Sunday, October 30, 2011

Keeping Cozy

Our bed is always covered with cats now that our fluffy down comforter is back in use. Do they enjoy that extra layer of soft warmth? Or do they like the smell of goose down? They won't say: too busy napping.

Possum recently discovered the pleasure of crawling under a blanket to snooze:

Hmm. I think it's my turn now...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pumpkin Time at Wilson Farm

Beating the storm, we visited our favorite holiday hangout, Wilson Farm, for Halloween pumpkins. As usual, the place was hopping.

This wall of pumpkins is something new — at least we don't remember it last year — and wonderful. I spotted a perfect little Cinderella (or cheese) pumpkin on the wall, near the ground and snagged it, replacing it with another.

Such a wonderful, creative display idea. Kids of all ages love it.

Since we're now on Day 6 of the South Beach Diet (and sick of eggs and grumpy about vegetables, too) we could only deeply inhale the aromas of mulled cider and hot cider donuts. We could only admire the aesthetics of all the apple varieties and baked goods, including big Halloween cupcakes decorated with candy. We bought vegetables. Sighhh. And we carefully selected a pumpkin to carve and another to sit around looking decorative until it goes bad or I'm tired of it. (Last year's white pumpkins made it well past Easter. This year's pick will likely get made into pumpkin stew, risotto, or something (pie!) long before that, because they are ideal for roasting. And because I'm no longer interested in pumpkin science projects.)

There were plenty of big, classic Jack-O-Lanterns to choose from.

Then there were the more exotic varieties, neatly labeled for the most part.

No label on these, and I don't think they're popular.

"One Too Many" is a multicolored variety, but it also
describes how we were feeling as it got colder
and damper, and we got hungrier and hungrier.

To learn more about pumkins, click here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The One that Got Away

We always carve a pumpkin for Halloween, and we follow the old Celtic tradition of keeping it lit (or trying) until dawn so any wandering spirits who have died in the past year will have a warm place to rest before they leave the earth (check-out time is November 1).

When it's my turn to be a wandering spirit, I plan to stay at the Hotel Danieli in Venice or the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, but if some wayward ghost wants to hang out in my pumpkin, he or she is perfectly welcome.

We are late in getting a pumpkin this year because a) it didn't feel like fall or pumpkin season until recently, and b) we were away last weekend. So we need to get one tomorrow.  We are very fussy about shape, size, and stem, so it takes forever to pick one out most of the time.

But at the Copley farmer's market today, I spotted the perfect specimen:

This is a good-sized pumpkin; use the corn for scale.

I believe that much of the character and charm of a pumpkin lies in its stem, and I can't believe the way most harvesters cut them short and ignore them generally. Someone at Atlas Farm has the right idea with this one. I wanted it, but it was too big and heavy to carry all the way home, and I was on my way to Haymarket anyhow.

We'll get our pumpkin at Wilson Farm but I bet we won't find any stems like this one.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let It ... You-Know-What

Finally, serious sweater weather — even coat-scarf-hat-gloves-boots weather — in late October. I didn't mind today's nasty, cold rain in the interest of wearing heavy socks, boots, and a toasty turtleneck instead of flip flops. It feels good to dress like an adult again instead of a camper. Even a louche, unemployed-or-work-at-home adult who actually dresses more like a student....

They're predicting SNOW.  And we heard heavy thunder awhile ago, which sent Mr. Possum into his storm shelter, under the sofa.

The down comforter and flannel sheets are back on the bed, our summer clothes are packed in the trunk, our ancient air conditioners were picked up for recycling today, and my snow boots have been dusted off. I'm thinking about making soup. (And also cornbread. And truffle brownies. But neither is allowed on our diet, dammit. Ten more days to go....)

If we're getting even flurries at this time of year, I predict a wild, white winter to come. Bring it on! 

