Friday, December 29, 2006

Culinary school abroad - Paris or Florence?

Today (Friday) dawned bright and beautiful (to paraphrase James Harriott). Up until now it’s been a remarkably gray, chilly and dreary holiday season in Paris. We had such beautiful weather in Strasbourg the last few days before Christmas, so much sun that it made our eyes hurt; and we come back to Paris where it’s been a never-ending stream of gray days punctuated by the occasional promise of snow; and of course nothing happens.

But, as we were always told by our elders, there is a silver lining to every cloud and sure enough there is one here. We no sooner started to leave Strasbourg than Susan came down with a cold – maybe it was having to leave such a wonderful city that pushed her body over the edge. I simply don’t know. But seeing Paris in a constant and consistent shade of gray has in fact worked in her favor, forcing her to simply stay put in our warm apartment, reading, doing crosswords, and stitching (she’s back to teddy bears) and just relaxing and enjoying life, or rather being alive.

As the year comes crawling to a conclusion and as we eagerly seek our new and grand future in 2007, it now seems like a good place to stop and reflect on what has been the central focus in our life this past year, Susan’s transition from a life concerned with preservation to one of creation.

Susan has devoted this entire past year of her life to becoming a pastry chef and the experiences in Florence and Paris have been more than ample reward for the investment of time and money.

Others better qualified than I am have written of the pros and cons of studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. I urge you to check out “Chez Christine’s” lucid, insightful and delightful “Final Thoughts on LCB Paris” before making a commitment.

While her observations pretty much parallel Susan’s experiences, Susan only studied pastry and had little to do with the larger world of general cuisine.

But -- and of course there is always a but lurking somewhere ready to strike -- there are several important points to consider before taking the plunge into the world of becoming a pastry chef.

Simply recommending a particular school is something better left to folks whose experiences are much more broad-based than ours. Still, if you are serious about pursuing a career in culinary arts and want a comprehensive, exhaustive and thorough grounding in the skills necessary to acquire a job in that field, and plan on working in the US, then why not consider one of the great schools in North America? But if you want the experience of studying and living abroad – worth it’s weight in gold I might add – then by all means consider one of the Le Cordon Bleu campuses. It will be a once in a lifetime opportunity and you’ll meet fascinating people from all over the world.

But what about Italy? What about the Apicius experience in Florence? How does it compare to Le Cordon Bleu? Again comparison shopping pretty much only works for cars and underwear; culinary programs differ from country to country and your decision depends on the objectives you set for yourself in attending such a program.

In general, it is probably safe to say that if you are a 20-year-old college student looking for a semester abroad in a “fun” place and hang out and travel to cool cities throughout Europe on your weekends off and not have to worry terribly much about grades or work, then by all means Apicius is the school for you. Indeed, the relationship between Apicius and numerous US-based study abroad and semester abroad programs make it an ideal candidate for just such a student.

Having said that, let’s look at a side-by-side comparison of the two pastry programs.

First, at LCB the pastry “diploma” is made up of three levels or certificates, which can be achieved in nine months (or less if you do the intensive program). At Apicius the pastry program is comprised of two levels (basic and advanced) which take approximately 26 weeks to complete (and while an intensive program is offered on paper, there is no guarantee it will happen).

Second, tuition and fees run a bit higher at LCB than at Apicius, but the difference between the two is not terribly significant, although certainly the costs of living in Paris are quite a bit higher than in Florence.

Third, each student in the pastry program at LCB is pursuing a certificate or diploma in pastry. At Apicius while there is a stated baking and pastry curriculum, each class may include students from a variety of other culinary programs.

Fourth, the schedule of programs at LCB is clearly laid out and every program is offered each term. At Apicius one could not count on both pastry levels (basic and advanced) being offered in every term, or even in successive terms, due to uncertain enrollment numbers (a concern that LCB does not share). This was one of the most telling problems we encountered. Susan started the beginning pastry certificate in January of 2006, hoping to do the intensive in the summer. When that program was not offered she then planned to return in the fall and finish the advanced certificate. But by the end of the basic program in April/May the school had no definite plans to offer the advanced program in the fall either.

Fifth, the instructors at both schools are superb and were always willing to give the students a hand or help with explaining a particularly thorny problem. At Apicius, where many of the instructors owned and operated their own businesses, it was not uncommon for some to make themselves available outside of class as well. At LCB the full time instructors are some of France’s leading pastry chefs with years of experience in restaurants and/or patisseries.

It is an interesting contrast between the New World and the Old, that the culinary world in Europe is still virtually dominated by men. This is certainly true of the instructors at both schools. In fact with a few exceptions (at Apicius) all the instructors and chefs were men.

Sixth, class structure varies greatly between the two programs. At LCB, following a demonstration given by one of the chefs, each student performs every step of a given recipe. Pressure, competition and intensity were the driving forces in the LCB practical kitchen. At Apicius each student might find herself preparing a portion of just one of perhaps four or five recipes, and in some of the larger classes it was not uncommon to see one or two students who chose not to do anything.

So which do you choose?

Good luck, bon chance and "in boca a lupo"!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Strasbourg and Christmas

Situated on the border between France and Germany, Strasbourg, the ‘city of roads”, is truly at a crossroads in Europe. The city, at least the original, historic part, or ‘centre ville”, sits on an island in the delta of the River Ill, which empties into the Rhine. One can easily see why the European Union chose it for the home of the European Parliament and various attending offices. The city is flat and easily walkable. There is also a brand-new tramway system in place and bicycles seem to be everywhere (much of the historic center is off-limits to vehicular traffic). (For additional photos, click here!)

Strasbourg is not only the home to the EU but also where Gutenberg printed his first bible (there is a statue commemorating this in the Place de Gutenberg) and where a young army engineer by the name of Rouget de Lisle wrote the “Marseillaise’, the French national anthem.

The city is also the home to one of the largest and coolest Christmas markets in Europe; the very reason, in fact, that we went in the first place. No, not to buy so much as to look at the Christmas decorations which were rumored to be everywhere – and we were not disappointed.

