Saturday, March 30, 2013

Gluten-Free Paris

Sometimes I organize my Paris trips around art exhibits. Sometimes around food. It's ideal when I can combine the two. One of my first stops on the last trip was Helmut Newcake to pick up breakfast supplies for the next morning, since the youth hostel I stay at doesn't offer gluten-free bread in the mornings (a point in their favor is that what they do offer is free, so I have an unlimited supply of coffee and apple juice and orange juice and jam). Helmut Newcake offers bread for sale, but also many cookies and cakes and delicious little tarts, and some of those are even also lactose-free. I ended up buying two slices of lemon-ginger polenta cake, and ordering a pot of peppermint tea with sugar to set me up for my afternoon of walking. I do a lot of walking, in Paris.

One of the places that I walked to on Saturday afternoon was Mil Amores, the new (and only, I believe) tortilleria in Paris. Right now you have to order ahead by Friday evening, and then pick up your tortillas on site between 1:00-3:00pm at their facility on Avenue Parmentier. You can also get the tortillas vacuum-packed and delivered, but that doubles the price of a kilo. However, that's definitely cheaper than taking the train to Paris for the day, so I might consider that option ... I bought half a kilo, or about 25 tortillas, and am planning a shrimp taco feast tonight. Miam!

On Friday night I met up with a fellow student, Galina, and her husband Roland, for dinner. They made a reservation at NoGlu, a completely gluten-free fine-dining restaurant in the 2ème arrondissement in the center of Paris, not far from the Louvre, in a covered passageway filled with cafés and shops. It's one of the places I'd been considering for the celebratory dinner in May, so I was glad to have the chance to check it out. They also offer lactose-free options, and I thought the food was almost as good as at Chapeau Melon, though there are fewer wine selections. However, dessert is included in the prix fixe option; on the other hand, there is only one entrée, rather than two. My starter of carrot soup with roasted mushrooms was delicious, and I very much enjoyed the pineapple upside-down cake to finish. I will be e-mailing the owner/chef at Chapeau Melon to discuss the soy- and dairy- and beet- and gluten- and (what else goes on the list, Mom?)-free dinner menu possibility, but I had a long talk with the waiter when I stopped by the restaurant and he seemed to think that there was not much of a chance that this would fly. We'll see. I did verify with the waitress at NoGlu that substitutions were possible, since the accompaniment to my lovely crispy-skinned cod was a pile of beets. She said they had no problem with flexibility, there. Well, we'll be in Paris two nights, so perhaps we can try both places.

Another fellow student, Laure, had recommended a good place for gluten-free food, Le Petit Cambodge, which is just down the street from Helmut Newcake, I discovered. I know where I'd live in Paris, now. I went there on Saturday for lunch, after the Dalí exhibit. I arrived a bit early, and had half an hour to wait before the restaurant opened. I considered another pot of tea at Helmut Newcake, but then I saw a Chinese massage salon across the street and decided to treat myself to a 20-minute head massage. The salon was open, but there was no one there at first, and then a small boy came up the stairs and peeked around the corner at me. "Ni hao," I said, using up 50% of my Mandarin vocabulary. His eyes grew wide and he giggled, and said hello back. We traded greetings for a few minutes until his mother came up to the desk, wiping her mouth and apologizing that everyone was in the middle of lunch. I apologized for interrupting them, and she said no, it was okay, they really were open, and le monsieur who specialized in acupressure was on his way. I handed over a 20-euro note, and was shown to a little cabinet, where I lay face down on a table. Le monsieur didn't speak English or French, so I had to use my own hands on his to explain that OW he was pressing a little too hard to start out with. But then it was all right, and he also ended up cracking my back and getting rid of a knot that had been there since I'd woken up, so that was good. And when he was done, my head and shoulders were loose (if a bit sore), and Le Petit Cambodge had opened for business.

They specialize in Vietnamese and Cambodian food, and Laure particularly recommended the bo bun, rice noodle bowls. The restaurant makes their own fried spring rolls with pork and shrimp in rice paper wrappers, and I ordered a "special shrimp bo bun" rather than the sliced beef version, with an extra spring roll. It was all very good, full of crunchy vegetables, savory spring roll slices, fresh shrimp, and rice vermicelli in a slightly sweet-tangy broth. I am glad that I got there when the restaurant opened at noon, because it quickly filled up, and by the time I left towards 1:00pm there was a line of people waiting to get in. It was a bit chilly to use the outside tables, but I expect those are a popular option in warmer weather. Definitely on my list of places to go back to, and you can get the food to go as well, though it might be a bit messy as a picnic item.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chaos and Creation

