Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"Merci, Alfredo"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Certainly not us.

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

“Merci, Alfredo, merci beaucoup.”

Wish you could have been here,

Steve

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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




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

There were also sarcophagus covers:


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah Paris.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Friends and food

Seeing Paris with other people is always a special treat. Why? Well it’s always nice to see friends of course. Being here day-after-day-after-day, the city has becomes more of a routine for us, and we often lose sight of some of the wonderful things there are to see and do. But people who visit Paris for just a week are intensely focused; they need to use their time efficiently and usually act accordingly. And a little bit of that “intensity” rubs off. Thanks Stan and Margie!

And thanks now to Anna Maria and Guy! They arrived from New Jersey this past Wednesday and we joined them that evening for dinner at Sapporo, a funky, noisy little Japanese noodle bar in the 2nd arrondisement. (2 rue Daunou 75002 Paris, Metro: Opera or Pyramides.)

After initiating the weary travelers into the absurd intricacies of the Metro system at Chatelet (too boring and painful to go into detail) we soon found ourselves in “Little Tokyo”. Just a few weeks back we had come to this neighborhood after Susie’s graduation and had a great meal at one of the small noodle bars here and decided then and there we wanted to come back and try another one. So here we were!

Although the four of us were wedged into a small table in a room the size of long closet, the food was quite good and we had a grand time eating noodles, rice and catching up since the last time we were together (Thanksgiving in Siena). How time flies.

After dinner Susie and I said good night to A-M and Guy and while they walked back to their hotel we hopped on the Metro at Pyramides and headed home.

Since Susie had a heavy schedule the end of last week – she didn’t get home until 10 pm Thursday and then had a practical session in the middle of the day Friday – A-M and Guy were on their own those two days (four museums and tons of explorations).

At 7:30 pm Friday evening we met up again at their hotel the “St. Merry” in the 4th (right around the corner from the Pompidou Center). As we stepped outside into the cool night air, into a street packed with people hurrying one direction or another, we strolled leisurely for about 90 seconds and stopped at a café to have an aperitif.

Over a bottle of Nouveau Beaujolais the four of us sat and talked – and watched the people strolling by. A-M and Guy thought their hotel very nice and accommodating, although it suffers from a fair amount of street noise (sleep had become an elusive commodity Thursday night apparently).

A large part of the conversation revolved around where we were going to eat that night -- this being Paris and food being one of if not the most important topic at any given time on the streets of the city. I had put together a short list of possibles but A-M and Guy had come across a seafood place earlier in the day that they thought looked pretty good and it was just a short walk past the Les Halles area. So off we went.

L’Ostria turned out to be a real gem, a wonderful place to eat fish. In fact what had caught their eye earlier in the day was the bouillabaisse on the menu (minimum of four people). Sad to say we found out later that it was out of season. But we were not disappointed.

The restaurant is small, seating maybe 30-55 people, and was operated by two guys: one working the tiny kitchen within view of us all and one working the floor so to speak. Very efficient, very smooth operation (at the end of the evening a woman joined them as well).

For starters (“entre”) Susan and I had a goat cheese and haddock salad: a bed of fresh greens, with slices of grapefruit, apple, and ultra-thin slices of smoked, salted haddock (raw), and in the center were two small pieces of bread each topped with sliced goat cheese and then placed under a broiler to melt. A-M had a salad of greens covered with “crevettes” (small shellfish); and Guy had a mussel (“moules”) salad. The wine for the evening was a crisp Sancerre.

For main course (“plat) we all had the sea bass (“bar”). Fresh? They brought each of us an entire fish, “sitting upright” (rather than on its side), with the head and tail still on, cooked to perfection; and surrounded by a small handful of sliced cooked vegetables: potatoes, fennel, turnip. We skipped dessert.

Sitting next to Susie and A-M, bistro-like, were two young men who had struck up the occasional conversation, talking about food of course. Susie, ever eager to work on her French and Anna-Maria, ever eager to just talk to people. Anyway a friend of theirs soon joined them, another young fellow and we ended up sharing our wine with them – we certainly had plenty to spare! They in turn bought us all “digestifs”. And it was our first taste of Marie Brizzard, an anis-flavored concoction that we thought to be less oily than ouzo and less syrupy than most Italian anisettes, and very tasty.

We walked back in the direction of their hotel and said good night as we turned toward the metro.

