Letter from Paris No 2 Sept 08
We picked a good weather day for our morning cruise up the Canal St Martin. We were the first to arrive at the relatively new Paris marina that has been built in the old moat of the fort of La Bastille. By the way, for those who have not visited Paris – the old news is, there is no more Bastille – it has long gone, a disappointment for many who think they can see the real building and satisfy their curiosity that leans toward the macabre.
To begin the journey we went under what we would call a tunnel, the French call it an underground vault. On entry I noticed a sign saying you had to get through it in 18 minutes or less so I was concerned we were going to be in darkness for longer than I cared to be. I need not have feared as the 2 kms long stone vault turned out to be an interesting segment of the trip. The ‘streets’ we were cruising under were signposted regularly on the underwater brick walls and every few metres above our heads, a light-well poured in welcome light and ventilation. In the past the vault was lit with 37 lanterns and that image conjures up a Victor Hugo scenario in my head. Today climbing or hanging plants fall through the light wells and form a natural organic chandelier.
As we got to the ‘lock’ sections of the canal we waited patiently whilst a lock-keeper operated the locks to gradually open small vents, letting in enough water to raise the boat up to the next level ahead. Once our boat had risen sufficiently upwards, a dramatic 6 feet or so, the gates opened fully and we could pass through to the next lock. In the 10th district the lock’s overhead charming pedestrian bridges were crowded with people watching us, every bit interested in the process as the passengers.
We had to wait around ten minutes so that gave us time to enjoy watching the scene – a woman who had either been thrown or fallen in the canal. The actor was made up to look either dead or nearly there, the poor woman had about 4 hot water bottles padded around her body to stop her from freezing as she lay on the concrete edge of the canal.
We heard that the Place de Aligre in the 12th near Bastille holds a market in an original market building and the surrounding streets have more fresh food vendors. We were pleased we went because we discovered a good cheese shop. They had varieties from all over France and the owner spoke enough English to explain everything we asked him.
Whilst at the market we admired the dexterity of the juggler who did his act whilst balancing a tall clear glass vase on his head filled with water, and the death-defying part was the goldfish swimming for his life.
Just getting back to cheese as it is a serious ritual here. We have heard that the best cheese shop (fromagerie) is usually the one nearest to you. That is because you can forge a relationship with the fromager and your business will be rewarded with little samples among other benefits. The most expensive are those that store and mature the cheese. How to tell, usually the word ‘affineur’ is on their hoarding outside. We also bought some cheese from the most revered and expensive in Paris ‘Barthelemy’ and JP nearly had an attack when he got the bill for 3 cheeses and he really objected to the inflationary price of a packet of Carrs cracker biscuits that we had looked for all over Paris to no avail.
There are new shopping challenges everyday but it is the little things that provide the most poignant reminders that you are in a foreign land. The brands you use and take for granted are not available like familiar washing & dishwashing powder, even toilet paper. Buying basic foodstuffs is the just the same, I keenly read the labels hoping I can find a cream that can be whipped.
Last time we were here in May, we went to the Musee Cernusch facing the beautiful Parc Monceau in the 17th arrondisement to see its collection of Asian art and this time we went to the Musee Guimet in the 16th and found another outstanding collection.
I would say Guimet is probably in 3rd tier of things to see in Paris but by no means third-rate, just for people who have more time in Paris or have a specific interest in Asian art. The French whilst in ‘occupation’ of various countries made most of the opportunity to purloin some very significant pieces, from sites in Cambodia and Vietnam. However on a pragmatic note, given the wars and destruction in those countries in the last century, at least they were saved for viewing by the wider public and not destroyed by bombs or stolen by the black marketeers. The musee also has a theatre/auditorium for movie screenings, concerts etc.
We went to the Anglo-American Village Voice bookshop to hear writer, filmmaker and American expat David Burke speak about researching ‘Writers in Paris’ . We took a seat on the first floor with a mostly expat crowd – more filmmakers, writers, and an opera singer (learned whilst eavesdropping). One of the writers included in his book is Adam Mickewicz whose plaque commemorating his time in our building is mounted between our windows. Did I say before we were staying at a famous address? He is referred to as the Byron of Poland. There is even a whole bookshop on Blvd St Germain devoted to Polish literature.
