Archive for December, 2011

Our first morning in Paris!!!

We walked from our gorgeous hotel to Le Louvre to have breakfast, aka “petit-dejuner”, at Café Marly. It’s something all the guidebooks say to do (and some websites too). Apparently Parisians think it’s a must do/gauche.

Tea and baguette with butter and jam is something I could live off of so it wasn’t a total loss to us. That said, I’d advise skipping the restaurant, but think the terrace would be lovely people watching in warm weather.

Next, was Le Louvre itself. I have such mixed feelings about this majestic museum. It’s lovely, and full of history. But it’s also filled with people – people walking in all directions, but none looking where they’re headed. People – pushing, bumping, stepping on your toes, keeping you from experiencing artwork and artifacts. The experience becomes navigating visitors rather than enjoying and reflecting on art and culture.

Photo Courtesy altaStation

Because we had other plans for the day, we decided to just see a special exhibition, Art of Alexander the Great’s Macedonia, and return to the larger museum if we had time later in the trip. (Can you believe we didn’t?!)

Oo la la, was it ever a lesson in Frenchness!

First, every Frenchperson is an art critic and historian. They way they pontificate with complete conviction on everything is as astounding as it is amusing.

Second, no one gives a merde about your personal space. Fortunately, I had read David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris before the trip and was prepared with some pointers for handling myself. To paraphrase:

• Don’t leave room between you and anything: One woman next to me actually bent over in front of me to read placards detailing artifacts. As we moved slowly down the line of items on display, she contorted herself in some sort of museum-specific yogic side bend, reached her arms out across the length of my body – almost to where Ryan was on my other side – and felt across the descriptions as if they were braille. As her fingers crawled across the columns of names and dates it was as if she thought she could just crawl across the descriptions to wherever it was she thought she should be.

• Bump as you are bumped – it’s the Parisian way: We began to use the “It’s not my fault” statement learned from our initial hotel experience as a way to amuse ourselves over otherwise potentially frustrating cultural differences throughout the trip. It’s not my fault you were standing there when I walked into you. You shouldn’t have been standing where I was walking! It’s not my fault I brushed past your shoulder so hard you lost your balance and your shoulder is now bruised. I have no idea what your shoulder was doing there anyway. It’s not my fault you were looking at that piece of art and now I’m in your way blocking your vision. You shouldn’t have left space between you and the glass. It’s not my fault the dog pooped on the sidewalk. It’s not my fault most of the cabs in the city are on strike, and I’m not, but if you’re not going to the airport, then I don’t want your business.*

From Lebovitz I also learned to push and bump as good as I got, and soon, I had people apologizing, “Pardon” to me just like a real Parisian!

(Yes! The person being bumped is the one who apologizes – to the bumper! The Pacific Northwest mind boggles.)

After Le Louvre we made a pilgrimage to Les Halles in the 1er arrondissement. Les Halles was once a lively central marketplace.

It was torn down in the 1970s and turned into an ugly modern shopping area called Forum des Halles, but the surrounding streets still have a market feel to them and are lined with quaint, yet legendary, restaurants, bakeries, and specialty shops. Lebovitz has a handy guide of what to see and eat on his lovely website.

High on my priority list was a visit, nay a pilgrimage, to E. Dehillerin — the legendary cookware shop frequented by the likes of Julia Child and Ina Garten — aka “The French Chef” and “The Barefoot Contessa” respectively.

"Dehillerin was the kitchen-equipment store of all time." - Julia Child

Jen – to the dear husband who has gifted her with this trip: “Okay, you realize this is important.”

Ryan – the dear husband: “Of course!!! I will be both reverent and silent. . . . . Oh my God, it’s a duck wearing a scarf!!!!”

Yes. There in the window of the shop was indeed a duck wearing a scarf. I’ve come to expect this sort of exclamation, so I gave the guy a big kiss.

Inside we perused the shelves of gadgets, industrial-size soup pots, copper pans, knives, food mills, wooden spoons, cookie cutters and more.

A Happy Happy Woman. (Photo courtesy altaStation)

I limited myself to an olive wood salt holder (and would later buy obscene amounts of hand-harvested sea salt to fill it with), a wooden spoon, and a holiday tree cookie cutter – all made in France. Next time, I plan to buy one of their famous copper pots.

The store has a framed photo of Julia Child in a place of honor. The man behind the counter wrapping my treasures in brown paper teased me when he discovered I did not speak fluent French. Intending to charm him, I told him that I was there on a pilgrimage and pointed to the photo of our cooking icon. Smiling he said, “Ah, yes! Julia. She was here quite a lot.” Then he asked me if I’d seen the movie (referring, of course, to the film, Julie and Julia) then proceeded to chat with everyone around him, employee and customer, in English and in French about the film.

