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are veja sneakers comfortable - photo of v-12 mesh sneakers

Are Veja Sneakers Comfortable? No. (But Hold On.)

There’s an easy answer to the question: Are Veja sneakers comfortable? The answer is no. The answer is no! Sucks, but they’re not.

However. 

I love my Vejas — all my Vejas — and I continue to wear them. Let’s dig into this.

First: What are Vejas?

Despite its name, Veja is a French brand of high-end, athletic-inspired footwear. (Is it just me? Before a Veja store moved in down the block from my apartment, I thought it was a Spanish line.) Sustainability was built into the brand from the launch, in 2004, when co-founders Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion built out a production model in Brazil that made use of sustainably produced Amazonian rubber, organic cotton (farmed in the south of the country), and chrome-free leather, which supposedly means less waste in terms of water and energy. (According to them: “Coming from farms located in the south of Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul), it undergoes an innovative tanning process where no chrome, heavy metals or dangerous acids are involved. By simplifying the tanning process, the use of chemicals and energy is limited, the use of water is reduced by about 40% and the use of salt by 80%. After tanning, the water is recyclable.” I can’t guarantee the value of any of this #greenwashing.)

Coolness was also built into the brand from the beginning: It launched at the Palais de Tokyo (a v. hip Paris museum), and early collaborators included Agnès B. and Comptoir des Cotonniers. Nearly 20 years later, you’ll see a line outside its shops: There are Veja stores in five cities: in Paris (one in the Marais, one in Montmartre), Bordeaux, Berlin, Madrid, and New York.

BTW: Most of the images and sales links below go to Madewell, since they had the best-looking photos, but Vejas are available across the Internet, at shops like Zappos, Shopbop, Free People, Amazon, the Veja store, and many others. They absolutely do go on sale, so have a good look around, and always keep an eye out for their great collabs — I’m obsessed with this Marni collab, now on sale.

So: Are Veja Sneakers Comfortable? It Depends.

It depends on the model. Some are, some aren’t. Here’s a breakdown:

veja campos

The Campo

The signature Veja style is probably the Campo (or the Esplars, which are a little narrower). It’s a low, fairly lightweight sneaker, and they look amazing with jeans, shorts, leggings, almost literally anything. Because they’re (for the most part) mostly white (with some colorful decoration in the logo and heel tag), you have to work really hard to get a pair that doesn’t go with almost everything — they’re super versatile. They’re great for a date where you might need to do some but not a ton of walking, or most weekend activities.

What they don’t have is terrific support, so if that’s a priority for you, try one of the sportier models. They can be quite stiff, and while they loosen up a bit, my two pairs have never felt truly “broken in,” if you know what I mean. Also, they look like sneakers, but they wear, in my opinion, more like loafers, or something with a less cushioned base. Honestly, when I learned that they’re made in Brazil, my first response was that it made sense, because to me they feel like winter-Havaianas: They’re not comfortable, but they’re not awful. You wouldn’t want to hike in them. You wouldn’t want to walk 40 blocks in them. (You could, but you’d have better shoes for the job.) Basically I wear them on days when I want to look cute — and know I won’t have a ton of walking to do.

FTR, this isn’t a question of breaking them in — I’ve had two pairs I’ve worn for over a year. They held up well — but they never became much more comfortable on Day 500 than they were on Day 5.

BUY IT HERE: Madewell

veja esplars

The Esplar

The Esplar is a lot like the Campo, but it’s slightly narrower, and the sole seems a little thinner to me. I bought these for myself originally, and then ended up trading them in for the Campos. It’s a no from me, dawg.

I do like the version in pink, at least from a looks perspective.

BUY IT HERE: Zappos

vejas v-10s with blue and red details

The V-10s

The V-10s are the Vejas made famous by Meghan Markle. On this point, I agree with her choice: Of all the Vejas in my personal rotation, the V-10s are both the most comfortable and the most athletic-looking, thanks to that waterproof mesh between the laces and the toes. (It’s basically the French version of a regular American sneaker.) The Campo and the Esplar, by contrast, have their usual smooth leather there. These are the only Vejas I would wear to the airport (not for nothing did they not make my list of airport necessities, but these are still noticeably better structured and better cushioned than the Campos/Esplars). The problem is that they’re not as sleek as those two, either. Like so many things in life, we have a trade-off: You can get your cushioning and support, but you’ll have to give up a little bit of the style. You’ll know who you are, depending on whether you’re googling “are veja sneakers extremely cute” and “are veja sneakers comfortable.” If the former, go with the Campos. If the latter, I love the V-10s.

Note: The pair at the top of this page are V-12s. If you’re wondering how about the V-10s vs V-12s, the latter is a little narrower, just like the Esplars relative to the Campos. But they’re super similar.

BUY IT HERE: Madewell

are veja sneakers comfortable - dark navy veja condor 2sThe Condor 2

Honestly, I don’t know who these are for: They’re super heavy for a running shoe (which is how they’re marketed), and I don’t find them half as fashionable as the three models above — it’s like someone at Veja saw a Hoka one time and has been trying to recreate it from scratch since then. As a former (two-time!) marathon runner, I literally could not imagine running any serious distance in these. I actually found them less comfortable than V-10s. I think you can make the case for any of the three models above — but these I would skip, unless you just like the look, in which case, have at it.

(DON’T) BUY IT HERE: Madewell

Finally: Are Vejas Worth It?

Yes! That’s the crazy thing. The answer to: Are Veja sneakers comfortable? It’s still no. But I do think they’re worth it. I just wouldn’t rely on them on a 20,000-step day. But a day at a desk, then maybe in an Uber? And you have a new pair of news and want to look cute? Perfection.

vintage makeup

The 15 Skincare Products My French Makeup Consultant Recommended To Me

One of my weird splurges this year was a makeup consult with a verifiable Parisian makeup artist. It was a strange experience — I don’t wear a lot of makeup, and I walked out of there wearing a lot more than I’m used to. I don’t know how much time I need to spend looking at my face, you know what I mean? But I loved her skincare recs, which definitely lean toward the vegan, the pricey, the Euro (especially Austrian!), and the exclusive. I think Gwyneth Paltrow might own everything on this list? It’s very Goop-y.

She divided my suggested routine into three steps: makeup removal/cleansing, more cleansing, and then a soothing eau de rose. They’re all listed below. Wherever possible, I found US-based retailers for her suggestions — where I couldn’t, I included the French retailers. (This will be clear from whether the price is listed in dollars or euros.) Remember that though the prices are obviously correct, the French purchases will mean high shipping charges, so it might be worth considering another product or putting it on your list for the next time you’re in France.

Also, I’ll note that the Paris shop she recommended most was Mon Corner B, which is French but has a built-0ut website for English speakers and is well worth a look.

Final note: She was OK with me sharing this list, but not putting her identité online (so French) — that said, I’m happy to connect you if you’re looking for a makeup artist in Paris.

Cleansing Step 1: Makeup removing and first-level cleaning:

– Eye makeup remover: Respectissime from La Roche Posay.
Purity & Grace from Max and Me. I found this to be like a high-end version of Shu Uemura’s cleansing oil.
Suzanne Kaufmann cleansing milk. I found this very heavy!
Gressa Skin Balancing cleanser ($42)
– Lodesse makeup remover (mais “plus qu’un simple démaquillant, c’est un véritable soin qui combine démaquillage en douceur et en profondeur avec soin et nutrition”) (30€)
Mawena rose moringa cleanser and makeup remover ($49) I loved this.
De Mamiel Restorative Cleansing Balm ($80) — this is literally sold at Goop
– She rec’d a product from Cha Ling, which is Parisian and developed by LVMH and I just can’t — I can do hard to find, and super expensive, but not both at the same time.

