Sunday, August 27, 2006

Graduation, basically


Today (Sunday) will be our one-month anniversary in Paris – and I must say it seems so long ago that we were actually living in Florence (Italy not South Carolina). I suppose that comes as a natural result of the intense nature of the past three weeks or so, particularly for Susan but for us both as well. This past Thursday Susan completed the Basic Patisserie (Pastry) course at Le Cordon Bleu and graduation ceremonies were on Friday. (I posted photos online; you can see them by simply clicking here.)

The ceremony itself was quite a well-orchestrated affair – very much like high school graduation and very much unlike the complete absence of any sort of “closure” at Apicius this past May. Chairs were set up in the “Winter Garden”, the student lounge at the school. The seats were all full – students and quite a few guests in attendance –in fact it was standing room only. After a few words by one of the school administrators, all translated from the French of course, several of the school’s head chefs were introduced and the two who had been in charge of the Basic Cuisine and Basic Patisserie programs respectively were given an opportunity to say a few words before the certificates were handed out. (By the way, speaking of translation issues there was one student from Spain I think who didn’t speak either French or English and whose mother I believe was translating for her.)

Following the ceremony everyone retired to the demonstration class room where there was food and champagne set up for toasting the new graduates. The talk was all about baking, cooking and the school and naturally everyone felt that great sense of relief that comes from completing something that demanded so much of one’s intellectual and emotional energy compressed into a short space of time.

(I should point out a bit of curious perspective here. Just the day before, Thursday, several students from the Basic Patisserie went out to lunch following the practical portion of the final exam: Paul, Lori, Ann, Susan and I, Tatiana, Diarmid, Laura, and Valerie. Following a nice lunch the talk naturally turned to the school and there were a number of points raised about the unfairness of some of the written exam questions (accurate) and then the conversation turned to the school’s approach to marketing, that there seemed to be more of a focus on image than on technique, etc. The next day while reading Julia Child’s last book, “My Life in France”, Susan came across Julia relating how her favorite chef at Le Cordon Bleu, chef Mangalette, who then ran his own restaurant, lamented to her that Le Cordon Bleu “was focused on a mad scramble for money rather than on the excellent training of their pupils. The school had lowered its standards, he said.”And this more than 60 years ago!)

After the reception several of us – Valerie and Lori (who had been in the same group with Anna and Susan) and Lori’s friend Georgia -- joined Anna and her husband Pietro and their two kids for lunch. The day was absolutely gorgeous, not a cloud in the sky, bright sun, blue sky, perfect temp and we were in Paris; all in all a pretty awesome combination. We made plans to rendezvous at the restaurant at 1 pm.

Pietro suggested a restaurant, La Ferme Saint Simon (on rue Saint-Simon, near the Rue de Bac Metro), which he knew fairly well. We placed our trust in Pietro since he is something of an expert when it comes to dining out in Paris: he eats out frequently in the city and has developed a keen sense of what’s good and what’s not so good. Better yet he knows where the really good food and wine values are in a city that is often mistaken for being a bit on the extreme side when it comes to dining costs. (He should put a guide together; his knowledge is so broadly based and thorough.)

So we arrived at the restaurant and, given that many Parisians were still on holiday, Pietro found a place to park right in front! We went in, sat and chatted as we waited for the rest of the group to show up (Lori, Georgia and Valerie). As time slipped by and the staff became a bit anxious – the restaurant was going to stop taking orders after 2 pm – and although the rest of the group had not arrived, we started ordering. Which proved to be just the tonic since we had no sooner placed our orders and Pietro was just about to begin ordering the wine when the other three showed up.

We all had a pleasant afternoon – and most had fish I might add, sea bream (“dorade”) seemed to be the hit of the afternoon. It was baked with a crust of grains and seeds on the skin-side and made eating the skin a real tasty treat – something which surprised even Pietro! What a grand time we had together before everyone went their separate ways.

The food generated the conversation as it seems to do naturally in France (as in Italy) and of course the conversation turned to Le Cordon Bleu --- but on a more upbeat note than the previous day’s luncheon. The simple fact is that this wonderful experience had been a truly fantastic accomplishment – the fact that they did it all is amazing to me even now. Naturally I suffer from prejudice of a sort – a strong sort I admit – and can’t wait to see what the intermediate level will bring for Susan and by extension for me as well. Still I felt a pang of sadness for those folks not going on – I understand why they can’t or won’t since they all have other major demands on their lives right now. I can only say that from my perspective for Susan to enroll in the entire diploma program was, is, I believe, the smart move. There won’t be any half measures: just A-Z, alpha to omega, beginning to the end.

This is a great time to be alive and in Paris, believe me.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Demonstration class

Sitting here this morning in our living room, having a bite of breakfast before she left for school, Susan turned to me and said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this, I can’t believe we’re doing this” and then a broad smile crept across her face as she quietly returned to her notes getting ready for class. Every day she says the same thing and every day I say “I can’t either.” Is this great or what?!

Anyway, yesterday Tuesday, 22 August was the day Susan had arranged for me to attend one of the demonstration classes. The demo class is where the chef instructor prepares several recipes, one of which the students will then prepare immediately afterwards in the practical session. Visitors are apparently not permitted to observe the practical sessions. I assume because we would simply get in the way of an otherwise pretty crowded environment, the work kitchen.

I caught up with Susan and several other students as they were getting ready to break for lunch – I had the foresight to bring my own lunch as well – and we all strolled over to a small park by the Vaugirard Metro stop. It was beautiful day, the sun was out in strength for a change and sunglasses were de rigueur so naturally I had forgotten to bring mine. Much of the talk about the written portion of the final exam – some students were clearly unhappy with what they considered to be unfair questions on the exam, and from what I could tell they had a perfect right to be unhappy. Still, the course is largely pass/fail and, as someone in our little lunch group said, “as long as I get 50% I’m happy,” which pretty much echoed the feelings of the group in the park at any rate. For some, however, inequity is, well, inequity and should be reported and made right I guess. (photo: (l-r) Susan, anna, Valerie and Laurie.)

So the written exam is done and now the big worry is the practical portion since it counts for majority of the grade and naturally everyone wants to not only do well but to shine at the same time. That and where to have lunch Thursday after the exam!

But it was too nice a day to forget that the really important thing was we were in Paris, sitting on a park bench and dressed in cute chef outfits – well I wasn’t of course. And thinking of the outfits, the pants, the coats, brings to mind something someone once said to Susan recently, back in Italy I think, that she had in just traded one white coat in for another. A key difference being, besides the logo and name above the left breast, is that one was covered with bodily fluids and the other with chocolate. A significant difference here.

We drifted back to the school. Anna, Laurie and Valerie stopped for coffee on the way – we still haven’t gotten used to French coffee – and at 12:30 we were all in the demonstration classroom, flanked by monitors on both sides of the class (close circuit camera tracking from one side), and a sloped mirror on the ceiling running the entire width of the counter/work tops. It was just like being in a TV studio, actually, or science classroom with the amphitheater seating. I was half expecting them to wheel out a cadaver and really get going.

Several of us were sitting in as visitors, including Georgia one of Laurie’s friends from the US, who sat next to me in the back, and we were all provided with copies of the recipes to follow along, which was pretty cool.


So I had the camera at the ready and we were off, with the chef speaking French, the translator translating into English, questions from the audience occasionally in French and usually in English. At first it seemed a bit frenetic – which Susan said later was not typical. But things soon settled down once the chef and the translator got their rhythm in sync with one another and we watched a master create three different desserts, a couple of them simultaneously. Very cool indeed. (photo: (l-r) Laurie and Georgia.)

After about 2 1/2 hours the demonstration was finished and everyone rushed forward with digital cameras in hand to snap photos. Lest you think they do this just because it is the thing today to take photos everywhere – the simple fact is the students wanted to have a visual record to check their own work later after they finish the practical – “this is how the thing is supposed to look” as opposed to “my god what I have done!”

So everyone crowded up to the front to gawk and snap pictures – and then the feeding began. Everything was cut up, plated and handed out for the tasting – I mean seeing is one thing but you have to know what a thing is supposed to taste like as well, right? Some folks clearly we concerned about their abilities to replicate the tastes exactly so they had to return for a couple of helpings. Please note that there were no large people in the room – aside from myself of course as a consequence of the things Susan brings home, six days a week! Make her stop, please!

Anyway it was real blast to see one of the classes in action and I hope to be able to get back for another later this fall.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Update on the update


I mentioned in my last update that while aboard a boat cruising the Seine during the school dinner this last Friday we had seen a fellow dressed as a zouave standing at the base of the statue of a zouave, a statue which is found near the right bank side of one of the bridges along the Seine. Well that bridge is the "Pont Alma" (thanks Beata) and I've attached a photo it to help give you an idea of this rather odd but pleasant tiny attraction on the Seine. The locals use it as a barometer of sorts to measure the flood stages of the river -- and that ther have been reports of the river coming up to the neck in years past. (Note also you can just see one of the legs of the Eiffel tower in the right background.)

