Sunday, April 20, 2014

Postcards from Paris: Luxembourg Gardens

Oh dear, it seems like much longer than a week ago....

On our last morning in Paris, we walked to the Luxembourg Gardens after breakfast. It's the second-biggest public park in Paris and not far from our hotel. It was a chilly, cloudy morning, but there were plenty of people in the park, including numerous joggers, families and tourists taking a Sunday constitutional, and the usual contingent of grown-ups and kids sailing model boats.

Then there were these two:

I suspect they are not Parisians; I doubt any local citizen would be caught dead, outside anywhere, in a hotel bathrobe OR those shoes. More likely... American.

We turned our attention to the beautiful trees, flowers, and statues in the park. The chestnut candles were in full bloom:

And so were beds of beautifully color-coordinated flowers:

Paris is so beautiful....

Walking back to the hotel, we passed a long wall that has recently been inscribed with a 100-line poem by Rimbaud in elegant lettering. (He wrote it nearby, when he was 16.) You can see one panel here; there are several more. (It made me wish I'd paid more attention in French class, for the 10,000th time.)

Crossing the Boulevard at "our corner," by the church of Saint Germain des Pres, we saw this gorgeous blue shrub in the garden (I'm usually distracted by the crèpe stand nearby, but it wasn't open this time):

I can't believe I'm already ready to go back. We still haven't recovered from our colds, or dealt with the "Seat Plus" refunds that Air France owes us for the flight home. But we discovered today that we are nearly out of our favorite tea (Butterscotch) from Mariages Freres (I asked my husband to take inventory; for some reason, he thought we had plenty). 

So it's just a matter of time.

Happy Easter

I'm sorry to report that we haven't compelled any of the cats to wear bunny ears for a photograph. 


Russian and Eastern European Easter eggs in a shop window on the Rue Bonaparte in Paris.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Postcards from Paris: Les Puces de Saint-Ouen

On Saturday, we took the Metro from the end of our street to the end of line, to the huge flea market (Les Puces) at Clignancourt. You must walk past a disconcerting number of cheap stands selling gaudy tee shirts, athletic shoes, and worse, before you get to the antique markets themselves.

It's a lot like a French Brimfield, with 17 acres of stalls and several big marchés, or markets, but those covered markets are in a class by themselves. You can find everything from jewels and high-end antiques to pristine Victorian clothing and ancient books. Some shops specialize in garden statuary, while others are loaded with vinyl records, so there's something for everyone. There are also little restaurants tucked here and there, as you might expect, because you're in France. And the dealers can be seen sitting down their mid-day meals in their showrooms or stalls — often elegantly, serving their bag lunch or take-out on china and silver — while seated at some antique table they hope to sell.

You can click on any photo to enlarge it. I kept them smaller so they won't take an eternity for you to load:

The Marché Dauphine holds dozens of dealers... vintage clothing, records, magazines, books....

The outside stalls are more like the ones at Brimfield, filled with cheaper finds.
But you won't find any gorgeous wisteria at Brimfield.

We admired the expensive, inlaid Syrian, Persian, and Egyptian furniture at this antique shop.
It's rare to see an entire shop filled with it, even in Egypt, so we were dazzled. 

Generally, the furniture in the markets is French, of course. And much too formal for us.
But I would have liked to bring this lion home on the plane.

There was a booth with three walls filled top to bottom with old key rings.

There is also a spaceship...

... with a groovy French interior. 

Lots of skulls in this shop.

And the inevitable rusty-metal garage-type stuff in this one.

Charming vintage dresses in the sun.

There's also art... 

but you can't have this chair covered in nails if you have cats.

I'm embarrassed to report that all we bought were some old Egyptian postcards, but we had a great time.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Postcards from Paris: Père Lachaise

A sunny spring afternoon seemed like the perfect time to visit Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris, in the 20th arondissement. We hadn't been there in more than a dozen years, so we bought a map at the gate and took a long stroll. The cemetery opened in 1804 and was a a little slow to become popular. After a few famous corpses were transferred here (la Fontaine, Molière, the ill-fated 12th-century lovers Héloïse and Abelard), Père Lachaise became fashionable and has remained so, with more than a million burials (to make room, they sometimes reopen older graves to squeeze in a new coffin). 

