Friday, February 27, 2009

So many pictures, so many of them indelible. The daily assortment and editing and the limited space on the blog has meant a pretty big inventory of Parisian images. Herewith are posted a few of my favorites. From the top: Ile St-Louis at night, with the Ile de Cite on the right; the Pompidou Center; Musee d’Orsay atrium; Notre Dame; the Musee du Louvre. So now two months have passed. The months slipped by fast, but the days moved at a much slower pace. How to spend the time? Your call. For me, I looked with eyes wide open; I looked a lot. And I did not take myself or too much around me too seriously. I laughed a lot. Loved those translations on the English-speaking menus:• Hazelnut of roebuck, wipes in blueberries, its bundle of firewood of green beans, and its creamy polenta. • Chiffonade of smoked salmon have thirst home and taken up cream • Snails of burgundy, six rooms • fishes according to the tide • we can provide tracebility of our meat origins • wine got olden in barrel. I have been lucky for the privilege of being introduced to friends of friends, and I have made a few on my own. I always have borne in mind that I am a stranger (a foreigner) in Paris. The habits differ from those back home. The pace, particularly at restaurants, is much slower. Be prepared for that; have a book to read at hand if you are alone. Always have a book to read. You might think no one has noticed that you are waiting. Read that book and be patient; but first read the menu and make a choice so that when the server does come along you can place your order. Don’t lose the moment. Have a guide book—most are absolutely terrific—but use it only as a guide. Try ethnic cuisines. Rarely do they disappoint. Does it help to speak French? I am certain that it does. Is it necessary for a basic comfort level? No. English, for better or worse, is a universal language and just about everyone you will run into can speak a few words. That is all you need to get by. Learn how to read a French menu: poulet means chicken but it is handy to know another noun here, else the breast you think you have ordered may be a gizzard. Experiment and explore and try to get a sense of bearing right away. Be prepared to talk about the U.S. when asked and always explain that New York City is not America. There is more. Many people you talk to will have visited the United States, few will have a really good grasp. Over cocktails shortly after I arrived and in answer to the inevitable question about where exactly in the US do I live, I told a woman I was from Kentucky. “Oh, yes, Kentucky,”, she said. “I visited there one time, and stayed in nice little town between Paris and Versailles.” “That little town,” I explained to my new French friend, “is Lexington.” And now I head home, to Lexington, that nice little town. But with grand memories of a nice big town. Like Bogart and Bergman, now I, too, will always have Paris.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A few things I did NOT do while in Paris: Buy a book in Russian, take a dog to dinner (though I dined alongside many of them, including the stylish platinum blonde Coco Chanel), take a swim in the Seine (wouldn’t that make me in-sane?), buy a half-sculpture at full price, share a glass of wine with the first bookseller to open shop each morning. Good habits I developed: Make a checklist of things to always have along and check it before leaving each day. On my list—map, cap, euros, French/English dictionary, guidebook, scarf, pen and pad, camera and, of course, gloves. I have two good maps, one indexed by street names on the back, another with a metro stop guide on the back; I like the Webster’s New World dictionary because of its compactness; I have four main guidebooks and I alternated them: Eyewitness Guide Series are pretty books and I always get one for each city or country where I am traveling. They are big on colored pictures and dimensional maps but small on text. They are best at day’s end to have a look and see where you have been, in my opinion, rather than trying to follow along with the book in hand as you go. Pauline Frommer’s Paris (she of the Frommer guides family) is great, with good text and very good walking tours with neighborhood maps, and the Rough Guide to Paris is a gem as well. Both Frommer and Rough have good sections on French history and I got in the habit of reading and rereading these sections while waiting for lunch, or wine, or the check. I have always travelled with Fodor’s Guides and I still like the one for Paris a lot. Their method of identifying places, hotels, restaurants, and such with a star and sometimes with the “Fodor’s Choice” star is really helpful. The Fodor’s France is great to have along when you leave town.

