Saturday, February 27, 2010

Last Day in Paris

The sun was shining when we left the hotel, which seemed odd; it quickly clouded up again. But it was good to wear sunglasses for awhile, hiding the gash at the bridge of my nose and the colorful pastel bruising around it.

We headed through "our" little square, with the church of St. Germain des Près and the Café Deux Magots.

Our first stop was the legendary bakery Poilâne, where I bought little round loaves of thinly sliced walnut bread to toast and spread with soft butter and cherry preserves in Boston. On my first trip to Paris, I encountered the head of the family, Lionel Poilâne, a courtly old man, who took my hand and helped me down the steep steps to the basement, to watch the shirtless bakers shovel the bread in and out of fiery ovens. It was a scene from a Daumier drawing.

In the window today, we saw a loaf shaped like a football. A European football, that is:

Then we took the metro to to the Marché aux Puces St.-Ouen, Paris's biggest flea market, at Clignancourt. There's a huge maze of stalls blasting rap and selling cheap clothing and sneakers, but we were with an experienced friend who helped us make our way into the magic of the market itself:

Everything you might possibly want (but not need), as long as it was French, was in front of us at some point during our visit.

My husband collects a very specific type of vintage postcard, which he usually finds at Brimfield or on eBay. He found a dealer with a whole box of his specialty, and settled in to go through them. Here's the  charming sign on that stall (click to enlarge and read the threats in smaller print, in English):

Being savagely beaten didn't appeal to me that morning, so I moved on. Our friend and I were astonished to find Chez Sarah, a collection of vintage clothing and accessories beyond our wildest dreams. Almost everything was in nearly perfect condition, and could sashay right onto the set of a period Hollywood movie. I wanted everything I saw, but left with only a tiny antique pastilles tin for 3 Euros.

This is only a tiny sampling of the dresses, which stretched for dozens of yards down the building, on both sides, with racks at ground and ceiling levels, and much more stuff — fabrics, shawls, scarves, shoes, hats.... — stacked in drawers and boxes.

After Sarah, we encountered a huge stall jam-packed with enough garden statuary to overdecorate Central Park:

In other buildings in the market, we found museum-quality antiques and art, including Victorian rattan furniture sets restored to pristine condition and a lot of creepy bones and taxidermy, which we loved:

Those are real human skeletons, but the mummy hanging on the back wall is a movie prop. I spotted a small, stuffed kangaroo holding a rifle. I think it was my most-coveted find of the day, although a Victorian walnut settee covered in leopard skin (faux, I hope) was a close second.

In a store window, we spotted these flappers wearing so much jewelry that they didn't need clothing, this being the seamy side of Paris.

We explored many shops that had us wondering how the owner survived. Were they fronts for other, shadier businesses? How can anyone make a living selling acres of upside-down doll-baby heads?

My last quest in Paris was to see the light show at the Eiffel Tower, so we headed there in the rain, and then wandered underneath — it is surprisingly lacy and graceful for monumental ironwork — and on towards the Invalides, for a better view.

There are four carousels near the Tower, which looked warm, sweet, and summery, even in a soaking February downpour:

Finally, we saw the lights go on, and then the sparkling 10-minute show, and I could leave Paris content — provided there was chocolate mousse for dinner. And there was.

We went home and packed — never imagining, as we lay awake for the last time under our velvet canopy, listening to powerful winds and rain pattering on rooftops, that the airport had closed. Our flight was delayed for five hours, which seemed like an eternity all the same. It took us 19 miserable, uncertain hours (and some turbulence I'd rather forget) to get home. Had we known it would be so unpleasant, we might have flown the four cats over to St. Germain and stayed forever.

Friday, February 26, 2010

This Flurry of Paris Posts...

Why am I spending my only Friday night in Paris alone in our hotel room, blogging?

A.  I prefer blogging to all other activities.
B.  I've exhausted all other forms of Paris nightlife.
C.  I'm recovering from a near-death experience.
D.  I'm severely depressed because I miss my cats, particularly Possum.

Answer: C, although D would get you partial credit.

I'm supposed to be at a dinner party in the suburbs with my husband and his colleagues but I was unable to move from our velvet-curtained and canopied four-poster when the cab arrived. I had barely managed to walk to our hotel from my favorite tearoom, La Charlotte d'Isle, after a charming and atmospheric afternoon break with my husband, who finally escaped from his endless business meetings to spend a little time enjoying the city. He had a pot of vanilla tea and a slice of chocolate tart. Feeling virtuous, I skipped a pastry and just had their renowned chocolate chaud. (I will post a photo, eventually; right now I can't bear the thought.)

