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Paris Paris au Ralenti (Paris in Slow Motion) - Fall 2012


100+ Posts
By Doru from Canada, Fall 2012. Three weeks in the Lower Marais, living la vie parisienne.

Wednesday, 12 September - Arrival and Settling in the Lower Marais

This starts from rue du Petit Musc, in the Lower Marais, Paris, where we have installed ourselves for what we hope will be a wonderful three weeks séjour.

It was a tiring but, as expected and hoped for, good day. The Air Canada flight was excellent but the food was abominable. Bring food from home when you fly economy with Air Canada. What they served on the vegetarian option tasted like year-old straw and the beef, well, I have a beef with it... Bread was rock-hard, muffins ice-hard. I know we do not travel because of the gourmet airline food, but this was really below any expectation.

We arrived to a somewhat clouded-over Paris and took a taxi to town, with a cheerful, talkative driver. The meter showed €47.50 on arrival (CDG to apartment), plus about €3 for luggage, to which we added the tip. Two years ago, from CDG to rue Pavée, which is on the other side of rue Saint-Antoine, we paid €50. How about consistency, reliability and good service?

A propos, the taxi stand at Terminal 2A is at door 6. And beware the horde of unofficial taxi hackers. There is absolutely no reason to accept their services. We were in an official taxi within minutes from exiting at door 6 directly to the taxi stand.

I called our host from the taxi and we met him at the apartment, where he helped us with the luggage. The famous retrofitted Paris elevators had another success story here: two people who do not mind advanced intimacy can share a ride. Alternatively, one can share the intimacy with one large suitcase or two smaller ones, according to taste... Nevertheless, the real point is: there is an elevator, and without it we wouldn't have rented this apartment which revealed itself to be full of light, with tall windows both to the street and to the courtyard; the vista from these windows with old style, irregular glass, promises many photos of Parisian mansards.


Across the street, on rue du Petit Musc

We are mostly settled in: opened the wine that our host prepared for us along with plenty of immediate food necessities and a well provisioned and functioning Nespresso machine; discovered all the plugs and light switches; promptly did some shopping at the Monoprix on Saint-Antoine; priced some wines and marc de Bourgogne at the Nicolas next door; discovered that we can use the TuneIn radio app of my Android tab and Josette’s Archos tab to listen not only to Paris classical radio but even to our Toronto favourite stations; took a short walk in the neighbourhood (rue dela Cerisaie/Blvd. Henri IV/Place de la Bastille/rue Saint-Antoine); and will soon look forward to turning off all lights.

The apartment has a large, flat screen Samsung HDTV just like one at home and it has a gazillion of stations. It seems that every single French town with a population of over 10,000 has its own channel! So do all Mediterranean countries: Italy with five, Spain, Germany and Britain with a couple each, Algeria and Turkey with about five stations each, and so on, all around the Mediterranean Basin. Overwhelming! Alas, only one sports station so far.

Looking forward to tomorrow morning, with my favourite start of day in Paris: out early to buy fresh baguettes and some patisseries.

A demain!
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Thursday, 13 September - Making Sense of the Neighbourhood, between Rue de Rivoli and the Seine

Start of day comme il faut: a crusty "pointed" baguette, and croissants made with margarine to accommodate Josette’s lactose intolerance. The boulanger is two doors down from us; this is like an insurance policy for our entire stay, although I will have to check if they open on Sunday: if they are closed, there are backups on Saint-Antoine. And I have learned something new at 8:30am: the croissant with margarine is called “croissant naturel.” In all Parisian boulangeries!

Today we meet A., a friend from Toronto who is in Paris for a few days. We meet him at the kiosk near Métro Saint-Paul and cut first to Île Saint-Louis and then to Île de la Cité. A stop for coffees and we cross over to one of our favourite spots in Paris: the little park Square Jean XXIII, with its extraordinary view of the Notre Dame Cathedral flying buttresses, wonders of architecture that support the massive structure faithfully and reliably for almost 800 years... I never tire of this angle of view, enjoyable without the presence of the agglomeration of hordes at the façade end of the church. It is quiet here.

After a while, we turn towards Quai de Montebello and the bouquinistes who align the Seine, along the river wall. Memories of a wonderful Slow Travel GTG (get-together) in September 2010 at Le Reminet, as I glimpse the restaurant sign on the other side of the road. I will try to see if we can return during this trip.

On the river wall we read one the many marble plaques one comes across in Paris; this one commemorates the death in that spot of French Resistance fighters. Seven of them died there between the 19th and the 21st of August 1944. Indirectly, they died for us too: three days later, on August 23, 1944 (I was eight years old, Josette was seven) the Red Army entered Bucharest and ended the fascist alliance of Romania with Germany, and we were spared. Sobering moment: we should never allow ourselves, and others, to forget.

We cross back towards rue de Rivoli via Pont de l'Archevêché, this to celebrate life after paying silent homage to sacrifice, and thus admire the unique “art installation” of the “love padlocks” that by now cover completely, three layers deep, the entire west side of the bridge. Never loosing hope, the coming-later-lovers have started to fix their eternal love symbols on the east side as well. Frankly, despite some snobbish reactions I read about, that “deplore” the “defacing” of the bridge (in fact, a bridge that otherwise has really nothing remarkable to display, except utility), I find quite touching the brightness and colours of the padlocks and the love messages scripted on or scratched in the faces of the locks, poignant attempts to invest an ephemeral moment with hopes for eternity. Half seriously, half jokingly, Josette and I comment that we may come back here with a padlock and throw its keys in the Seine… (P.S.: We did come back; without a lock!)


Pont de l'Archevêché: celebrating l'amour éternel!...

We retreat towards the apartment with the target being the “bistrot parisien” Le Temps des Cerises, located a few doors down, at the corner of our street with rue de la Cerisaie. We figure that if the experience is positive, this could become a nice anchor for us, much like the café Le Loir dans la Théière two years ago.

When we get there, it is packed, table to table, elbow to elbow. It is a small place and we are ready to wait, but a couple gets up just as we settle by the bar, two minuscule tables are cleaned and we are settled. It is obviously a family affair: madame takes orders and serves, monsieur (the husband?) tends the bar. She is a most amazing waitress: for as long as we were there she never stopped taking and memorising orders, serving water, wine or other drinks, explaining the menu, serving the food, cleaning tables. A graceful, quiet tornado.

The menu is quite varied, but we are too late for the risotto, so we settle on the “formule” (menu à prix fixe): appetiser and main, or main and dessert, at €12.50. Prices for the à la carte main courses vary from €10-€22. The formule main courses today are veal roast with a prune sauce and fillet of dorade (sea brim) with steamed vegetables. All excellent, or we are very hungry. Or both. All these, plus 1/2 liter of Vaqueyras (€22) and coffee, set us back only a well worth €63 for three. We will be back. And if I want risotto, I’ll have to remember to be here earlier.

Dinner in the apartment: some pork roast and jambon aux herbes from the charcutier on Saint-Antoine, some sheep/goat feta, still fresh baguette, fruits.

We decide to spend the evening in the apartment to save on the wear and tear of our knees and hips for tomorrow.

A movie with Louis de Funès on the big Samsung flat screen and closing in to jet lag time, with a glass of wine, 24 months aged cheese from Franche-Comté, a few Muscat grapes, and what’s left of the baguette... Yum!

P.S.: I just remembered that David Jaggard, a.k.a. as Americana's Americano, wrote a wonderful piece, in his delightfully different style, about the love locks phenomenon in Paris. Under the title "Locked and Loaded: Love Locks Inundate the Bridges of Paris", it was published under his column "C'est Ironique" in a recent edition of "Paris Update." Recommended reading!
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Friday, 14 September - Expanding the Teritory and Another Torontonian in Paris

Is it jet lag? This feels like a really slow, thick morning. We start late and it takes us the longest time to figure out what else we need in the fridge. We have also started to figure out our apartment and to organise ourselves somewhat better, using all three great rooms and adapting to the limitations of the small kitchen. The kitchen would not do for a family that does cooking and baking (no baking oven) and lives here permanently, but it has everything transients like us require day to day.

