Thursday, September 28, 2006

One last look


After returning to the B & B last evening we changed clothes and headed back into Bayeux for dinner on, that’s right, rue des Cuisiniers. This time though we ate at “Le Petit Bistro”, which was very “petit” indeed, with tables seating about 16 people, four of those outside. Located not 50 feet from “Le Pommier”—where we ate the previous evening -- this restaurant is run by a young husband and wife. They served some of the best tasting, most creative food we have eaten in a long time, and certainly ranks among the best we had eaten in France. The presentations of each course were themselves worth the price of the meal: using cool glass, stone, and porcelain in imaginative ways. For example, my dessert was a “galette” of chevre on a blini with greens on top and drizzled with honey, all on a large piece of slate. And was it good! We each had for our main course (“plat”) pork that was literally falling off the bone, prepared in a vanilla sauce, with a scrumptious puree of squash for the dipping sauce! Prices were even better than the night before: the meal with wine came to a little over €60 for the two of us! (photo: looking up from Omaha beach to the German machine gun bunkers.)

After another quiet night and sound sleep we awoke to another beautiful morning in Normandy. Susan and I debated whether to go to Mont Saint Michel on our way back to Paris or somewhere else. At breakfast Mark and Kate – the biking couple from Colorado – informed us that we had in fact missed an important part of Omaha beach, the eastern end, and that settled it: we were going back to Omaha.

The four of us spent a good portion of the morning chatting over coffee – served in cups the size of soup bowls with handles -- and croissants, swapping travel stories. In particular we gleaned from Mark and Kate some great information about their recent excursion into the Loire valley – they had been spending some serious quality time in France. So now we’re already starting to put together an outing down to Amboise along the Loire later in October based on their suggestions. You just can’t beat the personal experience of other travelers, particularly the seasoned ones.


After packing our car, paying the bill and saying au revoir to Mark and Kate and to our hosts Sophie and Thibault, Susan and I headed back to Omaha beach for one last look before returning to Paris. From our B & B we drove on a little back road straight to the coast road, turned left and then a few kilometers later right as we entered Colleville-sur-Mer we took the first turn off to the Beach, before the American cemetery. We drove through a marvelous little wooded lane, actually a ravine leading down to the beach. As you approach the beach, on the right, or to the east there is a track which apparently leads to a playground and place for campers to park; we stayed straight and to the left on a pretty rough track which eventually ended in a small car park. (photo: looking west from Omaha beach just below the American cemetery.)

We got out and could see a group of German bunkers just above us and to the right of which was the American cemetery. It all looked so peaceful of course and we strained to imagine what it must have been like for thousands of men to be huddled along the shoreline, with hundreds dying by the hour; the tremendous violence, the very intensity of every moment, as they struggled to survive in a few meters of space, face buried in the “shingle”, the line of pebbles running along this portion of the beach (which is still there today), constantly looking above them, wondering if they were ever going to get off that Beach and get up on top of that hill. And whether they would survive the next minute. The next hour let alone the day. (photo: entrance to German machine gun bunker overlooking Omaha beach.)

And many of those boys are still on that hill today watching over the Beach. (photo: view of the Omaha beach from inside the bunker.)

Walking up to the 1st US Inf. Div. memorial on top of the bluff directly above the car park we passed the series of bunkers, which on that morning must have contained hundreds of Germans equally determined to prevent these men from getting off the Beach. You can even go inside one today.

As I looked out and down to the Beach I wondered: did the men huddling behind their machine gun beneath this piece of concrete stop and ask themselves what would happen if these men did get off the beach? Did they give any thought to the larger issues at stake in this Beach? Or did they just get about their work as best they could, which mainly consisted of killing as many of those men on the beach as possible, all the while trying to stay alive? I suspect everything probably happened way too fast for any contemplation. To us today casually strolling these Beaches we forget that time is our friend: we don’t have to be anywhere until 6 o’clock or 9 o’clock; we don’t have to have the car back until tomorrow or whatever. For those men both on the beach and along the bluffs above, time was everything: for those on the Beaches time probably seemed to stand still and yet before long the day was gone and the beginning of the end of the Third Reich was at last underway. For the men on the bluffs looking down on the Beach time was fast running out. (photo: view of the Omaha beach from inside the bunker.)

On June 9, Captain R. G. Shinnan of the Regina Rifles, 7th Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division, which had landed on Juno beach on June 6, was killed in action during an attempted German armored counterattack. Captain Shinnan is buried in the Canadian cemetery at Bency-sur-Mer. His headstone reads: “God alone understands.” And that probably sums up best what I took away from my trip to this hallowed place. (photo: view of the "shingle" on Omaha beach.)

One could spend a lifetime reading about war, this war and this battle and still never know exactly what happened that day or why. But it is in the effort to know that comes understanding of a sort.

Susan and I returned to the car, left Omaha Beach and east back to Paris.

On our way out of Colleville-sur-Mer, as we slowed going through the small village, we noticed the churchyard was open (so many of them seemed to be closed, locked and gated) and so we stopped for a few moments. And what we saw here near the church was striking. The townspeople have four huge copies of photographs taken shortly after D-Day onto large canvas panels and strung them in such a fashion as to provide the passerby today with twin views of the church and crossroads: the photographic “then” juxtaposed with the “now” reality. Eerie and very powerful. Don’t miss this.

Along the way toward Caen we stopped at Juno beach, where the Canadian 3rd division came ashore under heavy fire on June 6. Set amidst a series of high-rise apartment buildings – for vacationers one suspects—and next to a marina packed with pleasure boats you’d hardly think that anything of importance ever happened here. But it did. (photo above: off of Juno beach today.)

And just a few kilometers away clear proof of the terrible things that occurred along this stretch of farmland in June of 1944: the Canadian cemetery at Bency-sur-Mer. Located amid flat, fertile farms, so much like their own back in Canada one soldier reported, the cemetery sits quietly alone in a beautiful cluster of trees. Very few visitors stop by here I suspect – it is a bit off the beaten path and you do really have to be looking for it. But it is worth an hour or so of your time, to walk among the headstones, reading the final sentiments of family and friends, finding yourself just a bit closer to those men who perished here:

“Always and always, Snooks”

“Sadly missed by family, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, eternal rest grant unto him o Lord.”

“A beautiful future planned only to end in a dream, dear my thoughts are ever of you and what might have been.”

“Dearest Emile you are gone from us but your memory is still fresh in our hearts”.

“His memory is as dear today as in the hour he passed away. Wife and son.”

“We loved you too dearly to ever forget. Sister and Brothers.”

“Beautiful memories cherished for ever of happy days spent together. God bless you darling Allan.”

“Remembered in death as in life by his wife and daughter Shirley.”

(Oh Shirley you must have grandchildren of your own by now!)

“He gave his all for the decent things of life. Remembered by all.”

“Not forgotten Glen dear, nor ever shall you be. While life and memory last we shall remember thee.”

“I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.”

“I have only your memory dear husband to remember my whole life through.”

“God alone understands.”

After our return to our apartment in Paris that evening we watched the final episode of “Band of Brothers”. We had started watching the series about a week or so before we left for Normandy, and although we had seen it once before, this second time seemed even more powerful. Hearing the veterans themselves talking on the tape about being right where we had been, walking the same ground that we had walked but doing it for vastly different reasons, that was the most moving of all, bringing the story of that one day right down to earth, making it more palpable, more alive and all that more important to go there and see for ourselves.

If you come to France go to Normandy, go to the Beaches. Don’t wait. Do it now.

Wish you were here,

Steve

D-Day Beaches and their Cemeteries - updated 6/6/2014


(This is reprinted from my September 28, 2006 post. Please forgive the low quality of the photography.)