Cleansing Step 2! More cleansing!
Nominoé Gentle Foam Face Cleanser (26.50€)
Grown Alchemist Gentle Gel Face Cleanser ($38)
Suzanne Kaufmann Cleansing Gel ($85)
De Mamiel powder exfoliant and cleanser ($24 — for some reason this is only available in a travel size)

And then an “eau florale ou tonique ou eau thermale”

Cleansing Step 3 — this is basically several suggestions for an eau de rose:
Nicole Atelier eau de rose (She also recommended “chez Aromazone,” which is one of my favorite shops in Paris but definitely not fancy)
Lodesse anti-fatigue lotion (25€)
Hevea’s hydrolat de rose de Damas (11.70€)
Eau florale de rose from Ma Thérapie ($16.50 — currently unavailable)

vat refunds france - la samaritaine

Literally Everything You Need to Know About VAT Refunds in France

You think it’d be easy to get free money from the government — but not. Claiming VAT refunds in France can be confusing AF — but the good news is nearly everyone’s confused, which means that there’s a lot of let’s say “gentle instruction,” from retailers and customs officials accustomed to dealing with people who don’t understand what’s going on. There are a ton of restrictions and exclusions, and the amount returned will vary on a bunch of different factors (not least how you want your money refunded, with cash coming at a slightly disadvantageous rate) — but know that if you stick with it, you’ll save about 12% on many of your big purchases. And note that if you’re buying luxury French brands, the savings can really add up — for example, the same exact pieces from Louis Vuitton can be 30% cheaper in France than in the U.S. Get shopping!

What is VAT?

VAT is an acronym for value-added tax. One of the ways governments make money is by taxing goods. In the U.S., that’s done transparently, in the form of additional sales taxes, usually paid to the city or state. In Europe, it’s done via VAT. VAT is included in the “final” price of a product — so when you pay 12€ for a book, you’re paying exactly 12€, not 12€ plus 6% or whatever your local sales tax might be. VAT in France typically makes up 20% of the price of a product. (For a complete guide to VATs around the world, see here.)

What are VAT refunds in France?

Pleasantly, many European governments offer partial VAT refunds to “visitors” to the country. That means you can request a refund for part of what you’ve spent on goods when traveling to France (and many other countries in Europe). There are, of course, all sorts of limitations to this.

How much is the VAT refund?

Knowing that the VAT is 20% of a good’s price, many visitors expect a refund of 20% of what they’ve spent. This isn’t correct: The refund is only 12% (on many/most goods, but not all). The other 8% goes to covering administration costs.

Who qualifies as a “visitor”?

You probably already know if you don’t qualify as a visitor. If you’re just a regular American, traveling to France on vacation, you’re probably a visitor. Unless you hold a residency permit and/or spend a substantial amount of time in France, you’re probably a visitor.

Students who are in France on a visa lasting more than six months are not eligible for VAT refunds.

What kinds of restrictions are there?

There are many, but a lot of them make sense. Purchases like meals and hotel stays aren’t eligible for VAT refunds. Purchases that would be very strange for a visitor to make — like a car — are similarly not eligible for a refund. Other purchases that don’t qualify: weapons, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, postage stamps, and “cultural relics more than 50 years old.”

Another one of the rules is that you must exit the country in question within three months of the purchase, taking the item with you.

The most important restriction is probably the minimum spend: In France, you need to spend 100.01 euros, at the same shop, on the same day, to qualify. This means that the authorities aren’t deluged with a million claims against 5€ purchases. It also means that you might want to be sure that the big-ticket shopping you do is concentrated in fewer shops, if possible — so one 240€ purchase rather than three 80€ purchases.

This can be more complicated than you might think, especially at department stores. There, concessions like Louis Vuitton or Diptyque aren’t fully financially integrated within the department store itself, so they’ll prepare their own tax forms. It means that if you spend 50€ at Vuitton (uh, unlikely, but you get the idea) and 60€ on books elsewhere in the store, neither purchase would qualify for the refund, because they’re considered separate purchases and don’t reach the 100.01€ threshold.

One more thing: Your purchase can’t be used (or worn) (or look like it is used or worn) before leaving. This is most frequently an issue if you buy luggage you want to use for your return trip. Practically, I know a lot of people who’ve bought luggage and claimed their refund, without any trouble.

VAT refunds in France: How does it work?

The most important thing is to go prepared. When making your purchase, you’ll need to inform the sales rep that you intend to claim your refund. You’ll need your passport (as proof of your visitor status). You might need to fill out a form with some of your details (this process is increasingly more digitized, so you probably won’t have to, like, hold or use a pen at any point.) You may also need to show your return plane ticket, as proof that you’ll be going home within the required three months, but it varies from store to store and anecdotally I’ve never been asked for this.

Some stores offer immediate refunds, but don’t count on this, as they’re the minority. More likely, you’ll need to hold on to your forms and deal with it later.

This sounds like a lot of hassle. Are there alternatives?

Yes! There are services for VAT refunds in France that will handle most of the details. The most popular is Global Blue, though there are newer, app-based services like Wevat. If you’re mostly shopping at luxury retailers, many of them use Global Blue, and the process is super quick and all digital.

What’s next?

You’ll need to validate your exit from the EU. Most likely, you’re doing this at an airport. (If you’re visiting multiple EU countries on the same trip, you can do it at your point of departure.) You’ll see signs all over the airport for tax refunds — be sure you have your passport, tax forms, receipts, and the actual goods purchased at hand.

The next part of the process is usually quicker and easier than it seems. First, you’ll validate the tax forms at the PABLO kiosks. (I don’t know why they’re called PABLO.) Everything should be submitted digitally, without the need to mail anything to anyone. You’ll receive your refund in up to a few weeks, though it can be as quick as a few days, either by refund to your credit card or bank transfer/check.

But can I get cash back for my VAT refunds in France?

You can, with Global Blue — basically you process all of your forms except the customs validation while still in Paris, get your cash, use your credit card as a guarantee, and promise to return your validated forms after going through the airport, within 21 days. Global Blue has an incredibly long case study on its website detailing the refund-centric adventures of “Anna from Russia [who] visited Austria with her friends and shopped in Vienna.” See here for more details.

Is Louis Vuitton Cheaper In Paris?

Is Louis Vuitton Cheaper in Paris? is part 4 in an ongoing investigation. Please also see Is Chanel Cheaper in Paris?, Is Sézane Cheaper in Paris? and Is Diptyque Cheaper in Paris?

If you’ve read our previous stories investigating whether famous French brands are cheaper in France — you’ve probably guessed that indeed, the answer to this question — Is Louis Vuitton cheaper in Paris? — is yes.

Unlike Chanel, Louis Vuitton offers online shopping, which made comparing prices easy. Here we go!

Is Louis Vuitton Cheaper in Paris: The Handbag

Let’s start with the Neverfull.

neverfull tote bag

The Neverfull GM is a large tote bag in Damier Ebene canvas and natural cowhide trim — “it is ultra-roomy but never bulky.” (I bet it can get bulky.) In USD, it’s $2100. Let’s say you’re buying it in New York City, so we’ll add 8.875%, the current sales tax. Your total bill is now: $2286.19

So taking things across the pond: Your price is now 1550€. Using the current conversion rate,  that comes to $1,708.50. Maybe you’re paying in cash, but probably not, so we’ll add 3% in foreign-transaction credit card fees, for $1759.75. Now for the good news: We’ll subtract 12% in VAT refund for residents of non-EU countries. (Yes, VAT is 20%, but when you claim your VAT refund, you give up some of it for admin fees, the Frenchest thing in the world.) Our final price, for buyers in France, is: $1548.58.

This means that our final calculations are as follows: Buying it in the US: $2286.19. Buying it in France, and taking advantage of your VAT refund: $1548.58. This means you’ll save a substantial 32.27%.

The Perfume

 

Rose des Vents! It’s the only Louis Vuitton perfume I like, so let’s use the 100-ml bottle as our point of comparison. It retails on the LV US-facing site for $320. We’ll ad some good ol’ NYC sales tax at 8.875$, which means our US total is $348.40.

Obviously we can just buy it in France instead! And I’m betting it’ll be substantially cheaper. It’s up on the LV site for 280€ — at today’s conversion, that’s $308.50.

Now we’ll go through our normal routine of adding 3% (for foreign credit card transactions) and deducting 12% — and the total is: $279.62. Remember, the minimum for the VAT refund is 100€ per shop. Luckily, with Vuitton costing what it does, we’re in danger of falling below that figure.

Long story short: You’ll save 19.8%.

Something I’m noticing is that it looks like once all the fees (for foreign card transactions) and deductions (for VAT refund) are assessed, the price in euros is basically just the same number, but in dollars. (For example, this 280€ perfume ends up being $279 once all is said and done.) We’ll see if that holds true with this final example!

