Thursday, August 26, 2010

An ever-more-purposeful Parisian

You may wonder why I haven't been blogging in a few months.

Supposedly, I have been in Paris this summer. Supposedly, because that was the plan: I work in Cathedral Town, UK during the academic year, and outside of term I live in Paris, working on my writing and research. Easy, right? But it feels like I've hardly been in Paris at all: I went to two weddings, took a fantastic holiday in the US and attended a few conferences. My Paris time has flown by, much of it having been spent in my home office cursing the proofs for Book 2. (Finally! Done! Gaaah!) So, that's all happy stuff, but blogging has been pushed aside.

And then, there's the little issue of my job. I loved my work in Cathedral Town but then to my great surprise I got an interview, and then a position, at Regal College. It's a better job and a better commute to both London and Paris. This means that both academic research and marital life will be easier to juggle. The past year has been tough and now that our job anxieties have settled down, I actually feel like I could enjoy Paris. (I know, like, crazy or what?!) But in the meantime I'm moving. Again.

So, this leads us to our next project. Since MCM now has a permanent position in Paris, which he loves, and we've committed to taking the Eurostar train quite frequently, we're going to try to buy an apartment in Paris. We'll be targeting north-eastern Paris, both because of its affordability and its proximity to Gare du Nord, where the Eurostar arrives. Right now it takes a good hour to get to Gare du Nord from our apartment in the western suburbs, and that, frankly, sucks big time. It sucks enough that I am willing to DO YET ANOTHER MOVE. Because you all know that I need to move house EVERY SINGLE YEAR to keep my blood pressure up.

My plan is to gradually chronicle the experience here. It will be another primer in French bureaucracy, hopefully an entertaining introduction to the world of immobilier (French property), and a window into real Parisian apartment living. I've scanned Anglophone decoration and property magazines and websites and most of the 'authentic Parisian apartments' featured cost well over a million, of any particular reserve currency. Uh, that won't be us.

And then there's size. I'm sick of reading about (admittedly very groovy) places on Apartment Therapy and the like, with the owners cooing It was such a challenge to implement our major design plans within such a tiny space but we just love it and are so smug now blah blah blah... only to find out their idea of 'tiny' is three times as large as the 430 square feet in which MCM and I happily dwell at the moment.

And we're looking for a bit of a renovation project, too - the kind of place that is advertised as a rafraichir (needs updating). This is partly to add value, and to get the most space for our budget, and also because I really like to get my hands dirty. And keep my blood pressure high. I have to remind myself, though, that renovating a 4th floor walkup in Belleville won't be like driving to Lowe's in American suburbia and then returning home to park in your own driveway. Especially since we don't even have a car. Heck, I don't even have a licence. sniff sniff Does anyone smell disaster and chipped nails?

So, lots of excitement to come, and hopefully lots of amusing blog posts to follow in turn. Thanks to all of you who are still reading and following. Just for you, I'm also going to share some more piccies of what to wear to French weddings, in a post to follow shortly.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Exhibition Review: Les Orientales

This coming Saturday, 15 May is the Nuit des Musees across Europe, when dozens of museums will stay open late (many until midnight) and offer free admission. There is a list of the Paris museums participating, and special events on, on this website.

I love museums and they are the main reason I like living in cities; I don't know why I never blog about them. I went to tonnes of museums and studied a bit of art history as a teenager, but it wasn't until I was in grad school that the penny dropped and I realised that an exhibit is no different from an academic article or college student essay: an exhibition has a central argument and it structures its evidence to prove that thesis. Some are more successful than others. With that in mind, I'm going to give out grades for exhibitions I review here.

I was very keen to see the 'Les Orientales' exhibit at the Victor Hugo Museum, celebrating the 1829 publication of Hugo's collected poetry on an 'oriental' theme. Housed on the first floor of Hugo's former home, the small exhibition is spread over several rooms and contains a number of works from artists like Delacroix and Gericault, as well as manuscripts and illustrated books from Hugo himself and contemporary writers like Chateaubriand. If you love Delacroix, like I do, then you'll enjoy seeing some of these lesser-known pieces brought together.

But otherwise, I found the exhibition a bit disappointing. It was very strange that the word 'romanticism' never appeared in the exhibit (although it was used once in the programme). Orientalism itself was never probed as a concept, which would have been intriguing as it meant different things over the nineteenth century, and some again different today. One of the final rooms had a series of odalisque portraits that played on the idea of Eastern women in harems. These were great pieces, but they spanned over 50 years, with no contextualisation or reflection on the difference between a portrait of an Algerian woman in 1830 and one in 1885. I also found, ironically, many of the commentaries to be jargon-filled and inaccessible to most general visitors. Plus, the rooms were small and dimly lit and there seemed to be far too many people working there, so that even though there were probably only twenty other people there at the same time as us, we felt that we were constantly bumping into people.