Tonight it was a “hello/goodbye” party and it was just the best. Gathering for champagne at Nancy Machiah’s were the people who have made this trip so much more meaningful and just plain fun than it would have been otherwise: Paris pals Martine Landy, Florent Andrieu and Gwen Auge, Thomas Spencer, Itai Daniel and a new acquaintance, Ian Walker (from Charleston, SC, but here to spend a while in his Paris apartment), as well as ex-pats from Lexington Zach Ullery and Emma Atinay. We had the camera out (l to r: Ian, Gwen, Florent, Nancy, Emma, Martine, Thomas), proposed toasts, nibbled on pate, made promises to meet again. Then we finished the night in grand style at a Thai Restaurant (Itai, left, and Zach, with Emma, actually joined us there) across the river in the 7th arrondissement. Warm feelings around the round table, a night to remember. Nothing, not a thing, could have provided any better icing on my French cake more perfectly than the people here tonight. I will remember, and will miss, them all.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Christophe Chastel and Philippe Pee, owners of Guest Apartment Services from whom I have rented Callas, are consummate Parisian hosts. What sets them apart from most all other rental agents here is the way the business is structured. They offer hands-on management, and that includes a staff to handle maintenance, a concierge to provide travel advice and tickets, maid service, airport pickup and delivery—all the amenities you generally associate with a fine hotel. The sorts of things, by the way, that you won’t always find with many rental agencies, some of whom aren’t even located in Paris. In most cases, a call from the agency alerts the apartment owner that a renter has signed up and it falls to the owner to get the place presentable. But with Christope and Philippe, both of whom speak beautiful English, they and their team (which includes the young American ex-pat Thomas Spencer whom I have come to now and respect, get the place spic and span, including nice toiletries, name brand linens, and fresh flowers. They personally greet you on arrival,
and with an office a few steps away they make you feel like one of the family on day one. And they provide a number where they can be reached 24 hours a day. All of this is a big deal, particularly to someone, such as I, who was setting about to rent a place for two months, sight unseen—in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and from people I did not know. The apprehension evaporates the moment you shake hands and are introduced to your quarters. Callas is a lovely apartment and has worked beautifully for me. It is not real big, but I am one person and did not need a big place. It is attractive enough to have people in for drinks and I have done so on several occasions. Everyone who has seen this apartment has been full of compliments. Security is tight and in this old place built in the mid-1600s all of the aches and pains seen to have been worked out, so it is as completely quiet. Almost eerily. The internet connection has been my lifeline and my laptop has been on a 24/7 schedule since the moment I arrived. Christophe and Philippe, who fly away to Thailand Friday for a couple of weeks, have 30-plus apartments to manage, mostly on the Ile St-Louis, but a few on the nearby Left Bank. I cannot speak too highly of them and their staff. They are the best. So today, I spent a couple of hours visiting other properties they offer for rental. Just wondering what I will be up to next January and February, that’s all.
The footbridge which leads to the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame leads also to a number of other splendid artifacts of France, medieval and forward: Sainte-Chapelle, the Palais de Justice, and the place which Balzac called the ante-chamber to the scaffold, the Conciergerie. Entry here is into the extraordinary Hall of Men-at-Arms, where you pass under the striking vaulted naves within. The hall is all that survives from the early structure which, according to the brochure, was begun in 1302. I still have trouble grasping that some place I am walking around in was built six, seven, eight hundred years ago and I don’t ever want to lose the reverence and awe I have for such places. This has been a spot for French royalty for centuries but most people come today to see something that does not survive: the quarters where Marie Antoinette spent her last days before facing the music, which took the form of a guillotine down the way at what is now the Place de la Concorde. As was the case with a lot of things with ties to royalty, this area did not make it in tact through the Revolution. But all that business is in the past and today everything is neat and tidy here. You have a beautiful view of the Conciergerie as you cross the Seine on the Pont du Change just a few steps away. It is a particularly stately old building, as old dungeons go.
Pizza and Pomerol constitued my evening menu and allowed for an early-to-bed scenario.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Crossing the Pont de Tournelle several times a day, I have always turned right on reaching the Left Bank. This morning, out for my early walk, I turned left and it was a fortuitous move. Heading upstream along the Seine, I came to a very nice sculpture garden populated with a good number of pieces by contemporary artists. Particularly eye-catching is a marble figure of a nude (at least that I what I think it is), right on the river’s edge. A nice piece in a garden of nice pieces and a welcome vista. Just up the way and off to the right is the incredibly imposing Museum of Natural History, the centerpiece of the botanical gardens which were established here in the 1600s. This huge complex has buildings dedicated plants, biology, zoology, and the park itself must surely be something to behold when everything comes abloom. Lots of workers with hoes out chopping and readying the grounds for spring. A pretty fantastic spot, the Jardin des Plants as it is called, and I don’t believe I am just now finding this spot so close to home here.
