“If I flipped a franc, it would land on something worth swallowing”

“If I flipped a franc, it would land on something worth swallowing,” David Downie writes of his arrival in Paris in 1976. He remembers, as I do, gazing into the yawning seven-story hole where Les Halles had provided food and drink to all Paris until its relocation to suburban Rungis several years before, and he laments much more strongly than I do the second replacement for the historic Baltard canopies, the massive skate wing that covers the new and very chic shopping center. Les Halles has come a long way, from Zola’s Belly of Paris to yet another pricey and upmarket shopping center.
Downie’s newest book is the third in his recent series of memoirs/explorations of Paris. Beginning with Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (2011) and continuing with A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light (2016), the series explores his fascination with his home city. I still think Paris, Paris is the best guidebook I’ve read, and it’s not really a guidebook but a slow, guided introduction to fascinating aspects of the city. A two dozen peeks through a two dozen keyholes, which together add up to a rounded view.
The list of Downie’s books is long. There are more than a dozen on it. I haven’t read all of them but I’ve read and enjoyed a good sample, and many of them have food at their center. Or wine. Or food and wine.
Unless you are a serious student of French culinary history — enrolled at one of the big cooking academies, for example — I suggest you approach A Taste of Paris the way you’d approach a historical novel. It is nicely written, in Downie’s own idiosyncratic style, and full of facts and sidelights about the historical personalities, including the three King Louis <sup>(see links below)</sup> whose reigns led up to the Revolution. It’s entertaining.
As you get into it you’ll appreciate more the sheer depth of Downie’s knowledge about Paris, France, food, and any combination of the three. I still remember reading his Food Wine Burgundy and thinking it contained more information per square inch than anything I’d read. A Taste of Paris comes close.
Readers of this blog know that Paris is my favorite city, and that I spend a lot of time there researching and writing my novels. One of Downie’s sidelines is as a tour guide, and a few years ago my sister, visiting with friends from Texas, asked him to guide her group, and invited me to tag along. It was an impressive experience. Downie’s knowledge of the city’s history is precise and seems bottomless.

Midnight Pigeon at Les Halles

The part of A Taste of Paris I enjoyed most was Downie’s discussion of more recent years, such as the story of Les Halles. I remember with pleasure the midnight dinner of pigeon Jan and I shared with the financial editor of the International Herald Tribune and his wife in the early seventies, when we were freelancing in Frankfurt and writing business and financial stories in the German-speaking countries. Les Halles as Zola described it almost exactly a hundred years before, down to the rich onion soup that made up an obligatory part of every meal.
I’ve enjoyed meals at restaurants he mentions, many of them, and bought a peppermill at E. Dehillerin, which he calls “the most famous and labyrinthine of several kitchen supply emporiums” in the area. It’s like your grandfather’s hardware store.
And I’ve also visited and recommend the famous sculpture by Raymond Mason, in a side chapel of the imposing Saint-Eustache church which looks over Les Halls. In modern style, it depicts vendors when they left Les Halles for the last time in 1969. It’s colorful and atmospheric.
St. Martin’s Press, published Sept. 26.

Useful links

Book link on Amazon

Raymond Mason obituary discussing the sculpture (Telegraph)

David Downie’s website

When there’s more than one King Louis, what is the plural? Here’s one good exploration. Your mileage may vary.

Bastille Day 2017, from Arun with a View

One of my favorite blogs is Arun With a View, an old-fashioned blog run by Arun Kapil, an American from the Midwest of Indian origin who now lives in the Paris banlieu (he’s very insistent on this description in his blog).

In any case, Arun discussed at some length a couple of weeks ago the significance of the decision by the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, to invite President Trump to the traditional military parade that marks the storming of the Bastille, which kicked off the French Revolution just a few short years after the American one. Click here for the post.

Dinner at the Eiffel Tower

Macron also took the Trumps to a dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants of Paris, the Jules Verne, high up in the Eiffel Tower. Our president opined that the crowd at the base of the tower was one of the largest ever. Maybe he’s never been there on a Tuesday morning. Or a Wednesday afternoon.

Read and enjoy. Arun’s views are always pungent and frequently very insightful.

Paris, My Town – best of the city on Instagram

Paris pictures are a little industry all to themselves — I’ve even been known to make a few. But Instagram users have pulled more than a half-million together under the hashtag #ParisMaVille, and they are fun.

Here, for example, is The Balloon Diary, a short video that reminds me in a good way of The Red Balloon, the 1956 short film.

Balloons in the Abbesses métro station, Montmartre. Click to watch the video

It’s part of a website, TheBalloonDiary, made by Anna Dawson, an Australian who followed her muse to Paris. Her site said she and significant other made the video in collaboration with Autolib, the French car-by-the-hour rental service.

Continue reading “Paris, My Town – best of the city on Instagram”

It’s Music Day in Paris – and 100 degrees outside

We look forward to Fête de la musique every year we’re in Paris on June 21. It’s become an annual event in France and more than a hundred  other countries since the French culture minister, Jack Lang, started it in the early eighties.

