Monday, July 7, 2014

Our Wild Ride, Aller-Retour (Round Trip) Paris-Giverny

Fred threaded our Paris CityVision van around double-parked trucks, pokey Peugeots, and parked Renaults down serpentine streets and back alleys. When I say “threaded,” I mean we wove in and out. Do not conjure images of granny painstakingly poking needle in lace doily. We flew like a Star Wars rocket might “thread” a narrow opening between cliffs, its pilot not hesitating for a moment as he avoids danger after danger.

Our van rumbled rapidly along cobblestone streets as we encountered obstacles like two different public demonstrations that diverted traffic. Fred detoured often, darting down whatever alley he thought might be faster. He changed lanes as freely as if riding one of Paris’ bazillion scooters, though never driving on sidewalks as scooters sometimes do. In fact, Harley-Davidson, Indian, Piaggio (Vespa’s manufacturer) and Honda motorcycle dealership signs whizzed by in our peripheral vision. If we’d been poodles with our curly heads in open van windows, our floppy ears would have sailed behind.

Even on the Île Saint-Louis, Fred barely had time to recommend Berthillon, the best ice cream in Paris, before we had blown past the shop. On one boulevard we and other tourists in our van noticed what looked like a cathedral, Gothic shoulders shrugged up skinny between two storefronts. I wanted to see its name, but only had time to read Venite Adoremus (Come let us adore Him) carved above the church door. Traffic moderated around the Arc de Triomphe so we could glimpse its carvings, and we stopped at a red light on a bridge that allowed us a nice view of the Tour Eiffel.

Another red stoplight in a densely populated neighborhood bought me a moment to notice a scene I might call typically French, because in my opinion, the French are good at relaxing in the midst of hard work. From the second floor of an ornately carved, triangular apartment building emerged a slender young man with ebony, chin-length hair. As he stood on an impossibly narrow black wrought iron balcony, he slowly dragged on a cigarette and exhaled in leisurely fashion. Lounging against the creamy limestone building, the man coolly observed pedestrian chatter, rubber-tired bumpy rumblings, and chaotic buzzing of life from his perch above it all.

Another scene Paris is famous for is embouteillages (traffic jams), and this was the first one I could marvel at from inside a vehicle. I had gotten to trust Fred’s living out his apparent dream of being a race car driver, so wasn’t paying attention to how the jam happened. Suddenly, at a major intersection, our van was in a mess of stopped cars. We were pointed toward a pont (bridge) over the Seine, and the four cars on our van’s four sides were perpendicular to us, parallel to the river. Maybe 20 cars were woven as tightly as bamboo strands of a bistro chair. It was a mystery to me how we would extricate ourselves. I don't remember hearing anyone honk a horn. Unflappable Fred asserted our van a few inches at a time, and the other drivers did the same—equally boldly. Calm chaos no longer seems an oxymoron.

And it really didn’t take long for all the cars to clear the intersection. Granted, an embouteillage is probably motivated by impatience and greed, rather than surviving wartime scarcity. But still, it reminded me of débrouillardise (resourcefulness) shown by World War II French Résistance workers when rubber became unavailable—they laid wine corks all around their bicycle wheel rims so they could still ride their bikes without actual tires.

Outside the city, our van rocketed out of gray- and sand-colored shapes and rumbling sounds to silently speed north through rolling green hills with vast fields of yellow colza (canola) flowers. Every vista included a curving stream or grand river. Fred said they were all the Seine River. Legend has it that the Seine loops lazily through the Giverny area because the river was so charmed by the countryside’s beauty, it devised a way to stay there longer. In fact, the river curves so often because the area’s soft limestone erodes easily as water flows through. Fred pointed out limestone cliffs in the distance.

On our way back from Giverny, Fred took us through the village of La Roche-Guyon, where Nazi field marshal Rommel headquartered in a castle on one of those cliffs just before D-Day. At road level, caves in the limestone cliffs were used to store military supplies. We wound through other sleepy villages, one even with a thatch-roofed house.

I was grateful for tranquil time in the country, including Claude Monet’s greatest masterpiece—his gardens—but soon we were back in Paris for another spin around the Arc de Triomphe rond-point (roundabout) and more fearless-flying adrenaline rushes. At 7 p.m., when Fred deposited us outside our apartment, we thought, “Now that wild ride was a grand tour!”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Sublime Beauty of Paris' Petit Palais

Wikipedia sums it up: The Petit Palais (small palace) is an art museum in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, France. It was built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle; it now houses the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris). Located near the Champs-Élysées, it faces one side of the Grand Palais (big palace), also built for the 1900 exhibition.

What Wikipedia doesn’t mention is its breathtaking beauty.

During my 2011 Paris visit, I sat on the concrete steps of the Petit Palais for a half hour or so for the sole purpose of gazing at the beautiful façade of the Grand Palais. Verdigris ribs arch through blue-green curved glass to form a roof that resembles sky. Sculpted bronze horsemen hover at the corners of this sky. Below, more than thirty pillars stretch the edges of the building from the Seine River almost to the Champs-Elysees. Walking inside under the glass sky of the Grand Palais, I could picture industrial exhibits (in 2011, bicycles, but airplanes could fit) filling the massive warehouse-like space. But the interior seemed more utilitarian, compared with the exterior. In 2011, as I sat with my back to the Petit Palais, I shed a few tears over the sheer beauty of the front of the Grand Palais.

In 2014, my back was to the Grand Palais as I entered the Petit Palais, whose exterior is also ornate, but whose interior inspired more tears—and gasps of delight. No warehouse feel here! After purchasing tickets for the exposition about the 1900 World’s Fair that both palaces were built for, we headed straight through the garden to the café for lunch. This lush green garden was guarded by golden angels on high, and we took pictures a-plenty of the statuary overlooking palm trees and ponds.

