Monday, July 25, 2011

Noon in Paris, Midnight in Paris

Montmirail is getting decked out for the Medieval Festival, happening next weekend

Having a few days free, we took the opportunity to roll to Paris to help Emily with some projects, do some errands and, of course, see Quinn. Most day-to-day purchases can be made locally, but when I need specialty art supplies, health food items or fabric, I either go to Le Mans or Paris. This week I needed all these.

I love shopping for sewing supplies in Paris, where dozens of shops selling every kind of fabric or notion you could ever imagine, are all clustered around the base of Montmartre. In the U.S. vendors seem to have the idea that you don't want to have a shop too close to the competition. Another mindset prevails here. I can only imagine that the shop owners understand the advantage to the customer of having so many similar stores huddled together in one place and that the success of the competitor can be your success as well. Their clients are bound to pop into your shop. 

The Marché Saint Pierre is the most venerable and largest fabric emporium in Paris. I don't think it has changed much since this photo was taken. It has 5 floors of fabric with worn wooden stairways leading up and down and a small ancient elevator with a small ancient operator who calls out the floors as you ascend and descend. Tickets are hand written and rung up in the old fashioned way. The sales people are generally cranky and difficult to flag down, which only adds to the charm and quirkiness of the place. When we were there this week, we saw a tour group with a guide pontificating in English. Her band of American travelers were clustered around, hanging on her every word. It seemed amusing to me that a fabric store has become a tourist destination.

On another day we went to my favorite art store in all the world, Sennelier. which I've written about several times in this blog. The shop has been in business since the later part of the 1800s, and provided supplies to Cezanne and Picasso among others. They sell their own brand of paint and pastels, some of the best available. I went to purchase a certain kind of ink which is entirely permanent and waterproof. I know of no other place to find it.

We took the metro from Emily's to Place Saint Michel and walked down the rue Saint Andre des Arts, stopping at Paul for Lunch. The last time we were there, it was with our friends Richard and Marta, who we think about very often indeed and miss profoundly, so we paid homage to them by having the same menu item and sitting in the same dining room, looking out on the same scene. That original lunch has been the subject of excellent daydreams ever since. They have an item which begins with a nice big potato pancake, smeared with tapenade, piled high with green salad, with prosciutto ham at the top and a dollop of creme fraîche for good measure. I don't know if it was because we weren't with our friends, or if the real cook is on vacation, but the lunch we were served did not match the memory. The pancake was floppy instead of crispy, the lettuce was tired instead of happy, and the waiter was rude rather than friendly. All around us the conversations were in English. We couldn't help but feel all day that Paris is just not itself during July and August.

We strolled down the rue Jacob towards the Quai Voltaire and Sennelier, only to find that it would be closed for lunch for another half hour. No problem. The store is located right on the river across from the Louvre and the Tuileries.

The moment was particularly fine, with the sun playing hide and seek, the weather neither hot nor cold and the water an attractive gray green. The views as you cross over to the right bank are exceptionally pretty, the old bridges beautiful.

In the distance you see the Grand and Petit Palaces. You are just a few steps from the Musee d'Orsay.

The traffic was relatively light as most locals are out of town this time of year.

We found a quiet corner in the garden. I call this picture where to be in Paris in July.

I call this one where not to be in Paris in July. This view of the Louvre was taken from the bench we were sitting upon to await the 2PM opening of Sennelier. If you have any choice in the matter, you should not come to Paris in August, but if you must, it's better to avoid all the usual tourist spots, unless waiting in long lines and meeting many other English-speakers is your idea of fun.

I was amazed by the friendly (aggressive?) crows in the garden, which really are the size of a cat.

After the art store we raced back to the Odeon neighborhood to catch a movie in VO (original version). It's one we'd been wanting to see ever since it's big debut in May at the Cannes Film Festival... and that would be Midnight in Paris. It's called Woody's love letter to Paris and since we're every bit as smitten by this grand old city, we enjoyed every single moment. We were particularly excited when we noticed on the credits that Stéphane Foenkinos, a good friend of our neighbors Anne and Christine, was the French casting director for the film. We had no idea that he had done that work. By amazing coincidence, we had invited him over to our house on Saturday evening, as we had heard he would be visiting Montmirail for the weekend. He is a guy I immediately fell in love with the moment I met him. He is not only utterly charming and warm, but he speaks perfect English too... which in my case is a very big advantage for developing a happy relationship.

We also enjoyed watching the ultra brief scene where Owen Wilson exits the bookshop Shakespeare and Company across from Notre Dame. In November, when Rick's sister was visiting, we watched them setting up that shot. We had intended to go inside, but it was blocked off by the crew.

It was rather wonderful to exit the movie theater and actually be in Paris. In fact, having seen the film at UGC Odeon, our first sight directly across the street upon walking out was their twin cinema, UGC Danton, which also appears briefly in the movie.


Quinn was in fine form as usual. His language acquisition skills carry on apace. He is now beginning to translate between his three languages, so obviously he seems to have the concept.

