Saturday, April 30, 2011

Paris VIII: à bientôt

11 September

When Victoria and I arrived back in Paris after our day in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the sun was just setting and the sky was pretty spectacular with dalmatian-spot clouds.  We decided to head to the Champ du Mars to relax for a little while in the waning sunshine; little did we realize that thousands of others had the same idea.

The screen at the base of the tower was new, and there were speakers blaring music and search lights scanning the skies as more and more people arrived.  Clearly, we had stumbled into some huge happening - which is pretty consistently my story every time something interesting happens to me in Paris.

Eventually, someone arrived on the stage in front of the screen to explain.  From what I gathered from the speech (in French, bien sur!), there was to be a spectacle this evening in honor of the efforts of hundreds (or thousands) of volunteers who had helped out an organization called Solidarité SIDA, which unites young people in the cause against AIDS.  Or something like that.  In any case, for a long while the screen was plastered with, "des Médicaments pour Tous" (Medication for All).  We had hoped there might be a concert, but we had no such luck, though there was certainly some music.

After the welcoming speech, they showed a long and confusing series of video clips on the big screen.  The short (maybe one minute long at most) clips seemed to be taken from random TV shows that had been aired in the last twenty years, but that seemed to be all they had in common.  Some were funny, some were intense, some made no sense at all, and most of which involved too much jargon or were spoken too quickly to be very intelligible to me.  The final clip, though, that one was perfectly clear... sort of.

It's hard to see because the crowd is so dark in the video, but pretty much everyone in the field did the infamous YMCA dance during the chorus.  I wish I had kept taping for an extra 5 seconds; the tower started to sparkle just after I stopped recording... but as it is, you'll have to take my word for it and use your imagination.

We stayed to watch for about an hour, and decided that was plenty. 

12 September

My last full day in France was, appropriately, a Sunday, so that I could spend my happy few remaining hours wandering through the market.  After getting some fruits and bread for myself, I met with Victoria and introduced her to my favorite spot in Paris.

She had never been to the marché de la Bastille before.  It was so great to experience the city with someone who had also lived there, but had an entirely different experience than I had - we could introduce each other to favorite spots we might never have seen otherwise.  After some requisite wandering and ogling, we picked up some lunch to split: a saucisse en croûte:

The sausage tasted like a Touraine saucisse d'ail to me, and was wrapped in a somewhat crisp and flaky crust.  It was good, but heavy - we enjoyed it much more once we had bought a large bottle of jus de pomme - apple juice - to drink with it.  The juice was similar to what we would call cider in the US - it had a delicious, complex, fuller flavor than standard grocery store juice and made a perfect accompaniment to the sausage.

At three, I saw Victoria off to the train station, as she was headed back to Geneva to start her internship the following day.  I'm so glad the timing worked out that her first weekend in Europe was my last, and that we were able to spend a few days together in Paris!

When she left, I was at something of a loss for what to do with my remaining hours.  In 2008, my last day in Paris was somewhat frenetic.  It happened to be Bastille day, so some of the metro stops weren't running, and I spent about 8 hours walking all over the city, soaking in every last drop of Paris that I could before I had to get on a plane and fly back to the boring old U S of A.  This time around, however, leaving felt much more bittersweet.  I was sorry to leave France, of course, but I was glad to be headed home.  Mostly, I was tired: tired of living out of a suitcase and moving to a new, unfamiliar city for a few days; tired of coming up with where to go and what to see and which adventures to pursue each day; tired of working so hard to keep up with the language spoken all around me; tired, even, of eating French food.  I was ready to go home and read books and watch movies and take a few days to do absolutely, gloriously nothing.

Perhaps my last few hours are an indication that I absorbed more of the French lifestyle or culture on this trip than I did on the first one; in the end, all I wanted to do that afternoon was sit at a table on the sidewalk terrace of a café, sip un déca, people watch, and write in my journal.

The last sentence I wrote in that journal, as I sat in that café that afternoon, was a hope that I would finish writing this blog "within a few weeks" of getting home... it's taken just a little longer than that.  But I have enjoyed revisiting the memories of the sights and sounds and tastes of this trip as I have slowly made my way through typing this all up, and I hope you have enjoyed coming along for the journey.  In the end, I mean this blog to be an (exceedingly long, but illustrated!) answer to the question, "how was your trip?"  That question invites a one word answer, and though it was indeed "great!," that's not the whole story.  That doesn't begin to tell the whole story.  I hope that this does.

