Monday, 29 December 2008

Alone in Paris on Christmas Day

This morning BBC Radio 4 ran a feature by a reporter who spent Christmas Day alone  in London. It it was a dull couple of minutes. The guy droned on about cooking dinner alone - forgetting the sprouts, admiring the Queen's handsome appearance in her 80s.... he didn't say a word about feeling left-out, marooned or just plain old lonely.

Lonely and left-out. I was sure that was how I would feel when I found myself alone in Paris on Christmas Day. I knew people in the city but good Frenchmen and women that they are, they had all taken off for the provinces and elderly parents. I tried to duplicate a lone London Christmas and sign up to help those worse off. I was actually staying in an apartment next to the Salvation Army refuge so called them on Christmas Eve to offer my services. A jolly man with a thick African accent answered the phone. "You can spend Christmas Day looking after me if you want," he suggested. I declined. 

The day dawned. I'm not a practicing Christian - this was not my celebration and so it should have been ' just another day.' Why couldn't I just get up and go about my business indoors - do some writing, a bit of reading? But the change in the world outside the Paris apartment was almost palpable. The silence of the boulevards, I was convinced,  hung heavy;  the families and friends gathered together all excluding me seemed almost visible. I'd once seen a Bergman film, Fanny and Alexander, where Christmas celebrations included forming a very Scandinavian conga line and dancing from one opulent red-velvety room to another, singing all the way. In my lonely state, all of Europe was engaged in similar festive pursuits - that long conga line stretched from County Cork to the Urals but made a stonking great detour just before it got to me.  I was alone in the  13th arrondissement with just the cats for company.

Then I remembered that unlike London, Paris does not close its public transport on Christmas Day. I rode the Metro from Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand to Chatelet. I made my way up the steps into the daylight fearing a Parisian version of High Noon. But the cafe next to the subway was open . So were most of the restaurants on the street. I wandered through  the crowds to the Marais and a modern art exhibition just off the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois.  In another gallery of naive painting on the Place des Vosges, I bought a couple of postcards and watched a Jewish wedding party make their way into a restaurant. In a cafe opposite Notre Dame, I drank a hot chocolate on this very cold Christmas Day and listened to two women from New York discuss the general hopelessness of men.  In a video shop on the Rue Mazarine, I joined a scrum to buy cheap DVDs and came away with a 5  euro copy of David Lean's "Rencontre Breve".  

By the time I got back to the 13th arrondissement apartment, all thoughts of happy Scandinavians doing the conga without me were long forgotten. I settled in with Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and the cats and watched duty and loneliness triumph over love in a season that wasn't even Christmas. 

Monday, 14 April 2008

Romantic Paris - The Museum of Romantic Life

When the French say “Romantic” they are more likely to be refering to the school of writing, painting and music that sprang up at the end of the 18th century. Romanticism emphasized imagination and emotions over reason and intellect. Individualism, nature worship and an exaltation of physical passion were the order of the day

The famous painting by Casper David Friedrich of the lone man with his back to us gazing down from the summit of a snowy mountain is the ultimate romantic image. Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann were great romantic composers, Baudelaire, Byron and Shelley their poets.In the 19th century, this quiet neighbourhood attractednumerous Romantic artists because it mixed country life with elegance. The gathering of poets, painters and composers and the fascination with ancient Greek culture led to the hill leading down from Pigalle being called La Nouvelle Athenes. But a look at the list of names who lived here and at the lives they led will confirm that these people were conducting romantic lives in every sense of the word. Chopin, George Sand, Liszt and the Russian novelist Turgenev were all regular visitors at our first stop, a house that is now the Musee de La Vie Romantique, a five minute walk from the Metro St Georges.
In the Rue Chaptal at number 16 tucked up an alley way lined with poplarsis a tiny little patch of French country life – the Musee de la Vie Romantique. I can hear bird song at the end of the alley and there is a garden that even in winter still holds a few roses, vines and hibiscus. This ochre coloured house with its green shutters belonged to the artist,Ary Scheffer. It was the venue for Friday night gatherings of artists and writers such as Ingres, Liszt, Chopin, George Sand and Turgenev. Charles Dickens was a regular visitor for a couple of months in 1856 while sitting for Scheffer for a portrait destined for the National gallery in London.
The museum is devoted to George Sand – her family bequeathed all her memorabilia to the museum. Like her English contemporary, George Eliot, the Baronne Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin published her novels under a man’s name. George Sand was as famous for her love affairs with prominent artistic figures such as Alfred de Musset and Frederic Chopin as she was for her writing.Sand smoked a pipe, dressed as a man and wrote novels defending free love for men and women. She has even attracted the attention of Celine Dion who, in her 2007 album ‘D’Elles’ featured a song based on a love letter from Sand to Alfred de Musset.The rooms on the ground floor are reminiscent of the homes that the writer had in the neighbourhood – over-furnished, the walls lined with portraits, the shelves and occasional tables topped with busts and candelabras. A display case exhibits Sand’s jewelry and a cast of Chopin’s delicate hands. For a while, George Sand lived round the corner with Chopin at 16 Rue Pigalle. But the robust, free-spirited writer and the delicate, consumptive pianist soon went on to live in separate apartments.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Taking Tea in Paris