Wish you were here,

Steve

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Paris Week three.


When will it never end?! The butter, the cream, the butter cream, the crème, the beurre, the dough, the chocolate! What torture inflicted upon an innocent bystander! One minute I’m minding my own business, and then the next thing I know Susan walks in the door with a couple of hundred pounds of pastries she made during that day. Figure it out: Susan makes enough food for a family of six every day six days a week and we wind up with a lot of pastry in the house. (photo: steve standing along the seine, after two weeks of eating susan's pastries.)

Ok I’ve got that off my chest. Thanks.

Well, it’s rainy again this Sunday afternoon. We did have sun early on with a huge sky full of gorgeous clouds – very much like a western Michigan sky in fact, and then out of nowhere, BAM! rain and then gone again replaced by sun and clouds you eat on a stick. Then just when I thought it’s safe to out without an umbrella – fool that I was this morning -- BAM! again I get caught in it. Still watching the weather drift casually but inexorably in from the west from our balcony is a real pleasure and makes the climb worthwhile every day. And the temps have been just right too. Great for sleeping or traveling the Metro!

So it’s been another week of intense school for Susan. She’s two-thirds of the way through the basic level and finals are next week already and in fact she’s studying right now for the written exam, which is Monday. The practical – the really important exam is Thursday. Then a break of a few days off followed by a slower-paced intermediate level before the last, Superior level (in French only mind you), again intensive, and then she’s done in mid-December.

With my exploration of Pere Lachaise largely behind me – OK one or two more trips and then really I swear that’s it -- I’ve turned my attention this past week to another thing I’ve been wanting to do for some time: bring my civil war project to some sort of “closure.”
And so the big news is that at long last the history of the Third Michigan Infantry is done. Not finished mind you – it probably never will, not in my lifetime at any rate. But I hope to have it ready for sale online in an electronic format next month. And in hopes of generating some interest just today (Sunday) I finished the press release and sent off a note to my Third Michigan email list.

Whew!

Still we had time for a couple of interesting outings this past week.


On Tuesday, the 15th, a major holiday here in France, there was no school so in the afternoon we headed off to explore more of the historic center. In particular we wanted to spend a bit of time along there Seine, to check out the Isle St. Louis – worth anyone’s time I might add -- and of course the Parisian “beaches” (“la plage”). The beaches show you just how imaginative a city government can be. First they brought in tons of sand, and laid down boardwalks and put out hundreds of deck chairs and sponsored all kinds of cool stuff for everybody to do as they strolled along the “beach” and they even covered the large overhead streetlights with blue plastic to add to the effect at night, since blue seems to be the “hot’ color here. And they also laid down palm trees and tropical plants – not just in buckets mind you but actually brought in soil and put in overhead misting sprinklers to make a truly tropical garden! Imagination at work! I mean how hard is that? Apparently pretty difficult for lots of folks and I wonder why. Sounds civilized to me.(photo: "la plage".)

And speaking of civilized I don’t know if I mentioned it or not in my last update but we finally got our high-speed Internet access working in our apartment. OK, so big deal you say? Well – get this – for €30 a month (which is included in our rent) we get blazin’ fast connection to the internet, scads of TV channels (including al Jazeera, Algerian TV, Tunisian TV, Polish TV, 3 Italian channels, Classicla music channel, you get the picture) and unlimited calling to 53 countries including the US! Now is that civilized or what?

Anyway around the two islands in the Seine before heading off on the Metro to the Big Arc and strolling along the Champs Elysees. After a glass of wine on the Champs watching the world we took the Metro home, and that night we ate out at a nearby Indian restaurant. Not bad food, actually pretty tasty, and good portions (meaning small). The Indian wine was, uh, shall we say, interesting? The service was goofy and frankly given the number of places to eat here we won’t be going back. Next up we hope Vietnamese. And I don’t mean the Vietnamese food I had when I was there last, which was, how should I put this, far, very far from the Michelin crowd.

Friday night we had yet another pleasingly odd dining experience. Le Cordon Bleu put on a dinner aboard one of the (many) Seine dinner cruise boats and I got myself invited to go along. Susan After class Susan dashed home and after a quick change we headed off on the Metro (one change) to the Eiffel tower, where the boat was moored, arriving in plenty of time before sailing. We sat with the students in Susan’s practical group and what a cool bunch! American, Canadian, French, quite a diverse group – but you knew that already and quite unlike Apicius in Florence. Anyway there was live music – a trio hitting all the top 10 from past 30 years – and while the food was mediocre and the wine more so, the company was fantastic, conversation lively, but the views from the boat along the Seine at night were worth the price of admission – simply stunning.


And put this in your hat: along one of the bridges – I forget which one now but I think near the Isle de Cite’ – there is a large statue of a French zouave soldier from the 19th century, a statue which has over the years become the barometer for the height of the river, I might add, and which is almost at river level, built into one of the pilings. Anyway, the Zouave soldier wore a uniform, which consisted of fez, bright, colored baggy pants and colorful red shirts and were so popular that they were adopted by a number of regiments (north and south) in the American Civil War. Anyway, as we were passing the bridge, there along the base of the statue – at a location that could only be accessed by small boat – was a man dressed in the very same uniform! Waving to everyone who went by. Whoa! Now this is really cool we thought.

But then we couldn’t help but notice the statues built into the bridges – not just the ones for show but statues built literally inside the bridge infrastructure, as if they were somehow participating in the holding up of that bridge or in doing something on the bridge. But this seems very typical of statuary here – dynamic, fluid somehow. I don’t now much about this stuff but man oh man take a boat ride at night, when you’re not distracted by the buildings, when you’re focused pretty much on the bridges – all 23 of them – each one with a different lighting pattern, a different expression inherent in the shape of the bridge as well as in the accessories – such as statues, then you get a sense of what this city is all about.

After the boat docked – it was about 11 pm – we had a nice stroll along the Seine on our way to the Metro stop (Bir Hakeim in case you asked) and home because we both had an early morning.

And now as Susan starts her final week of basic pastry I turn my attention to Montparnasse cemetery.

But we are so lucky to be here and wish you could be here too – if for no other reason than to help eat all this pastry. . .


Steve

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Pastry, cake and the oddly departed


Well it’s a cloudy, cool and rainy Sunday in Paris. Pretty much what the weather has been like here for the past two days or so. Still it still didn’t stop me from finishing five good days of shooting in the enormous park of Pere Lachaise cemetery. (photo: Charles-Phillipe Lafont.)

For the two of us this past week, our second week in fact, has been focused on Le Cordon Bleu for Susan (see her note on this blog) and Pere Lachaise for me.

(Out of consideration for you folks who are terribly inclined to know about such things, I have set up a second blog which will be just for my wanderings around the Paris cemeteries, documenting through photos these beautiful parks of history, full of sculpture, history and flowers, these ‘cities of the dead” where one can find the final resting places of the likes of Chopin, Bizet, Sarah Bernhardt, Heloise and Abelard, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Maria Callas, Richard Wright – the list goes on and on. And then there are the whimsical graves of such people as George Rodenbach, Charles-Phillipe Lafanton, and Paul Doucherat, plus the numerous memorials to war dead as well as the Jewish deportees during the Second World War. Click here to check it out at!)


The only big news so far this week is that we finally got online at home. On Friday I went to the post office to pick up a package they couldn’t deliver to our mailbox (since it was too big) and lo and behold our ADSL system setup kit arrived. Our landlady Drea had arranged this in advance and we were expecting the package any day. Although the instructions were in French the kit came with a handy, very user-friendly CDROM which led me through, step-by-step the installation procedure. Everything was also nicely color coded as well (the red cable for the red jack that sort of thing). So now we have broadband Internet connection with our ADSL modem – but wait! There’s more! The kit also includes unlimited telephone calling to 53 countries worldwide (the US being one of them) and also WiFi and a host of TV channels not available anywhere else – all through the telephone line! All for €30 a month! Now that’s progress.


Of course, there are the requisite number of glitches, largely as a result of us not knowing the language probably: the software disk for the wireless card wasn’t in the kit; the TV connection won’t, well, connect to the channels; and we are uncertain whether “out of the box” we have the unlimited phone service yet. The company (“Neuf”) seems well organized, with great websites – if we just knew French! Hey but one of our goals this week is to line up French lessons. (photo: Elisa de Beauchesne.)

Yesterday afternoon I also did some more exploring of the Metro system – the rain being a good excuse to stay underground I suppose -- as I found my way to one of the numerous English language bookshops (W. H. Smith) just off the Place de Concorde. It was then back to the Hotel de Ville to BHV, the department store for a new robe for me and then home. Last night I fixed a pork roast, with little potatoes, and cauliflower. And for dessert we had leftovers (see Susan’s note from today).