The Beaches. Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold. The very names themselves are italicized inour collective consciousness. Walking these beaches today you’d never know the perfectly horrible and perfectly heroic things that happened on that one summer day along this stretch of sand and grass on the western coast of France, not terribly far from where a Norman fleet left to invade England nearly a thousand years ago. In fact as you casually stroll along at low tide when there is such a broad expanse of beach exposed, watching kids play like they do on beaches everywhere, watching families out taking in the fresh air and stretching their legs, maybe after a day of work in the office or bicycling up and down these country roads, as your eye wanders along the shoreline catching the rows of small, modest but well-maintained summer homes which seem to dominate the landscape, you must wonder “did it all ever truly happen”? (photo: Susan contemplating Omaha beach from the American cemetery.)

And then you come to the cemetery, or rather cemeteries, for there isn’t just one or two but some two dozen scattered throughout this part of Normandy: British, American, Canadian (who are after all Americans too), Polish, and of course Germans, lots of Germans.

We began our first the morning in Normandy, September 23rd with a leisurely breakfast at the B & B, where we met another American couple, who were from Colorado and who had just finished a week-long bike tour in Provence and were up in Normandy doing some biking on their own. Anyway we had a nice chat with them, but they had miles to peddle and we all had the beaches to see.

Susan and I started out by driving into Bayeaux where we paid a visit to the British cemetery there, located just across from the Normandy Battle Museum (the large tank out front is a giveaway that a museum is close by). To us the cemeteries are the real museums. Hardware is all well and good and of course a necessary element in this enormous story but the real stories lie out there under the simple headstones, under the white crosses and the stars of David.


We strolled a bit, reading some of the sentiments on the stones. The Commonwealth policy was to permit every buried soldier’s family to express their final sentiments on the headstone. A very civilized and poignant gesture of respect we thought. (The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains 17 seventeen cemeteries in the area. You can find out more at their website, just click here.)

A word or two about the museums might be in order here.


Unlike in the US (for example), where a museum on a battlefield is usually part of a larger park system, in Normandy they are not. There are large museums and quite a few smaller ones as well scattered throughout the beaches area; the small ones tend to be specialized with collections often made up of items scrounged off the beaches and from the surrounding farms after the war. Anyway, one could easily spend a great deal of time and money wandering through these places which are mainly large collections of hardware with varying levels of effort made to interpret the D-Day story. Moreover, to further confuse matters D-Day was of course just, well, one day. The Normandy story spans far more territory and covers many more weeks than just what happened on the Beaches of course. Museums that might be worth a stop are: the Normandy battle museum in Bayeaux, the museum in Arromanches which deals largely with the British landings and also has a truly wonderful display covering the Mulberry harbor created for D-Day and after, the museums at both Omaha and Utah beaches, as well as the US Airborne museum in Ste-Mere-Eglise. There is apparently a substantial visitor center under construction next to the American cemetery overlooking Omaha beach. (photo above: Normandy battle museum in Bayeaux.)


After leaving the British cemetery we drove around Bayeaux and headed off to Arromanches, located right on Gold beach, which was part of the Commonwealth beachhead on June 6. We parked the car and walked down to the waterfront. One can still see remnants of the manmade harbor, code-named Mulberry, which was made in England and then towed over to Normandy to create an enormous port facility which extended out from the small shoreline. This harbor system was in turn protected by another manmade creation, a massive breakwater which was also produced in England and towed over in pieces as well. These were both truly amazing feats of engineering and critical to the success of the entire Normandy campaign. In order to appreciate this massive undertaking it is well worth a stop in the museum located right along the water.


From the museum we strolled to the bluffs overlooking the harbor for a really spectacular view of what is left of the Mulberry system. And since it was a gorgeous day, just about as perfect as we could have hoped for, with warm temps, a fine breeze and plenty of sun alternating with shade, any excuse to be outside strolling worked for us. (photo right: remnants of Mulberry at Arromanches.)


Leaving Arromanches we headed west toward the German battery at Longue-sur-Mer, just a few kilometers outside of town. Following good signage – and with a handy map we had bought at the Bayeaux visitor center -- we soon found ourselves in a small car park near the German guns. We got out and strolled over to the complex of four enormous gun emplacements, three pretty much intact the guns still in place. Amazing. Most of the original trench and tunnel complexes are gone now or buried beneath debris, but there is just enough remaining to bring you chillingly close to what had happened here. And we just looked out toward that calm blue sea and wondered what it must have been like for the Germans manning these guns when they first saw that enormous armada of thousands of ships heading straight toward them, loaded with the men and material to do them terrible, and probably fatal harm. What thoughts went through their minds, we wondered?

From the “German Battery” we drove down into Port-en-Bessin and stopped for a rather mediocre lunch across from a line of fishing and salvage boats moored there for the day. (The restaurant was kind enough to plug my camera battery charger in however.) But it was a gorgeous day and we were on the trip of a lifetime. (photo right: German battery command post.)

After lunch we drove to the American cemetery at Colleville-St-Laurent-sur-Mer. (Most of the towns around here have the added suffix “sur-mer”which simply means “on the water.”)
One of a dozen or so US cemeteries in France, this is the only American cemetery remaining in Normandy, and sits on a beautiful bluff overlooking Omaha beach, the very bluff which was packed with Germans on June 6, 1944. The first cemetery was right on Omaha beach just a few kilometers away from the present cemetery (today the small marker is nearly surrounded by vacation homes).

The land for this 172-acre cemetery was given by France to the United States, and has the status of a US Territory. Some 9,350 burials were completed by1949 and today it is the second largest American cemetery in France (after Lorraine with a little more than 10,000 interments). Along with our visit to the Canadian cemetery (see below) this is probably one of the most stirring sites of the entire Beach complex and certainly attracts a great many visitors from all over the world. The cemetery is powerful and almost overwhelming in its layout, although I thought the wall of names of those men whose bodies were never found was a bit hidden from view behind the wonderful statue of "American youth rising."


And the music played every hour on the hour, hymns and the national anthem, is very touching. (Although I did wonder to myself if the guys might like to hear a little Glen Miller maybe or Tommy Dorsey.) The striking thing we thought, aside from the beautiful location on the bluffs overlooking Omaha with a superb view of the water, is the row after row after row of markers dated June 6, June 7, June 6, June 6 . . . Incredible. (You can find out more online, just click here.)

From the American cemetery we drove down to the western end of Omaha beach and were immediately struck by the fantastic stainless steel monument sitting almost in the water. It is enormous and yet graceful at the same time. Watching children and families playing around it only made its reason for being there on the beach all the more poignant.

We returned to the car and drove slowly along the beach road fronting what was “Dog” sector of the beach, looking for the small monument marking the site where they first started burying the dead along Omaha at a little before 9 am on June 6.

We soon found the small marker, surrounded by a well-kept row of hedges, but making it almost invisible to anyone not looking for it. The fact that it was also surrounded by a row of summer homes made us feel uneasy and yet comfortable at the same time: uneasy that somehow this spot might be forgotten and yet comfortable in the knowledge that life goes on and maybe for the better this time. Who knows?

From Omaha beach we returned back up to the bluffs and drove a few short kilometers to Pointe-du-Hoc, a headland of sheer cliffs, which a unit of Rangers had climbed up, taking the Germans by surprise on June 6.

The area has been left pretty much as it was then, a scarred and pockmarked landscape with the ruins of the German bunkers still evident today. The memorial to the Rangers, which is located just overlooking the beach, is off-limits today.

There is no reason given but we thought maybe the ground has become unstable.

After leaving Pointe-du-Hoc we drove up to Utah beach. The museum looked tired and in need of renovation, while the parking area was otherwise isolated except for a pair of little kitschy cafes selling hot dogs, soft drinks, beers and oddly enough internet access, all amidst a wide flat plain with nothing else in sight. Quite depressing actually. Oh and the bathrooms were inside an old German bunker built into the side of the dunes behind the beach. An interesting experience to say the least. And there was very little in the way of interpretive signage -- even the huge but terribly plain US monument seemed as devoid of life as the parking lot it faced. The beach itself was peaceful enough though, with occasional scatterings of anti-tank defenses still strewn about. A little ways up the beach we stopped at the memorial to the Free French forces under Gen. LeClerc who also landed near here. The tattered US and French flags flying from their poles overlooking the monument to the Frenchmen who came back spoke volumes we thought.

