Saturday, May 31, 2014

Maybe It's Summer After All

It's  the second sunny morning in a row and although I don't expect it to last, it feels really good.  The forecast this week is up and down, with a storm expected on Wednesday, but the following week looks good, and summer may be a-comin' in, lhud sing goddamn.  (Although for Pound it was winter. One of those lines of poetry that, once learned in school, sticks in the memory no matter what else goes. Forgive me, the sun is making me giddy.)

We've ramped up our activities a bit, having had dinner with several different friends and lunches with others.  Our first dinner out was at Les Enfants Rouges, a new restaurant in the Marais, a choice made by B. who lives near there.  What she didn't know was that the chef is an old acquaintance of ours whom we met when he worked behind the counter at Avant Comptoir, our St-Germain hangout.  He was quickly promoted by Yves Camdebourde to cook at the Relais de Comptoir and six months ago opened his own restaurant with his wife running the front of the (very small) house.  They've received good reviews and even a mention in the NY Times.  Dinner was excellent and it was good to see him.

Lunch yesterday on the terrasse of Mini Palais before the Monumenta exhibition was super. It's a gorgeous space  in the corner of the Grand Palais.  Huge columns supporting the roof many feet overhead make you feel as if you're lounging in a painting by one of those 19th century English painters who reproduced their own version of antiquity, someone like Alma-Tadema.  Except for the foie gras. Mmmm.

Monumenta itself was boring. The overwhelming feeling we all had was that the money must have dried up and what was produced were maquettes for what the original idea had been.  There was little attempt to really use the enormous volumes of the Grand Palais, which is the point of this annual exhibition.  B. told me that last year Monumenta was cancelled on budgetary grounds.  Maybe this year's version should have been as well.

Since today is Saturday and sunny, we're heading off to the flea market at Clignancourt, one of the wonders of the shopping world.  Not a flea market as we understand it, it's a huge collection of antique and bric-a-brac shops under the same few roofs, some extraordinarily expensive, some reasonable and a few, very few, real bargains.  As someone who shrieks with joy when I pass an antique shop on a country road, it's heaven for me.

We've actually bought some things in the past, when the dollar was significantly stronger than it is now, but looking is fun nonetheless.  Any real shopping is best done on the other end of town at the Porte de Vanves flea market where goods are laid out on tables and blankets along the sidewalk and bargains can be found at the end of the day when vendors would rather not repack their goods.

Photos are at

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Not Too Arty

Maybe it's because we saw so much art in Italy, but we haven't yet rushed off to visit art museums here in Paris.  That is not to say we haven't gone to museums, we have, but the definition of museum seems to take in a numbere of other categories if things to view.

A quick perusal of what's available to see turned up a couple of things that are nearing the end of their tenure here.  Our first visit was to the Musée Galliera, the fashion museum that is open only for special exhibitions.  It was entirely closed for years, the result of a budget shortfall I was told, but the relatively recently appointed director has mounted several exhibitions in recent years.

This one was a retrospective of fashion photography in Condé Nast magazines from early in the 20th century to now.  Although interesting I was glad I hadn't gone out of my way to see it.  The building itself is lovely, opposite the Palais de Tokyo on Avenue President Wilson.  And so lunch at the restaurant there, Tokyo Eats, was necessary, right?  Surprisingly good and inexpensive. Go if you're in the area.

Our next not-really-art exhibit was the Orient Express at the Insitut du Monde Arabe.  In the entry court are several restored carriages that at one time belonged to the Compagnie Wagon-Lits, which operated the incredibly lavish trains running across Europe from London to Istanbul and parts of the Middle East from the early days of the 20th century until WW II.  These trains transported royalty and the simply rich in great style and served as the location for many a book and film, most particularly Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" which the curators have used to great effect here, setting up the berths to remind viewers of the famous mystery.  They have also set the tables in the dining car to reflect famous passengers including Mata Hari, Graham Greene and Josephine Baker.  The newspapers tossed casually on the tables have videos instead of photos on the front pages, reflecting the events of the time.  It's very well done and the exhibition continues inside the Institut with many more items and pictures and memoribilia.

