Not So Secret Paris
Are there any secrets left in Paris anymore? With the advent of the Internet, I venture to guess there are far fewer than there used to be. Still, we’d like to share some of our favorite places that most tourists might miss, places of color, quiet, intimacy or sensory delight.
Royal Gardens behind Comedie Francaise
Photo by MoonSoleil, 2007. originally posted to Flickr at http://flickr.com/photos/8027316@N02/803733466 under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photo edited for clarity.
Have you been to the Palais Royal Gardens? Our daughter tells us that these gardens have recently been inaccessible due to work, but are now open. Compared to the Tuileries, Bois de Boulogne and the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Palais Royal Gardens are intimate, discreet, and even more classically beautiful. The Duchesse of Orléans, sister in law of Louis XIV, had them installed. There is an alley of trees, large rose plantings, and children’s playground, and one may have a little picnic in this “tucked away” corner, across from the Comédie Franćaise. Sit and imagine the royal children playing among the flowers, followed by anxious nannies, and Louis XIV entering the courtyard to visit his sister in law and nieces.
Sunrise on Sacre Coeur
Il y a belle lurette, or a long time ago, one of my French friends, Bénédicte, told me about going to see the sun rise over Paris from Montmartre - Sacré Coeur to be exact. She and her brother ascended the hill in the not so wee hours (the sun rises quite late in Paris in the winter), and watched as the light began to spread over the city. There had been a little bit of snow, and the effect was magical. It was quiet, and still, and there were few people up and around. Afterward, she and her brother found a little café - quite easy in that neighborhood- and warmed up with hot chocolate. It remained one of her favorite memories.
I too can attest to the magic of the stillness as the yellow-pink rays of light advance over the city, lighting it up quartier by quartier. I remember getting up (relatively) early, and climbing up the steps, to see the “rosy fingered dawn.” There’s never been a better description than Homer’s so we’ll leave it at that. It’s as though Paris belongs to you, and only you, when you can take in the sight with solitude. As the sun completed its ascent, we turned to go, and saw a beautiful young woman, in her bathrobe and slippers, hurry across the street to fetch her bread. It’s good to know that Montmartre is still its own little neighborhood, where families live and work, oblivious to the tourists crawling over Sacré Coeur. Fortunately for them and us, certain times of the day remain private and still, if we make the effort to find them.
Swedish House, or Le Café Suédoise
And no, we don’t mean the band! The Swedish Institute in Paris was established in 1971 as a unique cultural center for Swedes abroad. It hosts expositions, concerts, films, theatre and of course, courses in Swedish. Situated in the Marais, its café is a congenial place to meet friends, and offers delicious Swedish tea treats and meals in its folkloric tea room. At Christmas-time, the courtyard is decorated with a huge version of the traditional straw Swedish horse, found on Christmas trees and holiday decor.
You can find the Café in the Hôtel de Marle, at 11 Rue Payenne, in the Marais. Look for the stone courtyard and the blue door. Alternatively, follow the aroma of the fresh Swedish pastries and brioche made by the staff. The café is open Tuesday through Sunday, from noon to six pm.
The Great Mosque of Paris
The Mosque isn’t quite as well kept a secret as it used to be, but it’s an out of the way respite where you will be warmly and graciously welcomed, in an exotic and mysterious atmosphere. Perfect on that rainy Paris afternoon when the streets are gritty and your feet are tired!
The Mosque was founded in 1926, as a token of gratitude, after World War I, to the Muslim tirailleurs from France’s colonial empire, of whom 100,00 died fighting against Germany. And, let’s remember that during World War II (in which France was occupied by Nazi Germany) and The Holocaust, under its rector Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the mosque served as a secret refuge for Jews, being persecuted by the Axis powers, providing them shelter, safe passage, and fake Muslim birth certificates.
Many aspects of the Mosque are open to the public. There is a fabulous restaurant, where you can experience tagines, couscous and pastries. If you want a break, treat yourself to the Salon de Thé, and imagine yourself in a moorish cafe, surrounded by beautiful, intricate tile tables and walls. The waiter will bring you mint tea or coffee, and you can indulge in sweet, flaky North African pastries. The Salon de Thé is open 7 days a week, from 9:00 am to 11:30 pm.
For the more adventurous, the Mosque offers baths for men and women (strictly segregated) and a souk, or bazaar. You can get a full virtual visit at www.la-mosquee.com.
Share your favorite secret spots in France...
À la prochaine,
All photos unless otherwise noted ©Parlez-Vous Provence.