It was clear and cold early Tuesday morning when we left our apartment and walked to the San Marcel metro stop, hopped on the no. 5 and got off 15 minutes later at the Gare de L’Est (the “Eastern” train station) and boarded a train heading, well, east. After nearly five hours of passing through the lush eastern side of France, still green although barren of leaves, tracking much of the way along part of the immense French canal system, we pulled into the beautiful city of Strasbourg. (photo below: Gutenberg.)

(By the way, on our outbound leg we took one of the slower, regional trains outbound, since it was less expensive; on our return we took the TGV that got us back to Paris in 4 hours. By June of 2007 the high-speed TGV will be running to Strasbourg and reduce the time between Paris and Strasbourg even more.)

The train station in Strasbourg is undergoing a major (and I mean MAJOR) renovation and chaos abounds everywhere. However, if you just follow the signs for the “centre ville” you’ll do fine. If you have luggage – which we didn’t thank heavens – take a taxi. While the city is flat the historic city center is a warren of side streets and alleys that can curve and seem to go nowhere and everywhere at the same time. But it makes for great exploring!

We walked to the Hotel Cathedrale, located smack in the middle of the “grand isle”, surrounded by canals and bits and pieces of the River Ill, and right across from the Cathedrale, an enormous pink sandstone gothic pile, in the very heart of the old city historical district. Since our room wasn’t ready, we left our bags and headed out to explore and have a bite of lunch. First stop was the tourist office; just around the corner from our hotel, at 17 Place de la Cathedrale (

We wandered around the cathedral and then started looking for someplace to eat lunch. After rejecting a couple of cafes that seemed to be inundated with smoke, we found a great little place just a few hundred meters from our hotel, the Café de L’Ill. We both ordered the “menu du jour” that consisted of a delicious potato-leek soup, followed by a terrine of potatoes (“pommes du terre”) with Munster cheese. We also sampled a delicious Alsatian sparkling wine, a “Cremant. Nor would it be the last time either. . . . Anyway, the food was delicious, very filling and tasty, the service very friendly, and the languages a hodgepodge of Gerfrenglish. In fact we returned for our last lunch Thursday afternoon before heading to the train station and enjoyed another superb afternoon repast. Susan had Quiche Lorraine (although we were in Alsace and not Lorraine) and being an Illinois boy I had the potato terrine again (sans soup however).

(€45 for two people, with wine. Café de L’Ill, 9 Place du Marche aux Cochons de Lait, 67000 Strasbourg; tel:

After lunch we strolled for a bit, admiring the decorations that seemed to be everywhere, hanging off the sides of buildings (climbing Santas seemed to be very popular) and down every side street and across virtually every major thoroughfare. We were certainly looking forward to going out in the evening to see the lights.

Upon returning to our hotel we checked in, picked up our bags and settled into our room that overlooked the Place Cathedrale, and just relaxed.

As the shadows lengthened and twilight became the order of the moment, we grabbed our coats and headed out the door and into the cold, clear night.

We strolled around the several nearby “places” where the various Christmas markets were set up for the holidays. One was devoted to just Rumania and featured many vendors in their folk dress and lots of Rumanian music and dancing as well. Other markets such as the one in the area of “petit France” focused on local Alsatian products while the huge market set up on Place Broglie provided a wide array of crafts as well as food and plenty of kitschy items as well as Christmas trees and sundry decorations for the home.

After our stroll we ate a light dinner of pizza at an unremarkable restaurant near our hotel and headed off for one last evening stroll before turning in.

We awoke to another clear and cold day, full of sun and promise and we intended to make the most of it.

After breakfast in the hotel (coffee, fruit and small but tasty croissants) we headed out into the Christmas crowd. Our first stop was not 100 feet away from our room, the enormous cathedral directly across from our hotel, or rather to the top of the cathedral. We found the entrance to the stairs which led us up to the viewing platform, paid our €3 fee, and began our climb of 366 steps. If you are prone to dizzy spells and vertigo you might want to skip this part of a trip to Strasbourg, although frankly the views of the surrounding countryside are worth the effort. (Actually only a couple of places along the way up made us a bit giddy.)

From the top you can see the Vosges to the north and the Black forest to the east and south. Fortunately for us we had a pretty clear day and thoroughly enjoyed spending a few minutes running from side to side, just to see exactly where we where. There is something oddly appealing about such a phenomenon; being in a position to place such a broad perspective on the physical space we inhabit, crowded and congested. But when we find ourselves at “the top” so to speak, we feel free of such congestion. Maybe it’s the panorama that gives us so much pleasure. Who knows?

We found the exit stairs and wended our way to ground level again, passing one of the statues of a horseman, possibly a person of some noble blood, upon whose head other visitors have thought to toss coins. (What is it about tossing a coin in a fountain, a well, a pool of water, or in this case onto the head of statue some 100 feet or so in the air, that gives so many such pleasure? Is it a superstition that still grips many of our species?)

After finding ourselves back in the crowds we headed for the river, about 10 minutes’ walk from the cathedral – remember we were on an island – and found the landing dock for the cruise boat around the city. We bought our tickets (€7 per person) and about 15 minutes later boarded a modern glass-enclosed canal barge. The boat was about half-filled by the time we cast off for our hour plus cruise around the “grand isle”. Each seat of the boat had a small set of headphones on it and we were instructed, in a variety of languages on the loudspeaker, to put on the headphones and fiddle with the channel knob until with found our language. From then on everyone had a guide to help them pick out the choice spots along our route of travel.

The barge cruised lazily passed old Strasbourg, now called “Petit France”, where the wooden-timbered houses lined the canals and tributaries of the Ill river, through a couple of canal locks, onto the more modern side of the city and of course past the European Union buildings, dramatic in their use of glass and steel.

After we left the boat Susan and I strolled along the quai (“key”) to “petit France” where there was a little Christmas market. A few meters away found us in a quiet little courtyard where another Christmas market was in full swing, all the vendors selling local products. We stopped at the Domaine Loew wine tasting booth and tried several Alsatian white wines – and purchased two bottles to take home. We also passed a vegetarian restaurant we had read about in the France Rough Guide and the menu looked so good we decided to come back that evening.

