I was walking uptown -- north, anyway, across the river -- to meet a friend for lunch near the Hôtel de Ville. As I hit the Quai de Tournelle, I noticed nearly ten CRS (Compagnie républicaine de sécurité) trucks lined up, and a good number of officers standing around, snacking on sandwiches.
Demonstration? No, if it had been a demonstration the cops would have been wearing their (disturbingly attractive in a very wrong kind of way) body armor and sitting in their blue trucks. But they were in the white trucks, and sans Kevlar. Maybe the President was having lunch at Tour d’Argent, which is just across the street from where the trucks were parked.
I crossed the river, the wind picking up and the day turning brighter blue by the second. The rue Saint-Louis en Ile was blocked off, and a small crowd had gathered at the barricade. A brief moment’s eavesdropping revealed that it was the funeral of Madame Claude Pompidou, the widow of President Georges Pompidou. No doubt the current President of the Republic, and the one before him, were in attendance. Hence the muscle and all the trucks.
I crossed the Pont Marie, and within minutes arrived at the Mairie of the Fourth Arrondissement. I found it patrolled by a number of policeman, blocked off with barricades, and with a crowd three-deep gathered along the rue de Rivoli side. A mobile unit for Canal+ parked on the sidewalk -- that’s the french equivalent of seeing an “Entertainment Tonight” camera crew -- tipped me off that maybe it wasn’t a matter of national security.
My guess was that it had something to do with Tony Parker and Eva Longoria. The happy’s couple big day is big news here. The wedding is today -- Saturday -- in a church near the Louvre, but in France the only ceremony that counts legally is a civil one performed in the Mairie (city hall) of where you live. I had no idea they were residents of the fourth.
The news this morning confirmed my guess. (Where’s my prize? - Ed.) The ceremony was performed by Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris. Over 100 police officers and one explosives-sniffing dog were on hand to ensure the security of the happy couple.
Claude Pompidou is credited as being the first modern First Lady of France, and for updating the style of the Elysée (Presidential) Palace, a place she called "a house of sadness." A private person, publicity-shy, her great passion was the arts -- particularly contemporary art. She was instrumental in the creation of the art mecca named for her husband. In addition, she was also active in charitable activities for handicapped children and the elderly.
Eva Longoria's philanthropic activities on behalf of Hispanic children and families are well-known. Less high-profile, however, is her steadfast commitment to holiday giving, as evidenced by a 2005 incident in the parking lot of a Burbank Koo Koo Roo. When the parking lot attendant pointed out she was a dollar short of the two-dollar parking fee, her reply was: "Jesus! It's Thanksgiving. Be nice. F*CK!
What I find amazing about yesterday afternoon is that simply by walking at what can only be called a moderate pace, I was nonetheless able to set a land-speed record for going from the sublime to the ridiculous.
There's no reason you would go to the Avenue Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement. You might skirt it, as you ride the 82 bus to the American Hospital in Neuilly. You might come across it if business were to call you to the Avenue Kléber, or if you were lost, looking for the Place Marlene Dietrich or the Place du Mexico. But apart from that, it's more of a destination for people who are already there.
(And I -- unlike you -- have had reason to go to the Avenue Victor
Hugo. Why? Because, just as with every other street in Paris I want to
know what's on it. Sick fascination with no evident cause. And no cure. No sooner do you get a grip on this or that avenue, than up pops a rue you must hunt down. And don't get me started on the boulevards. It's Paris and evidently it doesn't end. Come visit!)
If, however and for example, you had spent the afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art (a few blocks due east) and if perhaps you were interested in having a little coffee and a nice dessert with a good friend, and enjoying same away from the prying eyes of strangers wearing white shorts -- tourists, for example -- the Avenue Victor Hugo, and the bakery Béchu (Gesundheit!) are good choices. Particularly if said afternoon had involved having your brain scrambled thoroughly and pleasantly (and in a manner that can only be called elegantly disturbing) by the art of Kara Walker.
What I mean is that a little chocolate and a bit of quiet are deeply restorative. On so many levels.