I went back to Paris on Friday afternoon so that I could see the Salvador Dalí exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in its final weekend. I had a ticket, so could go directly to the gallery early on Saturday morning, taking the outside glass-walled tube-enclosed escalator up 150 feet to the top floor with its (hazy that day) panoramic view of the city. The entrance to the gallery was through a rounded space with a heartbeat soundtrack and Philippe Halsman's Mémoire prénatale (1941), a picture of Dalí in a fetal position in an eggshell, projected on the wall. I didn't take pictures at first because there were "no photographs" signs everywhere, but that wasn't stopping a lot of visitors. I came to the conclusion that either (a) no one really cared or (b) only the works with the sign next to them fell under that rule, but still didn't photograph anything on the walls. And most of the works I really liked did have the sign posted anyway. I found links to some images, but for the rest you'll have to head to Madrid next year for the next installation.

My early memories of Dalí are from a coffee table book we had at home, with a gold cover and a lot of explanations about the pictures that I never really read. I was more interested in the oozy timepieces, or the giant horses on stilts, or the creepy hairy fly-infested open-wound body parts that were at once titillating and offputting to a ten-year-old. But I don't remember any pictures I would have classified as "normal" - or else I didn't find them as interesting. But the early works in the exhibit, from the 1920s, weren't oozy or creepy or hairy at all. Portrait de ma soeur and Falaise (1926) are simple, luminous, and beautiful. A series of four or five self-portraits done in that era included the Picasso-influenced Tête (1926). Oiseau...Poisson (1928) gets three-dimensional with sand incorporated into the sweeping curve in the center, and Plage anthropormorphique gets sexy with a red sponge (not painted, according to the information) and a very suggestive finger. And then the weird stuff starts, the hair sprouting everywhere, the severed heads, the pins and needles and dead things and ants and flies and grasshoppers and sex, more sex, the body parts that drew my attention forty years ago and are still fascinating, though not in the same way.

I honestly don't remember all the pictures in that long-ago book (Kate, you have it now, right?) but I don't remember seeing Parfois je crache par plaisir sur le portrait de ma mère (1929), a Shroud-of-Turin-like outline on canvas, or L'homme invisible (1930) or the color-rich Oeufs sur le plat (sans le plat) (1932) that I wanted to take home with me.
La paranoïa se sert du monde extérieur pour faire valoir l’idée obsédante, avec la troublante particularité de rendre valable la réalité de cette idée pour les autres. La réalité du monde extérieur sert comme illustration et preuve, et est mise au service de la réalité de notre esprit.
Occasionally there would be a study or sketch next to a finished work, as with Dormeuse, cheval, lion invisibles (1930), and it was fun to see what was hidden underneath the paint. I liked Ossification matinale du cyprès (1934) and Symbole agnostique (1932) but found the 1932 Phosphène de Laporte very, very disturbing, what with the fangs and the psychotic eyes. Definitely not one of the ones I wanted to take home. But I could live with, and in, Table solaire, and spent a long time studying Apparition d'un visage et d'un compotier sur une plage (1938), because the more I looked at it the more things I saw, until I started to wonder if maybe I was seeing things that the artist didn't even put in there. Which, I think, might be the point.
Dalí played with all sorts of media, including film and stereoscopic images and holograms, but even as he incorporated future technology into his art, he didn't forget the past. His 1979 Aurore, midi, après-midi et crépuscule skips back a hundred years to pointillism. If I could have tucked this half-wall-sized painting under my arm and taken it home, I would have. And I was surprised to see that the famous oozy-timepiece "Persistence of Memory" is actually quite small, just about the size of a laptop computer screen. Vénus de Milo aux tiroirs is a delightful piece of sculpture and Tête nucléaire d'un ange is another mixture of classical forms with modern interpretations.

There were film clips by and about Dalí, including a 1964 television interview in which he is wearing a "veston aphrodisiaque" covered with glasses half-filled with peppermint schnapps and says that if you are going to wear it correctly, each glass should contain a dead fly. I was in the exhibit for about two and a half hours, but that time would have been doubled had I watched all of the videos. Some I just couldn't not watch, like the explanation of the three-dimensional homage to Piet Mondrian, where the blocked-off sections contained live pigs, and a motorcycle, and a woman named Leslie Crane, all of which were alternately covered with popcorn, uncovered, and sprayed with water. And I would have loved to be at the benefit dinner in September 1941, wearing a unicorn's head. But I did incorporate myself into Mae West's face (which may be used as a surrealist apartment).

