Monday, June 28, 2010

Au Revoir!

Our final two days! Where did the last six months go? As you can imagine, we're running around like mad things, finishing up this and that, but before I shut down this blog and bid you all a fond adieu, I do have one more story to share. And it has to do with saying "goodbye".

A few weeks ago, we went to our favorite flea market at the Porte au Vanves. After several hours of browsing, we walked over to the bus stop to take the #95 all the way across Paris to our neighborhood. One of those bus rides that acts like a sight-seeing tour because it passes one Parisian icon after another, ending up by crossing the Seine by the Louvre and going up the Avenue de l'Opéra with the Opéra Garnier standing resplendent at the end.

As we waited for our bus, another bus approached, a #191, coming in from the outskirts of Paris and terminating at Porte au Vanves Metro. We noticed right away several things that were not normal. First of all, the driver's official RATP tie was tied onto the outer side mirror, merrily flapping in the breeze. Secondly, the front of the bus was festooned with balloons.

The driver pulled over to the curb and tooted. Immediately, the door of a nearby RATP office (the local MUNI) opened and several men came running out, smiling, cheering and whistling. One of them had a camera. They posed with the driver in front of the bus.

It was then that we noticed the third unusual thing about the situation. Tacked onto the windshield of the bus was a yellow sign that read "MON DERNIER BUS". Suddenly it all made sense. The driver was retiring and he had just completed his final bus route!

Passers-by stopped and smiled and applauded his big moment. We joined in, adding a few "bravos!" Some people called out "bonne retraite"!

In the picture above, the driver is the fellow with the shaved head standing on the left, holding on to his tie. He beamed at everyone before climbing back into the driver's seat to take the bus to the depot. What struck us, of course, is the fact that he looks to be about 45 years old! In fact, he would be 55 years old, the age at which certain categories of workers here are allowed to retire with full pension benefits. One of the biggest financial burdens on the French economic system, it is precisely this whole retirement age issue that is currently sparking furious discussion in the French Senate and almost weekly "manifestations" in the streets.

This fellow managed to complete his working career under the old system, and one hopes he does, indeed, have a "bonne retraite", even though from our perspective, 55 years old seems a ridiculously young age to call oneself retired!

Be that as it may, dear readers, it is now time for me to take my leave of you all, and "retire" this blog. Thank you for following along with all of our adventures, thanks to those who were able to navigate the BlogSpot website to leave comments on the blog, and thanks to all of you who wrote emails. It's been an unforgettable six months!

With the full moon rising over the rooftops of this beautiful city last Saturday night, and the lighted towers and spire of Notre Dame gleaming in the distance, I bid you all a very fond AU REVOIR!

Monday, June 14, 2010


Paris is well known for its large number of fancy galleries, both on the Left Bank and the Right Bank.

Usually they can be found on narrow streets in the elegant neighborhoods of the lst, 2nd, 6th and 7th arrondissements.

Perhaps you are in the market for a painting, fine antique furniture, or a rare print...

...Maybe exquisite bone china or silverware is your passion...

...Or that very special piece of jewellry.

You'll certainly have your choice of destinations where, after pressing a discreet button by the door, you can enter into the hushed and hallowed heart of those fancy galleries, where negotiations are conducted with great formality, and where the gallery owners are usually far more elegant, and definitely more snooty, than the potential client.

If, on the other hand, you want to find all of those things under one roof, then there's really only one place to go: the sprawling, bustling Drouot Auction Gallery on rue Drouot, right in the noisy, congested commercial area of the 9th arrondissement. Here, on almost any day of the week, you can find paintings by the grand masters, furniture and furnishings, trinkets, stamps, rugs, jewellery, rare books, coins and other items, all up for sale in some 16 "salles de ventes."

The original building on this site, known as the Hotel des Ventes de Drouot, opened its doors for business in 1852, although the company itself had been in existence elsewhere for the previous 50 years. During the 1970s and 1980s, the building was demolished, and the enterprise moved into the old Gare D'Orsay building, whilst the current building was constructed.

When you visit the building today, you'll find the lobby filled with people milling around, checking through La Gazette Drouot for news of recent and upcoming sales, looking up at the big screen that tells you what each "salle" is selling that day, at what time the sale will begin, when you can walk through beforehand to inspect the items up for sale, see if there's anything you fancy.

Each room is usually a veritable pot-pourri of somebody's "treasures". Are they items from Grandma's house that no one in the family wanted? These elegant dining room chairs, for example, are stacked on top of their matching table, up against rugs and armoires. How many wonderful dinners had taken place around this table, we wondered. And why did no one in the family want them?

The rugs and mirrors here line the walls, whilst the chandeliers sparkle down on the rapt audience from the ceiling.