The Wallet

Let’s finish up with something from the petite maroquinerie: the classic Victorine wallet.

victorine wallet from louis vuitton - is louis vuitton cheaper in france

The Victorine, in France, is a tidy 450€. If our calculations hold, it’ll end up being around $450 post-VAT .

But let’s start with the US cost. If you buy the Victorine in the US, it’ll cost $575. For the last time, let’s add New York City sales tax, and it comes to $626.03.

Now let’s head to France, where we’ve established that the cost is 450€. With foreign card transaction fees, that’ll be $463.50. But now we get to do the fun part, which is subtracting the VAT refund of 12%. That means our total is $407.88.

Our final figures: The Victorine is $626.03 in the US, and only $407.88 in France (I note that this is much less than my prediction above, for $450). That means you’d save 34.84% by shopping in France versus here at home!

Honestly, I didn’t think the price differential would be as substantial as it’s proven to be. If you’re debating whether or not to buy big French brands on your trip to Paris, this is some pretty compelling evidence.

emily in paris recap season 1 episode 1 screenshot

Emily in Paris Recap: Season 1, Episode 1

If you like Emily in Paris, I guarantee you will love my newsletter about living there. Sign up here

Welcome to our first Emily in Paris recap: Season 1, Episode 1. Oh là là.

I remember how stressed I was when the show first debuted, in 2020. It was like watching your infinitely more glamorous and better dressed neighbor go on the same vacation as you — only their clothes were better, their hotel was nicer, the beaches that they went to had better sand and prettier views. It was your experience, only better, in every possible way. Mon dieu, I say. Mon dieu.

Moving to Paris feels like a unique experience, but it is not. In fact, the silver lining is that it is infinitely variable, and depending on your experience, talent, ambition, and worldview, it is infinitely possible to make new, vital, and canonical work about it, like Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and a million more. (Two of my favorites include dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterners: Iowa painter Grant Wood, most famous for “American Gothic,” who painted in France on four separate trips to Europe between 1920 and 1928, and Nebraska-born Alexander Payne, whose contribution to the Paris je t’aime anthology film is a wonderful short starring Margo Martindale, and I think one of the best-ever meditations on Paris syndrome.) All of these stories can live peaceably alongside each other — but here was Emily, and Netflix, with the definitive story of an American woman coming to Paris, in search of love, connection, and a promotion to senior brand manager as soon as she returns to Chicago. I watched it with trepidation, and I didn’t enjoy it much.

Good lord but a lot has changed since 2020, and I decided to rewatch the show, and write about it here. I’m less uptight about my experience in Paris, now that I’m further dividing my time between there, New Jersey (where I’m from), and Iowa (where I’ve been in grad school the past two years). So far, I’m liking it much more.

emily in chicago screenshot - chicago skyline

We begin with Chicago, where we know Emily is young and ambitious because she runs increasingly quickly beneath the Chicago skyline, wears Kenzo to the office, and has a glamorous boss with a masters degree in French who is capable of procreating in her early 50s. World, meet Emily. Emily, le monde.

Tragically, Emily is also provincial, which we understand because her Cubs-loving boyfriend orders her a beer. (“White wine,” Emily says, correcting him. “Anything French.”) Can we stop for a moment to say how Chicago, an amazing and world-class city that has functioned as the birthplace of multiple artforms, including house music, Chicago blues, and many more, should not be used as a synonym for an unsophisticated, un-Paris American city? As Jessica M. Goldstein wrote in Vulture: “I guess they figured she wouldn’t be quite so starry-eyed about Paris if she were from New York or L.A.?” Chicago is great, and Chicagoans fucking love their city, so I’m calling BS on this. BS! (I literally cannot imagine just showing up in Paris and being handed the keys to an apartment. Finding my current place was the hardest thing I’ve done there.)

emily in paris screenshot - palais garnier

Anyway, we know Emily and her American boyfriend are going to break up because he loves the Cubs, and beer, and sports bars. She shows up in Paris for the requisite tour de taxi, passing sights including the Arc de Triomphe and the Palais Garnier — exiting at the Place de l’Estrapade/rue des Fossés St Jacques, in the fifth. This is an extremely lovely part of Paris and well done on Emily for inheriting her boss’s chambre de bonne here. By the way, her apartment looks much bigger than a chambre de bonne, and assuming she got the same apartment Madeline was supposed to have, I am again calling BS: According to Glassdoor (IDK why I am investigating this to this degree but OK), a senior marketing manager (like Madeline) in Chicago (like Madeline) could expect an annual salary of up to $190,000 a year, and according to the rent calculator on apartmentlist.com, 30% of that salary for rent would be about €4500. €4500 a month in Paris can get you a f-ing lot of apartment in Paris, and much more than a chambre de bonne, which are typically very, very small — like under 10 mètres carrés small. (Closet-small. Well, very big closet.) Emily’s rental agent immediately asks her on a date. Fair.

emily in paris screenshot - fifth floor

Also, this is Emily’s face when she’s told that she’s only on the fourth floor, not the fifth, which I am again calling BS on because the whole “the first floor is the ground floor, the second floor is the first floor, etc” is such common newcomer-to-Paris knowledge that I absolutely do not believe Emily doesn’t know this. It’s on the cover of every Lonely Planet guide ever written about any region of France/Europe. But of course, if she doesn’t make this mistake, she won’t accidentally knock on the door of her downstairs neighbor a few nights later:

emily in paris recap season 1 episode 1 screenshot - gabriel

Most of Emily’s drama, however, occurs not within her apartment building (we’ll get back to that in a second) but at her office, which, for the record, opens at 10:30 a.m., not 8:30. (Another mistake I do not believe our hyper-prepared Emily would have made. She is both simultaneously smarter and dumber than the we want or need her to be.) The show wants to have it both ways: to poke fun at her ignorance, and to revel in her command of her chosen field. But people tend to be “do one thing the way you do all things,” you know? It’s perfectly excusable that Emily, who did not anticipate moving to France for her job, would show up not speaking French. It is less understandable that this hyper-American American wouldn’t quickly get up to speed on some of the basics of French life.

That said, I will co-sign Emily’s hot neighbors. There are like ten apartments in my building, and everyone, at a huge variety of age ranges, could qualify as hugely attractive. But then, that is France! Everyone can be hot, in their own weird way. It’s one of the best things about the place.

Back to the office: We meet Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), Julien (Samuel Arnold), Luc (Bruno Gouery), and the owner of the firm, Paul Brussard (Arnaud Viard). Emily’s employment, we discover, was the condition of the sale of the agency to the American mothership, and now she will have the opportunity to teach all these Frenchies how to use Instagram. It makes sense!

Obviously Sylvie becomes a big part of Emily’s story, and I did very much like Emily’s introduction to Paul, which included his breakdown of Chicago’s deep-dish pizza (“like a quiche made of cement”), the American pharmaceutical industry (“So you create the disease, then you treat the disease, then you market the treatment” — yes!) and a very prescient mention from Emily of a diabetes drug that causes weight loss and grew Merck’s profits by 63%. (V. specific.) “Perhaps you have something to learn from us,” Paul concludes, “but I’m not sure if we have much to learn from you.” I bet there might be some cross-cultural, two-direction learning on the horizon!

Anyway, Emily’s coworkers are mean, and no one wants to get lunch with her. Their reaction to this smiling, cheerful, outdoor-voice-at-indoor-meeting pixie is summed up in Julien’s expression, one I know well:

emily in paris recap season 1 episode 1 screenshot - julien

It is the look of a Parisian disappointed in, and confounded by, American cheerfulness.

Emily attempts to convene a meeting of the firm, only to see the woman in charge of its social media flee (in terror, disapproval) when Emily leads it in English: “I did Rosetta Stone on the plane, but it hasn’t kicked in yet.” (That is very funny.) It’s all very Mean Girls, or Méchantes Ados, as it was known in Québec. The only holdout in the be-mean-to-Emily brigade is Luc, with his funny hair, who scooters by her as she sits, despondently, outside a café on the ile Saint-Louis, joining her briefly for a vape and a cultural briefing. “Your ideas,” he says. “They are more new. Maybe they are better. [But] I think the Americans have the wrong balance: You live to work, we work to live.”

