Monday, November 30, 2009

Not Leaping for Joy

We've finally hit the infamous French service wall.  The internet and phone in the apartment are on the same network and it went out two days ago, on Saturday.  The notice on the screen says to call a service number, but with no phone we couldn't do that.  The walls  in the apartment are so thick we can't use the cellphone indoors.  So we took the DartyBox router and our problem over to Darty.

The young lady there made it clear that it was in fact our problem, that a service call could be arranged in no other way, and shrugged with Gallic insouciance.  I responded with an American fit, pointing out (in reasonably good French, a part of my mind noticed at the time) that it was ridiculous to require a customer to use a non-operable phone to report a non-operable phone.  It did no good of course.

By the time we got home and hooked up the router, with all kinds of odd possible scenarios planned (e.g. one of us stands in the courtyard with the cellphone, yelling techical instructions to the other in the apartment) the computer and phone suddenly were on again.  I grabbed the phone, called the required number, got a really nice man who agreed to speak English (and did it well) and discovered that 64 DartyBoxes had gone out for the last two days and were now back on line.  Sorry about that.

So although our service experiences at BHV have been exemplary, they are apparently not the norm.  Darty could call them for lessons.  But their phones might not be working.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving Weather

We spent a clear, cold and sunny day in the Luxembourg Gardens with the girls and the baby who are visiting us for Thanksgiving.  Just in case you didn't get the memo, he's the most adorable baby on the planet and he thinks I'm pretty cool too.

There's a melancholy beauty to the gardens this time of year.  The art students sketching the Medici Fountain are bundled in warm coats and mufflers and when they get up they shuffle through piles of fallen leaves.  Only a few chairs are occupied by people turning their faces to the sun to get what may be the final rays of the year.

The café tables are abandoned; no one wants to sit in the windy shade.

The urns along the walkway are filled with bright autumnal flowers cascading over only one side of the urn and reminding me from a distance, bizarrely, of Hawaiian kings' feather headdresses.


I was stopped by a young woman asking me if I was familiar with the area because she had come across a cat hanging out in the garden and wearing a collar.  She didn't recognize the identification on the collar and she wondered if it was far from home. 


The collar read "Le Rostand", the name of the café just across the street from the eastern entrance to the garden. He was in his own backyard.

And when I'm asked if I miss my own figurative backyard I sometimes point people to this place on the route between our apartment and the Luxembourg.  I am at home.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Up Against the Wall

Time has been flying by and sometimes it's hard to remember what yesterday held, let alone the day before.  But a couple of things stand out.  I saw, by accident, the Joseph Kosuth exhibition in the Louvre.  I say by accident because I was planning to see the James Ensor exhibit and totally got the location wrong.  I was meeting B., my charming French teacher and when I arrived I realized I didn't see any posters for the Ensor show.  The woman at the desk looked at me, recognizing the fool I was, and told me it was at the Musée d'Orsay.  Oops.

Meanwhile, B. had always had in mind the Kosuth exhibit and insisted it was at the Louvre, in the medieval basement level.  Still looking for the Ensor show, I accompanied her and found a wonderful surprise.  Kosuth, an installation artist I had heard of but knew nothing about, had installed neon phrases on the plain stone walls of the earliest part of the Louvre.  Simple but moving, these words talked about words, stones, walls, knowledge, understanding and belonging.  An incredibly fortuitous discovery.

We also managed to get out to the Musée Marmottan, a 30 minute bus ride across town to see the "Fauves and Expressionistes" exhibition, also stunning, with works by Braque, Vlaminck, Dufy, Van Dongen, Kandinsky, Beckmann, Jawlensky, Dix, Marc, Kirchner, and others I'd never heard of but whose work on the walls I loved, like Adolph Erbslöh.  The colors were unbelievable.  It's a show I'd see again and again.  Even with the 30 minute bus ride.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hanging in the 'Hood

I've mentioned that we're living very near the Pont Neuf, which despite its name ("New Bridge" in French) is the oldest bridge in Paris.  When it was finished in 1601 it was the newest and has managed to hang onto that designation despite the many bridges that have followed.  The fellow in the photo above is one of the faces found at the base of the ornate lampposts that line the bridge.  He looks rather like a river god, don't you think?  As if he should have strands of algae dripping from his beard.

