ASAP #13: Berlin Part 2 – City Sights

After visiting the East Side Gallery (see ASAP #12), I turned my attention to the other sites that Berlin has to offer.

I waited for the ubiquitous HOHO bus (no pun intended!) run here by City Circle Sightseeing. Soon the big, yellow bus loomed into sight and I was off to my next stop, the Berliner Dom, or the Berlin Cathedral. This is the third church to be built on the same site on the Spree River’s Museum Island. Berlin’s famous TV tower is a stark modern reminder of advances in architecture and technology.DSCN0564-Edit
The baroque multi-domed building is imposingly set on a beautiful green square, the Lustgarten (again, I’m not making up these names suggestive as they are), and sits perpendicular to the Altes Museum, the Old Museum. This imposing wide building, fronted by 18 Ionic columns, displays Greek, Roman and Egyptian artifacts.DSCN0375 - Copy

Sea horses lined the bridge over the Spree and, on the other side of the bridge, was a man selling German-style grilled hot dogs. He was a walking food truck: the whole contraption holding the buns and the hot dogs, as well as the condiments to go with them, was hitched on his body!DSCN0562-EditDSCN0567-Edit
Strolling up the wide, tree-lined Unter den Linden, DSCN0557-Edita boulevard lined with historical buildings, I was on my way to what is surely Berlin’s most iconic landmark, the Brandenburg Gate.DSCN0522-Edit - Copy DSCN0529-Edit - CopyOriginally the Brandenburg Gate was part of Berlin’s city wall. Built in the late 1700s, it was modeled on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. The chariot, pulled by four horses, is driven by the goddess of Victory. Napoleon took it with him to Paris but after his defeat in Waterloo it was taken back to Berlin and was a symbol of Prussian might. Strangely enough, it is located at Pariser Plaza! After WW II, it was just inside the Russian sector in divided Berlin. After the fall of communism, it has become the symbol of a unified Germany.
Today, the Pariser Plaza was quite full but with plenty of space to walk around and take photographs. A person on a seven-seater bike, called a conference bike, was renting it out to tourists. All seven are seated in a circular fashion, one is in charge of steering the bike and braking. All can peddle or some can just sit back and let others do the grunt work.DSCN0379 - Copy
Turning left down Ebertstrasse, I went to the Holocaust Memorial. Dedicated in May 2005, 60 years after the fall of Hitler, this memorial is made up of 2711 undulating gray slabs of stone of varying heights, set on rolling paths, and, in fact, built almost over the site of Hitler’s Bunker. Beneath is a subterranean museum. Even on a sunny, blue-sky day, the memorial gave off a somber feeling, though the man in the maze created by these monolithic slabs seemed happy enough. DSCN0407-Edit - Copy DSCN0404 - CopyDSCN0399-Edit

Looking out over the memorial and the Brandenburg Gate is the resplendent Hotel Adlon Kempinski featured in many movies (including Unknown in which a whole floor was blown up). Here too is the U.S. Embassy which today was displaying painted five-pointed stars and a Miss Liberty BuddyBear.DSCN0409-Edit - Copy
Back across the Brandenburg, a little walk on the other side towards the Spree, is the Reichstag, unified Germany’s parliament building. In fact, there are several buildings ranged around squares: an older building with an imposing new glass dome and several post-modern glass-and-steel buildings on the banks of the Spree where, I imagine, much of the grunt work of governing is carried out.DSCN0537-Edit-Edit DSCN0544-EditA row of older, East German-built gaily decorated Trabants (or Trabis, for short), were on a tourist safari of Berlin’s sights. These under-powered cars are stodgy, plain (bordering on the unattractive), very basically equipped and, yet, treasured by West German’s as collector’s items. There is a famous mural on the Berlin Wall of a Trabi breaking through the wall to freedom.DSCN0532-Edit - Copy
The Spree is used regularly by boat tours and enables one to get a different view of the city, its parks, and waterways. Here, on one such tour, passing the Chancellor’s office next to the Reichstag, DSCN0552-Edit DSCN0604-Edit DSCN0609-Edit

I noticed a camera shoot: the model leaning in provocatively, the photographer crouching down to get her curves and his assistant holding up a reflector screen (while glaring at me!).
Off the side of the glass building, reflections in a multihued pattern attract. DSCN0607-Edit DSCN0446-Edit - CopyThe boat tour also passes the Bode Museum which contains Byzantine art.DSCN0586-Edit

I had had enough of walking around so decided to settle down for a light lunch with a beer on the banks of the Spree.DSCN0572-Edit
Then I was off on my trusted HOHO steed to Checkpoint Charlie. Once one of the crossing points from East to West and vice versa, it was also a famous flashpoint when tanks confronted each other. Many movies feature this site. Today it is innocuous enough that seven-seater bikes float past it.DSCN0470-Edit DSCN0458-Edit-Edit - CopyThe HOHO also passed the Charlottenburg Palace.DSCN0434-Edit - Copy

Not all of Berlin is new: in parts of what was East Germany there are several buildings that still show walls with bullet holes. These buildings are depressing reminders of Berlin’s brutal past.DSCN0670-Edit DSCN0671-Edit DSCN0680-EditDSCN0734-Edit
Nearby this collection of buildings, centered on Oranienburger Street, is a rapidly gentrifying street with many bars, galleries and restaurants, including the Amrit lounge, touting Indian and Singaporean dishes, with iconic Buddhas beatifically beaming on colorful chairs on the sidewalk.DSCN0666-Edit DSCN0691-Edit
We stopped at a Turkish vendor’s stall to have Gözleme, a wrap (Göz means pocket in Turkish) with fillings of your choice: meats, cheeses, vegetables or a combination. (I recall an outstanding street-side snack of Gözleme filled with meat chased down with a glass of ice cold ayran, a salty lassi-like drink, which I had in the outskirts of Istanbul in Ortakoy’s street market.) This one was almost as good.DSCN0742-EditOn the street a touring Pedi cab passes a mural posing an existential question next to which is another mural of a giant cockroach breaking out of a wall.DSCN0667-Edit
Over the high roofs you can see the dome of the New Synagogue.
A gallery aims to “Strengthen Thru Embarrassment” and a poster’s plaintive cry of “When Will I Be Famous” has been changed by a wag to read “When Will I be Infamous?” Improvers are all around!DSCN0719-Edit DSCN0730-Edit
A major street, off the famous Kurfürstendamm (a very wide boulevard which is full of shops and where George Segal in The Quiller Memorandum leads his observers on a night’s worth of cat-and-mouse), shows off the famous spaghetti noodles statue, Berlin, showing the broken pieces of Germany coming together.DSCN0447-Edit-Edit - Copy
That night we went to the Berlin TV Tower,DSCN0370-Edit - Copyknown locally as the Fernsehturm, for dinner. DSCN0563-Edit - CopyIt took a while to find the entrance which was artfully hidden. Once inside we skipped the entrance line because we had reservations. The elevators took us swiftly up to the top of the 1200 feet tower to the revolving restaurant from where there was a magnificent view of the city. The food there was surprisingly good given the fact that the restaurant was packed and you couldn’t get a more touristic setting for eating.
The next day it was back to Berlin’s Tegel airport and an Air Berlin flight to Paris and Neuilly.
And, I’ll keep you posted…

 

ASAP #12: Berlin Part 1 – The East Side Gallery

DSCN0477-EditTHE KISS! That mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is being given by Leonid Brezhnev, then General Secretary of the USSR, to his star lackey, Eric Honecker of East Germany, as they are locked in a tight embrace. Seems a bit on the desperate side of fraternal to me! The artist, Dmitri Vrubel, recreated this mural from a photograph. He titled his creation, “May God Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love.”

I was in Berlin, capital of united Germany, with its history of Cold War spy craft, beautiful broad avenues, art museums, imposing old buildings and aspiring modern buildings embodying Germany’s ambitions. Through it ran the fault lines of Nazi propaganda and Communist brutality. Among its foundations lay Germany’s creative and artistic flights, palaces of its old kings, and the airfield that brought wave upon wave of US and allied aircraft that helped thwart the Berlin Blockade.

A vivid reminder of Berlin’s recent past is the remnant of the infamous Berlin Wall, also euphemistically called the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart (because, according to the East Germans, West Germany had not been fully de-Nazified!). The 87 mile long wall consisted, in its final format, of concrete sections that were 12 feet high and about 4 feet across with a smooth pipe on the top. Most of the wall came down in 1989 but a section was left as a gruesome reminder.DSCN0487-Edit
The so called East Side Gallery is a 1.3 kilometer length of the wall that was turned over to 105 muralists and graffiti artists in 1990. Over the years, the “Kilroy-Was-Here” brigade vandalized much of it, covering it with “John-loves-Maria” hearts and other less salubrious, but equally infuriating, graffito. DSCN0493-EditThe wall and its artwork was repaired in 2000 and then again in 2009. Right now its fate is mired in the courts since a part of it is was to be destroyed by developers for luxury apartments! The most famous of its murals is the one I was looking at: both men’s eyes are closed, their lips are locked, they are in a tight fateful embrace.
The art in this open air gallery is, naturally, geared to expressions of freedom. Here are a few examples.