The next time I travel with the intent of eating and learning about French cuisine, I presume I will write about it here.  For now, I have no upcoming travel plans - though you never know what might be around the corner.  In the meantime, if you'd like to hear about what I eat (and cook!) when I'm not traipsing across Europe, I am writing all about those (slightly less exciting) adventures here.  I'd be glad to have you join me for the ride.

A bientôt,

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Paris VII: les banlieux

10 September

My mom was headed back to the US on the afternoon of the 10th, so we got an early start to get ready to take her to the airport.  We paused for a moment for our last café together.

I accompanied my mom part of the way to the airport on the metro, then spent the day meeting friends in the city.  Unfortunately, I hardly took any pictures during the day, but that was in part because I spent the day revisiting spots I had already been to in the last week.  At noon, I had a lunch date with my friend Victoria, whom I met during college.  She went to high school in Paris, and her mother still keeps an apartment just outside of town.  She had just arrived in Geneva a few days earlier, where she was going to spend the next few months interning at the World Health Organization, but she hadn't found an apartment there yet.  I suggested she come to Paris for the weekend, and I was thrilled when she decided to do so.

We met for lunch at le Loir dans la Théière, where we both had tartes aux oignons rouges and we split a clafoutis aux mirabelles and a slice of tarte aux nectarines de vigne et romarin.  It was one of the few meals I had in France where I was good company instead of a good note-taker, but since I'd eaten almost the exact same meal just a few days earlier, I figured I could get away with it.

After a very pleasant lunch, I had another date with another old friend.  I met Isabelle through the Boston University program I attended in 2008.  Though her day job is with BU, she is also a professional photographer, and I first got to know her when she led an atelier de photo - a photography workshop - one gray Sunday afternoon.  After an hour or two of taking photos all about the lovely jardins de Luxembourg, we decided to sit down for a juice in a café near the park.  At the café, Isabelle and I discovered we had a mutual love of pastry, and later that day she introduced me to my first Pierre Hermé macaron.  Another of Isabelle's strong recommendations that day was Angelina, which she enthused had "the best hot chocolate on the planet," a fact I verified for myself a few weeks later.  Fast forward to two years later: when we were deciding where to meet, I suggested Angelina, and naturally she agreed.  It was wonderful to see her again and catch up on the last two years, though neither of us was feeling up to tackling the heavy, rich hot chocolate at that time; I went for an apricot juice instead.

After saying goodbye to Isabelle, I went back to the hotel to relax for an hour or so before heading out across town to Victoria's apartment for dinner.  Her apartment is a little outside of Paris proper, in Boulogne-Billancourt, one of the banlieux (the suburbs) of Paris, just south of the bois de Boulogne.  While in US the suburbs are often considered safer and cleaner than inner cities, in France the word banlieu has a decidedly negative connotation.  The banlieux are often home to immigrants and the working class, and in many cases they are can be dangerous places.  But Boulogne-Billancourt is a little more affluent than some of the other banlieux, so though I was out of Paris, I was still a ways from really slumming it.

Though it is illegal to build buildings taller than seven stories in Paris proper, each banlieu plays by its own rules.  Victoria's apartment is on the eighth floor, and the horizon is dominated by two tours: the Eiffel, and the Montparnasse.

Throughout most of our undergrad years,Victoria and I celebrated Thursday nights with weekly dates to watch Grey's Anatomy and, usually, to cook dinner together.  At lunch, we decided to continue the tradition by cooking dinner together that evening.  We started with a trip to the grocery to pick up ingredients, then came home and cooked up a feast of rice, sauteed spinach, caramelized onions and mushrooms, and chicken in a lemon-butter-basil sauce.  After a month and a half of eating out every day, it was wonderful to have a home-cooked meal for a change!

We ate on the balcony as the sun set and the Eiffel tower lit up.  We watched the tower sparkle at 9:00, and then, surprisingly, sparkle three more times before the regular 10:00 sparkling - who knows why we got a few extra shows!