The chocolate chaud is dark, deep, velvety, and thick; like all of Charlotte's teas and treats, it casts a gorgeous spell over me, making me feel like extraordinarily content, misty-eyed, silly, and optimistic. Since I can't drink alcohol to get this effect, I go to Charlotte as often as possible when I'm in Paris. Her tiny space is full of old bentwood chairs, mismatched tables, and brick-a-brack. It's perfect.

The chocolat chaud is served in a tiny Japanese cup, accompanied by a small pitcher that holds much more. It also comes with a petite, antique carafe of cold water and a shot glass from which to drink it. I think the chocolate alone would be a lethal weapo; the water dilutes its deadly effect.

Needless to say I finished the whole pitcher. Then we sat quietly and got that rosy, dreamy feeling we always get at Charlotte. My husband said he loved his tea and tart. We got up to leave; I felt loopier then ever. And then I realized: the chocolat chaud is made with cream. I can't digest cream. My IBS issues cause me to react badly to cream, alcohol, and lately, red meat. I always make my cocoa with skim milk; I'm not French. And sometimes I don't think.

Walking along the main street on the Ile St. Louis, I didn't feel too, too bad. At first. The Charlotte afterglow lingered. We heard a pipe organ blasting from a nearby church so we went in, sat, and listened. Then I realized I had to make the long walk home before things took a turn for the worse. We managed to get most of the way before I began to feel rocky. I distracted myself with window-shopping, even stopping to quickly buy some tea towels printed with the Paris Metro map. I avoided the windows displaying epic amounts of pastry (for once) and cheese, and dead chickens still in their pinfeathers.

By the time we were over the bridge and back in our own neighborhood, St. Germain,  I felt truly terrible. My stomach was in full revolt and I wasn't sure my legs would carry me all the way to the hotel. Even my purse felt unusually burdensome. I felt weak and very hot. I really tried not think about that chocolate, or any chocolate. But it kept asserting itself. No more chocolate ever again, I vowed. The smells of roasting meat, fresh fish, and desserts wafting from all the shops, open markets, and restaurants along our route didn't help. My legs felt almost as wobbly as my stomach. I kept my eyes down so I wouldn't have to see the epicurean wonderland taunting us from every side. Instead I kept an eye peeled for open courtyards with remote corners, in case I had to dart into one very, very quickly.

The aroma of my favorite crèpe cart on the corner of the Rue Bonaparte nearly did me in. I'd had a cheese crèpe for lunch a few hours earlier, and I felt it reawakening within me, too.

At our hotel, I took the extreme step of using the tiny, ancient elevator to get to our third-floor room. My husband ran up the stairs ahead of it and was waiting, holding open the door. I collapsed on the bed, panting heavily, working hard to keep the chocolat chaud where it belonged. Later, I broke out in chills and drifted off to a restless sleep. Husband wished me well and headed off to dinner without me.

I recovered in a few hours, and even got hungry. We had nothing in the room except a caramel éclair and some warm diet Coke. "It's not chocolate, at least," I thought. And it actually soothed my stomach. But it might be a long time before I'm interested in chocolate again. Like, maybe a whole day.

Stormy Friday in Paris

Another rainy day: perfect for a visit to the Musée d'Orsay. This was not my first visit, so I wasn't too disappointed to find the second floor closed for renovations. So many of the best paintings and sculptures had been moved and tucked in out-of-the-way galleries on the other floors that I didn't really miss any of my favorites.

The Orsay doesn't seem to mind photography without flash, so I had fun, starting with the Symbolists:

Moving on to Impressionists, post-Impressionists, and Romantic sculpture, wherever I found it:

The easiest subjects to photograph are tapestries because they can be shot head-on and there's never any glare. Here's a detail from the Burne-Jones Adoration of the Magi tapestry, worked by Morris & Co., a relatively new acquisition in exquisite condition and brilliant color:

Here's a miniature set from the Paris Opera, probably for Aida, since it's Egyptian:

A quick, fierce storm raged across Paris as I was wandering the galleries.

The wind created waves in the Seine, blew trees sideways, and wrecked countless umbrellas. From my vantage point on the first floor (second floor, by American counting), I could see a bright blue sky pushing the storm eastward. Even before I left, it was a beautiful day again, but very breezy.

Here's a photo of the salon, with its wonderful garland chandeliers:

Walking home, I passed more interesting shops (don't you want a giant polar bear? I do) and this art-nouveau Metro station.

