Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Heading Home

1500 miles from Paris, war is raging in Ukraine. It feels uncomfortably close as we get ready for our return flight home next Monday. As always seems to be the case, the past three months have flown by, almost in an eye blink. At times it's been a somber visit: the loss of a dear friend to Covid, the wariness as to where it was safe to go vis-à-vis the virus, the disappearance of certain local icons, the still hollow framework of Notre-Dame Cathedral, and now, this war. Through it all, though, the enduring beauty and appeal of Paris and its Parisians have held firm. We are blessed with good friends and neighbors, and the kindness of strangers here in la belle France.

One of our final outings this time has been a return visit to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, itself a symbol of sorrow and loss. We were last here maybe ten years ago. Standing regally on the rue de Monceau in the 8th arrondissement, it was built by Möise de Camondo (1860-1935), who came from Constantinople as a nine-year-old with his father, a prominent banker in the Ottoman Empire. 

Möise grew up in Paris and continued the banking career of his father, to become one of the most successful bankers of the time. As well as banking, he also developed a passion for 18th century art and furnishings. His rebuild of his mansion in 1911 was designed to accommodate his growing collection.
The lavish entry way, inspired by Le Petit Trianon at Versailles, and the gilded stairway, lead to sumptuous rooms whose dimensions were planned to match the objects in his collection.
The octagonal Salon de Huet was especially designed to house a suite of painted pastoral scenes by Jean-Baptiste Huet. Overlooking the garden, which itself abuts the Parc Monceau, the room includes a roll-up writing desk by the master cabinetmaker, Jean-François OEben, with the most exquisite inlaid marquetry.

"Below stairs", a wall of ironstone bowls and gleaming copper pans in the kitchen stretches practically the length of the room. Through the little hutch on the left, the staff dining room is set for their midday meal. 

Across from the wall of copper pans, the massive kitchen stove stands center stage, with the large ovens to the right. One can only imagine the sumptuous feasts that were created here. Möise was known for his lavish dinners, served on exquisite Buffon dishes decorated with beautiful ornithological drawings, and made for him by the Sèvres ceramic factory.

Sadly, the pleasure this world offered to Möise de Camondo did not last. At the outbreak of WWI, his only son, Nissim de Camondo, was recalled back into the military. He became one of the most renowned pilots of the war until 1917, when his plane was shot down over Lorraine.

Heartbroken after his son's death, Möise de Camondo closed all his banking activities. He largely withdrew from society and devoted himself primarily to his collection, and to hosting occasional dinner gatherings. He arranged for his home to be donated, on his death, to Paris' Decorative Arts Society as a museum.  He stipulated in his will that nothing was to be moved in the house, "Don't lend things. Keep the blinds down, keep the dust away, don't add objects to these collections."  In 1936, following his death the previous year, the Musée Nissim de Camondo opened its doors, named in memory both of his fallen son and his father, who shared the same name. When his daughter, Béatrice, her husband, Léon and their two children were arrested by the Gestapo in 1942, and sent to Auschwitz where they died, the museum became a memorial to them as well.

For eighty-five years nothing has changed. Until last year, when the acclaimed English ceramicist and writer, Edmund de Waal, was invited by the museum to weave some of his contemporary porcelain works into the fabric of this home. Well known for his best-seller The Hare with Amber Eyes, dedicated to his family's history, de Waal is related to the Camondo family. His grandmother's family, the fabled Ephrussi's, lived just ten doors up on the rue de Monceau. They were cousins of the Camondo's. They shared the same banking success, and the same love for the arts. They also shared loss and tragedy. De Waal found himself visiting the museum over and over, soaking in the beauty of the collection and the sorrow of the family. Following these visits, he began writing letters to Möise: "About collecting, about being Jewish, about food and dogs and Proust and family and belonging. And mourning." They're messages from the future to a long-lost relative. These letters eventually became a book, Letters to Camondo, and led to the current exhibition at the museum: Lettres à Camondo. It can best be described as the artist's way of weaving connections between his own life and the lives of others.

