Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lécher les vitrines ~ Lighting up the Windows

The winter holidays are celebrated a little differently here in France than they are in the US.  For one, we've not seen apartments lit with Christmas lights.  Lights seem to be reserved for spanning intersections at major rues.  For two, people spend obscene amounts of money to watch a tree die in their apartments, but they remain largely un-decorated.

lécher les vitrine ~ Paris ~ 2014

Jude read me something about how France just doesn't get excited about Christmas they way Americans do.

I suppose the proof of that is in how the French spend their monies around this time of year.  Merchants here in France were encouraged by the Americans to hold their own Black Friday celebration of in-ordinate consumption of Junk We Really Don't Need.  It was a rather heavily promoted "event" here in Paris.  But... the buying public didn't bite.  Afterall, how can you transplant the idea of something as Sacred as Consumption and at the same time leave the Thanksgiving part of the story to the French imagination?

It seems an impossible task.  Alas, that's what I felt about McDonalds fast food installing themselves prominently on the Champs Elysee thirty years ago.  Now it seems like McDo is everywhere around the city.  It's where school kids seem to congregate during their lunch hour down in our quartier.  So perhaps we need to give the Thanksgiving idea of Black Friday another, oh, 30 years or so?

lécher les vitrine ~ Paris ~ 2014

However, there is one thing the Pars merchants seem to do well and that is putting on a great Christmas window display.  Le Bon Marche, le Printemps, and les Galeries Lafayette are renown for their winter window displays.

I'm not sure where the expression originated, but it seems to apply to window watching around this time of year.  It's called lécher les vitrines, or licking the windows.  It's one of the many uniquely Paris experiences Jude and I had yet to seriously explore.

The Winter Holidays can be a little depressing, actually.  Our closest friends are not here.  The children in our family lead their own very independent lives and they have their own distractions.  We don't want to haul home a tree to watch it wither away in our living room.  We don't light up the inside of the apartment with twinkly lights because electricity is fairly expensive.  So what to do?

lécher les vitrine ~ Paris ~ 2014

We needed a distraction from the gloom and chose to lécher les vitrines.  We talked about when to go.  Dusk seemed about right.  We talked about which day would be good.  Well, today, en fait.  We considered which metro to take and where to get off.  The number 8 to Opera and the number 12 to Sevres-Babylon.  The only modification to our scheme came when Jude realized she had a phone call to make at dusk, so we decided to head out after lunch and let the lights work their majick under the typical Paris dark-gray skies.

Our first stop was at les Galeries Lafayette.  The sidewalks weren't as crowded as I feared on a Friday afternoon they might be.  As we approached the first display we quickly realized the French had gotten it completely and utterly wrong.  They'd mistaken Christmas for Halloween.  The display wasn't what we were expecting at all.  Monsters?  In December?  No.  Those things come out back in October.

lécher les vitrine ~ Paris ~ 2014

Still, it was fun to see the lights and watch the families photograph their children in front of the displays.  They had one display of toy solders, so all wasn't lost, was it?

Le Printemps was the next stop.  It's just up the street from les Galeries Lafayette.  We were hoping for something more traditional.  And... tradition is what we got.  American and English Full Force In Your Face Marketing See What We Sell NOW! kind of tradition.  It was all about Burberry.  Did I miss something?  Is le Printemps now owned by Burberry?  Shaking our heads we dove back into the metro to make our way to the next window display.

Our last chance of Winter Holiday Happiness through lécher les vitrines was le Bon Marche.  Two years ago they had a wonderful display.  The animation was lovely.  The theme was what I'd come to expect from Parisian Sophistication and Elegance.  It was fun.

lécher les vitrine ~ Paris ~ 2014

That was then.  This is now.

Le Bon Marche offered cutouts of reindeer that gave a little wiggle as their entire nod toward animation.  Ugh.  That was it.  We'd had enough.  We'd struck-out (to use a phrase from American baseball).  It was time to head back to the apartment so Jude could make her phone call.

I wonder.  Has France changed that much that?  Where was the elegance?  Where was the beauty?  Where's my Belgium beer?  I need to sit and ponder the Great Unknowable a bit and see if I can't understand a thing or two.

lécher les vitrine ~ Paris ~ 2014

Bah Humbug!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Around Town ~ Wine ~ Day Two

Years ago when I used to sell a few cameras and lenses at local photo-gear shows I met a man who was really "into" digital photography.  We got to talking and he learned I shot film and I learned he worked at a company that was just across the parking lot from where I worked.  For years after we'd meet on a regular basis for lunch at my companies "canteen" and talk about photography.

Vince introduced me to a boss in his company who came to France quite often.  I think he came every summer, if memory serves.  The man loved the Alsace region and a small town called Colmar in particular.  The three of us talked about wine and photography and the general poor state of the "canteen" food.  Vince suggested that Colmar was close enough to Germany to be fun.  Wine in a German style and, well, plenty of beer, again in a German-style.  He loved Germany while the boss and I were enamored with France.  We three had a good laugh when we talked about how ofter that piece of land had changed hands over the centuries.

This morning broke clear and cold.  Very cold, in fact.  Winter has arrived here in the City of Lights and it's only le but du moins de Novembre! for cry'n-out-loud.  So we slept in a little before we let warm feet hit cold plasticy wood-like looking floor.