By the time I left, dizzy from all the Dalí, the line of people waiting just to buy tickets was starting to curve around the plaza, and I was even more glad to have arrived before the exhibit got too crowded. Time to plan a trip to Figueres now, or soon perhaps, or maybe never - hard to tell, with all the grasshoppers in here.
Je réclame une vie dans l’au-delà avec persistance de la mémoire. Je veux bien renoncer aux béatitudes éternelles pourvu que dans l’éternité je me souvienne de tout!

Surrounded By Fish

Last Thursday I went to a day-long seminar on food at sea, "Du biscuit et des vers?" sponsored by L'Équipe Alimentation at Université François-Rabelais and the Institut Européen d'Histoire et des Cultures de l'Alimentation (IEHCA). Subtitled (loosely translated) "supplies and suppers on shipboard from the Middle Ages to the present," the seminar presented an interesting look back at how people over the years have been dealing with the fact that when you're in the middle of the ocean, you can't run to the corner grocery for a quart of milk. As the first speaker pointed out, ensuring an adequate food supply is a problem on land too, sometimes, in times of war and famine, but the issues of quantity and storage and logistics are easier to see in the microcosm of the ship's world. Lessons learned there can be taken back out and reapplied on a larger scale. There's not a lot of French documentation or research into the issue of shipboard food management, though (as he said) the British have a long tradition of both making it work, and writing down how that happened. One of the reasons that Britain had a better navy, he said, is because they studied these issues and solved the problems related to resupply and balanced diets, and the Admiralty imposed strict quality requirements on the suppliers, many of whom were specifically devoted to ship's stores and nothing else.
Another reason that it's easier to figure out rationing and such on board (rather than on land) is that it's a closed system, strictly regulated. Sailors have specific recurring duties and set hours for work and sleep, and a strenuous job that requires a good deal of calories to fuel. Hygiene issues and nutritional deficiencies can be more easily identified when everyone's doing and eating the same things. M. Dessaux said that it's interesting to read about how nutritionists have used sailors as test subjects over the years because of the controlled environment, and also to look into "captain's table" cooking (which was generally better than what the common sailor ate) and how exotic ingredients were incorporated into shipboard cooking from island stops and ports of call. One of the first books that mentions French naval supplies is the "Règles (or Rôles) d'Oléron" from 1266, explaining the rules that would apply on ships; the rules date back to 1152, when Elanor of Aquitaine and others were working out naval regulations between England and France (though at that time the two countries weren't always two separate countries, necessarily). The ship's captain was only required to provide one meal daily to the crew, but on the other hand had to keep them well supplied with wine on both the outbound and homeward journeys. Hot meals were generally served at noon, and sometimes in the morning, but since the wood-burning stoves would be visible from far away after dark, cold food was more often served in the evening.

There were two sorts of cooks on the average naval or merchant ship, the ones that cooked for the captain, and the maître-coq who cooked for the crew. Coquo is the Latin verb meaning "I prepare food" and coquus is a cook, hence the name in both French and English. On the Bayeux Tapestry you can see a feast being prepared after William the Conqueror landed in England, and the words HIC COQUITUR CARO ("here the meat is cooked"). Crew cooks didn't have a very good reputation, as another speaker pointed out later. As late as the 1830s they were being described as sweaty and dirty, working surrounded by smoke from the fires and from burning food, with no knowledge of actual cooking, but just enough skill to boil salted meat in a cauldron. To be fair, it must have been difficult cooking over wood on the ocean.

Records from a 1368 voyage by a Genoan ship show that they bought caviar every other day while they were in Constantinople. A French ship in 1355 carried 25 barrels of biscuits, 1 steer, 2 pigs, 2 barrels of wine, a cask each of salted fish and dried peas and dried beans, a barrel of salt, and a basket of garlic and onions for every 25 sailors on board. A 14th-century Venetian ship noted that every sailor got dried biscuits, wine, cheese, and bean soup every day, but two days (including Friday) were meatless for the whole crew, one day a week everyone got meat, and the rest of the time half the crew ate meat and the other half didn't, alternating days.