DSCN0644-Edit This one is a take-off on Picasso’s famous paining Guernica about the bombing of that town in northern Spain by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). This war between the democratically elected Republican government and the Nationalists led by the fascist General Franco gave rise to many works of art, books (notably Hemingway’s), photographs (Capra) and songs. Picasso’s huge Guernica is matched in its depiction of brutality here in La Buerlinica.DSCN0642-EditThe well-dressed man leaping over the Wall.

DSCN0653-EditI had come to Berlin, accompanying SWMBO who was on a business trip, and planned to spend 4 days there. The East Side Gallery was my first stop because the intersect of art and politics with its irony, sarcasm, and humor attracted me the most. Yet the grimness of the subject could not be erased by either the bright colors of the paintings or the clarity of the sun.

A wistful dream of being far away.

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DSCN0499-EditA Trabant, an East German-built, entry level car (valued now as a collector’ s item) comes crashing through the wall!

DSCN0638-EditA comic-book Sonic Man aided by Batman saves people…

DSCN0509-Edit …while a cat sleeps seeking democracy.DSCN0480-EditAnd, a final admonition to Berlin…

DSCN0484-Edit…to stay free!

DSCN0504-EditAnd, I’ll keep you posted…

 

 

ASAP #11: Paris – The Third Arrondissement

The Third was founded by the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, aka the Knights Templars, in the mid-1100s, on their return from the crusades in the Holy Land. The gifts given to them by appreciative Christians helped the Knights to accumulate vast quantities of wealth, and then estates, throughout Europe. In Paris they had settled near the Hotel de Ville, in the present day Fourth. To the north-east lay huge marshes and swamps. These they drained and established a large market garden for the City. Consolidating their fortunes, they built a large fortress, l’Enclos du Temple, in the north-east section of today’s Third.
In the next two centuries as their power and wealth grew to rival those of the King himself, envy of their influence led Philippe le Bel, the then King of France, to contrive rumors, false accusations, and mock trials of the Templars. Eventually, 54 of them were burnt to death, the Order was disbanded in 1313, and the Grand Master was burnt to death at the stake. He foretold the imminent deaths of the King and the Pope and, sure enough, both died that year.
The Temple quarter’s social make-up changed with the fall of the Templars. Much of the quarter was rebuilt by Henri IV and this area became a thriving intellectual center with many literary salons established in magnificent mansions.
Within this quarter as well, was the palace of the Grand Prior which became the court of the illegitimate sons of the royalty. It was in the sumptuous drawing room of this palace that, on August 13, 1792, a grand dinner was served to the royal family of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But as soon as dinner was complete, the King, his Queen, their two children and his sister were imprisoned in the Temple’s tower and from there, on January 21, 1793, the King was taken to his execution.
Matching the fall of high society’s influence in this quarter, was the rise of artisans and fancy goods and fashion accessory tradesmen who had been able to set up tax-free businesses within the Temple enclosure.
The revolution brought about further changes in this quarter. High society moved south to the present day Fourth, better known as the stylish Marais district. Working class folk moved in and waves of immigrants, mainly Jews, seeking refuge in post-Revolution France, and Chinese laborers, after WW 1, established footholds here. The remnants of that influx are still seen in the Third. The Temple Fortress, the Grand Palace all were razed and destroyed.
The most famous of the Third’s monuments are: the Carnavalet (the City Museum of Paris), the National Archives that store many of papers relating to France’s history, the Arts et Métiers museum, and the Picasso Museum (closed for some years but scheduled to open in October 2014). Let’s take a tour of the Third. But look first at the map of the Third to help you orient yourself.250px-Paris_3e_arr_jms

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Near the exit of the Arts et Métiers metro was this statue of a semi-fetal, Botero-style, woman: “Harmonie” by Antoniucci Volti. P1080773-EditThis area was where the fortress stood. A plaque with a map of the Temple fortress and its surrounds is all that remains of the mighty Knights Templars. The pointed railings reminded me of their arrows and spears.P1080783-EditAt the end of this street, the rue Gabriel-Vicaire, is a pretty little park, the Square du Temple, with the Mairie, the town hall, of the Third abutting it.P1080791-EditThe park in the Square du Temple is quite typical of Parisian parks: they are sprinkled all over the city and provide benches to sit on, a fountain to drink from, trees that provide shade, and, above all, an oasis of quiet and peace. One of the true joys of Paris is discovering these little parks, all named after some luminary. This being a Saturday, the park was full of parents tending to excited children, couples walking hand-in-hand, people reading on the benches. Flowers bloomed. A little waterfall fed the little pond and rocks, from the forest of Fontainebleau, added focal points of interest. Between the park and the Mairie, a group of children played pick up football with great abandon.P1080788-Edit-2
A few blocks away, on the rue de Bretagne is the oldest market in Paris: the Marche Les Enfants Rouges. The boys in red, so-called because they dressed in red, were orphans housed in the Marais area. Their counterparts were called the girls in blue. Today the market is a bustling place with food stalls, fruit, meat and fish stalls, a wonderful little shop specializing in olive oil, and several open air restaurants.P1080795 P1080801-EditOn rue Pastourelle, at the corner of rue Charlot, is an old restaurant, Le Baromètre, straight out of an old movie, its menu on the billboard outside. An old fashioned street lamp stands guard.P1080804-EditNearby, a shoe shop attracted SWMBO’s attention: I was busy absorbing the street scene.P1080802-EditFurther up rue Charlot is the Armenian Catholic church: its interior is richly painted and the stained glass window lights up the heavily repaired barrel-vaulted ceiling. That day a promised concert by a touring Chinese group had attracted many of the local Chinese. I waited a good half an hour but nothing happened: rehearsals droned on, the occidental usher was apologetic, the audience was restless and talkative and, disappointed, I left.P1080813-EditOn rue Poitou, a very pretty boulangerie, with typical Belle Époque window paneling showing scenes of the harvest, is now the entrance to a hotel. In many places in the quarter, and in the Fourth, old boulangeries and patisseries have been taken over, mainly by fashion stores, but the facades have been retained.P1080829-Edit-2
One such shop announces the coming of yet another high-end fashion store. The Biblical saying, man does not live by bread alone, takes on a new meaning here!P1080835-EditA shuttered up café/restaurant/hotel is beautifully defaced with graffiti.P1080839-EditAbove the Mexican Cultural Institute a phantasmagorical monster scales down a wall: the muralist has artfully included the steel ladder into the body of the animal.P1080843-Edit
A couple lingers over coffees at a restaurant and another diner gives the evil eye to yours truly for taking this candid shot.P1080846-EditOn the bend of rue de la Perle, a red-sweatered man on a Vélib’ (a rental bike system in Paris), bikes on cobbled streets while a happy couple strolls by on a side street.P1080859-Edit P1080860-Edit

Along the way to the Musée Carnavalet, I came across pretty houses with courtyards.P1080873-Edit P1080872-Edit The Museum is in a  huge mansion which was one of nine in the Marais leased and occupied by the formidable socialite Madame de Sévigné! Why she needed nine, all within a few square miles of each other, is beyond me. But, I imagine that’s the way nobility lived on its excesses in those days. The building now houses the museum of the City of Paris. All kinds of signage are displayed in the corridors, there are permanent exhibitions and temporary ones that attract many visitors and the grounds are adorned with well-tended flower beds.

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My next stop was the National Archives of France (one of five such centers) where items of interest and pertinent to the history of France are exhibited. It is located in the old hôtel de Rohan and the hôtel des Soubise, one of the, if not the, most magnificent private houses in the Marais on rue des Francs-Bourgeois.P1080938-Edit (By the way, the word hôtel in French refers not to a lodging inn but a private house. A hôtel particulière being an individual’s house.) In the 18th century the Guise family, second only to the King’s, lived here. These were a particularly arrogant and hedonistic lot, allowed to be so by the King so long as they did not challenge him. One such, Henri de Guise, once happened to walk into his wife’s chambers and caught her in flagrante delicto with one of her lovers. He had her thrown out of the window immediately and then killed off in the street!
The French-Italian inspired mansion is stunning. In one corner, incongruously, there are turrets and a fat cherub lolling about with an arm on a globe.P1080936-EditP1080942-EditFor lunch that day I went to the very famous, self-proclaimed King of Falafel, restaurant L’As du Fallafel where on a busy sidewalk table I had an overstuffed falafel sandwich topped with everything you can imagine. Delicious with an ice cold beer!P1080952 P1080951
The next day, the Third having not been explored fully in spite of the fact that it is the second smallest of all the Arrondissements, I returned to visit the last of the museums. On the way to the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, I passed by yet another of the Sun Kings temple to himself, the triumphal Porte Saint-Martin, thrown up by him to mark his victories over the Germans, the Spanish, the Dutch and the Franche-Comté, the “free county” of eastern France in Burgundy. On the arch itself is a nude, but bewigged Louis XIV, showing off his six pack abs, channeling Hercules. Subsequent victorious armies marched back into Paris through this arch until the focal point shifted westwards to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées. Sic transit gloria mundi.P1090269-Edit P1090270-EditOn the rue Volta is a section of the 13th century tower of an old priory, Saint-Martin-des-Champs, preserved at the insistence of Victor Hugo, in 1882, when it was slated for razing.P1090271-Edit
The Musée des Arts et Metiers, is housed in the abandoned priory mentioned above, and has the industrial, scientific and design collection of the conservatory, pictured below.P1090273-EditThere are: Foucault’s pendulum, Lavoisier ’s laboratory (memories of Fr. Kirsch my chemistry teacher at Loyola High flash before me), Pascal’s mechanical calculators, old airplanes, a 1681 pair of binoculars, etc.
All this had made me think of food (don’t ask me why – maybe I think of food all the time) and so I headed off to the cafeteria in the conservatory. There, on a tray with little dishes, airplane-style, I had a very satisfying meal. And then it was time to head back home to Neuilly.
And, I’ll keep you posted…

