Sunday, May 29, 2016

Surprise, surprise!

Lucille Ball
When it comes to surprises, what’s better, to give or receive?

Last week I pulled off the biggest surprise of my life by dropping in on mom in Pittsburgh, for her 80th birthday. (Only possible because a sudden business trip took me nearly there, to New York.)

A while ago, I asked mom what she wanted for her birthday. “Dinner at Lidia’s,” she said. “Plus, I would like someone to detail my car and plant some herbs in the backyard.”

“Consider it done mom,” I said. She didn’t question how I would pull off these gifts, considering I was 4,000 miles (or about 6,000 kilometers) away.

A popular Italian restaurant, Lidia's had only one available slot open, at 4:30 p.m. Like many true Pittsburghers, my parents eat early, so this wasn’t a problem. In Paris at this time, we’re usually having “goûter,” or a snack to tide us over until dinner at 8 p.m. Lidia’s is also wheelchair accessible, which is important to my dad.

Now came the hard part, herding the Burke cats, with my mom and dad as the wildest ones to corral. They started to waffle as the date approached. “There's a possibility we may have to cancel dinner at Lidia's,” mom wrote in an email to my sister-in-law, who was supposedly handling the reservation, “Dad doesn't want to go.” He has a way of digging in his heel.

Tiramisu at Lidia's
I asked everyone to hang tight until I got there. My brother picked me up at the airport late Thursday, and my sister-in-law phoned ahead the next day to make sure mom would be at home. “I’m going to Shadyside, and thought we would drop in for a visit on the way there.” Mom still didn’t suspect a thing.

Mom opened the door to my niece, and then saw my sister-in-law approach with luggage. “That’s one big lunch,” my mom thought. Then she saw me on the sidewalk and raised her hands to her cheeks in The Scream pose, as if she saw a ghost!

My dad was in the living room, enjoying the scene. “I guess this means I’ll have to go to dinner,” he said, without missing a beat. We were all speechless.

If that wasn’t surprise enough, then came the ride to dinner with Access, a public transportation shuttle for seniors and the disabled (funded by lottery revenues). It’s great, but you’ve got to build in a lot of time. We got a 2:30 p.m. slot for the 4:30 p.m. reservation. Once we realized we were in it for the long haul, as the driver made several drop-offs and pick-ups, we sat tight. We had to, because this van rode like the Thunderbolt wooden roller coaster at Kennywood!

From the South Hills, we climbed Mt. Washington, where my dad was born. From there we went to East Liberty, and then careened down Penn Avenue, bisecting the Strip District. This area of Pittsburgh along the Allegheny River is rapidly gentrifying, spurred by tech giants like Apple, Google, and Facebook that have built offices. Riverlife just announced plans for a riverfront park that is sure to continue Pittsburgh’s surprising (but slow) transformation from the Steel City to a tech town (by day and party town by night).

When it comes to life’s surprises, it’s great to give them and receive. An easy way is to be open to life’s wild rides. In the age of Google Mail, Calendar, and Maps, we’ve overplanned our lives and wrung out most of the possibility of the unexpected—how boring!

When was the last time you surprised someone, or had the surprise of your life?


Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes the blog Paris, Pittsburgh, And More, about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Find me on LinkedIn, email me at rose.burke89 "at", or follow me on Google+.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Freewheeling In Paris

Spring finally arrived last week in Paris, and I took my bike out for its first spin in months, which is highly unusual. I didn’t used to be a fair-weather cyclist.

Call me crazy, but I commuted to work for more than a decade--day in, day out, through sun, rain, wind, sleet, and the occasional snowfall! What’s more, I wrote the first online English-language guide to cycling in the city, before it was even a concept. Before online was a concept. My publisher dropped me saying the topic was “too niche.”

That’s not true today. Cycling here has gone from about 1% of the commuting population to about 15%, according to the City of Paris. That’s huge growth in the 15 years since I wrote my guide.

When I started cycling here, there were no real bike paths at all, just faint paint marks on the asphalt from years gone by.

Seeing me in my Lycra bike pants and helmet, Parisians would tease me, yelling “Tour de France!” Cyclists were few, and even riders on the tour didn’t wear helmets!

Today, Paris has 700 kilometers of dedicated and shared bike paths, and has big plans in the next five years. It plans to invest €150 million to double the kilometerage of paths to 1400.

Plus, the authorities are building north-south and east-west express lanes so that bikes can zip from one end of the city to the other unimpeded by stop lights or cars. They’re calling it Réseau Express Vélo or REVe—which means “dream” in English. What’s more, while the city has been eliminating parking for cars, it plans to add 10,000 spots for bikes.

Riding in Paris, I have long believed, is a natural. The terrain is mostly flat, though some hills can fool you, like those leading to Passy, Montmartre, or Belleville.

The only problem are the cars. But even the amount of car traffic isn’t so bad, outside of rush hour. Sunday mornings can be bliss on a bike.

Now I said cars, and I don’t mean drivers. Parisian motorists usually watch out for cyclists, and are bound by law to give a meter’s berth. Unlike in the U.S., where drivers seem to believe that they alone have paid for the asphalt! Pittsburgh has seen some dreadful, fatal cycling accidents lately. In Paris, it’s the cyclists who aren’t used to the idea of heeding traffic signs.

One thing that’s supercharged the use of bikes for transport in Paris are low-cost public rentals through the Vélib program.

