Monday, July 30, 2007

Macarons Ladureé

The French macaron is a meringue-like cookie filled with a ganache. Not to be confused with the American macaroon, which is made of shredded coconut.
Ladureé is a pastry shop that is over 100 years old. It's on the Rue Jacob. Our friend Nicolas told us that we had to try their macarons. So we did.
Here is a list of the flavors yours truly chose:
Violette-Cassis - You don't know the half of it. Insane.
Chocolat -Unbelievable.
Pistachio - To (expletive) die for.
These I haven't tried yet, got a box and I'm saving them for dessert tonight:
Orange Blossom
Caramel au Beurre de Sel
They also have flavors like Mint, Licorice, Coconut, etc.
See why I want to stay?

PS: Katya: My plane leaves in the morning so I have to get up real early. However, I have heard your desperate request for real croissants and will try to get them for you.

Au Marche de Puces

1. I hate flea markets
2. I hate antiques.

Having said this, yesterday we went to the antique flea market at St Ouen, which is right next to the famous one at the Porte de Clignancourt. It was great.
About flea markets: you've seen one, you've seen them all. The one in Clignancourt is now basically overrun by mountains of cheap jeans and imitation designer garbage, the same as everywhere else in the planet.
However, right next to it are the antique markets of St. Ouen, and this being Europe and France, it turns out they are far more agreeable and every bit as historic, if not as artistic, as the Musee D'Orsay.
It is interesting that the 2 markets coexist side by side. On one side you have the great unwashed. It's worth making the trip just so you can feel like you are in any other nondescript underdeveloped city right in Paris. It could have been Mexico City or Marrakesh (without the charm). On the other side, you enter the antique markets and all you see are rich white people and tourists strolling about with not a care in the world.
The antiques at St Ouen are truly spectacular. There is incredible furniture, from seemingly every historic era, and most of it in impeccable condition. There are fabulous lamps and vases and rare books and clocks and all the crap the dead leave behind when they shuffle off their mortal coils.
I've always had an allergic reaction to these kinds of shops, a) because of the dust and b) because I feel that the antique dealers are like vultures and that we are all scavenging around for somebody else's belongings. By now you must think somebody should have me committed, but that's how I see it. Bea, on the other hand, thinks that the dealers actually are more like preservationists, who ensure the stuff survives. It's a good point.
Be warned though that the prices at St. Ouen are absolutely crazy expensive. I don't know if the French have the custom of haggling, but if they don't make sure you bring your millions. The prices are absurd as to be laughable. I didn't want to buy anything because in general, I loathe things.
Let me correct myself: I did want to buy lots of unbelievable art deco and empire furniture and lamps as I fantasized I was filthy rich and could afford to furnish one of my many homes around the world. It was fun.
I will tell you about one incredibly fun restaurant we went to in one of the markets. A true joint that seemed like old fashioned Paris. A hoot. I don't have the info right now because I'm writing this at the Plage and I didn't bring the card with me.
Also, I want to show you the pics.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The end is near

Three more days and I'm out of here. Quel dommage! I still haven't eaten at all the places I want to eat in. Also, I would not mind staying and studying French until I nailed it, which at this rate, would probably happen at the beginning of the next century.
At the onset of the trip we thought we might want to leave the city on the weekends, but we never did. It was nice to stick around and explore when we were not studying. I'm not yet done with Paris and I'm happy that there are still many places that we missed, so we can come back.
I have to say that one thing that has disturbed me is the menu thing. You do get these seemingly great deals at lunch and dinner in which you pay for 2 or 3 courses what you would pay for only one. But I have the gnawing feeling that it's not the deal it used to be. The quality of the formule is not always the same as the rest of the dishes and you really have to find good places to eat well. I'm talking only about affordable places, which tend to run about 15 to 20 euros for lunch. The other problem is that in the French places the menus are identical everywhere. It gets tiresome. I'm sure you can have much more splendid French food than tough but tasty meat and so-so onion soup, but then you have to pay.
I found that there are a lot of decent ethnic restaurants, for when you develop a mania or a rash from bavette and/or confit de canard. But still, I can't say that we had a fantabulous French meal, except for one shining exception at Le Chateaubriand. And that was in the vicinity of 50 euros per person. Worth every single one of them.
On the other hand, excepting the worst sandwich we have ever eaten, bar none, (at the Parc de la Villette), which seemed to have been made with owl meat, the food is generally tasty everywhere. And the wine works. The wine is so good and cheap I want to go to the SevenEleven around the corner (which here is called Huit to Huit; they are not crazy workaholics like us) and get as many bottles of a perfectly decent Cahors for 4 euros as I possibly can. That bottle in NY would probably cost $15 bucks if not more.

First rant in a long time

I hate the Museé D'Orsay. Hate it. I hated it the first time I visited it and I have avoided it the five or six times I've been here, but today I dropped my guard and I went. Now I know exactly why I loathed it from day one.
It is inconvenient, uncomfortable, the art is terribly displayed and it seems to have been devised by a sadist. Sure, the building is stunning. But it does not work as a museum. The exhibition spaces are narrow and crowded. The order of the exhibition is incomprehensible, the signs confusing (a trait it shares with the Louvre). It took me like half an hour to find the restrooms, which of course are woefully inadequate for the endless hordes of barbarians that cram every corner of the museum. If you go up to the fifth floor, where they have banished the most popular artists (Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, etc), you can't turn around and come back if you should so desire. You have to climb all the way to the last floor to then walk down the stairs. If there is another way, I couldn't tell.
Why do they have in room number one a dreadful collection of paintings of the school of Ingres? That stuff should be on the last floor, tucked away where few can see it.
There are some very major paintings, like Manet's "Lunch in the grass", and Corot's "The Gleaners" wonderful work by Monet and Degas, and very good stuff all around, but it's is not necessarily the most earth-shattering collection of Impressionism out there. Or maybe, because most of it is in the upper reaches of hell, by the time you get there you are just not that impressed. The crowds induce genocidal thinking.
My favorite part? The work of Honoré Daumier, master of caricature and a man way ahead of his time. On the ground floor to your left as you enter the museum.
Some good advice if you insist on visiting: Get your tickets online, through fnac. For a tiny extra fee you will avoid the humongous ticket lines at the door. You order the tickets online and pick them up at any fnac store. A marvel.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Here I am...

