Thursday, July 29, 2010

Le Socialisme Francaise

M. and I actually had a long conversation about this sitting in a cafe the other day. We had visited a bakery in the morning, via a little outfit that arranges visits to traditional French businesses. This was a tiny traditional place in the 18th, on the back side of Sacre Coeur from Montmartre. It was owned by a thirty-something couple who had inherited it from her father. The visit itself was cool, everything happens down in the basement, with 100 year old brick ovens and mixing machines that look like they came out of a factory in 1905.

The wife was supposed to be doing most of the talking, but after a while the husband, who was supposed to be making croissants, warmed to the audience and got rolling. Like most French businessmen, like most businessmen anywhere, he complained. He busts his ass, works 14 hours a day six days a week, he and his wife barely see each other because he works all night and she runs the shop all day. And for what? It's impossible to make any money, because there are 112 bakeries in the 18th arrondissement alone. Multiply that by 20 arrondissements, some of them a lot bigger and more populous than the 18th, and that's maybe 2,500 bakeries in Paris. They all make essentially the same thing, and they are all required by law to charge exactly the same for it. A baguette here is one euro, and it is better, by far, than anything you can get in the US. Well, in Cville, there is exactly one bakery that makes bread on that level, and they get three bucks for a baguette. The guy was amazed that anyone could charge like that for bread.

It's the same question I always ask while I am in the Grenelle market. How can there possibly be three wonderful fish stands within 100 yards of each other in the same market? They all sell the same thing, and they all charge more or less the same, though I don't think there is a law about fish the way there is for bread. The answer is that the markets are all rigged here, the various shops aren't really competing with each other. So the whole system is just a step away from some kind of Soviet deal where there is a ministry of bakeries that produces everything that people eat. Presumably Soviet bread was terrible, like most American bread turned out by giant corporate free-enterprise conglomerates. Yet somehow it works here.... the bread is great, the fish is wonderful. But that hard-working baker can't get rich, he is stuck grinding it out for a (I would guess) very basic middle-class income.

I have a conservative Republican friend who I sit and argue with every week or so. He teases me about spending time in France because it is anathema to the Fox News crowd, the ultimate example of a place where big government has their jackboot on the neck of the average man (he doesn't really talk like that, but lots of people do). But he does seem to think that I am a little crazy to want to spend time in a place that is less than perfectly free, as though I had bought an apartment in North Korea. But it doesn't seem that way once you are here, moment to moment it seems just as free as the US. You can go where you want, say what you want read what you want, just like anywhere else.

But I guess you can't make money like you want, and that says something about why liberals are liberal and conservatives are conservative. Economic freedoms are mostly lost on me. I always feel a little guilty at tax time, because I don't really care about paying taxes. All that Republican outrage that it is OUR money just doesn't bother me. I work in an "industry" where there are thousands of professors turning out more or less the same product and getting paid more or less the same amount of money. I could never live anywhere that was on the one hand entrepreneurial but on the other politically repressed. Singapore, I guess, where you can be busted for chewing gum on the street but it's every man for himself in the marketplace.

Anyway, Western Europe puts the lie to all the nonsense in the US about socialism. It's not that I necessarily think that the US needs to transform itself into Sweden, but it is certainly the case that Western Europe has shown that something like democratic socialism is possible to one degree or another. That Fox News meme that national health insurance is just one step away from the Soviet Union circa 1973 is just wrong. In the US, sooner or later one of the bakeries in the 18th would do a better job than the others, sell decent bread for a little less, force most of the other bakeries out of business, open up a big bread factory somewhere and supply everyone with crappy bread while the lucky, or talented, or hardworking bakery owner got really wealthy. Is that better than having a state-supported system that manages to turn out first-rate bread for a buck and a quarter a loaf, at the price of denying bakers the opportunity to strike it rich?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Meals so Far

A nice thing about having a home here is that not all the meals so far have occurred in restaurants, though of course meals in Paris restaurants aren't exactly a hardship. But at my age I do find that eating out day in and day out here does eventually wear me out, it gets to be just too much rich food, never mind the wine, and so it is nice to be able to take a meal off from time to time and eat leftovers out of the frig like in real life. Plus it saves money, of course.

When we arrived on Saturday we wanted someplace quiet and in the neighborhood, because we knew we would be exhausted. We selected Marie Edith, which is just a metro stop down on the Rue Cambronne.