Cat Sports 101: Slacking

Wendy and Possum have taken up a new sport, Pairs Slacking. This sport's competitions are high-pressure, breathtaking and emotional — similar to those in figure skating. But here, the nitpicking international judges are looking for unison in lazy posing and an exquisitely lethargic attitude in each lounging couple.

Pairs Slacking isn't as easy as it looks. That table is hard.

The judging criteria include flopping down in unison, equal mastery of slacking technique, lack of energy, lack of choreography, lack of interpretation, sloppiness of pose, sleepiness of eyes, and graceful foot and tail positions. They get points for achieving all of that.

Points are deducted for seeming too alert or creative, excessive tail energy or ear movement, twitching, being startled by noise (a big challenge for Wendy), and falling or slipping off the slacking surface. Teams lose major points if there is more than one element in their program, i.e., they change position, or if they appear to have practiced too hard. It's a really tricky sport, I'm telling you.

Possum and Wendy have just started their training so they are still Beginners, at the pre-Juniors level, learning their first school figures and slumps. But in a few years, with plenty of coaching and long sessions of daily practice, their dream of competing in the next Cat Olympics might really come true.

Right now, though, we're not even sure when that will be, since the Cat Olympic officials are all heavily into Synchronized Slacking as a competitive team themselves and they might turn pro and start an international league (if they can muster the energy). And that's okay with me because Wendy's costumes will be so expensive.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One Last French Souvenir

I heard this song today (in Anthropologie, where else?). It transported me back to the Latin Quarter, just where I'd like to be. Marie Laforêt recorded it in 1966 and her lyrics tell a different story from the original Rolling Stones song. Had to share it with you...

 Be sure to crank up your sound!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Current Craving: Toast

We're in Day 3 of the South Beach Diet (SBD). Months (or years) of whoopie pies, cupcakes, layer cake, brownies, chocolate, triple-cream cheeses, and everything else under the sun have resulted in us looking tubby.

In Paris, over 72 hours, I consumed three huge croissants slathered with butter, jam, and Nutella; I also had two smaller chocolate croissants, a sugar bun, an enormous pain au chocolat aux amandes, a Nutella crépe, a big fat chocolate crépe, a caramel éclair, a pistachio éclair (because I could only find one), a molten chocolate cake, an apple tart, and some caramels. As you can see, I was being careful — I was downright Spartan compared to my usual Paris pastry consumption. I confess I wasn't just displaying awesome willpower: my favorite tea shop had closed.

But I bet you don't feel very sorry for me now.

Phase 1 of the SBD lasts 14 days, and it cuts certain carbs (fruit, starches, sugars) and fats from your diet. You can have all the lean meat, eggs, and vegetables you want, except for certain veggies we really like (corn, carrots, potatoes). Thank goodness for canned black beans and the last of the field tomatoes. You can have skim milk (a staple for me) and low-fat cheese (better than no cheese), nuts and healthy oils, and dabs of mayonnaise and nut butters. I just splurged on Fastachi pecan butter, so delicious I can't believe it's good for you.

I pay no attention to the recipes that pad the SBD book; I just combine foods we can bear in ways we can tolerate. The trouble is that I never enjoy anything that I have to eat. So I try to focus on other things as I'm choking down my omelettes and drinking V8. I read. I'm never that fond of meat and eggs, and I'm loathing them already. I prefer baked goods, pasta, pizza, butter, chocolate, cheese... and toast. Right now, I'm dreaming of When Pigs Fly's six-grain and pumpkin seed bread, toasted, with butter. With that French butter, Président. God.

Par for the course on Day 3: I have a headache despite a glass of Diet Coke and lots of water. On the other hand, I slept like a log last night and I feel quite well below my head. I may even be a little trimmer already (we need a new scale, so no daily weigh-ins).

The SBD worked for us before, splendidly, and it darn well better work again. We figure we can stand it for two weeks if we start looking and feeling better that quickly. And after 14 days, we can slowly add in fruit and whole grains during Phase 2. We stopped eating nighttime desserts a few weeks before starting the diet, so I don't crave them now (and that's not because of those few tiny tidbits I happened upon in Paris).

