The Elvis of France Is Dead

December 6th, 2017

smet johnny hallyday - 1Johnny Hallyday, one of the biggest superstars of modern-day France, died this morning, at 73, of lung cancer. It is no exaggeration to say he was the Elvis if France.  He sang, he acted, he married fellow celebrities. Even if you don’t understand French, you may enjoy this summary of his career by the TV network ARTE.

What the Flock?

December 4th, 2017

For whatever reason, many French people prefer chemically sprayed Christmas trees to real ones. I don’t know why, and can only think that it is some lapse in their usually keen judgment, along with drinking UHT milk instead of fresh and subjecting job candidates to a handwriting analysis.

I was excited this year at my usual flower stand at the marché. Not a single chemical tree in sight! But just as I was standing there thinking that the French were finally losing this strange taste, a woman in a fur coat walked up to the stand owner and said, “Where are your white trees? I can’t find them.”

“They all sold out already,” said the stand owner. “But I’ll have more next week.”

Paris by the Numbers

November 17th, 2017

paris weddingThere was an interesting study released recently on the inhabitants of Paris, and I thought I’d share a few facts:
– 33% of the city is aged between 20 & 39 (vs a national average of 24%)
– There are 325,000 foreigners from 176 countries living here
– People marry more in Paris than elsewhere in France
– 18% of marriages are for people of the same sex (vs 3% elsewhere)
– The employment rate is slightly higher here – 77% vs 74%
– Only 10% of the intra-muros population (living inside the peripherique ring road) uses a car to get around.


The Funk Kidnapper

October 27th, 2017

Two of my favorite French things have Armenian roots: Charles Aznavour and Papier D’Armenie.

Papier D’Armenie, a sweet-smelling room deodorizer, magically rids a space of cooking smells, moldy smells and, amazingly, cigarette smoke. It’s similar to incense, but comes in a packet of 2″ x 3″ chits of paper. Each burns for a short amount of time, kidnapping funk as it wafts away.

The killer ingredient in it is styrax. In the late 1800s, Auguste Ponsat, a Frenchman, observed in Armenia that people would burn the dried sap of styrax shrubs to freshen up a smelly home. Ponsat developed paper pages coated with styrax resin. Papier d’Armenie has been manufactured in Montrouge, a southern suburb of Paris, ever since.

A few years ago, a lighter, more floral variation of Papier D’Armenie was introduced (it’s the bluish cover with the bird illustration). And now a third version has been introduced. Today at the hardware store, I spotted “La Rose.” (Can a Karl Lagerfeld collab be far behind?) In typical French style, the booklets are as chic as they are useful. Can you think of any other country whose room deodorizer makes an appropriate souvenir gift?

Brutalist Paris

October 23rd, 2017

brutalist parisWhen we think of Paris, we don’t generally imagine modern, functional structures in concrete, but a recent map published by Blue Crow Media aims to show how rich the city actually is in imaginative and unusual ‘brutalist’ buildings. More than that, Paris can also legitimately declare itself to be the spiritual home of concrete!

Paris and concrete goes back a long way. As we have already seen on the blog Invisible Paris, one of the pioneers of reinforced concrete, François Hennebique, housed his Paris offices in one the first buildings in the map of brutalist parisworld to be constructed using only this material (which he also used to create his own mad home). His techniques would later be adopted in the city by architects such as Auguste Perret, Pierre Patout and most famously of all, Le Corbusier.

So why is Paris not a concrete city? In many ways it is, but almost exclusively in its edges and outskirts. The centre of Paris was spared the post-war rebuild that many other European cities had to undertake, but a huge increase in population – mostly in mushrooming suburbs and new satellite towns – meant that new builds were necessary across the whole region. Much of this construction was limited to poor-quality tower blocks that were also scuppered by disasterous planning and a desparate lack of infrastructure, but some gems have survived and merit celebration.


Short Story: The Paris Papers

October 3rd, 2017

chanbre de bonneBased on a true story.

The pay was standard. Room, board, and 150 euros per month. “Room” was a single on an 8th floor walk-up, with a communal bathroom in the hall. “Board” was lunch 6 days a week. The salary, less than $6 a day, largely went to the all the other meals I had mistakenly assumed would be included. But I wanted to stay in Paris for the summer, so I moved in the day after the interview.