After a leisurely afternoon strolling and then relaxing in the room we headed back out after dark for yet another foray into the world of Christmas markets – it seemed that just about every “place”, or square in the city had something going on and of course we never ceased to be amazed and enthralled by the variety and sheer number of lights and decorations which were everywhere. After a stroll around the ‘centre ville” we stopped at a pub in “Petit France” and had a couple of glasses of sparkling Cremant before going to dinner.

Our choice for the evening was “Poeles de Carottes” a delightful vegetarian restaurant. The place was packed with what seemed to be mostly college-age types, but we found a table for two with little difficulty. The service was wonderful – two young women working the front end by themselves, with the help of a very efficient dumb waiter. Susan and I both had gratins, she had a brocolli and mine was potato, naturally; in fact it was a variant of the terrine dish I had had the day before. This too was made with Munster cheese but with a topping of cumin seed and all roasted together and then placed under the broiler. (Cumin is apparently one of the most popular spices in Alsace, and is used in another local favorite, choucoutre, a variation on sauerkraut.) We also split a healthy portion of a delicious flatbread dish filled with cheese and topped by (what else) cumin and nicely broiled. A perfect accompaniment was a half bottle of local Riesling. The Alsatians seem to do wonders with cumin, potatoes and Munster cheese, dishes that should be easy to replicate at home. (2 Place des Meuniers 67000 Strasbourg; tel: 03 88 323 323., see photo below)

We strolled back to our room in the quiet of a very cold but crisp and clear evening, glad to be alive and just happy to be there.

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, checked out and since we had several hours before our train back to Paris left our bags at the front desk while we strolled once more through the “centre ville”. Naturally we stopped at the Café de L’Ill for lunch and just as naturally I had the potato terrine again – and yes, if you must know it was just as good as the first day I had it.

After picking up our bags we headed off to the train station and soon after arriving boarded our TGV for the quick return to Paris.

What a trip we thought, and what a fantastic city; a great place to spend a couple of nights and what a place to start a serious tour through the Alsatian wine region. Maybe someday. . . .

Wish you were there,


Monday, December 18, 2006

Pastry shop and Christmas lights

On January 5 Susan will begin her internship at Pascal Pinaud's patisserie, 70 rue Monge in Paris, located just off the Place Monge, and not far from the Paris Mosque. Susie will spend the first three months of the new year learning the ins and outs of making pastries in Paris. Personally I can't wait to try her creations. . . .

Although today (Monday) was overcast and cold, looking every bit like snow, it didn't snow. And it didn't keep us in either. Early in the evening we headed for the Opera Garnier in the 9th arr. to check out the lights along Rue Haussmann, especially where Galeries Lafayette are located. Incredible.

And of course we had to go inside and check out their enormous center atrium display:

We then strolled down to Place Madeleine, and from there down to Place de la Concorde to catch a glimpse of the lights up the Champs Elysees and were greeted by a huge ferris wheel at the near end of the Tuileries.

We also walked by the US embassy where I tried to take a photo of the American flag fluttering in the evening breeze with christmas lights surrounding the entrance ot the building. A French policeman walked over and kindly asked me not to. (He had the gun and I had the camera so it was pretty much moot from my standpoint.) Anyway, the gendarme informed me that the US ambassador requested that no photos be allowed.

We couldn't help but wonder afterwards has there been a rash of terrorists taking photos and then using them for probably terrible things (like dartboards?). Why this fear about someone taking pictures of a building? I couldn't help but think that it was just across the street, smack in the middle of what is now the Place de la Concorde, that fear once resulted in many heads being lopped off and the bodies carted up to where Place Madeleine is now and dumped into a mass grave. Fear breeds absurdity and worse. Some things never change.

But hey the good news is that it's Christmas in Paris! Stay tuned!

Wish you were here,


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Is there a pastry chef in the house?

Saturday has been pretty much rainy all day here in Paris; a good day to run some errands, do some shopping for staples that sort of thing. And a good day to get caught up with all of you.

Friday afternoon we left the apartment a little after 2 p.m. and walked to the metro at Jussieu, about 10 minutes away. We hopped on the no. 10, transferred to the no. 12 at Sevres-Babylone and got off at Vaugirard. Another 5 minutes later and we walked through the doors of Le Cordon Bleu. The notice Susie got from school said that the graduation ceremonies were to begin at 3:30 -- in fact they didn’t begin until after 4. We arrived early so that I could set up for both video and still photos, both of which turned out rather poorly I’m afraid; plus Susan wanted to wrap up a few administrative details. (For the photos I was able to capture, click here.)

Soon afterwards other students began arriving and the picture-taking began in earnest. We got a chance to meet Ann’s mom (she had come from Houston to be at her daughter’s graduation) and Susie introduced me to a couple of her classmates whom I had not met before: Aylin from Turkey, whose smile nearly rivals Tatiana’s and who will eventually be going to Colombia where she hopes to open her own shop someday, Yoshi and Mika, both from Japan, and Roberto from Spain. And of course it was nice to see Tan again as well as Ann, Tatiana and Yannie. (photo below: Ann and Susie.)


The ceremonies began late, as I said, and frankly, after two of these already we’ve pretty much heard it all before. The chefs all sit in a row up on the stage, and two women from the front office kick things off by introducing the head chef(s). The way this worked was one woman spoke first in French and the other woman translated; the woman speaking in French used a cordless hand-held mike, which carried her remarks everywhere, while her associate standing right next to her did not use the mike and could hardly be heard. Odd, but French I suppose. Anyway, the chefs were introduced one-by-one, their specialties and accomplishments, that sort of thing.

Then came the moment we all were waiting for, the handing out of the certificates. First came the students from Intermediate Pastry and Intermediate Cuisine, and then the Superior Pastry (Susan’s group) followed by Superior Cuisine and finally three Grand Diplomas (those students who did both Superior pastry and Cuisine).

By this time it was nearly 5:30 and time for champagne! Everyone cleared out of the “winter garden” and moved into the nearby demo kitchen where the champagne was poured while the staff set up the winter garden with the food. And boy what food it was! All prepared by the chefs of the school: creative, delicious and oh so good for you! (photo below: Ann, Susie, Tan and Mika.)

