Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Home is where you want to be

It's our last night here and an early one, since we need to finish packing and get ready for our ride to the airport tomorrow morning. We're both feeling a bit under the weather, it's raining and we had to turn down a dinner with some of our favorite people at one of our favorite places because we just couldn't manage a 10:00 pm reservation tonight.

Instead we had an early meal at l'Epigramme, a tiny place with good food that's been getting a lot of attention in the foodie world. We were seated next to an elderly man eating alone who told us that he had lost most of his sight and couldn't read the menu so the proprietor reads it to him. "He knows what I like," he said.

Towards the end of our meal he began to tell us his story: his father had come to Paris from Russia in the early years of the 20th century and made a career for himself obtaining and selling difficult-to-find books from Russia. He and his brother had continued the business and sold regularly to university libraries (including most branches of the University of California) and even to the Library of Congress. He was particularly proud of this last achievement, that he could get things they could not. The bookdealer was born, had lived and worked his entire life in the same second floor apartment around the corner from the restaurant. This was his quartier and he couldn't imagine leaving it. "Although" he added, "I have some trouble with my lungs and the two flights of stairs is a problem. But how could I leave?"

It's things like this that remind us what a special place Paris is. Even when it's raining and we're going home.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sunday strolling

A little tour through the Marais for a Sunday afternoon begins with the line of motorbikes, blessedly quiet while parked on rue Payenne, behind the Musée Carnavalet, just up the street from the pretty Square Georges Cain and across the street from the wonderful Swedish Cultural Center, with its courtyard café, quiet galleries and peaceful garden.

There are quite a few art galleries in these streets, some of them behind walls hiding cobbled courtyards that once rang with the sound of carriage wheels and horseshoes.

And that wallpapered exterior wall from last week has lost its paper and with it its uniqueness, but this poubelle has apparently joined the latest decorating craze.

The omnipresent cellphone distracts a passerby from noticing that this clothing shop has dedicated its ground floor to huge blow-ups of scenes from the 1966 Antonioni movie "Blowup", a film that was iconic to my generation, or at least to me.

And heading for home we come across one of the last of the great old metal and glass market halls, the Carreau du Temple, being renovated to serve as a sport, culture and event site for the neighborhood.

It's a great area for turning corners.

Seeing the end of the road

We're nearing the end of this visit and I have to admit we're tired. We do so much here, trying to see our friends as much as possible in our limited time, to see parts of the city we're not familiar with and to wander around neighborhoods that we love, to visit new exhibitions in favorite museums and galleries, to eat in new restaurants as well as revisiting old favorites.

More and more I realize that a month is not nearly enough time to feel at home here. What I mean by "at home" is slowing down enough to spend a couple of days in a row not doing anything in particular, not arranging to see anyone for dinner, a drink, a walk, not acting as if the time here will come to an end soon. What I mean is acting as we do in our full-time home: doing some marketing, reading the paper and cruising the internet, going to the dry cleaner, making dinner, exercising, reading a book. Sure we make plans, see friends, have dinner plans, but not every day, and sometimes not even every week.

It's with that goal in mind, feeling "at home", that we've been planning for many years to live in Paris for an extended period of time beginning in 2009, maybe as long as a year, but certainly several months, to try to understand what it would be like to live here rather than visit. We had planned to make our first extended visit next spring, for two months, and again in the fall for as long a period as we could manage by then.

But those plans have changed a bit and now it seems unlikely we'll be back until next fall at the earliest, and in a way that's okay. Our lives will be changing next year and it's probably a good idea to try out that new life at home for a while before taking it on the road; that's what they do with Broadway shows, isn't it?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The edges of town

The weather gods are playful this week, luring us out into gorgeous mornings that change quickly into gray and rainy skies and back again as quickly.

If you're lucky as we were yesterday you take the bus to the far eastern edge of the city to visit the Chateau de Vincennes and decide to have lunch just before the daily deluge. Then you enjoy the beautiful cloud formations you see from the windows of the donjon, an erstwhile palace that became a prison that housed, among others, the Marquis de Sade and the priest who was confessor to Napoleon Bonaparte.