This took us much of the morning and then A. called. He is on his last day in Paris; tomorrow he flies back to Toronto and we promised him a tour of the Marais. But first he has to come upstairs to get his cell phone recharged here because he did not have a plug adapter for the French plugs. I have four... He arrives, I plug his cell phone and off we go; it is getting pretty late for lunch.

Since we wanted to start anyway from close to Hôtel de Ville, I figured it was a good occasion to try for lunch another place where I had never eaten before, but which was warmly recommended by a good friend who is at least once or twice each year in Paris. The place is at 12 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, “the street of the Tea House Mariage Frères”, an absolutely must stop for us anyway.

The name of the bistrot sounds pretty original: “Le Coude Fou”. It translates to “The Crazy Elbow”! Generally, I try to talk up people who live or work in places with unusual names and to find out how these names came to be. Thus occurred my discovery of the reason for the name of the street where Bistrot Le Reminet is located: I talked with the owner of Le Reminet a couple of years ago and he explained to me why the street was named Rue des Grands-Degrés.

Not here. We are met and led to our table by a very tense waitress, who later would not understand why we try to fix ourselves the legs of our fitful, rickety table when she wanted to do it herself, not right now but just as soon as she was able to... The question on my mind: why was the table unstable to begin with?

Then, there is the matter of the beer. A. orders a Leffe draft, from the bistrot list of beverages. He is told that they ran out of Leffe. In a Paris restaurant, and Leffe is as omnipresent here as the proverbial baguettes, and it is only 1:30pm. On a Friday afternoon they run out of one of the only two beers they have listed, and with the evening crowds yet to descend on the popular area of Roi du Sicile? How will they do for dinner?

Anyway, we order. Josette has actually an excellent skewer of monkfish and chorizo, an interesting combination, and fries as the side dish. A. and I order the same full formula at €16.50: slices of apple and duck in a green salad; beef tenderloin with bordelais sauce; and panna cotta. In order: good, so-and-so, excellent. I had a glass of wine; A. had “the other beer.” No coffees; we save the coffees for later. The total bill is €63. Not bad, but we have a long wait for the bill while the waitress and a co-worker have their own lunch in the next room…

Very likely, not a place I would go back to, or recommend.


Musical graffiti along rue du Roi de Sicile

From Le Coude Fou to Mariage Frères the distance is just a few buildings up the street. The place has changed since our last visit, in 2010: the tea house-restaurant was enlarged even more, indicating that good, brisk business is going on. Right across the street a new Mariage Frères shop has opened, with only one clerk, selling only pre-packaged items. If one knows exactly what one needs, and does not particularly care for the live show of the weighing and packaging and the pretty cashier, this new store might be a good idea. Ah(!), yes(!), and the prices went up at Mariage Frères, by about 10-15%. Not that it matters when you buy 100 gr. of Marco Polo Rouge, oui, et avec ça? c’est tout, merci! (P.S.: Home, a few weeks later, I notice that we were given “Marco Polo” tea, instead of the “Marco Polo Rouge” that I ordered. Too late to do anything about it...)

We turn towards rue du Roi de Sicile to pay a visit to the very sympathique café Le Loir dans la Théière, on rue des Rosiers. Two years ago, this café was our “general quarters”, as we were staying right on top of it, three stories up.

“Loir” translates as “dormouse”, and the name of the café refers to the little dormouse that was dumped in the teapot at the Mad Hatter’s party (for those who remember their “Alice in Wonderland”)! For Torontonians, the reference is doubly meaningful, because in Toronto of the 1980s there used to be a number of “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” venues which hosted highly celebrated children birthday parties.

But back to our Loir. At 3 rue des Rosiers, at 4pm the place is packed. Median age of patrons: 25 (or so young everybody seems to us?) We somehow find a table and order coffees and a glass of wine. “We ran out of wine” is the bizarre answer from the waiter. We are confused. We repeat the question, and get the same answer. A., who at lunch was told at Le Coude Fou that they ran out of draft beer, is now told here that there is no wine! No wine in a café in Paris? He feels persecuted. How strange this day became!

The coffees finished, we continue towards Place des Vosges. It is Friday evening and rue des Rosiers is packed; while many stores have already closed down to greet the Sabbath, the falafel counters are still very busy, and so is the Finkelsztajn deli.

At Place des Vosges the crowds diminish. We rest for a while on one of the benches, and cannot but stare at and admire (and envy?) a couple of lovers who can’t seem to be able to unglue their lips for as long as we sit there, them being probably on training for a kiss endurance competition or aspiring to enter the Guinness Book of Records? We figure that their intense training will continue for sometime and decide to get up and cross into rue Saint-Antoine via the courtyard of Hôtel de Sully. At the apartment, A.’s telephone is charged, we say our farewells and “see you in three weeks for lunch at “Ferrovia” (Note: “Ferrovia” is a restaurant just north of Toronto, which has also hosted a couple of Slow Travel GTGs.), and he leaves. Tomorrow he will fly back to Toronto. We, the luckier ones, have still almost three weeks ahead of us.

Urban legend: Bistrot is a ubiquitous presence in Paris. It is sometimes spelled bistro. The etymology of the word seems to be quite nebulous; competing French regional dialects present claims to the word. I like most the following explanation: after the Russian Revolution of 1917 much of the Russian nobility found refuge in Paris. They learned French in their infancy; some spoke French better than Russian, some did not even speak any Russian... Once here, not all former nobles could continue their lives of plenty and leisure, and many started working as coach drivers, moving on later, and seamlessly, to taxi drivers. As they caught a few minutes between clients, they would go quickly to a nearby bar and order a drink. Since they were always in a hurry, they invariably ended their orders at the bar with the word “bystro”, which in Russian means “vite” (French), or “quickly” (English). A variant of this etymological speculation claims that the word was already familiar to Parisian bartenders since the Russian occupation of Paris in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon...
Saturday, September 15 - Rue Cler and Pont Louis-Philippe

Today we visit rue Cler. According to the RATP website, the simplest way to get there is by métro 8 from Bastille, station that is almost around the corner, about two minutes walk from the apartment.

Down the stairs, into the station. I buy the first “carnet” of tickets, 10 for €12.70. We are not sure how much we will use the métro this time around because of the lack of predictability in the number of levels and stairs to be navigated. Today, for the first descent into the métro, we receive proof that our pessimism was justified. With all its exceptional network of stations, and the extraordinary coverage of the city, the Parisian métro is still representative of its age: the escalators are unpredictable and few and far between, elevators are hardly existent. We discover that métro line 8 direction Balard is one of three lines corresponding at Bastille: 1, 5 and 8. And 8 is at the bottom of the “can”, at the lowest level! This represents quite a problem for us, because of various limitations of, and difficulties with, knees and hips. Still, as we realise this, we are already far enough down and so, we decide to go all the way and later will reconsider how to return home.

Although we have been so many times in Paris and used always almost exclusively the métro, we now learn that in a station with different corresponding lines we had better know how far down is the line we need. Lesson filed away for future reference.

We come out of the métro on rue de la Motte-Piquet and are immediately greeted by the paraphernalia and displays of the “bric à brac” typical for Paris markets: trinkets, baubles, odds and ends, curios, odd furniture, old furniture, sundry ornaments, statues of Lenin, unmatched pieces of furniture, Russian army caps, Cossack hats, Christofle tableware, porcelain table sets, statues of horses the size of ponies, chrome airplane models, previously enjoyed clothing, racks of shoes, and they all continue in a crescendo along the entire length of rue Cler. Colourful, noisy, on a wonderfully sunny days. Dogs, children, old people and young, tourists like us. Not an identifiable pickpocket in sight. And no buyers? I can attest that in the almost two hours spent there I did not see even one single transaction concluded, any money changing hands. Except for take out food, or in brasseries and cafés. How do these people make a living?


Soviet memorabilia on rue Cler

For me, a highlight was to see for sale typographical sets such as my father used when newspapers were still being made by hand, picked letter after letter, font type and size, on special matrices, and then placed in the larger matrices that represented the entire page. A wave of memories; I can still smell the aromas of typographical ink and lead from over 60 years ago...

We went to rue Cler mostly for the riot of colours, smells and sounds. We now sit at a table, coffees and water in front of us, the sun permeating through our skin and, for a while, we watch the market go by us, in front of us.

We return home by taxi. Not very expensive, and no stairs!

