Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Down By the Seashore

In a last ditch effort to see something of the rest of France before leaving for the summer (which seems very far off still, I must admit) we trained to St. Malo in Brittany for the weekend.  St. Malo is a pirate port, reknowned for the privateers it sent out to hunt British shipping in the long years of war between the two.  It's also the port from which Jacques Cartier set out to found Quebec.  If you've ever visited Quebec you'll note that he did a good job of replicating St. Malo when he got there.  Gray stone was plentiful in both places apparently.

A major fire during World War II destroyed most of the original old town, but it has been more or less reconstructed and one might be almost fooled into thinking it real were it not for the suspicious cleanliness and height of the buildings.  There is a small area that remains original between the Cathedral and the ramparts.  These slate roofs seem to have survived the conflagration.

On spits of land just outside the ramparts is the tomb of René Chateaubriand, essayist and novelist and, as a friend pointed out, "also a damn good steak", as well as a fortress built by Vauban, Louis XIV's military architect whose fortresses are still dotted around the country. The ramparts completely surround the old city, known as "intra-muros" and tempted us to walk along them, looking out at the sea, despite the cold and wind.

The next morning was a bit more temperate and we went back up to finish the walk, running across residents, known as Malouinois, doing their morning shopping.

Later that morning we drove to Dinan, about 30 minutes away and found, not a replica, but a town whose center remains nearly perfectly medieval, with half-timbered houses leaning up against each other and a few old stone mansions to lend spice to the mix.  

The old buildings are still lived in and in fact we saw a few "for sale" or "for rent" signs.  Hard for us to believe that you can just move your Ikea furniture into the 15th century like that, but apparently it's true.  We met a sweet elderly man who lives in one of the restored mansions and who told us the story of the family who used to own it.  

Apparently the medieval patriarch of the family kept marrying widows who "had the good taste to die quickly," until after the last one died, at which point he became religious and turned much of the house into a residence for the nuns who worked at the hospital for pilgrims down the road.  Having turned its attention from rich widows to poor nuns, the family's fortunes declined until the municipality turned it into middle-income housing to rescue it from destruction just a few years ago.

When we realized Mont St-Michel was only an hour's drive away we hopped back in the car and headed off, arriving in plenty of time to climb the innumerable steps up to and within the enormous church built over the centuries, from the 11th to the 20th.  That spire on top was not installed until much more recently than one would think.

It's a windy, gray and rather grim place and I wasn't surprised to learn that for much of its history after the French Revolution it served as a prison.  The stone halls are entirely undecorated and the only fireplaces are in the hall in which the monks worked and in the guest hall.  Brrr...

The sands surrounding the abbey are treacherous and are quickly covered by the incoming tide, but the abbey is rarely entirely surrounded.  As we drove up the causeway we saw some of the famous lambs grazing on the salty greens that would make the meat sell later at high prices as "pre salé".  As for us, we dined on the specialities of the area, oysters, fish, crêpes, kouign amann, and caramel au beurre salé.  The monks and prisoners never had it so good.  The pirates, I'm quite sure, dined at least as well as we.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Behind Closed Doors

Someone once told me never to miss the opportunity to snoop behind the facades that Paris buildings offer to the street and, snoopy person that I am, I've taken that to heart.

In the last week or so I've come across several street doors that have been left open, allowing a glimpse of what lies behind, and each time someone nearby was able to tell me what I was seeing.  The first was a garden in the 6th arrondissement, leading to a building which I was told had been the Paris home of Andy Warhol.  Nothing there indicated the King of Pop Art had ever been in residence, but I guess one wouldn't expect to see any Campbell's soup cans or multiple portraits lying around.  It was a lovely building in any case.

The next open door was across the river and several centuries away, in the 3rd arrondissement near the Marché des Enfants Rouges.  Here a helpful neighbor told me this rundown alleyway between buildings and the courtyard behind it had been built by Cardinal Richelieu and functioned as a barrack for the Musketeers.  Again, I don't know if the story is apocryphal, but I prefer to believe that through the door and just to the left down there was D'Artagnan's bunk, with his plumed hat hanging from a bedpost.

