve turned to search companies after pulling out most of their hair trying to find a place. I’d lost a lot of my hair for other reasons here, and what little I had left, I wanted to hold on to, so I hired one.
Within a few weeks, I’d seen a couple of apartments with Catherine, a confident, casually cool Frenchwoman who worked with the company I used. She would arrive on her scooter, remove her helmet, and let down her blond hair so we could exchange bisous on both cheeks. Because we were in France, we began on more formal terms, using vous as we spoke, but soon we were tutoyer-ing each other, meeting at cafés over lunch to discuss what I was looking for or having afternoon apéros after looking at places she thought would be of interest to me. We made an odd couple—a pretty Parisienne, full of youth, breezing through the convoluted traffic on her moto with a hapless American clinging to her back (and losing more of his hair with every harrowing turn she made through traffic.) But we clicked. Every few days, she’d e-mail me listings with notes. Some we’d go look at, others I’d nix right away. She also kept her ear to the ground, so to speak, and we looked at a couple of places that were being offered under the radar (an expression that required an explanation to Romain, who didn’t understand how one used a radar to find an apartment).
My new best friend, Catherine, sent me a text one day in the early spring to let me know she’d seen a place that was un peu atypique, but might be worth looking at. It was a bit spécial, she added, with some hesitation in her voice when I called her back, but she thought it was still worth a visit. Spécial is one of those elusive French words that means something (or someone) is…peculiar. The use of it is one of the rare times that the French are noncommittal about their opinion. It’s a nebulous designation, so you need to decide for yourself if whatever pluses something has will outweigh the minuses. It’s usually not bad, but a warning that a heads-up is in order. We made an appointment with the seller’s agent to take a look. And as soon as I walked in, I saw how spécial it was.
(Far aux cerises)
MAKES ONE 9-INCH (23CM) ROUND FLAN; ABOUT 8 SERVINGS
There’s a French expression, les temps des cerises (cherry season), which was the title of a song that originally had revolutionary overtones, something still very dear to the French, who take pride in their ability to rise up in protest. Many Americans express admiration about that spécial quality, although I think if a subway or train strike happened and disrupted their commute, or vacation, they’d be a little less sympathetic to their comrades.
Les temps des cerises is sometimes a reference to springtime, similar to “everything’s coming up roses.” I like roses, but I prefer bringing home bags of deep-red cherries when they’re piled up at the markets in Paris come spring and summer to bunches of flowers.
When I gave cherries a try in far, a classic Breton custard that’s normally studded with prunes, French friends were beside themselves because I had been so bold as to—gasp—replace one fruit with another. “C’est…c’est…c’est pas possible, Daveed!” You would have thought I asked them to eat it with a fork à escargots, rather than a fourchette à far, which probably exists somewhere in the pantheon of French fourchettes.
To add to the confusion, far means “flan” in the Breton language, which surprises Americans, thinking they’re going to get served a soft custard sitting in a pool of caramel, rather than a sturdy wedge, often studded with fruit. Regardless of the controversy a cherry-studded custard can cause (welcome to my life!), everyone open-minded enough to take a bite of this atypique custard likes it very much.
¼ cup (60ml) butter, melted, plus more for the pan
2 cups (300g) fresh pitted sweet cherries
½ cup (60g) dried sour cherries (optional)
2 cups (500ml) whole milk
3 large eggs, at room temperature
¾ cup (110g) all-purpose flour
⅔ cup (130g) sugar
3 tablespoons dark rum
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon pure almond extract
¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Brush a 9 by 2-inch (23 by 5cm) round cake pan (not a springform pan, which will leak) with melted butter. Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper cut to fit and butter the top of the parchment paper.
Distribute the fresh and dried cherries (if using) evenly over the bottom of the prepared pan.
In a blender, combine the milk, eggs, flour, sugar, melted butter, rum, vanilla and almond extracts, and salt. Blend until smooth.
Pour the custard over the cherries and bake until the center is completely set and the top is browned, 45 minutes. It may puff up a bit when it’s done. Remove from the oven and run a knife between the cake and the pan to help it release from the pan. Let cool completely.
When cool, set a large plate over the pan and, holding them together, turn them upside down to release the flan. (You might need to lightly rap the plate and pan on the counter to help it release.) Carefully peel off the parchment paper. Set a serving plate over the bottom of the flan and turn the flan and the plate right side up. Remove the top plate.
Serve at room temperature. The flan will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.