Friday, December 31, 2010

Grand Brittany: Fog

We woke to an eerie fog that lay heavily on the countryside.  We might have been in any century.  It was easy to imagine that the forests still sheltered Druids.  We saw a deer leap across the road and would not really have been very surprised if it had been followed by a 15th century hunting party.

The very 21st century car took us, slowly and carefully, to Chateau Suscinio, the restored 15th century hunting lodge of the Duc de Bretagne.  A ruin when Guy de Maupassant wrote about it in the 19th century, the state has restored much of it to what it must have looked like when Jean V's court moved in on its peripatetic way around Brittany.  It sits between marsh and sea, surrounded by a moat.

And when you realize that cold, stony Suscinio was the very height of comfort and ease at the time you suddenly feel what it must have been like to be a peasant, with no tapestries or furniture to soften the stones and mud of your surroundings.

We felt very lucky that Paris of 2010, busy, well-lit, and well-heated, awaited us at the end of the train journey the next day. 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Great Brittany II

We managed to cover a lot of ground on a trip that was meant to be spent sitting in front of the fire.  Since we found ourselves not far from some of the megaliths Druid Brittany is known for we took off for Carnac.  The town has an extraordinary church porch roof that looks like it belongs in Baroque era Rome, and an altar that appears equally out of place, both worth seeing.

But what we came for were the standing stones.  I had been expecting something more the size of Stonehenge but what we found were acres of 3-4 foot stones set in long straight lines.  There were thousands of them set in the boggy earth.  It's unclear what the purpose was, but it must have taken enormous effort to set them so many millenia ago.

We were near the water by that time and went on to lunch in a deserted, rainy and windy Quiberon.  I'm sure this is a great area to spend time in in the summer and windsurfers must adore it.  We left quickly.

A couple of hours of navigating the tiny back roads brought us to Rochefort-en-Terre, a well-preserved village near Chateau Talhouët with a medieval church and houses that once served well-to-do families and are now craft shops and creperies.

It's charming, and again, summer would allow one to sit in the cafés and watch the world stroll by.  In the Christmas season the empty streets and stone buildings are strung with lights and look a bit like a holiday card, with all the people missing.  They're probably all indoors, in front of that roaring fire, which is where we took ourselves.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Great Brittany

A few weeks ago I got it into my head to spend a few days between Christmas and the New Year in front of a roaring fire in a chateau somewhere and I came across a reference to Chateau Talhouët in the Morbihan area of Brittany.  The website looked lovely and my contacts with the owner were pleasant.  Given the severe weather we'd been having, we weren't sure until the last minute that we would actually go, but go we did.

A two hour train trip to Rennes and a rental car driven for another hour into the countryside brought us to the perfect place.  We were welcomed by Bourbon, the huge Irish wolfhound and his little Maltese pal and settled into our room, which had 14 foot ceilings, a lit polonais with a little crown at the top and pretty boiseries.

The fireplace in the huge salon blazed just as I had imagined and we read in the lamplight in front of it before we were called to dinner.  The first night we joined a few other guests; the second night we were the only ones staying there, and instead of dining in the dining room we drank our champagne at the table for two set in front of the fire.  The champagne was justified, folks.  It was our anniversary, a major one.

Friday, December 24, 2010


These people must have melted away.

Lighting up the Dark

A full moon shining down on the golden angel on top of the Bastille column brightened the night last Sunday after one of our intense but fleeting snowstorms. Much prettier than the slush on the ground.

A couple of nights later we took the chance of waiting for some tickets to become available for the sold out performance of Balanchine/Brown/Bausch at the Palais Garnier.  Between house seats and returns there are often 15 or 20 tickets available immediately before the show.  Luckily the waiting area has a few seats for the first comers because it's a long wait.  We brought books.