For lunch, we prepare in the small kitchen of the apartment tagliatelle with sheep feta and finish the bottle of wine.

Evening finds us again on Île Saint-Louis, refusing to compromise ourselves by lining up at the various Berthillon outlets for a cone of ice cream. Not even if Berthillon himself would descend from where he is and serve it to me personally. The number of places that sell ice cream under the Berthillon name has mushroomed from two years ago, and people line at every one of them. A runny gold mine!

On Pont Louis-Philippe an achingly beautiful girl sings à la Edith Piaf and accompanies herself on an accordion. Public in rapture watches the girl, listens to her songs. A human statue freezes while sweeping the bridge. Two little girls and a little boy pull his "frozen" sleeve; tickle him; he remains frozen. But yesterday we did see him winking to a passing girl, so he has a beating heart... The children go away, their parents forget to throw an Euro or two in front of the sweeper's broom... On the other side of the bridge, massage is available gratis. Judging by the non-paying customers, the pleasure is all of the masseurs... A bunch of "mariners" wait their turn to play, to entertain the crowds and collect their own share of contributions, dinner thus assured. Evening falls gently on Île de la Cité and the Seine.

Tomorrow we have a Slow Travel GTG.
Sunday, September 16 - Slow Travel Get-Together

This morning we have a Slow Travel GTG. The plan is to meet at Opéra Bastille and, as we get there, we see only two people waiting by the famous stairs. One of them is a young boy, about 9 years old, and this can only be Xander, and if he is Xander then next to him is Karen. I made it also pretty easy for myself to be recognised by Karen: the man wearing the Slow Travel cap, one of the last such caps in existence.

So we first meet Karen and Xander, and Xander and I get along well from the start, and it will get better as the morning goes on. With five grandchildren, the youngest being of exactly Xander’s age, I have a few tricks to get to the hearts and minds of children, and Xander and I become buddies immédiatement!

Soon arrive also Shirley (Yayoye) and her friend, Betty.

We work out a plan: considering the confusion typical in a market as large and diverse as Richard-Lenoir, we arrange to meet one hour later, back in Place Bastille, and move about independently in the market.

Meeting an hour later, we walk towards Hôtel de Sully, built in the third decade of the 17th century, when King Henri IV's Minister of Finance was the Duke de Sully. We want to take over the Duke’s garden and send Xander as advance scout and occupier, to be sure that we control at least one absolutely necessary bench, one of the only two available in the garden. Xander does a fantastic job and we have the planned picnic, some with food prepared in advance, some bought fresh at the market.


Slow Travel GTG: from the left, Karen, Betty, myself, Josette, Shirley

Necessities out of the way, we use the “secret” gate that separates the Hôtel from Place des Vosges to enter the elegant arcades surrounding Place des Vosges and take a walking tour, trying to figure out who lived where almost 500 years ago and well into more recent time. Xander finds again a free bench for us in the beautiful garden, and we sit and chat, enjoying the sun and the shade while Xander, under his Mom’s watchful eye, is busy at the small playground installed in the garden; one can find such playgrounds in just about any public garden in Paris. We take some pictures and here, again, Xander proves to be adept at using not only his own camera but also mine. A useful guy to have around!

As part of the local entertainment, we assist, "bouche bée", to the parking manoeuvres used by a young man to insert (literally "insert"!) his car between two others. As we watch, we count how many times he bumps, back and forth, the car behind his and the one in front. We lose count at over 12 noisy bumps. In the end, between his car and the other two there is no room to slide a cigarette rolling paper. Too bad we don't intend to linger, because it must be fascinating how the disengagement of the three cars will proceed!

Sometime later, we point to our companions the easy way to get to the two city islands and to Notre Dame and, while they go their way, we return to our apartment to ice some knees.

We close the day with another walk in the neighbourhood, this time going towards the Seine and ending, where else, on Île Saint-Louis. We found a short-cut.

Domestic end of day.
Monday, September 17 - BHV;Memories; Temple of Nespresso; a Grand Concert

“Our” boulanger was closed over the weekend. Policy. Good for him! Not so good for us... Of course, rue Saint-Antoine has bakers at every 30 meters, all open seven days a week, but our neighbour’s bread is airier and yet more crunchy. This morning I welcome their return to duty. They also have croissants “naturels”, croissants made with margarine instead of butter, a manna for Josette, who is, as I explain here a few times a day, “allergique aux produits laitiers, intolérante au lactose.”

Today we get started very late and this means that in the morning we only have time to go to BHV for some shopping. The list is short: a “scientific” indoor/outdoor thermometer cum weather station, like the one our host has, and some Nespresso coffee pods. The ones our host left complimentary for me are running out and I have 15 days to go.

First, I have never bought Nespresso coffee pods and I need to know what to ask for: so the mantra is “capsules de café (insert the strength grade, in my case “volutto”, which is marked as 4 on a scale of 10)”. If you buy 10 capsules in a package, you ask for an “étui.” One vendor at BHV advises that some ask for “cartouches” instead of “capsules.” Oh, the sophistication of marketing what is actually prepackaged pre-ground coffee!

Unfortunately, we cannot find exactly the outdoor thermometer I wanted and decide not to compromise on another make. As to the Nespresso coffee, it turns out that at BHV they sell only the coffee making machines; for “capsules” (or “cartouches”?), malheureusement, the only place one can buy them is at Nespresso’s main location, at 119, Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

As it happens, we have a concert tonight, at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, where we will go one way by métro and return by taxi. Instead of getting off at Franklin D. Roosevelt, we will get off at George V, which is very close to Nespresso’s Coffee Temple.


Line up at Berthillon!

I am not sure if I have already mentioned the fact that our apartment is endowed with a giant Samsung TV screen and a huge selection of TV/HDTV channels, a great many of them ethnic channels. One of those is TVR International, a channel dedicated to Romanians living elsewhere in Europe. We came across this channel two years ago in our then Paris rental and, by a coincidence, it was the first channel coming live when Josette turned on the TV on arrival here. Since then, when we have the time, Josette watches a variety of programmes and I multitask, as I do right now, writing and also listening to the broadcast sounds. For today, we expect a documentary with the title “Memorial Bucharest” about the barbaric destruction of irreplaceable buildings and monuments under the hated and hateful dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu. (Note: I wrote in some detail about this barbarism in my Bucharest trip report of 2009.)

The documentary is dedicated to the demolition of the monastery “Văcăreşti” and of its imposing church, which were located in the same neighbourhood where we both lived and of which nothing is now left. Both the monastery and the church were dating back to the beginning of the 18th century and represented the grandest traditions of religious architecture and religious art in Romania. The documentary was also dedicated to the efforts of those few who, with courage, tried first to prevent the destruction and who, later, faced with the inevitability of bulldozers advancing and tearing downs walls around them, tried to -at least- salvage components of the exceptional buildings. Of the 2400 square meters of murals and iconography, only about 140 square meters were preserved, these already partially damaged. Architectural components were illegally hidden elsewhere, and only some of those survived.

It was not easy to watch, particularly when one of architects involved in the old documentary images was very well known to me: recently I have had with him some correspondence on the fate of a number of Bucharest buildings captured by him in a collection of aquarelles, building that had personal relevance for Josette and for me.

And so, as the documentary ended and I returned to the laptop, another, almost forgotten part of my youth, came back to haunt me and at the same time make me very nostalgic, sentimental and happy. That is when Josette called from the other room to tell me that the following program was dedicated to an actress with whom I used to work at Radio Bucharest, where I had a weekly one-hour broadcast for children and youth. This is something I could not have anticipated in my wildest dreams, but there she was, on the screen, the actress who, 55 years ago, was still a student at the Faculty of Theatre as I was at the Faculty of Journalism, and with whom I used to work almost every week. We were 22-23 years old at the time, the two us and the other young actors and contributors with whom I worked to create the weekly broadcast. Now, on the TV screen, A.M. was the same and yet not; still beautiful in a mature way; wonderfully spoken; elegant; looking directly at me from the screen. Uncanny; I had to come to Paris, to recover this moment of youth!

After so much emotion, how to return to routine?

Well, everything is possible: later today, a young Canadian will bring us to heights rarely achievable. But I anticipate.