Yesterday we aimed for the Luxembourg Gardens and the fence surrounding them which is often the setting for photographic exhibits on particular themes.  This being the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the large photos are of locations where that war was fought as they appear today.  Many are aerial shots and it's incredible to see the scars of trench warfare and underground bombing still so clearly visible.  In addition, I tend to forget that the war covered much more territory than the fields of Flanders. It extended to Central Europe, Greece, Palestine and other parts of the Ottoman Empire.  No limit on the killing fields.

It sounds callous as I write it, but after a break for lunch (a recurring theme to our days that you may have noticed) we went down the street to the Musée Luxembourg for an exhibition about Napoleon's Empress Josephine, a woman who wound up far from her childhood home as a planter's daughter in Martinique.  She was an interesting woman and, according to the commentary, one generally thought intelligent, charming and kind.  She also had a jones for jewels.  What is shown here is miniscule based on the size of the cabinet in the exhibit.  It's the size of a large armoire.  A very large armoire.

Later this week we plan to visit the Grand Palais to see this year's Monumenta.  Every year an artist of international reputation is invited to mount an exhibition taking advantage of the enormous volume of the nave of the structure.  In the past the artists have included Anish Kapoor, Anselm Keifer and Christian Boltanski.  This year is a couple, originally Russian, named Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, about whom I know nothing.  We have however seen every Monumenta since the beginning except for last year when we were not in Paris, so we're gonna see this one, by golly!  Whether we like the particular  installation or not, the attempt by each artist to make use of the huge space is worth seeing.

Oh, just so you know, we have reservations for lunch at the Mini Palais, just next door.  No point in changing our habits.

Photos are at

Monday, May 26, 2014

Variations on a Theme

We are staying in a neighborhood that we have stayed in before so it's not entirely new to us, but it's been more than five years I think, and it has changed a lot.  Rue Montorgeuil was once the market street of a populaire neighborhood, now it's the main artery of a popular one.  The first meant working class, the second means what the French call bobogentrified.  

There are still a couple of butchers, a couple of fishmongers, a few cheese shops, green grocers and small supermarkets.  The hardware store is hanging on by its nails.  Every other storefront has become a café, a restaurant or an ethnic takeout shop.  There's a Starbucks on the corner, a Pain Quotidien down the way, a Paul bakery and an Eric Kayser.  There's a good florist and a chain florist.

Around the corner is Frenchie, a restaurant that became so popular when it opened that they stopped taking phone reservations; you had to go there to talk to them because they were too busy to answer the phone.  When it opened a few years ago Frenchie was alone on a sketchy block in the garment district.  Today the restaurant has a wine bar across the street and an upscale American style takeout next door.  The block has a butcher shop that was recommended to me by one of the few genuine gourmets I know and a green grocer that supplies many of the best new restaurants in Paris. 

Going north from there the small wholesale clothing storefronts have disappeared, replaced by bars full of what passes for hipsters in Paris, and good-looking cafés with "modern" menus.  I imagine this is happening in most major cities, but it's startling to me how quickly it's occurred.  We are within easy walking distance of the Marais, where the same thing happened even earlier.  And in St-Germain des Pres, our last neighborhood, the one we feel is "ours", it happened 30 years ago.  Plus ça change...

We of course haven't changed a bit.

Friday, May 23, 2014

There are Only 100 People in the World, Right?

A couple of nights before we left Florence we went to a bar on the top floor of a hotel on the Arno to see the view and watch the sunset.  It was a really good idea as Florence isn't a very tall city and on the 6th floor you have a lovely view in all directions.

While we were trying to take a reasonable selfie of the two of us, a man at the next table offered to take our picture, we thanked him and thought no more of it.  The following day we went to Obikà, a 'mozzarella bar' (I know, I know) for lunch and at the next table was the same guy.  Naturally we talked and discovered that he was Parisian, he was in Florence for work and his store in Paris is within blocks of our current apartment.  We also learned that he had recently met a cook who works at Verjus in Paris, the restaurant and wine bar of our friends Braden and Laura.  Small world, right? We exchanged contact info and went our separate ways.