Plots come with a 30-year renewable lease. If no one renews yours, you're out. Your bones are moved to an ossuary to make room for someone else. So people are still buried here, although the atmosphere remains deeply rooted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that's why we like it. There are always plenty of visitors in this strange and beautiful place. Some are visiting the family tomb, and perhaps doing some housekeeping for it, while others make pilgrimages to the famous: many French statesmen, writers, composers, artists, and other notables are here. There are also some legends from other countries who managed to die in Paris and end up here: Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Jim Morrison are here. 

The wide avenue just inside the gate.

I have been to Père Lachaise three or four times, every time I've always been asked at least once if I know where Jim Morrison's grave is. In my 20s and 30s, I always acted completely baffled, pretending I never heard of him. ("Don't you want to visit Frederic Chopin?") But I always surrendered and spread out the map. This time, I figured that no one would ask because so much time had gone by. Who is that into The Doors these days? But sure enough, two eager American kids came up to ask us. 

The monuments vary from small markers to elaborate mausoleums. Some are kept bright and clean, while others are covered with lichens and moss.

 Héloïse and Abelard lie under this Gothic Revival monument.

A prestigious family tomb. Money talks here, as it does everywhere.

A bronze relief on the door of a family tomb.

This is the tomb of a M. Lehman, but it would also suit the Seven Dwarves.

Old stone walls and flowering shrubs are among the beauties here. 
However, one of the cemetery walls was used by a firing squad in 1871, 
to shoot 147 holdouts from the Paris Commune who were camped here. 
They were buried where they died, and a monument marks the spot.

Tomb sculptures often represent the grieving.

Many mausoleums are decaying. This one is missing its metal doors,
 although its visitors still keep it neat and bring flowers.

This one's rusted art-nouveau doors seem permanently open.

Scores of cats live in Père Lachaise but we only saw one. 
He seemed healthy and well-fed. People feed them, and they hunt, of course.

He was a friendly cat; I petted him. Most French cats have excellent manners, it seems.
The cats of Père Lachaise even have their own Facebook page.

The cat was next to Chopin's grave, which is always covered in flowers.

There are monuments for those who died in each of the Nazi concentration camps. 
Some of these are extremely moving, eloquently symbolizing the horrors of those places. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Postcards from Paris: The One that Went into the Ether

The following "Things I Didn't Eat" post is my second attempt on the subject. I completed a much livelier and funnier version a few hours ago, and hit the "Publish" button — or so I thought. When I went to review it, it had disappeared, replaced by a few notes I'd made for a future post.

I will not blame Lion, although he made a trip or two across my keyboard around the time I was finishing the post. One can't blame anybody who purrs like that for anything. Ever.

I'm still a bit jet-lagged as well as in bad shape from a head cold, too many decongestants, and lack of sleep. But it seemed to me that these issues improved my writing, unless I was hallucinating. So losing that post was a blow. It was one of my better efforts. I wish you could have read it.

Postcards from Paris: Things I Didn't Eat

I took many more photos than usual on this trip, perhaps because I spent less time eating pastry and looking at pictures of our cats on my phone. (I still spent lots of time looking at cat photos).

Before I begin with photos, here are a few statistics from our 4.5-day stay in Paris:

Miles walked:
  • 54.8 miles, or about 12 miles per day (plus 10 trips on the Metro; we took it easy this time)

Sweet things consumed:
  • Half of a vanilla eclair (husband ate the other half)
  • 1 chocolate-almond croissant
  • 1 raisin escargot, or spiral croissant
  • 1 crèpe with apricot preserves (I found some on my boot the other day....) 
  • 3 crèpes with Nutella (including one sprinkled with almonds)
  • 4 tiny pots of apricot jam with my breakfast (a "flute" of delicious, buttered bread from Paul)
  • 1 tiny apricot sorbet cone from Berthillon
  • 1 large, peculiar roll: pumpernickel with chocolate chips?
  • 1 scoop of cioccolato fondente gelato from Amorino
  • 1 molten chocolate cake with pot of crème Anglaise (part of a prix-fixe meal, so no choice)
  • 1 bizarre, round brownie at the airport because we were stuck there for several hours
  • 1 chunk of the huge Toblerone bar my husband got at the duty-free for flight home
This averages to just 2.75 desserts a day (not including jam, which is practically a vegetable).