One day, some enterprising person will open a chain of charming tea shops in London - the coffee chains are everywhere. You can choose between a coffee shop with a blue logo, or a red logo or the omnipresent green logo. If you want a cup of tea, you wind up paying 20 pounds in a hotel or drinking out of a paper cup in the National Gallery cafe.

No such problem in Paris. The French love tea shops, love the whole ritual of 'le the a cinq heures'. (For some reason they have moved it from four to five.) And the capital is full of tea shops - some chintzy, some opulent, one or two even cosy. Here are some favourites:

1) La Duree - Rue Bonaparte

When I first moved to Paris in the 80's La Duree was an old dowager of a teashop across from the Madeleine. They served their speciality macaroons - the baffling macaroon hysteria that has blighted 21st century teashops had not yet hit - and were generally considered a nice place for older ladies to meet. A few years ago, La Duree spread its wings and can now be found on the Champs Elysees as well as this opulent address on the Rue Bonaparte. Take a table in the room that looks like an Indian prince's tent- worth it alone for the jewel-toned brocade on the banquettes - and order, oh order anything you fancy - it's all excellent and an hour or two in here, is a magical escape from the slightly weary bohemia outside the doors.

2) The Restaurant at the Musee Jacquemart Andre - Boulevard Haussmann
Jacquemart and Andre were a 19th century power couple in the Parisian art world. She was a painter. He was a banker. They collected amazing art- a whole room upstairs in their palatial home is dedicated to Renaissance painters. Downstairs is a restaurant that is all red velvet, gilded mirrors and chandeliers. A favourite of the French ladies who lunch.

3) Musee de la Vie Romantique - Winter Garden tea room - only open in summer! Rue Chaptal in the 9th
Another speciality museum - this time inspired by Chopin's paramour, the novelist George Sand. Like the English George Eliot, this woman gave herself a man's name. The little museum is devoted to the Romantic era - it looks like a French country cottage and has a 'jardin d'hiver' where they serve tea in summer.

4)A Priori The - in the Galerie Vivienne near the Place des Victoires. An American owner - bright and light. A stop for tea here is a good excuse to wander in the Galerie Vivienne - one of several romantic covered passages in this part of Paris. More about them in another post.

5) Angelina at La Maison de l'Afrique on the Rue de Rivoli. An old-established stop - more for the rich, dark hot chocolate and the fabulous French Riviera mural than tea perhaps. My French friends swear by the Mont Blanc - for my tastes a rather sickly mix of sweet chestnut puree, whipped cream and meringue. Go on a late winter afternoon, gaze out at the silhouetted figures in the Jardin des Tuileries and order the phenomenal chocolate. The French, ever concerned about our livers take care to serve a carafe of water along with the thick dark mix.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Finest Pastries in Paris

Sofia Coppola's film of Marie Antoinette chose to focus on the "Let them eat cake" cliche. The film, like the wildly over-rated, "Lost in Translation" is a waste of 2 hours of a life. Far better to spend those 2 hours on the cakes themselves. Despite the British claim to tea as both a drink and afternoon recreation, Paris is the city for great tea-shops, and the pastries that are part of them.

Here are five fabulous pastries. We'll tour the teashops in another post.