The room was a classic chambre de bonne, with a single bed and unobstructed view of Sacre Coeur. Bonne is short for bonne à tout faire, “good for doing everything.” As such, the advertised governess job was more housekeeping than babysitting.

“We’ve never had an au pair,” Mrs. Dimas told me. “We are not rich. We can barely afford you.” She showed me how to vacuum the walls, which were covered in fabric. “My husband is a perfectionist,” she said, adding that it was he who insisted the bedsheets be ironed. The French word for perfectionist, when talking about cleanliness, is maniac. Pronounced “mahn-YAK.” She had a confidence, even when lying, that led me to double-check the driver’s license she’d sometime leave on the kitchen counter. Just 29?

contrexThere were two children. Four-year-old Patrice, dark-complected and moody, and three-month-old Sidonie, blonde like her mother, and the subject of a christening in the works, with family coming from all over.

I would arrive to clean up the breakfast table and get Patrice dressed for school while keeping an eye on Sidonie, who dozed off with a belly full of formula that we made with Volvic bottled water. (Madame herself drank Contrex, which was said to be slimming, while her husband, who owned a restaurant, preferred Badoit, the salty one that aids digestion. I found this very sophisticated, and was trying to decide which water brand best reflected the Parisian I was trying to become.)

After dropping Patrice off at nursery school, I’d go back to the apartment where Rose-Annette, as Mrs. Dimas asked me to call her, would go over the housework to be done that day, ensuring I understood the words on the list. She would pull me a coffee from the noisy espresso machine, and then make a production of getting dressed and leaving.

chevalineRose-Annette returned for lunch most days around 1 or so, and we ate together. Usually Sidonie would be down for a nap. Rose-Annette showed me how to steam vegetables in the pressure cooker, and to bake clafoutis with fruit fresh she’d bring up from the market. “I can’t believe Americans buy mayonnaise,” she said one day, mixing a dab of mustard into her homemade mayo. I said, “I can’t believe you French eat horse meat.” I wasn’t sure if the playfulness I intended came across. “I adore horse meat,” Rose-Annette said. As a post-script, she added, “Vous.” She corrected me anytime I used the informal word for “you.”

On Bastille Day I was “verifying” the laundry (no holiday for the help, so I was following instructions to check every button and zipper before ironing and hanging the clothes). Rose-Annette was picking out blue, white and red outfits for the girls when the phone rang. I guessed it was her mother, because she didn’t seem to have many friends. After confabbing on the christening, slated for September—something about how many pounds of candied almonds to order, the traditional accessory for baptisms—Rose-Annette took the phone into the kitchen and closed the door behind her. “What am going to do when she goes back to America?” I heard her say. “I won’t have any help! I don’t know. Maybe it’s good. It’s getting too cosy.”

confetti battesimoI was better off than the other au pairs that I met at the playground. Some would smoke, or vape, while our charges played, and we’d all wolf down snacks intended for the kids. I was the only one privileged to call madame by her given name, and to drink rosé with her at lunch. “We polished off a whole bottle,” I bragged to Birgitta, whose family used cloth diapers and made her serve dinner like a waitress. The families looked down upon us, and we upon them.

“What kind of work is it that you do?” I asked Rose-Annette over lunch. “If only!” she said. In the ensuing sentences, she may or may not have told me. I missed a lot while pretending to understand. What did become clear, though, to my surprise, was that she wasn’t working. It was a full-time job to get her old position back, she said. First, she needed her papers. The word was similar to “husband” and “baptism gown.” Not in the way it sounded, but in that I heard it a lot, and was aware of its importance in this household, but never saw it.

playgroundOf course, everyone in France talks about papers. It’s a bureaucratic country where one in five people works for the government, mainly shuffling documents. Everyone needed papers, no one had the papers they needed. Even I lacked papers. My visa had expired in May, not long after the final exam of the Sorbonne’s extension program. I was technically an “illegal,” as were most of the other au pairs at the playground. But none of us were concerned about it. We were white, and our host families were comfortable and connected. We had nothing in common with the bands of Afghans who would also congregate in parks, sitting in a circle, quietly passing around food. “I just purse my lips when I walk past a police station,” Birgitta said. We pulled French faces and imitated the high voices our madames used, especially when speaking to their husbands.

