Sunday, September 26, 2010

Shelter From the Storm

The rain has been hitting the roof with an almost tropical intensity for the last five or six hours.  It held off long enough for us to wander the quiet Sunday streets looking for hidden gardens open this weekend for the Fête des Jardins.  There are several tucked behind high walls of the Catholic institutions that dot the neighborhood.  They don't seem to be very well cared for and look rather bedraggled in the gray light. 

We give it up, buy a couple of treats from the unexpectedly open Pâtisserie de Sadaharu Aoki, and head home, reaching our door just as the rain begins to pour. 

I think I have to give up on my hope that there's a bit of Indian summer left; it seems clear we had the last of it a few days ago.  While some diehards on the street are still wearing sandals and layered T- shirts, I'm facing the fact that fall has arrived.  I got out the bag with the sweaters and woolen mufflers. I need to figure out how to turn on the heating in the apartment.  I don't feel ready for this yet.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Table Talk

When we were sick we stayed home and ate chicken soup.  Now that we're better we're making up for it.  On Sunday we had a delicious dinner at our old favorite Le Comptoir du Relais and a couple of nights ago we dined at a new favorite called le 20 on rue de Bellechasse, a narrow bistro that reminds us of one of those New York restaurants you find tucked around the Upper East Side serving very good classic dishes to people from the neighborhood.

Last night we weren't very hungry and went out in search of a drink in the warm evening air.  We wound up at the Café de l'Odeon, a newish place attached to the Theatre de l'Odeon and which has, in good weather, tables and chairs spread comfortably across the forecourt of the Theatre.  There's a small menu of snacks to have with drinks and we ordered a plate of charcuterie from Eric Ospital, who provides pork products to most of the better restaurants around.  Two kinds of ham along with a pile of thin-sliced chorizo, some good butter and bread and a few cornichons served as a lovely dinner for two along with a couple of glasses of red wine.

And today we really hit the jackpot with lunch at Spring.  For those of you who aren't dedicated foodies, you may not know that Daniel Rose, an American chef who single-handedly opened and ran the tiny hit Parisian restaurant of 2006 in the out-of-the-way 9th arrondissement, has been trying for the last couple of years to open a somewhat larger place in the center of Paris.  For various reasons this new restaurant's opening was delayed until this summer.  It's now open and serving prix fixe lunch and dinner, as well as an a la carte wine bar menu in the basement.

Expanded from the 16 seats the original restaurant had, and which, for much of its existence, Daniel managed to run either completely alone or with the help of one or two others, the new incarnation has a grand total of 26 seats, served by an equipe of 11 people.  The kitchen is essentially part of the dining room and watching the preparation is part of the meal.  It's sort of like going to the ballet.

And what a meal it was: a first course of a bit of pink trout served with eggplant caviar, a coddled egg and a few arugula leaves, followed by chard-wrapped sea bass in an artichoke broth containing some pureed artichoke and tender slices of leek.  Just when you thought you had died and gone to heaven, along came some stunningly tender on the inside and crispy on the outside fried chicken, of all things, just to shake up your expectations.  We passed on the cheese course, which looked lovely, and finished with blackberries in coulis, topped with cocoa crisps.  And again a little unexpected flourish: rather than the amuse bouches one often gets at the beginning of a meal, here we got a tiny spoonful of raspberry sorbet with pistachio crumbs, followed by a bite of bitter chocolate served with a touch of lemon curd.
You've never seen happier people than we were as we rolled out the door.  I can't wait to come back, maybe even next week.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Treasure Hunting

Every other year Paris hosts an enormous art and antiques show called the Biennale des Antiquaires.  We try to go because it's fascinating to see all these incredibly rare and expensive things that are actually for sale and are actually sold, to real people, for real money.  And by money I mean amounts that I can't get my head around people having available for discretionary spending, in this or any other economy. 

I don't think there was anything there priced less than $100,000 and most prices were substantially higher than that.  Not that there were any price tags.  No, one has to ask.  And, as the old saying goes, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.  I bit the bullet and asked about a medium-sized painting by Pierre Soulages, a French painter who had a major retrospective here last year.  I'd never heard of him before that.  The price was 640,000 euros.  At my gulp, the vendor offered me a copy of the catalogue.  "It has a nice picture of the painting in it," she said kindly.

Anyway, it was fun looking, and watching the people who were clearly doing more than that.  You could tell how likely they were to be customers by the amount of fawning being done over them.  In the Cartier jewelry pavilion we got a glimpse of  a tray of champagne and little sandwiches whipping by, on their way to the couple being ushered into the private room at the side.  It's sort of like visiting another planet.

The Biennale was held at the Grand Palais this year and the massive iron and glass structure was a perfect setting.  As we left, we glanced over at the Petit Palais across the street and saw the larger structure reflected in its windows, along with some trees and clouds.  Quite as beautiful as many of the treasures inside.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


I know I've been making it sound as if we're a couple of wounded sparrows, incapable of doing anything, but it's not exactly like that.  Although we've had limited energy we have been doing one or two things a day.  It's Paris, after all.