Breakfast, shower, hair drying, and checking of coordinates for bio-wine at le Salon des Vins des Vingerons Independants before girding my loins for a second day of the Fall Chasse (Wine).

I should have known that the internet site that listed the coordinates of each Salon participant would be wrong.  I'd dutifully written down every bio-vendor from Bordeaux and the Loire-Vendee who were supposedly at le Salon.  But reality did not match the website.  Ugh.

Jude noticed that the placards that thrust into the sky over each vendor's counter contained enough information, however, to sort out who offered biologique beverages and who didn't.

A quick change in our strategy and we decided to walk each aisle while carefully inspecting the signs.  The first biologique producer we came to offered us an opportunity to hone our approach and questions.  I indicated what we were looking for and explained that we were allergic to sulfites.  What we were told is that we wanted something called "nature", or bio-dynamique (which we already knew).  These kinds of wines were very rare and the wines on offer at the counter we'd pulled up to would not satisfy our needs.

Ok then.  Onward.

As we stopped at a few places we were told similar things to what we were told at our first stop-point.  Further, we were told that sulfites were _required_ to make the wine stable and to keep the pests away.  Really?  _Required_?  We thought not and continued on our aisle by aisle search.

We soon came to the vendor I'd bought bio-dynamique wine from yesterday.  We hauled up to the counter and suggested we were having a hard time finding what we were looking for.  The very kind man pulled out his guide du Salon and said he had two recommendations for us.  Thanking him with the promise we'd return we set off in search of the two recommended counters.

The first "nature" wine vendor we came to was embouchon'd with a crowd that quickly told us we needed to see if the other suggestion was a little less crowded.

The other "nature" wine vendor was sufficiently un-bouchon'd that I could make my way around the edge of the counter to talk with one of the Nice Ladies.  Jude and I tried a couple Rieslings and a very nice Gerwurtz.  We told the Nice Lady what we wanted and she and Jude continued the conversation while I was distracted by something else.

Out of the corner of my auditory range I heard the word "Colmar."  I had to ask and sure enough, their wine operations are located in Colmar, the very city my friend Vince and the boss from his company had talked about over lunch.  The vendor assured us that it's a lovely place.  After the wines we tasted I couldn't imagine it being anything other than very lovely, indeed.  Into M.Caddy went a box of white wine.

We left and wandered and stumbled upon a bio-Bordeaux vintner.  They'd not been recommended but we decided to ask our questions.  We're looking for un vin biologique sans sulfite ajouter.  The look on the woman's face brightened and Jude and I set off on yet another wine tasting adventure.  Yum.  Yum.  And furthermore yum!  We bought enough of their red wine to weigh down M. Caddy (our trusty marketing side-kick and food hauler).

True to our word, we returned to the vendor who'd recommended the Alsatian "nature" vintner.  Jude and I bellied up to the bar and thanked them for their fine suggestions... and... by the way... we love your Merlot/CabSav/Malbec... um... do you happen to have something with more Cabernet Sauvignon in it?

It was Jude's turn to watch the tablet scroll the pretty pictures of chateau, vines, production, and Heavy Horses.  While she was mesmerized by the tablet I learned the vineyard has five Heavy Horses that till the space between the vines.  Their feet, while large, don't compact the soil the way tractors do and that this is a Very Good Thing(tm).  I also learned there are five varieties of Heavy Horse here on the mainland, of which this vineyard owned several of.

En fait, encore on prend six bouteilles, s'il vous plait...

The Good Man started preparing l'addition and as his pen hovered over the paper suggested we try one more thing.  Out came their best bottle.  You could see this coming, right?  L'addition Bottom Line had yet to be written.  Ah, but yes, it was Good Stuff, this.  Une bouteille, s'il vous plait.

Into M.Caddy went six bouteilles en carton and une bouteille of the Good Stuff.  Poor M. Caddy.  He was now weighed down so heavily he must've wished he was instead one of those lovely Heavy Horses.  M.Caddy groaned and creaked His Complaint as we made our way out of le Salon and our made our home.

We have Jacky and all the fine folk in our French/English conversation group to thank for learning about a few the wonderful things that happen here.  I can also thank them for helping me realize the long dormant dream of experiencing a broader, deeper appreciation of French wine and culture.  All it took was one look at 1100+ vendors spread out over a vast space to realize what I'd read years ago in several books on the topic would never, ever replace a direct, personal experience with the Real Thing(tm).

What a stellar weekend this had been.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Around Town ~ Wine

Anyone who's read our prior entries on this blog know that I prefer Belgium beer to wine.  I've found beer to be a more complex beverage.  Perhaps just as importantly, Jude and I are moderately allergic to sulfites and have been known to turn red in the face when we've encountered a wine heavy in them.   Yeast Piss (that wonderful ETOH) in beer is just fine for me.  Wine is a little more dicey.  But by carefully selecting her wines Jude continues to enjoy some very good vintages.

So what was I doing going to le Salon des Vins des Vingerons Independants?  What can I say?  We'd been invited by some friends from our French/English conversation group and, well, what can be more authentically French than wine?  It was time to Roll the Dice and see what happened.