The Metro lines in Paris are numbered, but are known also by their endpoints. You have to know which way the train is headed so as to get on the right one. Metro 1, which I board at St. Paul, runs east-west through the middle of Paris. Today, just out of curiosity, I decided to ride it end-to-end. So I hopped on at Saint Paul and headed west, where the last stop is called La Defense. Past all my familiar exit stops, I continued. Now this move is certainly not something touted in any guidebook I have seen, but if I ever write one I will be sure and encourage everyone to do it. I had no idea what I would find at the end on the line. Well, what is there is a structure so huge that it dwarfs everything in its considerable shadow. It is called, appropriately, the Grande Arche and it is massive beyond belief. Grande Arche is the centerpiece in a “village” of beautifully-designed skyscrapers which are grouped on the western edge of Paris. I thought of Sixth Avenue in New York City when I first saw them. This is a community of tall buildings that came into its own when French President Mitterand facilitated their construction in the 1980s, though some of them preceded that time frame. The Grande Arche has offices scattered within its white marble and glass structure and a glass elevator that takes you on an nerve-jingling ride to the top. From the huge outside observation deck I am sure that on a clear day you could see the Pyramids of Egypt. It is set on a line which runs from the Place de la Concorde up the Champs Elysees through the Arc de Triomphe and continues to the business district where this is the focal point. From up in the clouds I spied the forest/park Bois de Boulogne and the Thoroughbred horse race track. Many moons ago I was down there at Longchamps to see the classic Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race, and it was an amazing thing to see the famous old track today from this perspective.
Reboarding after a quick lunch, I headed east on Metro Line 1 to its other extremity, Chateau de Vincennes, a small community actually just outside the Paris city limits. I don’t believe that it would be possible to concoct a more striking contrast to the Grande Arche than this place. Set on the edge of Paris’ other huge forest/part, Vincennes, the land here was appropriated by King Henry I in about 1037 and building on the chateau itself was begun about 100 years later when Louis VII began work on his royal residence. What stands here today are many magnificent old structures, some recently restored, with a wondrous history. It was here, for example, that the relics of the passion, including the crown of thorns now in a vault under Notre Dame, first were housed after coming into possession of the French royalty. The “keep” here, where the royal family had residence in the mid-1300s still stands and is the highest keep in Europe and the oldest residence of a medieval monarch surviving in France. I suppose this is the original “skyscraper” and it is in astonishing shape. Splendid and gorgeous. Most folks do not make this entire journey as I did today, but those who take the time to enjoy the complete metro ride east-west on Line I are transported across 1000 years of history in about 35 minutes. I can barely wait to have a repeat of this day.
Tonight I had dinner with Thomas Spencer, my friend who is working to develop narratives for the television project focusing on medieval churches around France. We visited a small restaurant close to home here on the Ile Saint Louis for a nice dinner. Thomas’ understanding of French history gave him a particular appreciation of the contrasting ends of the Metro line which he, too, takes every day, though not from end-to-end as I did today.

Monday, February 23, 2009

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” wrote Proust. New eyes have to be acquired, I would add. To see something you have seen before and to see it with a new perspective is the reward. I have had to work on this in Paris. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it fosters and furthers a deeper sense of what the place is all about. This is not philosophical; not profound. With my decision to come here came an obligation to learn by seeing and sensing and tasting; else I may as well do Paris on the Travel Channel. Though not a new landscape, I see Paris with a sharper vision, sharper today than when I came several weeks ago. I know more about the city, I appreciate it more, I am quite a bit more comfortable being here. Good for me. Good for Paris. The Louvre is one of the few museums around that is open on Monday and so I stopped by in the late morning, departed for lunch, returned for a while, departed again. Not everything is serious here. I took a picture of a very funny oil by a 19th century French painter by the name of Francois Biard which made me laugh out loud. Leaving for lunch and walking along the Rue de Rivoli I can upon an even goofier image—could that be McDonalds there