Our Year of Living Wonderfully

Retired Judge Mel Dickstein spent a year living in Paris, indulging in all that the City of Lights had to offer: captivating streets, culinary delights, and cultural wonders. Recounting his year abroad, Dickstein remembers the joys—and challenges—of immersing himself in a different culture, and shares with THL what the French can teach us in the States  about work, rest, balance, and simplicity. 

By Hon. Mel Dickstein

It was late April on a cloudy day when I walked out of Smith & Sons bookshop on the Rue Rivoli, stepped across the street and entered one of my favorite places in Paris—the Tuileries. I should have been on my way home, but the skies were clearing and a short walk among the trees, fountains and sculpture was good for the soul. I took a side path where there were fewer people—most had been discouraged by the earlier rain.  The leaves on the manicured trees had just filled out, spring flowers adorned the gardens. It was lovely, and surprisingly quiet. 

It doesn’t matter the season, the Tuileries are special. They are better when most of the tourists are gone—in the fall and winter.  We would sit at one of the outdoor cafes, winter coats and gloves sheltering us from the elements, a warm allongée or espresso and a shared pastry to delight.  It was best when the sun was out and the wind had died.  We thought it was heaven. 

Our year of living wonderfully began in July 2022. Having navigated the bureaucracy and obtained our one-year visas, we were off to live in Paris for a year. We’d rented, sight unseen, a furnished apartment on Avenue Victor Hugo, not far from the Arc de Triomphe. It turned out to be lovely. 

We spent the early weeks exploring Paris. We’d marvel at simple buildings of no great renown adorned with sculptures and wrought iron decoration of extraordinary beauty.  Our walks never got old.  We’d always discover something new, no matter how many times we may have taken a particular path.   

Eating Wonderfully

It was by trial and error that we found places to shop.  In the early weeks we frequented a wonderful market near the metro Terne where we met Jean Paul, a lovely man who took us under his wing and steered us to the best fruits and vegetables.  And best, in Paris, is really extraordinary.  One of the true delights of living in Paris is the food purchased at the shops and markets that blanket the city.  Even in our farmer’s markets at home we never found fruit with such sweetness, or vegetables whose authentic taste we could only have imagined before.  French produce is grown for taste, not looks; for sweetness not size; for excellence not quantity. It makes for a profound difference, one in which we delighted during the entire year.   

I came to love food shopping.  It’s true; I would never have said it before.  We eventually settled on Rue Belle Feuille for our market street—a lively community of shops close to our apartment.  In the Midwest, we are used to being friendly and informal, but we found the French proprietors and their customers were formal, with few smiles.  There was the obligatory “Bonjour,” or “Bon journée, au revoir” but it was all business. We were the outliers—unable to communicate as efficiently as the locals, unsure of exactly what we wanted or how to ask for it if we knew.  But we persisted and in time it became evident that we were not only welcome, but the merchants enjoyed seeing us.  They would smile in a way they didn’t with many of their other customers. They were helpful.  They were kind.  We even made small talk in French (they were patient). 

Learning Wonderfully

We chose Paris as our base for good reason. It’s in central Europe, enabling us to travel to other places with ease.  Paris is also full of cultural events, giving us the opportunity to sample symphony and opera, chamber music and dance.  To see ballet in the Opera Guarnier is a delight even before the curtain rises.  The theater is an architectural marvel, the ceiling adorned with Chagall paintings.  You almost feel as though Napoleon is going to ride up in his carriage for his private entrance. The brutalist Opera Bastille didn’t have quite the same feeling, but it was there that we attended the opera.  There were, to be sure, moments of excellence.  There were also quizzical moments of productions that could only occur in France, like the scene in Carmen when a man comes on stage, removes all his clothes and pretends to bullfight in the nude.  I never figured out what to make of that except that it was very French. 

Paris served us well in other ways.  My wife has long worked with the Advocates for Human Rights and our presence in France gave her the opportunity to do work in Berlin, Prague, Rabat and Geneva on topics ranging from domestic violence to the death penalty. The ability to participate without the necessity of a transatlantic journey was a godsend.  

I took the opportunity to attend French classes.  I quickly affirmed that I am not a talented foreign language student, but I don’t lack enthusiasm.  I met students from all over the world, joined by our desire to try to speak French.  I improved but it will take far more than periodic classes in Paris to become conversant. Still, I enthused at my little triumphs. When a UPS package became lost, I successfully spoke with a representative in French.  I even had a full-blown conversation with a woman at a museum in the Camargue about her visit to the American Southwest. But fluent conversation in French remains a long, long way off.   

Traveling Wonderfully

Once we became acclimated to Paris, we began our travels around France.  Our first trip was to Normandy, which is lovely, but it’s not hard to imagine the scenes of carnage critical to victory in World War II.  The horrors of WWII stand in stark contrast to the hedgerows of Normandy today which are among the most beautiful landscapes we’ve seen in France. 

