May 19, 2008

On a Clear Day, You Can See Paris

Lunch%20at%20Le%20Pichet%20w%20Wells%20book.JPGSidewalk table for lunch at Le Pichet: Salade verte, the café's signature green salad with hazelnuts, goat-cheese tartine (on country bread from Tall Grass Bakery) with cornichons on the side, a glass or two of Muscadet. Feels like France, even more so because I've brought along the new memoir by Patricia and Walter Wells, We've Always Had Paris...and Provence.

Walter, former New York Times staffer, was an editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune for 25 years, helping turn it into one of the most prestigious publications in the world. He was honored with the French Légion d'Honneur last summer. Patricia had been a Times staffer in New York as well but worked freelance in Paris until she was hired as the Trib's restaurant critic. She's written almost a dozen bibles for foodies, starting with the Food Lover's Guide to Paris. Along the way, she also became the first woman to review restaurants for l'Express, where her translator ended up marrying the magazine's editor.

So, wait, isn't this latest tome just another self-serving memoir? (Hardly.) Another collection of recipes? (Nope.) Self-indulgent food porn? (Nothing to see here, literally. Nothing but black and white snapshots.) Au contraire, it's a joyful scrapbook, a shoebox full of postcards from globetrotting friends, delightful emails and late-night phone calls. Reading their book is like strolling down the boulevards or driving through the French countryside; you can open any page and be enchanted.

Here's Walter on the American character, seen by the French: "We're alarmingly incurious, blithely unaware...not the land of liberty but of puberty." And the French, seen by Americans: "Arrogant and ungrateful. Lunch lasts three hours and the rest of the time they're on vacation."

Meantime, Patricia turns out a steady stream of fully researched articles, interviews, cookbooks, travel pieces, reviews. There's a whole subplot about how to watch your weight under those circumstances. Even teddy bear Walter loses 35 lbs. Yet at one point Patricia admits that she feels like a fraud, supposedly an authority on Paris even though--like bloggers!--she seems to spend every waking moment in the same tiny room. (Except for the trips, except for the dinners.)

So they buy a studio apartment on the Left Bank to give Patricia a kitchen where she can teach cooking classes in Paris. And they buy a rundown property in Provence, Chanteduc, where Patricia enthusiastically harvests grapes from their vineyard. Walter, having picked cotton for a penny a pound in the deep south, is not so enchanted. Of course, they have the same misadventures with local tradesmen that we've come to know from Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, but without Mayle's condescension. The place becomes a mecca for foodies.

Disclosure: Back in the days before internets, Cornichon's travel company, France In Your Glass, represented Patricia's cooking classes at Chanteduc. That was then. Now you can sign up online at, and everything through 2009 is waitlisted. It's a "retirement" career beyond all expectations.

Generous of spirit, curious, thoughtful and tolerant, Walter and Patricia are still leading a fantasy life. They hate the word expat, so let's call them exports. The best of America, exported to Paris.

Posted by Ronald Holden at May 19, 2008 4:36 PM | TrackBack

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