One of the interesting things I learned is that the French don't typically drink wine in the afternoon from, say, 14h00 to 18h00.  It is, however, completely socially acceptable to have wine with le dejuner, bien sur.  For this reason our start time was set for a French culturally dictated as being appropriate and acceptable 11h00.

I girded my loins and set off for a day of wine tasting with the hope of finding a bio-dynamic wine san sulfite ajouter.

Arriving at la Porte de Versailles Paris Expo Pavillon 7/1 and presenting our billet produced a pair of perfectly useable, perfectly wonderful wine glasses.  For free.  The wine glass had un mignon gar etched into it.  Les billet were free, too. I have no idea where Jacky found les billet, but, as with my experience with le Salon de la Photo, I love the lengths people will go to acquire something for free.

Free wine glass in hand I turned to face... um... oh... wow!  I've never in my life seen anything like this.  There are as many aisles of wine vendors as there are letters in the alphabet.  There are... oh... hell... the wine prevents from performing the calculation.  Let's just say Jacky told me, as he spread his arms as if surveying His Domain, voici 1,100+ wine producers selling their wines to any and all who would buy.

I had no idea.  I'd studied a little about French wines years ago before my wife and I became allergic to sulfites.  I thought I knew something about the incredible variety of wines to be found here.  But, honestly, I really had no direct experience with... ah... er... Man Alive!... where does a person begin?... how does a person wrap their mind around this?... Yikes!  I'm a Yank in Paris and well out of my depth here!!

Jacky pulled off to the side and looked thru a thick book that listed all the vendors to be found at la Porte de Versailles Paris Expo Pavillon 7/1.  He asked what I liked, wrote down a few coordinates, and then suggested we start with what he knew.  That would be wines from the Loire where he grew up.

As we threaded are way through the vast crowd I couldn't help be notice that cases and cases and cases of wine were being hauled out of la Porte de Versailles Paris Expo Pavillon 7/1 by any and all means possible.  Hand carts.  Hand trucks.  Caddys.  Pallet movers.  Caged trollies.  Human shoulders.  Human hands.  I thought "... so this is what les Halles must've been like before they sent the Belly of Paris off to live in sanitized place called Rungis..."  I was nearly run over by people hauling their loot every time I tried to look at the wines on offer.

Fortunately Our Man Jacky knew a Good Thing(tm) when he saw it and we pulled up to the counter at a producer from Cheverny (Loire).  The wines were decent and the conversation lively.  I listened and let Jacki fire up the vendor with brisk, bracing discussions about Youth These Days.  I learned that in Former Times the French allowed their children to enjoy a little wine with fruit juice.  They did this so their children could learn about taste, about how to select a decent wine, and to help them enjoy the health benefits of this National Beverage.  Alas, those days are gone and college kids here do the same things as their counterparts in the US.  They get Blindingly Drunk for no other reason than to get Blindingly Drunk.

I was introduced to other vintners from other parts of the Loire, sampled many wonderful things and... oh... look!  It's 13h00 and time for notre dejunerEt voila une petite baguette with canard rouillet.  Eating as we walked I reflected on the fact that I'd not seen a single bio, let alone bio-dynamic, wine producer.  Not one.  Thought I'd not yet turned bright red from an allergic reaction, everyone could be using chemicals on their vines for all I knew.

This when I learned that it's important to be able to look a producer in the eye as you buy your wine.  It's the only way the French can trust what they're being told.  Otherwise what they're told could vary a little from reality.  If what I wanted as bio san sulfites ajouter I'd have to ask direct questions and keep looking if I wasn't satisfied with the answers.

I pondered this as we walked around the corner and down yet another vast, long aisle.

Something caught my eye and I quickly retrieved a Fast Moving Jacky.  Returning to a producer from Bordeaux and remembering that Jude prefers les cépages cabernait sauvignon et merlot I couldn't help but notice the vinters bio certification followed by the list of les cépages they used.

It turns out I wasn't the only one who was happy to have stopped by to have un coup d'oeil.  Jacky learned about bio-dynamic practices in wine production.  He learned why these vintners felt chemicals were bad for a wine.  He learned they used horses to tilt the soil between the rows of grapes.

As we tasted the 10Euro wine offered, Jacky leaned over and said "... this is better than the 28Euro Bordeaux we tasted at the place we just left..."  Indeed, the Merlot/Cab/Malbec blend was pretty tasty stuff.  Though by this point I'd had plenty to sample and was Mesmerized by the scrolling images on the tablet.  I watched as photos of beautiful vines, soil with plump earthworms, and heavy horses tilling the soil scrolled by.

En fait, je prends 6 bouteilles, s'il vous plait.

I thought about it and realized this was the best thing I'd tried all day and I needed to take some home to Jude.  Jacky must've been thinking along similar lines as he too bought up un carton of various things.

A few more tastes of this and that and we were off... only to stop twice more to sample a few more things, including wine from the vineyard Jacky's father-in-law used to stock in his cellar.

After consulting with Jude we've decided to return to the salon, this time together. Our strategy will be to troll the aisles for signs of "bio".  Our questions will be at the ready.  Our new, free glasses at the ready.  Our taste-buds fired up and ready to go.  Our target time will be from 14h00 to 18h00.  So as to avoid the crush of wine sampling Parisians.