While I assumed that sailors would take advantage of being in the middle of a seafood-filled ocean to fish and get a bit extra in the way of food, it wasn't that easy, even if you were actually out there as a commercial fishing boat. The weather wouldn't always cooperate, you had your other duties, and if you were making headway then you were going too fast to catch them using hook and line, but a net would slow the ship down. Another speaker talked about the cod fishermen in the North Atlantic, from Newfoundland and France (Brittany) and Iceland and Great Britain, who spent six to eight months at sea between February and August and never left the ship, even in port. Well, the sailors from Newfoundland were allowed to, but apparently more of them died on shore than at sea due to drunken carousing and accidents. And there was a lot of drinking on the ships too, with wine and beer and cider and assorted other alcoholic beverages making up a fair percentage of the supplies, even more so than fresh water. Up until the 20th century most cooking was done by le mousse, the cabin boy, in a smallish box on deck or in the sailor's quarters, in a big pot that everyone would eat out of. An 1890 supply list showed dried pasta, fresh and dried fruit, vinegar, mustard, spices, flour, fresh and dried vegetables, cheese, fresh fish and salted fish, and fresh and salted meat. I was surprised at the fact that cod fishermen would bother carrying salted cod with them, but other than the heads of the fish that they were catching and gutting and salting down in the holds (which they would boil with potatoes, apparently) the crew didn't eat what they caught, unless it was something other than cod in the nets now and then. The cheeks and tongues were taken off the cod heads before boiling, because those dainties were reserved for the captain's table.

After all that talk of eating fish, I decided to follow suit and have some for lunch. I went to Le Bouchon Tourangeau off Place Plumerau in the old part of town, not far from the campus, and chose a salad of leeks in vinaigrette for my starter (kind of bland, unfortunately), and a filet of sea bream (daurade) for the main dish. I forgot to ask how it was prepared, so ended up eating the very delicious beurre blanc (white wine and butter sauce) it was served with. Yes, I could have scraped it all off to the side, but damn it was good. I did, however, regret that decision later. The house-made sorbets were quite tasty, with little chunks of pear in the one and diced lemon rind in the other that gave the lemon sorbet a nicely bitter edge, which contrasted well with the sweet pear.

I could imagine being served a similar meal - except for the sorbet, probably - on board a transatlantic ship in the early 19th century, which was the topic of the next presentation. At first, they weren't strictly passenger ships, but generally merchant vessels whose captains were open to negotiation about sleeping space in the holds, or in the cabins if there were any. A guide published in France around 1810 gave instructions on how to find such a place if you wanted to emigrate to the United States, and what you could expect on board, and what you needed to take with you. Eventually there were three types of ships making the crossing: merchanters who would allow passengers if the holds weren't full (or they had a big enough bribe), bare-bones passenger ships with varying levels of comfort depending on the price of your ticket, and ships for rich people (where there might also be bare-bones accommodation belowdecks, but we won't worry about the little people will we? and please pour me another glass of champagne). If you had a lot of money, you could sleep in a cabin and eat at the captain's table. For less money, you could sleep in a cabin and eat with the crew. And if you didn't have much money at all, you slept in the holds and brought all your food with you.
In 1818 the first-class passage between Le Havre and New York City was 700 francs, which I have probably inaccurately calculated at approximately 200 euros maybe? More or less. A lot less than I'd pay to travel the same route today. That's something that's still on my to-do list, however. And for 700 francs the food and wine was included, served on nice china with clean utensils, though dinner was still early, at 4pm, because the only light in the dining area came from a sort of skylight affair; I think by this point they weren't worried as much about hiding from enemy ships. The people who ate with the crew had to deal with the stews of salted beef, but that would still have been easier than hauling all your supplies for the six- to eight-week voyage on board yourself. According to an 1842 notice at the emigration office at Le Havre, if you were planning on crossing in the cheapest category, every person over the age of 5 in your party had to have at minimum 20kg of biscuits, 7 hams, 2.5kg of rice, 55kg of potatoes, 2kg of flour, 2 kg of butter, and 2 litres of vinegar, each. Plus everything to cook on and cook with and eat with. Things got a little better in 1855 when Napoleon III made a rule that the captain had to provide the utensils etc. even for this category of passenger, but it would have still been a massive amount of baggage. No shoving that amount of potatoes into an overhead bin, that's for sure.