And speaking of desserts, by now you know that Susan has been bringing plenty of good stuff home – and she is seriously contemplating leaving much of her “practical work” with one of the numerous homeless on the street as she walks home from the Metro. It is way too much food for just the two of us. Although with the leftover apple tart I took the remaining apples and sautéed them in butter and then added chunks of turkey breast (“dinde”) seared in balsamic vinegar, and served with a roasted potato-cauliflower concoction. Yummy. (photo: George Rodenbach.)

Susan had Sunday off from school, both of us working on blog notes, getting caught up on emails, doing laundry and just relaxing at home since the rain put a damper on cruising the city sights anyway. We do hope to get out this evening, though and try a nearby Indian restaurant where they specialize in Tandoori and curries. Being food-oriented it will probably be the high point of the day. But then we find ourselves focusing on food a lot here in Paris; in that we are just continuing a fine tradition began in Italy. It is probably also the closest thing we have in common with the Parisians so far.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Susan's update from week 1


What can I say but “I’m happy to be here” (right Stan?) I have just completed my first week of classes in the Diploma of Pastry program here at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and it has been absolutely FANTASTIC! The staff, the organization, the chefs, the students, the facilities, the recipes, the demonstrations, and the practical sessions --- needless to say, everything has been great. (photo: at work in the kitchen.)

We began Monday morning, August 7, at 9:30 am for our orientation during which we reviewed the rules and policies of the school, safety tips, scheduling, etc, and then we were given a tour of the facilities and received our equipment and uniforms. We then plunged right in with our first demonstration class, followed by a second demonstration and our first practical class making shortbread, a pastry basic. We also practiced using a pastry bag, making various shapes and just generally getting the feel of how to hold the bag. We didn’t finish that first day until 9 pm. Whew!

Fortunately we did not have to be back in school until 3:30pm on Tuesday, so it gave everyone a chance to catch their breath, especially those students who had just arrived in Paris the Saturday or Sunday before classes began. I felt fortunate to have arrived a week earlier, giving us time to get our feet wet so to speak.

Tuesday was another demonstration followed by our practical class in which we made a classic French apple tart. (Click here to see some of the photos I took in class this past week.)

I won’t go into detail about each class, but in general the demonstrations are given by one of the chefs in French. Once the demonstration is finished the chef displays all of the things that he made in a decorative fashion on a table where we are all able to take pictures of the finished product. There is a translator who repeats everything in English as we go. We have recipes provided in French and English, but nothing else is written down for us as far as the methods involved. Basically, we have to take notes on how the recipe is carried out, that being the way the school feels it is best to learn the techniques and steps involved in any particular recipe. The translators are good, and there is a comfortable rapport between them and the chefs, with plenty of joking and laughter thrown in. A number of students do speak and understand French, but there are also a good number of us who don’t and really rely on the translation.


The practical sessions focus on one or two of the recipes that were presented in the preceding demonstration. The chefs do speak some English during the practicals, but I do have to rely on my fellow French-speaking students for help with translation. And speaking of French I realize that I have a lot to learn before I get to the superior level later this fall. Because this basic intensive level is indeed just that – intensive – I don’t have time to do much more than attend class, but we both plan to start French language lessons come September when my more relaxed intermediate level schedule begins.(photo: St. Honore cake, before the pastry cream.)


What really impresses me is the student body here. I expected it would be an eclectic mix of people from all backgrounds and from all over the world, and, indeed it is. Everyone is here to learn, that’s for sure, and there is a much better sense among the students of wanting to be here compared to what I experienced at Apicius in Florence. A number of them are here just for the basic level, but there are a number of us who will be doing the full diploma program. (photo: St. Honore cake after the pastry cream. Yes she brought it home thank you very much.)

To give you some idea of what I’m talking about, I have to describe this interesting mix of people, backgrounds and nationalities. There is a man from Ireland who lives in Dubai and works for PepsiCo, and who is here on his vacation; then there’s a Parisian woman who works as an engineer but is taking the basic intensive course on her 3 week August holiday; and another woman who is from Canada, has dual French and Italian citizenship (being born to Italian parents in Montreal), is a former ER nurse (go figure) and lives in Paris with her husband and 2 children, and also taking this on her 3 week holiday; then there’s a woman from Spain who studied theology but decided she loves to cook so she is pursuing that passion – her husband is actually in graduate school in theology in England where they are currently living, and she is saving her money to take the individual certificate levels in pastry whenever she can afford it; and the woman from Alaska whose husband is from Vermont (she actually flew out of Rutland to Boston on her way to Paris), who is pregnant, and is taking a year’s leave of absence from teaching French to study and have her baby (and is actually going on to Apicius in Florence after she finishes this basic pastry program here); and the woman Portuguese corporate lawyer who lives and works in South Africa and doesn’t want to work in law anymore; the woman from Washington D.C. who is a fund raiser for the National Cathedral who wants to pursue cooking; and several young people from China; a lovely young woman from Thailand; several young people from Brazil; an Egyptian woman who lives in LA now and is a lab tech at LA County Hospital, who also loves to bake and is here on her vacation as well. Everyone is seeking something new and different, just like me. It is a wonderful atmosphere in which to learn.

My days at school have been generally 9-12 hours long with not much break time, but I keep telling myself that 9-12 hours of baking is much better than 9-12 hours in the emergency room. We start in again bright and early Monday morning for a full 13-hour day, but we do get a break with Tuesday, August 15 being a “bank holiday” in much of Europe (they call it “ferragosto” in Italy”). For the remainder of the week we have 10-hour days, including Saturday. Friday evening will bring a nice respite. The school is sponsoring a dinner cruise on the Seine, with a menu that sounds pretty darn delicious – and this being France wines will of course accompany each course. Steve will be able to go along (the lucky guy).

Speaking of lucky, Steve is in 7th heaven now since I am able to bring home everything I make. For some weeks I have been hearing “When are you going to bake something?” but now it’s “What are we going to do with all this stuff?” Needless to say there are plenty of baked goods in the house now, and Steve is doing his level best to taste as many as possible in the shortest time possible (we don’t want them to spoil now do we?) Things such as . . delightful shortbread cookies, French apple tart, a pound cake with fruits, Madeleines (tiny pound cake-like delicacies), “Gateau Basque” (a pastry cream filled cake), “St. Honore” (a delectable concoction made with short pastry, small cream puffs and chantilly cream), apple turnovers, “palmiers” (thing crispy sugared puff pastry cookies), chocolate éclairs and little “chouquettes” (little sugar-covered cream puffs). Whew! And that’s just the first week!

Once I begin the intermediate level the end of August I will have class only 2, or maybe 3 days a week, so I will certainly have more time to start studying French as well as continuing to enjoy Paris and discovering some of the surrounding areas.

Steve has been spending the last week at Pere Lachaise cemetery so he’s been in 8th heaven (having moved on from 7th of course).

We hope to visit our niece Christina and her new baby Kiera in Giessen, Germany, visit the D-Day beaches in Normandy, go to Verdun and of course explore some of the wine country in the nearby regions and generally get a better feel for France and the French people. We’re also looking forward to Stan and Margaret’s visit in September.

I count myself among one of the luckiest people in the world. Studying pastry in Paris – who could ask for anything more??!!

Take care everyone!

Wish you were here,

Au revoir,

Susan

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Anniversary times 2

Sunday, August 6 was our one-week anniversary in Paris and coincidentally our 23rd anniversary of marriage. Standing out on the Berry’s terrace that warm August afternoon 23 years ago, in between the spitting rain showers, as the jazz trio set up in the house after the ceremony and while everyone got ready for the reception, who would have thought that 23 years later we would be living in a small apartment Paris, setting out on new and unknown adventures?

Certainly not us. But here we are. And, as someone has often remarked, “we’re just happy to be here.”

Sunday was a lazy day for us, probably the last for some time. Susan begins pastry school at Le Cordon Bleu in earnest Monday morning and I head off to Pere Lachaise cemetery for the first of many days I hope, of photographing, blogging, videotaping, the some of the city’s finest outdoor sculpture – not to mention the final resting places of some of the worlds most famous people. This should be very interesting indeed.

So we spent the morning in and just enjoying life. Shortly after midday we packed up a lunch – baguettes and cheese and a couple of oranges and strolled over to the Jardin du Luxembourg, west of us and just across the 6th arr. line. (For a selection of photos click here!)

When we were first in Paris this past May to check out the school we wandered by accident into this huge, beautiful garden, and were immediately struck by how comfortable it seemed. This, like so much of the other green space in Paris is not only free but is in fact specifically designed today for the public: the huge number of chairs scattered throughout the park where people just plop down with a book, a newspaper or lunch, or with nothing at all and just doze away sitting in the afternoon sun, certainly attest to that fact.