Tickets to Les Orientales cost, if I remember correctly, 7 euro (I can't find the information anywhere on the website!). The rest of the house, being one of the municipal museums, is free. If you happen to be in Place des Vosges it's worth checking out to see the inside of one of the hotel particuliers on the square. But be warned that the museum presumes that you know Hugo's life, family history and artistic oeuvre very well, and contains very little information for the unacquainted. For example, a room full of family items (clothing, letters, etc) is labelled with their names, but never tells you who they are in relation to Hugo. I suppose I can't complain because it's a free museum, but I know how competitive it is to break into museum work and I've got to believe that someone could do a better presentation with the material here.

Maison de Victor Hugo
6, place des Vosges
75004 Paris
Metro: Saint Paul
Open 10am-6pm, Tuesday to Saturday
Free for the permanent exhibition (house)
Les Orientales exhibition runs until 4 July and costs 7 euro (I think)
Grade: B-. Shows potential and has strong evidence, but lacks structure and context. Needs to show critical engagement with theoretical terms. Presentation could be improved.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What to do on Sundays in Paris

Sundays in Paris are still considered a day of rest, for religious reasons - that is, the French faith and belief in time off work. But if you live with neighbors in close proximity (and especially if you have parquet floors, like most Parisians) you'd better not spend your day off mowing the lawn, catching up on vacuuming, or installing some new shelves - that is, unless you want your neighbors thumping on the ceiling to subtly and oh-so-passive-aggressively point out that they don't like the noise you're making. (Thanks to Mazarine for that anecdote!) Some Parisians have even been forbidden by their neighbors from running their clothes dryers on Sundays.

You can also scratch off that other UK and US Sunday tradition, of reading a fat newspaper filled with cultural supplements, coupons and cartoons. Most French newspapers are relatively thin, and as I type, they're actually on strike. And if you need to do any shopping, you're not having a lazy sleep in - shops that are open on Sunday usually open in the morning (say, 9-1) rather than the afternoon. Exceptions include areas market 'tourist' - this includes the shopping mall in the basement of the Louvre and the 4 Temps, a big mall at the end of Metro line 1. Food shopping after 1pm is usually limited to gas stations and the corner shops, which are relatively pricey and may not have any fresh bread.

My recommendations instead? Church, of course - in French or in English (St Joseph's RCC, St Michael's Anglican, American Church in Paris, etc). MCM and I usually like to eat - heading to the market in the morning, buying supplies, and then cooking in the afternoon. We also usually try to counter the eating by getting out for a nice walk or a bike ride. You can now rent Velibs near pretty much every Parisian park, including the Bois de Boulogne and Vincennes.

Or, and here's my top suggestion, try one of the markets that are open in the afternoon. I like the covered, open-air book market in the bottom of the 15th arrondissement, which is open every weekend and specialises in used and antiquarian books.

Bring cash. Most books are in French although there are some in English. Some of the vendors are very specialised - like antiquarian books on French colonialism - and some carry jumbled bits of everything (Andrew Morton's biography of Monica Lewinsky, anyone? Or the Hachette Guide des Vins 1987?) There are sections dealing with children's books, cookbooks, fine art books, science fiction, and (gulp) erotic cartoons. If you're just looking for a pocket version of any French literary classic, you'll find it here for a euro.

When you're done, there's a little restaurant across the street, Les Tontons, which specialises in tartares, or there's a Poilane bakery. You can also take a nice walk in the Parc Georges Brassens, a pretty modern park that has lots of play areas for kids.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I heart Romain Duris

I've already hinted at this, but one thing French that I really, really like is... Romain Duris. He's my first choice to play MCM in Accidental Parisian: The Movie. For those of you who are not acquainted with this acting talent, there is the very helpful, a Wikipedia page in English (nice photo!), and one in French, too (regrettable photo). He's a skilled and extremely versatile actor, and his hair has almost had a career of its own. He's 35 and has made as many films; here are a few of my favourites, for a virtual Duris film festival.

Duris first came to my attention in Chacun Cherche Son Chat (While the Cat's Away), a 1996 film about young people in the Bastille area of Paris, as it was beginning to transform from a populaire working-class Parisian neighbourhood to a hip, trendy, and ultimately expensive one. (Average apartment prices are now about 6,000 euro per square meter in Bastille - that's about $300,000 for a one-bed apartment). Duris plays a grungy, cheating drummer. That might not sound promising, but he brings great energy to the roll. You can see him wearing a goofy hat and looking scruffy 37 seconds into this very funny film trailer:

Next Duris highlight would be the 2002 L'Auberge Espagnole, in which he plays a cleancut French Erasmus student in Barcelona. MCM and I met thanks to the Erasmus programme, and this film captures the experience perfectly. The first minute of this clip is classic. A college friend took to calling MCM and I "Xavier and Wendy" in reference to the two characters... who end up getting together in the sequel, Les Poupees Russes. Here he is in a great scene with Audrey Tautou:

There's also a scene where he runs naked down a Parisian street, but that's a bit risque for this blog.

