It was a one in a million chance.
Or, as I like to say, a mysterious intersection of fate and destiny.
That I would happen to encounter one of my favourite authors sitting at a famous Left Bank café in Paris was improbable enough, yet a half dozen other factors that day led up to that moment and had any one of them not occurred, we would not have met. Serendipitous seems a weak word.
I arrived in Paris from the States on Wednesday, and apart from simply taking in the heart of this great city in springtime, I had two objectives for my brief visit: a return to the iconic, 19th-century cookware shop, E. Dehillerin, and a stop at a small Left Bank boutique shop, Huilerie J. LeBlanc, to procure another of their fabulous earthenware (argile cuite) bottles of artisanal Provençal olive oil, like the one I bought fifteen years ago when a student in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu.
Late on Thursday morning, I set out from our Right Bank hotel to walk to E. Dehillerin, which is not far from the Opera. It was roughly a mile each way, ￼and by the time I returned to our hotel, I could feel my right foot beginning to ache. Our main plan for the day was to visit the Musée d’Orsay—once a grand railway station on the rive gauche (left riverbank), now home to Paris’ second most famous museum and one of the finest Impressionist art collections in the world (though as we learned later, the iconic Monet water lilies have been moved to L’Orangerie). Shortly after lunch, my partner and I strolled through the Jardin de Tuileries, the long, tree-lined park that stretches along the Seine from the Musée du Louvre to the Champs Elysees, and crossed over the river to the museum. My foot hurt, but it wasn’t terrible,and I was reveling in being back in dear Paris, soaking in my memories of living there years before.
Nearly a year ago I injured my right foot, and the subsequent plantarfascitis has continued to be a limiting story ever since. Long distance walking has been curtailed, and even with treatment and therapeutic insoles, my foot continues to trouble me if I ramble too far, stand too long, or dance.
With all the day’s walking and standing, followed by the picturesque amble back across the river to our hotel, the ache in my foot had progressed to my knee and up to my right hip. ￼I was limping slightly and in considerable discomfort, realizing that my ambulation for the day was finished. Indeed, I guessed that my mobility the next day might be somewhat compromised, as well.
Shortly after returning to the hotel room, we learned that the next day (Friday) was a bank holiday in France and, in typical fashion, nearly everything would be shut. With our train for Cannes departing on Saturday morning, suddenly there was little opportunity remaining to go to Huilerie J. LeBlanc, if it even still existed; similarly, several of the things we had planned to do on Friday now bowed out of the picture.
Looking up the shop on the Web, it seemed the shop was no longer was in business, but another little boutique on Rue Jacob sold the artisan oils from J. LeBlanc, and Robert, determined to help me acquire what I wanted, rang them up. Madame, in a mixture of English and French, informed us that she would be open until 7:00 but closed tomorrow. It was already 5:30.
“I’m not going back out,” I shook my head. “I cannot walk any more today. The olive oil isn’t that important… I’ll get it next time I come back to Paris, whenever that may be.” (Passing through to elsewhere, my previous two visits to the city had both fallen on a Sunday when the shops I wanted to visit where shut.)
We could take the Metro, my partner suggested, but I knew from my experience of living in Paris years ago that although the distance was short as a crow flies, crossing the river and then getting to St.-Germain-des-Prés from our current location involved three different metro lines. At peak commuter time, this hardly seemed appealing. Not only would we be squished like sardines into a packed and stuffy subway car, there would still be walking and stairs.
We could take a taxi, my mate offered, earnestly trying to get me the long awaited huile d’olive in its beautiful earthenware bottle. “That’s crazy,” I shook my head. “Traffic is at a standstill out there.”
“You’re not coming to Paris and not getting your oil,” my beloved countered. “You’ve missed it on the past two trips.”
In the end, I relented. We climbed into a taxi outside the hotel and then inched slowly along in gridlock, accompanied by French drivers agitatedly honking their horns, forcing their way in at intersections—though no one could move far or get ahead. “I’m sorry,” said our Mediterranean driver, in flawless English, “Paris has a real problem.”
When we finally managed to get across the river, still mired in traffic on Boulevard St. Germain, knowing that we were not far from the shop, I thanked the driver and we got out and walked—me, limping—the remaining blocks to Rue Jacob in the 6th arrondissement.
The little shop had changed noticeably since my visit fifteen years previously (and I recalled it being in a slightly different location). Disappointingly, the elegantly rustic ceramic canisters that I had come for—their corks sealed with wax and looking decidedly Old World—had been discontinued in the large size, thus I had to content myself with une petite. C’est la vie.
Standing outside the shop I felt somewhat deflated. My foot and leg screamed silently.
“Let’s get a taxi,” offered my mate, each of us realizing that walking back to the hotel was simply out of the question. Cognizant that traffic remained snarled in every direction, car horns peppering the air as the bronze bells of St. Germain rang loudly for seven o’clock, I shook my head. “We’ll spend another 20 euros just sitting in traffic.”
I considered our options for a moment, then suggested we sit at a café for a while until le embouteillage (traffic jam) eased up, at which point we could hail a cab. Slowly we walked back to Boulevard St. Germain, where my partner pointed to a café on the corner and said, “That one looks nice.”
I laughed aloud. The busy brasserie was Les Deux Magots, arguably the most iconic café on the Left Bank, made famous years ago as the haunt of the literary and intellectual elite of Paris––frequented by Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as Albert Camus, James Joyce, Picasso, and others. I explained a bit of its history.
“You’ll pay a tourist price for the privilege of sitting there,” I smiled wearily.
