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O C T O B E R 1 9 9 9
"YOU can't get a bad meal in Paris," more than one person told me before my husband and I went to France together for the first time. Alas, within twenty-four hours of arrival we had proved those happy souls wrong. As I recall, throughout that trip we kept on redundantly proving them wrong, though I caught a cold and, I'll admit, my gastronomic standards went to hell.
You can get wonderful food in Paris, of course, and I don't mean just exorbitant haute cuisine. Before our next trip we made lists, we made reservations -- we planned our meals as if we were Wellington preparing for Waterloo. We planned all except the first night, when we could count on being jet-lagged, out of sync, and out of sorts. Spontaneity, we supposed, would be the best plan.
We set out on foot as soon as we began to be hungry. It was a hot summer night. The first restaurant we came to was snug and cozy -- no, thanks. The next was Vietnamese -- all right, but not our idea of a welcome to Paris. The further possibilities were maybe a bit grotty, or insufficiently French, or not pretty, or too expensive, or . . . We disdained one fancy place on the grounds that we'd be expected to sit up straight there, and we were tired. Never mind Wellington -- now we were Goldilocks refusing to settle for a less than perfectly pleasing bowl of porridge.
We walked and walked. At last we came to a wide stone square, serene and gorgeous in the long, slanting light. People stood or lounged on a set of steps, awaiting the nightly opening of the Odéon, the architectural focus of the square. Across the way was a glass-fronted restaurant, La Méditerranée. We liked the setting, we liked the restaurant's looks, we liked the posted menu: not too haughty, not too louche, but juuuust right.
Inside we discovered that a set of murals, the china, and the crisp linens had been designed by Jean Cocteau. We were shown to a spacious table with a view. The food was fine -- not stunning, we didn't require stunning, but fine. The service was hospitable, and no one seemed to mind when we soon slumped a bit in our chairs. The bill was reasonable enough. The only thing was, we had such a long walk back to our hotel.
-- BARBARA WALLRAFF
I KNOW a place where a historic river -- a good canoeing river -- curls lazily within a mile-wide fen before passing alongside promontories called Rocky Narrows and King Philip's Overlook. A blue heron stands around every bend. The town on the river's eastern bank was founded the year Charles I lost his head, and a cellar hole in a forgotten copse marks the location of an early house, fortified against attack. The town is more crowded now, but large tracts of land have been put aside unspoiled, and grassy fields still stretch toward ridgeline windbreaks: you can walk around unbothered for hours, and yet remain close to food and drink and shops. A historical society is open for a few hours on weekends -- its artifacts may be a little threadbare, but they include the keyboard on which "Joy to the World" was composed -- and the surrounding area is dotted with specialty museums and small colleges that offer concerts and farms where you can pick your own. The general store doesn't bill itself as such -- but that's what it is, and it has a counter for serving coffee and a crew of morning regulars who will turn in unison to observe an unfamiliar face.
There are inns and hotels and bed-and-breakfasts nearby, but I always stay at a little place that comes with a kitchen and a screen porch, and even the use of a car. Better yet, part of the monthly cost of my lodging turns out to be deductible for federal-tax purposes. I can no longer recall the sensation of first happening upon the locale where I make my home. Dropped here suddenly from Oahu or Osaka, I would surely write postcards about my lucky find. I value visitors from far away for the fresh eyes they bring. If only I could get them to do the lawn.
-- CULLEN MURPHY
Illustrations by Diane Bigda.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.