The Vélib 
The system was launched in the summer of 2007, and now boasts 23,600 bicycles and 1,800 stations, with an average daily ridership of over 100,000 in 2014, according to the mayor’s office 2014 report on commuting.

Vélib is one reason why I haven’t—until this week—replaced my own 30-year-old hybrid. The rental bikes are maintenance-free for the user.

But the Vélib is also the reason I’m buying a new bike. It weighs a ton! (More precisely, 22.5 kilos or 50 pounds.) My commute is now twice as long since I moved to the 'burbs, and after pedaling that tank for 40 minutes each way, I’m exhausted when I get home!

The word The Vélib is a mashup for Vélo and libération—bike and freedom. It describes the dreamy way I feel while cycling in the city, even uphill. Now if the mayor could only do something about the weather?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Help! I'm Losing My (Mother) Tongue!

They say the best way to learn a language is total immersion, and this week I was happily drowning in a sea of English.

You see, after living abroad for a decade or two, your mother tongue starts to decay. When speaking in English, I reach for words—and sometimes it's the French mot that first comes to my tête. Or the odd phrase in the Pittsburghese dialect of my youth like “jeet jet.”

Losing your linguistic mind is a bummer when you're playing Scrabble or doing the New York Times mini puzzle, my favorite way to spend the morning commute. It's even worse when you're talking with your British boss and mangle idioms: “Yes, that sank  like a lead balloon.” At least I got a laugh!

I've found the only way to combat “language death,” and it is a thing, is language boot camp.

It doesn't have to be painful. The program this week consisted of seeing plays in English, finishing the book Joy Inc., and reading 44 short stories by middle schoolers as a judge for the Young Authors Fiction Festival.

Joy Inc. is about a high-tech company that became hugely successful by getting people to—get ready for the big discovery--talk to one another. No more email. Instead, staff use High-Speed Voice Technology, aka the human voice.

And what a joy to watch the San Francisco troupe Word for Word, which stays 100% true to the texts they perform. The actors staged the stories “Night Vision” by Emma Donoghue, and “Silence,” by Colm Toibin.

I was truly inspired reading the short stories. Every entry was original and creative. The only thing that varied was technique--and the number of misspelled words. I'm not a stickler, but times I didn understood wat the riter ment.

As I write this, I'm totally knackered (and have just slipped into the word for exhausted in British English, which is what most of my European colleagues speak). Learning a native language is hard work! 

But there's no rest for the word weary. Tonight marks the end of boot camp, the final exam. Dinner with two real American natives from Wisconsin on vacation in Paris. I'll be testing out High-Speed Voice Technology, and hanging on their every word. I hope I don't go down like a lead balloon, or sink fast like a rock.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes the blog Paris, Pittsburgh, And More about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Find me on LinkedIn, email me at rose.burke89 "at", or follow me on Google+.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Paris Places: Croissant Quest

How do you know when you're a Parisian? When you can pass a bakery without buying a croissant. Because you just know it won't be worth its weight in butter.

But when my favorite food blog, Chocolate and Zucchini, ran the article “My 6 Favorite Croissants in Paris,” I told the family we were going on a mission.

Out in the suburbs where we live now, a croissant is hard to find. Let alone a good one. And it has been months since I've had a croissant, since I usually eat dairy-free (long story).

My daughter was on spring break, and we weren't going out of town, so why not trek into town?

So off we went last Saturday to the closest of the six bakeries on C&Z's list, Des Gâteaux et du Pain. My husband was hoping to savor his pastry with a tiny French coffee. My daughter needed a restroom. I just wanted a croissant that was worth the trip, as the Michelin man might say.

What would be worth it? A croissant that isn't burnt, crushed, saggy, or greasy, and that doesn't flake all over your clothing before it gets into your mouth. A croissant that can live up to the guilt of 400 empty calories.

OK, so I'm picky, as they would say in Pittsburgh, where I learned a thing or two about pastries. While in high school, I worked as a clerk at Karhut's Bakery in Mount Oliver, and became very close with donuts, coffee cakes, and Danish. About 20 pounds too close.

We arrived at Des Gâteaux et du Pain and stopped at the window. This was no ordinary bakery. We were almost afraid to go in, as if it were Chanel or Cartier. I bravely opened the door. The pastries were arranged artfully in one case, and the cakes in another, like jewelry. The loaves of bread were tiered against a wall.

In most bakeries, there is a counter separating you from the goods. From actually seeing what you are buying. Here, you could pick them up yourself, if not for the very attentive clerks in black aprons and black gloves.

We asked for our three croissants, and what the heck, a fougasse—olive bread. I noticed how the clerk carefully set each croissant into the paper bag, so they wouldn't crush. Good sign. Because there was neither restroom or coffee, we scurried home with the goods.

Still being very French about it all, we first examined our still uncrushed designer croissants. They were an evenly baked gold and noticeably striated.

We bite into a crunch of crust that yielded into a soft springy center. No flakes! Better yet, the croissant had actual flavor, with a strong nutty wheat that didn't let itself be overwhelmed by the slightly sweet butter, just happily sandwiched. This might not be everyone's idea of a croissant, with more cake than crust.

C&Z didn't steer us wrong. This one was worth the trip, the calories, the quest. I have been to croissant heaven.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes the blog Paris, Pittsburgh and More about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Send me a request at rose.burke89 "at"