I came late to this amusing and informative book, I’m sorry to say. It’s an amazingly detailed compilation and exploration of what the French would call curiosités or choses insolites but it’s also a broad cultural overview. It’s an example of the best of a certain type of book designed to explain France to English-speakers.
Between A and Z you will learn there are more than twenty-five varieties of garlic grown in France, and that the guillotine was designed by a doctor shortly before the French Revolution as a more humane means of execution. Attaching his name to it horrified him, and his family rechristened itself to escape the shame.
From Absinthe to Zidane
On the way to Zinedine Zidane you will make obligatory stops at Mata Hari, the legendary Dutch dancer executed as a spy (she was really a double agent) near the end of World War I, and a longish section on the history of restaurants, before ending with the entry for Zidane, the former soccer star. He used to be best known for the infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final (which I saw on TV in Paris and will always remember), but he’s since become a respected soccer coach for Real Madrid.
Piu Eatwell is an Oxford graduate now living and writing in Paris, according to her website. She’s written several other books I was aware of but have not reviewed, including They Eat Horses, Don’t They, The Truth About the French, a well reviewed outline of the stories behind the myths Anglophones believe about the French. I found all of them on her list at Amazon.
F is for France was mismarketed, in my view. It should have been sold as a book of much broader general interest, like David Downie’s work, instead of a cabinet of curiosities. But I’m glad I came across it again. For a lover of France and Paris it is both an entertainment and a reference work. It will stay in my library.
My first exposure to F is for France was an advance reader copy I downloaded from Netgalley in 2016 and promptly forgot. When I ran across it again (while I was preparing Netgalley to support the publication of my next novel in a few months), I bought the Kindle version, which is the edition on which this review is based.
“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.
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.
Opening Peter Steiner’s new novel The Capitalist was like visiting an old friend in his quaint
cottage in the Loire — comfortable, relaxed (with a glass of good wine) and confident you’re about to hear a great story.
I came to Peter’s books with The Resistance, when he presented it at the American Library in Paris. His protagonist, Louis Morgon, is a retired (not by choice) CIA spook and sort-of diplomat who settles in the small French town of Saint-Léon-sur-Dême, which, in his depression after being fired and divorced, he chooses in a very simple way: he gets off the plane at De Gaulle airport, hitches up his backpack, and starts walking south. When he gets to a place he likes, he stops and settles in.
In The Resistance he bought a long-abandoned house where he found a stash of World War II pistols used by the Résistance, thus the title. I reviewed that here.
By now Louis is getting older. He’ll never see 70 again, but he’s accumulated a deep network of friends, including the local policeman (Renard) and a lover (Pauline), who play outsized roles in The Capitalist. Over the years in Saint-Léon-sur-Dême he’s become an accomplished painter, a skill that plays an oversized role in the resolution of the story.
Thomas Dunne Books. Available in Kindle ($12.99) or hardcover ($19.84) editions ****
I don’t know Peter Steiner well, in fact hardly at all. I met him that one time in Paris and exchanged emails with him, and he was nice enough to write a blurb for my novel Last Stop: Paris. I do know that he lives part of the year in France, and have to think that informs his descriptions of village life, just as my time in Paris informs my writing.
He’s been in the creative world for a very long time, mainly as an acclaimed cartoonist for The New Yorker, then as novelist. Remember the one from 1993, captioned “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog?” That was Peter’s, and it’s the most-reproduced cartoon in the magazine’s history.
Morgon’s bête noir is St. John Larrimer — “he pronounced his name SIN-jun in the English manner,” a little touch that tells you everything you need to know — a mini-Madoff who succeeds in fleecing all his money management clients. The most tragic of them is Pauline’s brother Jean-Baptiste, an unaware man who decides it’s easier to send his clients’ money to Larrimer than to manage it himself, so it’s gone. Unfortunately, he told them he was the manager, which turns out to be illegal, and his way out is to slit his wrists.
Pauline, her family and friends are seriously hurt, not least by the money they lost, and Louis is furious. As he has in the past, he determines to do something about it, and he does.
Stick with it through the first couple of chapters, which deal with some of the collateral damage of the excessively enthusiastic capitalism that marked the first few years of the century — it’s what James Michener called “weeding out the ribbon clerks.” Don’t be one of those and you’ll be amply rewarded.