Yay... the photo tool seems to work on this (fairly crummy, actually) blog app. Anyway, we had a wonderful meal. Running down everything that everyone had would take a while and might get a little boring. Let's see, I started with a terrine of oxtail, served room temperature, basically a pate to be spread on bread and eaten with little cornichons. Then I had duck confit, a simple bistro standard here. Confit is duck, in this case a leg, which is cooked slowly in duck fat, after which it can be stored in the fat inside a crock for a long time. Then to prepare it, they just put it under a broiler to crisp up the skin. Nothing fancy, and it wasn't the best confit I have ever had, but it was good, and it came with wonderful roast potatoes, which may have been why I ordered it. I was tired and wanted comfort food. All three girls had the salad de chevre chaud first, it's a family favorite. Little round pieces of chevre (crottins) put under the broiler to brown and soften them, then placed on a salad with vinaigrette. This one came covered with little slightly sour red berries that we thought were pomegranate seeds but weren't, and the waiter couldn't come up with an English word for them
L. just informed me that she actually had ravioli first, homemade and basically just in butter. M. had joue de boeuf, beef cheek, which is a cut of beef slow-stewed until it is very soft, served in a wine and meat reduction. I don't think it is literally the cheek... maybe the butt cheek? Not sure, but it was very good, tender to the point of falling apart. Classic french desserts: oeuf a la neige (egg in snow.... I don't have my dessert expert here at the moment, but a concoction of meringue and cream), creme brulee, dark chocolate cake. All in all not great but delicious, and basically what we were looking for on our first night. Comforting.

Sunday we had our friends Sandy and Philippe over for our first homemade dinner. Sunday is market day on the Rue de Grenelle, so in the morning I set out to find things for dinner. I thought I would buy fish at one of the two or three amazing, and virtually identical, fish stands in the market. I think I have said before that if any one of these were in the US, it would be the best fish market within 100 miles. Dozens of varieties of fresh fish, and an old-fashioned fish-guy who asks you how you want it prepared, filleted, skin removed, etc. I decided on salmon, and for the second time in two tries got a little snookered by the fish guy (it was the butcher last time). I asked for a kilo and a half of salmon, the guy grabs a piece, throws it on the scale and says, in very rapid French, It's 1.9, is that OK? I am already really nervous about conducting this business in French, there is a line behind me, so I figure keep it simple and say, sure, and wind up with 50% more salmon than I really need, since I was estimating high to start with. And they don't give it away, it isn't a whole lot more expensive than a nice piece of salmon at a good market in the US, but it isn't a lot cheaper, either, even with the dollar a little stronger than it has been recently.

So I wind up with too much salmon, added some little potatoes and beautiful French green beans (which I realized later were exactly the vegetables I bought when Sandy and Philippe came over to our rented place on Easter, under these new circumstances I guess I go with what feels safe.) This time I boiled the potatoes instead of roasting them, served them in butter and parsley. The butter here, even in the supermarket, is noticeably better than back home, and the bother you get from the little cheese stands in the market, made at some farm somewhere, is just out of this world. Oh, that's what butter is supposed to taste like, you think. Sandy and Philippe brought wine and cheese, including a Brebis from Basque that was wonderful, we crowded ourselves around the little four person table and various couches and chairs, the windows open so the breeze could blow though, and had a wonderful time. A fruit tart from the market for dessert.

Well, CAM and E. aren't back yet, so I'll keep going. Monday night we ate at La Regalade, a place that CAM and I visited a couple of years ago, and is now open in a new location.

The general trend here is that each meal has been a little better than the one before. L Regalade is a step up from Marie Edith fanciness-wise, slightly more expensive, and a little less traditional. It is possible to get bored with traditional French bistro food if you eat too much of it. There is so much UPDATED bistro food here, though, that it doesn't really matter.

Anyway, I had a modified gazpacho first, a cold tomato broth pureed with peppers, surprisingly spicy for France, with roasted shrimp and fennel greens sprinkled on top. Then, for a main course, I had poitrine de porc, which was just amazing. Poitrine means chest, but this is pork belly, a rectangle three inches long and an inch high, layered with fat and meat, slow roasted until the fat is running, the meat brown, and everything falling apart like pulled pork, sitting in its juice and little tiny French lentils. M. had a deconstructed lasagna first, big wide noodles baked with cheese and basil. He then had pork belly with me. The girls all had foie gras first, mi-suit (half cooked) in little slices lined up on a plate with slices of baguette. CAM rarely passes up a foie gras opportunity. Then the girls had risotto for the main course, topped with a chicken breast stuffed with the liver, which I got to eat in both cases. CAM had a saute of veal.