 

 

ASAP #10: Magret de Canard, Potatoes Dauphinoise, and Tarte Tatin

A surprising and utterly delightful gift for my birthday was a gift certificate to a cooking class. It entitled me to prepare a menu under the guidance of an English-speaking chef at L ’Atelier des Sens. There were several locations but the one that suited me the best was near the Hotel de Ville in Central Paris on Line 1 of the Metro. Armed with my certificate I went to check them out and to select the class I wanted to attend. There were quite a few available but the choices for an English speaking lesson were somewhat limited. However, after consulting the very helpful assistant, I decided on a two course lunch taught by Chef Gérard Bouché (formerly of Le Grand Vefour – where I ate at, much later).IMG_2268
All this talk of food had me dizzyingly hungry and I noticed a tiny Indian restaurant around the corner. “Akash” had the usual formule for lunch. I had their Khyber plate which had a biryani and a lamb curry followed by a dessert. So-so food in a so-so setting. Ah well.
On the day of the class, I arrived on time to find burgundy aprons laid out for us at a table in their teaching kitchen. A rectangular table with 6 workplaces were set out in front of a couple of ranges which had ovens underneath. All the basic ingredients were also set up and ready. We were going to make magret of duck: the breast of a specially fattened duck whose liver ends up in foie gras pate. The breasts are usually fatty but these had been cleared of much of the fat.
There were only six participants. Two of us lived in Paris. Four were vacationers who had included a cooking lesson as part of their holiday. IMG_2276-2
The duck was scored on one side, then sautéed and then put in the oven for finishing off. IMG_2295

This was served with a buttery sauce of onions, capers and white wine. IMG_2296 IMG_2299
IMG_2300-2Accompanying this would be individual servings of a potatoes dauphinoise. The way the chef made it, they had a bit of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes underneath an artful layer of mandolined potatoes that had been sautéed in, what else, more butter. (By the way, beware of these mandolins: they are extremely sharp and I scraped off a bit of skin doing this. I hasten to add nothing fell into the potatoes! The chef, ever prepared, band-aided me efficiently.)

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Finally, we prepared individual servings of a tarte tatin with a very easy recipe. This upside down cake was invented, by mistake, by two sisters who ran a hotel in France. A mistake, by the way, that has satisfied many a stomach. I made this at home later and not only was it easier than most other recipes, it was also tastier. The apples were crisper and not reduced to mush.

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Here is my (modified) recipe of Chef Bouche’s recipe:

Classic (Yet Easy) Tarte Tatin Recipe
Ingredients

4 Granny Smith apples, or other hard, tart apple
1 sheet of puff pastry
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter (or to taste but not less than 6 tbsp.)
1 cup sugar (or to taste – but the tarte needs to be sweet)
1/8 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of one lemon
Ice cream or crème fraîche, optional for serving
A cast iron, or oven safe, skillet

Instructions
→ Heat the oven to 375°F.
1. Peel and core the apples. Peel the apples, remove the core, and slice them into eighths. Roll out the pie crust to a little larger than 10 inches on a piece of wax paper and keep chilled in the refrigerator while you cook the apples.
2. Start the caramel sauce. When the skillet is very hot put the sugar in it. Don’t touch it. When the edges of the sugar begins to melt and the mass is just about caramelized, then stir it until all of the sugar has caramelized and turns a deep amber.
3. When the sugar is amber and bubbling, add the apples and sprinkle with salt. No need to be fancy with how you arrange the apples now. Cut the butter into little dice and sprinkle all over the apples. Put in the zest and lemon juice. Stir so all the ingredients are combined.
4. Cook the apples, stirring every few minutes, until they are soft. This should take 12 to 15 minutes. Be sure to turn the apples as you stir them so they are coated with the caramel sauce. A good indication of when the caramel sauce is done is if a drip holds its shape on a cool plate. Don’t overcook the apples as they will turn into mush. And that’s not pleasant to eat.
5. When the apples are done (they will be a deep honey color) use a spatula to arrange them into concentric circles. Top the apples with the puff pastry. Be careful not to touch the hot caramel sauce! Tuck the edges of the pie crust into the pan and prick with a fork.
6. Bake the tarte tatin for 20-25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.
7. Set the tarte tatin on a cooling rack and cool for 10-20 minutes.
8. At this point, you have a choice. You can serve as is. Or, for the classic presentation, invert the tarte tatin. Run a knife around the edge of the pie crust to separate it from the pan. Shake the skillet a few times to loosen the apples in the caramel sauce. Place a plate large enough to cover the skillet over the top of the skillet. Using oven mitts, grip the plate and the skillet and swiftly turn them both over so the pie plate is on the bottom and the skillet is on top.
9. Remove the skillet and make presentable. Gently lift the skillet away and re-arrange any stubborn apples that have gotten jostled out of place. Scrape any remaining caramel sauce from the pan and drizzle over the tarte tatin.
10. Serve with ice cream or, better still, crème fraiche.

As you can see from the end result, quite a worthwhile effort! IMG_2305The six of us then sat around yet another table in the front of the shop, surrounded by books, ingredients, and cooking implements of all sorts. The receptionist asked if we wanted wine. Those of us who did got a glass for about 6 euros.
The whole affair took just about an hour. It’s surprising how you fast you can cook up a fresh meal and enjoy it too. The whole approach to cooking, if pursued as therapy, makes it so much more pleasurable.
I later attended several more cooking classes at Les Atelier des Chef (with the same delicious results) and found that several of the participants came regularly. The cost of the lesson was about 17 euros. Add a glass of wine and you had: a delicious meal prepared with fresh ingredients, a lesson that you could take home and add to your repertoire, new friends. And all for the cost of a similar lunch in a café.