In the evening, we are on our way, first to the House of Nespresso. Frankly, I have never seen such a waste of human resources and money. The Nespresso store at 119, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, occupies an entire building. At least two or three clerks greet you at the entrance; two young women, who had probably won the last two Miss Universe contests, escort you to the elevator; three or four formidably muscular guards appear from behind each corner to watch you, smile to you, follow you; decorative architecture scarcely houses a few pieces of coffee-making hardware, espresso cup sets and accessories. Yet, when after this sumptuous greeting one finally arrives at the counter where the “capsules” and “étuis” are being sold, there is a line-up! A slow line-up. A very slow moving line-up. Five or ten people mill around to receive you, and smile to you, and guide you to... wait!

What came to mind later is that “Mariage Frères” likely sell just as much or more tea than Nespresso sells coffee capsules, from a space probably tens of times smaller, and ten times more efficiently.

Sometimes one wonders...

Anyway, I manage to buy four étuis, hoping that 40 espresso cups between now and the return to Toronto will be enough. If not, we will just go back and genuflex again in the Temple of Nespresso.

To be fair, their coffee is pretty good. I have to concede this...

But the apogée of this day of varying emotions was yet to come: at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées we listen to a glorious concert by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Rotterdam, conducted by the amazing young Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The programme is dominated by Czech composers: Smetana (“Moldau”) and Dvořák (the 9th Symphony “The New World”). I am not a musical critic, while Josette is a musician by education and profession. We were just two of the two thousand people who acclaimed deliriously the orchestra and its conductor for minutes on end. The public just did not let go. If one knows this 9th symphony, one could not really figure what could follow as a “bis”, to top the final part of this symphony. And yet, Nezét-Séguin and the Rotterdam ensemble bowed to the unrelenting applause and capped the night with the Slavonic Dance #1, also by Dvořák. If this were a piano recital, the pianist would have closed the piano lid. Instead, some time later the orchestra just got up and went. So did us. The orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be back here on June 21, 2013. Alas, not us...

This exceptional day could not have ended better: on the way back to the apartment, our charming lady driver regales us by accompanying with her very pleasant, smoky voice, the chansonettes that flow from the car’s radio. Seulement à Paris! Only in Paris!

Tuesday, September 18-Wednesday, September 19 - Biennale des Antiquaires; Marché des Enfants-Rouges, on rue de Bretagne

On Tuesday, the main event was the visit to the Biennale des Antiquaires. It is not the first time that the Biennale takes place when we happen to be in Paris (we like a lot September here...) but antiquariat matters were never “our thing.” We made an exception this year and we are happy that we did.

There was a small line to buy entry tickets at the Grand Palais but, once inside, we enjoyed a wonderful few hours, a kind of mixture of museum and art gallery atmosphere, with astonishing displays, from impressive furniture to extraordinary jewellery work to paintings and sculptures by famous masters. Not exactly what we expected. It was all light and openness and accessibility to all pavilions and exhibits.

Two things were immediately visible: an extraordinary amount of security inside each pavilion, while on the outside the entire city block occupied by the Grand Palais was literally encircled and secured with police vehicles, bumper to bumper, all explained by the presence of those treasures inside the Palais.

We are not knowledgeable in the field, so I will not try to get into details. We really loved the exhibition and the entire surrounding atmosphere. For those who would like to know more about this grandiose event, I offer two links: a more general one and a more detailed, visual one.


Bienalle des Antiquaires at the Grand Palais

We return late to the apartment and take it easy for the rest of the day.

On Wednesday we take bus 96 and go to Marché des Enfants-Rouges, on rue de Bretagne. Prior to that, we called AP and A, our Parisian friends and fellow Slow Travelers and arranged to meet them at the gate of the Marché. As usual, I am early; we had some time on our hands and explored the Enfants-Rouges area, bought from the library near the market Anne Sinclair's book "21 rue La Boétie" that was on my list, sat in the nearby park, and checked the market itself.

When our friends arrive, following the initial greetings and “bises”, we sit for lunch al fresco. We are afraid that it will be too chili, but the sun is altogether too generous (we should somehow save these wonderfully sunny days for cooler and cloudier days...), and we get needed relief from an awning. We enjoy a fresh, market-typical lunch, and coffees. From there, our friends take us to a Parisian gelateria, where we savour desserts. I am forewarned that a somewhat “different” thing about this gelateria is that the owner first addresses her customers in Italian. So here we are, in the heart of Paris and we order ice cream in Italian! I got my stracciatella, and all was like in ... Castellina. Something to remember, for sure, for the incongruity of it. And for the gelato, of course.

AP and A being working people, we separate: they go to their work, we go towards our bus and leisure for the rest of the day.

In the evening, we meet with the owner of our apartment for drinks at “Le Temps des Cerises” down the street, and the evening goes on in pleasant conversation.

We have no plans yet for tomorrow morning; will improvise.

Tomorrow evening we will walk over to our neighbour, the Opéra Bastille, a couple of minutes from here, where we have tickets for Le Nozze di Figaro (pardon, Les Noces de Figaro...) How cool it is to walk to the opera house “next door”!
Thursday, 20 September - Izraël-Le Monde des Epices; Mr. Pickwick sells Marc de Bourgone?

There are two schools on rue du Petit Musc, one elementary and one secondary. During school days, at each recess, the air fills with the bright voices of children. It is like a choir sounding every hour or so in its own unique harmony. At the end of the school day, the smaller ones are greeted by parents, grandparents or nannies who have come to pick them up and walk them home. The older ones gather at the corner of Petit Musc with Saint-Antoine, cigarettes appear; teenagers unconsciously group themselves and fool-around for a few minutes, then walk away, dissipating in the surrounding streets, taking over the bus stations. Beautiful youth. Josette and I never tire of the old joke about how well educated these kids and youngsters are that they all speak so well French...

By mid-morning we walk over to rue François Miron, to visit “Izraël-Le Monde des Epices”, at no. 30. This is a wonderful old style store, where one can still buy small quantities of just about everything related to spices and prepared foods and preserves. The store’s aroma is one of older times, and so is the service. Clients wait patiently while the lady clerk weighs 100 gr. of this and 200 gr. of that, picks a small package with saffron, or cumin, or weighs pickled olives or pickled herring. There is no point hurrying here; the server knows the order in which every client stepped in and lined in the narrow aisle left unencumbered in the middle of the store and she will never serve you out of order; jostling for position to draw attention is politely ignored. One will be served when one’s turn comes. All of them receive the same attention, whether they buy three empanadas to take home and warm up for lunch, or present a list on two pages of items required that could be found only here.


Half of the frontage of Izraël-Le Monde des Epices

I am a very dull client here; I always ask for the same five packets of Madagascar pepper (“poivre de Madagascar”) and, invariably, I am asked whether I want “le classique” or “le aromatique.” I always ponder with gravitas and I always answer “Le classique, Madame, merci.”

Supplied with Madagascar pepper for the next couple of years, I head to no. 16 where the mission is to buy a good quality “Marc de Bourgogne.” Marc is what French call their version of grappa. In English we unromantically call it “pomace brandy” or even... marc! I have at home a modest collection of grappa, and I was looking for an artisanal marc de Bourgogne to keep the grappa company (By the way, that is a very active collection; it is consumed and replaced with some frequency. The member products better come already aged, as otherwise there is no chance that they will age much in my cabinet...).

The door of the store is closed. We step in anyway; nobody there. I say a loud “Hello!” and a voice responds from somewhere below us. A gentleman, looking exactly the way I imagined Mr. Pickwick, appears and I explain to him that I want some marc “artisanal”, not “industriel.” Of course he has exactly the thing, an “Appellation Marc de Bourgogne Réglementée par Décret”, produced by Domaine Joseph Roty. The Rotys are very independent and standoffish growers, I am told, and the store has an exclusivity contract with Mr. Roty, so it seems. Then I am told how much the 70 ml. of Marc de Bourgogne imprisoned in the bottle costs. I grab the counter to keep myself steady; Josette pales. “Bien sûr”, I answer bravely, calculating that it costs no more than a good seat to the Rotterdam Philharmonic concert, and that the bottle will last somewhat longer than the concert... The prosaic matters of business now out of the way, the gentleman asks us from where we are, we tell him the stories of our lives, somehow we glide to Napoleon, the Napoleonic wars, Bernard Cornwell and his Captain Sharpe, Marshals Ney, Jourdan and Soult. He wants to speak English; we want to practice our French. After a while, we agree on an armistice, admitting that Napoleon was a great general and no less great a thief of cultural treasures, that Wellington was probably available at Waterloo with a much fresher army than Napoleon and, as we leave cordially the store, I almost forget there the precious bottle of marc.