For the next two weeks, we'll be somewhat cranky as we endure odd carb cravings, run low on energy, and get increasingly tired of having limits to our food. But if we can make it through, we'll be many pounds thinner. I don't plan to post continually about this, but I'll let you know if we bail out or make progress.

In the meantime, please have a nice slice of buttered toast for me.

* Can't wait until next time: there's an excellent, all-hours crépe stand at the end of the rue, and it doesn't move around the way Boston's food trucks do. It's always there, proving again that Paris is superior to Boston.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Postcard from Paris, Day 4: Morning Stroll

My camera, a Leica C-Lux that's a few years old, got the blues on Saturday. Most of the photos I took on the last two days of our trip were all blue. I corrected them in Photoshop, but they still look like aging Kodacolor. I tell myself it's an aesthetic choice. I've known for months that I need a new camera but I wasn't expecting this one to develop mood swings. When it's not in its depressed, blue state, everything looks a little too yellow. A bipolar camera?

We overslept on our last morning in Paris, so we didn't have time to have for a decadent breakfast at the boulangerie a few blocks away. We had our tea, yogurt, croissants and jam, butter, and cheese in our hotel as usual, and I took for a quick walk on the Rue Bonaparte and the Pont des Arts before the van came to take us to the airport.

Photos, formerly even more blue:
Rue Bonaparte on a cold, quiet morning.

Palais des Études of the Ecole Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-Arts.
It's their Mass College of Art, in other words.

Elderly bicycle for sale by art student. Below the number, someone scrawled, 
"Combien?" I was curious to know, myself.

A taxidermied deer peers from an art gallery on the Rue Bonaparte.

Classic café on the corner, across from the Seine.

The Pont des Arts, a wooden footbridge. 
There's always something going on....

Path along the Seine.

Georges le Clooney. Made me melancholy for Possum,
as there's a great facial resemblance. But then I'm 
perpetually melancholy for Possum in Paris.

Something was going on, as usual, on the bridge.
A team shooting an Eastern European movie 
featuring a handsome guy in 18th-century dress.

Love the red shoes.

Another Frenchwoman in a poncho.

I saw a van parking in front of the hotel so I raced back. It wasn't ours. Phew. A few more minutes to enjoy the 6th Arrondissement.

The courtyard view from our hotel room.
(Looking kind of blue.)

The staircase to the lobby.
(Camera cheers up because it knows we're going home?)

The foyer, with tapestry, Venetian chandelier, and luggage.

The airport was a mob scene; in the messy lines, people were remarking that they had never seen it so crowded and chaotic. We stood in long lines to check in, check our baggage, check passports, and then go through security. And, of course, we also waited to take a train to the gate. Our plane was boarding when we got to the gate; no time to spend my Euro change on chocolate in the duty-free shops.

The obligatory screaming baby was about five seats away. I exchanged bemused expressions and raised eyebrows with the man on the aisle, next to the baby. (I think at one point he found himself holding it while it yelled, although he was clearly no relation.)

Our last tastes of Paris were the apple tarts and baguette sandwiches we'd bought instead of airline food, along with a very squashed but still magnificent day-old pistachio éclair. Then I settled down to read A Tale of Two Cities and try to sleep. After an eternity of discomfort and screaming-baby ambience, we landed, came home, greeted cats, unpacked, tried to sleep, and...Began the South Beach Diet.

So much for Paris...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Postcard from Paris, Day 3: Browsing

On Saturday, my husband went to the Louvre in the morning, an easy walk from our hotel. I did some shopping. I tried on boots and bought Poilâne walnut bread to bring home, and caramel èclairs. Also elegant French toothbrushes and an absolutely strange cough medicine with codeine that tastes as green as it looks. (I've had a lingering cough from a cold.) I struggle to describe the taste: woody? herby? chartreuse? At any rate, there's something about codeine that makes cough medicine taste better and better the more you take it, to the point where I soon forego the spoon and take swigs... good thing I bought only one bottle! And it cost less than 3 Euros.