A couple of days ago we found ourselves walking down a central street of the neighborhood and did a double take when we saw him standing in the doorway of what turned out to be his shop.  Bises, nice to see you, etc. and we decided it must mean we should get a drink together that evening, and where else but Verjus?

The evening was fun, we said goodnight, we'll be in touch, you call us, we'll call you, etc.

The next morning we left our apartment in the rain and nearly ran into him walking past our building.

I swear we're not stalking him.  Either we are meant to be BFFs or we're being stalked ourselves.

Paris really is a small town.

Photos are at

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Back in Paris, Damp and Happy

Be careful what you wish for, they say, you just might get it.  We've been looking forward to getting back to Paris and here we are.  Along with the rain.  Lots of rain.

The forecast for the next two weeks is pretty much the same, rain interspersed with thunderstorms, with the occasional overcast day to shake things up.  So we're taking it easy for now.

We arrived yesterday, were met at the apartment by our friend I.'s amazing mother, slim, beautifully dressed and appearing 15 years younger than her 86 years.  We had met years ago and she looks like she hasn't aged a day.  These Frenchwomen really do have the secret.  After letting us in and giving us the keys she jumped on the metro and went back across town to her own home after the obligatory bises.  Now that's the way to age.

We dashed out between the raindrops to pick up French SIM cards for the phones since mine had expired by ONLY 3 DAYS!!  Yes, I'm shouting. All my fault though, since apparently I had miscounted. The closest phone shop was in the Les Halles shopping center.  I think if some of those paintings of the Last Judgement we had seen in Italy need updating, Forum les Halles could do well for a model. A very good replica of hell in my opinion.

Stopping on rue Montorgeuil on the way back to do some grocery shopping, we were told by every vendor how lovely the weather had been the day before.  Just like summer, they said.  And looked sadly out the door at the pouring rain.   We had our usual good time with I. when she came over last night to give us an update on how to use the appliances, etc.  That took about 10 minutes.  The rest of the time we drank wine and laughed.  So nice to see her again.

So we've got some food, we've got a means of communication, and we have some dates lined up with friends.  Reading a book in the cozy apartment in the middle of Paris while the rain beats on the windows? Priceless.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Firenze Frenzy

This is the most exhausting relaxed trip I've ever taken.  It's been a long time since we moved around as much as we have been for the last month.  I don't know what I was thinking planning this little jaunt.  "Oh sure, let's go to four places in six days in England and to make it interesting let's drive a car on the wrong side of the road!"  Brilliant planning, right? Worthy of Napoleon, right? Maybe his Russian campaign.

Ok, so England was a mistake.  Italy will be relaxing, right? A week here, a week there, we're in no hurry.  Oops, we forgot the compulsion to peek into every church, see every museum, walk every street.  Luckily we have an apartment again in Florence or we would be eating every meal at some carefully researched restaurant.  These evenings we're so wiped we scratch together some sausage and cheese and bread and call it dinner, anything to avoid putting our tired swollen feet back into our shoes and go out once again onto those mean streets.

Enough kvetching for the moment.  Florence is great.  It's been about 6 years since we were here last and we really didn't like it then.  Crowded, dirty, graffiti-plagued, it was far from the city we had loved in our early travel years.  But since we had loved it we wanted to give it another chance and rented this little apartment out of the tourist-thick center. It's a longer walk to what we want to visit (remember those aching feet), but feels real, with families in the building and a park up the street.

The city has changed, and for the better.  It's not only that we are on a quiet edge of the town but that the city itself is more pleasant.  Cars have been substantially banned from the historical center, graffiti is less evident, the streets seem cleaner.  I don't know if the young ex-mayor deserves the credit, but if so, good for Italy, since he's the recently elected new Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, we've visited several museums, of which the Bargello has been the best, and multiple churches, and walked miles of streets.  I've had enough pasta to last me for years and I'm ready to have restaurants dress my salads for me.  And can someone explain why good bread appears to be impossible to find?