ASAP #9: Arrondissement 2 Part 2

I was back in the Second a few days later to complete my explorations. The area of the Second around rue Saint-Denis which I had visited earlier was seedy, run down, and somewhat dingy. Today my focus was on the area around the Bourse and, specifically, the various passages around the rues Vivienne, Colbert and Richelieu. I could immediately feel the more elegant nature of this sub-division.
Note the streets named after the great political advisers to the rulers of France. Richelieu, also known as the l’Éminence rouge, after his red robe of office as a Cardinal, was Louis XIII’s chief minister. Colbert became Louis XIV’s Finance Minister after having successfully brown-nosing his way up the ladder. He was recommended to the King by his boss, Mazarin, a powerful minister and favorite of the King. Unfortunately Mazarin was exiled and Colbert took no time at all to denounce him to the King thereby winning Louis XIV’s favor. He also went on to maliciously slander another rival, Fouquet, who everyone thought would succeed Mazarin. He planted rumors in Louis XIV’s mind denigrating Fouquet and the legitimacy of his wealth. Indeed, Fouquet’s chateau at Vaux Le Vicomte (which I will blog about later) was the magnificent fore-runner to the Palace of Versailles and where Fouquet brought together three artists that the King would later take up for Versailles: the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Charles Le Brun, and the garden designer André le Nôtre. More on Fouquet and his depressing story later as I write about the Chateau de Vincennes.
One of my first stops was the Passage des Panoramas which runs parallel to rue Vivienne and between the blvd. Montmartre (a part of the Grands Boulevards) and rue Saint-Marc. This was one of the first of Paris’ famous passages to be built and, in 1817, the first place to be gas lit. With its glazed roof, and full of philatelic and numismatic shops, it was a precursor, in many ways, to today’s malls and gallerias. The grandness of the Passage has long since passed and it is now a rather run-down arcade. DSCN2373DSCN2376
Arriving at the Bourse (the Stock Exchange), I was struck by the immenseness of the building as well as its clear reflection of Grecian architecture: 64 columns, almost 40 feet high, surround the exterior making it look like a Greek temple. Once the Bourse housed the Stock Exchange but now is an events center.
The intense, labyrinthine rivalries of the past were pushed back in my mind for, here in the square in front of the Bourse, was a neat little market of little white-cloth stalls selling foods, fruits, vegetables and other flea market doodads.DSCN2392-Edit DSCN2391-Edit Looking down on this, at the periphery of the Bourse, were serene seated statues representing Commerce, Agriculture, Justice and Industry.DSCN2402-Edit DSCN2400-Edit The juxtaposition of the imposing Bourse and the temporary stalls belittled the former without adding to the latter. Across the square was another icon though of a more modern nature: the head office of Club Med is located at #2 Place De la Bourse.
On the rue Vivienne is the upscale and refined Galerie Vivienne built in 1823 in a Belle Époque style. DSCN2415-EditThe floor is an intricately, yet flowing, design of mosaics which fully complements the glazed roof, the grand rotunda with its cupola and the ornate decorations of the arcade. DSCN2412-EditThe Galerie connects the old Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BnF) on rue Vivienne to the Palais Royal in the First. The BnF moved, at great expense and delay under Mitterrand’s direction, to the Thirteenth to larger quarters where it houses about 14 million books, manuscripts, etc. A non-descript high-rise, it has nothing on the old site. I was able to go in and see the magnificent Richelieu reading room with its stacked shelves and vast central space. No photographs are allowed but here is one from Wikipedia.
Within the Galerie are four restaurants: the very famous Bistrot Vivienne,DSCN2435-Edit the A Priori The (again a nice pun) for lighter stuff, Le Bougainville which is a bar, and the one and only Legrand Filles et Fils (for once, the daughters come first!). DSCN2433-EditAcross the passageway to the last are the wine shop of Legrand which also has chocolates and other food in a less formal setting. The shop actually sits on top of the Legrand wine cellars below.
There was a fancy optician’s shop with a Buddha head displaying frames.DSCN2425I was attracted to a tiny bookshop in the passage, the Librairie Jousseaume, started in 1826. There was a nice collection of English books and I bought a used copy of “The Quiller Memorandum” by Adam Hall. A movie by the same name with George Segal in it remains one of my favorite spy movies of all time and I had previously read the book and looked forward to re-reading it again. Books were everywhere and also spilled out into the corridors of the passage.
Across the way was another lovely gallery: the Galerie Colbert (named after the conniving Minister mentioned above). This gallery was similar to the Galerie Vivienne, also built in 1823 and the Vivienne’s main rival, but has now been cleared of shops and acts as a setting for two institutes of Art and Patrimony. I walked in because the beautiful rotunda with its magnificent cupola is open to the public.DSCN2451-Edit In the middle of the rotunda is a gorgeous statue of Eurydice (Orpheus’ lover) bitten by a viper and in the throes of death. The doleful look on her face has been hauntingly sculpted.DSCN2456-Edit
At the end of the Galerie Colbert is the independently-owned brasserie, Le Grand Colbert. DSCN2461-EditThe famous restaurant was made even more famous when Diane Keaton’s and Jack Nicholson’s characters in “Something’s Gotta Give”. Since then, the boom in American tourists rushing to the restaurant, asking for THE table where THEY sat, and ordering the ROAST CHICKEN THEY had, has reportedly induced contempt and disdain in the brasserie staff. Though they cheerfully pocket the money, thank you very much! I did not eat there.
However, I did wander back up rue Richelieu to eat at a fantastic Thai restaurant, the Meiwenti, where I had the tried and true formule for lunch: a couple of spring rolls, a pork stir fry dish and lychees. A beer to wash it all down and I was done in the Second.
On the way back to the Metro to catch the wonderful line 1, which traverses the heart of Paris from East to West, I walked by Moliere’s statue, regally accompanied by two statues,  titled Serious Comedy and Light Comedy. Below the plinth, lions’ heads spew water in the summer.IMG_2200-Edit IMG_2201-Edit
And, I’ll keep you posted…

 

 

ASAP #8: Arrondissement 2 Part 1

If Paris’ 1st arrondissement is the historical center of the City of Lights, the Second, at least once upon a time, was the financial center. Now that center has shifted, somewhat, to La Defense on the western periphery of the city where high rise towers, atypical of Paris, house major banks.
Napoleon commissioned his architect Broginart to build a new temple of finance on the then-northern periphery of the city. The architect, thus charged, erected a Grecian inspired, Parthenon-like, stock exchange or the Bourse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Bourse. The building, constructed in the early 1800s, was not inaugurated until 1825, ten years after Napoleon’s comeuppance. Today it stands proudly in the middle of the Second.
Here are some maps of the Second. The shaded area marks the Second. 250px-Paris_2e_arr_jmsThe larger map, below, shows the streets that define the Second.

Paris_2ndFlush with his victories and feeling secure in his might, Louis XIV, did away with the old walls of Paris and, pushing northwards, established the outlines of the Grands Boulevards, a series of major tree lined promenades arcing from the Madeleine to the Bastille. The avenues took a hundred years to complete and marked, then, the northern boundary of Paris and, now, the same for the Second.
With the same hubris, Louis XIV had erected a triumphal arch for himself at the place where Rue St. Denis exited Paris on its way, via the royal highway, to the shrine of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, which was the traditional burial site of French royalty.
It was at this triumphal arch (which is actually in the Tenth but also marks the entry to the Second) that I began my exploration of the Second. Armed with my trusted, and most valuable, Around and About Paris by Thirza Vallois I arrived at the Porte St. Denis Metro stop. With me was my good friend, Marc, who, while a Parisian for all of his life (he’s a few years younger than I am but claims to be of a “younger generation”), has an insatiable curiosity about almost everything whether he’s been there before or not, a good sense of humor and an easy going manner. These make him an ideal travelling companion.
On a grey and cloudy day with traffic swirling about it, the Arch looked anything but triumphal. Hemmed in by taller, more modern, buildings and in the center of a fairly narrow four lane road, the Arch looked its grimy age and its neglected splendor. However, the gilded bronze lettered inscription across the entablature, still glitzily proclaims “Ludovico Magno”, that is, “To Louis the Great.” I guess absolute power can go to one’s head.

IMG_2184-EditWalking south on Rue Saint-Denis, the glory and the might of Louis’ golden age was furthest from my mind. For, the present day street is a jumble of men pushing racks of garments to and from the many wholesale garment stores located here and clusters of “ladies of the night” at street corners eager to service their customers. Indeed just as we entered the street, a young man walked briskly past us pushing a garment laded rack. He saw me busily making images with my camera and stopped by me. He told me, in Punjabi, that if I were to walk down to the next corner there were many pretty girls there who would love to have their picture taken. Marc was totally puzzled and asked me what “that guy” had said and why he had approached me. I explained that he was a fellow Sikh and that even though he did not have a turban he had the Sikh kara on his wrist and that was how I recognized him. He, of course, saw my turban and knew I was a Sikh. I also told Marc that an unwritten rule in our community was to greet fellow Sikhs, wherever and whenever we met, with the traditional Sikh salutation “Sat sri akal” which means truth is immortal.
Marc, ever curious, had more questions. Did this happen to me a lot? Where else had it happened? I must have a trove of stories about such encounters, he said. I told him that indeed I had and told him a few standing on the same pavement where kings, queens, and courtiers had walked. I also told him that I had in mind a piece to write: “Travels with my Turban.” Whenever I was in his company in the months ahead and we had a similar “turban” encounter he would ask me to add it to my proposed article. In fact if he encountered a turban related story or image, he would forward it to me just as I sent along images and articles related to wine to him for inclusion in his blog.
Sure enough, on the next corner there were at least half a dozen heavily made up women. In the 17th century this area, and others towards the Les Halles area of the First, was populated by beggars, cutthroats, cutpurses, thieves, prostitutes, and rabble collected at the gates of Paris who had been laid destitute by the Black Plague and the Hundred Years War. Victor Hugo depicted this grimy side of Paris in his novel Notre-Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame as it is known in English. The area was forcibly rid of these dregs under Louis XIV’s orders and, once defeated (because they did put up a fight), many found themselves in the ships’ galley of the king’s fleet. Thus came population to the colonies!
The area evolved over time, but in keeping with its history, became a breeding ground for a higher class of courtesans and pimps. In a remarkable turn, though, in the mid-1800’s this became Paris’ press center and, in a series of confrontations with the monarchy, the independent, raucous press won its freedom as well as succeeded in overthrowing the French monarchy. While the men worked at the presses, many of the area’s women worked in sweat shops for haute couture establishments.
When World War 1 ended the many theaters that filled this area, along with the press, migrated elsewhere leaving this “Sentier” quarter to the rag trade, run mainly by North African Jews, and to the sex trade.
A few remnants of the old mansions exist. At one such, the railings reminded me of pugilists triumphantly asserting their muscles and their victory over a foe’s body at their feet.DSCN2283-Edit

A few blocks down Rue Saint-Denis I came to the Passage du Caire. Paris is famous for its Passages (covered private roads that were built by cutting through buildings and connecting two streets and which housed arcades). Sixty or so of these passages were built in a sixty year period from the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Only 15 or so of these remain. I’ll cover these in a separate blog.
Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt had spread Egyptomania in France and this the Passage du Caire exemplified in its décor and architecture the fervor that had gripped the nation. DSCN2304Inside, the passage was filled with wholesale garment stores and several kosher restaurants.DSCN2296 DSCN2290-Edit

While once this may have been an elegant arcade, today it looks run down and somewhat seedy. This Passage is rather large and has several exits onto the rue de Caire as well as one onto the Place du Caire. The square is adjacent to the notorious Cour des Miracles where the aforementioned cutthroats and maimed beggars hid out. DSCN2324-Edit

