Friday, October 30, 2009

Vogue: The Beautiful Years

Along the Champs Elysées for the last few weeks has been an exhibit of Vogue covers, celebrating 79 years of French Vogue.  (Why 79 years?  I assume they're not feeling very confident of reaching 80 in the current economic climate, where magazines have been dropping like flies).  This is a part of Paris I usually avoid, but I wanted to see this, so we took the métro up to Champs Elysées-Clemenceau station late yesterday afternoon.

The images are ranged along the sidewalk on the south side of the Champs and attract the attention of tourists and Parisians alike. I can't count the number of women we saw posing in a model-like posture in front of one or another of the covers.  They're not arranged chronologically, a good decision in my opinion, and can be viewed walking in either direction.  To see them all you presumably are supposed to walk up and down the avenue, but most of us just looked at the front and back of each panel in passing.


The early ones are drawings, sometimes stylized, sometimes whimsical.  Many, not to say most, have some symbol of Paris in them: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Concorde obelisk, the Vendôme column.

The magazine didn't publish during the Occupation and one of the earliest covers after the Liberation is this one:

Notice the American flag flying next to the tricolor over the Hotel Crillon in Place de la Concorde, and the men in uniform in the lower right corner, not to mention the paucity of vehicles in the Place.


The post war era brought photography to Vogue covers (note the Parisian background still) and an interesting tradition of asking famous artists to act as editor for an occasional edition of the magazine.  There's Joan Miro,


David Hockney,

and this incredible Salvador Dali, bringing Marilyn Monroe and Mao Tse-Tung together in a single image.

Kate Moss and the other supermodels we're familiar with are represented, but I was drawn to all the iconic faces, Twiggy, the personification of the Swinging '60s, the eighteen-year-old Catherine Deneuve, just starting the career that would make her the living symbol of the Frenchwoman, Brigitte Bardot, no longer the young sex kitten but still coverworthy at the end of her movie career.

Audrey Hepburn's incredible neck and unforgetable style stuck out even among all these beauties, attracting more passerby attention than any other, it seemed to me.

The exhibition comes down this weekend, so it was our last opportunity to see it and I'm glad we went., although we had to squeeze it in between packing and cleaning.

Tomorrow we move to our next apartment.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Strolling for Sandwiches

The last couple of days have been bright and sunny, leading us once more out of doors and putting the art exhibitions on our list on the back burner.  Yesterday we had a sudden urge for a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich and headed up to Belleville to visit Saigon Sandwich, recommended by Clotilde and saved for the day the urge hit.

We walked from Place de la Republique to Boulevard de Belleville and once again had one of those "this is not your father's Paris" experiences.  Most of the people we passed were Asian or African or Arab and the stores reflected it.  The shop above caters to African and Caribbean customers with a specialty in candles, Bibles, icons and incense, as well as apparently everything you can think of anyone might need.

The architecture was a melange of styles, periods and conditions.  It ranged from this low row of what may have been 19th century worker's housing

to what appears to be the height of 1930s chic

and included this almost country cottage at the back of a courtyard.

Just to remind you of what century you're really in, this emply lot has become a tagger's paradise.


Prices here are significantly cheaper than in central Paris.  This halal butcher (they're virtually all halal, except for the single kosher one I spotted) sells his spit-roasted poulets for less than half what they go for in my local market.

And speaking of butchers, I wonder if this cow's head over an impressive double height entry gate might have marked the home of a successful 19th century meat merchant.


As we passed Avenue Parmentier I couldn't help taking a picture of this load of potatoes in the street.  The avenue is named after the pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the man single-handedly responsible for convincing the French to eat potatoes.  Without him, no French fries, a possibility that makes one shudder.  As far as I'm concerned he deserves to have an avenue named after him (and a métro station as well).  The French reward their heros.

When we finally got to Saigon Sandwich, a tiny hole in the wall, we had worked up an appetite.  When I told the very nice man that Clotilde had sent us he sang her praises.  She had never told him she was a journalist and he knew nothing about her until a reader of Chocolate and Zucchini had told him about it.  Since then the printout of her blog post about him has been fading away in his window.  He told us proudly about how his sandwiches were artisanale, hand made to order and the meat steamed rather than boiled, explaining the advantages of that method.

