Monday, June 11, 2007

Summer in the city

The air is heavy. It's hard to walk at even a strolling pace without breaking a sweat. The crowded metro train is a moving oven and the buses are no better. And it's not even a heat wave, just warm weather under somewhat overcast skies.

I come back to the apartment and open all the windows for a breath of fresh air, step under the shower to freshen up, and try to blog. As you've probably noticed, it doesn't seem to happen very often lately.

We've actually been doing a lot, seeing friends, going to restaurants, visiting museums. Our friend Liz organized a dinner with Remi, a professor at the Sorbonne whom we had met in 2005 when Liz, he, his daughter Charlotte and Gil all attended a historical conference at Stanford and spent a week in Berkeley. Remi is an obsessive journal-keeper and writer, as were his father and grandfather before him; he publishes many of these journals and published the one he kept of the Berkeley sojourn. At dinner he gave me a copy, which I read later that night (first flicking through to find my name, I admit). It's lucky he's got his own publishing company.

We've had several good meals recently, at Les Papilles on rue Gay Lussac, where we had a delicious fixed menu that included cold pea soup with bacon and herbs, navarin of lamb with baby vegetables, a slice of cheese with apple compote and a passionfruit mousse for dessert, all for the stunning sum of 28.50 euros! Les Papilles is also a wine shop and any wine on the shelf is available for the retail price plus 6 euros. It was the third time we've been there over the last several years and it's as good as ever.

Another memorable meal was at Le Temps au Temps on rue Paul Bert in the 11th arrondissement. I had asparagus with smoked tuna in a balsamic reduction, followed by black risotto with squid and a fabulous rice pudding with caramel au beurre sel. The others had equally yummy things (although my dessert was the best!) and again, the 3 course fixed price meal was 30 euros, without wine.

To balance this picture of reasonably priced fabulousness, we had lunch today at Café de l'Esplanade, a Costes brothers establishment just off the Invalides, where a lobster salad, a croque monsieur and two coffees cost 51 euros. Granted, we knew what we were getting into by choosing that particular place, and the people-watching was definitely worth it, but a bargain it was not.

We saw the Rembrandt et la Nouvelle Jerusalem show at the Jewish Museum in the Marais and visited the new Quai Branly Museum to see the controversial building by Jean Nouvel, with its planted exterior wall (great, we think) and installation of the permanent collection (Gene likes it, Shelli has mixed reactions).

We went once again, as we do every visit, to the Musée Carnavalet, with its incredible collection of articles dealing with the history of Paris, including Marcel Proust's very own cork-lined bedroom.

Today's museum visit was wonderful. The enormous Anselm Kiefer installation in the newly reopened Grand Palais is extraordinary and done specifically for the space. It's called Chute d'Etoiles (Falling Stars) and is the first of the "Monumenta" exhibitions planned for the Grand Palais. Keifer has filled the space with structures and filled the structures with paintings and constructions that reference the cycle of life, death, destruction, rebirth and resurrection. It's stunning and we loved it.

A la campagne

The weekend was great. O. invited us once again to her beautiful house just south of Paris, with a long detour via Normandy, where her close family friends were having a huge garden party: 120 people and three barbecued sheep!

We were a bit hesitant to walk into such a close-knit group, particularly without any idea of how well we could communicate, but we were welcomed graciously, everyone trotted out enough English to make us comfortable, and I could practice enough French to make me feel good. Conversation with Grand-Tante M., the 85 year old matriarch, was a highlight.

The next day was hot, and after O. voted at the mairie we took a picnic to the next town, the perfectly named Dimancheville (Sundaytown) and walked along a river and through green fields until we found the perfect spot for lunch and a rest. Maybe there's something to the country life after all.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The enjoyment of rest

IMG_4609.JPG, originally uploaded by objetsparis.