Tiny narrow streets lead to this square.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On such a tiny offshoot street, a sub-Continental garment worker rested on big yellow bags of schmattas tumbling out of the back doors of a van. DSCN2364
And, on another side street, was a huge poster of a man with a diabolical face: perhaps there’s a story behind this but I was not able to decipher it.IMG_2186
Two other passages linked to this area are: the Passage de la Trinite, a narrow street that once housed the Hopital de la Trinite; and, the Passage du Grand Cerf.
The Hopital de la Trinite was first set up to house travelers locked out of the city walls at night. Later it became a girls’ orphanage. At the entrance to this atypical passage (since it is not covered) someone had painted a likeness of Princess Diana which, someone else, had crudely embellished.DSCN2321
The Passage du Grand Cerf (the big hart) is full of interesting restaurants, boutiques and more upscale shops. Outside the passage there was a billboard for a wittily named restaurant: Le Pas Sage, the not-wise. Many of the shops in the passage had animals as part of their signage: a crab, a dragonfly, an elephant head, etc. An optician announced itself with a pince-nez.DSCN2331

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Nearby, was a building at #174 rue Saint-Denis, which still sported rare street-facing gables: this feature having been done away with from the 15th century onwards as rainwater stagnated between roofs.DSCN2318
At the corner of rue Saint-Denis and rue Turbigo a sign established the location of the old Porte Saint Denis and stated that it was also called the Gate of the Painters. DSCN2344
Outside an elementary school on rue Etienne Marcel was this plaque commemorating the deportation of Jewish school children from the Second to Nazi camps to their deaths. ”Never forget” the plaque admonishes. Yet, seventy years later, France seems to have forgotten since it has the highest incidence of anti-Semitism in Europe.DSCN2346
Further up Etienne Marcel is a reminder of rivalries in ancient times. A standalone tower is all that remains of a fortress built by the duke of Bourgogne. A year earlier he had had his men assassinate his cousin, the duke of Orleans, and now he slept in the tower for fear that his cousin’s friends would try to reciprocate that gesture. By the way, his name, inaptly, was Jean sans Peur: John without fear! DSCN2348-Edit
A tasty display in a patisserie tempted me for a second but I had other plans for lunch. On rue Montorgueil, a blue aproned salesman stood proudly in front of his display of fishes and crustaceans. No dice! I was headed to my chosen lunch place.DSCN2352
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A few doors past the remains of France’s colonial past was on display. Above a shop was the signage of a business long since gone away: “Au planteur aucune succursale.” The shop selling products from a plantation in a colony announced that its goods were exclusive and not to found elsewhere in Paris. In front of a suited plantation owner, seated on a bag of produce, stood a native holding what seems like a cup of sugar on a tray.DSCN2358
On the rue Dessoubs a black-ponchoed woman strides purposefully on: her resolute manner is to be envied.DSCN2362Parts of this area, especially on rues Turbigo and Etienne Marcel, were given the Haussmann treatment as he put his imprint on the architectural landscape of Paris. But, here at #124 rue Reaumur, which is on a Haussmannian artery, incongruously a metal skeleton encases the office building of a subsidiary of France Telecom. It looked Eiffelesque but in fact the architect is, purportedly, Georges Chedanne.IMG_2187-EditLunchtime was way past and it was almost 2:30 pm when most French cafés shutdown their lunch service. Marc and I hurried to our historic lunch place.
The Taverne du Croissant is located at the junction of rue de Montmartre and the rue du Croissant in the Second. Remember this used to be the epicenter of the French press. On July 31, 1914, close to a century ago, Jean Jaures was having dinner with fellow journalists seated at an open window. They were having an animated discussion about the impending World War 1. Many in France were against the Germans and Jaures opposed the war vehemently and wrote about it in his paper L’Humanite. Raoul Villain was standing outside the window where Jaures was seated: he drew open the curtain and fired twice at Jaures at 9:30 pm. Jaures slumped onto the table and then staggered across the restaurant to the bar area where he fell dead. It wasn’t with any ghoulish interest that I had this place in mind for lunch: it also got good reviews for its hones French fare. But I did want to see the blood-stained table where Jaures was shot and the memorial tile on the floor by the bar…IMG_2191
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Over a fairly typical café-mentality-paced lunch of two and a half hours, I had lamb shank with potatoes while Marc, ever the organ meat person, had saucisson and wine. The formule included beer and wine and a Crème brûlée for dessert. A coffee later and I was ready for home.
And, I’ll keep you posted…

 

 

 

ASAP #7: Disaster Came in Threes

Disaster came on September 14 and then again the next day. And then again three weeks later.
On the 14th, ten days or so after we arrived in Paris, I was at home in the afternoon and I had just finished making tea. The cleaning lady, a handsome and warm person from Cape Verde, was in the apartment and I was talking to her in the hallway when I felt a little dizzy and leaned against the wall. The cleaning lady must have sensed something because she reached forward, grabbed my arms and led me to a chair in the dining room. Thank God she was a strong woman. On he chair, I thought I was semi-asleep and thinking but I must have passed out. When I recovered, I don’t know after how long, she was standing there and asked me if I was OK. I told her I was. She told me that she had a daughter who used to have fainting spells and she had recognized the symptoms in me. (In fact, that was the first time in my life I had fainted.) I did feel tired and raclined/napped for a long time on the sofa. In the evening when SWMBO came back, I told her about what had happened. Neither of us made much of it.
The next day we left for Amsterdam by a fast and comfortable train and, on arrival at our small boutique hotel, we unpacked and then went for a stroll. It was just past noon and we stopped at a café on one of Amsterdam’s many canals and had lunch.DSCN0233 I was sitting right next to the canal with an eight foot drop into it. There was no railing. After lunch we took a boat tour through some of Amsterdam’s many canals. A striking building we passed on our tour was the Modern Art Museum. DSCN0251 Later, we walked around and generally headed in the direction of the newly renovated Rijksmuseum which I had last seen in the early seventies!DSCN0321 DSCN0318 By the canal, a hundred yards from the museum, was a lovely house and I was busy making images.DSCN0324 I asked SWMBO to pose in front of the house and was lining up the shot and looked up and right to see the angle of the sun to make minor changes to the camera’s settings. Just then the whole scene in front of me blackened and then reappeared again as though the spool on the projector had skipped a hole. I remember putting my hands out to hold onto the railing…
The next thing I remember was I was on the ground. My turban must have rolled off. SWMBO was asking me if I felt OK. I did and I said so. By now a crowd had gathered, among them a man who happened to be a nurse. He felt my pulse and rolled me on my side (I imaging so the tongue would not roll back). Somebody called for an ambulance. The nurse proceeded to ask me if I knew where I was (I’m on the pavement in Amsterdam near the museum, I replied) and also told me that my pulse was OK and steady. I could hear the crowd side stepping and murmuring things. One woman said, “I think he’s having a heart attack” and walked on. I remember feeling disappointed and bitter at her statement and made a mental note to be more attentive to the plight of others in the future. Nevertheless, there were several good Samaritans and the ambulance arrived a few minutes later.
The emergency technicians helped me walk over to the ambulance and then proceeded to take a number of tests. Within a matter of minutes they told me that (a) my blood pressure was normal, (b) my pulse was steady, and (c) the EKG was fine. They quizzed me for some minutes longer. The male EMT asked me if I had been to any coffee shops in Amsterdam. I knew this was a euphemism for the drug shops there and I told him no. He then asked me if I had been near a coffee shop because “second hand smoke causes highs as well.” About ten minutes into the whole thing they told me I was fine and suggested I walk mover to the local taxi rank and get a taxi to the hotel. We were surprised by the callousness but did what they said.
Back in the hotel, I lay down for a nap. But not before asking SWMBO what had happened. She told me that she had seen me staggering and had rushed over to hold me but could not support my dead weight and I had taken a tumble to the ground. I then realized my left shoulder was aching where, I guess, I hit the pavement. I took an aspirin and dozed off.
Over dinner that night we decided that I should go back to the US to see my own GP instead of going to Paris and dealing with new doctors who did not know my medical history and who may or may not be fluent in English (my French being then, and now, severely deficient). Over the phone I made arrangements and was able to get a KLM flight to Paris the next morning with an onward Air France connection to Dulles International in DC. SWMBO is nothing if not quick on her feet and told me to ask for wheelchair assistance which was duly noted by the airlines.
I was curious as to what had happened to me and wanted to reach out to some doctor relatives and friends. I mentioned the name of my cousin in Pittsburgh who is an emergency specialist doctor and a cardiologist whose daughter played soccer with our younger daughter. Neither were people that I was in regular contact with and SWMBO was aghast that I would feel free to call them. I, however, somehow felt that, in the circumstances, I could impose on them. My first call was to my cousin and he told me in succinct terms that I had just had a case of syncope and that in DC the doctors would run checks on my blood pressure, do a CT scan of my brain, and probably check for a blockage of the carotid artery. He did say to take two aspirins…but refrained to add “and call me in the morning!” The cardiologist friend also recommended the same steps. Both by the way welcomed the call and said I should not hesitate to call again.
The next day at Schiphol airport, I was assigned a wheelchair person who, by and large, took me to the plane. The KLM wheelchair assistance was the worst of the three I was to take that day: I was made to walk down steep steps to a waiting area and then had to walk onto the plane. Thank God I could do that but what the people who can’t? In Paris a team of radio-connected staff wheeled me off the plane, onto a bus, onto a waiting area, onto another bus, and then onto the plane. I was very impressed by them and the efficiency with which they worked. Clearly, they knew all the airport staff because we were waved through all the checkpoints. In DC I was taken in hand by a courteous lady who wheeled me off the plane and did not leave me until I was curbside and had stepped into my daughter’s waiting car. As I was wheeled through three airports, I felt strange because I did not look sick or handicapped yet was relieved that I did not have to walk a lot. I still felt dizzy. Clutched in my hands was a tiny cobalt blue Marriott Aruba Beach resort beach bag that had been given me as a welcome gift when I went there. That was the entire luggage I had.
In DC, as predicted by my cousin, my doctor ran through all the tests and everything came back fine. We then discussed what had happened and I told him that, in the frenzy and adrenaline of the first few days in Paris, I had dropped 8 pounds in ten days. He immediately told me that I was dehydrated and the syncope had been caused by a vaso-vagal nerve.
I looked them up. Vasovagal Syncope was quite common and in the ensuing weeks as I talked about it with others I learnt that a number of persons I knew had experienced it. The vasovagal nerve is a cranial nerve, that is, a nerve connected to the brain. Like a necklace this nerve coats the front of the body and has branches to most of the major organs in the body, including the larynx, throat, windpipe, lungs, heart, and most of the digestive system. In a diagram one can clearly see the tentacles/denrites that connect this nerve to majot parts of the body. It is the nerve that causes the flight-or-fight response but it also causes fainting when one of several triggers occurs.
I also visited my ENT person because a few years earlier I had been diagnosed with BPPV or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, a mouthful meaning that inner ear crystal movements cause dizziness. He checked me out and told me that my ear had nothing to do with my syncope.
So there I was with the pundits telling me that I was fine but I was still feeling dizzy. My GP checked me again and found that I may have orthostatic hypertension, that is, a rapid change in blood pressure when I stand up. Whatever the cause, we never did definitively find out about my syncope.
About three weeks later, I felt ready to go back to Paris even though I was not feeling 100%. I left on a Saturday and on Friday our cleaning lady in DC had come in and we had had a pleasant chat. When we left for Paris, in September of that year, she had agreed to move into our house and live in the basement with her 6 year old daughter and husband and take care of the house and our Maltese, Mr. Yogi. Everything had gone well for the first six weeks and she assured me that she loved living in our house and that we could count on her. When I arrived in Paris the first email that I opened was from her telling me that she could not continue any longer!
And what do they say about disasters occurring in threes?
So early November I trooped back to DC to find a new live-in. We had marshaled our forces and our networks and had a few leads. I had even convinced our older daughter to use her sorority network. In fact, we found our person through her sorority after a few false starts. She was a 31 year old woman who had racked up debts and found our offer attractive. SWMBO had also returned for the holidays and found her to be a very good fit. She moved in in late December. The first weekend she was there sent me a text at 11:30 at night saying she would be late coming in. I did not respond as I was going to bed. The next morning we were having breakfast with some Parisian guests and SWMBO went down to make sure our live-in was OK. She wasn’t there. Apparently she had not come back at all that past night. On top of that she had left her oil-based radiator on at full blast and it had been going like this for about 36 hours. I called her and told her we needed to speak to her. She came in and we told her that we found her attitude strange and that we could not trust her to discharge her duties when we were not there since she clearly did not do so while we were there. We asked her to leave. Among much crying and wailing, and interjections on her behalf by her mother, she finally packed up and left. We felt very sad for her but also convinced that we had done the right thing.
So the search was on once again and we had a week to go before we both left to go back to Paris. Luckily I remembered our neighbor telling us about an older woman who would be perfect. We contacted her and within a few days we had an agreement with her, had checked her out, taken references, and she moved in a few days before our departure. (So far, about 7 months into her tenure she is doing well, loving it there and Mr. Yogi is thriving in her care. Our daughters like her a lot, too. Knock on wood.)
By the end of the first week of January I was back in Paris again. In the four months, beginning September 2012, I had spent a total of five or six weeks in Paris. The rest had been in DC dealing with disasters.
And, I’ll keep you posted…

