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November 10, 2007

Pictures from Giverny

While in Paris, we rented a car for a day trip to Claude Monet's home and gardens at Giverny.

Giverny Flower

A flower.

Water Lily Pond

The water lily pond.

Japanese Bridge at Giverny

The Japanese bridge. Monet's house and gardens fell into disrepair after his death and had to be restored based on records and -- naturally -- his pictures.

Giverny Bee

A bee.

Monet's House

Monet's house. The picture doesn't do justice to how beautiful this view was in person.

It was the last day of the year that the gardens were open for viewing. Being so late in the year, a recent frost had killed many of the flowers. Despite this, it was still spectacularly beautiful, and made us want to go back to see the gardens in the spring, in full bloom. I can't recommend a visit highly enough -- even if you're occasionally art appreciation-challenged as I am.

November 04, 2007

Lunch at L'Arpège

When we were preparing for our trip to Paris, I realized that this would be a great opportunity to knock off one of my 100 things to do in life (actually, it's up to 129 now, with 31 done, 98 to go), which was to dine at a Michelin three-star restaurant. (I considered making a trip to The French Laundry during a vacation in Sonoma Valley last year, but let it go.) Missy is far more tuned into good food than I am -- not only is she an excellent cook, but she can identify all sorts of ingredients in dishes she's served, and she can remember entire multi-course meals. So I left it to her to choose the restaurant, and she chose l'Arpège, Alain Passard's three-star destination in the seventh arrondissement.

During the meal, I realized I wouldn't be able to do it justice here, so asked Missy if she'd write a guest blog entry for me. She kindly agreed, and the results are below.

L'Arpège

A guest blog by Missy

When Frank brought up the idea that we should try a Michelin three-star restaurant on our trip to Paris, I was both ecstatic and terrified. I am a budget traveler. Having friends in several international cities has afforded me the the opportunity and local insight to have some of the best meals that €50-60 can buy... but for me, a €60 dinner is a huge extravagance, which is countered by several days living on €3 sandwiches, crepes, and fruit from the market. The idea that one meal could cost what I would normally budget for an entire week's vacation spending was more than a little intimidating... even if I wasn't the one paying for it.

It's something that he'd always wanted to do, and if you're going to do it, what better place that Paris? First, I thought he was kidding. Then a slight wave of panic set in. Do I have nice enough clothes? Will I pick up the wrong fork? And most importantly, would my slightly-less-refined-than-the-average-Pigalle-whore-palate be able to appreciate the subtleties of three-star cooking enough to make it worth the cost?

I found myself getting dressed for lunch at l'Arpège. I was intimidated, but very much anticipating the experience.

We started with a glass of champagne. A very large slab of salty butter (from Breton) was placed in the middle of our table, and I wondered why anyone would need that much butter. Then started what we came to call "the bread game". Throughout the meal, the moment either one of us picked up our crusty slice of house-made bread to butter it... it was replaced with another. I tried just pulling a small piece of the bread off and leaving most of the slice on the plate, but that didn't work well either. They just left a smaller piece... but another piece nonetheless. And despite my first thoughts… we made it through most of the butter.

At the end of the meal, the bread game gave way to the cookie game. We were presented a tray of different cookies, and thinking it would be rude not to finish, I made Frank eat one of my cookies since I was full. Less than a minute later... it was whisked away and another left in its place "just in case" we wanted more.

The bread game is just part of the service that makes a three-star restaurant. The service is exquisite. They manage to anticipate every need (even the needs we didn't yet realize we had) without being intrusive. There are approximately 20 tables on the main floor, and there were at least 12 members of the waitstaff buzzing in the dining room at any given moment, and I'm pretty sure we were served something by nearly every one of them.

But, oh the food. Every single bite of every dish was magical. We both ordered the prix fixe lunch menu. But before our food arrived, we were offered an amuse bouche, then the larger mise en bouche.