The exhibit turns out to be a treasure hunt. De Waal has scattered porcelain objects throughout the museum, some recognizable as small bowls, others mere fragments. Some are visibly displayed, like this small bowl framed in a tall vitrine in the Chef's office....




...others are half hidden, tucked behind a hutch door off the scullery...

 ...and still others are slipped inside a drawer of this table decorated with Sèvres porcelain plaques. De Waal's work is minimalist, even austere, in contrast to the colorful richness of 18th century furnishings.

In the large porcelain room, small shards are placed in bowls, as if to keep the magnificent Buffon birds company. They're made of porcelain with red iron oxide, gold and lead. Some have letters or words on them. "I find this difficult" can be seen on one. They're like broken fragments of lost dreams.

The circular, wood-panelled library has an inviting, warm feeling. Sofas, comfortable chairs, another beautiful carpet...

...and then you notice, over to one side, porcelain "books" on oak bases set on shelves, joining the library's collection for a moment.


Perhaps most poignant, on Möise de Camondo's desk in the large study, a small stack of porcelain "letters", the link the artist seeks between the generations.

In the courtyard are eight stone benches, made from Hornton stone, golden-brown with dark bands running through them. A few have small gilded lead folds on the edges. De Waal describes them as "my form of kintsugi, the manner in which some broken porcelain in China and Japan are repaired with lacquer and gold, a way of marking loss." 

The short term presence of these contemporary porcelain objects amidst the 18th century splendor of Möise de Camondo's home, the personal bond between the artist and the Camondo family, confirm it forever as a place of remembrance. As de Waal says "You cannot mend this house or this family. You can mark some of the broken places. You can mark them properly and with dignity, with love. And then move away again, let the house be."

As we slowly walked away from the museum and its compelling story, the magnolia blossoms that are bursting out everywhere offered some comfort that in these troubling times, we can at least still count on Mother Nature to follow her reliable passage of the seasons.

 Au Revoir!

Sunday, February 20, 2022

As Time Goes By


The knife rack in my kitchen here displays the usual suspects: a couple of Opinel foldable knives, a bread knife, two new ones just bought at E. Dehellerin, the great cooking store on the rue du Louvre, etc. The one second in from the right, though, holds a special place in the collection.

A bit of the blade is missing near the top, the handle is somewhat worn, but the edge is as sharp today as it was when I bought it in 1972 at the big Paris department store, La Samaritaine, that stood between the Pont Neuf and rue de Rivoli. For 50 years, it's been my go-to knife, travelling with me wherever we go! 

The La Samaritaine of 1972, however, was very different to the newly reopened version of this historic department store. Back then, there were four separate buildings, selling everything from lawn mowers to fine jewellry. In the pedestrian passages between the buildings, temporary stalls promoted special items at special prices.  On that sunny, summer day in 1972, one of these stalls offered kitchen knives. We bought two small ones and this larger one. 

Long before 1972, though, what became this gigantic department store had its humble origins in a small room behind a cafe on the corner of the rue du Monnaie and the rue du Pont-Neuf. In March, 1870, Ernest Cognacq and his wife Louise Jay opened a "grand magazin de nouveautés", offering new fashions in this 48 square meter space. They named their tiny store La Samaritaine, after La Pompe de la Samaritaine, a large water pump that stood on the site from the 17th to the early 19th century. 

The imposing building was decorated with the figures of Christ and the Good Samaritan. Its function was to pump water from the Seine to the royal residences and gardens in the Louvre and le Palais des Tuileries.

As time went by, the successful partnership of Ernest Cognacq and Louise Jay led to the acquisition of neighboring buildings, which they filled with goods that Parisians flocked to buy. They focused on narrow profit margins, price-labeled items and daily promotions. "Deal of the day" became a rallying cry, along with a belief in the slogan, "sell more to sell cheap, sell cheap to sell more."