We went over to the Palais Garnier Opéra box office with friends to get tickets for a ballet later this month and then wandered over to Place de la Madeleine, where we decided, on the spur of the moment, to indulge ourselves in a late lunch at Caviar Kaspia.  This is one of my favorite indulgences, I must say.  Years ago Gene and I spent a rainy afternoon in the Russian jewel box of a restaurant on the second floor, eating blinis and salmon caviar and drinking ice-cold vodka.  Ever since it's been a special treat for us, as it was again this time.  We always have the same thing and oddly enough, although it feels like a splurge, it's no more than a more ordinary lunch somewhere else.  Let's keep it our little secret, OK?

Another day we went to one of the free concerts produced at l'Eglise St-Merri by the group Accueil Musical.  Sitting in this pretty church listening to Chopin and Schumann while the late afternoon light moves across the stone walls is another one of our secret pleasures, particularly as the musicians are very good and it's entirely free.  They pass a basket, and a contribution is welcome and well-deserved, but there's no pressure at all.

Another day we decided to try a short visit to the Louvre, but fortified ourselves first with a good lunch at the Villa Lys in the Palais Royal garden, where we sat outside watching kids play.  These two were taking full advantage of the Daniel Buren sculptures in the forecourt of the Palais.

There's a small collection of what used to be called "primitive art" at the Louvre, with its entrance at the Porte des Lions.  Originally established by Jacques Chirac as a precursor to the opening of the Quai Branly museum, this collection is beautifully displayed and worth seeing, particularly if the Quai Branly seems too daunting.

Leaving the Louvre, we passed the Tuileries Gardens and crossed the Seine to walk home.  Below us was one of the tour boats that ply the river.  We waved.  They waved back.  It was a lovely day.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Other People's Windows

The street we live on is a narrow one.  There's no parking allowed on either side and only one lane of traffic, so I estimate the buildings on the other side of the street are no more than 25 feet away.  We're relatively high up and what we see are roofs, chimney pots and the windows of the top two floors of the building just opposite us.

The floors are offset a bit so we actually see down or up into the windows.  I've never seen anyone in the upper ones, although one of these is occasionally opened a bit to allow air in.  The lower windows directly opposite open onto the kitchen/living space of a family with at least one child.  It seems to have been modernized at some point and has a rather contemporary feel and from time to time, in the evening after the lights come on, I see a man in the kitchen area. 

He looks like he's just come in from work, wearing a shirt and slacks.  At other times I see a child playing in the open space of the room.  I can't tell if it's a girl or a boy, but I suspect a boy.  I don't know why.  The other day I saw several people (the man, the boy, a woman?) sitting at a table and eating.  The lights in this apartment didn't come on over the weekend.  They must have gone away.  They're back tonight.

I actually do whatever I can to avoid looking directly into this apartment.  I hope they do the same.

Living in a city is different.  Last year we lived directly across the courtyard from a large duplex apartment inhabited by a couple who never seemed to close the shades on their many large windows.  They ate a lot of soup and didn't speak to each other much.

This seems like a lot to know about strangers. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Let There Be Light

We've lived in several French apartments and, with one exception, they've been underlit.  I've been told that because electricity costs are so high in France people tend to use the lowest amount of wattage they can to light their homes.  The number of 25 watt and 40 watt bulbs sold in this country is astounding.  Last year we actually had to go out and buy three lamps, one of them a halogen torchére, to get what we considered adequate light to live by.  We read, for heaven's sake! 

Not only are there a zillion different sizes and shapes of light bulbs here, but there must be an equal zillion different bases.  Unlike the US, where virtually every incandescent bulb base fits into virtually every socket, here there are multiple sizes and multiple functionalities.  Some are the typical 3/4 inch screw-ins just like the ones at home.  Some are thinner, 1/4 inch or 1/2 inch screw-ins.  Some don't have screw bases at all and are designed to click-in and twist into place. 

When you need to replace bulbs around here it's imperative that you take the old one with you, or you'll never get the right one.  Le Bazar de l'Electricité is an incredible resource of last resort for all this that we came across last year on Boulevard Henri IV near the Bastille.  I think they have every bulb and lamp base ever produced in France.  

In this pretty little apartment there is one good strong lamp in the salon and we switched out the 25 watt bulbs in the wall sconces for 40 watts.  We put last year's halogen torchére in the study, where we can now see to read and write.  The bedside lamps are now strong enough to let us read in bed, with their new brighter bulbs.  The bathroom lights, which were were totally inadequate for  putting on make-up that wouldn't scare passersby on the street, have been augmented to the max, while remaining within the safety range noted on the fixtures.

