August 15, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth, and with perfect timing, Bob Spitz has authored an affectionate and definitive biography called Dearie (Knopf, August 8, 2012). I just downloaded my own Google ebook edition from my favorite independent bookstore.
For me, Julia’s 100th birthday is the perfect time to reflect on my good fortune in being able to walk in her footsteps in Paris. On a freezing cold day last January, I joined the American Women’s Group in Paris on a private Julia Child Tour.
We were already shivering and stomping our cold feet when we met at the site of Julia Child’s Paris apartment at 81 rue de L’Université (or as Julia and Paul cheerfully called it, “Rue de Loo.”) We had private arrangements to meet the landlord in the courtyard of the building. We didn’t know what to expect, and were excited just to be there, despite the historically low temperatures.
It turned out that the landlady was an utterly charming French woman. She came out into the courtyard dressed in a fashionable fur coat, with her gray hair neatly brushed back into a black velvet headband. She spoke only French, but our tour guide was able to translate what we were unable to understand on our own.
Madame was happy to share her deceased husband’s stories about growing up as a neighbor of Julia and Paul Child. He was a young boy at the time, and would often ride his bicycle in the courtyard. Julia was never too busy to stop and visit with him, and obviously enjoyed the company of children. Julia’s French neighbors adored her. According to Madame, they remembered her as tall, outgoing and extremely friendly.
Madame told us that her husband’s family received Christmas cards from Julia and Paul for many years, even after they had left Paris. Madame apologized: she had searched for them among her old scrapbooks and souvenirs before our visit but couldn’t find them. She paged through her copy of My Life in France and pointed to the famous Christmas card with Julia and Paul in the bathtub, and said proudly: “I have this one somewhere!”
We were thrilled when Madame invited us up to her apartment, and not just because we were eager to escape the cold. We got a glimpse at an apartment similar to the one Julia and Paul lived in. While the living room and dining room were lovely, with classic wood parquet floors, gloriously tall windows and exquisite decorative wood moulding, the kitchen was excrutiatingly small. We got to peek up the stairs toward the third floor, and I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite scenes in the Julie and Julia movie when Paul used to come home for lunch and a “nap” in the middle of the day.
In our best intermediate French (“Merci beaucoup Madame! Enchanté!”) we thanked Madame for her hospitality. We then hopped on a bus and continued our tour in the Les Halles neighborhood, where Julia used to shop for ingredients and cooking supplies. We finally warmed up with traditional French Onion Soup and a little white wine at Au Pied du Couchon, just like Julia did so many years ago. What fun.
Happy Birthday, Julia! And Madame, thanks for the memories.