1)Millefeuille a la reglisse - La Duree.
This one sounds terrible in translation - Licorice millefeuille. I'd avoided it until a Parisian friend talked me into trying one at La Duree's Champs Elysees cafe. The pastry is 'croustillant', the creme patissiere is light and not too sweet and the licorice is subtle.
2) Crumble/fruit-rouges/pommes/rhubarbe.
This crumble is served at Cafe Bertrand right next door to Notre Dame de Lorette in the 9th arrondissement. It is as good as anything you'll find at a village tea shop back in the crumble's English homeland. The French tend to know better than to oversweeten anything and the crumble is buttery and crunchy.
3) Fauchon, the posh deli opposite the Madeleine have recently introduced a dull little cafe on the ground floor - the only advantage I can see is that it gives a visitor a chance to try one of their excellent eclairs without schlepping it back to your hotel room. The eclair flavours rotate, rather in the way that art galleries rotate their paintings. If you are there on a day when the turquoise blue 'eclair aquatique' is available give it a try. I'm not normally attracted to blue food but this jewel-like pastry flavoured with mint and vanilla is the exception.
4) The St Marc at little, long-established Millet on my old street, the Rue St Dominique in the 7th arrondissment - it's the street that stretches from the Esplanade des Invalides to the Eiffel Tower. You'll see the St Marc in Millet's window, halfway along on your left if you are coming from the Invalides. It's a three layered, chocolate, creme patissiere and crispy caramelized topping. It has looked and tasted delicious for the 20 years that I've been eating them.
5)And finally, why not head out to Marie-Antoinette's old home in the years before it all went so terribly wrong for her. On the Rue de La Paroisse in the elegant town of Versailles, Gaulupeau, a tiny little tea-shop with room for a handful of tables serves an exquisite "Plenitude" - chocolate macaroons, dark-chocolate mousse, a chocolate ganache and crispy caramel.

Of course, there's Pierre Herme - I'll give him a post to himself next time

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Renting a bike in Paris

Parisian drivers are not so much rotweilers as Jack Russell terriers – nervy, nippy and with fast reflexes. This is worth remembering if you are tempted, as I was, by Paris’s new system of cheap bike transport – the velo libre. I lived in Paris for 10 years back in the 80s but have long since exchanged traffic jams, honking horns and mass transit for the peaceful pleasures of pootling round my current home of Vancouver on a comfortable upright bike with a wide soft saddle, solid tires and just enough gears to get me up the occasional hill.

During a transport strike in the French capital this autumn, I stumbled across two dozen similar bikes, neatly parked in a rack alongside city hall.. The mayor of Paris has chosen this model to be the ‘velo libre’ – the ‘free bike’ that is dotted at numerous locations throughout the city just waiting to be picked up, ridden and dropped off at another rack elsewhere in the city.

I stared at the 20 bikes. They stared back at me, or rather the row of green lights that indicate whether a bike is free twinkled in the autumn dusk. But nobody in their right mind rides a bike in this city, I reasoned. And with a car, well you’re at least on equal terms with other drivers – all slogging it out on the boulevards inside a cage of metal and stainless steel. Who would head out into Parisian mayhem, more or less naked by comparison?

As I stood by those green lights, I got to take a look at just who, in Paris, is getting on their bike these days. Students and young people in general. They zip up to the automatic rental panel by the rack, tap in a few details as if they are sending a text and are gone within seconds. I know this because I tried to ask a few of them for rental advice but they were “desole madame mais tres, tres presse.” Then a trio of young Jewish boys appeared - ‘presse’ as well; they had just time to adjust their yarmulkas before setting off across the Seine towards the Latin Quarter. A plump matron in a fur coat cycled past, followed by a lawyer in his robes and a businessman in a cashmere coat deep in conversation on his cell phone.

I couldn’t stand it a minute longer. Out came the Visa card – the city will charge 150 Euros if the bike is not returned – and within minutes I had signed up for a week for just a 5 euro subscription and was removing a bike that had taken my fancy and which I could now ride for a half an hour for nothing. The following half hour would cost one Euro with the cost rising the longer the bike stays out.The sign up procedure is posted on the electronic panel next to the racks in several languages and informs us that a year’s subscription costs just 29 Euros. My bike came complete with lights, a basket, a lock and three gears which is enough for most of the inclines in Paris.

