Boats in the fountain at Luxembourg Gardens, early sunset.
Saturday: clothes shopping, including an exciting hour during which we thought we had been pickpocketed. Wallet turned up later at home.
Saturday night: fabulous sushi, lovely wine, and charming company at Restaurant Wa, near Les Halles.
The restaurant was lit entirely with pink and blue light, making accurate photography a bit of a challenge.
Usually I won’t use flash when I’m in public, but shhh… I had to do justice to the fish. Also, dessert:
Lychee sorbet, which I was way too fish-stuffed to eat, but I certainly admired the presentation. It’s like they planned the whole plate to accompany the lighting scheme.
From there, we continued on to the Cour St. Emilion, where we were just in time for some prime people watching, then started home just in time to miss the last metro. More fun awaited me as I ran for the Noctobus:
Damn you, Paris sidewalk grates! Grrr.
Sunday morning was spent mostly moaning over my excessive consumption of raw fish. Why am I such a pig? Anyway, around two in the afternoon, I managed a light lunch:
Sunday evening, I was invited to a wine tasting group. The first meeting was themed around sparkling whites:
This was the first bottle of the night, so I have no excuse for the blurriness. I also have no excuse for how I failed to photograph the outstanding hors d’oeuvres assembled by our host, except that I was too busy stuffing them in my mouth to grab the camera. Cheese puffs, rabbit terrine, and pistachio foie gras, oh my! Seriously, that foie gras was to die for.
Four bottle of champagne among four people! That’s quite an event.
Then home to collapse into bed without dinner, and wake up this morning a little worse for wear. Bright sunshine (!) plus a hot cup of tea are slowly bringing me back to normal.
Last night, I went to a meeting at a bar. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going or who I was meeting, and when I finally made it there, I was ushered in my confusion to a long, dark table in the corner. Hoping to make the best of an awkward situation, I introduced myself and ordered a beer. That’s when, glancing around, my eyes lighted on this tasteful display, pinned to the wall directly above my table:
Um, yeah, that’s a wall full of ladies’ underwear.
Needless to say, this image cast a lacy pall over the rest of the evening.
I got a nice compliment at dinner last night: the waitress, upon learning that we are Americans, exclaimed that I had “pas du tout” an American accent, and even raved that I had the perfect “intonation française”.
Yes, when it comes to conversations lasting under a minute and half, I speak just like a native. After that, unfortunately, it gets a little dicey.
She brought up an interesting point, though, with her comment about French intonation. Although French is not considered a tonal language, I’ve always noticed that much is conveyed by stress, tone, and pitch. Have you ever noticed the way an adult French woman will practically sing, “Au revoir et à bientôt!” or “Bonne fin d’après-midi, Madame!”? It’s enough to make you feel like you’re trapped in Broadway musical.*
This talent appears to be learned rather than innate, though, because children and teenagers almost never talk like this. Even though they are younger, their statements seem to occupy a much lower register, and sound closer to animated grunts than the flights of whimsy you hear among adults.
And this is my problem: because I learned French when I was a kid, I’m stuck speaking kid French. With some great effort, I can force a tuneful “Bonjour, Madame!” And at the restaurant last night, I came up with, “Oh, oui, je crois bien…” But I’m much more comfortable with sullen, self-effacing teenspeak: “Eh, ben… Chai pas. Et alors?”
Which, although reasonably authentic, also comes across as unforgivably rude in the mouth of a full-grown woman. So… I’m working on that. But I’m afraid I might need singing lessons to really pull it off.
And since I’m hungry, here are some gratuitous pictures of what I ate last night:
Et ses frites.
Sorry about the bite, but I’ve been fantasizing about steak tartare since I got here, and I couldn’t stop myself from nibbling a bit before I got my camera out.
*On a related note, has anyone else noticed that a lot of French women seem to speak in falsetto? I can’t believe their voices are really that high.