We ordered one poulet sandwich and one jambonneau and took them back to the bank of the Canal St-Martin to eat.  How were they?  We're still dreaming of our local banh mi joint in El Cerrito.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chez Nous and Chez Nous and Chez Nous

The first book of Emile Zola's that I ever read was Le Bonheur des Dames, about the rise of the Parisian department store and how it changed forever the way people shopped. (I know some of you out there are thinking what an appropriate reading choice this was for me.  To you I say...oh, never mind; we all know you're right.)

This new exciting and open environment where the customer could see and touch the goods for sale drove out of business the old shopkeeper, with his wares piled on shelves behind him, out of reach of the customer.  For the first time the buyer saw shopping as a pleasurable experience in its own right. The balance of power in the purchase process shifted, with the advent of the department store, from the seller to the buyer.

Well, maybe.  Zola is said to have based Le Bonheur des Dames on Le Bon Marché, the upscale department store on the Left Bank that still attracts buyers who prefer it to the madness of the sales floors at Galeries Lafayette or Au Printemps on the Right Bank.  It's a beautiful store, clean, open, well-lighted, just as Zola described it.  I went there recently to look for a pair of shoes.

There were lots of shoes to choose from, displayed attractively on low stands, toes pointing some this way and some another, keeping your eye moving, helping you search for just the right ones.  I chose three pairs that I wanted to try on, and that's where the problem started.

The woman I turned to for help was surprised that I expected her to help me with all three.  Why, you might ask?  Because they were different brands.  "Ah non, madame, I can help you chez This Brand, but my colleague over there is responsible for chez Autre Brand!"  These shoes, please note, were displayed within five feet of each other.  Madame la vendeuse was kind enough to take the shoes for which she was not responsible to the appropriate colleague, and eventually I got to try them all.  None of them worked out, so I moved on and faced a repeat of this scenario a time or two more.  If the appropriate salesperson was busy, one had to stand around and wait, despite legions of others twiddling their collective thumbs.  Eventually I gave up and went to look at a photography exhibit on the floor above.

Somehow I think the lesson of Le Bonheur des Dames has been lost on the shoe section of Le Bon Marché.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Darker Days

Since 1996 all clocks in Europe are changed on the same date; the last Sunday in March begins Summer Time (Daylight Saving Time), which ends on the last Sunday in October.

We forgot to turn the clocks back last night but remembered first thing this morning.  Even with the extra hour we didn't manage to get to the market until nearly noon.  Since we're moving to our new apartment next Sunday this was our last market day at Marché Richard Lenoir, and because we have plans for several dinners out this week, we bought very little in spite of the temptation we always feel.  Few Paris  neighborhoods have a market like this one and I'm not sure how we'll manage once we move across the river.  We may have to come back to shop from time to time in order to enjoy the variety and relatively low prices compared to grocery and specialty stores.

I hope we can find this delicious little chevre, Taupinette, which has become a favorite; it's not too young, but it hasn't had time to develop much of a bite yet. 

And we have had very limited opportunity to try many of the types of fish available at the several fish stalls.  This dorade royale is found on a lot of restaurant menus, and the coquilles St-Jacques here are always sold with their coral.  The French can't understand why anyone wouldn't want it.  Of course in the US it's typically discarded.

Among the winter fruit we're finding clementines, pears, apples, and pomegranates, here called grenades.  The ones below, wrapped in their packing straw, are paler than the red ones we're used to.

Not at the market, but out in front of a nearby restaurant called Bar à Huitres (Oyster Bar) we came across this spectacular display of crustacean plenty.

It looks like it could be one of the Flemish still life paintings I saw earlier this week.  Except that you can take this home for dinner.  Which is an hour earlier as of today.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rainy Days and Architecture

 Studio Raspail in Montparnasse

We had planned a weekend in the country but the rain and traffic caused by the beginning of a weeklong school vacation put the kibosh on that.  Note, by the way, that school only started at the beginning of September and now they're taking a vacation.  Eight weeks of classes sure can wipe you out!  Granted, they go from 8:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening, but I think kids should get used to the rat race at an early age.  Hey kids, only another 50 years of it 'til retirement!

So faced with a gray and rainy day, we decided to take a three hour walking tour.

A modernist architectural real estate group has put together a series of parcours, walking tours through parts of Paris that have a particularly large accumulation of 20th century architecture. Today's tour was of artists' ateliers in the 14th arrondissement, an area that includes Montparnasse in the north of the arrondissement and Montsouris, a bit farther south.