“I enjoy work! And accomplishment. It makes me happy,” Emily says.

“Work makes you happy?” Luc says. “Maybe you don’t know what it is to be happy.”

Well, fair enough. Room for growth on all sides.

Speaking of accomplishment, Emily ends the episode by shorting out the electricity in her apartment building by plugging her vibrator into a wall outlet fitted with an adapter. I did the same thing, though with a decidedly less exciting immersion blender. C’est la vie, if you will.

Emily in Paris recap, Season 1, Episode 1 Recap: 

Overall grade: B+
Best line: The dig on Chicago deep-dish (though justice for Chicago deep dish! We can’t all be a quiche)
Second best line: IDK, I just thought it was funny when she said the entire city looked like Ratatouille. (See at top.) 
Most believable cultural note: The French staff going through multiple bottles of wine at lunchtime
Least believable cultural note: That a Chicago boyfriend wouldn’t know his girlfriend wanted a glass of wine rather than a beer. Justice for Chicago boyfriends!

Flodesk Review: My Take as a Flodesk User

My Flodesk review is I love it: It makes building beautiful newsletters easy. Here’s more.

Hello! I’m the author of the Faraway Places newsletter, and I urge you to subscribe, if you like reading newsletters about France and travel. Regardless, whatever your interests are, I am writing this to recommend Flodesk. Use my affiliate code and sign up here.

I’ve used basically every newsletter platform out there: Mailchimp, Tinyletter, ConvertKit, custom-designed systems for large editorial outlets. I haven’t used Substack, but I have an argument against it, which I’ll get to, below. Here’s a primer on what for me were the most important things to know.

What is Flodesk?

Flodesk is a platform for sending email newsletters to your email list. It’s made to be easy to use. I think of it as an email sender for people who are artists, writers, florists, designers, whatever — basically, everyone but marketers. Marketers, I’m sure, would be happier with more “robust” programs like ConvertKit, Mailchimp, AWeber, etc, offering more intense segmentation, retargeting, and stuff like that — but if you’re at the place in your entrepreneurship or creative journey where you want an easy, beautiful way to send email newsletters, I honestly don’t think Flodesk can be beat.

I think Flodesk sits at a really interesting spot on the spectrum of newsletter senders: right between the more marketing-centric offerings like Mailchimp and the more community-based options like Substack. I’ve used them all and they’re all great — it’s just a question of what makes the most sense for you.

How much is Flodesk?

It’s $38 a month — a little cheaper if you pay annually (it works out to $35 a month) and substantially more if you add some ecommerce features, including an integrated checkout ($64 a month).

Flodesk vs Mailchimp

I started out on Mailchimp, and I would likely have stayed with them, but they introduced tiered pricing. I have just under 10,000 subscribers — which is $135 a month on Mailchimp! Yes, there’s more functionality, but I don’t need it. I just want a way to send out a text-based email every week or so to my subscribers. $135 was not going to work for me. (And by the way, that number continues to climb as your list grows — 100,000 subscribers is $800 per month. At Flodesk, it’s still just $38.)

Mailchimp has better customer service than Flodesk — officially with Flodesk, you can get help by email, but practically, the fastest assistance comes via their official Facebook group. Mailchimp, by contrast, has 24/7 support by email and chat support, and if you’re on a premium plan, help by phone as well. Flodesk only recently debuted analytics, and they’re much less fine-grained than Mailchimp’s. Finally, if you have a very small list, the pricing can be quite competitive — if you have 500 contacts and send under 6,000 emails per month (that’s 12 sends to your whole list), it’s only $20 a month. Plus, there are lots of features a growing business might want down the road, including advanced segmentation and behavior targeting.

If you’re building a brand, I think Flodesk is the better choice. If you’re building a business, I think Mailchimp makes sense.

Flodesk vs Substack

As a writer, Substack could make a lot of sense for me. It’s built its reputation as a home for writers and thinkers, and it’s made to accommodate subscription tiers (free and paid). For me, though, I just didn’t want to buy into a platform with its own vibe — does that make sense? People say they have “a Substack,” not a newsletter. I personally wanted to get as far away from this as possible — when you buy into a platform with its own reputation, that reputation commingles with your own. Just consider the recent controversy (“Substack Says It Will Not Ban Nazis or Extremist Speech“). I want nothing to do with this. I work hard on my newsletter and refuse to let it become tainted by someone else’s bad morals, bad taste, or bad decisions.

I do feel a little #girlboss-y (not in a good way) having a “newsletter” rather than a Substack, which I think is the “cool” option, especially for writers and artists. And I miss the opportunity to have a sense of community around my newsletter, which you’ll see on the best Substacks.

Substack is free for readers and writers — unless you’re selling subscriptions, in which case it charges fees that add up to about 13% of your price. I think this is the biggest difference between Flodesk and Substack: the monetization. Substack is primarily subscription-based (as in subscriptions to the newsletter itself), while on Flodesk, if you’re selling anything, you’re selling something other than the newsletter. Personally, I’m more of a product maker than a subscription seller — I like buying and selling things (did you want to buy some postcards??) versus subscriptions to my musings. Probably this is something I should work out with my therapist — but I like the idea that if people want to support my work monetarily, they get something material in return. I’d rather sell tote bags than subscriptions — which isn’t a value judgment, I just think making tote bags is fun. But if you’re the sort of writer (and I say “writer” because that’s Substack’s vibe) who’s turned off by this late-stage capitalistic tote bag selling, then Substack’s the place for you.

For all these reasons, I’m happiest on Flodesk. But there’s a program here for everybody.

plane flying above earth with glow of sunset on engines

15 Things a Travel Writer Takes on Every Flight

I think a lot about how to pack a carry-on — and indeed, how to dress — on the plane: Planning well can be the difference between a mini-retreat, with entertainment and snacks, and a freezing-cold brain prison. Below, you’ll find everything I bring to keep it more in the former vibe than the latter.

I will add here that of course you want all your essentials in your carry-on, rather than any checked bags: medication, wallet, etc. etc. One thing I often pack by accident into my checked bag is charging equipment: cords and battery packs and wall chargers. Of everything here, the thing I forget most often is cables: a USB cord to charge my phone, a full laptop charger, and a cable to connect my headphones to the plane’s entertainment system.

A quick note about budgeting, as several of the items below are expensive. As a freelance travel writer, my income varies hugely from year to year: It stabilizes when I take a staff job, and then occasionally craters when I’m freelancing, including some years when my income fell under the poverty line. (Freelancing is not for the faint of heart.) While I’m fully employed, I try to buy quality gear that will last through the rough periods — during my last staff job, I bought the Away bag and both pairs of headphones below, and I’m hoping I’ll have them for years. I’ve had the same Gregory backpack since 2012, I only replace my phones when they’re lost or destroyed, etc. And I’ll add that I’m happy to travel with well-used gear — it’s less of a target for thieves.

Affiliate links below. 

Gear

gregory backpack

1. A 30-Liter Gregory Backpack

I much prefer to travel with a backpack versus a suitcase. You have total mobility, whenever you want it: Stairs? Elevators? Who cares!

The size is important. I wanted a 30-liter pack — I just looked and that size is rated for 1-3 day(!) trips. (I routinely use mine for month-plus-long stays.) The fastest way to make a trip miserable is to overpack, and it’s virtually impossible when your bag is this small. Another huge bonus is that it can fit under an airplane seat, which means you’ll never have to check a bag — or, even better, worry about overhead space.

The model I have — an older version of the Gregory Z-30 — is no longer available, so I’m suggesting the next size up: the 45-liter Facet. Gregory has other 30-liter bags, but now they’re structured more like daypacks — I like having more side pockets, and lighter materials, of this slightly larger size.

BUY IT HERE: Gregory

away suitcase

2. For Nice Trips, An Away Carry-On

Sometimes, when I’m not traveling solo (or I’m writing about a hotel where it will matter if I show up looking like a ragamuffin), I’ll bring this nice Away carry-on. It’s fine. I suggest waiting for one of their limited-edition colorways — I loved their no-longer-available Aura collection.