Posters and advertisements lured the newly empowered, eager, middle-class shoppers to La Samaritaine, which also counted on its easy access between the Louvre and Nôtre Dame to attract customers. 

In 1905, with profits soaring, Cognacq and his wife hired the Belgian architect, Frantz Jourdain, to design the second La Samaritaine building at the corner of rue du Pont Neuf and rue de la Monnaie. The result was an extravagant homage to Art Nouveau decorative ironwork, both inside and outside. The centerpiece was this atrium that rose up five floors to the vast glass roof. A grand tier of staircases linked the open galleries on each floor. 

The staircases also served as vantage points for members of the public to stand and enjoy concerts that were frequently given in the atrium. (I remember climbing them to the women's department in the mid-1970s, where I bought the classic "little black suit"!)

Completed in 1910, the store became a symbol of modern success, attracting more and more shoppers. At its peak, it boasted 80,000 square meters of commercial space, with 90 different departments!

As more time went by, La Samaritaine continued to dominate the world of department stores. Ernest Cognacq and Louise Jay both died in the late 1920s. Their nephew successfully took over management until after WWII. This photo from the early 1950s shows buildings 1, 2 and 3, with flags flying and bustling activity all around. You can also catch a glimpse of St. Eustache on the skyline!

By the late 1970s, though, tastes and styles had changed. La Samaritaine was no longer the premier store to visit. With sales dwindling and losses mounting, the store struggled to stay in business. It was listed as a historic site in 1990, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. In 2001, the store was bought by a consortium of luxury goods companies, Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy (LVMH). But even their wealth and prestige could not save La Samaritaine. The store had become a white elephant, and was shut down by the Préfecture de Paris in 2005, due to safety regulations. There were still some 1500 employees at the time.

A good deal more time had to go by -- 16 years in all -- before all the legal wrangles and immense restoration work could be completed. Closely monitored all the way through by the Department of Historical Buildings, the new La Samaritaine finally opened last year with great fanfare. 

The result is truly breathtaking.  Master craftsmen and craftswomen, with enormous skill and patience, have painstakingly restored the detail and beauty of the original building. 

The stack of stairs leading up to the glass roof dominates the atrium space...

...open galleries run around each floor, just as they did in Frantz Jourdain's original layout...

 ...and this beautiful peacock frieze, which had been painted over in the 1990s, has been lovingly brought back to life.

So, what actually is going on in these buildings today, what is sold and who are the customers of this new La Samaritaine? The brochure tells us that there are 70,000 square meters in the two buildings. This includes retail space, a 5-star hotel (l'hôtel Cheval Blanc), 96 social housing units, and a nursery (une crèche) with 80 spaces. 

As far as retail shopping is concerned, this is definitely not the same La Samaritaine that Ernest Cognacq and Louise Jay cherished. Geared to affluent rather than middle-class customers, the boutiques on the ground floor post familiar, super-elite labels:  Prada, Fendi, Cartier, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton ...

...Gucci, which on the day we visited, had only two staff and one security guard actually in the shop...

...Dior had two customers, "looking", but we never saw anyone carrying a La Samaritaine bag, indicating that they had purchased something!


The Gianvito Rossi shoe boutique had several of those crazy boots!


Some items, like this colorful armchair and footstool by Gaetano Pesce, sit out on the floor, but don't expect to find a price tag anywhere on it!

And as for this weird sheep "family", who knows what their label is, or even if they're for sale. A tiny sign on the backs of the two larger sheep says "do not touch", which needless to say, did not stop a small boy from happily climbing all over them!

On one of the upper levels, there's a focus on champagne, with walls of stored bottles, and elegant displays on the landing -- clever temptation as you have to walk by it to get to the next flight of stairs! There are two fancy dining rooms under the glass roof (one named "Ernest", presumably in honor of Monsieur Cognacq), and several less formal cafes, tea salons, and bakeries. On the ground floor, a Concierge desk will steer you to wherever you want to go, including an appointment at the Spa, or -- if you are in La Samaritaine's little black book of personal shoppers -- you can be escorted to a private, beautifully decorated apartment, from where you can shop in comfort!  You could describe the whole milieu as an homage to wealth and capitalism!