Mika, Kwon-Baek and Tan:

Everyone jockeyed for positions close to one of the numerous food tables but there was so much food that no one had much difficulty in satiating their craving for more of such scrumptious treats. It still makes me hungry just to think about it! And of course they kept pouring the champagne – one of the benefits of being in Paris I suppose. (photo below: a guest chef who was just happy to be there!)

Eventually of course we had to stop eating, say goodbye and, well, leave. Notes were exchanged, email addresses scrawled on napkins and swapped back and forth; promises to stay in touch seemed to be on everyone’s lips. And in this small world of cuisine much of it probably rings true. Some, like Susie and Roberto were staying in Paris, others like Ann were heading back home to family and others like Aylin were off to far-flung destinations to seek their way in the world.

Susie and I headed off for the metro and were soon back in the apartment – but not for long. We dropped off our stuff and headed back out, this time to check the lights and decorations on the Champs Elysees. We walked up to Jussieu (pretty much our departure point of choice for either the 10 or 7 line), jumped on the no, 7 and got off at Palais Royale, where we switched to the no. 1 and got off at Franklin Roosevelt (that’s right FDR has his own Metro stop). The metros, at least the ones we use regularly, have been packed lately and this past Friday night was no exception. Everybody was going downtown or uptown (the terms seem meaningless here for some reason) and we wedged our way toward what has to be one of the most well-lit streets in the world. (photo below: looking toward the Place de la Concorde.)

As we left the subterranean passages of the metro, we stumbled out into what at first seemed like daytime at night. The trees lining the entire Champs Elysees are covered, indeed festooned (what a great word) with lights; in fact each tree is literally covered with a web of lightbulbs. From the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, two enormous walls of white light; occasionally down one of the side boulevards you could get a glimpse of rows of trees covered with red and green lights. And across the Seine from the Place de la Concorde the National Assembly was all awash in an almost hypnotic blue light; the entire building! Imagine the US Capitol bathed in blue light!

Fantastic! Pictures fail to do it justice. . . .

Wish you were here,

Buon natale, joyeux noël et joyeuses fetes!

Steve and Susan

Friday, December 15, 2006

Diplôme de Patisserie

It’s a foggy and chilly Friday morning in Paris. But no matter, because today is the Big Day: Susan receives with her Diplôme de Patisserie from Le Cordon Bleu.

This past Wednesday Susan finished her final exam for the superior level certificate. It was all about sugar sculpture. The class spent the last week or so of their time working towards this objective and, while one might question the value of spending so much class time on this sort of thing, the results were very impressive. (photo right: Susie with her final exam. For more photos click here!)

Three levels, three certificates; at times it seemed like it was going to last forever.

So of course it’s hard to believe that it’s just about all over. It was barely a year ago that we were sitting in our apartment in Siena, Italy, contemplating our next move in life. When I asked her what she would like to do, Susie said, “You know I’d really like to become a baker.” Next thing you know we were on our way to Florence to Apicius for their pastry program. After one term in Italy Susie realized that Apicius was not the serious program she was looking for, but where to go now?

Looking back that turned out to be an easy question to answer. If you want to become a pastry chef where else would you go but Le Cordon Bleu and where else to learn about pastry but in Paris?

So we packed up our stuff and at the end of July off we went north to the Frankish Kingdom. And here we are in mid-December and not only is Susan finishing the pastry program but she is going to be doing an internship at a wonderful little patisserie just a 10 minute walk from our apartment! And not to forget that it was right here in Paris Susan met some wonderful people, people who transcended age and nationality: 20-, 30- 40-year olds from Canada, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Greece, Spain, Slovenia, Argentina, Turkey. What a fantastic experience!

And of course for me, meeting Marie and Philippe and being able to spend so much time browsing through the history of France is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And even more fantastic is that it continues still.

So this afternoon Susan goes back to the school one last time and sometime shortly after 3:30 she will receive her Diplôme. She said to me yesterday that she couldn’t believe it’s really over. And of course it’s really just begun.

Wish you were here,


Sunday, December 10, 2006

French pastry, Italian food and Al-Jazeera

Well the verdict is in, and the news is we are staying in Paris for Susan’s internship.

The interviews were held on Tuesday and Susan got her first choice, Pascal Pinaud’s small artisan patisserie, located at 70 rue Monge, just a 10-minute walk from our apartment. Susan had heard about Pascal through the school grapevine; that he used to teach at LCB, was very kind to the students and has a wonderful sense of humor. We walked over to the shop a couple of weeks back and sampled some of their wares. His breads are exquisite (particularly his artisan “tradition” baguette), his chocolates scrumptious, and his desserts really great to look at and even better to eat! (photo: Pascal Pinaud's patisserie in Paris.)

Today (Sunday) we went back for a second helping and had his croissant “amandes”. These are found throughout Paris and one can usually gauge the quality of a pastry shop (in my opinion) on how well they do their “amandes. The idea is simple: day-old croissants, split them down the middle, add a healthy dose almond crème (paste) in the middle and re-bake, and finish off with powdered sugar. Absolutely out of this world! And Pascal’s are the best I’ve had so far.

So here we stay for another three months at least. After that who knows?

But speaking of food (and in this city, by law one has to speak about food constantly) we caught up with Beth Green last evening (Saturday), and ate “Italian” food. Beth, who is from NYC, was in the intermediate class with Susan at LCB this past fall and she will be doing the superior level during the regular session beginning in January. Beth is as keen on food as we are – I mean why would she be at LCB, right? In fact she turned us on to a great noodle “bar” the night of the intermediate level graduation ceremony.

So we arranged to meet up at L’Enoteca, in the 4th arrondisement (25 rue Charles V, 75004, in the “Marais” neighborhood). We had read about this place in a magazine article Margie Cheff gave us this last September and when we saw that it was reputed to be one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city we had to go. And the great news is that it is only a 10-minute walk and 1 Metro stop from our place! How cool is that!

Susan and I got there a few minutes early and though we might explore the adjacent little funky street, Rue Saint Paul. In fact, right across the street from the restaurant is a place called “Thanksgiving”, which touts itself as a bit of Louisiana Bayou in Paris, and as we squinted through the window into the darkened room we could see all kinds of American food products lining the shelves (for example, Campbell’s soup, a well-known Louisiana product). Later that evening Beth said that she had even heard you could order Thanksgiving turkeys from them! (Thus the name perhaps?)