Moreover, the islands of flowers, usually at the base of a bit of sculpture, draw the eye to a flood of color and are themselves canvases on which someone has struggled to lay out a purpose of design or imagined some idea made manifest in a floral arrangement. (Unlike the Boboli Gardens in Florence, which are not free, not user friendly and, well, have virtually now flowers.)

Aside from the sheer imagination at work in the extent and design of the flowers throughout the city gardens, another thing that makes Paris truly unique is an attitude of tolerance, such as the sign that walking on the grass is permitted. Although there was a gendarme strolling near the large fountain warning folks away from moving their chairs to the edge of the fountain – thus blocking the way for the kids to run their rented toy sailboats I suppose – there are really very few signs that say “don’t do this” or “this is prohibited”. And yet not a handful of meters away, looming over the gardens is the Palace du Luxembourg, the home of the French Senate. One would hardly realize there was any security at all there were it not for the two gendarmes standing the gorgeous flowerbeds at the edge of the palace.

Now that’s civilized.

After sitting for a while and then strolling through the park – we came across a small orchard where each piece of fruit is protected with paper or in some cases plastic wrap. From there we continued our walk, just sort of drifting with sweep of the pathways. Eventually we came to one of the entrances/exists, where there was plenty of chess activity going on. (Also a WC by the way; 20 cents to go in please note.) From the gardens we headed north through the Place d’Odeon to the Place St. Sulpice, dominated by a church whose bulk seems oddly out of place smack in the middle of a very trendy neighborhood of upscale shops. A curiously but typically french contrast I suppose.

From there we strolled just a few short blocks up Rue Napoleon to the church (“eglise”) of St. Germain-des-Pres. Formerly an enormous Benedictine abbey this once sprawling estate covered much of the surrounding left bank, but today is reduced to a fraction of it’s original size. It is also one of the oldest bits of spaces extant in the city and worth a stop, just to catch your breath and try and appreciate what life must have been like right where you’re standing 500 years ago, and while you’re at it also try and appreciate how much has changed since then, altering our perspectives dramatically of what is and is not important.

We walked back out of the church into the hot sun – welcome perhaps but we’re trusting the gods would be carried away with this heat thing. This city doesn’t need a replay of the killer heat wave of 2003. So we just walked along and found a café, sat and had an aperitif (Kir royal for our anniversary), talking about Monday morning. Needless to say Susan is one excited young woman.

After we left the café we found our way to the nearest metro stop and headed back to the apartment.

I fixed a pork roast slathered in olive oil and herbes de provence, surrounded by chunks of fennel. We had the standard haricot verts and mashed potatoes with butter, juice from the roast and fennel and mustard vinaigrette, accompanied by a young Pommard.

All in all not a bad anniversary.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Food, flowers and the Paris Mosque


Saturday was another beautiful day here in Paris, and we spent most of it just settling, doing laundry (there is a washer and dryer in the apartment) and waiting for the delivery of the new bed – they came about 9 am.

OK, first the Mosque. It is one the prettiest buildings we have seen in a city of wonderful architecture. It is just a block up from our apartment and directly opposite the entrance to the Jardin des Plantes, which is now Susan’s favorite walking route. (photo: Paris Mosque on Rue G. St. Hillaire.)

The building is open to the public (€3) every day except Friday and Muslim holidays. The sunken gardens are stunning and there is even a lovely tearoom with garden, which also serves light meals of North African cuisine and one of the city’s best Hammams (Turkish baths).


After returning from her walk through the Jardin Saturday morning Susan informed me that the promenades through the central artery of the garden are now open. Later that evening I grabbed the camera and the two of us headed back there. Truly the flowers are gorgeous: they seem to be arranged, as Susan pointed out, with attention to color and interaction among colors. For example, a long line of just green plants but of varying shades, then a line of reds and a line of pinks and then one of oranges and yellows and reds all mixed together as if they had been arranged for a table decoration. Beautiful.

We returned home and relaxed for the rest of the evening. About 9 or so I ambled into the kitchen and got to work.

For dinner we had simple steamed long grain rice, topped with cold roasted chicken shredded and mixed with a Maille vinaigrette (the Maille store is at Place de la Madeleine) and the required haricot vert, blanched, accompanied by a simple Sancerre. Susan’s homemade chocolate chip cookies rounded out the meal – she actually found brown sugar here! They were deeeeeeelicious – and the brown sugar used here gave them an almost toasted like quality.

Wish you were here,

Steve


(photo: Old Mini with the right idea about parking protection: buoy tenders front and rear!.)

Steve

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Paris Day Five


A quiet Saturday morning; the sun is on and off and it looks pretty dark to the west right now. Someone from BHV, the big Paris department store just called and said they’d be bringing the second bed in about 20 minutes. That’s good news since we thought we were going to have wait around half the day for the bed. But not now.(photo: Jardin des Plantes.)

Yesterday, Friday morning, started out overcast and quite chilly, but by midday the sun had broken through. After a relaxing morning we grabbed our Metro passes and headed out for western Paris. We walked to our nearest Metro station (Censier/Daubenton) and hopped aboard the no. 7, getting off at the Louvre. From there we walked through the Tuileries Garden then skirted the Place de la Concorde and walked along the right bank of the Seine to the Pont de l’Alma, crossed to the left bank (“rive gauche”) and stopped briefly at the American church. We had hoped to pickup some information but the various English language publications such as the Paris Voice and FUSAC are on holiday through August. We did grab some flyers for language lessons and then headed back out into the street.

From the church we walked a few short blocks to the Metro stop at Les Invalides (where Napoleon is buried six coffins deep) and hopped on the no. 8 north to Place de la Madeleine, in the center of which lies the hulking mass of stone church called, surprise Ste Marie Madeleine (“Mary Magdalen”). Modeled on the Parthenon in Athens this massive structure is surrounded by some 52 Corinthian columns (so I’ve read) and is impressive for its sheer size (and the substantial construction going on all around the church and the Place) but also from the fact that, well, it doesn’t look like any church we’ve seen in Europe. Apparently it was the church of choice for the cream of Parisian society in the 19th century. Go figure.

More tempting to us however, were some of Paris’ finest food shops surrounding the Place. Here are the adult toyshops for serious gourmand: Fauchon, Hediard’s, shops catering to just caviar and several specializing in foie grois, while just down the rue de la Madeleine at no. 3 is the enormous wine shop and restaurant, “Lavinia”. They have a huge selection of wines form around the world: whther you’re looking for Ukranian wine or silver Oak from California, a Brunello or reserva Rioja you’ll probably find it here, as well as a huge selection of whiskies and cognacs and armagnacs. Plus there is a café/restaurant and wine bar.

We turned right off of rue de la Madeleine onto Rue des Capuchines and a short block later turned right again down rue de la Paix to investigate the Place Vendome. Aside from the Ministry of Justice and a handful of high-end shops there is little to see there and even less shade as well – and since the sun was out in force by this time we backtracked to Rue des Capuchines and continued eastward, although the street changed names to rue Danielle Casanova. We stopped for a lunch of bread, cheese and greens at the café “Fuxia” on the Place du marche St. Honore.

We crossed Avenue de l’Opera, and on our left up the avenue we could see the Place de l’Opera dominated by the huge Opera Garnier. The avenue, we are informed is kept free of trees on purpose so as not to obstruct the view of the building and a spectacular view it is. Built between 1865 and 1872 the construction was slowed when it was discovered there was a huge water table directly beneath the building. This had to be drained and replaced by a large concrete well, thus, says the Rough Guide, giving rise to the “legend of an underground lake, popularized by Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera.”

As one strolls through this part of the city the Rough Guide to Paris suggests keeping an eye out for the “passages” or “galleries”. These are early 19th century covered shopping and business arcades covered with painted ceilings, lots of wood and full of character. Some 100 of these passages existed in 1840, but most were destroyed later in the 19th century by Baron Haussmann, prefect of Paris (akin to the mayor) under Napoleon III. He was tasked with rebuilding the city and worked his “magic” to transform Paris into the city we see today with its wide, straight tree-lined boulevards. These little passages seem to pop up out of nowhere and the several we saw along our route we packed with tiny cafes and shops selling antiques, clothes, jewelry, wine. Anyway if you’re heading down Rue Danielle Casanova/Rue des Petits Champs watch for several of these remarkable little arcades, in particular Galleries Vivienne and Colbert.

Rue des Petits Champs becomes Rue Etienne Marcel at the Place des Victoires and we continued our walk to the now (in)famous Les Halles. Originally the site of the city’s central food market for more than 800 years it was radically altered in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The market was moved out to the suburbs we are informed, and the wrought iron and glass pavilions were torn down, replaced by one of the city’s ugliest landmarks. Even the Parisians who usually eventually forgive everything (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Pompidou Centre) have refused to embrace this tacky underground shopping mall. The singular redeeming value is that there is some attractive green space on the surface but even that is marred by buildings which seem to have no purpose – and no life – and that come straight out of a poorly made science fiction film. Still, we came across three middle age German women painting watercolors so who are we to say.

