Duck Fat Roasting on an Open Fire

Celebrating my 50th birthday in Paris taught me that people are more alike than different, that kindness is universal, and that duck fat is good.

Last month I went to Paris for nine days. It was an early gift for my 50th birthday, taken in autumnal comfort rather than the freezing temperatures of the actual date in December. I never knew I had a bucket list till I checked Paris off of it. I have learned that there are some things I was right about, some things I was wrong about, and some things I had never bothered to question, but I now will know forever.
If you ever want to see humanity at its raw best, take a 9 ½ hour flight across the Atlantic with 300 strangers. The tiaras slip pretty quickly. I’m not sure how to say this any more politely, but early in the return flight it became apparent through olfactory evidence that someone on board was having gastrointestinal issues. At first people didn’t react, but after about six hours it was getting fairly mind-blowing. I decided to ignore it and settle in for a nap with my brand new deluxe neck pillow I had purchased for 30 Euros at the Charles De Gaulle airport. I blew it up and put it around my neck, but it was huge and unwieldy and smashed my face in, making me look like a Sharpei puppy sitting bolt upright. Now, there were two reasons I couldn’t breathe.

I finally yanked it off and slapped the lap tray up and turned around to see if I could spot the offender, at which point I saw the single funniest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. Two rows back from me was an impeccably dressed dark skinned man who had fashioned himself a gas mask out of a huge scarf. He had wrapped his head in it so that only his eyes showed, and he was watching a movie. I came completely apart. I collapsed with laughter into my girlfriend who was seated next to me. We literally came unglued playground style, gasping for breath and wiping our eyes. It was the most dignified, thoughtful solution to a problem that I have ever seen.

Of the things I was right about, my belief that all French women are thin turned out to be astonishingly accurate. They remain that way on a steady diet of triple fat cheese, cured meat and alcohol. They walk down the street toward you, and you can still see the traffic behind them through the space where their thighs don’t touch. No matter what their age is, they will be gorgeous, wearing jeans that fit like pantyhose and smoking.

Another thing I was right about is that French food tastes like the siren call of sin. I went three times to a funky little restaurant in Marais called “Page 35.” The name is in homage to the book Madamoiselle De Maupin by Theophile Gautier, who lived in the building during the 19th century. This is the piece of literature that promotes art for art’s sake, requiring it to have no justification and allowing it to be morally subversive. That’s a heavy concept for a place to grab lunch.

I was offered an “oeuf cocquette au foie gras de canard” which turned out to be a cup with a barely poached egg and duck fat into which you dip buttered, toasted bread spears. It was simple food with a satisfying smack of decadence. I was then served a Salade Lyonnaise so good it prompted a verbal declaration that for the remainder of my time on this earth, I was going to eat more ham. The meal was so meaningful that it prompted us to start a nine day game of fitting the words “duck fat” into popular songs, culminating on the Champs Elysees with my slam dunk rendition of the B-52s “Love Shack” transformed into “Duuuuuuuuuuuck FAT! Duck Fat Ba ay ay bee….” (Runner up was the Captain and Tennille’s timeless hit “Duckfat Love,” which was conceived while in line for the escalator at the Pompidou Center, much to the confusion of the Japanese group behind us.)

Of the things I had wrong, my fear that the French are rude and hate Americans was wildly inaccurate. People could not have been kinder. In restaurants and shops they went beyond and extended themselves time and again. A friend of a friend who had never laid eyes on us in his life escorted us around the city for an afternoon and evening, putting lasagna in our fridge when he arrived and pouring ginger martinis in us later. He called the next day and booked a taxi for our departure himself, going so far as to write down specific instructions for the driver. He set a new bar for hospitality, and that’s a lot for a girl used to the loving arms of the South to say.

Another thing I had wrong is that I always found smart cars to be ridiculous. It turns out they aren’t so comical if there are enough of them. They blend more, and without the contrast of SUVs everywhere, they look less like a cartoon. Paris is a progressively green city, in a lot of ways that Birmingham could emulate at relatively low cost. Aside from the plethora of tiny cars, there are banks of bikes with baskets every few blocks or so. You swipe your credit card to unlock the bike, then you are charged about one euro per hour to use it and the first 30 minutes are free. Plus—you can drop it at any of the bike stands you come across. They also have enormous green recycling containers on many corners, for people to easily separate and dispose of their trash daily. I know this because I closely inspected one when I mistook it for a vending machine. When I saw the picture of the wine bottles on the side of it by the opening for glass, I just for an instant thought I could buy chardonnay out of it. (Entrepreneurs—that idea is not without merit.)

I was peaceful the rest of the flight back, partially because of the lessons of my trip, and partially due to the four straight hours I spent playing the game Bejeweled. Vacations are best when they allow for a little escape, a little introspection, and enough experiences to add to your arsenal of favorite memories. This one was magic. 
I plan to use the man with the gas mask as a metaphor for how to deal with any unpleasantness in life that I know will not matter in the long run. I am ecstatic to turn 50. As far as I’m concerned, 50 is the new 50. I love knowing that people are more alike than different, that kindness is universal, that duck fat is good.

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