30 April 2012

Paris in the Spring time - Part 2

A feature of this Paris trip, which made it particularly enjoyable, was getting together with friends.
The first set of friends we met up with were the Epsteins. We had lunch with David and Rona at an Italian restaurant on the very charming Rue Pot de Fer, a narrow, cobbled lane off Rue Mouffetard. This little street is lined with an assortment of modestly priced restaurants. Perfect weather allowed us to experience that quintessential Parisian experience of dining outdoors in a vibrant atmosphere. We had a terrific onion soup, followed by a mediocre pasta fetuccini. We caught up on all that had happened since we’d last seen them.

After lunch we strolled to the Luxembourg Gardens. Rona and I discussed my plans for writing a book on how to teach creative writing to kids. She was full of enthusiasm and encouragement for this project. At the pretty crowded  Luxembourg Gardens Rona took us to her favorite fountain which she explained was the Cyclops looking down on a pair of lovers. When we arrived at the fountain with its stunning sculpture she realized she had been mistaken. That giant was no Cyclops. We learned later that it was in fact the Medici Fountain and the sculpture we had been looking at was of the giant Polyphemus looking down at a pair of lovers. I’m always enriched after a visit with David and Rona, a couple we’ve known for a long time and who are very dear to us.

We had plans to spend an afternoon with a close friend of my very dear LA friend, Caroline. Caroline spent most of her childhood and college years in Paris. She and Jean Michel met at pharmacy school and remained good friends through the years. Unfortunately, Jean Michel had to be hospitalized for an ear complication the night before we were supposed to meet up. So that was all quite unfortunate.

We were, however, fortunate to spend a few hours with his daughter, Laureline. We had met her last summer when she came to California and stayed with Caroline for two months. Laureline is a pharmacy student and was in the middle of taking exams the week I was in Paris. She took a few hours off her busy schedule to visit with us. We had aperitifs at a café oozing with character in the Latin Quarter. This café, in a centuries old building, was on a quiet, narrow, cobbled lane off Blvd. Saint Michel. It was refreshing to talk to a young native Parisian, raised with values I respect, and who cares about making a positive contribution to the world.

I had the pleasure of entertaining Gilles and Cecile Darmois, the owners of our apartment. They had invited Daryl over to their place a couple times for a meal. He appreciated their hospitality and returned the favor by inviting them over for a meal at our place during my week in Paris. This couple had lived in various countries in the world, including the Middle East. They enjoyed international cuisine, especially spicy food. So Daryl and I though a vegetable biryani would be the perfect dish. We’d planned this before I’d left Santa Barbara so I brought along freshly roasted biryani spices acquired from my buddy, Premi.

Preparing a meal meant food shopping, something I hadn’t done much of since arriving in Paris. We ate out a lot, on the lively terraces of restaurants, due to the warm weather. Shopping at French farmer’s markets gives me enormous joy, so I embraced this opportunity. I had noticed that the Rue Cler and Rue Mouffetard markets weren’t yet in full swing. But the Port Royal market exhibited the typical French market scenario that I so adore. All your senses are indulged with the enormous variety of not just fruit and vegetables, but also cheeses, olives, breads, wine, and even a Lebanese food place featuring a huge selection of cuisine I’d never seen before. Because it was just the start of spring the produce selection was pretty limited. I was surprised to see that a lot of it came from North Africa. The vendors were really friendly, and happily spoke to me in English. I had the impression that they enjoyed the opportunity to practice their English. I found a reasonable selection of vegetables – green beans, potatoes, cauliflower, peas, and carrots. The spinach looked attractive so I bought a couple bunches for a soup to be served as the first course. I left the market satisfied with my acquisitions.

It took me a few hours in our tiny, and very limited kitchen to prepare the meal, but by 12:30 it was all ready to be served. Gilles and Cecile arrived exactly on time. They were a most entertaining couple with lots of stories about their experiences of living abroad. They loved meeting international travelers and now they run a bed and breakfast to nourish this pleasure. Entertaining Parisians in our little apartment definitely made me feel like a local briefly.

