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July 8, 2005
Summer on the Pompe
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Sitting here in our apartment, drapes closed to the glaring afternoon light, green and white awnings drawn down outside, large glasses of Badoit and Coca Light on our desks - summer has arrived.
We raced over to Darty, the Circuit City-type store conveniently located across the street. Deux ventilateurs S.V.P. “Two fans please.” They are whooshing away right now. By the way, there was a huge run on fans at Darty’s. In aggressive American style, Catherine and I each grabbed one of the few remaining boxes and felt grateful we had acted so decisively on the matter. No discussion for us. Just hard and fast buying.
I am listening to my Buddha Bar CD and thinking about what to write. So much has happened in the last months that it is hard to catch up. Did I tell you I love Paris?
Catherine has just finished a phone call with her brother in Minnesota. They are having regular discussions regarding a software product they are developing to assist with statistical analysis. Heady stuff. He and his family are leaving on an around-the-world-tour in a couple of days. The itinerary is mind boggling.
In fact, their trip inspired Catherine to spend part of an afternoon investigating around-the-world airline packages. It turns out to be a gigantic puzzle: touch down in three continents, no going back, so many cities here, so many there. Swing your partner and do-si-do.
During her browsing Catherine happened across the concept of “mileage runs.” These are breakneck trips to add up air miles for frequent flyer status. Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer Magazine, did a two-week “airathon” which included 44 cities, 38 states, three countries and earned him 52,000 miles. I told Catherine I wasn’t quite up to an airathon but maybe a trip to Prague. Needless to say the travel bug is alive and thriving chez Catherine et Georgia.
So what have we been doing?
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Well, in mid-May we went to Italy for 5 days – flew into Naples, rented a car, drove to Tivoli, then Rome, then Sorrento, took the train to Pompeii and Naples, and then flew home. It was an Italian whirlwind. Swirly and sweet, kind of like the gelato. Add to that crooning musicians, coffee to die for, sultry sunsets, yellow mornings, big Pizza pies, mad cap taxi rides and the mists of Vesuvius. The Coloseum was the cherry on top. Now that’s a gelato domenica (ice cream Sunday). (Photo: Piazza Navona)
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I would have to say my favorite place was Tivoli. Our hotel room faced a 1st century Roman ruin, the Temple Vesta (see photo), and the historic part of Tivoli is massively elegant in that stark Italian way. We went to Hadrian’s palace and – peak experience – the Villa d’Esta built by Cardinal d’Esta in the 1550’s. Heavenly. Fountains and more fountains. My friend told me to go there and she was 100% right. It is a MUST.
We came home from Italy on May 10th and reported the next day to the Prefecture on the Ile de la Cité, the downtown police headquarters. We had appointments to continue the application process for our long-term visas. Fortunately, our documents were in order and our Franglish was enough. (At this point we have received our carte de sejour’s which are good through May, 2006.) A lot of folderol without much benefit, but going up against the French bureaucracy is invigorating.
And then we settled down to our lives in Paris again. The Oui/Non controversy was raging; our proprietor finally showed up with the gas and electricity bill; and the neighbors began having candle-lit dinner parties down in the courtyard which began at 10 PM.
Mr. Rollie (it turns out the French call it mon caddie) got back out on rue de la Pompe, rolling up and down with the best of them; although I must admit, Rollie’s wheels are beginning to fall off on occasion. This is a nuisance especially in the middle of crossing the street with a full load of groceries. There go the four bags of lettuce splayed all over the Pompe. The French look aghast at such over-consumption.
I have ventured into a few more stores and found a tailor and a dry cleaner. And recently I went to Franck Provost hair salon for a hair cut, via sign language, and a Fresh Water treatment which was either some kind of conditioner or a dousing of the head with cold water – I couldn’t tell which.
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I am now recognizing the locals as we pass each other on the rue. I know most of the neighborhood chiens and feel quite at home standing in line with all the other caddie-totting shoppers at the Casino Supermarché.
Our French is improving, albeit slowly. It would help if I studied. Catherine is currently zooming ahead under the auspices of geeking out – she has written an entire flash card program and a website of French grammar. I am crying Foul! in my head and dreading the day when I suddenly realize she is fluent and I am still saying I go to the store. But, several waiters have resisted the need to switch to English as of late and Jean Robert said I was improving. So there is hope. And to really up the ante, we have committed to a two-week immersion course in the Loire valley for September with the Coeur de France language school.
Then there are friends, family and French fries (actually we don’t eat many French fries but it sounded good)…
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Mary Wilson stayed in Paris for the whole of May and we had many a nice café experience. The most memorable was our visit to Brasserie Balzar, a classic brasserie on rue des Ecoles with glittering mirrors, dark wood paneling and an army of white-aproned waiters. We had quite the ladies’ luncheon: a millefeuille des legumes, or layered cake of grilled vegetables with a red pepper sorbet at its side. Then Gratin Dauphinois, scalloped potatoes, and a side of string beans. Afterwards we had noisettes, a bit of chocolate and a conversation with the waiter. Mary talked and I nodded.
Apparently the owner of the famous Brasserie Lipp down on Boulevard St. Germain opened Brasserie Balzar for his wife. Sort of a “his and hers” café-style I guess. I’ve been to both and must say my heart belongs to Balzar. It is snuggly whereas Lipp is snooty. It is intime whereas Lipp is grande. It is about eating whereas Lipp is about being there. In short, at Balzar I feel looked after; at Lipp I feel looked down upon.