L’Ostria: 4 rue Sauval 75001 Paris. 01 40 26 08 07.

Chocolate pistachio

Speaking of desserts Susie is back to bringing tons of them home.

During her first week back at Le Cordon Bleu, and now deep into the superior level of the diplome de patisserie, she brought home the following:

"Baba", a yeast cake soaked in rum and fruit syrup;

"Tart creole", a basic tart crust layered with sponge cake and cocanut mousse topped with pineapple and meringue;

"Mango-Raspberry creme cake";

And then yesterday, Friday, she brought home a "chocolate pistachio surprise" -- and boy was I ever!

Check it out:




So our frezzer is jammed pack with desserts -- and she has justed started! And this coming Monday is apparently cookie day. . .

Anyway, if you're in the neighborhood and need something to eat, drop by. To paraphrase Henny Youngman, "Take my dessert, Please!"

Wish you were here,

Steve

Monday, November 13, 2006

Alsatian wines and Susie’s Desserts

Quick notes:

First there were chocolate-raspberry truffles, which were a bit soft, probably as a result of adding the raspberry puree, but velvety smooth texture, delicious with just the right amount of raspberry flavor. We’re thinking that to correct the “softness” maybe roll into a hard chocolate shell.

Then an apple tart – “Meme’s recipe” from Jacques Pepin.

Chocolate chip sugar cookies: frankly I though these were better than regular chocolate chip cookies; they’re chewy with just the right amount of chocolate-sugar balance.

Basic crème anglais ice cream – without using any kind of machine just cooked and frozen – stirred after 5 hours. Subtle flavor but became frosty too quickly.

Raspberry custard tart -- enough said there.

Raspberry-almond muffins – a big hit in the morning let me tell you!

As for wines lately it seems we’ve been on an Alsatian kick. Our favorite little wine shop on Rue Mouffetard ( known locally as “the “Mouff”) carries a large selection of delicious Ostertag Alsatian wines. Ostertag is a producer we became familiar with via Kermit Lynch many years ago. Spectacular wines, particularly their Pinot Gris. At “Le Grand Epicerie” (part of Le Bon Marche), we discovered the smooth “Black Tie”, a Pinot Gris-Riesling blend. We broke away from the Alsatians Saturday, though and had a 2003 Gevry Chambertin with a veal roast on Saturday; very nice indeed.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Chartres and Seinfeld


This morning, Saturday, is rainy with a bit of a chill so it looks like as good a time as any to sit and write about our short but sweet trip to Chartres yesterday, Friday. (photo: Chartres cathedral across Place Chatelet.)

Friday dawned clear and bright, and after a leisurely morning we headed for the metro: line 7 at Les Gobelins to Place d’Italie, switch to the no. 6 and 15 minutes later we were at Montparnasse train station (“Gare du Montparnasse”). After finding our way to the ticket counters (“billet” which is not to be confused with “bidet”) we picked up our tickets – and I’m still steamed that we can’t use non-European credit cards in the automatic machines. Sometimes I don’t know about this country. . . .

We quickly found our way to track (“voie”) no. 18, got aboard the train and 10 minutes later were zooming south out of the city.

An hour later and the train pulled into Chartres station. Looming over the entire landscape, the cathedral seemed enormous and wholly out of proportion to the size of the small town surrounding it. I suppose that was the idea. And then there is the distinctive asymmetry of the two spires/steeples, which I found oddly appealing.


After leaving the station we walked straight across the traffic circle, up a block and at the Place Chatelet turned left toward the cathedral. As we walked across the new “place” – one of several we discovered throughout the old part of town – my eye caught a superb bit of sculpture off on our left, in honor of those “children of the Eure-Loir” valley that fought and died in the Franco-Prussian war. (photo below: detail of statue.)


From the Place Chatelet we turned right and then left to the tourist office where we picked up a town map. (You can also rent an audio guide that covers the whole town. Very cool.) Another block farther on and we were in the cathedral.

According to the local tourist office the cathedral is registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is reportedly “the most complete and well-preserved example of Gothic cathedrals.” Construction on the present edifice began in 1194 and was completed in just 30 years, a stunning record of achievement in those days.

But it’s not only the architecture that holds such fascination but the sheer size, and of course the unbelievable original stained glass windows. Covering some 2,600 square meters (nearly 28,000 square feet mind you) the 172 stained glass windows are truly impressive and well worth the trip.



