Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Most Highly Rated Pizza in Paris

For two days, we had planned a bike ride to Julia's Pizza, the most highly rated pizza restaurant in Paris. We expected a large, sit down restaurant to accommodate the hoards of people wanting a delicious pizza. What we found instead was a teeny tiny takeout or squeeze in and eat-if-you-dare, pizza counter. 

We were a little stumped when we saw the sign and peeked inside. This was the best pizza in Paris? How could this be? 

We were warmly welcomed by a happy pizza baker and a kind cashier, who worked less than a foot from each other. We ordered our pizzas and were offered a free drink. When are drinks ever free? 

As we waited, we caught on how the pizza place could be so successful--take out! A stack of waiting boxes waited for their customers, and they moved in and out as we waited. It was raining and we were quite a distance from our apartment--our only choice was to squeeze in and enjoy. It made for good conversation with the pizza baker and the cashier.

"Are you Julia?" I asked the beautiful woman.

"She is my daughter."

So the cashier and the baker were the owners and the parents of the restaurant's namesake.

After two delicious pizzas and surface conversation, Tony asked the inevitable, Why didn't they have a bigger place? Certainly with the honor of best pizza in Paris, they could afford to expand.

Ahhh, but they'd already had the big place, the big success, the big headaches. They had chosen the simple life. Make and sell pizzas, make time for family and fun. 

Perhaps Julia's Pizza was voted the best in Paris because a customer's money buys more than dinner; it buys an unexpected lesson: slow down, be simple, be happy.

As we bike home that night, the rain has stopped, the night is cool.

"I love happy people."

"I love happy people too."




Room enough for happiness


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Never Wear Tight Pants To Climb the Eiffel Tower**

Tight pants.

It was inevitable.

How silly I was to assume after all the biking and walking, I could slather my baguette with butter, eat butter infused croissants for breakfast (and snacks), eat souffles and pastries at every whim. How silly to act like I had the metabolism of a twenty year old.

If only the butter wasn't so incredible. The label reads Buerre Gastronomique. Translation: Fancy butter. If only the two boulangeries in such close proximity to our apartment hadn't each been awarded "BEST BAGUETTE of PARIS in alternating years since 1292---before Columbus sailed for America.

Even though the mainstay of my meals has been vegetables (after the baguette and butter), they have mostly been cooked in a warm bubbly bed of butter. One afternoon, while walking to a patisserie, we stopped at the window that opens to a restaurant's working kitchen. The chefs were already preparing the delicacies for the evening menu. I watched as a chef unrolled a giant log wrapped in white paper. Some log it was--it was a butter log big enough to put in a two story, Yellowstone cabin for 30 guests, and it would burn a blazing hot fire the entire night.

The chef proceeded to cut the log into chunks the size of Christmas hams. She placed each butter ham in a pan that in my house would only get a squirt of PAM.

What a conundrum to be in: I know it's making me fat; I know it won't last forever. Carpe Diem the butter!

When I get home, I'll be going to butter addiction rehab.

**Why was it a mistake to wear tight pants to climb the Eiffel? Every step, every upward thigh shift, I was reminded my pants had gotten tighter--700 steps, 700 reminders.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Paris Citizens Fight Back

Tony and I are leaving the park surrounding the Eiffel Tower. We pass a Parisian man who is speaking to a small group of people. When we are right next to him, he raises his voice, his arm and yells, "Degage, degage." It's forceful, strong and cruel. He intentionally uses the informal which appears to be a further insult. I turn to see to whom he might be addressing. Three women, dressed in the way of the gypsy, are crossing the street, but they turn and slink away, obeying his command instantly.

It was a remarkable moment of power and subservience to that power.

The incident was a repeat of what Tony had witnessed two days earlier. On his morning pastry run, he came upon two women, one who appeared to be doing the talking. A Parisian man approached the women, yelling the same words we heard at the park, "Degagez." He also accused the woman by yelling, "Pickpocket, pickpocket." The accused woman retreated.

In 2015, workers at the Eiffel Tower went on strike to protest the increase in organized gangs of pickpockets. Workers at the Louvre did the same in 2013. They too had noticed more organized theft that had begun to include children. The strike brought increased security to both Parisian landmarks, both of which are critical to tourist revenue.

Reflecting on the incident, we realize we haven't seen any of the typical scams we've seen in the past. We haven't been approached, no one's asked us if we've lost a ring, no one has asked us to sign a petition and then donate money. When people band together and fight back, it's a powerful thing.

It appears that Parisian citizens are fighting back to protect the tourist industry. Maybe the scammers, the pickpockets will leave; perhaps they have all gone to Greece and Italy--where I recently witnessed their latest ploy.