I took Cate and Vanessa to Balzar the day they arrived in Paris. And I took my mother and aunt on our way to the Sorbonne during their visit. It is now one of my things to do in Paris. And I have just read Adam Gopnik’s entire chapter memorializing this brasserie in his book about Paris called Paris to the Moon.
While I’m on the subject of books about Paris, I met Mary Collins for an afternoon break while she was here de-installing the nest piece at the Pompidou. She asked me if I was reading books on Paris and suggested Gopnik’s book. (It’s a fact. When I am not outside on the streets of Paris, I am often inside reading about Paris. Obsessive really.) Aside from Gopnik’s Moon book, I have just finished reading Paris in Mind by Jennifer Lee, A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke and Paris Journal 1944-1955 by Janet Flanner (Genêt). And lucky for me, there are so many more to go.
During my mother’s and aunt’s visit, we piled Paris books on the dining room table and perused them every morning. I have to tell you, in planning our days the one we referred to most was Paris for Dummies. And here I was bragging about Rick Steves’ travel books being too baby for me now. I guess I better rethink that big shotism. I wonder which travel books Rick uses...probably the Dummies.
Anyway, back to Mary. She took me to the restaurant supply store, Dehilliers (a genre in and of itself) and then to the Paul’s boulongerie on Rue du Bac. While there, over noisettes and tartes, we watched spellbound as two teenage girls were apprehended and held captive by the pastry chef for stealing a customer’s wallet. The police arrived and, yes it’s true, an Inspector Clouseau look-alike was at their helm. The affair ended with the girls being frisked and hauled off in the paddy wagon. Nothing like a little coffee and crime to pass a French afternoon.
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And to continue our famous café jaunts, a couple of Saturdays ago Catherine, Alison and I lunched at Café de Flore to celebrate Alison’s birthday. We were seated in the very back corner, no man’s land, but I liked it. Much better than being out on the front line with all the celeb types. We saw our friend, Thomas (pronounced in the Anglicized form), who joined us for a Coca Light and about 8 cigarettes. He is very much the (former) French film producer and we were sure he knew who all the stars were that day at Flore. In talking about the usual - the French vs. the Americans - he made an interesting comment: the French know how to talk about a problem and never come to agreement; the Americans know how to find solutions. Needless to say, he grew up with an Amerophile for a father and is very pro American.
Closer to home, there was a marvelous and surprising transformation in the neighborhood. In the winter there were no sidewalk cafes. Catherine and I were both a little disappointed when we arrived and began to realize there were only indoor brasseries near our house. But throughout the winter and early spring we made do, and figured we could go down to Trocadero or Alma-Marceau for the sidewalk cafes when the weather turned. But we were soon to be surprised. As soon as it warmed up, down came the awnings on Place Muette, open went the floor-to-ceiling windows of all our local brasseries, and out came the round café tables and woven chairs. Voila. Sidewalk cafes all over the place. It seems there is this seasonal conversion throughout the city. It is the high art of the indoor/outdoor dining experience. A whole new world.
What I love about the café life is that supreme sense of contentment it evokes in me. Those three little words – quality of life – resonate. Imagine the freedom to stop the frenetic go-and-do simply to enjoy watching the sky turn periwinkle. I remember being in Lyon on my first trip to France and seeing all the cafes fill up around 5:30 in the evening. Everyone looked so satisfied. It was as if this was the meaning of life, not the countless activities they had to plow through before getting to that magic moment when they joined their friends, lovers and neighbors at the café. Now Catherine and I are with them, having an afternoon drink and a bit of conversation at our favorite sidewalk café. Just another day on the Pompe.
And last but not least come les jardins.
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It has been a festival of flowers since the beginning of June. From the Jardin des Plantes on the east side, to the Bois de Boulougne on the west. From the Luxembourg to the Tuilerie to Giverny to Versailles to Ranelagh right down the street. It has been a garden extravaganza. My mother and aunt provoked many a visit to these gardens or perhaps these visits were at my instigation. Whatever the cause, it has been wonderful.
And strange things have happened during these garden adventures. For instance, we were standing in the parking lot at Giverny, after an afternoon of bounty and blossoms, waiting anxiously for our bus to arrive. Who do I see but my dear friend Howard from L.A. Just walking by. He was in Paris visiting with friends. We immediately exchanged numbers and had dinner two days later.
Then there was the day my mother, aunt and I packed sack lunches of baguettes with fromage et jambon and headed off to the Jardin des Tuilerie. After walking, we found three green chairs right in front of the fountain and began our pique-nique. It started to sprinkle. Sprinkles turned to rain and rain turned to thunder storm. Not to be deterred, we pulled out our umbrellas, tucked our feet under our chairs and continued our luncheon while the rest of the visitors (and the ducks) scurried away. Truly al fresco dining. After finishing, we had coffee in a café under the trees and pushed down to the Jeu de Paume to see if any exhibits were on. Who should we run into but Martin from L.A.! He had just popped in for a moment to get out of the rain. We exchanged hi’s and bye’s and went off on our ways. Just another chance encounter in the middle of this small world called home.
So that is it for now. Tomorrow Catherine and I are off to a barge trip down the Burgundy Canal. Happy floating.