The marquis' cell is pretty bare, while the priest's has been painted with brightly colored images of plaques and drapery. Maybe de Sade's images wouldn't have been as pretty.

There are also carved autographs left by prisoners over more than 200 years.

After a quick drink in Place St-Sulpice with Polly to hear about why she's leaving Paris for the States after 3 years of living her dream, we took another bus to dinner all the way down south at La Régalade, crowded, bright, noisy and delicious. Three yummy and enormous courses for 32 euros remains a true bargain in these days.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Weather or not

The weather has changed and fall has arrived with its rainy mornings and fallen leaves. Walking through the Place des Vosges on the way to the Victor Hugo museum we stepped on broken chestnut pods and avoided puddles. The museum has been on the To Be Visited list for some time but we always seemed to go by when it was closed. It's essentially the second floor of one of the gorgeous buildings that form the Place: arcades on the ground floor and red brick and stone above. Hugo lived here for longer than he lived in any other single place and an admirer gave it to the state in 1902 for a museum, along with many of the pictures and furniture he had bought back from the forced auction of Hugo's effects when he went into exile for political refuge after objecting to the Restoration.

The next day alternated between clouds and sunshine, shifting every few minutes. This time we went to the Fondation Cartier to see an exhibit of the French sculptor César organized by Jean Nouvel, the architect who designed the space, along with many of the other best new buildings in Paris. One of my favorite things about this exhibition space is the fact that a glass wall separates the entry garden from the street so that when you are inside the garden it appears that the street life is the interior while you are outside looking in at it.

After a long walk home and a nap, we took a bus across town to dinner at the home of friends of friends, an American who has lived in Paris for 38 years and his French partner. The views from the bus changed as we drove through various neighborhoods, but the Seine is always spectacular, even when it's just a background for a phone call on the way home from work.

This morning the sun is bright again, although there are a few white clouds moving in; we're going out to take advantage of it while it lasts.

Monday, September 29, 2008

While the markets tremble

The weather has been lovely the last few days, sunny and pleasantly warm. We've been sitting on café terraces; other creatures have been making themselves comfotable in other ways.
We hear the distant rumbling of the financial crises, we read the news online, we watch CNN, but just as the rest of our everyday lives seem to have been put on hold, so do our real life financial concerns seem a bit distant. Of course I'm sitting here listening to the TV telling me the Dow has fallen 777 points, but I somehow can't register it as applying to the life I'm living this month.

We visited the wonderful Musée des Arts et Métiers yesterday. It's full of elaborate models of mechanical marvels, among them scale models of the building of the Statue of Liberty, a gift of friendship from the French to the US in 1876. This museum is perfect for anyone with an interest in the way things work and the history of invention. Everything in it deals with real things, made by genius and hard work. It's a nice antidote to the dissolving fantasies of Wall Street and the banks.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How the other half lives

Last night we went to a party in an apartment with high ceilings and windows that open onto the Seine. The bateaux mouches floated by, shining their lights on the facade and into the lovely warm room filled with friends of our friend Carol. Carol and Jim have set up housekeeping for the month in an apartment on Quai des Grand Augustins, across from the Ile de la Cité, where Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret drank his coffee and solved his crimes.

No hint of Maigret last night however among the artists, intellectuals and visiting Americans enjoying Carol's delicious and copious food and drink, offered among the oriental rugs and modern paintings of the landlord. In front of windows wide open to the warm night, people milled and talked and nibbled and sipped. By the time we left after midnight we had collected several cards from people we enjoyed meeting and were ready to brave the search for a taxi.

(Remember those shoes I bought? Those heels are not really meant for metro stairs and corridors!)

Friday, September 26, 2008


Much of each day is spent wandering around, on the way to somewhere or simply as an end in itself. And when Susanne and I can pull our eyes away from the multitudinous shoe store windows (Gene is a remarkably patient man) we see some wonderful things: beautiful, quirky, bizarre, different.

Some are versions of the graffiti art one finds all over; some are more traditional attempts at beautifying the built environment, all are reasons to stop and take a picture.

