Sunday, July 11, 2010

Trip to Provence

This morning, I met my friend Kim for brunch at Petit Provence.  Kim was my thesis adviser at Concordia, a creative writing prof that I never got to have a real class with.  That doesn't mean I didn't learn a ton from her--without her support and advice (coupled with that of a few other wonderful, inspiring people I'm lucky enough to have in my life), I wouldn't even be thinking about getting my MFA.  I nixed paltry pedestrian Starbucks as the meeting point and suggested this, my favorite pre-noon spot in North Portland instead (Sorry, Milo's City Cafe...).

Alberta's Petit Provence lives up to its name, right down to the fleur de lis-shaped croissant pastries.  Every detail brings me into the France of my fantasies, as I've never been there (or anywhere) in reality.  Mugs of cappuccino with foam fans floating on top.  An affinity for brie.  The lovely black wood with yellow trim, adorning each table and fixture inside and out of the restaurant.  The friendly, chatty clientele that strike up conversations with you in front of the pastry case... believe me, this is a rarity in the rest of greater Portland, unless said conversationalist is a schizophrenic panhandler hitting you up for admission fare to a sliding-scale hotel for the night. 

I have not been anywhere else like it, and this includes the Petit Provence in Lake Oswego.  Thinking I was in for the same experience at a fraction of the drive time, I was sorely disappointed.  An old, cramped building that smelled of something not pretty and buttery (more like septic and pipe failurey), Lake Oswegans knocking me down in the name of a baguette, and aloof waitstaff.  No, this isn't something that even belongs in suburban sprawl. 

As usual, I was early to meet someone who's usually running ten minutes behind.  I took a table on the street, in the shadow of the bakery's fresh-baked loaves.  I ordered a mocha served in a sunny yellow mug, the restaurant's signature secondary color.  The pair of friends next to me ate their croissants with house strawberry jam, silent in the face of their fare.  This used to be my neighborhood, Alberta, Killingsworth, 33rd... almost a million years ago for this street, back in 2003.  Back then, the street was what a sheltered little white girl like me would call "a bit dodgy."  Church missions, radical lobbying/grassroots group offices, a vegan cafe where I saw real-life lesbians for the first time.  A LOT of taco stands, with menus I couldn't decipher.  It wasn't overtly dangerous, but it sagged with neglect and decay.  Paint faded and flaked off buildings and murals.  Signage was the realm of poster board and Sharpies. 

Since I moved out of my dorm and further and further away from NoPo, Alberta and many other neighborhoods have gone through controversial gentrifications.  Commercial space has been snatched up by the parcel, refurbished with new insides and new outsides, the buildings with the most vintage character restored with gleaming new colors and facades.  Boutiques sport hanging signs and sandwich boards with the most mod of pastel shades, their names spelled out in hip anorexic typeface.  Yoga studios, Thai food, eco-friendly clothing.  And Petit Provence.

I could be here every day, I realized suddenly, drunk on the fumes of croissant and coffee.  Every single day.  Wake up to buttery pastry and cappuccino, evened out by the bike ride here and back.  Watch the diners and the pedestrians, take notes, get back to a sunny home where a laptop and a Word document and an audience await a labor of love.  The dedicated life of an artist.

Kim arrived, late from finishing up my current short story. "It was so dense!"  She said, fooled by the deceptive 7 pages.

"I know; Windows 7 has this tiny new default font," I explained, "when I set it to Times New Roman double-spaced last night, it was over 15 pages already."

We talked about my latest piece, like contemporaries, like it really mattered.  Like this was real.  Our conversation meandered into my residency, where I started name-dropping.

"Pam Houston... have you ever read Pam Houston?"

A sly smile curled around her lips, stretching above the mug.  "Next time you see her, tell Pam that Kim says... hello."

"You know her?"  Well even I knew her, but only through the most ackward, stilted conversation I could muster in the face of pure talent that had transcended into tangiable success.

"She was doing some grad work while I was in my MFA program."

Later, after I was slicing into my grilled Monte Cristo...

"Bonnie Jo Campbell was giving us a talk on how to get jobs and stuff after the program."

"We were in class together."

She'd just emailed Debra Gwartney to set up a speaking engagement at Concordia.  Met Barry Lopez.  I realized, these aren't her heroes.  They're her coworkers!  Full-fledged, passport-stamped members in the world of literature and academia.  I flashed forward fifteen years, casting a shadow over some starry-eyed apprentice, listening to her gush over graduate studies.

"Leann Wendell was my workshop leader," she tells me with glee.

"Oh, tell Leann I say hello."

"You know Leann Wendell?!"

"Oh yeah.  We were roommates at Pacific.  She does a mean karaoke 'Like A Prayer'."

And hopefully, you know, vice versa.

I brought souvenirs of Provence back home to my lonely husband: tart tartin, fruit tart and some beautiful cake.  Little tastes of a world I burn for, can just see on the edge of a glowing horizon.  P.S., they are fucking delicious.


  1. Hahaha. I hope I can live up to your aspirations for me!

  2. I really want to go here on our next visit. That layered pastry in the back is calling out too me, is it tiramisu?

  3. It was *like* a tiramisu but not quite; really interesting. More fruit, not very much chocolate. The tart tartin was my favorite. There's such good food over by Concordia now! We need to find some stuff to do that direction and hit here for breakfast and Pok Pok for lunch.