At 1:30 or 2 pm, promptly, the auction begins. Starting from one side of the room, small items are sold first - jewellry, photos, china, guns, sometimes clothing.

Front and center, and in complete control is the auctioneer. Surrounded by staff who carry the small items to a table in the middle of the room, or go and stand by the larger items, the assistants who are taking phone bids, or recording each sale carefully in a ledger, the auctioneer drives the energy of the auction. He has a microphone on his lapel, announces each item by number and description and opens the sale up to bid. Depending on the item, the bidding can begin as high as 500 or 600 euros, or as low as 30 euros. Sometimes the bids come fast and furious. Sometimes, he has to cajole the audience to get the bidding started.

In this short video clip, our favorite auctioneer is trying hard to stir up some interest in some little piece of "tat", I can't remember what it was, but we just loved the way he pouted and sulked even, until someone raised their hand to start the bid at 30 euros.

Although we saw a few women in attendance, and bidding, the audiences at these auctions seem to be mostly men. Sometimes businessmen, stopping by on their way back to the office after lunch, but more often they seemed as though they had their own small brocante business, or a stand at the various weekly flea markets around town. All of them hoping to pick up a bargain that they could then turn around and sell for a small profit.

Mr. Rasta Man sat in front of us at this particular auction, although he was not successful with any of his bids. "Non, merci", he said ruefully again and again -- the standard phrase when you're dropping out of contention.

Smaller items are taken from the side displays and put on a central table, often it's several small items, or a bundle of things. Immediately, those interested leave their seats and crowd around the table, checking the condition, even as they are nodding and bidding. Or walking away with a "non merci" tossed over their shoulder.

Sometimes, as in this little video clip, the auctioneer's assistant is with the piece in the middle of the room. Here, the item in question was a beautiful mirror. His job seemed to be to whip up enthusiasm, encourage higher bids, sometimes he was bidding himself, for an absentee person we presumed. In this particular case, the mirror was sold for 850 euros to the young man in the leather jacket who came forward to get the "ticket", which he then takes to the cashier.

At the end of the day though, the most important part of each bid, is when the auctioneer decides that the bidding has reached its limit. He raises his gavel, calls out "adjugé" (literally "awarded"), gives the price, and bangs the gavel on the table. At this point the item is legally sold. If he doesn't follow this protocol strictly, then apparently anyone has the right to go to the cashier and offer to buy the piece at a mutually satisfactory price!

We've attended several of these auctions for the fun of seeing who's there, what's being sold, what the prices are like. They can last for over 3 hours, with the larger pieces of furniture and the rugs coming up last. By this time, the room is quite empty, and some remarkable bargains can be had.

Without doubt, though, the most astonishing item we came across during our various trips to Drouot was this painting of sheep coming down to drink from a creek, followed by the shepherd.

Astonishing because we have almost the identical painting in our little TV room in Inverness. Our painting belonged to my father, who loved it and always told us that it was undoubtedly worth a fortune. It's a pretty schmaltzy piece, but I like it because I associate it with my father. The signature on the canvas says "E. Pail". My father always thought E. Pail was some unheralded-but-soon-to-be-discovered Scottish painter, Ernest Pail.

Imagine our amazement to discover that it actually was painted by a 19th Century French painter, Edouard Pail (pronounced "Py-ee") 1851-1916, part of the Crozant school -- similar to the Barbizon School -- whose members principally painted pastoral landscapes in and around the Nièvre part of southern France. Plein air painting. Pail's paintings appeared in various Paris Salon exhibitions, where he won awards. Unfortunately, we weren't able to go to the actual auction this time, but the estimate was between 500 and 600 euros. I think my father had a somewhat larger figure in mind!

But at least his painting is still in our family. In spite of all the energy and fun, there is a measure of sadness in these auctions, when you realize that all the items on sale come from someone's home and that for a whole variety of reasons they are leaving that family and being scattered near and far. Hmmm, is that the fate that lies ahead for all of our "treasures"?!!

À bientôt!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Welcome to France!

We left the flat in Paris early last Thursday morning to catch the Roissybus out to Charles de Gaulle for our flight to Corsica. In spite of a big detour for another bus driver to come on board, which we thought at the time was a bit odd, but which made sense later, we still got to our terminal in good time to check our bag, and for me to put my bionic limbs through the security gate -- with all that that entails!

Boarding the EasyJet plane right on time, we buckled ourselves in, ready for take-off. Only then did the captain come onto the PA system to announce that due to the National Strike going on that day throughout the entire country, the air traffic controllers had informed him that our flight would not leave for three hours!!!

The woman in front of us turned around and smiled. "Welcome to France," she said.

