Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lord and Lady of the Manor

ABC.  No it's not the first three letters of the alphabet.  It's the shorthand for a complaint I often hear from my kids: "another bloody church. "  There are also times when it can mean "another bloody castle!"

To be frank, I sometimes share my children's sense of fatigue.  That doesn't mean it's time to stop visiting castles and cathedrals.  Instead, you just have to start looking at them in a different way.  Otherwise, the dates, the locations, the interiors, and the exteriors will start to jumble in your mind like a crazy quilt of people and places. 

Earlier this week I had the occasion to go down to the Loire Valley for the day and visit two different castles known primarily for their gardens:  Villandry, which I had visited before many years ago, and La Chatonniere, which was completely new to me.  Now don't get me wrong.  Both of these places are worth a stop; actually they're even worthy destinations in their own right.  Villandry's gardens have been restored over many years of patient work to recreate the type of garden that was typical in France during the Renaissance.  They are rigid and formalized, all squares and gravel paths, with colors and designs that will simply wow you.  La Chatonniere is an old place with entirely new gardens, riots of color and imagination created from scratch since 1986 from what used to be primarily apple orchards. 

But it wasn't the gardens or the buildings that really captured my imagination.  Instead it was the owners with whom I was fortunate to spend a little bit of time.

Who owns a chateau?  Well it turns out two very different kinds of people who admittedly share similar passions for beauty and history as well as maintaining a family legacy. 

Henri Carvallo, owner of Villandry, is a soft spoken man in his late 40s, the great grandson of a Spanish doctor who purchased the property in 1906.  Slim and tanned in chinos and loafers, he doesn't get a second glance from the hordes of visitors roaming the house and gardens.  But oh the decisions he must make each day.   Each season, 250,000 flowers and vegetables are planted, half of which are prepared in the property's own greenhouses.  Recently, the beams in the chateau's attics were almost entirely replaced; had they not been, the facade might have crumbled into the court of honor.  And that's just the start.  There's the marketing and the planning, and keeping up with the finances, something at which Carvallo clearly excels.  He's been able to keep it all afloat just on gate receipts without a centime of government subsidies.

Béatrice de Andia, owner of La Chatonniere, couldn't be more different.  I'm guessing that she's in her 80s but still bubbles with energy and has a mind that's clearly firing on every cylinder.  She's nothing if not a character, having served for 30 years as general director of artistic action of the city of Paris, a lady who speaks French, English, and Spanish with ease,and once drove a Citroen 2CV from Paris to Saigon, stopping along the way for treks up Kilimanjaro and in the Himalayas. Since inheriting the property from her father, the 8th duke of Talleyrand, she's constructed 12 thematic gardens and has more in the works.   Theater and concerts en plein air are just part of the plan to keep the site interesting to visitors.

Carvallo and de Andia are clearly well grounded in the past.  But don't let their fidelity to history fool you.  You want to get to know them better?  They're both on Facebook.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I've got a hunch that the French eat more leeks than Americans but regrettably I can't find any data to prove that this is the case.  They keep popping up everywhere, especially at this time of year: in stews, tarts, and soups, served with a vinaigrette or au gratin. Searching the Internet I found many bizarre and interesting items related to leeks like the fact that while rabbits can eat leeks, they don't enjoy the flavor, that leeks are the national symbol of Wales, and that Roman emperor Nero used to eat them on certain days of the month (while abstaining from all other foods) in order to improve his voice. But whether the French eat more leeks than the rest of the world?  It's just a guess.

And for those of you who care:  it seems that the French do in fact eat more vegetables than Americans but both are falling far short of the recommended five a day.  (And amazingly, five a day is actually the recommendation in both countries.) A study at the National Cancer Institute found that Americans eat fruits 1.04 times per day (compared to 1.33 for the French) and vegetables 1.98 times per day fruits versus 2.29 for the French.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pop Art

Last week when  the weather in Paris was gorgeous, unlike the cold-drizzly-damp-chill-you-through-and- through nonsense we're having now, I boarded a train trip to the western suburbs, took a 20 kilometer walk through the Bois de Satory, and  ended up coming back through the magnificent grounds at Versailles where I encountered this smiling pop art buddha:

The work of pop artist Takeshi Murakami isn't everyone's cup of tea.  But I kind of like the parallels to the Sun King who might have been regarded as just as kitsch in his time.  And I sure could use some of that golden glow right about now.