After leaving Utah beach we drove to Ste-Mere-Eglise, where we saw the effigy of paratrooper John Steele hanging from the steeple of the church on the main square and across the street from the Airborne museum (the 82nd dropped into this area during D-Day). Steele was one of the few survivors of that drop into Ste-Mere-Eglise; he survived by feigning death after his parachute got hung up in the steeple of the church.


So much to see and so little time -- time that great leveler again!

It was getting late so we headed back south toward our B & B near Mosles. But along the way, from the busy 4-lane N13 highway we saw the entrance to the German cemetery at La Cambe and quickly took the next exit. We had discussed earlier whether we wanted to stop at one of the German cemeteries (there are in fact six in this part of France). I can’t begin to tell you how glad we were that we stopped because what we saw and learned was moving in the extreme. The entrance to the German cemetery is almost claustrophobic but gives a striking view of the cemetery’s centerpiece, a large 6-meter high tumulus which is the burial ground for more than 200 unknown dead and another 89 of whom are known by name and listed on plaques around the base. The tumulus overlooks the graves of more than 21,000 German soldiers buried beneath small flat crosses, which are laid softly in the grass, surrounded by a occasional sets of upright crosses scattered throughout the cemetery. Subtle but very powerful nonetheless.

The most moving part of the German cemetery at La Cambe lies across the parking lot in the information building that overlooks busy N13. Inside there is a truly awesome display of letters, telegrams and photos arranged as a series of stories told by local civilians, German and Allied soldiers, all who suffered here in that June of 1944. Surprising as it may sound words fail to do justice to our feelings. Take for example the letter from a German father to a priest in Normandy in the late 1940s inquiring about his son’s grave. His son, a fighter pilot had died in a crash and had been buried in the priest’s churchyard.

The priest wrote back saying that the American Graves Services people had come and exhumed the body and reburied it in one of the cemeteries designated for German dead. There was even the note from the Americans to the father reporting the grave’s location. Or the notes form the young woman who had live din one of the nearby villages and who described the horrors suffered by the local population from both Allied and German shelling and bombing.


The entire display served one purpose, to make us remember these were real people who died during those terrible days in June of 1944; fathers, sons, brothers, but also more than 14,000 civilians were killed during the fighting for Normandy. The German War Graves Commission is determined to remind us of “the terrible consequences of war” and “how important it is to work for peace.” Right to the point.


What a way to end the day. And what a day it was.

Wish you had been there, and I hope you’ll go there. Soon.

Steve

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Normandy - Bayeaux and the Beaches - updated 06/05/2014


Ever since Susan and I first went to Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania we have wanted to visit the Normandy Beaches. We felt that such a visit to Omaha and Utah and Juno and Gold and Sword would be a perfect complement to the poignancy one finds in even the most casual stroll around the Peach Orchard or the Wheatfield or Devil’s Den. We also wanted to pay our respects to those men whose young lives ended here on French soil, just as we said hello (and goodbye) to those other young men whose lives ended on a handful of Pennsylvania farms in July of 1863. And to be given the opportunity to visit such a place at last is truly a gift. As an avid student of history over the years I have read a great deal about the Second World War and of course the prominent role D-Day played in that conflict. The stories that always affected me the most were the ones that brought you down to ground level. Stephen Ambrose got it absolutely right: the story of D-Day is the story of the men who fought there. And the closest you could get to that story here in France was strewn about the countryside in the cemeteries, large and small which remain little bits of Canada, The United States, Great Britain. (photo: detail from the cathedral in Bayeux.)

And so at last we went to Normandy, to see the Beaches. And afterward we wondered why we waited so long to go in the first place.

General impressions.

The drive to Normandy from Paris is through a countryside that reminded us both of western Massachusetts and upstate New York – in fact as we drove through the Seine valley we thought it looked quite like the Mohawk valley in New York. Once in Normandy and near the coast, however, parts of it reminded me of central Illinois, the flatness of the land and the number of large farms in particular. This was particularly true from the Canadian cemetery near Bency-sur-Mer; the headstones all face south (away from the direction of Juno beach) overlooking land that brings to mind the farms of western Ontario. Coincidence? Maybe.


After arriving in Bayeux we were struck by how peaceful the place is. Of course many of the tourists are gone now but still there were many of us cruising this corner of the world looking for something to inspire us, to remind us of what makes our species great and terrible at the same time. I sometimes wonder if today we often find it hard to find such inspiration, which maybe explains why we are so nostalgic about the men who came here and the things they did here. Maybe that’s what brings so many of us here again and again to find a sense of renewal. I don’t know. (photo: peaceful is the operative word here.)

Unlike Caen, a large unattractive city about 20 kms to the east, Bayeux makes for a perfect place to explore Normandy, to find whatever it is you came here looking for and take a bit of it home with you. The town is small, quaint and with a relatively low cost of living even for tourists. Bayeux was largely spared the destruction visited on nearly every other major city and town in this area during the war and today the town derives much of its livelihood off of tourists coming to see the tapestry and the beaches. Moreover the town sits just about square in the middle between the Commonwealth and US beachheads. Day trips up the Cotentin peninsula or to Mont Saint Michel are easy as well.

We found our bed and breakfast the Chateau d'Argouges about 10 kms west Bayeaux and we couldn'thave chosen a more perfect location, with splendid views of the Norman countryside right from our windows.  The roads throughout this part of France are excellent and the signage is both frequent and easy to use. A good map and/or road atlas is pretty much a necessity though. If you know where you’re going they’ll get you there.

Details.

There are several ways to see the Beaches: you can do a multi-day tour by bus, you can take the train to Bayeux and then do mini excursions by local tour companies (or rent bikes) or you can do what we did and rent a car and do the whole thing yourself. Whatever makes you feel comfortable. The important thing is to go.

We rented a car, a Renault Clio through Thrifty – we used them frequently in Italy and always found their prices to be the lowest. We soon discovered that at Orly airport – which is south of Paris – Thrifty outsources to a company called ADA, which was not located at either terminal (like the other car rental agencies) and we had to take a shuttle bus to the nearby Holiday Inn where we picked up our car. Although there was no record of a reservation for me we got a car nevertheless and were soon on our way out of Paris, or rather the “Isle de France” and heading west to Normandy.

The drive took us less than three hours with a short stop along the way for gas (or rather diesel) and a bite of lunch. The weather was pretty lousy with rain off and on for most of the drive.


The rain stopped by the time we reached Bayeux although it remained overcast for the remainder of the day and evening. Anyway, we found our way to the bed and breakfast, the Chateau d’Argouges, arriving between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. Located about 10 kms west of Bayeux the chateau is located in an almost picture postcard pastoral setting, truly quite stunning and the view from our room was spectacular. It was also very quiet; I mean very quiet – and deathly quiet at night. And dark. We hadn’t seen that much black at night since we lived up on the mountain in Chittenden! We have certainly become acclimatized to the noise and light pollution of Paris. (Route de Russy, 14400 Mosles; tel: 02 31 92 52 90.)

Note ther is also a Hotel D'Argouges located right inside Bayeux and as far as I know there is no connection between the two places. The Rough Guide to France recommended the hotel in town and actually when I googled "Argouges" I got the Chateau and, well one thing led to another ans thinking I had the hotel I booked the chateau. Anyway it worked out fine. I'd be curious to know what the hotel is like though.

Our hosts were pleasant but spoke virtually no English – which was curious since nearly all the guests staying there were either American or English as it turned out. We settled into the room, Susan unpacked and I stood around looking goofy. That lasted for about 20 minutes and then we headed off to Bayeux and the tapestry.


Soon after arriving in the historic city center we parked the car, and walked several blocks to the tourist information office. (You can check them out online as well.) After picking up some literature and buying a good map of the Beaches we strolled over to see the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry. Truly an amazing work of art and of course an amazing story as well – this 70-meter long tapestry, hand-woven by English monks, tells the story of how William, Duke of Normandy came to invade England in 1066, and in one swift stroke change the course of European history forever. (photo: building which houses the Tapestry. Pretty exciting huh?)

