Friday, December 31, 2010

Thursday in Paris - New camera, Favorite stroll, dinner at L'avant Gout

Susie at L'avant Gout
We missed the Orsay on Thursday.

Originally we had talked of meeting up with Matt & Susan for an afternoon of centering our intellectual chi at the Musee d'Orsay but with the arrival of blue skies and a committed sun we felt the driving urge to be outside. (Of course the sun would trick us later. . .)

First stop of the morning was to pick up our train tickets for Brittany and get a new camera, an inexpensive one to use while we're in France. After doing a bit of online checking with the large electronic stores here in Paris (Surcouf, FNAC, Darty),  I had pretty much ruled out the more obscure, brands such as Ingo and models such as the "Hello Kitty" (in pink but hey, it's less than €70) and settled on a Panasonic Lumix.

So we bundled up and headed out a little after 10am, walking to the the Richard Lenoir Metro and taking the no. 5 to Place d'Italie. After climbing out of the Metro and then back down into the bowels of the shopping center, we walked straight to the SNCF store, where there was a queue (of course). Susie got a waiting number and since we had a few minutes I popped around the corner and checked out the FNAC store's camera selection. They had a wide variety of models but not the one I was looking for, so I went back to keep Susie company waiting for an agent.

(And no, we still cannot use our US-based credit cards to retrieve tickets from the automated kiosks -- seems dumb to us but then we're just tourists.)

After a few minutes waiting we were called to one of the agents, and moments later we had our tickets in hand and on our way upstairs to the Darty store. They didn't have the exact Panasonic model I was looking for but the next model down in the line and that worked for me and the price was right. The salesman printed out the receipt, we stood in (another) line to pay and then went to the back of the store to pick the item up.

With new camera in hand we found our way of the building, and headed straight for avenue des Gobelins, a stroll through familiar territory, a walk we had made many times when we lived in the 5th.

A casual stroll up rue Mouffetard (and there's really no other way to stroll through the "Mouff" than casually), led us place many familiar sights:

Rotisserie chicken


La Fontaine wine shop - a past favorite
And a few not so familiar:

At last we reached the Place Contrescarpe -- hangout for Hemingway & Crew in the 1920s -- and turned down rue Lacepede turning right on rue Monge and a few doors down stopped in at Pascal Pinaud's pastry shop to say hi. Pascal was there and so was his brother Jean-Marc -- but the visit was brief, they were deep in work it seemed so we didn't tarry long.

Stepping back out onto rue Monge we walked across the street to check out the window of a new boulangerie -- neat Christmas decorations and a brisk baguette business it seemed, and perhaps that partly accounted for the air of detachment we sensed at Pascal's. After all, things change and being a pastry chef in Paris has to be incredibly stressful and demanding. Only a few, a very few, get to the top and the rest. . .

Anyway, we walked over to the Jardin des Plantes and past the newly opened greenhouses. Be aware there is a fee to get inside. As we strolled through the "gardens" toward the Seine, the absence of color seemed to fit nicely with the gray overcaast sky and sense of winter in the air. But this barrenness is merely preparation for the lushness to come, a springtime in Paris that we know so well.

From the Jardin we crossed the busy Quai Saint Bernard and walked down to the edge of the Siene, passed the large river police (fluviale) to stroll along the Jardin Tino Rossi. Our walk naturally took us through the Musee du Plein Air, the open air museum where you can find some truly fanciful and remarkably imaginative sculpture hovering right along the edge of the river.

 There were few others braving the swollen Seine -- house barges were uncertainly and awkwardly moored to the quai and one can only wonder what havoc was being created in the underground network of channels beneath the city. In fact, the flooding was so bad at that by the time we got to the Pont de Sully we had to leave the river's edge and move up to the street level. The tradeoff was we got to browse the handful of bouquinistes who were open for business on such a chilly afternoon. It was also curious to observe how the closer one got to Notre Dame the less "books" one saw and the more tourist kitsch.

 One curious phenomenon we came across concerned the "locks of love" on the Pont de Archeveche. We first saw this strange tokenism of love undying in Florence, on the Ponte Vecchio some years ago and apparently the trend has taken root in numerous other locations around the world.  Not surprisingly Paris has it's own version. We were there just in time to see a wedding couple place their lock, their symbol of eternal affection (or obligation?) on the railing of the bridge.