roseChasing papers, and the stamps to validate them—that was a whole separate task, conducted in separate offices or buildings–sent Rose-Annette out of the house most days of the week. The manila folder, where the papers were collected, migrated around the apartment like a mobile religious object. She took a day trip to Brittany to look through boxes in her parents’ house. All she found there was her old monthly metro pass. She made a cute embarassed face when she showed me the photo-booth image on it, of her flashing a peace sign, and wearing the skunk-stripe hairstyle popular in the aughts. “Awesome,” I said in English, and we slapped hands in an off-center high-five.

“She’s meeting a lover!” Birgitta squealed. The love life of our madames was a big topic at the park. “No,” I said. “Not Rose-Annette.” For one thing, she primped more for her husband’s return from work than she did for her morning excursions. Rose-Annette was moony over Antonio, her Nino. She liked to stop in and hang out at the restaurant he owned, she confided to me, until he told her she’d have to put on an apron. “That, no!” she laughed.

By August, the bottle of rosé was de rigueur at lunch. “My parents are being difficult about the christening,” Rose-Annette told me. “My father still cannot accept that I married a Portuguese man.” She shrugged her shoulders and lowered one eyelid in existential resignation. “Because of them, I couldn’t let Antonio gain nationality by marrying me. He had to be naturalized before I said yes.”

passportI thought about this as I finished off a bowl of berries in sour cream. If Rose-Annette resented her parents’ disdain for Nino, why did she subject him to their requirements? That seemed so French to me. Rose-Annette loved to consider herself an outsider for having a foreign husband. She found it deliciously outrageous that they allowed Patrice to keep her hair cut in a short buzz. But, with their pastel candied almonds–”they’re expensive, butone must,” she had explained–they were as bourgeois as any of the other parents we dished about at the playground. Sometimes at lunch, after a couple glasses of wine, I got an urge to ask her about French traditions, specifically how she came to reject some and emulate others. But even if I’d had the language skills, I didn’t dare, and I would stand and pick up dishes. “Instead of attempting to change the country during your junior year abroad,” read a pamphlet handed to us at orientation at the Sorbonne, “try to understand and respect the cultural norms in France, even if you disagree with them.”

I wrote home to my sister, “Rose-Annette doesn’t even buy baby food!” When the baby started eating solids, I spoon-fed her veal puree’d with butter. My last chore each evening was to wax and buff the girls’ navy leather shoes.

A heatwave began. It was exhausting speaking staccato French all day. Going home to the States would be like taking off roller blades and walking without fear of wiping out. My au pair comrades started dropping out of sight, accompanying their host families on vacation to Normandy, Provence, the Riviera. Rose-Annette’s handful of friends also decamped, or so she said. The two of us took to watching a soap opera after lunch. “I’m different, she said during a commercial for a cut-rate airline. “I’d rather take a vacation in winter to someplace warm. Nino can’t leave the restaurant, and I prefer not to desert him.”

lamb brainsI bought my return ticket online and, after bringing Patrice home from the crèche, slipped Rose-Annette a note across the kitchen table with the flight information. She gave me a “What am I going to do?” face that was endearing, even touching. She opened a bottle of Brouilly—a red served chilled—and invited me to stay for dinner: cervelles d’agneau. I wondered if I should go get my dictionary. Instead I walked to the living room, where Patrice had turned on the TV. I said, “We’re having lamb brains tonight.” She shot up her fists in the air and said, “Oui!”

Back in the kitchen, Rose-Annette said, barely audibly, “My paper chase is coming to an end.” The manila folder, which I hadn’t seen in a couple of weeks, had materialized in her hands. “You’ll go back to university,” she said, curling the tab at the top, “and I’ll go back to work.” Now was my chance to get clear on her profession. Teacher? Secretary? One of France’s 13 million bureaucrats? She didn’t seem to have any passions beyond family and food.

