By Natalie Williams
I love Paris. Who doesn’t? We all love Paris, this beautiful European city of lights, for a myriad reasons.
It could be the countless movies it has inspired for decades, the great novels that use it as a backdrop, the cultural giants, artists and poets and musicians who call it home, the edgy politics it engenders or its fashion-conscious history.
For thousands of visitors, it could be the lure of the Eiffel Tower, the sultriness of the river Seine, the sexy pull of the Moulin Rouge, or simply the freshness of a French baguette laden with soft Brie cheese.
But for this Trini in Europe, I have to admit that my love for Paris is also connected with my hunger for, and deprivation of, the fabulous West Indian foods and delicacies that are so readily and easily available in the French capital.
Non-stop Trini lime
My Trini cousin Lisa has been based in Paris for the past 11 years and it has been a decade of enjoying French living, notwithstanding some difficulties in terms of assimilating into a new foreign culture. Generally when we chat, I get a sense that it “ain’t too bad living in Paris”.
Enter my greediness again, for I confess to speaking on her behalf!
Whenever she visits me - last time being the height of summer in Malta - it is like Christmas in August and one big non-stop Trini lime.
Like Santa and his sleigh, she arrives with the massive suitcases that the Wise One jokes only Caribbean women seem to know where to buy.
(And, boy, could I regale you with the many hours wasted any time I have to purchase the right luggage – forget labels; no interest in Louis V – give me sturdy Chinese-made luggage with double expanding zips and I’m happy.)
A Trinidadian in Paris
So Lisa comes bearing gifts like no other visitors we have ever had anywhere in this world we have called home.
And we have had our fair share of visitors in the sometimes nomadic diplomatic life we live.
But Lisa from Paris is different.
When my San Fernando-born cousin visits, the journey for me begins in my mind.
I visualise her scouring the open-air markets and quaint cobbled streets of Paris, checking in with her local food-supply chain.
On a cool Parisian weekend, tired from a hard-working week but hopefully buoyant at her upcoming Mediterranean holiday, I imagine her chatting with vendors and artisans, checking the West Indian goods and goodies off her list, waving away those that don’t satisfy her discerning eye and high standards, like a maestro conducting a concert.
The panoply of Caribbean foods, produce, spices, peppers for her home-made hot sauce, ingredients for the Trini-style pelau (paella), brilliant condiments and not forgetting the French jazz music she knows the Wise One loves – will all play their roles in setting the perfect scene for “liming” into the wee hours of a Mediterranean morning.
There is no denying that the French understand food, but for me, they are getting better and better specifically at sourcing, appreciating and supplying the indigenous foods and delicacies of their former colonies from Africa and the Caribbean, right in the heart of Paris.
The Paris market scene is brilliant at the best of times, with dozens of farmers, merchants, bakers and vendors travelling for hours from all over France to come ply their trade.
But add the growth and emergence of immigrant sellers catering to the need of folks from “home” and this amalgamation is, for me, a match made in foodie heaven.
In my mind, I see Lisa arguing in her sing-song French-tinged Trini accent, telling off the African stall-holder who is insisting she buys the ready ripe plantains (he wants to get them off his hands of course), when she informed him last week she only wanted green bananas that will perfectly ripen by the time she lands in Malta, there to be fried to perfection as a side dish to saltfish buljol.
She takes all his hard fresh cassava and all his massive green mangoes, which will be precisely and perfectly added to the Trini saltfish dish, which in my opinion rivals any traditional Portuguese bacalhau at the Harrods food hall.
And I imagine the tussle over just why she needs to buy up all his okras, zabocas (avocadoes), star fruits, guava jam, salted cod and all his beautiful fat scotch bonnet peppers…“Yes, all 25, please.”
I can visualise the scene back in her Paris flat as Lisa carefully wraps the salted cod in layers of bubble wrap, tightly tapes up her wonderful pepper-sauce bottles and wrestles over which plastic containers she’s willing to part with permanently, just in case things go downhill at European customs checks.
(“Good day, Madam. We need you to step aside and see these officers here – just as soon as they roll in the small crane to haul up your luggage…. You say the smell from your suitcase is what? And the suspicious red substance in this bottle is intended for food, you say? And, Madam, tell me again what this is? Ohcrow?)
Fedex-ed bake and shark
Once played out, the saga would later join the ranks of legendary tales about West Indians travelling abroad to visit deprived relatives in foreign countries, each anecdote of smuggled goodies more outrageous than the last (though I maintain that a darling, generous and kind-hearted friend who sent me a Maracas bake-and-shake, complete with tamarind sauce and mango chutney, via Fed-Ex years back, still tops the list).
The Wise One always is in “get ready for cousin Lisa from Paris” mode.
Weeks before, it starts at home, hunting down his sunglasses - incognito works best for him when my Caribbean friends visit.
Then, at the airport, there must be enough coins for the trolleys and the porters to load the bountiful suitcases, thereby protecting his back and sticking to his declaration of nearly a decade that “he never lifting a Caribbean suitcase again”.
Then our preparation continues, with ensuring the beers have been chilling days beforehand.
We have one friend who phones ahead of any visit and might really drive on past the house if the beers haven’t been “soaking” for a while.
It is the Wise One’s job, too, to hunt down the closest thing to coconut water (for the rum), and once this is located, the Caribbean cocktail must be suitably tested over a period before her arrival.
Still, Lisa from Paris is different.
We have to go buy, beg or borrow a massive iron pot for cooking the pelau, and it will do double duty to make enough buljol and avocado to last me a while.
Then we have to track down just the right wooden spoon to use for Lisa’s glorious pepper sauce, as using the wrong one will bring down the wrath of the pepper sauce gods.
And it is all worth it. The endless hugs, laughter and love that no suitcase can hold pours out immediately and constantly, reminding me and the Wise One of how generous and warm our people are, regardless of how long they have lived abroad in the Diaspora.
Then there is the late-night “ole talk” about life back in the region, arguing over Caribbean politics and general “wotlessness" (worthlessness, in case you don’t speak Trini) of some back home, the endless lament about missing Carnival again, and of course the mental drooling over every Caribbean dish that we miss, before we head tired and bleary-eyed into the kitchen in the middle of the night, to make some callaloo soup.
This is what life is all about.
When Lisa from Paris visits, it is a whirlwind of beautiful reminders that a rich, bountiful life revolves around friends and family, laughter and love and food and – oh, yea – homemade pepper sauce!