Of all the people we met and spent time with, the Maupou family was certainly the highlight. I hadn’t seen my friend, Venita, since the early ‘90’s so it was really special to see her again. We met her French husband, Alain, and their two delightful, beautiful children, Charles and Dilva, for the first time. Our common experiences of having Indian ancestry, growing up in apartheid South Africa, and living our adult lives as expatriates in the west have led to a bond between Venita and me. I have a lot of respect for her. She was not afraid to break with tradition and the pressures of the Indian community in Durban, South Africa. She followed her heart in her academic pursuits, studying languages with a passion that resulted in her being a truly international citizen, at home in just about any country in the world. But, apart from her impressive accomplishments, she’s just a great person to hang out with. She is full of joie de vivre and she is so thoughtful and considerate.

Venita and her family live in the 5th arrondisement, so it was a short walk from our place to theirs. Daryl and Alain got along really well too. The great chemistry between us all resulted in joyful shared moments. Venita and Alain totally indulged us. We had lunch at their place on Saturday. Venita prepared a delicious salad of marinated courgette, roasted pinenuts, and other vegetables. This was followed by an eye popping cheese plate that wiped out all my progress toward veganism.
We talked politics through most of the meal. The next day was the official start of the presidential campaign. Alain was actively involved in the campaign of one of the candidates – the centrist Francois Bayrou. The economy was a key issue. So was the muslim immigrant issue, especially as the Toulouse school killings had just occurred. After lunch Alain suggested taking us out for a drive into the countryside.

It was of course, a beautiful sunny day and a drive out of Paris was most pleasant. We went to see a Medieval Castle called Pierrefonds – an hour north of Paris. We past the oldest forest, the Compiegne, en route. The castle was restored by Napolean and looked quite stunning. Not far from it was a pretty lake that we walked around. The sun was low in the sky, a calm, peaceful time of day. Daryl and Alain were having an animated discussion about the possibility of intelligent life on another planet. Daryl told Alain about Stephen J. Gould’s books and this got the two of them on to more common topics of interest to them. Venita and I discussed our integration into our adopted countries.

After sunset we drove back into Paris and had dinner at an Indian place on Passage Brady in the 10th Arr. This narrow lane lined with cuisine from all parts of India buzzed with ambience. The food was pretty decent too. After dinner Alain took us for a drive around Paris. He grew up in this city and knew it well. We stopped along the canal and took in the party like atmosphere. Then Alain drove us down the Champ S’Elysee, past the famous, Michelin starred Fouquets where Venita was going to dine a week later. We cruised along Rue de Rivoli, along the Seine, past Opera Bastille, back along the Seine, admired the lit up Eiffel Tower, then down Blvd St Germain. They finally dropped us off at our doorstep around 1:00 AM.

We saw Venita and Alain again a few nights later at their apartment. Alain introduced us to Burgundy Marc, a mellow and rather potent nightcap. We talked about living in France and what the Nice area would be like for us if we moved there after retirement. We drifted to other topics like the state of education around the world and the upcoming French presidential elections and so on. Somehow the topic of champagne came up. A dismissive remark by Daryl about this drink, resulted in them extolling the virtues of expensive champagne. Nothing under 50 euros was worth drinking. Next thing we knew they invited us back to their place on our last evening for a “champagne dinner”.

