Friday, May 30, 2008


Flying into SFO is spectacular on a clear day.

In the next few weeks I'll be posting lots of our photos to Flickr. I hope you'll go there to take a look.

Half way home

Just getting back to Paris made us feel better. It’s amazing to me how comfortable we have come to feel here. In many ways it’s an alternate “home”, you know, the place you feel secure, where if something goes wrong it doesn’t throw you into a mono-lingual tizzy, trying to figure out how to cope. In Florence we had wanted very much to be going home. Arriving in Paris we wanted to stay. It didn’t hurt that it was a gorgeous day, pleasantly warm and breezy.

We did some errands, made arrangements to meet Martine and her daughter Virginie at the opening of an art exhibit and Odile later for dinner at Les Petites Sorcières. This is the latest restaurant by Ghislaine Arabian, a Michelin starred chef who opens and closes restaurants on a whim. I’d never gotten to one before it was closed again. The food was excellent, croquettes of crevettes grises with crisped fried parsley, several delicious fish I'd never heard of including maigre and mérou, a modern version of petit salé with lentils de Puy, and what looked like a great dessert list. But it took over an hour to begin to be served and the service was practically non-existent. If you go, keep that in mind. If it's still open.

A walk home through the warm night and so to bed. Tomorrow we're really going home.

The friendly skies

It’s been a long time since air travel was fun. I admit I’m old enough to remember the long ago days when you dressed up to fly somewhere because it was an event. And the early days of frequent flyer programs, when free first class tickets were easy to get and still came with five course meals cooked to order. Ah, nostalgia.

Now all you're entitled to expect is that you will actually be transported from the place of departure to the place of arrival reasonably close to the scheduled time. And those expectations are not always met.

We didn’t enjoy being in Florence, too crowded, too touristy, too dirty, too hot, hot, hot. We were looking forward to our last full day in Paris when we got to the Florence airport, boarded the Air France flight (operated by City Jet, they were careful to note) and sat, sweating, for over an hour. A technical problem, the captain said, and apparently one connected with the cooling system by all the evidence. I began thinking of those people stuck on planes for days, no food, the toilets overflowing, because the airline didn’t want to cancel the flight.

The next announcement was that we were OK to go but had missed our takeoff window and had to wait for clearance from Milan. Milan! We were in Florence. Thirty minutes later we began to taxi. And stopped. The fix wasn’t working. Back to the tarmac parking space. Eventually buses arrived to take us back to the terminal where we waited several more hours to finally be told we weren’t going anywhere that day. Go to the desk and have your flight rescheduled and a hotel assigned. And try to find someone to tell you what’s going on. Every Air France employee has disappeared.

And so on. I finally had to pretend an illness to get someone to assign us a hotel within an hour. The entire adventure lasted six hours.

Stupidly I had let my cellphone time run down and was carefully rationing it, texting the people we were to meet that evening and making arrangements to pick up the luggage we had left in Paris. I suppose it could have been worse. Gil’s response to my text message canceling our dinner plans read: Does it make you feel any better to know the weather is lousy in Paris? It didn’t.

Partying with the Medicis

On our way home from dinner the other night we noticed a party going on behind the barred gate of a palazzo courtyard and peered in. A young man saw us and told us that we could come in by walking around the block to the front entrance and so we did. It was the Medici-Riccardi Palace. The pictures above were taken the next day just to make you envious.

We never quite understood what the party was for, but no one stopped us as we came in, got a drink at the open bar and found our "host", the young man who had told us the way in. He was one of three who had been invited in the same way by an Italian woman seeing them through the gate. He was paying it forward to us.

These three were from Argentina, Mexico and Brazil respectively, each in the course of a year- long visit to Europe. They ranged from 19 to about 25 years old and were enthusiastic and interested in seeing as much as they could while working when they needed to. Each of them said they had worked several months in London to improve their English, which was excellent. We chatted for a while, remembering our own extended European trip after we were married. We lasted seven months before homesickness set in and they were months we've never forgotten. I'm sure these guys will have similar memories.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Siena to Florence, a Tuscan spectrum

Siena is a lovely city. Sitting on a hill above its modern industrial outskirts, it retains its medieval and Renaissance heart in spite of the tourists thronging the sloping, shell-shaped, glorious Campo and its incomparable Duomo. Away from these centers the city feels nearly deserted, rather somber, and not particularly welcoming. It keeps itself to itself, but you sense that if you belonged, if you were a member of one of the contrade, the neighborhood organizations that for centuries have competed in the twice-yearly Palio, you would live proudly and happily in Siena.