ASAP#6: Packing and Arrival

          Having found an apartment in Neuilly meant that a major logistical challenge had been met. The next major one, for SWMBO, was packing. Now if you know of Jackie Mason, a Jewish comedian who loved to needle everyone including fellow Jews, you may have heard of his shtick about the harassed wife packing for a trip. Here’s the scene: the wife has three or four suitcases on top of the bed and she’s filling them rapidly. She packs several coats: one if it’s cold and sunny, one if it’s cold and cloudy, one if it’s rainy, and on and on… Meanwhile her poor husband has a suit on a hangar and he keeps asking her where he should pack it. She snarls at him every time: “What do I care? Can’t you see I’m busy?” So he wanders off, comes back with the same question and gets the same answer. Finally, she says, “What do I care? Put it wherever you want!”

          Now SWMBO is not as bad but just about. She does have a ton of clothes and her daily decision is which coat to wear out of the dozens she has. I’m not much help since I just laugh. Anyway here she was over a period of time agonizing about the clothes she was going to take. Not just for the office, of course, but for leisure time and for the vacation on the beach and for the ski vacation and for the… Besides coats and outerwear, of course, were the shoes: any number of shapes, sizes, materials kept piling up. Mind you, this was just round one as she was planning a second round of clothes for the summer. Nothing, by the way, seems to go back. Good thing that the apartment in Neuilly had tons of closet space!

          Meanwhile I’m a minimalist and my suitcase on trips keeps getting smaller and lighter. On vacations, no matter the length, I’m down to a carry on. My family is horrified and has proclaimed that my clothes on vacations are “boring” since I have an extremely limited choice and just one turban.

          My pile of clothes was a reasonable size. I wanted to get everything into no  more than two suitcases and I did some research on the net and came up with this video on the bundle method of packing where a man shows hot to pack two months of stuff into one carry on. Watch it as it’s very informative. Using this I was finished in a jiffy and I had sufficient to hold me through our sixteen month stay. This, for example, is one of my bundle of shirts, sweaters, etc. I had another bundle of coats and trousers. Each one of these fits nicely into a medium-ish suitcase leaving enough room for other odds and ends.IMG_3919 I knew, of course, that I’d be coming back and forth every three months or so and that I could exchange/replenish my clothes. In addition to clothes, I also packed in stuff I knew I would need in the kitchen not easily available in France. Those went in as well and when I was finished I had two large suitcases and a carry on. Voila! Meanwhile don’t ask me what SWMBO had! Suffice it to say that there was a hefty fee involved for the extra baggage.

          SWMBO and I arrived, finally, on September 5, 2012 to take up residency in our new found apartment in Neuilly sur Seine for approximately 16 months.

          Air France 27 from Washington’s Dulles deposited us at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle bright and early at about 6 a.m. In the taxi to the apartment, we called our landlady who agreed to meet us there. Sure enough, when the taxi pulled up, she was there: an elegant lady in her late fifties. She helped us manhandle our bulky suitcases into the tiny, standard-issue, French lift and, by relays, since we had several bags, we transported them up to our new apartment. She wanted us to do a quick walk through and explain how everything worked: we, however, begged off and asked if we could do it the next day as we were jet lagged. She agreed but did show us where everything was. She left within an hour or so and we headed off to take a nap.

          When we woke up it was about two in the afternoon. Being nothing else but linear and organized we unpacked and put away all our things in the closets. The landlady had left us some coffee, milk, orange juice and a few snacks. We had a cup of coffee and thus replenished we set out to have a more substantial lunch and to visit the local supermarket, Monoprix. We took with us a rolling caddy that was part of the apartment amenities. A thoughtful touch!

          We found that within a block or two of our apartment we had two patisseries, two or three large supermarkets and a series of smaller grocers, a dry cleaner, a couple of hairdressers, two takeout delis: “traiteurs”, at least three children’s clothing stores, a travel agent, an SNCF (the French train service) office, a couple of clothing stores for adults, a few shoe shops, several salons, many cafes and, also, several florists. This is typical of a Parisian neighborhood but what surprised us was the presence of so many children’s clothing stores as well as florists. Also nearby were several elementary schools, two high schools (one Catholic, the other a well-known public school), a fire department and, inevitably, the local Mairie (the town hall). There was also a very large recreation center with a number of swimming pools and gyms.

          We chose a café to eat at and not being too hungry ordered a couple of sandwiches. My previous, and quite old, recollection of sandwiches in Paris was of two thick slices of a baguette and a not-too-thin-almost-invisible slice of ham. Things certainly have changed: we were given a foot long baguette which was stuffed very fully with thick slices of ham and cheese and garnished with lettuce and tomatoes. A beer to wash it down and, sitting in the sun, with SWMBO (I was beginning to feel Khayyam-ish) the lunch was enough for us. However, neither of us was able to finish more than half of our sandwich. Being used to America, we asked for a doggy bag.