The Saturday evening of that dinner, Daryl got a cold and felt he needed to stay at home and rest before the long flight home the next day. C’est dommage! That Saturday evening that I spent with Venita, Alain, Charles, and Dilva was one I'll never forget. Venita went to great trouble to make sure that everything about the meal was perfect. The placemats, candles, dinnerware, and pretty flowers were all carefully selected to create an ambience of spring’s arrival and of celebration. The champagne? Veuve Cliquot. Tres magnifique! And what a spread! Venita prepared a selection of spring vegetables, each in a unique way, from different regions of France. There were wild mushrooms, white asparagus inside puff pastry cases, endives, and incredibly flavorful potatoes called rattes du touquet. The bread was some unusual braided baguette. Then, as if all of this wasn’t lavish enough, the cheese course turned out to be a unique experience for me too. For the first time in my life I got to indulge in the prince of all cheeses – Mont d’Or. You do not serve other cheeses along with this beauty. Served warm, it is soft, velvety and delicate in flavor. Oh, how can I ever be a vegan? Please tell me the cows responsible for this cheese are well looked after! Mont d’Or is made from raw, unpasteurized milk, so it is definitely not available in the US. Charles made light, fluffy crepes for dessert. What a perfect meal. What a remarkably wonderful family.

Daryl and I are incredibly fortunate to know so many wonderful people all over the world. We feel so much a part of the international community because of this.

29 April 2012

Paris in the Spring time - Part 1

Spring break for me has traditionally meant catching up on home and garden chores. I’ve never thought of this week off from teaching as actual vacation vacation time. But for the last three years circumstances propelled a break in tradition. Mexico City two years ago, South Africa last year, and this year Paris and Italy. Daryl spent winter quarter at the Institute Henri Pointcare (IHP) where he was involved in a special session in his field. After a nearly three month separation I’d be reuniting with him in Paris for the final week of his sabbatical. Italy got into the plans because my book group came up with this crazy idea to meet up at the home of one of our friends in the countryside outside Florence. We dutifully selected Galileo’s Daughter to discuss while in the part of the world where Galileo had come up with his invaluable contributions to our civilization.

I fully understood that this Paris trip was going to be different to my previous visits to Paris which were always in the summer when I was in full vacation mode, and expected total enjoyment in the city of lights (or is love?). This trip in late March meant finding pleasure in winter activities. I packed woolen base layers, warm sweaters, and my down jacket anticipating cold, grey, drizzly days.

I was looking forward to the brief experience of “living” like a local in Paris. Our apartment was at the border of the 5th and 13th arrondissements, on Rue Glacier, a great location to be based for a week (or three months as was Daryl’s luck). The universities and IHP were nearby. So was the Latin Quarter and my favorite street in Paris, Rue Mouffetard. Daryl and I had plans to get together with various sets of friends just about every day that week. We also had tickets to see Don Giovanni at Opera Bastille as well as for the Moscow Ballet Company’s “Swan Lake”. In my free time I’d go to a few art museums and I also had to make time to read Galileo’s Daughter for our book group meeting the following week in Italy.

But Paris had other plans for me. The weather turned out to be bizarrely warm – I mean summer warm - the entire time I was there. My clothes and shoes were entirely inappropriate. But, oh, I was in ecstasy. The streets buzzed with students and tourists, and the cafes were crowded and full of atmosphere. Spring time beauty – trees coming alive with green shoots and fragrant blossoms, golden daffodils, and pretty white narcissi added their spell. So, I ended up spending a lot of time out in the glorious sunshine, wandering through various neighborhoods, absorbing the charms of this fabulous city. It's fascinating to find yourself in 19th century broad Haussmann boulevards with their four storey buildings, then suddenly you're in medieval parts with cobbled, pedestrianized lanes and centuries old buildings. And all the time 21st century Paris hovers over you.

On my first day, after a lunch of soft, ripe Roquefort, a green salad, and crusty baguette washed down with bubbly Vouvray (a selection Daryl made after careful research), at our rather cute apartment, we took a leisurely walk around the left bank. We strolled down to Rue Mouffetard, and the first thing I saw was a Starbucks Café. Jesus, did that irritate me! But this atmospheric, cobbled street with its gourmet chocolate boutiques, boulangeries, fromageries, and wine stores quickly restored my euphoria.
We entered the Latin Quarter which was mellower than I’d ever seen it. From Blvd. St. Michell we  strolled along the Seine, then crossed the bridge to Notre Dames, and hopped over to the Ile St. Louis. I recalled my first time on this island, back in the early ‘90’s when I met a fantastic friend while dining alone at a restaurant. We walked past the overhyped Bertholli’s and debated whether to get a gelato. We decided to save our indulgence for a café stop. Minutes later we found the perfect cafe to rest our now weary feet. It was right near the bridge linking the Seine’s two islands.

