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.

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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.

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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.

See the Flea

If you have been following, you know where I will be on Saturday morning. Here’s what I saw at the flea market today.

01801a003869bdc24c214a28fea272d16235a7ac19  We’re off. Look at that chandelier.

01eeb30adbfd809f191a7b87725198f3d24ba14957 Early on, I was taken with a big stack of sketches from the model in sanguine conte. They were stamped to authenticate, looked to be 19th century and were going for only 10 euros. So tempted. Under the umbrella were some great looking modern works.

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01a7f53ea459c6bff1a67e0df6839aedbc339e135b  I was interested in this whole table of old cameras.

01c4d1e35e6fdb84d1c2149168ea71e3d3dda5fd94 These alabaster pendants were really cool. Why didn’t I get them?

01933309e31d29b86319e5c19a240ce172d2836bfe Vintage cloth from Zaire and Cameroon. Each one is a masterpiece of abstraction. There are many different colors and sizes. All QUITE expensive, 175-400 euros. 01bb5960f265b02868cb8fbce9b04e8e96231491fc I have to figure out the pricing on these.

01219f820c2575450a383479de2e297a4ddd90f79cIn the meantime, This guy was adding to the merriment with his tinkly piano. I was getting into the jewellery vendors.

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And finally, I settled on little doodads for making jewellery. Spent too much. You know, each piece is only a euro but before you know it…. Anyway, I will make something beautiful. I hope. I especially like the coins and tear-shaped pearl. I find that I have reverse buyer’s remorse. The pendants, the sketches. Oh well, there’s always next week.

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Rubbish

Time to talk trash. Enough of the finer things in life that  have recently occupied our attention. When it comes down to it there are a number of things that make a city livable and Paris has got’em all. What I’m thinking of today is the sound I wake up to each morning, a “scritch-scratch” sound from down on the street. It takes a moment to orient myself, although I have already begun to dream in French. That scratching noise is what makes it so enjoyable to step out onto the sidewalk each day. It’s our green team of cleaners. They come EVERY DAY. They have extremely cute little green vehicles and matching emerald-green overalls.  They sweep, pick up cigarette butts, torn bits of paper and, yes, dog poo (so that old saw about poo everywhere in Paris is simply not true). Another team is picking up the garbage or the recycling EVERY DAY. Once it is picked up, folks whisk their garbage cans back inside, tout de suite. This town sparkles, and do I like it.

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Shop keepers do their bit and there is always someone ouside shops scrubbing. 012d7a7bb2e376cfc07c9506fcd0df195397d65e61

This enormous public work must cost a lot, but  imagine what you could do if you didn’t have to spend millions on snow clearance.  I gather that the green guys (and gals – in our old neighbourhood we had one who came to work with full makeup and stylish coiffure) are well paid because they seem so happy. They are always  chatting and joking   as they work. In some neighbourhoods they have a device that brings water up from the sewers to wash the gutter and send detritus back down again. What happens then?…. Don’t know. Hope it gets cleaned before it goes back in the Seine.

Interestingly, the French have just created a device called the ophone. This story has been big recently, so  I won’t go into detail. If you know French people, you know how driven by the olfactory sense they are. My young friend Hadrien is a great example. When you give him a gift, maybe a pair of socks or a book, he thanks you warmly and then smells it. It’s just part of his process.  So the French have created an ophone, which you can program to release scent to your correspondent. The group working on this  decided, just for the fun of it,  to create the scent of 18th c. Paris. What would THAT be? Apparently, “skunked wine, and gingivitis -tinged sputum,” amongst other things we should not mention.Today, the Paris street smell would have to be mostly soap.

I will not be visiting the sewers of Paris  – there is such a tour, over in the 7th arrondissement- but I am grateful to the role they play in this pleasant life of Paris. And I hope that no one ever texts me the scent of the 18th century.

My Funny Valentine

On my first trip to Paris I was twenty and in the company of my mother. I had just enough education and maturity to appreciate what I was seeing and in our whirlwind three days I resolved repeatedly to come back. Vividly, I remember standing on Pont Alexandre III and vowing that some day I would come back with the love of my life.

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It only took twenty or so years, and a lot of living: a marriage, a career, years of schooling, children, a divorce, and then finding Alan. We came for a week that first time all the while hungry for more. A few years later, we did,  for a six month sabbatical.  Kids, dogs and many friends and family members came along for the ride. . Again, we knew we would be back and now it’s just the two of us. Time for a leetle romance, no (use your best PePe le Pieu accent)?

We decided to have an early Valentine’s and what is the best thing to do for a romantic sortie in the City of Love? For starters, walk along the Seine holding hands, then go to the Louvre and share wonderful art.