The interior of the church is equally fascinating, and we thought the unique choir screen, which appeared to be almost a church edifice inside the church, was absolutely incredible in the detail of the carvings and the stories highlighted in the scores of scenes curving around the screen. Amazing indeed. It struck me that if 21st century skeptics and sometime-cynics can be awed by such a place what an impact this place must have had on the illiterate (and I suppose literate) mind of the 13th century? (photo below: detail from the choir screen.)


After a leisurely stroll around the inside we thought “hey let’s visit the crypt”! In the gift shop there was a sign that said “Visites des Cryptes” but not entrance. So we walked outside and all around – no crypt. So back to the gift shop where we discovered that the crypt can only be visited as a guided tour and the next one wasn’t for several hours. OK.. So we asked where do we go to climb the north tower. Sorry, the mademoiselle at the counter in the gift shop said. It closed for the day. “Pourquoi?” “Why?” I asked. She replied that since two men were required to open the tower for tours and only one showed up, the tower was closed. Not unlike Italy we thought. (Note that both the crypt and north tower require separate fees.)

So the cathedral peripherals were out. Well the tourist office guidebook has a wonderful walking tour of the town and so off we went, strolling down to the Eure River, or rather the “Petit” Eure. Along the way we passed the “Maison du Saumon” near the “Place de la Poissonerie”, built in the early sixteenth century, and down through the quaint “tertres” or passages leading from the upper town to the lower town. (photo below: Maison du Saumon.)


We walked along the Petit Eure, an area we thought to be incredibly tranquil, past several tiny humpbacked bridges and old mills.




(photo: fall is still in color here, along the Petit Eure.)

After an aerobic climb back up several thousand steps to the cathedral we started looking for a place to have lunch. We settled on the Café des Arts, 45-47 rues des Changes, in the shadow of the cathedral. Nice place, good food, pleasant service and with a smoking and non-smoking areas – more and more the trend we think, particularly in the tourist areas. Rue des Changes is itself worth a stroll and exploration – and we would tackle that later in the day.

After lunch we continued our stroll around the “upper” part of Chartres and found several cool “places” and lots of shops and cafes.

After wending our way around the funky, mostly pedestrian-only streets between Place de la Poissonerie and Place Marceau, we made our way back to the train station and walked right on board the next train leaving for Paris Montparnasse. Pretty lucky we thought.

Another hour later and we were back in Paris. Montparnasse train station was packed and I mean literally packed with people leaving for the holiday weekend, it is Armistice Day here on Saturday. Anyway everybody was heading south: Avignon, Montpellier, who knows. We fought our way to the metro in the lower level of the train station, through the throngs heading in the opposite direction. After a quick stop at Place d’Italie – OK I had to pick up Season 7 of Seinfeld – we walked back home in the twilight.

As we were strolling down Avenue des Gobelins, amidst the bustle of the early evening street life, Susan looked over at me and said, “You know for a big city Paris is pretty cool.”

There you have it.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Chantilly, no cream and no lace


This last Sunday morning we awoke to fog, cold, damp lousy weather, so naturally our first thought was “hey let’s take a road trip!” OK, actually we had decided the night before to get out of town for a day.

And so we did.

We walked over to the Saint Marcel metro, jumped on the no. 5 and got off at the Gare du Nord, Paris’ train station serving northbound trains. it was the first time we had been in this station and after about three minutes of utter confusnio found our way to the ticket counters. We picked up the tickets (which we had ordered online the night before), and boarded a train for Chantilly, an easy 25-minute ride north of Paris. (photo above: Chateau at Chantilly.)

Some 40 kms north of the city of light is the city of cream – and horses. I have no idea where or how Chantilly cream got its name – I’m sure someone knows though – all I know is I like it a lot. So it’s pretty odd that I (we) never even got to try any while we were there.

Sad to report that the reason we didn’t get to try out the “Chantilly cream “is that just about everyplace was closed because it was, well, Sunday. Fortunately the famed chateau and stables (once owned by the Aga Khan) were open and the primary reason for our trip. (Thanks Drea for the tip.)

The chateau is about 2 kms from the train station and while there is a free bus apparently from the train station (so we were told we opted to walk. Skirting the park and around the stables, which appear to be larger than the chateau itself, after about 20 minutes we found ourselves approaching the chateau and its surrounding park. (photo: inside of the park; nice day huh?)


