Where Are We Now?

We are ending our first month in Paris and, with plans to make a change next week (more on that later), maybe it’s time to take stock. What is it all about, living away? Why is the ex-pat life so appealing, especially to artists? Hemingway wrote wonderful stories about his Michigan childhood as an adult  living in Paris. His sad and lovely Paris memoir was also written from the distance of time and  place – he was in Cuba (or Tahoe?), any way, far from the City of Lights. It’s about getting perspective, but also freedom. Picasso couldn’t be Picasso in repressive Spain. In fact, there were more foreigners amongst the great modernist painters living in Paris in the first two decades of the 20th c. than Frenchmen, for much the same reason.

Monument at the Bastille, symbol of freedom.

Monument at the Bastille, symbol of freedom.

Strangely, we work so hard to build up a life, to root ourselves in a workplace and a community, to create the ties that bind us to family and friends, and then it is such a blessed relef to cut loose and head off. Being away we confront the Other. His ways of living, of eating, of talking, of buying and selling. His past.01fe8edf691c04bd7f482e1633800f667bb71c09c501fa1bbc6ea8d03831047d6a16b26ef06e426061f10198ff44886299c0dbbc9245f491df9923619a273e_00002014154d20f9e4600aba5d45113ce25c962809fc8c0018eeb319fdaa0f5dd27be93192facc38e0581817a01f51b3f3c23423507b0c249a8c700a2180bb3e13d

We mostly admire what we see, and feel different from the Other. We are always thinking about that.  So, we are also confronting ourselves.

It’s us, but we’re already a little different. We have different routines. I stay in bed in the morning and Alan reads to me while we sip coffee. We have finished an excellent history of Napoleon by Paul Johnson. 01ca3806226041f822b6c8feede8810de90b1eda49 More than ever we are learning everyday. Today, for example, I learned that restaurants are a French invention, one more gift to us of the French Revolution. How is it I didn’t know that? And little things – yesterday I learned to reboot my “Dartybox”. That was scary. So, this sense of constant challenge, of being slightly off all the time is both the challenge and reward of living away. Two more months will bring more adventures and more lessons learned, I hope. 013c8afb921a44b6372197984a50cc70eb5beab31d013262a5a00d1085b62501ad136c99072130786a4c01b1cd929e727cb4379823db2b4111d46ac9934667019b13efe057bbc95ac9c0a5905b525752b7314d60

Please come along.

Weird French Food II – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

01edde27c3e25e25d2b6418bc4395dc918bebc91bf Let’s start with ugly. These knobby little fellows were unknown to me before my last trip to Paris, but I appreciated them so much then that I found them in the market at home  and even started to grow them.  In French they are topinambours. In English, they seem strangely misnamed Jerusalem artichokes, for they have nothing to do with artichokes, nor the Holy Land from what I can tell. They are sweet, nutty little tubers that are, together with  parsnips and  salsify,   part of the holy trinity of Parisian winter vegetables for roasting. So that is what to do. Peel, roast and serve. Or, you could puree them after roasting and toss in herbes de provence, truffle oil, or other flavoring. Given a good supply of topinambours you could get through anything,  even a Canadian winter.

On to the good, if weird.

01bcc1bfa6c49be71eb7673384335c4964c779e4a2 I first came acrss lardons in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In Julia Child’s Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourgignon, they are the starting point for building up a mellifluous symphony of flavors in the style of traditional French food. I make my own lardons at home from good old Canadian bacon. But you do not see bacon here. You see handi-paks of lardons. And these little babies sure come in handy. They are part of my budget and health plan, believe it or not. See, fry up and  toss in a few (just a very few) lardons with a pan of roasted veggies and voila, you have a savoury dinner your husband is not going to complain about because he thinks he’s eating bacon.

0140efe65bfbb9ba48aa899b52b528394023c8c57f012240d9dce86f3ea099afe5c633ee5d36fe542514 More good. As we have discussed, the French care deeply about scent and taste, but they are also appreciative of the cute (see previous post), so many familiar foods come in adorable round shapes (see zucchini) or in baby format (see irresistable baby cauliflowers). Normally, I am fully capable of resisting cauliflower, believe me. But when it is this cute? Zut!