Sitting at a picnic table at the Paris Plage at Pont Marie, listening to a crazy broad dance and sing the Can Can and using the lovely free wifi courtesy of la ville de Paris.
What's new?
Les verbes pronominaux
Le participe passé
Le passé composé
Le future simple et le future proche
The hideous pronoms personnels, the determinants, etc.
The abominable adverbs of duration (pendant, dans, en, pour and, my personal nemesis: depuis).
L'imperfect, the tense I most identify with because I'm not a happy camper with the French.
We had a test yesterday and dismally, inexcusably, I solved correctly only 10 out of 20. Stuff I thought I understood, I didn't and stuff I thought I blew, I did not. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the rules. The rules seem imperious and logical, but sometimes just randomly pesky, finicky and capricious. They feel the same way about me, I fear. But they rule and I don't, so I accept my lot grudgingly. I've been humbled.
Still, I think I now speak a little better than Tarzan. I can now employ the passé composé with two verbes I can more or less conjugate. It's progress.

Berthillon flavors of the day: Caramel au beurre sale et mandarine. The first one is actually like salty caramel and it is just killer. The mandarine is like the poire, better, more real, more mandariny than the fruit itself.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Salut, mes enfants!

Comment ça va? Please don't ask me about the French language because the plot thickens. The more you learn it, the more baroque (to borrow the mot from my friend Miguel Roig) it gets.
It ain't easy, and it is not the most practical language, let alone the most practical ortography. French seems to me a bit archaic, but maybe that's just me and my inability to make peace with grammar.
Anyway. An interesting phenomenon I want to report is the following: Things here don't work until they do. And when they do, they are delightful. Case in point: the famous bike thing.
Second attempt at renting le velo: We go to the site nearest to our house. The computer is stuck. We go to the next one, one block over, ces't ne marche pas. Still, we see people happily zooming by in their velos, free as birds. A citoyen informs us that in front of Notre Dame the machine indeed works, last he saw. We mosey on over to in front of Notre Dame. We learn the complex, but not totally insanely difficult procedure from the citoyen in front of us. My AMEX card gets miraculously accepted by the machine, I am finally able to get my velo! I get a ticket for the day. Success. We ride around Paris until it's time for lunch et aprés, I leave my bike at one of the locations and that's it. Absolute genius. I say goodbye to my little Parisian bike and hope to see it again soon.
Then, after standing in line for a Berthillon ice cream, which is the sport du jour Sundays on the Ile St Louis and the only sport I seem to excel at, and here let me digress like Proust, whose house we passed by on our bike tour, and whose grave we visited upon our arrival, to tell you that I chose the flavors of pistachio and pear and that both were succulent, but the pear is unforgettable and you choose to miss it at your own peril. Then we descended towards the Paris Plages, the man made beaches along the Quais from the Louvre to the Pont de Sully, on the right bank, that the mayor of this magnificent town has erected in the summer, for the benefit of all.
This beach thing is something to behold. There is a section to play petanque, for free. There is, of course, more than one café. There is alcohol. There is a swimming pool that is closed but looks like it will open one day, only Voltaire knows when. There is a little plage with games for the kids. There is a restaurant. There are two dancing venues. There is sand with chaises and parasols. There is grass with chaises and parasols. There are these great things to lie on they wrap around some palm trees that are not indigenous to the Quais. There are picnic tables. There are rollerblading lessons. There is info about health. There is, incredibly, a post office that's open every day. There are tai chi lessons.
I'm telling you.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The bike thing

I tried renting a bike today in Bercy. It said the machine accepts American Express. It didn't accept mine. I am crestfallen.

Too busy enjoying myself

Sorry, mon cheres, that I have not written in a couple of days.
1. I have a lot of homework. Vraiment!
2. When I'm not doing homework and the weather is nice, I get out and about and jump in a bus and let it take me wherever. Chances are, in Paris I will find something pretty and interesting.

The French Language. Yes, it is beautiful and sexy and sounds great. But I have to say, it is not the most practical or common sensical language. Yes, everything is kinda logical, until you get to the exceptions, which are many and seem totally arbitrary. A language that requires 27 vowels to make the sound "ew", doesn't seem very practical to me. Unfortunately, I decided long ago, in a fit of arrogance and quite unnecessarily, I might add, that grammar is not my friend and that its rules suck and that I learn languages by hearing and seeing. This approach helped me to understand the word for fruit vendor in Czech when I was in Prague, but it has not helped me in my pursuit of French. The good news is that between Spanish and English I can more or less wing it. Meaning that half the words and some of the grammatical structures are similar to Spanish, and some words are also familiar from English. The bad news is I still don't talk for shit. although I think I do a little bit more than when I arrived.
Today was the first day of phonetics lab. You sit in front of a contraption with a cassette tape recorder and you listen to yourself speak in French. And that's how they teach you to pronounce correctly. It's pretty cool. I am really enjoying the classes (even though my teacher is a bit ditzy and all over the place) and even the homework, since I usually do it perched on a chair in the benevolent shade of the Luxembourg Gardens, which I repeat, in case you didn't get the memo, are stunningly breathtaking right now. This is the way to do homework, people: in the middle of a gorgeous garden with an almond raspberry croissant (that weighs close to a ton) in hand. Having eaten a sandwich of jambon de pays, gruyere and sun dried tomatoes in a crusty, light baguette. Homework? Bring it ON!
Still, French, ces't pas facile.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Oo la la la la

The bike renting thing has got this town in a frenzy. You see the gray bikes everywhere, so it means they must work. Sometimes you see people trying to use the machine in great confusion, but then you see many bikes out and about. There is one a block away from us. We must try it. The thing is, you rent the bike and you can park it in one of those bike things that are all over town, so it's convenient, as far as I understand. You don't have to return it to where you rented it. I think.

For our dear friends Seth and Karie et enfants, who are coming to Paris, here are some recommendations pour faire avec les enfants.
• At the Tuileries there is a fair with a huge fortune wheel that gives you, on a clear day, a fabulous view of Paris. There is a pretty carousel and some other old fashioned attractions, (and bungee jumping) plus crepes with nutella and cotton candy, here sweetly called barbes a papa, father's beard. You mingle with the Paris nacos and tout va bien.