Florence on the other hand is a slut of a city. Dirty, crowded, graffiti-plagued, the quiet Renaissance gem we loved years ago has become blowsy and dissipated, her museums jammed, her streets filled shoulder to shoulder with tour groups from Germany, Poland, other parts of Italy and a few dollar-watching Americans.

But still, it's stunning. Get up above the rooftops and look down, turn a corner and catch a breathtaking view, and you remember where you are and what Florence is.

Today we saw this elegant, carefully made-up woman being escorted to her weekly Sunday lunch at Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco. We happened to be standing near the door when the restaurant's host welcomed her and then turned to us to explain that she is 100 years and two months old and a contessa from a Venetian family. That was good enough for us. We had dinner there this evening. Maybe we'll live to be a healthy high-heeled 100 too.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

On hold in Tuscany

Internet access has become a bit of a problem and we'll be back in touch soon. Keep checking in, it will be worth it!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bella Italia, ma piove (with photos added)

We flew to Italy on Tuesday morning to meet Renée and Lisa for what we're calling the 30-40-65 tour, celebrating their milestone birthdays along with Gene's this year. We actually managed to connect with them at Rome airport, pick up our rental car and find the way to Villa Cicolina, a charming small hotel just outside of Montepulciano in the heart of Tuscany. Easier said than done I may say, since the weather gods have not yet given up on us. It stormed the entire way. The hotel is very pretty, the gardens are gorgeous and everything is wet.

This morning we woke to thin sunshine but sunshine nonetheless, and it stayed reasonably nice most of the day, allowing us to drive to Pienza, stroll around the town, take a tour of the Piccolomini Palace and drive a pretty little strada bianca to Montichiello, where we had lunch on the terrace of La Porta...until the black clouds came back, finally gathering enough strength to drive us inside to the accompaniment of thunder and lightening. We felt sorry for ourselves but the bike riders dripping inside the now crowded trattoria were pitiful.

We are in landscape that could be the background of every Renaissance painting you've ever seen. You know what I mean: the scene outside the window behind the Mona Lisa or the Lady with the Ermine. Rolling hills with towers at their peaks, lines of umbrella pines silhouetted along the tops of hills, cypresses lining narrow white roads, this is a landscape that appears entirely unreal, that must have been laid down by a long dead artist.

The forecast for tomorrow is better, and right now the sun is shining through white clouds. I'm glad I can now upload photos because it's too beautiful for words.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Catching culture where we can

We finally got out of the apartment about noon today after a late night yesterday. We had met Zeva and Fabrice for drinks around the corner on rue Montorgueil and then joined Isabelle, our "landlady", for a late and very fun dinner at Osteria Ruggiero, also in the neighborhood. We're too old for this kind of carousing and we slept in this morning.

Feeling the need for a hit of culture we went to the Musée d'Orsay to see an exhibition of Lovis Corinth (don't worry, we'd never heard of him either). German painter of the late 19th-early 20th century, he moved from Impressionism to Expressionism over the course of his career. One stunning nude looked like it might have been painted by Lucian Freud. A quick visit to Manet's Olympe, one of our favorites, and it was off to the other end of the arts spectrum, to the Portes Ouvertes, open studios, in Belleville, a working class neighborhood populated largely by immigrants and artists.

There we had arranged to meet our friends Liz Claire, a dancer, academic, and the moving spirit of MADE in France, a program for university level dance and design students from the US to study in France, and Marcos Pujol, an opera singer, director and teacher, who live in Belleville and who gave us a tour of the neighborhood as we dropped in to the various open studios.

As is usually the case with open studios, there's a mix of the good, the bad and the 'what were they thinking?' but there was quite a lot of good this time, particularly the work of Ukrainian painter Anton Yakutovych, who has lived and worked in Paris since 2002.
We avoided one thunderstorm, were caught by a second, had an Indian dinner and metro'd home. It was a good day.

Sophie Calle

Need advice? Ask 107 of your closest friends to give you their views. That's what Sophie Calle did and the exhibition at the Bibliotheque National Richelieu is the result. This art piece was the French entry to the 2007 Venice Biennale, which we just missed last year, so when I learned from Polly's blog that it had opened in the main reading room of the historic Bibliotheque we went right over.