Ah yes, the National Strike days that do their best to paralyze the country! This particular one centered around the whole retirement system in France, with the government attempting to push back retirement age for certain categories of workers. The air traffic controllers are not included in these categories, but, this being France, they wanted to show solidarity ("Fraternité") with those affected, and elected to have a "go slow" day.

So, we sat on the plane at the gate for a good half an hour. Then word came we were cleared for take-off. We taxied to the runway, stopped, then kept going to the farthest corner of the airfield and stopped again. "We have no idea why we have been sent here," apologized the captain, "we are the seventh flight today that this has happened to. These are the games they play." More time went by, then we returned all the way to the gate where it was announced that it would, once more, be three hours to take-off!

People stood up and stretched. Restless babies were passed around to be amused by other passengers. Everyone was, as always in these situations, very jolly. Strikes are part of daily life here. We realized that the changeover of the bus driver earlier was part of the work stoppage strategy going on in all walks of life. Many schools were closed, swimming pools closed, post offices closed.

Finally, over two hours after our scheduled departure, the word came: "cleared for take off." People scrambled back into their seats, buckled up and off we went, heading south to the "Isle of Beauty" La Corse, where dear friends of ours spend part of each year in their beautiful villa near Ajaccio.

Birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, Corsica has been inhabited by humans since the Mesolithic era! Scattered remains can be found throughout the island, whose current population is a mere 200,000. Throughout its long history, it's been occupied by the Holy Roman Empire, the Saracens, the Lombards, the Genoese, and even, for a while, as part of some Franco-Ottoman alliance in the 16th century!

There was a brief period of Corsican sovereignty in the mid-18th century before the island was incorporated into France in 1770. However, national feelings still run high, town names are in French and the local Corse language, and the flag of Corsica still features
the head of a fiery Corsican with a bandana firmly tied around his head.

Today, the island shares its beautiful, craggy mountains...

...with cheerful poppies that line the roadways...

...and with warm sandy beaches, quite empty on a late Thursday afternoon.

Our friends live across Ajaccio Bay on Isolella Peninsula, from where the tall buildings of the bustling city of Ajaccio shimmer in the warm air.

From this side of Ajaccio Bay, the rugged, rocky coastline spills into quiet bays, and gentle beaches, offering families a paradise for building sandcastles, swimming in safe waters, and sunning for hours on end.

We joined our friends at their spacious and elegant villa, where I had last visited 23 years ago when Sonya and Alex were 12 and 8 years old, respectively! Now, as then, the roses were in full bloom and the garden lush with jasmine, fragrant herbs, green lawns, and palm trees...

...near one of which Matthew happily sat at his computer under a broad umbrella, working on a current script project for a Belgian production company...

...until, that is, word came from our host -- whose happiest hours are spent "messing around" in his boat -- that a regatta was in full swing across Ajaccio Bay, and we should go check it once!

As eager shipmates, his crew quickly assembled on the beach, clambered aboard his boat, the "Haleakala", and raced across the water, holding on to our hats and riding out the bumpy thumps as the boat hit the sea swells and wakes of other boats.

There, against the backdrop of Ajaccio, full-masted sailboats, crewed in some instances by at least 20 people, tacked and jibed their way along the race course through choppy waters and strong winds...

...some of them letting loose a billowing spinnaker.

Under warm, sunny skies, our four days passed in a lazy cycle of leisurely breakfasts, a little walkabout (for me), "messing in boats" (for Alain), reading and sunning (for Marthe), writing (for Matthew), lunch on the terrace, an afternoon somewhat similar to the morning, with a late elegant supper to round off the day.

On our last evening, we headed inland for the mountains, that stretch from one end of Corsica to the other, and rise to over 9000 feet.

Here's where you find many of the original settlements, far from the coast and the dangers of invading armies, where villages took root and communities thrived. One such village, Peri, lies about an hour's drive from Isolella, hanging on to the side of the mountain, with a beautiful church bell tower at its heart.

And right next to the church is Chez Séraphin, where Chef Séraphin (whose tummy arrives a good five seconds before the rest of him) served a sumptuous seven-course dinner: sturdy, multi-vegetable soup, beignets stuffed with squash flowers, courgettes, the most delicious gigot of lamb we have ever tasted, garden fresh salad from behind the restaurant, local cheeses, baked caramelized apples and ice cream. All accompanied by local Corsican wines and served under the beamed ceiling of a warm, cosy dining room. Bliss!

Corsica is aptly named "Île de Beauté". After a gap of so many years, I felt just as much at home in its gentle pace and stunning beauty as I did in 1987.

A far cry from the bustling streets of Paris, it offers a quiet, historic, welcoming paradise all of its own. I know it won't be 23 years before I return!

À bientöt!