It was a gorgeous evening, and it was so nice to spend it relaxing over a home-cooked meal.  Eventually, though, it was time to head back to the hotel and retire for the evening - though we parted with plans to meet again the next day.

11 September

Our plans for the next day were centered on another banlieu, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.  Before we headed there for the afternoon, though, I had the morning to myself, which began with a viennoiserie aux pepins au chocolat:

Viennoiserie refers to a subset of pastries that are based on sweetened yeasted bread dough (there's usually no yeast involved in a "pâtisserie"), and pepins au chocolat are chocolate chips.  The dough was very similar to that of a brioche, sweet with pockets of warm chocolate.

Before meeting with Victoria, I had a few hours to myself.  I spent most of my time walking, first down the rue Rivoli where I found this unique facade:

This is why I love Paris.  For those of you who, like me, want to know why, there is a banner hanging near the top on the right that reads, which explains this is "L'aftersquat Rivoli," of course.  Aren't you glad you asked?

From there, I headed up to Montmartre for a while. It's such a cute neighborhood - if you can handle all the hills. 

If I lived in Paris, I would keep red flowers in my window boxes.

Around 2:00, we met and took the RER (the commuter rail that reaches further into Ile de France than the metro) to St-Germain.  Victoria had been there with friends during high school, spending lazy afternoons in a huge park with a view of the Paris skyline.  Our first stop when we arrived, though, was to La Crêpière, because it was well past lunch time and we were decidedly hungry.

I ordered the crêpe au fois gras et aux figues fraîches:

As you might have guessed from the name, this extravagant crepe was filled with fois gras and fresh figs.  It was rich and sweet, but it could have used a little more complexity: a little acid, perhaps, or salt.  It came with a beautiful, lightly dressed green salad, and we ordered a pichet de cidre to go with it as well, of course.

For dessert, we split a crêpe orange miel cointreau:

The cointreau, an orange liqueur, was flambeed at the table.  The alcohol wasn't too strong, but the orange flavor was somewhat bitter - it could have used a little more miel (honey) to counteract the harsher flavors.

Following lunch, we headed down to the park.  The park sits on a wide, flat plateau, which seems sometimes to go on forever.

Looking over the edge of the plateau, the horizon is broken by the highest points in the Paris skyline: la Défense, the Eiffel and Montparnasse towers, and, sometimes, Sacré Coeur.

To the left, La Défense, with the Eiffel tower peeking out on the right
After walking along the edge of the plateau quite a ways - maybe twenty minutes-worth - and still with quite a ways to go before we reached the end of the park, we spread out a blanket in the grass so that we could have a picnic, of course.

It was a perfectly beautiful afternoon, warm and breezy under a blue sky dotted with hundreds of cotton ball clouds.  That morning Victoria had picked up a baguette from the boulangerie that was voted to make the best baguettes in all of Paris in 2010, and we munched on it with chèvre and a fig-thyme compote.  Life doesn't get much better.

Eventually, some hours later, a policeman biked by to contritely inform us that the park would be closing soon, and we might consider beginning our long mosey back to the entrance.  We complied, but with a couple of pauses along the way to take a picture or two.

Remember how I said I got a new skirtEt, voilà !

Once we had finally made our way back out of the park, we hopped on the RER to head back into Paris.  Our evening wasn't over yet, but that story will have to wait for another post.

Coming soon: The end of my journey, including the video you didn't realize you've been waiting for all your life - let's just say it involves the Eiffel Tower, a thousand AIDS medication-distributing volunteers, and the Village People.

A bientôt,

Sunday, April 24, 2011


9 September

When I was planning my trip across France, I knew I wanted to get up to Brittany or Normandy for a day or two.  Unfortunately, that was easier said than done; train routes and schedules (and prices!) made it quite difficult to get to Brittany from anywhere, or to Normandy unless you passed through Paris to do so.  So though I had planned to end my time entirely in Paris, it became clear that it might be easier to arrive in Paris a day or two earlier and then make a day trip up to somewhere in Normandy - after all, it was only an hour or two on the train.  Once we had decided to spend a day in Normandy, it was tough to decide where to go.  In many cases, the towns' biggest attractions were the memorials for the second world war (remember D-Day?); in other cases, the towns sounded like seaside tourist havens rather than real cities.  In the end, we opted for Rouen, the historic capital of the region.

