Monday, February 28, 2011


Budapest may not be anyone's idea of an ideal vacation spot in February but when unrest in the Middle East made me nervous about my original idea of heading to Morocco and my husband announced that he had to be in Budapest last week for a meeting, it seemed to be kismet.  It's a place that had been on my radar screen for some time, somewhere that we would be much less likely to take the time and expense to visit after our European sojourn comes to an end.  And the city did not disappoint.  In fact, in many ways, it charmed and intrigued me more than Vienna, the city to which it is historically linked, as someone told me, always Chicago to Vienna's New York.

Budapest's streetscape is a sprawling patchwork of crumbling 19th century grandeur, bleak Soviet era architecture, and a mishmash of what's cropped up, for better and for worse, since the fall of Communism in 1989.  There are broad boulevards, stone plazas, quirky statuary, and an idyllic city park.  And then there's the Danube, which separates the hills of Buda from the flatlands of Pest.   The city was bombed heavily in World War II.  Much was rebuilt and then neglected;  in contrast to the bright white limestone of Paris, many buildings are dark with soot and pitted by acid rain.  A few well managed rehabilitation projects suggest, however, that perhaps there's a brighter future ahead.

And for the tourist, there's plenty to keep one busy. Our two favorites were the House of Terror, the former headquarters of both the fascist and Communist secret police made into a chilling and compelling modern museum, and the Szechenyi baths. If you had told me two weeks ago, that I'd be enjoying a dip in an outdoor swimming pool on a day when the temperatures were hovering around 0 degrees Centigrade, I'd have told you that you were nuts. But with sunshine and a clear blue sky, an amazing Neoclassical setting, and a water temperature of 36 degrees Centigrade, it was hard to beat. Follow that with a hearty chicken paprikash and a nice glass of Hungarian red, and you've got a vacation. 

Four story collage of victims of terror at the hands of fascists (German and Hungarian) and Communists

Couldn't resist getting a shot of the "So Frenchy" sandwich.

I found this inscription on the window of an elegant restaurant enigmatic -- why only for those with small appetites?

Saturday and Sunday, we were treated to folk dancing performances on the plaza just outside the apartment where we stayed.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Through These Portals Pass

Doorways seem to be a big favorite for travel photographers.  Is it the visuals themselves or the imaginings of what's happening within that most enchants?  My guess it's probably a little of both.  Since so many other people are busy sharing their doorway pics, and because it's hard to capture a door in Paris without the image of a parked car directly in front of it, I've shied away from taking too many myself.  And as much as I liked this doorway with its spectacular caryatids (somewhat spoiled by their no parking signs), I realize now that it's a bit crooked.

No matter.  There's something that makes this doorway, somewhere on an obscure street in the 16th arrondissement, noteworthy.  Take a look at what's been carved directly over the door itself:

The inscription reads:

Lasse des vains espoirs et des bruits de la terreHeureuse d'oublier, l'une a fermé les yeux....
A son premier matin, sans effroi du mystère,
L'autre aspire à la vie en souriant au cieux !

Translated, we learn that this means:

Tired of false hopes and the sounds of the earth
Happy to forget, one has closed its eyes.
On his first morning without fear of mystery,
The other aspires to life, smiling in heaven!

A little sleuthing determined that the architect of this residence was Paul Sédille best known for his work on the Printemps department store.  As for the author of the verse or its significance at this location, I haven't got a clue.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cycling Lesson

This is for all the parents out there who ever taught a kid to ride a bike.  Although the end result is thrilling (watching your kid experience the freedom of pedaling solo is truly like nothing else), the hours you have to put in can be tedious.  Plus all that hunching over really does a number on your back.  (Full disclosure:  it was my husband who did all the heavy lifting in this department for our two kids.)

Learning to unicycle takes a special kind of determination.  I walked behind this father-daughter duo for several blocks; she never managed to make it more than two or three revolutions without falling off.   Dad, for his part, kept his iron grip on both her hand and his cell phone.  Perhaps he's not the model of parental attention but I give him full credit for being out there on a chilly Sunday, giving her a chance to learn a new skill, especially in a city where there are not a lot of venues for this sort of activity.

