Archive for March, 2009
Just found one more picture from Paris that was taken on my phone, and therefore left out of the blog entries and the full set of pictures. Me in Luxembourg Gardens the day we arrived:
A few more links to add to yesterday’s entry:
For a good dose of some serious–and yet understandable–discussion of economics, you can do a lot worse than checking in daily with Nouriel Roubini. A serious mind, but not an “Important Person”–i.e. he’s the real deal but keeps his media appearances tight and to the point. But be warned: He is not predicting a quick turnaround. Unfortunately, he’s been right so far.
Do you know anyone who works in the investment industry? Do you know anyone who works in the restaurant industry? Well, if you’re concerned about your banker friends and their diminished status in today’s social economy, I wouldn’t worry about them too much. After all, their salaries likely increased by 97% from 1992 to 2007, while our poor friends–and by poor I mean poverty-level–who work in the restaurant industry saw their salaries increase by, um, 2%.
Finally, do you ever go to Flickr and just type some random word in the search file. It’s always totally bizarre. Try slap or wow or shhh and you can see lots of interesting pictures, like this (“slap”) or this (“wow”) or this (“shhh”).
• New Willie Nelson album–Willie and the Wheel–has ol’ Willie doing old-time Texas Swing with the band Asleep at the Wheel. It’s wonderful.
• If you want to see what a solid progressive solution to the economic crisis looks like, start here. James Galbraith is thinking big. Really big. Here’s one key quote that shows that this article is calling for deep, lasting change–not a restoration of the economy to its pre-crash staus: “No one should imagine that the swaggering, bank-driven world of high finance and credit bubbles should be made to reappear.” The plan put forward in this article will never happen, but it should.
• Some progress is being made at the World Trade Center. ‘Bout time.
• Fiona Carswell is fascinating. She is an artist/designer in San Francisco and New York. Check out her highly conceptual projects, like a bikini that shows its own malignant moles after it’s exposed to the sun. Hat tip to Apartment Therapy for pointing Carswell out to me.
• I’m looking for a mirror for above my mantle. My god they’re expensive. In my internet-based mirror hunting, I found this amazing vendor–The Mirror Lady–who has about 20 different mirrors I love. I’ve got my eye on this one, but the price is a bit much for me in my newfangled domestic mode. We’ll see….
• Adrienne turned me on to this food blog–Ugly Food for an Ugly Dude–which I think is terrific. Wry and funny and sweet.
Have you seen the new Beyoncé video for Diva? I gotta have some sunglasses like that!
• And finally, I am still extremely pleased that the adults are back in charge of the government:
We started our last day with another tartine and coffee near the Odeon Metro stop. The train took us to the 13th, to the famous catacombs. What a strange, jaw-dropping experience we had there. We were a bit stupid about finding it, though. The guidebooks were vague about where to find the entrance, so when we emerged from the Metro we turned to an on-street map, and I turned on my phone to Google Maps. When we finally picked our heads up and looked around we discovered it was directly across the intersection where we were standing. So much for cartography and technology.
We laughed off our idiocy and got on the line to enter. After a long narrow spiral staircase down into the quarry, we came to a very long “gallery”–a narrow stone tunnel winding up and down and left and right, leading deeper and deeper under Paris. Eventually we came to the ossuary where the de-interred have found their final rest. It is hard to describe what lies within. As you begin the journey through the caverns of the dead, you are shocked by the sight of hundreds of bones piled five feet high, filling a small room. The bones hold themselves in place with walls made of tibias and femurs, punctuated by skulls. Everything is dark and dim and dank. Your gravelly footsteps echo in the silence. And then you continue on around a corner to see another grouping of small rooms of bones. Some have monumental plaques of poetic or religious texts. Some are walled off with geometric arrangements of skulls. Some simply have the bulbous ends of tibias and femurs piled from floor to ceiling in a macabre geometry of sockets and plugs. And then you continue on around a corner to see another grouping of rooms or a long corridor of bones. Some sections are more brightly lit, so you back up from them to take a picture and back into another wall of bones. And then it just keeps going–another cross monument in another grouping of rooms of bones, another circular section of walls of femurs, another corner around which death lurks like the darkness itself. This lifeless, lightless repetition takes on longer rhythms, more time, more remains of actual humans–lives piled up like kindling. Soon you are overwhelmed. Suddenly somehow you’ve just viewed the skeletal detritus of tens of thousands of people–it’s absolutely harrowing. The ceiling is damp and dripping water, the sound of which gives the place an eerie soundtrack, your footsteps still shuffling in the gravel. The weight of so much death holds you otherwise silent. And after room after room after room of this, finally you emerge from the ossuary to the long stone corridor leading out. You ascend 80 steps on another tight stone spiral staircase, open your bag for a guard to prove you didn’t steal any bones, and pop out into the Parisian sunlight.
The exit from the catacombs is blocks away from the entrance. You’d think there’d be a sign directing you back, but you’d be wrong. We found ourselves in the middle of a sidestreet and had to guess which direction to head. We guessed right, luckily, and found a little spot for a late-morning coffee.