After missing our train to Rouen the day before, we got moving a little more quickly in the morning to ensure our plans wouldn't be thwarted again.  This time around we had no trouble making a 10:20 train, which arrived in Rouen just before noon.  I think it all worked out for the best; while the day before had been grey and drizzly and perfect for shopping and sipping kirs, the weather while we were in Rouen was sunny and pleasant.

The architecture in Rouen was again unlike anywhere else I'd been in France so far.  The streets were a panoply of different styles, with half-timbered houses next to classical brick and stone facades, intermingled with modern structures.

Considering that nearly half of the city was destroyed during WWII, I suppose the juxtaposition of so many styles reflects the interests of those who rebuilt the city.  Some structures, however, have remained for hundreds of years.  In particular, the city is the (proud?) home to the execution of Joan of Arc, and a sign marks this tower as the keep of the castle (fun fact: the word for keep is "donjon;" sound like "dungeon" much?) where she was imprisoned during her trial.

There would be more time for dungeons and executions later; but for now, we were hungry.  Normally, when I would arrive in a new city, I would spend a fair amount of time looking in restaurant windows, reading menus and weighing my options, before I would choose a spot to eat.  In this case, however, since we arrived around lunchtime, I went the simple route and chose a restaurant that had been well recommended by a few guide books.

I'm not sure I would have chosen it on my own; it boasted laminated menus and, of all things in France, a salad bar (what???), but the meal was nice and the cider was excellent, so I can't complain.  I say cider, of course, because Normandy is apple (and therefore cider [read: hard cider]) country.  In fact, while other regions, like Alsace, have a wine route, Normandy has a cider route.

To go with my cider, I chose the mijoté de canard aux abricots et ses carottes fondantes:

The long name of this dish translates as "simmered duck with apricots and its melted carrots."  I was served a small cast iron pot steaming with chunks of duck, apricots, and carrots in a still-bubbling broth, which I doled out to myself in a bowl at the table.  The sweetness of the apricots really permeated throughout, making the dish one of the sweetest main courses I've ever tasted in France.  My only complaint would be that the duck was quite difficult to cut in the bowl, making it difficult to eat; the flavors, however, were warming and just what you would want on a chilly fall evening.

After lunch, we made our way to the heart of the city, passing the Palais de Justice on our way.  With its intricate Gothic facade, it looks more impressive than the average civic building.

What you can't see in this photo, however, are the huge pockmarks in the stone, a solemn reminder of the war that ravaged the city seventy years ago.  You're never too far from such a reminder in Rouen; even Monet's beloved cathedral, though still soaring and impossibly intricate, shows serious signs of damage.

Though the facade is fairly well maintained, the interior lacks the mystical, jewel-toned light that is the result of stained glass windows in other cathedrals in France; Allied bombs dropped in 1944 on the German occupation damaged a number of the windows in the cathedral.  The remnants of the war, still so omnipresent after so many decades, are sobering - and this wasn't even one of the Norman cities whose sole touristic attraction is the war memorials!  Really, one day in Normandy was enough.

But enough solemn, sobering history; let's get back out to the sunshine and celebrate le Gros Horloge:

The creatively named "large clock" appears on just about every postcard you can buy in Rouen.  On the underside of the arch, we find another hidden treasure:

After having spent some time exploring, we paused for un café, and then we needed something sweet.  Luckily, Hautot was there to help us out.

In addition to its famous apple orchards, Normandy is also home to quite a population of Norman cattle, who provide over half of all of the dairy products in France.  (Take a look at any specialty French butter that may appear in your grocery store, like Président - chances are, it comes from Normandy.)  Traditional Norman desserts are thus often based on apples and cream, and those were the requirements for the pastry I would choose.  Luckily, my tarte Normande chiboust fit the bill:

I think the shopkeeper recognized I wasn't French, and intentionally gave me the tarte that had fallen in on itself, thinking I wouldn't know the difference.  I wouldn't, either, except for the fact that it had been sitting next to all of the other perfectly lovely and un-messy tartes.  In any case, I don't suppose the fallen meringue affected the flavor.  This is a small apple tart topped with a mound of bruléed crème chiboust, which is standard crème pâtissière mixed with an Italian meringue.  I would have liked a little more apple, but it was a nice, simple pastry that hit the spot.

