Wednesday, September 30, 2009

We're Off to See the Ham Fest

When I first heard about the Foire National aux Antiquités, à la Brocantes, et au Jambon, I found it hard to believe.  Who in his right mind would organize a fair that combined antiques and ham?  It had to be seen to be believed.  And so we went, we loved it, and we've been back three times, the last being yesterday.  In our family it's known as the Ham Fest.

This fair, now in its 79th year in this incarnation, has roots dating from medieval times.  Hard to say if the pork sellers or the used stuff dealers came first, but at some point they decided that working the suckers together would be in their best interests. 

It takes place twice a year at Chatou, on an island in the middle of the river, just upstream (or down, who can tell?) from the Maison Fournaise, the site of Renoir's famous painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party.  Which, by the way, is still serving luncheon.

The fair is set up with hundreds of stalls, some more elaborate than others,

which are organised along "streets".  There is a mix of good antiques and not so good collectibles, but since the vendors pay hefty fees for the right to sell here, I assume they all expect to make a profit and someone's "I wouldn't have that on a bet" is someone else's "Oh, honey, I know just where that will go".

Some little girl is going to adore this set of doll furniture,

These Empire style ladies would be charming in someone's fireplace, don't you think?

And I was sorely tempted by this set of chairs if only I had somewhere to put them...oh, and the money to buy them.

Not so sure about this though.

I had a lovely conversation with the man selling these antique trunks and valises.  I understood only about a quarter of what he said to me, but we both seemed to enjoy it.  The Goyard trunk, pre-World War I, still had stickers from its travels, including one from pre-Revolutionary Saint Petersburg.  A bargain at a mere 6,500 euros.

The middle street is the one with the food.  Not all the food vendors are selling ham, but one of the most popular sells a plate of rotiserried ham, cut right from the bone, served with roasted vegetables for 15 euros.  This, along with a glass of wine and an expresso to finish, is what most people are having for lunch at the tables set up in the food street.

Most of the antiques vendors have brought their own lunches, which they are enjoying in their stalls, along with all the nearby vendors, at tables for sale, on dishes for sale, and drinking out of glasses for sale.  You try to buy any of these items at your peril.  "Madame, on dejeune!"  which is French for "Don't bother me lady, I'm eating here!" These folks know what's important.  Give up lunch to make a sale? Ha!

They may want to rethink this attitude actually.  It might have worked in prior years when American antique dealers and decorators were rushing over to give them handfuls of euros, but yesterday the fair was rather sparsely attended and not many lunches were disturbed by importuning buyers.  We did overhear a quartet of American Southern ladies chatting over their ham.  Not sure how it compared to the Virginia variety.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bits and Pieces

Got up yesterday and decided to go out to breakfast, so we walked over to BHV to return something and to have our coffee and croissant at le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain that is a big hit in Paris and is now all over the world, including the US.  We've occasionally been getting croissants from the local boulangeries but haven't found one we liked.  Pain Quotidien's flaky, fresh, beautiful croissant is the one we've been looking for.  Luckily it's not just around the corner; that would be way too dangerous.

Oh, and the weekly report on service at BHV?  Still good.  This time the woman actually spoke English to help Gene out.  Without being asked.  She seemed to be enjoying it.

The sky continues to look like this and we continue to marvel at how lucky we are to have this weather.

We've been taking buses when we aren't walking because the Bastille area is a hub for a lot of lines and because it's just more fun, particularly when you're not in a hurry.

You see a lot from the slightly elevated perspective of the bus.  Who would have known that the tops of many lampposts have crowns made of castles?

And how very picturesque the entrances to municipal buildings can be?

And as for those little space invaders that turn up high on the walls of buildings all over town?  They come in peace.


Monday, September 28, 2009


Jewish holidays begin and end at sundown. Thus the holiest day of the calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, began yesterday evening and ends at sundown today. There are two synagogues within a couple of blocks of us and we decided we would try to attend the opening prayer service, Kol Nidre, at the one in the Place des Vosges, which I seemed to recall was Ashkenazi, i.e. the Eastern European branch of Judaism, as opposed to Sephardic, i.e. the descendants of Spanish Jews, many of whom are from North Africa and the Middle East.