We've bought shoes too (I know you wanted to know).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Back home

It felt as if we had been away for weeks rather than just 5 days and coming back to Paris was, as it usually is, a homecoming. The Musée Carnavalet was our first stop since Susanne had never seen it and I love the massive but well-displayed collection of art and artifacts about the city of Paris, set in a hôtel particulier once occupied by Madame de Sévigné.

A short wander through the Marais, where we seem to be spending quite a bit of time, lunch outdoors at Chez Janou, which looks just like the movie version of a charming French bistro, a little (dare I admit it?) shopping, and dinner across town at Alisa's.

Alisa is an American making her life in Paris with her two adorable half-French daughters. She runs Sweet Pea, a business making authentic American baked goods with the finest French ingredients and last year she produced two fabulous cakes for my Parisian birthday party. She's also a food stylist and works with a French publishing company on a series of cookbooks. Needless to say she's a great cook and dinner was delicious.

Yesterday we went over to the Panthéon and visited the graves of the "grands hommes" of France buried there, many of whom we as Americans know nothing about. Two of the exceptions were Marie and Pierre Curie, whose tombs were covered with floral tributes left by a group of Polish tourists claiming their own. We were interested in an exhibit about Emile Zola's role in the Dreyfus affair and the controversy about burying Zola in the Pantheon. It's discouraging to be reminded once again of the long shadow cast over European history by anti-Semitism and its traveling companion, right-wing nationalism, particularly after having visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem just the other day.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking and sitting in cafés in the St-Germain area, where we meet the cutest patrons.
Drinks with Lisa and her visiting friend Michelle, more drinks at the home of Kirsten, a new friend, where we met (now this gets complicated) her friend Gili from Israel, who happens to be familiar with the company once owned by our family, whose wedding we just attended. Does that make sense? Anyway, just another in a long series of small world stories we seem to collect. A late-ish dinner with Isabelle at j'Go in the Marché St-Germain and metro home to a well earned rest.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hitting the road

Every minute of our stay in Israel was planned and our itinerary organized by my incredibly able and hard working cousin Malka. With a dozen or more overseas relatives on her hands, she put together tours and drives and guides all over northern Israel and we didn't have a moment to spare. From a Druse village where we met a remarkable woman known as Safta (Grandma) Gamila who started a successful international soap business in spite of being virtually illiterate, to the tomb of a Moslem holy man where supplicants come to petition for good health for themselves and their families.

From a picnic at the cave where a 2nd century Jewish holy man is said to have hidden from the Romans for 12 years eating nothing but carobs from the tree still growing at the cave mouth to a view of the Galilee from the Golan Heights, to a great dinner in a remarkable little restaurant sitting just meters from the Jordanian frontier, and finally to a sound and light show at the stunningly preserved ruins of Beit She'an, we saw it all and had a good time doing it. And that was only Saturday.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ancient and modern

Getting places in the Haifa area is a pain in the you-know-what. The traffic is terrible and the roads are antiquated and what should be a 40 minute drive turns into an hour and a half. This is not fun when you're in a minibus with bad shocks on your way to a wedding in 90 degree heat. We were all pretty cranky when we got to the beachside wedding site at Achziv National Park, but it was all worth it, and if I had remembered the camera I could prove it to you.

Arriving at sunset, we walked on paths lit by flaming lanterns, between green lawns and ruined stone walls with the blue Mediterranean behind. Drinks and food were offered everywhere you turned and dinner was served at tables set with pomegranates and white linen. Unlike home, the bride and groom mingled with the guests at the reception held before the ceremony and disappeared for a few minutes before walking down the aisle to be married on a bluff over the sea. Dancing in front of Crusader walls went on until the early hours I'm told. It was a fabulous event, well worth flying in for, not to mention that damned minibus.

The next day the bride's mother organized a tour of ancient Acre, called Akko in Israel, the stronghold of every conqueror of this part of the world from the Crusaders to the Ottoman Turks. The city's claim to fame is that Napoleon was repulsed by its defenders. I think it was because he realized it wasn't really worth the effort.