We strolled over to the main gate where we bought our tickets (€31 for the two of us) to get us into the park, the chateau (with the Condé museum) as well as the horse museum in the stables. We then headed inside. (photo below: inside the chapel we found the urn that contains the hearts of previous owners; their bodies are buried elsewhere.)


Susan had read that there was a horse show going on that day as well at 3:30, which was confirmed by the woman in the ticket booth. What we didn’t know – and found out to our chagrin later – was that not only was there a separate fee to get into the “small apartments” in the chateau (or it was part of the ticket and we were improperly informed) but after we sat through the “prologue dressage” in the “dome” of the stables, a showplace really, we were invaded by a swarm of young female ticket-takers scurrying around checking everyone’s ticket to make sure they had paid the additional supplement (€10 a person). Of course we had not and refused so we left. Quite the scam we thought. Like tourist venues the world over the French can certainly be quite skilled at price gouging. (photo below: library of course.)


After a leisurely time in the chateau and a quick walk around the barren grounds – wrong time of here really to experience the outside here – we headed for the stables and the horse show. (photo below: stables.)



(photo above: interior of the stables.)

The dressage introduction was interesting and mildly entertaining. But then I’m not that keen on horses, although I did like the “Horse Soldiers” and “A Man Called Horse” and thought “Horse Feathers” was very funny.




After we left the stands – steaming a bit I must say -- we wandered around the horse museum and found ourselves enjoying the very cool exhibitions, all centering around, you got it, the horse. Here though the focus was on the role the horse has played in French (that is Parisian) society in the last couple of hundred years. There were extensive exhibits of horse in myth (quite fascinating) and in art in general and of course horseplay: you know “kids and horses” that was pretty neat and a room of old carousel horses, as well as the development of horse racing at Chantilly. Most of the exhibits were well signed often with multilingual interpretative labels. Overall it was informative, well done and really quite fun.

After our stroll through the horse museum we walked back to the train station, keeping our heads down from the biting wind and the chilly air. Of course I had not gotten around to putting my liner in my coat – a situation since rectified you’ll be happy to know. (photo below: horses from around the world.)


It was later in the afternoon and we had had no lunch but little was open in town. We avoided the one café – smoke was pouring out of its front door. Anyway we found a little sandwich shop that had really very little left, and so we grabbed the last four croissants and a bottle of water and walked to the train station to eat our paltry lunch and await the train.

Eventually we hopped aboard the train – along with a gazillion other folks returning to the city after a weekend in the quiet countryside – and less than a half hour later we were on the no. 5 metro heading for our apartment, warmth and a cozy evening at home.

Notwithstanding the weather I think you would’ve enjoyed the trip. We did.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Another graduation

Well it had to happen eventually: we turned our heat on in the apartment. It’s a small thing I know but seemed like a turning point for us; as if we had at last crossed the threshold between summer and fall and now officially headed toward winter. That and the fact that the leaves are pretty much all gone now. Of course the key thing is the heat works like a charm. . . .

(For more photos from graduation just click here!)

It’s a foggy Sunday morning here in Paris. The past several days have been a bit cool but absolutely gorgeous with clear blue skies and wonderful bright sun.

And so it was last Friday, 3 November, the Big Day – or rather the ‘second” big day in Susan’s pursuit of the Diploma de Patisserie from Le Cordon Bleu; it was the day she received her certificate for completing the Intermediate level.

It was a beautiful, bright day when we left the apartment and headed for the Metro at Jussieu, just up the street from where we live. We grabbed the no. 10 to Sevres-Babylone where we switched to the no. 12 and promptly fell into some sort of stall pattern. Naturally the one day we really had to be somewhere on time the metro started acting up! At last we arrived at Place de la Concorde, hopped off and walked the several blocks to where the ceremony was to be held.

Unlike the graduation ceremony for the Basic certificate, which was held in the school’s student meeting area, this was held at the "Cercle d l’Union Interalliée", a posh private club on rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the 8th arrondisement, not far from the Opera Garnier. (You know it’s posh when the people working there are better dressed than you are. And I even bought a tie for this!) (photo: diploma students arriving for graduation.)