Paris, here we come.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Viva Bologna, No Baloney

It's always a pleasure to discover something unexpected and lovely.  That's how we feel about Bologna.  I had done very little research and decided to play it by ear so it was a great pleasure to discover this vibrant and beautiful city that looks like a combination of Milan and Florence but feels very different than either of them.

We had booked into a hotel only steps from the historical center and began to wander what we thought would be quiet Sunday streets. Instead we found active pedestrian areas with buildings supported on arcades sheltering bars and caffès along with boutiques and lots and lots of food markets.  Many of these have prepared foods to eat at tables there or to take home.  This would be a great city to have a kitchen in.  Bologna is called "la Grassa", "the Fat", because of its reputation as a city that appreciates its food and we can attest to that.  It's known for its tortellini, its mortadella, its Bolognese sauce, and we're determined to do it justice.  Luckily we only have three days here.

On Sunday afternoon and evening there were a lot of people of all ages strolling what I think must be a regular passeggiata among the buildings painted in a range of earth colors and looking up we saw carved heads, frescos of animals, worn paintings and signs and historical markers.  It feels elegant and homey at the same time.

Apparently Bologna suffered a lot of bomb damage during WW II but much was reconstructed to look like it had before.  In a few places where modern buildings had been inserted they were not very successful, unfortunately.

Unlike Venice and even unlike Florence, this seems to us to be a city with reasons for existence other than tourism.  It appears to be relatively wealthy, like Milan, but more vibrant, maybe because it's a university town with many young people.  We came across some wonderful sites, particularly the Archiginassio, the combined faculties of the first iteration of the University of Bologna, in what I think was the 15th century.  A gorgeous building covered in frescos and memorials, it contains a working library for students as well as the original theater where anatomy was taught using cadavers. The marble center table remains, surrounded by wooden benches, carved walls and a canopy  supported by wooden figures of flayed bodies.  I know it sounds gruesome but it isn't at all, just fascinating.

Photos are at

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tintoretto, Titian and Tiepolo, Not to Mention Veronese

No, they are not the named partners of a law firm, as I'm sure you know.  These are the guys who spent many years busily painting frescoes and canvases all over the churches and palazzi of Venice, walls, ceilings, anything that would hold paint.  It's probably quite possible to spend months wandering through the multiplicity of churches and scuole and still not see all that's there to be seen by these big names of the quattrocento.  And that's not even including all the pieces in the actual museums.

There are others as well, of course, some quite wonderful, like Fumiani, the guy whose ceiling in our local church of San Pantalon is called the largest ceiling painting in the world, which may be true since it is on canvas, not fresco.  Although I think he's later.  The ceiling is super though, and as far as I'm concerned it was worth doing, even if he died falling off his scaffold.  Accidents happen.

In any case, we were enormously impressed by the Tiepolo ceiling of the Scuola Grande dei Carmini, and the incredible stucco work of putti and angels on the stairs leading to them.  And because we loved it so much last time, we visited again the church of San Sebastiano, entirely painted by Paolo Veronese.  It was his parish church and he's buried there.

What may not be as well known to people visiting Venice is the amount of contemporary art to be seen, mostly as a result of François Pinault's two museums, Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana.
This French billionaire took offense when France wasn't willing to give him what he wanted to house his collections and took himself off to Venice, where we saw a couple of interesting shows at the Palazzo Grassi, The Illusion of Light and an Irving Penn photography exhibition.  The palazzo's shell remains intact and the spectacular ceilings are generally visible, but the art shows beautifully in the space.  The other of Pinault's museums, Punta Della Dogana, is housed in the old customs house at the point of the Grand Canal.  Here the spaces are enormous and the largest pieces are shown to advantage.