Monday, September 27, 2010


I don't know what it is about this scene that made me stop:  the contrast between the gray of the freshly washed street and motorcycles and those apples? The round shapes of the apples and the motorcycle wheels? No clue. But there you have it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Forgive the quality of the above image but I tore this ad out of Direct Matin in the morning, folded it up, and didn't retrieve it until hours later. I don't know what is more comical: the use of English or the very idea of cheesy creamy beef brochettes. I went to the advertised Web site to find out more, and let's just say the picture of this dish didn't send me running out to the market to pick up the necessary ingredients. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind having one of those t-shirts for free.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Jour de Grève

Welcome to the season of back to school, new literary releases, openings for art exhibitions and restaurants, and strikes. France experienced its second major strike of the season yesterday. Just how effective these are in affecting public policy remains to be seen. For the moment, there's no agreement even on the number of people demonstrating: less than a million according to the Minister of the Interior, more than 3 million according to the CGT, one of the more vocal labor unions.

This fellow obviously reported for work (because why else would you don your blues and safety vest) but perhaps there just wasn't all that much to do. Or maybe I just caught him on his coffee break. Wish he'd been posted on my block where the garbage cans are overflowing and the sidewalk really could use a good hosing down.

Thanks to A Tale of Two Cities for finally pushing the count of those following this blog to 150. For that matter, thanks to everyone for reading, follower or not!.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Green Space

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My husband, who works long days and travels far allowing me plenty of time to play and blog about my adventures, pointed out to me that yesterday's post failed to capture just how hidden the gardens are in the 7th arrondissement. So zoom in on that red indicator on the map above and you will see the solid wall of stone along the rue de Varenne and the amazing amount of green space hidden behind. The red indicator marks the site of the Italian embassy; the Ministry of Agriculture is down the street a bit (to the west, the direction of Les Invalides). Actually it looks to me like M. Fillon, resident at the Hôtel Matignon, has the biggest yard on the block. Too bad if he gets the boot in November as some are suggesting may happen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


After my excursion to the country on Saturday, I only had Sunday to peek into buildings otherwise closed to the public that were open for les Journées du Patrimoine last weekend. We ended up picking the Italian embassy and the Ministry of Agriculture, both on rue de Varenne in the 7th. I also longingly eyed the line at the Hôtel Matignon (official residence of France's prime minister). The wait was only an hour, reasonable enough, except that my progeny had already had quite enough gilt decorated drawing rooms for one day.

At any rate, the most remarkable aspect of both buildings we visited was the magnificent garden in the rear. The embassy garden (pictured here) was impressively deep and just manicured enough to keep nature at bay, no more. The ministry garden was massive and seeing the sets of teak tables and chairs stacked up in the corners, one could imagine that the employees definitely take advantage when the weather is fine to take their lunch and coffee breaks outdoors.

But it got me to thinking too. After my lunch in the country, it occurred to me that the French people are not so different from a hotel particulier in the 7th. The street view is austere: stone, massive wooden doors, high walls, no windows to suggest what lies inside. But if you have the chance to reach the inner sanctum, oh the rewards: warmth, kindness, conviviality, and beauty.

And who wouldn't mind having this place for a backyard barbecue or just a sunny spot to enjoy a good book?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Okay people, since you insist. I thought I might get away with just showing you a picture of that country house without spilling all the beans but apparently not.

In short, the house in question belongs to a lovely French lady who leads a conversation group I've been attending for the past two years. She has made it a tradition to invite the group to her place in the spring but in spring 2009, she was knee deep in renovations and this past spring, her husband was quite ill. So she rescheduled for last weekend. Although the group initially started last fall with around 15 members, only four of us faithfully attended until the end of the year and believe me, it was worth it!

With the addition of two spouses who made the trip, some two hours south of Paris, and the lady of the house and her husband, we were eight for lunch: aspic of asparagus with shrimp, roasted veal in a heavenly sauce of seasonal mushrooms, a cheese course, and a plum tart, all home-cooked. Monsieur poured a cremant from Burgundy for an aperitif (which then came with us to the table) and then followed with a red with the cheese. Meanwhile, the hostess regaled us with stories of her family through the ages. The property has been in the family since the 14th century although the house only since the early 18th. And despite some fabulous art work and furnishings, it's still very much a home as evidenced by the swing set in the yard and the stacks of puzzles, games, and doll furniture for the grandchildren. Not to mention the big screen tv which I didn't notice until much later in the afternoon when the master of the house could not resist checking out how France was doing in its Davis Cup match. FYI: they won.