We didn’t dally long at Les Halles, but quickly headed for Blvd. de Sebastopol, where we turned right (south) and headed toward the Hotel de Ville (city hall) and to the department store BHV. After taking a few backstreet shortcuts we found ourselves among 30,000 or so other folks seeking to make the most out of the sale days before they left for the weekend. And so we did too.


After we picked up a few things for the apartment we hiked a few blocks to the Metro station at Chatelet and caught the number 7 back to Censier/Daubenton. (photo: view from our balcony.)

We have resigned ourselves to the fact that we could spend the rest of our lives in this city and still barely scratch the surface (or underground for that matter). That’s a truly wonderful thing, too.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Random notes from the 5th

It spitted rain off and on yesterday, Thursday, so we stayed close to home. Which turned out to be a wise move since a guy (in French: “guy”) came to do some routine maintenance on the hot water heater, then another guy showed up a little later to do something with the electrical system and finally our household goods were delivered two hours earlier than expected! A young man from Rome all by himself schlepped everything up the five flights of stairs and seemed to rather enjoy himself in the bargain. So we (OK Susan) spent the rest of the afternoon putting things away and getting the house in order before the second bed is delivered on Saturday.

And speaking of stuff, as if we didn’t have enough already we have a box of yet more stuff coming from the US, but of course things we will need in the coming months. The arrival of the box, which will come to the post office here, should provide another valuable challenge to our speaking skills (or rather lack thereof). But hey, so far so good.

Susan has her walking route down: through the Jardin des Plantes and along the Seine. She also ran a test walk to the Montparnasse Metro stop; the plan will be for her to walk there, which takes about a half hour from home, and then hop on the no. 12 to the Vaugirard stop and from there it’s a 3-minute walk to school. In inclement weather she will probably have to hop on the no. 7 at Les Gobelins, change to the no. 6 at Place d’Italie and change again to the no. 12 at Montparnasse. Whew. Lots of changing but the Metro here really is pretty fast. And the Les Gobelins stop is not 5 minutes from our apartment. All this assumes of course that one doesn’t mind being jammed underground in a carriage with hordes of strangers coming and going from and to all walks of life.

So things have quieted down a bit for us, at least for the moment. Susan is spending a relaxing morning doing crosswords and finishing her coffee before the day reaches out to us with a firm grip telling us to get a move on and finish getting out house in order.

Our apartment is indeed a wonderful place for us both right now. It is surprisingly quiet here – at least so far -- particularly we live on a fairly busy street – although thank heavens not on one of the enormous boulevards (from the Dutch word “bulwark” or “bulwerk” I believe), such as nearby Blvd St Marcel. Running roughly east-west through the 5th arr. St. Marcel made up of two two-lane streets – that’s right -- with a pedestrian island in the middle, making for a most interesting challenge to cross on foot believe me, even with the light. And driving it doesn’t appeal to me either.

No we like our neighborhood just fine thank you. Just around the corner is the Salon des Orientes, and Cafe de Oriente, a sort of middle eastern club, which yesterday early evening was packed with older couples dressed in their best clothes sitting around on couches doing what I have no idea, but apparently just talking, all easily seen from the street. And right across the street from the ”club” is a building that apparently used to house a horse training and sale facility, as evidenced by the sign on the upper level and the horse’s head overseeing the traffic below.

And there is very little tourist traffic in our part of the 5th arr. and for that we are most grateful.

So today we finish putting the house in order, and since we have pretty much spent all our time so far in the 5th or very close to it, we want to head over to western Paris. We’d liketo stop in at the American church near the Invalides – it’s a great source of information for English speakers so we need to touch base there before the end of the week to be sure.

Regarding my recent comments about the city looking so clean one person wrote me that may be because so many of the Parisians and their canine companions are in the country for the holiday and wait until September when one has to keep an eye on the traffic and another on the ground scanning the pavement for “crotte” (dog droppings). I think living in Florence prepared us well for this however – the streets there are half as wide and full of “crotte”, a characteristic of the city that the Sienese recognized long ago.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Birthday in Paris


It’s a cool, almost chilly Thursday morning, 3 August with overcast skies.

Wednesday was another beautiful day here in Paris, with almost fall-like temps in the morning and an afternoon sun that frequently peeked out from behinds the clouds just long enough to remind you that it was in fact summer.

We took our time in getting up and going in the morning, after having coffee and croissants from one of the local boulangerie. (Thursday I got baguettes and croissants from yet another boulangerie, “Boulangerie de Monge”, on Rue Monge, a bit more of a walk but with a larger variety of baked goods.)

Susan got her first haircut in Paris, a birthday cut in fact, at a small place right across the street from our apartment building. I spent most of the morning finalizing the updates for the blog and hiking over to MacD’s to use their free Internet access to upload the notes and photos. Afterwards the two of us met up at the apartment and we headed back to the Rue Mouffetard area, just a short 10-minute walk from our apartment.

We strolled past Rue Jean Calvin, and had a sandwich at one of the tiny cafes along the way. From there we headed to the Pantheon – which by the way is enormous – Voltaire, Rousseau, Zola and Victor Hugo are among the “ultragreat” figures from France’s past buried there. We didn’t go in this time, since the day was just too nice to spend inside – and resolved to come back soon.

Down Rue Soufflot to Rue St Michel where we turned right heading toward the Seine. A block or two later we came upon the Place de la Sorbonne, which as you might expect fronts the Sorbonne, breeding ground for the soon-to-be-famous or soon-to-be-scandalous in French society. There was a Lebanese group setting up a variety of flags, posters and signs protesting the Israeli invasion of their country on and around the statue of August Comte which sits in the center of the Place, and directly across several large outdoor cafes packed with tourists. We stopped for a few moments to watch the Lebanese students setting up and while standing there a small group of American university students walked up with their tour guide who simply informed them that “in the back is the famous Sorbonne university . . . blah blah blah” after which one of the “adult” leaders of the group, pointed to the statue of Comte and said or asked – I couldn’t quite figure out which -- is this was the father of sociology? One of the girls in the group standing next to me looked over at one of the boys in the group and said “like, so what?” Ah yes, mom and dad’s money well spent here to be sure.

From the Place de la Sorbonne we walked down to the Place St Michel – quite a striking piece of huge sculpture picturing Michael stomping on the devil; at the base are two dragons spewing water. What’s up with that bit of symbolism?


We strolled around the eastern part of the 6th arrondisement and then settled at a café near the Place St Michel for a glass of wine before heading back home. On the return we decided to stroll the Seine back to the Jardin des Plantes and then cut through to our street. Along the way we stopped and browsed a bit at Shakespeare & Co., an American-run English language bookshop directly across from Notre Dame.(Originally founded by Sylvia Beach, the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, bane of many an English major, the store was originally located on Rue de l’Odeon in St-Germain. The store was eventually taken over by George Whitman and became one of the focal points for the Beat poets in the late 1950s. It moved to its present location on the Rue de la Bucherie and is staffed by young people who sleep upstairs – when there’s space – and in return work in the store. photo: Shakespeare & Co.)

It was after 7 pm when we got home and after changing clothes we went back out for birthday dinner. The Rough Guide to Paris listed a seafood restaurant nearby – very close in fact, on Blvd Saint Marcel – that sounded quite good. They bring in their fish fresh daily from the Seychelles and so off we went to check it out.

First let say right off that we strongly recommend the Coco de Mer. We arrived at about 8 pm, and learned that since we didn’t have reservations for the “beach” room we would have to sit inside in the main dining area. That’s right they have an enclosed front terrace overlooking the street that has sand for the floor! Lots of fake palm trees hanging from the ceiling – and really not tacky looking at all – and even a coconut from the Seychelles that has the shape of, hmmmm, shall we say a smallish but well-rounded derriere? Yes let’s say that.

So we started with 2 daiquiris made with citron vert. Susan ordered the “Menu Praslinois” which started out with an absolutely delicious seafood “salade” of fish from the Seychelles with fresh vegetables followed by a “plat” of curried chicken finished off with coconut ice cream with caramel sauce. I had grilled Madagascar shrimp on a bed of pureed avocado for an entrée and my “plat” was grilled tuna steak, finished off with what was essentially a brownie (so moist it would melt in your mouth) accompanied by homemade vanilla ice cream (glace”). Our wine was a petit Chablis from France.