The plot is complicated and tricky, and the best tradition of this kind of novel it’s very hard to tell if the good guys win or lose. I think I know, but I suggest you form your own opinion.
(This review is based on an advance uncorrected proof furnished by the publisher.)
The highlight of our two-month stay in Paris this summer, hands down, was the day and a half Jan and I spent as extras for a film being made for the Paris Opera Ballet.
Opéra Bastille (from Shutterstock – all other stills by John Pearce)
We had short roles but fairly prominent ones — we’re the first people you see when La Grande Sortie (“The Grand Exit”) opens, two Americans arguing gently about why they’re late as they run up to a queue of well-dressed Parisians waiting to enter the theater.
The 10-minute film was written and directed by Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager, who is increasingly well known in the theater world, both as a still photographer and as a director of short films centered on the world of entertainment.
La Grande Sortie is one of the first works to be included in the Paris Opera’s “3e scène” (“3rd Stage”), the digital extension of the opera ballet championed by the choreographer and director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied. Born in Bordeaux, raised in Senegal, he is best known in the United States as a former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet and the husband of actress Natalie Portman. (We saw an HD video of his Daphnis et Chloë, music by Ravel, at the Sarasota Opera a couple of weeks ago and thought it was magnificent. It was recorded before he became head of the ballet in 2013.)
If you are seriously interested in music and the arts, as we are, the opportunity to spend a day on and around the main stage of the Opéra Bastille made the time and effort worthwhile. It’s a huge rush to be inside the magnificent 2,700-seat hall when there’s no performance going on — just dozens of costume assistants, staff, electricians and other backstage folk, plus some very complicated camera setups — the nuts and bolts which, put together in just the right configuration, make up the pinnacle of international ballet and opera.
What’s a figurant?
We were among 72 figurants, as extras are known in French, and among five who received special mention in the titles because we had speaking roles. (See the slide headed “Avec” (“With”) near the end of the film.)
The film was shot over three days but we were involved in only one, Sunday, June 20, when the audience and exterior shots were filmed. The day before, we were called to a studio near the opera for costume selection, which went smoothly and took most of the afternoon. It left just enough time for a nice dinner in Le Café Bastille, a bistro around the corner from the opera.
Sunday started very early. Uber picked us up at our apartment in Montparnasse at 5 a.m. and delivered us back there fourteen hours later.
The rehearsal hall where initial costuming and makeup took place, with the Paris skyline in the background
First stop when we arrived was the large ballet practice studio on the eighth floor above the main stage of Opéra Bastille, where the costumes and makeup stations had been installed. If you know us and watch the film, you’ll see some significant changes wrought by the costume and makeup departments — I don’t wear caps except when I go out for my morning walk in Sarasota, and Jan doesn’t have a blonde bouffant hairdo. Or that dress. Or those plastic pearls. The shirt definitely belonged to someone else.
Our role was to act like Americans who don’t quite grasp French culture — that will be clear when you watch it.
The film opens with a slow Steadicam pan down the July Column in the center of the Place de la Bastille, and then we come into view, panting our way toward the end of the entrance line, arguing over why we’re late. The delay had something to do with the fact that Paris restaurants don’t offer free iced-tea refills (which is true, as far as it goes, but in fact they rarely even offer iced tea).
The contrast of this American in his red plaid shirt and ball cap with the well-turned-out Parisian crowd is striking. There’s some stereotyping going on, but not a lot.
Arty alert: This is a movie about an étoile ballerina’s career collapsing during the course of a single performance. It’s avant-garde, not traditional, but the music is luscious. Stick with it and it will repay your effort.
Ten takes and a half-dozen dialogue changes later our speaking part was done, and it was hardly 7 o’clock.
Alex Prager fine-tunes the makeup for Jean-Marc Guillerme, who played the ticket-taker
Then it was back inside for costume changes on the main stage (where the costume racks had been moved), and audience shots. The rest of the day was spent moving around in the seats so Alex could create the audience views she needed, plus the final scene showing the étoile (the star dancer) leaving the theater. We had changed costumes three times and had a classic movie-set lunch under a tent set up in the catering area.
As opera spectators, we see only the seats, the pit and the visible parts of the stage — not the warren of hidden passages within the walls and behind the stage or the large wings on each side of the stage. It is immense, and impressive.
While I still prefer the old opera house, Palais Garnier, the new one (inaugurated 1989) is fast on its way to being my favorite.