After an hour and a half we snagged the last two, in the 10th row of the orchestra.  The dozens of people in line behind us were out of luck.  The three dance pieces included George Balanchine's Apollo to the music of Igor Stravinsky, a piece by Trisha Brown to Laurie Anderson's music, and Pina Bausch's extraordinary Rite of Spring, also by Stravinsky.  You can understand why this piece caused a riot in Paris when the Diaghilev version was first performed in 1913.  The music and the dance are blunt, vivid, mysterious and gripping, about as far as you can get from the Swan Lake being performed at the Opera Bastille the same night.

The Beaux Arts style building, as I've said before, is fabulous, lit with dozens of chandeliers reflecting light off the gilded walls and the large mirrors.  One can imagine the balls and dinners given here during the Belle Epoque.

The large tree at the end of the grand hall was lit a daring red.

And the Chagall ceiling never fails to stun.

A few nights later we made our way in the rain to dinner at Hidden Kitchen, an "underground" restaurant that operates a couple of times a week out of the home of its chef/proprietaires.  A 10 course tasting menu with wines was delicious and just right, leaving us feeling satisfied but not stuffed.  I'd been thinking for a couple of years of doing this and finally reserved in August.  The first available date was in December.   It was worth the wait.

On the way over we came across these Christmas trees near the Palais Royal.  Made of recycled water bottles (the red ones are Badoit Rouge), they're available from the designers at about the price of a real sapin de Noël, and 2 euros of that price goes to the World Wildlife Fund.

And handily, all the information you need to find your very own is right nearby.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Attracted to America

Last night we saw a production of Kurt Weill's 1947 American opera Street Scene* at the Atelier Lyrique of the Paris Opéra.  A couple of weeks ago we saw an excellent full-scale English language production of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady at the Theâtre du Chatelet.  A few months ago I saw an elaborate production of Jerome Kern's Showboat at the same theater, and last year Scott Joplin's American opera Treemonisha was a hit at that venue.

The audiences for these shows are primarily French and non-Anglophone.  In fact, at Chatelet the English is translated onto supertitles above the stage and monitor at each side.  Trying to translate Alfred P. Doolittle's Cockney slang into French must have been a challenge. The Weill piece was a strange hybrid, in that the songs were sung in English and translated onto the backdrop while the connective dialogue was in French.  Since the characters were meant to be New York immigrant tenement dwellers with names like Kaplan, Fiorentino and Sanchez the subtleties of the dialogue and accents were lost (although the actor playing old Mister Kaplan made a try at a Yiddish accent).

I'm struck by the popularity of American musicals here.  My Fair Lady, with its premise based on British accent-based class divisions, difficult to translate, is virtually sold out.  My friend's 13-year-old French daughter was taken with her class to see it.  She loved it, as did everyone in the large audience the night we were there.

Last year's Treemonisha and this year's Showboat depended on large black casts.  In Paris that typically means African actors and singers and the accents in English are startling to an American ear expecting familiar accents of Mississippi and Louisiana.  Southern the accents on the stage may be, but southern Senegal most likely.  Here non-Anglophones have an advantage since they aren't kept from being immersed in the story by the incongruity of the accents.

The shows' popularity may simply be a reflection of the very large audience for any theater in Paris.  It may be that classics are classics no matter where they come from or where they play.  Whatever the reason, I'm loving it, as French language theater is still beyond my comfort zone.  Maybe next year I'll get to the Comédie Française, but meanwhile, keep the oldies but goodies coming.

*[I had had no idea that Weill's lyricist for Street Scene was the poet Langston Hughes and that Weill won the first Tony award for music for this show, which he considered his masterpiece.  This from the man who wrote The Threepenny Opera!]

Sunday, December 19, 2010

December Days

What a strange week it's been.  We had some blindingly bright sunshine, some grayish skies and last night those huge fat snowflakes began to fall while we were tasting champagne and waiting to hear Alec Lobrano read from the new edition of his book "Hungry for Paris" at Spring boutique.  This is the book I refer people to when they ask "where should we eat in Paris?"  It's personal, reliable and fun to read.