In the company of 60 teenagers, I saw multiple times, a scammer who gave the student a gift: a rose. The unsuspecting (not for long) student takes the gift, and when he doesn't pay, the kind giver becomes belligerent.

Stealing for a living is hard work. Keeping that living might be even harder--except when we work together.




Monday, June 27, 2016

Couples

Perhaps it is because I am reading Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, a novel about marriage in which the author only realizes on page 211 that his protagonist is writing a novel about marriage; perhaps it is that I've entered my third decade of marriage; or even that all my daughters are now married. Whatever the reasons, one of the recurring themes in my Louvre study of art is: couples.

Or is it that a marriage done well, is a piece of art?

Before the theme of couples emerged, I was struck by the individuality of this stunning piece.
It woke me up. It was an anomaly among ages of homogenous pieces. It showed a process, a procession, that death wasn't a solitary experience. A life was extravagantly noted. The hooded figures were macabre, yet reverent. That I could stand next to life size figures carrying Philippe Pot, Grand Senechal de Bourgogne, who lived and died in the late fifteenth century, was amazing.

In contrast to the processional mourning of this one man's life, I started noticing that all death markers were not solitary.

Meet Louie and Robine who died in 1521 and 1520, respectively. They were the first couple I came upon. Louis' notoriety came from serving as a financial officer under the reign of Charles VIII. A pious and wealthy couple, this is how they chose to be remembered, as it is most likely they commissioned this piece before their demise. I like that they lie equally side by side.
Monsieur Charles de La Vieuville died in 1653, and ten years later was followed in death by his wife Marie Bouhier. Yet, I see depicted in this sculpture, that she followed him in life. Charles was probably a bigger man, but his posture, the turn of his body, his open eyes, her eyes closed, places Marie in his shadow.
I never found the nameplates of this disagreeable looking couple below. They could have been the kindest, happiest people, but as they were portrayed in death, or as they chose to be portrayed in death, it doesn't appear to be so. Again, from my observations, they are a couple, but separately portrayed.


So imagine my happiness and the warmth that came over my heart when I saw this first "couple," in the Egyptian art rooms. They were sitting together, looked reasonably pleasant and their son was depicted in between though quite out of scale. Their time frame was between 2600 BC and 2500 BC. Most important, they look like equal partners.
The joy of finding another happy couple. Same time frame.
The couple below had a special surprise. They were carved from wood and created between the years 2300 and 2200 BC. Since they were in an open case, I realized I could see the back of the sculpture too. It melted my heart. 


I was now on a museum search for all the happy couples in antiquity. In the following days, if Tony found a couple before me, he would find me and ask, "Have you seen the happy couple?" My spirits perked and I followed him to greet joy.
 The wife's embrace was so endearing, but what kind of tradition dictated the wife placing her arm around her husband?
I almost missed the revelation from the unknown Greek couple from the first century AD.
The husband's arm is draped around his wife.
 When we came upon the Etruscans (apprx. 500 BC) I again found my embracing husband.


Finally, the happiest couple of all appeared to be the couple who were equally embracing one another.

Ounsou and his wife Imenhetep 1450 BC

 My observations and the influence of art, have made me more sentimental; in the same room as Venus de Milo, I turn to see an old Spanish couple. The woman sits in a wheelchair, and her companion sits on a bench by her side. When he reaches out and puts his arm around her, real life ties itself beautifully to the art and love depicted in the past. Both bring tears to my eyes. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

To Disney or Not To Disney

When we emerged from the station at Marnee-La-Valee, and I saw the mass of never ending concrete, all I could think about were those poor French farmers whose protests never mattered. Disneyland Paris opened in 1992 under a disenchanting prediction "The sun will never set on the Disney empire."

We'd chosen a perfect weather day for keeping the crowds away: 50-80% chance of rain throughout the day. It paid off and we never had more than a 15 minute wait; we even had our own boat on It's a Small World. We enjoyed the fine mist throughout the day; it was like being in a cloud. When the sun came out~~what a treat.

We'd purchased our tickets online and they were only $53 per person for both parks: Walt Disney studios (comparable to California adventure), and Disneyland Paris....wait...can this be true? It was, but only because Disneyland was going through a major renovation and several of the main attractions were closed: space mountain, thunder mountain, Peter pan, adventure island, Swiss family Robinson treehouse, Pocahontas village.

Our round trip train from Paris was $15 per person and took apprx. 35 minutes.

So...to Disneyland Paris or not to Disneyland Paris? I would never be so foolish as to steer someone away from what might be a magical day, but I do have my opinions.

