Christmas Tree Blues

December 15th, 2014

NDSapin1The tallest Christmas tree in Paris this December is also the thorniest. Standing almost half the height of the Notre Dame towers, this impressive evergreen was not paid for by parishioners or the city of Paris, but by the Russian government. With tensions running high between Moscow and other European capitals, this gift – or gesture of geopolitical grandstanding – is a feast for the eyes, but something of an embarrassment for the French state.

According to the Le Parisien newpaper, a call for donations earlier this year to churchgoers and local shopkeepers only brought in €30,000 – a long way from the sums being quoted by suppliers. “The church has no money” explained Archbishop Patrick Jacquin, who then reached out a little further for donations. Step forward Paris-based Russian diplomat, Igor Tkatch, who organised not only for a tree to be found in Russia, but also for its transport across thousands of kilometres on the back of a truck.

notre dame blue christmas treeAlthough the church paid for the installation of the tree on the parvis, the remainder of the bill was picked up partly by the Russian embassy in Paris, partly by the Russian government itself. It must have seemed a small price to pay to place such a symbol on the French Point Zéro.

As British paper The Guardian reports, Russian diplomats denied accusations of provocation, instead describing the tree as “a marvellous symbol of the unity, fraternity and mutual understanding between Christian peoples.” This gesture of friendship though has not stopped Russian media from a little gloating. “This year Parisians don’t have enough money to pay for their own Christmas tree,” declared the state TV channel, whilst French-language journal Le Courrier de Russie headlined its report “Moscou sauve Notre-Dame de Paris d’un Noël sans sapin.” (Moscow saves Notre Dame from a tree-less Christmas.”)

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Made in France!

December 13th, 2014

le syndicat bar the paris blogLe Syndicat is the self-proclaimed “Organization in Defense of French Spirits” and, as such, focuses strictly on French ingredients. The concept of its creators, Sullivan Doh and Romain Le Mouellic, is to stock the bar with bottles of French Gins, Cognacs, Armagnac, and other ingredients hailing from l’Hexagone.

This “Made in France” attitude carries through to the menu as well where you’ll find three distinct sections that give guests a better glimpse into the local liquids.

Tasting flights: For 15 to 20 euros, clients can choose from a selection of tasting flights like the Armagnac Signature (3 Bas-Armagnacs from different decades dating back as far as 1970). These trios of drinks are designed to help customers discover new tastes and better appreciate French spirits and ingredients.

le syndicat bar 2Syndicat Classiques: Here, you’ll find a selection of five classic cocktails from 8 to 13 euros that have been recreated Syndicat-style. For example, the Nevez Oldfashion incorporates whisky from Brittany, Chouchen syrup made onsite and Maquis bitters.

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What the Flock?

December 12th, 2014

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.”
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Holiday Happenings

December 8th, 2014

xmastreeThere is no shortage of websites telling you what to do in Paris for the holidays. Generally you will have a ton of Christmas markets scattered around town, some open until Christmas, some through the New Year, and the ones on the Champs-Elysées and La Défense (suburb on Line 1 metro) are by far the largest and have entertainment and rides in addition to toys, gifts, crafts and – most important – hot food and wine. There are free merry-go-rounds all over Paris, the giant Ferris wheel at Concorde, and ice skating at the Grand Palais (fanciest and indoors), Hôtel de Ville and Champs-Elysées. Everywhere you go that has shops will haveelaborate window decorations (especially department stores which are famous for it) and pretty holiday lights on all major streets. Almost all of the restaurants, museums, and shops are open every day but the 25th and the 1st (large stores are open exceptionally on Sundays in December). Some museums are open on one or both days, including Jacquemart-André, Centre Pompidou, decorOrangerie (open on the 1st), Quai Branly (open on the 1st), Espace Dali and Eiffel Tower. Expect crowdseverywhere and bundle up accordingly. Even Christmas Eve Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral is so crowded that most people can’t get in and have to watch from big screens placed outside. My mom is coming for Christmas, so we’ll be braving the crowds with a flask of something hot to visit Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Musée des Arts Forains, both totally worth the wait. There are no fireworks at the Eiffel Tower on New Year’s Eve, but many holiday parties in clubs and restaurants which are always quite expensive but worth it if you’re only visiting (most locals celebrate with friends in private homes). Check out the Secrets of Paris Calendar and the websites below for specific recommendations.

The Museum of Shopping

December 5th, 2014

Nanjing First LV StoreNo one nails Paris like Adam Gopnik. He has written about the city for the New Yorker and in book form, and has edited (what I consider to be) the best anthology of writings about the city, too. This week he takes on the recent glut of luxury stores that, he believes, are helping to turn Paris into a shopping destination for the jet-set rich, to the detriment of the daily lives of Parisian residents. This socio-economic trend in other major cities is what has left even people among the rich (such as David Byrne) lamenting the state of affairs. New York needs no more explanation than a name-drop; last month in Los abercrombieAngeles, residents protested the gentrification/hipster-fication of Highland Park, a scruffy neighborhood where houses start at about a half-million, despite the obvious presence of gangs. The salient sentence that distills my dismay about the City of Light, one felt by so many Americans who have moved to the French capital:

[…]they have found that they are living in a grouchy, heavily overadministered country, where everyone is socialized to be negative in the first instance, and where the small details of life are made as wrenchingly difficult as possible—though no more for newcomers than they are for the natives, which, of course, helps account for their grouchiness.

