Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Struck by Paris

Our visits to Paris are usually pretty straightforward. We arrive, settle in, have adventures, see friends and family, I write a few blogposts, and then we go home. But on a few occasions, we have arrived after or during a national upheaval. One time, the tragic terrorist attack at the Bataclan nightclub had just happened, and we felt the quiet sorrow in the streets, and noticed the major increase in the numbers of strong-armed police posses walking through our safe neighborhood. Earlier this year, we watched the Yellow-Vest demonstrations that, after a peaceful start, devolved into violence as anarchists joined in. ATM machines, store-fronts and cafes were smashed and trashed. Each time, we shared the sadness and horror of being witness to such senseless events.

In April of this year, we had the great misfortune to watch one of the worst images we could have possibly imagined unfold: the sight from our dining room windows of Notre-Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames. Our eyes were seeing the horror of it, but our minds could not begin to compute or accept that this 12th century soul of France was crumbling in front of us. The Yellow Vests were still demonstrating, but for a brief moment, the country came together, coalesced over this national tragedy. People are still talking about it. For the first time in over two hundred years, there are no Christmas masses at Notre-Dame.

Now, we are here again for the Christmas and New Year holidays, and the country has ground to a halt, with national transit strikes aimed at trying to force the government to abandon its proposed plan to unify the 42 current private and public sector pension plans into one single plan for all. Their plan would be phased in over the next eighteen years.  Some of these existing plans date back to the mid 1940s, they're entrenched into the nation's fibre. The government claims they're unsustainable in their present form. The workers who are most affected say they cannot be tampered with, and they call for frequent nation-wide demonstrations to rally their base, along with the transit shutdown, now in its third week. 

I'm certainly not here to say who is right, it's all way too complicated for a visitor to begin to understand the intricacies. But the effects of the strikes are visible all around us. They have impacted almost every corner of the country. 

Here in Paris, most Metro lines are closed, a few operate during rush hour...
... when platforms are dangerously jammed with commuters desperate to cram into the cars and get home.

Meanwhile, at the Gare du Nord, local and suburban, and long distance trains are not running, giving this eerie image of what is usually one of the busiest train stations in the country...

 ...whilst at other stations, passengers line up patiently, in hopes that there will be a train to take them to their Christmas holiday destination... or not.

In the streets,  taxis and Uber are doing a thriving business. There is almost permanent gridlock at intersections as more people take to their own cars to try and get to their jobs, or get their children to  and from school and child care. 

Or they pick up a bicycle, and teeter in and out of bike lanes, few of them wearing helmets, many of them with earbuds firmly fixed in their ears, so they cannot hear what is going on around them. And then there are the "trotinette" riders, who have always been pretty lawless, riding on the side walks, zipping through traffic, paying little to no attention to others on the road. Instead of sadness in the streets, this time there is tension as pedestrians dodge the traffic, heads down, trying their best to cope.

As with all strikes, the ripple effect extends far beyond the original complaint. For commercial businesses, large and small, this Christmas season has been a disaster. Whoever would have imagined a store like Galeries Lafayette or Au Printemps being as deserted as this the week before Christmas? Shoppers are simply either not able to come in to the city for the annual holiday bonanza, or cannot get from their end of the city to the center where the action is. Cafés and restaurants are reporting 30 to 40% fewer customers. Whilst we sympathize with them all, our hearts really go out to the small businesses that pop up with sometimes just one proprietor. We wonder if they will survive.

Luckily for us, we are very much in central Paris, and can get to most places on foot, or by taxi if you're lucky enough to find one. We've managed to see family and friends, and, as always, received a warm welcome from the staff at Le Grappe D'Or cafe and other merchants on the rue Montorgeuil. Yesterday, we went over to the Musée du Luxembourg to see their current exhibition, "The Golden Age of English Painting". The founding of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. The world of Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney and others.

What hit us immediately was that there was no one there! The first gallery we entered was, literally, empty.