Wish us luck.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Around Town ~ le Salon de la Photo

[reposted from my photography blog]

There are no doubt numerous "show reports" floating around out there regarding this year's Salon de la Photo.  What could I possible add?  Perhaps not much, but here it goes in any event.

Scenes from le Salon de la Photo ~ 2014

Arriving at opening time is a prime recipe for getting squashed in a righteous French-style queue.  You see, it's Madness and Bedlam as people wade or crowd-surf their way to one or two Gate Keepers.  The Gate Keepers are the ones with the scanners.

Ah... I see I need to explain something, so let me back up a bit.

Last year someone laughed at me when I asked where one buys a ticket to le Salon.  The way the game is played here is that you get an "invitation" to the event.  Unlike fashion runway shows, receiving an "invitation" is as easy as reading Paris Match.

Scenes from le Salon de la Photo ~ 2014

There's a "code" that specifies who's doing the "inviting".  These "codes" are widely available and it seems like any and all dogs, cats, critters, and companies issue them.  Chose a "code", any "code".  They're free.  As in No Charge.  Gratuit.  Zip.  Zero.

Enter a "code" into the Salon website in the right place and what you get is a PDF you can print.  The PDF has, among other things, a bar-code and this is your ticket into the show.

Easy.  Right?  When it comes to free, you don't know the lengths Parisians will go to make sure there is Egalitie, Libertie, and, well, forget the Fraternitie, OK?  You realize the pecking order of what's important once you're queued.  Any Fraternitie comes from how closely packed you are, not from the level of conviviality you might imagine the word should have meant.

Close your eyes and try to envision hundreds of Old Farts of all sizes, shapes, and heights doing their level best to elbow their way to the front of the queue where two and only two men with bar-code scanners await to grant you entry.  Or not.

We'd chosen the wrong side of the scrum.  I mean, queue.  No.  I think scrum adequately describes the experience.  Two elderly gents had reached the front of the scrum and... their bar-codes were not scanning properly... they were arguing with the Bar Code Handlers... and the scrum was becoming as anxious as a herd of Zebras who smelled Lions in the brush...

Scenes from le Salon de la Photo ~ 2014

Our neighbor, Jude, and I skirted the scrum to the other side... et... voila!  After a 25minute surge forward we were having our "invitations" scanned and, as it was a tight squeeze past the Old Geezers Who Must Argue with a Bar Code Handler, it felt like we might be Watermelon seeds being squirted out into the rusting dented parts missing automobile strewn yard while... um... nevermind that.  It was a funny feeling to go from the scrum into the peaceful, calm area inside the barrier to the show floor.

Collecting ourselves (mentally) we found our directions and headed off to see a few nice photographs.  The camera gear portion of le Salon could wait until my wife and neighbor left the show 45 minutes later.

I find it fascinating that HUGE scrums of Fraternitie Loving French People are seen huddled around the camera equipment displays, fondling the latest, greatest, sometimes hugely expensive tools of image making... and you can almost hear the crickets chirping in the areas where the results of putting Image Making Tools to use are displayed.

Why is it that so many people love the tools and so few try to appreciate the art?

Scenes from le Salon de la Photo ~ 2014

Considering the art, one thing that impressed me and at the same time confirmed what I'd proven thru testing was a display of 20x30inch(approx) images made using 16mpixel micro-4/3rd's Image Making Tools.  They were lovely to look at.  They were well composed, well exposed, well printed, and looked every bit as good as photographs printed to the same size taken using 50mpixel medium format sensors.  Yes.  It might be difficult to believe.  To me the Truth was in the seeing.  I was blown away.  Which tool is less important than the results of your artistic process.

Kissing my lovely wife goodbye and telling her "I'll be home later" left me to my own (evil?) devices.  Ah, Libertie!

I wanted to experience the Egalitie of Sharp French Elbows by fondling a few Image Making Tools myself.  To get there I needed to Egalitie my Sharp American Elbows to a camera manufacturer's display of choice.  It had to begin with Sony.

Being on a Mission from the Muse of Photographic Arts meant I was looking to downsize my camera kit.  The older I get the bigger and heavier the Old Beast has become.  Unless it's gained weight eating all that light (which it hadn't) the issue rests with me.  I'm getting old.

I tried my version of Egalitie out on the poor French peoples, elbows and all, and found myself quickly at a Display Counter Filled with Dreams.

Scenes from le Salon de la Photo ~ 2014
Your Humble Servant
on a Mission from the Muse of Photographic Arts 

After a short disappointing look at a Dream A7R (size and weight challenges for me) a strange and eerie light beckoned. It was like First Love.  Or Last Love at First Light.  Um, maybe it was First Love at First Sight.  Whatever.  I could tell there were important differences between what I was holding and what I was looking at.

On the other side of the Sony counter sat a pair of A6000 mirrorless APS-C sized sensor mini-wonders.  I had to try them out and Egalitie'd my way around the Display Counter Filled with Dreams.

Cutting to the Chase, I bought a boitier nu from a Paris local store shortly after realizing my dreams had come true.

If interested, you can read my prior post on testing an A6000 against the Old Beast.