Cheese has been part of the ship's stores since the Middle Ages, but for a very long time - up until the refrigeration issue was solved - none of it was French. Listings back as far as 1470 talk about fromage de Flandres or fromage de l'Hollande or fromage de Bergues or a cheese called tête-de-mort, all of which refer to the wax-coated Dutch Edam. Tête-de-mort (also spelled tête-de-maure or tête-de-more) is still a popular cheese in Haiti, a relic of colonial times. Gruyère and Roquefort and Brie made it onto the captain's table in the first days of a voyage, and there was Gruyère on the listing of a 1673 French naval supply run for the royal galley. In the 1850s, Napoleon III decided that it was time that the French developed a cheese suitable for long sea journeys, and he installed a working farm and research laboratory at Saint-Anjeau to make a durable form of Cantal (with a cooked curd, not the uncooked curd of the current Cantal cheese). That didn't work, but research continued through the Third Republic, and various cheeses were sent off on six-month journeys and tested upon return to see how they held up. With the rise of secularism, people started questioning why meat-free days had to stay a tradition on shipboard - one of the reasons for the cheese, which replaced the meat on Fridays - and at about that time the refrigeration issue became less of a problem, so research into a true French "sea cheese" was dropped.

What, you thought this post was going to be entirely about fish?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pêcheur Niçois

The first day of spring, and the sun is shining. Mostly. It's not as cold as it was last week in any event, and I have the windows wide open, with the breeze sending gusts of fragrance from the just-bloomed hyacinth on my desk towards me. The daffodils on the lawn that were beaten down by the frosty mornings are upright and bright again, and I'm almost hoping that the weather doesn't stay nice for tomorrow, because I'm going to be in a seminar most of the day learning about shipboard dining from the Middle Ages onward, tastefully titled "Du biscuit et des vers?", which I somewhat queasily translate as "Want some wormy crackers?" Though for all I know, that's what waitrons on recent ill-fated cruises have been saying, holding up the centuries of seafaring tradition. No ice to keep things fresh out there.

Toulouse-Lautrec painted a watercolor of a fisherman near Nice some time around 1880, and a good part of La Cuisine de Monsieur Momo is devoted to fish and shellfish. Many of the recipes instruct the cook to gut and stuff the fish through the gills, rather than slicing open the belly, which seems like a lot of work to me. The famous truites au bleu recipe is in here, which requires live trout to be boiled in vinegar for a few minutes as soon as they're killed and cleaned, which makes them curl up and turns their scales steel blue. I learned the names of many different fish, though how long I'll remember them is hard to say.
brochet = pike
lotte = monkfish (a recipe for sautéed monkfish livers in champagne)
vairons = minnows
barbue = brill (a type of turbot)
morue = salt cod
sandre = pike perch
alose = shad (be sure to save the roe, fried lightly and spread on bread)

There is a recipe from Monsieur Noël Balley, Governor of French West Africa, for a casserole of porpoise "harpooned while you are straddling the bowsprit of a cutter" and cooked with garlic, red wine, and spices. There are day-long recipes for bouillabaisse that are as extravagant with the fish and vegetables as any Parisian chef with his sauces. And there's a recipe for poutarde, which sounds interesting. Monsieur Bertaut de Pont-Clapets in the Camargue directs us as follows:
Towards July, when the mullets come up from the Mediterranean into the estuaries to lay their eggs in fresh water, catch them and open them up by their bellies; take out the egg sacs, being careful to keep them whole and retaining a bit of the flesh of the fish. Put them in salted water for 48 hours, then use the side of a spoon to clean them and remove any blood vessels. Put the egg sacs between two very clean hardwood planks. Starting with a light weight, gradually add more and more weight on the top plank so that the egg sacs flatten out without breaking, until they are as flat as a flounder. This being done, hang up the egg sacs by the fleshy bit in bright sunlight, exposed to the mistral winds. Let them dry. Now you have poutarde, which can be eaten like chocolate with bread, and which, with its distinctive flavor of fermented fish, will please educated palates, though it is not as refined as caviar.
I went to the fish market last Tuesday after my walk, and bought fresh anchovies in a wonderful vinegar brine with garlic and parsley, not salty at all, or at least not the highly-salted rolled canned anchovies that are better for melting into sauces than eating plain, at least in my opinion. These were tender and just slightly fishy, tangy and sweet-fleshed and very, very good mixed into a bowl of steamed endive and cooked lentils. I added a little white balsamic vinegar to the endive, and fresh ground pepper.

Maybe it's because it's spring, and the cold dark evenings that call for heavy stews or savory roast chicken (heating up the kitchen as well as the belly) are gone now. Lighter skies, lighter food. I'm craving fish.

‘Lazy Kwasind!’ said his mother,
‘In my work you never help me!
In the Summer you are roaming
Idly in the fields and forests;
In the Winter you are cowering
O’er the firebrands in the wigwam!
In the coldest days of Winter
I must break the ice for fishing;
With my nets you never help me!
At the door my nets are hanging,
Dripping, freezing with the water;
Go and wring them, Yenadizze!
Go and dry them in the sunshine!’