• The Bois de Vincennes is a great, leafy park right outside of Paris.
1. There is a medieval castle with a moat. Cool factor AAA.

2. Inside the park there is the beautiful Parc Floral de Paris, which hosts a jazz festival on Saturdays (5 euros to enter) and it is gorgeous and hyper cool. There is a lake where you can rent a boat and kill your arms trying to row and you can also rent bikes (did both). Inside the parc floral they rent these really cute family bikes for everyone to ride ensemble. I think they also have mini golf and jeux for les kids.
• The Luxembourg gardens are breathtakingly gorgeous this time of year. I'm always here in the fall or winter, and right now they are green and in bloom. Divine.
• The natural history museum at the lovely Jardin Des Plantes has nothing on the one in NY. But it is lovely and there is an expo about Les Mouches, the flies and mosquitoes, which has got to be the most disgusting thing I've ever seen. And I'm not the squeamish type. Here they don't warn you about the disturbing content of what you are about to see or if they did, I missed it. Only for those who truly like gross out. Don't say I didn't warn you.
The Pantheon now houses, besides the mortal coils of highly esteemed peeps like Voltaire, Zola, Dumas Malraux and the Curies, none other than Foucault's Pendulum! Cool factor AAA.

• Berthillon vs Amorino: if you are going to have ice cream please go the distance, to the Ile St Louis, and get Berthillon, the local favorite. It is better. In my opinion, the Italians try too hard (they make the icecream into a flower which I dislike for being a transparently manipulative marketing ploy) and the ice cream is too creamy, too rich; while Berthillon is just perfectly satiny and downright Proustian. Go to the original store in the Ile St Louis, which is probably the most elegant ice cream parlor you've ever seen. You can buy to go, so you don't have to mortgage your home for pistachio icecream. A good combo: banana and chocolate. Cassis is also unbelievable.
If you get tired of the hordes of invaders and of the beauty of it all, go to Belleville and Barbes (behind Montmartre), two ethnic neighborhoods that are lots of fun and give you a different sense of the city. The Canal St Martin is also very lovely, a canal that goes out from around metro Republique, or nearby and is very nice.
Here are my two cents about eats: if you just avoid the tourist traps in the left bank (all those Greek joints and bad French restaurants in the little alleyways behind St Michel) you will probably eat just fine. Meat is generally tough in Paris (at least for the likes of us), unless it's steak tartare, which is fab and do-it-yourself. Everything else is quite yummy. Particularly those things that Americans wrongly consider criminal: the bread, the cheese, the ham and cold cuts, the cakes, the cream and the buttah.

Mesdames et Messieurs...

I give you: Chocolat Liegeois.

We have decided not to search any further. So far, we're up to about 1 or 2 of these babies a week. The good thing about Paris is it makes you lose your sense of guilt, at least foodwise. Pounds be damned.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

French Superiority

Here are some reasons why indeed the French are a superior culture:
1. You can drink alcohol in the park. And lo and behold, nobody gets smashed out of their wits and goes on a rampage. People here have an adult attitude towards drinking.
2. The bread. You can go into the most humble bakery and get yourself a crusty, light, delicious baguette that you will never in a million years will be able to find at the fanciest fake French bakery in the US. At the same little place, you will get yourself a pistachio financier and a strawberry tart that will make you realize that what you consider cakes and pastry is a sad, sad travesty.
3. The Firemen’s Balls, and by this I mean their parties.

Mayor Bloomberg, take note. To celebrate Bastille Day, the French firemen, who are as cute if not cuter than their American counterparts, host popular dances at their firehouses where the whole neighborhood shows up. They sell beer and champagne, and they throw a fabulous all night party where supposedly if they ask for a kiss, they can’t be denied, since they’re busy putting out your burning cassoulet every day of the year. Yesterday we attended one at a firehouse in the 19th arrondissement, in front of a beautiful canal, and it was brilliant.

They had a fabulous cover band that sang every American pop hit from the eighties and before and people just danced their feet off. The atmosphere was truly light and joyous and again, nobody lost their composure. We learned that the Pompiers in France, the firemen, are part of the French Army and are not allowed to ever go on strike.
Can you imagine our NYC Firemen ever hosting a dance?

Friday, July 13, 2007

The horror

I couldn't let this one go by. Mexican honor needs defending.
My former employers, of a sort, Miller Brewing Company, have come out with the new Zima. But that's not all. There is worse. In their wisdom, they have decided to bottle Mexico's gift to beer, which is called a michelada, and which like many other Mexican gifts to the world, like the margarita or the torta or the taco, cannot possibly be assembly-lined because they are a labor of love and a thing of genius.
For the longest time, I have been zealously guarding the ancient secret of the michelada in fear that someone will unleash, misunderstand and abuse its magic powers. You can now get a pretty decent michelada in NY (at La Esquina, but they use chipotle in it, which is good but not to my taste).
So in order to upset the potential damage of this utterly offensive product, I will relinquish the secret recipe of the michelada for you to try at home and thank me and the Mexican people forever.

Mexican beer

Squeeze limes into lime juice. Use good limes. This is KEY.
Get plump, juicy limes from Mexico, not the shriveled, puny, bitter limes they serve at most bars in NY.

Rim the edge of a beer glass with salt. You do this by moistening the rim with a lime cut in half.

Put ice in the salt-rimmed glass. Add lime juice to taste, like up to one third of the glass according to your tolerance for puckering up.
Add MEXICAN beer. The blond beers like Corona, Pacifico, or Modelo Especial work great. I love it with Negra Modelo.

Enjoy. You'll start building your altar to the Mexican gods later.

Ces't la vie

The French are a contradictory bunch. They have genius ideas. For instance: Starting July 15, the city government of Paris is installing these really cool contraptions all around town that allow you to rent a bicycle for the day with your credit card. I think it starts with 1 euro for the first hour, and then it goes up. I will take a picture so you can see how cool. Now, whether they are going to work is a different story.