Read the entire article here.

An American in Paris…on Stage

December 1st, 2014

American in Paris 2It was a tall order to take one of the most beloved musical films of all time and turn it into a stage production but Christopher Wheeldon, the director and choreographer, has remarkably pulled it off with astounding success.

From beginning to end, “An American in Paris” was perfection. The cast is marvelously talented and accolades go to Robert Fairchild, who more than has big shoes to fill by playing Jerry Mulligan, the wide eyed naïve American painter falling for a girl he can’t have but woos her incessantly none the less, originally played by Gene Kelly, Leanne Cope, who embodies the delicate beauty and grace of Leslie Caron, American n Paris Chateletand Veanne Cox, one of my favorite New York stage actresses, plays the staunch and oh so proper French Madame Baurel desperately holding on to the last vestiges of French tradition with humor and wit.

It goes without saying the musical score by George Gershwin is pure genius, but the orchestrations along with the heartfelt deliveries from the actors brought the music to a whole new level.

The book by Craig Lucas is dramatic and strong and not over clichéd as I’ve seen in many musical adaptations. The sets and costumes by Bob Crowley are dazzling and sumptuous, making you want to go back in time when there was such elegance and style.

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Rabelais and the Rampart

November 24th, 2014

rabelaisThe other day I was walking in the Marais, in the part down by the Seine, and as I cut up the rue des Jardins Saint-Paul, heading toward the big church of Saint Paul, I couldn’t help thinking about one of my favorite French literary heroes, François Rabelais, who lived on this street in the 1550s.Today we freely banter the adjective of his name, Rabelaisian – “marked by gross robust humor,” as the dictionary says – but let’s not forget that François Rabelais was the first French novelist, famed for The Most Fearsome Life of the Great Gargantua and Pantagruel, rollicking tomes about brilliant prank-loving giants, father and son, let loose on Renaissance Paris, both books published in the 1530s. Much of the writing consists of wildly comical satire by this offbeat Benedictine lay priest of the strict Catholic-run University of Paris’s theological dogma – this in the early days of the Protestant Reformation. Dissenters were being burned at the stake for far less, Rabelais’s own publisher Etienne Dolet being one of them. Luckily, Rabelais had a stalwart protector: the Bishop of Paris.

marais rampartBut the books deal with many other things as well: the Medieval wall of Paris, for instance.

Built by King Philippe Auguste at the turn of the 13th century, a 100-yard stretch of it still stands, the largest vestige extant, nine meters high with two round towers standing. It boards on a large sports field just down from the Lycée Charlemagne. In Rabelais’s time it stood directly across from his house on the rue des Jardins Saint-Paul. In Pantagruel, Rabelais makes fun of the ancient ramparts, which were still the first line of defence on the Left Bank of Paris. In it, Pantagruel’s sidekick Panurge (“a mischievous rogue, a cheat, a boozer, a roisterer”) says:

“Oh, how strong they are! They’re just the thing for keeping goslings in a coop. By my beard, they are pretty poor defences for a city like this. Why, a cow could knock down more than twelve foot of them with a single fart.”

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Giving the Costes Another Try

November 23rd, 2014

costes bastilleI’m not a huge fan of the Costes restaurants, especially their original homebase, L’Hotel Costes, which doesn’t live up to its prices and has a flaky wait staff to boot. HOWEVERRRR, I have to admit that my most recent visit to one of the Costes’ Paris cafés really made me rethink my preset judgment.

I enjoyed a fabulous lunch at Le Café Français. Still not that well known even among the Costes-addicts, this latest Beaumarly (their group name) location opened its doors in the Place de la Bastille less than a year ago – and thank goodness it did.

meal at costes bastilleHere you can enjoy your lunch in a beautifully lit dining room where you’ll be served generously portioned dishes that respectfully represent the link between hard work and quality all while being served by very pleasant, smiling servers. As you can see, they really pull out all the stops.

Sporting a color scheme straight out of India, this place has a very anti-boudoir feel with the tiles leading out to a bright veranda that you only see in your dreams.
That veranda allowed me to enjoy my cig without fighting the blistering cold. To top it off, we were able to enjoy an amazing view of the Bastille.

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Eh ben…

November 21st, 2014

french videoIt’s Friday. This is all I got. Passez un bon ouiquend.

An English-Language Theatre Festival

November 20th, 2014

MD-photo1Despite its hard-to-remember name – Dionysia (Die-oh-nice-ee-a) – the English-language theatre competition and festival has done nothing but grow. I asked Chris Newens to fill us in on The Montmartre Dionysia III. He writes

The third year of this biannual event takes place December 1-6, bringing 4 plays – chosen from 30 entrants – to compete across Paris for the prize, amid a week of other theatrical treats. MD-photo4A total of 11 plays are being staged. The 4 competition pieces will be joined by more warm-up acts, plays from previous festival participants, a couple of Harold Pinter shorts, and a one-off event “Forget the Applause,” where, come the final curtain, the audience will be invited to bite back.

Details here