- from "The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Words / Mots

The words I write on this blog are seen by people I've never even met. They're read by friends and family and so sometimes I have to do a bit of editing - oh, not often, because I am trying to live my life in a good and healthy way, but I don't always confess to my fits of depression or potato-chip dinners or extreme levels of procrastination. From time to time I think that I'm describing a life here that's tailored for public consumption, a pre-book view of my life, with only the interesting bits, wryly written about, words carefully selected for maximum impact. And then there's a morning like this one, where I just feel like using this space as an open diary, not caring who might read it, avoiding the [Backspace] key as much as possible. In one of the typing-related posts I recently wrote, I described how Jack Kerouac turned his manuscripts in unedited, saying that editing is like lying. Some editing has to be done, of course, if only in the leaving out of things due to time and space considerations. I don't have the hours required or the desire to write about the boring stuff, and you probably don't want to read it. I got up! I took a shower! I'm eating leftover rice and artichoke hearts with scrambled eggs for breakfast! Not the stuff of best-sellers, I think.

I'd made a semivow to write more on this blog, and that's done as well as my other resolutions to exercise more and lose weight. It's only through writing that I'll get better as a writer. Typing is the easiest way to do this, since I'm an excellent typist but my handwriting totally sucks these days. Do they even teach handwriting in schools any more? They do here in France. Everyone makes their letters and numbers the same way. My non-Frenchness is most evident sometimes in how I write, rather than how I speak.

I'm going to the school this morning to talk with the program director about alternative ways to remain a student and extend my visa for another year. I was rather spendthrift when I first arrived in France, and took some big trips, and allowed my increased income due to large projects to lull me into thinking that I could toss money about and not have to worry. Right now I'm only bringing in the minimum per month, just enough to pay rent and maybe a week of groceries, so the additional expenses of school (which is three times more than I'd originally budgeted for, when you add in the travel costs and eating at restaurants at the lunch breaks [I plan on packing lunches for at least half of next month's classes in Tours]) and my fun-but-not-frugal trips to Paris are definitely impacting my bank balance. I don't have time for - or rather, I don't want to stress myself out by trying to cram into my schedule - looking for new clients or working for them. I'm focused on doing my research project, which conveniently enough is also the outline for my book, and the list of people who make the cheeses I'm interested in. It's taking time, but I'm saving time.

I still feel at home here. I'm enjoying going on walks with people through the On Va Sortir event site, and I'm looking forward to classes next month. I do spend a lot of time in my bedroom, but that's because my computer is here. The living room is too pet-hairy to work in, and I can't seem to figure out how to position my screen to minimize glare and work outside, plus it's been too cold to do so. I don't feel like I'm hiding in here, avoiding France. I remember doing exactly that in Tokyo, when the stresses of living in another country, struggling with the language, got to be too much. Here I don't usually have a problem communicating (or if I do, it's funny, not stressful), but I think I am expending more mental and emotional energy fitting into a different culture, and sometimes that makes me tired. And I start thinking about England Wales Scotland Ireland and looking for dairy farms to live and work on, where at least the language aspect wouldn't be an issue. Well, except for the fact that sometimes a dialect turns English into something that might as well be Greek for all I can understand it; there were times when I'd be working with Ben at the Ticklemore dairy and he'd have to repeat his requests or questions or comments at least three times, very slowly the last time, in his Devonshire accent, before I'd get it.

So I'm thinking about leaving, as well as trying to find ways to stay longer. I'm wanting to see more of the world, and wanting to stay to learn more about France, a country I've only seen the smallest part of so far. I'd like to be able to relax and speak English, but would prefer to work on my French skills. I want something new, but am reluctant to leave my comfortable familiar routine here. In other words, I'm a Gemini. I'm me. I've always been like this and half a century on it doesn't look like that will change. But at least I'm learning how to focus and manage this duality. The fact that I am here in France proves that I can set goals and reach them. I can create my future ... as soon as I figure out what I want it to be, that is.

