Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Back in the USA

We had breakfast in America today.  I guess I should say we had breakfast at Breakfast in America, a diner that could have been lifted from any small town in the States and plopped down on rue des Ecoles in the 5th arrondissement.

Last night some longtime ex-pat friends mentioned that the breakfasts there were as close to authentically American as it was possible to be in Paris.  For me that meant real, crisp, bacon, something just not available here.  I've tried a couple of times, buying poitrine fumée of different types, but the curing process of American bacon can't be replicated here and it never tastes the same.

So far it's the only foodstuff I really miss, particularly as one of my favorite things to do in Berkeley is to have breakfast with my girlfriends L. and C. at Bette's OceanView Diner on 4th Street, where L. always orders huevos rancheros with extra cilantro and C. invariable goes for the pancakes.  For me, it's usually the bacon and eggs.

So when we overslept this morning and had to get out of the way of the femme de menage who had come to clean the apartment, Gene and I were thrilled to find a little bit of home in the Latin Quarter.
He raved over his pancakes, and my bacon was just fine.  We ate it up before I remembered I should take a picture, but the very nice young Frenchman sitting next to me let me photograph his breakfast before he dug into it.  I repaid him by explaining just what was meant by "Bottomless Mug o'Joe" on the menu. 

American food seemed to follow us the rest of the day.  After breakfast we walked over to the Musée Carnavalet to catch the final days of the exhibition about the French Revolution and found ourselves in front of Thanksgiving, a rather seedy-looking little shop that carries very expensive imported American packaged food.  I suppose one day I might be desperate enough for a taste of home to pay the equivalent of ten dollars for a small jar of Skippy peanut butter, but I think that day must be many years off.

A couple of years ago finding a bagel or a cheeseburger in Paris was akin to the proverbial needle in the haystack, but suddenly they're all over the place.  Not cheap, but easily available.  I don't think I've seen a hamburger for under about 14 Euros (I am excepting McDo's, where I don't eat in any country), and they're more likely to be in the 20 Euros range.  I finally broke down and ordered one last month in a café in Montmartre and was very happy to find it was delicious.  If I'm going to stoop to burger eating in Paris, I would be really disappointed to get a bad one.

Another American comestible we've been seeing more and more is the cocktail.  Every other café trumpets its "Happy Hour" and chic little bars have been opening in bobo neighborhoods like rue Montorgueil, where the Experimental Cocktail Club has been going strong for a few years now; today we found ourselves passing its offshoot in the Latin Quarter, the Curio Parlour.   But the most interesting drinks purveyor we saw today wasn't one of these but rather a do-it-yourself place on rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais called the Temporary Take Away Cocktail Store. Scheduled to disappear on December 31 after being open only four weeks, this place was doing a great business.

For those unfamiliar with the mixing of cocktails (I assume they're targeting the French, who tend to drink wines and straight liquors at home) you can buy packages that include everything you need, along with a recipe.  Now that they can't smoke in bars any longer, the market for drinks you can make at home must be soaring.  Bloody Marys, anyone?

You have to give them credit, they're doing it right.  Hendricks gin, even at 33 Euros a bottle, is the only way to go.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cold Clear Christmas

It's not our holiday, but for the first time in years we weren't spending Christmas with our dear friends in Berkeley.  The old standby of a movie seemed the thing to do, but it was too beautiful a day to spend in a darkened theater.  We needed a walk along the river in the bright light and crisp air.

The sun played a bit of peek-a-boo, throwing shadows one minute and erasing them the next.  We even had a few moments of rain until the clouds passed and the sun returned.  We kept on walking and reveling in how clean and simple everything looked.  There were few cars, fathers were carrying their small children on their shoulders, church bells were ringing.

The quais were full of tourists near Notre Dame but empty just a block away.  Languages bounced around our ears as we moved through the crowd: Spanish, Polish, Dutch, Italian, French, Russian, all within 100 feet.  Parisians were spending the holiday with family; we visitors were the ones out walking.  The line to get into Notre Dame moved quickly, but we had no desire to go indoors yet.

Passing behind Notre Dame we moved onto the Ile St-Louis, where the always-open cafés on the corner were closed up tight.  A man and his dog were investigating the two swans and several ducks at the foot of the ramp to the water.  The birds seemed more interested in them than the reverse.

Berthillon, the famous ice cream purveyor, had decorated their building from top to bottom, but weren't open for business.