Looking back, I don't think that we could have made a better choice in restaurants. Despite being an avowed meat-a-saurus, I really love vegetables... which just so happen to be the main focus at l'Arpège. All the vegetables served at l'Arpège are grown organically in Chef Alain Passard's garden outside of Paris. They are shipped in fresh every morning by high-speed train. Once in the kitchen, the things he does with vegetables are nothing short of amazing. My favorite course was the celeriac (celery root) tagliatelle with a light herb sauce. It wasn't pasta made with celeriac... it was made from celeriac. Perfectly formed pasta shaved from a lumpy root. Simply amazing. And who'd have thought you could put green tomatoes in dessert, or put artichoke in a cookie? I think I heard Frank say "this is the best I've ever had" during almost every course.

In the end, my intimidation was unfounded. I was dressed much nicer than the rapper dude and his music industry entourage at the table across the room. They changed flatware with each course, so I only had one fork to choose from at any given moment, and my palate appreciated every magical bite of that meal.

But the very best part of the experience was when Chef Passard came out into the dining room to have his lunch. He graciously signed a copy of the menu for us, which will soon be framed and hanging somewhere in Frank's house, and we were able to thank him personally for the wonderful meal. Ok, actually... Frank thanked him personally while I was petting the rapper dude's cute little dog.

So I shall send my compliments to the chef via this blog entry, and say merci beaucoup à mon beau copain for treating me to such an amazing meal and an unbelievably lovely week in Paris.

The entire content of the Frank and Missy lunch at l'Arpège (mind you, these all sound better in French, and they taste much much better than they sound):

Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve champagne.

2002 Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru (Pinot Noir).

Housemade bread with salted Breton butter (a lot of it).

Amuse bouche – a fried parsnip "cup" with a thin slice of a carrot, then topped with a tiny perfect beet square.

Mise en bouche – poached egg flavored with maple syrup and cider vinegar.

Course 1 – creamed rutabaga soup with whipped salted cream.

Course 2 – roasted beet with chocolate sauce and sea salt.

Course 3 – sautéed spinach, carrot puree, and lime chutney.

Course 4 – celery root tagliatelle with mustard and herb sauce.

Course 5 – assorted roasted baby vegetables.

Course 6 – pan-roasted scallops (Frank); roast duck (Missy).

Cheese course – this wasn't included in the prix fixe menu, but they rolled a cart over with at least 20 fantastic looking varieties of cheese, and we couldn't say no. We let the waiter pick, and it was goooood.

Course 7 – green tomato mille feuille with lemongrass ice cream.

Course 8 – A plate of cookies including green tomato and artichoke macarons.

Coffee (Frank); mint tea (Missy).

I have very little to add to this -- just a few notes here and there.

The service was the best I've ever had in a restaurant, and I've had some good service over the years. It wasn't just the bread game that Missy describes, or the fact that they somehow managed to refill my wine and sparkling water without me noticing. When our primary server introduced herself, I spoke in French at first, but asked if she could speak in English. She claimed that my French was far better than her English, but said she would give it a try, and then proceeded to speak perfectly fluent English. But what truly impressed me was that she adapted perfectly to us both. Missy speaks a smattering of French, and I'm at something like the second-year or early third-year college level, and our server seemed to know exactly when to speak in French to each of us, and when to revert to English because the wording would be too complex.

In terms of the things I thought were the best of their type I'd ever had, to be specific, there was the champagne (which, thankfully, I've found an online source of by the bottle or case since our meal), the butter, the beet, the duck, and the mille feuille. Oh, and one of the cheeses we were served was the best I've ever had. Missy will almost certainly remember the name; I don't, only that it was a hard cheese, perfectly salty, sliced at our table from the largest cheese round I've ever seen.

Coincidentally, over lunch, Missy and I had been talking about the issue of introducing oneself to celebrities in restaurants -- would we do so? The conclusion was that it's a tricky thing, because you don't want to intrude on someone's private life. When Chef Passard came out to have his own lunch, taking a corner table, we weren't sure at first that it was him we were seeing. As we were getting ready to leave, I spoke to our server in French, in a low voice:

Me: Is that gentleman over there the chef?