 From the bridge of love we resumed our stroll on the left bank, chilled to the bone we were in dire need of heat -- and so set our sights on the bookstore complex Gibert Jeune, near the Place Saint Michel. Skirting Shakespeare & Co., we crossed rue Saint Jacques, and turned down rue de la Huchette, a very old thoroughfare and now the very heart of tourist Paris. We quickly threaded our way through the mass of humanity in search of plastic Eiffel towers and t-shirts that clearly prove they were in Paris, and scurried inside Gibert Jeune -- and found ourselves amidst a mass of Paris and French tourists.

C'es la vie.

We browsed for a bit -- Susie on the 2nd floor among the baking books and me on the ground floor among the Paris books. (I was successful, she was not.)

Eventually we had to leave and after paying for my selection on impossible-to-find books on Paris cemeteries (in French) we headed back outside, into the cold, into the waves of flesh and crossed onto the Ilse de la Cite, the heart of Lutece, the beginning of the city. As we approached parvis de Notre Dame, the open space that marks the most famous view after the Eiffel Tower in the city, one started to see the horro: a snake coiling around and around, for hundreds of meters, a coil of bodies waiting to get inside the church as if their very lives depended upon this one thing, that they would once again be whole and complete but until that moment when they would cross the threshold of ancient marble and stone they were doomed to remain unfinished, deformed, incomplete, unclean.

We opted to remain unfinished and gave the lines wide berth as we hurried onto the right bank in search of mid-afternoon tea, coffee, warmth and quietude. We found it back at Carette along the edge of the Places des Vosges.

After recovering ourselves a bit from the cold pavements, we walked home, passed Gerard Mulot (and we would come back here tomorrow), passed the Laguiole knife store, onto Boulevard Beaumarchais, turning east onto Chemin Vert and through the garment district and home.

Once again we had rediscovered Paris, the places we knew, or thought we knew, we saw in different eyes. The city had changed, perhaps, but really it is we who have changed -- and that's the beauty of coming back to Paris again and again. It's all about recovering your spirit as you rediscover yourself.

Later that evening we hopped back to the no. 5 at Richard Lenoir and got off at Place d'Italie, turning down rue Bobillot, walking past the commuter traffic jams, to meet up with the group at L'avant Gout for dinner. Barbara, Andrea and Andie's friend Sarra were already outside waiting for us and the five of us went in to get warm and ready ourselves for another dining adventure.

And what food it was! I had the breaded lamb's tongue roasted with kohlrabi (incredible) and the calf steak with a delectable "potato" roll. Matt, sitting next to me, got the pot-au-feu, which came with broth on the side and little containers of red onions and cornichons. All was washed down with an Alsatian pinot blanc and a Rhone Saint-Joseph.

Matt and Susan

 The evening slipped away into night as we talked, sipped and smiled our way into the moment, with few worries about what the next day may or may not bring. Life is short.

After paying the bill -- something that's really become a bit of a nuisance I must say -- we all walked back to the Place where we said adieu and got back on the no. 5 to Richard Lenoir, and home.

Wish you were here,


L'avant Gout. 26 rue Bobillot, Paris 75013. Phone: 01 53 80 24 00. Website.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wednesday in Paris - Gustave Moreau, the Passages, more food and a stolen camera

Another leisurely morning sipping coffee and eating baguette toast, sliding into another gray day in Paris. No drizzle though and that's a good sign.

The plan for the day, or as near as we plan for any day here, was to meet up with Andrea and Barbara and Matt and Susan around 10:30 at the Gustave Moreau Museum. However, phone problems thwarted the best laid plans of mice and women so Susie and I strolled through this incredible little jewel in the northwest corner of the city. (Gustave, below)

The first floor consists of Moreau's personal apartments where he lived with his parents for upwards to 40 years. The next two levels, connected by a spiral staircase, are devoted to exhibiting his largest pieces as well as many easily accessible panels.

Here one can sit on handy stools and view hundreds if not thousands of his sketches and studies, pieces that would eventually become some of the other larger canvases on display. Impressive to see art presented in this way and Moreau's art is certainly dramatic. In all there are more than 6,000 pieces on the walls and in the various panels around museum.

Helene a la porte  de Scee 

Orpheus at the tomb of Eurydice

Fleur Mystique 

Les Licornes
If you're fond of Symbolist painting this gem is not to be missed. Although we had little background to appreciate this particular style of art, the excellent signage and interpretive information throughout the museum placed us at ease.

