Thursday, May 31, 2012


We spent the weekend in Normandy, tucked into the middle of a countryside with very few towns of any size and with more cows in the pastures than cars on the roads.

Our hosts live in a manor house built in 1900, not far from a small spa town called Bagnoles de l'Orne, with a pretty little lake and a small casino.  The prices in the local antique shop are a third those of the same item in Paris.  This is the deep country.

Our first afternoon we were taken, along with some other city folk visiting friends of our host, to see a 14th century chateau built as a fortress and destroyed when its owner chose the wrong side in the Hundred Years War.  The son of that unfortunate fellow took the other side and was rewarded with the return of the chateau, which he was obligated by his liege lord to rebuild once again as a fortress.  It was his bad luck that this might have been the last fortress built in France since the wars had come to an end and the Renaissance chateau, unfortified and graceful, was all the rage.

He rebuilt it nonetheless, with moat, portcullis, battlements, machicolations, arrow slits, donjon and all.

Now sheep may safely graze in the filled in moat.

The family still owns the chateau and the cost of upkeep is phenomenal.  The roof of one of the towers has collapsed and the cost of repair is said to be half a million euros.

It's quite lovely on a sunny spring day though, if you're not paying the bills.

The gargoyle waterspouts on the roof have apparently been restored.

And someone is still polishing all the copper cooking pots in the kitchen.

The next day we were taken to see the local Renaissance chateau, much prettier and more like what we think of when we hear the word 'chateau'.  This one belonged to a single family through the female line until 1936, when it was finally given to the state, probably in lieu of taxes.

 This is the chatelet, the gatehouse controlling access to the grounds.

Looks sort of like Cinderella's castle, doesn't it?  Or Beauty's?

This one too has a moat, but it's purely decorative and the geese that protect it are the only guards.

Beautiful weathered brick replaces stone in this chateau, not least because the original owner also owned the means of brick production in this part of the country.

The interior has been well-preserved and is remarkably light and airy for a chateau dating in parts from the 15th century.

The remarkable vaulted brick staircase is a marvel of engineering and design, with the bricks regularly alternating direction.  Hard to believe that at one time in its history, fashion dictated that the staircase be plastered over and painted with a faux finish.  They chose faux brick.  I'm not kidding.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Urban Summer Living

The weather's turned, everyone is walking around in T-shirts and sundresses, the tables outside restaurants are filled and café terraces are jammed.

The windows of the apartment are wide open to catch the cross breeze and I can hear the clatter of flatware from the restaurant downstairs.  I hear the murmuring of the diners and the sound of the motor scooter accelerating toward the corner floats back to me.  It's summer in the city.

Most of the year the windows remain closed and we live in our insulated world without regard to the activities of those around us.  This is not unlike our lives in the States, where the only sounds penetrating our house are the occasional car climbing the hill, a neighbor's car door slamming or a dog barking down the street, even at the height of summer when the doors and windows are thrown wide.

But with the coming of warm weather in Paris we also welcome the noisy lives of the people around us.  For those unaccustomed to living in a city it's a bit of a cacophony.  Eventually it becomes normal background music.  It rarely lasts very far into the night, but when the sun has not yet set at 10 p.m. the definition of night becomes rather fluid.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Bagelization of Paris

Some years ago finding a hamburger in Paris was akin to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. Nowadays they're all over the place, at prices that would make most Americans go back to hot dogs, but not at all unusual on many casual menus.

The latest American food to hit Paris is the bagel, and as in the early days of hamburgerization, while you can find it, you may not want to eat it.  The French don't yet have the bagel down.

A couple of weeks ago we had some French friends over for brunch, which in itself was a novelty for them.  While le brunch has become ubiquitous in trendy cafés on weekends, at amazingly high prices for strange mixes of orange juice, eggs and salad, the traditional Sunday lunch still rules in French homes.

We decided we were good enough friends with this family to share the secret of bagels, lox and cream cheese with them.  Now where to find the bagels?  As far as I could tell, it was impossible to buy fresh bagels anywhere in Paris.  Yes, they might have them as sandwiches on the menus of restaurants, but no one was willing to sell me the naked bagels by the dozen or even half dozen.  I found them frozen at Picard, the incredible frozen food chain, or packaged in fours at le Grand Epicerie at the Bon Marché department store, and even packaged and imported from England (now there's assurance of an authentic bagel!) at Monoprix.