I am one hundred percent with the sage who observed that people who claim that happiness can't be bought simply don't know where to shop. It can be. And although it's a little cheaper to take it to go, the 5€ of happiness you buy at Béchu, like all happinesses, is fleeting. As well it should be.
So let me introduce Victor Hugo. Le Victor Hugo, named -- I assume -- for the street on which you will find the bakery, and not because it brings to mind "Les Misérables." It is not misery-inspiring: it is chocolate. It is filled with chocolate mousse and inside that is a core of crispy meringue. And damn, if that isn't really good, I don't know what is. It has some of my favorite qualities in a pastry: lightness; chocolate, a variety of textures, a bit of crunch, and more chocolate.
(Please note here that the Victor Hugo is easily one-fourth the size of a Heath Bar Crunch Anvil from the Cheesecake Factory, and weighs about one-tenth as much. If you click to enlarge the photograph -- and of course I know exactly who among you will do so, for I can already see an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile twitching at the corners of your mouths -- the resulting image of the pastry will be actually larger than the real one.)
And this is Monsieur l'Equatorial. Darker and heavier than its companion on the table. Considerably more mysterious. And worthy of its exotic name. Chocolate -- that part self-evident, ok -- with slices of cherry (I think) buried inside, and with what I believe to be an eyedropper's worth of kirsch. And then, some kind of mystery filling of an origin rather hard to pin down.
(It may well have been sweetbreads for all I knew. For all I cared.)
Although there was no crunch inside it, coiled and waiting to spring like a jack in the box, the white chocolate shards, eaten with the fingers like potato chips, did snap very gratifyingly between my teeth.
Here's a word you won't hear much in France in the context of dessert: sinful. Here's another: indulgent. That's not it. That is emphatically not the point. And it's a point that our American heads -- I will speak for all three hundred million of us, why not? -- don't have room for. Most of us would have to do some serious re-arranging of the furniture, as it were, to accommodate the thought. But eating something delicious, that is beautifully and sensitively made, that you really enjoy, will not send you instantly to hell (Atkins hell, or any other kind). Similarly, denying yourself something -- chocolate, sweets, butter, bread -- will not make you good.
Virtue is not the point. Refusing pleasure -- with that self-satisfied smirk of the most righteous -- is not the point. The idea is to eat what's good, whatever it is, and to appreciate it. Preferably with as many senses as possible and preferably in good company. To respect proportion. You can't eat pastry
all day -- not because it's decadent or because it makes you a bad, bad girl. You can't, quite simply, because it will make you unwell.
And even if you didn't feel unwell, you still couldn't eat dessert all day, because after a few minutes you wouldn't enjoy it the way you had enjoyed -- and been transported by -- those first few bites. And, even worse than that, eventually you wouldn't be able to taste anything at all. Sweet upon sweet is a zero-sum equation. You wouldn't know what you were eating because you'd be numb.
I suppose that is the underlying argument for why happinesses must be fleeting. So we can be sure they are there. So we can truly feel them. So we can be caught off-guard by pleasures (like the crunch of meringue) of such smallness so as to be pointless, but which manage, somehow -- just by their very existence -- to remind us that we live in a world riddled with unexpected joys, just waiting to be discovered.
(Note to DD: I hope that answers your question. Now go make yourself a pan of Hello Dollies.)
Apropos of nothing French, 75, Parisian, nor Jean-related, a question: what's up at the New York Times? The games of bait n' switch over at the headline factory are tiring me out. No kidding.
From last month's oft-emailed (and superiority-provoking or embitterment-inducing, I suppose, depending on where in the birth order you fall) article: Study Says Eldest Children Have Higher I.Q.s (By Benedict Carey, published: June 21, 2007).
This simple, declarative statement nonetheless sputtered out entirely before nightfall that same day, and by the next morning -- defanged and declawed -- became Research Finds Firstborns Gain the Higher I.Q. (By Benedict Carey, published: June 22, 2007)
And then this week:
Americans Still Flock to Europe as Dollar Drops (By Mark Landler, published: July 18, 2007) hardly 24 hours later, does a 180...As Dollar Crumples, Tourists Overseas Reel (By: Mark Landler, published: July 19, 2007)
Well, which is it? Have it, or gain it? Reeling or flocking? Can someone please tell me what the flock?