Bea has been trying to contact someone at the Lost and Found department in Air France for a month. The best we could do yesterday, after personally going to the Air France office facing the Luxembourg gardens (the employee couldn't find the number, had to ask the supervisor, couldn't find a piece of paper where to write down the number, didn't have a pen handy) was to get a number for an answering machine. She told us we can leave a message there describing the lost object and they will get back to us. In mortal fear, but with great courage and conviction, I sit down and write the speech for Bea in French. I believe that addressing them in French will open the floodgates to their hearts.
Je m'appelle bla bla, j'ai perdu mon portable bla bla, si vous plait etc, etc. I dial the number. A recording in French: "We're sorry this phone isn't working right now, we care a lot about you, try your miserable luck again later".
Not ones to be easily defeated, we dial again the following day. Voilá! Another recording: "This is the lost and found office at Air France. In order for us to help you, you have to send us a letter in writing describing with microscopic precision the object that you lost. Write your name, permanent address, home and office telephone numbers and kiss your beloved possessions goodbye because it is entirely possible that we will not find them anyway and if we do, nothing guarantees that we will feel compelled to return them to you with alacrity. If you can sign the letter in blood and have it notarized by Napoleon himself, all the better."
Do these miscreants realize that asking a tourist to compose a missive, find an envelope, go to the poste, get in line, buy a stamp, etc, etc, is absolutely absurd in this day and age? What is this, 18 Brumaire?
And yet, for instance: The Paris Film Festival offers cool guided audiotours. They have absolutely nothing to do with the movies, but who cares? There is one for the Marais and one for Belleville. You can download the Belleville one directly to your iTunes. The Marais one, you go pick up the device and headphones at a movie theater in the Marais, leave your i.d. and voilá, you have a very cool tour of the neighborhood. It's read (I did it in French of course) by a breathy young actress with a sexy purr that would make Les Invalides rise again. For free. No hassle. Delightful. The fun part is that she gives you the code to the building where her mother works, or she tells you to go into a bookstore that otherwise you'd probably ignore and instructs you to go up the stairs where they have these amazing posters. I thought it was real fun.
My logic tells me that when it comes to culture, the French really make it easy. But if you happen to fuck up with your keys or lose something or demand the slightest bureaucratic effort, you will rue the day.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


At this point, I think I can understand the entire oeuvre of the French Encyclopedists in French. The immortal words of Rousseau, Montesquieu and Diderot. But a small child talks to me at the Place de Vosges and I can’t speak for shit. Voilá!
Par example: We went to see a movie without subtitles on the grounds that total immersion in French is suddenly going to make us speak like Moliere himself. The movie in question, Barbet Schroeder’s L’avocat du terreur (not the Avocado of Terror, but rather the Lawyer from Hell), is about the infamous Jacques Vergés, a man who was a personal friend of Pol Pot and who has made a career of defending the indefensible: Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyon; one famous Holocaust revisionist, sundry terrorists and dreadful, corrupt African leaders, among other vermin. In short: he’s never met an evil monster he didn’t like.
Mr Vergés gets ample screen time to explain himself. He obviously seems to relish controversy. I think what indicts him is what he said when asked if he would defend Hitler. He responded he would even defend George Bush. This is my view, categorizes him as a total asshole. As you know, dear lecteurs, I’m not a fan of G.W, to say the least, but I would never compare him or even Dick Cheney to Adolf Hitler. Similarly, I would not compare Fidel to Hitler, as loathsome as I find him, and I would also not compare the situation of the Palestinians to the Nazi extermination camps, etc..
But I digress. My point is that although sitting through this movie without subtitles was a formidable exercise for my brain (it was mush by the time the movie ended), I understood most of it. I gather the movie makes the point, quite credibly, that Vergés has not only defended indefensible assholes, (after all, nobody questions his professional duty), but that he has illegally aided and abetted terrorists like Carlos the Jackal and others above and beyond his responsibility as a lawyer. He’s one of those horrid radical commies who in the name of the cause excuses and justifies all kinds of gross abuses through idiotic rationalizations, such as the United States does it too, or is worse, or France also tortured people in Algeria. And who could possibly be friends with Pol Pot? Him you can compare to Hitler. However, it is evident that Vergés is a brilliant lawyer, and an interesting, if deeply disturbing man.
Yet, we go to see Julie Delpy’s bilingual romantic comedy, Two Days in Paris, and we can’t understand most of the French. Because it is daily, slangy, jokey French. We were kinda lost, just like Adam Goldberg, or whatever his name is, who plays Delpy’s neurotic boyfriend who doesn’t speak a speck of French.
So much for the adjectifs possessifs, and the objet indirect, and the verbes. I want to speak!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Food for thought

This is the deal. If you have to eat a French meal for lunch every day, from the affordable menus they offer you at every restaurant, which includes appetizer, entrée and dessert, you also need to take a massive nap to recover or run three laps around the Seine to offset its effects. Also, one gets tired of onion soup and boeuf bourguignon, etc. The French idea of a salad, still is, despite important inroads from America, something that includes boiled egg, boiled potatoes, some charcuterie, tons of mayo and cooked string beans. A simple green salad does exist but somehow never makes it into the salad offerings from the menus. It comes as a wilted side with the meat and potatoes.
Me, I could just eat Gratin Dauphinois for life. A gift of the French to the world, on a par with the Illustration in my opinion, it simply is this incredible baked gratin of potatoes and cream. I had one the other day near the Pantheon. I ordered the steak just so I could have the gratin. The steak was tasty but tough. The gratin? OMG.
Luckily, there are lots of ethnic restaurants in Paris.
So far we ate great Senegalese food. The best couscous on Earth. There is a Lebanese restaurant around the corner that offers very good take out (tabouleh, pitas, sauteed eggplant, kibbeh). Yesterday we had quite excellent Vietnamese food in a little place around the corner. So far, we've steered clear of Italian because we did have one pasta at Cafe de L'Industrie that, had an Italian eaten it, he would have declared war between the two countries. at the very least. The pasta was overcooked and accompanied by a pesto sauce that had more cream than basil. It was a frenchified version of a simple, easy dish and it was very wrong. Having said that, the flavor wasn't bad, but the consistency was creamy mush. The bolognese next to it wasn't any great shakes either. There are many Italian restaurants, and I guess they must be decent, but coming from NY, where I can eat at Lupa or Bar Pitti, why risk it? Unless someone tells me of something I shouldn't miss.
We've had other pastas in French places (the thing to do if you don't want duck or meat again). Apparently the French love their pasta smothered in strong cheese and tons of butter and cream. That, they do pretty well.
We are now officially in search of the best Chocolat Liegeois in Paris. The logic being that if at a non-descript cafe one can have such a marvel, there must be a place where they make the best one which induces incontrollable swooning. So far, we had a disappointing one at the place of the Gratin Dauphinois. A small sacrifice for the cause. I will keep you posted.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Defense de fumer