BUY IT HERE: AWAY

hawks in flight design nalgene bottle hanging from tree

3. In an Era of $5 Diet Cokes

Empty on the way through security, then filled with water before the flight. Obviously there are a thousand different models and color combos, but I love this “Hawks in Flight” version from Bird Collective.

BUY IT HERE: BIRD COLLECTIVE

Electronics

google pixel

4. A Google Pixel

I’ve weirdly been in the Android phone world since I gave up my iPhone 3 for a gifted Samsung Galaxy a million years ago. I’ve loved my Pixel, though recently I’ve felt like I’m seeing nicer photos on my sister’s iPhone. But I’m one of those people who won’t give up their phone until it’s lost or destroyed, so I’ll be getting by with my Pixel 7 for a while.

The best thing about Pixels is that they’re made for Google Fi service (note you can use an iPhone, or any other phone, on Fi as well). Its international service can’t be beat: “unlimited” international data — though they’ll throttle you at a certain point, and it’s a violation of the terms of service to use it only overseas (a dilemma if you’re traveling with it as a digital nomad), though I don’t know how much this is enforced. Calls to the U.S. from overseas vary by country; from France, they’re 10 cents a minute, though it’s pretty rare I pay that since wifi calling is free, and texting both ways is free.

BUY IT HERE: TARGET

macbook air on white background

5. Macbook Air

I cannot believe anyone here is going to base their laptop choice on my rec, but I will say that after my Macbook Pro was stolen (out of my apartment, by a thief who came in through an open fifth-floor window), I downgraded to a new Air and didn’t notice a difference, even though I’m doing moderately heavy lifting (video editing, etc.) Go, Air! Don’t forget about educational discounts if you qualify, and refurbished models if you’re looking to save.

BUY IT HERE: AMAZON

bose 700 headphones

6. Bose 700 Noise Cancelling Headphones

There’s no better way to reduce airplane noise (which is considerable!) and isolate during a long flight than with these headphones. After too many hours using a sander with no ear protection (don’t get me started), I can barely hear my phone or laptop on a plane without jacking up the volume. These headphones mean I can tune everything out for up to about 18(!) hours.

I’m obsessed with these Bose headphones and once rescheduled to a later flight when I realized I’d left them at home. I have an older version of these, the 700s. These have 11 levels of noise cancellation and free two-day shipping from Bose. One thing I’ll say is that after two years I’m noticing some wear in the “protein leather” (a pleather, but very soft) covers, which has me slightly concerned. I do use them constantly — not just for flights but at the gym, on walks with the dog, etc.

BUY IT HERE: BOSE

pixel ear buds pro

7. Google Pixel Buds Pro

I feel like a princess when I do this, but I always switch from the Bose headphones to earbuds when we land — it’s too easy to lose all sense of spatial awareness in the larger ones. These, from Google, have great noise cancellation while not limiting my understanding of where I am in space. (Read: I’m less likely to walk into things wearing these.)

BUY IT HERE: AMAZON

fjallraven greenland jacket

8. The Best, Heaviest Coat I Can Afford

I feel like many of these picks somehow involve not being cold. There’s nothing worse than getting somewhere and realizing you don’t have proper protection from the cold, because you’re not going to want to buy an emergency new coat, and it sucks, gutting it out when you have a chill. You don’t want to do anything but stay inside, wrapped in a blanket.

Of course, since you’ll be on the move, you want to optimize for both cold protection and packability/weight. This Fjallraven coat is filled with down and warm enough that I can wear it in the middle of winter in Iowa with just a T-shirt underneath (handy for going to the gym). I have a heavier wool coat from Sandro, but it’s super bulky, and not good for travel. In fact, I’m wearing this Fjallraven right now, on a plane, and I am extremely warm, and I could not be happier.

BUY IT HERE: FJALLRAVEN

Clothing

nike daybreaks

9. Walkable But Not Too Sporty Sneakers

What I want is something between my Nike Metcons (my choice of gym shoe, I love them) and Vejas, which are very stylish but which I also don’t trust to be comfortable on 10,000-step days. The best answer is colorful and vintage-styled Nike Daybreaks — they’ve been discontinued for the moment, but they’re available everywhere but Nike.com — like the ones shown above, which are on sale at ASOS.

BUY IT HERE: ASOS

american vintage cardigan

10. American Vintage Cashmere Sweater

Just something warm and blanket-like for when the air conditioning is on too high — I have this one from American Vintage.

BUY IT HERE: AMERICAN VINTAGE

jamie jeans from topshop

11. Topshop Jamie Jeans

They’re not what they used to be, before Topshop was sold to ASOS, but I still love the Jamies, especially for traveling: They’re high-waisted and slim, and the fabric is stretchy enough that it’s comfortable on the plane. I used to prefer leggings but just got tired of looking like a pile of laundry in the airport. Respect if you can pull it off, but I couldn’t.

These go on sale all the time, so just keep an eye out for your preferred color and/or embellishment.

BUY IT HERE: ASOS

Entertainment

When I’m on top of it, I have a very strict regimen for my on-board entertainment. Otherwise, I just stare out the window.

11. Downloaded Comedy Specials

I take a lot of short flights — mostly between Cedar Rapids and Chicago — so I prefer entertainment that I can dip in and out of without ruining something more in-depth. Comedy specials are perfect for this — this year, my favorites included Beth Stelling’s If You Didn’t Want Me Then, Mo’Nique’s My Name Is Mo’Nique, John Mulaney’s Baby J, and Sam Jay’s Salute Me or Shoot Me.

12. Downloaded TV

So comedy is Tier 1. If I have a longer flight, I want something I can dig into, which is where actual television comes in. This year, my favorite shows were: Beef on Netflix (obsessed — Rolling Stone called it “this oddest, darkest of dramedies,” which I co-sign), Barry on Max (weirdly, that same description applies), Succession on Max, and a zillion more. All are downloadable (the Max shows depending on your membership level — it’s only with the no-ads service.)

13. Downloaded Audiobooks

I save this for the longest of flights (and road trips, of which I am a master, having done the 1000-mile trip between New Jersey and Iowa about a dozen times by now). The right audiobook can make the difference between a smooth and successful trip and a slog — and the right audiobook, I’d argue, can make the perfect book even better. I actually did a little post on this a couple years ago and I really did get to some of the best: The Handmaid’s Tale (read by Claire Danes), Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which is read by Nicole Kidman and absolute perfection. To that list, I’d add World War Z: The Complete Edition: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which includes voice actors like Martin Scorsese, Mark Hamill, Alan Alda, and the author, Max Brooks, as well as Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages

14. Actual Books

The best books for long flights are big, epic books with lots of intense world-building. My favorites in this category include: Pachinko, obviously the entire Game of Thrones series, the His Dark Materials trilogy, Outlander, The Standand a million more.

Miscellaneous

15. United Club Infinite Card

I have more credit card debt than I should, and I don’t recommend that anyone irresponsible (like me) take out additional credit if they can avoid it — it’s too easy to overspend. That said: I love this credit card. It has a high annual fee ($525), but the perks may very well make up for it. United lounge access is free, as are up to two checked bags. If you’re flying on someone else’s dime, or if you have elite status, that might not be so exciting, but it is for me. Even outside of just “lounge access” (not a necessary thing!), I save so much money eating (for free) in the lounge that it makes up for the cost. Eating in the lounge also means I’m less likely to get by with sugary snacks or fast food — it’s a total win. Here’s a link — it’s the one on the right.

a view of the countryside including a pond and trees

An Interview With Annabel Simms, Author of “An Hour From Paris”

I’ve been living with Annabel Simms’ books nearly as long as I’ve been living in Paris. She’s the author of several guides to exploring the city from is outer limits and beyond, into the glorious French countryside, rife with forgotten castles, unexpected vistas, appealingly decrepit train stations, and much more.

I’ve had a parasocial relationship with Annabel since I first bought An Hour from Paris, which includes detailed itineraries for 20 day trips outside the city (but easily accessible via a dense and generally well-run public transportation network.) Another book of hers, Half an Hour From Paris, earned a new edition in July and covers destinations including the Parc Saint-Cloud, Malmaison, and the Chateau de Vincennes.