After about a half or so, Andrea and Barbara caught up with us but before long we had to leave since the museum closed for lunch. In satisfying our own appetites, the four of us walked a few minutes over to the nearby Rose Bakery. Susie and I had eaten here before and we are convinced this is one of the best places in the city to grab lunch. It's not traditional French and the ambiance would make the Spartans look ostentatious but the food is incredible, tasty and priced right.  We had a variety of salads, all freshly prepared. I ordered the assiette legumes, which was a collection of several different salads that were wonderfully delicious. 

Rose Bakery. 46 rue des Martyrs, 75009 Paris. Phone: 01 42 82 12 80. They also have shops in the 3rd and 12th arrs. as well. And you can get their salads to go, of course.

We had no sooner paid our bill and walked out on rue des Martyrs than Matt and Susan called from somewhere on line 12 on the Metro. A quick check of our map and we arranged to have them meet at as a Metro stop not too far from where we stood at the moment -- Paris transport can be so incredible useful The four of us  -- and before long the six of us were exploring several of the various passages off rue Montmartre and rue des Martyrs, and where I stopped at my favorite vendor to pick up a few more vintage postcards of Pere Lachaise.

We eventually led the group back toward the Seine, stopping at Librarie Gourmand and then at Dehillerin before popping across the street to have an aperitif before we had to go our separate ways for the evening. 

Time is so fleeting as a rule and never more so than when you're with amiable companions, sipping one of God's treats and laughing at the follies of the world. Only for a moment, it's true, but those moments are so terribly important, aren't they?

After paying the bill (a continual hazard here in Paris) we were soon back out into the cold and the six of us walked A & B to the Metro so they could meet up with a friend coming in from London. M & S and Susie and myself walked back in the direction of Dehillerin but stopped short, taking them instead to Detou. One of our favorite shops in the city, it is also one where many local chefs come to purchase their supplies. Susie was there specifically to buy Valrhona chocolate pastilles (€17 per kilo) and 50 vanilla beans (€23) Matt and Susan picked up a can of truffle oil for less than €8, something they could not resist. And so easy to pack.

Since M & S were hungry we pointed them up rue Montorgueil, right around the corner from Detou, and one of the city's better known food streets. Susie and I then headed back to the no. 4 where we switched to the no. 9, getting off at Place Leon Blum (Voltaire actually). It was then that Susie noticed the outer pocket of my backpack was unzipped and we quickly learned that the camera was gone.

We stopped to buy a couple of things for a quiet meal at home and to learn to live with our loss -- and in the overall scheme of things in the world, this was no big thing at all.  

C'est la vie.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday in Paris - food, fashion and underwear

Another gray, overcast day but it's wonderful to be in Paris!

Yesterday was really quite incredible, although at times it seemed oddly stressful and certainly pedestrian (literally).

In search of slippers we headed over to the "Grand Magasins," specifically to Galeries Lafayette. Post- and pre-holiday shoppers were out in force stocking up on the post- and pre-holiday sales here and we were caught in this enormous human tide of French consumerism. The store seemed to be an endless sea of designer shoes and even more designer underwear, or as they like to say here, "lingerie." And believe me people were lingering to be sure. One can easily see why: frankly if I wasn't married I'd seriously consider dating any one of the 3,000 mannequins wearing next-to-nothing. Curiously, though one wonders who, in fact is buying all this "lingering clothing."

It was a treat to see the store windows though, and the central open atrium, some 6 floors high, was decorated as well. Tres cool. We also strolled through the food and wine sections as well and wondered how long we would last if we actually lived here before we simply exploded from too much incredible food. I think the risk would be worth it, don't you?

Oh, and if you must know we did indeed find slippers -- comfy isotoners. Located in the "underwear" or linger wear departments, naturally.

Notwithstanding the lousy weather, cold temps and an occasional chilly drizzle, we left the store and headed over to the Carnavalet Museum to try and meet up with Andrea and Barbara and their friends Matt and Susan who were also in Paris, on their way back to the US after working in the UK for a couple of years. We failed to connect, though, due ro malfunctioning mobile phones, and Susie and I set off to Carette, at Place des Vosges for a mid-afternoon hot chocolate and mille feuille for her and a Kir and espresso on the side for me. We lingered over our drinks chatting about one thing or another, or nothing much at all.

After paying the bill we walked home (it's really quite close to the Marais) to sort ourselves out before heading back out for dinner.