After lunch, we set out for a walk around the property including forest and farmland. This is when I realized how clever I had been to choose low heeled boots as part of my tenue de campagne as suggested by the invitation. We walked for a good two hours, perfect on a lovely day and after that lunch. (Note to Sweet Freak: while Madame is usually a skirt, pumps, and sweater set kind of gal, on Saturday, she was sporting a pants suit and sandals, which she traded in for loafers for the walk.)

So there you have it. An unforgettable experience.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rule No. 1

If a French lady of a certain age invites you to her country house for lunch, do not say no. And even if it's the holiest day of the year and you are supposed to be fasting, I'm pretty sure that, in the long run, all will be forgiven.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

White China Heaven

If you're looking for the perfect neutral backdrop for the culinary masterpieces Paris has inspired you to whip up, then hop on the metro or a bus and head to the 14th where you'll find Porcelaines M.P. Samie. There's nothing fancy here, just shelf after shelf of white porcelain: everything from the tiniest coffee cups to giant platters. If you find the white a bit blah, then take the stairs at the back of the shop to the first floor where the white gets a few decorative flourishes.

On my trip last week, I considered many options: the square white dinner plates, a sugar bowl and creamer edged in blue, a set of cereal (or perhaps cafe au lait) bowls. Overwhelmed by the choices, I finally left with only a small butter dish that cost less than 3 euros. Hard to have any buyer's remorse with my wallet only that much lighter.

Real bargain hunters will want to search through the bins on the sidewalk. The dishes look pretty dusty but I'm sure they would be good as new with one run through the dishwasher.

Porcelaines M.P. Samie
45, avenue du Général Leclerc
Metro: Alésia

Friday, September 17, 2010

Clean Sweep

There seems to be a profusion of three card monte games (or should I say scams) at the major tourist sites around town. I've seen them close to the Eiffel Tower, near the foot of Sacre Coeur, and even on the Champs-Élysées. Don't be fooled folks. You will not win at this game even if it appears that it can be beaten. That fellow who just won 50 euros? He's a shill. Keep your money in your pocket and just keep moving. I've thought about taking a picture to share here but figured these guys probably wouldn't take too kindly to that.

Yesterday afternoon, I happened to be passing by the Eiffel Tower and noticed a profusion of policemen, on foot and on bikes. I'm pretty sure the heightened security is due to the bomb threat made on Tuesday night. Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux actually held a press conference there earlier in the day to remind France of the continued terrorist threat to the nation. At any rate, there were lots of guys in uniform and guess what? No keychain vendors, no ladies in long skirts asking tourists, "do you speak English," and no three card monte. The bridge between the tower and the Chaillot gardens was clear, even walkable. What a difference a day makes.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Head Scratcher

There are days when the logic of Paris defies me but at least even numbers are always on one side of the street, the odd numbers on the other. Or so I thought. Having seen this sign, I'm not so sure anymore.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Globalization Gone Bad

There is just something so wrong about a crepe Hawaïenne or Mexicaine. At least this stand is no longer offering the crepe Oriental which consisted of merguez sausage and emmental. That might be a fine combination but I don't think it would fly in the Orient.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Street Origami

I finally got around to seeing the movie Inception a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty complicated but still enjoyable, despite a few gaping loose ends in the story. What the heck: it was still 2 plus hours well spent. Ellen Page is smart and sassy, Marion Cotillard elegant and gorgeous (and speaking English presque sans accent), and Leonardo di Caprio broods. And Paris itself figures prominently in the exposition with some great shots of the Pont Bir Hakeim sporting a set of mirrored doors and a corner cafe in the 7th that blows apart while the characters are seated there.

But by far the most amazing special effect is one where a Paris street rises up and folds back on itself so the black slate roofs are piled on top of each other with the street figuring as both ground and sky. Now that is some kind of crazy.

If you are curious about where the different Paris scenes were shot, you can check out this page on the official Web site of the city of Paris.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Favorite Paris Places

Months and months ago, I took a hint from Croque-Camille and started using Platial to make a map of my favorite places in Paris with the idea of sharing my map here. (And by the way, if you've never visited Croque-Camille, you really should. Her latest combines cooking with urban combat. No joke.)

Anyway, no sooner did I get the first round entered, then Platial went belly up, leaving me with a shadow of the former map but at least one that was readable by Google Maps. Finally this weekend, I sat down to reformat and at last, my handiwork is ready. Well, it's ready in the sense that everything I put in way back when is now legible, and maybe not so ready as I've accumulated more Paris favorites in the intervening months. Click on the icons on the map for details.