And if she doesn't make it into that classe préparatoire a couple of years hence, if she sticks with the unicycle, there's an open plaza in front of the Centre Pompidou just waiting for another street performer.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Miscellany of History

You can barely walk down the street in these parts without encountering a piece of history.  Little memorials, plaques stuck to the side of buildings, brass markers seem to be everywhere, almost as ubiquitous as that other stuff on the sidewalk (although I think I've already said quite enough about that) and absolutely more welcome.  Here are a just a few of the little bits of history I've encountered lately.

In Parc Monceau, the spot where in October 1797, Andre-Jacques Garnerin made the world's first parachute jump.

On my monthly hike outside of Paris, a small plaque noting the residence of the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in the charming little town of Samois sur Seine.

Carved inscription on a building of no particular importance today indicating the spot where the young Louis XIII was made king after the assassination of Henri IV.  He was only eight at the time; his mother Marie de Medici served as regent until he reached majority at the age of 13.

A marker designating a building on rue des Colonnes, one of the few buildings constructed in Paris during the Revolution. This arcade preceded, but surely inspired, the one now present on the rue de Rivoli.  The decorative work on the capitals is unlike anything else you'll find in Paris.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Vacances d'Hiver

Although the forsythia is in bud and a few stray daffodils, planted in protected spots, are showing their sunny faces, it is still resolutely February in Paris.   And while the queues at tourist sites are short or nonexistent, visitors to town may be surprised to find that their favorite restaurant, the neighborhood boulangerie, and the corner pharmacie are all closed.  What gives?  It's the two-week February break for school children in the Paris region, a time when those who have the resources flee to the Alps to ski and those that don't just take a little family time.  Unlike in the U.S., where school systems are run by counties and municipalities with the result being multiple vacation schedules, even within a metropolitan area, in France, it's strictly a national business.  The country is neatly divided into three zones with overlapping vacations.  The school holidays run this week and last in Zone A (which includes Paris) but this week and the week after for schools in Zone B, and the first two weeks of March in Zone C.  (If you're planning a trip and want the details, you can find them here.)

But no need to worry if you're a tourist as long as you're willing to be a bit flexible.  It's nothing like August when Paris really empties out and some streets are nothing but shuttered windows.  All the museums are still open, the theaters are busy, and there's still plenty of good food to be had.   And if you have to walk a bit further for your croissant in the morning, take a deep breath and enjoy.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Louvre's Back Story

When you're visiting the Louvre and ogling all those amazing masterpieces from your art history books, it's easy to forget that the Louvre was first and foremost, not a museum, but a royal residence.  That is, it was until Louis XIV decided to decamp Paris for the grander setting of Versailles.  And despite the many renovations over the centuries, the galleries still bear the marks of the kings who used to live there.  Here are just a few I captured on a recent visit:

There's the H for Henri II, intertwined above with D for his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.  Some say there's also a C for his wife, Catherine de Medici, but I'm guessing that's just rationalizing.

You've got K for Charles IX, the second son of Henri II.

L intertwined with A representing Louis XIII and his wife Anne of Austria who by the way was Spanish, not Austrian.

A generic L sometimes with a B for Bourbon, perhaps representing Louis XIV, XV, and XVI.

NL for Louis-Napoleon, not the short guy from Corsica, but his nephew who became Napoleon III, leader of the Second Empire.

Not all of these initials are authentic to the time period of the kings they represent.  Many were destroyed during the Revolution and in the subsequent upheavals during the 19th century.  If you want to learn more, read this interesting article on the Louvre's Web site.   And next time round, go on your own treasure hunt for remnants of French history.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

More of Me

If you like what you see here, perhaps you'd be interested in what I'm writing elsewhere.  Two of my pieces were published this week on other sites:  one on Paris museums on Tripping and one for Valentine's Day on Girls' Guide to Paris.  I appreciated the opportunity to write for these sites.

