Read this first (or at least skim it): Kate Betts, Onetime Harper’s Bazaar Editor, at Home
Now, enjoy the version from my life.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Liz Woodbury, the editor in chief of Overheard in Portland, was sitting in her favorite love seat in the dining room of her everyday house in Portland, Maine. “I call this the catbird seat, because you can see everyone coming and going--they can’t sneak up on you from behind, so you have the advantage,” said Ms. Woodbury, alluding to the stereotypical French follasse who is the resident eccentric of an apartment building, consumed with paranoia and nonsensical accusations.
Pedestrian-friendly Portland, she added, reminds her of small towns in the French countryside. “I know that sounds slightly pretentious,” she said, “especially since I’ve never actually been to France. But I like the village feeling and that everybody knows each other. There is something French about the scale and pace of life. I guess I can get away with saying that in the off-season.”
Ms. Woodbury, who is 47, has been a Francophile since her teens. After growing up in New York and graduating from a major midwestern university in 1990, she moved to Baltimore to become a writer, but instead had some babies and became a freelance roustabout and part-time flâneur, which is the subject of her new memoir, “My Paris Dream: Pretending I’m Always in the Great City on the Seine” (self-published).
The book chronicles her travels, shopping sprees, and love affair with a surfer named Hervé (some of the book may be slightly fictionalized). But it is most revealing about her trial by fire as a barista under the tutelage of her husband Mark High, the capricious bookstore-cafe owner and fashion maverick. She was lured to Portland in 1999 when her home in Baltimore was sold and thus belonged to someone else.
As she led a tour of the modest 1925 house that she and her husband bought with assistance from her father, Robert L. Woodbury, a bookman, it became apparent that her parents provided her with a sentimental education. “I feel both of their presences here,” Ms. Woodbury said. Many of the books in the parlor, she pointed out, had also been read by her mother, Mary Woodbury, a professional massage therapist and library aficionado. “I don’t exactly say this in the book, but she was kind of a stage mother for reading books and keeping dogs and gathering pottery shards on the beach, because she pushed me to keep a leash in my hand and my eyes on the sand,” Ms. Woodbury said.
Her father was the one who taught her about aesthetics. “He loves art, especially things they show at those museums in New York,” she said. “When I tell you that every surface in his house was covered in framed pictures, I am not exaggerating. Imagine what it would be like to live in a three-dimensional room with pictures on the wall. That’s what it was like at Mom and Dad’s house.”
Ms. Woodbury lives in Portland during the week (and on the weekends) with her husband--their children, Zoë, 22, and Isaac, 19, visit frequently during breaks from their impressive academic careers. She either has a consulting company that provides editorial content for luxury brands, or she eavesdrops on people and then puts what they say on the Internet. When she and her family moved into the Portland house sixteen years ago, she agonized before painting the rooms in bright, loud colors, correctly predicting that it would keep the family constantly on edge and cause them to have trouble sleeping. A dozen years later, she repainted in moody colors that made them all drowsy and melancholy.
Surveying three photos scotch taped to the wall on the second-floor landing, Ms. Woodbury recalled her family’s imaginary summer home in Block Island, R.I., which her father dreamed of buying in the 1980s. “It was a shack on the beach that my father modernized. Or it was a cottage slightly farther from the beach, all painted white. Or maybe a bungalow on a sandy road surrounded by beach roses,” she recalled. “He could’ve been a great architect.” She retrieved a vintage copy of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” to show off her high school graduation gift, and then described the 1986 shingled cottage that probably would’ve won an award from the American Institute of Architects or something.
Although Ms. Woodbury has spent much of her career in pursuit of the chic and cutting edge, only a few things in her home would fit that description, among them a table that was stolen from an elementary school classroom and a sofa purchased at Macy’s for a really good price. Also a framed photo of some Roma people that her father bought at a used book store.
Her favorite artwork is a weird painting by a former art student who used to come into the bookstore all the time, in the dining room. “She had a show at the bookstore,” said Ms. Woodbury, “and I’ve never been sure if we bought it from her or if she forgot to pick it up afterward. I can’t remember her name, hmm.”
The “greatest hits” from her fashion-magazine-reading years are relegated to the tiny closet in her bedroom. She pulls out a heavy flannel shirt and a pair of red fake patent leather rain boots. “Who makes ready-to-wear like this anymore?” she said wistfully. “I don’t know what to do with these clothes.”
She is more attached to the flea-market finds that remind her of Paris (though, again, she’s never been): the whimsical map of Paris in the living room and the black-painted mirror over the fireplace that’s always just been around.
An even more whimsical gold-framed mirror hangs over an old oak dresser that she got from her mother. On top of the dresser is a still life she composed with her collection of human and canine teeth, a bunch of miniature guns and knives, and hard plastic animal figurines. “Peter Martins gave these to me when I chaired the New York City Ballet gala,” she said. “Ha ha, just kidding, I stole them out of my kids’ Playmobil toys.”
In an adjacent room is a metal and melamine Ikea bed that belonged to her daughter and a small child’s school chair that her friend (a teacher) stole from the aforementioned classroom, on the condition that it be returned to her family upon her death. The juxtaposition is symbolic, she explained, because her friend was her daughter’s third grade math teacher: “Well, it’s kind of symbolic.”
Back in the dining room, the table was set for a casual lunch with the family jelly jars and the squarish white plates that came from Target. As if she lived in the French village of her imagination, Ms. Woodbury had ridden her imaginary bicycle into town that morning to buy an imaginary baguette and other provisions at Gorgonzola’s Cheese Shop (also imaginary).
“I actually bought this cheese at Trader Joe’s. It’s one of the treasures of Portland,” she said. “Cheese is my real weakness in life. You have to taste the truffle one. I usually eat it all, but I can’t have any now because I’m on an IBS diet.”
Wow, this is like almost identical to my life except I have two master spare bedrooms - or it three? - and I have actually lived in Paris, like in real-life, on four separate weekends.
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