It was a truly wonderful meal, with wonderful service, but I am going to lodge a small complaint. I notice on the menus lately that they advertise, say a menu for 30 euros, entree main course and dessert. Then, half of the choices on the menu are labeled with "supplement." So the lamb chop is supplement 6 euros etc. They can charge whatever they want, but at some point all the supplements kills the original point of the fixed-price menu, which is to relieve you from worrying too much about money while you order your meal. I don't like having to worry about whether it is worth it to order one of the expensive items, or whether it is OK if one of the kids orders it.

Location:Square de La Motte Picquet,Paris,France

Monday, July 26, 2010

Finally at Home in Paris

So after all this time we are finally in Paris together staying in our apartment. It's Monday afternoon, we have been here since Saturday, and already we have done so much that I feel like it I can't write it all down. But anyway the apartment is beautiful, the renovations complete, and it has been completely furnished by ParisPerfect, or they have finished whatever part of the furnishing that we didn't get done when we were here in April. In fact the truth is they have done most of it. It's all quite nice, some of the various pictures and furnitures and chothckes aren't exactly what I or we would have picked, but it's here. We have to pay them for all of it if we are going to keep it.

For the moment, no pictures, other than what you can see online, at,

I am sitting at the table pictured here... can I insert a photo directly? I am working on my Ipad, not so good for advanced editing.

Today we had just the kind of day I wanted to make sure we had while we were here for two weeks. Not full of activities, just hanging around and doing whatever. M. and L. (17 and 14) are late sleepers, so E. CAM and I got out to run at 9:00 or so, ran three laps around the Champs de Mars, we were home by 10:00 or so and the other kids still weren't up. We brought back some pastries and made toast, which slowly got them going. It then took quite a while to get all the beds put back together and the place straightened up. It's tight in here for all five of us. CAM and I get the nice bedroom, L. gets the pull-out sofa in the second bedroom with the double doors to the living room, and E. and M. get the two twins that open up from the couch in the living room. They are very nice convertibles, but still, when they are all open there isn't a whole lot of room to move around.

We also got the dishwasher and washing machine going for the first time. You wouldn't think standard household appliances would be as different as they are in Europe. Washer/dryers in particular are completely incomprehensible. In the many apartments we have rented over the years I have never felt as though I actually figured one out. Because we are tight for space, we have a "combination" washer-dryer that is supposed to perform both functions, and fortunately ParisPerfect provides very good instructions about how we are supposed to use our own stuff. It took me about half an hour, but I got the washer going. One thing about European washers is they take forever. The timer settings are calibrated in hours. And the dryer function... the ParisPerfect instructions say that they are a different "style" than American dryers, which is to say they aren't the style that actually get the clothes dry. It took me a long while to understand why not: by and large European dryers aren't vented to the outside, so they keep spinning the clothes and collecting the water to drain it away. Since we are on the top floor I thought it might be possible to install a vented dryer, but when I suggested it everyone looked at me like I was crazy. Why would you want that? Plus the buildings are very strict about poking new holes to the outdoors, presumably. Anyway, when we got home hours later the clothes were clean, and damp. They have been out on a laundry rack since then.

Another one of the necessary appliances in ParisPerfect apartments is an Expresso machine. We don't have one at home. This one is a Nespresso, the kind that works off little pods of coffee that you insert, making one cup at a time. It's really good, so there is a lot of coffee getting drunk around here in the morning, including by me, though at home I have quit in favor of green tea. M. and I went to the Nespresso store today to get more pods. It's quite a production. You are greeted individually, then led to a counter where an agent hands you a menu and offers samples of the various varieties. After about three sample cups of Espresso I could have flown home, but it was fun and not as expensive as I thought. The pods run about 40 cents each, more than a homemade cup of coffee but a lot less than a cafe.

On our way out of the apartment today we stopped at the metro and bought Navigo cards, which work as passes for all the metro lines and busses in the city. We had read that is was a hassle, but it turned out to be relatively easy. CAM had brought passport sized headshots, and after some protestations the guy at the ticket booth took our money and gave us the cards. It's odd that you have to conduct this business at the regular window where people buy their regular tickets, because it took us fifteen minutes, while a long line of impatient commuters stacked up behind us. No one complained though, it seemed normal to them.