The exhibition is called Prenez Soin de Vous (Take care of yourself), the final line in a "Dear Jane" letter to Sophie from her unnamed lover. Sophie's response? She emailed the letter to a broad spectrum of women in different fields of endeavor: actresses, writers, musicians, criminologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, clowns, dancers, clothing designers, Talmudists, and so on, asking each of them to respond as they wished. The result is a series of videos, writings, and musical performances. The musician put it to music, the clown essentially ignored the content but played hilariously with the punctuation, the criminologist suggested the writer was a dangerous egotist, the Talmudic scholars prepared a three-part exigesis, the actresses read their interpretations of it, etc. etc.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hither and yon

We've been running around quite a bit looking at apartments we're considering for next year's long stay. This morning it was a place in Saint-Germain that would be a good fit if it weren't on the ground floor with windows on the street. It's a quiet street, but still the idea of opening our windows with people walking by just inches away is too weird. This afternoon we saw a place in the Marais that's quite nice, and it comes with laundry service! But it's on the second floor overlooking a grungy narrow courtyard and it's hard to know what it might be like in the gray Paris winters.

When we first began to plan our longterm stay we thought it would be relatively easy to find something we liked at a price that wasn't too painful, but the dollar hasn't cooperated. Apartments I bookmarked two years ago are now out of our budget, not because they cost more in Euros but because buying Euros costs so much more.

In fact everything costs more. A coffee at a café table can be the equivalent of $6, and it might come in this definitely non-PC cup:But we have faith that we'll find a place to live when it comes time to make the decision. Whether we'll have to give up coffee remains to be seen.
Have I mentioned the weather? Gray skies and rain seem to follow us and now they're back in Paris. We got caught in a downpour yesterday, one of those thunderstorms we don't have in California much, where it's hot and muggy and then the sky opens up with growling thunder and the crack of lightning. A bit early for a meeting, we ducked into the shop next door, where the young woman working there stood with us at the open door watching people scurrying by. She said she loved orages, thunderstorms, and looked very happy. Of course she was inside.

Yesterday morning we finally got to the Richard Serra installation at the Grand Palais. Five hugely tall steel monoliths in an offset row down the center of the long hall. When the light flooded in through the glass roof of the Palais the shadows thrown on the floor made the visitor walking through and around the steel plaques part of the installation. When clouds covered the sun, the whole thing went dead, I thought.

For dinner last night we tracked down the new incarnation of our favorite restaurant, which had been sold since we were last there. The owner/chef of Le Temps au Temps in the 11th are now operating Itineraires in the 5th on rue Pontoise. It's bigger, prettier, and a bit more ambitious and I don't think it succeeds as well. I guess we can't go back in temps. (sorry!)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A vacation from a vacation

Timing is all. Or nothing. In our case it's iffy. We had planned to go to the south of France for a few days with Odile over the long Pentecôte holiday. We had train tickets, B & B reservations. So we got up early last Thursday and we looked at the weather forecast: rain. Forecast for Paris: sunny and warm. That's what I mean about timing.

Ever hopeful, we took the bag packed with lightweight clothes (no time to repack) and headed off on the metro for Gare Montparnasse. Here's one of the things we don't like so much about Paris. The Montparnasse metro station connects directly with the train station so all those travelers can take public transport to their train; good planning, right? Sort of.

There are several miles of tunnels (OK I exaggerate, but not by much) between the metro station platform for the major north-south line and the train station. Bad enough. But between these tunnels there are STAIRS! MANY STAIRS! FOR PEOPLE EXPECTED TO BE CARRYING LUGGAGE!

End of rant.

So we get to our destination on the amazingly quick TGV and take off for Odile's aunt's house in the Gers, a still incredibly rural area of France known to those of us who read The Three Musketeers as Gascony, home of Dartagnan. Rolling hills, villages built entirely of local stone since the 11th century, pale cows known as blondes d'Aquitaine and chateaus to die for. Aunt Monique lives in Montfort, the village that spawned Simon de Montfort, a Crusader and leader of the army that destroyed the Cathar rebellion. Legend has it that when asked how to tell good Catholics from Cathar heretics he said "Kill them all. God will know his own." Nice guy.