After these expensive incursions, we had better go back to the jambon and cheese on fresh baguette in our room instead of the projected three-course lunch at “Le Temps des Cerises.” We will eat there tomorrow.

The big question: will I have the strength of character to wait with the opening of the bottle of marc until we return home? (P.S.: I did!)

Tonight: to the opera!
Friday, 21 September - It is About the Risotto; Intermezzo: Crosswalks of Paris

Morning dedicated to shopping, gifts for grandchildren and other family, and some funky tableware for us. When on Île Saint Louis, I highly recommend to stop and to at least look at the displays of “Pylones”, at 57 Rue Saint Louis en l'Île (there are many other Pylones stores in Paris, including at the Charles de Gaulee airport.) The subtitle of this store is “Editeurs d’objects” and indeed they are. We always find there something of original, attractive and colourful design.

[Noted in passing: No line-up at Berthillon at 11am! Not even at the original Berthillon.]

On the way back to the apartment, I reserve a table for lunch at “Le Temps des Cerises.” Last time we ate there, I missed on the risotto; we were late.

I have a weakness for risotto. Wherever I see it on a menu, I cannot resist. I think that the risotto is one of the two things most difficult to prepare. The other one is the soufflé. Both the risotto and the soufflé share the need to know when to stop. A few moments too early and the rice is still raw, the soufflé does not rise. A few moments too late and the risotto is paste, the soufflé collapses. To know when to stop, this is the question! For people too.

At lunch, the risotto aux coquilles Saint-Jacques lardée offered at “Le Temps des Cerises” is excellent, slightly creamy, the rice still defined, the scallops - wrapped in their bacon envelope - crisp on the outside. Wonderful. For Josette, Madame suggests a lactose free, made just for her escalope de saumon aux haricots verts vapeur. Josette likes it a lot; no sharing with me today. A glass of Viognier, a clafoutis aux poires, two coffees. (€43.60). The little café-restaurant is packed, as it was whenever we walked by, lunch or dinner.

On the way back to the apartment, a stop to get a baguette for the evening, an éclair-café, a croissant naturel.


Vehicles parked in front of the elementary school on rue du Petit Musc

Dinner at home followed by a walk in the neighbourhood above Saint-Antoine/Rivoli, if the rain that just started will allow it. If the rain persists, there is correspondence, emails to write or to respond.
Intermezzo: Crosswalks of Paris

I think I have finally figured out the most difficult thing to do in Paris. No, it is not climbing Tour Montparnasse without an elevator, or forcing your way to the front line to view “Mona Lisa” under siege by amateur photographers at the Louvre, or finding living people in Père Lachaise after midnight, or driving through Place de la Concorde, or even finding Nespresso coffee pods, pardon: cartouches.

No, the most difficult thing to do in Paris is to cross a street.

Again, I am not talking about the large intersections, such as the Circle Bastille, or around Place de l’Opéra. And I am not talking about automotive traffic.

No: you recognise the real Parisians by how they cross the small, one-way streets in their residential neighbourhoods.

I have diligently tried to observe and imitate the Parisian backstreet crossing technique and I am still working at it. I will share here my observations the best I can.

The difference between Parisians and those who aspire to at least fake the impression that they are at home in Paris, is that the real ones know already before birth, through genetic modification, where to look for the oncoming hurtling cars. Thanks to this unique extra-sensory perception, they can concentrate on what is really important before placing their feet on the zebra markings of the crosswalks between the two sides of the street. Not so I. Or others like me.

That is because, being a temporary import, I have to look at the same time for two things, not only for one:

(a) the motorised cannonballs piloted by drivers with the specific intent of flattening me, and (A) the even more dangerous, inevitable presence of the doggy do on crosswalks.

You see, everybody here knows that you may step into a doggy accident at any time, on any sidewalk.

But dogs are not only cute; they are also smart, and thus they learn. The new predilection of the Parisian cute, sweet, human’s best friend for crosswalk use indicates an until recently unknown inclination to perfidy: they know, the little ones, that their production is less identifiable in between the confusing alternation of white paint and black asphalt that crosswalks offer.

I just cannot perform this multitasking: watch for cars that would kill me, and for dog deposits that would mark me. Since human beings are wired to worry more about projectiles than dejections, therein lays my quandary... But I continue my training!

Which gives me the obvious idea that a buck or two can be made by founding a school for “Organic crosswalk safety in Paris.” But who is going to underwrite the third party liability and foot gear insurance?
Saturday, 22 September - The Stravinsky Fountain; Back to rue François Miron; Meeting Dear Friends

This morning we take the bus to Galerie Talmart, at 22 rue du Cloître Saint-Merri. We were informed that a photographic exhibition with the subject “RE-ACT Bucarest-Projeter la ville” (RE-ACT Bucharest-A Projection of the City) will run at the gallery for one week, as part of the events of the “Week of Cultural Exchanges.”

The exhibition promotes the rediscovery of the capital of Romania “as it was immortalised through the photographic lens” of the Romanian photographer Andrei Mărgulescu. Very promising.

We arrive half an hour ahead of the opening, and, by pure chance, have our own discovery: that of the Stravinsky fountain, a water basin at the south end of the George Pompidou Centre, between the Centre and the monumental Church of Saint-Merri. This is a mischievous, droll installation of various sculptures and mobile water fountain elements symbolising, or representing, various Stravinsky musical works, or characters from his works, such as The Nightingale, The Fox, The Firebird, The Mermaid (who bears a stunning resemblance to our nine years old granddaughter, Riley), some sculptures playfully coloured, other just black.

How have we missed this spectacular corner of Paris until now?

The Stravinsky Fountain reminds me of another like installation, the Perpetuum Mobile mechanical water fountain, similarly installed in a water basin, in the centre of Basel, Switzerland, of which a photograph hangs in our apartment. Maybe I have found for that photograph a non-identical twin!

In the meantime, the opening time for Galerie Talmar has passed, but when we get there we find the gallery still closed. I try the door handle once or twice and a young man gesticulates from inside that it will open later. He then opens the door and tells me that the gallery will open at 12. I point out to him that the invitation we have indicates 11am as the opening time. He, very nicely, relents and gestures that we can come in now.

Inside, we are somewhat miffed, since the promised discovery of Bucharest as it was “immortalised” by the photographer, and it turns out architect, Mărgulescu is really only a small number of panoramic photographs of the same objectives, two houses represented individually and in a variety of perspectives and metamorphoses by utilising a limited number of building elements.

Well, not all promises live up to expectations, but at least we discovered the Stravinsky Fountain!

Back to rue de Rivoli and Hotel de Ville, we retrace another day’s itinerary and return to rue François Miron because I have decided to also buy a package of the “aromatique” version of the Madagascar pepper. But first we discover the imposing Church of St. Gervais, at the beginning of the street. Next to it, in medieval times, there existed a millenarian elm, which became the place where people used to meet in order to settle debts. The old elm is gone, but one of his offspring is still shading Place St. Gervais. Not clear where debts are being settled nowadays...

On François Miron, at nos. 11 and 13, there are two of the oldest buildings in Paris, dating back to 1425. They are easily identifiable, being visibly much older that their neighbours.


Two of the oldest buildings in Paris: rue François Miron nos. 11 and 13, dating back to 1425

At no. 30 is Izraël-Le Monde des Epices, where I complete my grocery purchases.

In the meantime, the sun wins its battle with the obscuring clouds; it is suddenly warm again.

Home for lunch, and then waiting for Pauline and Steve, who arrive today in Paris and will remain here for three days, staying at a hotel near us.

Just before five the phone rings; Pauline and Steve are downstairs. Since I cannot open the gate from upstairs, I go downstairs to let them in. After taking an appraising look at our very intimate elevator, they decline the option and take the stairs to the third floor where Josette waits for them, while I, not so nimble, follow by elevator.

Last time we have seen Pauline and Steve was in our apartment in Toronto. Now we host them in “our” Parisian apartment!