And it turned out that the Navigo cards unlocked another long-time Paris mystery, the Velib system. Velib is a citywide system of bicycles that are stationed everywhere around town, locked into little stands. You take one, ride it where you want to go, and return it to another stand. M. and I had tried to buy access at the little automated kiosk next to the bikes, but it had never worked. Something would always go wrong, or it wouldn't accept my credit card, and we would be rerouted back to the beginning with no explanation. But M. noticed that the kiosks mentioned Navigo cards, and before we knew it everything went through and we (M. and I) were on bikes. We escaped major head injury, dodging buses on the way down Boulevard St. Germain, wound our way around the Luxembourg Gardens and found our way home. It was really fun, and without CAM along (she and the girls were shopping) I actually had to navigate my way around the city, which is good for me.

After that we took our gloves and baseball and played some catch on the Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. It all felt out of place in a nice way. Stopped for tea and cokes in a nice little cafe on a side street in between the tower and home (The Cafe Presle, on Rue de Presle), came home and have been hanging out since. Girls still out, they will no doubt show up exhausted just in time to make it to dinner.

I am going to see if I can find a blogging app for ipad. That, and I have to convince the girls to mail be some pictures from their cameras so I can post them. More later.

Friday, May 7, 2010

We are live!

Many fun stories still untold, but in the meantime the apartment is done!  Eiffel Tower Holiday RentalYou can see it live at the rental site,



Friday, April 23, 2010

Easter Dinner in Paris

We don’t celebrate Easter, and the funny thing is the French don’t either, as far as I can tell.   French people I know will point out that they are Catholic and that it is a Catholic country, with a sense of pride that sounds like it descends from 300 year old distinctions between Catholics and Protestants that don’t have a lot of resonance to me.  But I spent a full day walking around Paris on Easter Sunday and didn’t see a single person who looked like they were coming or going from Church.  No Mass going on in the churches that I could see.  It makes you realize what a religious country the US is.

DSC_1587 But it is of course a holiday, as is the Monday after, so most of the restaurants were closed.  No problem because Sunday (and Wednesday) is the Grenelle Market.  DSC_1580 Two blocks from the Ouessant apartment, under the elevated metro tracks along Boulevard de Grenelle, it runs for three or four blocks, a mix of clothes, assorted bricabrac, and food.  Blocks and blocks of stalls of every kind of food imaginable.  Vegetable stands, butchers, pork butchers, bread shops, wine merchants, olive places, an oyster stand, dried fruit, honey, nuts, prepared food (the prepared food specialty seems to be enormous open platters of paella, and big pots of sauerkraut and sausage).

DSC_1582 What is most amazing is that there are three of each of each of these places.  One of the fish stalls has five times the fresh fish you could find in the best fish market a thome.  Big stacks of flounder and sole, five different kinds of shrimp, so many kinds of fin fish that I would be embarrassed to ask which is which, and fifty feet down there is another one. How does that work?  Some kind of consequence of French socialisme, I guess.  And the people shopping were almost all French, ladies with their shopping bags who looked like they were getting food for dinner.  DSC_1586

For a cook like me it is just heaven, it is my real reason for being in France.  I have visited these markets for years (they are all over Paris, on different days) but I never had any reason to buy anything, since we were always eating out.  It was frustrating.  So tonight I was going to DSC_1589 make Easter dinner.  Among other things, it was a French language challenge.  My French is OK, nothing great, and since CAMs is basically perfect it is too easy for me to coast along and let her do the talking.  But I was shopping on my own, so I had to deal with all the fish and meat guys on my own.  And just like Julia Child’s says, they are wonderful, old-fashioned, heavy-set, salty men who were all happy to answer my questions and chat a little.  I got nice cooked shrimp at the fish market, some grated carrot salad (carrotte rapee) from the prepared food guy, asparagus and an avocado from the vegetable people (I chose the one with a long line, figuring that people must know something).  Finally I had to get some lamb to roast.  DSC_1597 This was the trickiest part, because it was expensive and I don’t know the words for the various cuts.  But I found a guy who had what looked like boneless legs, and after some discussion I bought one.  He talked me into buying too much, so I wound up leaving 15 bucks worth of lamb in the rental frig the next day. 