A little after 6pm Susie and I grabbed our coats and headed out the door, making our way to the no. 5 line at Richard Lenoir, connecting to the no. 10 at Gare Austerlitz, and getting off at Emile Zola. (The metro not his house -- he is dead after all, or so we're told.) We quickly found our street, the rue du Commerce, a delightful street with a dazzling array of lights overhead running some eight or ten blocks. We strolled for a while, taking in the feel of the place, assimilating the "cool," and, since we were still a bit early for dinner, found a warm corner cafe, where we stood at the bar and had an apertif (Kir for susie and Suze for me).

Our day concluded with dinner at the Cafe du Commerce. Originally built as a soup kitchen for the auto factory workers (presumably from the nearby Citroen plants now long gone and turned into green spaces), the cafe is centered around a three-storey atrium, with a retractable glass roof, and seating was right along the railings all the way around. Quite dramatic and most impressive.

We had come for the steak frites, as recommended by both Clotilde Dusoulier and David Lebovitz, and were not disappointed. But there was also plenty to offer besides beef (although this would probably not be a place for vegetarians, unless they planned to load up on frites). The service was almost worth the price of the meal as well. The beef and potatoes were washed down with a lively Gigondas. Delicious.

Le Cafe du Commerce. 51 rue du Commerce, Paris 75015. Website.

The end of another wonderful night in Paris was fast approaching and we had to leave. After paying the bill (something they appreciate here it would seem), we headed back to the no. 10, switching to the 5 and getting off at Richard Lenoir, we were soon back home.

Wish you were here,


Monday - Providence to Paris to Vietnam

Late Monday afternoon we caught up with Andrea and Barbara and Matt and Susan at A & B's apartment in the 13th, not far from Place d'Italie.

Rewind. Every day I get Google alerts for keyed to the names various Paris cemeteries and usually what that entails are ads for various hotels, etc. It so happened that one day, a few weeks before we left Providence, I saw an an ad for an unusually attractive apartment through I don't know what possessed me but I checked the place out -- normally I never click through such ads -- and thought A & B might be interested in investigating this place a bit further.

Anyway, to make a long, somewhat tedious story as short as possible, A & B were excited about the place, so they contacted the website, closed the deal and, well, now there they are, tucked snugly into one of the coolest spaces I've ever seen.

Fast forward to this week.  The foursome arrived from the UK via Eurostar and got into Paris mid-afternoon. We called them at their new place within minutes of their arrival and planned to head over there late that same afternoon for a bit of wine and cheese before going out for the evening. (Dinner would entail a walk a little further south into the 13th, into what is euphemistically known as "Chinatown" but includes an incredible array of stores, shops and of course restaurants representing much of Southeast Asia as well.)

Susie and I walked to Richard Lenoir, took the no. 5 to Place d'Italie and then walked the few blocks down Auguste Blanqui to A & B's apartment. (Matt and Susan were staying at a Mercure Hotel, just a block or so away.) We settled into to some delicious creamy Robluchon cheese we had picked up at the market the day before, smeared over fresh baquette and washed down by a wonderful Muscadet left by the apartment's owner, and sat and chatted, catching up on everyone's travel news. (There was also some discussion about the weather situation in New England but no one seemed to know exactly what had occurred.)

After some not-so-serious conversation (weather issues notwithstanding), appetites being whetted, we all bundled up and headed out the door and up Auguste Blanqui in the direction of Place d'Italie.  (If you must know, Auguste is buried beneath an incredible sculpture of him dying in division 91 of Pere Lachaise.) We passed the lights of the Place, holidays lights still in evidence, particularly across the fronts of the commercial center and the Mairie for the 13th arr., directly opposite.

Our little band of intrepid gourmands turned down avenue Choisy and then down Avenue d'Ivry, stopping at no. 105. We were a bit early so we popped into a nearby bar for an aperitif and more conversation, until time to experience the delicacies of Vietnam.

Our dinner that evening was at  Lao-Lane Xang 2, a place Susie had eaten last spring when she had the temerity to come to Paris without me. Anyway, the place had been recommended by David Lebovitz and confirmed by Susie's experience. We had a wonderful meal, sharing 10 dishes among six of us; many of the plats were of smallish portions so this worked out perfectly. My dessert was incredible: a cocoanut flan infused (we think) with green tea, coconut ice cream toped with a sesame cookie and an espresso on the side.
Everything was washed down with a delicious Sancerre. The financial end of the meal came to roughly €25 per person.