Auvergne was our next destination.  We climbed the Puy de Dome, an ancient, inactive volcano on the top of which there are stunning views and startling remains of an ancient Roman temple to the god Mercury. We stayed in the town of Montpeyroux, which bills itself as “the most beautiful village in France,” but so do several other villages in France. Each year the French government names another “most beautiful village.”  

Lyon and Beaujolais followed.  Lyon has an extraordinary history of commerce, wonderful restaurants and architecture which, to be fully appreciated, needs the accompaniment of a good tour guide.  Our guide was a former museum curator—a French Huguenot, she made a point of telling us that the first reference to the Virgin Mary was not until the year 450.  We would ask more about that, but we don’t want to start another Thirty Years War. 

Alsace followed—it was more beautiful than we had imagined.  We used a contemporary gite (vacation home) in a small town as our base for hiking and exploring the region. We hiked past vineyards and up to the ruins of chateaux, once resplendent, overlooking the valley below. What especially distinguished the small town in which we stayed was an excellent restaurant—the type you hope to find in a small Vermont town but rarely do.  

We didn’t travel from place to place; we had the luxury of time.  Weeks might separate our trips.  The south of France was a delight as it emerged from winter.  But so, too, were our sojourns to London, Berlin, Barcelona, Bruges and Amsterdam. The Bordeaux region, and Brittany still beckon before we return. 

Living Wonderfully

A friend asked what we enjoyed most about our stay in France.  I’m at a loss to answer accurately because there were so many things that brought delight.  But perhaps the single most satisfying element was living in another culture.  French culture is distinctly different from ours—for better and worse.   If food and wine were a delight the year through, the ubiquitous smoking was not.  The French have a big habit: they smoke a lot and they smoke everywhere.  It’s hard to escape.  The wonderful café society is a little less wonderful when everyone around your sidewalk table is smoking. 

But if smoking is a negative, it is more than made up for by the freedom one feels to go almost anywhere in Paris without concern for your physical safety—even late at night.  It’s not that Paris is without crime—it’s just that the crime pales next to most any American city.  In our entire year in Paris, we never saw any indication that people carry guns, nor did we ever feel concern for our safety. 

The beauty of Paris was another delight with which we never tired.  Each building is an artwork.  Parks small and large invite a respite from a busy world.  Parc Monceau was among our favorite places to just sit, talk, and observe.  The Bois de Bologne, not far from our apartment, was a forest delight, filled with walking and running paths, horse trails and amusements.  At night it’s described as “malsain” (creepy) because it becomes a haven for sex workers and their customers.  But for the most part the Bois de Bologne is wonderful: a place in which to get lost, physically and in your reverie. 

It’s amazing that Paris street life continues even during the cold, gray, misty, rainy winter weather. To be sure, we were happy to have missed a year in Minneapolis of unusual snow, ice and cold. But Paris winters are no selling point.  They are gray, gray and more gray. The grayness doesn’t stop people from taking any opportunity they can to sit at their favorite café and enjoy the outdoors.  It always amazed me, especially one very cold, windy day when I saw a young man sitting outside in the Latin Quarter drinking his iced coke! 

Working Wonderfully

If the weather was sometimes a challenge, so too were the “grèves” (strikes) and “manifestations” (demonstrations).  The French love to complain and strikes are one of the ways they do it.  But the U.S. news coverage of the strikes was unfortunately alarmist—rarely did the strikes have any impact on our daily lives.   

What the strikes drove home, however, is the distance between our cultures when it comes to work.  The French could not believe that I was still working at age 74.  A friend asked if I would continue my arbitration and mediation practice when I return and was shocked when I expressed reservation. “What will you do?” she asked, clearly concerned. It was a fair question, the same one I asked myself as I reached mandatory retirement age on the bench in 2018. But after a year in Paris, I feel more comfortable with the idea of retirement; it’s not a dirty word here.  My year of living wonderfully has had an impact. The common saying that “the French work to live while Americans live to work” contains a great deal of truth. American culture notwithstanding, perhaps it’s time for me to reassess. 

I will miss Paris. I sat this morning looking out through our ceiling high windows at the wrought iron adornment on our balcony and the Hausmannn building across the street.  It’s spring.  It’s sunny again.  The skies are blue, summer is close. I can’t wait to get outside to experience the day.  I know I will delight in seeing all the people I enjoy in Minneapolis when we return in July.  I will benefit from the many things Minneapolis has to offer.  But Paris will always beckon. 

Judge Mel Dickstein (ret'd) began his legal career as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.  He was thereafter a partner at Robins Kaplan, a Hennepin County District Court Judge and upon his retirement an arbitrator, mediator and Special Master.  

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