It's an unexpected pleasure to come across a reminder that people have lived their lives, generation after generation, century after century, in the same places and that the settings remain after the people are long gone.  This is easier to recall in smaller towns than Paris, places that have kept half-timbered buildings that people continue to live in and where the date over the door might as easily read 1627 as 1898.  Places like Dinan in Brittany, which I'll tell you about soon.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Springing Forward

We are in the Neverland between winter time and summer time.  Back in the US, Daylight Saving Time began on March 14 and they've had an extra hour of daylight for the last two weeks.  European Summer Time doesn't begin until March 28, this coming Sunday.  So when I noticed this evening that the sky was still quite light at 7:00 p.m. I suddenly realized that it will be 8:00 p.m. next week.  We've been denied that extra hour for two whole weeks, that great feeling of longer, lazier days beginning.  I know it's a political construct and the day is not really longer, but I wish it had happened on March 14 here as well.

Practically speaking it really does finally seem to be spring.  I can tell because the skateboarders around the pool at the Palais de Tokyo have taken their shirts off.  And the street trees are just beginning to show buds at the ends of their bare branches.  And people are sitting around the fountain at Saint Sulpice and la Fontaine des Innocents near Les Halles, just killing time and enjoying the sunshine.

The other thing about spring of course, the thing one forgets in the first happy flush of warm weather, is that it rains.  And that it always rains just when you plan a vacation.  So our planned jaunt to Brittany this weekend will include an umbrella and though we hope it will be dry, we're prepared.  Prepared for the oysters, the crêpes, the cider, the unpronounceable place names, and the sea.  I'm really happy about the sea.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


A major exhibition of Lucien Freud's work has just opened at the Pompidou Center, and being at loose ends on a lovely Monday we wandered over there to see it.  Some years ago there was a Freud show in Los Angeles and we actually made the trip there to see it.  I remember being impressed; I had never seen much of his work before and it was stunning.

This time was less satisfying.  Maybe I shouldn't have watched the short video of him talking about the work outside the entrance; he seemed an arrogant man and that may have predisposed me to dislike it.  What I felt looking at the paintings was the opposite of what he said he meant the work to be.  Freud claimed that he was trying to show the "reality" of the people he painted rather than their "likeness". I gathered that his intense concentration on flesh, including the flesh of some spectacularly unattractive people, served that function.

It seemed to me, on the contrary, that what he painted could just as easily have been sides of meat hanging in a butcher shop.  I got no sense whatever of the personality of his models, no sense of who they were or what they were thinking.  Some of the work reminded me in fact of the still life work of Chaim Soutine, of his paintings of raw meat.  The show covered a period of more than 30 years and all looked depressingly similar.  Very disapponting.

Leaving, we decided to have a coffee at Georges, on the roof of the Pompidou Center.

One of the more expensive coffees in town, but what a view!  The terrace was busy, filled with people sunning themselves in the suddenly warm afternoon.  After a while we decided to try to see some of the "Elles" exhibition, in which the museum had collected work by women artists to fill the galleries ordinarily devoted to the permanent collection.  Although an admirable attempt to show the work of women who are often not part of the male-dominated art culture (there's a huge Guerilla Girls piece about this very issue included) it seemed a bit of a trick, maybe because the entry had a huge wall of these:

Is it meant to say that if women artists' work was as good as that of the men whose names are tweaked here they too would be as well known?  Or, to give the curators the benefit of the doubt, that the work is good and it's only gender discrimination that keeps them out of the museums?

Or maybe I was still grumpy from the Freud exhibition.  What would his grandfather Sigmund have to say about it, do you think?

Maybe I should just have lain down in the sun on the huge courtyard like these folks.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cruising the Countryside

We assumed when we came to Paris that we would take advantage of the easy transportation to visit other places in France and in Europe.  Wrong.  We've been so ridiculously happy (or maybe lazy) here in Paris that our short visit to Prague and longer winter getaway to Morocco have been our only excursions.

Last weekend we finally got it together to get out of town, driving with G. and M. to Vaux-le-Vicomte, a pretty chateau with aan interesting history.  Its original owner, Nicolas Fouquet, built it with no expense spared and invited Louis XIV to the housewarming.  This was perhaps not the wisest thing he'd ever done, since Louis begain to wonder how Nick had paid for it all.  Nick being Louis' money manager, you can imagine where that investigation led.  I'm not sure exactly which prison old Nick spent the rest of his life in, but does it really matter?

As for the wisdom of impulsive decision making, our decision to go there wasn't too brilliant, either.  Upon our arrival, ready for lunch, we discovered it was closed for spiffing up, and would open at the end of this month. 