Or click here to view my Favorite Paris Places in a larger map.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I took this picture of workmen's shoes airing on a window sill sometime back in the early summer. No big deal. I do the same thing when my kids come home with sneakers that are particularly ripe or wet.

But when I passed by this same spot earlier this week, they were still there. A couple of months of Paris rain, pollution, and who knows what probably aren't doing those shoes any favors. Big green trash bin, here they come.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Although I have been purposefully vague about certain identifying aspects of myself and my life on this blog, I don't think I'm giving anything away by telling you that I'm Jewish. Yesterday at Rosh Hashana services, I again remarked on something that struck me during our first High Holiday season in France, a season that commenced just weeks after our arrival: that the transliteration of Hebrew for French speakers is really different than that for English speakers. Duh? Yeah sort of, except I'd never really thought about it before.

If you don't know much about the Jewish faith, let me back up. Religious services are conducted in a combination of Hebrew and the native language of the congregants, with prayers and songs primarily in Hebrew and supporting text, for example, in English in the U.S. or in French here in France. But since many of us don't read Hebrew very well, the prayer book sometimes includes both the text in Hebrew characters and a transliterated version that uses the Roman alphabet to approximate the sounds of the words in Hebrew. I've been seeing the English transliterations all my life; they are familiar old friends I encountered every time I went to synagogue.

But the prayerbook for the services I attended yesterday? Well, the transliteration is done for those who speak French and thus use accents and a different constellation of letters to approximate the Hebrew sounds.

Just to give you a flavor of the differences, here are the first few verses of Psalm 23. It's not a High Holy Day passage but I picked it because it's one familiar to most Christians and Jews. And just imagine as you read, a little bit of French rolled into the words on line 3, a little bit of English in the words on line 2. And with that, I wish you all a very sweet new year.

Key: line 1 is English, line 2 is Hebrew transliterated for English speakers, line 3 is Hebrew transliterated for French speakers

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Adonai ro-i, lo ehsar
Adonai roî, lo é'hsar

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
Bin'ot deshe yarbitseini
Binéote déché yarbitséni

He leadeth me beside the still waters
Al mei m'nuhot y'nahaleini
âl méi ménou'hotes yénahaléni

He restoreth my soul
Naf'shi y'shovev
Nafchi yéchovév

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
Yan'heini b'ma'aglei tsedek
Yané'héni vémaâguéléi tsédéq

For His name's sake
L'ma'an sh'mo
Lémaâne chémo

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Shades of Blue and Gray

I woke up to rain yesterday morning after hearing the drops going pitter pat all night long. It never really poured but the coolness crept in, as did my own feeling of personal dread that the grayness of a Paris winter was already upon us. So imagine my happiness last night when I saw a break in the clouds as the sun set, the sky clearing in the west. With luck, that means today will be clear and the little man on the top of the Hermes store will be prancing in the sunshine.

Why is it that we all think of London as gray but that reputation never sticks to Paris? Perhaps it has to do with the coal dust that polluted London's skies in the 19th century. Or perhaps Paris just has better PR. When you look at the data on hours of sunshine, it's true that Paris gets more sun than London: about 1,800 hours of sunshine annually for Paris compared with only about 1,500 for London. But that's not much to shout about. Seattle (a place which admittedly I've never visited) which has a reputation for being rainy gets over 2,000 hours of sun each year and Washington, DC about 2,500. Point proven but what can you do? Carry an umbrella and enjoy every moment of sun while it lasts.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Police on Alert

Although I didn't go out and snap this photo early this morning, if you're walking around Paris today, particularly if you are anywhere between République and Nation, it's a safe bet that you will see a similar lineup of police vans. France's unions have called for a national day of action today to protest proposed reforms in the retirement system, voice fears about the future of public service, and express concerns about the ordinary Frenchman's power of the purse. I doubt that there will be any violence but that won't stop the police from suiting up in full riot gear: body armor, helmets, shields, the works. So if you see the cops, don't start worrying that it's Armageddon. It's just par for the course. And as for whether the manifestations will change public opinion or political outcomes, for that, we'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Urban Oasis

Some days you just need some respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. Fortunately, you don't have to go far to find some peace and quiet. This bird was sunning himself in the Parc de Bercy when I visited not too long ago, just a few hundred yards from the nearest metro station but a million miles away in attitude.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Quatre Septembre

Today is le quatre Septembre, a name that may sound slightly familiar if you've ever gotten off line 3 of the Paris métro between Opéra and La Bourse or if you've walked along the Seine in Boulogne-Billancourt.