This exhibition is probably one of the best-arranged interpretative presentations I have ever seen in any museum anywhere.

After you pay your money you enter an enormous room where you will find an exact copy of the tapestry but with the story outlined in great deal along with explanatory notes to help you fully understand the impact of both the thing itself and the tale it is weaving for you. Reading the entire tapestry would probably take about a half a day but we spent quite a bit of our time here nonetheless. After the copy there is a small but very well done series of dioramas detailing much of the peripheral elements of the period of history discussed in the tapestry’s story.

From there you go into a theater and get a 14-minute presentation on the story again and then when you actually get to the room that holds the fabric itself. Oh and opt for the audio guide – it’s free and will help explain (again) the 58 or so elements of the story for you as you wend your way along the tapestry. Plan to spend a little time here. You’ll need it. But we thought it worth every minute. Oh and it’s pretty cold in the room so be prepared.

After we left the tapestry building we strolled around the town, stopping at a small café for an aperitif. We eventually and found our way to dinner at a restaurant on the Rue des Cuisiniers (street of the kitchens), which, and this should come as no surprise, is where most of the restaurants are located. We can certainly recommend our dining choice for the evening: Le Pommier. The service was friendly, helpful and willing to struggle along with us in our French – a very nice touch. The food was quite good and quite reasonably priced: less than €50 for the two of us without wine. The “menus” (fixed price menus) were very reasonable at €21 and €28, definitely a good deal (we both opted for the €21). Located at 38-40 rue des Cuisiniers; teL; 02 31 21 52 10.)

After dinner we strolled back to the car and left for the dark, quiet French countryside -- and a big day tomorrow.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Friday, September 22, 2006

French lessons

It’s a beautiful Friday morning in Paris. Coffee is on the stove, Susan is just waking up and the city is slowly coming to life around us. The street noise is picking up; a guy is shaving in the apartment building across the way and lights on starting to come here and there.

Well we finally took the plunge. Last Monday we began a two-week program of French language lessons at the Alliance Francaise here in Paris. It’s three hours a day (afternoons only), Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The school is an easy 30-minute walk from our apartment – and just about the same time by Metro (lines 5 to 6 to 12).

There are 14 of us in class: a Czech boy and a Slovak girl (tidy huh?), a young Argentinean woman who teaches kindergarten back home, three Russian women, a young Thai woman (who is actually in school with Susan at LCB), a Taiwanese marketing executive, four Americans, a guy from the Canary Islands who operates his own dock facility, and a young man from Brazil. Our instructor is Thierry, a guy in his 40s maybe, friendly, open and smiles all the time – even though his newborn baby keeps him up at night. Most everyone speaks English it seems, except for one Russian woman and the Brazilian young man. In fact most speak it quite well including Thierry who is really quite funny in both French and English.

Anyway, we spend the session working from both a textbook and a workbook and the three hours go pretty fast. One day Susan even brought chocolates to class after one of her practical classes at LCB – she had to come straight to language class from LCB and had the stuff with her so we thought why not pass them around? So we’ve discovered one venue to unload some of this great food!

Besides the language lessons – and the little homework of course – the week has been quiet. Today, Friday we head off to Normandy to spend the weekend visiting the D-Day beaches. The plan will be to walk to the Denfert Rochereau metro stop where we will take the shuttle bus out to Orly airport, and then pick up our rental car and head west. This has been one trip that has been on our short list for years now and here we are actually heading to Normandy!

Take care, stay cool and as always,

Wish you were here,

Steve

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Marilyn Monroe in Paris



Friday in Paris was overcast and a bit cool and by all indications promised rain (it drizzled a bit briefly in fact). After spending the morning catching up on household chores Susan and I decided to go see “set our minds free” and actually go see our very first art exhibition since arriving in Paris. We decided to see the exhibit “Le Derniere Séance”, or “the last session,” a reference to Marilyn Monroe’s final photo session shortly before her death in 1962. (photo: Marilyn in the Metro.)

The exhibition is located at the Musee Maillol (Rue de Genelle in the 7th arrondisement) and was an easy Metro ride. We left the apartment and headed for the metro at Rue Censier. We took the no. 7 to Jussieu, changed to the no. 10 and changed again at Sevres-Babylone for the no. 12, and got off at Rue du Bac, just around the corner and a block up from rue de Grenelle and the museum.

The marketing campaign for this exhibition has been enormously widespread: provocative posters of a nude Marilyn holding two paper flowers over her breasts with a still-fresh gall bladder operation scar are plastered in many of the metro stations.

It being an early Friday afternoon we thought we might still beat the crowds and so we did. Indeed there was virtually no line when we arrived and a few minutes later we were inside. I checked my backpack and with our museum map in hand we found our way to the photos.

The “Marilyn” exhibition consists of some 59 images from the more than 2,000 Stern shot for Vogue over a couple of days, and most are of Marilyn in various stages of undress although one of the most poignant I thought was her seated and dressed in a large black ball gown and in profile. Very touching.

The website for the museum defines the exhibit as capturing her ‘fragility” and indeed it would seem so. Of course knowing that she would be dead soon afterwards adds to the aura of melancholy surround the photos themselves. A few images show her happy but in an almost dreamlike state. In a number of others she is drinking wine (it appears), a number of bottles are scattered around her and it is clear that in several of the photos she is quite drunk, which doesn’t bode well for her future either.

If you move through the exhibition in a counter-clockwise fashion (from right to left) you end up with a photo of Marilyn either asleep or passed out – pretty much the same thing I suppose. Is this a precursor of what will be “The big sleep” in just a matter of six weeks or showing someone who sorely needed the comfort and security of a good’ night’s rest to bounce back at the world?

You decide.

We strolled around the museum and amidst the Matisses and Picassos and Maillol’s work – his rather bulky nudes look best out of doors I think) we were most impressed by the soft and very pleasing work of Rene Rimbert, a relative unknown.

Musee Maillol (59-61 Rue de Grenelle, 75007, Paris, is named in honor of the sculptor Aristide Maillol, whose work is showcased most famously throughout the Tuileries Gardens. You can find out more online. The website is in French and English: http://www.museemaillol.com/index2.html)

After we left the museum we jumped back on the Metro and headed to W. H. Smith bookstore near the Place de la Concorde for some browsing; in particular we needed a good road atlas for our upcoming driving trips to Normandy and then to Germany.

From the bookstore we headed east toward the BHV department store for some household items (it’s always something) and as Susan was looking for a robe I got lost in the lingerie department.

Now normally I would have tried to find my way out as soon as possible. But being a “guy” Dave Barry-style, whose approach to buying underwear is find the goofiest pair of boxer shorts in the store, grab them off the rack and go find a cashier, and this being Paris, the home of Unnaturally Terrific Looking Women’s Underwear, of course I stood forzen in the aisle dumbstruck at the tens of thousands of bras and seemingly endless racks of other assorted "intimate" items not one of which was like the other. This is a phenomenon that warrants serious investigation. I suspect a PhD dissertation is already in progress somewhere as we speak.

And speaking of Normandy later that evening (Friday) after dinner we started watching Band of Brothers again to get us in the right frame of mind for our drive to the D-Day beaches next weekend. We first saw the series a year or so ago on DVD and it soon came back to us how powerful a story this is. It’s a wonderful addition to our tiny collection of video entertainment.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Canal cruise in Paris


We met Stan and Margie in front of their hotel at about 8 Wednesday morning and the four of us strolled casually in the direction of the Seine, turning westward at the Pont Neuf and heading toward the Musee D’Orsay. Although rain had been predicted it was another nice day in Paris and we were going to make the most of it. (photo: cruising the St. Martin canal.)