This seems inefficient.
We visited the fabulous G. Detou where I proceeded to buy 5 different kinds of dijon.

I was looking for a few other items, but the small shop was very crowded so I decided to queue up. The thing is, there were three different lines all with seemingly different purposes. Indeed, one line was for having items rung up. Another was for paying for said items. The third was for for showing your receipt and picking up your purchases.

Seemed kind of inefficient. But when traveling, you go with the flow.

Terroir, Appellation, and a 16th Century Wine Cave

Spring Boutique (photo: altaStation)

We didn’t get to see and eat everything we wanted to in the area, as next up we were off to a wine tasting at Spring. The restaurant and boutique hosts private afternoon tastings for small groups in English on Thursdays (and some Fridays).

We first stopped in at their boutique — where I bought the previously mentioned salt —

— and had a glass of champagne. Josh, who would lead of lesson and testing, actually gave us three different smaller glasses in addition to our Crémant for comparison.

Crémant at Spring Boutique

We learned how terroir is the single most important concept in understanding French wine. It’s the flavor of a place. A wine’s taste is influenced by sun exposure, microclimate (even from row to row in a vineyard), soil, and other regional factors. It’s terroir reflects the place the wine came from, and a legally defined terroir is its appellation. In the US we refer to wine by it’s varietal (grape) and in France it’s by region – which is why understanding terroir is so important.

We tried several whites and reds including from Burgundy (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay), Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot), but our last taste — a white from Jura – – was enjoyed in the restaurant’s 16th century wine cave. The things one gets to do in Paris!

Côtes du Jura served with Comté

The Handsome Hubby

We were planning to go to Willi’s Wine Bar but were surprised to find they didn’t even open for another hour and a half. (Who opens at 7:30?!?!) We decided to call it a day, and it had been a busy and fulfilling one at that. Back to the hotel for hot baths and an early bed. Tomorrow – Notre Dame!

Planning a trip to Paris? Here are my Relevant and Recommended Links:
Le Louvre
David Lebovitz
À la Mère de Famille (scrumptious chocolates)
David Lebovitz on Fleur de sel de Guérande

* And here I discover “C’est pas ma faute.” is Very French indeed! In fact, I recall Mr. Lebovtiz discussing this phenomena in his book as well.

The Arrival

Ryan had used the many miles he’d accumulated traveling for work to buy us two round trip tickets to Paris. We were flying business class and only had to pay the taxes on our tickets. Oo la la.

I’d spent a couple of disastrous months as an au pair in a charming city near Versailles at the age of 21. It’s a long story, but suffice to say the only joy of the experience came from weekend visits to Paris. I’d long wanted to return under different circumstances, with a partner, and with the benefit of adult means.





We were all set with logistics. Ryan had booked us in a hotel that had received rave reviews on Trip Advisor.

Why, don't you *look* ever so charming?

I set out to research all we should eat, drink, shop, and see. I collected literary passages tied to key places (The Beats and 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur, Julia Child and Les Deux Magots, Hemingway and Shakespeare & Co, Zazie and Le Metro), traced maps, made flexible itineraries, booked reservations. It was practically all I could think about!

We arrived in Paris on Wednesday, December 7th in the evening. Ryan had booked a car to take us from Charles de Gaulle to the hotel. It took another two hours to get into the heart of the city but the moon was full and we could watch it through the moonroof. It was raining – a good sign because, as Audrey Hepburn tells Humphrey Bogart in the movie Sabrina:

“This is what you do on your very first day in Paris. You get yourself, not a drizzle, but some honest-to-goodness rain, and you find yourself someone really nice and drive her through the Bois de Boulogne in a taxi. The rain’s very important. That’s when Paris smells its sweetest. – It’s the damp chestnut trees.”

Arriving at our hotel, the courtyard, with its tiny Christmas lights was as picturesque as it looked in the photos on their website. The interior of the lobby was tiny, the elevator tinier, but this was Europe. Then I stepped inside our room and my heart sunk. The room was almost as small as the elevator. The bed, which was merely a double, had two hard small excuses for pillows. There were no night-stands. I took a deep breath and decided not to say anything because how often does one get to Paris? I’m lucky to have traveled internationally at all – let alone several times, and with my partner.

But the bathroom shower, while it looked clean, smelled like a high school boy’s locker room. There was some gross bodily fluid or other on the wall next to the toilet. The spare blanket in the closet was covered in hair. There was nowhere to plug in Ryan’s CPAP. It reminded me of places I stayed when I took a tour of Europe at age 14. It reminded Ryan of places he’d stayed while traveling through Europe at 23.

Were we too tired to see the charm? Were we too grown-up to stay in such a place? Were we being too snooty by thinking that maybe we were too adult to stay in such a place? How much would we end up spending by moving to another hotel? Could we rally and move then and there – or should we spend the night and think on it?

