Bonjour, fellow Boomers! Are you ready to make some history? My name is JoAnn Bell and welcome to my first blog post — ever! I am the Vice President of Programs at Road Scholar. What does that mean? It means I have three decades of experience, traveling the world, learning the do’s and don’ts, the when’s and why’s, the where-to’s and the never-again’s. Educational travel is an investment, so I want to make sure you always get your money’s worth.
One of the questions I’m frequently asked when I am on a Road Scholar program is what recommendations I have when people have time on their own. What’s the best way to get a taste for the local culture? My answer? Get a taste of the local culture … by going food shopping.
I was recently on our Independent Paris program, and whenever I go to Paris, I never miss going to my favorite stores. Now, this isn’t about shopping, it’s about one of my favorite ways to embrace French culture — through food and the dining customs of France.
Monoprix is a popular large store that is both department and grocery store. Walking through the aisles of the grocery store is a lesson in the approach that French people take to eating and drinking. You can see what is typically eaten for breakfast, the afternoon snack, the evening aperitif.
I always pick up a few items to take home with me that I can’t get back in the U.S. One of these is instant café au lait Bonjour. I like this in particular, because it has no sugar and it’s convenient to take with me when I stay in hotels. Another product I enjoy are the little crackers called “biscuits d’aperitif”. The word “aperitif” literally means “to open the appetite”. The French custom of what we would call “cocktail hour” is to only consume light little snacks and beverages that open the taste buds in preparation for the meal to come.
A very practical reason for going to the grocery store is to replace some restaurant meals with a “room picnic.” I love eating out in French restaurants, but once in awhile, I’m just too tired after a day of exploring to sit down to a two-hour dinner. So picking up some cheese, pâte, fruit, biscuits, baguette and a bottle of wine is an adventure for the palate as well as good economics. To make things easy, I always travel with a small plastic container that holds a fork, spoon and serrated-edged knife. Of course I have a corkscrew that never leaves my suitcase (the one that I check, not my carry-on.) A couple collapsible cups complete my “kit”. On trips during nice weather, these little “pique-niques” move out of doors to the nearby Luxembourg Gardens or the banks of the Seine River.
Now, the little corner markets and large grocery stores are always available, any time and any day. But I also enjoy taking my grocery shopping adventure to the traditional open-air markets. Near my hotel, the Villa Pantheon, where participants on our Independent Paris program stay, there are markets on certain mornings at the Place Monge and the Place Maubert. If I’m at the hotel Villa Montparnasse, the rue Daguerre is a foodie heaven, and near my favorite kitchen store Dehilleren (a routine stop on The Julia Child Voyage and home to the BEST tomato knives in the world), is the historic rue du Montorgeuil.
At first, I was shy about trying out my French and wasn’t sure how to order small quantities in the metric system. So one of my French-speaking Road Scholar staff made me a handy reference of US- metric conversions and French phrases so that I can order “une tranche de cent grams du fromage bleu, s’il vous plaît” with confidence! (That’s a slice of 100 grams of bleu cheese, by the way.) Contrary to what many Americans might think, the French are very friendly when you try to speak French. The secret is to start every conversation with “Bonjour” (hello) and always remember to say “merci, au revoir” (thank you, good-bye).
Bon Apetit! Check back next month for more boomer travel tips!