We got back on the train and headed to the Place d’Italie. Megan had recommended an artisanal honey store called Les Abeilles, in the 13th. It was in a cute little neighborhood with little shops and lots of families milling about and running Saturday errands. Les Abeilles is a tiny store, filled with little jars of honey and lorded over by a gruff, burly man who seemed to resent having to speak English–which he did with perfect fluency–with us. When Stephanie tasted a chestnut-infused honey she said, “Oh that’s delicious.” The shopkeeper refused the compliment with a shrug, “The bees don’t know how to make bad honey.” Ah. I bought a small jar of eucalyptus honey for Patsy, and some nougat and suckers for the office. On the way back to the Metro we stopped at a corner patisserie. We shared a delicious savory cheese pocket and a long stick of dough filled with chocolate. Scrumptious.
We returned to the Place St. Sulpice to go to another patisserie, the famed Pierre Hermé. I bought 25-euros-worth of macaroons–12 little ones and 1 big one (which I ate for breakfast the next morning on the plane).
Next stop was L’Artisan Parfumeur on the Boulevard Raspail. It’s another branch of the store we had visited in the Marais, and having now tested some of the testers, Stephanie was ready for a perfume purchase. She bought a fancy fig-scented perfume, and I bought a couple of scented candles as gifts. We were both charmed by the sweetness of the salesgirl who tried in vain to correct our horrid pronunciation of everything in the store.
Having loved Midi-Vins so much the previous night, we decided to return for lunch. The proprietors were delighted to see us and we sat at the the same table as we had the night before. The place was packed with neighborhood families, with gorgeous children of every age scattered throughout the room. I had a huge slab of foie gras to start, followed by a delicious rare steak served in a rich camembert sauce. It was actually the heaviest meal in the world, and while I loved eating it, afterward I felt like it had kicked my ass hard. One more reason to not take a five-day vacation is that you never have time to just eat a light meal on the run–you’re just trying to squeeze in as many gourmet meals as you can. We had, in fact, started referring to ourselves as Those Gluttonous Italian-Americans. Anyway, Stephanie had an all fish lunch: a mackerel filet to begin, served cold with lemon and red onion, then she had a splendid calamari entree. The squid were filleted in long strips then grilled with red and yellow peppers and served in pepper oil and paprika over rice. Freaking delicious. I had a dense, dark chocolate mousse for dessert; Stephanie had a creme caramel. I was in a lunch coma afterward.
We rolled ourselves back to the hotel, then went to the cafe next door to write in our journals. Three extremely attractive young people sat next to us, and intervened on our behalf when the waiter didn’t understand that Stephanie wanted soda with her Campari. As they left they asked where we were from and made small-talk about Atlanta. Who says Parisians are rude? I love Parisians!
After changing our clothes, we set off for the Opera Garnier where we were seeing Paris Opera Ballet. I had bought tickets through a London-based reseller called Keith Prowse and had done it on trust that I wasn’t being scammed for quite a bit of cash. It was fine and I retrieved the tickets from will-call as promised and we entered the grand building and began look around. The opera house is such an over-the-top building–the very definition of gilding the lily. We bought champagne and walked around surveying the environs like we were King and Queen of the World. Once inside the theater we marveled at the excellence of our seats. It’s actually a pretty small house, so any orchestra seat is a good one–but ours were nicely forward and central. Thank you, Keith Prowse.
The ballet itself–Angelin Preljocaj‘s Le Parc–was a mixed affair. The good parts of the work–I’d say 60% of it–were very good. And the bad parts were rather bad. So on the whole, I liked it but didn’t love it. On the good side: the three pas de deux, the group dance in Act I, the costumes, the sets, the music (all Mozart), and the exceptionally high quality of the dancing. The two leads–Delphine Moussin and Yann Bridard–were really terrific and well-suited to one another. In the final pas de deux the two lovers exchange a kiss that literally sweeps the girl off her feet and they twirl around the stage with their lips locked, rotating faster and faster as her legs fly up into the air and he holds her up. It’s a magical moment that was nicely illustrative of the music. The corps seemed very well-rehearsed, with unity and fluidity throughout the performance. The boys seemed particularly flexible, with deep extensions usually reserved for the girls. Among the not-so-great qualities of this evening-length work: long moments of attempted stillness and tension that came off instead as static flatness. Like other Preljocaj works I’ve seen, the lighting for Le Parc consists almost exclusively of very dramatic long-raking horizontal spots, which basically results in never being able to see the dancers’ faces, and the frustration of seeing their bodies move in and out of the light, so you never see a complete gesture or step from start to finish. That may be part of Preljocaj’s choreographic concept, but it’s frustrating and, to me, doesn’t work. And worse, the whole work was very dimly lit (except for the ensemble dances of the first act). It was so dim that afterward I suggested to Stephanie that they should change the name from Le Parc to Le Darc. Anyway, on balance, we liked it, and going to see such high-quality performances is always a pleasure.
And a final note of advice to Paris Opera goers: dress lightly, no matter the weather. The house is very warm and Americans in the audience who are used to air-conditioned halls will find the temperature stifling. In combination with the dim light of this performance I found it soporific.
With the ballet over a bit earlier than expected–due to no intermissions–we arrived at our final dinner of the trip a half-hour early. No matter–the cool professionalism of Macéo is unfazed by such surprises. They seated us right away. Carter and I were sent to this restaurant in the 1st arrondissement four years ago by one of his friends, and it was the best of the many great meals we had. This second visit did not disappoint. The dining room is large, well-proportioned, and brightly lit, with blond wood floors, white walls, and white tablecloths and dinnerware. As last time, the service was excellent: attentive, not friendly, but warmly efficient.