Scenes from le Salon de la Photo ~ 2014

The rest of the show was a haze of images, sounds, further Egalitie-Elbows and More Scrum.  Trade shows can be loud crazy affairs and the Salon to me borders on chaos.  If I hadn't been on a Mission from the Muse of Photographic Arts I'd like to think I would avoid the place.  But that's not true.

I find I love the Fraternitie scrum, Sharp French Elbow'd Egalitie, and trans-national-corporate-sponsored Libertie as only the French can deliver it.  Besides, le Salon is a free "code", a short walk, an elderly scrum, and a scanned bar-code away.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

la Chasse d'Automne...

"Ne fait pas de bruit quand vous mangez."

Indian Summer ~ Rambouillet

I couldn't have said it better.  The kids were making far too much noise over lunch.  *Smack*  *Smack*  *Smack*

Jude and I were on a Fall Chasse.  I wanted to take a few photos of birds and Rambouillet was our destination.  The reason is that the canals in front of the Presidential Chateau have several man-made islands that have "Gone Wild."  Trees and birds and, in the water, fish all live here.  In abundance.  From our first visit I'd spied a few birds I'd never seen before and wanted to revisit with my Big Bird Lens.

Indian Summer ~ Rambouillet

Fall here in France has been absolutely glorious.

Earlier I'd taken Mother Nature to task giving us a rotten July and August.  Nothing like the cold and damp to make a Mess of Summer.  We were in a sour mood and it looks like Mother Nature has finally taken pity on us.

As an aside, we stay in Paris during the summer because it seems simply too insane to vacation elbow to elbow with tout Paris on les vacances.  Prices are quite steep and, as we found in St Malo, not all villages worth visiting have decently stocked grocery stores.  Bad restaurants?  There are far too many of them.  Some stacked on one on top of another, all vying for your Euros.  Good food that you can prepare yourself by visiting a supermarket or a local marche?  Jamais de la vie!  Soaking the locals as National Sport.  So we try hard not to join the Summer Migration into the paysage.

Indian Summer ~ Rambouillet

Instead, we prefer to take smaller trips when the locals are busy raising kids, sending them to school, and while they're working hard to keep the French economy afloat.  Starting in mid-September and continuing through to the Winter Holidays the price of lodging and food drops like the stock market on a bad day.  With the season of snow comes prices that again rise steeply in celebration of Pere Noël.

On the day we visited Rambouillet for the Fall Chasse we were to see temperatures of 76 degrees F and crystal clear blue skies.  This can't be October, can it?  Thank you Mother Nature.  We'll take whatever we can get.  I can easily operate my camera and Big Bird Lens under these kinds of conditions.

Indian Summer ~ Rambouillet

The trees were turning a golden yellow and the birds were having a Good Time.  Looking carefully at the way the light shimmered off the water I quickly realized how the Impressionists had come to love these kinds of places.  Everywhere we looked it was like being in an Impressionist Painting.  I shot a few images of common birds I'd seen before only because the water around the bird was so beautiful.

Jude and I sat on a bench and ate our lunch and fed a couple of overly common Coots.  Aside from a few joggers (yes, that knee-bone destroying American Habit has indeed landed in France) and two or three old people (like us) out for a stroll we had the park completely to ourselves.  This is why we like to travel in September and October.  So often no one else is around and we can more fully enjoy things.  We think it's the perfect way to travel.

Indian Summer ~ Rambouillet

As a small flock of birds floated by I saw I needed to give them a Stern Talking To.  My questions to them started with "Can I see your papers, svp?"  To be quickly followed by "Did you loose your way?"  "Do you realize this is NOT Canada?"  "You're not living off French Social Security, are you?"  "You realize that immigration is difficult, right?"  I hadn't expected to see Canadian Geese living in France in such numbers.

By mid-afternoon we were feeling it was time to head back.  We'd shared a wonderful lunch on a most beautiful Fall day.  I'd photographed a few birds against an Impressionist's Dream.  Jude had drawn a couple lovely scenes in her journal.  We'd walked around the canals.  In front of the Presidential Chateau we'd sat in the sun to work on our bronzage.  We'd had enough fun for one day.

Indian Summer ~ Rambouillet

As we were leaving Jude asked if we could take one last look at something.  It was then we heard a woman say "Ne fait pas de bruit quand vous mangez."  She was right.  The kids were *smacking* their lips.  They were a very noisy, uncultured, and mal-élevé lot.

Jude and I talked with the woman and her husband.  We learned a little about life in Rambouillet.  We were quick to understand it would be too quiet for us.  We need the kinds of things Paris offers to keep us entertained.  Yet, a Day In The Country had revitalized our Spirits and Souls. 

The woman was there in the peaceful park doing her duty to Keep Things Alive.  She had been tossing bread into a pond.  Perhaps as many as a 100 surprisingly large carp were coming to the surface.  As les poissons ate they made quite a racket.  *Smack* *Smack* *Smack*

Indian Summer ~ Rambouillet

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Grandpa's Old Haunt...

I reluctantly carried the Dreaded Plague into Bretagne.