Which meant we could stand and gaze at Gainsborough's full length portrait of Lady Bates Dudley from 1787 for as long as we wanted, drinking in the gorgeous detail of her blue satin gown, draped with exquisite lace...

...and George Romney's portrait of Mrs. Robert Trotter of Bush, with its lavish attention paid to the elaborately arranged ribbons on her very large hat.

One room was devoted to family groups, or, like this painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, of the children in a family. This was the era of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his belief in the importance of nature, and of learning by experience. These three youngsters, the children of Richard Arkwright, appear to be on their own, with no adult supervision, just the fun of flying their kite. Perhaps unwittingly following the Rousseau path. (Interestingly, the lad on the right bears a striking resemblance to our youngest grandson!)

The final room moved away from portraits, families, and bucolic nature, that had so dominated this golden era of English painting, to themes inspired by dramatic and fantastic subjects. John Martin's "The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum" from 1822 shows in vivid dramatic color and scale the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the overwhelming power of natural forces. I wondered if Peter Jackson had this painting in mind when he designed the final scenes of  The Lord of the Rings in the depths of Mordor!

We'd worked up quite an appetite by the end, so found a table in a nearby bistro and enjoyed a couple of Croque Monsieurs, served by the only two members of the cafe staff who'd been able to get to work that day. They were full of good cheer with their Santa hats and the fronds of greens around the balcony, and we were happy to sit for an hour, support their business, and then begin the long walk home. As an interesting side bar, it doesn't take too long to reach the much-desired 10,000 steps a day!

Our other big adventure so far took us to the Théatre Chatelet, where the new musical version of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" has returned to Paris after a five year triumphant global tour. Transforming a 50's Technicolor movie to a modern stage musical, the English director-choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, and book writer, Craig Lucas, have moved the story up to right at the end of WWII. Songs have been added, others from the movie version taken away. Dance has become the center, the character of Lise is that of a ballerina, and ballet much more integral to the story.

The result is a flat-out super, grand, old-fashioned American musical, a real spectacle of music, sets, lights, modern special projection effects, singing and dancing. 

The biggest show stopper was, without a doubt, "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise", which brought the house down...

 ...and sent us out into the rain-soaked streets humming all those memorable Gershwin tunes that have never lost their glorious appeal.

It's Christmas morning here, and in spite of the challenges and turmoil resulting from the ongoing strikes, Paris still weaves its magic spell over us. Our holiday wish is that a peaceful resolution can soon be reached. In the meantime, we wish our family, friends and neighbors, both near and far:

Merry Christmas 
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

One More for the Road!

It's the same every year. We arrive, thinking we have so much time to go to so many places, see so many things, visit with so many friends, eat at so many restaurants, etc. And then, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in our final week, running out of days. Happily, there has been time for a couple of good outings to share.

The intrepid cyclist in our family, and his friend Ed, set out on Sunday for a 35-mile ride out to the Canal de l'Ourcq, a Northern Parisian waterway that begins its life as the River Ourcq in Picardie, winds its way down toward Paris, eventually linking, via the Canal, to the Bassin de la Villette and on to the Canal St. Martin, and so into centre Paris and the Seine. Originally built by Napoleon to provide  drinking water for Parisians, it later became a major freight haulage waterway.

Today, only a small section is still open for commercial vessels, the remainder hosts pleasure boats, canoes, picnics on the banks...

  ...and many miles of beautiful, quiet, green, empty, woodsy bike paths! No wonder the "lads" decided to head up there this past Sunday.

 As well as the quiet beauty, the woods also provided some relief from the 90F hot sun!

Happily, back home, there were cold beers for the cyclists, a "citron pressée" for the non-cyclist (me), and a hug from the always affable Gerard at our favorite stop on the rue Montorgeuil, La Grappe d'Or, where hours can be spent at a front row table watching the world go by.