Remember when you couldn't come to Paris without feeling that you had smoked three packs a day? People smoked absolutely everywhere, at all times and more ferociously the less ventilated the place.
Believe it or not, those days are over. They still smoke like fiends, but they cannot do it everywhere anymore. There are now non smoking sections in restaurants (usually forlorn). It is now forbidden to smoke in class, thank God. There is no smoking in indoor public areas. People will still smoke their heads off in bars and outdoors, but you don't come home smelling like an ashtray. It is delightful. I'm sure they are loathe to admit it, but even they must secretly like it.

Lectures in French

As part of the Summer course in Langue et Civilisation Français, the civilization part consists of lectures in the afternoons about all kind of topics related to French culture and politics. So we go, because we are taking this course seriously, not like some of our young classmates who seem to be affected by severe cases of hangoveritis or can't make it on time to class, even if class starts at a leisurely 10:30 am. Half my class has a mysterious case of severe sniffles. They are all coughing and blowing their noses and coughing up phlegms the entire class. Did they immerse themselves in the frigid waters of the Seine at 3 am? Perhaps. Some are serious and do their homework; others never have their exercises handy or they have been absent for half the time. Whatever. Luckily, I'm not the only relic of an ancient era in the class. Three other women are even older than me. Most everybody is American. For Americans, French is hard. Having Spanish is very helpful because the grammar is very similar and so are many of the words, although really half the words in French have Latin roots like Spanish and the other half are similar to English. And then there are the purely French words like donc, and jusqu'a that are a pain in the derriére.
The lectures, suprisingly, are very well attended. Yesterday for instance, the first lecture was about poetry and la chanson française. There were actual French poets and composers of chansons in attendance. We heard music (you know some of those French chansons that seem more spoken than sung) One of the lecturers sang to us with a guitar. He was out of central casting. Longish gray hair, glasses, a pack of cigarettes waiting to pounce, the face of a penseur. They had a spirited discussion (all their discussions seem always very passionate, quoi!) about the difference between the chanson and the poéme. I think the conclusion was: the chanson has music and the poéme doesn't. It was fun.
Then there was this guy who should be turned into tablets and marketed as the most powerful sleeping pill ever discovered. I defy even a person with 50 grams of cocaine in their system not to fall into a deep slumber when this man talks. Yesterday his topic was "French Gastronomy Today" (as you can imagine, a topic dear to my guts). Well he managed to make it as dry as statistics and as excruciating as trigonometry. But I can't really tell you much because I woke up to hear him tell an amusing story that involved him buying risotto and overcooking it. This had something to do with globalization. Nobody laughed.
But the one after him was a riot. He talked about France and the European Community and he was funny and engaging and active and cracking jokes. He was super expressive, using those typically French facial expressions that would be considered a stereotype if they didn't exist for real. He always talks about politics and economics, but I've become a groupie 'cause he's fun.

The New Seven Wonders

Or find the one that doesn't match:

The great wall of China

Petra, Jordan

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro

The Taj Mahal, India

Macchu Picchu, Peru

The Colosseum, Rome

Especially when you consider some of the finalists:

Angkor Wat, the Acropolis, the Eiffel Tower, Easter Island, the Alhambra...

I will give you a hint. Every single one is an architectural marvel, except this one. WTF?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Le Weekend

Bea needs to work from Paris, so she goes to the Cafe Contrescarpe with WiFi and they allow her to sit there for about 8 hours every day so far, totally undisturbed, and drink 2 coffees and one coke. I feel one of these days they are going to call les flics and send her off to jail for loitering, or some idiotic American hostess (like the one we had recently at Luna Park) will ask her to clear the table after 2 hours because that is their policy, (regardless of the fact that the 8 people at the table at the time couldn't seem to get enough beers and that if allowed to stay their check would have been considered a small boon to the restaurant industry). Luckily, this is Paris, so apparently you can sleep over at a cafe if you so desire. Nobody rushes you out. But enough about work. Le weekend started with a wonderful lunch on Friday at a Basque restaurant near la Contrescarpe, called Le Bugne. The food was homey and delicious: cod cakes with piquillo pepper coulis, a wonderful beef stew in red wine with incredible mashed potatoes and a basque rice with tender octopus and chorizo, like a paella, delicious. And a bottle of house wine. For dessert: nougat ice cream.

Then yesterday morning, off to Barbés for a dose of working class, basically African and North African immigrant Paris (for Friday night we walked the tony streets of the Marais). We ran into the street market in Barbés, which was amazing, with the smells of fresh fish, cilantro, mint, strawberries, all mixed together. We ate at a tiny Senegalese restaurant where there were people lined up, a good sign. And it was great. I had Yassa, which is chicken in a lemon onion olive sauce that was incredibly citrusy and oniony and intensely yummy with perfect white rice. We also had fried plantains, oh, and seemingly fresh guava and mango juices.
Then we crossed the city by metro to go to the cinemas at the Bibliotheque François Mitterand, because right now there is a Paris Film Festival and we wanted to see DP Christopher Doyle (In the mood for love) who was going to talk. But since lunch always takes so long, we missed him. Still, we saw a film called This is England, a pretty brutal coming of age story of a young, sweet little skinhead in the Thatcher years. History is judging that woman pretty harshly, methinks. What a disaster. The young protagonist was an amazing little actor, and the movie was intense but utterly depressing, even though it tries hard to keep the tenderness afloat.
The new library is in a very modern stretch near the Quai D'Austerlitz, which reminded me a little bit of Berlin, but even more of the modern neighborhood of Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires. At least here they have a library and a very cool cineplex, but still maybe in about a hundred years, when we all live in pods under the earth, one will be able to see the charm. Right now, it's handsome, but feels rather soulless.
After the movie we took the bus (my favorite way to see Paris) on a perfect route by the Seine, by the Gares of Austerlitz and Lyon, by the beautiful Jardin Des Plantes, and to the Luxembourg gardens, which we left for another day, opting to walk the very elegant streets of the 6th instead. Rue de Seine to Rue Jacob, to Rue du Bac to Rue Grenelle, to Saint Germain des Prés to be ogled by the snobs and the tourists at the Cafe de Flore. I was not in the mood to pay three hundred dollars for a beer, so we just walked by. Saturday night seems to bring out an element of French Can Can in some peeps. There was such an outrageous character at the Flore, we are still debating whether she was a spectacular whore or an over the top drag queen. All I can say is she was covered in tones of screaming lilac, from eyelid to hair, to lips to shoes. She looked like a violent chandelier, and of course, nobody minded her.