Paris weather was nippy the whole time we were there; I layered my warmest clothes and was glad to find gloves in the pocket of my jacket. Many of the women I saw were wearing jeans and leggings tucked into elegant, low-heeled boots; I'm glad that trend is still going because it's comfortable and I was planning to wear it for the next 6 months or so, fashionable or not. I also saw plenty of wonderful, tailored short coats in pretty colors. Ponchos and capes were everywhere, and I wonder if we will see them in Boston as well. I'm not sure anyone but a Frenchwoman can carry off a poncho.

For work, women wear classic, chic skirts and suits in subdued shades, layered with big, warm scarves. Frenchwomen carry big, classy leather bags without fussy details. I did not see a lot of lightweight Longchamp nylon totes as I have in the past, but I was glad for mine, since I was hauling three heavy guidebooks and assorted pastry and other purchases.

I did not observe anyone staggering around in fashionably ridiculous high heels. The heels I saw were more moderate and were managed perfectly. French women know that if you can't walk elegantly, with that certain sexy confidence, there's no point in wearing a trendy shoe.

We strolled around St Germain, the Latin Quarter, and the Ile St-Louis. Some photos:

The bridge to the Louvre on a chilly morning.

St Germain ironwork on a door.

The Village Voice English Bookshop. Click to read the sign.

One of the prettiest flower shops, on the Ile. St-Louis

Lunch on the Ile. We had French onion soup. Then he had duck with 
a fruity sauce and I had organic chicken with mushroom sauce. I'd recovered
from my earlier mushroom overdose. Mashed potatoes mixed with cheese 
and mashed squash (perhaps?) and baked in cups until crispy on the top. Divine.

Inside La Cure Gourmande, a very golden candy store.

We could not resist a box of flavored caramels... candied orange, marzipan...

Can you see the rusty flea marking a shop on the left?
The French are wonderful but sometimes unfathomable.

At Cybèle, a scholarly bookstore, my husband browsed and bought while
I studied the antiquities. I love the expression on this Egyptian fish,
which is wearing a Hathor (cow) headdress. Poor, puzzled fish.

A gorgeous antique bookstore on the Rue Jacob. 
Straight out of Harry Potter.

After lunch we looked in at my favorite tea shop, La Charlotte de l'Isle, owned for decades by a witch who had a way with pastry, tea, and atmosphere. I've had only memorable experiences in her shop and I always go there when I'm in Paris. Alas, it's gone, Madame has retired. Her cluttered, shabby-chic tea room, with its mismatched tables, Japanese teapots, old china, and bentwood chairs, has been replaced by a depressingly tidy, very pink, very bare, and very nameless tea shop that was closed on a Saturday afternoon. A great loss.

So we stocked up on tea at Mariages Frères — butterscotch, caramel, and Noêl, a spicy, fruity holiday tea.

As we were leaving Saint Severin (I had to show my husband), we were amazed to see a perfectly coiffed and heavily made-up young blonde in a 60's-style cream wool miniskirted suit, carrying a fur muff and wearing a matching fur pillbox hat and fur collar. Vintage couture? She was with a very handsome and well-dressed older man. You seldom see people that dressed up on a Saturday. Her cream high heels were a challenge for her on the cobblestones, but she looked exactly like what you hope to see in Paris. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Postcard from Paris, Day 2: Secrets

On my second morning in Paris, I was alert and determined to explore new neighborhoods. I had two new guidebooks in my bag, Secret Paris, compact but very heavy, and Parisians' Paris. Each was full of interesting, out-of-the-way places but using them together was confusing because they defined areas differently and Parisians' Paris has no maps. I found my way using a third guidebook, Access Paris, and saw quite a bit. I walked 13 miles, was frequently lost, and had a great time.