Monique is wonderful. At nearly 80 she has energy and warmth enough for two and welcomed us to her lovely sprawling house and garden as if we were her own children or grandchildren, cooking great food, pouring wine, insisting I take one of her sweaters to wear over the too light clothing I had on.

This part of the country is where Odile's mother's family comes from and we drove around visiting the places Odile spent her early childhood summers, bathing in the small rivers, riding bikes up and down the hills and taking care of the ducks. It sounds idyllic for a 6 year old.

It's difficult to understand the connectedness of these small villages until you see it in action. When Monique couldn't find a brochure on the town in English she left a message on the machine of the local tourist office guy. Ten minutes later, no kidding, ten minutes, a car pulled up to the house, someone jumped out, said good morning and handed me an English version of the town walking tour, jumped back in the car and roared off.

We visited the Chateau de Gramont, a gorgeous mix of medieval castle and Renaissance chateau set in beautiful gardens at the top of a hill.

We shopped in Fleurance, a nearby village with the typical covered market hall, open all around, in the center. We ate wonderful food (this is duck and foie gras country) and discovered the local aperitif, Floc de Gascogne, made of grape juice and Armagnac. It's so good we're bringing some home, so be nice to us!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


We've been coming to Paris often enough for long enough to feel relatively comfortable here, and we have friends here whom we like very much. These are people we've met and made connections with over the years, either through mutual friends or through circumstance. We feel very lucky to have them and we really enjoy making new ones.

On Saturday we had dinner at the home of one of these friends and met another guest, in town for the weekend, who lives in a small town in Burgundy. We very much enjoyed the conversation, and as we left after dinner we found that we were going home to the same metro station, as she was staying at her daughter's place, coincidentally around the corner from our apartment. Before we parted, she suddenly invited us to tea at her daughter's on Monday evening.

Around the corner from us, in this quickly gentrifying neighborhood, is the lingering remnant of a red light district. There are still a few peep shows and porn dealers but the buildings are being rehabed and property values are rising. After we entered the street door of the building, between a small grocery and a porn shop, we walked down an unprepossessing hallway, and began to climb four flights of very narrow spiraling stairs, wondering what we'd find. When we got to the top we entered a lovely apartment.

This talented young woman had turned the top floor of a tenement into a small but charming duplex with a living room/kitchen/bath/guestroom on the main level and a comfortable bedroom above, but it was up yet another small stair that the biggest surprise lay: a perfect and private little terrace, no bigger than 8 ft. square with flowering and climbing plants, a small wall fountain, a miniature terra cotta barbecue grill and several low seats around a small table. It was a warm evening and we sat on the terrace drinking a good red wine, talking about everything under the sun and looking over the rooftops; it was great!

By the time we left we had exchanged email addresses and phone numbers all around, had been invited to stay with the woman from Burgundy and invited the daughter to visit us when she's in SF this summer on her way to Burning Man! Who says the French aren't friendly!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sunday, sunny Sunday

Sunday morning at home, whether here or there, is much the same. Sleep late, read the paper, actual or electronic, laze around doing not much of anything until you feel guilty and go out. Our lunch date cancelled, we decided to go to Père Lachaise cemetary and enjoy the sun and being alive while searching for the graves of those famous people who could no longer do either.

Oscar Wilde, who died in Paris in a hotel that has since made lots of money telling people about it, has a rather strange Modernist gravestone with tributes, names and dates scribbled all over it by visitors, as well as lots and lots of lipstick kisses!

We also saw the large number of memorials and steles to victims of the concentration camps, to resistance heros, to Communists, to the dead of the Spanish Civil War.

There are carefully maintained graves, abandoned ones, lots of sepulchres designed as small buildings for family internment, stones adorned by ceramic flowers, etc. A true city of the dead. It even has signposts.

But not enough of them, as we got separated and lost for a while and finally gave up the ghost so to speak and left for a late lunch.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Spring has sprung...provisionally

Yesterday felt like spring. The sun was out although lingering clouds reminded us that they were in charge and could come back if they felt like it, so watch your step!

This flower shop had the latest spring fashions for sprites...fluttery dresses made of rose petals in your choice of colors.

The holiday pont, the long weekend after a mid-week holiday, makes clear the differences between tourist and residential areas in Paris. The Marais, Saint-Germain, the Champs Elysées are jammed with tourists, the sidewalks impassable. A few blocks away the streets are deserted, few cars driving, no trouble parking for those still here, and many cafés, shops and restaurants closed and shuttered.