I expected Disneyland Paris to be more French, so I was gravely disappointed when the food offerings were hamburgers and french fries, and the sweets were donuts and cookies. When I saw a small tray of pain au chocolats, we ordered one and were sorely disappointed--it was not even a bad American pain au chocolat. The worst I've ever had. However, those resented french fries--were very tasty.

One very, very bad ride. When the torture finished, I turned to Tony and asked, "Where's the quality control?" My favorite Disneyland Anaheim ride, Indiana Jones, had been butchered in France. It is only an outdoor roller coaster lacking in head protection. My head banged from side to side, Tony took a few whacks to his ears. The staging however was beautiful--a deserted archaeological camp with jeeps, idols and empty tents, but beauty can't compensate for a headache--skip Indiana Jones Paris.

DP was built for large crowds. The sidewalks are bigger, the spaces are bigger, hence walking distances are greater between rides. We enjoyed the absolute aesthetic beauty. Landscaping was stunning. The first-entry buildings were more pleasant than Anaheim or Florida. Main Street USA's view of Beauty and the Beast castle was breathtaking.


Walt Disney studios was pleasant but marginalized. The rides weren't quite as good. Except for Tower of Terror (an exact replica of California Adventure's), they seemed to have been created with half the imagination, with half the budget. Ratatouille was however~~darling! By simply wearing 3-D glasses, I now know what it's like to be a rat scurrying through a French kitchen.

The park seemed to be dominated by the Angleterres, from just a hop across the channel. Their language, the variety of accents that distinguished the gentile from the dock workers; their twist on hair color, tattoos and dress--I felt surrounded by the Dursleys--which was almost as entertaining as anything else in the park.

I enjoyed immensely the Tower of Babel atmosphere. So many languages, so many diverse people from all over the world who were brought together for one day in one grand commonality~~to experience Disneyland magic.

And was the Disneyland magic present?

Absolutely. Only a truly curmudgeon, American tourist could deny the magic. It came during the parade as little children sat on their father's shoulders waving to Mickey. It came when everyone flocked to a golden coach carrying the Frozen sisters while the beloved music blasted through the park. It was a moment of awe, and I imagined how it must have been when people saw the Savior and rushed to be as close to him as possible.

The best part was in stepping away from Paris for just one day; it magnified the magic of Paris! The day before I had walked into a hall at the Louvre that was absolutely spellbinding. Every corner was gilted in gold, every inch of space was gloriously painted. In the middle of the room were glass exhibits of royalty's jewels. Necklaces and tiaras with hundreds of diamonds, emeralds, rubies and other precious stones. Disneyland had nothing on the imagination of the Renaissance French and their overindulgence in beauty.
The Gallery of Apollo-even the floor is a masterpiece.


 The next morning after jumping on a bike and dodging Parisian traffic, I called to Tony, "It's great to be back in Paris riding a bike."

As was, sinking my mouth into a real pain au chocolat from Julien's Boulangerie.

As was walking authentic cobblestone streets while passing Disneyland-like architecture,

As was the pull into a cathedral when we heard a Gregorian chorus.

As will be the moment, at journey's end, when we pull into our own garage.

It was all worth the truth revealed from a day at Disneyland Paris~~ magic is everywhere.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Communal Foie Gras

Last jaunt around the globe to Paris, we found this charming restaurant where we had lunch on a rainy day: La Regalade. Unlike Tony, who remembers every restaurant and every meal he's ever had, I don't. When we discovered a different La Regalade restaurant just down the street from our flat, Tony remembered. It meant nothing to me until we peeked in the window and I saw a jar of rice pudding.

Meals in France are often set, including a set price. A patron can order an entree (appetizer), a plat (main course) and dessert (the same in French and English). There are usually three to five choices in each category. It's a fun way to eat. Previously, at La Regalade in a different location, we'd ordered the set meal and I had chosen the rice pudding for dessert. When I saw the rice pudding through the window, I remembered, like Tony remembers. I could taste the creamy texture, the accompanying burnt caramel sauce, I could taste the humble rice pudding elevated to status gourmet.

 This had to be the sister restaurant because no one serves rice pudding in the same way. Tony made reservations.

When we sat down and the waiter brought us a loaf size pan of foie gras, I remembered again. I would never consider eating foie gras, having tasted it once and only once in my lifetime. Tony would never order foie gras, but the waiter brought us, an on-the-house, appetizer of foie gras pate. Sort of like the chips and salsa the Mexican restaurant places on your table within minutes of sitting down. The foie gras was accompanied by a basket of bread and a large crock of baby pickles and onions. These are communal dishes. After Tony had made a slight dent in our loaf of foie gras, and we acknowledged we had finished, we watched the waiter deliver the exact same loaf to the patrons sitting extremely close to our table. On the other side, the waiter delivered a foie gras loaf with only an eighth of it left. I watched the pickle crock and surmised they refilled it to the top each time.

