Sunday, November 9, 2014

Wrapping Up

So it's been a while, and one of the dangers of not blogging regularly combined with a memory that isn't as razor-sharp as it used to be is that I'm having a bit of trouble recalling what we've been doing.

One major thing was my sister Susanne's visit, her first in five years.  A bit of museuming, a lot of walking and a judicious amount of shopping filled her two weeks, along with a two-night visit to Bruges and a stop in Ghent.

Bruges, where we had last been in early September 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, was much the same, charming, a bit Disneylandish, packed with tourists.  We decided to go with the flow and take the canal ride, snap photos of the lovely architecture, eat the frites and admit that we were tourists just like the others.  It was a lovely time and we were blessed with unusually sunny weather.  

We had arranged the train ride back to give us a few hours in Ghent to visit the famous Van Eyck altarpiece in the cathedral of St. Bavo.  If you've been paying attention to the recent spate of books and movies about the Monument Men, the US Army officers charged with finding and recovering European works of art looted by the Nazis during WWII, this altarpiece was one of the major works recovered from enormous caches of art in salt mines and castles in Germany.  It's an extraordinary work of art and the presentation and audio explanation of the symbolism is one of the best I've ever encountered.  Go.

Back in Paris we visited the new Frank Gehry designed museum, the Fondation Louis Vuitton, in the Bois de Boulogne.  It's Gehry's latest "how does he do that?" structure and it's pretty stunning, at least from the outside.  I found the interior confusing and jumbled, and the complex internal structure that supports the glass sail-like exterior sometimes feels too compressed.  Gene went to see a concurrent exhibition on Frank Gehry at the Centre Pompidou and came back saying Gehry is more of a sculptor than an architect.  Based on the LV museum I would agree.  Oh and by the way, the collection is not a lot of purses, it will contain the contemporary art of Bernard Arnault, one of the richest men in France and the owner of LVMH.

We try to see an opera most years in Paris and this month Mozart's "L'enlevement du Serail" is being performed at the Palais Garnier, the gorgeous Belle Époque opera house of Phantom legend.  Since the ticket prices are astronomical, we go a couple of hours early to wait in line to try to get one of the few discounted tickets that are returned or kept as comps until the last minute.  This time we got in line at 5:30 behind 4 other people as indicated by a man at the entrance. There was no one else in the room.  An hour later another man came over and told us that it was not the correct place to be and we had to go to another line in which there were already a number of people.  This would have meant that there was no chance for any of us in the original line.  You've heard, I'm sure, of the French Revolution. There was nearly another when the people who had been in front of us protested, loudly, about the unfairness.  This went on for a good 30 minutes until someone came up with a compromise.  Since everyone claimed they had been there first, we would alternate between lines, thus equalizing the risk of losing out.  A solution worthy of French rational philosophy.  We Americans along for the ride managed to get great seats at about a sixth the cost of a full price ticket!

Something I mean to do every time we are in Paris but often forget to schedule is a meal at Caviar Kaspia, a jewel-box of a restaurant on the second floor of the boutique specializing in caviar and smoked salmon.  Our first visit over 20 years ago on a rainy afternoon has stayed with me as one of the archetypal events of our years here.  We wanted Susanne to have the experience and so scheduled lunch there after a visit to the Perugino exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart Andre.

You can certainly break the bank here if you can't control your caviar cravings, but our usual meal is a first course of borscht or smoked salmon or trout followed by blinis with salmon eggs.  Absolutely indulgent but financially sound. And delicious.  The service is fit for the Tsars, the room could be in St. Petersburg and the experience is wonderful.  Did I mention the icy cold flask of vodka that is the perfect accompaniment?  

And since we aren't planning to be back in Paris for a while, other food cravings are being satisfied as well.  Last night we indulged in confit de canard at Au Petit Sud Ouest, which specializes in all things duck and goose.  We have reservations with friends later this week at Bofinger for a dose of choucroute garnie, and I even hope to fit in a felafel at L'As de Felafel in the Marais before our departure.  Stomach memories to hoard up against Parisian longing.

I realized the other day that for some reason we hadn't been within view of the Eiffel Tower at the turn of any hour and so had missed the twinkling lights that play on the it for the first few minutes of each hour.  Last night we happened to leave the restaurant just as the light show started.  A perfect farewell.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Walking the Streets

There's been a strange end of summer feeling in Paris this week, warm weather and sun much of the time, interspersed with gray skies and sudden downpours.  We went for a walk along the Berges de Seine, the quays that used to be a highway along the river and that have been turned into a pedestrian playground.  The beach chairs remain but the seats are damp from the last rain shower.

The river itself is still a highway however.  Barges cruise along, most of them still carrying cargo, while others are living spaces for nomads who like to wake up somewhere different each morning.  In today's world they take their cars with them.