For all these reasons, I was incredibly excited to chat with Annabel over Zoom about her life in Paris — she in her 25 meter square apartment in Paris, me in Iowa City. Anyone dreaming about coming to Paris to start a new life should keep reading to see how she decided to, and succeeded, forge a new life in France, following a midlife crisis.

How did you first come to Paris?
It was September 1991, and I didn’t come for a man, and I didn’t come for a job, which makes me unusual. It’s the first question expats ask each other, in more or less direct ways: Why did you come? If it’s a woman, it’s either a man or a job. And if it’s a man, it tends to be a job, but sometimes it’s a woman. In my case, it was a midlife crisis.

I had just turned 40 — all the zero [birthdays] are significant, and that one was particularly so. I had finally been promoted to this incredibly responsible job, training other trainers — I was training people from the Metropolitan Police [in London], I was training the local nurse tutors from the local hospital, I was training some of my own colleagues. I’d been in the job 18 months, realized that I was now actually on top of it, and I was just dismayed at the thought of the future. The future would be more responsibility — more and more of it. And my heart sank.

I was staying in a crumbling convent in Gabon, near the Congo, with an American. We didn’t like the little town we were in, and so we lurked in the dormitory — a huge dormitory designed for about 30 people, and just the two of us, sitting on our beds, eating sardines out of a tin, and drinking a disgusting concoction that we’d bought in the town, a ready-mixed gin and tonic.

It was the most miserable birthday I’d ever had, and I was 40, and I saw my future in England: Yawn. Dismay. I got back to Libreville, the capital of Gabon, and the good friend I was staying with said, “Well, you get on with the French, nobody else does. Why don’t you go to France? Take a sabbatical?” It took a year and a day to organize, and I arrived for a yearlong, unpaid sabbatical the day after my 41st birthday.

two covers of annabel simms paris guidebooks

I feel like a lot of people are drawn to start over in France because they dream of a life of exploration and adventure — but if you were in Gabon for your 40th birthday, you must have already been doing that!
I was visiting a friend — an American who was unusual because she’d gone to university in England. She worked for the American diplomatic service, but she’d been sent on this punishment posting to Gabon. The only diplomats you meet in Gabon are people who’ve done something wrong, like my friend, or very young people, on their first diplomatic posting. I met all these diplomats — the lot of diplomats we never met were the French. They wouldn’t talk to us.

It was expensive and complicated to get there because it’s not a tourist destination. But I thought, you know, how many chances am I going to get to go to Africa? I’m convinced that had I been in Europe for that birthday, I’d still be in London. I’d have been with friends, I would have been in a familiar environment, and those horrible existential questions would have been squashed. But I was in Africa, and so I came to France, and have been here ever since.

Having lived in the U.K., I know that the English can have really intense ideas about the French. How did you confront those?
I should explain that my parents were not English — they were Hungarian, and they met in England as refugees after World War II. And my mother was in love with France all her life. She brought me up to sort of look to France for all that was different, civilized — you know, sitting in cafes outside, literature, the lot.

My mother spoke four languages, and she came from a very cosmopolitan background. So did my grandmother, who brought me up as well. They would both make very disparaging remarks about England, especially things like crap heating: You know, “On the continent, we had central heating in the ’20s and ’30s.”

I realized that in a single year — I suppose, 1990 — I’d been to France four times on little trips. Did I have illusions about it? Probably. My mother had illusions about it. My illusions have changed, but I still find the way of life [in France] attractive, and I can’t make up my mind between the two countries. So I’m still here. Dithering. I’ve been dithering for 30-odd years.

When you say you can’t make up your mind between the two countries, what do you mean? I think you live in France full time.
I am a full-time resident, as far as the tax people are concerned. I do have the pleasure of paying tax in both countries, because I have not cut certain key links with England. I still have my flat [in London], which I rent out. I think it’s significant that I have not bought in Paris — I’m renting here. I took this place that I’m in now for six months, and 30 years later, I’m still in it, even if it’s obviously not a place for a grown up to live in: top floor, five flights of stairs, 25 square meters, no washing machine. There’s a lot of things it hasn’t got, apart from no washing machine and no lift. So clearly it was always meant to be temporary. And then I never found a place I liked better. It’s in a 17th century building on an island in the heart of Paris, it faces south and has a wonderful view of the sky because it isn’t overlooked by other buildings. It’s quiet and sunny, and I can walk everywhere. It feels like more like home than any other place I have lived in, and I have lived here longer than anywhere else in my life.

I want to go back to what you said about illusions. I feel like every American who comes to France is hit in the face with their crashed illusions about what it means to be in Paris.
I couldn’t agree more. Some of them who’ve been here for as long as I have have survived the loss of those illusions. And many of us end up having a love-hate relationship with France. There are some things I still love and some things I hate. But I can say I don’t find it boring.

How do you compare London and Paris?
London and Paris, and the area around London and Paris, couldn’t be more different. I’d brought my knowledge of London with me and expected the area around Paris to be the same [as around London] and gradually discovered how wrong I was. Think of a fried egg: Paris is the yolk and the white is greater Paris — le Grand Paris. If you think of the Tube map of London, Paris would fit into the Circle Line.

Wow. That’s crazy. I didn’t realize that’s how tiny it is.
The area around Paris, though — the white of the egg — is ten times bigger [than the area around London]. London’s more like a scrambled egg — that is, the yolk and the white are mixed up. The center of Paris is this tiny yolk, which is incredibly densely populated, the most densely populated city in Europe. But in London, like a scrambled egg, there isn’t a huge difference in population density. It’s nothing like as dense in the middle as Paris is in the center. Not many people actually live in the center of London — they can’t afford to. It’s shops and millionaires. All the poor have been squeezed out and everybody lives in Zone 2 and beyond.

And people have gardens. I had a garden. It’s normal. Nobody in central Paris has a garden because of the pressure on space. But outside Paris, it’s a completely different story. And only — if you can believe this — only a quarter of that huge expanse of space [of outer Paris] is urbanized. And that area is very well served by an extremely good commuter network. That’s also the opposite of London, in that the London network is very clearly mapped and described, and it’s easy to find your way around, but the service is poor compared to Paris. The Paris one is sort of opaque. If you don’t know how it works, you’re not going to find out. The Paris one is efficient and the London one is not, but you have brilliant information and presentation. That’s London.

You talk about this a lot in your books — about how hard it is to get clear, reliable information about things like public transport in Paris, even if the service itself is quite good. Why do you think that is?
The attitude to information is based on how you grow up in France, and your closest relationships are with your family, and then the very close friends you make at school. And you keep those friends for life — so your relationships are very close and very warm. If you need any help, you activate your social network, and you get help from your family and friends. The public face of the way that French people interact is cold. Private, warm — public, cold. And I’ve noticed in England it’s the opposite: It’s public, warm — private, cold. I’m exaggerating enormously. But the attitude to information is linked with that, in cultures where kinship patterns matter enormously: family, the close friends you make when you’re growing up, who become effectively family too. Those are the links that matter and you distrust everyone outside that, including other French people, because you don’t know them. So you treat them with suspicion — and there’s good reason to be suspicious of foreigners and strangers in France — unlike in Britain, which is an island. France has been invaded lots of times, and it was only unified in the 18th century — even the 19th, for some parts of it — whereas Britain hasn’t been invaded since 1066. And so you get your information through all sorts of private, family, and friendship networks. And if you are informing the public as part of your job, you don’t have the first idea how to go about it.

I suppose you could make a very crude link in Europe between Catholic and Protestant — the Protestant countries, in their handling of information, tend to be information rich. They’d rather tell you too much than too little. And the Catholic countries — I don’t know if the other ones are as bad as France, but it’s information light by our standards because they don’t want to patronize you by telling you the obvious.

The Catholic and Protestant thing is not original — I think it was Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I’m jumping around a lot here — anecdote within an anecdote within an anecdote. The French love that. The English hate it. Most of them, they find it disconcerting. I put it down to my Hungarian upbringing.

