Archive for the ‘Paris history’ Category

Catching Up And A Few Good Reads

November 6, 2012

Pre-surgery ETs preparing for the tough times ahead

The Experienced Travelers have been on a medical hiatus throughout the summer and fall.  Nurse is battling a serious infection in her knee, but we are on the road to recovery.  Just one more surgery for another knee replacement and she’ll be dancing a gigue.

This is what Nurse was hoping might emerge from the kitchen but my cooking skills run more toward grilled cheese than galettes from the Marais.

In my dual-role of primary caregiver and temporary cook, I prescribed regular infusions of Chateauneuf du Pape for the patient and the chef.  It certainly improved her disposition – and heightened the quality of my cuisine.  So, Dear Readership, you went on the back burner – so to speak.  Mea culpa.

Here are a few Parisian “good reads” I bookmarked for just such an occasion.  It’s the season for fireside reading and these books go nicely with a glass of wine and ripe Norman camembert:

The French art of seduction extends to shopping. Barb and Chris demonstrate the effects in a Marais scarf shop. I think two of those scarves came home with them.

Elaine Sciolino, Paris correspondent and former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times is author of  La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life.  Oh Dear Readership, how we long to understand the game, and Ms. Sciolino guides us through the labyrinth of French social interactions and teaches us how to flirt with the butcher.

Seduction governs all aspects of French life – romance, cuisine, business and politics.  The ETs have been under the spell for years. Just as we were relieved to know the diagnosis with Nurse’s knee, we are thrilled to understand the frisson and shortness of breath we get when we start planning a trip to  Paris.  I downloaded a sample and so far, it’s terrific.

To the Dear Readership who reside in France — what is your take on the art of seduction?  We rely on you to give us the straight story.

Melinda just caught an edge of Philippe-Auguste’s legendary wall

I’ve always meant to tell you about Alistair Horne.   His “Seven Ages of Paris” is one of the best comprehensive histories of the city I’ve read – twice.  From the island of Lutetia to the postwar period, it’s entertaining, well-written and relevant.  It might make you want to find the extant remains of Philippe-Augustus’ 12th century fortified wall.  If you do, I can tell you that it’s against local law and ordinance to pry off a piece of the wall for personal home use.

A splendid view of Montmartre from the windows of the Musee D’Orsay.(Photo by Barb and Christine)

Another good read is David Downie, a food and travel author who resides in Paris. (someone else who is living the life I was meant for, but I shan’t be mean about it…) “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” is a series of  essays on different aspects of the city, its inhabitants and its history.  You *will* reserve flights after reading “Paris, Paris”.  Mr. Downie also writes an excellent blog.

My current bedside reading includes Mary McAuliffe’s “Dawn of the Belle Époque” about the Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau et. al.  It’s a bit formulaic but provides an excellent introduction to this fascinating period in French history.

A symbol of the Belle-Époque “can do” attitude. (Photo by Barb and Chris)

And speaking of the Belle Époque – have I mentioned Proust lately?  Set aside Danielle Steel and read the Mother of All Modern Social Set Pieces – Mme. Verdurin and her Wednesday “at homes” with the little clan or the Princesse de Guermantes’ “see and be seen” party.  Just *try* “Combray” – the first section of “Swann’s Way”.  If you get that far, you’ll have friends for life in six volumes.

Choose the new Penguin editions, which are  easier to grasp than older translations. Don’t suffer like I did because I wanted to read the same translation that Virginia Woolf  read.  Historical verisimilitude is nice but it will make you want to walk into a pond with stones in your pockets – oh, wait a minute…

Paris seduction begins on the Seine, in view of the Pont-Neuf, and most likely in a light drizzling rain. Get reading and fall in love with Paris!

In fact, I think that “La Seduction..” makes a perfect pairing with “In Search of Lost Time”- the theory explained in Sciolino and the practice artfully demonstrated in Proust.

There.  Now your holiday wish list is done and you can spend the winter weekends “in Paris” – without dispensing with jammies and a cuddly comforter.  It’s good to be chatting with you again!

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Dinner and a Show: Chez La Mère Catherine in Montmartre

March 18, 2012

The place du Tertre on a warm Friday evening

The ETs willingly succumb to the charm of Montmartre , despite the wild throngs of tourists in search of Utrillo and other starving artists from it”s golden years.  Hoping to get a sense of neighborhood life on the butte, Melinda and I made the climb one evening, after the tour busses departed.

We wandered around looking in shops and admiring village architecture masked by windows hawking teeshirts and Monet-themed umbrellas. It wasn’t long before we were hungry, with nothing to guide us but posted menus and the apparent satisfaction of patrons on the terraces.

Dining in Montmartre can be a hit-or-miss proposition.  On past visits, I avoided the central place du Tertre which is overrun by the aforementioned crowds.  But we were hungry, and somehow the crazy circus of passers-by fit our mood, so we decided to give it a try.

A Montmartre tradition

We found an outdoor table at Chez La Mère Catherine on the perimeter of the action, and got to work immediately by ordering our first bottle.  Wine is welcome at any meal in Paris, but mandatory for an evening in Montmartre.