I had a kir and Daryl had a rosé. The sultry evening, still bright (sunset was after 8:00), stunning views of the Seine and Notre Dames, and the satisfying feelings of the two us being together again after close to three months, made this moment one to treasure. The great cafés of Paris. A reason unto itself to be here.

Days later we had another beautiful café moment up near Sacre Couer. After climbing up steep streets to Sacre Couer and enjoying superb views of the city, we worked up quite a thirst. We walked down to Butte Montmarte, an area of cobbled lanes lined by ancient buildings and small cafes. We found the perfect café terrace for a drink, right across from the famous La Bonne Franquette, a restaurant frequented by the famous early 20th century artists. Daryl and I enjoyed a kir in this charming setting of old Paris.

On the topic of café moments I should definitely mention my delightful afternoon on Rue Mouffetard. It was the day before I left for Italy to meet up with my book group. I was only half way through Galileo’s Daughter , so I planned to do nothing but read the book that afternoon. The glorious weather made it obscene to be indoors in our apartment. So I did the civilized thing of sitting at an outdoor café on my favorite street in Paris reading my book, while nursing a rosé. Even though I was completely swept into the world of rennaissance Italy and Galileo’s dilemma of having to disagree with the Catholic Church, I was aware of the pleasant atmosphere on Rue Mouffetard. People were out and about, shopping at the various specialty stores. The street was colorful with the outdoor displays of merchandize. I was so glad for the excuse to participate in this atmosphere.

On the cultural front we had good and bad experiences. Don Giovanni, at the Opera Bastille, was a modern take on the story. We weren’t enthralled with this interpretation. The opera was set outside a tall office building in La Defense and the actors were dressed in contemporary clothes. Don Giovanni was portrayed as a homosexual, evident when he kissed Leoperello. We both thoroughly enjoyed the singing and acting, and in the end that is all that’s important to me. I also enjoyed the venue, a rather modern building on this sacred spot in this ancient city. From inside the views of Paris at dusk were terrific. I was surprised to see people dressed in casual clothes. Though it has to be said the French have a way of looking elegant even in scruffy jeans. I guess this “dress down” attitude is a reflection of Francois Mitterand’s goal of opera for the people, as opposed to the past when the main opera venue used to be the Opera Garnier, frequented only by the upper classes.

Swan Lake performed by the Moscow Ballet Company was a disappointment. The venue was a small theatre near the Galleries Lafayette. We got off the metro and found ourselves trapped in this gigantic department store. After going up and down sets of escalators we eventually found the street and shot over to the theatre. We found the performance ok, not great, but passable. However, the big disappointment was the absence of a live orchestra. We’d seen an outstanding performance  of Swan Lake by the St Petersburg Ballet Co. years ago in Santa Barbara. We’d also seen a superb Swan Lake in Oxford, England. So we had pretty high expectations, but, oh well, c’est la vie.

I ended up going to only one art museum, the Museé D’Orsay. Since I’d visited all the famous museums on previous trips, I had no real regrets there. We spent a blissful Sunday afternoon immersed in French Impressionism. It was especially enjoyable because we took Rick Steve's guided tour of the museum. (I have his very informative Paris guide in my kindle.) Not only do I love all the art at the D’Orsay, I also love the layout and the building itself. Daryl enjoyed the van Goghs. My favorite were the Degas paintings.

The most enjoyable aspect of my week in Paris was meeting up with friends who we rarely see.  I have so much to say about this that I’m going to do a whole separate blog about it.
Stay tuned for Part 2!