We catch up; it has been some time. They tell us about their vacation in Normandy, we about the first part of our Parisian séjour.

I call the restaurant “Le Temps des Cerises” to make sure that it can accommodate vegetarian requirements, which they confirm that they do, and I make a reservation.

We later have there an excellent dinner: espadon (swordfish), a vegetarian plate, brochettes d’agneau, panna cotta, mille-feuille, a bottle of chilled Viognier. Chat and some more chat. Wonderful.

We arrange to meet next morning; they go for a walk along the Seine and we say good night.
Sunday, September 23 - Around the Marais with Friends; Alas, at Night the Rain Starts...

We pick up Pauline and Steve from their hotel and start the day with coffees in Place Bastille.

It is Sunday and our first target is Marché Richard-Lenoir where we walk, inhale the aromas of the market, admire its colours, buy a few things and complete with another stop for coffee.


Chanteurs à l’ancienne in Marché Richard-Lenoir

We then head towards Place des Vosges and decide to go for lunch in one of the Mediterranean/Israeli-style restaurants near to or along rue des Rosiers. We settle on Pitzman’s on rue Pavée, a busy and colourful place that serves the classics of the Israeli cuisine. We share an appetiser of hummus and tehina with pitas, then the mains are almost identical, what they call here falafel sandwich, which means falafel balls and salad with tehina sauce in open pita. A bit messy but delicious and filling fare. The service is fast, we finish and tour rue des Rosiers, then fight the crowded, narrow sidewalks of rue des Francs-Bourgeois and leave Pauline and Steve in front of Musée Carnavalet while we go home, for a bit of rest and icing of knees.

At 6pm Pauline and Steve come upstairs to taste the bread bought by Pauline in the market this morning. I make coffees; we have some lactose-free sweets bought on rue des Rosiers.

Earlier, Pauline and Steve scouted vegetarian restaurants and decided on Le Grenier de Notre-Dame, on rue de la Bûcherie. We share a taxi and are exposed for the first time to purely vegetarian cuisine, surprisingly varied and interesting.

It is a pleasant evening and we walk back towards Notre-Dame, walk through a Île Saint-Louis surprisingly quiet on a Sunday evening, buy without line up some Berthillon ice cream from one of the authorised “franchisees”, cut through rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Île to the bridge Henri IV, and we find ourselves back to our apartment on Rue du Petit Musc!

Soon after, at 10:15, the rain starts, exactly at the time predicted by Steve. I send him congratulations by email.
Monday, 24 September - GTG at Café des Musées; Thoughts for a Rainy Day

Heavy rain overnight, gives way to a light rain in the morning. I must go out for some domestic requirements and I worry about the weather for the rest of the day. I shouldn’t have worried, but:

This is the day for a very special GTG, that brings together for the first time the creators and founders of Slow Travel, Pauline and Steve, with Slow Travel’s two-time Hero, AP and her husband, A, who delights us every week with his personal, uniquely droll take on all things Parisian and French: places, people, customs, under his column “C’est Ironique”, in Paris Update.

I am happy that I was the catalyst for this very special reunion.

AP made for us a reservation at Café des Musées, on rue de Turenne. We scheduled nothing else for the day and walk along rue de Turenne, admiring along the way the line up of store after store, on both sides of the street, displaying mostly wonderful male fashion. Oh, the shirts!

As we arrive at Café des Musées from one end of rue de Turenne, Pauline and Steve appear from the opposite direction. As we step into the restaurant and address the reservation, AP and A are right behind us.

We are directed to a somewhat separated area, a small podium, round table, six seats. Introductions are in order and taken care of. We give the required attention to the menu and choices and, with this out of the way, we just enjoy the company and the conversation. And the excellent food.

After lunch we decide to walk the rest of the rue de Turenne, literally to its end, to the shop of Jacques Génin. And so, five pretty experienced travelers (A has, in the meantime, retired home to his work) go to Jacques Génin only to find that... it is a day of “relâche” there: Génin is closed on Mondays!!

We decide to be amused instead of being disappointed. We separate after AP points helpfully to the fact that we are near rue de Bretagne and Marché des Enfants-Rouges and can use the same bus line of a couple of days ago.

At 6pm Pauline and Steve come upstairs for a last chat before their departure tomorrow.


Paris roofs, photo courtesy of our Paris host
Thoughts for a Rainy Day, or an Umbrella Epiphany

[“Definition of epiphany: A sudden realization about the nature or meaning of something.”]

Generally, I try to use the largest, widest umbrella available. The idea in using an umbrella is to avoid being rained on to the widest circumferential degree possible.

I generally buy, use and lose, extra large umbrellas.

Before leaving Toronto I found at a new Michael’s store that just opened on Yonge (no misspelling here!) Street, across from the North York Central Library, the umbrella of my dreams, the mother of all umbrellas, a “totes” with a “coverage” of up to 70 inches, or 177.8 centimetres. It is big! And it carries a life-time warranty.

This morning I was already at the door when I realised that it rains heavily and that I should take the umbrella with me. I was at the door, the umbrella was somewhere in the apartment, I did not want to bother Josette.

Our host, thoughtfully, had provided at the door a pot planted with about five different umbrellas. I just picked one and I was on my way.

Now, everybody knows that umbrellas create individual protection in a personal space. Sometimes, we would share this space, as tightly as possible, especially when we are in love, the object of our love holds our arm, and the personal space supplied by the umbrella inexplicably becomes tighter and tighter... OK, everybody has felt this at least once, but hopefully, like me, for a lifetime of rains.

On the other hand, when we are alone, the umbrella encloses us in our own cocoon, away from the world. Impervious to the rain, we can meditate, we can brood, we can (Gene Kelly, at least, could) dance.

But when I opened my borrowed umbrella, I had a revelation. I was not incarcerated in a limited space. I could see everything ahead of me and above me and to my right and to my left. I could clearly see the line of windows, the tin roofs four or five stories above, cars splashing ahead, the signs of stores. I could see the clouds that delivered the rain and the people who were hurtling towards me without tangling our umbrellas and without looking with antagonism at each other. Suddenly the rain was a friend that did not obscure the rest of the world!

Yes, there was daylight under my umbrella, and the world was open, and I had no way or desire to return and enclose the private space thus liberated.

I had discovered the transparent, clear polyethylene umbrella.

I highly recommend the experience.
Tuesday, 25 September - Canaletto at Musée Maillol: Acqua Alta in Paris?; rue du Bac

A look outside and there is an immediate need to confirm that it ain’t so: more rain?

The Weather Network is pretty clear on this account:
  • Morning: cloudy with showers;
  • Afternoon: cloudy with showers;
  • Evening: cloudy with showers;
  • Overnight: cloudy with showers;
  • Wednesday morning: Probability of precipitation 80-90%.
Bury the head under a bunch of pillows and go back to sleep? Or show character and decisiveness and confront a rainy Paris?

We had in our sights a visit at the recently reopened Musée Maillol, on rue de Grenelle, which would also bring us to the historic Rue du Bac, one of the most attractive and interesting streets in Paris.

In keeping with the unrelenting rain and the theme of water, the current exhibition at Musée Maillol is dedicated to “Canaletto à Venise.” The idea of “acqua alta” makes right now perfect sense in Paris too...

On a more serious note, the exhibition presents circa 50 Canaletto paintings of Venice, sourced from a variety of museums and private collections.


Musée Maillol on rue de Grenelle, recently restaured and reopened

But last night, on the radio station Paris Classique, Josette has heard that the renowned Russian piano virtuoso Boris Berezovsky will give a recital Wednesday (tomorrow) night at the auditorium of the Musée du Louvre. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Auditorium’s box office is closed on Tuesdays and, as a result, I spend a considerable amount of time on the phone trying to find a “fnac” agency that would take our money and provide a couple of tickets for this recital. No luck; I am parked for the longest time on some “hold” line, and then the line drops.

I suggest to Josette a detour: we will go to the “fnac” agency on Champs-Elysées and try to buy the tickets there. It all happens along métro line 1, which usually does not involve climbing too many stairs. Said and done.

But at “fnac” it turn out that they do not sell tickets to the Louvre Auditorium, which would explain, maybe, why they left me on “hold” for so long. Anyway, a visit to “fnac” seldom ends without us buying something and we end up with a couple of CD collections, including Cecilia Bartoli’s latest album, and return to Concorde, where we link with line 12 to Rue du Bac and Musée Maillol.