How To Make Friends With The French - It’s Easier Than You Think!
The French are legendary for many things - haute couture; pastry, bread, cheese and wine brought to the level of fine art, actual fine art, tangos by the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the glamour of Paris and the ancient charm of its sleepy rural villages. Unfortunately, in the English speaking world, they are legendary for rudeness, snobbery, and impatience with anyone not French, or any poor soul trying to speak French as a second language. If you’ve read this Blog, you know I’ve spent a fair amount of time in France, and I can attest to the true friendliness of the people. You just need to respect them, their culture, and their dogs.
Yes, their dogs. If you want to take a short cut to a French man or woman’s heart, stop to politely and respectfully ask if you may take a photograph of his or her dog:
“Desolé [madame][monsieur], mais est-ce que je peux prendre une photo de votre chien(ne)? Il/Elle est si beau/belle!”
Then make a sincere fuss over canine cuteness, beauty, nobility, good behavior, or any other admirable trait the pup possesses. The French are passionate about their dogs. Dogs are allowed routinely in restaurants, buses, métro cars, markets and cafés. And they are surprisingly very well behaved. Perhaps they are socialized so early that they know how to behave - often better than the children in the family may be.
We met many adorable dogs in France on our last visit, and purposely tried out our theory. Of course it helps that through marriage I have been converted to a “dog person,” (still a “cat person” too of course) and have a deeper appreciation for these best friends of ours. They are entrusted to us and are helpless, so in our family we feel a great responsibility toward our two little dogs, so much so that they may at times have received as much or more attention than our daughter! As a consequence, cooing over a dog is second nature. The French are palpably proud of the delight their canines bring to Americans, and that pride melts away some of their reserve - for it is reserve, usually, and not the unfriendliness it is too often taken for. And of course, while petting an absolutely adorable little dog, smiles abound and can make for a fast bond.
We thought we’d share some of our favorite photos of our French canine friends:
A baby Keeshond we couldn’t resist fawning over in the market in Limours. She just couldn’t stay still, so we were lucky to get even this shot.
Later we learned that her owner, owner’s mother and grandmother owned the local shoe shop, and we made fast friends with them all. In fact, this is the shop that supplies us with Rondinaud slippers, so admiring this little puppy also led to a fun business deal and new friends to visit, and to have visit us.
Take a look at this monsieur’s pale green eyes! And his tongue matches the pink of madame’s coat, although that was probably coincidental. With the French, however, maybe not! He was having a good time accompanying his mistress at the semi-weekly market in Limours, and was quite happy to have his picture taken.
This Dalmation was being so well-behaved at the market. If you look closely perhaps you can see that he had one blue eye and one hazel eye. And he loved the camera.
And finally, one of the sweetest little friends we made. He traveled in style in a beautiful cart lined in a soft quilted cotton, and was the apple of his human parents’eyes. The next time you travel anywhere, try asking politely if you can take a picture of someone’s adored little dog. At a minimum you’ll have some fun travel photos, and you may make some canine and human friends.
À la prochaine,
Louise and the Team at Parlez-Vous Provence
It is quite fashionable, and indeed, commendable, to go "green" these days. What we often forget is that due to poverty, modest circumstance and resources, and fewer time saving devices, many practices from the "olden days" were green as well as gracious.
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Oh, You Beautiful Doll (or Poupée)
Like many nations, France has a plethora of regional/national costumes, worn on feast days, holidays and cultural celebrations. Let’s take a look at some well-known, and not so well-known costumes.
Who hasn’t seen the dramatic lace headdresses of the women of Bretagne? Source, Wikipedia, Coiffes bretonnes traditionnelles du cercle Ar Vro Vigoudenn portée pour la Grande Parade du Festical Interceltique de Lorient en 2009, XIIIfromTOKYO (Traditional Bretonne Headdress).
While there are at least 66 different styles for Bretagne alone, the “tower” coiffes of Bigoudin are probably the best known. They are certainly hard to miss. These lace coiffes may vary depending upon the marital status of the lady in question: single, married or widowed. These and other costumes are well documented as far back as the 18th century, but undoubtedly had preceding versions.
The traditional costume of Alsace is also dramatic, and charming as well. Consider this piece of faïence by Sarreguémines, Obernai pattern, in which the ladies of the town are having a snowball fight! Those headdresses look like great big bows on top of their heads.