010e2423aa4efed2242b1260ce0c2439b46120827f_00001 Still with the good, check out that package of meat. This is French budget food par excellence. It also has the cute factor. About the size of a large osso bucco, bound with string into a cohesive round, it is queue de veau, veal tail. Why turn this part of the beast into dogfood, or what ever they do at home with it? It is delicious. For, as Ruth Reichl says, meat is tender at the bone. And bone delivers a lot of flavour when browned and then slowly braised in the cheap red wine of our grocer, on low heat, for a couple of hours. As you go, toss in what ever you would normally – carrots, leeks or onions, maybe fennel. Serve in a bowl with that crusty baguette you see on the counter.

01d2f1e65f8b4377c76ecb7f7745cd59960eb4892a_00001 Voila. The strings have been cut and it’s ready to serve.

01075d261eb48113ae2d376dc6510f8fa98ba7b10a Now for the bad. One of the changes I’ve noticed is the growing presence of this item in the bakeries of Paris. OK, Laduree was one thing. This sweet and elegant shop in St. Germain-des-Pres with its baroque and feminine decor was the right place for these, and besides they have much more in the way of sweets that are worthy of your attention. Perhaps the American interest in macaroons has spurred the Parisians on, but the bald truth is that these little objets are not very good. They are, in fact bad. The outer disks are like a stale ice cream cone or a communion wafer with suger added. Inside, is a gummy, sugary wad of something that would do better as an insulation than as a confection. Why eat this when there is so much good stuff? And what’s with the dayglow colours? A shocking lapse of taste. It just shows us that the Parisians CAN sometimes get it wrong.

Mother and Child Reunion

0159d20d7ffadc0bbc42513bbd55b0283de3f8d0d9 I awoke with a sense of unease on Sunday morning. Just out of sorts and cranky without knowing why. What is this vague longing? Is it home sickness? No… I thought, shivering as I considered  once again the polar vortex. No, it’s just that I… miss the children. That’s it. I miss the children and the dog. Terribly.

We hear a lot about declining birth rates in Northern Europe, but this is a lie given the evidence of the Paris neighbourhoods we frequent, which is everywhere central. There are schools partout. At least four in a  two block radius from us. Boisterous crowds of children, just bursting with energy, blast down the streets. Get out of the way! School’s out. In every museum, every age group from toddlers to teens, is being led about, lectured to and shown the finest in art, technology and even instruments of war.

0129b95eb5d39207e371ba584b0ba559bc2bd85d85 A school group in the sculpture court of the Louvre.

The point is that there is no getting away from the large crowds of extremely cute and well-dressed children everywhere we go. On top of school groups there are the crowds of little charmers in the parks on weekends, and the packs of stylish and amusing children’s clothing stores which almost outnumber womens’ boutiques. You can never get away from the longing.


As I said in my first post, on the last trip to France, when we rented a house and stayed for six months, the children and dogs came too. Since then, one dog has died, another is too old to come and the children have their own commitments to attend to: college, work and graduate school. And I thought it would be 100% great to go away and leave my commitments behind.  It would seem that the ties that bind do not loosen so easily. And life once again, shows us how little we know ourselves. Having spent so many decades loving and caring for people and creatures large and small  it’s just not possible for me to drop that role without a bit of disorientation. Well, what to do?

One possibility is to steal a dog. I have been thinking about this with increasing frequency. Many, even most,  street beggars here have dogs. These dogs are cute. Really cute. Would it be so wrong for me to grab a dog, stuff it in my purse and run like hell? I could surely give it a better life than it has  living on the street.

This one is in Lisbon, but never mind, you get the idea. (photo:lisbonconnection.com)

  This one is in Lisbon, but never mind, you get the idea. (photo:lisbonconnection.com)

I try to put this thought out of my mind, even though dogs like the one above are very adorable and conveniently purse-sized. I’m sure he’s very tired of listening to all that accordian music. Really. Someone needs to save him.