A table for two was all we needed

It turns out that we made a fine choice.  Chez La Mère Catherine has been dishing up frogs legs, pork confit and crêpes suzette since 1793.  Opening a restaurant in the midst of the revolutionary Reign of Terror demonstrates a commendable optimism on the part of Mère Catherine.  And it was optimism well placed.  Her restaurant has outlasted two French Republics, the Paris Commune, the Second Empire, the Siege of Paris, the Nazis and the introduction of the Euro.

It is said that during the Battle of Paris in 1814, some invading Cossacks slipped off to Montmartre for a taste of Paris nightlife and made their way to La Mère Catherine.  Out on the town without the knowledge of their senior officers, the soldiers had alot to do in a short time. Between rounds, they yelled “Bistro! Bistro!” (Hurry! Hurry!) and coined the term.   The ETs feel justified when they can learn history while dining out in Paris, and here we find that Mère Catherine was right in the midst of it all!

Relaxed and dishevelled with toasts all round. The magic of La Mère Catherine transported the ETs

Once our attentive waiter advised us on dinner, we settled back to watch the show unfold.  Before us went groups of kids out for a Friday night, befuddled tourists swept along by the crowd and hungry portrait artists in search of paying subjects. This was better than the Lido, and cheaper too.  I don’t mind the Montmartre crowds when I am a drinking spectator with dinner on the horizon.

Tasty marinated pork isn't terribly photogenic

At last our meal was served.  Melinda chose tender pork marinated in cider with potatoes lyonnaise that were fine.  I had the ever-popular beef bourguignon with pasta and a grilled tomato that was adequate and filling.  Our satisfaction rose with the arrival of a gâteau au chocolat with crème anglaise  and raspberry coulis.

Fit for a Cossack - beef bourguignon and some puzzling pasta

Mère Catherine is a purveyor of standard cuisine and on that count, she delivers.  This wasn’t a Michelin meal.  But dear Readership, consider the balmy evening breeze, the checkered tablecloth, the warbling chanteuse accompanied by a rickety old piano, the entertainment in the place du Tertre and the warm goodwill engendered by the wine.  Clearly, you can have a delightful night out in Montmartre.

Popular lore claims that it was here that the revolutionary Danton wrote “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die”.  That was far more likely in Paris of 1793 if you were a fleeing aristocrat with the family jewels sewn into your seams.  Yet the ETs agree we could fare worse than to make our final stop at Chez La Mère Catherine to enjoy the ambiance over a leisurely, satisfying meal before the guillotine falls.

What might Danton have made of the raspberry coulis? Vive la France!

Paris Books: A Moveable Feast

February 18, 2012

Hemingway at 113 rue Notre Dame des Champs; strong and hungry (Wikimedia)

The Experienced Travelers are reading Hemingway.  Hemingway, the legend of his time.  He knew Pound and Stein and Fitzgerald and Joyce and he liked them all some of the time.  Other times he despised them truly.  Times in between, he was indifferent.

Hemingway lived in Paris with Hadley and his son, sometimes on the rue Cardinal-Lemoine where the goatheard brought the goats early to sell milk, and sometimes next to a sawmill in Montparnasse where the wood smelled sweet.  He wrote and struggled and played the horses and observed.  Mostly he observed the faces of people and knew they would die soon or betray someone or sleep well after they were full and spent.

La Rotunde (Wikipedia)

This was 1920s Paris, between the wars.  Americans lived cheaply and ate, drank and loved well.  Americans came to Paris to live cheaply and they did.  Paris embraced them.  The Closerie des Lilas was the best place to write, in the morning when they washed the floor.  Lipp and the Rotund were for people on exhibition and they did that.

But Hemingway was hungry alot.   He had a  grinding emptiness in his gut. Every writer should be hungry because it makes him see better.  He saw the Cezannes with clarity.  He thought he would like Cezanne most of the time.  He walked home through the Luxembourg gardens or along the quays because it was the way to avoid the patisseries and restaurants where people ate golden oysters and drank Sancerre outside and were satisfied.

Ezra Pound was one of the good Christian men on earth.  He was a true friend when you needed one.  Miss Stein gave him a small chair which broke.  She could have given him a large one, for a man of his stature and talent, but she didn’t.

Alice and Miss Stein (paris-a-nu.fr)

Miss Stein was built like a peasant woman. Her companion had hair cut like Joan of Arc.  27, rue de Fleurus contained the work of men who were hungry and who broke ice to wash in the morning.  Later Hemingway hated Miss Stein after she begged Alice please don’t.  He told the maid not to say he was there, and left.

La Closerie des Lilas in the 1920s (Wikipedia)

Hemingway wrote well in Paris, first for regular pay and then not for regular pay because the novel had to come.  Sometimes people would interrupt him to tell him he wrote well which was indiscreet because you never tell someone that to his face.   He thought they knew he could kill them because he knew he could, and you can tell when a man has that in him.

Then they had a whiskey or the red wine of the quartier, which was good and it lasted.  People are truer when they are drunk, and Hemingway was true alot and had to walk home in the rain which was the cold regular rain that stripped the trees bare.

The ETs will finish Moveable Feast soon and return to real stories which are better.  Hemingway’s book is short and good and it gets in your head.  Pound told Hemingway to distrust adjectives and Hemingway showed that to the ETs.  Shortly the ETs will forget this and do things normally.  Beware when we begin again with Proust.


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