The Canaletto exhibition is a revelation: quality works, including some large canvasses, and Canaletto's famous sketchbook. There is also a reconstruction of Canaletto’s no less famous optical chamber that, by a combination of optical lenses and dark room, made possible the width of field and accuracy of detail that are so characteristic to his works. And the bonus: to be in Paris, one of my favourite cities, and to enjoy the immortal “vedute” of Venice, another of my favourite cities. How fortunate we are!

After the exhibition we take a leisurely walk along rue du Bac and its elegant shops, stop for coffees under the heated awning of a café, and return to the apartment. We walked a lot today; the rain does not abate; we will spend the evening inside.
Wednesday, September 26 - One Can't Fight Musée du Louvre; and More Rain...

Much like yesterday, today starts with a dark sky, "enhanced" by some faraway thunder and light rain.

We planned to go today to Musée du Quai Branly, but we have some unfinished business left over from yesterday: tickets to the evening piano recital of Boris Berezovsky at the Louvre Auditorium. Yesterday the box office of the Auditorium was closed and we could not buy tickets elsewhere, notably not even at “fnac.” It seems somewhat naïve to think that there will still be tickets available; likely “tout Paris” will be there, and the Auditorium has only a limited capacity, but we have nothing to lose, except maybe half an hour of time. Time, we have!

The Louvre Auditorium website indicates that the cash opens at 11am and we are at Louvre shortly after that. We miss the métro exit that leads directly to the museum's concourse (rather, I miss it; Josette pointed to it initially but I went on to what seemed to me the right exit...), but a very friendly RATP employee points us right back from where we came and allows us to backtrack without having to use another pair of tickets.

Once in the concourse, we first see this enormous line-up for tickets to the museum, hundreds and hundreds of people. We walk by them confidently, since we are here to buy tickets to a concert, not to visit the museum. At the head of the line we ask a security person about the location of the box office for the music auditorium and he tells us that there is only one line because, once we have tickets to the auditorium, there is nothing to stop us to go into the museum...

We are somewhat stunned by the logic, retreat to reflect, and I go to ask another employee, because it is clear that we are not going to line up at the end of the kilometre-long snaking line. The second person confirms what his colleague has already said: there is only one line for all kinds of Louvre admissions...

We accept defeat, but all the to-ing and fro-ing was too much and we resign ourselves to a short tour of the Tuileries and rue de Rivoli towards the Comédie Française and Conseil d’Etat, from where we return home. Musée Branly will be left for another day. The afternoon is dedicated to administration and to a rainy visit of the nearby Village Saint-Paul.


About the little known Village St. Paul

If it does not rain some more. But it does... Rain, rain, go away/Don’t come back while here I stay...
Thursday, September 27 - Musée du Quai Branly; Village Saint-Paul & Place du Marché Saint-Catherine

Rain. Our prayers were not answered; the sky is dark, with no hope of blue patches in sight.

To go or not to go? We decide to go. To Musée du Quai Branly, the objective we abandoned yesterday.

Métro lines 1 and 9 take us there quickly. When we get off at Alma-Marceau, only a few drops of rain greet us. We walk towards Pont de l’Alma when we find ourselves in front of the Flame of Liberty, a reproduction, a few meters tall, of the flame carried by the New York Statue of Liberty torch. In the tunnel right beneath the bridge perished Princess Diana in 1997. Since then, the base of the Flame of Liberty is occasionally covered with flowers and the monument has become a sort of unofficial memorial for the much-adored Princess. Indeed, bouquets of faded flowers cover the base of the Flame also today.

I stop for a picture and put away the camera just in time, as a torrential rain starts, darkening the air. We open the umbrella and huddle together, trying to stay as much as possible out of the almost horizontally pouring sheets of water. And it is windy on the bridge, and cold...

Finally, we cross the bridge and, once we are out of the air currents, the rain relents somewhat. By the time we are at the entrance to the museum, we have one single purpose: to find a dry spot!

We find it in the elegant Café Branly, where we shake the umbrella, our outer clothes and ourselves. We catch our breath, and order double coffees for restoration.

In the meantime, the rain seems to have eased off a bit and we recover to a drier state. It is time to buy tickets and visit the museum.

The Musée du Quai Branly is only six years old and, to my mind, it is a wonderful example of public funds spent not only to a good purpose, but also spent well. The museum is wonderfully organised and very easy to navigate. The main, permanent collection is dedicated to popular culture artifacts from four continents: Asia, Africa, Oceania and South America. The variety of the items presented and the exceptional presentation itself are stunning.


Musée du Quai Branly

It is not possible to absorb the entire permanent collection in one visit. Choices must be made, and we choose to concentrate on the African and Asian collections.

The museum also presents temporary exhibitions, and the price of admission to those is included in the general price of admission.

The current special exhibitions are:

“Cheveux Chéris-Frivolités et Trophées” (The Art of Hair-Frivolity and Trophy), a small but fascinating exhibition of paintings, photographs and videos dedicated to the role of hair in human culture and society; at times amusing, at times nostalgic.

“Les Séductions du Palais” (The Seductions of the Palate) dedicated to cooking and eating in China. Tableware; cooking implements; from one to two millennia BC old pottery to bronze, lacquer, silver and gold; through various dynasties, leading to the porcelain tableware and implements we now associate with the Chinese cuisine. Recipes are also available, including bear paw stew ("Take one bear, get one paw, etc., etc.")!

What also impresses in this wonderfully planned museum are the accessibility and its services.

The museum is placed within the environment of a beautiful garden, particularly dazzling this afternoon, when the rain finally stops and the sun suddenly shines. The combination of sunlight and clear air with the freshness of the still wet plants is visually spectacular.

By this time we had walked well past our daily quotas and look for a less demanding way to return home. At the corner of Quai Branly and Avenue Bosquet we find a salutary taxi station and we get back to the apartment in style, at the now familiar cost of €12, tip included.

Towards the evening we decide to take advantage of the clearing skies and walk towards Quai des Célestins, then turn into rue Saint-Paul, a little known, developing jewel of what is, somewhat pretentiously for now, called Village Saint-Paul. This is a group of buildings and galleries developed over what were in the 14th century the gardens of King Charles V. They represent the gamut, from “marché aux puces” to quite elegant, high design boutiques, to jewelers and antiquaries, restaurants and cafés. This is a place with promise, and it may become in a few years a primary shopping and touring objective, helped by its proximity to Île Saint-Louis and to Bastille.

We complete the evening tour with sitting on a bench at Place du Marché Saint-Catherine and note the difference between this quite special place on a warm evening as opposed to tonight’s aspect. Place du Marché Saint-Catherine is basically a city square whose all sides harbor restaurants. I count about nine restaurants and bars, side by side, and on a summer day there is no table free to be found at any of them; there is business for all. Today, with the cooler weather, they all hide under heated tents and awnings and do not seem to be busy. Maybe it is still too early in the evening.

On to rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Place des Vosges (where the access gate to Hôtel de Sully is already locked for the night), back to rue Saint-Antoine through Birague.

A great day in all. As I write, there is an almost full moon outside, and it gives us the hope that we are done with the rain for sometime.
Friday, 28 September - The Impressionists of the Le Havre Circle of Modern Art; Jardin du Luxembourg

What a pleasure to wake up to a clear sky! This is when this apartment shows at its best: the tall double windows, the high white walls and ceilings, let in a flood of light, a golden light this morning; the huge Venetian mirrors augment the light.

I think with some anticipation of the views of Jardin du Luxembourg, where we plan to be later today.

First, the bus takes us from Boulevard Henri IV to Boulevard Saint-Michel via rue des Ecoles. On Saint-Michel time has changed little, although the sidewalks seem cleaner than I remember. There seems to be more space, or are there less people? In the recent past we have avoided this part of the city because of its agglomeration and grunginess. Something to think about, maybe reconsider, evidently.

The first of our objectives this morning is Musée du Luxembourg, where a new exhibition presents a selection from the Le Havre collection of Impressionists, which is considered second only to that of the Musée d’Orsay.