Here’s my quick video overview of what it looked like toward the end of the day on the stage:
How we got the gig
How we were chosen for the job is almost Lana Turner-ish.
When we’re in Paris we normally take French lessons at Lutèce Langues, a school not far from the Seine and Place du Châtelet, on the Right Bank. The school breaks for 15 minutes between the first 90-minute session and the second, and during that time we rush downstairs
Alex Prager, holding drink
to one of our favorite bistros, Au P’tit Boulevard, for coffee. Over time, we made friends with the manager, Alex (another Alex, no relation to the director that we know of).
And then one morning Alex the manager came to the school looking for us. His friend Nicolas Lublin of Slowdance Productions was seeking two middle-aged Americans to cast in the upcoming movie. We did a short interview on the street, then later his assistant Anton Lombard came to our apartment and did a video interview, which he sent to Alex the director. She either liked what she saw or didn’t have time to look further, and we were hired.
She and her staff were a pleasure to work with — very professional and efficient.
We were a little surprised to learn we would be paid, and not badly. Some of the other figurants told us they get fairly steady work because of the tremendous amount of movie-making done in Paris. If you stay there any length of time at all you’ll find your sidewalk blocked by a movie crew.
My photos below tell the rest of the story. If you want to see more backstage pictures at Opéra Bastille, go to my Google Photos folder online (unedited).
WQXR’s Operavore tells about 3e Scène, with links to several of the short films, including ours.
Last Stop: Paris, the sequel to Treasure of Saint-Lazare, will be published on Dec. 1. Review copies are available. If you would like to review one or both of the books, please email my publisher, including a link to any previous novel review you’ve published. To get the flavor of my first novel, look at it on Amazon. It was picked as the top historical mystery of 2014 by Readers’ Favorite, the big review site, and reached #39 on the all-Kindle best-seller list.
All photos taken with the iPhone 6 using the Camera+ app.
Frank the first assistant director (2nd from left, foreground) has a pre-shoot discussion with the sound man
Early-morning makeup call
The main stage of Opera Bastille from the audience, with a helium-filled lighting balloon in the center
Lighting the rear of the auditorium for the exit shot; the helium balloons give a bright and even light
Alex Prager with Frank, the first assistant director, on stage, through the smoke used for effect.
The main stage from the wings
After lunch, a fellow extra shows off his stars-and-stripes socks (he’s French, and they like Americans)
End of the day. The lighting balloon lay deflating on the floor of the stage. I know how it felt.
I was walking through Place Dauphine on Île de la Cité when a bookstore display caught my eye — it was this book of “stupefying but true” prisoners’ last words before they ascended the steps of the “national razor.”
Its title is “Shortcuts,” which is witty enough, but it’s the last little lagniappe that makes it really humorous. The book is shaped like a guillotine blade, its bottom edge cut at an angle like the edge Dr. Guillotin designed just before the French Revolution to make death as quick and painless as possible.
Some bons mots from the book, relayed from its review in Le Monde last April (translation errors are mine):
“Voilà une semaine qui commence mal.” (This is a week that’s starting off badly.) Olympe de Gouges, woman of letters, feminist, executed on Nov. 3, 1793 — a Monday.
“C’est mauvais pour la santé.” (It’s bad for the health.) Henri Landru, a serial killer executed in 1922, when he was offered a cigarette and a glass of rum just before the blade descended.
“Au revoir, monsieur, et bonne continuation !” (Goodbye, and enjoy the rest of my book.) The Marquis de Charost, executed in 1793 at the age of 23. He read a book in the tumbrel on his way to the guillotine and, when he arrived, carefully turned down the page and handed it to a guard.
“Si ça peut faire plaisir au curé.” (If that would please the priest.) Antoine Martin, who killed his brother, politely accepting the last rites.
The last person was guillotined in France on 10 September 1977. Capital punishment was abolished in 1981.
A toddler at one of the city’s 1,200 fountains (photo from Paris.fr)
Paris in July is normally a comfortable place to be, with high temperatures around 70 degrees, sunny days, and an occasional rain shower in the afternoon – which is why many people carry tiny umbrellas all the time.
But in recent years there have been all-too-frequent exceptions, with potentially fatal consequences in a country that doesn’t use much air conditioning. This year we’re experiencing a particularly nasty heat wave, or canicule, that pushed the daily high to 103 earlier this week. Today it’s milder — only 92 — and should cool down over the next few days, especially if we get the rain that’s forecast for tomorrow.