In his essay, Le vin et le lait, Le bifteck et les frites, Barthes writes:
[Milk] is now the true anti-wine… because in the basic morphology of substances milk is the opposite of fire by all the denseness of its molecules, by the creamy, and therefore soothing, nature of its spreading. Wine is mutilating, surgical, it transmutes and delivers; milk is cosmetic, it joins, covers, restores. Moreover, its purity, associated with the innocence of the child, is a token of strength, of a strength which is not revulsive, not congestive, but calm, white, lucid, the equal of reality.
Barthes, as usual, is not really talking about the physical or chemical properties of milk versus wine, but of their mythological properties: what do these emblems represent in our culture? Barthes draws the slightly obvious conclusion that wine is important to the French because it represents pleasure, time with friends, and refined appreciation. Milk, on the other hand, represents strength and health and being a good person (think about it: What would Superman drink?), and thus appeals more to Americans and, mysteriously, the Dutch.
Well, call me literal minded, but I think there is a factor missing from this analysis: taste. Everyone knows that wine tastes different in different countries — and if the French were suddenly to find every one of their caves à vins filled with American inventions like White Zin or Boones Farm, they might indeed be less enthusiastic about their national beverage.
What most people don’t realize, however, is that milk varies a great deal from country to country as well. We Americans, we think we know milk: it’s creamy, mild, not too much flavor — a suitable accompaniment to cookies, cereal, and even a good steak. (My grandfather drank milk with dinner every night, kosher laws be damned.) In France, however, milk is… well, sour. To my palate, a newly opened bottle of fresh French milk smells and tastes a lot like the two-week old American version.*
This makes a considerable cultural difference. In France, kids rarely drink plain, cold milk, even with sweets. Instead, they drink a lot of hot chocolate or sweetened milk, and they get the rest of their calcium from the delicious cheeses that abound in this country. Cold cereal is a tough sell here, and people who claim to enjoy an occasional glass of milk are looked upon with some degree of suspicion.
As I’ve straddled these two culture my whole life, I’ve generally kept to social convention: milk in America, wine in France. Lately, though, I’ve found that my adult palate has developed a… well, if not a taste for French milk, then at least a tolerance.
Just as my childhood taste for sweet, uncomplicated milk chocolate has evolved into a preference for the subtle bitterness of dark chocolate, maybe I’m ready for a slightly more expressive style of milk. Yes, French milk is sour, and I still wouldn’t drink it on its own. But I have found lately that, much to my surprise, it does compliment my dark chocolate bar rather nicely.
*On the other end of the spectrum, did you know that Scandinavia has truly amazing milk? It’s far sweeter and creamier than anything you’d find in America. When I lived there, I drank a liter or two every day. There’s not much worth eating in Denmark, but the milk alone can transform a bowl of cornflakes into a rapturous experience.
It was Friday afternoon, and I was at home. Writing. In my pyjamas, as I had been more or less constantly for the previous few days. The book, you see, it needs a new opening, and I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t leave the house until I came up with something decent.
That’s when — *ping!* — I got an email from Amanda, asking me if I’d caught the Marché Gourmand going on this week at the base of the rue Mouffetard. Apparently, she proceeded to inform me, it happens every year during the Semaine du Goût.
Mouffetard! That’s, um… a block from my apartment. And I’d been so wrapped up in my writing that I had no idea. I was a little embarrassed — working on the book is all well and good, but what’s the point of living in Paris if you’re going to miss out on things happening just down the street?
Thus shamed, I hopped out of bed (yes, I write in bed), got dressed, and headed down La Mouffe to find something for dinner.
Oh hey — the best thing about special marchés? Food samples! As I shopped, I got to nibble tiny squares of tarte tatin, individual escargots, and best of all, a buttery-smooth paté de foie gras. And I bought:
Go ahead, snicker, but I dare you to find a G-rated way to photograph sausage.
Anyway, here we have saucissons made from duck and wild boar. These were far from the most exotic options; I was briefly tempted by a deer sausage, and considerably less so by the donkey sausage. Just say it out loud: donkey sausage. There’s something really unsettling about that. I think it puts me in mind of a video I once saw in college.