He's not the only bearded figure on the bridge.  It was completed during the reign of my favorite monarch, Henri IV, who sits twinkly-eyed on his horse in the middle of the bridge, just above the stairs that descend to a pretty little park named after him, the Square du Vert Galant.  It's not in the shape of a square, by the way.  The French seem not to have grasped the fact that the word actually refers to a shape in English, and name many spots that might more reasonably be called a 'place' a 'square' without reference to whether it has four relatively even sides.

We've had relatively clement weather recently, and as you can tell from the photo of Henri, some bright sunny skies, but the norm is more like today's gray, shading from shifting gray skies through darker gray buildings down to paller gray water.  And the water is patrolled by these people, the sapeurs/pompiers responsible for accidents and incidents on the river.  Here they're speeding along in their bright red wetsuits on their way to something or other.  I see them snorkeling on the surface from time to time, looking for who knows what...not bodies, I fervently hope.

Looking the other direction is you-know-who, in her daytime gray, nearly blending into the other shades of the same color.  The two little pointy bits, looking almost like the spikes on the Kaiser's helmet, are the roofs of the Musée d'Orsay.

On the wall of the building at the Left Bank anchorage of the Pont Neuf is one of the ubiquitous plaques commemorating events, usually deaths of resistants, during the liberation of Paris in August 1944.  This plaque is a bit different from those others however.  It marks the site of the command post established by the commander of the F.F.I. (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur) the resistance organisation that functioned as a virtual branch of the French Army.  It's just across the river from the Police Station that was a major point of resistance during those August days.

Our current home is in the midst of a nest of art galleries between the Seine and Boulevard Saint-Germain and most of them feature contemporary art.  I was struck by the ancient exposed beam serving as the lintel of this very modern gallery space, and serving as well as a very clear example of how things change here more through re-use rather than through destruction.


I much prefer this view from my café seat than a line of glass and steel buildings.  From the second floor up I could be in the 18th century.  The modern facades below this are a small price to pay for the preservation of the fabric of the neighborhood.  And some of the art is quite good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Noshing Around Town

Daniel Rose's Spring restaurant was the surprise hit of 2006.  A tiny 16 seat restarant in a populaire part of town run by a American who did it all himself, cooking, serving, cleaning, taking reservations, whch immediately became very hard to get; who would have believed it?

Last year he decided to expand a bit, to 28 seats (!) and to move closer to the center of Paris.  It being Paris, he ran into permit trouble when they found a bit of one of the original city walls in the basement; plans on hold for a while, he decided to open a store up the street from the new location, an épicerie also called Spring, at 52 rue de l'Arbre Sec.  Last night was the grand opening, timed to coincide with the release of this year's Beaujolais Nouveau.

And what an opening!  The narrow store was filled to the brim and overflowing with foodies, winies, and anyone else curious enough to have wangled an invitation, although truth to tell, anyone could have dropped in and no one would have been the wiser.  Winemaker Jeannot Montanet of Domaine de la Cadette in Burgundy was offering his delicious wines along with hunks of jambon persillé while chatting charmingly in French and English with all comers.  Catherine Breton of Domaine Breton in Bourgeuil was doing the same, while "hot dogs" of boudin blanc were served with onions confit in red wine.  Jeannot, it turns out, will likely be in Berkeley in April when he will be visiting his importer, Kermit Lynch.  A small world story once again, since we buy nearly all our wine from Kermit Lynch.

By the time the overflow had spread out into the street and across to mingle with another party, we had met lots of interesting people, including a few of my favorite bloggers, drunk a lot of excellent wine and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, except for the incident of the sapeurs pompiers (firemen) who pulled up in their red truck to help someone who had apparently been taken ill across the street.  And all this just across the river, within 10 minutes walk.  I love Paris.