Once you were in Paris, how did you come to realize you’d discovered this thing: a rich cultural heritage, easily accessible to people in Paris if they only knew how to get there?
I’d met various men in Paris, and then a particular one, who happened to be an American — one of those millions of Americans who love France but actually find it quite difficult when they’re here. I’d had a long history of relationships that didn’t work, and this was obviously going to be yet another one, because the bloke had just left, and I didn’t know when I was going to see him again, if ever. I felt terrible, but not just terrible because of the immediate circumstances — it was a familiar feeling of “Why does this happen to me? This isn’t how it should be.” And then I remembered that I’d jotted down some ideas for a book. I think I’d put them — not quite on the back of an envelope, but that kind of thing. I fished them out, looked at them, and thought, There is a book here. And I immediately felt better. It was born out of emotional misery — as a way of picking myself up. It was a way of picking myself up and saying, “I’ve got some value. I don’t have to rely on my crappy relationships with men because they all seem to be doomed to disaster.”

That was the germ of it, but it did take about two years to sort of sell the idea. And then another two years to bully my publisher, who is still my publisher, into getting around to doing it.  And I did end up having a long and fruitful relationship with another American, and I did most of the walks with him. Then the bastard died. The way they do.

How did you originally come to do the kind of long walks in the countryside that are covered in the book?
I’d had a garden in London. I didn’t have one here, and I started going out on Sundays. I put all this in the introduction to the book because this is the sort of thing you can admit to. I did not say that it was yet another emotional disappointment that decided me that I would bloody well try and get this project going.

I want to give you two follow-up questions. One will be French and discursive, and one will be very American and practical. The American one is: Will you tell me about your favorite walk in the book? The French question is: What happened next romantically and did you figure out how to avoid disappointing romantic entanglements?
I can answer the last one first. The next romantic entanglement was with a Frenchman and it was the most intense and in some ways the most rewarding of the lot. But also impossible. We’re still in touch all these years later but only by text. I know enough now to keep my distance from the kind that attract me — that I know are going to be trouble.

The other question: what’s my favorite walk. I find that quite difficult. I don’t really enjoy so much going back to a walk I’ve already done. I enjoy discovering — discovering comes first, even if what I discover is crap and can’t be written about. And that’s nine-tenths of it. Nine-tenths of [my exploration] never gets written about because, you know, it’s not good enough. But I like  going out and exploring. Putting together the walks and creating the maps and researching the restaurants and testing it — that’s more fun for me than taking people on walks that I know work well — which I do sometimes, because you’ve got to please some of your friends some of the time. I had another friend, who I first knew at the British Institute. She took [my American friend’s] place and on those walks — the fun was exploring. Because neither of those people cared if we got lost or missed the train. And I love that. That counts for me more than anything else. Unfortunately she’s died as well.

But I do have a little sort of roster of people I walk with who, you know, haven’t died. They’re still around. And some of them are new walking partners. I tend to pick tried-and-tested walks for those who are less adventurous and save the pioneering, exploratory walks for those who are.

So the pleasure of it for you comes from exploring, not guiding.
I hate guiding — I hate it. I’ve taken that off [service] my website, but it was there.

My favorite people to walk with are people who don’t mind exploring and are happy to go anywhere, and if it rains, they don’t care. If we get lost, they don’t mind. I’m interested in all aspects of those walks, including the shabby cafes, which are getting thin on the ground. It makes my day when I find a cafe open on a Sunday, in the middle of nowhere.

For our last question, I want to go back to something you said at the beginning: that you’ve been dithering between two countries, France and the U.K., for 30 years. What do you think are the benefits of that indecision, and what are the costs?
On a good day, the pluses are that I found a lifestyle that suits my nature. I’m adventurous, but I’m also very family oriented. And I keep my friends forever. So, I have the adventure here. I have the family and the old friends in England, even if I also have some very old friends here now, because I’ve been here so long.

Because we are expatriates here, we almost function like a second family. So, the good side is I have the adventure and the challenge of living in a different culture, and the closeness of and solidity of family and old friends in England, and in France.

It depends on what day it is, but on a bad day I feel I don’t belong in either place. I’ve sort of forgotten how things function in London, even though I go over a lot. I don’t live there. My spoken French wasn’t bad when I arrived, but it’s not much better than it was. So on bad days, I feel like a complete foreigner, in both places. On most days it’s a mix of those things. I’ve learned to accept that I belong in both, to make the most of what both have to offer and not to fret about the future more than I can help.

Find out more about Annabel’s books on her website. 

photo of french bakery

The 17 Best French Food Gifts: Fancy Cookies, Special Butters and More

It’s that time again! Time to buy presents: presents that reflect their loves (France?) and their interests (food?). If you’re shopping for someone who falls under those categories, we’ve got 17 excellent ideas below for your best French food gifts— all Made in France unless otherwise noted. Bon appétit!

1. The Mercer 12-Macaron Gift Set

hotel mercer laduree set

Who doesn’t love a macaron, the world’s most expensive mid-tier cookie? The iconic brand in France is Ladurée, with their famous pea-green bags and boxes. They deliver in the U.S., though macarons are not cheap. Delicious. Not cheap. They have all levels of gift boxes and promotions — this is a 12-macaron set with illustrations on the box of the Mercer Hotel in SoHo (New York, FTR).

BUY IT HERE: Ladurée

2. Bacanha Grenadine Syrup

bacanha grenadine syrup

Bacanha is a 10-year-old French brand making organic syrups — mostly for cocktails, but also, according to their website, for lattes(?? very specific?) and water(???). Love that packaging! They’re available at a bunch of U.S. retailers, but here’s a tight edit — as a person who likes a good reason to have as many maraschino cherries as possible, I would love the grenadine syrup and endless Shirley Temples.

3. Herbes de Provence

herbes de provence from sur la table - best french food gifts

You can definitely make your own herbes de Provence — basically it’s a mix of Provencal herbs that’s a foundational element of many recipes from that region, generally consisting of things like rosemary, marjoram, fennel, basil, and more. (Here’s a video explaining it.) If you don’t have time for a ~project~, just buy it! Better if you can find the ones made in France, but I don’t know, honestly, how totally necessary it is. This one from Sur la Table earns five stars for being made in France, but loses two for the part-anglophone label on the container.

BUY IT HERE: SUR LA TABLE

4. Le Creuset Cookbook

le creuset cookbook - best french food gifts

Do you know someone who bought a piece of Le Creuset cookware and has no idea what to do with it? Just me? This cookbook is a stylish addition to, say, the Le Creuset Dutch oven in sea salt.

BUY IT HERE: Amazon | Sur la Table

5. Dartargan Trio of French Pâtés

french pate sampler - best french food gifts

Not my thing, but maybe you know someone dying to add a sampler of pâtés to their charcuterie boards? Maybe this one from Dartagnan, with Pâté de Campagne, Mousse Truffée, and Duck Terrine Mousquetaire — or as they put it, a “signature collection containing a trio of our most popular French pâtés, mousses and terrines, each made from D’Artagnan’s exclusive, traditional recipes using artisanal methods with only the finest ingredients”? No antibiotics, no hormones. I’m obsessed with this shop, which, BTW, also offers duck fat by the pail. 

BUY IT HERE: Dartagnan

6. Beurre d’Isigny With Rock Salt Crystals

This isn’t my brand, but it is my absolute number-one favorite French food concept: butter with rock salt crystals within it. To underline, this is not simply salted butter — but butter with big hunks of salt inside of it, making it the final-tier-forever best thing to put on popcorn. Next level!! This isn’t my brand, but the closest thing I can find from a retailer operating in the U.S.

BUY IT HERE: Amazon | iGourmet

7. Maille Whole-Grain Old-Style Mustard

Maille is a literally 300-year-old mustard brand, headquartered in Marseille. Who could do it better? The dijon variety is available here and there, but I vote for the Old Style Whole Grain Dijon Mustard — it’s here to make every sandwich you have that much better. This is definitely a supermarket favorite, though the schmancy boutiques are a fun stop in Paris — if you’re looking for a higher-end-looking brand of mustard, maybe consider Pommery? Totally different vibe but very cute labels, if that’s your thing.

BUY IT HERE: Amazon

8. Let’s Eat France
best french food gifts - let's eat france book

I’ve recommended this book more than any other French cookbook — it’s a visual smorgasbord of French cheese, butters, meats, olives, and everything else. If you know someone who loves France and food and books, there’s absolutely no other choice.