I am also now Twittering or Tweeting or whatever you're supposed to call it.  You can find me there as "JustAnneinParis" or by clicking the "follow me on Twitter" button on the right hand side of this page. 

With four e-mail addresses, two blogs, two Facebook profiles, and a Twitter presence, I am sometimes having a little bit of trouble keeping all my on-line personalities sorted out. Thanks Internet.

Friday, February 18, 2011


I don't know what it was about this threesome with their baguette sandwiches that captured my attention.  I guess it was that they were the only little bit of life in an otherwise austere setting.  Yesterday started out promising with sun and blue sky but by mid-day, it had all gone to hell and a cold gray mist had settled in, particularly along the banks of the Seine.  Major props to this crew -- a mother and two teenage girls, tourists, I think -- for toughing it out and for saving their centimes for a proper dinner.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pan European Cuisine

I am sure that this is exactly what Jean Monnet, architect of the European Union, had in mind when he was doing his post World War II brainstorming.  No?

Who comes up with this stuff anyway? When I showed this photo to my kids, they reminded me that we had seen a restaurant called Paris Fried Chicken while riding the elevated portion of line 2 through the northern part of Paris.  Since trekking out there is not on my agenda at the moment, you can have your own little virtual visit here:

And for the record, I did not try the Euro fried variety.  It was closed when I walked by, resolving any need to indulge.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Memories of War

Algeria's a place that's never been very high on my radar screen, that is, until recently when all the turmoil began in the Arab world.  After the dramatic events in Tunisia and, more recently, Egypt, all the pundits are trying to figure out which country will go next and how on earth it will all play out. 

France has a complicated relationship with its former colonies, and some of the wounds are recent enough to still be somewhat raw.  This austere modern monument, the work of Gérard Collin-Thiébaut, is dedicated to the memory of some 25,000 French and pro-French Algerian soldiers who died during the Algerian War of Independence between 1954 and 1962.  Their names scroll electronically in alphabetical order down the first column.  The second column is essentially the supporting text, the type you would normally find inscribed at the base of a more traditional monument.  And the third column is interactive (via a kiosk just off to the side) allowing  you to look for a particular name from the list of thousands that scroll through the first column.  This monument lies on the left bank of the Seine, close to the Musée du Quai Branly.  It was erected in 2002 and regrettably has been defaced multiple times perhaps by vandals or perhaps by those with a political agenda.  

While the clean lines of this monument are aesthetically pleasing, let's all hope for a future in which there is less need for such memorials.  Let freedom ring in peace.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Play by the Rules

The French may not be as litigious as Americans (who in my opinion have gone somewhere off the deep end in their penchant to sue) but that doesn't mean that there aren't rules for what to do when and who exactly is responsible for any mayhem that may result when those rules are not respected.  If you look closely, you will find a sign like this one in every park and garden owned by the city of Paris.  Most of the time, it's right there by the entrance.

If you read the fine print, most of the rules are pretty much common sense: no fires or barbecues, don't pick the flowers or climb the trees, and restrict activities to the areas designated for their use.  But there are also a few that made me sit up and take notice.  For example, you can fly kites in fields as long as they go no higher than 50 meters, and sales of animals are forbidden.  Fine by me.   If you feel the need to practice your French or if you've got some crazy scheme in mind and just want to be sure that you're on the right side of the law, you can check it out here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Flâneur

I always tell my children never to say they hate someone or something, the preferred alternative being to say, "it's not my favorite." Hate is really much too strong a word to describe their feelings about classmates, teachers, and certain things that appear before them at the dinner table.  As far as hating intolerance, injustice, environmental degradation, war, and cleaning the bathroom, I'm good with that.

My point is that I'll try to set a good example for them and tell you that The Flâneur by Edmund White was not my favorite.  I decided recently that I'd better go ahead and read some of the books about Paris that folks keep asking me if I've read.  So off to the library I went, list in hand.  I was kind of relieved to find that The Flâneur is a slim volume, a good thing after the 400 plus pages about Catherine de Medici.