The establishment of the Berges de Seine has inspired a lot of new eating places along the river.  A few are still open until the end of the month and we were able to have a glass of wine and a snack virtually underneath the Pont Alexandre III.  If you want to be even closer to this bridge, a fancy restaurant/club called Faust has been installed in the pillar of the bridge itself.

The weekend was a real throwback to summer.  Temperatures reached 75F and the city hit the streets.  Café terraces were jammed and the parks full of people on the lawns or stretched out on lounge chairs.  October is very strange this year.

A walk on the Right Bank yesterday took us through the Passage Vero Dodat, one of the classic passages build for middle-class shoppers in the 19th century.  

Most of the shops are galleries and ateliers, and I never seem to be there when these shops are open.  What was open was the major tenant, the shoemaker Christian Louboutin, he of the red soles.  And just adjacent, a shoe repair shop, apparently specializing in these pricy pumps, which will replace your red soles as needed for a mere 96 euros a pop.

He's now moved into the nail polish business apparently.

We tried to drop in to the Louvre for a spare hour (how jaded does that sound?) but forgot it was Monday, the day many other museums including the Musée d'Orsay are closed.  The line to get into the pyramid wound around it and we passed.  After trying another entrance that was not much better we decided that just getting an espresso was the better part of valor.

We've been holding off on going to most of the exhibitions around town at the moment since my sister arrives for a visit this week and we'll go with her.  On the list is the scheduled-to-open-this-week Picasso museum and the new Frank Gehry designed Louis Vuitton museum in the Bois de Boulogne.  This is apparently a soaring glass boat that has been getting a lot of press and I'm anxious to see.  Report to follow.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Rainy Sunday

A gray and rainy Sunday in Paris.  Luckily we were invited to brunch at Alisa's new place in Saint Denis.    Just outside Paris proper but still on the metro line, Saint Denis is a mixed bag.  Around the corner from a temporary residence for undocumented African immigrant men is the Stade de France, the huge stadium that houses football games and rock concerts in one direction and a tiny street with big houses behind forbidding walls in the other direction.  Alisa's family is in one of the houses.

Floor to ceiling glass walls, a garden, huge volumes, a mix of Danish and French antiques and decoration, and a long table ready for brunch.  These are some of our favorite people and we don't get to see them, particularly the children, enough.  A lovely way to spend a lazy Sunday.

A long metro ride back home and we got ready to have drinks at the temporary home of a friend from French classes back in Berkeley, along with another friend from that class, along with spouses and traveling companions.  A large and comfortable apartment, champagne and getting acquainted, and we were off to dinner around the corner.  

La Ferme Saint Simon has been there for years and years but we've never tried it.  With two new young chefs, a husband from Argentina and a wife from Japan, the food is excellent and inventive, the wine list wide-ranging and not too pricey, the service warm if a bit disorganized, and the experience very pleasant.  Dining par hazard in Paris with a group of folks from Berkeley...who would have thought it?

We realized yesterday that we have exactly one more month here and there are things to do, other than our usual hanging around.  Lots of museum expos, for one thing.  This afternoon we go to the Musée Luxembourg, just up the street.  Gotta get me some culture, you know.  Bracketed by café sitting of course.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Day's Worth of Looking and Eating

Delicate, aren't they, these ruffles?  Hard to believe they're ceramic.

As is this lovely undulating form.  Just a couple of the photos I was obsessively taking at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs exhibition this week.  The museum invited a number of important French interior designers to each select a piece from the collections of the museum and build a room around it.

Some of the spaces were wonderful, some merely odd, but virtually all were treated as if money were no object.  Walls of marble or metal or layered glass or precious woods, floors of onyx, furniture representing the annual earnings of a bourgeois family.  

The lighting and art were spectacular.  I wouldn't have lived in any of these rooms on a bet, but they were super to look at.

We also made our usual pilgrimage to Merci, the "concept store" on the border between the Marais and the Bastille (can't get any hipper than that), where the designer of the month or season or whatever the designated time period is was a woman from Los Angeles who hand dyes fabric to make clothes.  The large center space was filled with what looked like drying Victorian lingerie.

But one of our primary reasons for going that morning was the breakfast.  Some years ago we discovered that the absolute best things to have for breakfast in Paris were the oeufs a la coque at the bookstore café at Merci.  Perfectly cooked and served with toast fingers made of delicious bread served with Normandy butter, fabulous.  Add freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and a grand creme and heaven has been achieved.

And then you can shop.  

Monday, October 6, 2014


Well, you wake up one morning and suddenly you are in another season.  I knew it was coming but I don't remember ever before noticing such a drastic shift between summer (extended, admittedly) and fall.  We had been having a glorious Indian summer, absolutely T-shirt weather and bright sun on Saturday and on Sunday morning we were scrambling for the sweaters and scarves.  Oh well, I guess it had to happen.

