Wanderings

If the espadrille fits…

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On our first day in Madrid, we left our rented apartment, turned a corner and came upon a long line of people snaking out of a building. I’m always curious about lines that form, and what is so worth waiting for, but during the day, in the excitement of a new city, I sort of forgot about it. Until we returned in the early evening and there was still a line, even longer. Every time we passed that corner, no matter what time of day, there was always a significant gaggle of people waiting. After a few days, my curiosity got the better of me and I noted the name of the shop to look up when we got home. It turned out that this shop is Casa Hernanz, a cordeleria and alpargateria, and basically the place to get alpargatas, which you may know as espadrilles, in Madrid. They make them traditionally, by hand, and they are also very affordable, just 8 euros for the simplest pairs. The shoes that are available are all up in the windows so that you can choose the espadrilles you’d like to try before you get inside and maybe take photos to show the sales people. Once you’ve made it past the line, you head straight to the counter and ask for what you’d like, and in what size (it’s a good idea to know your European size in Spanish) and they pull from the back. You can try them on and then choose your pairs. Casa Hernanz makes the more simple gatas, but they also carry trendier designs and fabric patterns made by a few other Spanish brands that also make the shoes traditionally. They are simple shoes (e.g. no cushy insoles, and some don’t even come with a designated left and right foot) but fun, colorful, perfect for summer, and a great souvenir to bring back from Spain! Casa Hernanz, at Calle de Toledo, 18, is open for most the the day, but they do close for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta.

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Musings

Souvenirs and Gifts from Paris (that won’t break the bank)

Knowing that I was going back to the US for the holidays, and that I would be seeing almost my entire family during that time, I began to think about some gifts that I could bring back with me. Gifts that could serve as a Christmas present but with a souvenir flair, something that said, “I was thinking about you while I was away in this foreign country”. If money was no/not much of an object, I could think of millions of things that I would bring back: silk scarves and boxes of macarons, decadent chocolates and salted caramels, luxurious face creams, lusciously scented Diptyque candles, vibrant Provençal linens, chic and slightly wacky fashions, beautiful artworks and tiny jars of mustard in exotic flavors. As it is, though, I was forced to stick to a budget. I began researching gifts that were affordable, useful, and beautiful. Above all, these things had to feel French, ideally being things that French people love and use in their daily lives (ultimately landing far away from the items in the souvenir shops plastered with “France” or “Paris”, with one small exception). These are the things I found and not one of them is priced over 10 Euros. They can be combined in many different ways to create gifts at all price points and for various audiences (one such combination below) so that no one is left out. They can even be added to a more luxurious gift as a little something extra. I waited until now to share them since they were the actual gifts my family and friends received. Since my family and friends are unfailingly polite, I don’t know what the real response was, but I’ve seen many of them used, and I stand by all of them!

French Soaps

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I like these soaps because they smell delicious, come in a wide variety of authentic scents that are sure to please a panoply of noses, are so pretty, and the Marseilles region of Provence has been known for its (exacting) soap-making for centuries. These are Compagnie de Provence, but there is a wide range of brands with various packaging, scents and price points, as well as very famous solid laundry soap worth looking into.

Fleur de Sel

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When I said in French class (en français, of course) that I had bought salt as gifts everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I may be, I never know if my proclivities with food are normal (in fact I remember my mother being bemused by Guillaume’s and my excitement about some watermelon radishes that came in our CSA box and that we had pickled. She said, “What is the big deal with radishes?” I say, if one cannot get excited about beautiful concentric circles of hot pink in a giant slice of vegetable, crunchy and tangy from a pickling in vinegar, then I don’t know what one can get excited about. Personally.) Fleur de Sel, like many food items in France, is something that is taken completely seriously, and also completely for granted. It is in everyone’s cupboard, is very affordable, but is harvested in precise locations, with exacting standards, the same way that it always has been. I don’t think many people in the US keep fleur de sel, but it is very useful for finishing dishes, salads, or even desserts. I focused on fleur de sel from Guérande, near where we had been in Nantes, and Camargue.

Vichy Mint Pastilles

These mints, very French, made with Vichy water, and available in most supermarkets, were probably originally made to cure all sorts of ills. Now they just taste nice and freshen breath and are the perfect thing to tuck in to a larger gift or with other items, like the little satchels below, especially when elegantly packaged.

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Early on I came up with the idea of several smaller items wrapped up in another gift as a little parcel. I toyed with scarves, tote bags, tea towels, but then I found these napkins at a popular mid-range French department store, BHV. They are very French Country; a little kitschy while still being something that certain French people would use. I wrapped a soap, a container of fleur de sel and some mints in a napkin with some pretty ribbon in the colors of the French flag to really bring home the theme.

Eiffel Tower Keychains 

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The pièce de résistance (if you will allow a bit of exaggeration), I attached one of these to each of the parcels I gave away. This is definitely a Souvenir with a capital “S” and it even says Paris on it, but I bought my first Eiffel Tower keychain in 2001, and it has been on my keys ever since. It is the perfect size and shape to find in the depths of a bag or pocket, and reminds me of my trip every time. OK, so maybe a person who has not been to Paris would not want a remembrance on their keys, but it’s a little thing, and I think they are so adorable, especially attached to the tie on the parcel. They come in several different colors and designs, including some very kitschy ones, but I prefer this sort of vintage-y color, and simple design. 

Candle from Notre-Dame de Paris

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This might not be for everyone, but I discovered that Notre Dame Cathedral has candles that you can take with you for a suggested donation.

Tote Bags

Tote bags are infinitely useful, are often seen on the shoulders of (especially young) Parisians, and are available in many places. These are from the Rodin Museum, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and the Compagnie de Provence store, respectively.

Market Baskets

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These market baskets were actually the first thing I purchased in France. I noticed them at the large covered market in Nantes and they looked so French, so utilitarian and un-stuffy, indeed I saw them all around me overflowing with carrots and strawberries and being strapped to the backs of bicycles. They were also very well-priced (not being the very fancy kind that you buy at William-Sonoma) and I couldn’t resist a few for some family members. They definitely proved a bit of a challenge to tote around, especially since I wanted to keep them protected, and I learned a good rule: only buy things that will definitely fit in your suitcase.

Notebooks

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Who can’t use a notebook? Cute, useful, evocative.

Pottery Cups

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Is it cheating that these are sort of free? These absolutely adorable pots come filled with yogurt at the supermarket. Only one brand that I’ve found still uses colored clay pots, although many still use glass, and they change colors and flavors as the seasons do. Right now the flavor is vanilla, and the pots are this gorgeous red color with “Joyeuses fêtes” (Happy Holidays) scrolled in the clay. I cannot think of a single person who would be, if not delighted by this piece of French crockery, at the very least find some clever use for it. Pencil cup? Bud vase? Custard cup? To hold salt on the countertop? Coffee cup? Shot glass in a pinch?

Herbes de Provence

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A traditional French spice blend from, as the name suggests, Provence. Oftentimes containing lavender, a staple product of the area, I learned that they only began including it when the tourists requested it. With or without the lavender, a nice choice for the chefs in your life.

Gift Tags

Finally, I knew I was looking for some tags or labels to distinguish the packages, and I thought I wanted them to say “Merry Christmas” in French. After a lot of searching I found these absolutely perfect ones at BHV, at Hôtel de Ville. I also liked the old-fashioned tags as well, which have a certain “je ne sais quoi”.

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