We're lucky to be staying in an apartment with large windows that open onto a green wall of trees and bamboo. There are roses climbing up the window frame, and the nearly constant sound of birds flying about in the trees. There are more distant sounds from a school a few buildings away, and occasional voices or footsteps from neighbors passing in the courtyard.

When we leave this sheltered world, we step into a bustling street in the Sentier, the local equivalent of New York's garment district. Just around the corner is the busy and exciting rue Montorgueil, a pedestrianized market street full of boulangeries, mini-supermarkets, cafés, bars, fleuristes, patisseries, vegetable and fruit markets, a fish market, a butcher, and more. Anything we need for day-to-day existence is there, and if we need to go farther afield, the bus or Metro is steps away. getting us to the Marais, to Saint Germain des Près, to Montparnasse. The temptation to take advantage of it all is strong.

While Susanne and Ari were here we found ourselves rushing off each day to "do" something, and reasonably so; Ari is a first time visitor to Paris and wants to see it all, and we enjoy sharing our favorite city. But this morning our visitors left for home, and I'm enjoying sitting here, listening to the birds and watching the sun move across the floor.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Circus, circus

Last night we went to a performance of a Russian theater troupe that performs in mime. Sounds terrible, doesn't it? It was the single funniest show any of us had seen in years.

In this theater of the absurd a family of characters enacted a surrealistic vision of family life, complete with four bizarre children, from a toddler to a teenage boy, a grotesque but wonderful mother who keeps them somewhat in line and a father who keeps threatening to leave until he finally does. There's no way I can describe the howls of laughter from an audience of all ages. The acting was brilliant, the staging, music and special effects equally wonderful, and the characters' interactions with members of the audience, rather than being awkward and off-putting, brought us all into the show.

I wish I had pictures to post, but take my word for it, Semianyki is not to be missed if there's any way you can see it. It is a collective creation by the Theatr Licedei, around since the '60s in the old USSR, continuing since then in some form, and currently running a clown school in Saint Petersburg.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Misses and hits

Most of the famous sights in Venice are so crowded with tourists that we did our best to avoid them. The one cultural visit we really wanted to make however was the Sargent and Venice exhibition at the Museo Correr. We headed over to the far end of Piazza San Marco and were blocked by standing water about 6 inches deep, apparently from high tides. Backtracking a bit, we tried to enter the square from the next street, where the situation was no better. Repeating the manueuver a couple of more times had us circumnavigating the "most elegant drawing room in Europe" as Napoleon called it ( evidently he hadn't seen it with thousands of tourists standing around with pigeons on their heads and arms), until we finally reached the entrance to to museum, where we found locked gates. The guards were on strike.

At that moment Susanne and Ari came up to us, shoes and socks in their hands, feet wet. Coming from another direction, they hadn't been able to avoid the water and had waded through. They weren't happy to hear of the strike either, but they had a little adventure to show for the morning.

Later in the day we dropped in to visit Fabio and Marina, friends of P. who own an art shop near the Frari church, which we suddenly realized we had never entered on previous visits to Venice. Mistake...we had been missing something spectacular.

Food, glorious food

Unlike some of my blogger friends like Clotilde I rarely remember to take pictures of the meals we eat (and there are many of them, I assure you). We were all just blown away by the quality and choice of seafood in Venice. For our dinners we returned to Alle Testiere, where we had had a wonderful meal on our last visit with P., and tried Antiche Carampane for the first time. In neither place did we see a menu; we were simply read a list of what was fresh that day and how it was prepared, and both were impressive.

For lunch we enjoyed Banco Giro and Naranzaria, both on the small canalside campo near the Rialto fish market. All of the food was simple and impeccable. That, along with all the walking, and the occasional stop for a spritz or a glass of prosecco, constituted our Venice visit. Could be worse.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Things are looking up

We tend to go through life looking straight ahead at wherever we need to go, rarely remembering to glance up at whatever's to be seen above eye level. Doing this in Venice or in Paris is a big mistake.