But it does fill me with great relief knowing that the New York Times doesn't write fairy tales. Otherwise we'd never have known who's actually been sleeping in my bed, who's the fairest of them all, or what Rumpelstiltskin's name was. Pffft.
It was a ferocious Sunday, a rarity in this most atypical, unsummery summer. As my semi-regular weather reports have indicated, it has been unseasonably cool and wet here. This is not without its benefits. Anything that shortens what I am wont to call "hammer-toe and skin-tag season" (city dwellers know what I am talking about, this annual assault on good taste and the basic right not to be exposed to too much information). I was hot and I was tired and I admit that I had gone to a Bastille Day dinner the night before and had maybe a thimbleful more champagne than I ought.
I wasn't hungover; I was dry, and not well-rested. I ought not to have stayed in bed til noon.
For better or for worse, I wandered. The breeze off the river was consolation. But it was arid and blew less like the breath of angels than it did the gusts from a pizza oven being opened periodically. Maybe I should have stayed home. I don't know. The one indisputably great thing about living on the ground floor (apart from it coming in handy should you find yourself on crutches after having broken a bone in your foot) is that it traps the cool very easily. The indisputably not-great thing about living on the ground floor is the absence of a view, and of mood-bolstering shafts of direct sunlight.
The Tuileries were oversubscribed, dusty, and being there at all felt like a miscalculation on my part. The screams of folks on the throw-up rides at the fun-fair -- the one with the ferris wheel I had so enjoyed two or so weeks ago -- were a bit, um, unsettling. (An aside: they had every right to scream their heads off. No problem there. No doubt me and my voice -- and its magical powers of projection -- have wrecked an otherwise peaceful moment for a least a few people.)
But on this particular afternoon, I only wanted a little quiet and managed to go directly to the one place within walking distance of home where I was certain not to find it. It was my own fault to be out and about on one of the busiest weekends of the year in the most-visited city in the world, but blame was not the point. Being in the Tuileries like that is a bit like that hell Winston Churchill described -- the one where the only way out is through. I needed an escape route.
However, someone had told me that the Westin had a nice terrace. And it's right next to the Tuileries. And so in I went. The automatic door on the rue Castiglione opened wide and wrapped me immediately in a perfect air-conditioned coccoon. I could have stood there in the foyer for the rest of the afternoon.
The terrace is in the center courtyard -- lovely, white-washed, recently re-did, with an air of Getty Center about it. Hardly a third of its tables were occupied. One of the hostesses -- the first of the six staff members who would attend to me over the course of the next hour and a half -- seated me next to the fountain. A second fellow brought over some chips and wasabi peas and the like. A third took my order.
I am not all that young, but my entry on the terrace had probably lowered the mean age of the clientele by about half. Apart from two mother-daughter match-ups, there were mostly several varieties of old on hand: old and American, an air of recent hip surgery hanging around them, and looking as if they were on their way to or from a memorial trip to Omaha Beach; old and deeply sunburned, British, cigar-smoking, perhaps on the tail end of a golfing vacation; old and deeply tanned (the way animal skins are said to be tanned), gesturing emphatically, two degrees removed from a Fellini movie that never got made.
A fourth smiling staff person brought my apricot juice and a glass of crushed ice along with. He poured about half into the glass and then glided off, leaving me to myself.
If the words "apricot juice" are summoning for your the words "Libby's, Libby's, Libby's, on the label, label, label," and the phantom taste of metal can on a primary school playground, I encourage you to walk away, away, away from that notion right now. This juice tasted nothing like that. It was cool fruit, nothing else. Somehow sipping it through the straw only made it test better.
A fountain is a great thing. Get close enough to it and you are very nearly inside it. It keeps noise at arm's length. Indeed from where I was sitting I could hardly hear the conversations going on around me. You would have been hard-pressed to guess that just over a hundred yards away, the rue de Rivoli was stoppered with holiday traffic, and filled with the sound of drivers attempting to clear a path using only their horns and randomly-chosen but nonetheless heartfelt expletives.