This little doll follows suit:
In fact, collecting these vintage souvenir dolls is a great way to learn about the regional costumes of France. If you are lucky enough to find one (they haven’t been made in the old fashioned way since the early 60s), look under the skirt. There may be a tag, typewritten, that identifies the doll. Or, a doll in really good condition may have a manufacturer’s tag, with an identification.
I have been gathering these little dolls for at least a decade, and from time to time add a new one up for sale at Parlez-Vous Provence. It can be difficult to identify some of these dolls, and their regions, without some detective work. Here are some more of my favorites; try to note the detail in these little creatures. They look like they could jump down from the shelf at some point and chat with us in their regional patois.
A charming mademoiselle from Nice. I love her big wide straw hat:
A rather severe “madame” from the Auvergne region. This costume is almost medieval looking. If you’ve seen the film “Etre et Avoir,” the Auvergne is the region where the school was located:
Another “madame” from Provence, we think, because of her paisley “Indiennes” shawl. She is not from Nice but perhaps in a more northern, mountainous part. She seems more benign than her friend from Auvergne! Her back is pretty too:
And here’s a little gathering some of our other Bretagne dolls had to celebrate Bastille Day:
Collecting regional dolls can be a great way to introduce folklore, history and artisan works of art to your child. Make up stories, and have the kids (gently) act them out with their dolls. Don’t hesitate to let your children feature prominently in these stories as well; they delight in being part of the fantasy, as well as the center of attention when the story is about them and their doll friends. If you speak French, have the dolls speak in simple sentences to your child: “I heard her say Bonjour, Caitlin, ça va? That means hello, Caitlin, how are you?” They’ll get a kick out of it, and you’ll develop their ear for languages - really good for their brain development.
Imagine, all that from one beautiful little doll, made decades ago the old fashioned way.
À la prochaine,
When love walks in the room, everybody stand up
The holiday season is fast upon us. The older (and I hope wiser) I get, the more I turn away from the emphasis on material items, bargains, the incessant commercials and their too loud exhortations to buy electronics, perfume, cars and cinnamon scented air fresheners.
This year however is my first as an entrepreneur. The holiday season can ensure the survival of a small business, or its demise. The irony is not lost on me that as my mental and emotional dislike of the merchanting of Christmas grows, so does my financial dependence.
Isn’t that life? Every twist has a turn, every turn has a bump, and the universe can’t help but snort with laughter as the lessons we think we’ve learned come back to haunt – or rather, teach – us in a whole new way. Yes, it’s good to be more spiritual at Christmas. Yes, it’s good for thousands of small businesses to have a healthy trade during the holiday season.
So I’ve been thinking about these inconsistencies, and wondering how we align them. And when I write “we,” I mean my own little family. There’s too much judging going on in the world without adding more to this simple blog. But if this post makes you a little more thoughtful, that’s a good thing.
First, giving has always been an important part of the Christmas tradition. It’s baked right into the Bible, as the three wise men brought their offerings to honor the Child. So, giving will continue and rightly so.
But what can we give, and how? How do we honor the season and the gift recipient? I’ve come to think that a gift which helps the recipient become who he or she wants to be honors the best in that person, the potential in that person, and is truly given in the spirit of love. All of which are entirely consistent with the story and message of the Christmas miracle.
So whether you buy something from Parlez-Vous Provence, Etsy, your local arts and crafts festival, or fashion something from your own hands, let your giving reflect the best that is in you and in your loved one.
My husband was the first person to ever give me a professional water color set, because he knew I longed to be able to paint something beautiful. It didn’t matter to him that I was not assigned the “artistic” role in my family of siblings. It didn’t matter to me that it was not an extravagant present, or wasn’t jewelry or something to wear. The fact that he took my wish seriously – indeed, that he even divined it – meant everything.
So keep that in mind as you think about presents for your loved ones. My closing irony? My husband is impossible to buy for!
À la prochaine,
In the interests of full disclosure, this is a post from two years ago when Adriana was a student in Paris that no one saw, but it’s too good not to repost.
We spent a lazy morning doing nothing and enjoying the scenery from Adriana’s apartment, then decided to venture out to the Marché aux Puces by Porte de Clignancourt. Hélas, the vast majority of the vendors were en vacance…although one very dapper older gentleman made us a good offer on any of the seventeenth and eighteenth century furniture in his shop. Sadly, we had to decline; as Adriana explained, she is poor student, donc her mother is poor as well. He then dismissed us with a careless “Bon fin d’année.”
Sensing we would not get much further at the Marché aux Puces, we briefly explored the neighborhood (it reminded us of Philadelphia) and then headed back into the city center, deciding we would have better luck amusing ourselves in the Marais.