The theme music for a game show came on, and we both turned toward the TV. I raised my eyebrows. “Ah, oui!” Rose-Annette said, bringing over the bottle and two glasses. “Scoot over, Patrice.”

As I walked down the stairs from my chambre de bonne the morning of the 31st, I wondered if Rose-Annette would give me a tip, or a gift, with my pay. Maybe we’d have a coffee together and she’d give me the day off to finish packing.

filesShe was dressed, with her cross-body satchel strapped on. “My mother is coming to stay for a week,” Rose-Annette said, clasping her hands to her head. “You think my husband is maniac? My mother is worse.” The list of chores began with vacuuming the walls. “I’ll drop Patrice at school so you have time for a top-to-bottom,” she said. I don’t know if I’ll be back for lunch because I’ve got one last stamp to beg for.” I blinked at the list. “Wow,” I said. “So you’re really going back to work.” She nodded yes, wild-eyed, and called for Patrice to put on her shoes.

Sidonie was acting up. I couldn’t clean and entertain her at the same time, so I turned on the radio loud and let her wail. I sweated like crazy scrubbing mineral deposits off bathroom tiles. When I finished, I taped up the nozzle of the Cif, the white cleanser. I loved the smell. There wasn’t anything like it in the United States. As I was burying it in my purse, I heard the front door, and I froze.

Rose-Annette appeared in the apartment hallway, looking alarmed.

“She just started,” I said over the din, jumping up to turn off the radio. “I’ll go get her.”

I calmed the baby by changing her diaper. I gave her a clean outfit, too. When I came back out from her bedroom, Rose-Annette was hunched over, opening a bottle of wine at the kitchen table. She looked up and said, “Are you OK?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Sorry. Just a little frazzled about my flight tomorrow. I want to get everything done.”

cifRose-Annette reached out for Sidonie with one arm and pulled off her satchel with the other. She smelled the baby’s neck and rocked her. I heard sniffling.

“I can’t believe it,” she said, her voice an octave lower than normal, and gravelly. I suspected something serious, something about Nino, maybe. She couldn’t be that worked up just because the baby had been yelling. Or even that I was leaving. I tried to think of an excuse about the Cif, which she may have seen me steal. But then the baby stopped crying, suddenly, and I thought about Rose-Annette’s confidence, which had impressed me when we’d first met.

I took a step closer and put my hand on her shoulder, a barrier neither of us expected to be crossed. With a face that reminded me of our soap opera heroine, she closed her eyes and leaned into my hand. She mumbled, “I lost all my papers on the metro.”

The New YSL Museum Opens!

October 2nd, 2017

ysl - 1The new Yves Saint Laurent museum highlights the momentous body of work of the greatest designer and couturier of the 20th century. It’s located in the hotel particulier where St. Laurent designed for over 30 years. Set designer Nathalie Crinière and decorator Jacques Grange have collaborated on the design of the museum, which will have rotating displays of Saint Laurent’s couture collections. The museum also features St. Laurent’s design studio where he setup model fittings with his team.


Rugby At Stade Jean-Bouin

September 28th, 2017

StadeJeanBouin_1Paris is home to a number of fine sporting venues, but with major rugby events approaching in the coming years, it may be time to look at Stade Jean-Bouin as the place to be. Most notably, as the Paris has been tabbed to stage the 2024 Summer Olympics, this stadium in the 16th arrondissement will play host to some of the most publicized rugby matches in the world.

Particularly among international visitors, rugby may not be the first attraction that comes to mind, as it can be an unusual sport for those who aren’t familiar with it. The description for an online game about rugby may actually have put it best, saying the sport might appeal if football is a little too soft or if tennis doesn’t float your boat. In that case the description is specifically pitching a casino game with a rugby theme, but it’s actually how a lot of people look at the real sport: as a tougher sort of alternative to more universally popular options.

Incidentally, this can make rugby a lot of fun if you’re just checking it out as a casual visitor. It’s not like, say, watching golf if you aren’t a golf fan, or trying out cricket when you don’t know the rules. Sure, like any sport rugby can be confusing if you’re not familiar with it. But the tough nature of the athletes, the fast pace of the action, and the general intensity of the contests can make it incredibly engaging even if you’re going in more or less blind. That makes rugby an exhilarating experience for any international traveler.