We strolled back to the restaurant, walked in and heard that lovely music, so sweet to our ears, “Italian”! That’s right and we plunged right back into it with ease (if not grace) and quickly realized how much we long to hear and speak that clear, distinct, every-syllable-is-pronounced language!

Since Beth hadn’t arrived yet Susie and I sat at the bar, ordered a couple of Proseccos, calmly eyed the place and listed to the wait staff hurrying by usinto and out of the kitchen: Lombardia, Piemonte, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria were represented so we were told. Ah yes, we had come home.

After Beth arrived we went upstairs where we were seated and commenced a wonderful evening of good food (OK outstanding food!), good wine and great conversation. Beth is funny, quite delightful and she and Susan bantered stories about LCB back and forth. Of course we also talked about the future, all of our futures.

A couple of hours later, after we paid the bill and walked out into the bracing night air the three us stood on the Boulevard Henri IV with the Bastille at one end and the Seine at the other, chatting about this and that thing, laughing and just enjoying being alive and in Paris.


OK, the other day while I was searching for the new 24-hour French TV news channel (it’s actually two channels, one English and one French of course), I came across the new English-language Al-Jazeera channel. I must say this is one slick production. It looks just like any of the other major players in this field and the readers and reporters are from all over the world. (The ads are at least for the moment largely centered on Dubai companies, of course.) In addition to playing the proverbial “devil’s advocate” by providing a different angle from those found in traditional news channels (CNN and BBC for example) on stories out of the Middle East, they also provide stories that might not get covered in the west; like the story about the fake malaria drugs in Southeast Asia which pose a significant health problem in the region.

It’s one of the perks of living abroad – that of seeing the world, our world, through different eyes. It naturally gives one pause and helps to make us a bit more humble about who we are and what we are about.

Wish you were here,


Friday, December 08, 2006

Sugar sculpture at Le Cordon Bleu

It's just a week from graduation and Susan's class is moving into their final phase, poured and pulled sugar sculptures. Basically you cook sugar (adding the color during this phase) and then either pour it into a mould (British spelling) or pour it onto a special mat, and then pull it and create shapes. And each of the petals on the flowers are individually pulled and shaped. Simple, huh? Yeah right. (photo right: Susan's sculpture.)

So do you eat it? You can. It's really like hard candy; for example, those green and red ribbon candies that some of you might remember from Christmas time.

Anyway, this is what they are going to have to do for their final exam next week. (photo below: Ann Chang with her calla lily sculpture.)

(photo above: Susie and her sugary work of art.)

Aux Lyonnais or not

Now it’s quite possible that you have eaten at Aux Lyonnais in Paris, one of the Ducasse properties, and you might have had a grand time. If so I’m happy for you believe me. But if you haven't, well I think, with all the wonderful restaurants in Paris “hungry” for business you can skip this place.

I went to their website early in the week – very slick and flashy – and found the link to click to make a reservation online, which I did. I waited several days and not hearing back from them I decided to call and confirm.

Me: “Bon jour, I’m calling to confirm my reservation for tomorrow night.” (Happy as a lark.)

Minion no. 1: “Sorry we are booked up for tomorrow night.” (Don't bother.)

Me: “Yes, well, OK but I made a reservation online several days ago.” (Harrumph.)

M.1: “Wait a minute.” (Hmmmmm.)

Minion no. 2: “Sorry but we are booked up.” (Sniffing the air at my English.)

Me: “But I made the reservation online.” (Hurt and embarrased for not speaking French.)

M2: “We don’t take reservations online.” (So there!)

Me: “So let me get this straight. You’re telling me that you don’t take online reservations although it says right on your website you you do.”(Shocked and appalled.)

M2: “Yes.” (Oui)

Me: “I don’t believe it.” (Really.)

M2: “Let me get the director.” (The Big Kahuna.)

Director: “I’m sorry but we are booked up and I never received your mail.” (I can just hear Steve Martin’s French accent doing: "I don’t care for you, you dirty American doggy.”)

Me: “Oh so you do take reservations online.”(Ah ha!)

D.: “Of course.” (“Sniff sniff.”)

Me: “Merci, bon journee.” (Lacking in sincerity.)

D.: Nothing. (Nothing.)

Now this may not sound like much but if you had heard the tone of the conversation – condescending and patronizing and not at all friendly – them not me -- you would agree with me that going somewhere else is the wiser choice.

Maybe the food is wonderful but if this were an indication of their service, I’d skip it. And apparently we will.

Wish you were here,


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Just a Saturday in Paris

Yesterday (Saturday) was a really wonderful day here in Paris; Susan got to renew friendships from this past summer and I thoroughly enjoyed a chaotic, confused and totally gratifying afternoon. (photo right: what happens when you stand around naked holding a sword in Paris.)

Let me explain.

The week has been largely chilly and overcast with a constant threat of rain. Winter is here apparently. Christmas trees are now for sale around the city and decorations are starting to spring up seemingly overnight. December is also Susan’s last month in school. And I am starting to feel a bit of time pressure to finish my videotaping of Pere Lachaise and to try and put online at least two or three podcasts with Marie and Philippe.

Two or three weeks back Anna and her husband Pietro invited us for a return engagement at their house for dinner on December 2. (Anna and Susan had been in the same Basic pastry class in August.) And another surprise is that Valerie, who had been in the same class with Anna and Susan and who lives in Paris, would also be coming. Rounding out the evening’s guest list was a French Swiss banker and his wife – so how could we refuse – you can count us in we said!

Anyway, yesterday morning Susan took the RER train (the somewhat faster version of the Metro) from Gare de Lyon (an easy walk from our apartment) out to Rueil Malmaison, on the far western side of Paris, where Anna picked her up and the two of them went to the holiday “boutique” at the American School in Paris. Anna had volunteered to work the Friends of the American School Library booth and Susan tagged along.

As for me I hung around the apartment catching up on some computer stuff and about 12:45 pm headed off for the Metro. I was going back to Pere Lachaise and meet up with Marie and Philippe to start our first attempt at podcasting from the cemetery.