But I only got to page 3 before I was chafing at the pretentiousness of the whole thing.   I stuck with it and happily found some redeemable sections on the French author Colette, the experience of African Americans in Paris, and the history of anti-semitism in France.  And since I don't know anything about French views on homosexuality either now or in the past, I have to give him his due on that.  But the rest is nothing but his proclamations about the real Paris (an issue worthy of a post all in itself), plenty of name dropping, and general superciliousness.

Well, you may be thinking, it's a memoir.  Shouldn't you expect it to be self absorbed?  Fair enough except....the name of this book is not My Life as a Flâneur, but The Flâneur.  And while there are personal anecdotes here, White works pretty hard to gussy them up to be more prescriptive (how one should think about and experience Paris) than reflective (what happened to me and what I take away from that.)  

I do agree with White's statement that "Paris, land of novelty and distraction, is the great city of the flâneur -- that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination, and goes where caprice or curiousity directs his or her steps.'  I'm just happy that he doesn't get to come along with me for the ride.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

High Water No More

Loyal readers may remember my post about the high level of the Seine at the end of December.  Well, the other day, I was back in the vicinity of the Pont de l'Alma where the statue of the Zouave stands, the one that is used as a gauge of the river's level, and discovered that his feet are nice and dry,

Just for comparison, here was the situation in December:

And here's the state of affairs this week:

It's still hard to imagine those terrible days in 1910 when he was up to his neck.  If you care to know more, look for Paris Under Water by Jeffrey Jackson at your local bookstore or library.  Jackson, an American historian, tells an interesting tale about the causes and consequences of the flood, and mixes in many interesting anecdotes, both heart renching and heart warming.

Friday, February 11, 2011


I'll admit it.  I am a complete chicken about certain things in life, especially those involving potential body sacrifice, such as sky diving, scuba diving, bungee jumping, and fast drivers on mountain roads that lack guardrails.   Now other things that some folks find equally scary -- like speaking before a group of 300 people -- don't phase me in the least.

Since coming to Paris, however, I've found a whole new class of scary situations, for example, clothing boutiques that have only about ten items displayed on hangars and several pint sized Parisiennes just waiting to see what my very American sized body might fit into.  Or realizing mid sentence that I have no idea the correct gender of the noun I'm about to use and I've only got a 50 percent chance of getting it right.

Recently, I set out to make a German chocolate cake for my husband's birthday and the recipe in the Joy of Cooking called for sweetened chocolate.   I didn't think twice, set out for the supermarket to stock up on flour, sugar, eggs, and chocolate, only to be confronted with this:

Now that is scary. 

When I melted the chocolate, it was clear from the gloppy mess, that I had picked the wrong type.  No problem, I beat that chocolate into submission, whipped it into the cake, and voila!  It came out just fine.

Even though I still have no idea what I should be looking for when it comes to "sweetened chocolate", I suppose I learned how to conquer my fears.  Should I take up sky diving next?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Catherine de Medici

What would you get if you combined equal parts Joan Crawford, Nancy Reagan, Imelda Marcos, and any woman who ever commanded a European empire (think Elizabeth I of England, Maria Theresa of Austria, or Russia's Catherine the Great)?  Well, you might have someone very like Catherine de Medici, who despite being the daughter of Italian merchants, was the driving force behind the politics of France in the 16th century.  Virtually ignored by her husband Henri II while he devoted his energies to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine nonetheless managed to bear him 10 children.  Each was more hapless than the last --- she saw three of her sons become kings of France although none go down in the history books for being anything other than sickly and inept.  She was ruthless with her enemies and careless in her plotting.  Her plans to execute a handful of top French Protestants spiralled out of control to become the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre which after six days resulted in somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 deaths.  She was devoted to her husband, cruel to her children, obsessed with finery, and dabbled in the occult.  Really, how much more fascinating can you get?