By the time we left to go to dinner there was already slush on the ground and we decided to take the metro rather than walk to Anahuacalli, the best and possibly only good Mexican restaurant in Paris.  A huge Margarita after a couple of glasses of champagne was a bit much and I couldn't wait to get home and go to bed.

This morning it's still snowing and our friends in the country who had planned to come into the city this evening just phoned to say they're not budging.  This after emailing a photo showing their garden buried under snow.

Going back to the better weather earlier this week, we took the opportunity to walk a bit and came across this lady sitting rather disconsolately on a bench in front of the Hungarian Cultural Center.  On closer inspection, she's been there a long time, being bronze and permanent.  Maybe she really wants to go back to Budapest.

Our neighborhood now has just what it needed, yet another chocolate shop.  This one opened just a couple of days ago on Boulevard Saint Germain at Odeon, replacing a Tatl discount jewelery store.  The windows are full of elaborately executed objects in chocolate and the prices seem a bit lower than other shops, perhaps carrying on the Tati tradition.

What the neighborhood needs instead are some useful things like shoe repair shops.  While we finally came across a cordonnier working out of a tiny stall in the Marché St-Germain, I prefer this shop in the Marais, with its lovely old blue front and the red boot overhead.  Who needs neon signs?

We came across this, I must admit, while on our way from our semi-annual visit to Merci (this year's Christmas car above) to tea at the patisserie/chocolaterie of Jacques Genin, the legendary supplier of most of the best restaurants in Paris before he opened his own shop on rue de Turenne about a year ago.

I chose the chocolate eclair, but Gene was the winner with the world's most incredible caramel millefeuille.  It made me so excited I couldn't get a good picture of it.

You may not be aware that moving house in Paris is different from other places, certainly from California.  Here you move in through the windows.

Given the small elevators (when they exist at all) and the tight stairwells, furniture and goods are often lifted from the street on a crane platform and brought in through the window, as was the case with this building we passed on Friday.  Luckily they didn't wait until today's snowstorm.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's Ducking Cold

The French expression for really cold weather is "un froid de canard", i.e. a duck's cold.  We asked some French friends at dinner the other night where the phrase came from and no one knew.  Google suggests it refers to the weather at the time of the year when duck-hunting is allowed.  What ever it is, you can believe that any smart duck has long ago left for North Africa.  This is no place for warm-blooded creatures.

Last week's snowstorm is said to be the worst since 1987 and more snow is expected later this week, but yesterday was relatively warmer and today, although colder once more, was stunningly sunny and crisp, so it's not all bad.  And, of course, it's the Christmas season in Paris.

There's not a lot of room in the city for the Christmas tree lots I'm used to, so most trees are bought from florists, all wrapped up in expandable string bags like a kilo of onions.  They're also relatively small, which makes perfect sense given the size of apartments here.  I imagine if you want a bigger one you have to order it in advance. 

Wandering the streets you see a lot of luxury in the specialty food stores, including foie gras, Champagne, caviar and chocolates.  Even supermarkets have displays of this sort of thing.  In France this isn't a cookies and cider holiday; they go all out.

We went to the Champs Elysées the other night to see a movie (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; I've always loved the Narnia books) and had to battle the crowds walking the street.  I assume these people are coming in from the suburbs or even from other towns to see the lights. Lots of kids and parents and long lines of people waiting to get into chain pizza joints; this is not fine dining but the Champs is no longer an upscale destination, although I understand it once was.

The Palais Royale on the other hand is filling up with more and more  upscale shopping, including Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, Rick Owens and the king of vintage, Didier Ludot.  There's also the gorgeous Shiseido perfume gallery, worth a visit for the mauve handpainted walls alone.  The display window recalled Paris' long fascination with Josephine Baker, the young African-American who became the toast of the town dancing nude in the Twenties and spend the rest of her life in France.  One of her famous songs is "J'ai Deux Amours", which claims she has two loves, her country and Paris.  It's a song a lot of us can identify with.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

White and Wild

A friend invited us to a presentation she was making at a conference today and I told her that, failing a snowstorm or George Clooney calling for a date, we'd be there.  Well, George didn't call, but Paris was hit by an enormous snowstorm, dropping about 4 inches of the white stuff and causing pandemonium. 