A fifth fellow brought my lunch order and wished me a "bon appetit." The omelette was served cold, and cleverly -- sliced into finger-sized pieces standing vertically on the plate next to a little bowl of piperade-like sauce. It was good. Mostly, it was just-right in its dosages of protein and salt and onion, and somehow perfect for restoring some critical electrolyte balance that crossing miles of gravelly desert through the Tuileries had taken from me.
Later, a sixth smiling presence dropped by to see if I wanted anything else. Knowing that ordering a fountain, to go, was out of the question, I asked for a coffee and the check.
OK. I'm game.
I think my vocabulary in French is growing in different directions without much input or formal effort on my part. And even though the sentences don't necessarily flow like a nice Saint-Emilion from my lips, I am occasionally impressed with what I know. For example, the words for cement, concrete, and ashphalt; for wheel, tire, spoke, and rim; for numb, sting, and scratch.
I think that my English is getting a little sloppy as a consequence. As you know, I have a thing when it comes to language. I like to be precise. And correct. And I have, despite a flair for typos, a good grasp of spelling. So the other day, when Microsoft Word was telling me that I spelled "negociate" wrong, I really wanted to ring its neck or at least call someone in Redmond to complain. I spelled it over and over again. N-E-G-O-C-I-A-T-E. N-E-G-O-C-I-A-T-E.
And then it hit me. In the English it is spelled with the "T" and not the "C." (Tocksucker!)
I think I can no longer produce meals without the aid of at least one of the following: dijon mustard; sherry vinegar; fresh chives; unsalted butter.
I think that with only T-minus-two weeks til I hit the beach, it is officially too late to send back all the pastry I have been eating lately (Yesterday, for example, the Chibouste Framboise at Le Valentin. Tart shell filled with fresh raspberries and fluffy, meringuified pastry cream. I didn't take a photo but you can peep someone else's money shot). But swimsuits or no, to be perfectly honest, Edith, I don't regret anything either.
I think I may even have one tomorrow. (A Chibouste, that is. Not a regret.)
I think it's time I told you that the halogen torchière is so totally the official lamp of Paris, France. That's because the buildings are old and not every room is wired for overhead fixtures. Also because most lamps here are wired to blow out standard bulbs within 10 days of having them replaced. These two factors contribute mightily to Paris' having such a large halogen torchière community.
This also means that among the distinctive Paris smells -- fresh bread, diesel exhaust, linden tree, and Metro station come to mind most quickly -- we must add burning insect.
And that among the objects left on Parisian sidewalks on Big Garbage Day -- among pressboard-and-laminate crap IKEA furniture, televisions that are 26" deep, and what appear to be Commodore 64s -- you will find many a HT.
I think something is weird is happening to me. Or weirder than the things that usually happen to me. I am forgetting where I am. First of all, when I read that someone lives in Paris I find that I am a little envious. Jarvis Cocker, for instance (I mean, Jarvis Tocker). He lives in Paris, or so I just read in some magazine. I found myself thinking, "how wonderful."
And then I remembered: I live there, too. Duh.
Which, I think -- to repeat -- is weird. You'd think it would be self-evident. Especially considering that for a long time I woke up every morning in my bed in Paris, and listened to the radio while I made my coffee in Paris, and went grocery shopping in Paris, and took a nice afternoon walk in Paris, and admired the way the river cut through Paris. And when I caught my reflection in a window or a mirror I was always aware that it was Paris in the background.
But I have noticed lately that I have simply been waking up, taking walks, going to meetings on the other side of town, waiting at bus stops, and generally minding my own business. I am neither in Paris, nor not-in-California. I am here, in a stupid wherever-you-go-there-you-are kind of way. I am here, and there's the river, and there are the gardens of the Palais Royal, and there's the 27 bus that will take me home, and boy do I hope that I get a seat because lately it seems I never do.
And I think, finally, that this weird thing is a actually a very great thing. Not in order that this city -- and the fact of my being here -- might reveal to me finally their ordinariness. But rather that I might enjoy the experience (however long it happens to last) of blending in with the extraordinary.