Daniel's new restaurant is back on track and will be opening in a few months, but in the meanwhile we've discovered a miracle in our backyard.  I say discovered advisedly; in fact it's been the buzz among foodies in Paris for several weeks.  Next door to le Comptoir du Relais, a restaurant we love but which has become a bit too expensive to visit as frequently as we'd like, the chef Yves Camdeborde has opened l'Avant Comptoir, a tiny space with a crêperie in front and an incredible, affordable and comfortable bar à hors d'oeuvres.  

I can't think of anything better than walking in and ordering a glass of good wine at an incredibly low price to accompany a board of premium ham from a well-known charcutier, served at the old-fashioned zinc counter laden with containers of cornichons, pickled chanterelles, pickled cherries, Bordier butter, and bread for the taking.  And for the best little amuse bouche you've ever had, an order of ham croquettes that absolutely melt in your mouth.  And all this for 20 Euros.  For two.

You can see why this is where we've been hanging our hats several times a week, after marketing, before a movie, on the way to an event.  I want to live there, allowing Thomas, the super-nice guy behind the bar, to feed me an unending stream of wonderful things, but the place is so small that I would soon be too big to fit through the door.  Of course then I could always order the crêpes through the window from outside.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Night Time is the Right Time

This is what we saw at dusk last night when we got off the bus in Place de la Concorde on the way to Clotilde's booksigning and blog anniversary event at W. H. Smith, the English language bookstore on rue de Rivoli. The sky was startlingly beautiful, the clouds casting shadows, the colors morphing from pink to red to rose.  The monuments and streetlights and statues were all just outlines against the depth of color behind them.  We stood still and stared for several long seconds and I noticed others around me pulling out cameras in an attempt to catch the effect.

We were in fact early for the event and on our way to meet a friend at Angelina's, the long-established tea salon also on rue de Rivoli.  I say tea salon, and it is that, but what Angelina's is known for is the incredibly rich hot chocolate, chocolat à l'Africain they call it,  served from china pitchers, with a side of whipped cream, at the little round tables where generations of ladies have indulged themselves.  When we arrived however, they were turning everyone out and closing early, ostensibly for inventory (later on we passed by and there was a party going on).  We nipped in and got a hot chocolate to go before the doors were locked; no whipped cream, no little round table, no pitchers, but heavenly chocolate.  We shared one and couldn't finish it.

The book event was fun, Clotilde talking about her interesting career and her latest effort, the English version of a classic French cooking manual called "I Know How to Cook" by Ginette Mathiot ( the French is called "Je Sais Cuisiner") and recently published by Phaidon.  She updated the original 1932 book and its several later revisions, working with a team of translators.  There were amusing people to talk to and a great spread of food and wine, obviating the need for dinner (especially when you take into account the hot chocolate).

And then we walked home.  It's gorgeous here on a clear cold night.  They light the monuments and public buildings, the stone shines and the sky serves as backdrop.  The forecourt of the Louvre makes the most of the contrast between glass and stone.



While the Cour Carrée behind it looks like the set for your loveliest dreams.

Dreams you may continue to have as you walk along the quais and look into other lives through the lighted windows.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Never Enough Chocolate

Yes, it's really chocolate.  I couldn't not include this sexy stiletto in yesterday's catalog of fancy faux delights just because I came across it only this evening in the window of maitre chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin in the très chic rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.  Far be it from me to make the obvious pun about chocolate Heaven.

I don't know about you, but it would take me a long time to get up the nerve to snap that heel off and eat it.  I'm sure many of you take great pleasure in biting the ears off of your chocolate Easter bunny but I'm just not that kind of girl.  So to delay the inevitable pleasure, some more accessible Hévin-ly treats can be found nearby.