"They'd never get away with that in America," I whispered. "What if someone sneezed or spilled water on it or worse..."

When in France, don't compare what America would or wouldn't do...

Tony's first visit in France, he was quite unaware of communal foods protocol.  The waitress brought him the white cheese platter for dessert. He promptly pulled it close and dug in. The horrified waitress let him know, in French, that he was only supposed to take a delicate French portion and then she would serve the platter to other restaurant patrons. Back then, Tony's French speaking skills were nil, and the waitress figured the way to get through to the cheese gorging American was to speak louder. And louder. By the time he got it, everyone in the restaurant knew the American was trying to hog everyone's portion of the dessert cheeses.

The rest of the meal at La Regalade was incroyable!  Our servings were distinct individual portions and we didn't concern ourselves with eating everyone else's food. Until the rice pudding arrived. It came in a big jar with a big wooden spoon and a glass bowl with another spoon and another bowl of browned carmel sauce. It was enough to feed many people.

"Tony, what if this is the communal bowl of rice pudding? What if I'm supposed to take my portion and pass it on?"

Tony didn't think so as he scooped up a hefty portion into his mini souffle already-eaten bowl, which he'd generously shared with me when he saw my table-for-eight dessert portion.

As I scooped up my second portion and watched Tony scoop his third, it just seemed....it just seemed like this was too much rice pudding for one dessert serving.

"Tony, I think we just ate all of the rice pudding, at least for another table or two."

Tony didn't agree as he was scraping with a spoon the last wisps of cream from the enormous jar of rice pudding.

When he was completely finished, he finally wondered, "What if it was the communal rice pudding bowl?"

Too late.

When the waitress picked up our empty dishes, we both waited for the reprimand. It never came, but instead, approval, and another small plate of the most delicious madeleines I've ever tasted--another item we hadn't ordered, but with dessert, the restaurant played it safe--there were only two.

A bonus for the food lover:

Dinner at La Regalade
My entree: white asparagus stacked like one would build a fire,  topped with basil vinagrette, herbs and a poached egg cooked to perfection.
Tony's entree: squid ink risotto (oh the color!), with tiny pieces of shrimp and other dazzling small items.

My plat: mushrooms in two different sauces topped by another perfectly poached egg. A sumptuous blend of flavors.
Tony's plat: a tender piece of beef topped with carmelized oranges and on the arm, a divine, buttery, rich gravied bowl of divinely whipped potatoes. To call these potatoes mashed would be too barbaric.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Time Unveiling Truth

It still hurts.

I was young enough that my mother had to drive me to singing lessons at the university. One afternoon, I wouldn't be able make it, so I called the music department a few days before to cancel my lesson. Keep in mind, these were the days before personal emails, cell phone and even message machines. The next week when I went to my lesson, the teacher chastised me for not showing up and failing to cancel. But I had, and tried to tell her, but she would have none of what she was sure of: my lie.

If you've ever been doubted, questioned, even accused of untruths; if you've ever felt slighted by someone's lying, you will relate to the above image and its striking power.

We found this in the Louvre's Northern European gallery stacked with works from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century.

Father Time is the angel on the right and the seated woman is Truth. The title of the piece is "Time unveiling truth."

The irony is that this is a copy of the original which hangs just above. The original was worn down and the copy is more vibrant, more detailed. I also find it ironic that the artist is unknown.

Which is usually the story of truth and fabrication.

I love its promise that truth will be unveiled by time. Truth always prevails, surfaces, is always admitted to--over time--because of what it is: truth.

It still hurts--even more than the time I was accused of lying--the memories of the lies I intentionally told.

We hop on our bikes and what first appeared to be a sunny day is threatened by dark clouds. The opposing weather meets just above my head and I wonder which will prevail: rain or sunshine. It will most likely rain, but the sun will eventually emerge~~like truth.



Thursday, June 23, 2016

Second Billing, a French Conspiracy, and Innovation

I have never written about the incredible fruit available in Paris, and I believe it's because they are the supporting cast to the high brow creations of French cuisine.

Not as common as patisseries or boulangeries, fruit stands or mini markets are still plentiful. The owners, the workers take pride in their fruit. Tastes are assured. One never helps oneself.

"Madame, une cerise?"

One bite and one finds oneself indulging in a half kilo of the round red fruits picked this morning and trucked into the city.