We've gotten over jet lag more easily this time, maybe because we forgot to take the No Jet Lag pills we've been using for several years. Walking around the city we're reminded each visit why we love it so much. How could you not when the streetlamps look like this?

Shall we mention the food? We dropped in to le Comptoir de St-Germain the other evening and were lucky, a table on the sidewalk terrasse available right away (a few minutes later there was a line of hopefuls waiting). We had foie gras on toast and a boite of marinated sardines served with algae butter, followed by petit salé de joue de porcelet (a small casserole of pork cheeks with lentils, yum!) and my favorite main there, cochon de lait, a slice of suckling pig, also served with delicious sweet lentils. Ths restaurant gets a lot of press and has a lot of foreign customers, but the quality has not dropped; it's one of our favorites and we try to come at least once each visit.

On May 1 an open restaurant was hard to find. We had planned to go to a Senegalese place in the Marais, owned by someone Martine knows, that she wanted to try but it was closed, as were many others. We wound up with Martine, Yves and Odile at Casa Bini, a Tuscan place near Odéon and had a great meal of very fresh vegetables and pasta and fish in good company. (Martine, who is very involved with French Socialist Party politics, is a big fan of Barack Obama and was happy to have the campaign sticker and pin I brought her. The pin went right on her coat immediately.)

Last night we wanted to stay in the neighborhood for a simple meal and wound up at Les Fines Gueules near Place des Victoires, a wine bar that distinguishes itself by serving impeccably fresh simple food sourced from the best names among local producers. We had a terrine of fish with leeks and eggs baked with barely smoked haddock to start (here's the terrine de poissons, discreetly snapped for your edification) and shrimp Provencale and a gorgeous hand chopped tartare de boeuf. Dessert was an entire peeled poached peach (can you say that 3 times, fast?) with a sauce of caramel laitier, a milky unctuous cream. A stroll back home and we were happy campers.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

For rent?

One of our goals this trip is to find an apartment to rent for next year. This one we passed on our walk today looks good, doesn't it?

Hurray, hurray, it's the 1st of May

The calendar says it's May but the weather thinks it's March. A mix of rain, sun, gloom and drizzle alternating every twenty minutes or so means we have to be prepared for anything, the folding umbrella tucked in the same bag as the sunglasses.

Much of Paris is quiet and deserted today, most stores and cafés closed, but the Etoile at the top of the Champs Elysées is absolutely jammed with tourists, as is the broad boulevard itself. Today is a national holiday in France and most other European nations, and many of the citizens of those nations have apparently decided to spend the day in Paris. We hear a lot of Italian spoken, as well as Dutch, German, and various Slavic tongues. There's a dearth of the usual American voices, a reflection, I assume, of the dwindling dollar.

There are lots of kids with their families and lots of school groups as well.

On May 1st it is traditional to buy muguets, lilies of the valley, sold in small bunches on street corners, mostly by foreign vendors as far as I can tell. A tiny bunch sells for about 3 Euros.

This morning we decided to head over to the Champs Elysées and try to see the massive Richard Serra show that is opening at the Grand Palais as part of the 'Monumenta' series of exhibitions there. Last year we saw the fabulous Anselm Keifer show in the same venue, but this year we were too early. I was sure that it opened today but no such's not until the 7th.

Plan B was the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, whose website seemed to indicate it was open today. Nope.

But the rue de Rivoli at that point was closed off by police and garbage trucks and in the distance, in front of the statue of Joan of Arc at Place des Pyramides, was a mass meeting of some kind, apparently a demonstration, as we could hear loudspeakers and cheering. We knew there was a march today on the usual route between Place de la République and Place de la Nation (May 1st being International Labor Day) but this was something else; we wandered over to look. Boy, was it something else! This was a rally of the Front National, the right-wing neo-fascist party led by Jean-Marie LePen. There's been something of a rise in the European right wing recently, with the recent election of a Fascist mayor of Rome.'s-new-mayor-promises-purge-of-migrants.html

Maybe it gave the French party renewed vigor, or maybe they do this on a regular basis, but it was chilling. The right has co-opted Joan of Arc as a nationalist symbol and the speakers stood in front of her shining golden statue with banners waving in the wind.

We left as they started singing la Marseillaise. The skinheads stayed.

On the walk home we saw this woman in the Palais Royal gardens. Much better.