Well I was just about to board the Metro when Marie called and said there had been a change of plans. It seems that she and Philippe had read in the local weekly Pariscope,(a listing events throughout Paris) that there would be a special guided tour of the rarely opened crypts beneath Les Invalides (where Napoleon I is buried). Marie said they had been waiting for years for this opportunity and would I care to join them about 2 pm? You bet!

So I retraced my steps to the apartment, hung out for a while, called Susie to see how she was doing (“Fine”) and headed off towards Les Invalides (line 10 from Jussieu to the no. 13 at duroc and then off at Invalides. Simple.).

I arrived about the same as Marie – we met up in the large courtyard just as you enter the main gate (the other end from the “eglise”, the church, where Napoleon and crew are actually buried). A few minutes later Philippe arrived and soon afterwards a crowd started gathering in the courtyard, some 30-40 people eager to take the tour. It quickly became evident that the guide had a bit of a cult following in Paris and that many of the people there had already signed up via (French) word-of-mouth. We soon found ourselves left out in the cold – which it was a bit actually – although in typical Gallic uncertainty the guide informed Marie that “Maybe there’ll be room in an hour or so.” No thanks. I told Marie and Philippe that I would head home and after saying au revoir off I went. A few minutes later, just as I left the main entrance to the Invalides I heard someone calling out my name and I turned around to see the two of them chasing after me. “So Steve do you want to go to Picpus cemetery?” Whoa! Yeah! The cemetery is rarely open and very hard to find so I jumped at the chance, you bet.

Picpus cemetery”, you ask? Besides the funny name what’s the deal here? Well several things actually.

The cemetery is actually composed of two parts. One part is where 1306 of the great and common people of Paris were guillotined in the June and July of 1794. The executions took place on the nearby Place de la Nation (then called the Place du Trone), some days as many as 55 people were beheaded, and the bodies were transported to the closest open space where they were dumped into mass graves. (photo below: the 2 mass graves.)

The second part is the little cemetery next to the mass graves, which holds the remains of some of France’s most well known families. Moreover, it is also the resting place of the Marquis de Lafayette. Yes, that Lafayette: “Lafayette we are here”, Lafayette, Indiana, ,Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Fayetteville, North Carolina and on and on. I mean the man was made an honorary US citizen in 2002.

So the three of us headed for the Metro line 13 got off at the Opera stop, picked up the RER to Place de la Nation where Philippe showed me the spot where the guillotine had been set up. We then pent 15 minutes trying to find our way out of this enormous Place. At last we located the right “spoke” of the hub and soon found the little cemetery, down a small side street away (35 rue de Picpus).

After paying our fee (2 euros and change each) to the fellow at the “conservation” building he showed us to the gate, which he unlocked and let us in to wander around ourselves.

The first thing that strikes you as you enter is a long rectangular green space running deep into the block itself. At the far side of that is the original door (some speculation here between Marie and Philippe about this), or at least the original entrance used by the carts which brought the headless bodies from the Place to the mass graves here; several dozen a day in fact. Nasty business. There is also a small segment of the original wooden palisade that once surrounded the gravesites.

Off to the right, is the small cemetery itself, behind which is a stone wall and a locked gate, and at the far back are the two mass graves. The little cemetery where you can find Lafayette’s grave, decorated with various markers from the United States or organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

There is also a plaque memorializing the 16 Carmelite nuns who were executed on July 24, 1794. Ranging in age from 29 to78 they went to the scaffold singing hymns as a choir, until one-by-one the last nun, still singing was executed. They were beatified in 1906.

From the little cemetery we walked back toward the entrance and into the small chapel near the main gate.

The interior was nearly dark except for the far back left wall of the transept which was lit up so one could read the enormous plaque listing some of all the names of those 1,306 who were executed that summer. Reading the plaques on the walls – there was another one on the opposite transept wall -- which seem to go all the way to the ceiling, and arranged by date of execution, one can’t help but feel the tragic, stupid absurdity of what happened just a few hundred meters away more than two centuries ago. I used to think of the Terror as striking mainly at the nobility – which it did certainly – but more than half of the names on these lists were simple commoners like Marie Bouchard, age 18, “domestique”or Jean Baptiste Marino, age 37, porcelain painter or Raymond Borie, age 19, shoemaker. Horrible.

We left the chapel and walked out into a light drizzle, said au revoir (again) and plan to meet up the next weekend at Pere Lachaise.

I got home with just a few minutes to spare before getting ready to go out to Anna and Pietro’s house for dinner. Susan finished packing her things up – she was bringing dessert – and we headed for the Gare de Lyon and the RER (again) and less than a half hour later we hopped off the train. Pietro pulled up to the station just as we walked out of the station and two minutes later we were in their warm house, full of cooking smells and chilled champagne. And grilled Merguez sausage! Thank you Pietro! (photo: handing anna the champagne.)

Valerie soon joined us and then Francois and his wife Katrina.

We sat down to a superb dinner – I mean we had the best of all worlds cooking that night: A Canadian of Italian ancestry born and raised in Montreal; both Anna and Pietro know good food, and how fix, serve and eat it.

It was a grand evening of lively conversation, delicious wine and outstanding food. I often wonder that if some people, and here I’m talking about people who don’t like each other very much but in whose hands are the lives of countless numbers of people, if these folks would be put into a situation where all they could do with one another would be to fix food, sit down and eat it and talk about just the food (OK and wine too if one’s religion allowed that sort of thing), I suspect it might be a bit easier to get along. (photo: Katrina.)

But hey what do I know? I spend most of my days with dead people. . . . It’s called history.

Wish you were here,


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"Merci, Alfredo"

Monday turned out to be a wonderfully odd and interesting day.

It dawned clear and warm and with the good weather hanging on I headed over to Pere Lachaise to start videotaping the cemetery, division-by-division. (Susan had left for school early – in fact she leaves for school every day now.) I had no sooner dropped down into the Metro at Blvd Saint Michel than Marie called me to tell me she had bad news and then we were promptly cut off. (OK, Marie and her friend Philippe are two very knowledgeable local historians of Parisian cemeteries with whom I had a couple of meetings so far.) After I left the Metro at the Pere Lachaise stop I tried to get back to her a couple of times, left messages, and she called me back once but my phone was playing hide-and-seek in my jacket.