Stephanie ordered the vegetarian menu, wanting to ease up on the heavy meals we’d had all week. On the contrary, I ordered two extremely rich meat dishes. Stephanie began with lentils with red pepper and onion in a lemon vinaigrette, served with a chilled poached egg atop and baby asparagus crowning it all. Her second dish was a curried vegetable ragout, with turnips, parsnips, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and white beans, all in a frothy broth. I started with pressed rabbit that had a strikingly porcine flavor, served with a lightly mayonaissed tuna and a big forkful of mixed greens. Then I had veal shoulder that was very supple and rich. It was huge and served on a bed of shredded cabbage. We both had delicious cheese courses to finish: a smooth roquefort, a nutty camembert, and a dense goat cheese with a melty exterior and wrapped in a gooey herbaceous skin. Mmmmm. Our wine was perfect with the cheese–a medium bodied red (Pierre-Marie Chermette Les Trois: Moulina Vent Roches 2007). We ate leisurely and somewhat quietly in comparison to the yakkity Parisians all around us.
From Macéo we walked to Cafe Ruc for a drink. But after being ignored for too long a time and on realizing that Stephanie had lost an earring, we got up from our table, looked in the street for the earring, which we did not find, and left. We crossed the Pont Des Artes one last time, and retook our seats at the little cafe next door to the hotel. We drank armagnac, marveled at the gorgeous couple to our left who were looking at each other so moonily that surely the whole world must have been in love at that moment. We retired to Room 51 of the Hotel de Buci for one last night. It had been another great day, but twinged with melancholy for being the last.
We packed and checked out early. Sunday morning coming down.
We took a cab to CDG. We were early, got right through security, ate a shitty airport breakfast, and then settled into row 21 of a 757. We entertained ourselves with our seat-back games and movies. I played videoke, watching Singin’ in the Rain with no sound and reciting all the lines myself. We again had the three seats in the row just for the two of us. Nice to travel during a recession. Jack Daniels carried us back to the US in his uniquely American way.
Journal and Jack. All the photos from the trip can be viewed here.)
Paris was everything I expected it to be for this second visit–easy to know on a map, but endlessly soulful and mysterious, with new treasures slowly revealing themselves. It’s beyond beautiful, and it’s so willing and generous as a host. It welcomes you without reticence no matter what part of town, what time of day, or what language you speak. One thing I found funny was that Stephanie relied on me to guide the way through French language communications. Me! Last time, I leaned hard on Carter, and in the opening days of the trip on Beth. But without a better speaker this time my extremely limited tourist French had to suffice. And when you’re relying on it, you try harder. And little things Carter said and little bits of French cinema sometimes would come trickling in like a distant radio broadcast to remind me of a word or a phrase or even just a pronunciation. One of these days I am going to study French.
WARNING: What you are about to read may drive you mad with jealousy. It is a graphic, detailed account of a perfect vacation day. Those with overworked conditions, bad weeks, empty stomachs, or empty souls might wish to avoid this entry.
We actually got our fat American asses out of bed at an early hour this day, and got out of the hotel by 9am. After a quick standing-up coffee at a local cafe, we hopped on the Metro to the Marais, where we sat in a another little cafe for a breakfast of coffee and tartines. After, we walked just a few steps into the Place des Vosges, which was just as beguiling in its winter nakedness as it was when I first saw it in the bloom of late spring. This time, because of the temperature being 40 rather than 70, instead of gorgeous teenagers lounging in the grass, we saw adorable Orthodox Jewish boys running and playing tag. We contemplated the square for a while, its formal symmetries and evenness, its porticoed walkways, its fine bone structure, then strolled back into the Marais’s shop-laden streets.
Stephanie found a perfume shop she’d been seeking, and we spent some time there sniffing samples and flirting with the hipster salesboy. In the end, neither the parfum nor the salesboy left with us.
We had earlier seen a lovely formal garden behind a gate and discovered it was part of the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris. We entered to find a fascinating mix of preserved architecture and paintings, drawings, and models depicting various times and events in the city’s history. It was great to see early models of some of the actual places that we’ve visited, such as St. Sulpice. And the gardens where terrific. Small and well-maintained, they featured boxwood hedges in two shades of green that were sculpted into fleur-de-lis patterns and ringed with flowers and small plants of green and silver. A gardener was there, up on a ladder, getting her trees properly pruned for the coming Spring.
Nearby was the Picasso Museum, and even though it wasn’t one of my favorites from last time, I had to take Stephanie there to view “Paul en harlequin”–a painting we grew up looking at every day as children (a reproduction of it, that is, which Mom and Dad had hanging over the sofa for years). My opinion of the museum was confirmed: it’s really pretty bad. It’s a good example of a weak collection of a major artist being house in a perfect example of how not to reinvent an old building as a new museum. Horrid stained glass squares all over the entryway, and cheap vinyl mirroring hammered onto walls all over the place. Ugh. Still, some of the paintings are great, and it sure is an odd feeling to standing in front of a work like “Paul en Harlequin” and have it vibrate with such intense nostalgia.
We decided that a long walk through the heart of Paris could only be a good thing, so we headed south on rue de Sévigné, toward the rue di Rivoli. We ran smack into the church of St. Paul-St. Louis, and in we went. Wow–what a place–all heavenly light and amazing detailing. Ornate layers of wood-working, iron-working, and multiple layers of varying colors of marble combined to create a bright, dazzling, happy place. Delcroix’s painting of Christ in the Garden was terrific too, and despite that theme’s generally anguished mood, the consoling angels in it are painted with a lightness that made them look very much at home in this bright place.