 Where do the fruits come from in this northern European country? I picture the warm grape orchards of southern Italy or as-far-as-the-eye-can-see melon fields in Spain. The cherries are plentiful now-perhaps they are from France's own orchards.




The melons are the sweetest I have ever tasted. I pitted the cantaloupe, dried and saved the seeds, hoping the variety is a coveted French secret like my crepe recipe supposedly pilfered out of France decades ago. And why wouldn't the French keep their culinary secrets to themselves?

It gives us a reason to come to France, a reason to envy their prowess, to swoon over their gastronomic skills extraordinaire. I was convinced of this on a recent search for a simple crepe making tool. Three years ago, we found one in an out of the way kitchen shop, and since making hundreds of crepes, I am in need of an additional crepe tool. We haven't found the same one yet. "Try next door," is the curt answer when we inquire at a large shop with every cooking necessity ever manufactured. We try next door and find an inferior design to my original.

"This is intentional," I mumble to Tony, "They don't want Americans to make good crepes."

If my suspicion is true, the French are too late. I prefer the crepes I make to any crepe in France--hands down.

But isn't that what we do? We have a love, whether it is a food, a piece of clothing, a suggested way to garden, and reading; we play with the love, we experiment, we write our own version, we make it our own. Our creation, our experimentation, our labor of love becomes better than any we have ever known. We fit it to our specific tastes. This is progress, adaptation, perfection. It is how Tony, after trying every kung pao recipe in West Los Angeles restaurants, created his own, and to this day, his is the best.

The best of the best is even more so, because it requires innovation.



 But where, or where did these mangos come from? We have never tasted a creamier, sweeter mango--not even picked directly from a Hawaiian mango tree or a Mexican fruit cart.


Somewhere, sometime, a gardener tasted a mango. He experimented, cross pollinated, grafted after traveling far and wide for the best mango ever--and then he created his own, and because of is desire,  I have tasted the best mango in the entire world. In Paris.

Ahhhh....but the price of this mango. It truly was a once in a lifetime mango experience.





Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Unexpected Utilitarian

I have always admired Swiss ingenuity--never more so than when I found a Swiss army knife on Serge's desktop.

My pinky finger had been pulsing for a couple of days. I thought I'd already pulled out the boysenberry thorn that had pierced my finger before we left. But there it was: a dark brown sliver clearly visible. I smothered it with salve, covered it with a bandaid and watched it come to the surface--but still I had to pierce the skin to let it out. I held a swing-out blade to the flame for sterilization thinking how barbaric the incident was going to be. Yet it wasn't. The thorn came out with little effort and zero pain.

Then the most brutal realization after I bit into an overly-buttered baguette and felt pain in every chew.

"I can't eat," I announced to Tony.

A piece of a crown in the back of my mouth had broken off and had left a jagged edge. Each time I chewed, my tongue scraped the jagged edge. The cumulative effect came all at once.

I can't eat in Paris?
What will I do?

My tummy was full, so I buried my ostrich neck into the sand...but then a bike ride later and three o'clock in the afternoon, I was hungry, cold, and desperate to get to a French dentist. Complicated.

Instead, I opened the Swiss army knife. A jagged edge, a file. Fortunately, our dentist in the states was available via text. "File away," she replied.

A barbaric half hour later, I could see the light; maybe the vacation wasn't ruined.

During the darkest hour of the day, when I realized how hungry I was, but knew chewing and swallowing would be impossible--even talking caused my tongue to brush the errant tooth--there was a blessed moment. We'd also hit a rain storm when cycling from the farthest edge of the city we'd yet to explore. I was wet and chilled, and we couldn't find an empty rack at any of the Velib bike stations. We kept pedaling farther from our apartment until the fourth station had space. We clicked our bikes into place, started walking and thankfully noticed a woman with a baby, carrying a large bag, who looked more put-out than me.

"We should help that woman," I said to Tony, but she kept walking when we had crossed the street.
She had only crossed at a different spot and when we met up within a few steps, it was my second chance! I approached her and asked, but she gave me an incomprehensible stare. Bad French again. Tony to the rescue, she smiled and handed the bag to him. He made a few jokes about her strength but I didn't think much about it until he passed the bag to me to measure its weight. Wow! It was heavy. Crazy heavy.

We walked a substantial distance; the woman smiled, we talked and knew we'd lifted a burden.

When we got home, I realized I'd forgotten the hunger, the pain, and the cold.

Relief isn't found only in an aspirin,  a change of clothes, or a Swiss army knife.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Correction: A Four Minute Walk

While walking to the Louvre one evening, I ask Tony to time us.

"You want to time us because of your writing." He gives me the silly look.