Of course that's not to say eye level isn't worth a glance or two.

Nice place, Venice.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Venise, Venezia, Venice by any other name...

IMG_4907.JPG, originally uploaded by objetsparis.

We haven't encountered the expected rain, but the expected crowds are here in full force. Gene and I left Ari and Susanne to visit the Doge's Palace and we took off for the less traveled streets in Dorsoduro and San Polo, remembering what we like about this city.

We're having a bit of trouble uploading photos, so the rest of the Venice ones can be found here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Catching up

Since we're taking rather more photos than can go in a post, some of them are stored here (click on the blue "here").

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rainy day in the Marais

Rainy day in the Marais, originally uploaded by objetsparis.

We were rained out of the flea market, the Carnavalet Museum was closed for Pentecôte, and we took shelter in a café across from this.

Aren't they cute?

A traffic jam in Saint Germain:

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Another day, another photo op

We finally got to Notre Dame yesterday, we and at least 3000 other tourists, on a day that felt like a sauna. Maybe we'll appreciate it next time.

The very moving Memorial de la Deportation just behind Notre Dame is closed for lunch, oddly enough, and so we didn't visit this time.

Instead, we had lunch ourselves, where Ari saw, for the first time, the careful preparation of beef tartare, which fascinated him. We're charged with selecting the perfect restaurant for him to try it before we leave Paris.

The afternoon divided along gender lines: the boys went to see the bones in the Catacombs, the girls went shopping in the Marais. At least one of the boys was thrilled, and both girls perfectly content.

We had planned to go to a book reading last evening in the Marais. Cara Black, whom we know from San Francisco, was reading from her new mystery, Murder on the Ile Saint Louis. Unfortunately, the worst thunderstorm we've ever encountered hit about 20 minutes before we were to leave. Susanne and Ari ran the 3 blocks between our apartments and arrived soaked to the skin, unbrellas having been worthless. We hung their wet clothes to dry, listened to the thunder, watched the lightning and waited a couple of hours for it to pass, which it finally did, but we had missed Cara's reading.

We did however make our dinner reservation at what we thought was Le Petit Pamphlet, after walking up and down the two block street we just knew it was on, several times.
We finally figured out that it had changed names, owners, and chefs, and we were standing in front of it all the time. Nobody had mentioned the changes when I had called to reserve.

It's now called Le Carré des Vosges, and fortunately it's very good!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Hitting the highlights

By Thursday we were all reasonably alert and ready to go, and next on Ari's list was Notre Dame. In the usual way of the best-laid plans, we never got there.

We got out of the metro at Cité, and there in front of us was St-Chapelle. It was a gloriously sunny, not to say stiflingly hot, day and we decided to go look at the stained glass in Saint Louis' personal chapel. It was as glorious as the day, and we all, Ari included, stood with our jaws dropping in the middle of a sweating crowd of international tourists.

The next stop was the Conciergerie, the last earthly residence of more than 1000 victims of the Terror, including Marie Antoinette, whose cell is what brings most people here. It's a little hokey, with dioramas of prisoners in the cells, but Ari has to do a report on the French Revolution to make up for being out of school, so there we were. And it's cool inside those thick stone walls, not a small thing in today's steamy weather.

And after a stroll across to the Ile St-Louis, and a pleasant lunch in a quai-side café, we wandered the island, looking into courtyards and, yes, I admit it, doing a little shopping.

Finally, after collapsing at home for a couple of hours, we took a bateau mouche tour in the evening: beautifully lighted monuments, silly commentary, and the Eiffel Tower twinkling on the hour. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Some days are like that

Let's draw a veil over yesterday. Susanne and Ari arrived, hit hard by jetlag. Their apartment had some problems, some of them were solved, it took virtually all day. Enough said.
This morning is rather cloudy but the forecast is for sun and about 77F degrees. We're off to the Eiffel Tower, first stop on Ari's list, and then wherever the Parisian winds take us...if we can all stay awake. We'll post more later.