Speaking of bright places, a pastry shop down the street beckoned us in. I had an apricot pastry and Stephanie had a chocolate-almond croissant as we continued on. Mmmmm.
The sun was shining but the wind was cold, so our jaunt through the center of Paris was brisk. We walked down rue St. Paul to the Quai de Célestins, across the Pont Marie to Ile St. Louis , and headed west on the rue St. Louis en l’ile. I stopped at a children’s shop to buy presents for the Parsons girls (little plates with Barbar and The Little Prince on them!), then we continued across the Pont St. Louis to Ile de la Cité.
We passed behind and around the glorious Notre Dame, aimed toward the Ministry of Justice, and arrived at Saint-Chapelle to find a rather long line, but we waited on it anyway as we really wanted to visit this wonderful church. Even though I’d been there before, there is nothing to prepare you for the beauty you behold upon entering the large upstairs chapel. Stephanie and I both gasped as we emerged from the narrow stone spiral stairwell into the open space of mystical light that pours through the church’s famous stained-glass windows. It’s shocking how much beauty can be held in one simple room. The air was cold as we studied the colored glass, the painted patterns on the walls, the ornate inlays of marble flooring, the sculpted Apostles watching over us. Everything here in this amazing place is aimed at making you believe in God’s power. But for nonbelievers like us it was simply a confirmation of man’s ability to create magic for himself in a myriad of ways. It’s quite moving to see the care that went into the planning, designing, building, and restoration of a church like this, and its sheer beauty is a confirmation of the power of aesthetics to touch people deeply.
Traveling to foreign cities is best done with a long list of recommendations from trusted friends who have gone before. My travels to Europe have been greatly enhanced by advice from Marijane, Carter, Penny, Chistopher Santos, Laura, and Mark and Elizabeth. And now Megan Benett needs to be added to the list. As Stephanie and I sifted through our friends’ recommendations, we had come to refer to one of them as “Megan’s boozy lunch.” She herself emailed these very words:
Comptoir de la Gastronomie: a place we love. It’s an epicerie (pick up your foie gras, your armagnac, your confits in the store portion) but it’s got a yummy restaurant, too. It’s in the 1st, close to the Louvre, so we usually go for a boozy lunch, which I highly recommend!
Well it doesn’t take much to convince my sister and myself to have a boozy lunch! We walked there straight from Saint-Chapelle. It was a warm, welcoming environment. A small dining room packed with tables of Parisians all talking at once. We nabbed the last available table, next to four Italians who were more than holding their own in the talking department. We were also next to a window which provided a view of the best Parisian streetlife I’ve ever seen. Scarves and smoke and furs and bicycles and hair and sunglasses went streaming by in a parade of French style that prompted Stephanie to proclaim she now had a better understanding of French cinema for witnessing this lively display!
The menu was a long list of everything foie gras–served in all kinds of ways. We both ordered salads called “La Gourmande” and a bottle of Bordeaux. Oh my god were these the fattiest salads ever made! Foie gras, duck carpaccio, rich browned duck confit, and a single duck leg piled on top of a nice arugula-based salad with an oily vinaigrette. PERFECT. It was so rich and succulent and we were both over the moon about it. We gulped our wine and talked just as much as the French (and Italians!). For dessert we shared a chocolate fondant–basically a slice of liquid chocolate cake!–which was thick and black and rich. When the waitress cleared our plates and asked us if we wanted coffee, we instead ordered a round of whiskey. For some reason, all over Europe the only bourbon you find in most places is Four Roses–not my favorite. So we were delighted to see Woodford Reserve on the menu here. They came served neat with a single small glass of ice on the side. THANK YOU! We drank it neat, and by the time we got our tipsy selves up out of our chairs, we were the last people in the restaurant.
At the museum, would you believe that despite purposefully going to a different coat check we were again greeted with the snarl of the same harsh woman who had harangued Stephanie the day before! She was up to her old tricks and I walked away as Stephanie pleaded with her to check her bag. No dice–bitch wasn’t budging! Stephanie carried her bag into the galleries, where we saw all the French Paintings, including Le Seur’s big canvasses of the life of St. Bruno that I loved so much last time. Saw many beautiful Delacroixs, and a few Italians thrown into the mix, including a couple of stunning Canalettos. We saw the two huge French sculpture courts, and then the Greek antiquities and sculptures, including the Venus di Milo. She still has no arms.
The Louvre, along with one final terse encounter with that horrid woman from Planet Coat Check as we retrieved our coats, not to mention the boozy lunch that had preceded it, had left us pretty exhausted. So what did we do? We took a mile-long walk up the Champs Élysées! The sun was setting behind the Eiffel Tower as we walked through the Tuileries toward the Place de la Concorde. At the end of the Tuileries we found Richard Serra‘s “Clara Clara,” which I’ve always wanted to see installed there in its original setting. It looked great, and not a small bit daring for Serra to install it where it is–lining itself up with the Concorde’s obelisk and the Arc d’Triomphe at the other end of the Champs Élysées. The work was footprinted and a bit graffitied, but I loved it all the same. And we were just in time to see it–it was de-installed this past week.
Zaza Zaza and Clara Clara. (Entire trip’s-worth of pictures can be viewed here.)