Plan B had us driving to Barbizon, a town just barely on this side of kitsch, which rests on the laurels brought to it by the painters known as the Barbizon School in the 19th century.  I can only assume they make more money from these artists now than the artists themselves ever made when they were alive.  There are plaques all over the place attesting to the previous tenancy of various painters.

Millet, the best known by far, has had his studio preserved.  Others rate only a small plaque on the streetside wall of the house they lived or worked in.  I would object to anyone calling me a Philistine, but I'd have to Google to find out who these artists were; they're not household names, at least not in my household.

This fellow rates a much more elaborate memorial, placed by his Hungarian compatriots on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death.

Our tour of the town was delayed however until we found somewhere to have lunch and there impulsivity was rewarded,  The charming lady running La Boheme seated us after a bit of a wait, apologizing over and over for the inconvenience to us of her restaurant being completely full of families enjoying their Sunday lunches. 

When we finally joined them in the dining room which looked to have been preserved exactly at it was in 1903, we discovered that the food was as good as we had hoped.  After a leisurely lunch of soupe de poissons served with its classic accompaniments of rouille, grated cheeses and croutons, followed by boeuf bourguignon or confit de canard and finished with profiteroles, all we could do was stroll the slightly too cute main street long enough to be able to fit ourselves back in the car, filling it rather more than before, and head back to Paris.

Now that's a country outing.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Looking Back at Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent, generally agreed to be one of the greatest couturiers of the 20th century, died in 2008, but his last couture show was in 2002, a restrospective of his nearly 50 year career.  Now his partner Pierre Bergé has put together for the museum-going public at the Petit Palais a retrospective of YSL's work and how it influenced and was influenced by the events of his lifetime, including feminism, ethnic awareness, and the rise of youth culture.

An hourlong wait in the chilly sunshine was rewarded with an exhibition that included several hundred examples of Saint Laurent's work, from his early trapeze designs for Dior, which made him a star at the age of 20, to the many, many versions of 'le smoking', the tuxedo for women which came to be seen as another basic wardrobe piece like 'little black dress', to the extraordinarily elaborate embroidery of the 'art' pieces he designed as homages to favorite painters.  You haven't lived until you've seen Van Gogh's irises in sequins that took 600 hours to apply.

The audioguide to the exhibition is definitely a must-have, as otherwise one would miss the historical significance of much of the show.  He was the first couturier to make pants a staple in women's wardrobes, the first to bring Russian, Indian and African motifs to haute couture, the first or at least the most imfluential to do a lot of things we take for granted.  And the opportunity to see the fabrics and details and cuts up close is not to be missed for anyone who thinks great design can extend even to the clothes we wear.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Afternoon in the 19th Century

We've kept pretty close to home this winter but yesterday we had an appointment in the 9th arrondissement, on the Right Bank, at the foot of Montmartre.  The wonderful bus system (have I raved about it enough before?) took us to Place St. George, where we found ourselves in the middle of la Belle Epoque.  The buildings, the statue in the center, the lampposts, all were as they might have been 120 years ago, were it not for the cars and motorbikes and people pouring up from the Metro entrances under the old hôtels particuliers.

One of these hôtels ( top photo above) had the ubiquitous oar-shaped monument sign in front of it, telling passers-by interested enough to stop and read it that the building now sitting smack atop the Metro exit was the home of the famous courtesan known as La Païva, whose final home is one of the last surviving mansions on the Champs-Elysées, now housing the famous Traveller's Club as well as a club called...Païva (lower photo above).

Moving up the street we came to a classic 19th century square incongruously named for the surrealist poet André Breton.  Although born in 1896, he is so representative of 20th century art movements that naming this place for him might be called surrealist in itself.

This arrondissement is home to several of the famous passages, covered shopping streets that were enormously popular in the 19th century and gave rise to the horrors we know as shopping malls today.  The originals were quite lovely in their day and some of them have been rehabilitated and are quite chic again, such as the Galerie Vivienne near Palais Royal.  The ones in the 9th are by no means fashionable, but they offer a wonderful stroll.  Covered with glass, they shelter shops specializing in stamps, old postcards, cheap clothing, tea shops selling old-fashioned pastries, and some of the hottest new small restaurants in town: Racines and Passage 53 in the Passage des Panoramas.