Months ago, when I was having lunch with a group of French ladies I know, I asked them the significance of the date. They all hemmed and hawed, looked a bit sheepish, and mumbled something about it being an important date in French history, but just what they couldn't recall. So much for the rigorous French system of education. (Although to be fair, I don't think any of them was younger than 50 so it had probably been awhile since they had last taken a history test.)

So FYI all. On the fourth of September 1870, the Third Republic was proclaimed. Emperor Napoleon III had been taken prisoner by the Prussians, signalling an end to his reign but not regrettably an end to the war. General Louis Jules Trochu was named provisional governor of France but since Paris was cut off from the rest of the country due to the Prussian siege, it was actually Léon Gambetta who ran things from Tours. The Third Republic somehow survived the war and continued until the Nazis arrived in 1940.

I don't know if one is supposed to celebrate this day in any particular way. I suppose not, given that those ladies couldn't pinpoint the significance of the date. So light a candle, hum the Marseillaise, kiss a French person, or raise a toast. Vive la France!

Friday, September 3, 2010


I will be blunt. Montmartre is not my favorite place in Paris. It's just that Sacre Coeur with its Dairy Queen dome, the Place de Tetre, and the barrage of wandering sketch artists all feel impossibly cheesy. Now I know that there's another side to the Butte with lovely gardens and quiet byways and special markers reminding us of the artists and writers who once worked there. But call me cranky, it's just kind of hard to appreciate all that when you're getting called "sexy boom boom" by some African guy trying to wrap a string bracelet around your wrist or there's a group of what seems like a thousand Japanese tourists all plugged into their headsets blocking the middle of the street.

But if you're lucky enough to break away from the pack, you might see a few memorable sights. Like this quiet garden where the lemon tree is heavy with fruit.

Or appreciate the finely combed wisps of clouds over the Moulin de la Galette.

Or find your soul mate in a grafitti-ed wall.

And okay, if you insist: one picture of Sacre Coeur. It was after all a beautiful day.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sunday Ride

I like riding my bike. I don't like body sacrifice, or even the threat of it. Hence, my idea of a good Paris bike ride is the Bois de Boulogne. On Sunday. When most of the streets are blocked off.

But just one word of caution. Should you choose to take a Velib or even your own two-wheeler into the Bois on a sunny Sunday morning, do not, I repeat, do not attempt to make a circuit on the long stretch of road around the Hippodrome de Longchamp.

Oh sure, it seems like a nice idea. There's a bike lane and the surface is relatively flat. But all those other cyclists out circling the track? They're not happy weekend bikers. No, that's a peloton and those guys are Tour de France wannabes. They are serious and they hold no quarter with middle aged women and their somewhat erratic bikeriding children, something I learned the hard way. (Or maybe it had something to do with the concerned gentleman on the other side of the road frantically yelling "Madame, Madame" and flapping his arms at me.)

I'll keep biking in the Bois. But from now on, I'm sticking to the path or maybe a lazy ride around the lakes. That's about my speed.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The List

A new school year is upon us, our fourth in France, and it looks pretty definite that it will be our last. I could start getting a little weepy right now but I won't. (Although all bets are off when next summer rolls around.) Instead, I'm making a list of things I want to be sure to do before we leave. Not that I can ever do ALL of Paris. But I at least want to say that I gave it a shot, that I didn't waste too much time fiddling around on Facebook when I could have been out there doing something memorable.

I actually started working on this list last year and some of the things I wrote down then have been crossed out, including a few I've shared here -- a meal at Jules Verne, the water and light show at Versailles, a visit to the factory store in Gien. But plenty remains. Here's where it stands as of this moment (in no particular order):

Attend a ballet at the Palais Garnier.

Take the candlelight tour of Vaux le Vicomte.

Explore the neighborhood around the Canal St. Martin.

Go to the Musee Delacroix.

Eat lunch at Frenchie.

Go see a play at the Comédie-Française, but read it (in French) ahead of time.

Visit (and take non flash photos) of a favorite turn of the century lithograph at the Musee d'Orsay.

Check out the hype about Spring.

Go to a concert at Sainte Chapelle.

Invest in one or two classic accessories or items of clothing that, while hopefully not screaming "Paris!", will be something I will cherish wearing for a long long time.

My kids are making their own lists and I'll do my best to honor what's on them. (Happily my husband already took them to Euro Disney.)

If you were in our shoes, what would be on your list?
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