Mont Saint Michel ~ The Pilgrims Route

Jude and I had pre-paid tickets for the Train a Grande Vitesse and a pre-paid stay at the hotel just across the plaza from the terminus of the line.  Earlier I'd taken Mother Nature to task for giving us a wet, cold summer and She wanted to make up for the mess by offering us a Glorious September.  It was dry and warm and was perfect for spending a few days away.  There was no way we were going to miss this opportunity.

It was less than 15 minutes out of Saint Malo and my mind was in a Fuzzy Haze of antibiotics and my stomach filled with tasty sandwich au jambon.  I was regarding the passing scenery in the aforementioned Fuzzy Haze when a realization crashed in on me.  I Fully Understood we were descending on a Truly Magical Place. Sitting in a farmers field was a ring of neolithic standing stones.

A walk thru Saint Malo on our first full day brought us to one of the Top Five Greatest Meals Ever.  The next day saw us out at Mont Saint Michel with our final full day in Bretagne being spent in Dinan.  Yes, magic could be found everywhere.

Mont Saint Michel ~ The Pilgrims Route

We like to travel on the shoulder seasons.  That is, we like to visit places when the prices are lower than during the peak and when there are fewer of us tourists to clog things up.

Mont Saint Michel was a source of concern for us as we'd read where the place is practically insupportable! with the vast numbers of tourists and pilgrims visiting the old monastery.  The site is the second most heavily visited location in France (after, of course, Paris).

Incredibly, fortune was on our side.  There was plenty of space to walk.  There were clear views of just about anything you might want to see.  We were able to take Mass with the brothers and nuns who live in the monastery.  We were able to pass thru the monastery with ease.  Lunch tables were un-filled in a surprising number of restos that are found on this history steeped island.

Mont Saint Michel ~ The Pilgrims Route

Back in the late-800's the Viking Rollo (aka: Robert I), son of Rognvald Eysteinsson, invaded what is now northern France (Normandy) and gained control over the region that includes Mont Saint Michel.  Rollo appointed an archbishop of Rouen who's direct control included the Mont.

In 933 William Longsword (William I) annexed the entire peninsula from the Bretons.  Squabbles with the Bretons would leave William dead after being ambushed while attending a peace conference.

The 1000's saw William the Bastard (aka: William the Conqueror) fighting in the region around the Mont as he maintained control over his father's and grand-father's land.  Some of the Big Events from the Bastard's life are recorded on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

Mont Saint Michel ~ The Pilgrims Route

Even as the Dreaded Plague was dragging me down Jude and I were like Two Little Mountain Goats.  We climbed, walked, skirted, and wandered all over the island.  I climbed the long, steep staircase to the monastery three times!  The first was with Jude to see where the stairs lead and to decide the seemingly over-priced museum was Probably Not Worth It.  I again climbed the stairs to ask questions of the Front Desk after we started to reconsider our initial decision.  And I climbed yet once more with Jude once we realized we simply had to see the monastery since that's what we'd come all this way to do!  Such were the continuing effects of antibiotics and the plague on my State of Reasoning.

As for the expected Vast Crowds, why were there so few people during our visit?  Was it our Good Fortune in planning?  Were there fewer people due to the Air France pilots strike?  Or was this a broader indication of the general state of the global economy?  Some things might just remain a mystery.

Voila une petite histoire...

I mentioned to someone in our French/English conversation group that Jude descended from the Dukes of Normandy but that I couldn't remember the details.  This sparked everyone's interest, a long conversation ensued, and Jude set out to re-research her family history.

Mont Saint Michel ~ The Pilgrims Route

Jude's daughter and niece had looked into the matter and had come to similar conclusions.  No one saved the Family Tree for future reference (the websites in question had deleted their research histories).  So... Jude was off to look into the matter once again and try to keep a record of her findings.

Here is what Jude found.  Some of her family who moved to Montana were named Eckley.  They came from somewhere along the east coast of the US.  Importantly, Jude was able to trace her family through the Eckley line back to Devon, England.  Many years before jumping the Pond to the New World the Eckley family line was connected to the Giffard/Gifford family line.  Many years before jumping the Channel to England, the Giffards had lived in Normandy and were, in fact, the Dukes of Normandy.  Many years before jumping the North Sea to invade northern France, the Dukes of Normandy had been Kings of Norway and Danemark.  Jude's daughter found a link to William the Bastard, as well.  It was a simple matter of following the lineage of one of William the Bastard's own Bastards, et voila!

Jude is a direct descendant of Rollo, William Longsword, and William the Bastard.

Hence our interest in things related to Mont Saint Michel.  The monastery island had been under direct control of her family for several centuries.  Our visit had been a visit the Old Family Stomping Grounds.

The Dreaded Plague could not keep us from paying the place a visit and submitting it to inspection to make sure they were keeping things in Good Order.

Mont Saint Michel ~ The Pilgrims Route

Monday, September 29, 2014

Q&A Time ~ Topic Number One

... reaching deep into our mail bag to see who might have a good question to ask us, your Long Suffering But Very Dedicated Editors... um... hum... here's something interesting.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Question:  "How do you find good places to eat that won't dent the wallet, yet deliver excellent food that France used to be known for?"

Now there, indeed, is a fine question.

France is long known for it's amazing cuisine.  Yet, in the past few decades the kind of food we oftened dreamed of in our youth seldom materialized once we were On The Ground and In-Country.  Why? you might ask.