          And here came the next not-so-surprising surprise. When asked, the waiter said they did not do doggy bags. It’s just not a custom in France. Perhaps because the dogs came with the masters and ate in the restaurants as well so there was no pretense on taking food back to a hungry dog at home? Whatever the reason there wasn’t a doggy bag to be had. The waiter however must have understood that we were Americans and took pity on us and went next door to the newsagent/tabac and came back with a plastic bag into which we stuffed our leftovers and headed off to Monoprix, the supermarket.

          Our Monoprix was located just across the street from our metro stop and the local post office on avenue Charles de Gaulle. Both were within a seven minute walk from the apartment. This particular branch has a department store-like set up on the ground floor and a large supermarket in the basement. Naturally we were armed with a list (made, no less, in Washington!).

          Upstairs we stocked up with bathroom needs, soaps and lotions. Downstairs we got a cart and went over to the vegetable section. We were greeted immediately by a hearty “Sat sri akal”, the Sikh greeting! Our friendly greeter was the fellow who sat at scales and who weighed up your vegetable purchases, put them in a bag and put a sticker on it for the cashier. He was Moroccan and explained to me that he had several Sikh friends and had picked up a few words of Punjabi and, of course, our greeting. Next up, the fishmonger also greeted us heartily and enquired where we were from and helped us choose some lovely cod. Equally sincere and warm in her greetings was the woman at the deli counter who helped me with cheese, pate, and some other deli stuff. She clearly wanted to talk and told me that she had visited India several times and had spent time volunteering with the Mother Teresa organization in Calcutta and had met Mother Teresa herself. We made our way slowly through the supermarket being helped by very open, warm-hearted service staff.

          (Since I am writing this several months into our stay in Paris, I can say that never have we met the stereotypical Parisian: one who is made up in the US, and elsewhere, as being rude, refusing to speak English, and unhelpful. On the contrary we have always had people interact in a very friendly way. They have been courteous, helpful and generous with their time and information. People have asked me if I needed help on occasions when I did not. But the gesture has been gracious and spontaneous. And very much appreciated and welcomed.)

          Over the next week, I was in a frenzy of activity. First, SWMBO’s sister had arrived the next day with her boyfriend. They are both athletic types and like to walk and bike and generally carry on. So does SWMBO. I’m committed to inertia: leave me in one place and I have no desire to move. Anyway, game as I am, I indulged in long hikes in the nearby Bois de Boulogne and three hour bike rides using the rental bikes available throughout Paris with the Vélib system.

          When SWMBO’s sister left, I set about setting up the apartment to where it would be comfortable for us. First up was engaging a fellow to come and set up our internet, telephone and TV hookups using Orange’s Livebox. Naturally, nothing electronic is up and running without a hitch and this was no exception. After many trips to the local Orange office and return visits by our not-so-helpful internet expert (he was more interested in telling me of his encounters with celebrities – Johnny Depp – than in fixing the TV setup), we got everything going within that first week. I also went and bought a Samsung Galaxy for use in France (hate that gizmo) after several attempts to unlock (or déblocage in French) my iPhone failed.

          My friend Marc was gracious enough to take me to the local IKEA to get some additional kitchen stuff that I knew I would need (as I’m the cook in the house) – like sharp knives, a grill pan, and other minor gadgets that were not in the pretty well-stocked inventory provided us. In addition we needed hangers, extension strips, a wall mirror, and other such stuff.

          Other appointments included going to the bank to pick up credit cards and going through the hassle of getting my carte de sejour, the long term residency permit required in France. When I applied for this while in DC, I was asked to submit a photograph. I sent one in and heard a few days later that France did not accept any photographs for official documents that show the person wearing any headgear, scarf, etc. The law had probably been passed to ban the use of face covering niquabs but the turban, the yarmulke, and other religious headwear were also caught in the law and forbidden. For a moment there I thought that I would not go to a country with such draconian laws. I even called the Indian embassy in Paris and harangued them and was told that they regularly bring up this matter in high-level diplomatic meetings between India and France. Finally, I accepted a compromise solution offered by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs: they would stamp my passport showing that I was allowed to stay in France for a long time (2 years) but, therefore, would not issue me a separate carte de sejour with my photograph. Great: one less thing in my wallet! The appointment to get that stamp in my passport had been made by SWMBO’s office and was to be at the Ministry where I was given the name of the person to meet and the time, 9:30 am.

          I arrived there a little ahead of time and the first thing I noticed was that office workers straggled in anywhere between 9:15 to 10:00 am. I was in a little hall where a concierge of sorts sat. To one side was a very steep staircase curving up.  All of the workers trudged up the steps: perhaps there was no lift or they liked the exercise. Anyway, a little after 9:30 the blinds covering a door slid open and the office where I was supposed to go was officially open for business. I went in and told the clerk about my appointment. She said there was no one by that name who worked there despite my assertions that I had a meeting! After an exasperated call to SWMBO’s assistant, she agreed that there may be a person by that name but that she had not shown up for work. Finally the person showed up for work and was told that I was waiting. Down she came the steps. She was a mousy looking, sullen, slightly overweight woman and, at first, pretended that no meeting had been set up, then relented and proceeded to get my passport stamped. It took her three or more trips, up and down those steep steps, because she kept forgetting the stamp, the inkpad for the stamp, the signature from the bureau chief, etc. By this time my frustration had turned to amusement and I tried to calculate how many calories she lost heaving herself up and down the steps. Mind you while this charade was going on she had not said a word to me: all her conversations were with the clerk who passed on the gist in English to me. Her sullen passive aggressiveness I passed off as a typical bureaucrat’s reaction to being asked to do her job. Nevertheless, I was glad when that unpleasant chore was done. (In all my time here I have never encountered anyone as disagreeable as that colorless clerk.)

          So, in about ten days or so after we arrived we were officially here and set up for a long stay. But then disaster struck.

          And, I’ll keep you posted…

ASAP#5: The Apartment

          Neuilly sur Seine is one of the “posh” but somewhat sedate (boring some would call it) suburbs of Paris. Not Paris, as my Parisian friends were quick to point out (with a certain disdain, I might add) yet it is within two metro stops of the Arc de Triomphe and abuts the huge Bois de Boulogne which is just south of it in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. The area, technically, did not meet SWMBO’s dictum of living in the city but we had heard good things about it from an American expat who had lived there for 10 years and who said it was a quick walk from the Arc de Triomphe to Neuilly. It also has the dubious distinction of having had Nicolas Sarkozy, the erstwhile President of France, as its mayor from 1983 to 2002. And, further, the nefarious reputation of the Bois de Boulogne being a hub for ladies of the night )though not all of them are technically ladies, if you get my drift).

          In any case, I was headed there with the Swedish realtor. The first thing that struck me was that its two major arteries, somewhat parallel to each other, the avenue du Roule IMG_2172 and the avenue Charles de Gaulle IMG_2170were both broad majestic avenues with very wide sidewalks and tony shops. The latter becomes the avenue de la Grande Armee, after the monstrous convention center (Palais des Congrès) at Porte Maillot and inside the périphérique, and that avenue, in turn, becomes the avenue des Champs Elysees after the Arc de Triomphe. Avenue du Roule inside the périphérique becomes the avenue des Ternes.

          The apartment was located on one of these avenues and right in front of it was a huge church, the Eglise St. Pierre. IMG_1226-EditAs with most Parisian apartments, there was a huge, very high wooden, outer doorP1060746-Edit which opened with a magnetic tab (or by an intercom/digicode buzzerIMG_2958 from within the apartment). You walked into a spacious, high ceilinged common outer hall that had three doors. IMG_2955Two led into the different sections of the building itself while the third, straight on, led to a small paved and open courtyard and a covered shed where all the garbage bins were stored. The door that led into the foyer with a lift and the apartments was armed with another buzzer. IMG_2957Just inside this common hallway, and nearer the outer door, was a glass-fronted, curtained door which led into the gardien’s apartment. I don’t know when French protocol changed and the concierge started being called the gardien but that’s what they are called now.

          (My friend Marc, who write a blog on wine called “au bon clos”  and who is a fount of wisdom – because he is intensely curious — wrote me back when I asked him about this. Here is his response: “In the buildings there used to be a concierge, living in a small “loge”. In the late 60’s and 70’s, together with the development of “digicode” (invented by Bob Carriere, my friend Vincent’s father); in some buildings there were no more concierges to cut costs. In the meanwhile, in the “grands ensembles”, there was not one concierge per building but a “gardien” for a set of buildings. And in the 80’s and 90’s, there was a general evolution of the language in a “politically correct way” and concierge is not very much used anymore.” Bravo, Marc!)

          It also brings to mind the changing nomenclature of servants in India. When I was growing up the gardener in our house was called the “mali” (which is the Hindi/Punjabi term for gardener); the cook was called the “babarchi” or “khansamah”, the maid/nanny was called the “ayah”, and the driver, well, he was called the driver! That is, they were called by their profession/occupation. Some years later (I imagine in the 60s and 70s) these names were demeaned to “mundu” and “chandu”, equivalent to boy or hey-you. Later in the 80s and 90s some semblance of dignity was returned to the servants and they were called “beta” or “beti” (son or daughter). But that dignifying term was itself demeaned by the fact that the “son” or daughter could be anyone from a young person to someone older than the employer! Finally, I noticed in the early 2000s that the term, de rigueur, was “raja” or “rani” (king or queen). But, regardless of what they are called, a good friend of mine in Delhi told me a story recently of a newspaper reporter with a hidden camera recording an illicit meeting. The videographer  was posing as a servant to the woman reporter and the camera was hidden in stuff he was carrying for her. And the reason he got away with this hidden recording according to the woman reporter was that: “Nobody looks at servants!” Thus, and this is true, a mainstay of an Indian household is noticed but not seen, present but not acknowledged.

