Wednesday, September 28, 2011


It was another 80 degree day today without a cloud in the sky and without a class on my schedule, so I decided to take the train to Versailles.  It's also my mom's birthday, so I thought I'd honor her by visiting the grandest palace in France.

It was an easy 40 minute train ride from Paris and I bought my tickets online before I got there so I breezed through the entrance and into the palace, and there were the thousands of others who did exactly the same.  Luckily most were Japanese tourists, so I could get pictures over their heads, and once in the gardens, the crowds were a lot less noticeable.

The story goes that Louis XIV hated Paris due to an unfortunate altercation where some nobles imprisoned him, so he got out of dodge, found some marshy land where his dad's hunting lodge was in Versailles, and 50 years, 36,000 laborers and 380 million francs later, voila, the grand palace.  He made all his peeps come out and live at Versailles, which was such a grand time, that no one knew what was going on at home, and there began the French Revolution.  Hopefully it was fun while it lasted.

There's so much to take in at Versailles.  I'll list just a few of my favorites.

The Hall of Mirrors is impressive, not for how many tourists it can fit in the room (hence the ceiling shots), but for its magnitude.  It's 240 feet long with a myriad of chandeliers and candlesticks that Louis XIV would light so that over 3,000 candles would reflect in the 17 enormous mirrors throughout the room.  The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was also signed in this room.

The bedrooms were also quite grand.  Reminds me of my apartment in Paris - well actually the bed size is about the same, minus the frame, matching spread, wallpaper and ornate chandelier above.

Then there's the 250 acres of park grounds with flowers, sculptures, topiary creature, fountains and paths that lead to other paths and canals.  There were runners, bikers, boaters and even golf cart drivers all throughout the park.

A mile from the main palace, Marie Antoinette created a little haven for herself, complete with a home (ok, maybe a few), theatre, farm and more casual dress code.

Another lovely day in a lovely place!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Learning 201

Surprisingly, I didn't fail my French test last week, so they've pushed me on to the next course level, which includes a new, but identical, monochromatic, horse shaped room, and a new teacher who speaks even faster than the last one.  Day one, I was a little frustrated during group exercise when no one had anything to contribute to the baby announcement we had to write, and I tried to dig back to my "building consensus" days, which led to me writing most of it, along with the other American, who's been known to kill all the characters we talk about, but I managed to save the baby.  Day two, during listening comprehension, I could have sworn the teacher pulled a tape from the German class, because I couldn't understand a word, but luckily I ended strong with a mock phone conversation announcing my engagement.  Mock, I said, but now I'm ready to announce in English and French.  I'm all about preparation.

During class we could hear shouts from the street and we learned the teachers were demonstrating because a lot of jobs are being cut - sound familiar?  Ooo, my first protest.  After class I went outside and there was a long, orderly stream of people parading down a major street that was closed off for several blocks.  They held flags and carried banners and were very polite.  The weather was still nice out and the closed streets made for a  pleasant walk.  This protest, like the Techno Parade I had seen a week back, was overseen by hundreds of police on most corners, carrying weapons and wearing helmets.  Neither time did I see or anticipate the police getting involved.

THEN, I started my first French wine class at Le Cordon Bleu.  Yes, 2 classes in 1 day.  You can imagine the stress I'm feeling.  I think I may need to stay a bit longer to unwind.  Cordon Bleu offers the same wine certification program I took in LA, but they also offer a specific French only module that they didn't offer in LA (why must everyone hate my people?).  So I was excited to dig in even deeper to the French soil to learn more.

The class is taught in French by a Frenchman, and translated in English by a guy who is from the UK and actually my college friend's good friend.  I thought the two teachers would be confusing, but I actually enjoyed it, because I considered it a further extension of French class, and much more pertinent than learning how to express my excitement for a new enfant.  I could also understand more than I imagined by the French teacher, but I guess you understand what you want - babies, not so much. 

It was a rapid fire 2 hour class and tonight we got our big binders, and then cruised through the Loire Valley, listening and tasting 5 good wines with 5 cheeses.  What's great is the teacher gave us more locals info talking about how it's an easy day trip from here - less than 2 hours.  Pouilly Fume - not so pretty, Sancerre - very pretty and go to the goat cheese shop there. Not sure I would have received that info in the US, and yes, I'm trying to figure out when to go.  The school actually conducts a few wine trips each year, hosted by our teacher, which I definitely would like to join.

Some of you may remember me talking about my WSET wine class where we painstakingly had to each describe the color, clarity, look and smell - nettles or brioche anyone?  The french teacher just cruises through and tells you what he gets and the English guy talks about tea and crumpety things, down the hatch, have some cheese, and on to the next.  With only 2 hours per region, I suppose they have to do it this way, or I'll never get home.

So Tuesday's are now a big day of higher learning for me. Luckily the evening is capped with wine and cheese!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A wonderful week-end in Paris

I have lucked into some great Indian summer weather in Paris this month.  It was about 75-80 today, and supposed to continue the same way all week.  People are everywhere in the streets, along the Seine, and in monstrous long lines all over Ile St. Louis' famous Berthillon ice cream counters.  What else can you do on a week-end like this except eat great food, see great people and go a costume party.
Friday night I met up with my friend and Girls Guide to Paris founder for a meal at one of her favorably reviewed restaurants, Chez Casimir.  It's the offspring of the popular bistro Chez Michel, but more casual with an affordable 32 euro prix fixe meal of a starter, main, dessert and cheese tray, oh the cheese tray.  I miss you already.