As we wandered through the store on a busy Saturday afternoon, we were struck by the fact that most of the people around us were like us -- the "just looking" folks, definitely not the eager to buy customers of yore. Ernest Cognacq and Louise Jay's narrow profit margins, price-labeled items and daily promotions are nowhere to be seen. "Deal of the day" is a non-starter, along with a belief in the slogan, "sell more to sell cheap, sell cheap to sell more."  Time does, indeed, go by.  Perhaps, when the tourists return to Paris, this new La Samaritaine will flourish as the old one did. Meanwhile, though, we can certainly appreciate this beautifully restored Art Nouveau marvel.

À bientôt!

Friday, January 28, 2022

What's "Hot"...what's not...

Like everywhere else, France is subject to mad crazes that sweep in and capture everyone's imagination, and then, just as quickly, often vanish as fast as they appeared.

Back in 2012, people were scurrying around Paris looking for this new, exciting food truck that showed up in different neighborhoods at different days and times of the week. I wrote about this in a blog post at the time.

Lines would form around the truck, in fair weather or foul, as people waited up to 45 minutes for...

...The Authentic American Hamburger!! That was then. Today, eleven years later, burger joints are ubiquitous in Paris. There are at least four in our neighborhood.  "Hot" back then, and still "Hot" today. I don't know what became of the truck.


The same cannot be said for the Bagel frenzy that followed a couple of years later. They showed up as solo stars of a bagel bakery, or teamed up with other breads, even brownies!

Today, you'd be hard pressed to find such a shop. Certainly, the two that used to be around us have long since disappeared. Clearly, it is a challenge to recreate that perfect New York bagel!


Some items are seasonally "Hot", like the gazillion Galette-de-Roi that celebrate the Day of Epiphany, marking the visit of the Three Kings to the Baby Jesus. Whoever finds the hidden "fève" gets to wear the crown for the day.

Earlier this month, mushrooms were definitely "Hot". Every greengrocer on the rue Montorgeuil had tables out front, groaning with their offerings: Oyster, Shiitake, White, Cremini, even some called "Pied- de-Mouton" (Sheep's foot!).

The other "Hot" item around the holidays and through the month of January, are Atlantic oysters! At our former favorite cafe, a table is set up out front, on the pavement, piled high with baskets of these delicious bivalves from Normandy. 

I have to admit they are just as tasty and tangy as those grown and consumed around Tomales Bay!

Something new and definitely "Hot" has popped up this year on the rue d'Aboukir, the side street we look out on. A small, narrow storefront, bedecked with floral decorations recently opened, and attracts lines out the door, down the street, and at times, around the corner. Say hello to Fuumi Sushi Burrito!

Mexican meets Japanese! There's no tortilla. Instead, a square sheet of nori is placed on the counter, a layer of cooked white rice spread on top, followed by chopped vegetables, raw fish or cooked chicken or cooked beef, sliced avocado, chipotle mayo, chili paste, wasabi, tabasco and other spices.  A sushi mat helps roll it up, and voilà, a super healthy lunch or dinner-time snack. (I did note that during evening hours, when presumably customers are largely adult, the signs outside displaying photos of the sushi-burritos take on a distinctly phallic shape, which might account for the large crowds. These photos do not appear in the daytime. As this is a public blog, I will refrain from posting them. Suffice to say, it is not subtle!)

Combining good food with a Parisian tour has produced another new (to us) item that seems to be popular with visitors. "Bustronome: Voyage Gastronome" is a way for a time-pressed tourist to combine a guided tour with a delicious meal.