Obviously, a distraction is in order so, again,  what should I do? It’s obvious: the Louvre. It’s the weekend, so no school groups, no beggars with dogs, and once inside I know where to go to escape the crowds.Tip:  If you are overwhelmed by crowds at the Louvre head down. Just keep going down to the lowest levels where there  is really interesting art and very few tourists. Thus Alan and I found ourselves in the International Gothic Sculpture galleries in the basement of the Denon pavillion. I don’t think I’ve been there before. Here is the kind of thing:

Vierge_a_l'Enfant_debout0701vierge389px-Vierge_à_l'Enfant_assise. Right. I was beginning to feel like this:

01e7982ac64dbfe5e63b92d8ee4f52546a239db0d3_00001 So I went to the African, Polynesian and Asian galleries where I saw a number of p[ieces like this:

013425d91ca061bc7ef2b28cd7053304717f755636_00001 Zoom to see what she’s up to. Oh dear. We cannot, dear reader, escape our feelings, can we? Here I am in Paris, missing my children and it cannot be avoided. Lesson learned. I have to go now and see if that accordian doggy is still around. Just looking. Maybe if I adopt the master too, it will all be fine and we can amuse ourseves with accordian music by the hour.




The Spirit Lifts

01389325f4fc7c7cf8c876720f1994ba9388d3c829Since there was no Sunday sketch this week, in the spirit of penitence I offer you this Virgin Mary and a secret, a place that nobody goes to, so don’t tell. It is the most spiritual place in Paris and you would have to be a clod of earth not to feel your spirit soar as you step into its holy spaces.

It is the Chapel of St. Louis at the Hopital Salpetriere. Some of the most beautiful places in Paris are hospitals, built in the reign of Louis XIV. But many of the others, such as the Hotel des Invalides where Napoleon is buried,  are well-known. This isn’t. 0107431b3f394208170804bc54236044ce2a9d2c7e01c445651dcd7e392c6c6a21340f3f8ed54b37c66cThe simple facade reminds me of Santo Spirito in Florence. There are beautiful heather shrubberies on the grounds.

010343f85f78810f8723c7c045749a700c1bb4e037Through a  patinated door, you enter a space of shadow and light. Yours eyes adjust.

0118b2fccdd4200eea3927774843f68345e0a3ef220199a71e0876893da5bcd748e2abb470d4a06ccd15 The ceiling soars and high windows let in shafts of light. It is empty, undecorated. The main space is octagonal and eight smaller chapels spin off it. Here, the sick were separated from each other, the destitute from the insane, the sick from the “fallen” (women, that is).

01970b9337f00d1636140db5848ffbb925879b4aa5 No one is there. That tiny figure is me, and it gives you a feeling for the volumes.

011e403c44e509be40a3262df5fa78b26d081783ec012b54a8af72b06179640257cb68203d56609869ab Ste. Anne looks on while I make the sketch. The only sound is the cooing and whirring of pigeons who are left unchecked. It is not at all hard to imagine the generations of troubled people who came here to pray. And perhaps were comforted.

The Kindest Cut


I do love topiary. I have an area in my own garden  we pretentiously call “The Topiary Allee”, which, for future generations, will no doubt be quite impressive. Currently, I fear  my topiary are what Edward Gorey would call objects of pity on the lawn.  No matter. I faithfully go after my little tamaracks with the clippers, picturing the  balls and birds  which will some day disport themselves whimsically across my garden. In the meantime, I take note of how they do things in Paris.

01659ce899198a5c8451417c54da4b8846adf11ff5The French are totally into clipping trees. They are kind of out of control.

011148e55b746e8446db29f8d2104f3cd9feb90e00 It can look kind of spooky. Gothic. Skeletal.

01eace18b04874fa86c8b03005c7eb41a328961732_00001 You get these interesting nobs on the branches.

01953d1be1c26f31166eb1aead81ef94bcd4430a03 In addition to pollarding, they also limb up, creating really tidy shrubberies.

0151ea3077e6f37555151bc271cf213e44851e0e50 Tidy as heck.aadsc09093 This kind of hedge-on-a-stick look is everywhere, but not in leaf yet in Paris (thanks to apartmentinparis.wordpress.com for the image). I guess it’s a question of how far from nature do you want to go. I find bonsai a bit too far, for example. Poor little trees, with their roots like bound feet in the tiny pots. I think we need to revisit this issue when things leaf out. Is it possible to go too far with this? 6532361


Down to Business

The art business, that is. After a couple of weeks of sketching to try to get a bit limber, I pulled out my freshly bought paints and got down to work. Well, really, I was fooling around. Taking the new paints out for a spin. I offer you three tree paintings, two more abstract, one less so. Which do you like best?