We were ushered to seats on the third floor of the building as all the ones in the main sanctuary had been already alloted, and waited for sundown, which is determined by the ability to see the first star in the evening sky. I was struck as I sat there, looking out the open windows to the other stone and brick buildings of the Place des Vosges, with the thought that all over the world, varying only with the traverse of the sun through the sky, Jews were doing the same thing, and had been doing it for millennia.

Place des Vosges by objetsparis.
The leader of the service opened it with a talk that said essentially the same thing. He realized, he said, that many if not most of those present were not regular attendants at religious services, that it had been generations since many of them had done so, but that something brought them back on this day to connect with their ancestors and with the remainder of their people. Celebrating this holiday in a place where a generation ago these same people would have been, and in some cases had been, the subjects of an unbelievable horror felt like a privilege and an honor.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

St-Germain l'Auxerrois

With a few minutes to spare before meeting a friend for lunch at Le Fumoir, just behind the Louvre, we stopped in at the church of St-Germain l'Auxerrois .

This church, said to have been founded in the 7th century to mark the passing of Saint Germain, has been rebuilt and added to many times, but its primary claim to fame, or infamy, is its bell, which rang out in 1573 to call Catholics to begin the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots, many of whom had gathered in Paris to celebrate the marriage of Catholic Marguerite de Valois, the daughter of Catherine de Medici and sister of the king, to the Protestant Henri III of Navarre, later to become Henri IV of France.

It's a long and complicated story of betrayal and violence and death, culminating in Henri's famous conversion to Catholicism in order to become king, with the decision that "Paris vaut bien une messe" (Paris is worth a mass). There's a movie called la Reine Margot (Queen Margot in English) that tells at least part of this story, starring Isabelle Adjani as Margot and Daniel Auteuil as Henri, with Vincent Perez as one of her many lovers. I can't vouch for its historical correctness, but it's gorgeous and steamy, well worth watching. Henri, by the way, turned out to be a great king with an eye for the ladies himself. One of his nicknames is le Vert Galant, and there's a nice statue of him on the point of the Ile de la Cité near the Pont Neuf.

Speaking of statues, it's the stonecutter's art that I want to talk about, because there are wonderful examples of it all over the exterior of St-Germain l'Auxerrois. A series of standing saints and priests are supported by a series of demons and sinners, each individual and distinct. You'd recognize these fellows if you met them in the street.

The usual dragons and demons and scary creatures are here and there over the various arches and entries.

And the effort involved in the least little thing is striking. These folds!

I'm not sure who this cleric is, but blessings galore would be needed to make up for the bloody deeds done in the name of this church. The street on which it sits, by the way, is rue de l'Amiral Coligny, named for an Admiral of the French fleet and leader of the Huguenots who was killed in the Massacre. It's the least they could do, non?

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Paris is very much a city of stone, but there is much more green, even in the heart of the city, than one might think. I'm not talking of formal parks, of which there are many, but of the hidden green to be found in courtyards and windows and even plant stores.

This garden is someone's personal Eden in a courtyard in the Marais. Its mix of plants is striking; that can't be a banana, can it?

Although the tropical look does seem to be a theme. This wall of bamboo is in the courtyard of a listed building on rue des Francs Bourgeois, also in the Marais, where a program to save and repair ancient buildings is encouraging restoration, and thus requiring those huge front doors to be left open for workers and curious passers-by.

On the other side of the Seine is La Gallerie des Femmes, a feminist publishing house, discussion space and art gallery. They evidently have a gardener onboard.

Where in other cities one might find a blank wall or a canvas for graffiti when an adjacent building is demolished, here you will often see a wall of climbing vines, offering a relief from the urban gray.

For those who want to take some greenery home, the array of plants available from the stores along the quais near Châtelet boggle the mind. Apple trees are easy to find, smaller plants are everywhere.

And then they wind up on terrasses and in the ubiquitous windowboxes.

Friday, September 25, 2009

In the Footsteps of Obama

A few years ago we found ourselves traveling through Southeast Asia two weeks behind Bill Clinton. Everywhere we went, from Vietnam to Laos to Cambodia, he had just left, and left behind him an enthusiastic population, eager to show us the photos of themselves posing with the former president. Bill Clinton being who is is, there was no shortage of photo ops.

We now find ourselves in a Paris also recently visited by an American president, but there are many fewer traces of Barack Obama's passing through. Paris is a more sophisticated place, used to the visits of presidents and emperors, and Obama is much less in need of adulation than Clinton. This combination of circumstance has made it barely evident that he was here.