Not everyone was taking the holiday off however.  This bouquiniste thought it was worth opening his bins to what passing trade there might be,

while below him along the water two joggers in bright pink kept to what was probably a daily routine.

We did finally get to the movie, by the way.  The Meryl Streep vehicle "It's Complicated" is called "Pas Si Simple" here.  

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Counting Down to Christmas

No, there's no more snow on the ground, but I wanted you to see the decorated trees in Place Dauphine.  The triangular Place Dauphine opens onto the Pont  Neuf and we pass it frequently.  I was thrilled to see that it was once again open and lovely, after having been under construction for something or other for months.

Just because the snow is gone doesn't mean it's warmed up much.  The tower of the church of Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois has a handy Romanesque temperature gauge on it, as well as a clock, and on Tuesday it was reading 4˚C.

We bundle up and go out for walks and bus rides.  I don't think I've been on the metro more than two or three times this month; when we have all the time in the world, why not see the world above ground?  The other day we started out for the Musée Marmottan for another look at the "Fauves and Expressionistes" show.

We got part of the way there and realized that the bus was passing the Museum of Modern Art where we also wanted to go.  Jumping off we saw the striking Raoul Dufy full-room mural called "La Fée Electricité"

and the "Deadlines" show of art made by a number of artists in view of their impending deaths.  On that cheerful note we moved next door to the Palais de Tokyo, where we had lunch in the cuttingly contemporary museum restaurant Tokyo Eat.

Tokyo Eat is not the only place for lunch at the Palais de Tokyo.  It also houses Nomiya,  a temporary restaurant on the roof which seats 12 for lunch or dinner.  Reservations are not easy to get, as you might imagine.  They're probably easier than for its previous incarnation, a one-room hotel.

The top of the Eiffel Tower was shrouded in fog when we passed it on the the bus, looking like an Atget photo from the turn of the 20th century.


Later, on the way home, the fog had cleared when we passed the Pont Alexander III and the Grand Palais and, a bit farther, the Grand Roue in the Place de la Concorde.

 Museums were not our only recent foray into culture.

What you see here is the stunning auditorium of the Paris Opera's Palais Garnier, ready for a performance of four ballets originally performed in Paris 100 years ago.  The sets, costumes and choreography were faithfully reproduced.  It was glorious, but we weren't there.

We were sitting in a movie theater on the Champs Elysées watching it in real time.  Not exactly the same, but pretty darn great nonetheless, maybe even better in some ways.  We got closeup views of the Faun in "l'Après-Midi d'un Faun" and we saw up close and personal the sweat on the chest of the dancer in "La Tricorne".  And afterwards we went next door for dinner at Païva, a restaurant and club in the last hôtel particulier on the Champs Elysées, which had been built for the woman known as la Païva, one of the most famous courtesans of the 19th century.  All in all, a very Belle Epoque evening.

Culture out of the way, we hit the streets once again.  You won't be surprised to hear that we saw chocolate.

We saw lights.

We saw the sliver of the new moon hanging over the buildings we passed.

And today, Christmas Eve, we saw lots of shoppers standing in long lines buying glistening oysters, jars of foie gras, fat langoustines and prawns, runny wheels of cheese, beautiful bûches de Noël.  Wishes of bonne fête from the vendors followed them out the door as they left.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

An Alarming Day

We live in a very secure building, with several codes to enter before you can get to our apartment door.  Nonetheless, the owner of the apartment has also installed a burglar alarm which we have been asked to use.  The other day, after lunch at a café, I took off for a haircut appointment while Gene and Susanne went back to the apartment, where they found the burglar alarm ringing its head off.

No burglar, but apparently a short in the system, as they couldn't turn it off.  Dozens of times they entered the code that's meant to stop it, but the alarm continued to blare. They finally reached the apartment manager by phone, who in turn tried to reach someone who could help, but no luck.  And the blaring alarm continued to blare.  The manager told them how to find and remove the battery.  The alarm continued to blare.  She then told them to remove a metal cover and disconnect the wires in the "black box".  They couldn't find any tools and Gene was about to go out to try to buy a screwdriver when my more practical sister shrieked through the din, "Just f----- cut it!"  So he did.  And the alarm continued to blare. 

Finally, in desperation they cut a wire to a nondescript white box and blessed silence descended.  Shaky-legged and with throbbing headaches, they called me at the hairdresser to tell me it was safe to come home, two and a half hours after the nightmare started.  They were troopers and I am profoundly grateful to them for working through the ordeal.  And to my lucky stars for having made the haircut appointment that day.

