Springtime in Paris

April 11, 2008

…turns out to run the risk of chilly, rainy, even snowy weather, O Best Beloveds, but not even sleet could dampen our spirits and it was a perfect, perfect trip. There is way too much to write about, so I’m going to try to confine myself to some food and sightseeing porn highlights. But even that will surely be too much reading for many of you (especially since as always brevity will be notable by its absence), so just know, before you move along to better uses of your time, that after about a week off Xeloda, my feet returned to sufficient normalcy that the desired walking and walking and walking and walking was fully accomplished. The hands are still lagging behind, but even so, it’s clear how much I needed a break from meds. Regardless of the outcome of the new Little White Pill regime, this is a good rest period for me, and I will be all the better able to handle whatever the next step is for it.

Right, food porn:

–The standout meal was a multi course tasting at Mr. Underhill’s at Dinham Weir in Shropshire with John and Fiona. A charming Michelin-starred restaurant set above a small dam in the gushing local river, complete with old mill. There is only one seating a night and your menu has your name on it. Well, hotcha! There are seven courses, plus petit fours, and by the end I was crying uncle. Oh, but before then was almond veloute (a creamy soup) topped with crispy chorizo and chorizo oil, a fine combo of heat and cool; fluffy mousse-like duck liver custard with quince confit and an aspic style five spice glaze, a layering of sweet and savory flavors that worked smoothly and magically together; pave of halibut with lime ginger broth, which was better than the slightly dry fish; best of all was the slow roasted fillet of rare Marches beef–the softest cut of beef (seriously, fork-tender) any of us have ever had–with braised beef sauce and braised beef sauce, braised beef pie (a small portion of hearty shepherd’s pie) and roast root veggies. There were two desserts, but by then I was past caring, because that beef was so utterly swoonable.

–Three servings of roasted bone marrow, the first in London at a fancy upscale pub, which promptly paled into nothingness when the rather mingy and disintegrating portions were compared with the five sections of nearly three inch wide sturdy femurs (or something) served in a broth at a basic Parisian brassiere by the Sunday flea market, complete with toast and sea salt. Now that’s some good fat! (Or whatever marrow is.) There was enough for four people, and yet I ate it (well, not ALL of it) all by myself. And the last night I had marrow yet again, at a brassiere near our hotel in the 1st, a bisected length of bone with a full inch of dense marrow so thick and rich I had to pace myself eating it lest it clobber me as much as if I was conked on the head with the bone itself. The waiter was pleased by the order “That’s a very French thing to eat.”

–The foie gras salad Steve ordered at the famous La Coupole cafe in Montparnasse, long time stomping ground of the Lost Generation. A full portion of unctuous foie gras, on top of greens, with sides of smooth creamy foie gras pate on toast, and strips of duck pastrami. I will be kicking myself for a long time for not ordering this. I was nearly reconciled by my own order of the pate.

–The hot chocolate at Angelina cafe, conveniently enough three doors away from our hotel. All other hot chocolates are dust and ashes to us now. They melt chocolate into what may be simple whole milk or may be part heavy cream, and the result is so thick it’s but a step or two away from being a solid. Other hot chocolates are just flavored water by comparison.

–in no particular order; the caramel sea salt ice cream at Bertillen on the Isle de Citi; the pan au chocolate at a cafe on Rue St. Honore (so buttery, so fluffy, once again, I’ve seen the platonic ideal and can settle for nothing less ever again); cheese, pate and baguettes from the delightful Monoprix market (imagine Target crossed with the awesome that is Paris and you get the idea); the pork bap at a small window serving joint in Ludlow (tender roast meat, stuffing, applesauce, voted Ludlow’s best sandwich many years in a row and rightly so); Fiona’s four kinds of bacon bacon baps (still can’t decide between smoked, cured or unsmoked); the tender thick steaks with creamy pepper sauce at Les Gourmands near the Arc d’Triumph; all the appetizers at same (and I do mean all; the owner just sent every single one out for us, a tremendous welcome to the City of Lights and Calories) but especially the hearty country pates, the marinated beef salad, the marinated leeks; scones and clotted cream anywhere but especially at Grey’s, an old fashioned tea house in Ludlow.

Sightseeing Porn:

–Monet’s water lilies at the L’Orangerie. Michele took us to see them, and while I know a decent amount for a layperson about art, I really didn’t have a clue about this exhibit. I figured it was just a bunch of the basic (if marvelous) water lily canvases all arranged on the wall, a pleasing enough diversion. Instead, they are eight 35 by 6 curved paintings (in two round rooms which were especially designed to display them) of the water lily pond at Giverny at various times of day and early evening, gigantic riots of color, sublime blues, greens and purples, browns created out of eight different colors, slashes and dabs that demonstrate how the 80 year old cataract-plagued artist viewed his world. They are astonishing. We groped for seats so we didn’t have to take our eyes off them and sat and stared for a long time. A guard said “Monet meant for these to wash over you, for you to take them internally. It’s like doing yoga.” Wow. Wow. Wow.

–The view from our hotel window of the Louvre, complete with glass I. M. Pei pyramid (still not sure how we feel about that addition to the palace of art), the Tuilleries, and the Eiffel Tower, with the Arc d’ Triumph in the background. There may be better hotel views in Paris, but it’s hard to imagine how that could be. The whole city was there for us whenever we wanted.