Server: Yes, it is.

Me: I wouldn't want to disturb him, but would you tell him that we found the meal to be extraordinary?

Server: I will do so, but you would not disturb him at all.

Me: You are sure?

Server: Oh, yes.

So I didn't feel bad in walking over, pardoning the intrusion, and thanking Chef Passard for the extraordinary cuisine. He was gracious and accepted the compliment with pleasure.

I can't recommend l'Arpège highly enough. It's expensive, to be sure -- on a per-person basis, with the weak dollar, it cost about three times as much as I had ever paid for a meal before -- but you owe it to yourself to have an experience like that at least once in life.

Finally, thanks to Missy for writing such a great guest blog entry, and especially for being such a stylish companion at lunch.

May 13, 2007

"Je Veux Lancer un Appel..."

Via Andrew Sullivan, via Eugene Volokh, comes this amazing passage from French President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy's first address to the nation (text as written here, text as delivered here):

Je veux lancer un appel à tous ceux qui dans le monde croient aux valeurs de la tolérance, de la liberté, de la démocratie, de l'humanisme, à tous ceux qui sont persécutés par les tyrannies et les dictatures. Je veux dire à tous les enfants à travers le monde, à toutes les femmes martyrisées dans le monde, je veux leur dire que la fierté, le devoir de la France sera d'être à leurs côtés.

La France sera aux côtés des infirmières libyennes (bulgares, ndlr) enfermées depuis huit ans, la France n'abandonnera pas Ingrid Betancourt, la France n'abandonnera pas les femmes qu'on condamne à la burqa, la France n'abandonnera pas les femmes qui n'ont pas la liberté. La France sera du côté des opprimés du monde. C'est le message de la France, c'est l'identité de la France, c'est l'histoire de la France.

Volokh's English version is as follows (I've made a few minor changes to his otherwise solid translation):

I want to launch a call to all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance, of liberty, of democracy, and of humanism, to all those who are persecuted by tyrannies and by dictators. I want to speak to all the children of the world, and to all the martyrized women in the world, to say to them that the pride, the duty of France will be at their sides.

France will be at the sides of the Libyan (Bulgarian) nurses imprisoned for eight years, France will not abandon Ingrid Betancourt, France will not abandon women who are condemned to the burqa, France will not abandon women who do not have liberty. France will be at the side of the oppressed of the world. This is the message of France, this is the identity of France, this is the history of France.

If Sarkozy is sincere, and if he follows through on his promises, France has, in Volokh's words, "a new era of greatness" ahead of it. Bonne chance, Monsieur le Président.

December 01, 2005

Portraiture in the Place du Tertre

On a very cold and intermittently rainy day last week, Kelsey and I made our way to Montmartre, taking the funicular up to the Sacré-Coeur. From there, we made the tourist trek a couple of blocks north and slightly down to the Place du Tertre, where artists compete to draw or paint one's portrait. We were cold, and wet, so decided just to walk around a bit and then go on our way -- and then Kelsey found an artist whose work she liked and decided she wanted to sit for a drawing after all. It took about 30 minutes, I think, and for the first 20 or so, I was quite skeptical -- until the drawing suddenly came together, like beating the ingredients for mayonnaise endlessly until it suddenly "takes". The artist was sweet, the portrait turned out beautifully, and Kelsey was delighted.

Portraiture in Montmartre 1

Kelsey having her portrait drawn in the Place du Tertre.

Portraiture in Montmartre 2

The portrait about 5 or 10 minutes from being completed.