Tomorrow we leave for Bologna.  Everyone to whom we mention it mentions the food.  Since the best food in Venice is very fresh but often quite plain fish, spaghetti Bolognese sounds great.

Photos at

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Feet, Don't Fail Me Now

We've been here five days and except for our arrival from the airport we have gone everywhere on foot. Of course, you may be saying, it's Venice, there are no cars. Well, yes, I noticed.

But what I mean is that we have yet to take a vaporetto or a gondola or a water taxi, or any form of transportation other than what used to be called shank's mare (don't ask me why, that's what Google is for).  And my feet are feeling it.  I think we must be logging four or five miles a day, up and down bridges, over canals, through tunnels, along quays.  We've been in all six sestiere, and there are very few straight lines. Luckily there are bars and caffès, so we stay well hydrated.  Prosecco for 3 euros!

Gene has been commenting on how inexpensive it has been to drink and snack all over town.  It's rarely more than 8 euros for a couple of drinks and a plate of cichetti.  Unfortunately that often means standing up, as many of these places don't bother with seating.  You pop in, down a glass of something and a bite of something else and move on.  We've been frequenting a wine bar called Cantinone giá Schiavi, on a canal near here where customers can take their glasses and plates outside, lean on the parapet, and hang out.  The only drawback is that no one behind the bar has ever cracked a smile as far as we can tell.  Maybe they charge extra for that.

On the other hand, people can be extraordinarily nice. Yesterday at the Cantinone we began talking with an Italian family visiting from Lake Garda, grandparents, parents and an adorable 10 month old bambina.  They wanted to know all about San Francisco.  Was it really like that old TV show, The Streets of San Francisco? Were all the streets steep?  How long did it take to fly from there?  What's the weather like? How did we like Italy?  Where else were we going in Italy?  They were warm and generous, insisting on buying us more drinks despite our protest that we'd had enough.

And an odd story: several years ago while we were living in Paris we visited Milan and at dinner there got into a long  conversation with a Venetian couple visiting their son at school in Milan.  We exchanged phone numbers and promptly forgot about it.  Cleaning out my travel wallet I came across Patrizio's name and number and Gene encouraged me to call.  I reached the wife, who clearly didn't remember me from Eve but told me her husband was in Spain on business and wouldn't be back until we left.  OK, too bad.  Except that wasn't the end.

Yesterday my cellphone rang and a man's voice said  "hello, it's Patrizio."  I was stunned. His wife had told him I had called, he said, and of course he remembered us, mentioning the name of the restaurant in Milan where we had met, and he very much wanted to see us and were we free for dinner the night he got back to Venice, the night before our departure ?  He would come straight from the airport to meet us.  I demurred, he insisted.  We seem to be having dinner.  Gotta love these Italians.

Photos at

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Venice, another day

Our apartment, which by the way I love more and more, is just a few doors from a pasticceria called Tonolo, one of the best in town apparently, and luckily for us.  Closed when we arrived yesterday, it was jam packed this morning but we sidled up to the bar and we're waited on by a smiling woman who made an excellent cappuccino and gave me what's known as a brioche.

Now this is much closer to a French croissant than to a French brioche but not exactly like either one.  Italians seem to like their breakfast pastries much sweeter than either we or the French do so I was pleased to overhear an Italian woman asking for a savory pastry. Tomorrow it'll be the one with prosciutto and cheese rather than honey inside.

Properly fortified, we went off to try to find the Fenice opera house with the idea we might buy tickets to La Boheme for this Saturday.  Although the route seemed relatively straightforward on the map, or as straightforward as is possible on a Venetian map, we managed to get lost twice and make a stop in several churches and a music museum along the way.  My kind of sight-seeing.

One can take an audio guided tour of La Fenice for a few euros. One cannot buy a ticket for Saturday's performance for less than 165 euros. We chose the tour.  It's a lovely auditorium, nearly as tall as it is wide, but the virtually exact reproduction that opened after the fire of 1998 was a missed opportunity for the modern audience, as many of the seats have either partially or totally blocked sight lines.  If all you want to do is hear the music, there are seats available for as little as 15 euros. Although not this Saturday, even if we wanted them.