Just as we approached the musee we turned right toward the lower bank of the river and walked along the quai for just a few minutes until we reached our objective, the boat that would take us up the Seine and then turn into the St, Martin canal. We would then cruise leisurely up the canal through a part of Paris that most tourists rarely see, passing through a half dozen or so locks as we rise some 80 feet above the surface of the Seine, and disembarking at the Parc de la Villette in the northeastern part of the city.

Arriving a bit early we sat along the quai waiting to board, taking in the river in front of us and the huge bulk of the Musee D’Orsay above and behind us. Soon we were aboard, paid our tickets (€16 per person which I believe included a round trip) and before long we were moving quietly up the Seine.

Not long after we passed the Isle St. Louis we turned left (“port”) and passed into the St. Martin canal and our first lock. Soon we were into the canal and in a few minutes the boat passed into a 2 km-long tunnel that passes beneath the Place de la Bastille and then the 10th arr. It was really an odd experience to say the least. Still the occasional grated cover in the middle of the Blvd. Richard Lenoir kept just enough light flooding the tunnel to make seeing (occasionally) easy. Early on we passed a film crew apparently shooting something in the tunnel but then no sign of human life until we exited a short while later.

As we passed through lock after lock, gently rising each time, we would slide gracefully beneath steeply arched footbridges where there was always someone waiting to watch the action. The thing which struck us as quite odd was here we were in the middle of a very busy boulevard in Paris, essentially going up and down the street by boat; strange but in an oddly pleasant way.

The boat passed through a couple of swing bridges, which were designed for vehicular traffic and under one lift bridge, rather like the original London Bridge but on a much smaller scale of course.

After a trip of about 2.5 hours or so we reached our destination, the Parc de la Villette. On the site of the old city slaughterhouse the Parc is actually an enormous art, science and museum complex. We decided to forgo any serious exploration of the Parc – leaving it for another day. We did walk into and through the enormous “Cite des Sciences et de l’Industrie” (The City Museum of Science and Industry; open Tues-Sat. 10am-6pm and Sun 10am-7pm; admission). According to the Rough Guide of Paris this is one enormous building. The central space is open to some 40m high to the roof and the entire building is all glass and stainless steel with platforms, walkouts, bridges and suspended walkways scattered everywhere. It is truly a fantastic piece of architecture; and we can’t wait to get back here later this fall.

We didn’t dally too long however on this trip and soon left the science building walking toward the metro. From the Parc we caught the no. 7, switched to the no. 2 at Stalingrad and got off at the Blanche stop where we then headed uphill toward R$ue des Abbesses and Montmartre proper. After a few minutes strolling along Rue des Abbesses we found a place to eat and had another delicious lunch of goat cheese salad and (for Margie) onion soup.

After lunch we worked our way a few blocks over to get the funicular up to Sacre Coeur where we admired the view before heading back down, eventually getting on the Metro for our last big trek of the day, out to La Defense.

Ever since Susan and I stopped at La Defense on our way to have dinner at Anna and Pietro’s home west of the city we wanted to come back and so we did. It was a bit overcast but no rain and just like our first trip we got off at the Esplanade metro stop and walked up toward the Grande Arche. This place is simply awe-inspiring and inspires me to remember what our species can accomplish even in this jaded era of plastic this and disposable that. I am convinced that no trip to Paris is really complete without a stop to see what capitalism combined with imagination can really achieve: the integration of grandeur with art. This is truly a spectacular place.

After wandering around the enormous open space of La Defense the four of us walked down into the metro and caught the no. 1 back toward the Louvre where we got off. We parted company with Stan and Margie on the Pont Neuf. The plan is to meet back at their hotel at 8 for an aperitif and then off to dinner, our last together in Paris, at least this trip.

By 8 pm Susan and I were sipping Camparis at Stan and Margie’s hotel, and about 8:25 the four of us left and walked the two blocks to Les Bouquinistes (53 Quai des Grands Augustins; reservations: 01 43 25 45 94; online at: http://www.guysavoy.com/ ).

Susan and I had eaten here in 1998 and had always wanted to return. The food was even better than we remembered. The service was impeccable, and the wines, a red Merseault and a red Volnay, worked really well with our food; three of us had seafood and Stan had veal. The desserts were equally spectacular; and the cheese board (which I had) consisted of four different cheeses, a hard Comte-like cheese, a chevre, a Brie -style and a fabulous blue called “Fourme d’Ambert,” which was almost sweet. Delicious!

How would you top off such a wonderful meal? Well if you time it right, on the hour for 10 minutes you can see the Eiffel tower sparkle as if it were a flute of champagne! Which is what we did. A few minutes after we left the restaurant, walked across the street and strolled onto the Pont Neuf we saw that most famous icon of Paris winking with light, the effervescence that makes this city truly special.

After saying good night we stood for a moment on the bridge watching Stan and Margie walk toward their hotel, savoring the moment here not wanting to break the spell maybe I don’t know. It was so good to see them; good friends are always sorely missed and most painfully when saying goodbye. Moreover having them here reinforced in Susan’s mind – and in mine as well – that we are doing the right thing. They firmly believe it and so do we. But as they went one way so we went another, heading toward the no. 7 back to our apartment. “C’est la vie.” We will miss them. (photo: below, detail from the Palais de Tokio.)

Wish you were here.

Steve


Beef and only the beef

OK so our first dinner with Stan and Margie in Paris was at “le Relais de l’Entrecote” (20 bis, Rue St-Benoit in the 6th arrondisement). A favorite with tourists and locals alike – we had in fact been given the tip from a businessman who eats out in Paris a great deal – this is one place you should definitely go, but if and only if you like beef. They don’t serve fish, pork or chicken, and they only serve one cut of beef one way with one sauce and a side order of potatoes. No frills, no choices, but then no problems making up your mind either.

Let me explain.

We arrived at about 8:30 and there was a short line already forming outside along the street. They don’t take reservations and we had been warned that it’s a good idea to come a bit early before they open to avoid the long lines but we figured hey it’s a Tuesday evening plus we didn’t want to eat early so we’d take our chances. The restaurant was quite large with lots of tables spilling outside onto the sidewalk on the little side street of Rue St.-Benoit just around the corner from Saint Germain-des-Pres and just a block off the busy Blvd. Saint Germain. Across the street were two other restaurants, one of which was generous enough to provide live jazz music not long after we sat down. (They have a second restaurant in Paris at 15 Rue Marbeuf, in the 8th arrondisement, and one in Geneva at 49 Rue du Rhone.)

Anyway, after about a 15-minute wait we were seated at a table just inside but since the walls were gone for the season we were in effect also outside. Tres cool. The waitress then came to the table and asked what we would like to drink (water first) and then how we want our meat prepared: rare, medium or well. That’s it. Oh and yes you have just three choices for wine: red, white or sparkling (we chose red). She wrote our orders on the tablecloth and a few minutes later we had our wine, fresh bread and soon afterwards our salads – all very delicious I might add.

A little while later out came the meat. The meat was swimming in a unique pesto-like sauce -- the basil flavor was distinct but not as strong as a traditional pesto or so we thought – and it had a rich, buttery edge to it. Perfect with the meat, which by the way appeared to be slices of sirloin cooked to a tender perfection. I should perhaps explain how they plate the food since it too seemed quite different from any other experience we can recall. They brought out the meat in covered serving trays which were then placed on portable burners scattered strategically around the restaurant – and these were soon followed by huge platters of “pomme frites” (french fries of course) the only accompaniment to the meat. The fries are spooned on to each plate followed by the meat and sauce and then brought to the table. But only half of each person’s portion is given out; and after you finish that you get the “second” helping of both fries and meat. Interesting, no?

The evening air was perfect, the music coming from across the street just added to the fact that yes, we were in Paris, with good friends eating good food, and, as one at our table that evening is often fond of saying, we’re just happy to be here.

The four of us strolled the backstreets of the 6th arr. on our way to Stan and Margie’s hotel where we said buono notte. The plan is to meet a little early since we have a boat to catch.

There’s still more to come of our “Travels with Stan and Margie”, so stay tuned!