The lights of the Conciergerie were reflecting in the Seine and I was on a bike in a bike lane heading across the river towards my Paris lodgings in Montparnasse – in the middle of rush hour and during a public transport strike. It was bliss. I have never felt so free and happy in the French capital in all the years that I lived there. Yes, French drivers are evil, scheming bastards and yes, the French are all anarchists at heart but after a few minutes on the Rue St Jacques, I had worked out that if I was bold and staked my claim to the cycle lane, they respected me. Everyone knows that the French respect boldness . Snuggling close to the gutter out of fear, as I did at first, is not a good idea. The taxi and bus drivers who share your cycle lane will just snuggle closer to you. It’s all very cosy but a bit unsettling. On that first day, I settled for a 20 minute ride to Montparnasse. I had no idea where the other bike racks were located so after those first euphoric moments crossing the Seine, I spent the next 15 minutes worrying about where I was going to leave it. But bike stations or ‘bornes’ are everywhere and I found one right outside my lodgings.

On my second day, I have an elegant afternoon of shopping, tea at La Duree and an opera concert scheduled. I decide to do it all on the bike. I’m hooked now and can’t quite resist that line of green lights. I cycle from an exquisite millefeuille pastry and a cup of ‘the a la vanille’at La Duree in St Germain to the Salle Pleyel near the Etoile to pick up my ticket to see the great Finnish soprano Karrita Mattila. This trip involves two of the biggest cycling challenges in Paris and I am keen to see if I am up to them. First the Place de La Concorde. I set off and am just beginning to feel daunted by the seeming millions of cars swirling past me when I see the statue symbolizing the city of Brest but also the spot where Louis XV1 was decapitated. What’s a few honking horns compared to a crowd braying for your noggin? I ask myself and soon I’ve cycled across Concorde and am heading past the peaceful Saturday afternoon streets in front of Nicolas Sarkozy’s residence at the Elysee and the British and American Embassies. It’s just me on the street now watched with a bored eye by the machine-gun totting CRS in front of the official buildings.

The second challenge is the Place de L’Etoile and here I am defeated by the barmy French determination to give the right of way to traffic entering what-must-be-the-biggest-traffic-roundabout-on-the-planet. I try. I try womanfully to maintain my bold stance but the streams of traffic keep coming at me so, for the first and only time, I get off and wheel my bike. At Pleyel, I abandon it and head into theconcert. For a regular cyclist like me, the concept of leaving the bike is a difficult one. It does come with a lock and I am sorely tempted to hook it to a railing and reclaim it when I come out. I’ve grown fond of this bike (number 26 – pulled out of a rack behind the Monoprix in St Germain) and can’t quite let it go. But the system does not encourage long term rental. If half an hour costs nothing and an hour costs a Euro, 2 hours costs 7 Euros. The bike gets left at a rack at the Place des Ternes and I go to listen to Karita Mattila singing the final scene of Salome. She is amazing but I have to confess that while the Finnish diva’s performance builds to a climax and she sings of her desire to kiss the decapitated head of John the Baptist, I find myself wondering ,” Should I take the Champs Elysee to Concorde or nip down Avenue Marceau and follow the quays of the Seine?"

There is just one bike left in the rack when I come out. A middle-agedman is peering anxiously at the German rental instructions. A neophyte! Darwinism kicks in. I’m an old hand by now and can whip that lone ‘velo’ out from under his nose in the time it takes to say “Gotterdammerung”. And the rental panel has two sides. So while he fumbles for his credit card, I can tap in my password and be away. But “Entschuldigung,” says a forlorn voice as I aim a finger at the keyboard. “How do I the bike get?” I can’t resist showing off my knowledge and a couple of minutes later he is wobbling away towards the Arc de Triomphe and I’m facing a descent into that long-forgotten subterranean world that is the metro. But ‘pas de panique,’ I walk just 50 yards and there they are, those lovely green lights glittering in the Paris night, advertising a rack of a dozen bikes.

By day 3, I’m unstoppable. I cycle to the Musee de la Vie Romantique and to its raunchy neighbour the Musee de l’Erotisme up at Clichy. Three bikes later I stop for lunch of lobster bisque near the Madeleine and on to an appointment with my dermatologist in the Marais but when I get there, all the racks at the nearby Hotel de Ville are full. And several cyclists are waiting. “On ne peut pas les parker,” fumes a stern woman in black leather Oo la la, she should do something about that franglais. In the meantime the Paris mayor, in his office across the square has thought of everything. At a full rack, you tap in your number and are given an extra ten minutes to find another rack. I locate one just 3 blocks away and leave what is my fifteenth bike of the week. And that is to me the most wonderful aspect of the whole system. It teaches us, in this age of rampant materialism, to lighten up, to relax and let go. In the French capital, another bike and another parking space are certain, like love, to be just around the corner.