Just to kill the time while trying to decide what to do with that shoe, you understand.  I mean, do you eat it or try it on?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chocolate Work


I told you I think that the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated big time here, but I haven't mentioned that it was also celebrated in an art form that has become very popular recently.  Chocolate.

Patrick Roger is the Rembrandt of this genre.  Everything you see in the picture above is chocolate.  The spray cans.  The wall.  The graffiti.  This is the window of his rue de Rennes boutique.

In the boutique on Boulevard St-Germain, he varied the theme with a Simpsonian twist. (Forgive the glare off the glass, please.)


While Roger is the master, the lesser lights are not to be ignored.  In this small shop on rue Pas de Mule in the Marais, nothing is what it seems.  This isn't really a pot of stuffed cabbage, is it, now?

Nor is this a pot of venison stew.

Quail stuffed with figs on the menu tonight?  Good luck.

And if you think this corkscrew will open your bottle you'll be thirsty a lot longer.

A nice little chevre to go with that wine?  Be careful opening that knife.

For those of you who might be planning to repaint your bedroom, some nice choices in blue, don't you agree?

These chocolatiers are playing games with us.  Hard to say who's winning.  But nobody's losing.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

She's Always There for You

The other night we went to dinner at a friend's home near the river in the 15th arrondissement and because we had been dropping off some books at the American Library in the 7th, the easiest way to get there was to walk along the quais.  Which took us past her.

The Eiffel Tower is sort of omnipresent in many parts of Paris; you can see the structure in the distance from anywhere along the Seine and for some distance inland.  Sometimes you forget to notice.  But every once in a while your route takes you near her, and that's when you gasp and realize how tremendous she really is.

The picture above is from the street just in front of the Tower, the one where all the illegal African vendors of lighted towers and tower keychains and tower tchatchkes accost you if you look at all like a mark, and run leaping over the shrubbery when a police car approaches.   During the day this is also where the con men and women drop gold rings at your feet and pretend they just found them and would love to give them to you because you look so nice and don't you have a few Euros to prove it?

And this is from a couple of blocks away in the quiet residential Avenue de la Bourdonnais, where you suddenly pass a cross street and look up and there she is again, bright and shining and welcoming.

And then another night, maybe tonight, when you are walking home in the cold from the Right Bank after a concert and a pizza and you cross the street onto the Pont Neuf and glance to your right and gasp once again because this time it's exactly 10:01 pm and the Tower is doing her hourly twinkly light show and the air is crisp and clear and the monuments along the river are lit up and you think, "is this really happening?"

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hearth and Home

I notice I haven't told you much yet about our new home.  I think it's because I'm still sorting out how I feel about the change. We've moved from the Marais to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Right Bank to the Left, the hip neighborhood to the bobo quartier.  That last one isn't really true.  Bobo stands for bourgeois Bohemien; it refers to rich folks who still like to think of themselves as hip.  Nowadays the Marais is full of them, but they tend to be a bit younger than the bobos of the St-Germain area, who, if truth be told, don't really have any more claim to the title.  Over here it's rich folks, period.  And the tourists of course.

When we as tourists first started coming to Paris we stayed in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  We loved it; after the first visit it felt like 'our' neighborhood, familiar and comforting.  They were used to tourists over here, without being obvious about it: no cheesy souvenir shops like on the rue de Rivoli.  Most service people spoke decent, not to say impeccable, English, the shops were appealing, the restaurants generally good, and there were lots of other English speakers.  It was easy Paris.

Back then the Marais was beginning to be discovered.  A once aristocratic area that had so deteriorated that there was real discussion of razing the old mansions-turned-tenements, it took André Malraux, Minister of Culture in 1969, to make it the first secteur sauvegardé, or protected architectural area, of Paris.  With that push, buildings began to be restored, artists moved in, the old Jewish section began to be less important and the gay presence more important.  It was the happening place, until it had already happened.  That's when we got there.

Last year we stayed near rue de Bretagne in the late-to-gentrify northern Marais and liked the area a lot, so when the opportunity to split our long stay between the two quartiers came up we jumped at it. 