Foursome around Paris


This past Monday the 11th our good friends Stan and Margie stopped in Paris for a couple of days before heading off on a bike trip to Normandy. Unfortunately Susan was in school most of Monday but I was lucky enough to able to catch up with them in the middle of the afternoon, after an early morning arrival in Paris. The good news was that that Susan had the next couple of days off and so we packed a lot of stuff in the short bit of time before Stan and Margie left the city for the wilds of Greater France. (photo: Susan and I in the Jardin du Luxembourg.)

Monday afternoon I met them about 4ish in front of Notre Dame on the Isle de la Cite and the three of us strolled over to the Isle St. Louis, stopping at one of the cafes just opposite the small bridge that connects the two islands, for a light lunch. (The bridge is called, quite unsurprisingly, the Pont St. Louis.) Although the service was more frenetic and jumpy than rude and pushy the goat cheese salads were delicious – the bread was dated but then so were the waiters. Anyway we talked about things of great importance: food and wine, and where to find them in Paris.

Afterwards we strolled down the rue St. Louis en Isle, a touristy but cool place to walk nonetheless, with maybe a half dozen neat little galleries sporting some rather fantastic impressionist sculpture, and of course stopping at a foie gras shop for a tasting. We worked our way back to the Isle de la Cite and I showed them the Holocaust memorial – and since it was 5-year anniversary of 9/11 the security guard at the entrance wanted to look in my backpack (but not Margaret’s) and asked if she had a phone (but didn’t ask me). Why? Because a phone, the guard said, could be used to set off a bomb. . . . And I was the only one who had a phone, but she never asked me. Perfunctory behavior I suspect.

We strolled past the cathedral on the way back to their hotel. I had to get home to meet Susan but the two of us were going to return later that evening and bring dessert to their hotel. Stan and Margie could then turn in and get a good night’s rest before the four of us headed off on our urban trek Tuesday morning.

So Susan and I got to their hotel a bit later than planned, about 8:15 pm or so – she was a half hour late getting out of class – and as we chatted we sampled her practical work for the day, a layered sponge cake with layers of coffee pastry cream and chocolate cream. Deeelicious!

The next morning we met Stan and Margie at about 9ish in front of their hotel on Rue Christine and the four of us headed off on a whirlwind view of “our” Paris, examining several very small threads of this very large tapestry.

We strolled over to the Boulevard St. Germain and then walked up to St. Germain-des-Pres turning south down Rue Bonapartre – check out the exploding sidewalk just opposite the church – walking past the Place St. Sulpice, presently undergoing serious reconstruction.

A few minutes later we came out onto Rue de Vaugirard, which we crossed and then walked into the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens), our first major stop for the day. This is certainly one of the highlights of any stop in Paris, particularly in the spring or summer when the flowers are out and so are the people. Indeed, for Susan and I this Jardin – and probably all the gardens in fact – are the epitome of what makes Paris special: the imagination of the artwork scattered around the gardens, the intensity, structure and layout of the flowers and plants and how all of these things are utilized daily and in a matter-of-fact way by the Parisians, indeed by everyone. Just come and watch for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

From the gardens we walked across Blvd. Saint Michel and headed for the Pantheon, the resting place for some of France’s greatest and most beloved intellectuals and heroes. The day was simply too nice to be inside so we skirted the Pantheon and headed for the Place de la Contrescarpe. Here, too, one sees yet another part of that Paris so frequently represented in literature or painting: the small green “place” or square, the meeting point of several small streets coming together connecting the community, and all surrounded by tiny cafes, stocked with people chatting, taking a break from the routine of their daily lives – no, in fact this IS a routine of their daily life. The cafes then spread out down the side streets to become restaurants, and shops all surprisingly quiet and yet abuzz with activity nonetheless,. One of our favorite places to be sure. Indeed that’s really what this “urban trek” is all about, showing Stan and Margie our favorite places where one can get about living and not just moving from one attraction to another as if in a huge theme park or Las Vegas.

From the Place de la Contrescarpe we strolled down one of the coolest streets in Paris, the Rue Mouffetard, past the cheese shops, the foie gras shops, the wine shops, the shops selling funky clothes and produce and past the shop roasting meat, chickens and potatoes altogether, past the fresh fish shops. When one imagines living in Paris the “Mouff” comes close to being the archetype of that image.

From the end of the Rue Mouffetard we strolled over to our apartment where, after climbing the five flights of stairs, we relaxed for a bit while Stan and Margie checked their emails and caught up on electronic chores.

From our apartment we walked to the Metro and took the no. 5 to the Place de la Bastille. The Bastille is long gone, having been torn down during the revolution in 1789. The enormous square, jammed with traffic, is today dominated by the “Colonne de Juillet,” a bronze column at the center of the place commemorating the fall of the prison and the collapse of feudalism in France in July (“Juillet”) of 1789. While nothing remains today of any of the pre-revolutionary neighborhood, the ultra-modern Societe Generale bank reportedly sits on the on the very spot where the infamous prison once stood. The Place is also home to Paris’ second opera house, the “Opera Bastille”.

Anyway, after coming out on the wrong exit from the Metro – we wanted to be on the west and we were on the southeast – we inched our way across the enormous Place to the Rue Saint Antoine. We were now on a quest: to find a place to have lunch. The large cafes surrounding the Place appeared less than inviting, busy, noisy and with neervous waiters. We were in search of a more sedate dining atmosphere.

And we soon found it just down a few meters from the Place on Rue Saint Antoine. “Les P’tits Loup” was the ideal place: four tables for four each on the sidewalk lined up against the side of the building. Run by two middle-aged women (whatever that means), one running the inside, the other the outside. The food was delicious, priced well and the service remarkable: friendly, charming and obviously a person who enjoyed dealing with strangers in search of a good meal. This is a solid recommendation for lunch. (photo: l-r, Margie, Stan and Susan, lunch on the Rue Saint Antoine.)

After a leisurely lunch we walked up the Rue Saint Antoine and grabbed the Metro getting off at the Louvre Rivoli stop. We walked up to Dehillerin’s kitchen store at the junction of Rue Coquilliere and Rue J. J. Rousseau to see the funky store which hasn’t changed since Julia Child shopped here in the late 1940s and where many of the local chefs, professional and amateurs alike still come to buy their tools and equipment.

Along the way we had the very Parisian experience of using one of the numerous public toilets. Self-cleaning and Jetson-like these facilities are free and quite easy to use: the red “Hors service” means it is out of service, “the green “Libre” means its good to go (so to speak) and the yellow “Occupie” means just that, or its in the clean mode which is does after each use. Be patient.

We then strolled over to rue Etienne Marcel and headed west toward the Place de la Madeline. Along the way we showed Stan and Margie a couple of the “passages”, remnants of the mostly long gone quaint Paris which was “bulldozed” so to speak during Baron Haussmann’s tenure as Prefect of the city under Napoleon III. These passages were in fact small covered alleyways, or galleries and today often occupied by little shops and cafes, tiny pieces of the city’s history often just out of sight.

Shortly before reaching the Place de la Madeline we stopped at the huge wine store “Lavinia”, on Rue de la Madeline. From there we walked a block or so to the Place and then popped into the Maille (mustard) store. We then walked halfway around the Place to Fauchon’s upscale food shop, enjoying just wandering around so much food. All of which was good prep work for the evening to come.

It was after 5 pm when we walked out of Fauchon’s and decided we would head home, relax and then meet up again at about 8 in front of their hotel. Although Susan and I knew where we were going to eat that evening dinner, we had only heard about this place by word of mouth (no pun intended). It was to be a wonderful surprise for the four of us.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

"It's nice to meet nice people"


OK it sounds tired and perhaps a bit trite but the very fact of it is when one is traveling long-term, it is nice to meet nice people. And so we were fortunate yesterday. (photo: Lorenzo visiting from Siena.)

As you may recall we missed hooking up with Lorenzo, the bartender/sommelier from Siena who we had gotten to know last year when we lived there. He is in Paris for the first time – staying with a family he had also met while working at Nannini’s in Siena, who live out in the suburbs of Paris. They told him whenever he wanted to come to Paris he could stay with them. And so here he is.