The New York Times’s Timothy Egan wrote this week of the unusual weather in his city. In a piece headlined “Seattle on the Mediterranean,” he points out that Seattle is farther north than Maine or Montreal, and had eight days of 85 degree highs or more last month. Last weekend, Walla Walla hit 113 degrees.
Paris, at 49 degrees north latitude, is even further north than Seattle, and the weather’s been warmer.
France’s government, led by the activist city government of Paris, has substantially beefed up its efforts to protect the people most likely to be affected by the canicule. Those are mainly young children, the elderly, the handicapped, and others that for one reason or another feel most threatened. A lack of adequate support contributed to the deaths of 15,000 people in the last major heat wave, in 2003.
This year, Paris has entire battery of measures in force. They include:
– A daily phone call to people enrolled in its Chalex register, a voluntary list of people whose health could be threatened by the heat. If the city’s callers find a problem, they dispatch a social worker and a volunteer physician.
– Cooler refuges are opened at the times of highest heat.
– Reminders are posted everywhere to stay inside, out of the sun, and protect yourself. Employers are urged to reschedule their outdoor workers to keep them out of the worst heat.
– 1,200 water fountain are available around the city, and a map is available on the excellent municipal web site, Paris.fr.
– 5,000 containers of water were furnished to the homeless, along with maps directing them to the nearest fountain.
Rue Daguerre is always a hoppin’ place, but on Sundays it really comes to life. It’s a magnet for Parisians and tourists looking for a good lunch or really choice groceries – today we bought slices of an outstanding rolled veal roast, from a butcher who normally deals only in poultry. It was a good dinner.
Rue Daguerre is in the 14th arrondissement, south of the major attractions, one of the middle-class districts without a lot of tourist interest. It is only 630 meters long, and its anchor at the east end is the wide Avenue du Général Leclerc. A grateful France renamed it in 1948 in honor of the French general who led his armored division up the avenue seventy-one years ago during the fight for the Liberation of Paris (August 1944). Today there’s an interesting museum to his life above Gare Montparnasse.
View down Rue Daguerre
Until the 1990s the first block of the rue, the most active part, was a covered shopping street. Today it’s a mostly pedestrian area with a half-dozen restaurants, a couple of vegetable vendors (primeurs, who only sell the prime stuff), a fancy honey shop, a little general store where you can find just about anything, two grocery stores and a wine merchant. Plus thousands of people.
It is part of Montparnasse. The west end of the rue is only a short walk from the Montparnasse railway station (Gare Montparnasse). Hemingway’s haunts aren’t far away, Simone de Beauvoir lived nearby, and Calder had a studio on one of the side streets. The apartment we rented this year has a view across Montparnasse cemetery, an oasis of green in city of stone. And there’s much more in the neighborhood.
One of the traditional go-to spots on the rue is Café Daguerre, which dominates the corner. It serves a great breakfast (either French or “English,” depending on whether you want an omelet; I had one, with ham). It seems to be open all the time, and there’s very little turnover among waiters. This is our fifth year to stay in the 14th and the faces seem to be pretty much the same.
Café Daguerre is where I learned to appreciate the “café gourmand,” a platter of small desserts with an expresso. It was developed a decade ago as a way to speed up lunch, but I view it as my chance to sample three or four different desserts at the same time.
Rue Daguerre was named after Louis Daguerre, who introduced the daguerreotype photograph in the early 1800s. He’s considered one of the fathers of modern photography and is one of the few luminaries whose names are engraved on the Eiffel Tower.
The great square just above Rue Daguerre, Place Denfert-Rochereau (Google images), is one of the city’s major transportation hubs. It provides access to two metro lines, the RER B suburban train (which goes straight to Degaulle airport), and a half-dozen city buses.
It’s the entrance to the Catacombs, the ossuaries moved to the old quarries under the Left Bank when the Right Bank cemeteries burst their banks and threatened the city with disease and unpleasantness. (Most of Paris was built from stone quarried under the city, but that’s another story.)
Seventy feet under the square the bunker from which the Résistance fight for the Liberation 71 years ago was directed; it was built before the war as a precaution and the Germans seem not to have found out about it. My latest information is that it’s now used for temperature-controlled plant science.
