Sometimes little luxuries make one great memory

One of my favorite names for a specialty shop is Little Luxuries, on State Street in Madison. In the offbeat inventory are fancy hair clips, crazy socks, clever games, artsy reading glasses, unusual toys for kids.

It’s a place to pamper yourself or someone you love without selling the farm.

When price means everything, the average big-box retailer almost always wins, but too much bottom-line living can kill the thrill of splurging and the satisfaction of feeling roused by objects and experiences that are unique instead of mass produced.

My life on a tight budget makes room for intentional indulgences, and some require calculated sacrifices. A trip to Manhattan five years ago, to visit an elderly relative, meant staying in a cell-like room (with shared bath) at a YMCA but forking over $100-plus for the then-hottest ticket in town, Tom Hanks in “Lucky Guy,” a one-man show and his Broadway debut.

I will walk dozens of blocks to avoid cab fare and dine at a superb restaurant. My wardrobe is a collage of resale shop purchases, and the savings helps finance my passion for travel. I once booked a seat on Megabus from Syracuse to Toronto, to avoid high airfares into Canada.

A bottom-barrel price for flights and nine days of three-star lodging (about $1,300, per person), via, got my guy and I to Paris and Prague recently. We ate street food in the Marais district (falafel, along Rue des Rosiers) and three courses with wine at a Michelin restaurant (Auberge Nicolas Flamel, the oldest stone house in Paris, built as an inn for the homeless).

In Prague, we ended a long day of sightseeing by drifting into a candy store. Topping off dozens of barrels, each with a silver scoop, were an abundance of colorful choices: hard candies and squares of fudge, sweet-sour ribbons and jelly beans, gummy candies that looked like little eggs, big worms, real-life dentures.

The price? A flat 800 Czech koruna per kilo. Translation: $16.80 per pound. We don’t eat much candy at home, much less pay this much for it, but had a craving to break the rules.

We deliberately selected two of this and two of that, over and over. Spent the equivalent of $10. Stretched out the bounty. Saved the little eggs for last, while waiting for our morning flight home.

Now it’s all a sweet memory.

Our purchase didn’t break the bank and was spontaneous, a trait often foreign to us as a couple. We are Virgos who prefer caution, planning and good value. Otherwise we tend to hedge, sputter and bumble – which can be very frustrating or a very good thing while traveling.

That’s because great memories don’t come from sticking to a carefully plotted itinerary or staying within personal comfort zones. Try something that makes you feel a tad uneasy because of the setting, experience or cost and see what transpires.

I have seen Paris twice, with more than 40 years between visits, and wondered aloud this month about a bar frequented by Ernest Hemingway. Over-priced and overrated, my beloved and I had read somewhere along the way.

But on a rainy afternoon, after hours of museum sightseeing, we decided to find it. We were wearing jeans and damp from trudging as we approached the bar’s home in the Ritz Paris, a famous hotel that opened 120 years ago.

Consider the hotel’s notoriety. Auguste Escoffier, creator of modern French cuisine, was the first executive chef. Fashion designer Coco Chanel was among the tenants. Nazis occupied the site during World War II, and war correspondent Hemingway was among the Ritz’s ardent fans when peace arrived.

The hotel’s Imperial Suite, a national monument, goes for around $30,000 per night. Diana, princess of Wales, and companion Dodi Fayed, son of the hotel’s owner, ate their last meal here, 20 years ago.

Bellmen seemed to do an about-face as we approached the entrance, and one nodded toward the first room on the left when we asked for the Hemingway bar. We were told no tables were available, then that the wait may be an hour, then that two seats at the bar would open in five minutes.

We waited near the entrance for more than 15, sitting next to a petite woman with a petite Chanel bag next to her. We watched a hostess shuttle from bar to coat closet, first to store a fur coat, then to retrieve an umbrella.

When we caught her eye, she apologized, and with a “follow me” led to a table for two. It was not the only unoccupied seating.

We opened the menu, where the least expensive glass of wine or beer was easily more than $20, and exchanged glances.

A piano was playing. Outside it was still raining. Our first instinct was to bolt. What we decided on was a $70 bottle of red. Better value two glasses, I rationalized.

A dainty trio of snacks – marinated olives, spiced cashews, tiny and vinegar-spiked chips – was delivered, then replenished. We nibbled and sipped as the piano man delivered “Eleanor Rigby,” “Tender is the Night,” “The Way We Were” and much more.

Within view was a pretty indoor garden for dining, most tables vacant. On walls were many photos, but nothing that looked like Hemingway, which I found odd. So I asked and was told that’s a different bar, which greatly amused one of us and steamed the other.

I kept tabs on an older couple who eventually crossed the room: One booth for cocktails, another for their meal. With them was a sweet little dog that looked like a long-haired terrier. I asked to pet him, and the owner obliged with enthusiasm.

“He gets all the attention, no matter where we are. His name is Dante, and we are his parents.”

He asked if we were English and shook our hand before leaving. Too soon, our bottle was empty. It’s two hours later and time to retreat from this glimpse at another world. The dog parents smiled and waved as we left.

One job remained: We scouted out the real Hemingway Bar, checked the menu and snapped quick photos before heading back to reality.

Memory made. Investment – $20 per person, for two hours – outweighed by payback.