Full disclosure: dried boar sausage tastes divine, but it smells like wet dog. Be forewarned.
I picked up a little dessert at the marché, too:
When it comes to fruit cake, I’m usually the first in line telling the “hard as a rock” jokes, but seriously, this brioche aux fruits was fantastic. Sweet and soft and full of interesting flavors… By the way, that’s coarse sugar on top, not pretzel salt.
So, the upshot of all this? I stayed up late with indigestion, and at three in the morning, managed at last to bang out a decent first page.
Living in France now for the first time in many years has made me a bit nostalgic for my childhood here.
When I was eight years old, my parents enrolled me in CE2 (the French equivalent of third grade) at our local elementary school, just south of Paris. It was here that I learned exactly how different French education is from the American version: at the hippy-dippy elementary school I had attended in upstate New York, the average school day consisted of sitting in circles, sharing our feelings, and maybe filling out the occasional math worksheet. French school, on the other hand, had apparently changed very little from the days remembered by François Truffaut.
I swear to God, not only were we still using those ancient wooden desks, complete with holes for your ink pot, but the kids actually dressed like that. And when the teacher asked a question, instead of raising our hands and shouting out the answer, we all wrote our responses with chalk on slates, then held them up in the air for la Maîtresse to approve.* And for homework, we memorized poetry. When was the last time anyone in America was told to memorize a poem, let alone an eight year old?
Especially in the first few month, when my grasp of French was still shaky, I struggled hard with those poems. I hardly understood the strange, often archaic language, but I knew we would have to recite the verses in front of the class, and I was terrified of humiliating myself.
After all the effort I put in, I consoled myself with the thought that these poems had been etched on my soul forever — Even at eighty years old, I imagined, as I lay on my death bed, I would turn to my grand children with a wan smile and calmly recite Le Loup et La Cigogne.
And now? I’ve been searching my brain for the past three days, and I have discovered that, of the forty odd poems I memorized, all that remains is one, stupid couplet: Maitre Corbeau sur an arbre perche/Tenez dans son bec un fromage. That’s it! Everything else is gone, no matter how hard I stretch.
Everything? Well no, not quite everything. Although the state-sponsored poetry is long forgotten, a different kind of verse remains lodged in my brain, for better or for worse: Trois p’tits chats, trois p’tits chats, trois p’tis chats chats chats/Chapeau de paille, chapeau de paille, chapeau de paille paille paille…
Anyone who grew up in France, or has raised children here, is groaning right now, but for everyone else: Trois Petits Chats is a well-known school yard chant, usually accompanying a hand-clapping game (a la Miss Suzy and her Tugboat), composed mostly of nonsense terms and unconnected phrases. And for some reason, even though all the magnificent works of La Fontaine have slipped out my mind’s back door, this meaningless gobbledygook will apparently be with me forever.
A few minutes ago, I decided to dash down to the corner bakery to get a baguette for my lunch. Of course, it being lunch time, there was a huge line. And up at the front of the line was a girl, about my age, trying to order in English.
Okay, lest I sound entirely unsympathetic to the monolingual, one really doesn’t need to know a whole lot of French to order in a bakery. Une baguette is really all you need to say, and you can add s’il vous plait if you want to be treated nicely. Even if you want to order something a little more complicated — a religieuse au cafe, say, or a tartelette aux abricots — everything is labeled. Just sound it out as best you can while pointing, and you should be able to convey your desire.
But this girl was not employing this technique. Instead, she launched into complete English sentences (“Give me one of those over there, and would you mind heating that?”), as if she expected every boulangère in Paris to be perfectly fluent in English!
But that wasn’t bad enough. Having gotten her pastry, this girl then asked the poor boulangère (in English, of course) where she might find the Catacombes. Although everyone tried to be helpful, no one had any idea what she was talking about (the man behind her in line helpfully suggested, “France télécom?”). All I could do was cringe.