in the shadow of the palace?!?I must say that lunch at Cafe 221 in the Hotel St-Honore won the day for me. Chicken breast with morels. Haut Medoc. Very relaxed and stylish, and affordable. Had a book along and read it at leisure. Resisted the Moet but it planted a tiny seed. I will have some of it in the next day or so. At the museum I traipsed along on the lower floor and had a look at the foundations of the palace built several centuries ago. Then I wandered about in ancient Egypt with Rameses II, leapt forward several millennia and ended up in the Apollo Room of The Sun King. Nourishing, the Louvre. All of this stuff can be overwhelming if you don’t get the perspective right. The voyage of discovery. New eyes. Here is what I believe: Don’t take any of this too seriously. Find a middle ground. Leave it to the hordes to storm through with guides and site maps; move along past the intellects who muse. Find what appeals to you and savor it. Then go have a beer somewhere. Or have an eclair. In Paris, you cannot see it all, and you probably cannot altogether grasp much of what you do see. Sorting out the dynasts, tyrants, martyrs, good guys and bad actors can take more time than you may have or more energy that you want to commit. All those Louies. Joan and Marie. Napoleon I, Napoleon III (what happened to II?). The Revolution, Empire, Commune, Republic. This isn’t tidy like the 13 colonies, and the trail from Washington to Obama. If memorizing French history is not your cup of tea, don’t drink it. And don’t feel inadequate for passing it by. One thing is for sure. You will talk with friends who, too, know Paris. They will have seen and been impressed by something you did not see. And they will ask if you saw it and if you, too, were impressed. “No, I must have stopped in the room or on the block just before I reached that.” In conversation lately I have asked various Parisians about one thing or another which had caught my eye and almost without fail none of them had a clue what I was talking about. “No, I’ve not seen that.” Doesn’t matter. The restaurant you liked, the painting you admired, the monument that moved you . . . “Sorry, I missed that one.” Here, every day is Day One. What you don’t see today will still be around tomorrow, and next year. Reason to make a list. Reason to come again.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Found it. The term to describe how I have been spending so much of my time is “flanerie”, French for “strolling as an art form.” Found it in A Writer’s Paris, by Eric Maisel. Best read I have had in a very long time. (As an aside, if you have a creative or curious bone in your body —can you be creative without being curious?—, you will lay hand on this little book. It is well-written, thoughtful, provocative, just delicious. To quote, “The flaneur is an observer who wanders the streets of a great city on a mission to notice with childlike enjoyment the smallest events and obscurest sights he encounters.” My days here have often begun with the vague notion that this might be a good time to visit such-and-such. Often I would flesh out that notion: Orsay, Eiffel, Lachaise. Chapelle, Arc. Often I did not. But those destinations, even if and when I did reach them, only took and hour, two or three at the most. With Paris out there, it is hard to stay inside, even in winter, even with the mist and the chill. The flaneur in me could not be arrested. And so I have strolled. Everywhere. Along the Seine, down the Champs-Elysees, through narrow side streets, in and out of patisseries and art galleries, stopping for cafe and vin rouge, taking pictures of people, of dogs, of posters, of window displays, of things that make me laugh.I surely have consumed a thousand pounds of pates and breads and sweets and a thousand gallons of wines and brandies and I have not gained an ounce. Because for every one thousand volumes of intake, I surely have walked two thousand miles. Maisel quotes Baudelaire, whom he describes as a “resident 19th century flaneur,” as having written, “For the flaneur, it is an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite. You’re not at home but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you’re at the center of everything, yet you remain hidden from everybody.” Finally, Maisel writes, “Most places are not designed or equipped to support two or three hours of ambling. It is in Paris that the delicious, dreamy strolling of the flaneur can be perfected.” Voila.
One of the rewards of strolling is coming upon the unexpected pleasure and for me today that was Le Procope. I later learned that it has quite a storied past since its founding in the 1600s (Paris’ oldest coffeehouse, Ben Franklin, Napoleon, Voltaire), but I had only A Writer’s Paris and not a guidebook today, so it was a “find” for me. Over French onion soup, thick slices of smoked Scottish salmon and a small bottle of Cotes du Bourg, I settled in and read my book in this old Left Bank cafe. I was in no hurry.
