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A cruise on the Seine

Cruise on the Seine in Paris

Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

In Paris, I’m attending Localization World, which is basically concerned with how to make money in other languages, or at least other cultures. Part of the backstage production involves how to get attendees from the conference venue to our cruise for dinner. We’re paying nearly 100 euros for this dinner cruise on Le Paquebot, supposedly the biggest ship on the Seine, so we’re expecting good service.

There are busses all arranged, and I go down and find them outside the Palais des Congres without too much trouble. So far, so good. I jump in. It’s egregiously hot inside, and the Italian man across from me starts to complain. I run to the front of the bus and ask the driver to turn the air on. He obliges, and we’re off.

We pass the Arc de Triomphe, and make our way to the Eiffel tower. We descend to a small quay and the driver stops. Everyone gets out. Unfortunately, where there should be a luxurious dinner boat, there is nothing. Everyone stands around waiting for something to happen. I go off to the nearest boat to see if maybe they’ve forgotten to put out the welcome sign for us, but it’s locked. By the time I get back, someone has figured out that we’re on the wrong quay. The bus driver is attempting to explain this in English, but it isn’t working very well. I step in, and he switches to French, pointing down to where the boat is actually waiting. I can’t go there easily in a bus, he tells me, but it’s a three-minute walk, just on the other side of the Parisian miniature of the Statue of Liberty.

So I lead the crowd to the boat, where there’s a whole committee standing with plastered-on smiles and a strained look in their eye. We’re the first bus to make it to the destination, which is not a promising sign.

We wait for awhile, and others trickle in, some on foot, some by way of the busses. Apparently, their busses got lost as well, but the drivers were able to work it out to close proximity. Soon, there is only one bus missing. Someone checks Twitter. There’s a tweet from a passenger: the bus has gotten stopped by the police because the driver was talking on his cell phone trying to work out where exactly the quay was. At this point, a group of passengers decided to take matters into their own hands, got off the bus in the middle of traffic, and started walking. In the wrong direction.

Chastised by the police, but duly notified of where to go, the last bus driver escorts his remaining passengers to the boat. They get out. The welcome committee waits for the last twenty people or so, nervously checking the time. The boat is almost two hours behind schedule. It starts to rain. Ten more minutes, they say. We’re only waiting ten more minutes.

The last twenty appear down the alleyway, dressed for dinner in their heels and ruffles. They approach, clop-clop-clop, and march down the gangplank, plunk-plunk-plunk. They are hungry, as is everyone else, but dinner hasn’t been served yet, because the boat hasn’t left.

When it is served, it’s a bit sparse, although it’s tasty. We float past Notre Dame, we float under the Pont Neuf, we have prolonged views of the glittering Eiffel tower. I decide that the price of entry must have been for the experience. Paris by night isn’t bad, even in the rain.

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The Eiffel Tower

Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

Antoine, the youngest of the Mazos, has given me an unexpected birthday present: a beautiful little pendant that looks like a large pearl or a small, pristinely white Fabergé egg. I put it around my neck and feel the smoothness of it with my fingertips. I thank Antoine, but I wonder if he knows how much I like it. Somehow, oddly, it reminds me of the bracelet I got from all the teachers at the Lycee in Rouen when I left their ranks years before. But perhaps not so oddly, because both pieces of jewelry were handcrafted in Rouen. Christine, Antoine’s mother and my favorite fellow teacher, was sure to tell me that it was local, just as Antoine tells me now that this necklace is local.

Back in 2005, when my contract ran out and I left Rouen to see Italy and Ireland, I threw most of my clothes in the charity bin by a supermarket hidden in the labyrinth of the Norman streets. I hadn’t brought or bought much of value. But I was proud of that silver bracelet around my wrist, serpentine leaves with centers of blue crystal; not sapphire but just as hot in the light. I hadn’t liked the bracelet at first, honestly, but, overwhelmed at the generosity of my colleagues, I had put it on and kissed all of them as was the custom, even the dour principal with sagging jowls.

I wore it to Italy. In Pisa, I sat in a green field, contemplating the tower alone, playing with the facets of my bracelet. At one angle the reflected light shone straight up green into the green of my eye, taking up the total of my vision. In Florence I slept with the bracelet clasped around my wrist in a stranger’s apartment. I trusted the stranger, who lived near Seattle normally, recognizing her as the sort of girl who wanted to have adventures to tell upon her return, like, yeah, there was this one time I met this chick outside the train station and I was like, yeah, you can stay with me ‘cause we Americans need to stick together. I assume she thought I was OK because I didn’t look like a beggar.

But the only barrier between myself and those beggars bowing on the pavement was the weight pressing me downward, the bite of my luggage, the euros around my neck, and my paltry gentility. I had no idea which city to live in after I got back to the States, no home, no job; I really and truly was homeless and jobless just like those beggars, however temporarily. But I shrugged and took the train to Rome, talking on the way with a parachutist from Sardinia, who tried to teach me Italian and then left forever with a tip of his cap.