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Did you notice how I snuck another boar into this? I’m going to go back and draw that boar.  He is so wonderful under the vast skylight. I love a sculpture court since they create a whole alternative world of stone, and they remind me of Narnia. The French Sculpture court is non-pareil, and what a marvel indeed, were these creatures to come to life.

Continuing on the Valentine’s agenda, we left the Louvre and strolled across the rue de Rivoli to the Jardin du Place Royale, where a perfect heaven of gustatory delight is tucked into the corner off the arcade.

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Here, cordial waiters bring you your hearts’ desire.

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Perhaps a Kir, while we consider the menu?

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Maybe an amuse-bouche of cold essence of lobster with creme chantilly. My mouth is very amused indeed.

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We enjoy the special quality of the light in the arcade while we dine on oysters, risotto and lamb.

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An odd little piece of sculpture for dessert. Under that warm banana is something crispy with chocolate ganache. The dots are caramel and cream. Sigh. Time for coffee.

We stroll home in the rain, sharing an umbrella. No longer young, not as acute or good-looking as we once were, having been through a lot, and maybe showing the wear and tear, a simple reality comes through. C’est l’amour. C’est tout.

Good People and Bad

Looking out my window recently, I saw two young boys of perhaps seven or  eight years whizzing around the corner on their scooters. I was glad to see that young kids are allowed out to play in our part of town, unsupervised. You just don’t see overweight children here.  Just seconds before one of the boys entered his code outside his door and leapt inside, it struck me that he was wearing a yarmulke. He pulled his friend after him and disappeared…This glimpse  was one of those  small moments that mean a lot to me. I get a feeling of triumph every time I see visible the survival of the French Jews.  011ffcb62e1b6f039f64ff66852d885c2167884659

These plaques are everywhere in Paris. They attest to the number of dead children, given up by the French and seized from their schools and homes by the Nazis, then deported and murdered because they were Jewish. I admire the French willingness to own up to this shame. These constant reminders distress me, but we owe those children our distress even so many years later.  Five years ago, sending my own half-Jewish child to attend a French school, she went past one such plaque and the big blue doors of the ecole shut behind her. I gulped hard, imagining her fate had we lived here at the wrong time.

But today, bright and sunny and perfect these thoughts were not on my mind. We were off to visit the Maison Victor Hugo, one of Paris’ many small museums. We went through the beautiful courtyard of the Hotel Sully and into the gorgeous Place des Vosges. Children were playing, their mothers’ laughter ringing out.

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And unbidden, as these things often are, I noticed a green door in the arcade of the Place des Vosges. Peering more closely I realized with a start, it’s a synagogue.

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Wow. A congregation of Jews, thriving in the heart of the former Jewish district (as the Marais was) and in a highly significant Marais location, too. This miracle survival, despite the very best efforts of some very bad people was heartening.  Bravo.

On to Victor Hugo, what a delight. 01ba425b0db70b5beb6b5c59579c8eb030b7b0bb15

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I am a big fan of nineteenth century novels and admire  French ones  as much as English and  Russian. In the museum, I learned about Hugo’s life and experienced his surroundings,  the apartment he lived in through some of his most successful years. No starving artist, Hugo gave his  apartment on the Place des Vosges a sumptuous appeal.0153605ba96b3955ed9e14aaf255f88c414dc52095_0000101080d9175dbafd5f9f4cb54f764d816b64455599b_00001015ed5aaa9c45277b8fd24cbe1d53be737068119c5_0000101f724aee7b156a4d59446e46a61323404fa7fe1db_00001

Bright rooms, en enfilade, are filled with the paintings and furnishings selected by Hugo, who clearly enjoyed decor and was a fan of Chinoiserie. As with his prose style, in Hugo’s view, more is more.

Despite his evident success, Hugo’s interesting life had many difficult moments. His beautiful daughter Leopoldine drowned together with her husband, at the age of 19, shortly after her marriage. Hugo could not recover.

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This is Leopoldine.

As well, Hugo’s outspoken support of Republican causes put his life in danger when Napoleon III seized power. He fled and remained in exile for 15 years, unable and unwilling to return to a homeland that was not free.

014ffee776852f81b3904044b7e8b6de25f98c669dHow many successful artists today would risk it all for a principle? Hugo could have returned in a general amnesty to join the cultural life of his homeland, but he refused. He must have been tempted to see family and friends, talk to his publishers, get theatre projects going, be in his beloved Paris, but he chose to use his fame to promote freedom.  Despite all the disturbing plaques, the reminders throughout Paris of horror and terror, of human criminality, Hugo’s life shows us how a good man can behave and what it is to be moral.