Dames d’un Certain Age

We are fascinated with French women, and especially la Parisienne. Writing a book about them in which you guarantee your readers that they will learn the 7 essential secrets of being a woman in the French style is a fast track to the best-seller list. This idealization of the Frenchwoman includes the notion that she is slim, ageless, witty, sophisticated and very seductive. She is also a great chef (knows how to cook mackerel, for example) and juggles work and family without strain. Judging by the behaviour of the French heads of state, it seems that these stellar qualities are lost on the men of France. But certainly not on the women of North America. That is why I am writing a book called, Aging a la  Francaise, because unlike all those other writers, I actually have figured out a number of things about Frenchwomen such as how and why Parisennes keep their figures. It’s their junk food. Pathetic. Check this out.

01f98e2da9def24bc74fc2d42df24d6bf51dc9a704_00001This is a Paris vending machine. What are they selling? Waffles. I kid you not. Who the heck would want to eat a waffle from a vending machine? And where’s the fat and the salt that make a junk food addictive? No self-respecting person would turn to these as a “treat”, and certainly not a Parisienne. No human has ever said, “I got fat because of those vending machine waffles”. That was Exhibit A. On to B.

01ca873974d24f5eca4a1f377aeb47abd0b9998488 So, here  is the side of a vending machine. There is the waffle, some cookies, a package of jujubes. And, what I don’t get is the name of the product: Bon Plans. Do you get that? What does that mean in the context of furtively scarfing your junk food on the subway platform? Obviously, it’s not a bon plan. And why are we throwing in English words gratuitously anyway?  Most puzzling. But not as strange as Exhibit C.

016e97ede98774d3cf8649ce195914acf91d4341deWow. Proust would be so gratified. Madeleines in the vending machine. This is not how you get fat. These vending machines represent a mentality. And if you want to know more you will have to reserve an advance copy of my book.

In order to research this book, I have had to seek out the most chic and compelling dames d’un certain age in Paris. They are to be found here.

0194d0bbb8765893c9e8ba0d482bf2fe0d18056f13 In the north-east corner of the Marais, Merci is the height of cool. So cool that it, too, is something I don’t understand. It is a non-profit store. Proceeds to charity. Nice idea. My gallery, too is non-profit as it turns out, but not intentionally. The French don’t like the idea of profit I guess and that is part of what makes Merci very cool. I do get how beautiful the interior space is. Huge, industrial loft style, great clothes, fantastic furnishings, linens and a big draw for Parisiennes of the sort we want to research.


0119c319df3a3e36bff137f7b8b8a62c5e0eba1d07 Voila. There she is. Great coat.  Well-tailored pants.

0161aa1c6f5fbcb465d5d88c2fde57d2a3e61f282aI admire this. Tidy. Elegant. Serious. Looks like she reads Foucault.

01a099f8c0a13080f7b792fd2215617425abbee468 Another thing to notice. Not trying to look young. Doesn’t have to try hard in any way. Just is. Here’s the coup de grace.

0156ddf48e6bad16033c32abf359575d80819146cf These are her shoes. Match the scarf. She is having fun and not asking anyone’s permission. She is showing that while she looks serious and adult there is a playful side you would probably like to get to know. 01c8c7dcef260165e7d6fa6b2cd0bef1397cc40c27 So much to notice here.  Great jacket with its velvet collar. Blouse, simple and perfect. Probably cost 500 euros. Don’t ignore the finer points. Those little hairclips. This is attention to detail that requires study.

01bf3bda0f7c55ca285436e037d51b5699ef5d95b3This one is a movie star. I’m pretty sure. Let me know if you recognize her.

01829125d9962cd4797ada26e5669c55b0e5767186 Finally, I leave you with this example, from the Jardin des Plantes (a great place for stalking chic grannies). Notice how her foulard matches the orchids.



A Walk in the Park with Dinosaurs

01cfde5af29849811fc8380b8e937c3d222d29099eSunday the weather was incontournable (unbeatable).   The whole town was out for a stroll. What better spot for a walk than the Jardins des Plantes with its stately allees?

Warning: my friends in Montreal and the North-East, STOP READING NOW! What follows will be bad for your mental health. Scroll until you see bones.