Anyway, we missed him Friday in front of Notre Dame but after an exchange of phone calls we at last connected in front of the Pyramid entrance to the Louvre. We chatted for a bit and then headed in the direction of the Arc de Triomph, with no particular itinerary in mind.

As we strolled through the Tuileries he was agog at the gardens, the statues, the fountains with the kids playing with their rented sailboats, and most of all with the sheer volume of people strolling on a beautiful warm Saturday afternoon in Paris. We crossed the Place de la Concorde and Lorenzo, now pretty much like a kid seeing the Big, Wide world for the first time, was simply awestruck by the Egyptian obelisk set up in the center of the Place. From there we continued our stroll up the Champs Elysses and eventually found ourselves seated at Le Deauville where we a glass of champagne.

We talked (mostly in Italian or what we could muster of Italian), since his English came and went pretty quickly. But hey, he’s just a nice guy.

About 7 pm we left the Champs Elysse and strolled down Avenue Georges V, past the hotel of the same name and of course we had to go in to check it out, and soon discovered it had not connection with the movie “The French Kiss”. We did see one of the s most striking arrangements of hydrangeas though: enormous plants set in glass bowls, raised in a staggered series of pedestals; they were gorgeous and imaginatively arranged.

At Place Alma, where the “unofficial” Diana memorial can be found, oddly enough as part of the replica of the statue of liberty torch, we turned right and headed up Avenue du President Wilson. It is curious that the not only have the French named several of their major streets after US presidents (Rue Lincoln off the Champs Elysses also comes to mind) but one of the major metro stops is called Franklin Roosevelt.

Just past the Palais de Tokio we turned left onto the small rue de la Manutention, characterized mainly by a large set of steps leading down toward the river. It was along this short block that we found the restaurant “Aux Marches du Palais,” where we had arranged to meet Diane from Oregon. She had come across our blog a while back and contacted us to say she was going to be in Paris for a few days and would we like to get together. In fact not only was she going to be in Paris but she had also arranged that very day to do a short course at Le Cordon Bleu as well! Sure, we said. Let’s plan on dinner.

Great, let’s do it.

Then she asked if we wanted to join her for at the Palais de Tokio, along the Seine near the Trocadero, to watch the “Burn Crew” do something with fire (it was unclear exactly from their website). Anyway they were scheduled for 9 pm and so we decided to meet for an early dinner nearby. After a quick look through “The Rough Guide to Paris” we found the “Aux Marches” which came recommended and was right next door to the Palais, and a 5-minute walk to the Metro. What more could you ask!?

So there we were. And within a minute or two there was Diane strolling up from the river. So the four of us sat down at a small table outside and commenced to try and decipher a French-only menu, which by the way, was OK and made for interesting conversation over the next half hour or so as we tried to figure it out in English and help Lorenzo understand it in Italian – and he had the added difficulty of not understanding how it was arranged, since it lacked antipasti, primi, secondi, etc. So the evening started out interesting to be sure.

A quick note about the restaurant. The food was very good but the service, provided by a young Polish girl who was new it seemed to us but who at least spoke a smattering of English (emphasize smattering), was a bit inattentive. We also missed out on the fixed menu that just about every restaurant in Paris has since when we asked our waitress she said no and yet it was on a chalkboard on the wall. And we never received the wine list, which was on another big chalkboard brought to the table. Maybe we had to ask. We did order the “vin rouge du maison” and it was actually just fine, and of course inexpensive. The food was quite good and reasonably priced we thought, although two meals had to go back because they were undercooked. Aside from these glitches one could recommend this place – and particularly if you enjoy a firm grasp of French. Diane had “gambas” (shrimp), Susan had “poulet” (chicken), Lorenzo actually had two starters, fois gras and “champignons” (mushrooms) and I had a small steak (“l’entrecote”) that was superb – aside from being undercooked, the sauce was very tasty and the potatoes (“pommes du terre”) just right.

After paying the bill we strolled over to the Palais, and soon found the “Burn Crew” down on the large open space of the Palais overlooking the river. The Palais is in fact a museum of modern art (it is open until midnight by the way). So the Burn Crew consisted of several guys scattered around the semi-darkened area, flipping and throwing their fire sticks around, one guy blowing petrol or some other sort of flammable liquid onto his fire sticks, all the while in the dark somewhere came the rhythmic beat of bongos or conga drums or some other sort of percussion which added to the party-like atmosphere. Indeed, I felt as if we were attending a rave party or some other gathering of young people out to just have a good, preferably great time.

After sitting and watching this rather randomly produced show we decided to head home. The four of us walked to the Pont Alma where we said arrivederci to Lorenzo as he left to find his RER train back to the suburbs. Diane and Susan and I hopped on the no. 9 metro, and quickly changed to the no. 7. We said goodbye to Diane as she got off at Sully-Morland stop and a few minutes later we left the metro at Censier and five minutes after we were back home.

So we spent a wonderful evening, the four of us, an odd group perhaps: Lorenzo looking for the occasional cigarette and at the stream of women passing by and all the while amazed at how good his food was (he had never had fois gras before), Diane and Susan swapping stores about Le Cordon Bleu and all of us talking about travel, particularly independent travel and how important it is to one’s emotional well-being.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Food notes from the 5th


Saturday morning in Paris and a beautiful morning it is, crisp and clear. The moon is full (or nearly so) and still high in the sky at 7am!

Friday (yesterday) was also absolutely gorgeous. Cool temps, just right for sleeping, with brisk breezes to keep the bright sun from being overbearing and plenty of action in the city. Places that have been closed during the August holidays are now open, and the city seems more alive than ever. (photo: a fromagerie on Rue Mouffetard in the 5th.)


This past Wednesday I browsed through one of our nearby open markets (Place Monge: Weds, Fri and Sun) and vowed to return. The bad news is that food prices are pretty high everywhere in the city – much higher than say even in Florence -- but they seem higher in our neighborhood than others. For example, the “boucherie” (butcher) right across the street from our apartment charges €13 ($17) for a roasted chicken fresh off their outdoor rotisserie (these things are everywhere, usually parked on the sidewalk just outside the shop door), while a similar one just a few blocks over at the lower end of Rue Mouffetard sells the same thing for €10! And of course the open-air markets tend to be a bit less expensive which is why I was scouting out the nearest one, which is in Place Monge. But there’s no guarantee here either. (photo: above, in front of Notre Dame.)

But there’s another place to find great value for food: Chinatown, Little Saigon, Small Bangkok, Diminutive Laos, whatever you want to call it. Just south of us, in the 13th arr. generally in the area between Rue de Tolbiac and rue de Choisy is a vast array of supermarkets and numerous other shops selling all sorts of items catering to the large Asian communities in Paris, sort of their answer to Fauchon and Hediard’s I suppose. Anyway, we hopped on the metro (line 7 and get off at Porte d-Ivry) and 10 minutes later we found ourselves in the Disneyland of Asian condiments. For Asian food aficionados you could spend hours wandering around here – and there are at least half dozen large markets to explore, such as the “Big Store”, which is, well, big. One store in particular had caught our eye in the Rough Guide to Paris, “Tang Freres” (Tang Brothers?), at 48 avenue d’Ivry (open Tues-Sun, 9am-7:30pm). After a half hour wandering the aisles taking in this place we loaded up on rice, half a dozen sauces, black vinegar, sesame oil and a couple of other items, all of which set us back only €20 ($26)! We’re going back to check their meat and fresh vegetable prices – and their Asian produce! Whoa!

We schlepped our bags of goodies home on the metro and jumped on the no. 7 metro, switched to the no. 10 at Jussieu and then got off at Maubert so we could check out the cookbook store, the “Librairie Gourmande”, at 4 on Rue Dante, just off the Blvd St. Germain. If you are looking for cookbooks in Paris this is the place to come. Small and intimate, with very helpful staff this is: “a great little shop/and worth a stop.” (photo: below, in front of Notre Dame.)