I finally gave in and bought the packaged ones, which were passable when toasted and heaped with real Philadelphia cream cheese (now available at Monoprix!) and really good Scottish smoked salmon (no Nova belly lox here, I'm afraid).  Served with sliced tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers and a side dish of scrambled eggs, le brunch americain was a success with nos amis français.

Two days later I found myself in the Marais with another friend who had a craving for some cheesecake from the Jewish bakery on rue des Rosiers.  As I waited with him in line, I glanced at the breads and saw, next to what they called a bagel but was in fact a tiny challah, a sign that read "Bagel Americain".  They looked right.  I bought one.  I tasted it. Yes!  There are now real bagels in Paris.

And for those of you who can't live without your pancakes for breakfast, they're working on that.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fashion is As Fashion Does

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs puts on some very interesting exhibitions and the current one is no exception.  Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs is in fact two parallel exhibits, the first focussing on how Louis Vuitton took advantage of the 19th century boom in upper class travel to build one of the world's first luxury goods companies, and the second on how Marc Jacobs built on that base to bring the company into the 21st century of globalized fashion.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not you are interested in fashion history or social change, the exhibit is stunningly presented and worth seeing for that alone.

It was difficult to get good photos given the lighting, but not only did I love seeing it with a fashion historian who added a lot of valuable context, but Gene went with 20 year-old Xavier, a student of business here in Paris, and they both loved it as well.  Something for everyone.

Our fashion odyssey didn't stop there.  For several years there's been a strange empty building with a wavy green roof along the Seine just past the Gare d'Austerlitz.  There were rumors that it was to be some sort of cultural venue but not much ever happened.

It has finally begun to be used as les Docks en Seine, which includes temporary exhibit space for the Musée Galliera, the fashion museum that seems to be permanently closed for lack of funds.  Last year the Galliera put on an excellent show of Madame Grès' designs at the Musée Bourdelle, contrasting her sculptural dress forms with Bourdelle's sculptures in the same space.

This year two shows have open in the strange green-roofed building: a collection of clothes designed by the legendary couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, along with fashions and fabrics from the 17th to 19th centuries that inspired his work, and next door, Rei Kawakubo's current collection for Comme des Garçons, all in white and displayed under plastic domes.

All these exhibits are worth seeing as historical and sculptural art even if you have very little interest in fashion per se.

Friday, May 11, 2012

It's Different There

I wasn't prepared for Lisbon's river, the Tagus.  It isn't like the Seine, the Thames, the Arno, all of which split the city and which you cross in the course of a day many times over several bridges.  The Tagus at this point is enormously broad and looks more like San Francisco Bay than a river.

The resemblance is reinforced by the bridge crossing its width, a virtual twin of the Golden Gate bridge.

Lisbon sits at the very mouth of the river and if you look in the right direction you can see the coast turning toward the beach resort towns of Cascais and Estoril.

Public transportation is good and includes classic old trams that continue in daily use on the narrow streets of Alfama, the part of the city that survived the 18th century earthquake that leveled the rest.

Tram line 28 is the best for tourists, running through many of the sights most visitors want to see.  This kiosk, one of several in leafy locations around Lisbon's center, is in Praça do Camoes, at the junction of Chiado, the shopping district, and Bairro Alto, the nighttime center, full of bars and restaurants on streets climbing up the steep hill.

Lisbon's sidewalks are made of  inch stone pavers set in many cases in mosaic patterns, each more elaborate than the next.  But what's really impressive are the azulejos, the tiles that cover building facades and interior walls.

Some great examples are in the Monastery of Sao Jeronimos.

Or in the pastelleria down the street where the famous pasteis do Belem are sold by the thousands daily.

Although the tile walls at Mesa de Frades, the chapel turned fado restaurant we visited one evening were spectacular, they paled in comparison to the event we stumbled into.

Half the tiny room was taken up by a family birthday party for the 84 year old fado legend Vicente da Câmera, and after dinner we were treated to not only the scheduled fado musicians, but Dom Vicente himself, along with his son and granddaughter.  It was an extraordinary performance and we were incredibly lucky to have caught it.  (I didn't want to use a flash and the lights were turned down, so excuse the photo quality please)

We finally left after 1:00 in the morning when we realized this was going to go on 'til dawn.  He's got that kind of stamina at 84; I'm embarrassed to admit I don't, at a considerably younger age.

For those of you who might want to hear some fado sung by da Câmera, here are a couple on YouTube.