In the glass-domed upper level, customers can relax at elegantly laid tables, and, for 85 euros, enjoy a four course lunch, including wine, whilst the bus driver slowly wends his way by all the major city sights, and the tour guide tells you everything you need to know about them! 

Turning to the world of fashion, there's only one thing that's "Hot" this year:  BOOTS! But not the elegant, supple, ankle, knee or thigh-high boots of yore. This time around, it's what I might charitably describe as "clodhoppers" -- 3" to 4" ridged, rubber soles, or 4" high wooden heels, mostly black, some patent black, heavy brass grommets through which laces presumably hold the boot on the foot.

Frequently worn with skin tight, shiny leggings, tailored to look like black jeans, these boots are not "made for walking". They're the kind of footwear you might put on to go clomping across a muddy field in February, rather than trying to sashay down the rue Montorgeuil on a Friday evening! I predict by next year, they'll join the "what's not..." group, and be showing up in thrift shops all across town, at least I hope they will.

Someone we're always happy to see, and who could never not be "Hot" -- Chewbacca, standing guard at the Celio men's store in the Forum des Halles. 

And here's something we're seeing more and more of: 100% electric buses. Due to Covid, we've stayed away from taking public transportation most of the time, but it's good to see the direction the city has taken. We also notice fewer cars clogging the streets, partly due to people working remotely, but also a deliberate move by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to reduce automobiles in the centre of town. All "Hot" stuff, for sure.


January 15 celebrated the 400th anniversary of the birth of Molière. As we walked back to our side of town that afternoon, we passed his statue on rue Richelieu.


We noticed a small group of older people gathered at the base of the statue. A demonstration? Or a celebration of the great man?


A very small demonstration, it turned out, pushing for the eradication of any "English-isms" that have crept into the French language. "It's French that's the language of the Republic, not English!"  I fear that's a losing battle, although certainly the language of Molière continues to be a "Hot" item at the Comédie Française.

My final offering of what's "Hot" is this typical Haussmannian building at 82-92 rue Réaumur, just before it meets Boulevard Sebastopol. Definitely not "Hot" today, but from 1897 to 1960, it certainly was. A business man from Lorraine, Jean-Baptiste Gobert-Martin, acquired the site in 1896. By the following year, the building was complete, and opened its doors as "À Réaumur", a full-scale clothing store in the spirit of the other Grands Magasins of the era. Felix Fauré, then President of France, officiated at the opening. The store sold high quality ready-to-wear (prêt-à-porter) clothing at attractive prices, both in store, and by catalogs that came out with each season. It proved to be hugely successful.

These cards became one of the more prominent advertising promotions that M. Gobert-Martin employed. A sales blurb on one side and educational images on the other, illustrating many different kinds of trades. These were popular with both children, who collected them, and parents, who found them educational. An enlightened employer, Gobert-Martin created a foundation to help employees who were sick or elderly, and established a supplementary pension fund for his shop employees. After his death in 1921, his wife and nephews continued the business. À Réaumur remained "Hot" until 1960, when it closed its doors. Today, there are some fairly nondescript dress shops on the street level. The rest of the building is leased to commercial enterprises.

How do I know all this? Well, when you look way up at the "prow" end of the building, you see this beautiful clock, colorfully decorated with fleur-de-lys in green and yellow enamel. Enlarging the photo, I saw the letters "A REAUMUR" surrounding the clock face, and above, in even smaller letters, the name "Gobert-Martin", and then his initials on the decorative cornice higher up on the building. A quick dip into the internet, and the above story revealed the history of this interesting man, who received the Légion d'Honneur, and the Mérite d'agricole in recognition of his productive life.  If you walk by the building after a rain shower, and the sun comes out, the clock face gleams and sparkles like magic. It may no longer be a "Hot" item today, but it makes me smile every time, especially now that I know its history!

Speaking of shafts of sunlight, we caught this classic "God's light" beaming down on St. Eustache last week. No question, our view remains our favorite "Hot" item.

À bientôt!