BUY IT HERE: Amazon | Bookshop

9. Le Saunier De Camargue Fleur De Sel
le saunier sea salt

This costs about twice as much in the U.S. as it does in France, but it’s still my favorite sea salt in the world, cultivated in the Camargue salt marshes in southern France. It’s without question the #1 product my family asks me to bring back from France — it’s the one thing here that makes all the other best French food gifts that much better. (Well, maybe not the cheese crackers immediately below, they’re salty enough as it is.)

BUY IT HERE: Amazon | Sur la Table

10. Michel et Augustin Cheese Crackers


Michel et Augustin cheese crackers are a fundamental part of my day to day life in France — I get antsy if I don’t have one on hand. Warning: I feel like these bags look like they’re bigger than they are; I’ve never taken more than a day or two to get through one. (I am a barnyard animal, always feeding?? I have no idea.) Note on prices: I’m not sure why L’Azur’s price is so high; you can get three packs for the same price from the retailer. Just including it because I like a lot of the other things they sell. My top pick: all of them! Also the comté! BTW, if you buy them on Amazon, please note all the reviews saying that the crackers were received broken in the bag, but they were still delicious.

BUY IT HERE: Amazon | L’Azur

11. Le Chatelain Camembert (and Other French Cheeses)

le chatelain

If you have a nearby gourmet grocer with a solid cheese selection, I think we must do as the French do and shop for our fine fromages IRL, but if not (and I sympathize, being precisely 100 miles from the nearest Whole Foods): iGourmet will ship all varieties of French cheeses, including 53 different kinds of Brie and other white mold cheese. (Note that they’re not exclusively French, though many are.) Maybe Le Chatelain Camembert, best served with Calvados (Normandy’s famous apple brandy), and which comes with this warning:

BUY IT HERE: Amazon | IGourmet

12. Le Beurre Bordier Butters

bordier espelette butter

While we’re covering the butter family of foods: There’s no more famous maker of butter than Bordier. The French.us website has a wide variety of their flavored butters, including the Vanilla de Madagascar, smoked salt, Espelette chili, and lots more. (Also the regular butter, both demi-sel and un-sel.) All butters are shipped overnight frozen, and can stay frozen for up to four months or can be used pronto, within two weeks. I know this picture sort of looks like Satan’s butter choice (it’s very red??) but it’s tasty.

13. iGourmet Gift Set of Cheeses

igourmet cheese selections - best french food gifts

Sometimes everything’s just easier when everyone does the work for you? Like this gift set from iGourmet (worst name though good selection)? Sixty bucks for 30 ounces of cheese doesn’t sound like the most amazing deal to me, but it’s cheaper than going to France. This set includes Pont L’Eveque, Comte Reserve, Buche de Chevre and Fourme d’Ambert (my personal fave). Loving the fact that the Pont l’Eveque includes this warning: “It does tend to have a strong, pungent aroma that is not for the timid.”

BUY IT HERE: iGourmet

14. Jacques Torres Salted Caramel Set

jacques torres salted caramels

For many of the items on this list, I would say to buy French or not buy it at all — this might be the one exception. Salted caramels are pretty much salted caramels?? And while I have had some extremely good French ones, the ones that weren’t quite as gourmet tasted almost exactly the same. So for this one, I’m going to recommend French/Algerian/American chocolatier Jacques Torres (who’s based in New York) and his nine-piece box. If you really prefer the French-French version, consider these, from La Maison d’Armorine, which come in a wooden, Camembert cheese-style container.

15. Les Trois Petits Cochons Saucisson Sec

saucisson sec - best french food gifts

As a person who loves few things as much as French sausage-y, salami-y things, I cannot recommend this saucisson sec more highly. Stocking stuffer!!

16. Mariage Frères English Breakfast Tea

mariage freres english breakfast

Mariage Frères is like the French high-end tea maker, with cute little tea shops in the Marais and elsewhere. They don’t ship directly to the U.S., but Bergdorf Goodman has a selection of their teas (see their picks here); maybe English Breakfast (a.k.a. “thé du matin au goût anglais”) is ironically your pick?

BUY IT HERE: Bergdorf Goodman

17. Les Sables de La Mère Poulard

best french food gifts: la mere poulard sables

I feel like La Mère Poulard makes the French equivalents of Walker’s Shortbreads — cookies (sables) more than shortbreads in the case of La Mère Pouland, but very similar. Historical tidbit: La mère Poulard is actually Annette Poulard, who opened an inn on Mont Saint Michel in 1888 with her husband, Victor. She’s most famous for her omelette — I went looking for recipes for it, and found this warning: “You will never be able to recreate the true recipe unless you use a special thick steel pan and a fireplace.” Now we know!

BUY IT HERE: Sur la Table | Amazon

Looking for more ideas about what to do in France? Here’s 101 of them.

Photo at top by Siebe Warmoeskerken.

best fall Diptyque candles - picture of the citrouille candle

So What Are the Best Fall Diptyque Candles? (Hint: It’s the Diptyque Pumpkin Candle)

Is there anything nicer than lighting a lovely, powerfully scented candle as the leaves begin to fall and it gets darker earlier? There isn’t. Especially when that candle — my vote for the top spot on the list of the best fall Diptyque candles — is the Diptyque Pumpkin candle (a.k.a. Citrouille).

As much as this is a Diptyque pumpkin candle review, it’s first and foremost a round-up of the five best fall Diptyque candles. When I began writing it, I was sure — sure! 100%! — it would be Feu de Bois. There’s no candle, Diptyque or otherwise, I love more than Feu de Bois (except, maybe, Sapin de Nuit, which was a limited-edition holiday candle and is sort of Feu de Bois adjacent — it’s like a woodfire, but of a pine tree). But I had never tried Citrouille, the Diptyque pumpkin candle, and I knew I’d have to before I wrote this.

So I did — and let me tell you, I hated it when I first burned it. It’s so strong. Now: Don’t get me wrong, I only like candles with extremely strong throws. I want to be enveloped in scent — otherwise, why pay the money? And Citrouille did that — but I didn’t like it! My immediate reaction: Now that is just too much pumpkin. It smelled exactly like the interior of a pumpkin. Am I dumb? I expected something like pumpkin spice — a bit of this, a bit of that, some clove, some cinnamon, some nutmeg. (I didn’t conjure that up on my own: According to Diptyque, Citrouille has “mouthwatering notes of chestnut and spices, inspired by traditional pumpkin pies, mingle with crisp green accents of fruit.”) Mais non! It’s pumpkin — pumpkin. I’m using all the italics I can because I don’t know how else to say that it smelled exactly like the hot interior of the sweetest pumpkin you can imagine. It took a week, but I became obsessed with it, and burned it all the way down to the bottom within a period of four weeks. It’s the fastest I’ve ever gone through a Diptyque candle, and it was worth every cent.

Moving on to the rest of the best fall Diptyque candles:

2. Feu de Bois
Feu de Bois is still my favorite Diptyque candle — somehow it seems OK, to believe that this is the best in the whole range, but that Citrouille is better for autumn. In fact, you can read a whole post about how great Feu de Bois is — but the TL;DR is that it smells like the best woodfire you’ve ever smelled, in the tidiest little cabin in the cutest little forest glen. It’s perfection.

3. Cannelle
Cannelle means cinnamon, and indeed, this is candle smells exactly like it — though in the sense that cinnamon is the bark of a tropical tree. This candle smells like the whole of the tree — a classic cinnamon scent, yes, but also the bark, the roots, the forest in which it grows. It’s like the holistic experience of cinnamon, and it is lovely.

4. Chêne
What is it about autumn that smells like big oak trees? Chêne is — you guessed it — French for oak, and that scent is replicated here. If you love the smell of old bureaus, you will absolutely love this. I added it to the list (over, say, Pomander, which was close) because it’s unlike anything else on here — a little more masculine, a little more subtle.

5. Sapin
OK, so Sapin is definitely a transition to the holiday period candle — but it’s perfect for that time between Thanksgiving and Christmas (which, after all, is mostly fall). This is a limited-edition holiday candle, always presented in a special way — this year, as Diptyque notes, “in a vessel decorated with flames in green and gold.” As to the smell: It’s essentially a Christmas tree, but the best Christmas tree you’ve ever smelled. What could be better?