“I don’t care. I want the experience… especially now that I know its relevance. Come on.”￼
D’accord. I was too tired and achy to argue. I simply needed to sit. As we approached and scanned for an open table on the crowded sidewalk, a woman with bright red lips, expressive eyes, and hair the color of hot copper wires caught my attention. Seated at one of the front tables on the sidewalk, she wore fingerless lace gloves and a black lace cap, a wide-eyed expression on her face. A very distinctive looking woman—those large eyes and bright lips, the flaming hair—I recognized her from the jacket photos on her books.
“I think that’s Marlena de Blasi,” I said to my mate as we sat down at a small, just-vacated table. “And her husband, Fernando.”
I could scarcely believe it. Marlena de Blasi, author of the bestselling memoirs A Thousand Days in Venice, and A Thousand Days in Tuscany (among other titles), sitting not a dozen feet away. A chef and writer who moved to Italy twenty-some years ago to marry a Venetian, de Blasi writes books that are gently steeped in delicious, rustic flavors and an attention to the small details of life. She has a penchant for the old fashioned and authentic, for a life lived deliberately at a slower, more nourishing pace, and reading her works I have always imagined her as something of a kindred spirit.
Her engaging memoirs and stories often comforted me as an expat living abroad, offering a sense of being not quite so alone in a foreign world. It was she who first gave me the concept of a “survival ritual,” those actions that center us in our sense of self and keep our little boat upright in challenging waters—like going to the farmers’ market, or cooking a comforting meal. Not only is she a fine cook who writes gilded prose, but she is also a fellow sensualist—smitten as surely by the scent of wild weeds warm in the summer sun, as by the tensile yield of well-kneaded yeasted dough in the hands, captured as easily by the fragrance of a perfectly ripe peach as by the feel of soft rumpled, wheat-coloured linen.
Honestly, what were the chances? If the next day were not a bank holiday, my partner and I would not have traveled over to the Left Bank that evening for the artisanal olive oil. Had traffic not been utterly terrible, and had my foot not been severely bothering me after the morning’s trek on a cookingware quest to E. Dehillerin, we would not have stopped at Les Deux Magots to rest for a bit. And to meet one of my favourite authors at a literary landmark—naturally Ms. de Blasi would want to sit at such a place—well, how à-propos.
“I don’t want to bother her,” I said, as I took another sip of my Provençal rosé and again glanced over at her seated at the front table.
“She’d love to hear how much you adore her books. I bet she’d be more thrilled than annoyed. Besides,” my mate pointed out, “she’s sitting at the very front table on the sidewalk… she’s not exactly hiding.”
I weighed the situation for ten minutes, swirling my salmon-hued wine in its glass and turning every so often to peer in her direction, all the while half-hearing the loud American couple to our right argue over the husband’s limited cooking repertoire. I decided that I was not going to let the serendipitous moment slip away.
Her husband had briefly disappeared inside the restaurant, and I stood up, walked over to her table, and knelt down beside her.
“Excuse me, do you happen to be Marlena de Blasi?”
For just an instant, her wide eyes washed over with puzzlement, ebbing to surprise as she realized one of her fans had approached at a Paris café and was saying hello.
“Why, yes… I am… but… how did you know?”
“You look like your photos,” I said, “I don’t want to intrude or bother you, but I just have to tell you how much I adore your books.”
She reached out and took my hands, looking deep into my eyes with something like astonishment. “I can’t believe this,” she said in a voice brimming with genuine amazement, “we’ve only just arrived an hour ago. And here you are, like an angel, saying hello to me. Please, tell me who you are… and how did you come to be here, just now?”
I told her how I loved her skill with language and stories, that I was a fellow chef, an author, that I had lived abroad for several years and had read all of her books… that I had read several of them aloud to my mate, even.
“But you haven’t read them all,” she interrupted and smiled as she grasped my hand, her palms wrapped in charcoal lace. “I have a new one that comes out on the 23rd. If you give me your address, I will send it to you!”
A few moments later, her husband Fernando (who features prominently in several of her books) reappeared, and introductions passed round the small table.
“He’s a chef! He’s a writer! He used to live abroad! He loves the books!” she exclaimed to Fernando in Italian. I kept trying to break away, not wanting to intrude further on their café experience, but she wouldn’t let me go.
Ten minutes later, my mate had come to the table and been introduced as well. She said yes to taking a photo together. When I finally made an exit, leaving them at their front table and walking into the crowd with my partner, I was blessed by her wide-eyed, somewhat emotional benediction, “We are tribe.” In my hand on a piece of paper, I carried her personal email address—with instructions to write to her, and a promise to send me a copy of the forthcoming book.
For all the world, she (and Fernando) could not have been more gracious. Even as cliché as it sounds, I will always remember those first moments of meeting Marlena.
What a delight to be able to share from my heart—the heart of a cook, an artist, a lover of stories and well-spun words—how deeply I have savored her works. Honestly, encountering Ms. de Blasi at Les Deux Magots was something more than the￼ star-gazing thrill of crossing paths with a celebrity. Rather it was the pleasure of meeting someone who walks through the world with senses cast wide and heart ajar, a fellow Soul Artist—one who finds delight in little details, who knows that beauty, pleasure, and simple, rustic food prepared with best quality ingredients, all feed the soul.
“Now that was destiny,” exclaimed my partner as we walked away.
I’m inclined to agree. At the very least, it was enough to restore my faith in the inexplicable forces that guide the shifting currents of our lives towards unseen, mysterious ends.
Paris has always been special for me, a place of life-changing experiences. Now, when I am fortunate enough to return there in the future, when I stroll through St.-Germain-des-Prés, or pass Les Deux Magots—or even when I simply think of Paris—I will certainly recall the spring afternoon when a curious string of events conspired to bring me face to face with Marlena de Blasi.
And I can hardly wait for The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club.