After this went on for about 20 minutes we hooked up at last. She informed me that the four busts in Pere Lachaise that I had identified as being missing had indeed been stolen. Her next move now is to draft a letter informing the powers-that-be of their recent misfortune. (You can find out more about the missing busts at my blog on Paris cemeteries. Just click here.)

Marie then told me that she and Philippe were going to be at Montparnasse later in the day to look for one or two people (residents of course), to check on another missing bust and then they were going to hang around for the funeral of a famous French film star later that afternoon.

“Maybe you’ve heard of him, she asked? “Philippe Noiret?”

“Of course!” I said. “C’est Alfredo”! Susan and I had just read in the papers that he had passed away in Paris but beyond that we had heard nothing else.

In fact I had been familiar with some of Philippe’s Noiret’s work for quite a few years, dating as far back as 1971 when he played a fantastic eccentric opposite Peter O’Toole in the WW2 film “Murphy’s War”. I also remember his face -- how could anyone forget it once you've seen it -- in the 1978 quirky comedy "Who's Killing the Great Chefs of Europe," and his very touching portrayal of Colonel Delaplane in the engaging and bittersweet story of love and war in “Life and Nothing But (La Vie et rien d'autre, 1989)”, and of course as Pablo Neruda in the Italian love story “Il Postino” (1994).

But it was his role as Alfredo, the irascible, endearing movie projectionist in another beautifully crafted Italian film “Cinema Paradiso” (1988) that moved both Susan and I to see the movie more than a dozen times over the years.

Told in flashbacks, Alfredo “unwillingly” takes the young boy Toto into his magical world of film, as an apprentice projectionist, a world the boy has only seen from afar (mainly from the seats in the audience). Little Toto, whose father perished on the Russian front, living in a tiny room with his mother and baby sister, barely eking out a living, and childless Alfredo become truly “father and son". But the film moves beyond such Disneyesque pretensions and tackles the real world head on. Alfredo, believing that Toto is destined for much greater things which can only be had for the price of leaving his past behind him eventually persuades the young man to leave his family, his village, everything, for the wider world of Rome, to make something of his life. And so he does eventually becoming one of Italy’s leading film directors.

As a young boy who spent much of his early years hiding out in movie theaters in central Illinois “Cinema Paradiso” touched me profoundly, it ‘spoke to me” as some are fond of saying today.

Naturally then I had to pay my respects to someone I had come to know so well – not Philippe Noiret, of course I never met him, but those delightful characters he had created; characters who told such marvelous stories with their faces.

And I knew Susan felt the same way so I tried reaching her at school but no luck. Well, no problem since she would call me as soon as she left school.

I met up with Marie and Philippe and they introduced me to their friend Hugo, a man who had clearly spent a lifetime working on his smile: it was a broad as his face. And of course he shared the same passion for cemeteries as the rest of us.

The funeral cortege was rumored to arrive in the cemetery about 4 pm – and the area near the grave was already cordoned off leaving the general public (us) to mill about behind the barricades waiting for things to happen; in fact there were probably a couple of thousand people hanging about.

A man strolled around the cordoned off area requested that no one take any photos, out of respect for the family. I packed my cameras away. (I returned Tuesday morning to photograph the graveside full of flowers.)

Susan, who was on her way home, duly called and when I told her what was happening she immediately retraced her steps back to Montparnasse and headed to the cemetery. A few minutes later she had joined our little party.

It was then announced that the funeral was running about an hour late so that gave Philippe time to show us a few of the notables buried nearby. But first he asked if there was anyone in particular I was looking for in Montparnasse. I said “Yes, Henri Fantin-Latour”, the French painter (1836-1904). Phillippe needed no further information. He immediately wheeled around and started zigzagging through a cemetery he obviously knew so well –he even had his large notebook with him which he referred to every now and then -- and a few moments later we were standing over Fantin-Latour’s grave. (photo above.) I snapped my photos and off we went weaving in and out among the headstones, dodging the occasional mud (it’s cleaning time of the year so there’s plenty of wet ground right now)

The five of us eventually worked our way back to the crowd and shortly afterwards the funeral cortege arrived: two Mercedes hearses with flowers inside as well as on top (very impressive) and then the one hearse bearing the plain wooden coffin, followed by family and friends who had been walking behind the vehicles.

Susan remarked how strange it was, that one of the most poignant scenes in the movie “Cinema Paradiso” was the one in which the adult Toto has returned after 30 years to his home in Sicily to Alfredo’s funeral; and here we were attending the funeral of the man who portrayed that sublime character. Who would have thought, that the first time we watched “Cinema Paradiso”15 years ago, that someday we would be in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, in the twilight of the day, watching Philippe Noiret’s body being laid to rest? (photo: if you look closely, the red white and blue beribboned flowers are from "Jacques" himself.)

Certainly not us.

The sun had set and darkness was fast overtaking the day. As the family and friends began breaking up so did the spectators. Susan and I said “au revoir” to Marie and Philippe – Hugo had left a bit earlier it seems – and I will probably be seeing them this weekend in Pere Lachaise. We then headed out of the cemetery. The large gates were closed and so everyone leaving had to squeeze out the small “man doors” and as we did so a wall of news people with video cameras and paparazzi immediately faced us. We waved, said “Hi mom” and “Thanks” and headed for the Metro.

“Merci, Alfredo, merci beaucoup.”

Wish you could have been here,


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving in Paris

This seems like a good time to stop, catch our breath and give thanks for our good fortune to be alive and especially to be alive in Paris.

It’s a little after 8 am; Susan left at a quarter to 6 to go to school since her class has a big outing this morning to the Rungis wholesale food market on the outskirts of the city. The market is for the trade only (restaurants, grocers, etc) and so this should be quite an experience. After that she’s in class all day so we won’t see each other until after 7 tonight. (photo: Pantheon.)

And it’s raining. In fact it’s been raining here off and on (mostly on) for the past several days. The last of the leaves should be pretty much off the trees by now and we can only wonder when we’ll see the first snowflakes.