So up the Champs Élysées we marched. The Parisians were getting out of work and all meeting their friends and lovers for rush-hour drinks and kisses. We joined them at Ladurée, the famous tea house with the famous macaroons. What a sweet place! It’s big, but divided into small rooms, and overblown with ornament, and it’s touristy and local at the same time. It’s great. We sat upstairs, and our tea was served in the prettiest little pastel cups and saucers. We both had oolong–Stephanie’s infused with orange, mine with violet. And we both had very French desserts. I had a mille-feuille with anis and salted caramel creams, and Stephanie had a sampling of four small macaroons: salted caramel, chestnut, lemon, and chocolate. Mon dieux! It was a great break after having walked many miles through the day. We took the Metro back to the Louvre stop then rather than transfer trains we walked back to the hotel across the Pont des Arts. It was a chilly night.
Megan did us so right for lunch that we took another of her recommendations for dinner. Midi-Vins is the kind of bistro you see in a Woody Allen movie, the kind of place that makes you feel like you’re well-to-do and carefree and living in Paris. A local place, with an unerring sense of how to make each meal perfect for their guests. First of all, the dark wood, the intimate yellow lighting, and the small L-shaped space make for a warmth and coziness that allows one to totally relax and feel at home. But for all that informal warmth, touches like unique bouquets of lovely flowers of all kinds adorning each table and window sill, and the handsome yellow textured glass in the antique window help to give the place the feel of having just put on its best shirt. The couple (we’re assuming they’re a couple) who operate Midi-Vins could not have been more charming or accommodating. This in spite of the sense you get that not many non-French-speaking tourists end up here. They seemed to love us as much as we loved them.
We started with a glass of champagne, and then moved on to bottle of Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil that our host recommended for with our meals. Stephanie began with a terrine of mixed mushrooms, with a parmesan cream sauce and a poached egg on top! It was the definition of savory. I started with tuna tartare, which was spicy and oniony and tangy with vinegar. We both then had pork ribs that were so supple the bones simply pulled right out, completely cleanly. The port had a sweet balsamic and star-anise buttery sauce that was out of this world. All this was perched on a healthy round of mashed potatoes, which of course were loaded with butter. For dessert I had apple tart, which had a burned-sugar taste that was complemented by the sweet sourness of accompanying fromage blanc drizzled with caramel. Oh my. Stephanie had a classic vanilla creme brulée. After, I had an armagnac and we kept talking and laughing, so happy with our meal.
We took a nice leisurely stroll home and wrote in our journals till we could no longer stay awake. Each day of the trip thus far had been perfect in its way, but this one was simply perfect in every way.
Despite Stephanie’s desire to get an early start on Thursday, she let me sleep until 9am. We began our day with a small breakfast of tartines and coffee in the hood, then attempted to go to the Delacroix Museum–alas they were closed for the week. Merde!
So we walked to the Musée d’Orsay and thrilled ourselves with Delacroixs there. And lots more! This is one of the great museums of the world. I mean, the Louvre is the Louvre and that goes without saying. But this collection of works–broken off from the Louvre’s collection (or more accurately the Musée du Jeu de Paume (on the Louvre grounds)) when the museum was opened in 1986–is so refined and perfect it defies accurate description. It houses late-19th-century through early-20th-century art–mostly French, all of it freakin’ awesome. On this visit I was particularly taken with Henri Fantin-Latour’s group portraits. We saw three paintings that reveal something about the cultural life of the late 1800s: A Studio at Les Batignolles, By the Table, and Homage to Delacroix. In By the Table we see Verlaine and Rimbaud on the left, Rimbaud’s back to the others (turns out that none of the other poets in the painting went on to literary fame at all). It’s great. A few of the big famous Manets the museum owns were not there–must have been traveling–which was a bit disappointing, but there was still so much to see. This museum is to be returned to on every trip to Paris. Period.
We ate lunch at the museum’s beautiful restaurant. We both had leg of lamb served on a bed of bulgar wheat. The meat was succulent and rich. The glorious cheeseplate afterward was verbally approved of by the gentleman at the next table! We had a delicious light Pinot Noir, too.
We broke from High Cultcha to enjoy Le Shopping in the 6th and 7th. The best cheese store–Bérthélemy–was closed for the week. Alas! They must have run off with the staff of the Musée Delacroix for some intramural scarf-knotting competition or something. I found my favorite shoe store, Jean-Baptiste Rautureau, but didn’t fall in love with anything in the moment (though I confess to having pangs of regret in the days since for not paying more attention to these boots). C’est la vie. Next stop was Marcel Lassance, where I DID fall in love, with a cotton sport coat that has a black-and-white flower hand-painted on the lapel. I loved EVERYTHING in the store, actually, but restrained myself by splurging only on the jacket. (No picture of it–you’ll have to join me in NYC for my birthday in June if you want to see it). Next stop: Bon Marché! Stephanie and I split to cover this department store separately, which suited me fine as I was shopping for underwear. Let me just tell you: all American men should do their underwear shopping in Paris. Not only are the cottons softer, but the cuts are better, the colors are more varied, and you can easily have two or three salespeople, as I did, running around snatching boxes of underwear off of various shelves in whatever color and size you ask for. Talk about a stimulus package! I can only imagine what women’s lingerie shopping must be like there!