A stop for pizza and a coffee in Campo San Barnaba and we passed for the second time today the vegetable boat pulled up next to the Ponte dei Pugni.  On all my previous visits this boat was operated by two brothers who looked like twins except that one smiled and the other didn't.  This time there are new people and it all looks a bit more upscale.  I gathered my courage and asked the woman sweeping up whether there hadn't been two brothers, twins, running the boat some years ago.  Not twins, she replied, and three brothers,  not two, who had retired .  She and her husband had taken over two years ago.  Nothing special, right, just confirming my recollection, but I have to admit I'm proud because we conducted this little conversation in Italian!

I've been studying Italian since December, hoping to be able to use it on this visit, but I wasn't sure how much would stick from the once a week lessons.  So far so good.  Except for the times I've stumbled over the simplest words in the simplest of situations.  I only tell you about the good parts.

Photos are at

Monday, May 5, 2014

Water, water everywhere and only vino to drink

We splurged on a water taxi from Marco Polo airport and roared across the lagoon on a gorgeous sunny day with the tower of Saint Mark's coming ever closer.  The apartment representative met us and a few turns later our bags were up two flights of stairs and we were in our home for the next week.

Searching for a Venice apartment wasn't easy.  The online choices ranged from ugly to expensive and finally I chose to go with an agency that had lots of choices and good reviews.  So far? Good choice.

We are in a corner flat overlooking a narrow canal and bridge. There are tons of windows and the lights are bright, the bath and kitchen are modern and work, the bed is comfortable and nothing is painful to the eye.  We're thrilled.  Not only that, it's very centrally located without being at all in the tourist center.  I seem to have pulled off the hat trick.

Today was mostly housekeeping, i.e. getting SIM cards for the phones, discovering that one phone was locked and the card wouldn't work thus necessitating the purchase of a new phone, buying some basic groceries, dropping in on a Venetian friend of a friend and having a long laughing conversation in a combination of French, Italian and a bit of English, finding a dry cleaner for a stained sweater, etc.  We were nowhere near any of the major sights; we haven't yet laid eyes on Piazza San Marco or the Rialto bridge, we got lost twice, had several glasses of wine and a few cichetti, and some coffee.  Life is good.

Photos are at

Friday, May 2, 2014

Oxford, at Long Last

Never having been a fan of London, finding Bath middling OK and barely managing to survive the country roads of the Cotswolds, I assumed we were simply not Anglophiles.  Harry Potter has never appealed. To be fair to the Cotswolds we thought Upper and Lower Slaughter wonderful and Burford quite nice; extending fairness to books there's Jane Austen of course, Anthony Trollope who I've recently discovered I like a lot, and a few others, naturally.  But in general? Give me the Continent every time.

Until Oxford.  I was about to say until our arrival in Oxford, but that arrival goes under the heading of "Do Not Drive in England" about which the less said the better.  Once rid of that damned car the city shone.  The buildings are magnificent, the shops cute but not cloying, the colleges stunning, the people warm and kind.

Christ Church College was our first stop, where a kindly porter let us enter despite the "No Visitors" sign. It really is like all the movies and TV shows, but it's not a stage set, it's a living place.  The students all over, the mix of locals and tourists, the scale of a small town but the activities of a city.  It's a very pleasant place to be, even in the rain that accompanied our first day.

So far we've visited the Bodleian Library, St. Mary the Virgin University Church, Magdalen College, Christ Church, and wandered a few streets. Lunch at The Bear, possibly the oldest pub in Oxford, two tiny low-ceilinged rooms where we shared a table with a couple of old dons under a massive collection of cut-off neckties, each labeled with the college, school or regiment of its previous owner.

We heard a boy's choir sing evensong in the Cathedral. And at dinner last night we sat quite near Lawrence Fox, the actor who plays Sergeant Hathaway on the Inspector Lewis TV series.  All this and celebrities too!

Remember, photos are at