In part, he's right.  I had written that we were a three minute walk from the Louvre and yes, I should be checking to make sure it's correct, but it's not really the reason I want him to time our walk tonight. I hesitate whether I should tell him the real reason, but of course I do, because he's already aware he married a woman with an out of control imagination, with a bent towards the worse case scenario.

"Well, I really want to know the time because if something happened to us,  if we were in an explosion or shot down, our daughters would know where to find our belongings."

He already reminded me at the beginning of the trip, that the odds of dying at the hands of a terrorist are less than dying from a lightening strike.

Yet, I've had a friend who died from a lightening strike and a friend's sister's friend, who died in a terrorist attack.

"You see," I continue, "I've written about our apartment but without our children knowing the address, it would be hard to come to Paris and find our possessions. I wrote that we are only three minutes from the Louvre and I included a photo of the big blue door and the name of the building, so with that information, they could start at the Louvre, walk in each direction for three minutes and eventually find the apartment."

Not sure what to make of this, Tony half laughs. There have been a lot of half laughs in our marriage.

My natural and logical way of thinking is fueled when we read an AP warning: French official: Police have been alerted that small extremist groups could be en route to France, Belgium to stage attacks.

My tendency towards morbid thoughts intensified when I looked out the window the first night and watched three soldiers, machine guns cradled and ready to aim, and remembered why there was a need.

I remembered Charlie Hebdo, the night of the Bataclan, the the madman who took hostages in the Jewish supermarket.






 I remembered and re-watched in my mind the terror recorded by a person caught in the Brussels Belgium airport.  Degaulle airport was crowded with people and for the first time in an airport, I couldn't ignore my vulnerability.

While biking around the city, we are continually re-routed by police with machine guns.

Today, as we made our way from the eighth arrondissement through the fifteenth and south to the seventh, we kept hitting closed roads guarded by machine gun carrying men. It was a sizable chunk of space and when we finally got through, we saw it was the American embassy under scrutiny.

The bottom line is if we were really in danger or thought we were in danger, we wouldn't be here; but just in case, the walk to the Louvre takes four minutes at a brisk, brisk pace.





Monday, June 20, 2016

Le Petit Machon

We ate at the Petit Machon for dinner, a restaurant highly recommended by our landlord Serge. In fact, on a trot home from the Louvre one day, we saw Serge and his companion eating at Le Machon's sidewalk table. We knew someone in Paris!

Le Petit Machon's menu was replete with French favorites: tripe (tongue), beef brains, tar tar (raw hamburger), sausage brioche; only one item stood out and sold me on a visit: Le grand assiette de vegetables. The big plate of vegetables. I would be safe.

It was beautiful. The tastes were splendid.

After the first bite, I dug in with vigor.

"Why didn't you take a photo?" Tony asked.

"Because no one cares about vegetables in France."

Perhaps I was wrong, because I wish I'd taken a photo. Creamed potatoes, squigly mushrooms, sweet potato rounds with an onion-tomatoe tapenade, zucchini and tomatoes, slivered carrots, a floret of broccoli, a petite bite of roasted turnip--all with their individual and amazing tastes.

But what gave this restaurant its flavor was the impetuous waiter. We were his first table of the evening and found him charming if not rather anxious. As the tables filled we saw his explanations speed up and his whirling hands whirl faster. When the table next to us, a couple with heavy British accents, ordered the first item on the menu, he said, "No, you wouldn't like it." When the woman questioned him, he entered a diatribe of previous patrons who were unhappy with the dish and he knew she would be too.

As the evening at Le Petit Machon came to an end, Tony called the waiter over for a few explanations on the dessert menu. As always, Tony asked his waiter what his favorite dessert was; but his charm and credibility having been greatly diminished, his recommendation went unheeded: glazed prunes.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Camondo Family Museum

I once attended a Connecticut book club where I met an older woman who had helped during WWII with the Cevanol school in Le Chambon (a village in the Haute-Loire region of France known for saving Jews). We spoke of the different scenarios, the people, the Vichy government. Our conversation shifted to Paris and she corrected me with abruptness, "There were Jews living in Paris during the war."

"What?" I was astonished and curious.

She shut down and wouldn't continue the conversation as if she were privy to some great secret.

Left to make sense of what she had alluded to, I assumed that Jews could have stayed alive in Paris by knowing and bribing the right people.

After touring the Museum Nissim de Camondo, I learned that staying alive in German occupied France with money and connections may have been the exception; for the Camondo family, it was not.