Jude has a pretty straightforward explanation.  I'll paraphrase and remove all the swearing by saying simply that it's tourists and changes in French business practices.

Tourists visit Paris by the tens of millions each year.  75 million tourists come this way, in fact.  Restaurants know they have a captive audience and can charge whatever they like for the microwaved Rungis pre-prepared food they slap down on the tables.  Think "TV Dinners" French-style and you'll understand.  It is very rare these days to find a decent resto that has a fully operational, fully staffed kitchen.  Don't believe me?  Take a close look the next time you're in town.  You'll be shocked.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Add to this Sad State of Affairs two important things and you'll have a sense of just how bad things have become.  First, French business is trying to keep up with the Anglo-Saxons.  What this means is that instead of spending a leisurely two or three hours over lunch during the work-week, many people can be seen grabbing un sandwich and eating, nearly literally, on the run back to the office.  Second, since the Locals aren't spending much time over lunch, a great many restos have closed.  A little research using The Force (Google) quickly reveals how dire the situation has become.

Between tourists who are in no position to demand quality and business folks eating on the run, what's a retired person to do? The easy answer is to cook at home.  Jude is an amazing cook.  Her recipe list is broad and deep.  Yet, when traveling or simply wanting a Night Off there has to be a Better Way.  Which leads to the harder answer, which is to do Boots On The Ground Personal Research to uncover the Last Jewels in the Civilized World.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

You can find good food anywhere you go by following a few simple tips.
  • Read the carte posted by the front door.
  • If they offer more than hamburger and steak-frites, closer observation may be in order.
  • Stake the place out and watch.  This may take time, so bring a stool so you can sit.
  • Observe the comings and goings.
  • Are the people Locals? or tourists?  You'll want a place where the Locals are.
  • If promising, dites bonjour! au barman and enter the kitchen.
  • Before they drive you off, quickly check for a micro-onde and confirm the staff is French.
  • If they have a micro-onde, walk out.
  • If, however, they swear at you in perfect French, it might be worth sticking around.
  • Leave the kitchen (if not already thrown out) and observe the wait-staff (from the sidewalk if necessary).
  • If the wait-staff is friendly to the Locals (even as they are being efficient and quick with the service), you may have found a good place to eat.
  • Look to see where they are in the Michelin ratings.  Two or three forks and no stars means you might eat well.  Add a star and you may gold.
Hmmm... OK... so it's not so simple and they'll never let you into the kitchen without killing and dressing you first.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Perhaps it would be best to use the only Proven Method I know:  Bring Jude along.  My wife has the nose of a Bloodhound and the food-sense of a Master.

Using our Proven Method we have scored some amazing meals for very reasonable prices.

For example, we recently visited Saint-Malo (see prior post about contracting the Dreaded Plague).  It was lunch time and we were hungry.  But we wanted desperately to avoid Tourist Traps that offered endless Gallettes and Cidre.  We wanted Real Food and happened to be walking through the center of the Intra-Muros.  We stopped from time to time to look at a menu and to see who was showing up for lunch.

After a half dozen places, Jude stopped and looked carefully at one particular menu.  The prices were "right" (around 30Euro a plate).  The Locals were eating there.  The smells coming from the kitchen were "right" as well.  The problem was sorting out exactly what was on the menu that Jude could eat.  So we walked on to see if anything else turned up.  We went as far as the main gate and the Galette/Cidre Row and decided to ask a few questions back at the place Jude had spent time with the menu.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Thus began one of our Top Five Meals ever.  Each dish had a To Die For flavor, subtly, and texture.  This is what we came to France for.  This was The Place to spend a few hours enjoying a meal and conversation.  Le Chalut, it turns out, has a Michelin star.  Well deserved we feel.  Our meal exceeded our Wildest Expectations.

In another example of Jude's Amazing Abilities came during a side-trip to Dinan.  We heard it was a lovely old town and were to be there over lunch.  So, quick as a bunny, Jude looked on TripAdvisor for the top restos in Dinan.  Two came up as potential candidates and would need to be confirmed by showing up and Checking Things Out.

The first place on Jude's list was noted as being difficult to get into and that reservations were strongly advised.  Still, we had to take a look for ourselves.  Meat was on the menu and wood smoke hung heavily in the air.  Real Honest to God Grilling was taking place here.  We asked if they had room to accommodate us and were surprisingly quickly shown to a table by the window.  No reservations required in late-September, apparently.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Jude's Amazing Ability had found us yet another great place to eat.  La Viande was cooked perfectly.  Yes, the side of veggies was a Little Suspect (boiled! of all things), but we were there for the meat... and desert... and coffee... all of which were exactly what we'd hoped they'd be.  Le Cantorbery is well worth a visit.  We walked away with our clothing smelling heavily of wood smoke.  Heaven.

Now before I get too Frothing At The Mouth, it must be noted that Jude's Amazing Abilities are not in the ex cathedra sense completely and utterly infallible.