I met up with my husband at our hotel. On the way, I'd gotten a crèpe fromage for lunch from my favorite stand at the end of our street (4 Euros), and then shot this little still life on our coffee table:

You can see a bottle of warm Diet Coke, a staple when we travel. Also some caramel éclairs from Gosselin, wrapped in a paper pyramid, a tradition I love. Also the remains of my crèpe, and my iPhone, which I used mainly to look at photos of my cats, especially Possum.

We went for a long walk around the Latin Quarter, where my husband likes to visit a certain scholarly bookstore that usually stocks lots of books he wants, as well as most of the books he's written or designed. And then we headed to Charlotte for more chocolate, including the fatal pitcher of chocolat chaud:

I made a point of visiting Charlotte's quaint little loo, which is outside, through the kitchen and on the opposite side of a courtyard. It's a tiny closet with the sink outside the door; I guess the stairs lead up to someone's equally quaint apartment. The sink is outside, and as you can see, there's no drainpipe from the bowl; your feet may get splashed. Unheated and primitive, but spotlessly clean:

Before the chocolat chaud (made with cream, which my GI tract forbids) nearly killed me, we did a little more exploring. Here's the graceful interior of the Church of St. Louis, where were heard organ practice. It's popular for weddings and concerts because it's so airy and golden — a nice alternative to all the dark and gloomy Gothic churches everywhere:

As I was sitting and listening to the ancient pipe organ, I thought about mortality as my stomach began its revolt against the cream. I was able to snap just one more photo, in case it was my last.

Elements of French Style, Winter 2010

I haven't succeeded in passing for French myself, since shopkeepers tend to greet me in English before I open my mouth, but here's what I've observed about the average — and that means very chic and put-together — French femme:

1. Dramatic scarf. Why they don't teach us this skill in high school, I'll never know. I do know that the Frenchwoman's methods aren't intricate, although there's a simple perfection that's next-to-impossible for the average American to achieve. Scarves tend to be big, statement pieces. I especially like the ones that trail behind the woman, flying in her wake, as she's clattering along the sidewalk. Men know how to wear big scarves here, too.

2. Exquisite wool coat. I rarely spot such lovely, tailored coats, such as I've seen on countless Parisiennes, in the US. They tend to fall above the knee, fit to perfection, and have unique, vintage-style details. A spectacular coat is a worthwhile investment since it can cover a multitude of sins and can be worn daily for months. It's too bad they are endangered species around Boston.

3. Black tights. There are some patterned versions on the streets of St. Germain, which strike me as strange, but the classic, heavy opaque is also ubiquitous — most often worn with short skirts or tunics and low-heeled, simple boots. I'm sorry to report that, as in America, some women here mistake tights for pants. I suspect they are tourists, since they usually aren't wearing scarves.

4. Big leather bag. I haven't noticed a lot of heavily chained and clanking status bags, just discreet, roomy leather shoulder bags, often in beautiful colors, like wine or green.

5. Ponytails. French women seem not to fuss over their hair, except to keep it shiny, healthy, and a great color. Beyond that, they seem to prefer it to look a little messy: why look like you have nothing better to do than fuss over your hair?. I'm seeing lots of fluffy, messy buns and basic ponytails. Parisiennes are turning out to be as sensible as Bostonians!

6. Skinny jeans tucked into tall boots. This trend is still going strong, and it's very practical in the pouring rain.

Today, as I waited in line outside the Musée d'Orsay, I watched about 30 teenaged French schoolgirls troop to the group entrance, wearing a uniform of sorts: heavy black tights and leggings, cute little coats, flat boots (if they are ankle boots, they are worn with laces untied), and shiny hair. They reminded me of those Beauxbatons girls from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Inside the museum, I found myself near a group of English girls about the same age. They all wore too much eyeliner and two were struggling to stay upright in those absurd, high-platformed stiletto boots that are all over the magazines (these were the only examples I've noticed in Paris, and they are hard to miss). One of their schoolmates was wearing loud, pink-flowered leggings and a baggy, black-striped top, the worst mismatched pajama look imaginable. At least she wasn't the one who loudly called to the others, "Can't we just go to shop for postcards and get out of here?"

Greetings from Paris

I finally have both time and the use of my husband's laptop to post about our trip to Paris. I look forward to posting photos, which should be more interesting than endless commentary on the places I've been and all the pastry I've eaten.... although I have to say that caramel éclairs are worth traveling to Paris for, all by themselves.