Later, much later:

It was fun taking Ari to the Eiffel Tower, but it certainly wasn't the direct route. We walked from our place just off rue Montorgueil in the 2nd to Place des Victoires,
through the beautiful Gallerie Vivienne with its glass roof and mosaic floors,

through the Palais Royal gardens

to a stop for coffee at Café de Nemours in front of the Comèdie Française. From there a stroll to rue de Rivoli to pick up a bus to take us along the Tuileries gardens, the Champs Elysées and the Seine, ending at Place d'Iena, directly across the river from the Eiffel Tower.

By that time we all had lunch in mind and climbed the steps to Trocadero where we chose from one of the pleasant terrasses and were very good, until the tiramisu. Hey, it's Paris, we can have dessert!

After crossing the river, we walked under the Eiffel Tower(the wait to go up was too long), where two men in red jumpsuits with lots of cable attachments on them were standing next to ropes hanging from the first level of the tower...we had to ask.

They were sapeurs-pompiers, French firefighters, on a training exercise. These particular guys had already climbed up the structure and were now waiting for their colleagues to rappel down. The best part was what was waiting for them all at the end: bottles of water and bags of potato chips. I'd be demanding champagne and caviar, moi!!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

After lunch

After lunch, originally uploaded by objetsparis.

We got back to Paris, had a lovely lunch with a new Internet friend named Polly, wandered through some favorite neighborhoods, and ended the day with a late dinner with A. A good day, over too soon.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Amazing Race

We've never watched that show, but I understand contestants have to get from here to there, managing to overcome all the obstacles in their way. Well, if they ever encountered the RER suburban rail system on a holiday weekend and managed to get where they were going, they deserve the prize. Oh wait, then I guess we win...because we did manage to get to O.'s lovely country house after all.

A short description of our Saturday morning:
Wait for the 10:38 train until 11:40. Get on the train. Hear the driver announce that this train isn't going to where the sign says it's going. Get off the train. Wait for another train. Ask the frustrated looking lady standing next to you if she's waiting for the same train, at which point you learn she's been waiting THREE HOURS. Hear the announcement they finally make telling you that you can't get there from here.

It went on like that, with phone calls going back and forth between the still jetlagged Americans and our waiting hosts. (Lucky we got those phones yesterday!) We finally got on a train going somewhere in the general direction, O. and G. drove 30 minutes to pick us up at wherever the train was taking us, et voilà, we're there. And it's worth it.

O.'s house is a gem, hidden behind a stone wall, covered with vines and roses. We have lunch in the garden. We're happy.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we are...

in Paris, that is.

We arrived on Friday morning to find that our cellphone, nursed religiously to keep the same number year after year, wasn't offering us the usual smiling bonjour we're supposed to get on inserting the French SIM card. No smile, no bonjour, no service. Arghh!

Our original plan was to call G. when we arrived so he could meet us at the apartment and, helpful soul that he is, join us in shlepping our bags into the apartment we're renting, after kissing us Frenchily on both cheeks. No phone service, no call, no G, no cheek kisses, no good.

After wandering around Charles DeGaulle airport trying to find a new SIM card we finally bought a phone card that allowed us to use one of the very few public phones still available in the age of cellphones, made contact and tout va bien (French for our asses are saved).

First order of business was lunch (this is Paris, after all), and then new SIM cards. The closest place to buy them was the enormous Forum des Halles, the shopping mall from hell. Suffice it to say that the developer of this place should be roasting slowly over a fire in one of the lower levels of the place (hell, I mean, not the Forum, although it's hard to tell the difference.)

Thanks to an incredibly nice and efficient store clerk we managed 2 hours later to buy SIM cards for four phones; Shelli, Gene, Shelli's sister Susanne, and her son Ari, both of whom are arriving in Paris on Tuesday. Is it obvious we want to be in touch with each other?