The fête is being held under difficult circumstances this year. Paris isn’t yet Phoenix, but as I write this at 9 p.m., the temperature outside is 100 degrees fahrenheit or 38 celsius, the measure the French use. (Or, for that matter, the measure almost the entire world uses.)

The view from our living room window

This year we’re living until mid-July in an apartment on Rue Daguerre, a charming one-way street that is partly a pedestrian way, in the 14th arrondissement not far from the entrance to the Catacombs. I wrote a post about it a couple of years ago.

Continue reading “It’s Music Day in Paris – and 100 degrees outside”

Labor Day in Paris – friendly with a side of Molotov cocktails

MAY 1 IS LABOR DAY in almost all of Europe (the Netherlands and Switzerland are the exceptions), and in France it’s a day for political demonstrations led by the unions or the political parties — or both.

I never want to miss a party, so I went out to Place de la République this afternoon to see the sendoff of the third demonstration of the day.

Anti-Le Pen demonstrators. The sign says “Hope, here and elsewhere.” The statue represents Marianne, the personification of the French Republic.

Continue reading “Labor Day in Paris – friendly with a side of Molotov cocktails”

Review: A Divided Spy

A novel by Charles Cumming. St. Martin’s Press, Feb. 14, 2017. 356 pages. (Advance hardcover edition reviewed)

Just a few months ago we thought the Cold War was long over, but now it seems to threaten us anew. Ever since John le Carré brought the dark world of spy-vs.-spy into modern popular fiction, it’s been a durable plot standard that has given millions of us many hours of entertainment with a scary side order of education.

Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy is an entertaining and thoroughly Le Carré-ish thriller set mainly in London. It’s the third featuring the ex-MI6 agent Thomas Kell, who in this book is a disaffected ex-agent, desolate because of the death of his girlfriend some months before, when he should have been euphoric because he’s successfully closed an important case.

A Divided Spy is the story of Kell’s hunt for the man, a Russian, he believes gave the order to kill the girlfriend, although he also blames his ex-chief as well.

Spy novels have evolved since Le Carré, not least because readers have evolved as well. Missing from this book is the bitter, hard-edged passion for the good side or the bad side. Instead, the characters are rounder, softer, more like educated Westerners of the Twenty-First Century. They aren’t so willing to break things. (Actually, a couple of them are, but they aren’t spies per se. More would be a spoiler.)

Cumming’s story reminded me a bit of Le Carré’s Carla books, the ones in which Smiley spends his career trying to entice the dark lord of Russian spycraft to come over to the other side. The reason he succeeds bears more than a passing resemblance to A Divided Spy, except that there’s much more of it in Cumming’s book.

And Cumming has taken the opportunity to throw in a terrorism subplot, an important one. What would any modern mystery be without ISIS?

If you read for the simple pleasure of the written word, you’ll find this one worth your time. Cumming’s technique is good — the plot and character elements are all in place, but you have to pay attention. Skip a sentence and you may find yourself puzzled by a character a few pages later. It will cost him a star or two from lazy reviewers, but it makes a better novel. Every word counts.

His ear for dialogue is snappy and the conversations are believable.

Highly recommended.     

Images from Charles Cumming’s website

Book page on Amazon.com

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Review: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

A novel by Dominic Smith. Macmillan 2016. 304 pages. (Kindle edition reviewed)

Dominic Smith has accomplished one of the most difficult tasks a novelist can take on — He has maintained the continuity of a story that flashes back and forth in time over more than three hundred years, from New York of the 1970s to Holland of the 1630s, and then to Sydney at the turn of this century.cover-the-last-painting-of-sara-de-vos-mon-10-17-16

This outstanding novel tells the story of a painting and its creator, “At the Edge of a Wood,” painted by Sara de Vos in 1636 as a memorial to her daughter Kathrijn, who died at seven of the plague.

By the time you reach the last page, the painting will be an old friend, like one you visit often at the museum or, if you’re Martijn de Groot, an insecure New York lawyer who is the lucky third-generation owner of a golden-age apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum. The painting hangs above the marital bed, to be regarded “while he made slow, contemplative love to his melancholic wife….”

You will know from the beginning that there is no such painting, that neither Sara de Vos nor Marty de Groot existed (although Sara de Vos is based on the first women allowed to become members of the Dutch painters’ guild, a clannish and tight-knit group with arcane rules and rituals. Both will seem as tangible as your neighbor.

The other main character is Eleanor Shipley, known as Ellie, who is equally real. We meet her as a student and struggling young art restorer who lives in an undesirable corner of Brooklyn. Her tiny apartment, “Set above a Laundromat, has its own weather: a tropical monsoon during business hours and a cooler, drier climate at night.” It is so unkempt that she has allowed no to stranger visit (Marty will be the first). She shops at the store where “period conservators and forgers alike” go for their materials, such as the odoriferous rabbit skin she cooks into glue on her own stove, wondering if the travelers on the Gowanus Expressway look through her window and think she’s stirring porridge instead of melting animal hide.