Then we took the metro again to Montmartre where the Paris Film Festival ran a free outdoor screening of recently restored silent and ancient films with live music. That was so cool! Behind us, the illuminated meringue shapes of Sacre Coeur, the hordes of tourists and the pests who try to leech off them (who are really obnoxious in Montmartre, with their transparently hostile forced charm and their ridiculous pretense at French bohéme). But below us, in front of the crowded grassy incline, a giant screen and the rest of Paris by night. My favorite film was a little jewel by Georges Melies, about people wrestling, complete with beautiful special effects. There was also a rare Stan Laurel film from 1922, when he wasn't with Ollie yet and he was very young and far less hapless.

Today is only Sunday. Yay!

Friday, July 06, 2007


The internet in France and I, we are friends again. We found a café (Le Contrescarpe) where the password is easy so it’s all good. Also, Telerama, which is like Time Out, has a great site listing all the shows and things to do in Paris, super easy to use; and FNAC, the culture megastore, has the best internet ticket sales. It’s easy and user friendly and the extra charges are already included in the price of the ticket so you don’t feel the pinch. They have a page in English and it is a breeze to buy tickets. They don’t threaten you with the amount of time you are given to purchase. It’s so delightful I wanted to buy more tickets just for fun. Steely Dan will be in town, but it’s 100 euros a ticket, which seems tres cher, no? But I’m very tempted because it is at an old deco cinema called Le Grand Rex and because I do like their “dentist music”. And because I can buy the tickets at
In the meantime, looking for something to do last night, we went to see Brazilian pop singer Lenine at La Cigale, in Pigalle. I had not heard his music, but I had heard about him in the NY press and was curious. He was great. Ordinarily, and this is considered either an eccentric quirk or unspeakable sacrilege, I’m not a huge fan of Brazilian music. Sure, I love Jobim and Bossa Nova. I believe Aguas de Março is the best song ever written. But Caetano Veloso puts me to sleep and many of the singers seem exactly the same to me: breathy, cutesy, boring.
Lenine has other influences: lots of good hot funk and a bit of reggae and rock, and his pop music is melodic, beautiful and strong and it doesn’t sound like a cliché, even though it is unmistakably Brazilian somehow. He is also a charismatic and charming performer, very connected to the audience, which as expected, was composed of many Brazilian expats who knew the lyrics to the songs and also of French people, who are a tremendously appreciative, passionate audience. He played for an hour, there was an intermission and then in the second part he saved the best for last: rocking, powerful music. He gave 2 encores, one rousing and one beautifully intimate and quiet, to calm the audience down. A class act. We decided he must get laid a lot. He’s one of those guys who isn’t handsome but who is very sexy.
The last time I was at La Cigale, smoking was permitted, so the place was really a toxic cloud. It looks like they passed some laws in France where people cannot smoke absolutely everywhere anymore, although they are kind of lax in enforcing them. Yesterday some people lit up, but it was manageable. Also, you are allowed to bring your cup of beer inside, which is highly civilized.

Magic Hour

The walk home from Opera.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Chocolat Liegeois

I just had a dessert that made me so ecstatically happy, I finally understood what they mean when they say that chocolate is a mood enhancer. My serotonins just had an orgy of joy. This thing was basically better than sex (at the moment of writing, it certainly seems this way). And the good part is it can be had in public while you blog.
I believe Liege is a place somewhere in France or in Belgium. It has been decided for safety's sake to avoid Liege in order not to run into the Chocolat Liegeois, because we'll be like a junkie on cold turkey who runs into a bunch of his favorite heroin. It's that good.
It comes with a lot of creme Chantilly, which we spooned off to one side for purely dietetic purposes (some of it). The rest made it safely into our system. Below the mounds of snowy Chantilly there lies a pure cold chocolate ooze: it ain't mousse, it ain't ice cream, it is thicker and creamier and lighter than syrup. It's like pure chocolate goo that has little specks of hard chocolate inside. It's not too sweet, not too dark, not too bitter. It is beyond good. It comes with a huge delicious vanilla butter cookie and a maraschino cherry and mint leaves, because the French like to overdecorate. But I could swim in vats of this thing forever and then rinse off in a shower of creme anglaise.

Global Warming...

...doesn't seem to be happening in Paris. It's chilly and rainy and generally obnoxious. Bursts of gorgeous sunlight punctuated by evil flashes of thundering rain. But I am in the mind of outrage about global warming because of something I noticed that made my blood boil. I have been here a week already and my friend Analia, whose apartment I am swapping, has received exactly two pieces of mail, both addressed to her and both probably solicited. Meanwhile, I asked her to pick up my mail everyday and I can assure you there is already a mountain of unsolicited garbage piling up. She probably can't find her way out of it.
If we are so concerned about global warming, one of the first things that must stop is that horrifyingly wasteful American custom of junk mail. It is truly obscene. And that shit that you are supposed to get on a list to reduce your mail is a total fabrication. I'm on it. It doesn't work. I have written to people to stop sending me (and three dead people) junk mail. It is to no avail.
Here in France they are not a culture of waste. They don't obsess about ice cubes and air conditioning and it certainly looks like they don't fell forests for junk mail. Enough.