I go back through these blog posts sometimes to remember things and people and places, and it makes me happy to think of all that I have had and seen and done in my life. I've enjoyed the times when I've been off by myself exploring, and the weeks spent traveling with Mom and John, or the days doing random silly things with Morgan and Leah and Corey. Scrabble games and hot springs and long walks and chef salads with Kate. Movies and operas and good food and wine with Helen or Lark. Random encounters and conversations with people from Portland to Glasgow. Cats and chickens and goats, falling off horses and falling out of planes and falling in love, and landing with a thud in all three cases with varying amounts of pain. Fear, and forgiveness, and fantasies. And in the end, always gratitude.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Iconic Paris

There is no mistaking where you are, when you see the Eiffel Tower. I haven't been to Paris often enough to get used to it. I'm not sure I ever will. It makes me stop for a moment, and start to smile, and marvel at the fact that I am in Paris! that I am living in France for god's sake! that things are, for the most part, absolutely wonderful. My massage therapist said that I'm carrying around all sorts of stress in my belly but it doesn't seem to be anywhere else, and in fact my emotions are fairly peaceful. But it could be the sort of peace I saw on one section of the "Wall For Peace" (installed in March 2000 at the other end of the Champs du Mars from the Eiffel Tower), where the peace spelled out in 49 languages is cracked and crazed and only held together out of habit, a tower of shards that doesn't know it's supposed to fall to pieces. I almost started crying for no reason when Houria was trying to unkink my core last week, which means that there's something in there that needs to come out. Maybe I'll figure it out when she works on me next week, and then I'll go back up to Paris and back to the field of war, looking for peace, writing out my wishes on a page torn from my notebook and curling them into a niche in the wall, or tearing the page into scraps and tossing them into the wind.

There are other art installations on the Champs de Mars, including the 1989 "Monument to the Rights of Man," with a copy of the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen that formed the basis for the French Republic. I have a vague memory of seeing a copy of the Declaration of Independence once, when I was very young. I do remember 1976 and the bicentennial celebrations, and deciding that I wanted to be around for the tricentennial. I also decided that I would probably be a concert pianist when I grew up, or a marine biologist. I don't think any of those three decisions will pan out. The monument has an Egyptian motif, and apparently has a lot of overt and hidden Masonic symbolism, and when I was looking up information on the statues I read that the man was originally holding "various documents" and that the naked baby's hat is made out of newspapers. I had thought it was supposed to be an Egyptian pharaoh's crown covered with hieroglyphs, or possibly a lampshade.

Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.Party time!

Buskers in the subways aren't limited to Paris, but everywhere else I've traveled they stay in the halls and tunnels and on the platforms, rather than leaping in and out of the cars to serenade the passengers between each stop. More than half the time an accordion is involved. Two women carried small sound systems with them instead of instruments, for a bit of karaoke time. Once there was a man singing at the other end of the car, in a sort of warbling chant that seemed to come from somewhere on the Arabian peninsula, but I couldn't tell if he was busking or just meditating. I'll fish out a euro or 50-centime coin for buskers if they make me smile, or if I take a picture. I had to take a picture of the group with the clarinet and double bass, and the accordion.

There were two young men in their underwear on the platform at the La Motte-Picquet - Grenelle stop, but I didn't ask if that was supposed to be their method of entertaining the commuting community, and I didn't take a picture. Though I wish I had.

Mexican food is increasingly popular in Paris, though I haven't seen much evidence of it here in Tours. At least not real Mexican food. I don't count places like Taco Bell. I had a list of places to check out courtesy of David Lebovitz, and since Candelaria is just down the street from the Fromagerie Jouannault I combined business with pleasure (okay, both were pleasure) and had lunch there. I was a little early, or they were running a little late at the restaurant, and had to wait outside for ten or fifteen minutes before they let me in. While I was waiting, two separate small groups of women came by, with the group leader of each (Australian accent for one, British for the other) commenting on how Candelaria is a "hidden gem" of a place that no one knows about. Except for everyone who reads Lebovitz's or any of the other Paris food blogs, which have given it a lot of press. Everyone who came in for lunch that day while I was there was from Australia or England or the United States; I wonder if the dinner-and-drinks crowd is more Parisian. There's a lounge in the back of the space that's said to be quite popular, with an excellent tequila selection, but in the front there's only one wide wooden table, and a handful of stools at the narrow counter. I had the set lunch option and they substituted a black bean puree for the cream of vegetable soup, keeping the garnish of chives and pickled onions.

I chose the carnitas tacos, and sipped fresh lemonade. The handmade tortillas were very good, tender yet substantial, and I asked if they sold them plain, to go. "If you order them in advance, yes," said the waitress (owner?), "but otherwise we only make enough for the day." One of their former chefs has branched out on his own with a newly-opened tortilleria and she gave me a card. I'll try to make time to stop by there right before I head back on the train next week, and bring back some packages to put in the freezer. And more to eat fresh.

Landmarks are useful in a city which, while walkable, can be hard to navigate. At least I find it hard to navigate in, with the upside-down maps and all. The buildings, while beautiful, look much the same after a while. If I lived in Paris, it would probably be different. "Meet me at the fountain," I'd say. "The one with the women and the drunk babies riding the fish."