November 29, 2005

Efficiency at CDG

Kelsey and I flew home Sunday, departing out of Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. What amazed me was how many separate people with whom we had to personally and physically interact to get on our plane:

  1. The person in the check-in line whose job it was to ask us where we were going, take down our passport numbers, and ask us whether we had packed our own bags or not.
  2. The person in the check-in line who searched Kelsey's large bag.
  3. The person who helped the previous person with the search.
  4. The person at the check-in counter who gave us our boarding passes.
  5. The person stationed before the security checkpoint who made sure we had valid boarding passes.
  6. The person who took our bags from us and placed them on the x-ray machine's conveyor belt.
  7. The person who waved us to walk through the metal detector and then patted us down (both of us, despite no obvious sign of the detector going off).
  8. The person who handed us our bags after they went through the metal detector.
  9. The person who checked our boarding passes before allowing us to board a bus to a satellite terminal.
  10. The person in the boarding line at the gate who checked to see that we had boarding passes and passports.
  11. The person in the boarding line who searched my carry-on bag.
  12. The person who helped the previous person with the bag search.
  13. The person at the gate who took our boarding passes and allowed us to walk out to the plane.
  14. The person on the plane who checked our boarding passes to see that they were correct.
That's 14 people who each interacted with us personally and physically. Can that possibly be efficient? Worse, at least one phase of the process (the boarding line bag search) implies a lack of trust in an earlier phase of the process (the security checkpoint x-ray).

November 27, 2005

"Au Départ de la Cité Lumière"

I'm sure the clumsiness of the French in this will embarrass me one day -- possibly quite soon -- but here goes anyway.

Au départ de la cité lumière

Il faut qu'on part
Cette cité magique,
Cette cité lumière,
À la fin d'une semaine extraordinaire.
Tous les bons temps cessent.
Le voyage sera difficile, mais
Ma vie m'attend.

November 26, 2005

Paris' Parting Gift

We leave for home tomorrow morning, but Paris was kind enough to give us a parting gift on our last day here.

Paris in White

Paris in snow, photographed from the Carrousel, looking down toward the Tuileries. The obelisk at Concorde can be seen in the distance, and beyond it, the Arc de Triomphe.

A Welcome Flower

After our sobering walk through the bone collections of les Catacombes, we visited Sainte-Chapelle and then the Musée Rodin. The beauty of both was a welcome change.

Much of the Musée Rodin's collection is set outside in gardens. Though it was a cold late fall day, there were enough flowers in bloom to make it quite beautiful. Kelsey snapped a delightful picture while we were there.

Flower at the Rodin

A flower in bloom at the Musée Rodin.

November 25, 2005

Contemplating Mortality in les Catacombes de Paris

Kelsey and I paid a visit today to les Catacombes de Paris, an underground collection of the bones of countless Parisians. (Official site here. English information here.)

As I understand it, with few exceptions, bodies interred in Parisian cemeteries were dug up after 300 years to make way for new burials. The bones needed to be relocated, and so were deposited neatly in underground spaces already excavated during rock quarrying operations.

The bone collections are located deep below the surface, at the end of a half-mile walk down narrow tunnels, reached via a descent on a cramped set of spiral stairs. The walk there was enjoyable in a spirit of adventure and curiousity. What I wasn't prepared for was my reaction to the actual collections themselves.

Les Catacombes de Paris

I've never felt so confronted by mortality as I did among the bone collections today -- not when I visited my dying father in the hospital; not when I saw the body of my aunt, whom I loved deeply, in her casket; not when I helped at the scene of a fatal accident many years ago.

There's something about the sheer scale of the collections that makes plain the inevitability of death. I find this interesting, because death on a large scale -- from an earthquake, a tsunami, or even genocide -- often makes it more difficult to appreciate the loss. Most of us feel such loss most keenly when we can identify with specific individuals. The catacombs operate differently. An individual corpse can be explained away -- but 10,000 remains? 100,000? A million? Many millions? How can we hope to escape that fate?

I had an inner debate about this. The optimist in me says not to worry, that technology will come through. The realist in me says to look around and acknowledge the inevitability of death.

That inner debate continues, and probably will for many years. But I'm reasonably sure that the ultimate answer involves making the most of the time I have, whether that's another 40 years, another 400 years, or until I get hit by a car during my run on the Paris streets tomorrow morning.