Photo Gallery: Sunday morning on Rue Daguerre
Butcher wrapping our veal. No one had taken the pig’s head
A primeur. Note the cooling spray on the vegetables, with water running down the mirror behind them
Another offering from the cheese merchant. This one is good, I guarantee it
A Passion for Paris is the story of the Romantic period in Paris, the period most Americans think of as Paris itself — the nineteenth century from Victor Hugo onward. Downie’s knowledge of the city is encyclopedic, as you’d expect from someone who’s lived in and written about it for decades. He and his wife Alison Harris, an outstanding photographer who contributes to his work as well as having her own practice, also offer walking tours of the city, which I’ve taken. They are excellent.
He has the guts of a daylight burglar. Some of his best vignettes result from back-door visits to places not ordinarily open to visitors, as well as ad-hoc interviews with people who start out unwilling to talk to him but wind up offering delightful vignettes.
His descriptions of the sights are colorful and add to the pleasure of the book. For example, here he is in full flight about the Carnavalet museum, the must-see municipal museum in the Marais:
“It’s an entertaining steeplechase of 146 rooms on three floors with 600,000 items on display in two multi-winged historic town houses wrapped around five mossy courtyards joined by staircases and passageways, one of them flying like a Chinese bridge over the Lycée Victor Hugo.”
All this history started with Victor Hugo, who lived and wrote during the turbulent period between the French Revolution and the Commune, the violent near-revolution in Paris shortly after the fall of Napoleon III. Or, in Downie’s words:
“…1830 was the year a motley group of French Romantics gathered around Victor Hugo and his friends and rivals and swept Paris into the paradoxically romantic modern age, or the unexpectedly modern Romantic age.”
Much of their work was descended from Chateaubriand, especially his René, who Downie believe “shaped or warped the minds of a generation, starting with Victor Hugo.” George Sand said, “I was René.” Baudelaire, a generation later, was still influenced by Chateaubriand.
Read the book. It’s a bottomless well of information about one of the most important periods of Paris history. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Kindle edition $12.99, hardcover $20.17 on Amazon.
If you have trouble keeping up with the characters, turn to his outstanding Time Line app. I use it frequently to look up personalities or points of history, and can’t summarize it any better than this “about” material Downie sent me:
About this app:
Entertaining, informative, opinionated: David Downie’s Paris Time Line brings Paris alive.
This is much more than a Wikipedia-style listing. It features Paris and Paris alone and goes into places revealing details you’ll find nowhere else.
The When, Where, Why, What and Who of Paris: David Downie’s Paris Time Line features key Dates, Places, Events and People in Paris’s 2,000+ years of history.
The layout is simple and clear. This app is all you need to explore the City of Light on site or in an armchair, from the time when Paris was a pre-Roman settlement of mud huts, to the kaleidoscopic megalopolis of the present day.
Fully illustrated with hundreds of historic images and contemporary photos by the author or by photographer Alison Harris, David Downie’s Paris Time Line tells you where to go to see Paris’s history alive today or documented in the streets, monuments, churches, museums, parks, and gardens of the city. While you roam around Paris, David Downie’s Paris Time Line helps you discover dozens of key Places: you learn what you’re looking at, when it was built or came into being, and what historical or contemporary figures are associated with it.
You can also search by name: “Napoleon” for example. Or you can search by an event-driven term like “Impressionism.”
It’s available on the App Store (Look up Romanticism for a thumbnail history.) $4.99
Remember all the political talk about the debasement of the dollar? If you’ve been following exchange rates lately you’ll understand that debasement, like the looming inflation that was about to devour the American economy, has been sort of … weak. Like nonexistent.
Wonkblog (Washington Post) posted an astute analysis of the Euro/Dollar situation and came to the same conclusion I did. If you want to go to Paris (or anywhere else in the Euro Zone), now may be the time to do it.
Wonkblog reporter Matt O’Brien wrote: “Next summer is looking like the best time to take that European vacation you’ve been thinking about. That’s because the euro has already fallen to a 12-year low of $1.06, and should keep falling for at least another year. In fact, it shouldn’t be long until the dollar is worth more.”
He’s right – it looks like there’s some chance the Euro will reach the holy grail for American tourists — parity with the dollar. That’s only happened once before, very early in the life of the Euro, and there are still far-sighted people traveling on the Euros they bought then.
Here’s the link to Matt O’Brien’s good article. Don’t miss it. Paris will be nice this summer. I’ll see you there.