Fat central

We have decided we are only going to eat one crazy French meal a day because we are starting to expand alarmingly. It is hard not to, with the affordable 3 course menus and the bread and pastries and crepes and the aperitif and everything is meat with fried potatoes… I’m sure one can still eat real well but there are also lots of very disappointing places. We’ve been going to affordable places and soso cafes. Lunch is a huge production and you need to invest the time. There are way too many tourist traps and I’m afraid quality has gone down. They serve onion soup out of Lipton’s. It’s horrible.
We did have the best couscous on Earth at Chez Hammadi, where the man himself saw to it that we ate, as if he was our grandpa. The best.

Premier jour de cours

First day of class and I’m already dizzy with the French. Actually, it is in many ways very similar to Spanish so that helps a lot.
To begin, they sat us in this very dramatic and uncomfortable amphitheater from some old century.
Apparently, either they haven’t heard of Powerpoint and the Proxima, or they are not fond of them. So they let us know which class we’d been assigned to it through acetate slides. Remember those, from like the 19th Century? Well, that’s how it went. It took way longer than it should. But finally, I was assigned a class with Madame Jacqueline. Level: elementaire. There is a more basic level, debutante, for those who really don’t speak at all, which makes me feel much better. Madame Jacqueline is very nice and has a good sense of humor. She taught us the masculine/feminine suffixes today, among other things. She assumes we already know how to utter a sentence. Some do, most don’t. Still, the two hour class went by pretty fast. Classes are in a nondescript building behind the Pantheon. The area is very cool, though. The Luxembourg gardens are nearby as is the Place de la Contrascarpe. It’s the student quarter. The Quartier Latin, so called because classes were in Latin, not because there are people dancing merengue at all hours.
In the afternoon, I went to the Grande Epicerie at Bon Marché which is a giant gourmet store. My jaw basically dropped just looking at the desserts and then I continued drooling through the teas, the spices, the cheeses, the meats, the wines, the chocolates, the jams. It’s a seriously alluring store.

Then in the evening we went to the ballet at the Opera Garnier, the theatre to end all theatres. It’s like a wedding cake gone berserk. It’s like somebody had a fit of overdecoration. And it is stunning. I felt like those people in the movies who deploy fans and do not pay attention to the performance because they are too busy looking at Mme de Sevigne or Fanny Ardant. We dressed up because the building demands it. But as Bea noted, there is no elegance anymore. People show up in their crocs (almost). The French dress a bit more formally, but there were lots of tourists.

We wanted to catch La Traviata last night but it was sold out, so we made do with La Fille Mal Garde, a very charming comedic ballet by Frederick Ashton. Ballet is an acquired taste. Bea was bored out of her wits and thought it charming but corny. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The company was really good and we had great seats. I had not been at the ballet in about 15 years. It was delightful, but a little goes a long way. They sell champagne at intermission, which undoubtedly must help with the proceedings, but champagne does not agree with moi so I went at it completely sober.

Then we walked, me and my little heels, all the way back from the Opera to Notre Dame because that’s what you do in Paris.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


We show up at 8:30 am at the Richelieu Amphitheatre so we can know what class we've been allocated.
They still use the acetate system. No powerpoint for them. My brain is fried from so much French but I think I'm going to learn a lot.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A L'ecole!

Tomorrow is the first day of class! Wish me good teachers and no homework.

Wifi From Hell

Bon. I’m sure it’s probably Mercury rising or some such obnoxious planetary event that is preventing me from the simple task of finding a WiFi café that works. Finally, I relented and went to Starbucks, because one can be sure that when all else fails, the gringos can be counted to save the day with things that work. This, after visiting 2 other places where the wifi just didn’t take. The first, a truly charming café with a temperamental wifi. In the second one, a password was needed and the waitress gave it to me twice as if I was asking her with a gun to her tete for the combination to her family’s safe or the life of her firstborn. I tried the password she gave me and couldn’t get through. She could tell I was having trouble but chose not to help further. So I drank my stupid camomile tea and left. Starbucks comes to view, a beacon of hope shining in the darkeness of French non laissez faire. It clearly says WiFi on a sticker on the door. Starbucks, ugly as sin, has lovely electric outlets to connect the laptops. I drool in anticipation. Mais non so fast, my dear amis. Because it just so happens that today, aujourd hui le wifi is not working. Perhaps tomorrow, if the repairateur deigns to swing by down from Mount Parnassus where he must surely live, in peace and harmony with the locksmiths who don’t work on weekends and the waitresses who hate your guts.
This is not the first time this comes to mind: The French look like they know their shit and they look like they like order and they get all bent out of shape if things are not exactly comme ça. But they are a Latin people in the end, which means that underneath the semblance of functionality, chaos lurks. Somebody said that when it comes to efficiency, the French think they are Germans but they are actually Italians.
There are always extraordinarily complex explanations for everything, but if you want to find what you are actually looking for, you have to for it somewhere in in the dusty volumes of the old Encyclopedistes. You may learn who built the building, and that the elderly and unemployed don’t pay or where to reserve your tickets for next year, but it doesn’t say anywhere what are the box office hours. Unimportant stuff like that. Oh, well.

Culture Shock

After the concert at 10 pm, in need of a banana for my fruit smoothie tomorrow, I search in vain for an open store or supermarket. This is one of the disadvantages of living in a city, NY, that truly never sleeps. If you think that the rest of the world is going to be as crazy and open all night just because you need toilet paper, ice cream or bananas at 2 am, you are sorely mistaken. In the rest of the world, and quite especially here, they are very particular about their schedules. They wouldn’t dream of working past the civilized hour when everyone goes home and stops for the day. So, yes we have no bananas until demain.

Café Marly (across from the Louvre pyramid). Lunch (meaning: homicidal starvation).
No one at the gate to deal with the barbarians. No hostess to speak of. So one takes matters into own hands and starts looking for table to park tired ass from the Louvre. Voila, hostess appears stopping you midway and asks in total bewilderment, as if this does not happen with every single arriving party, where the hell do you think you're going, but nicely and in French. You say table for two, she says go wait at the door. This happens with absolutely everybody who walks in, while waiters scream after the patrons all day long “Madam! Monsieur! And send you back to the door.
Here’s some friendly unsolicited advice:
A simple sign at the door, coupled with an elegant velvet rope if you want, as befits the place, saying: "Please wait to be seated”. Or if this fails, a hostess who stays at her post.
Easy. Non?