I had a smashing entry into the City of Light. Boarding the RER train at the airport, very early on Tuesday morning, I tripped as I was lugging my suitcase (my old two-wheeler) up the steep step onto the train. I went sprawling, and my nose collided with an American fellow's suitcase. The bridge of my eyeglasses cut a small but impressively deep horizontal gash between my eyes, which oozed blood all the way into the city. I pulled a few muscles and discovered some other bruises, but the bright red mark between my eyes and some greenish and reddish swollen skin around my eyes and nose are the most obvious souvenirs.

This being Paris, there was no ice to be had anywhere to help prevent swelling. I made do with cold washcloth at the hotel. At least I didn't wake up with a pair of black eyes.

I've never been very attached to my nose; I think it's too big and I don't appreciate its shape. So I have to confess that, as it smashed into that suitcase, visions of a Parisian plastic surgeon and an elegantly reconstructed schnozz danced in my brain even as it was sustaining a very mild concussion (I had a headache all morning). I was even a little sorry that my nose hadn't broken: a French one would have been a unique memento from this city I love.

Since I spend most of my days wandering the streets alone, I haven't felt very self-conscious. Parisians have seen everything and have a higher tolerance for oddities than we do, I think. I notice that, over here, people examine each other rather neutrally all the time— usually not in any overtly critical way. After all, there is a wealth of style choices to check out here, such as we almost never see in the U.S. In America, we tend not to stare, unless it's to silently critique. We give each other a little more space.

When the sun comes out, which isn't often, I can hide the bruising behind my sunglasses. It's been cloudy and fairly warm every day, with intervals of rain and occasional brilliant sun and chilly breezes... weird Continental weather. More often it's too gray and dark to wear them. But no one comments and no one appears to look between my eyes.

Needless to say, this is the final voyage for my old, unwieldy suitcase. It's so unbalanced when its outer compartments are filled that it likely contributed to my accident. I struggled to drag it through the Metro stations and it kept fighting back, refusing to stay on its wheels and attempting to flip itself over. It's time to find a suitcase I can easily and safely manage, even if that means packing very, very little from now on.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thursday in Paris

We skipped the breakfast at the hotel in favor of Paul, a boulangerie a few blocks away:

It was picturesque as well as delicious. And we did not make the common mistake of putting the little meringue on the saucer into our tea. I'll bet some people think it is a weird French non-dairy creamer:

After breakfast, I walked to the Luxembourg Gardens, which were gray but full of atmosphere — and other walkers.

I planned to go to the Pantheon, but there was a hefty admission charge and I suspected it would be a lot more boring to learn about French heroes than to wander the Latin Quarter, even in the rain. So I just lingered on the porch for a while.

Across the way, I saw a building that had to be the inspiration for the original Boston Public Library building. I just looked it up and, indeed, the Bibliotheque St. Geneviève was the inspiration for our BPL. I think I deserve a return trip to Paris and three caramel éclairs for figuring it out all on my own:

Since there was far too much going on the exterior of St. Mediard, below, with its mish-mash of gothic and Renaissance elements, I was especially interested in the interior. But it was closed for two more hours, and it was raining hard and getting colder. I decided to save it for my next trip, and moved on.

I visited lovely shops and courtyards in the Latin Quarter. This is the garden of the Hôtel des Grands Ecoles:

Here is another gorgeous courtyard:

Why don't we have such romantic architecture here in Boston? I guess the Stoneholm in Brookline is as close as we get.

Here's a flower shop in the rain:

More antique architecture:

I decided it was time to visit Notre Dame and light candles to St. Anthony, because he is my hero — the patron saint of lost objects, so the perfect saint for losers like moi.

I never get tired of Notre Dame's architecture, just the crowds that fill the place with too much noise and activity. The loud, recorded "shushing" announcements don't significantly improve matters.

This crypt chapel is a little disturbing. Apparently the deceased decided to escape from his tomb while someone was visiting. You can see him tumbling toward her from the upper right. Behind him, you can see Death, who must have coincidentally decided to check up on things and arrived at this interesting moment; he's gesturing in a way that reminds me of Robert DeNiro. And there's this mostly naked angel, or whatever, who is managing to sleep through the whole thing. Who knew that angels sleep? I couldn't figure it out, and it made me nervous. I like visiting cemeteries but I don't like surprise guests.

I liked these monumental but very dirty feet so much more:

The sun came out while I was inside:

I decided to go to the Ile St-Louis for a pot of apricot tea and a slice of bewitching Florentine farfelu tart at La Charlotte de l'Isle, below, with the awning:

It was a very good idea. Then I wandered home, taking a few photos of shop windows, interesting architecture, and florists along the way....

The tart at Charlotte didn't stop me from picking up a few éclairs for the evening....