The mention of forgers is the magic door to the entire story. In brief, impoverished Ellie is hired by a shady dealer to forge a copy of “At the Edge of a Wood,” which is then exchanged for Marty’s original.

The book imagines a turbulent life for Sara de Vos. Her daughter dies of plague; her husband first hides their financial distress then goes bankrupt and abandons her, rather than go to debtors’ prison. Dutch society of the seventeenth century is not kind to women in that situation. They inherit their husbands’ debt, although Sara is lucky. Her husband’s main debtor wants her to work off the debt by painting, which raises the question: Was “At the Edge of a Wood” her last? You decide.

There’s a long section about the odd and manipulative relationship between Marty and Ellie after he learns she’s the forger. An important part of the plot is the atonement both of them owe. Do they deliver?

In an oblique way, it reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, although I had a hard time figuring out which was the Briony figure.

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a novel so much, and longer since I’ve learned so much dominic-smith-mon-10-17-16from one. Dominic Smith, an Australian who now lives in Austin, must have done an immense amount of research in preparation, and it shows, but he escaped the pitfall of making the book sound academic and instead created his own art.

Highly recommended. ★ ★ ★ ★ 

(This review has also been posted on Amazon. I learned of the book from an Amazon marketing email and purchased the Kindle edition.)

Pictures from Dominic Smith’s web site

Book page on Amazon

The miniature Statues of Liberty in Paris

Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty in Luxembourg Gardens

Everyone who’s taken a Bateau Mouche ride on the Seine has seen the copy of the Statue of Liberty installed on the Isle des Cygnes, near the Grenelle Bridge. While it is a miniature of the real statue, it’s no tiny thing. It’s 40 feet tall.

For landlubbers, there are (at least) two other good copies of Lady Liberty to be seen in Paris. The sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, donated a smaller copy to the Luxembourg Museum in 1900. Five years later, it was moved outside to the Jardin du Luxembourg, the famed Luxembourg Gardens. It stood there for more than a century, until 2012, when it was moved to the Musée d’Orsay.

A newly constructed bronze replica (photo above) stands in the garden.

There is much more detail on the Musée d’Orsay web page, and on Wikipedia.

A life-size copy of Liberty’s torch stands above the entrance to the Alma Tunnel near the Seine. That was the tunnel in which Princess Diana died, so it has become an informal memorial to her.

 

Review: Joie de Vivre – an American living the Paris life

JoiedeVivreForty-plus years of living in Paris, first as a student then as the wife of a well-known banker and historian, have given Harriet Welty Rochefort the ability to look at both sides of the French-American cultural divide with a sharp analysis that’s both trenchant and humorous.

She’s published three books that I think of as cultural dictionaries. In them, she translates French culture in a way Americans can understand, even if we sometimes can’t quite comprehend. The French are different from us Americans (and from Germans, the only other European culture I know well enough to judge). But at the same time they’re much like us. Or we’re like them.

I met Harriet late last year at one of Patricia Laplante-Collins’s Sunday soirées. Patricia had invited her to be the guest of honor and presenter of a slide show based on her most recent book, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing like the French. I also got to meet her husband Philippe, who retired as a banker then went back to the Sorbonne for his doctorate in history, and their friends Ron Rosbottom, the Amherst professor who had just published the outstanding When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, and his wife Betty, a noted cookbook author. (When Paris Went Dark is fascinating, and is on my list to be reviewed soon.)

The Differences

Harriet’s focus is the differences wrapped within the similarities. There are plenty of both, and they seem pretty well matched in plusses and minuses.

An American tourist will generally cast the differences in superficial terms: a surly waiter (some are, most aren’t, and even those warm up if you are nice to them), or fashion. Here’s Harriet’s take on that:

“An American woman might, for example, get the dress, makeup and hairstyle right, but she can’t change her wide-open, trusting, smiling, innocent American face.”

Bingo. And the same goes for her American husband. We stand out, and we need to be conscious of that, since we’re guests in their home.

Dress aside (and that does seem to be less important year by year), the French are known as one of the most pessimistic people in Europe. Harriet’s take on that again:

“After watching the nightly eight o’clock news on France’s Channel 2, I want to immerse my head in a bucket of Bordeaux.”

I watch that newscast, too (it’s on the web at France2.fr. Be prepared to follow quick French) and it does seem to focus on the negatives of the day, but that’s pretty much TV news everywhere these days.

Les Petits Plaisirs

Harriet’s choice of chapters summarizes the culture differences well. There’s an important one on “Romance, French Style,” and one I especially liked entitled “Small is good: Les Petits Plaisirs.” Several deal with the special differences and attractions of French women, and she wraps it up with “How I Became A Little Bit French.”

Joie de Vivre is a charming book, informative at the same time it entertains. I give it five stars. If you’re already a Francophile you’ll enjoy it immensely; if you’re just thinking about a visit you should consider it as well.

Thomas Dunne Books. Kindle edition $11.99, hardcover $19.17. I reviewed the Kindle edition, which I purchased. Its Amazon page is here.