After Susan registered she and the other students went upstairs to get seated while the guests (“invites”) had to remain downstairs until we were called. (Some some 37 intermediate certificate students were graduating along with I don't know how many "Diplomas" and "Grand Diplomas".)

Fifteen minutes later we were all ushered upstairs – I’m thinking this was probably what it was like at Versailles but without all the digital cameras – and found our seats. I opted to remain in the rear so that I could make a clear getaway if things got out of hand –and to cruise for photos.


Packed house:


And even in the audience one can see that any body can tell a story:


After a handful of speeches and introductions of the chefs (see three of them in the photo below) the ceremony got underway.


The first to receive their certificates were the Intermediate students (both Patisserie and Cuisine), which included Susan of course:


Following the Intermediate class the Diplomas for Patisserie and Cuisine were awarded and then finally the Grand Diplomas (those students who had pursued both diplomas). It was quite an afternoon indeed. (As an aside: I found it curious that while the great majority of the graduates in all classes were female, there is not female chef on staff at Le Cordon Bleu. Oh there are lots of women working the front office but none in the kitchen. Interesting, huh?)

After the awards ended there was a mad scramble for photos with the chefs and each other of course. One imagines the relationships that had grown up around such intense work over the last months and now it was over – for some at any rate.

Tan, Valerie and Tatiana (l-r):


We joined the crowd as nearly everyone walked up another flight of stairs to the reception area where the champagne flowed freely and the finger food appeared like magic. And we had a spectacular view of the Eiffel tower at night: just after we had come upstairs for the champagne the “champagne” lights began sparkling (which they do every hour on the hour for ten minutes until midnight). What a sight indeed.




It was really quite a pleasant evening, the chatter, the laughter, the ubiquitous cameras everywhere, and everyone certainly seemed to have had a grand time of it. (photos, above: Valerie and Susan; and below: Shu Pin, Beth and I'Hsuan)


As the reception broke up Susan and I joined with Beth, I-Hsuan (pronounced “ee-shwan”) and Valerie to head off and find someplace to eat dinner – we needed something to absorb all the champagne.

So the four of us stood on the sidewalk in front of the club wondering where to go? Which arrondisement? Which restaurant?

We soon settled on going somewhere near by and then someone, Beth I think, remembered that there were a number of really good Japanese-style “noodle bars” not far away on rue St. Anne in the 1st arrondisement. (Strange as it may sound the 1st and 8th arrondisements are next to one another.) So off we went, with our trusty pocket map of Paris in hand.

We found our way to rue Sainte Anne and what a street! It was packed with Japanese noodle bars and dining establishments. We found the one that Beth was looking for, “Higuma” and stepped inside.

The place was very basic in the décor – mid-twentieth century squalor but that was deceptive. On the right as we walked in was a row of seats at a counter facing the cooking area, consisting mainly of a bank of enormous woks – and all around us the diners were hungrily eating and slurping their way toward nirvana. This place was clearly basic dining only – but man what “basic”! And the smells were incredible! If the food was only half as good as it smelled we were definitely in paradise.

After a few minutes wait a young woman came and ushered us toward the back room, threading our way through a maze of tables and chairs packed with people devouring their food. (My only hope now was to be one of those people!)

To paraphrase Caesar: We sat, we ordered, we ate.

The dishes were primarily noodles – stir-fried or in broth -- but there were also steamed dumplings and several rise dishes as well. The food was absolutely delicious and unbelievably inexpensive: €43 for the five of us! For example, I had a large bowl of noodles with pork and a half-dozen steamed dumplings for €10! Amazing huh? Thanks Beth!


You can find “Higuma” at 32 rue Sainte Anne (75001, open every day, ph: 01-47-03-38-59).

After paying the bill we walked out of the restaurant past a line of people waiting to get, a line snaking down the street to the corner. And just a half block away was another line waiting to get into another “noodle bar” – although I couldn’t help but wonder: is this really a restaurant or a bar or what would you call this kind of place? Whatever you call it, call it great! We’re coming back to this neighborhood to be sure – and such an easy metro ride from where we live.