I have very little patience for tourists who don’t even make a small effort to speak a word or two of the local language, but I have even less patience for stalled bakery lines when I am starving. Even though I knew it would mean revealing my secret identity as an American, I stepped forward: “I can help you,” I told the girl in clear English, as I tried to apologize on her behalf to the crowd with my eyes.
I indicated that she should step outside with me (losing my place in line), and I pulled out my map, metro plan, and L’Officiel des Spectacles (I never leave home without them — she, on the other hand, didn’t have so much as a guide book). After a few seconds’ research, I gave her the address, the nearest metro stop, and pointed her in the right direction. She thanked me for my efforts, then complained, “No one around here has even heard of the catacombs.”
“They’ve heard of them,” I told her through clenched teeth. “They just can’t understand your accent.”
I wandered over to the Centre Pompidou the other day, hoping to buy a museum membership (both Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg are showing now, and there’s no way I can do all that in one day), but I found it unexpectedly closed.
Transcription: En raison d’un mouvement sociale, le centre Pompidou est ferme aujourd’hui. Veuillez nous excuser pour la gene occasionnee. / Owing to strike action, the Centre Pompidou will not be open to the public to day [sic]. We apologize for the inconvenience.
And scrawled in the middle is the word “méchants”, roughly translated to “jerks” or “meanies”.
Nearby, someone went to the trouble to post their own make-shift notice:
“Culture on strike, or culture of striking?” (Even in graffitti, the French always manage to be witty and sardonic.)
I have to admit, though, I was a little surprised at the sentiment. I haven’t been following French news much, so I have no idea what the strike was about, but in the past I have generally found the French to be very supportive of each others’ strikes: I know from experience that one small labor conflict can rapidly shut down the whole country as everyone strikes in solidarity.
I don’t know why there was so little support for this particular strike, but it’s worth remembering that Pompidou is more than just a tourist site. In addition to housing the national museum of modern art, the Centre also contains a public reference library, a music research institute, and various other educational spaces. A lot of people come there to work or study, so I guess they were a bit put out. In a generous (or maybe accidental) gesture, however, it appears that Pompidou had left its WiFi on, even as the building was closed: all around the museum, people were crouched crankily on the ground, their laptops propped up on their knees.
There were so many ridiculous things going on in Paris this weekend, it was impossible to choose what to do. So… we decided to screw Paris and head out to the funky/bohemian suburb of Montreuil for their Portes Ouvertes: Ateliers d’Artistes festival. Basically, it was a fabulous opportunity to tromp through the apartments and work-spaces of real, live artists. A little like going to the zoo.
Cute, huh? Okay, now let me take a moment to complain about artists. As should already be clear from this blog, I love art, and I would very much like to give support and publicity to up-and-coming artists, given that I am not yet in a position to buy their works. However, I have a tiny, scattered brain, and I’m not very good at absorbing people’s names when I am introduced to them.
THEREFORE, if you, as an artist, would like people to talk about you, to spread news of your talent, and maybe eventually hand you money, it would behoove you to make:
a) a website (extra points for an easy-to-remember web address)
b) business cards (preferably printed with your name, your web address, and a picture or drawing of your work, otherwise I will not remember who handed me this card.)
c) at the very least, your name written in LARGE LETTERS somewhere very obvious in your studio or gallery.
I know I’m preaching to the choir, because anyone savvy enough to visit my website surely knows all of this, but if you have any artsy friends, please pass this info on to them if you want them to ever become successful.
< /public service announcement>
Enough of that, here are more pics:
Loved the little dolls, though they worked much better as a mounted ensemble than individual pieces. Check out their adorable naughty bits.
This was taken inside a human sized camera obscura, which was extremely cool, though difficult to photograph. Even better, the artist actually succeeded in conveying his name to me! Dale Joseph Rowe. Doesn’t seem to have a website (sigh), but here are some of the pictures he makes using the camera obscura.
Lastly, please don’t hate me for posting this, but I was way into these tongue-in-cheek snow globes. There were dozens of them, from all around the world, so it’s not like New York was being especially picked on, or anything. And yes, those are little people floating around in the globe in lieu of snow.