Get there early or plan to queue for a while. 102 avenue d'Ivry, Paris 75013. Open 19:00-22:00, closed Monday. Metro: Tolbiac.

The line was out the door as the six of us left about 21:00. We all walked back to the Place d'Italie where we said buona notte and hopped on the no. 5 to Richard Lenoir and a short 5-minute walk home in the crisp, clean night air.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rue General Renault and the Marche on Blvd Richard Lenoir

Right past the blue wall. . .

. . . is the door to no. 4

Not much to see in the photo since I was zoned out, but trust me this market is HUGE.

And the nearest chain market, Franprix, right across Avenue Parmentier. (OK, Parmentier introduced the potato to France and he's buried in Pere Lachaise, division 39).

Back to Paris

We're back in Paris at long last -- back in the apartment of rue General Renault at any rate. We arrived Sunday morning, and spent most of the day coping with cold, jet lag and finally crashed, sleeping 12 hours.

Saturday morning we finished packing up, loaded the car and headed north to Douglas, MA, to meet up with Susan's brother Dick who drove us to Logan Airport. Our Air France flight was delayed 45 minutes leaving Paris so we had plenty of time to relax in the comfort of Terminal E, where Wi-Fi is now free, by the way.

The flight proved a bit bumpy at times but generally uneventful -- always a good thing when crossing the Atlantic by air, or probably sea for that matter. Still, one can't help but think how much easier and quicker it is to get from one continent to the other today -- no little ships bobbing in the water at quayside, spending 2 weeks at sea retching along with farm animals. No, we just sit in small chairs (and getting smaller all the time it seems) 5 miles up in the sky sliding across the earth's atmosphere.

Although nearly 7am it was still dark when we landed in Paris. After breezing through passport control we had to wait more than a half hour for our bags; in fact ours were nearly the last to come off. It was then another wait of nearly an hour for our shuttle before we were cruising south into the city center, and soon dropped off at our apartment.

We had a bit of a hiccup in getting the keys but since Drea had not one but two back-up sets of keys in the city we were soon inside and unpacked.

 (I left Susie inside the building's vestibule riding herd on our bags while I headed to the Metro line 5 and north to the 19th arrondissement to find the second set of keys. Although I still had one Metro ticket from Susie's spring trip I planned to buy a carnet, a pack of 10 that we could use before topping off our Navigo electronic pass. I walked up to a kiosk to buy a pack of 10 tickets, something I had done many times before, and yet stood dumbfounded. Whether it was jet lag or something more profound, I drew a complete blank on how to do this simple task. An older gentleman took pity on my stuporous behavior and walked me through the steps necessary to buy the tickets.

As I was sitting on the train, a line we took many times in the past, somewhat zoned out from travel and a lack of good food, I couldn't help but notice an odd sensation come over me: just hours before I was sitting in Boston in a room full of strangers all equally eager to get to destinations all over the world, and now here I was back where I long to be, on the Metro no less, as if I had never left.)

After settling in and turning on the heat we headed back out and over to the huge outdoor market on Richard Lenoir, near the Bastille. The idea was to pick up a few things for the week and to just absorb the incredible wonders of Paris' largest outdoor food market. So we bought some cheese, bread, fruit, and finding ourselves at La Bastille we walked up one of our favorite streets, rue de la Roquette to Place Leon Blum. Across from the Place we picked up a small freshly roasted chicken (with matching roasted potatoes) at our semi-regular boucherie and then walked across the street to Nicolas' for a bottle of sparkling Alsatian wine ("Cremant d'Alsace"). A few minutes later we were back home. We dozed on the sofas under multiple series of covers before finally rousing our bodies to have a bite to eat, a glassy of bubbly and just relaxed before eventually heading off to bed and the warmth proved by two down comforters.

It is now Monday morning and the sun is desperately trying to break through the overcast and make its point. The plan right now is to pick up a few more things at the nearby Franprix grocery store, have some soup with cheese and baguette, top off our Navigo at the Bastille and head over to the BHV department store for slippers and a space heater. Eventually we hope to meet up with Andrea and Barbara this afternoon and all of us enjoy Vietnamese food at "Lao Lane Xang" in the 13th later this evening.

Food is fast becoming the determining factor in this trip and I sense it will only grow more so in the days to come.

We're in Paris.

Wish you were here,