At Stade Jean-Bouin, you’ll get to enjoy this experience in a particularly authentic environment. It’s a pretty stadium, not oversized but not small, and situated right next to the more famous Parc des Princes, where Paris Saint-Germain plays football. The stadium hosts Stade Francais regularly, and will also host international matches from time to time – including at the 2024 Olympics. So while there are other places to see rugby in Paris, this may be the best.

It’s also worth noting for people who might not be familiar with the sporting environment in France that this is not a pitch to go and enjoy some fringe sport or obscure activity (as rugby may be seen in some other countries). Just last summer rugby was revealed to be the most popular team sport in France by a poll. Though some feel that this could soon change given that France is somewhat removed from its glory days in the sport, the fact remains that rugby is a major draw, and thus an interesting cultural experience as well.

Breaking Bread with David Downie

September 27th, 2017

nissim de cammondoAuthor David Downie dispels a lot of myths about French food and cooking in his wonderful new book A Taste of Paris. To follow up on our review of the book yesterday, we asked Downie a few questions about the complex question of “authentic” French cuisine, what current restaurant trends he finds promising, and where to get a gander at how the French cooked and ate in centuries past.

The Paris Blog: I got a wonderful visual in my mind of you sneaking into kitchens of restaurants and palaces, as you describe in the book. For the more meek among your readers, what food-related places could we legally visit to get a feel for how Parisians ate or prepared food 100 year ago, 300 years ago, 600 years ago?
David Downie: That’s easy: lunch or dine at Le Grand Vefour, the Rocher de Cancale or L’Escargot Montorgueil and you’ll travel back to the 19th- and late 18th centuries. In terms of seeing kitchens or how people ate, that’s also a cinch: go to the Musee Nissim de Camondo (pictured), a wonderful house-museum, for a turn-of-the-19th/20th century kitchen and dining room. You can also see the giant cooking fireplaces from the 1200s in the Guard’s Room at the Conciergerie/Palais de Justice on the Ile de la Cité, and the cooking fireplace from the 1400s of the Musée de Cluny (the museum of the Middle Ages): the ticket office is where the kitchen used to be!

david downie portraitYour book described how “French” cuisine has always borrowed from that of other cultures and called it its own. Is this still a tendency?
That’s a tough one to answer. I don’t think French chefs go out of their way to knowingly steal things and re-baptize them “French” but it is definitely a culture of “adopt and adapt” and the French by and large—this is a generalization—are not great at acknowledging foreign influences. They are a proud and often nationalistic people. This extends to everything from cooking and fashion to medical science and technology.

The stereotype of French cuisine is that it is heavy, bloody and tradition-bound. The innovators in France are often maverick foreign chefs. So what is French cuisine in this day and age? Is it even possible to describe?
The short answer is, no, it’s not possible to describe “French cuisine today” in less than 100,000 words and even then, by the time you finished your book on the subject, things would have moved on. With tongue at least in part in cheek, in my book I talk about cuisine d’auteur as in film d’auteur—roughly indie cooking meaning unique to a particular culinary artist. The thing is, the vast majority of chefs no matter how good they are are not artists, they’re artisans and should be proud of their skills. They imitate each other and the current versions of postmodern post-nouvelle nouvelle turn out to be fairly predictable and recognizable: aesthetics, miniaturization, maniacal fussy plating, verticality, artistry and novelty are all! Digestibility, practicality, warmth-on-delivery, good flavor, enjoy-ability and other fuddy duddy old-fashioned notions have gone out the window.

book cover“Exciting” is not compliment from you when describing a dish or restaurant. And yet you love some of the innovative dining establishments that have provided a lot of recent excitement in Paris such as Frenchie and Spring. Can you help me understand the difference between “exciting” and “innovative”?

I think it’s great to be enthusiastic about food and the dining scene, and being adventurous or intrepid and innovative is generally a good thing for a gastronome. “Excitement” to me suggests overstrained nerves, being overwrought, emotional, and so forth, and excitement can be great in lots of contexts—lovemaking or watching an exciting movie or anticipating the release of a book you’ve worked on for years. But when I’m eating I want to be relaxed, happy, elated, perhaps, not excited. Often we throw words around without thinking about what they mean.