The wine list was very small: two whites (one South African and one French) and four reds (one South African and 3 French). The prices were reasonable, and service was impeccable. One fellow ran the entire front end by himself, and by the time we left that must have included nearly a dozen tables, several with 3 or 4 people, all without getting flustered and remaining calm and smiling the entire time. Impressive. (34 Blvd Saint Marcel, 75005 Paris; ph: 047074188; www.seychelles-saveurs.com.)

A brief word about the menu listings here in Paris: we have found it curious that “entre” in French means “appetizer” or starter whereas the main course is “plat”. We both wondered how did “entre” in English, or at least in American English become “main course”. Also most of the restaurants here have fixed price “menus” (such as the one Susan ordered at Coco de Mer). Naturally the fixed price menus, often referred to as “formula/e” or simply “menu” vary in price and content between lunch and dinner. In any case one needs to read carefully to discover which is the better deal, the “menu” or a la carte (usually the former).

The walk home took all of 3 minutes. Not a bad way to spend a birthday!

Wish you were here,

Steve

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Settling in


It’s a beautiful, nearly fall-like Wednesday morning here in Paris, and what a great day to celebrate Susan’s birthday! I just returned from a quick trip to our neighborhood boulangerie (bakery) where I picked up a few things for breakfast: butter croissants, apple (“pomme”) turnovers (which has more of an applesauce-like filling than say chunks of apples), and chocolate croissants.(photo: Jardin des Plantes.)

And speaking of “pomme” it is curious that the word for potatoes here is “pomme du terre”, translated, I suppose as “apple of the earth.”

So the first two days in our new home in Paris are behind us. Remarkably we have accomplished pretty much everything we needed to do to get settled in here.

Tuesday was another beautiful morning, although rain was predicted and in this case didn’t fail the predictions. The weather alternated between a gorgeous blue sky filled with clouds rapidly scudding from west to east and dark clouds, heavy with rain which seemed all too willing to release the water directly over our apartment – but then back to the blue sky. Dramatic to be sure but actually much appreciated after the stifling heat of Florence, a heat made even more oppressive by a relentless sun that would drive people to plan their walking route based on where they could acquire the maximum amount of shade.

In Paris so far the weather has been anything but oppressive and the wonderful breezes and cool temps are a curiousl signal that we have indeed changed worlds from south to north. Everything we have had to do has to be done by foot so we count ourselves fortunate indeed to have had such accommodating weather.

Our first two objectives on Tuesday were to unload our glass bottles in the recycle bin on Avenue Des Gobelins and to acquire our monthly Metro passes (Carte D’Orange). So after coffee we showered, dressed and packed up our glass bottles – those which had accumulated in the apartment for some time it would seem – and headed up Rue Fer a Moulin to Avenue Des Gobelins where we located the glass recycle point. (Later in the day we found a recycle station even closer, down our street, Rue Poliveau, going the other direction.)


After we dropped our glass off we walked down Avenue Des Gobelins to Place D’Italia, one of the larger “Places” (a big roundabout actually where perhaps as many as seven or eight streets come together in the center). Anyway, we found the Metro entrance – one of the cool art deco signs lead the way to the stairs - walked down and in less than ten minutes had our new cards. Note that while we had the foresight to bring photos with us we didn’t need them in order to actually purchase the passes; they would be required only if we intended to use the passes at once. The passes are good for one month (and easily renewed) on busses or the Metro in zones 1-2, which is the historic center of the city. (photo: one of the many tents given out to the homeless.)

It should be noted that the Paris transport system is overhauling its pass system and that for regular users of the metro and busses the new Navigo card will probably be the way to go. Similar to the Oyster card on the London transport system the Navigo is basically a swipe-and-go card; none of having to actually run your pass (ticket) through the machine each and every time you enter and exit the system. While the Navigo is in place right now it is unclear as to how widespread it is. Something we’re going to check out next month when it comes to renew our passes – if we can see the cost benefit of it we’ll probably spring for the new Navigo. We’ll see.

On our way back from Place D’Italia we stopped at one of the Marche Franprix grocery stores – one of the larger chain of stores in Paris and stocked up on a few more items for the pantry. We returned to the apartment, dropped off our stuff and then headed back out again, this time to look for internet access.

Until our own ADSL system is set up – probably in the next two weeks or so – we have to rely on local wireless access and while there are some open channels in our area the signals are terribly weak and often non-existent.

So yesterday I ran a quick check while I had any signal at all and discovered several free hotspots in the area: one happened to be the very same café where we had an aperitif Monday evening! But the closest one is a MacDonald’s near the Gare Austerlitz (Austerlitz train station). So Susan and I packed up the computer and headed over to MacD’s to check it out and sure enough we had our first solid signal in Paris and free as well. The plan now will be to hit this spot at least once a day or every other day until we are set up at home.


After our MacDonald’s outing we came back home, dropped the computer off and, realizing it was only a little after 6 pm, and hey the sun was out (sort of) and hey we’re in Paris and what were we doing in our apartment? So off we went up Rue G. Saint Hillare to the next block and the Jardin des Plantes, the botanical garden. Much of the garden is roped off right now as they are doing some reconstruction work on the walkways but the flowers were in bloom and so we strolled down the long avenues of plane trees all the way to the Seine. We then decided to turn left (northwest) and walk along the Seine to Notre Dame and then headed back south home, down Rue Monge, one of the major streets in our arrondisement.


Along the way down Rue Monge and not far from the Paris Mosque, we came across the nondescript entrance to the Arenese de Lutece, the ancient Roman amphitheater that once held more than 10,000 people. This site and the baths at the Musee de Moyen Age on Blvd Saint Germain are the only two extant Roman ruins of ancient Lutetia (as Paris was then known in the Roman world). Today the amphitheater serves mainly as a backdrop to a children’s playground or a quiet place to picnic.

It’s amazing how much of our arrondisement we’ve seen in the last 48 hours. And still more to go. Wednesday we hope to do the western side as we cross over to the 6th arr. on our way to the American church, a great source of information (in English) on Paris.(photo: Jardin des Plantes.)


We no sooner got back home from MacD’s than Drea called saying they were on their way out of town and wondered if she could stop by and drop some things off. There are workmen coming this week to do a couple of things in the apartment, a bed is going to be delivered and we needed to finalize up a couple of things about the post office letting us pick up mail there. Sure, of course. (photo: upstream end of Ile St. Louis.)

Five minutes later she rang the bell, and another five minutes and she was gone. But before Drea left she said if you ever want to come to the Netherlands we’re more than welcome to stay at their house. Well it just so happens that Susan’s family names are VandenBerg and Van Halsema. . . . I think we might just take her up on that.

Now that’s hospitality.

Wish you were here,

Steve

At home in Paris

We’re here at last; Paris that is. We can’t believe that it was just this past May that we decided to leave Italy and move to Paris. But here we are.

Our apartment is in the 5th arrondisement or district, a large part of which is known as the Quartier Latin, and is on the left bank directly across from Notre Dame. (The historic central part of Paris is made up of 20 arrondisements, or districts.) The district includes most of the university of Paris, the Sorbonne among other colleges and universities as well. In fact it is thought that the term Latin Quarter derived from the fact that in the Middle Ages Latin-speaking faculty and students dominated the area. Anyway, it is bounded on the north by the 4th arrondisement, Notre Dame and the Seine River, on the west by the 6th and the Jardin du Luxembourg, on the east-southeast by the river and the 13th, and on the south by the 14th and Montparnasse. The 5th is also home to the Paris Mosque and to the Pantheon, burial place of Voltaire, Rousseau, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo and Louis Braille (yes, that Braille). (photo: the Paris beach.)

Anyway, amazing as it may seem, by Tuesday morning, 1 August, the day before Susan’s birthday, we have pretty much settled into our new apartment and our new neighborhood as well.

Monday morning we slept in – although I’m not sure that has much meaning at this point in our lives. Of course that will change dramatically next week when Susan starts school at Le Cordon Bleu – long days for the intensive first level during the month of August and that means a combination of walking and Metro. But for now we are just working at settling in, putting our house in order, and enjoying living in Paris.

I roused myself out of bed, fixed coffee and we just relaxed enjoying the cool morning air coming in off our balcony. After we showered and dressed we went next door to the small grocery store just around the corner and picked up some things for our pantry: water (“eau”), milk (lait”), and various other odds and ends – including a baguette -- by law we have to eat at least once a day (it’s a subsection of the Mandatory Goat Cheese Consumption Law, or MGCL). We returned home, and had breakfast: the baguette with jam. Drea called to ask if we could meet her at the zoo just up the street – she had her little boy with heer and wanted to show him the animals and hey we got a chance to see the zoo so why not?! We said no problem, just give us 20 minutes. We finished breakfast and then headed off for the park and the zoo, a 5-minute walk up Via G. Saint Hillaire.