Now for food blogging (like on my abandoned food blog, at  MT and I halved the avocados and hung three shrimp off each one, filled the cavities with some vinaigrette.  Roasted the lamb to medium rare coated with mustard and black pepper, and roasted the potatoes and asparagus in olive oil right along with it.    DSC_1600 Had to keep it simple because I didn’t know my way around the tiny and ill-supplied kitchen.  But it was good, and fun.  Dessert was an apple tart CAM bought from one of the three tart ladies in the Grenelle Market.We had Sandy and Steve over for dinner, sat up late eating and drinking wine.  Great evening.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tragedy, Narrowly Averted

This one was scary.  At some point Easter Sunday Carol and I stopped by the apartment.  The workers were gone, we had the run of the place, so we just hung around for a while, inspecting little things, getting a feel for the place.  I tried turning on the shower just to see how the water pressure was.  It seemed pretty good, so I tried the bathroom sink, it has one of those single handles that turns left and right to get hot and cold.  Looked good too, but when I turned it off the water didn’t shut off all the way.  So I slid it over to the other side and it stopped.
We looked around some more and left, walked back to the apartment.  We were making Easter dinner at the apartment for Sandy and Steve.  Got home, but CAM realized that she hadn’t left something in the apartment that the workers were going to need the next day.  I think it was the cabinet knows that we had bought at the department store that day.  So she talked me into taking the walk back to the apartment to drop them off.
We got there, dropped off the stuff, and resumed looking around, poking into the corners.  All of a sudden Carol said, hey, the bathroom floor is wet.  On another look, it was REALLY wet, like it had a quarter inch of water all over it.  And the water was running out of the bathroom into the hallway, where it was collecting under the plastic that was taped to the floor to protect the hardwood.  Crap, the bathroom sink had never shut off, it had been running a trickle for the last two hours.  I looked under the sink, and there it was:  the drain hadn’t been hooked up.  The water was running straight from the tap, down the drain, and into the vanity cabinet, from where it was running out onto the floor.
There were a million bad possibilities.  Hardwood floor ruined, water running into the apartment underneath us, the poor people we have never met who have been putting up with three months of construction.  What to do?  We started searching the place for anything to clean up with.  Fortunately, the painters had a lot of rags around the place, I took off my shirt and we started mopping.  Sop it up, squeeze it out in the shower.  It was a lot of sopping, and then we had to pull up all the plastic on the hallway floor to mop under there.  It took us about an hour to get it all cleaned up, and then to retape the plastic back down on the floor.  The floor seemed OK, and no word from downstairs.
We told the kids and Sandy and Steve, but no one else.  The next morning when we went to meet Monsieur P. at the site no one said a word, but the faucet in the bathroom was taped closed, so someone noticed something.  Never did hear from the people downstairs.  We were so lucky that we had a reason to go back to the apartment.  If that had run all night it would have been a total disaster… I don’t even like to think about.  It was like one of those situations in a car when you have a near miss on a bad accident, and then drive on without a scratch.  Your body doesn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified.
In present tense news, Monsieur P. tells us that the apartment is really almost finished.  A few things to clean up and they are out of there.  The people at ParisPerfect will have the cleaning crew in Friday or early next week, and we should be ready to go. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An Unhappy Crepe Story

One of our many shopping tasks while we were in Paris involved buying fabric to make curtains.  M. at the rental agency told us that the fabric district in Paris was at something called the Saint Pierre market, in the Montmartre district.  For those who don’t know, Montmartre is a little neighborhood at the north edge of Paris, built around a hill on top of which is the Sacre Coeur church, which has a beautiful view overlooking the city.  Long ago it was a separate village, and it still has a charming small-town feel.  It is a very popular tourist destination.

The Saint Pierre market was not touristy at all, and not really a market per se.  It is a couple of blocks filled with fabric stores, the way Seventh Avenue in New York was years ago.  We walked around for a while and picked one, and CAM spent the next hour dickering with the proprietor while she picked out fabric.

Fabric-picking is not the greatest activity for kids or husbands, so we all waited semi-patiently, and when we were finally done it was time for lunch.  Years ago, CAM and I had been walking around Montmartre, and wandered into a little creperie which we loved.  It was mostly random, it just turned out to be a moment when we had an unexpectedly nice time, a cute little place with a nice dog who hung out there.  I had always remembered it, so now seemed like a good time to check it out again.  And there it was, just like we remembered, same dog and everything.