The only notice taken of his dinner at La Fontaine de Mars in the 7th arrondissement is a small framed headline from a provincial French newspaper heralding the fact that Obama had dined at a restaurant owned by a woman from the region. No photos of hands being shaken, no shoulder-to-shoulder smiling, just "Obama a Diné Chez Une Tarbaise". We also dined there the other night, and no one asked to take our picture either. We were treated just like visiting presidents. The Tarbais beans in the cassoulet were great.

Barack was not the only Obama in Paris last summer. Michelle and the girls were also here and had a shopping expedition to Bonpoint, the well-known children's clothing store on rue de Tournon. In need of a dress for a cousin's grand-daughter, we took ourselves off there and loved the store. It's housed in a beautiful airy building, with room after high-ceilinged room of creatively merchandised clothes for besotted grandparents. The best part however is a hard-to-find tea salon/café downstairs, through a window, and into the garden. Don't tell anyone.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Parisian Stand-off

There are a lot of bicycles in the courtyard of our building and apparently the association of owners have decided they no longer want them there. About two weeks ago notices on attorneys' letterhead appeared in the entry to the building, announcing the new policy and giving people until September 19 to remove their bicycles. After that date, it went on in menacing tones, any remaining bicycles would be removed without further notice.

September 19 has passed. The bicycles remain. As I enter the courtyard each day I wonder what I will find: bikes, no bikes, picketing bike owners, shouting apartment owners? So far, nothing at all. The bikes remain, the notice remains, and Paris remains. Probably the lawyer's bill remains as well.

Walking all over Paris

We have visiting cousins in town, one of whom is here for the first time, so we've been treading the tourist route. Yesterday we went to the Musée d'Orsay and I was the one who saw something for the first time.

At the back of the main floor is an exhibit about the Palais Garnier, the original Paris opera house (yes, the Phantom's pied a terre), and part of it includes an elaborate model of the part of the city where the Palais Garnier is located. This model is below floor level and covered with heavy transparent material so you can walk across it, peering, godlike, down from the skies. I can now say I've walked all over that quartier.

The Gae Aulenti design for the museum continues to amaze with its brilliance. This time I was struck by how many clocks there had been in this old train station and how wonderfully they had been preserved and incorporated in its new incarnation.

It's time to put my tour guide hat on, lift the little flag, and shepherd my flock. Luckily the weather's been great. Maybe Sainte Chapelle today...or some shopping. Not for me of course.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Journées du Patrimoine

I've spent many a Sunday afternoon looking at open houses at home. Yesterday we looked at a different kind of open house here. It was the annual Journées du Patrimoine, "Heritage Days" in French, in which the public is invited into buildings which are ordinarily not open. The lines to get in can be quite long, but are usually worth it if you're interested in architecture or history or are simply nosy and like to snoop where you're not allowed. I fit all three categories and was in my element.

The first hôtel particulier we visited was the Hôtel Amelot de Bisseuil, usually known as the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande, in the rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais. This street has become a major artery of today's hip Marais, and the doors to this building are firmly closed, with Medusa heads carved on them to scare intruders away. I'd always wanted to see behind them, and now we could.

This building, as were many in the Marais, had been left to deteriorate and become tenements and workshops until renovations were undertaken in the mid-20th century. The pretty lady in the photo above is only one of the faces carved onto the now cleaned interior facade.

The fellow lurking over the Roman tub is still covered with the grime that remains on the walls of the front entry court. There's never enough money to do it all.

The next building is the Hôtel d'Aumont, on rue de Jouy, now the Administrative Tribunal of Paris. Again, the long history of this building, which passed through many hands over the centuries, led to its deterioration, until at last it was a dormitory for students of the Lycée Charlemagne, a high school nearby. Rescued from the teenage boys, the city of Paris has restored much of its beauty, which contrasts a bit with the modern technology found on the desks and tables throughout. Seventeenth century computer terminals must be hard to get.

This little fellow looks like he's had a great time all along the way.

This ceiling is original to the building and carries the arms and monogram of the owner at the time.

An organization called Paris Historique is responsible for trying to preserve much of the architectural heritage of the city and gave very interesting tours of these and other buildings yesterday. They offer other tours all year long, and we intend to take advantage of them. They're in French but if your language skills allow you to take one, I'd say do it. You won't regret it.