The zoo, which is the oldest in the city and shows it, is pretty small, as one expects in a major urban center such as Paris – but it was a beautiful morning and we had a great time with Drea and her little boy Dries. We talked more about Paris, life, and well, life in Paris. We saw Yaks, birds of all sort, lots of raptors in fact, Watusis, which I thought was a dance but can also be a really big water buffalo like creature, and water buffalos too. (photo: "yech, I have tourist goo on my fingers")


After we saw pretty much everything at the zoo – and resolved to return soon to the other side of the “jardin”, the actual flower-garden part – we said au revoir to Drea and her little boy. (photo: Drea and her little boy.)

With our list of things to accomplish and items we need for the apartment we headed north toward the river (Seine). Fortunately, Drea had gone to the trouble of already adding some great items to the apartment, particularly in the kitchen: a complete new set of pots and pans, collection of knives (Wusthof!) and numerous other things which have made our transition that much easier.

Still there are some things we need and so it’s off to the BHV (“Bazaar Hotel Ville), one of the largest department stores in Paris. Located on the north side of the Hotel Ville (the city hall) the BHV is enormous inside: six floors and two basement levels of stuff for the home and then some: for example, one floor is hardware and electrical things, what one would normally find just in a hardware store.

We spent what seemed like an eternity on several different floors – sales were everywhere throughout the store and apparently so were most of the Parisians -- but in the end found pretty much every thing we had come for and then headed back out the way we came in, across from the Hotel de Ville.

We walked back across the Seine, admiring the “Parisian beaches”, or “Le Plage”, where Paris has trucked in a gazillion tons of sand and set up beach chairs, umbrellas, wooden boardwalks, all the accoutrements of a real beach – minus a place to actually swim of course – and the city fathers and mothers have put the law down about beachwear: no thong bikinis and no nude or topless sunbathing.

Next we set off in search of a place where we could buy more time for our new mobile phone numbers. Drea was kind enough to set us up with new numbers even before we arrived (how many landlords would go to such trouble we wonder) but we needed to add time to them. We soon discovered that the best place – and perhaps the only place to recharge your phone is at any one of the many tobacco shops scattered throughout the city. After purchasing the time we still had to figure out how to get it programmed into the phone – not being able to understand hardly any French mind you. Anyway we stopped into a nearby phone store where the clerk was kind enough to show us how to add more time. One more thing we have got figure out; a thousand to go.

I should mention at this point several things we have noticed so far; observations which are by no means scientifically in their conclusions but drawn from our brief and very limited experience dealing with the French:

1. Everyone has been really very nice to us and extremely helpful. Even those who speak very little English are always willing to try and help us work out the language at the same time help us work out whatever issue we might need to resolve (such as phone recharging).
2. How many French words are part of our language as well: “impasse” which is a dead-end alley; restaurant is, well restaurant of course. And we wondered about certain proper names. Take for example “Louis”. Now in English or at least American English, the nickname for “Louis” is curiously enough “Lewie”, which is how the French pronounce “Louis”. And we wondered about Dennis. The nickname is “Denny” which is just how the French pronounce “Denis”.
3. Food is everywhere in this city. In fact that is the one thing we noticed the most so far, besides all the wonderfully wide streets and little gardens everywhere, that food seems to be the one predominant element of the world here. Restaurants abound, indeed all kinds of places to eat, every and nationality seems to be represented – and not just the eateries either but also an overwhelming number of places to buy groceries, foodstuffs, high-end, low-end, fruits and vegetables only, small grocery stores (“alimentation generale”), whatever, is truly astounding. And the bakeries (“boulangerie”)! There seems to be one around every corner, producing not only the standard baguette and other local breads but also a wide assortment of sweets, baked, chilled, all types of good things to eat. And we have yet to get to any of the major (or minor) food markets!
4. This city is extremely clean – at least the parts we’ve seen so far. Lots of pride in the appearance of the streets and plenty of attention given to keeping it that way.

We set off south away from the Seine heading deeper into the Latin Quarter. From the Place Maubert on the Boulevard Saint Germain we headed uphill on Rue de la Montagne-Ste-Genevieve. (The patron saint of Paris she reportedly saved the city from Attila and his Huns.) We were in search of the Rue Mouffetard, reportedly one of the coolest streets in this part of Paris – so we were told and we were not disappointed.

Anyway we climbed up from the Seine, passing small cafes and exotic restaurants, until we turned off onto Rue Descartres that eventually led us to Place de la Contrescarpe, surrounded by more small cafes and tiny shops. (Hemingway lived right around the corner at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine.) From the Place Contrescarpewe continued southward, downhill now, on Rue Mouffetard, a quaint street lined with small restaurants representing a wide variety of cuisines – a clutch of Moslem women were standing outside a Lebanese restaurant ordered some food to go apparently – past toward the numerous creperie, selling crepes to go up and down the street – past the intersection with Rue Jean Calvin, a Parisian who left Paris for Geneva, past the small clothing shops selling great clothes and drastically reduced prices, a street filled with locals and some tourists of course, all searching for something to remember their life in Paris by or make their life in Paris better.

We will certainly be coming back to the “Mouffetard” since it is barely a 10-minute walk from our apartment. This is definitely one area that should be on nearly everyone’s itinerary: it’s a bit uphill and downhill to be sure but seemed quiet and yet full of bustling activity at the same time. Maybe, just maybe it’s what an older Paris must have looked like, the kind of Paris that attracted the likes of Hemingway. Small on space but large on vision perhaps.

From Mouffetard we headed home, dropped our things off and then wentback out again, ostensibly to look for two things: an internet site close by and one of the big, round green recycle bins for glass. Trash goes out here everyday and we recycle plastic along with the trash. Glass, on the other hand, has to be recycled at one of the “green cones” as we call it, and they are few and far between. No wonder the previous tenant left so much glass in the apartment.

So it’s back out again. We strike out on the Internet but find a glass recycle bin nearby. We stop and have an aperitif as well. All this walking you know. . . .


After we return home I discover that there is a very faint wireless signal in the area and we pick up our email – but we will still need to find someplace to upload photos so that will be on our agenda tomorrow (and the next day and the next day if need be). We eat our first meal at home: sautéed chicken in Dijon mustard and onions, browned baby white potatoes and, hold on, “haricot vert”, tiny green beans that you can almost eat raw they are so delicious. (wish you could have been here Dorothy!) Of course this was only after having a glass of wine on our balcony, savoring the dying light.

We’re just happy to be here, and

Wish you were here,

Steve

Florence to Paris, and worlds apart


The alarm went off at 4:20 am Sunday, 30 July but it didn’t matter – I was already up and out of bed. I slept very little Saturday night and in fact didn’t slept well Friday either, attributing it to the fact that our fans had been packed up and shipped off Friday morning, While the air in the apartment was not hot -- we had a/c -- we had no air movement and our bedroom particularly was somewhat stifling. And I could have sworn there was a mosquito somewhere hovering around the bed just waiting for me to drop off in order to start dining. (photo: five, well ok six flights.)

So we were up, got showered, dressed and put the final touches on packing and soon headed out the door. Turning off the lights and leaving our keys in the apartment left us with a slightly odd feeling, as if somehow we should have them with us in case we needed to return. But we weren’t going to be coming back, at least not to this place, and probably not to Florence. Of course who would have imagined in 1994 when we caught our first glimpse of Florence and told ourselves, this is not someplace I would care to live in. Yet that is exactly what we have done. So never say never.

It was an easy and quiet walk to the train station to meet the bus that would take us to Pisa airport. The sun was just starting to come up as we left our apartment building and walked down Via dei Servi one last time to the Piazza Duomo and then turned right heading toward the station. A few people were out in the morning – returning from parties or just out for a stroll before the hordes of tourists descended upon these streets. For us it was a refreshing change to have the streets of Florence pretty much to ourselves –at least once anyway.

We got to the station a few minutes before the bus was to. Unlike the urban (ATAF) and extra-urban (SITA) bus lines which we have used often, this bus system, called Terravision, runs only between downtown Florence and Pisa airport. But they are certainly tourist-savvy -- we scheduled our departure and ordered our tickets online – a very user-friendly website.

The bus arrived, probably 15 minutes late but after everyone loaded their bags in the cargo compartment – and there were lots of folks heading to the airport – we were off heading west toward Pisa.

We arrived at the airport early even though we started a few minutes late and had a driver who is probably one of three people in the country who goes slower than the speed limit!

But we had plenty of time to spare that’s for sure and after we checked in at the easyJet counter we decided to grab a coffee and sit outside along with some 3000 smokers before going through security.

Our flight was on time in arriving from Paris Orly and on time in returning there as well. It was uneventful and took us only about 90 minutes but it was certainly a change of worlds. Passing over the Alps is always an awe-inspiring experience and on Sunday we had a grand view from our window. Apparently someone had forgotten to put us over the wing where we have usually found ourselves on most flights.