Having satisfied our urge for foreign retail, we headed to church: first was St. Sulpice, which is huge and gorgeous with three wonderful Delacroix frescos, and is situated on one of the best plazas in the city; then came St. Germain-des-Pres, where we admired the beautifully patterned stained-glass windows. We went back to our conveniently nearby hotel to change, and then it was off once more–to the Bastille for dinner!
The Bastille is so lively and open and bustling and urban. We sat at one of the many cafes lining the huge circular plaza, and we drank two glasses of champagne each (the sweet waitress misheard our absolutely perfect French accents and brought us chablis instead of champagne but that was a glitch that was very quickly corrected!). We were just in time for our 8pm reservation at Bofinger around the corner.
Stephanie at the Bastille. Entire trip’s-worth of pictures can be viewed here.
I had wanted to return to this classic brasserie, as my first visit had been alone and I was shuffled off to a side table–and while I enjoyed my meal immensely I had not really even had a taste of the appealing ambience. So up we went to our nice window table in the upstairs dining room. In fact, ambience is what this place is all about, because while we both enjoyed our meals, it was probably the least memorable of all of our scrumptious dinners. I ordered escargot, which were served in the shell–salty and delicious. Stephanie started with a half-dozen raw oysters (also in the shell. Heh). She followed that with a duck breast served on a bed of cabbage that was shredded and sauteed. I had a filet of beef, cooked rare, with potatoes that were sliced and cooked in a casserole with butter, garlic, and a hint of cheese. It was all very tasty. We shared an amazing round of raw cow’s milk cheese, then shared an apple crumble for dessert. The cheese was outstanding, but the crumble was a bungle–bland and dry and totally pointless. Shrug.
More interesting than our own meal was that of the four Parisians at the next table. A young woman with two young men and one older gentleman shared a seafood feast the likes of which I have never seen. Two huge platters stacked one on top of the other, each piled high with shrimp, oysters, crab, and lobster. We admired it aloud when the bottom layer appeared, but we literally cheered along with the folks at that table when the second layer arrived and was placed on top. Only the fact that I was a guest in their country prevented me from whipping out my camera to capture their meal in all its glory. It was extraordinary.
We hopped the Metro back to the 6th, and landed at the famous Café de Flore on Blvd. St. Germain. We enjoyed a nightcap of armagnac, as well as the comings and goings of a lot of crazy-looking locals. It was great fun, and the perfect conclusion to a lovely evening.
Ah the pleasures of Paris–the lights! the sites! the demolition crew outside your hotel window at 6:30am! Well, we asked to be centrally located, and one thing I know is that no matter the ups and downs of the economic markets, the world’s major cities always have construction going on right smack in their middles. In this case, it was on rue Buci. But let’s look on the positive side of it–had we not been awakened by the demolition crew, we’d never have been awake for hearing the hysterical, lyrical, American-in-Paris-al traffic-jammical music of car horns blasting and answering each other in almost comical cartoony rhythms. After that I put in my ear plugs and slept in.
Our bodies really needed the sleep, so we didn’t even leave the hotel until 10.45am. Across the rue de Seine was a little place called Paul–and we sat there for a breakfast of strong coffee and pain au chocolat. Then it was on to the Louvre! But it was without my camera–so I only have one picture that we took this day–with my phone. C’est la vie.
The Louvre is just a stone’s throw from the hotel! We entered through Pei’s pyramid and checked our coats. Our coat-check lady seemed to have a preternatural knowledge of how to annoy Stephanie and she simply would not accept our bags, without explanation in English or French. Anyway, we went straight to Winged Victory. Did you ever see Funny Face, with that great scene where Fred Astaire is photographing Audrey Hepburn all over Paris and then finally they come to the Louvre and he shoots her in that red gown as she descends the stairs in front of Victory? Here, watch the scene (the Winged Victory part comes right at the end, at the 6:15 mark):
Well that sculpture is still just as amazing in person as Miss Hepburn found it back in 1957–it’s just that we’re not as beautiful as Audrey Hepburn here in 2009!
From there we availed ourselves of one of the greatest pleasures in all of Western art: The Louvre’s Grand Gallery of Italian painting. It was wonderful to view all these Italian artists having now been to Venice and Florence. I really learned so much on that trip and found a new appreciation and deeper understanding of the works in the Louvre by Titian, Giotto, Veronese, Tintoretto, and others. We took our time and looked closely at these masterworks, before moving on to the two amazing galleries of large French paintings. These galleries are mind-blowing. We were thrilled to see Liberty Leading the People. Thank you, Monsieur Delacroix.
Next came a visit to Italian sculpture, including Michelangelo’s Slaves and Stephanie’s favorite, Canova’s Psyche Revived by the Kiss of Eros:
Alas, hunger and art fatigue are very real examples of the frailties of us mere mortals, and so back we went to retrieve our coats from the icy grip of Stephanie’s coatroom nemesis, who looked at us as if we were beneath contempt as we collected our belongings . A short distance from the museum we found a cafe for lunch, Chez Louise, on the rue de Croix des Petits Champs. We had a bottle of rosé wine, and we each had scrambled eggs–mine with foie gras and Stephanie’s with a vegetable ratatouille. The eggs were creamy and soft, as if they’d been loaded up with heavy cream, which I’m sure they were. We loved it. We also had small green salads, again with a light mustard dressing. Stephanie vowed to try making a mustard dressing herself when back in the States.