The Camondo family was part of a Sephardic Jewish community in Spain. In 1492, after a decree that all citizens must convert to Catholicism, the family moved on to Venice. Unsettled once again by changes of an Austrian takeover, the family moved to Istanbul where they flourished as merchants, branched into banking, and became extremely wealthy.

In  1869, the family patriarch after the death of his son, followed his two grandsons to Paris, and what a life they lived. More success, more money--enough for one of the second-generation-in-Paris sons, Moise, to become a passionate collector of 18th century French treasures.

He acquired land on the exclusive edge of Parc Monceau, where he built a mansion specifically to showcase his art and furniture collection. Exquisite parlor rooms were arranged with six walls in between big windows to hang a collection, a story in paintings of two separated lovers eventually reunited. When Moise found an ancient Chinese vase, he hunted the collector's market until he found its pair. Tapestries, rugs, Louis the XV desks, grace the home in a timeless capsule of a nineteenth century, wealthy man's mansion.

The lovers reunited


Moise married and fathered two children, but his wife ran off with an Italian horse trainer. The marriage ended in divorce and Moise won custody of the children--but of course, such scandal would never have rewarded this woman.

Moise's children were loved, indulged, and raised well. Nissim and Beatrice were the center of his life. But the times created more tragedy. Nissim was killed in WWI.

Beatrice married and had two children, Fanny and Bertrand~~the light of Moise's life, so much that Beatrice stayed at the Camondo mansion during their young years.

Beatrice loved horses and riding; she didn't share her father's passion for art. Moise Camondo bequeathed his art filled mansion to the French Union Central Des Arts Decoratifs. He continued to collect and improve the worth and aesthetics of his life long passion named for his deceased son: Nissim. Part of the gift included his very specific desires of how the mansion should be cared for, the display of furniture, and even hours of operation.

In 1942, the last of the Camondos were arrested in Paris for the crime of being Jewish. Like other wealthy, socially established Jews throughout Europe, Beatrice believed she was insulated by her money, social standing, her father and brother's sacrifice to France. The family was sent to Drancy, a Paris holding prison of filth and degradation--until the entire family, husband Leon Reinach, Fanny and Bertrand in 1943, and Beatrice in 1944, were sent to Auschwitz.

They never returned.

Beatrice and Nissim Camondo

The irony of this great tragedy is that the mansion was kept perfectly in tact according to Moise's expectations because it became a Paris museum at the time of his death, before the Nazi invasion. Had Beatrice inherited the family home, as an arrested and imprisoned Jew, the art treasures would have been confiscated, dispersed; the house sold. That we walk among beauty only because of the Camondo family's misfortune brings conflict, sobriety and sadness, at the end of a lovely afternoon.


Photos copied from francerevisited.fr

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The First Real Morning In Paris


It's ten o'clock in the morning; I barely pulled myself out of bed. Tony informs me daughters number two and three have already texted: they're waiting for a photo of this morning's pastry run. 

"But it's 1:00 and 2:00 a.m back home!" I protest as if I'm still their doting mother.

Beginning last Monday morning, our stay in Paris began! How can I say it began on Monday when we arrived on Saturday afternoon? Because it was the first morning pastry run.

We are now on day five and each day, Tony has worked himself down another block, to another boulangerie.

"Are there really that many bakeries?" another daughter asks during a facetime conversation.

"Usually one per block. Not all of them are good. One must be discerning."

Tony is indeed discerning. 

Monday morning: classic croissant, almond croissant, and pain au chocolat were the kickoff. The cost of a plain croissant is typically one euro. Notice there are only three French pastries on this plate.

Tuesday morning: from right to left: une baguette, classic croissant, fietelle de chocolat, and a comparable to the American crueller. Three pastries, one baguette.
Wednesday morning: Notice there are five pastries and a baguette on this morning's run. Though the little critter is a two-bite only pastry. In Tony's defense, there were leftovers for the afternoon.


Thursday morning: Back down to four pastries: still leftovers
After four days of indulgence, we claim a kind of conoisseure-ship for the four bakeries found at incremental distances from our apartment if heading in a north-west direction. Two of the bakeries have won awards for the best baguette of the year, different years. The croissants were most buttery from Julian's, The Parisienne receives the award for best baguette. By now we're using phrases such as "The crunch is too much; I prefer the crunch on the top and the soft inside." I felt I possessed the finesse of Master Chef's Christina Tosi. Once our palettes were trained, we saved the best for the end of the week: croissants from Pierre Herme. It required a bike ride to the Left Bank, the Rive Gauche, on Rue Bonapartes~~ after which we saved the croissants for our favorite spot in Luxembourg Parc~~the Medici fountain, where we slowly, quietly, indulged.