One of the things we've always loved about our neighborhood (2nd arrondissement) is that it's full of unexpected and delightful surprises. It's an old part of Paris, with history that goes back centuries. On quiet, narrow streets you'll come across something like this shop window on the rue Choiseul, with its softly lit interior visible through the windows.
Outside, displays of old-fashioned items in the windows catch your eye, a pin cushion that your grandmother probably had, or finely-tipped embroidery scissors and belt buckles. Just enough to pique your curiosity and urge you inside.

Once you enter, you find yourself in the oldest "mercerie" in Paris. It's what the English call a haberdashery shop, the Americans might call it a notions shop. Whatever the name, this particular one sells anything and everything you might need for sewing, for quilting, for upholstering, for embroidery. And it's been selling these items since the mid 19th century!

Looking for some thread to hem a skirt? I dare you not to find the perfect match here.

Need tassels for the window shade? Look no further.

Fringe for a hanging lamp? Here you go!

And ribbons that come in every conceivable color and width, silk, satin, cotton, grosgrain, embroidered, printed, displayed in rows that stretch the width, and almost the length of the store.

I come here often to look for kid-themed buttons for some knitted garment I'm making, and I never leave empty handed.

The selection is "beyond the beyonds", as the Irish would say!

Behind the main counter the walls are lined with shelves full of old, time-worn boxes that hold zippers in every size and color and style, cards of metal and plastic "snaps" and "hooks and eyes", boxes of needles and pins. They do take a credit card, but just barely. Sales are written up meticulously by hand on little sales slips.

Directly across the street from the mercerie is the UltraMod hat shop, owned by the same people who own the mercerie. The original family sold their interest sometime in the 1990s, which means the same family owned the businesses for over 150 years!

Here, there are shelves with hat molds of various shapes and sizes, and racks of fabrics to create some of the "fancies" and regular hats on display in and around the store.

Period sewing machines are still in use, mostly treadle style with needles to work with velvet or felt, tulle or silk.

In all the hustle and bustle of modern-day city life, it's such a pleasure to step back in time and breathe in the modes and mores of earlier years. I never get tired of coming here and sharing it with visitors!

And then there's the rue St. Marc, also in our neighborhood. It looks like so many other little side streets, but it, too, has some history. It was built around 1650, then extended in the year "5 germinal an VI", which is how the months and years were written in the early days of the French Revolution (it translates to 25 March 1798). The Duc de Choiseul-Amboise and his wife had a house and garden here. That would be the same Choiseul after whom the nearby street where the mercerie stands is named! A few painters, poets, composers and playwrights lived here -- Ernest Legouve, George Desvallières, Emile Paladihe, Jean-Louis Laneuville. History books tell us that at numer 10 rue St. Marc, the editor Auguste Sautelet, "s'y tire une balle a la tête" at 5 am on May 13, 1830!

Our interest in the rue St. Marc, however, involved much less high drama. The place we recently visited is at number 5 -- le Restaurant Clementine, which has been serving its delicious fare in the same place since 1906.

Today, the warm brown paint and gold lettering still offer a cheerful welcome. The current Maître Restaurateur, Franck Langrenne, has been in charge of the kitchens since 1993.

Inside, our  cosy corner table made us feel like we were visiting our favorite Aunt's home, the walls hung with personal prints...

 ...the windowsills full of comfortable "clutter"...

  ...and a pretty etched panel separating the eating area from the bar, with a charming sketch of "Tin Tin" himself making a sketch.

And the food? Outstanding! I began with nutty  turmeric coated toast, topped with melted goat cheese, surrounded with crisp beets, radishes and salad greens...

...followed by lieu jaune (pollock) on a bed of fresh vegetables, smothered with a shrimp sauce...

...and a plate of wonderful Corsican cheeses with a glass of red wine! What can I say, it was all so good we cannot wait to return.

Sadly, our return must wait until our next visit. We fly back home next Monday! But if anyone reading this is planning a visit here, we would certainly recommend paying the friendly folks at Restaurant Clementine a visit. You'll get a warm welcome and classic, delicious bistro fare.

Vive la France!

Au revoir!