After a less than spectacular dinner Tuesday night at a place called “Pied au Cochon” (“Pig’s foot”), near Les Halles in central Paris, we said good-bye to Anna Maria and Guy. They were off to Venice on Wednesday for a few days and then back home to New Jersey. The company was great that night even if the food less so.

It was grand to spend time with them this past week and we had a blast showing them some of our favorite places – the few we’ve been lucky enough to get to at any rate. And we appreciated seeing one or two new places as well.

On Saturday we met them in front of the Paris Mosque near our apartment and then strolled over to the Rue Mouffetard, where an antique show/flea market was underway in addition to the regular food vendors of course. (photo: Anna Maria and Susan.)

From there we strolled past the Pantheon and then through the Luxembourg gardens and I wanted to show them the woman's profile on its side in the water at of the Medici Fountain but it was gone! For the winter maybe? Who knows. Anyway after we strolled out of the gardens we stopped at a cafe next to the Sorbonne for a bite of lunch. (We sat across from the statue of Auguste Comte, the father of Sociology. Exciting, huh?)

After lunch we walked down Boulevard Saint Michel to the Cluny museum of the Middle Ages (located very close to Blvd. St. Germain), in the Latin Quarter. Anna Maria had suggested we stop and we were thankful we did. (photo above: Guy with camera, in the Jardin du Luxembourg.)

Located on the site of the baths of ancient Roman “Lutetia” (you can still see the 40-foot high vaults of the frigidarium), the Cluny eventually became the residence of the abbots of Cluny around the 13th century. It now houses some spectacular artwork from the Middle Ages: gorgeous stained glass, delicate leadwork, powerful stonework, and numerous wooden statues which look almost brand-new, nearly all of which came from buildings and locations now long lost in the city of Paris.

For example there were large fragments of tombstones dating from the Middle Ages, which had once been in the Parisian burying grounds, now lost beneath the city.

There were also sarcophagus covers:

It was an amazing museum indeed and well worth our time; and yours too if you get over this way. (Entrance is actually on rue Paul-Painleve, just off of Blvd San Michel, in the 5th Arrondisment. Admission fee. Hours: 8 or 9 (depending on the day) to 5:30 pm (winter) or 6:30 pm (summer). (photo below: interior of one of the rooms in the Cluny.)

It was late in the afternoon by the time we finished the museum. We planned to meet up again that evening for dinner and then headed off in opposite directions, Am & G to the right bank, Susan and I toward the southeast corner of the 5th arrondisement.

At a few minutes before 8 that evening we met up with Anna Maria and Guy on the Pont Neuf to watch the lights on the Eiffel tower (“tour”) kick into twinkle mode, which they do for ten minutes every hour on the hour as long as the lights stay on. After that bit of visual rush we strolled across the bridge to the left bank, up rue Dauphine toward Blvd. Saint German and eventually ended up at "L’Entrecote" for a dinner of “beef and frites.” We had eaten here once before back in September with Stan & Margie and wanted to go back again so this seemed a perfect time to do just that.

After a delicious dinner we started strolling back in the direction of their hotel when it began to rain. They hailed a cab and we said au revoir as we headed off to the Metro stop and 20 minutes later we were drying off in our apartment.

Sunday was a quiet day for us here in the 5th. Susan ran a few errands and I met up with my “friends from Pere Lachaise”, Philippe and Marie. We had hoped to spend some time out in the cemetery to begin our podcast taping but the weather pretty much put the kibosh on that.

So we met up instead at a trendy bar across from the Pompidou Center to talk about the first podcast: structure, outline and exactly whom we wanted to focus on. We decided to focusour first podcast in just three divisions for the first show (there are overall 97 divisions), 8, 9 and 10. We chose these three because they have a fairly large number of people buried there about whom my colleagues know quite a bit. Also the physical layout of those divisions lends itself to some truly spectacular photos, it's very chaotic, wityh lots of upturned and overturned old stones covered with overgrowth, a very ruined look.

After coffee and some lively discussion, mostly about Parisian history, the three of us strolled a couple of blocks to the Les Halles area where I was given a tour of the original, and the oldest cemetery in Paris (dating back to the 8th century): Les Innocents, located directly beneath our feet.

I was also shown some truly fascinating architectural remnants dating back to the Middle Ages and of course the very spot where a Catholic fanatic assassinated Henry IV. In fact there is a marker there on the ground as well as one on the wall, which used to be the outside wall of the cemetery. Oh, and in case youn wondered, it’s Henry’s statue that sits midway across the Pont Neuf bridge.

As the shadows began to lengthen it was only natural that the sky began to clear. Paris has been the way a lot lately it seems – beautiful sun turning to rain then to overcast back to rain and back to sun. But there was no time for Pere Lachaise now so I said au revoir to Philippe and Marie and headed home.

Susan had to be in school most of Monday and Guy wanted to just relax and take a breather. Since Anna Maria wanted to see Pere Lachaise -- and I couldn’t pass an opportunity to show her my favorite folks who are forever stuck in that place – so it would just be the two of us. I picked her up about 11 in the morning and off we went: Metro line no. 11 to Republique where we transferred to the no. 3 and then off at Pere Lachaise.

We spent the next hour and a half or so walking around the cemetery, chatting, mostly about the people around us. Anna Maria’s interests are profoundly broad and deep and her genuine interest in the cemetery as a repository of Parisian history, culture and art was truly amazing.

Before long the rain caught up with us so after time spent under the umbrella – me not her. She seemed unfazed by it all, intent on what was all around her. So we headed back to the city center where I said au revoir. We planned to meet up the following evening for a final dinner before they left Paris.

Tuesday was pretty much rain again, but that didn’t dampen the huge contingent firemen who took to the streets to protest low wages and I don’t know what else. They clashed with police just a block from our apartment.

I was working on the computer and kept hearing this incessant siren – not that it’s terribly unusual to hear sirens around here, in fact we hear them all the time – but this just wouldn’t stop. I look outside and saw that traffic just below our window was being rerouted away from Blvd. Saint Marcel and as I looked up to toward boulevard I could see smoke and wave after wave of firemen – in their outfits mind you – marching, waving flags, chanting, yelling, shooting off fireworks, setting flare fires along the ground. There was plenty of smoke, and apparently plenty of police as well.

Ah Paris.

Wish you were here,