Next came some sightseeing, to fill in the gaps that I never got around to on my first trip. We walked west through the 1st, stopping to see the Jardin du Palais Royal, then walked along Avenue d’Opera and rue Casanova to the Place Vendome. This large open square features a great column topped with a statue of Napoleon dressed as Ceasar (I love Napoleon’s subtlety!). It’s fantastic. The column has a storied past of destruction and reconstruction that made me laugh out loud as we read our guide book. Oh, the column is wrapped in the melted-down bronze of the cannons of armies defeated by Napoleon. Brilliant.
On we walked toward the Church of the Madaleine. But we stopped at Maison du Chocolat to buy some chocolates. I said to Stephanie, “Christopher Santos said to go into Maison de Chocolat all over Paris even though I can get it in New York.” Stephanie answered, “Well! Who am I to disobey Christopher Santos!?” Who indeed. So in we went. We grabbed a tiny box of six chocolates (which cost 10 American dollars) and presented it to the gentleman at the cash register, who somehow seemed to imply we were American tourists or something by speaking to us in English! Honestly, Parisians can be so rude! Back on the street, we did have a laugh over him simply knowing we were American–until we realized it was our scarves that was giving us away more than anything else. We did our best to apply them to our persons with panache, but really, that ability is something you’re born with as a French person, and try as we might our scarves looked dead and limp around our American necks for the whole trip. Alas!
We ate those yummy chocolates on the steps of the Madeleine, and then in we went. What an odd church! No windows, but it does have three large skylights. Vast and dark, it was a storied history of different intended uses for its incomplete construction–markets, ballrooms, etc., then Napoleon intended it to be a memorial, the need for which was made obsolete by the completion of the Arc de Triomphe. Eventually, it became this church. It’s massive and impressive, but I found it to be an oddity among the other major focal points in Paris.
The guidebook told us that there were strange Art Deco public restrooms nearby so we sought them out. Boy were they crazy–looking like some kind of speakeasy crossed with a row of confessionals in an underground bunker. Neither of us used them.
We headed east in search of the Place des Victoires, but came upon the Bibliotheque Nationale first. It’s still a functioning library so the beautiful reading rooms were visible only through glass windows, unless you have scholarly business there. Vaulted ceilings and beautiful stacks made a nice environment for Parisians who looked like there were sent directly from Central Casting.
Continuing eastward, we arrived at the Place des Victoires. I recently saw this plaza in the film Paris, Je t’aime, where it looked intriguing, small, and intimate. In reality it’s rather large, and has been deadened by the retail stores lining its periphery. Louis XV sits on his horse in the middle of the circle, but the statue is a bit isolated and you can’t really get near it. Still, it’s an impressive plaza if only for the elegance of the curved buildings around it.
Walking through Les Halles after that we stopped in St. Eustache, the stately church that was built to compete with Notre Dame. And then, as is so often the way in Paris, it was time for wine. So we ascended the horrid exoskeleton of the Centre Pompidou to Georges, the restaurant at its top level. As we sipped our rosés (again, mine champagne and Stephanie’s wine), we watched the sun first melt away the last of the rain then start to set behind the skyline of La Défence. The city looked beautiful for the second sunset in a row.
In 2005 I went to the Pompidou but the modern collection was closed. I hated their contemporary holdings, but assured myself that on returning to Paris I would get to see–and love–their Moderns. Well, we did, and we hated it. It is absolutely true that most of the great work of the modern era is housed in New York. And it may be true that I’m spoiled and a snob but this is what I have to say about the Centre Pompidou: Bad architecture, bad art, great bar. Period.
The Marais–that lovely neighborhoods of the gays and the Jews–beckoned us ever eastward, so we strolled strolled strolled. Boy, we covered some serious miles this day. In the Marais we scoped out potential restaurant destinations, charming side-streets, and an approach to the Place de la Republique. Before we got there though we circled back toward the Pompidou, hopped on the Metro, and returned to the room to regroup for dinner.
We ate at Au 35, at 35 rue Jacob, though neither of us know how to say 35 in French so we don’t really know the name of this restaurant. Dumb Americans. The restaurant is tiny and charming and our waitress was young and lovely. It was almost empty when we arrived, but other tables arrived to enliven the atmosphere soon enough. We had a very leisurely dinner. I started with escargot in butter and garlic, then had a salted cod brodade–a casserole of salted fish in creamed, buttered potatoes. The top was crusty, and I loved every single bite. Stephanie had delicious foie gras to start, then cod filets on mushrooms and green beans. We drank a Pinot Noir with the meal. After, we shared a cheeseplate, with a glass of red Bordeaux each. This night we did a good job of talking as much as the locals and ended up being the last table in the place!
We walked along the river to the Place Saint Michel. It was beautifully empty of tourists–well, except for us. We sat at Cafe St. Severin for a night cap–armagnac for both of us–then walked home through the lovely narrow lanes of St. Germain. A great great day.
Let me begin with some general thoughts about travel. I haven’t travelled far and wide, but I’ve taken in a decent share of sites both domestic and foreign. Many middle-class Americans make their first trip abroad between high school and college, or during college. I was thirty before I traveled overseas. But before that I had been to Hawaii and to a handful of major American cities–Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Nashville, Washington–as well as to various beachy spots along the eastern seaboard. My first overseas trip was to London, followed quickly in succession by Rome, Paris, Bilbao, Venice, Bologna, Florence and the Tuscan countryside. London and Paris each have had return visits. Not bad for a decade’s worth of travel.