November 24, 2005

Near-Frostbite, But for a Good Cause

The first and second days we were here in Paris, it was quite foggy -- in fact, flying in last Sunday, we could see the Eiffel Tower rising up out of opaque clouds below. We decided to skip seeing it until the weather cleared. Tuesday and Wednesday turned out to be glorious days here -- not a cloud in the sky and quite pleasant in the midday sun. So, Tuesday afternoon, we decided to go to the Eiffel Tower right at sunset.

Of course, the problem with clear winter days is that without the fog to trap the heat, it becomes much colder at night. The sun had almost finished setting when we got to the top. We had already stood in line over a half-hour to get our tickets, and then stood in more lines for the two elevators, so by the time we got to the top, we were already cold -- and then the high-altitude wind hit us. Most people on the observation deck was crowded on the southwest side, sheltered from the wind, and even there it was seriously cold.

In any case, Kelsey and I stayed out there long enough to take a few photographs, using the self-timer and sitting the camera on railings (with the strap tightly in my hand) to get some low-light shots. Here are two of my favorites:

View from the Eiffel Tower 1

A view to the southwest, along the Seine. The road in the center of the picture is Quai de Grenelle closer to the Tower, then becomes Quai André Citroën farther on. The bridge at the far end of the narrow island is the Pont de Grenelle.

View from the Eiffel Tower 2

A view to the northeast. The bridge in the center of the picture is the Pont de l'Alma. The light blue streak of light in the sky is the Tower's spotlight, rotating as the photograph was exposed.

By the time we were done, we were having trouble moving our fingers -- but it was for a good cause.

Le Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

The Memorial of the Martyrs of the Deportation isn't far from Notre Dame, at the south end of the Île de la Cité. Nevertheless, I hadn't heard of it until Kelsey found it in a guidebook and said she wanted to go.

It's a very somber space, with silence requested (and observed by everyone we encountered). The centerpiece is a long, narrow chamber behind a set of bars. A tomb contains the body of an unknown deportee and is topped with a vase containing flowers. Along the walls of the chamber are rows of lights, each one representing a deportee who died -- something like 200,000 in all.

Le Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation 1

The main chamber, photographed using available light.

If you're in Paris, I recommend it. It's not more than a three- or four-minute walk from Notre Dame.

Crowding Venus

The last time I visited the Louvre, photography was permitted everywhere. I remember quite distinctly finding it impossible to actually see the Mona Lisa on account of the flashes going off nearly continuously, reflecting on the glass in front of it. It was vaguely like trying to observe quantum particles -- one could have one's picture taken in front of it, or one could actually look at it, but not both.

As of this visit, photography is prohibited throughout part of the museum, including the area containing the Mona Lisa. The result is that -- though still crowded -- one can actually look at and enjoy the art.

However, photography -- including the use of flashes -- is still permitted throughout the rest of the Louvre. My favorite thing there is and always has been the Venus de Milo -- it just amazes me to be so close to the most iconic sculpture in human history. But it has become very difficult to have any kind of a joyous experience with it on account of the flash-popping crowd that surrounds it:

Crowding Venus

This is the crush of people trying to get close to the statue so that they can photograph their friends in front of it. Virtually all the people in the crush were obvious tourists, most of them from Asia. I can't blame them for wanting to have their photo taken -- Kelsey and I have done the same at various indoor and outdoor locations around Paris. But the sheer popularity of this work of art, combined with the limited space around it, has caused the photography to degrade or even destroy the experience for everyone else. I presume this is why the Louvre has prohibited photography in part of the museum. Perhaps it's time for them to extend this -- or to set aside photography-free hours when the art can simply be enjoyed for what it is.

Incidentally, the Musée d'Orsay across the river allows photography, but not flash photography. It makes for a much more pleasant viewing experience in the most popular sections (like the fifth floor, about which I'm sure I'll blog later).

November 23, 2005

"Il Est un Comédien Australien"

Last night, Kelsey and I were in a hip brasserie not far from our apartment, the Publicis Drugstore (yes, that's right, see a blog entry on it here, and picture of the building here). I paid for the meal with a credit card and our waiter and I had the following conversation in French:

Waiter: Ah, you have the same last name as someone famous!