In fact the five of us walked 2 minutes to the metro (Pyramides stop on line 7) and we said good bye to Valerie (she had to go the other direction to connect to a different line) and four of us got on the no, 7 toward the left bank. A few stops later we said adieu to Beth and I-Hsuan and soon afterwards we were trekking towards our apartment.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

All Saints’ Day


November 1, All Saint’s Day is a national holiday here in France and a trip to any of the cemeteries will show you why. It’s the day of the year when everyone (it seemed to us) visits the cemeteries: to look up long-lost friends or just to drop by the family plot and say bonjour. And of course it’s the day to put out flowers – not only on the individual graves but also throughout the cemeteries one finds large pots and urns, huge gardens with newly planted flowers for fall; mums mainly but also cyclamen to name just a couple. (photo: Chopin's grave in Pere Lachaise (div. 11.)

The morning promised to be gorgeous and the day didn’t disappoint. We awoke to a spectacular blue sky – filled with jet trails – and after a relaxing morning of coffee and chores around the house we headed off about noon.

We walked to the Saint Marcel metro and jumped on the no. 5 to the Republique stop where we switched to the no. 3 and got off at Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Already we could tell things were different. We no sooner walked inside the small side entrance than we were awash in crowds and flowers. We strolled through the early afternoon and Susan allowed me to be here guide – my first and probably only guided tour through Pere but we had a wonderful time. All the favorites were of course overwhelmed with both people and fresh flowers: Chopin (an arrangement even from the Polish Consul General), Jim Morrison, Alan Kardec the spiritualist and Oscar Wilde. (photo below: newly planted flowers in front of the chapel, Pere Lachaise.)



I showed Susan some of my favorites: Jacob Robles (hushing us with a finger to the lips), Frederick Arbelot (reclining and holding a woman’s face in his hands), Sophie Blanchard (the first woman aeronaut to die in a ballooning accident), Georges Rodenbach (breaking out of his tomb and offering the passerby a rose), noted lion tamer Jean Pezon (sitting astride Brutus, the lion that ate him) among others.

I wish you could have been here.

It was truly phenomenal to see the crowds, the interest shown, the attention given, the homage paid to the collective memory of this huge extended community that is Paris. No theme park atmosphere here but just a genuine, honest desire to visit the place of some of the great and even the not-so-great, but also friends and family of course. The strength of that continuity, that homage to their past, even a past that has had its dark moments to be sure, is what makes and keeps France great.

Why not take a moment out of your schedule to do the same? Stop by and see a grandparent, a parent, a cousin, a friend who is long gone now but who still in a very real way lives inside your memory.

From Pere Lachaise we took the metro to Anvers in the Montmartre area where we had lunch a favorite little café on rue des Abbesses. From there we walked to Sacre Coeur ostensibly to see the view. There was a long line waiting for the funiculaire so we walked (not for the weak of knee or short of breath) and at last reached the top. We skirted the huge church though and instead headed for the tiny church of St. Pierre just across the street, wedged between that 19th century creation and the tourist haunts of Place du Tertre. On this one day of the year the tiny church burial ground at St. Pierre is open to the public and the little burying ground was literally packed with people from all over the world (if the languages we heard were any indicator) paying their own respects as tourists do by snapping photos. And so did I of course.



We strolled from the cemetery to Sacre Coeur and realized just what is meant by the term mass – we were confronted by a mass of humanity not seen in Paris since the liberation. Well that’s probably a bit strong but the crowds were enormous! (photo above: Sacre Coeur.)

From Montremartre we hopped aboard the no. 2 line and got off at the Arc d’Triomph where we switched to the no. 6 and took it to the Trocadero. I had promised Susan to show her Passy cemetery, in the very shadow of the Eiffel tower and so I did.

Passy cemetery was also packed with both people and flower – there was even a group of four middle-aged ladies who had brought their crystal and champagne to toast and sit and chat about what I have no idea.

I showed Susan my favorites here: Eduard Manet, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Faure, were the big names but there was also the Volterra family and their fantastic shepherd and gardener statues, the aviators Costes and Bellonte, the cool corner in the far back filled with unique stained glass, and the statuary portraying people long gone but somehow still fresh and alive as if they were right here . . . And Maurice Gamelin who commanded the Franco-British forces from the fall of 1939 until May of 1940 (not an enviable thing to be remembered for to be sure).



And of course I had to show her Pearl White. Or rather where Pearl is buried. She was one of the most famous of silent screen stars, most often remembered in the “perils of Pauline” and for the fact that she did her own stunts. . . . and the 99-year-old man who died recently and whose grave site was literally awash with flowers (photo above). Now that’s homage.

Wish you were here,

Steve