It's been busy, with our friend Lisa still here for a few days when we returned from Italy and Paulette arriving over the weekend with Donna from The Hague.  Their first stop was the Porte de Vanves flea market on Saturday morning and we went along for the company.

I think I've lost my taste for digging around on overladen tables of junk for my particular treasure, but Gene did find a small 19th century watercolor of a ruined church in Calvados.  Quite nice.  

Prices seemed way to high in general.  These clock faces at 10 Euros? Puh-lees!

Sunday morning started with a demonstration at the Place de la Republique, in favor of allowing gay parents and would-be parents all the rights of straight ones.  As of 2013 gay marriage and adoption became legal in France but some additional rights are still limited, among them the right to in vitro fertilization for lesbians.  

Having planned to meet our friends Liz and Marcos and their adorable toddler at the manif, we found them, listened to a few speeches, were interviewed for French radio (I have no idea if or when that might be heard) and went merrily off for brunch.  A very French morning.  What's a visit to Paris without  a manif?

Next stop was meeting Paulette and Donna in the Marais for some shopping and a coffee at the newly opened Carreau du Temple, an old metal and glass marketplace that had fallen on hard times and was recently revamped by the city as a community center with theater, café, etc.  Le Jules is a visually interesting café in a corner of the old building, and as it was, as I mentioned, suddenly quite cold we were happy to go indoors.

Sunday afternoons in Paris are liveliest in the Marais, one of the only areas with stores open for business on Sunday.  The center of the neighborhood is car-free on Sundays and the streets are typically thronged. Yesterday there were fewer stores than usual open, probably because it was the day after Nuit Blanche, the night the city puts on events all night long and many people never manage to get to bed.  We were not among them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Settling Back In

The California state absentee ballots above may not be what you expect to see on a blog post from Paris, and they weren't what we expected to see in our mailbox when we returned from Italy late Saturday night, but there they were.  We had completely forgotten that we had asked for absentee ballots to be sent here for the 2012 election and we had never rescinded that request.  Voilà! We can vote in November after all.

So what have we been doing since we got back?  Looking through my photo stream I notice way too many pictures of food.  Our meals have been so pretty I haven't been able to resist the bad habit of shooting them before digging in.  Here are a few:

A lovely sunny lunch in the Marais at Carette consisted of huge salads along with the people watching in the Place des Vosges.

At le Comptoir with Lisa on Sunday night, a special of pavé of veal and a bottle of delicious Brouilly.

At Café Trama on rue du Cherche Midi Gene had the boeuf tartare he couldn't resist when he saw it on the next table.

Lisa had a delicious octopus salad.

And I had a soupe de pistou.

Moving from one meal to the next, we had wine and a couple of small plates at Frenchie Wine Bar as a farewell to Lisa who was flying home at an ungodly hour of the morning.  This might be the prettiest burrata ever.

And I've never before seen a zucchini flower done like this:

Hard as it is to believe we do occasionally eat at home, where the fare is usually much simpler, a salad, some charcuterie and even occasionally an unadorned piece of fish.  Nothing worthy of having its picture taken.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Italian Countryside Idylls

We've visited the Val d'Orcia several times and never tired of it, and this time we are staying smack in the middle of it, in a villa rented by friends who kindly invited us for the week.  The villa is one and a half kilometers down a dirt road between Pienza and San Quirico d'Orcia and looks out on rolling hills crowned with other villas and farmhouses.

We've hung out at home and made excursions in the area.  A couple of days ago we drove to Siena, which has the most extraordinary cathedral I've ever seen, a fantasia of different colored marble on the floors and walls and the instantly recognizable stripes of the exterior, which are repeated inside.

Driving at night is not a lot of fun, no lights, winding roads, wine-influenced drives.  I've preferred the evenings when we all cooked at home, sipping and talking into the night.  We've had a wide range of weather these last days, from heat enough to tan by the pool to shivering cold to winds that blew the outdoor umbrellas 100 yards across the fields.  Yesterday we went into Pienza for lunch and a bit of a walk in the moderate rain.  This morning is bright and sunny and feels like fall.

This is the country and the country comes with animals.  I don't begrudge the field mice their attempts to join us indoors, but our fellow guest who sleeps on the first floor of the villa is less sanguine.  She prefers not to share her room with the critters and has moved to the bed in the loft.  Height from the ground doesn't seem to deter the small scorpions who also live here, one of which was found crossing the floor of our hosts bedroom the other day.  I've been shaking my shoes out before putting them on.

We have another couple of days here before going back to Paris.  There is a strike of airport workers scheduled on our travel day but theoretically it will be over before our scheduled flight.  Theoretically.