I took a lot of photographs that I want to show you. I'll try to keep it brief but, even so, I expect you are also going to feel like you walked 13 miles by the end of this post. Take breaks, have a café crème or something.

I arrived at these 19th-century shopping passages (covered shopping corridors — perhaps the first malls) before they opened so I window-shopped. They're extremely elegant and I want to go back to explore the many antique shops and galleries. (You can click to enlarge these.)

Art books, old and new.

Tiny clay heads. And a bug.

Shop windows are often works of art (collage) in Paris.

Antique books.

This witty display was too dark to photograph well. 
These are tiny modern amulets or "saints' relics," 
which contain little plastic toys and other objects. 
"Saint Protecteur" is represented by a condom, for example.

I emerged from the passages near this opulent candy store. I craved the light fixtures more than the bonbons.

Then I headed to the Church of Saint-Eugène–Sainte-Cécile, with its polychrome, cast-iron interior:

Then I went to the bank. As you can see, it's a beaux-arts extravaganza, complete with a painted glass ceiling and a glass-block floor. I'll bet there are ATMs in there somewhere, possibly done in stained glass.... Compare and contrast this with your local BoA branch:

The bank's exterior, just a bit pretentious:

My  next stop was the Canal Saint Martin. Even with three maps, I got very lost. Finding it took forever, but the neighborhood was interesting.

This turned out to be the right path:

The canal was worth hunting for. I watched the locks work as a big barge crossed slowly under the bridge where I stood. Canal technology is amazing even when you aren't feeling jet-lagged, which I suddenly was. Two German ladies and I shrugged our shoulders and gesticulated in the universal language of disbelief as the road next to the bridge swiveled away to let the barge pass.

A paved road moved to the left, opening the canal to the barge.

From the canal, I headed to an old hospital to sit for awhile in its tranquil courtyard:

Then I walked toward the Seine along the canal. There was a huge outdoor market on the covered sections of the canal. You could find everything from clothing to pigs' heads:

The produce, meats, cheeses, and baked goods put our farmer's markets 
to shame, I'm sorry to report.

I wanted some of those pumpkin-shaped tomatoes.

Very fresh clementines, perhaps from Morocco.

Then I wandered around the passages of Faubourg St-Antoine because one of my guidebooks told me not to miss them. It turns out they are mostly full of furniture workshops with a few scenic courtyards, like the one below:

My feet were tired. I crossed the Seine, passing the Bastille monument. I revisited my favorite spots on the Ile St.-Louis and had a crèpe for lunch, sitting on a wall and watching a fashion shoot by the river. A blonde model posed on a yellow bicycle, wearing a long-sleeved bodysuit with midriff cutouts, yellow heels, and a huge handbag. We weren't permitted to take pictures. Then I crossed the Pont des Arts to the Left Bank.

 The padlocks, left by thousands of lovers, that cover the chain link sides of the Pont des Arts:

In the Latin Quarter, I visited the church of Saint Severin, known for its strange, rayonnant Gothic ambulatory, with multi-branching ribs like a palm tree forest. I labored through a terrifying college course on Gothic architecture, and I guess it was worth it — this ambulatory was still mind-blowing after all these years:

You don't find golden arches like this just anywhere.

How's this for a water fountain? 

My last stop for the afternoon was the School of Medicine, where you can wander freely in their beautiful garden courtyard:

There you'll find a statue of Death, or Monsieur Le Death, as I prefer to call him. He was pretty darn creepy, scythe and all.

Even creepier was the 19th-century Depuytren Museum of Anatomical Pathology, which was even more disgusting than I'd imagined and I was prepared. I thought it would be a nice change of pace from an art museum, and now I don't need to return. Several thousands of jars are filled with preserved specimens displaying every horrible malady that can happen to a human body, before and after birth. Animals, too. I didn't linger, and you don't want to see these jars up close, trust me: 

Then I walked to the hotel and collapsed. Now it's your turn.