After we picked up our bags we headed to the OrlyBus stop just outside the arrivals gate H, bought our tickets and soon we were off to Denfert Rochereau – in fact repeating our journey from this past May. We arrived at Denfert R. metro station – also the location of the nearby Paris Catacombs where the bones of more than 6 million Parisians are resting. We spied a taxi as soon as we got off the bus, flagged it down and were off heading to 46 rue Poliveau, our home for the next eight months or so.

A few minutes later the cab driver dropped us at our front door. I had planned to tip him a euro but then he overcharged us for the baggage: the fare was €6 and he charged us €8, which included the two pieces of baggage. Well the small print is that the first bag is free so it all evened out I suppose.

We had arranged to meet our landlady Andrea (“Drea”) at the small café on the ground floor of our apartment building, around 1:00 pm but since we arrived at a little after noon – we decided to have lunch there and wait for her to show up.

We sat outside even though it looked like rain was in the wind – indeed the temps are significantly cooler than in Florence, for which we were and are mightily grateful. The breezes reminded us of being near the sea in Puglia. We cannot believe the wonderful weather here.

Anyway, the fellow running the show by himself this early Sunday afternoon was pleasant and using a combination of English, Italian and the few words of French we do know, the two of us ordered a nice goat cheese open faced sandwich (“croques”) and white wine for lunch. As we have discovered in the past goat cheese is apparently something that must be consumed by every Frenchman on a daily basis for it is everywhere and eaten in a wide variety of ways: stuffed into thin egg roll-like wraps and flash fried, topped onto slices of bread and broiled along with another cheese for an open-faced cheese sandwich (which is what we had), topped onto fried potatoes and then placed over a bed of greens with a mustard dressing. I cannot wait to see the other ways goat cheese – or cheese in general – is consumed in this country. Rather I cannot wait to try those “other ways.”

So we sat admiring the new little neighborhood where we would be spending the next few months of our lives. Directly across from where we were sitting is a small tiny triangular-shaped park that actually separates two streets, which split off from one. On our left corner is a butcher shop (“boucherie”), next to that going clockwise is a restaurant, then across a street on the corner is a hair salon, and across another street and moving across our front from where we were sitting is a tiny fruit and vegetable stand on the corner and then a take-out Asian “traiteur”, and then coming back to our side of the street is small grocery shop, then our café. To our immediate left across the street is a Vietnamese restaurant and behind us is the door to our apartment building. Next to the door, on the right hand side as you’re facing it is still another little grocery shop.

Pretty amazing and yet as we will soon discover these types of neighborhoods abound literally everywhere.

At about 1:00 pm Drea showed up and we sat and talked for a bit as we finished lunch. Although born in Paris her parents are Americans, both professional historians in fact, her father a specialist in European history and her mother in Colonial US history. Drea studied art history, and has lived in Paris for some years before getting married and moving to Holland.

But we came to settle in so we grabbed our bags and walked around the corner and into the apartment building. We then hiked the five flights of stairs to our apartment, “5 right”.

(While five flights of stairs may seem like a lot in fact in our building it only comprises 80 steps; our apartment in Florence was on the second floor and yet it was 76 steps to get to it. Of course we had an elevator but we always walked down and usually walked up so we were well prepared for this change.)


As soon as we walked inside we knew we had made the right decision. From the overall space, to the bathroom, to having two bedrooms, to the kitchen (just what we figured we would need) to the fact that we now had a balcony –a wrap-around balcony, narrow to be sure but we can still sit outside – and such light, air and fresh breezes blowing through the apartment we thought this was what have been looking for all along, to the feel that this was a home, we had made the right choice. (photo: small but oh so wonderful!)


We spent some time talking over the details with Drea, like how things work, where things are, our ADSL line which will be set up in the next couple of weeks we hope, all the things that make up most of the waking moments of our lives, like paying the rent, that sort of thing. There were one or two things we needed to sign to get up and running eventually with our internet connection –which by the way we were told, or rather Drea was told might give us unlimited free calls to the US – so we arranged to meet with Drea the next day at the nearby Jardin des Plantes, just a block away in fact, where the zoo is also located. She was going to have her little boy with her and thought it might be a good location to keep him a bit distracted while we wrapped up the details of settling into the apartment. (photo: living room.)

It had been a grand day for Susan and I, and indeed we count ourselves among the fortunate to be able to find a bit of tranquility in the big city. And while we never thought of ourselves as city people, it is ironic that the last 12 years or so have seen us move to ever-increasingly larger cities: from Chittenden to Rutland in Vermont, from Rutland to Siena, Italy, from Siena to Florence and now from Florence we find ourselves in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Notwithstanding the poetry of the place, after Drea left I stretched out on the sofa and took a nap. Later on, in the early evening I walked across the street and ordered some Asian takeout. We turned in early and slept like babies for 10 hours.

We were home.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Last day in Florence, L'ultimo giorno a firenze



Saturday 29 July was hot in Florence – again – and promised to stay that way all day. It comes as little surprise now to see handwritten signs on doors or windows of local businesses saying that they will be closed until the end of August or early September as more and more Italians wrap their affairs up and leave for the beach or mountains or wherever, anywhere to get away from the heat for their August holiday. This “get out of town in August” thing isn’t confined to Italy either, as we would see plenty of businesses closed in Paris for August as well. (photo: Daniel and Susan at the Mosaic workshop.)

The heat notwithstanding we counted ourselves fortunate – enjoying our a/c while finishing packing the last of our things for the Big Move to Paris on Sunday. We’re taking the absolute minimum amount of stuff – computer, a few summer clothes, and various odds and ends to get our new home in order as son as we arrive -- and just keeping our fingers crossed that the rest of our household goods arrive in the next week or so.

Our friend Daniela from Germany sent us a text message this morning that she was coming up to Florence from Siena by bus – we had planned to see her today and relieved that she would be able to make it before we left. So we strolled over to the bus station about 10 am, just before her bus pulled in. The three of us left the SITA bus station, passed beneath the train station at Santa Maria Novella and started walking up Via Nazionale toward the central market (“mercato centrale”), stopping at the Alinari photographic showroom along the way. Daniela has an eye for taking photos and I wanted her to see the Alinari showroom. The Alinari photographic archive contains one of the largest collections of old photos of Italy – and Tuscany in particular – and also produces a number of very nice and reasonably priced books of portions of their collections. Anyway they were closed – it was Saturday after all – and so we walked on, skirting the central market, and ending up at the OK bar across from our apartment.

We sat and had coffee and chatted for a while as we decided what to do with the day – heat or no heat.

From the OK we walked over to the mosaic workshop (“Mosaici Laboratorio”) that we discovered this past winter. This was probably our fourth time there and as always we were awed by the work done in this former convent. Truly amazing using tools and methods from the Renaissance era they produce fantastic artwork indeed.

We left the mosaics behinds us and walked through Piazza Santa Croce, just around the corner really – although you wouldn’t know it since few tourists and no tour groups ever get this far (50 mtrs) off the well-worn tourist pack. I often wonder if it was like this for the religious pilgrims who used to visit these places in the middle ages. Probably.

Anyway the piazza was packed, or rather the area around the piazza was packed with people since the grandstands and chairs were still set up for the Benigni show where he has been reading from Dante’s divine comedy – a one-man show which runs until sometime in mid-August I believe. Tickets might still be available but I doubt it.


From Santa Croce we headed toward the Arno but then turned off just before the river onto Via Neri, and strolled up and through the Piazza Signoria, where we just hung around watching the people, photographing the statuary – I never tire of that and apparently neither did Daniela – and then headed off, passing through Piazza della Repubblica and finally ending up at a little osteria, “del Porcellino” (Via Val di Lamona). I would not recommend this place: the food was so-so (Susan’s risotto was overcooked and we thought used long-grain rice) while the prices were rather inflated – sticking us with a price fixe (“prezzo fisso”) after the fact. (photo: on the Piazza Signoria; one bag in, one bag out.)

The three of us left and headed back to our apartment where we talked for a while longer, mostly about everyone’s future, since all our lives are heading for big changes soon. For us it’s Paris and for Daniela it’s leaving for the US to meet up with her husband in Reno, NV.

We walked back to the bus station and arrived just moments before the Siena (“rapida”) was to leave – so we said arrivaderci to Daniela and couldn’t help but wonder when we would see her again.

It was back to the apartment to finish packing. Later on in the evening we went back to the OK for a light supper before turning in and to sort of say goodbye to the neighborhood. We had already said arrivaderci to Massimo and Marta at the Osteria Ortolano and to Francesca at Milligan & Milligan on Friday.

We crossed the street one more time from the Ok – no more dolce in the morning, no more plates of pasta for pranzo in the afternoon, no more aperitivi in the early evening -- and went to bed. We have an early call Sunday morning, and have to be at the train station by 5:50 am.

Wish you were here,

Steve