So many innovations in French cuisine and restaurants are done by non-nationals. Does this mean French-born chefs are less adventurous? Are French cooking schools overly tradition-bound?
I’m not sure that the innovations are all coming from non-nationals though it’s true that outsiders have always contributed to the excellence and novelty of French cuisine. Some French chefs have traveled abroad and come back with novel ideas—at Frenchie for instance. This is another dangerous generalization but I would venture to say that the French as a nation are possibly less adventurous than certain other nations or peoples, especially Americans, largely because they come from a very old culture with many traditions and their educational system is highly traditional, hierarchical and competitive as in win-lose (they have trouble seeing win-win paris restaurantsolutions). The French are like the ancient Roman god Janus: they look backward and forward at the same time. Many schools, especially hotel and restaurant schools, are indeed hidebound. Americans come from a different world, a place where innovation is taken for granted, where traditions are relatively few and are not revered to the same degree. In America unless you belong to some moneyed “aristocracy” or “elite” your baggage is usually pretty light and you can fly easily (and also crash easily). The French are born with very heavy baggage—cultural, historical, familial.

What innovations of late do seem very French to you?
That’s an excellent and difficult to answer answerable question! I think the bistronomie movement—serving gastronomic meals in a bistro setting and at affordable prices—was a positive innovation and shows how tradition and novelty are not always at odds. Another current trend is a return-to-the-roots “innovation”: the combination of à la carte classic restaurant dining and table d’hôtes dining in the same establishment. That’s what went on in the late-1700s and into the early decades of the 1800s in most restaurants in Paris.

Get a Taste of This!

September 26th, 2017

freedom friesIf a single menu item were key to understanding the history of Parisian gastronomy, it would be the French fry. This delicious morsel is so inextricably associated with the Hexagon that when a group of Americans needed an anti-French gesture to express political resentment, not too long ago, they didn’t burn the tricolor, but rather renamed French fries “freedom fries.” (Boycotting them was out of the question; they are too damn delicious.) But, as with so many reactionary gestures, vilifying the fry was misguided. French fries, it turns out, are not really French. Potatoes had been chopped, fried, and gobbled in plenty of other countries before the French book coverstarted doing so, in the late 1700s. Not only that, “the French were about the last nation to embrace the pomme de terre,” writes David Downie, in his brilliant, page-turning book A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food. It took years of clever marketing and lobbying for the South American “pig root,” as the French often called them, to become the iconic side dish that it is today. In fact, only after 20th century Americans and British perfected the fry-up and raved about its booze-absorbing qualities did French fries really take off.

Downie tells the story with passion and panache, which makes the deep history and academic hair-splitting digestible in A Taste of Paris. The French fry, you see, is just one of many soi-disant French foods with a misunderstood provenance. Blanquette de veau may or may not have originally included cream or flour. Foie gras was probably introduced by Jewish immigrants. As for escargot and frogs’ legs, most of them served in Paris today are imported form other countries.

french recipeA Taste of Paris isn’t just about the dishes we inextricably associate with the City of Light. Is is about how restaurant service, with an assortment of choices that are ordered and then served sequentially on individual plates, improved upon its forebear, the one-platter free-for-alls at auberges. The book also illustrates how eating habits changed from scavenging scraps to society soupers. The advent of the butter knife, the steam oven and the continual-service restaurant changed fundamental ways of self-nourishment, while other aspects of dining are proved to be less modern than we may think. “The term ‘nouvelle cuisine’ was coined in 1734, by the way, not 1970…” writes Downie, who consulted centuries-old manuscripts, some of which were accessorized with unintentional splatters of their subject matter. Celebrity chefs were a thing going back centuries, and gastronomes who penned restaurant reviews in newspapers cadged freebies from restaurants then as so many bloggers do today. No one can say definitively where and when the croissant was born, but we do know that the chain restaurant was born in 18th century Paris. (One of the first served bouillon and beef at some 55 locations!)

Like a nutella and banana crepe, this book should be ordered without a second thought. Tune in tomorrow when The Paris Blog sits down with author David Downie for an interview on Parisian cuisine and dining then and now.