Whilst as the Village Voice bookshop we picked up a copy of ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong’ a book written by two Canadians on what makes this country tick.
After the author event, we went to dinner at a restaurant nearby known specifically for its ‘seven hour lamb’. The restaurant was flat-out and tables got turned a couple of times but one of only two good points here was that at no time did you ever feel pressure to leave. A French guy arrived with an English-speaking friend and I overhead him say to his guest ‘I have been coming here 20 yrs and it has not changed one bit’. Well for us that turned out to be its weak point. The décor can stay the same but the food could be improved. Having said that, my slow cooked lamb with fragrances of orange peel and cinnamon was delicious was the second good point, the rest of the food was careless. John’s entrée consisted of a slice of courgette terrine that was served warm but the small dish of tomato sauce on the side, was cold and tasted like Heinz.
Then the Potatoes Dauphine served on my plate (my lamb came in a casserole dish) tasted fine but a ‘chef’ in a correctional facility would take more care slapping it on the plate. John’s duck had a sauce so black that it must have been on the stove reducing for a month.
Like the time in my restaurant reviewing days I gave them another chance with dessert. My apple tart was served straight from the fridge, chilled pastry lets down a tart any day. So can we trust all these travellers (not foodies) who write about their experiences in Australian newspapers and magazines? That’s how I found and noted this restaurant. And my friends, remember when you are coming to Paris ask me what was the name of that restaurant to avoid.
There are two apartments for sale in our building so I jumped at the chance to see what you get for your money in this part of town. Not much – just a great location & address with social cache. The ground floor apartment reeked of damp. The apartment on the floor above was much better but it only had one large room that would have to be the bedroom. Both had to be fully renovated. The prices were €457,000 and €485,000 respectively, that equates to around 1 million dollars in Australia.
Some days just don’t turn out the way you want them, we being optimists, call them a dry run, reconnaissance or research, any way you can put a positive spin on it! After working out the route by bus we got to the Gobelins Tapestry workshop to find it closed to the public that day.
We learned from a friendly gate-keeper, there are two visiting options, you can book into a conducted tour on certain days at 2pm – you will see the weavers at work or you can just buy a ticket to see its public gallery that has changing exhibitions on various topics and media. If you buy the tour into the workshops then it includes the gallery.
So we headed back to our favourite place to pre-purchase anything in the way of entertainment – FNAC and bought the tour for next week. Prices at FNAC are better than at the hosting venues – no booking fee and cheaper.
Whilst we were at FNAC we noticed an advertised concert of Mariza the Portugese Fadoist – so we are going next Sunday night. Hope John likes it because he has never heard a Fadoist! The concert is in the historic permanent circus building.
I bought Ernest Hemingway’s memoir on his time in Paris ‘A Movable Feast’ and he describes living in an area in the 1920’s – on Place de Contrescarpe and close to rue Mouffetard (Mouffetard – means stench street) when a goat-herd would come around early in the morning herding his goats and according to Hemingway a woman in his building went down to get her fresh milk. According to him, a goat would be selected and milked on the spot, meanwhile the goat-herd’s dog worked to keep the rest of the goats tidy on the sidewalk. I wake in the morning and think about Madame getting out of bed in time for the goat’s milk routine and as much as I would love the fresh milk, I am glad I can buy the milk at whatever time I want.
Dayle once worked for Sydney Food importer Simon Johnson & Harveys deli in New Farm and could easily identify the special French cheese we served and since they both love food as much as we do so it was a pleasure to exchange food stories and our favourite shops with them.
We four had dinner at Petit Pontoise, a restaurant recommended by Alex Lobrano the food writer I mentioned in my last letter. It is a small traditional style French restaurant that only seats around 30 people with tables so close together that you could go on your own and you would end up sitting next to someone so that would inevitably lead to a conversation.
We met a young man from Mumbai – sounds like a Noel Coward song. the man from Mumbai Denis Rindeur was cleaning a studio apartment in our building, it is a sideline to his job as a Registrar at the Paris school of Architecture. He offered to show us around at the school and since it is on the same campus as the famous Beaux Arts school we jumped at the chance. We even met the top man, the Director of the Art School who stopped to see who Denis was escorting around. He told us he had been to Australia and most states except Queensland. The Director of the School Architecture, we did not meet but Denis said she is Iranian. That might interest our Iranian high achiever friend Marjane the research scientist who now lives and works in Brisbane.