The iconic symbol of the United States is the Statue of Liberty, La Liberté éclairant le monde, designed and built and gifted by the French. There's a small version of it outside the Musée des Arts et Métiers (Arts and Crafts Museum), where you can see two hundred years and more of creation, industry, craft, and ingenuity, in a complex of buildings that include structures that are over eight hundred years old. One of the reasons that I like living in France is that there are so many places that I can go to touch a stone wall, or walk down a street, or listen to people talking in a market square, and know that for centuries others have touched, and walked, and listened and talked in the same places and in the same way. You don't need to study history, here, but instead just look around.

I was at the museum for an exhibit on robots (wishing Morgan had been there with me) and liked the juxtaposition of 21st- and 12th-century technology. We are moving ahead in knowledge, but perhaps leaving behind wisdom. The Three Laws of Robotics should not only apply to robots, especially when we have infinitely more power to hurt and kill each other these days than we did back when the Merovingians were living on the banks of the Seine and whacking each other with axes. People getting shot in Wal*Mart stores, states deciding that arming students and teachers alike with more guns is the best solution to the gun problem, drone warfare and global arms manufacturers and a culture of violence that has always been part of what we like to call civilization, which from the time of the Merovingians has had its decidedly uncivilized aspects. The robotics exhibit had examples of deadly as well as benign technology.

If you define "robot" as "mechanical device" then we've been building them for a very long time, with examples dating back to at least 200 BCE in China, and later the Antikythera mechanism of ancient Greece, and the clever constructions of the inventors in the Islamic empire that kept scientific advancement going while Europe was flailing about in the dark. The Renaissance included re-discovery of the older inventions, and creation of new ones for work and play. Intricate and delicate clocks were made for the homes of the wealthy, and larger versions were installed in cathedrals around the continent.


Ingenious toys in one room, ingenious tools in the next, with examples of deep-sea probes and microminiaturization, prosaic Roombas and prototypes of the robots that are even now trundling around the surface of Mars, or headed out beyond the heliopause toward galaxies far, far away. And of course examples of the melding of man and machine, when (so far only movie-based) intelligent robots have learned to help and harm us at will. Unless they follow the laws, that is.

I had stored my suitcase at the Gare d'Austerlitz that last morning, and headed back to catch the late afternoon train home. I had a bit of extra time, however, and decided to explore another landmark feature of Paris, one of its many public parks. This is the Jardin des Plantes, which started out in the early 17th century as a medicinal herb garden and now has display gardens with thousands of varieties of plants from around the world, not many of which were evident on that late winter afternoon. Most of the beds had been recently tilled, and there was a good earthy smell in the air.

The garden space is bordered on three sides by museums devoted to natural history: evolution, paleontology, entomology, mineralogy. On the fourth side there's a zoo, which had a slightly different smell. The royal menagerie used to live out at Versailles, but now you can pay ten euros (which I didn't) to see the animals here. A red panda lives in one of the enclosures at the edge of the park, surrounded by bamboo.
Students, professionals, and amateurs of botany can take classes and work in the gardens and greenhouses. Extensive plant and seed catalogs are maintained on the grounds; seed saving projects and scientific research are conducted with the goal of promoting biodiversity.

The scrolled-iron-and-glass buildings that impressed people at the 19th-century World Fairs in Paris are still pretty impressive today, and the old section of the Gare d'Austerlitz is no exception. Trains and train stations are another iconic image of Paris, and the centralized French rail network makes it one of the easiest ways to travel. All roads lead to Rome, but all rail lines lead to Paris here. That's occasionally rather inconvenient, as it means many times a simple (on the map at least) straight-line east-west journey becomes a tall inverted V with one of the Paris stations at its tip. But because of the TGV, even these detours mean that it doesn't take long to get places.

If you have been traveling for a while, and arrive at the Gare d'Austerlitz sweaty and disheveled, you can put yourself together for a handful of euros at this new (2000) rest facility at the south end of the station with a quick refreshing shower. For 50 centimes, you can pee in a sparkling-clean toilet, a welcome change after some of the funky ones I've found at other train stations.

And when you're all cleaned up and ready to catch your next train, you can join the sparrows at the outdoor café and sip a cup of verveine herbal tea (verbena, but not the lemon variety) and watch for your platform to be announced on the overhead board, listening to the multilingual chatter around you, resting feet sore from three days of almost nonstop walking around Paris, glad to go back home but wishing you could stay just a little longer.