We actually did go out to the bus stop in an attempt to get to the conference site, only to find that the bus service had been canceled.  The metro looked like it was a mess and even if there had been a free taxi we wouldn't have been able to tell since the roof lights on all the ones we saw were covered with snow.

Realizing the better part of valor was to retreat to the apartment, we slipped and slid through the slush and stayed in for the rest of the day.  Watching the news tonight, we learned that there was a 300 km-long traffic jam around Paris today as a result of the storm. 

It's been snowing off and on for the last few days, but nothing major, just big fat snowflakes, at least an inch in diameter, landing and promptly melting.  It's made walking on the sidewalks a bit tricky, but not too bad.  Today was different.  Cars creeping along, few pedestrians, lonely shopkeepers standing not very hopefully behind their shop windows, wondering about their Christmas shopping profits. 

And speaking of store windows, the only major ones I've seen so far this season are at le Bon Marché, the upscale department store in the 6th arrondissement, and they're pretty bizarre.  The theme seems to be aliens, visitors not just from other countries, but from other galaxies. 

Pulsating ovoid balloons form and reform hills and valleys while the colors of the lights change and odd pointy things pop up as if looking around. 

And then, if you look quickly,  a tiny glass globe with tiny figures appears and then disappears.  Who are they?  What are they doing?  Va savoir.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Unexpected Views

I just noticed the other night that we can see the Eiffel Tower from our window.  I know, it seems like something it would be hard to miss for the three months we’ve lived in this apartment, but you can only see it from a certain point and it helps if you stand on a chair.

I recently changed where I sit when I use the computer and one evening I glanced up and noticed a searchlight turning in the sky and suddenly realized it was the one on the top of the Tower, the last few meters of which I could actually see from my chair.  I got up to take a closer look and lost the required angle.  Climbing on a chair and peering out of the glass roof of the kitchen I got a good view and promptly screamed for Gene to come look.  “We can see the Eiffel Tower!”

So we now have a view that people would kill for.  If they have a chair.  (The photo above is emphatically not our view.  Think the bump at the top).

Yesterday we were walking from the Left Bank over to the church of St-Merri on the Right Bank to hear a concert.  Our route took us through the place in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris' city hall.  It used to be called the Place de Grève because it was originally a gravel field leading to the river.  Over the centuries it became the place where people came to demonstrate and strike and now being on strike is called être en grève, presumably from that source.

As we came closer we realized that a demonstration was going on, although the banners were held in such a way ythat I couldn't read what was written  them, nor could I understand the shouting, so I can't tell you what it was about.  What I can tell you is that the police, who surrounded the demonstrators without impeding their movements, were incredibly laid back.

As we passed the crowd, I looked back and suddenly saw that they had let off flares of some kind that created huge plumes of smoke.  It looked sort of like a battle, although there was no opposing side.  The police did nothing despite the pedestrians coughing and hacking for blocks around.  Somehow I can't see that happening in the US.

Another sight I've been meaning to show you is the cute little electric car icon that's been appearing more and more in Paris as more and more electric cars are introduced into the mix of vehicles in the city.  The sign indicates a charging station in the parking lot signaled by the big "P" on a blue background.

I haven't checked into what exactly is offered in these garages, i.e. is it a top-up of electricity while you do your errands, or can you link up for the six or eight hours it takes to charge some of these cars completely?  Nor do I know what it costs, but I think it's cool that at some point electrical outlets may take the place of gas stations in Paris.  Of which, by the way, there are very few.

Drivers have to plan ahead here, no waiting until the last drops before searching for gas.  Most of them are on the outskirts of town and fewer and fewer are available in the center.  Unlike electrical charging stations.  Do you see a plan here?