Editor's note: This is the first story in a three-part travel series. Check back next week to read the next installment, focused on Belgium.
Living in the USA, it often feels like we focus most of our lives on working to make money so we can enjoy life later. Sure, you may take some nice vacations on your annual two weeks leave, but that still requires a vacation fund.
Even living in the mountains, where we have the luxury of the great outdoors as our back yard, many of us still work two jobs to be able to afford to live here and enjoy it.
However, on a recent trip to Europe where I met up with my family and then some friends, I learned how to better enjoy life. From France to Belgium to Holland, each country offered examples of how we can make the most of our lives by taking time for life's simple pleasures: good food, good drinks, good company and good humor as well as expressing oneself
My first stop was France, the perfect place to indulge.
Indulging in life's simple pleasures
The thing about the French is their attention to and infatuation with good food and wine. It's not just about making it, buying it, eating and drinking it - it's all about taking plenty of time throughout every day to thoroughly enjoy it. This in itself requires an adjustment from my usual eating habits, which generally involves eating in my car, at my desk or standing due to my consistently hectic work schedule.
I hadn't been back to France in five years, so I was particularly excited to eat and drink in the flavors of Paris. I arrived early in the morning and navigated my way to the southern part of the city, to a cafe where I was to meet up with my parents. I sat down and in the most elementary French, ordered a croissant and an espresso. Feeling particularly French, I sat at my street-facing table, watching the morning traffic come alive as I felt the butter from the croissant soak into my fingers before it reached my mouth. Why is it that croissants only taste this good in France? And the coffee - what a perfect complement to my perfect pastry. Before long, the cafe was abuzz with like-minded people enjoying their morning pastries and espresso before starting their day. This is a good life. Why Americans make breakfast a race, it seems, is beyond the French. That's not to say that the French are not busy or business oriented. It's just about priorities. And in France, perfect coffee and mind-blowing pastries and breads are just the right way to start your day, no matter where you sit in the social order.
With breakfast out of the way, my family and I stopped by the apartment we were staying in and then ventured out onto the streets of Paris to explore the city. For three days we shopped, wandered through historical districts and admired ancient architecture, art exhibits and the city's culture.
We spent a morning taking part in the Victory Day celebrations at the Arc de Triomphe where, following an exciting election the day before, we saw the outgoing president and the incoming president come together to celebrate the end of WWII and France's freedom. After, as I perused the shops, I watched as very attractive break-dancers entertained an ever-present crowd on the Champs Elysees as though it were part of the celebration. I admired their moves and fantastic physique. Must be the French pastry diet, I convinced myself.
I wandered through weekly street markets, watching as crowds gathered for their weekly dose of farm fresh cheese and produce, cured meats and the famous rotisserie chicken with potatoes cooking in the fat dripping from them. In a country where until quite recently wine was cheaper than bottled water, the importance of sitting down regularly for long periods of time to enjoy a glass of wine, another espresso or perhaps a shared plate of food cannot be overstated.
Day trip to Reims
After three days of over-indulgence in Paris, we jumped on a train headed to Reims in the Champagne region, about two hours away. My father had organized a private tour of the Louis Roederer Champagne house for us. The house produces Cristal, one of the most expensive Champagnes on the market. It's one of the few remaining family-owned and operated Champagne producers left from the big names in Champagne. Our tour of the facilities took us from the fermentation tanks to the caves where the Champagne is stored and aged and then to the bottling area.
We were given an oral history of the house, including the Roederer family history and how they came to make their most famous Champagne, initially exclusively for the last Russian Tsar. The Tsar, it turns out, is responsible for redesigning the traditional Champagne bottle specifically for his Champagne, insisting that the bottle be made from crystal, that it be a clear bottle so he could see if poison was added and that it not have the dimple at the bottom of the bottle to prevent bombs from being hidden in there. Finally, we finished our tour with a wine-tasting of three of their finest Champagnes.
At this point, you are probably wondering how touring a Champagne house, one that produces Cristal, qualifies as a simple pleasure in life. To really understand the French, you must understand their love for the finest things in life as well as their appreciation for life's simple
City of love
With our thirst quenched, we headed back to the city of love for two more days of indulgence and exploration. That means we wandered the streets, stopping every few hours to eat and drink more as we watched Parisian life go by.
An afternoon at the park was filled with Petanque players all dressed as if they came from a garden party and a group of outlawed dancers tangoing in the afternoon sun while they waited to get kicked out of the park.
Everywhere we went, public displays of affection seemed to be the overwhelming feeling of the day. Something about being in Paris made people - locals and tourists alike - want to grab their partner (hopefully) and make out.
On our final night, after walking the streets for more time than my feet care to remember, my younger brother, his wife and I headed to the Eiffel Tower for a must-do nighttime view of the city from one of its most famous landmarks. Unfortunately, due to construction, the top of the tower was not accessible. We decided it would be easy enough to walk to the second level. However, by the time we had climbed the 10 flights of stairs to get there, I felt I had sufficiently walked off at least half of the food I had consumed since my arrival in France and, as is usually my experience with big hikes, the view from the second floor instantly made the trek worthwhile.
By 1 a.m., we were sitting at a cafe by our apartment, enjoying ice cream as we complained about our weary limbs. There, sitting at a table in front of us was a little old lady with a cup of tea in front of her. As we sat there, we noticed she was starting to nod off. First it was just a slight nod of her head as she jerked it back up. Soon, though, she was sliding down her chair and jolting back up, glasses barely resting on the very tip of her nose. We giggled nervously, wondering what this little old lady was doing out at 1:30 a.m. with a cup of tea that she could not stay awake long enough to drink and how long it would be until she slid right to the floor. Noticing our source of entertainment and our concern, our waiter explained that she had been coming to this same cafe every night at the same time for the past 10 years. She always sat at the same table, ordered the same cup of tea and she had never slid completely off the chair. That, it seemed to me, was proof of the French dedication to enjoying the simple pleasures in life.
With my conscience cleared that I had in fact successfully indulged in French culture rather than over-indulged, I jumped on a fast train the next morning and headed to Antwerp, Belgium to meet up with my best friend and her boyfriend. Until next week.
Vail Daily Photo Editor Dominique Taylor can be reached at dtaylor@vail