My wife has always loved Paris. Long before we met, she lived in the City of Light, tucked away in the third arrondissement, eating freshly baked baguettes smeared with brie, paté and other delicate four-letter French foods that make me, a lover of giant blocks of cheddar, nervous. She had wanted to return to Paris for years, but there had always been a reason not to go -- time conflicts, extended family clamoring for a visit, travel costs. But finally, with the threat of another New York winter bearing down on us, we upended our schedules, consoled our expectant in-laws and, to sidestep the financial crunch of hotels, took a chance on an apartment swap, clearing the way for a mythical week in Paris.
We arrived on Christmas Eve, jet-lagged and excited. Our apartment was on the top floor of a walk-up. (Walk-up buildings are everywhere in Paris; they're the real reason French women don't get fat.) While my wife and daughter raced up the six flights, I staggered up with a suitcase in each hand, two computer bags around my neck and a car seat strapped to my back, groaning like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The apartment was perfect: two cozy bedrooms, a charming kitchen nook and a bathroom stuffed with French knickknacks. Sliding glass doors led to a veranda made for morning coffee and croissants.
All we needed now was a chicken.
"For Christmas dinner," my wife, Molly, told me. "The grocery stores will be closed tomorrow."
"I saw a butcher shop down the block," I offered, lacing up my boots. "Be right back."
Be right back, of course, are famous last words. No surprise, then, that the butcher shop I'd spotted from the taxi was closed. The only one open for business was a stall manned by a guy who, between drags of his Marlboro, informed me that he was out of chickens. And so, more than an hour later, I returned with a duck in my arms. Molly was mystified and a little embarrassed. I could see it in her eyes: Had she overestimated my intelligence?
Shame has since blurred some of the specifics, but to the best of my memory, our conversation went something like this:
"A duck? Why would you buy a duck?"
"They didn't have chickens, and the guy said duck is just like chicken."
"Panio, ducks are not like chickens. I knew I should have gone myself."
"This is way better. Look at it: It's so fancy it still has its head. Did I mention I paid 20 euros?"
"But we always have chicken on Christmas."
"You're not going to let this go, are you?"
Determined to save Christmas, Molly went out and got the chicken. Miraculous, really. Turns out you can't escape your own holiday customs, no matter how far you travel. And sometimes you don't want to: I was glad to sit down to a Christmas chicken. After all, we had the rest of the week to make like Parisians, strolling along the snow-dusted Champs-Élysées. And on our last morning, I carried the duck down six flights and threw it away. I felt wasteful, careless, stupid. But it could have been worse. The guy had tried to sell me a couple of pigeons as an appetizer.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Timeless tips for traveling abroad during the holidays
Look it up! Research holiday events before you go. Most countries provide a listing on their tourism Web sites; France uses us.franceguide.com. You made the trek -- you don't want to miss any of the fun.
Skip the hotel. Rent an apartment or house (world-rentals.com). You get more space and more privacy, and, if you're staying longer than a week (or you're part of a large group), it's often cheaper than a hotel.
Remember, half the world is upside down. Keep in mind that the Southern Hemisphere enjoys summertime while we hunker down for winter. So consider Brazil, South Africa and Australia for holiday getaways.