After lunch when we re-entered Petit Palais’ grand hall, my feet simply stopped, my jaw dropped, and my eyes, drawn to the ceiling, popped. Frescoes and friezes on the ceiling mesmerized me. Overwhelmed by grandeur, I trembled as I aimed my camera. My photos cannot capture the magnificent scale, artistry and craftsmanship, rich colors, swooping arches, gracefully curved panels and windows. In a bright, airy environment, one’s pupils are supposed to narrow, but I felt mine widen to try to take in the extraordinary beauty.

The exhibit we saw, Paris 1900, La Ville Spectacle, celebrated the flourishing arts of Paris at the dawn of the 20th century. What came to be known as La Belle Époque (the beautiful era, from about 1870 to the start of World War I in 1914), was in full swing in 1900. With this World’s Fair in an optimistic period of peace, Paris positioned itself as the pinnacle of fashion, futuristic technology, gastronomy, entertainment, and all arts genres. Although I enjoyed exhibits of early silent movies and creative examples of Realism, Symbolism, Impressionism, and Art Nouveau, for me, the Petit Palais itself was the sublime star of the show.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Farmers markets

Marchés (Markets)

“Still savoring?” asked our B&B host to determine if he could clear our breakfast dishes or not. I liked his pleasure-oriented way of saying, “Can I take your plate?” This memory springs to mind, as I am still savoring France’s tastes and sights. See previous post, Tasty Terroir Treats, for food gourmandises (delicacies). For a visual feast, you can’t beat France’s marchés (markets)—and Monet’s Garden and the Petit Palais, but they deserve blog posts of their own.

If I go to a grocery store at home, I’m task-focused. I have a list of what I need; I gather the items, check out, go home—as quickly as possible. If I go to a farmers market at home or in France, I want to linger to enjoy the vibrant colors and artistic presentations of food and flowers. Even if I’m on a quest for something, like the best looking haricots verts (green beans) for the best price, or a foulard (scarf), or chèvre (goat cheese), I don’t like to hurry at a market. Being there is a pleasurable passe-temps (pastime). This includes many smiles at people’s cute dogs trotting by or peeking out of ladies’ purses.

We went to three farmers markets on this France trip. Here are some miscellaneous market photos from Fontenay-le-Comte, St. Martin-de-Re, and Paris’ Marché Bastille.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tasty Terroir Treats

I’ve already mentioned French food’s freshness during my recent time in France. From gourmet chefs to home cooks, the French seem to emphasize flavor. French people I’ve known are also infused with the concept of terroir, or a sense of the land. My friend Françoise paid close attention to where veggies and fruits were grown and what was in season. When is aubergine (eggplant) in
season? Eggplant’s purplish-gray flesh was visible in most vegetable mixtures I was served. If produce was from too far away, or from certain countries, Françoise wouldn’t buy it. When her friend Monique, whose home we had lunch in, served three kinds of cheese, she brought out a map of France to point out each cheese’s region. She of course also told what kind of animal (cow, goat, ewe) produced the milk each cheese was made from. The brebis (ewe’s) cheese was slightly tangy, and the gray ash-covered chèvre (goat cheese) took creamy to a whole new level of smoothness.

Vibrant taste is not limited to strawberries, broccoli, cheese, and eggs, however. Plain old grocery-store canned thon (tuna), sardine (sardine), and saumon (salmon) also tantalize taste buds. Some were lemon-flavored, but other than that, ingredients are similar to cans in the U.S.: tuna, salmon, or sardines, water or oil, salt. I’m not sure where their fish is caught; I seem to remember Norway on one can. The fish tasted purer. Wish I knew why. I remember this purer taste when eating canned salmon in Canada, too; it was from British Columbia. (Just checked the canned tuna and salmon in my pantry. Whole Foods’ 365 brand is from Vietnam; Trader Joe’s brand is a product of the U.S.A. For whatever that’s worth.)

Also at Monique’s house, I got to try Pineau des Charentes, a regional apéritif (pre-meal alcoholic drink) made from grape must and cognac. For fun, she served it to me in a cognac pipe. The Pineau was strong, but the way it trickled warm down my throat awakened my taste buds for the meal.

I liked that in a meal, the salad that generally came first could be any vegetable. Sometimes it was just ruffly lettuce, lightly dressed in olive oil. Sometimes just shredded carrots. Sometimes “salad” was green beans and gold potatoes.

One area in which European food manufacturers lag behind the U.S. is gluten-free offerings. E. Leclerc supermarché’s (supermarket) house brand, Marque Repere, makes
a light and lovely baguette, but all gluten-free breads, cakes, and pastas I saw, all brands—in all types of grocery stores, from grand-surface (big-box) to tiny Bio-Coops—on this trip use corn as the main alternative flour. Savvy celiacs tend to avoid corn. Stores in the U.S. carry hundreds of corn-free products that mix nut flours, bean flours, flax, rice and potato flours to jazz up texture, fiber, and flavor. Still, on this trip, I did enjoy having baguettes, as well as a dark, dark chocolate-covered cookie wasn’t too sweet. The French don’t seem to overly sweeten everything, which I found refreshing.
Although we cooked most of our own meals, we did eat out a few times. Our restaurant meals were outstanding. One, salade niçoise, is a favorite from previous France trips, and this one was artfully presented. Another dish was new to me: brandade de morue, or gratin of whipped salt-cod, garlic, and potato. That’s true comfort food!