On the plane to Dublin the light came in the window and sent back prism shards

onto the plastic wall, some blue-cold, some separated sharply into red yellow purple.

We flew over Normandy into the sunset. In Dublin, I hopped on a bus to my hostel,

debarked, and took a shower. I looked in the mirror to see my wrist and it was naked.

I felt naked all that day, and the thought that kept coming back to me was: what is the point of seeing things if you have no way to keep them?

So when Antoine gives me the necklace, I think, secretly, this can replace the thing I lost before. On this trip, I’ve gone in exactly the reverse of that other trip: Ireland, Italy, Normandy, and here I am with something to remember my time in Normandy again. It’s a pleasing thought.

I take the train to Paris wearing this necklace, check in to my hotel, and meet up with friends from the Netherlands. We all go to dinner, where I can’t help running my fingers over the smoothness of the white pendent in between courses, just to make sure it’s still there. Then we decide we’re going to take the metro to La Defense not far away. We hop on the metro, hang on the rails, chatting and catching up, and I look in the window to see my throat. It is naked. I put my hand up, startled.

I go back to my hotel room, which has a stunning view of the Eiffel tower, but I am too irritated to pay much attention to that. I ransack my room in case I have lost my mind and the necklace is actually in my luggage somewhere. But it’s not. Just as before, I have no idea if the jewelry was lost or stolen.

I sit down on the bed and wonder if I should cry. I am just as I was before, that girl who felt suddenly as if her only physical link to history and nobility had disappeared. And I have to remind myself that things have changed slightly — I have a job, I have a house, I have a posh hotel room to sleep in rather than a $12 hostel, and yes, I even have more jewelry. I take a photo of the Eiffel tower to appease myself. This, too, can be a souvenir.

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The cheese mule

The next morning, as we are checking out of the Hôtel Lutétia, a messenger arrives from Madame Cantin’s fromagerie. He has a very large bundle for me. Two vacuum-packed parcels wrapped in tissue paper. About 10 kilos of unpasteurized cheeses, including all four rounds of the Epoisses Madame Cantin had in her shop.

I also have Camembert de Normandie, Langres, Vacherin Mont d’Or, and a dozen different fresh chèvres, some covered in ash, others rippling with a pale blue mold, all completely and totally illegal to bring back to the States.

My wife looks at me with alarm. “What’s that smell?” she says as I hand her the packages and ask her to carry them for me.

“It’s nothing,” I tell her. “Just a little cheese.”

“Is it okay to bring back?”

I do my little French snort. “Of course,” I lie. “It’s nothing. Rien, rien, rien.” And then, as the taxi pulls away from the hotel, the precious bundles of cheese sitting prettily on her lap, I give her a kiss on the cheek. “Trust me, darling.”


The high priestess of cheese

Madame Cantin is a high priestess in the religion of raw-milk cheeses, and she works hard to convert me, putting out a large tray of different raw cow and goat-milk cheeses, any one of which would be illegal to sell in the United States.

Seeing my trepidation, she says, “How can you be afraid to eat my cheese but not be afraid to eat a McDonald’s hamburger?”

It is a question for which I have no answer.

I sample her cheeses. They are magnificent. She sees the look in my eyes and knows: I am a believer. Praise the lowly goat!

Now—and only now—will she sell me the outrageously expensive Epoisses.


Stinky cheese

I tell Marie-Anne Cantin that the cheese is a gift for a friend in California and ask if she can wrap it up for me. She asks when I am leaving. Tomorrow, I tell her. “Then I will deliver it to your hotel. What time do you leave?”

When I ask her why I can’t just take it with me, she sighs, looks at me sadly, and says it is simply not possible. That is when she delivers the bombshell: “You know, of course, this cheese is illegal in your country,” she says. No, I tell her. I did not know.

And then she sees the problem: I am a dupe. A rube. A cheese mule, as it were. I have been asked to carry nine ounces of an illegal substance, something I know nothing about. So her mission is clear. If I am to go through with this, first I must learn what I’m dealing with. Before she will sell me the Epoisses, she insists on giving me a crash course in French cheesemaking (most of which I have already revealed to you).

Madame Cantin puts on a smart laboratory smock and leads me down some dark stairs at the rear of her shop to the cellar. Here she has two dark rooms full of stinky raw-milk cheeses. One room for goat cheese, another room for cow cheese. We enter the goat cheese room. There are hundreds—no, thousands—of little white slabs of cheese on trays stacked from floor to ceiling being aged to perfection. The Fort Knox of chèvre. For the next hour or so, I learn everything there is to know about curds and whey. I learn about rennet and mold and brine. I learn about washed-rind cheeses, like Epoisses, which, as they ripen, are brushed with marc, a French alcohol. But mostly I learn about the joys of making cheese from unpasteurized milk.


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