01d63dd7da6ea20f8d9dadec10128a7c56cde5752101dff79901414627753921c559f5aef0f7a2d7b1370120882cc7e0f3610faff06475bf85abb55f750c7aYes, springtime in Paris with flowering almonds, hellebores and the color green everywhere.

010b5973cd9355b3bb202ba004661f870796d33a7101ff89840a377faa8e2df3994409a5adf28982fcd3As though it wasn’t beautiful enough outside we popped into the vast greenhouses to see the orchid show.

015953189819ffa491f45675f6924736460d506c3bI felt a mounting excitement as we turned into one of my favorite, top-secret, spots in Paris. An imposing 19th century building sits in the northeast corner of the Jardin. It is the Gallery of Evolution, a vast space filled with bones. Downstairs are plain old animals, upstairs extinct ones. The skeletons, in their hundreds, seem to march down the hall toward you. They are all sizes, including very large ones like whales and elephants, but small ones are also ranged around the room in oak cabinets. The whole space is entirely lit by daylight, giving a particular warmth to these old bones.


I find it hard to express or explain why this space is so inspirational for me. It has to do with life, death, the connections between us all,  present and extinct. It relates to me and what I am doing here in Paris, visiting the past, with its old  dinosaurs of art and architecture that nonetheless continue to move us in the present. This space will come into my painting, I know.

01440167f2bc426e07d2e6976299c5783d99f66a59 I spent some minutes sketching .

0129c360e5d6195d6e23bde0c5ff759262358de870And taking photographs. This image is certainly coming into my work. Stay tuned.

Weird French Food

011cb63d2f72c3e657e15cb449798a31f58e961950Honestly, these fish are so fresh-looking and smiley, how can I cook them? Their little eyes are staring up at me as if to say, “Put us back”! No way. Summoning my courage I proceeded into my less than closet sized kitchen to cook these mackerel WITH THE HEADS ON. Yikes. Thank you,  Jamie Oliver. Browsing through recipes, there had been  one for crispy mackerel. I liked the sound of crispy. Jamie assured me that mackerel are delicious and that I should be eating them because tuna are over-fished. I reminded myself of my vow to cook something new, something French, every week. I steeled myself and put Georges et Ludovic (yes, I had been staring at them so long that by now they had names) into the hot oil, and started to cook. They did not smell bad, as I had been told mackerel does. In fact,they seemed to be looking crispy. I flipped them and went to my go-to additive of white wine. When in France, I add 3 euro/bottle cooking wine to just about everything. That plus creme fraiche does the job and you can’t miss. In went the wine and that’s when it went up. In flames. I have never had the flame effect with white wine, but as the flames rose, I didn’t have time to think about that. “Uhhh, anything I can do?” Alan said, sticking his head in the door. I appreciated his tact. We were both thinking, OMG, we’re going to burn the building down. At least we’ll get to meet the Sapeurs-Pompiers, I mused, and ask them why they have two jobs here instead of just one like firemen everywhere else.  But after a moment of useless blowing, the flames went out and the fish were indeed looking crisp.

01f80e5a07e7c8289973d34592803006f8af9a4f8aFrazzled chef, very crispy mackerel. Dinner very, good. Don’t try this at home.

0198ff44886299c0dbbc9245f491df9923619a273eYou probably recognize  parsnips in the photo (like a fat white carrot) but what the heck is that bunch of black sticks held together with a rubber band? That, friends, is salsify. I’d heard of it, but never cooked it. I had seen it packed in water in small decorative jars on gourmet shop shelves but never bought one. I had to ask the market stall vendor how to prepare them. Apparently, simple as peeling and slicing and roasting. I could do that. What the vendor didn’t explain is that when you peel and slice the salsify it exudes a weird glue-like substance akin to rubber cement. It does not wash off with soap and water. It just sits on your fingers, tacky and black. Finally what worked was Parisian jet pads, not a recommended beauty treatment for my already dry skin. I guess the Parisian home chef must overlook these little contre-temps if she wants to achieve authentic Parisian deliciousness. 01a995de2becebd06ac141959469467f1faada85c8_00001 Here’s how they came out, roasted together with the parsnips. Admit it, delicious, no? I picked one up with my sore finger tips and appreciated the nutty, toasty flavours. Next week in Weird Food Wednesday: Queue de Veau and Osso Bucco de Dinde.