Me: I do? Who is that?

Waiter: He's a comedian. He's Australian.

Me: An Australian comedian named Boosman? The exact same name?

Waiter: Yes. He played 007 in the last movie.

Me: 007? An Australian comedian?

Waiter: Yes. I'm sure of it.

Me: Do you mean Pierce Brosnan?

Waiter: Perhaps. It could be.

Me: He played 007 in the last movie. But he's an Irish actor, not an Australian comedian.

Waiter: Really? You're sure? Ah well!

Kelsey doesn't speak French, so as we were walking out, I translated it for her. She couldn't stop laughing as we left the building.

November 22, 2005

Pictures from Paris

For the handful of people who could possibly be interested, I'm posting pictures from my trip to Paris each day in a Flickr set that can be found here. Enjoy.

Air France != Comfort

My daughter Kelsey and I are in Paris, having flown over Saturday night. After years of flying American Airlines, my last trip to Europe with them was so bad -- horrible food, rude flight attendants -- that I decided anything must be better. For this trip, I booked us on Air France, thinking of the pleasant experiences I've had flying them on intra-Europe routes, as recently as earlier this year.

That was a mistake.

Yes, the flight attendants were more courteous. Yes, the food was better (though we had already eaten and so didn't touch our dinner, only breakfast). But in coach, which we were flying, to me, it's all about seat comfort. Now, admittedly, the words "coach" and "comfort" are relatively oxymoronic, but still, there are levels of discomfort. American's coach seats to Europe are, for someone who is 6'2", merely unpleasant. Air France's are tortuous. The seat pitch (distance between rows of seats) was such that my knees were jammed from the moment I sat down. When the person ahead of me reclined fully a few minutes into the flight, the top of his seat back was practically in my face. My only hope was to recline my own seat, which I did, upon which I heard a loud "Ow!" from the German girl behind me, whose knee I had jammed when I did so. After apologies, and some discussion, she asked if I could only recline halfway. And that was how I spent my flight. If Dante were alive today, the seat I was in would have formed its own circle of Hell, no modifications required.

I called Air France, explained the situation, and tried to get exit row seats for the flight back. No luck -- our only hope is to show up at the airport early and try to get exit row seats there. In Kelsey's words, "I don't care how early we have to get up -- we need those seats." So we're catching a 5:30 AM bus (the earliest) to be at the airport at 6:30 AM for a 10:15 AM flight. What fun.

November 12, 2005

"Violent Acts" in Paris?

Ah, just in time for the trip my daughter and I are taking to Paris, this article from the BBC:

Police say they have intercepted e-mails and text messages calling for "violent acts" in [Paris] on Saturday.

The ban prohibits "all meetings likely to start or fuel disorder".

National police chief Michel Gaudin warned the threat of violence in the capital was "not a rumour".

The Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees avenue were among sites that could be potential targets, he said.

The BBC's David Chazan in the French capital says the police have been highly visible on the streets and in the metro, the city's rail transport system, stopping people and checking identities.

We arrive a week from tomorrow. I'm not concerned to the point of considering changing our plans, because I know how important it must be to the French government to maintain order in the Paris city center, and because so far we're talking about hypothetical acts, not events that have actually occurred. Still, it's worrisome -- not for myself, not at all, but because I'll be responsible for my daughter.

November 11, 2005

My Friend Hélène

This past March, I stayed in a house in a little village called Le Coux, in the Périgord (about two and a half hours east of Bordeaux). The people I was renting from were from New Zealand and they happened to be cleaning up when I arrived. I went out for groceries, came back, and they had finished and said they were headed next door to talk to the 92-year-old neighbor there, Hélène. She didn't speak a word of English, they said.

The next day, thinking about it, I took a box of chocolates I happened to have and walked over to her house. When Hélène (not that I called her that, of course; it was "Madame") answered the door, she had that "Who in the world is this person?" look on her face. I explained in my French (it's perpetually coming along) that I was renting the house next door, that the landlords had told me about her, and that I thought I'd bring her a little gift. She took it with profuse thanks, disappeared, returned with a jar of strawberry preserves she had made, and then invited me over for apéritifs the next day.