From there we walked to the Isle de Cite and Notre Dame where we hoped to meet up with an acquaintance from Siena, Lorenzo. He was visiting Paris and had called us the day before to set up a time and place to meet: 4pm in front of the Big Cathedral. We waited for an hour but Lorenzo never showed up. We just hope he’s OK. It was a beautiful afternoon and it was fun just watching the people – tourists of course. It was interesting to note though that even the locals seemed to use the front of Notre Dame as a convenient meeting spot as well. (photo: below, looking for Lorenzo.)


Anyway we strolled back to the metro and got off the no. 10 at Cardinal Lemoine so we could walk down Rue Mouffetard, one of the funkiest streets we have found in the city so far – and definitely one of our favorites (it helps that our apartment is on one side and the Sorbonne is on the other I suppose). We stopped to have an aperitif at a cool little café on the Place Contrescarpe, just around the corner from where Hemingway and his first wife Hadley lived in the early 1920s, at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine (although he actually did his writing in a nearby hotel room at 36 Rue Descartes).


We sat and talked and watched this corner of the world go about its business of life. Although it seemed quiet here there was a buzz of activity. It wasn’t nearly as distracting or imposing as we had just witnessed minutes before near Notre Dame where human herds grazed back and forth in front of the cathedral; all eyes tilted upward at a 45 degree angle, hands clasping tiny digital cameras furiously snapping photos of the stone bulk – while at their very feet were the original medieval streets laid out in neat stone patterns, their names carved into the pavement.(photo: bar on Place Contrescarpe.)


After leaving the cafe we strolled down Rue Mouffetard. Along the way we both commented on how many more shops we open now than when we were here some weeks ago. In the space of a just a few short blocks, we counted 4 fromageries (cheese shops), several open-air markets, especially toward the end of the “Mouffe” as we approached Rue Censier. Along here are also some of the coolest women’s clothing shops. Susan is very picky about her clothes and there are two or three that always draw her like a magnet, with their bold colors, funky styles without being gauche (“left”) and great prices. Anyway we’re lucky that this area is so close to our apartment. (photo: a street rotisserie, beef on top, chicken in the middle and potatoes on the very bottom roasting in the juices of the meats!)

Later in the evening Susan made pizza -- our first in Paris actually – topped with “mergez” sausage, roasted chicken, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella (“bocconcini”) from the Italian cheese shop, which is of course across the street, like everything else!

Wish you were here,

Steve

Friday, September 08, 2006

Just desserts

I like the idea of getting my "just desserts" and getting them here, as you can see by the photos below. As part of my Orson Welles Fit n' Fat diet these are what I've been forced to eat this past week:

Passion fruit and respberry tart:



"Jamaique" (Jamaica), a chocolate sponge cake layered with coconut mousse, pineapple, mango passion fruit mousse:



"Frasier" (pronounced FRAY-zee-ay), another sponge cake layered with strawberries and a pastry-butter cream:



Macaron with raspberry cream and fresh berries:



This doesn't include the food I fix -- something I'm thinking of stopping altogether.

Wish you wurp hirp (sorry I had my mouth full),

Steve

Saturday in the suburbs


The past week has been quiet, with sticky days early on, but turning cool and more comfortable by week end. The change was much appreciated but it did give us an idea what a typical August must be like in the city. Susan's school has been OK and her desserts have been fantastic (more of that in a brief follow-on update). I've been exploring some of the smaller, more intimate cemeteries in the historic center of Paris. (You can find out more by clicking here for my blog or to see some of the new images I've posted online just click here). (photo: looking east from La Grande Arche; that's the Arc de Triomph in the far distance.)

Last Saturday (the 2nd) was probably one of the best days we’ve had since moving here. No, we didn’t see anything grandiose or spectacular. In fact we spent a leisurely morning – no school for Susan – and later in the day jumped on the Metro (line 7 to line 1) eventually ending up at “La Defénse” in western Paris.

La Defénse is named not after the French Defense Department or some other such inane military bureaucracy but in fact after the Communards’ heroic defense of the city during the terrible years of 1870-71. Dominated by La Grande Arche (photo below), which was built in 1989 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Revolution, today the area is in fact the very heart of Parisian and French capitalism with corporate offices of some of France's largest companies such as ELF, Total, Gan, and numerous banks all housed in fantastically designed skyscrapers.


The Grande Arche itself is the visual lynchpin for the entire space: it rather reminds one of a vast airplane hangar but without the doors. An even better image would be the old lighter-than-air hangars that used to house dirigibles -- I remember seeing some of the last LTA hangars near Santa Ana, in southern Califnornia many years ago. Huge. The Arche, which houses numerous government ministeries and international businesses, comes with it's own externally mounted glass-enclosed transparent lift shafts which one assumes must make for a very interesting ride to the top (€7.50, daily 10-8) and allegedly the view from the top is spectacular, which I can imagine. We have yet to see the view from the top -- I can't wait. Still, the view from the base alone is worth the trip. With a striking line of sight all the way to the Arc de Triomph and even the Louvre on a clear day. It has to be seen to be appreciated believe me. (photo: La Grande Arche.)


The area also houses the Dôme-Imax, the world’s largest movie theater screen, two enormous shopping complexes, one of which is the Quatre-Temps commercial center, reportedly the largest shopping complex in Europe.

As a counterweight to all that heavy commercialism -- and really it is not as obvious as it may sound -- amidst all of this fantastic design you will find some of the most bizarre and striking outdoor sculpture in the city: a huge "stabile" by Calder, works by Miro and Torricini and several others, all wrapped up in the imagination of a deconstructed architectural plan which baffles and yet amuses at the same time.


We got off at Esplanade du Charles de Gaulle, one short metro stop short of La Defénse, so we could get the full impact of the space as we walked toward La Grande Arche. If you ever get to Paris make this one of your first stops. Lots of food to refuel, lots of space to wander around in and things to buy if you must. But come and see it. (photo: I call this the Calder "Tarantula".)

Although we only had a little while to cruise La Defénse this is definitely on our short list for a return trip.

From La Defènse we jumped on the RER line A1 and headed out to Rueil Malmaison, about a 10-minute train ride into the Paris suburbs. We had been invited out to the home of Anna and Pietro to have dinner with their family. (Anna and Susan met during the basic intensive level at Le Cordon Bleu in August.) After having lunch with them a week or so earlier we knew that they knew an awful lot about Paris, and in particular Paris food, where to find it, how to get it and, most importantly, how to fix it. In fact, Pietro bowled us over by grilling out – and we hadn’t had home cooked grilled food since June at Dick and Dorothy’s and I haven’t grilled since last year!

Naturally we couldn’t turn the down the opportunity to have great home cooked food from these guys so we jumped at the chance. And we weren’t disappointed. Pietro picked us up at the station and in five minutes we were settled into their comfortable home, sipping champagne.

Although the evening was a bit iffy for rain we sat outside for appetizers in their wonderfully private and quiet green space while Pietro grilled: first “mergez”, a type of North African sausage (with just the right amount of cumin), thin, red and delicious. Then came the meat – a beautiful piece of beef that was cooked to perfection.

And for dessert Anna made an Italian cheesecake with mascarpone and cream cheese! Whoa! This was so light you could mistake it for a mousse! And it was worth every kilometer on the train to get there I might add.

What a wonderful evening spent in talking about travel, good food and the wine that goes with it – and lamenting those who have somehow missed that bus. So be it.

We caught a late train back to the city. Pietro dropped us off at the station, said ciao and he left for home. We strolled over to the turnstiles and had a brief moment of panic when we realized our return tickets were not valid for this far out of central Paris. And there was no way to buy tickets: the window was closed and the machines didn’t work (something to bear in mind for the future). The gods were kind to us that evening, though, and one of the turnstiles was ajar just enough to let us squeeze through and we were off on our way home. And mind you it only took us less than 40 minutes to cross the entire city.

What a day – and even better, what a night!

Wish you were here,

Steve