A bit of inside gossip here when we learned that the Art school and Architecture school were still at logger heads over a 40 yr long feud. I had commented about the positive possibilities of being in close proximity to each other!
Cost of studying architecture here is around €485.00 per year, that fee also covers students medical fund contribution so it is dirt cheap therefore vast numbers are turned away and they can only accommodate 1000 students per year. Another reason I mention Denis and this connection is that he told us a Brisbane girl was at the college as a first year student and rang us and put her on the line. We are arranging to meet with her sometime this week. She came to Paris in her gap year, worked in a café for a year and applied to the school and was accepted so she must have some very high matriculation marks.
Last weekend the annual Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Day) was held and many buildings not normally open to the public were available to visit, including embassies and some of the art museums were free.
On our last visit in May we struck another free day at museums and it was not the first Sunday of the month which is usually gratis also for most of the major gallery visits, so don’t buy the ‘museum passes’ ahead of time until you really know what you are doing and when you want to do it is the motto here. Also those museum passes do not let you into the temporary exhibitions so that is not always convenient. There is also a condition that you must use them on consecutive days. I am not knocking them altogether but you not always work if you want to visit other sights in between.
We took advantage of the free day this time to visit the l’Orangerie Musee – we saw some wonderful works of Andre Derain and Chaim Soutine. The chef painting is by Soutine.It was disappointing though to see people using flash when photographing the epic cultural treasures in the Monet galleries and staff not being vigilant and some even falling asleep at their posts.
If you only had a whistle-stop tour of Paris and wanted to see the art of some of the best artists of the 19th & 20th century then you could just visit here and see some outstanding Matisse, Rousseau, Derain, Soutine. But of course the main drawcard, is what is in the two oval shape rooms.
They were built to showcase Monet’s paintings by the metre of his beloved ponds, waterlilies and weeping willows. But for me it was his ‘sunset’ painted in entirely different hues, that held me captive.
Also the waterlilies are the most photographed and reproduced on anything from scarves to coffee cups, so this confirms for me that to stand in front of the most reproduced, most famous paintings in the world is often a let down, as anyone who has seen the Mona Lisa will say. You are so familiar with the work that by the time you get there it holds no surprises.
A little more on this gallery. I always recommend you take the audio tour, even if it is an extra cost, how often are you in Paris. Paying €5 each for the audio, I discovered more about Derain than I ever knew, and I would have been clueless on why there was a single painting by Chaim Soutine of carcasses of red meat among his more famous portraits and landscapes.
My audio assistant told me that he painted fresh meat for a year, even having a butcher’s metal rod installed in his studio. To preserve its fresh look for the duration of painting time, he obtained buckets of fresh blood to throw at the meat!
We walked back through the Tuilleries. For us it is the most romantic park in the inner city of Paris. There are many sculptures from past centuries and still plenty of space for new contemporary sculptures among the gardens. Everywhere you walk in Paris either in the parks or over bridges we see couples who cannot resist the atmosphere to stop to have a snog.
For garden lovers, the Louvre have a special bookshop at the Place de la Concorde entry of the Tuilleries devoted to publications on plants – Librairie des Jardins.
Not far from here is a luxury food zone around Place Madeleine, where caviar and truffle restaurants prosper and the food porn emporiums of Fauchon & Hediard compete with the most extravagant window displays. We stocked up on freshly ground coffee in Fauchon and in Hediard we bought a jar of strawberry jam for $15 AUD and once home and opened we deemed it worth every centime!
A food snippet my Parisian friend Christine tells me that French people do not have croissants for breakfast, and at €1.00 a pop in the Boulangerie, I understand, why when you can buy a whole baguette for €1.00. In the cafes you see locals eating a mini baguette with butter – that does not mean I won’t be eating a croissant here, just will make sure it is a good one for €1.00 which is around $1.80 AUD. What I really enjoy are the brioche and a small one is called a ‘briochette’ – until I knew this I asked for a ‘petit brioche’ but fortunately they just smile at me and hand me what I what I want.
Absolutely no more time to write, there is too much happening out there. A bientot Roz & John