Leonie Frieda's biography helped me better understand Catherine de Medici's place in French history and the disastrous fissures caused by the French wars of religion.  It's quite long and fairly detailed although she includes maps and family trees to help you keep all the Henris, Valois, Bourbons, and Guises sorted out.   And if you're looking for traces of the queen in current day Paris, you'll have to search.  The Tuileries palace is long gone as is the Hotel de la Reine which sat near the present day Bourse de la Commerce.  The only thing that remains of that palace is a single column which she and her astrologer used to track the planets and plot the future.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fauteuils d'Orchestre Revisited

The other night, Fauteuils d'Orchestre was on TV, a total stroke of luck since I'd been dying to see it again now that I have a few years of France under my belt.  The film, which was entitled Avenue Montaigne in its American release in 2007, takes place in and around this brasserie across the street from the Théatre des Champs Elysées and features a number of big French film stars -- Valérie Lemercier, Cécile de France, and Albert Dupontel.  There are several interlocking stories of love and regret, and a quietly satisfying happy ending.

I remembered only bits and pieces of the film so it was nice to see it again in its entirety with all the little glimpses of the surrounding neighborhood.   The first time around, I remember commenting to a friend that I was a little disappointed that it didn't show much of Paris. Honestly, I can't quite conjure up now what I was expecting.   Now having seen it again, I realize that it's all there -- twinkling Eiffel Tower, black and white attired waiters, old French pop songs, baguettes, and all.   What's more -- the French title connects beautifully with the film's message about living a good life.  But don't take my word for it -- this one's worth the price of the rental.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ensoleillé (Sunny)

The weather forecast on Sunday night showed sun for the entire week but I've lived in Paris too long to trust that kind of magical thinking.  And yet, yesterday, the sun came out in the morning and stayed out all day.  It was astonishing and rare and really the only thing anyone could talk about.  I went for a visit at the Louvre and when I should have been listening to what the guide was saying about 17th century French paintings, I was busy snapping pictures out the window.  After all, I can read up on Poussin, Le Nain, La Tour, and Valentin de Boulogne any old time.  But see the sun in February in Paris?  Better enjoy it while you can.

For the first time ever, a piece of art work is gracing this pillar directly under I.M. Peil's pyramid at the Louvre.  This sculpture, by British artist Tony Cragg, is part of a temporary show of his work.  Earlier suggestions for permanent installations were rejected -- the Winged Victory of Samothrace was judged too large and too fragile; Rodin's Thinker got the gong because no works of Rodin are on exhibit in the Louvre.

You need sun for shadow. So nice to see a world with contrasts.

The sun on the fountain in the Cour Carrée was blinding.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Reality of Real Estate

I'm definitely not in the market for any real estate in Paris but that doesn't stop me from looking at the ads posted in the windows of realtors.  One can always dream, right -- of having your own little piece of Paris or of having enough cash to actually consider such an act.

If you've ever sold a piece of real estate in the U.S., you know that there's a certain amount of staging involved.  You clean like a crazy person, empty closets and cupboards to make it look like there's more storage than there actually is, put away the personal momentos, buy flowers, and bake something to give your home a nice cozy feeling.  And while normally the photos I see posted here in Paris suggest that that's also the case here, apparently not always.  Take a look at these (with apologies for the quality of these photos.)

First the set up.  Yes, this place is already off the market.  Happy the family that snapped up their three bedroom spot in the 16th.

And if you were wondering what over a million euros gets you in Paris, take a look:

Yes, there's a half finished plate of something on that coffee table.

Is that laundry on the bed?

I can only assume that buyers in Paris are desperate.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Real Men

While the French were going nuts last weekend when the national handball team won the world championships for something like the 4th year in a row, there was a collective yawn from the other side of the Atlantic.  Handball -- you must be joking.  This Sunday is the biggest sports event for Americans: the Super Bowl.  I won't be watching.  To be honest, I wouldn't be watching even if I were back home.  Football?  Not my thing.  Even less so when it's Green Bay vs. Pittsburgh. 