A walk, a short grocery shopping expedition, and so to bed (apologies to S. Pepys).

No photos yet, but the next post will be our weekend in the country with photos galore.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Pak Ou in pictures

We wrote in real time about our trip up the Mekong river to the Pak Ou caves and the wonderful collection of Buddhas that people have brought there, but we've just uploaded the photos of that day and, thanks to Flickr's great little widget called Pictobrowser, here they are. The remaining Laos photos, those from Vientiane, will be in the next post.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

So you thought it was over?

For those of you who just can't be bothered to go over to Flickr as directed in the previous post, Mohammed is bringing the mountain to you. (Hope that name doesn't start the search engines going crazy. Incredible the things we have to think about these days...)

Anyway, we're trying out a new function provided by Flickr. The band of photos you see at the bottom of the page are most of the ones taken in Luang Prabang. In theory when you click on each it will enlarge and you can move at your own pace through the 150 or so photos on the band. The numbers below the band refer to "pages", i.e. the dozen visible on the band when you first open this post constitute the first page. Clicking on number 2 will bring up the next dozen, etc. The tiny cursor above the number tells you which page you are looking at and the cursor above the photo tells you which photo is currently being enlarged.

There are in fact descriptions for most of the photos, but they're not available below. For that you have to go to the Flickr site where you can choose to see a slideshow which requires only an initial click or to look at individual photos, where the descriptions can be read. For those of you who are our age, here's a reminder of the site's URL :

Thanks to all of you who have said nice things about the blog. We weren't sure if anyone was reading since most of you were too shy to comment (thanks to those of you who did!) and it was a bit like sending messages in a bottle. We really enjoyed doing it and may just keep it up, who knows. I've spent some of the time since we got back searching online for an apartment to rent in Paris for October. Yes, already...

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

Just a quick post to say we're back home, safe and tired. The first set of photos, from Bangkok, have been posted online. Just click on the following link and you'll go directly there.

We'll be uploading more from other places in the next few weeks; keep checking the Flickr site.

There will also be a few more posts on this blog, with things we didn't have time to write about on the trip itself, like the fact that Gene seems to hold a fatal fascination for the Asian women we met, from pretty young Chanmala at the hotel in Laos ("oh, it's the handsome Mr. Oreck!")

to two-year old My Ny in Saigon ("da da!").

Hong Kong, then home

The next day we tried the Vietnamese equivalent of Jewish penicillin in a bowl of chicken pho, as good as any made by Shelli’s mother in her previous life as a Vietnamese peasant. Room service is wonderful; if you have to be sick, do it in a good hotel.

United Airlines is the only US airline to fly out of Saigon, but they do it at 6:05 AM. The night before, New Year's Day, we had tried to go to Ngon, a restaurant that sounded intriguing: some clever entrepreneur had gathered many of the best street food vendors under one roof and supplied tables, chairs and clean implements, allowing us scaredy-cats to eat both exotically and safely at the same time. Unfortunately when we got there the crowd at the door and in the street looked like it would keep us from actually eating for several hours yet, so we told the cab driver to turn around and take us back to the hotel. Since we didn't speak Vietnamese and he didn't speak English and it was such a stupid thing to be telling him to do it took a few tries to make it clear ("These idiots came all the way here to look at the sidewalk for 2 minutes?"), but we had to be up at 3:30 the next morning; no way we could wait hours for a table. So we wound up having very good pizza at the hotel for our last meal in Vietnam.

Hong Kong is a replay of Saigon: feel not so bad, go out and sightsee, then Shelli spends the rest of the day and all of the following one in bed sneezing. This time the bed comes with a panoramic view of Hong Kong harbor, shrouded in mist and criss-crossed by ferries, freighters, junks, sampans, tugs and barges.