Bouillion de Culture

These are the things to do in Paris: Walk. See Culture. Walk some more. Eat. Walk. See more Culture. In fact, so much culture is starting to give me a sense of satiety the kind of which I can only associate with looking too long at porn (not that I do). Because culture here is on a very grand scale and there is never enough. I’ve been here 2 days and I’ve already been to the Louvre twice. It’s not my fault it is so close by. Also, the only way of not wanting to set this museum on fire is by visiting it in increments. So the first day I decided to see only the paintings. I walked through the French painters, stopping at my faves (Ingres, David), then to the Flemish and Dutch and German for a dose of Vermeer and Rembrandt and Durer and then to the Italians, where all hell breaks loose.
The Mona Lisa is still there, attracting throngs (and boy, are there throngs of tourists in this town). She is now encased behind glass and looks even more bemused than usual. This must be the most overexposed painting in the history of art. To its credit, and my amazement, it does wield a mysterious power when seen in person. What is it about her? Yeah, the smile. But because it is intelligent and mordant and slighty provocative and seductive and sardonic. There are zillions of women depicted in paint, and this seems to be one of the few with more brains than looks. Before you get to her, you go by the Fra Angelicos and the Filippino Lippis and the Boticellis and then there are other Da Vincis and Raphaels and Titians and Tintorettos and by then you are groggy with beauty and art and you want out before you pass out. Today, it was only the Egyptian Antiquities wing, which is fascinating and mindboggling in its scope, from tiny little objets, to huge columnns and sarcophagi. It makes the Met look positively tiny.

At the Grand Palais there is an incredible exhibition called Monumenta, featuring art and installations by German artist Anselm Kiefer, which blew my mind. It is open until midnight, which is so cool because during the day the lines are long but during the night it’s almost empty and there is a free audioguide with so much explanation (in several languages), it’s almost as if you are taking a Ph D in Anselm Kiefer. I’m very happy I saw this, because this guy is a major, major artist.

Tonight there was an organ concert at Notre Dame. The organist played Bach, Rachmaninoff, Cesar Franck and a rocking improvisation by lui meme. Organ music reminds me of Dracula, and so by the way, does Notre Dame. But somehow it’s registers or vibrations have a strange, powerful effect on the body. It’s awe inspiring and relaxing at the same time.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A little adventure

It was raining and we had just had a miserable dinner at one of the tourist traps in the left bank (it's a long story and it involves imminent starvation, so give me a break). Happy to go home soon, we go up the 5 flights of stairs only to discover we cannot open door because the other set of keys is stuck in the back of the door. It's after midnight. What do we do now? We're not going to wake the super. We're going to spend the night at a hotel. It occurs to us to ask for help to the owner of the restaurant downstairs, a surly man who owns one of those dogs that look like cats, who owns the place. I ask him if he speaks in English. Speak, he says, royally. I explain situation. I ask if he knows of a locksmith. He hears me conferring with roommate in Spanish. He switches to Spanish. In essence: there is no way in the capital of France, the city of light, that you can get a locksmith over a weekend. Not on Saturday, not on Sunday. Ces't impossible. There is, he explains, if you are willing to pay like 300 euros for somebody from SOS just to show up. He recommends we do that in the morning, when it will be like 250 euros. Or, that we find something with the texture of an X-ray and we try to force the door open with it. He's done it many times. Right. So we go in search of a hotel (not before trying his suggestion with my driver license and sundry cards in our wallets to no avail). The Hotel Colbert around the corner is four stars and costs 360 euros a night. But the guy at the reception desk looks at us and decides there are no chambres for us anyway. Which is good, because that's a lot of money. About a block away, on the Blvd. St. Michel, we find the Hotel Studia. There is a room. The clerk sees no baggage and very diplomatically asks in French, but you intend to stay the night, correct? You are not going out after? As in, this is not a one night stand kinda thing, okay? We explain the situation with the clef. This hotel is 89 euros with bath in the room. Excellent option for an affordable accommodation in the heart of Paris. Ugly but clean and the room not so small. I spend the entire night wide awake pondering the situation. Tomorrow we look for the super, who will save our lives, that is if he hasn't left for the campagne for le weekend. In the morning we ask the clerk if he knows of a cerrurier, a locksmith (very handy word to learn). They look in the yellow pages for one in the quartier. According to the yellow pages, there are many who claim to work 7 days 7 and who don't seem to be as finicky about their leisure time as the restaurant owner warned. But I wake the super instead, who at 8:30 am on a Saturday is deeply asleep, and this is what I say:
Je suis desole de vous deranger mais jai un probleme avec la clef. See? I already speak French.
But ever resourceful Bea finds a wire somewhere and just as the super is about to help, I hear music to my ears. Bea was able to drop the keys on the other side with the wire. No cerrurier. Happy ending.

Cafe Society

I have never been to Paris in the summer. It's always been fall or winter, when it's cold and there are far less tourists. Summer is great here because everybody's out.
One of the things that happen when you come from New York is that you have to adjust your pace. Because here nobody is in a rush. People sit in outdoor cafes for hours and hours and the waiters let you linger until you cry uncle. And if you don't cry uncle you may be stuck there until dawn. You may spend your entire vacation waiting for the check. Once you realize this is not incompetence or personal contempt of your touristy likes, you just sit and relax and watch the world go by, which can be oodles of fun. Yesterday we parked our tired asses at a cafe in the corner of Reaumur and Rue St. Denis and watched. And watched. And watched some more. I went to the restroom and someone had apparently puked the entire contents of a bottle of wine (or more), sprayed them that is, all over the stall (including the ceiling, methinks). I think this is the first time I ever see burgundy colored puke. The waiter, solicitously told me not to get in there (a bit too late, I had already witnessed the disaster) and opened a spotlessly clean loo for me. "It's new!" He tells me in English. It's clean, I retort.
Maybe I'm dreaming, but it seems to me that either the French are speaking more English with less agita these Sarkozy days, or I am delirious. They no longer seem to regard you with open contempt as you struggle to connect in their language and they switch to English instantly, without giving you much of a chance to shine in your "bon jour madame", which is the only thing you manage really well.
So far, lucky me.