First, though, we had to pass a full Monoprix, to which Madame Louise was drawn as though a puppet on a string. We tested every shade of lip crayon, as she had promised a color to every one of her female coworkers. Then, across the aisle, perfume…we continued to test every single bottle of those as well.
As we were in the middle of our search for the perfect scent, an elderly French woman came by to advise us––avec gentillesse, she assured us!––that the perfumes that weren’t sealed spread germs terribly from the other shoppers, and we would be better off not to indulge. We professed great gratitude and then returned to testing them as soon as she walked away.
Madame Louise also recommended Indra perfume, which she adores, to another French shopper who had been contemplating whether it could possibly be any good for the seven Euros. The French shopper later returned the favor by pointing out a gift package that included scented spray deodorant. Adriana also helped another tiny elderly lady find les batonnets pour les oreilles. We were just making friends all over the place.
Nine lip pencils, a bottle of shower gel, perfume, and a package of egg noodles later, we were ready to leave. We wandered over to the Place des Vosges after a brief argument about how to get there, and happened upon a perfume store where we thought we’d ask about the elusive carnation scent Madame Louise loves.
Little did we know that when we entered the store, we left the real world behind and entered another one entirely.
Into the tiny elegant shop. Swooped upon by an elegant man who resembled Robin Williams un petit peu. He pronounced us princesses, sized us up, and chose a perfume and an alternative for each of us. Pour Madame, the erotique and sensuel parfum a l’oeillet, but it actually smelled quite strongly of tuberose – lively, lovely, but not carnation. Leather and mandarin, chosen to give this avocat an air of authority was surprisingly the one that “fit.” Pour Adriana, a summer scent evoking butterflies, and another, more sophisticated for winter, sans sucre, sans fleurs, black black pepper and mushrooms. No, it was not the basis of a ratatouille, but in fact a lovely subtle, grown up perfume. Of course, after such a show (and being offered his signature “scent of the wolf,” which indeed, smelled of the wild and a bit of animal urine, though not unpleasantly, and another that evoqued Mozart’s spirit) we bit, one perfume each.
The next morning we couldn’t figure out whose perfume was whose, but we’ll cross that nose when we get to it.
After M. Le Parfumeur, we stopped at the nearby Café Nectarine, which was très chic, and watched the Place des Vosges foot traffic over a café allongé and a “chocolat epée,” which may in fact be the best hot chocolate ever created (guess who had which one?).
We returned chez Adriana just in time to prepare dinner, as she had invited a friend over. The day before we had gently simmered plump chick peas with garlic, onion, and pepper for hours. We served this family recipe with the egg noodles and grated cheese, as well as a fresh salad made from the baby leaves of yesterday’s head of escarole, and the leftover white bean and escarole soup. To properly make the salad, you must remember to remove the paper from a clove of garlic and use it to season the inside of the salad bowl; simply rub the clove against the sides of the bowl several times. The garlic oil will delicately perfume the salad and greatly improve it. Throw in some good olive oil, salt and pepper, chopped onion and tomato, and a touch of oregano, and you’ve got a classic franco-italian salad.
For dessert, clafouti aux pommes, adapted from a plum clafouti recipe Madame Louise has had since the early days of her marriage. Parfait!
While we were talking after dinner, disaster struck! Adriana’s roommates, not especially known for their prudent behavior, had ensconced themselves with a fifth of vodka in one of the bedrooms during this dinner, not wanting to partake of the food, or at least of the adult conversation (Adriana comments, “They’re not very good at the last”). As we couldn’t help but overhear in slowly mounting horror, there came a huge crash and screams; Adriana rushed in to see an armoire knocked over on top of the guest we’d made breakfast for only that morning. Luckily, there was no blood, though the damages to the property were not insignificant. Those girls are troopers, though––they marched straight back out into the streets of Paris to find a suitable bar, leaving the three of us to survey the bedroom in shock.
(Funny enough, they came back only an hour or so later. We suspect the fact they couldn’t walk too well made it difficult to get into any self-respecting establishments, but that’s just guesswork.)
With that, we called it a night, after discussing Adriana’s escape strategy. Reinforcements were e-mailed the very next morning.
RECIPE OF THE DAY: PLUM CLAFOUTI
What do Parlez-Vous Provence, Mme. Louise, Mlle. Adriana, a trip to Quimper and Mount Holyoke College have to do with Pippa Middleton's bridesmaid dress?