Yesterday we waited an hour to get a table at a recommended dim sum restaurant which was just OK, then wandered around the Hollywood Road area, which is full of antique shops. After looking in a number of them and finding that the things we liked cost more than we liked them, we went into one we remembered from 1987 and found our souvenir of this trip, a charming 10 inch tall wooden ancestor figure supposedly made about 1880.

A long trek down (thank god we had driven up! those hills are steep) through the bustle of Central district took us to the newly relocated Star Ferry terminal, where a ride on the upper deck costs HK$2.20, just under 30 cents USD, and another evening of room service.

Gene really liked what he saw of Hong Kong. Despite his own incipient cold, he managed to visit the Hong Kong Museum of Art where he was impressed by the extensive ceramics collection and the good job done in introducing youngsters to art. In between coughing spells we managed to do a bit of last minute shopping in the mall adjacent to the hotel.

Packed and ready to go, we will head to the airport in the morning.

Sick in Saigon

The night we arrived in Saigon Shelli had started to cough. By the next morning it was clear she was getting sick and if we wanted to do some sightseeing we had to get a move on. Our guide picked us up and offered the usual stops: the War Remnants Museum, a temple in Cholon, the local Chinatown, or anything else we wanted to see. Well, we said, we’d like to go to the Art Museum and the street of antique shops that our Hoi An guide, a Saigon native, had suggested. This triggered a flurry of discussion between the guide and the driver, who agreed that the museum would be closed that day (Sunday) and had never heard of the antiques street. Gene wanted to see the War Remnants Museum, Shelli didn’t much want to, but what the hey, that’s where we went.

It’s hard to accept seeing yourself as the bad guy. Granted, the museum is a propaganda windfall for the winning Vietnamese government, but much of it is true, even allowing for the spin. There are pictures we saw in the ‘60s, there are samples of bombs and mines, there are photos of people after encountering those bombs and mines, there are photos of our side, their side, whatever, people dying in a tragic war. We moved through relatively quickly, but were conscious of other visitors, Vietnamese, German, Japanese spending a lot of time viewing the exhibits. It made us feel defensive, but we couldn’t defend ourselves. It happened.

The first part of the museum was dedicated to a show of photographs by and of the war photographers who died or disappeared in Indochina from just after WWII up to the fall of Saigon. Stunning to see that so many died, some of them the creators of the most iconic images we’ve ever seen, among them the famous Robert Capa. In our hotel in Siem Reap we had seen an exhibit of photographs by a young Japanese photographer who had disappeared in Khmer Rouge territory on his way to Angkor in 1973. He was also represented here.

During our drive to the temple in Cholon our guide Diep, a young woman who had made quite a point of telling us how wonderful Ho Chi Minh was: “We lo-oove Ho Chi Minh. He is our father. He had no wife, no children, so he dedicated himself to my country,” was quite open about the shortcomings of that country. “My father was a Communist and was very happy to win the war, and he told me that now he wishes that the Americans win, because he has no good life now.”

She went on to tell us how difficult living in Vietnam is, how expensive it is, how she had to pay a bribe to the doctor delivering her baby to be sure she would get the best treatment. She called it “tipping”, and says it’s ubiquitous and that it makes sense because people make such low salaries and have to pay for everything themselves, no medical coverage, no unemployment, no pensions. When Shelli mentioned that this might not be the society Ho Chi Minh had envisioned, she agreed. According to Diep, much of the money that fuels the consumer buying in Vietnam comes from overseas Vietnamese who send money home to their families. But, she says, it will change.

Gene went off the next day and found the Art Museum, an unairconditioned building with some interesting exhibits, and also found a couple of galleries, coming back with several charming small paintings on paper. He says that during his stroll he was offered everything from a motorcycle ride to a “pretty woman with big breasts”. He also says that if the two had been combined he might have considered it…let’s see, a motorcycle with big breasts? No, that’s probably not it.

New Year’s Eve was spent in the hotel, coughing and sneezing, and 2007 came in without us awake to greet it.