From left to right: pain au chocolat (with two ribbons of chocolat), croissant with mango/orange pate, and ispahan croissant, a raspberry, almond filling. 

A month before our Paris arrival, Tony started craving and searching for the American counterpart of a great croissant. He never found it and in exasperation exclaimed, "I'm not eating another croissant until Paris."

The wait has more than paid off.

And Sunday, thank goodness, is a day of rest.



Friday, June 17, 2016

A Cook in the Courtyard

To allieve the stuffiness of our two hundred and fifty year old Parisian flat, I open the windows within minutes of walking inside. Right away, that familiar smell of bacon wafts in. Having sworn off all things pork, I can still appreciate the earthy, reminiscent reminder of salty flavor. Since it is French bacon, I suspect it is more fresh than its American counterpart. I also suspect, it comes from a farm that would never fatten its pigs with antibiotics or store the pigs in a pig house. These pigs roam fields of a pastoral farm, sneak under fences to snatch strawberries and lap water from a fresh brook and not from a pig trough. Honestly, the bacon smell is fantastic, and I look forward to smelling what else this cook extraordinaire has in her pan.

Later that evening, the cook in the courtyard is cooking beef. It too is a distinct smell, but once again has all the imagined pluses of being French. The beef is fresh, picked up from the butcher around the corner who takes pride in his cuts, his flavor, and his loyal service to patrons. Having sworn off all things beef, my mouth still waters with that succulent taste of a sirloin grilled and seasoned to perfection.

This morning I curl back into my side of the bed for early Sunday morning reading. I need more light and the bed is duvet covered, so when Tony suggests opening the window, I jump up to open the drapes and let the sunshine in. I settle back in and am seized again by the antics of the cook in the courtyard. As if personally welcomed in, the flavors enter as the perfect combination of butter infused flour. Surely, the courtyard cook must have just placed a sheet of croissants in her oven, and as the croissants puff and bake, each layer escapes and swirls in to our room. The warm buttery smell turns into a hint of chocolate. As the flavors progress, so do our guesses.

"It has a hint of chocolate now. It must be pain au chocolat."

Tony takes a deep inhale of the Parisian Bakery scent.  "I think the cook could also be stirring a pan of hot chocolate."

 The cook's finest wafting through the dining room window,
 Through the bedroom window,
Through the living room window--if only smells could be seen.

The courtyard cook is consistent--at each mealtime, I anticipate what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This morning when Tony opened the window, the courtyard cook was making eggs--the distinct smell secondary to the first~~ butter. The national staple of France.

Afterthought: While deep in walking thought, I've been trying to figure out how to have that smell of baking butter in my house besides the obvious: learning the laborious process of croissant making and cooking them everyday. Could I melt butter in a double boiler? Keep it rolling on the stove like potpourri? If Bath and Body Works could come up with Buttery Croissant as a flavor, scent...if it were a candle...

Afterthought 2: Last night, my dreams included the buttery smell. Or maybe the courtyard cook couldn't sleep.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Illumination

It is early Sunday evening after a rain shower, when Tony and I head out into the streets of Paris. We stop at Saint Eustache and catch the tail end of mass. We shift from tourists on a walk, to peaceful, reverent, grateful human beings. As we meander Paris streets, it starts to rain again. We pop our umbrellas and sink into the moment.

We cross the street into the second arrondissement and find the regular street gives way to a paved street of particular beauty: cars are absent, the streets are clean, and trees tower. We have found the pieton (pedestrian) only district, a quiet, idyllic place in the extended heart of Paris. As we come upon a busier street in Montorgueil, lined with restaurants, trendy shops, and strollers just like us, a woman crosses the street and just in front of us, she lays a beautiful white peony on a piece of stone marked like a grave.

Paris is a city full of grim tragedy, and the city's fathers and mothers haven't hesitated to mark the spots of historical tragedy with brass plaques and engravings. Casually shopping on a quiet street, one may come upon a spot where a resistance fighter was shot down in 1944. He is memorialized with a plaque in the side of a building.

We stop to read the engraved sidewalk. The marble memorializes the last man condemned to die in Paris for homosexuality. The year was 1750. It should have been the last year that any human being died because of who or what they were--gay, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Tutsis, Indian, female, Armenian, Bosnian, ...oh the list could go on almost forever...

It isn't until the next morning, now evening in Florida, when I read about the Orlando attack, and I understand the solemn, mourning face of the woman who placed the peony on the memorial.

When I consider the light of the world, I am perplexed by the darkness that still exists, yet the woman's simple act of kindness reminds me of Rabbi Schulweis' words: Evil will not distinguish the goodness in the world, it will illuminate it.