          By the way for a great read on a concierge’s life read “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”.  Getting back to the apartment: I loved it. Inside the inner foyer, a staircase ascended into the heights and a modern looking elevator (read no grates, mirrored walls) which could take 3 people was there to whisk us to the apartment. Each floor had only one apartment. So, already, that was good as there were no porous walls through which noises would percolate. The apartment had three large bedrooms, one of which could easily be used as a den for the two of us with two desks, etc., a large living room, a large and separate dining room, a spacious and very fully equipped kitchen with a huge window, and two full bathrooms and a small shower room. Additionally, it had huge closet spaces built into every room. Plus, there was a piano in the hallway. The furnishings and the decorations were tasteful and discreet. This was a unique find!

          I was enthusiastic about it but did not know if SWMBO would like it given its “suburban” location.

          A few days later, when she arrived in Paris after a business trip, and after I had seen several more apartments, we went out to see the top three. These were the ave Duquesne one, the one in Villa Juge and the Neuilly apartment. She liked the one in Villa Juge but the owner wanted us to rent it immediately and not wait until September. Thank God SWMBO raved about the Neuilly apartment and we asked if the owner would wait until September and take a reduced rent since we were looking at a long stay. Luckily he agreed on both counts mostly, as we found out later, because he had come off of a not so pleasant short term tenant. He was also not interested in guarantees and other formalities that we had been warned about. The employer’s letter for SWMBO was sufficient for him.

          The agent prepared the contract paperwork and emailed them to us. By then, we had been back to the States and had left on our annual summer holiday – a cruise between Istanbul and Athens and a few days in each location as well. So the paperwork arrived while we were on the cruise and we negotiated back on forth on some language and other minor details (like having space in the cave for our suitcases and beginning the rental on September 5). All of it was eventually worked out and everyone who was a party to the aforesaid contract signed off. We were now official tenants as of September and a major piece was in place for our transfer to Paris.

          And, I’ll keep you posted…

ASAP#4: Apartment Hunting and more formalities

          In early June 2012, I went on an apartment hunting trip. Prior to that I had researched several sites on the internet for long term stays in Paris. The first thing that struck me as being odd was the fact that there was no multiple listing service (MLS) in Paris like the one we have here in the US.

          With MLS the obvious benefit was that you chose a realtor with whom you had good chemistry, or one that was referred to you by a trustworthy source, and off you went. You gave the realtor your wish list (areas you wanted to live in, size of the apartment, your budget, your must-haves, your dislikes) and he would log onto the MLS and come up with pretty much everything that was out there that met your criteria. Easy? Should be done everywhere? Information as the great leveler? Not so in Paris.

          In Paris each realtor has a street, a block, an area, a list of landlords they have done business with before, etc. Their choice is limited to what they know. Not what the internet knows. So, in order to find an apartment you first have to have leads on good realtors in the approximate areas that you want to live in.

          SWMBO had put a line in the sand: “I will not commute for an hour each way”(which is what she did in DC), she said. “I want to live in the city within stumbling distance from a restaurant, good cafes, good markets, theaters, etc., etc.” In other words, the city had to come to her.

          My early Internet searches yielded sites such as Paris Rentals, Vacation Rentals by Owners (VRBO), as well as Fusac (http://www.fusac.fr/about/). FUSAC, previously called France USA Contacts, is an online paper that has many sections on French and Paris jobs, what’s happening, flats, etc. I also logged onto craigslist Paris to see if anything was listed there.

          By the way, a minor digression is called for here: the French listings are cryptic (they were for me anyway because they used abbreviations and descriptions that, at the time, were foreign to me) and have to be read carefully. For instance, the ad may refer to a “double chambre” usually referring to a double living room, “cc” which means all the common charges for the gardien (concierge) and upkeep of the common areas are charges compris or included in the rent, “asc” for ascenseur or lift, “sdb” or sale de bains or bathroom, etc. Ads will also talk about the area being “calme” or quiet, a building being “haussmannien” or built by or during the period of Baron Haussmann who transformed Paris (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges-Eugène_Haussmann), as including (or not) a “cave” usually an unfinished basement area where storage units are allotted to owners for storing wine and other overflow items, “coin cuisine” for a kitchenette in the living area, etc.

          From these searches I came away with a list of about 10 or so flats that met our criteria (2 to 3 bedrooms, living room, dining room, and at least 2 bathrooms). I called all of the agents listed and was immediately assailed with a litany of questions from the woman over at Paris Rentals: could we provide a guarantee from a bank or from someone else for the total rental, did we have insurance, etc. I decided that I did not want to deal with them though the questions did raise a warning as to what other landlords might expect and want.

          Arriving in Paris, I immediately went to the very beautiful flat of our very good friends, P. and A., who live hard by the Champ de Mars. I was amazed to find out that a massacre occurred  here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champ_de_Mars_Massacre) . A shower, a nap of a few hours and I was ready to head out. First on my list of to-dos (yes, another list had been prepared!) was a visit to HSBC to meet the relationship manager there and to tell her what we were doing from the US. She gave me some advice on the type of credit card to get and an invitation to come by and visit when we had moved.

          Then it was on to my first apartment viewing. Most of these showings followed a very formulaic path: I was met by a youngish professionally dressed woman who told me what we were going to see in the apartment and then took me inside for a showing. Sometimes the owner was there as well (I found this somewhat intrusive, as they always wanted to tout the finer points – you couldn’t blame them but it interfered with my own take of the apartment). These showings usually took about 20 minutes. The young women usually were trainee realtors who were completing a required tenure with a professional. They could, then, strike out on their own as many did.

          That first apartment met all my requirements. It was about a hundred yards down avenue Victor Hugo from the Arc de Triomphe (in fact if you went out on to the three foot wide tin-floored balcony off the sitting room and if you leant forward you could see the Arc looming quite close by). As SWMBO worked in that area the commute time would be negligible. Whilst all the criteria were met, the apartment itself felt claustrophobic. It seemed to have been carved out of a larger space and the corridors were narrow, windy, and dark. To get to one room from another you had to traverse several rooms. I don’t know why but the overall impression I had was of a miserable space. That one was out.

          I returned to P. and A.’s apartment and, looking out of their sitting room window, there was the Eiffel Tower glittering with lights.©_asdutta_May09_9946 I told them about my visit and A. told me about the realtor they had used. I decided to call them the next day.

          Just as well because the agent for the next day who was to show me several, begged off. I was, nonetheless, able to set up some meeting with others for the afternoon. The next agent was a winner. She showed me two apartments: one on the avenue Duquesne near the Invalides and the Ecole Militaire. A modern apartment with nice large squarish rooms and a great views from each room of the imposing golden dome of the Invalides. I liked it especially since the feel of the place was modern and comfortable. The furniture, too, was very comfortable and the area around the apartment was quite nice. Unfortunately, and typically, there was very little closet space.

The next one she showed me was a stunner: it was in the Villa Juge, a very small road off the Rue du Commerce (http://www.parisperfect.com/blog/2011/09/shopping-rue-du-commerce/)  in the 15th arrondissement. The metro stop was either Dupleix or La Motte-Picquet Grenelle and under the iron girders of the overhead metro line a lively outdoor market was in full swing. I saw a clean-shaven Sikh heaping paella into a take-out container for a salivating elderly lady and joking with her about how good the dish really was. Rue du Commerce itself was full of boutiques and shops and patisseries. A lovely place to stroll especially for my shopaholic daughters! The apartment was very good and from every window one had a full view of the graceful lines of the Eiffel Tower. There were a bunch of built in closets. I liked this place! The owner was there and turned out to be a really nice fellow who, on the way down to the street in the elevator, remarked that that particular elevator was a rarity in Paris because it was big and accommodated three persons! I felt squeezed in. If you’ve been in Paris in someone’s house you’ll know that the elevators are tiny and about the size of a large coffin. Once the accordioning iron grates close and the outer door shuts, well, you’re literally entombed. For a claustrophobic fellow like me the best one can do is to hold one’s breath and hope the next one is when the doors open not long after. Or you climb up steep narrow, curvy stairs.

But the best apartment was yet to come. A.’s lead had listed several apartments and I went over the next day to visit them with a Swedish realtor trainee. We visited one in the 17th where the owner was being transferred to Geneva (ouch) and had listed her apartment. It was pretty but my attention was drawn to a modern square apartment building across the street. I asked the owner about that and she said: Oh, you’ll never like that. I hate it. It has large elevators that are like the ones in America. OK, I already liked that place! But there was nothing there and my agent took me out next to Neuilly sur Seine.

And, I’ll keep you posted…