It's a small port that has been recently declared a UN World Heritage Site, which means it gets funding for restoration of the things the UN committee finds worth preserving, in this case the Crusader ruins and the later commercial areas remaining from the time of the Genoan and Venetian traders who used the harbor as a link in their far flung trading empires.

The Knights Hospitallers and the Knights of St. John were the Crusader orders who controlled the town and their remaining structures weren't destroyed by the Ottomans, but rather filled with dirt and built over. They are currently being dug out with the funds supplied by the UN. Six or seven centuries of compacted earth are not easy to remove, and it's a long hard job. Unfortunately, the work in progress isn't that interesting to look at. I preferred, as I usually do, the market and the alleys of the old town, and the delicious hummus and salad lunch wasn't too bad either.

Unfortunately we weren't offered a chance at the narghila after our meal.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Off to Israel

We're leaving this morning for Israel to attend the wedding of our cousin's granddaughter Dana in Haifa tomorrow. It's actually scheduled to be held on a beach north of the city and rumored to be an all-night blast. We'll check in with updates.

Photos and food, a full day

Yesterday we made it over to the big Richard Avedon retrospective at the Jeu de Paume. It's an extraordinary show covering his fashion work in Paris in the '40s and '50s, portraits of the famous from the '60s and '70s, as well as his American West series with portraits of oil rig workers, waitresses, carnies, miners and cowboys treated just as he treated the movers and shakers of 1975 Washington in another series. The panoramic portrait of the members of Andy Warhol's Factory, clothed and naked, was spectacular too.

It was a gorgeous day so we walked over to the Left Bank to hang out for a while in the garden of the Rodin Museum. I've never been very moved by his sculpture, but what a lovely setting!

Our friend Lisa managed to avoid the threatening Alitalia strike and made her flight from Florence to meet us and Lori for dinner at Christophe in the Latin Quarter, a restaurant that is being touted as the first step in a new young chef's rise to certain fame. It's a barebones place with one waitress and the food was mostly quite good, although the melon gaspacho wasn't a success and the tomato salad not very exciting. Not exactly a launching pad for three Michelin stars, but you never know.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spinning around

Walking around the streets of Paris is a continual amazement. So much is old and new at the same time. Hey kids, let's wallpaper the exterior wall! The flowers will really set off the blocks of stone!

And in the old/new Marais you find French/English graffiti next to the Jewish bakery patronized by punk kids and long-coated Jews who would look at home in Vilna in 1889.

And should you be having a hard time deciding where to have your felafel, here's the place; even Lenny Kravitz knows that!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Getting settled

Our apartment is near the Marché des Enfants Rouges, one of the oldest markets in Paris, named after the orphans who lived in the area centuries ago, who wore red clothing to identify themselves. It re-opened a few years ago after having been closed for many years and the selection of food is wonderful. It's a bit difficult to find it from the street, but once inside, there are greengrocers, butchers, wine merchants, cheese sellers and lots of prepared food stands, including Italian, Japanese and others. The Moroccan traiteur in particular is very tempting and I'm sure we'll be bringing in dinner from this stand at least once.
After cruising the market we needed to be outdoors to fight the hovering jet lag and decided to head to the Marais, about 20 minutes walk away. It was Saturday and we thought it might be quiet there since it's a traditionally Jewish area. Well, not exactly.

The streets were jammed with young people, tourists, families, gay men and women. The character of the neighborhood has changed completely in the last decade or so and it's a major hangout with trendy cafes, bars, and shops.

After a late lunch on rue Vieille du Temple we dropped in to the Swiss Cultural Center to see an exhibit and headed home.
Dinner was around the corner at Fil des Saisons which Clotilde recommended. The menu was on a chalkboard and quite extensive so when the woman came to take our order I mentioned it was difficult to decide. "It's like school," she replied. "It's difficult but you have to do it." "I'm sure it's better than school though," I said. "No," she said, "it's just like school. If you don't finish what's on your plate you'll be punished."

Luckily it was delicious. We ate it all.