Jos did a wonderful routine for Quinn, wearing a clown nose and doing some funny business with a hat. He then gave Quinn a nose and hat too and Quinn had a crack at the gags. He is a adept pupil of performance. He probably won't grow up to be a scientist. But then, who ever knows? 

It was hard to get him to sit still for a shot. He doesn't care for being photographed.


Once back home we had the great pleasure of seeing the neighbors and Stéphane. We enjoyed the stories he regaled us with about working with Woody and Carla Bruni. He also brought us a catalog of a project he had created at a Paris gallery with a couple of his friends, and which we had unhappily missed, called 55 Ecrivaines. The show received rave reviews.

It really was an extraordinary idea, which began simply enough. Apparently he was at a friend's one day when he pulled up his turtle neck sweater and slouched down in an easy chair. His friend was struck by how much he resembled the French writer, Marguerite Duras. She photographed him and they both laughed about it. After showing it to several people, who all remarked on the resemblance, and encouraging the two of them to make more, they began to photograph Stéphane in the guise of many different feminine writers. The photos are amazing, as he seems to capture an essence of each writer. His face seems to be easily altered to fit his subjects. Here's just a sample of four from the book:


After weeks of rain, the hills are green again. Just like velvet. The weather is still mild, but sunny, warm days are predicted for the coming week. Our bird population has gone quiet. Do they think it's time to migrate already?

One of the things I miss about California are hummingbirds. We don't have them here. However, during summer months we do have this enchanting creature, a hummingbird hawkmoth. I had never seen one before moving here. He's about the size of a big moth, but for all the world looks and acts just like a miniature hummingbird.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer Diversions

They're calling it "autumn in July." It's true that our weather this year has not followed normal, expected patterns. We've broken a few records at both ends of the thermometer's scale. Last November we had full on winter, with a massive snow storm and the mercury plummeting, fully six weeks earlier than normal and quite a bit colder than usual. In April, when one would imagine mild spring weather, we had scorching summery temperatures that went on for weeks. This is virtually unheard of. Our hills turned brown, reminding me of California, such an unusual sight over here. Now we're in the middle of a low pressure system, bringing driving rain with chilly days and nights. The Virginia Creeper on the house is already turning red. The natural world around us is very confused indeed! Apparently the earth's axis shifted slightly with the huge earthquake in Chile last year and of course our protective atmospheric cover is being eroded at a tremendous clip, leaving us much more vulnerable to the vagaries and intensity of weather systems. I don't think there is yet a new normal, but old forms have been flung out the window, that is fairly clear.


We met one of our local aristocrats lately. Last weekend we hosted a couple who were attending a nearby wedding. They announced to us that the wife's sister, who is a widow living not far from us, would like to meet us and show us her manoir. Sure enough, she arrived at the door a few days later to extend her personal invitation for tea. What an adventure! Firstly, discovering her house was a revelation. From the public road you see only this:

The hills around are farm land and there is no reason to think that this inconspicuous grassy pathway would lead anywhere other than to a humble farm house. Far from it. I couldn't take photos of the house without being incredibly obnoxious and gauche, although I longed to do so. I snapped a portion of the front of the house quickly as we were driving away. You can perhaps get a small concept of how pretty and grand it is. What you don't have is a sense of the complex of buildings or the gorgeous parkland surrounding the house.

In back is a breathtaking view over rolling hills, a forest and a large lake with a resident pair of herons. Quite extraordinary! The amazing part of Madame's story is that a part of her family immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century and made a big name for themselves over there. Her great-great grandfather opened Sloanes Department Store in New York, another relative had one of the largest gold mines in California. One of her cousins, William Sloane Coffin, was a famous peace activist during the Vietnam War and still another is the current prosecutor for New York City (the one heading up the Strauss-Kahn case).


Big things went on in town this weekend. First there was an exposition of antique cars. All built before 1915. They still function, as later in the day their drivers got into them and motored off.

One of our favorites was the Ford, with all those beautiful brass fittings, leather upholstery and simplicity of design.

Take a look at those incredible wooden spokes:


In the afternoon we had a horse race at the local track. This is its third year of operation.


We have farmers markets nearby three times a week. Frankly, we don't always go, as it is a drive and it must be planned for. Besides, the supermarket has very high quality, locally grown produce. When we do go, however, it is always a sensuous treat. There are certain specialty items not available at the big store.

You can't get fresh butter or some of those handmade cheeses at the supermarket. The fresh butter is one of those things that is beyond description. What a treat.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Making Some Jelly, Feeding the Babies

Our garden is encircled by currant bushes (groseilles), which every year at this time ripen to a bright red. Each year I wish to myself that the bushes were blueberries or blackberries. Currants have seemed to me to be a ridiculous fruit. They have very little flesh and a huge pit, making them not at all delectable to eat. You see them as a garnish in some restaurants, and that can be pretty, but its the only practical use I could imagine putting them to. Locals had mentioned that they make a nice jelly, but I was skeptical, since not only are the fruit mostly pit, but the flesh itself is far from tasty and sweet.