You probably know that these areas attracted artists and writers like flies in the years just after World War I.  Paris was an incredibly cheap place for Americans to live and when Russians and others from the east fled revolutions and pogroms they too often came to Paris to share studio space, models and the occasional bottle of wine.  And the native French were no slouches when it came to the louche life.  It was a time of change and one of the things that changed was architecture.

This building is allegedly one of the first to be built by developers specifically targeting the artist market.  It has studio windows, partly in fixed decorated glass, with doors in clear glass.  These face north for the light.  this building was quickly inhabited not by painters but by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan and Ernest Hemingway.  Here's a detail of the metalwork.  It's clear what attracted them.

These buildings, like the Studio Raspail in the first photograph above, didn't come out of nowhere.  Paris has a tradition of Beaux Arts ornamentation and classic family apartment layouts, many of them from the mid-19th century, when Baron Haussmann tore down the medieval, easily barricaded narrow streets and built hundreds of bourgeois apartment buldings along broad boulevards on which the army could easily maneuver.

Between those buildings and these, were years of transitional ones, like this apartment building on rue Campagne-Première, with its ceramic tile facade and double height atelier windows.


Pretty amazing, isn't it?  The ornamentation is still there, but rather than curly Art Nouveau vines, we see stylized flowers in straight lines, circles, triangles and rectangles.  The studio windows were huge, the interiors were lofts with mezzanines, and it was cutting edge for the time.  Again, this building was so cool that it attracted much higher end inhabitants than the artists living in tiny rooms in the Istria Hotel next door.  That hostelry, by the way, has been renovated and shed any vestige of its history as a lodging for Man Ray and Kiki de Montparnasse, among others.

Down the street a bit is this building, rather dilapidated even a hundred years ago, and more reasonable for a working artist.  In fact Giorgio de Chirico lived here in the '20s, we were told.

Mallet-Stevens courtyard facade

In the midst of an undistinguished block of '70s apartment houses and vacant lots is one of the prizes of this tour, a building designed and built by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens.  The street facade of this building is an odd mixture of ordinary 19th century windows over an entry that screams 1930s.

The front door and the round side windows set into a streamlined stone facade lead through the front building into this courtyard.

More striking architectural stained glass is on the right, above the awning.  See that double height studio on the left?  It once belonged to artist Tamara de Lempicka, one of the most streamlined of them all.  It's now on the market for 4.5 million euros, someone told me.  Here's a closer look at the streetside window.

We moved on from the Montparnasse area to a less familiar part of town, close to the Parc Montsouris.  This was a ten minute hike in the rain through a generally nondescript area, although I was pulled here and there by interesting looking buildings that I didn't have time to explore.  Our tour leader was setting a rapid pace and wasn't waiting for stragglers to catch up before going on with her spiel.

A series of small and extremely charming streets awaited us.  Unlike Montparnasse, the Montsouris area has a number of private houses set on private streets.  Developed in the '20s and '30s, many of these were designed and some built by well-known architects for well-known clients.  These artists were by no means starving.

Nor are the present day owners, some of whom have built in-fill buildings that are as interesting as their neighbors had been in their day.

One of the prizes in this area was the first le Corbusier house built in Paris, a small private residence for his friend, the painter Amedée Ozenfant, which takes advantage of its corner location to place studio windows on two sides.

The street leading away from it is far from clean-lined and modern.


And if Corbusier had known he'd have this for a neighbor he might have left town.  

And while plantings can cover a multitude of sins, it can also obscure masterpieces.  All you can see of Georges Braque's 1927 house and studio by Auguste and Gustave Perret is this:

The edges of Braque's Cubism are rather softened here.  Oh, and I can't help wondering about the frères Perret: which one of them got to be called Gus?

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Boring Stuff

It may seem from what I've been telling you that living here in Paris has been non-stop excitement, glamour and glory.  Would I lie to you?  But then you have to do laundry.

We actually do have a washer and dryer in the apartment.  In fact they inhabit the same small body, a combination machine tucked away under the counter in the bathroom.  A full load for our little helper would be a sheet, with maybe some underwear thrown in for balance.  Toss a towel in as well and you're pushing its limits.  To wash this load requires about one hour and ten minutes.