We didn't eat the pastry in the shop; instead, we walked to the nearby Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Plaza), since it thoughtfully provided bench-height stone remnants of what must have been an important building hundreds of years ago.

I say it must have been important because when we were done eating, I noticed the sign that indicated that it was on this spot in May, 1431 that Joan of Arc was executed.  What an incredible thing to just stumble across!

But perhaps you are uninterested in the events of centuries past; perhaps the unusual structure behind the stone wall remnants has captured your interest, instead?

It is the church of Ste Jeanne d'Arc, and it is unlike any other church I have seen in France.

I'm sure the walls of windows must be thoroughly impressive from the inside; unfortunately, there was a somewhat creepy man standing and begging in the entrance and harassing anyone who went inside, so we'll just have to imagine.

The church isn't the only piece of interesting architecture, though: just to its left rises another soaring, pointed roof.

Here on the other side of the church is the Old Market which lends its name to the Plaza.  It was a pleasant market, covered yet open to the air, and host to a few vendors with standard market fare: cheeses, fish, meat, fresh produce.

We got some apples for the train, and then stopped in a nearby Paul bakery for a couple of flûtes to take on our way before gradually making our way back to the train station.  On the ride back to Paris, we laughed until we cried about my mom's future employment in the art world.  I don't want to give too much away, but I am confident that someday hers will be a household name.

By the time we were back to the hotel, Paris was dark and rainy.  My mom started to pack, since she was headed back home the next day; I had a few more days left in Paris before I would fly back to the states.

Coming soon: time to get down and dirty in the (not-so-)seedy Parisian banlieux.

A bientôt,

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Paris VI: disappointment reconsidered

8 September

We had thought we might head up to Rouen for the day, and took the metro across town to the Gare Saint-Lazare (one of Paris' many train stations) with this aim, only to arrive about 10 minutes too late to make the train - perhaps we shouldn't have stopped for un express along the way?  I was still feeling somewhat downcast, partly left over from my realizations from the day before that Paris wasn't "mine" the way it had been before, and partly from knowing that my trip would be ending in a few short days.  Missing the train sent me over the edge for a minute... but only a minute.  We were in Paris, after all!  Who cares about stinking Rouen, especially when we could go tomorrow instead and here in Paris, McDonald's looks like this:

Seems to me this ought to be a Burger King instead, but given that I wouldn't eat any brand of American fast food in Europe, I suppose the point is moot.

Gare Saint-Lazare is right on the edge of the 8th and 9th arrondissements, near l'Opéra and home to the most famous of les Grands Magasins, including Printemps:

We ducked our heads in all the big shops, just to have a look at the overpriced goods and, in the Galeries Lafayettes, the stunning architecture.  We also stopped in some shopping venues that weren't quite as fancy, like the passage Havre, which boasted a charming little park in the middle of the city and the mall.

It had been raining overnight and the benches were soaked, so when we paused in the park to eat our baguette, picked up from Kayser that morning, we didn't sit.

After our snack, we ducked in a Pimkie (a chain clothing store found across France), where we did in fact make a few purchases.  I'm not sure when the last time was my mom and I went clothing shopping together... maybe ten years ago, so we were long overdue.  We had fun, with me trying on some ridiculous long dresses and an adorable skirt that I ended up getting (thanks Mom!).  My mom was so swept up in the excitement of the Paris fashion world that she even bought herself a scarf or two, and I'm confident that one day soon she'll wear one of them.

Having sufficiently shopped, it was time for a little more sight seeing, so we walked down to see l'Opéra.

By now it was probably around 1 pm, and the stately steps were momentarily home to a crowd of lunching young professionals.

Speaking of lunch, we were getting hungry ourselves, so we decided it was time to find something to eat.  I had a spot in mind, not far from la Madeleine:

It's hard to go hungry anywhere in Paris, but the block surrounding la Madeleine is home to some particularly spectacular eateries.  Specifically, I was thinking of lunch at Fauchon.  Fauchon is internationally renowned as a high-quality gourmet food shop, selling jams and patés and coffees and vinegars and all manner of goods.  They also have an incredible pâtisserie that sells not only incredible sweet treats, but also all manner of beautiful savory versions of classic pastries (say, salmon eclairs with peas, or vegetable tarts).  And then, if that weren't enough, they also have a salon de thé serving some pretty fantastic lunch fare that features a number of the items they have for sale in the boutique.