Many of the passages were elaborately decorated with tiled floors, painted fronts to the shops, and lighting fixtures hanging from the glass roofs.  Some remnants of this remain in the patchy floors and the oldest door surrounds.

On the streets of this quartier are other survivors of its heyday.  One of the most spectacular is the candy shop called La Mere de Famille.

Still selling chocolates and confiseries a l'ancienne, it operates out of the original store and jealously guards the original counters, display cabinets, tile and glass.

Down the street is another survivor, the communal restaurant called Bouillon Chartier.  Originally a form of soup kitchen, it is now a tourist destination known for its preserved setting, cheap meals and rude waiters, where you share long tables with others and revel in the fantasy of returning to earlier days.

The facades of buildings along these streets still carry some remnants of those earlier days.  This bathhouse is another example of the extensive use of tilework in the Belle Epoque, and the entry of the building next door has been made to appear more prominent by the addition of a false front.

An important part of the Belle Epoque at the time were what were known as maisons closes, private houses, i.e. brothels.  These continued to flourish well into the 20th century and were legal in Paris until 1946.  A small gallery in the 2nd arrondissement is having a popular exhibition of photos and other materials relating to these maisons closes.  The gallery, perhaps not only coincidentally, is on rue Chabanais, directly across the street from the most famous of these establishments, the one in which the Prince of Wales, later Edward the VII, had his own suite and specially built chair.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sunday Shopping

The sun is still shining, but that doesn't mean we can shed the layers yet.  In fact yesterday was nearly as cold as it had been back in January, but the blessed sun was blazing in a pure blue sky and we decided it was time to go back to the Sunday street market at Bastille and stock up on food.  It's been months since we were there and I craved the sight of fresh vegetables and fruit, shining fish and spring flowers.

Pulling our wheeled market basket behind us, we walked to the bus stop where any one of three buses would take us directly to the market in 10 minutes, but we hadn't counted on the effect of the Paris Marathon, which crossed the bus route and thus cancelled the buses for much of the day.  We'd been eating out for more than a week and were determined to do some cooking this week and I had my heart set on the bounty of the market, so down into the metro we went.  After lots of stairs and corridors, and one transfer, we emerged into the Place de la Bastille at last.  It was clear that we couldn't return the same way once our basket was full.

I had forgotten how much fun shopping this way is, moving down the rows, dodging old ladies and meandering tourists to reach the vendors I liked.  A bit of this, a slice of that, un morceau of the other, a kilo of those and half a kilo of these and we were ready for a coffee.  Sitting in the Place, looking out at the traffic and the passing pedestrians while sipping a hot café crême was an accessible bit of heaven.  Just a lot colder than I thought heaven would be.

Oh, the buses began running again just as we were ready to leave.  Heaven's transportation works.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


The last time I walked through the Luxembourg gardens was in late fall and the mood was melancholy.  Yesterday it was anything but.  A gorgeous sunny day had everyone out, adults and children, taking advantage of the rays.  Kids were sailing boats on the bassin as Parisian kids have done for generations while their elders were sitting in the ubiquitous green park chairs reading or simply turning their faces to the sun.

The trees haven't yet begun to leaf but the first crocuses are peeking up and there is a palpable sense that the long cold winter is over.  The warm sweaters I brought back from California to get me through the rest of the winter may never see daylight.


We've had friends visiting from home and so been seeing exhibitions, shopping and eating at a bit more than the usual pace.  The J.M.W. Turner exhibit at the Grand Palais was jammed with visitors, even on a Sunday evening and probably needs another viewing; enormous, as most Grand Palais shows are, it tries to show how Turner was influenced by and in many cases drew directly from the work of other artists.

The Edvard Munch exhibition at the Pinacothéque de Paris was also crowded and noteworthy for the absence of even one version of the picture he's most identified with, The Scream.  In fact the secondary title of the show is "l'Anti-Cri" (the Anti-Scream).  

On an evening that offered a stunning sunset, we walked to the lovely Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to attend our first Paris opera, a wonderful staging of Verdi's "Falstaff".   Who knew opera could make you laugh out loud?  The crowd in the theater made for fascinating watching as well, a mix of people coming from the office, young people out for a special evening and the occasional "did you see that!?"

It's such a pleasure to be out on the streets in the sun again; I hate to belabor the point, but coming from someplace that has two seasons at best, it's worth noting how the emergence from the cold depths of winter into sparkling sunlight warms more than your physical being.