Yes, that's right, over an hour.  And then you have to dry it.  Depending on just what you have in there, you can select ten minutes, thirty minutes, fifty minutes, or more.  Ten minutes to dry virtually anything is to laugh.  Suffice it to say that the 50 minute button is the most often used, and that sometimes several times in a row.

You will recall that we just washed and dried a sheet.  One sheet.  OK, maybe I exaggerate.  There may have been a couple of pillowcases as well.  There's usually another sheet still to do, not to mention the towels.  And the shirts.  And the T-shirts.  And the undies, although usually we hang those to dry on the nifty towel-warmer bars they have here.  And of course the jeans.

So when people ask us how we spend our time in Paris, we lie.  We're actually doing laundry.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rainy Days and Art

We've been abandoned by that glorious sun of the last few days and the streets are wet and shiny.  Kids coming from school are bundled up in hooded coats, leaving their backpacks to get soaked.  With any luck the ink on their homework assignments will run and they won't have to complete them.  You can tell what kind of student I was, can't you?

My path today took me through the Place des Vosges.  On many days, in fact, my path takes me through the Place des Vosges, a circumstance that once seemed so far from likely as to be almost unimaginable. Sorry to belabor the point, but I still can't believe I'm writing that.  Okay, deep breath.  Today I held an umbrella in one hand, trying not to get too wet, while simultaneously taking a picture of the naked headless mannekins mooning me from their 17th century perch.  My head spins.

I was on the way to an exhibition appropriate to a rainy day, a collection of Flemish paintings from Transylvania.  The Samuel Brukenthal Collection, which includes Breughel, Memling and Van Eyck, among others, was on display at the Musée Jacquemart-André.  I love this museum, which was left to the state by Nélie Jacquemart, who with her husband Edouard André spent a considerable fortune collecting  art and filling their huge townhouse with it.  They were talented collectors, amassing not only French paintings but also a spectacular collection of Italian art, including the large Tiepolo fresco on the main staircase and of all things, a Tiepolo on the ceiling of the café, which was once the dining room.

Unfortunately the rooms set aside for special exhibitions like the Flemish one are quite small and because the shows tend to attract large numbers of viewers, it gets a little crowded in there, particularly when the museum allows guides to take groups through and stand blocking the paintings for many minutes.  Do I sound annoyed?  I was very polite, though, as I elbowed my way past them.

A prohibition on picture taking inside stopped me from photographing the paintings, but how could they object to me pointing the camera outside from the window of the grand ballroom?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

From Right to Left

It's hard to resist a lovely afternoon.  Gene was feeling better, the sun was bright, the sky still blue and we decided to walk from our place to the Left Bank and maybe see a movie later on.  This vintage Citroën Deux Chevaux parked in front of a Thai restaurant on rue de l'Ave Maria begged to have its picture taken.   A bit farther along we came across the back of the church of St. Paul shining in the sun.

Nearby, someone had left an entire bag of baguettes lying on the ground near a municipal trash bag (no cans here for fear of bombs).  A small mystery: why weren't they in the trash bag? What could have happened to cause someone to discard them?  And would anyone have the nerve to eat them? They were left across the street from a low-income assistance office.  We didn't wait to learn the answers.

When we reached the river we took a closer look at an art installation that had been up on the quays since late September.  Enormous eyes had been posted along the quayside walls and on some of the bridges.  They're beginning to peel off and I think it makes it look even more intriguing.


Photographed and installed by a French photographer known as JR, it's part of a project called Women are Heroes ( focusing on abused women around the world.  The eyes are those of some of those women.

Across from the eyes was this little vignette.  It looked like a photo shoot for a poster or an album cover.  That's got to be a band, right? Is there any other excuse?

The riverside was popular that afternoon.  There were sitters and strollers on the walkways down by the water.


And the old buildings along the Quai de Bourbon on Ile St-Louis were as beautiful as ever.

It's pricy real estate over there, but there must be some residents who are hanging on in unrenovated garrets or this would have long ago disappeared.

Yes, there's still an operating public bathhouse on the island.

And on that other island, a view of one of Notre Dame's towers from the Square Jean XXIII, a refuge from the crowds at the front of the Cathedral, where you too might be lucky enough to hear a sole musician playing the recorder in the sunlight.

We did see that movie, eventually.  It was The Informant!  We liked it.