Turns out the alarm is not monitored and rings nowhere but in the apartment. Duh?

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The snow is gone, but boy is it cold out there!  If it weren't for the holidays fast approaching, I suspect most people would be huddled indoors warming their hands around a glass of vin chaud, but instead the streets are pulsing with people and the stores, emblazoned with sale signs, are full.  It's a rare brave patron though who sits in an unenclosed cafe terrace.

Most people are bundled up tight and moving fast between destinations.

The sale situation here is interesting.  By law, stores in France are forbidden to put their regular stock on sale at any time other than the authorized periods in January and July.  Exceptions exist, primarily for going out of business sales or sales in anticipation of store remodeling.  It seems to me that half the stores in Paris have decided to do some remodeling this winter; they all seem to have huge signs advertising 30%, 50%, 70% off.  I suspect the remodeling consists of little more than a new carpet or shelving installed to meet the letter of the law, and I suspect the authorities are turning a collective blind eye in the face of what's known here as la crise.

It appears to be working.  People in the street are nearly all carrying shopping bags.  The buses and metro trains are jammed to Tokyo-like limits. Gene says he hesitated at the door of an already sardine-can-packed metro car the other day and found himself pushed on by someone behind him.  When he looked to see who it had been, he saw a Japanese woman.  Apparently she takes that kind of thing in stride.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Paris en Grisaille

When I looked out of the window this morning fat white snowflakes were landing on the trees in the courtyard and the gardienne's Christmas lights were twinkling against a staircase covered in white.  While Gene went off to his French class, my sister Susanne, who's visiting for a couple of weeks, and and I decided to walk over to the Louvre, just across the river.

It was glorious. Quiet, white, clean, with little car traffic and few pedestrians, it could have been an Impressionist painting, a Sisley perhaps.  Virtually no color was visible, other than tones of gray, brown, black and the slate green of the river.

We crossed the pedestrian Pont des Arts, stopping every few feet to look around and take some pictures.  The few others out were doing the same, while this man, stopping on his way to a meeting perhaps, simply stood under his umbrella and stared at the newly fresh city.

The Louvre courtyard had a few narrow paths through the pristine snow.  The statues on the parapet had snowy epaulets and the Tuileries garden hedges were sprinkled as well.

The Louvre was unusually uncrowded, but after our visit it was pleasant to get back out to the transformed landscape.  The banks of the Seine remained untouched by cars or footprints.  Only the tour boat was moving on the river.

The buildings in the distance were hazy through the falling snow, and the sidewalks in front of the bouquinistes were deserted except for an occasional walker stepping carefully to avoid slushy patches.

It was a day many people preferred to spend at home.  The Velib bikes sat under their cover of snow.

The streetlights weren't lit but I wish they had been as the day progressed; a hint of light and warmth through the gray would have been welcome.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Food, Fabulous, Festive Food

For those unable to get away for the holidays, this chocolate landscape by Patrick Roger can give you a taste of what those lucky enough to hit the slopes are enjoying in Gstaad or Chamonix.  And although it has gotten really cold and snow is forecast for this week, this is not what the streets of Paris look like at the moment.  But edible wonders do seem to be filling the shop windows this month.


The windows of Dolce & Gabbana on the rue du Faubourg St-Honoré don't give more than a nod to the clothes; it's all about the food.  These apparently represent most of the 13 desserts traditionally eaten in Provence at this season.  It's cold there too; they need the calories to keep warm, no doubt.


And if candied fruits aren't your thing, our old favorite chocolate is out in full force, including these chocolate-dipped apples sold at the Champs Elysées Christmas market.


The traditional Bûche de Noël isn't the only option anymore.  These contemporary versions are offered by Jean-Paul Hévin.

Ladurée has a boutique inside the über-hip concept store Colette and goes with a bright young pink and blue theme for the macarons there,

while at the mothership on rue Royale, things are a bit more fin de siècle.


Trying to decide which of Gerard Mulot's delectable pastries to take home can be a challenge.  One I'm willing to undertake of course, but a challenge nonetheless.

Of course the everyday wonders of non-famous patissiers' windows are still available, like this Carmen Miranda-like goodie,

and these too nod to the season.  I can assure you that these penguins waddling among the tartes citron and tartes au poire aren't available in summer.

These adorable little baking bears are only turning out fabric doughnuts, but I found them irresistible anyway.  Probably the only non-caloric window that's called to me recently though.