Duris's fantastic hair (nice still here) returned for his supporting roll as a painter/NGO worker who sleeps with Kate Hudson in Le Divorce. The hair got even crazier in Moliere. In his most recent film, which MCM and I saw last week, he plays a professional heartbreaker, L'Arnacoeur. It's a romantic comedy which would be totally goofy if not for Duris's energy and talent. He's got mid-length hair and a scruffy beard, AND he performs the Patrick Swayze dance sequence from Dirty Dancing. Lovely. The official film site is here, with photos and clips. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Restaurant Review: Chez Casimir: the best brunch in Paris?

Hello loyal blog readers! I'm on a break from work in Cathedral City, UK, and spending some time with Mon Cher Mari in Paris. I've missed him, and I've missed you all, too.

MCM and I had a joyful reunion at what is perhaps the best brunch spot in Paris. I've mentioned the recent French obsession with le brunch (and if you're a Froggie reading this, you can learn to make brunch US-style here), and their own afternoon invention, le slunch (shudder). Anyway, brunch at Chez Casimir came highly recommended by Francois Simon, the restaurant critic for the Figaroscope, a weekly events listing magazine associated with the Figaro newspaper. We had dinner at Chez Michel, Casimir's sister (brother) restaurant, about 18 months ago, and it was great. Both are in a neighbourhood close to Gare du Nord - which is gentrifying, though not fast enough for my taste (walking there at night is still slightly creepy but the daytime is absolutely fine). However, it's perfect if you're just walking off the Eurostar or RER from the airport and you are hungry.

Casimir's brunch is at the extreme end of casual and it's a self-serve operation. There's a closet-like wine cellar at the back of the small dining room where you choose your own bottle of wine, with prices starting at just 11 euro a bottle. (We'll get some rubbery bracelets with a 'WWOMD' - What would Olivier Magny Do - message for those of you who need a little encouragement and spiritual reinforcement in the sommelier department). MCM and I chose a zesty little Quincy at 19 euro which was a nice match for the seafood.

Once you've got your wine, you start to eat. And eat. This is not a coffee-croissant-OJ kind of brunch. First, there is a salad buffet (marinated mozzarella, gravlax, cucumbers in yoghurt, a smoked fish and potato salad, heaped baskets of crusty bread, round of gooey cheese the size of a small tire) on a round wooden table in the centre of the room, crowned with a mound of butter the size of a stock pot. Plates from the kitchen (no choice) start arriving: two oysters each, then raw scallops in their shells drizzled with a vinaigrette, then a delicious wild mushroom and tarragon omelette dusted with shards of parmesan, then a tiny Staub casserole of brandade de morue (baccalao), then a slightly larger mini casserole of a light veal stew. Still hungry? Well, you could have more of the salads, or there's a dessert buffet: moelleux au chocolat, little caramel puddings, Breton prune cake, financiers, madeleines... oh, and some grapefruit, in case you're watching your weight. (Watching it go up... and up).

What do you pay for this feast? 25 euro per person. For Paris, for this amount and quality of food, that's incredible value for money. I have no idea how their business model works. They're not spending much on decoration (the room is plain, save for a hideous mural in which, alarmingly, one of the figures looks just like Arsene Wenger with a moustache) or service - there were only two people working the room. Best to reserve, and get there early (12.30 was early enough) - both because it will be calmer, and, to be honest, because there's a lot of cured fish on the menu. On that note, you should turn off both your iPhone and your internal Anthony-Bourdain-brunch-food-safety-conscience.

Chez Casimir
6 Rue de Belzunce
75010 Paris
Metro: Gare du Nord or Poisonnieres.
01 48 78 28 80

Food: Tasty and copious. Casimir does dinner, too, of course, but Saturday and Sunday brunch, called the 'Traou Mad', starts late morning and continues until late afternoon.

Atmosphere/decor: Decor is unreconstructed Parisian cafe from yesteryear (with creepy Wenger-as-Bacchus wall art). Browns, ochres, wooden tables, cheap raggedy checked napkins. Atmosphere was completely relaxed and surprisingly un-bobo. It's all about the food, baby. Kid-friendly, provided your kids can sit at a table without screaming and eat raw fish. They have a highchair.

Service: Non-invasive but friendly.

Value for money: Staggeringly good.

What to wear: Very casual, although it is still not the IHOP, so pass on the PJs. I did see a French couple wearing matching Bad people go to hell, good people go to Waikiki Beach black hooded sweatshirts. That's a Parisian first.

Good for: Brunch with fun, food-loving friends. (If you don't have any of those, invite me).

Not good for: Extremely picky eaters - they will eat, but it won't be amazing value without the oysters and the veal.

Handicapped access: One level, but it's a crowded room with tight corners. Phone ahead and ask to be seated in a convenient place.