Lazy Sunday, no agenda. After this long repast, maybe a boat ride on the Seine would be good tonic, I mused. It was. There are all kinds of barges plying this river, and the biggest ones are boarded down by the Eiffel Tower.A better idea (well at least for me as it is nearby) is the boat line which begins and ends its tours at the Ile de la Cite just under the Pont Neuf. Smaller boats, much smaller crowds. Same river, same sights. They also have a French/English guide describing the points of interest, something many of the other boats don’t offer. Can you be a flaneur on a boat? The cruise lasts an hour—that is 60 minutes to the second—and moves first downriver toward the ET before a big U-turn points you upstream, past the splendid palace which houses the Louvre, past the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame, around Ile St-Louis and back to mooring. I had thought it might be a good thing to do, and it was. It might also be nice on a clear evening to see the City of Lights with night lights on. Were I to take that route I believe I would pick a cruise similar to the one from which I just disembarked rather then one of those dinner cruises which look to be jammed-packed with people trying to eat, drink, make conversation and sightseeing while floating on the river. Too much multitasking. This quiet Sunday moved to night and I moved to a Vietnamese restaurant I had passed earlier. La Muraille de Jade it is called and it turns out wonderful food. I had a prix fixe which came with wine and a Kir aperitif, spring rolls, crusty and caramelized beef ribs, fried rice with garlic, and pistachio ice cream. Beats dining in by several parallels.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Just thinking . . . But that comes later. First I acted on a tip for a restaurant and I went to the Le Petit Zinc for lunch. Good tip. This place is the personification of Art Nouveau at its most attractive, with dozens of stylized prints and painted tiles everywhere. Fine place, this Left Bank eatery, and one of those places where you can get a nice window seat and not be scrunched in among businessmen, ladies out for lunch and couples nibbling on one another’s earlobes while chattering away. Not that I can understand anything anyone says, but close quarters can crimp the solo diner’s style. After soupe de poisson and some beaujolais, I found myself in the neighborhood of the Musee Rodin, so I entered the sumptuous grounds, and ended up staying more than two hours. This is not a great huge place, but there is more than enough here to catch the eye and draw attention. Actually, if all one did was visit the gardens which surround this beautiful old mansion, that would be time very well spent. Most, well really all, of Rodin’s nameplate pieces—the Three Shades, the incredible Gates of Hell, the Thinker and the most moving piece of all, the Burghers of Calais—are outside. There are quite a few more bronzes, the enormous Balzac and the monument to Hugo for example, situated among the trees and along the lawns. The reason to visit inside, where an audio guide is a must, is to be briefed on the career of this extraordinary artist and marvel at the mediums in which he excelled: terra cotta, stone, marble, plaster, bronze. In the mansion, called Hotel Brion, Rodin’s career is outlined, from a no-name to a Salon rejectee, to a man inspired by Dante and befriended by Hugo. His work is transcendent and, since he donated most everything he created to this place, this is where you go to see the best of it.
Since being in Paris I have assiduously avoided the big ticket. No new fashions, no big oil paintings, no Lafite Rothchild, no duck l’orange at Tour d’Argent about 100 yards from my door, and which can cost as much as a round trip ticket on Air France. But I did want to recognize the hospitality showered on me since day one by Nancy Machiah and so tonight we went to Cafe de la Paix. Not round-trip ticket big, just night-to-remember sized. I had stopped in the bar alongside this opulent restaurant on my way to the Opera a few weeks back and determined that at some point I wanted to come back and dine. Cafe de la Paix is the dining room for the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris and, befitting an institution of its stature, the staff—from maitre d’ to master chef—makes for a very special dinner occasion.
The name itself inspires. We had a grand meal. Pate de foie gras to start, followed by scallops for Nancy and sea bass for me (done beautifully and each dish with a fancy French name) accompanied by a white burgundy recommended by the sommelier. For dessert we had an assortment of chocolates, a perfect complement to a very fine dinner. So what to do next? Walk down to the Place Vendome and head for the Ritz. There are not any off-the-mark Ritz Hotels that I ever have come upon, but it does seem that the one here in Paris is particularly special. The Hemingway Bar is tiny, about six tables, probably always occupied, but there are cushy seats at the bar and that is where Nancy and I alighted. She had some grapefruit concoction and I had brandy. Notable for this place is that they serve Maker’s Mark and, when I asked her, the bartender said it was the one bourbon they poured most. I had not seen MM anywhere else around town, so it was good to be able to let everyone know I just live up the road from Loretto. I also wrote down the name of Woodford Reserve for the affable drink mixer and suggested that they might want to offer that one as well. Hotel bars either work for you or they don’t. Some of them today are replete with pulsating sounds for dancing, where you can cavort about as though you’re in Hernando’s Hideway. The Hemingway Bar does not pulsate. But it relaxes you. Nancy and I got in separate taxis at the end, heading respectively toward the Arc and the Ile, bringing the curtain down on a dandy night in Paris.