I'm supposed to be limiting my sugar intake since I got some bad liver test results so, as you can see, I had great self-restraint on this trip. For me, that is. On previous trips to Paris, I'd begin with a couple of smallish croissants at breakfast (un pain chocolat, un escargot aux raisins) along with a tartine of bread slathered with Nutella. Then I'd sample eclairs and other pastries from the more intriguing pastry shops I encountered throughout the day. And maybe have a little gelato or sorbet. After dinner, there'd still be room for a Nutella crèpe from the little stand at the end of our street. (I heard that, in Paris, it's a crime if you don't patronize your local crèpe stand every day, so I can't be blamed for this.)

I will get back on the straight-and-narrow of avoiding sugar to save my liver soon. But first we have to finish my husband's birthday cake from That Darned Patisserie (three layers of chocolate cake with orange mousse filling and vanilla buttercream frosting). I regard it as a health measure — preventing withdrawal.

So even though I was an ascetic instead of a gourmand on this trip, I think it will be easier to show you what I didn't eat in Paris: 

Fromage! I had some, but none of these regional varieties, most of which we don't see in the US.

Chickens and ducks, still with their feathery heads and creepy feet. 
I had chicken, but mine was decapitated, etc., and roasted to perfection.

A tiny sample of the glorious vegetable display at the Galeries Lafayette. 
Much too perfect to disturb, if you ask me.

When the French have trashy food, they make it even worse than ours: "Fitness chocolate cereal"? 

This little market had more than a half-dozen chocolate cereals,  including one that appears to have
 cream-filled pieces. American cereal aisles seem wholesome by comparison.

We had breakfast every day at Paul, but I didn't have even one of their eclairs. 
I didn't have even one of the fantastic chocolate tarts I customarily buy. 
I didn't have even one of these giant macarons, which are the size of a small whoopie pie. 
(There are no whoopie pies in Paris, as far as I could see. And I looked.)

I left every single one of these pastries for someone else, I regret to say.

And I was too lazy and cheap health-conscious to wait in line for the renowned pastries 
and macarons at Ladurée, a jewel-box of a shop half a block from our hotel. 
I was positively Spartan!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Poem!

Lion's Story: 
The Doubtful Guest Who Came to Stay

When we drove up to Maine, it snowed hard all the way,
And we said that the kitten would surely not stay.
We would not be keeping him more than a day,
But more stormy weather kept Robin away.

The Guest settled in without too much alarm,
And only young Harris did him any harm.
He stole the Guest’s collar, his blanket, his mouse,
And dragged these things, growling, across the whole house.

But Toffee was friendly and gave him a bath,
And the Guest’s "Foster Mother" began doing math.
“What’s the difference from three cats to four cats — to five?
If we take in more cats, more poor strays stay alive!

The Guest soon made friends with his people and cats,
Learned to sleep on soft cushions, and purr, and chase rats.
He sat on our laptops, deleted our prose,
And kept us from sleeping by licking our nose.

He learned to mooch food from the other cats’ bowls,
And gently invaded our hearts, and our souls.
He came as our “foster” but we had to say 
We just couldn’t bear to give Lion away.

I wrote this for my husband, to accompany an iPhoto album of Lion that I made for him as a birthday present. (He'd already made me albums for all the other cats for my birthday last summer.) He asked me to post the poem here with a few illustrations. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Home from Paris

We had a great time in Paris and last night we arrived home to a welcoming committee of Possum, Harris, and Toffee. Wendy and Lion were shy and reacquainted themselves with us a little later. Lion had been wary of our cat sitter for the first few days, but she was finally able to pick him up and enjoy his silky fur. Wendy was fierce-brave and showed up for most meals.

Toffee and Harris were in and out of our suitcases as we unpacked — my husband is so disciplined that it's the first thing he does after every trip, whereas I lag somewhere behind. After we went to bed, Harris curled up between us and Possum and Lion kept visiting through the wee hours, purring loudly and head-butting our hands for more attention. It was nice to be home.

Postcards from Paris will follow... I shot so many photos that it will take a me a while to process them, and I'm too busy blowing my nose. I woke up yesterday with a cold, a souvenir I didn't expect.