My usual pattern of taking a significant vacation is once every two or three years. I’m hoping to increase that frequency as I round the age of 40 and must accept finally the fact that I am a full-fledged adult and retain nothing of actual youth aside from various traits of immaturity. (Perhaps I should have accepted that at 30, but I guess my failure to do so is just one more of those immature traits!). So, I booked a shorter, more affordable trip to Paris this winter, in the hope that it will not be two years before I once again hop an ocean. Now, mind you, I dropped a buttload of cash on this trip–but it was nothing compared to what was spent on my three-week Italian extravaganza in 2007. But affordability is more than money–it’s also time away from work, amount of effort needed to prepare for the trip, number of arrangements to be made, etc. For this trip to Paris, I let expedia.com do most of the work for travel arrangements, polled a few friends for restaurant recommendations, finagled ballet tickets from a scalping agency, and bought a new raincoat. Pretty easy.
And then I ran smack into the downside of taking a five-day trip: a foot of snow fell the night before our departure, crippling the entire Northeast, and canceling hundreds of flights. Stephanie’s train from DC to Newark was canceled. We were each struggling with luggage through snow and slush. I did a pretty good job of not worrying about what I couldn’t control, of resigning myself to the idea that we’d probably be delayed by a day. But when you’ve got a five-day trip, a single day’s delay means flushing 20% of your vacation right down the toilet. But this story has a happy ending. The snow slowed, Stephanie boarded the next train, the runways were plowed, and our plane took off about half an hour late. Whew!
Click all images for larger. Many more pictures can be viewed here.
We arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport mid-morning, and took a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel de Buci, on rue Buci in the heart of the touristy St. Germain area. Talk about centrally located! We could only have been more central if we’d snuck into the attic of Notre Dame. We had a small room, with a generous bathroom, on the fifth floor with lovely, very Parisian views. It’s a lively neighborhood, full of cafes, hotels, fresh markets, shopping, students, and tourists. But as we were solidly in the off-season–and in a recession to boot–there were many times we felt we were the only American tourists in Paris.
After unpacking and showering, we set off toward the east to find lunch. We strolled through the Latin Quarter, weak with jet lag and hunger, toward the Pantheon, and found ourselves choosing between a couple different cafes on rue Soufflot–and settled on Les Fontaines. I realized as we went in that I ate dinner there with Beth back in 2005! It was packed with locals all talking up a storm and we waited 5 or 6 minutes for a table. We both had calf’s liver prepared in a white Balsamic vinegar sauce, served with very buttery mashed potatoes. It was tangy and scrumptious. We split a plate of three cheeses afterward and each downed a strong espresso to boost our jet-lagging spirits.
The day had turned chillier, so we wanted back to the hotel to add a layer. On the way, we stopped at a pharmacy to buy body lotion and shaving cream. What is it about French pharmacies that is so enticing and fulfilling? I bought my items from a rather serious, well-dressed woman. Despite the Euro’s recent weakness ($1.25 to the Euro), it seemed to cost quite a bit. Anyway, after stopping at the hotel we headed out to go to where so many Parisian vacations begin: the Eiffel Tower. Somehow I missed going up to the top on my first trip. We walked all the way there, across the gorgeous rue Jacob then cutting down to Blvd. St. Germain, across rue de Grenelle, through Invalides, and into the heart of the 7th arrondissement. On the rue Cler we turned into a pedestrian-only block, with its butchers and fishmongers, its fromageries and bars, and we settled into a charming cafe called Le Petit Cler. Sitting outside, protected from the wind by large plastic partitions, we watched Paris go by as we drank champagne (me) and wine (Stephanie). We tried to talk as much as the locals who sat nearby, but we gave up and headed instead into the Parc du Champ de Mars, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Riding up the old elevator to the top of the tower is a humbling experience. It feels somewhat rickety and–unsurprisingly–mechanical. And it’s a long way up. We arrived at the top just a bit before sunset. Paris is a great looking city from there (as it is from down on the street!)–curvy and grand, a sea of small pebbles punctuated by a few gestures of grandiosity–the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Invalides, the Place de la Concorde. At dusk, from above, the city was all silvery white. And then the sky darkened and lights began to come on all over town and Paris was then wrapped in a warm yellow glow. The streets began to be more visible than the buildings, and the Seine was transformed from a dark winding path into a jeweled golden chain, all her bridges becoming illuminated charms. It was perfect.
We walked all the back to the St. Germain along the river for most of the way. Crossing the Esplanade des Invalides I was just overwhelmed by how simply beautiful everything is. Despite already knowing from photos and paintings, and from my own previous visit, it’s shocking to be plunked down in the middle of such beauty.
For dinner we went to Le Relais de l’Entrecote, where Marijane had sent me last time. It was blessedly close to our hotel, and it was as fun and delicious as last time. All they do is steak and fries, and the do it well. A small salad with a mustard dressing, a steak in their “secret” sauce (of butter, lemon, garlic, and some blend of green herbs). Profiteroles for me and apple tart with honey ice cream for Stephanie for dessert. Yum! We drank a bottle of their house red wine, served slightly chilled. Perfect.
We were exhausted from travel, so we made an early night of it. Wednesday through Saturday coming soon, and the whole trip’s-worth of pictures is here.
This article makes me think that maybe I should go to Berlin in the fall instead of Madrid.
I’ve had an insanely busy week–hence no updates. This weekend this blog will explode with the gluttony which was my recent Paris trip. Stay tuned.