We were seated in a pleasant outdoor terrace that was encapsulated in a clear plastic tent - quite lucky, given the on-again-off-again rain we experienced throughout the day.  My mom ordered a bowl of gazpacho, heady with the intensely fresh flavors of cucumber, green pepper, tomato, and a little kick of onion.  Its velvety texture was a perfect counterpoint to the crisp croutons served on the side.  For my part, I had the risotto aux cèpes et artichaux:

The rice was perfectly creamy with a tender chew, deep in flavor from mushroom stock, perhaps.  The cèpes, or porcini mushrooms, were beautifully caramelized the complemented the rice beautifully, and the pickled artichoke hearts were a lovely tart counterpoint to creamy richness of the rest.  All together in a perfect bite, the dish was creamy, toasty, and just a little acidic - complex and well-balanced.

The restaurant is on the second floor of the boutique, so after finishing our meal we headed downstairs to spend some more time shopping, for mustards and chocolates and teas.  When we finally tore ourselves away, it was only to head down the street to Ladurée for some macarons.  I had been told - and believed - that Pierre Hermé made the best macarons in Paris, but having never tasted those of the other macaron hotshot, we would need a taste test to be sure.  We picked up three macarons from Ladurée: caramel-fleur de sel, pistache, and fruits-rouges.

And then, of course, we hopped on the metro to head down to Pierre Hermé for a sample of his: jasmin, cassis, and vanille-huile d'olive.

That evening and the next, we carefully tasted both sets of macarons.  While the flavors of each shop's macarons were bold and well-defined, the light, airy, delicately crisp texture of Pierre's made them the winners for me.  The classic vanille-huile d'olive (vanilla-olive oil, the green one on the right) was particularly excellent.

But there was no time for macaron tasting just then - we were off to the Tour Montparnasse, the only skyscraper in Paris.  I visited it first in 2008 on a tip from my friend Isabelle.  There are two ways up: one costs about 7 Euros just for the trip up the elevator; the other leads to a restaurant with mediocre but very expensive food and a stunning panorama of the city.  But it's open all day, and if you go at about 3-4 pm, a time when the French never eat out, you can order a drink and enjoy a table by the windows for an hour or two.  Sure, the drink may cost 9E, but the restaurant is empty and quiet and the view cannot be beat.

We arrived at about 3:30 and were immediately seated at an empty table just adjacent to the window.  My mom ordered a coffee, while I opted for an extremely photogenic kir, the classic apéro made with white wine and crème de cassis:

Later, my mom told me she hadn't been that enthusiastic about coming to the restaurant, but she changed her mind quickly when we stepped off the elevator and were greeted with this view:

We stayed for maybe an hour or so, noticing different monuments and taking a ton of pictures over the city... and in the mirrors.

Eventually, we headed back out into the grey weather to walk through the 6th arrondissement.  On our way to the metro, we passed through the lovely jardins de Luxembourg.

We went back to the hotel just long enough for a light dinner of Kayser baguette, yogurt, and fruit before heading getting back on the metro to head back across town and visit the Champ du Mars.  My mom had never seen the Eiffel tower sparkle in person, so we wanted to be there in time for the 9:00 show, just as soon as the sun had set and it was dark enough to watch.

Seeing the tower sparkle was nice, but I enjoyed seeing my mom's reaction more: she lit up just like the tower, a smile beaming across her face, so happy to be there and to see the lights in person.  Going to school so near the tower, and becoming so accustomed to seeing it sparkle, I had forgotten how exciting it was when I first arrived in Paris.  It was wonderful to see how happy the tower made my mom.

After the ten minutes of sparkling, we took the metro back to the hotel for our dégustation des macarons.  Though we had a rough start with the narrowly missed train, it was a lovely day indeed.

Coming soon: Rouen, heart of Normandy, home of apples and cows and damage from the second world war.

A bientôt,