When we moved in we didn't notice until the second night that there was virtually no artificial light in the kitchen. The greenhouse roof leaves little room for light fixtures and the two on the walls had, you guessed it, 40 watt bulbs.  Cooking in this shadowy environment wasn't going to be fun.  Our nice landlady brought over a couple of lamps which we equipped with 60 watt bulbs and we swapped out the 40 watts on the wall for 60s as well.  I can now wield a knife without worrying about losing a finger in the process.  We're all set for the dark winter days to come.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Weak Weekday Wanderings

Sometimes things just don't go the way you planned.  We had thought that this week maybe we'd get a train to someplace warm and sunny, find a beach or a pool and hang out for a few days, but instead we're hanging around the apartment, sleeping, coughing, and occasionally getting out for a walk or an errand.

Yesterday we took some books we had finished to one of the used book stores in the neighborhood and picked up some new ones to get us through the next week or so.  I now find myself re-reading Raymond Chandler's "The High Window", something I last read in college, when I spent a lot of time on detective movies and fiction.  Gene picked up a copy of Kerouac's "On The Road".  A visit to the X-ray clinic and a stop at the grocery store was the rest of that exciting day.

This morning was a general strike day and rather than hope a bus might choose to run, we hopped into a cab to cross the river for Gene's doctor's appointment.  This is a doctor I saw a couple of years ago when I was last sick enough to need one and we like and trust him.  He's Irish originally and has practiced here for decades.  I must admit it was nice to deal with this medical stuff in English for a change.  And in English, it's a touch of pneumonia.

A new antibiotic prescription, a cup of tea at the café next door to the office, and another cab ride home, where we had to hit two pharmacies before we found one that had the right medication in stock.  A quick stop at Monoprix for the makings of chicken soup and a nice long rest before our new femme de menage arrived.  When we rented this place we were told we had to continue to employ the landlady's cleaning lady, a nice woman, but a talkative one, "bavarde" in French, and it was clear she'd get little done if we stayed home, so we spent a couple of hours in a favorite café with Kerouac and Chandler.

And here's where something nice happened.  I had ducked into a small newspaper/stationer shop to buy some envelopes and spoke a few words in French to the young man at the cashier's stand.  Gene came in a few minutes later and naturally we spoke in English.  The young man looked at me oddly after hearing the English.  "Excuse me," he said, "but you have a perfect accent.  I've never heard such a good one."

I blushed and beamed and thanked him.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if he was referring to my accent in English.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Round and Round and Up and Down

We've been on a bit of a roller coaster with this flu thing, getting better and sicker, better and sicker.  We finally called for a doctor to come over again, who told us the previously prescribed antibiotics were not the right ones, wrote a few more prescriptions for everything under the sun, and ordered blood, throat and x-ray tests.  Incredibly, all but the x-rays can be done at home, and a technician showed up at the door a few hours later.

I had heard that French doctors tend to over-prescribe relative to US practitioners, and that's certainly seemed to be the case here.  We've got nasal sprays (different for each of us), antibiotics (different for each of us), fungicides to counter the effects of the antibiotics, and, thank god!!! codeine cough syrup, which finally gave us a good night's sleep last night.  Meanwhile, Gene needs to get an x-ray tomorrow, since the mèdecin thought he heard some unpleasant chest sounds.  Last night a very nice friend brought over some Vicks Vapo-Rub, of all things, and cooked up some chicken soup.  We seem to have all the bases covered.

Living in another country means experiencing the good with the bad, n'est-ce pas?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Goin' to la Mairie, Cause We're Gonna Get Married

Thank goodness too for antibiotics, which allowed us to stagger out of our sick bed and attend and enjoy the fabulous wedding of our good friends M and G.

Weddings in France are civil events and all take place in the city hall of the town or arrondissement the soon-to-be-weds live in.  In this case it was the perfectly Art Deco Mairie of Boulogne-Billancourt, just south of Paris.  Before a waiting crowd of family and friends the couple drove up in a sleek black Bentley (handy to have a cousin who deals in luxury cars) and walked up the stairs, she looking like a resurrected Audrey Hepburn in a pink sheath and heels, hair piled on top of her head and carrying a ball of flowers from a ribbon in her hand.  Him? Oh, he looked like a guy worthy of escorting Audrey.

What’s a French civil ceremony like?  A little odd to American ears; the mayor, standing in front of the ever=present bust of Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, and wearing a blue, red and white sash, reads the statutes covering marriage, wishes them the best, et voilá.  In this case, the mayor was joined by a friend of G and M, the deputy mayor of the next town over, who spoke about them, getting a few laughs and making it warmer.  Bringing your own mayor is the way to go I guess.

(The face of Marianne, by the way, changes periodically, based on changing ideas of current beauty.  Past models have included Brigite Bardot and Catherine Deneuve.  I think the most recent one is Laeticia Casta.)

The reception that evening was anything but stiffly formal.  Now in a glittering white gown, the bride greeted guests while champagne was poured in the warm evening air and Moroccan lanterns lit the pavilion.  A blow-out that pulled together the couple’s various backgrounds by combining French, North African and Israeli style in the décor, the music and the food, we danced, drank and ate until the early morning hours.  You haven’t lived until you’ve had henna applied to your hands for good luck and danced to the sound of Arabic instruments and ululating women in the midst of a crowd of happy people.