–Notre Dame. It soars. Also, it has gargoyles and chimeras and one hell of a city view. And Sant Chappelle, the chapel that is nearly entirely stained glass windows, stretching so high all one can see is light, which is considered divine and no wonder.

–the Winged Victory. Mona Lisa is everyone’s girlfriend, rightly so, because she really is, as Michele said, “all that and a bag of chips.” We got lucky going to the Louvre later in the evening so we nearly had her to ourselves (only a couple dozen or so other people, which sounds like an awful lot, but it’s not, under the circumstances). But the Winged Victory is something else again. Solid, powerful, in motion and yet impassable, she’s a triumph in more than just name.

–Going up in the Eiffel Tower, less because it was such a magnificent view, though there is that of course, but more because it was so darn cold–it was cold, and then there was the wind that made it really really really cold and one has to stand a long long time in said cold in order to get out of the very big place–that it became a funny experience in its own right. As Debi said, summarizing our initial and then later feelings, “At first, we were cooing ‘Eiffel Tower!’. But eventually, it was ‘Oh, Eiffel Tower. Damn you for being so tall.'”

–in no particular order; a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at Sant Chappelle, its towering colored sides ringing; lambs in Shropshire, fluffy bits of white wonder; all of Shropshire itself, really, such sweet towns and poetic countryside even at the end of winter; snow falling on London on Easter morning, quarter sized flakes creating a silent blanket that invoked everything sentimental and Dickensian; the gardens at Giverny that inspired the paintings that so blew us away; Versailles–simultaneously provokes royalist and revolutionary feelings. One way or the other, it’s a powerful place to have that kind of complicated impact; pretty much every single part of Paris we walked through. No wonder it’s the favorite city of so many. Also, the Olympic torch, which will be explained in the upcoming PS since it deserves its own anecdote.

–Best of all, Fiona, John, Paula, Mark, Sarah, Michele, Jean, Debi and Caroline–they make a dish of boiled turnips into a feast and the flattest stretch of barren land into a view from and of the Eiffel Tower.

We’ll always have Paris,

PS: One additional long anecdote for those with time, patience and interest. We had a lot of good luck wandering the streets of Paris, often spontaneously changing plans only to discover that said change made more geographical/chronological sense than our original plans. So here’s one excellent good luck story from the streets (literally) of Paris…

On our last day, Steve and I Metro-ed to the Marais and walked around there, and then walked to the Notre Dame area, where we saw all kinds of barricades and discovered it was the set up for the Olympic torch presentation at City Hall. Already, protesters, mostly pro-China, were in flag waving place, even though local cops told us the torch wasn’t due for another 90 minutes. Given the serious crowd presence, not to mention the banner draped across City Hall by local politicians saying, in French, that France supports global human rights (subtle way to show where you stand on the whole thing, gang),we knew it was going to be contentious. But it was enough distance in the future that we opted not to stay, even though we did want to see the torch (having seen it, quite by accident, jogging by in Hollywood four years ago). From there, we walked to the Left Bank, and had a snacky lunch (one that paled, apparently, in comparison to the splerepast the girls had at the Printemps department store), and then walked down the St. Germain, and spontaneously decided to go to the Catacombs, the one place we hadn’t been that we really wanted to see in Paris. It turned out we were right by the subway stop that would take us directly there, so it seemed most fated, until we realized the Catacombs were closed on Mondays. Shoot. So instead, after opting out of returning to the Notre Dame area to search out a store we liked that had clever kitchen gadgets in funny shapes (whisks like squid, pie servers in the shape of dachsunds), we spontaneously decided to seek out a church carrying a real live dead saint, Catherine, the one who came up with the Miraculous Mary medal, her uncorrupted corpse nicely on display in a chapel just off the St. Germain. Along the street in question, we spotted a branch of that very same desired store and a squid whisk was happily purchased. The real live dead saint did not disappoint, and all in all, it was a very satisfying day.

From there, we walked home to the hotel. Now, this walk took us past the Seine, across a pedestrian bridge, and under an road running parallel to the Tuileries gardens, which in turn were outside out hotel. So we were one garden away from our hotel as we crossed the street and noticed about a dozen or so people lined up along the sidewalks. Huh, we thought. Could it be? And so we got on to an overpass bridge, and peered down the boulevard–and sure enough, dozens, if not hundreds, of police cars, vans and motorcycles were heading our way–because they were escorting the Olympic torch. How about that! We waited about ten minutes with a very small crowd, watching what we later learned were about 3000 cops in varying configurations come by clearing the roads and checking for protestors and potential disruptions come screaming past, sirens a blaze, before a group of roller blading cops and security came whooshing past, with a small runner encased between them, torch aloft. Apart from one lone “Boo!” everyone (including us) cheered and waved, because human rights are one thing, but don’t blame the poor guy/gal carrying the torch, and not the torch itself, which is a symbol of the best of human possibility, not the worst. It was totally thrilling, and thanks to our bridge located vantage point, we saw the torch quite clearly despite its cordon of protection. We followed it down the street a piece, and exalted over our ridiculously good timing.

And how. We later learned that the torch was running hours late, thanks to many protests, and near catastrophes, and several deliberate extinguishings by officials and even, yes, the cancellation of most of the route including the appearance at the Mayor’s office. Not only did we see the flame, but we saw one of the few utterly peaceful portions of its appearance that tumultuous day.