Then I happened upon a recipe by David Lebovitz, author of my favorite food blog. He used to work at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, but now lives in Paris and always has great ideas for places to go and things to cook. When I saw how easy it was to make currant jelly, I decided it was worth the trouble. Besides, Emily was on hand and she chided me for letting them all go to waste. I gathered up a basket full of the very last of the harvest and decided to give it a try. The recipe is called "Currant Jam", but in fact it is a jelly.

The first step is easy enough. Just clean the berries, add a small amount of water to cover the bottom of a pot, add fruit and boil until the berries are wilted, stirring frequently. David doesn't even recommend taking off the stems, but I did. It doesn't take any time to do it.

Once soft, the berries are crushed and put through a fine sieve to make a bright red liquid. It's at this point you add the sugar. The recipe calls for weighing the berry mixture and adding the same weight in very fine sugar. I didn't have that much on hand so I put less than half that amount. I was sure it would make it so the jelly wouldn't jell.

Emily suggested cooking up some peaches to combine with the tart currants in some of the jars. She added sugar and apples (for pectin), which were removed after cooking. The sugar was stirred into the berries just until it melted, then the mixture was left undisturbed on the stove at a rolling boil for 5 minutes. Voila. That's all there is to it.

We put the plain currants and the currant with peaches in combination in sterilized jars. Turning them upside down seals them. You leave them until they cool. Storing them in a refrigerator is not a bad idea either, according to David.

I was very pleased with the results, which did jell, quite beautifully and the jelly itself is delicious. Not tart but not at all too sweet. Of course we'll be serving this to our guests.


This is the moment in the season where the baby birds are learning to fly. Apparently, however, they're still too young and inexperienced to catch their own food. The last few evenings, right outside our top story window, some swallow babies (hirondelles) sit and wait as their parents swoop past, giving them a morsel to eat and flying off for more. This goes on for several hours between 5 and 8 in the evening.

The babies are as big or even bigger than the slender mother who never stops to rest from her task.

The babies themselves fly from one end of the roof to the other, but don't leave their perch for long for fear of missing their meal.

It's hard to capture the beauty of these little creatures, as their coloring is very subtle and translates as black and white in the photos. In truth their faces are a deep red and the top of their heads and backs are midnight blue.

Adult swallow rarely land, as their legs and feet are not made for perching. They swoop through our courtyard with grace and ease. Summer begins when the swallows come to town. The season will end when they leave again. In the meantime, I am really getting to enjoy them.

If you want to see a larger version of the photos, be sure to click on them.

Happy July 14th from France! It's not called Bastille Day over here, even though it does mark the day that prison was stormed. More often it's know as la Fête Nationale or just le 14 julliet.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Here We Go Again

They say that everything changes but change itself. I like to keep that concept alive! If you're viewing my blog from a feed or reader, then you won't be able to notice that I've changed my banner once again. As I mentioned when I introduced you to Musetta a few weeks ago, she is a very demanding character. I've grown fond of her, but the time she requires renders the posting schedule of my blog much slower than I'd like. I have made a new website for her and I'll be working on that throughout the coming year, without any time pressure, I can give her the kind of attention she deserves. In the meantime, I am reverting to my former format. I have had several friends write to say they miss the local news. And frankly there's quite a lot of it these days. We're rolling along in high season and have some interesting events and travels on the horizon. So we're here and there in France again, my friends.


This past weekend brought a visit from Quinn and Emily. Jos was in Munich performing his one man show so the family came to stay, since we were not fully booked.

There is always so much to do when Quinn is at home. Certainly there are the trains, which he can hardly get enough of. He has lately discovered my collection of tin soldiers, so they are a new interest as well. There is also always some kind of art project. This time we made an owl mask and Quinn enjoyed whoo-hooing, flapping his wings and showing it off to our clients. In the opening photo, he is helping me in the press room. He likes to turn the big wheel, although he's still a little bit short!

Emily begins each morning with the yoga stretches and poses Salutation to the Sun. Quinn and Rick followed along.

Certainly we also took several walks. On our first one through the woods, we stopped by the park for a slide and teeter.

We also picked some small yellow and red plums that litter the ground on the entrance to the forest this time of year. Quinn ate his fill and then some.

On Sunday we had a picnic and a boating adventure in La Ferté-Bernard, the biggest city in our area. The town is criss-crossed by fingers of the Huisne River and one can rent little electric boats to putter along a rather long stretch of the river. It was a wonderful way to spend a warm afternoon, so relaxing and cool. We floated past the ancient gates to the city and under low bridges that cross the waterways.


Earlier in the week, the Tour de France passed not too far from us so we drove out to watch the riders pass by. It's such a strange spectator sport, as it takes time to drive to your spot, park, walk out to the route, wait for quite awhile for the race to arrive. Zip zip, they pass you by in a matter of seconds, followed then by an endless procession of support cars and media. Frankly, I prefer tennis.