That our jet-lagged minds could even form questions at what was now after 9:00pm Paris-time and over 15 hours of travel was of surprise. While I sat there having a muddled debate in my head about privilege, our current finances and our known expenses for the coming year, my husband quietly pulled out his iPhone and booked us for a week at the Westin Vendome. Ryan for the win.

Down the stairs we went. We fully intended to pay for the first evening and just eat the cost. But this was Paris, and apparently checking out of a hotel isn’t always so easy.

You can’t check out. You’ve booked a week. And if you don’t like the room, that’s not our fault. You picked it.”

“You misrepresented it online. We’d like to pay for tonight and cancel the rest of our stay.”

The receptionist picked up the phone, called the manager, and handed the receiver to Ryan who was told that we could not cancel our reservation because it’s just not done and that – –

“It’s your fault. That’s not a good room.”

!!!!!???? Excusez-moi?!?!?!?

We were offered the chance to see other, presumably “better” rooms but had no interest. If you offer rooms in your hotel that even you think aren’t up to par then why the hell would we think that anything else would be better?

We asked what the cancellation policy was and the manager, sensing a losing battle, pulled a figure out of his ass. Before I could argue further, Ryan paid it and we left. (It turns out there is no official cancellation policy on their website and we are American suckers.)

So please now picture us, exhausted, rallying to drag our suitcases through Paris at night (though also invigorated after our first Very French cultural encounter) trying to avoid dog poop (which Parisians en masse refuse to pick up) and finally arriving at the beautiful Westin hotel to find ourselves much, much happier. Twice the price is apparently also infinitely more comfortable.

Tres Jolie!

We made a pact that this comfort would be our Christmas gift to each other. Sealed it with a fist bump. And finally fell asleep.

Bon Noël à nous!

I’ve been trying to get my husband, Ryan, to go to Paris with me for years. Horrible stories about rudeness, free-roaming cats, and lack of attention to what we Americans would consider proper food handling and hygiene had turned him off of the French.

But on a business trip last year he found himself having dinner in a centuries-old farmhouse in Bordeaux. And he tasted the bread. And that marvelous French butter.

And I think the experience may have piqued his interest.

Of course, he’s also traveled to many places in the past decade: Norway and Korea, Germany and England, Australia and Japan – he’s become accustomed to, adept even, at embracing different cultures with grace (or at the very least, professional patience). Some of these places we’ve been able to visit together. But Paris wasn’t yet one of them.

A Surprise for Zazie

On our first date – nearly 13 years ago – we’d sat at the B&O on Capitol Hill, ate cake, and chatted about our favorite books. He said I reminded him of Zazie, the eponymous heroine of Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le Metro.

Zazie is a potty-mouthed, smarty-pants little girl who on a visit to her uncle in Paris for the weekend only wants to do one thing – ride the metro.

But the metro is on strike.

This, naturally, pisses Zazie off to no end.

“Oh, the dirty bastards!” Zazie exclaims. “Oh, the buggers! To think they’d pull a trick like that one me! . . . Oh shit, it gives me a real pain.”

Ryan said that the book was hard to find, and that he would procure me a copy. Procure he did, and presented it to me 2 days later on our next date. (He’d had it overnighted from San Francisco.)

A few years later I found out that the book had been adapted into a film and directed by Louis Malle.

I called local gem, Scarecrow Video, and by coincidence, they had just procured a large inventory and had a copy on VHS which I bought and gave to Ryan.

Zazie dans le Metro was recently released by Criterion, and I dropped a hint on Facebook – something of the ZOMG! variety.

Ryan had been informed by his friend, Kristofor, that whenever a woman posts something on the social networking site with a link and a ZOMG! that means she wants it. So – a none too subtle hint it was.

For my birthday, which, by the way, is also the national French independence celebration, Bastille Day, I received a beautiful copy of the film. I hugged it to my chest and said, “Oh, Ryan. Will you promise to go to Paris with me someday?”


“For reals?”

“For reals.”

“Even though you don’t like the French?”

“Yes, Jen. I promise I will go to Paris with you someday.”

Not believing him in the least I proceeded to check out the interior material of my new DVD. Nestled inside was an envelope addressed to “Zazie.” The card read “Meet me in Paris” and then had the dates 6 December – 13 December.

I couldn’t believe it!!!!! On y va!

*Illustrations by Jacqueline Duheme from Olympia Press edition of Zazie dans Le Metro.

I am so excited – – The first Geekquality podcast is live!

These awesome women were inspired by GeekGirlCon to create their own community to address Feminism, Race, Ability, Gender and Sexuality in Geek Culture. Take a listen, and follow them on Twitter (@geekquality) and Tumblr for more updates on their website and podcasts.

Additionally, Geekquality read Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology in preparation for their first podcast and there is a bonus podcast where I chat it up with Alice Marie and Elyse!