Now that the background is out of the way, you may be asking how we're liking it over here.  Or you may have gone away long since; it's pretty boring, isn't it?

The short answer is that we like it a lot.  The longer answer is that Gene is happier to be here than I am, and I don't know if it's my usual resistance to change or something deeper.  We'll have to see.  At the moment I sort of miss the slight scruffiness of the Marais and don't yet feel entirely comfortable in the more haute environs over here.  It sort of feels like my scarf needs to be tied a bit more chicly (is that a word?) than on the other bank.

The apartments are quite different as well.  They both look like movie sets; we've been very lucky finding lovely places.  The Marais apartment had beams, low ceilings everywhere except for the enormous chandeliered kitchen, and a fireplace.  Someone said it was where Audrey Hepburn would have lived in the movie. The new one is Cary Grant's digs.  It has a double-height salon with silk draperies and oriental rugs, a grand piano, a spiral stair to the bedroom upstairs, and a really tiny kitchen.  I had planned to make Thanksgiving dinner here but just accepted an invitation from a friend. No way was that going to work.

But we're half a block from the Seine, we can cross the Pont Neuf in two minutes, we can walk nearly anywhere with ease, there are dozens of restaurants and cafés within a five minute stroll and three multiplex movie theaters up on the boulevard.  I think I'll get used to it again, really quickly.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day

November 11 isn't a date that resonates much with Americans. We used to call it Armistice Day, now it's Veterans Day, but like many other holidays, we move it around, not even allowing it the dignity of its own date. Ask any 20 people on the street what it commemorates and I'd bet more than half wouldn't have any idea.

We never really thought it was our war anyway. The isolationist US finally entered World War I in 1917 only after learning of a German proposal to Mexico to help it recover territory previously lost to the US. That and German submarine attacks on unarmed vessels finally convinced Congress to come to the aid of France and Britain, who had already been fighting for three years.

In France today schools are closed, government buildings and corporations shut, services severely reduced. It's not surprising that this country should stop to recall the end of a war that left it with about 1,700,000 military and civilian dead and more than 4 million military wounded.

They remember four years of horrible trench warfare, finally brought to an end more by attrition than by victory. Many of the major battles of the war were fought on French soil: Verdun, the Somme, both battles of the Marne; others were just across the border in Flanders. Remains of soldiers and materiel still find their way to the surface in the fields of northern France.

It's always been rather shocking to me that an armistice should call for fighting to stop at a specific hour on a specific day; to choose to end the carnage not immediately, but more poetically, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. How many people died during the tenth hour?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Berlin Wall in Paris

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and it was celebrated in Paris by a concert and light show in the Place de la Concorde.  It was a glorious cold night and the walk along the riverside to the Place was wonderful.  When we got there we spent some time trying to maneuver into a good standing spot, but wound up in the middle of the crowd, since every direction we tried was blocked by police barriers.  It felt as if they were expecting another world-class revolution.

Invited guests apparently had seats near enough to both the musicians and the buildings to have gotten good photos, but the rest of us had to stand in a crowd several hundred meters away and I'm afraid these are the best I could do.  I swear everyone in Paris over six feet in height appeared last night, just to block the view.  

An elaborate and constantly shifting video was projected onto the facades of the Hotel Crillon and Naval Ministry.  It included news photos of the time, pictures of people celebrating, symbols of the fall of Communist rule in other Eastern European countries, graffiti from the Wall, and ended with a tribute to the European Union, with maps and flags.


The short concert began with a video of Mstislav Rostropovitch playing at Checkpoint Charlie in 1989 and continued with 27 European musicians playing in the Place, perched on stones meant to represent the fallen wall.  I think a chorus was also singing, although I didn't see them and it might have been recorded.


There were fewer spectators than I would have expected.  It was apparently shown on television, so maybe the cold night discouraged personal participation, but my impression is that it wasn't very widely advertised.  No one to whom I mentioned it this weekend had heard about it.  I wonder why?