It was fairly busy, and the waiter, who I guess is a half of a husband-wife team with the wife in the kitchen, was hustling around, and seemed a little hassled and busy.  We ordered, and after some delay the crepes arrived, they were once again delicious, and we ate.  We were headed somewhere across town next, and when the waiter came over, she asked him in French if he knew if the 80 bus stopped nearby.  To our surprise he snapped at her:  “I don’t know anything about the buses, don’t ask me about transportation.”  Ah, said Carol, so you walk everywhere?  No, he said, I have a car and drive to work.  Oh, said Carol,  Vous avez de la chance (You’re lucky).  He briskly walked away, and a couple of minutes later reappeared, obviously furious.  He was speaking loudly to a couple of French people at other tables, saying those Americans are so rude, they will say anything to anybody!  It was weird, and obviously time to get out of there.  So I got up, asked for the check, and said, “We won’t be back.”  Good, he said, and slammed the dish with the bill on the table.  “You American’s think that anyone in France who has a car must be rich, but I have to get to work at 530 in the morning and I work for 17 hours a day, I need a car to get to work!”

Wait a second, I said, who said anything about being rich?  She did, said the waiter, pointing to Carol, when I told her I had a car she said, “Vous avez de l’argent.” (You have money.)  Ah, there’s the problem, and Carol spent the next ten minutes convincing the guy that he had misunderstood her.  He sort of apologized, offered to buy us a drink, etc, but the damage had been done.  It didn’t really matter what he thought she said, it just isn’t right to go off on a customer.  So we split.

The whole thing was sad.  Here is a guy who sits in this beautiful little restaurant in this beautiful neighborhood in this beautiful city, just waiting for a tourist to come in and piss him off.  It gets to a central dilemma of traveling.  Just by going somewhere, you change it, and if enough people go somewhere on some level it ceases to be the place that attracted the tourists in the first place.   And I don’t doubt that some American tourists are clueless or rude, or even that in some ways it was nice when he only served crepes to the local French people.  But of course the other side of it is that the tourists make it possible for Montmartre to exist, if there weren’t any tourists it would probably be all chain restaurants and warehouses by now. 

CAM will want me to conclude by saying that the vast majority of our encounters with Parisians are great.  We don’t experience the classical arrogance of waiters, who are universally supportive and professional, or the French distaste for listening to less-than-perfect spoken French.  But it is certainly the case that you have your best experiences if you make an effort to get off the beaten track a little, where there are fewer tourists around.  That happens to be a great characteristic of the 15th, by the way.  It is a very bustling and active neighborhood, but except for right around the Eiffel Tower it isn’t touristy at all.  If you go into one of the cafes at la Motte—Picquet Grenelle in the morning you will generally be the only non-French person in the place.


Here is a picture of the new kitchen…. the blue is a plastic covering over the cabinets and the dishwasher.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How We Got Here

When I read the last post I realized I needed kind of a bridge from the previous one, which was back when we were still despairing about the stalled project after the death of Monsieur K.  DSC_1730 Basically, what happened is the architect, Monsieur P., took care of everything.  He is quite remarkable, all on his own he found another contractor, figured out how to close things out with the late Monsieur K., filled out a lot of legal documents in our name to protect us against any future legal actions regarding the estate, and got everything back to work.  My guess would be the whole project is going to wind up a month late and on budget, which is pretty good, considering.

What’s funny is that he did all this with hardly a single communication to us.  His standard is to simply take care of things, and not to send us emails or call us unless there is some very specific piece of information he needs.  I guess it’s nice, in a way, but it can sure make you nervous sometimes when you have absolutely no idea what is going on.  And there is something very French about it.  We spent some time talking to our friends Sandy, a Canadian and American who live in Paris, about that characteristic we are always trying to understand.  DSC_1728 Their description is that the French are very “private with information.”  They keep things to themselves, as a matter of manners, of privacy, of the proper conduct of business, of minding their own business, and sometimes of competing in business.  Sandy and Steve are both freelancers, and experience it when they are looking for work.  It is hard to network there, because people don’t pass information around as freely as we do.  In Monsieur P’s case, I think he sees it as preferable, more businesslike, to simply take care of things and have the papers waiting for us when we arrive, rather than shooting emails back and forth over every little detail.  From my end, it is a little nerve-wracking, and even once everything comes out OK it feels a little paternalistic, but I have come to trust that everything will get taken care of.  Even now, back from Paris from two weeks, we don’t know what the status of the apartment is right now.  A couple of emails to Monsieur P. have gone unanswered.  By now, I know what is going to happen.  At some point in the next couple of weeks he will send an email, and it will be all done.  Workers gone, cleaned up, key-ready.  I often end my emails to him with a note to the effect that I like to hear a lot of little details about how things are coming, but it won’t happen.  resized_DSC_1732 Just as an American contractor would take pride in demonstrating what an eager-beaver he is, a French businessman takes pride in demonstrating that he can make it happen without a ripple.  As far as I can tell eager-beaver does not exist in France.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Almost Done!