When I came around the following day, she had arranged a tray with champagne and snacks. It was just the sweetest thing. We sat and talked for almost an hour. She was the most delightful person -- she truly was. I learned about her family, her departed husband, and a bit of her history. She and her husband had lived in the area most of their lives, and were among the first 20 people to see the original Lascaux cave paintings, when it was a hole in the ground and not a tourist attraction. She spoke emotionally about how awful it was when the German Army moved through the area, and yet how important it was to her that she forgive them for what they had done.

We showed each other pictures of our children (mine are teenagers; her oldest is 60). It was great. She invited me over again the next day, and it was just as fun. Then, the day before I left, we took a walk through her garden. While we were there, her daughter called from Paris and Hélène told her about me. Her daughter asked to speak with me and proceeded to thank me for spending time with her mom, which I thought was gracious and completely unnecessary. She said that if I was ever in Paris, that I should come visit her and her family. As it turned out, I had a long-promised, long-overdue trip with my daughter Kelsey to Paris this Thanksgiving. Invitations were issued and accepted on the spot.

The last day I was there, I stopped by Hélène's house to bring back some books of hers that she had loaned to me. When we had said our goodbyes each day before, we had shook hands. This time, she gave me a hug and said to me that though people rented the house next door all the time, I was the first person who had ever come to see her. I almost had tears in my eyes -- it was just the greatest thing.

While I was there, we agreed to exchange letters. I sent her one, and received a reply just a couple of weeks later. Here's the translated version:

Dear Frank:

Thank you for not forgetting me.

I would like to pass along my compliments to your French teacher. Many of my neighbors don't write as well as you. [Note: a French co-worker heavily edited my letter before I sent it. In other words, I cheated. I'm sure this will come back to bite me.]

I keep of you the memory of a tall, charming man who didn't avoid conversation with a grandmother.

I'm delighted to see the beautiful children you have; I am going to be in Le Vésinet [where her family lives, near Paris] during your visit. [My daughter and son-in-law] will be happy to make your acquaintance and that of your daughter.

At this moment, I'm making cherry preserves and all the gardens are blooming with flowers. Our Périgord is always very beautiful and will be honored to receive you once again.

I embrace you and send you my best memories.

Hélène

My daughter and I leave for France a week from tomorrow, and I have the strong suspicion that when all is said and done, having seen the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and so much of what Paris has to offer, seeing Hélène and her family will be the highlight of the trip.

April 02, 2005

My Favorite Restaurant in Paris

This is a snagged picture (because it would be awful to whip out one's PowerShot SD300 in a place like this) of Le Coupe-Chou, my favorite restaurant in Paris:

Le Coupe-Chou

Le Coupe-Chou ("the cut cabbage") is on a narrow street near the Sorbonne. It's in a building that dates (at least parts of it do) to the 1600s. Entering it feels a bit like walking into a cave. I was there in the evening, and when it's dark, much of the light comes from candles and the fireplace. I sat at the table next to the fireplace in the photograph above (thanks to my friend Christophe, who made the reservations for me, given that my French wasn't quite good enough a couple of months ago).

The service at Le Coupe-Chou is what I think of as traditionally Parisian: polite yet not chatty, unobtrusive yet efficient, and measured in time. The food was wonderful. And the prices are quite reasonable: the restaurant offers prix fixe menus at €24 and €32 (the latter including dessert).

Le Coupe-Chou can be found at:

Le Coupe-Chou
9 rue de Lanneau
75005 Paris
Tel: 01 46 33 68 69
Highly recommended.

March 29, 2005

The Dordogne

While in France, I spent five days in a rented house in Le Coux, a village along the Dordogne. I had been to France many times, but with the exception of one trip to Cannes, it had always been to Paris. This was my first time staying in rural France, and it was wonderful.