The night we arrived in Saint Malo found us sitting down to a meal at the Relais d'Alsace.  I had the special... and boy... it was sure special.  Fish wrapped in pasty-dough and deep fried.  Sitting on top of a slice of andouiette sausage.  If you know anything about andouiette you know it's best when tasting a little like the Ass End of the pig it came from.  A friend nearly died trying to eat andouiette sausage when we were in Lyon last May.  It was disgusting. What a terrible way of destroying a perfectly good fish.  Can French cuisine be this bad?  Maybe it's the German influence.

We should've known that a German-style eatery in the middle of Brittany would be a Bad Sign.  Yes, I know that Alsace is currently found on the French side of the line.  Still, the food was heavy and, well, heavily suspect.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Other than that, there you go.  To eat well in France, just bring Jude along.  She can (most of the time) sniff out great places to eat.

Thanks for your question, dear reader.  I hope this answers your concerns.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Around Town ~ les journees du Patrimoine

It all started innocently enough.  We invited our Upstairs Neighbors down for a little apero.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

Jude and I had plotted and planned a way to keep the boys happy, distracted, and busy.  We picked up a few DVDs from the library and hoped one of them would keep things calm.  I planned to watch the videos with them as another way to keep the peace.

What we couldn't plan for was what would happen should one of les enfants be a Bringer of the Plague, and the timing couldn't have been worse.  Les journees du Patrimoine were coming and I wasn't going to miss it.  Unless I was on my Death Bed, that is.

Each year the third weekend in September is set aside as a very special two day event.  All across France, places of history and importance that are normally off limits to visitors open their doors wide.  Millions of visitors see places they'd not usually see.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

This year our Across the Hall  Neighbor invited Jude and I to his place of work over in the 1eme.  He'd give us a personal tour.

In our conversation group we were strongly encouraged to visit the ambassador's residences of Romania and Poland over in the 7eme.

We would spend Saturday with our Across the Hall Neighbor and Sunday visiting the residences.  Or so we thought.

As the week ground on I became sicker and sicker.  By Saturday I was a mess.  The Little Virus Vectors of our Upstairs Neighbors have delivered a Plague of Apocalyptic Proportions.  Damn them!

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

Come Saturday afternoon I resolved to suck down as many throat lozenges as it took to get through the tour.  We couldn't miss this as our Across the Hall Neighbor is a director of some importance within the French government.  It was an honor to be simply invited.  I girded my loins, packed my lozenges, and we set off.

On the other side of rue de Rivoli from the Louvre sits the Conseil d'Etat.  There is so much history in this one place (as we came to learn) that it's hard to know where to begin.

An all to brief overview goes something like this...  Cardinal Richelieu had his residence built near the king's so the king would have easy access to advice on how to run the state.  The Ducs of Orleans lived here with their family for a short time.  Moliere's first Comedie Francaise was located on the site.  There were several fires and the building was rebuilt each time in a different configuration.  Emperor Napoleon formalized the functions of the Conseil d'Etat soon after he took power.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

The Conseil d'Etat is an interesting institution.  It's only responsibilities relate to government administration and laws pertaining to government.  Nearly everything else (civil order and other non-governmental non-administrative law) is handled by individual Maries and the Prefecture de Police.

The Conseil d'Etat has three primary functions.  It helps craft language for future law that fits within the framework of constitutional and related law.  It oversees the process where law is contested.  It ensures the administration of government complies with French law.

Looking at this from a US point of view, The Conseil d'Etat is an advisor to the law making process and would arbitrate any disputes that might arise.  Alas, there is no real US equivalent.  Could you imagine a process or function that would help write US legislation to make sure it fit the language of the constitution and all related law before Congress, Big and Monied Interests got their hands on it?

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

The Conseil d'Etat has a similar function to the US Supreme Court, but only for things related to the administration of government.  It is the final arbiter in cases where a contest arises.  It seems to act as a Fine Toothed Comb for administrative law.

As our neighbor was explaining how the Conseil d'Etat worked I asked how political influence was managed.  Afterall, in the US all it takes a sufficient money and a sensitive ear for legislation to be written in your favor (business and monied interests love the US process for how easy it is to manipulate).

It turns out, political influence is managed, as you might guess, rather differently here in France.  The President of the Conseil is appointed by the President of France.  It is a life time position.  It is strictly a-political.  How this can be, I have no idea, but our neighbor assures us this is the case.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

We had the opportunity to see the Vice President of the Conseil.  He is a tall man of pleasant continence and seemingly abundant patience.  He seemed to answer every question put to him.  There were a lot of people who had questions, from the looks of things.  I couldn't help but notice the beauty and precision in his use of the French language.

Toward the end of our tour we asked about recruitment policies and how France found the right people for this kind of job.  It turns out recruitment is rather straightforward.  The top five students from Institut d'études politiques de Paris each are given clerical positions in the Conseil.  Only the very best and very brightest are allowed into this ancient institution.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

Just as I felt like I could take no more and that the Dreaded Plague was having it's way with me, we thanked our host for the generosity of his time and knowledge, and bid adieu to our Across the Hall Neighbor.  I struggled back to the Metro and then to Home and Hearth.

The Romanian and Polish Ambassador's residences will have to wait another year.  The best I could do was stagger to a pharmacy to beg for relief and to schedule a doctors appointment for Monday.

Tuesday we would leave for Saint-Malo.  Dreaded Plague and all.