Why Le Havre? In the middle of the 19th century, the then highly prosperous city developed a taste for art and art collecting. A museum was opened by that time and the affluent citizens started a mostly friendly competition in the collecting of impressionist and modern art. At the beginning of the 20th century the friendly competition turned into collaboration through the creation of “Le Cercle de l’Art Moderne” (The Circle of Modern Art), presenting painters such as Corot, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, followed by Dufy, Braque and other Fauvists.

Not a large exhibition, but a very interesting one. Much like the now permanent collection at the Orangerie, which is based on the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume private collections, the Le Havre Circle of Modern Art focused on collections of works beginning with the end of the 19th century and over the following two decades.

The presentation is very visitor-friendly: an abundance of benches that allow rest and contemplation, and a rich museum store.

The visitors also have access to a pavilion that hosts an Angelina satellite coffee shop, serving excellent coffee and great desserts. On the other hand, one wonders about values when a “BABA Savarine” costs almost as much as the entrance ticket to the museum...

After the Savarine and coffees, we continue with a visit of the Jardin du Luxemburg, whose flowers are splendidly presented this early afternoon by the alternating sun and cloud. A place of calm, space, colour. An abundance of chairs. Most of the people in the garden are very young, probably students from the nearby Sorbonne, or clerks from the neighbouring Sénat de France.


In the Jardin du Luxembourg

Every time I am here I think of Adam Gopnik and his “Paris to the moon”, and in particular I remember his description of the Jardin’s Théâtre des Marionnettes, and the children’s enchantment watching the puppet theatre.

We sit in the garden for a while, take some pictures, and turn towards Boulevard Saint-Michel.

The return bus station is not so easy to find. With the one-way public transportation so typical of Paris, we arrived via rue des Ecoles, but the return bus station turns out to be on Boulevard Saint-Germain. We find the station, sit for a short wait, and a few minutes later are dropped off at Sully-Morland, less than 100 meters from our apartment.

I stop at our local café-restaurant “Le Temps des Cerises” to make a reservation for lunch tomorrow, with AP and A. I confirm that the restaurant’s risotto will be on the menu, and thus reassured we repair to our apartment.

The evening finds us strolling along the Seine quays, watching on one side the bateaux-mouches floating one after another down the river, and on other side stopping and reading the interesting commemorative marble plaques naming the illustrious historical personages who lived in these houses 500 years ago, in the times of Louis XIII. How much has all changed and yet, remained the same: water, cobblestones, trees, sky.
Saturday 29 & Sunday 30 September - Le Temps des Cerises; Sunday Morning Concert

Best of the day: lunch at Le Temps des Cerises; AP, Josette, A and I. The table: dominated by three orders of risotto Saint-Jacques lardées, la pièce de résistance on the menu of the restaurant. Coffees (Nespresso): upstairs in “our” apartment.

We have a wonderful few hours together.

And our Paris time is getting shorter.

Memo: tomorrow to reconfirm with Air Canada the flight back home.

Sunday, 30 September

Another Paris glorious, sunny day summons us through the drapes.

Since on Sundays the métro line 1 starts only at 10am, we decide to treat ourselves to a taxi ride to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in order to arrive there earlier and fresh for the Sunday morning chamber music concert.

I call G7 for a car dispatch and, sure enough, the car is already waiting as we open the gate. It proves to be a great idea: the avenues and boulevards are still clear of traffic and we enjoy a parade of the best Paris has to show along the Seine, rue de Rivoli, Concorde, Champs-Elysées, and Avenue Montaigne.

The taxi pulls in front of the theatre just when the doors open to the public. This is a special, Parisian thing, these Sunday morning concerts: all tickets are one-price, and seating is first come-first occupy. In our case, the tickets having been bought over the Internet about two months ago, the cost was €25. Those who line up right now at the box office will pay only €20.

We head straight to the orchestra seats, because our experience with the first balcony seats at another concert was, how to put it? Like sitting in straight-jackets. This is a concert hall with the most extraordinary acoustics and, except for the orchestra level, with most terrible seats.

The orchestra provides individual chairs, quite comfortable, with ample space for knees. However, to get the good seats one has to arrive early, the way we did, about 45 minutes before the performance.

This is a chamber music concert and we enjoy it greatly: the variety of the program, from Schubert to Schoenberg, and the quality of the interpretations.

At the end of the concert, following all the excitement and applause, I look for a washroom and find two twin lines, elbow to elbow, men and women, although it is clearly marked that this is the men’s toilette. It turns out that the men’s washroom includes access to a lockable cabin, and that the gentlemen lining up have politely offered the use of the cabin to the other sex. A sign of solidarity, I guess: suffer and enjoy together. It is inevitable that the ladies will be offered also some unedited views of the manly ceremonial, before and after; you know, those buttons and zippers and belts... Nobody seems to be concerned or embarrassed in the least. Ultimately Parisian!

All business finished, we leave the theatre and step on the sunny side of Avenue Montaigne. We delight in another joyful morning of ineffable beauty, the play of sunlight and shade, the majestic trees, all so very typical of Paris in the fall.

Walking up Avenue Montaigne, we cut towards George V. As we reach Champs-Elysées, there is a line-up at Louis Vuitton. Unlikely that anything would be distributed there gratis on a Sunday morning, or on any other day. But Louis Vuitton is not our scene; we descend into the métro 1 station and take the train to Bastille.

We notice immediately two things: (1) the train is unusually full for a Sunday morning: (2) No matter how busy trains would be, in Paris both of us, within seconds, are offered seats by the younger people. I think with sadness of the uncouth culture of public transportation in Toronto, where typically young people occupy the seats and the older ones stand; the young ones studiously concentrate “deep” into their books, newspapers, iPhones, iPads, iReaders, kindles, avoiding the eyes of the older subway or bus riders. Once again I decide that, upon our return, I will write a letter to the editor of Toronto’s largest newspaper about the need to educate our young in respect for their elders. But then, once again, I remember: those young people don’t read newspapers anymore...

Out at Bastille, we understand the reason for the metro being so busy: Place Bastille is completely blocked to all traffic, and thousands of people, mostly young, are gathered; a band pouring high decibel music into space; everybody carrying balloons. Huge signs proclaim “Solidarité SIDA" (SIDA is the French acronym for AIDS).


Centre Pompidou, roofs and crane, Tour Eiffel, photo courtesy of our Paris host

Back at the apartment, I confirm the Air Canada return flight.

Later, we take an evening walk on what has become a preferred route: over the Pont Henri IV, across Île Saint-Louis, sitting for a while on a bench in the small park behind Notre-Dame. The Pont de l’Archevéché attracts attention with its locked padlocks, and the bouquinistes have started closing their booths as the evening falls. The Notre-Dame Cathedral shines in the red gold colour of just before sunset.
Monday, 1 October - Wonderful Lunch at La Régalade Saint-Honoré; Getting Ready to Return Home

Just to report that we had a wonderful lunch at La Régalade Saint-Honoré. We were four (friends from Toronto have joined us) and we had a very leisurely meal. One of the first things to be mentioned about this excellent restaurant: attention, light-handed service, no rush. One of us asked for a menu in English; no problem. We asked for explanations on the menu and they were patiently given.

An "on the house" generous portion of terrine de campagne maison with the support of cornichons and wonderful bread keeps us company until the appetisers arrive. I forewarn my friends that the portions will be very generous, but the terrine proves just too tempting...

The restaurant took special care to accommodate Josette’s requirement for a lactose-free meal, both at the main course, which was adjusted accordingly, and with the dessert.

Main courses: the ladies chose the sea bream and the monkfish, respectively. The men showed less imagination and ordered the same appetisers (a sensational risotto à l'encre de seiche et calamar) and main courses (superlative, melting in the mouth poitrine de cochon fermier croustillante). We separated at desserts, when two of us had the cheese plate, one a specially prepared fruit salad, and I had the soufflé au Grand Marnier, a sinful closing act.

The "formule" (appetiser, main, dessert) is presently priced at €35, which represents exceptional value.

A bottle of Cairanne blanc was very reasonably priced and served well this wonderful lunch.

We walk with our friends around the Palais Royal and Place des Victoires neighbourhood. One more stop for coffees, and adieux are exchanged. They will leave tomorrow on a river cruise, we will pack.

No need for dinner tonight…


Seine and Notre Dame on a late afternoon

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