I started with a chunky pour your own pumpkin soup that could have used a bit more seasoning, but the extra ingredients already in the bowl, did add to the flavor.  I continued with a wonderfully prepared white fish sitting on a bed of 6 different kinds of mushrooms - one better than the next.

Then the tray with a dozen or so cheeses was placed on the table next to me, and if anyone has ever been near me and cheese, they know this is dangerous living.  It became even more dangerous when I learned that they just leave the tray on your table and you help yourself to whatever you like and however much you want.  Yes, my birthday came early this year.  I tried to show some restraint, but it wasn't easy as the smell and the ooze of the cheese taunted me to try as many as I could because it could be a dream that I would wake up from soon.  And yes, at some point, without a word, the tray was whisked away.  I may have welled up a bit at this point, but it was for the best as my meuille feuille was coming out next.  Perhaps we benefited from slow service as there was about a half hour lag until dessert came out, but the meal was still a winner, and a good value.

"Bio" stand which is like organic
Saturday I met up with family friend Gayle who showed me around the Aligre Market, another wonderful open air, as well as indoor covered market, but this one is open 6 days a week and is more reasonably priced, so many professionals shop here.  I loaded up on beautiful, long, slender green beans, ripe, fresh fruit of apples, pears and bananas, and of course there had to be some cheese included as well.  I also learned of a great spot to buy any kind of nut (consumable ones that is) in larger bags than you find at the grocery store, which tend to be more like single servings.  We stopped for lunch after and I had a sweet and refreshing hot tea with mint leaves, herbs and what looked like half a forest in the long glass.  Was a great pick me up.

Saturday night, my friend Stephanie was game to try the newish Japanese restaurant across the street from my place called Icho.  When we arrived, there were only 2 other tables occupied, and they had little children and left shortly after.  We were presented with a chalk board with just 4 items on it and we went with the 2 that simply said, "sushi," and "maki."  Beautiful plates were presented to us with most of the usual suspects of tuna, salmon, shrimp, but a few different sauces and preparations made it more unique than the fast food type sushi that is actually on nearly every corner here.  We had a clean, dry Riesling that was a good fit for the fish.

We then went to a party down the street.  I was invited to a party through a bit of a circuitous route.  I met someone at a wine tasting who upon learning where I lived in Paris, thought I should meet a gal from NY who also lived on my street.  The NYer and I e-mailed a bit, and then she invited me to a friend of her's party who also used to live on our street, but now lives around the corner.  Yes it was a little interesting walking into a party where you really know no one, but it was a themed costume party, so how bad could it be?  The theme was "faux," so you just had to wear something fake.  There were many wigs, mustaches, fake eyelashes, tattoos, etc...It was a really nice crowd from all over - Paris, US and beyond.  Everyone was very friendly and we ended up staying much longer than our anticipated one hour visit.  How can you leave a punch bowl filled with vodka, sprite and sorbet?  Delicious!

Sunday was a bit of a sleep in day, but then I needed to go for a long run to make a dent in all the week-end merriment.  The road that runs along the River Seine is closed all day Sunday so it's filled with bikers, strollers, runners and roller bladers.  Roller blading is a strange phenomena over here.  Lots of people do it and there's many clubs and closed off areas for them around town.  Uh, the 1980's called and wants their sport back.

Everyone was outdoors today because of the fabulous weather.  After running, I found myself back at the River along with half of Paris, and then Lisette texted wanting to meet for a drink and bask in the sun.  We sat in an outdoor cafe on the island of Ile St. Louis and brought the wonderful week-end to a close with Rose and Chablis.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pere Lachaise and Portes Ouvertes

Stephanie and I set out on another Friday field trip yesterday.  We started with the Cemetery of Pere Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris, and the final resting spot from people ranging from Moliere to Morrison, Proust to Piaf, and war victims to Oscar Wilde.

The cemetery is over 100 acres of sprawling plots, nestled between shady trees and lush grass, making it a really lovely and serene location to pay respects to those that have passed.  There are a number of memorials dedicated to the victims of Nazism and Fascism, as well as victims who died in an Algerian independence demonstration in Paris as recent as 1962.  

There was a huge variance of tomb styles from elaborate constructions with handmade sculpture, to simple plots like those of Edith Piaf and Proust.

Jim Morrison's tomb was also simple, though many were gathered, and some even opened wine for a toast.

Oscar Wilde's tomb was a popular location and people showed their appreciation of Wilde through some interesting means.  Red lipstick kisses cover much of the open space, along with messages of love for the writer.  His living grandson appreciates the admiration, but evidently has paid for several cleanings, though the animal fat in the lipstick has stained the stone so he cannot fully remove it.  He wants L'Oreal to pay for the next cleaning.  

After walking around the cemetery for a while, Stephanie and I continued east to experience the annual "Portes Ouvertes," which literally means open doors.  The artists east of Paris opened their doors once a year to show their art, and also their homes.  It was a great combination of art and home tour.  We walked through Belleview and it's an area that's on the outskirts of town, so more affordable, but also still a little rough around the edges in some parts.  There's also a lot of musicians in the area and local venues for live music.  

The art included paintings, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, photography, and mixed media installations.  The artists were all very friendly, encouraging us to come into their homes and one even told us to come right in and "put our noses" in his paintings.  Some served food and drinks.  Many of the homes were hidden down unassuming streets, but then opened into brightly lit courtyards with lovely outdoor terraces.  Was a fun day, and Stephanie is also the new owner of some Parisian artwork.