* * *

It took us three phone calls to Air France (after getting nowhere on their website) and insistence and patience, but we booked "Seat Plus" premium-economy seating for both flights. We'd tried this in the past and the difference in comfort (and post-flight recovery) was amazing. This time, the seats, which are slightly wider and have more leg room, were on the upper deck of a Boeing 747. Boarding in Boston, we discovered that the upper deck was nearly empty. This seemed crazy, since the seats are only $67 more but are so much more pleasant. The upper deck tends to be pretty quiet, too. Sitting up there is worth every extra penny, if you ask me. I can only assume that people give up trying to book these seats since Air France makes it so difficult. Even after we booked ours and made the extra payments (they accidentally charged us for five seats, not four, and didn't seat us together on the first attempt...), Air France kept emailing us about checking in, and showing that we were still sitting downstairs in economy seats. At the airport, it took an extra 10 minutes for three members of the check-in crew to determine that we really did have seats upstairs.

Right before takeoff, husband and I each claimed a row of three seats, so we could lie down and sleep during the 6- or 7-hour overnight flight. While we were still on the runway, the pilot had warned us that there would be an unusual amount of turbulence. And he wasn't kidding. I gave up trying to read as soon as it began, and stretched out luxuriously across my row, hoping to sleep.

It wasn't exactly like a roller coaster, but I'd say the overall effects were similar. I'd read recently that planes can break up in severe turbulence, so that thought was in my mind, although I knew the possibility was remote. The pilot kept apologizing — his voice dipping and diving with the bucking plane — and warning us that it would be bad for a while. He must have been flustered because he forgot to speak English, only French. ("Turbulence" is the same word in both languages.) The bumps, tilts, and swoops were not nearly as steep and precipitous as a roller coaster, but then roller coaster rides don't drag on for hours, and they aren't 30,000 feet above the cold Atlantic. So, cumulatively, the thrill quotient was about the same, I'd say. I overheard yelping, gasping, and swearing from other rows as I huddled under my coat. I kept my eyes closed and found myself laughing. I can't say why I found it amusing, but I didn't question it. It was better than feeling terrified, helpless, or sick. I fell asleep.

My husband reported that he had had a terrible flight and felt awful. He'd tried to watch a movie through the turbulence, and he can't handle bumpy rides on the ground. He gets queasy on buses. By the time he realized he should lie down and close his eyes, it was too late. We took it slowly from the airport to our hotel. When he recovered, I fed him pastry.

* * *

Flying to Boston, there was a two-hour delay because the plane was taken out of service, so we were at the airport for the extra time and were already tired and uncomfortable as we boarded the plane. The replacement jet didn't have an upper deck, so we were crammed into economy, although we had tried to plead and reason our way into business class. Two handsome members of the check-in staff assured us that we'd love our seats in the 12th row, way up front.

"That's too close to the babies," I said. The front row of economy is traditionally given to people with kids, either because there are built-in changing tables or a bit more room to stand and bounce the little screamers. I always pick seats towards the back for this reason.

"No, no! No babies, I promise!" I was assured. It also appeared these were the only two empty seats next to each other left on the plane.

We sat two rows behind four very unhappy, very vocal babies. We were stuffed into tiny, hard seats in the middle of the center row of a very old plane. This is my idea of hell. I am not a large or even medium-sized person, but I could barely move my legs. I'm sore today from seven hours of feeling like I'd been crammed into a barrel.

But it won't dim the memory of the great time in Paris (more on that later).

My husband asked me this morning if I wanted to go to Milan; he must have just gotten an invitation.

I said, "NO!"

I may reconsider when I've recovered.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Oh, Noes! Possum Selfies!

We're going to leave soon. Time to finish saying goodbye to the cats and to pack the food, then call the cab. I didn't pack that long ago, but I'm not sure what's in my suitcase. I'm sure it will be fine. I think there are a mere six tees, along with other options for chilly and warm weather. 

Possum knows I am melancholy for him when I travel. I've wandered the streets of many European cities looking at photos of him on my phone. So he borrowed the phone and took a couple of selfies. 

Cat selfies are officially an Internet Thing, by the way.

Possum needs to learn about camera angles; don't we all? Click here to see the dramatic difference they make for humans.