The Dordogne region is a patchwork of medieval villages, vineyards, foie gras farms, winding roads, castles, and sites of prehistoric human habitation, including the famous caves at Lascaux.

It had been cold until just before my arrival, when, according to the people I met there, spring apparently magically appeared, making for wonderful weather while I was there -- perfect for morning walks along the trails criss-crossing the countryside.

All my photos from France are available on Flickr here. A few of my favorites:

Maison a Location

The house I rented while there, originally built in the 1780s.

Dordogne Pathway

A pathway near my rented house.

Morning in the Dordogne

Morning in the Dordogne.

Dordogne Orchard

An orchard.

February 11, 2005

Music for France

I'm spending a week in France next month, and thought it might be a good idea to find some appropriate music to take along on my iPod -- something to listen to on the way over and while I'm there. As it happens, the Barnes and Noble I visited had an international music section, and within it, a small number of CDs devoted to France. Unfortunately, most of them were roughly of the "Maurice Chevalier sings about little girls" type, and though I don't have anything against Maurice Chevalier, that's not exactly what I had in mind. And that set me to wondering: are there French-language analogies to my favorite contemporary artists? Not the Barenaked Ladies -- foreign language humor would be lost on me. But who is the Sheryl Crow of France? The Dido? The Moby? Who is the Sting of France?

Okay, scratch that last one. The Sting of France is Sting. But the rest of the question still holds.

January 18, 2004

An American (Coffee) in Paris

With inadvertently perfect timing, the same week that I wrote a blog entry on the US-driven homogenization of world culture, Starbucks opens its first store in Paris.

2004-01-18-01.jpg

French students, loyal American customers and Japanese tourists flooded into the first Starbucks outlet in France, eager to get their first vanilla cafe latte or mocha Frappuccino on French soil.

"You know what? They opened a Starbucks on the avenue de l'Opera! I'm here with Mom," Sandy, a 22-year-old French student, said eagerly into her mobile phone to a friend as she waited patiently to order her hot chocolate.

"For those of us who have travelled in the United States, seen films or watched American television shows, we know the Starbucks brand," Sandy said, as she explained to her mother -- a first-time visitor -- what and how to order.

"I will definitely go out of my way to come here," the student added.

On the one hand, this is undeniably part of the trend of the US absorbing other cultures' practices, modifying them, and exporting them back to the rest of the world, tempered in the heat of our hyper-efficient, entrepreneurial economy. From Starbucks' own corporate timeline:

1982 Howard Schultz joins Starbucks as director of retail operations and marketing. Starbucks begins providing coffee to fine restaurants and espresso bars.

1983 Schultz travels to Italy, where he's impressed with the popularity of espresso bars in Milan. He sees the potential in Seattle to develop a similar coffee bar culture.

1984 Schultz convinces the founders of Starbucks to test the coffee bar concept in a new location in downtown Seattle. This successful experiment is the genesis for a company that Schultz founds in 1985...

1985 Schultz founds Il Giornale, offering brewed coffee and espresso beverages made from Starbucks coffee beans.

1987 With the backing of local investors, Il Giornale acquires Starbucks assets and changes its name to Starbucks Corporation.

In other words, a US entrepreneur visits Milan, sees the espresso bars there, modifies the concept for the US market, tests it, refines it, and another worldwide trend is started. If this isn't the Borg-like assimilation of world culture, I don't know what is.

On the other hand, speaking personally, would I visit Starbucks in Paris? Sure I would. I wouldn't only go there, or make a trip across town (well, except to pick up a Starbucks Paris mug), but if I were in the area, absolutely, I'd stop by. I like Parisian cafe culture, but on the other hand, I know that I can get skim milk with my Starbucks coffee. I know they'll be able to make almost any drink as a decaf. I know no one will be smoking in the cafe. So yes, I'd visit Starbucks in Paris.

I suppose this means I'm a Borg, but a self-conscious Borg.

By the way, "Sandy, a 22-year-old French student"? Pardon me? Sure, and my kids have friends at school here in North Carolina named Jean-Pierre and Mireille.