The macho game on this side of the pond is rugby.  And thus you might be surprised to learn that the Parisian team (Stade Français ) wears pink uniforms.  Yes, pink.  And hot pink at that.  Check it out.

And it's a pretty good bet they eat quiche too.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Opéra Garnier

It was probably during the month of September three plus years ago that I first tried to go take a peek at the Opéra Garnier .  I remember clearly that it was a lovely fall day, my kids were off to school, and I was going to have a Paris adventure. 

But when I went to buy my ticket, there was a sign posted "Auditorium closed due to rehearsal."  Well, I thought.  No point in paying without seeing the auditorium.  And I live in Paris after all.  I can come back any time.  Yeah baby.

Well the fact of the matter is that I didn't go back.  I thought about it but somehow it never happened.  Until yesterday.  When finally I was going to get my chance.  And better yet, rather than going on my own, I would see it all with the benefit of a incredibly knowledgeable and personable guide.

So imagine my disappointment when I walked in and saw the sign, "Auditorium closed due to rehearsal."  Dang.  Foiled again.  But this time, I didn't head home.  The guide was on his way, the rest of the group was there.  Oh well.  I'd just have to take advantage and then come back yet again.

Happily by the time we made it from the basement level up the grand staircase and to the level of the loggias, voila!  The auditorium was in fact open!  The folks who'd been involved in what must have been a technical rehearsal were packing up.  And there it was -- an amazingly sumptuous 19th century theater, all plush red velvet and gold woodwork, incredible chandelier, plus that ceiling by Marc Chagall.  Apparently quite controversial at the time of its installation in the mid 1960s (just like the controversy over I.M. Pei's pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre), it somehow not only works but looks like it was designed to be there from the start.

As it turns out, the main salle is only a small bit of the artistry that Charles Garnier bestowed upon this building.  The remaining public spaces were incredible in their own right.  So word to the wise, if you go for a visit, and the sign says, "Auditorium closed,"  take your chances.  As for me, I just have to figure out how to get back there for the ballet so I can experience it the way Garnier imagined.

Fab paintings in a circular room on the east side of the building slated to become a restaurant with a grand chef.

The grand foyer.  Kind of like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.  Back in the day, women were not admitted to this space, that is, until Queen Victoria came for a visit and then all bets were off.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


I've been wanting to share photos of the Hotel Elysées Ceramic, located on Avenue de Wagram just off Etoile in the 17th, for the longest time.  But the area is always so congested with traffic that it's hard for an amateur photographer to squeeze off a decent shot. (But then again, take a look at the pictures posted on Peter's Paris.  My hat's off to you Peter.)

So I was pretty excited to find another example of gorgeous turn of the century ceramic work on an apartment building on rue Claude Chahu in the Passy neighborhood in the 16th.  This is said to be the last work of Emile Muller, a French ceramist whose atelier in Ivry just outside Paris produced tiles and all manner of architectural decorations.

I particularly appreciate that someone saw fit to make sure that the street sign was in keeping with the spirit of his work.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fighting the Cold

Some time late last week, the temperatures in Paris took a nose dive straight into the deep freeze.  When I woke up yesterday, the gadget on my desktop read 24 degrees F with an expected low for the day of 33.  Huh?  Well that's just how things go sometimes in Paris.  And to those of you who live in the frozen tundra and who are scoffing at those temperatures ("practically tropical," I can almost hear you saying), let me just tell you that I have it on good authority from a Montreal native that it really does feel colder in Paris, no matter what the mercury is reading.

Fortunately, I have some indoor projects that need my attention.  For the rest of you, I have a stash of grafitti photos piling up that I can share with you, at least to tide me over until I'm in more of a let's-get-outside-walk-around-and-take-pictures mode.  I admit that they're a bit on the drab monotone side but welcome to my world.

Related Posts with Thumbnails