Well, in my mind, where admittedly, connections are made leap by leap at times, there's a definite live stream of consciousness/life link.
Let me explain. I mean, really, can you stop me? Trust me, even if you were here in person with me, you wouldn't be able to.
If you've been following this blog or Parlez-Vous Provence, you know I've just come back from a month long trip to visit our daughter Adriana, who is teaching and living in Limours France for a year. (For more about her current adventures, check out http://lettersfromlimours.wordpress.com)
Because my time is more my own, now that I'm not actively practicing law, I rented a car and took the opportunity to venture out a bit with Adriana. We spent a lovely week in Bretagne, so enchanted with the region that we extended our stay for several days. The lovely host and hostess of the Hôtel La Québéçoise recommended we see Quimper, so we added it as a stop on our way from Dinan to Carnac.
Quimper is an "ancien" small city on the banks of the Odet River. In the center city, elegant half timbered buildings abound, and we drifted around as if under a spell. We made the obligatory stop to shop for Faïence, which was delightful, and then wandered at will.
I am a fabricaholic. I can sniff out a good fabric source a mile away. A small shop window, without signage, quietly beckoned. Let's go in, I said, let's not be shy, even though the door was closed and there was no indication of hours or even whether it was open.
In we walked, a little timidly, as we weren't sure we'd be welcome. But of course, one fabric lover instantly recognizes another! We explained to the madame and monsieur, who were wife and husband, that we had seen the colorful tweeds in the window and were intrigued. (Speaking French is so helpful to make introductions.) They informed us the tweeds in the window were Chanel - unbelievably beautiful. While they explained they couldn't allow us to take pictures of the interior, as they tried to keep their business affairs discreet, they told us they bought bolt ends of very exclusive fabrics. Their customer base was worldwide, as they sell well under current retail prices.
As we quietly gushed over the colors and textures, out came a bolt of pale pale cream silk - the fabric used for Pippa's bridesmaid dress! Could we touch it, we timidly asked? Bah, bien sûr, of course! It was fine and delicate, yet had a lovely substance and drape. And I could feel this even though (timing is everything) I'd gotten super glue by accident on some of my fingers, and hadn't gotten it all quite off! Not to worry, I did not cause any runs in the fine silk.
A remnant hanging by the door of black lace underlined with nude silk netting was the same used for Charlize Theron's famous dress, worn at the White House in 2012 and designed by Pucci. More bolts of Chanel tweed lined the wall to the right of the door. Out came remnants of heavy silk linings by Yves St. Laurent and Dior.
Madame had worked for Chanel for many years and was elegance herself. Monsieur wore a bespoke suit and a gray small ponytail that very few men could have pulled off. They were simply charming and only too happy to enjoy a few moments with fellow fabric lovers and "amateurs" of fine quality.
Now, let's connect the links, shall we? Starting our new business gave me the time and the impetus to visit Adriana for more than a week or ten days. As mother and daughter, we took this little vacation to Bretagne to have some good old fashioned fun, and luxury of luxuries, neither one of us, for once, had ANY obligations urgently whispering in our ears the entire week. No worries about the office, business disputes, theses due, exams, regulatory investigations - none of that. We had time for a real, true vacation, probably the first in decades.
Now we must go back in time a bit, and bring that link forward into the present. My beloved alma mater is Mount Holyoke College, one of the most beautiful and amazing institutions in the world. I say that without exaggeration. Those of you lucky enough to have experienced the support and power of that school are lucky in a way only a few can know.
Mount Holyoke has just embraced a new identity: Never Fear/Change. I kept this in mind during my last visit to France, as Adriana and I talked about courage and timidity. Getting past timidity, and embracing courage - even in the simple act of going into a store and talking to strangers - can enhance our lives immeasurably. With courage we can connect to the world, learn well outside our previous internal and external boundaries and limits. Adriana remarked that it seemed much easier for me to start conversations, walk into strange places and generally make myself known. I was not always like that, but the first steps I took to embrace that courage were in South Hadley, Massachusetts, on the Mount Holyoke Campus. And keeping Never Fear/Change in mind was a mental support to continue exploring, being open and being brave.
And that's how we got to feel Pippa's bridesmaid dress fabric! The link is actually fairly direct.
Parlez-Vous Provence is an also an example of Never Fear/Change in action. A switch from practicing law to running an import business requires courage, faith and a mental "180." But ditching the fear, or perhaps better put, planning for the worst and hoping for the best, erases lots of self-imposed limits.
À la prochaine,