 resized_DSC_1687 We (CAM and I, and our kids MT and LT…. ET is off at college) were in Paris the first week of April.  Lots happened, mostly of the good or tragedy-narrowly-averted variety.  The trip started on a note of disappointment, of course, because this was supposed to be our triumphant first stay in the completed apartment, but due to the untimely death of Monsieur K., the contractor, it was not to be.  So we rented an apartment.  We wanted to find something in the neighborhood, so we would at least have the basic experience, but as it turned out pretty much everything in the immediate area was full, a good sign for future rentals.  The place that has the reputation as the best inexpensive hotel in the neighborhood, the Hotel du Tourisme, was booked up as well.  So we wound up somewhere we had never been…. in the towers along the Seine in the 15th, a “neighborhood” called Beaugrenelle.   This would not have been anyone’s first choice, but we were serious about staying nearby the apartment on Ouessant, it seemed like it might be something a little different, and maybe comfortable in its own way for the four of us.  And it was.  It was on the 21sr floor, with a truly spectacular view out over Paris, obviously the selling point for the whole thing.  The building itself was uninspiring and ugly, not even sleek and cool like one of the luxury towers in New York.  Instead, like many modern buildings in Paris, it had a certain Soviet concrete and cheap paint feel.  I suspect this is no accident, a lot of the modern buildings in Paris were built during France’s flirtation with Russia during the cold war.  I won’t dwell on the apartment itself, which was nothing special, and one of those unattractive situations where the owner lives there full-time and moves in with her boyfriend when she rents it out.  I find that kind of gross, like crashing on someone’s couch during a visit.  The frig was full of her food, the bathroom smelled like her, etc.  But it was basically fine, and a much-repeated ten minute walk from Ouessant.

resized_DSC_1722  Anyway, the best news of course is that the apartment is almost done.  We got in Friday morning, and moved into the apartment. (Not actually an easy step.  We arrived with four big cartons of stuff that CAM had accumulated to resized_DSC_1706furnish the apartment, everything from pots and pans to vacuum-compressed bedding.  We felt like an immigrant family in the airport.)  We walked straight over to Ouessant and it was bustling with painters and guys putting the finishing touches on the sliding doors that will separate the living room and the second bedroom.  resized_DSC_1716 The kitchen is basically done, as is the bathroom.  

Monsieur P., the architect, wasn’t around, so there wasn’t all that much to do there, and after a little while we headed out to lunch.  I had been dying to try the little creperie that is next-door to us, so we went there.  I don’t think LT took any pictures, and I don’t remember the name of it, but it is wonderful:  tiny, all French people in it, very nice crepes.  French crepes come in two kinds—sweet ones, made with white flour and filled with butter, sugar, Nutella or fruit, and savory ones, made with a little buckwheat flour, called sarazin (I think) in French.  Savory crepes come filled with just about anything, but often some combination of ham, egg and cheese.  I love the menus, which are long lists of every possible combination, ham, egg, cheese, ham and egg, cheese and egg, and so forth.  I like all three, generally called a “complete.”  They are  big, cooked on a big 12-inch iron, onto which the batter is poured and then spread around thinly with a little wooden mallet.  Then it is flipped with a little putty-knife shaped spatula, and filled.  In a good crepe, the cheese (gruyere, unless they specify otherwise) gets a little crispy around the edges; the egg is always sunnyside, and the ham is better than any ham you would ever get in the US.  Anyway, it is a wonderful little place, and there is another crepe place, in a different style, in a cafe on the other corner, this one a window on the side of the cafe with a man standing making crepes to go.  And we had yet a third crepe experience later in the trip, this one a little less enjoyable.  I’ll get to that one in a day or so.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hard to blog when it isn't funny anymore

I can’t be the first one to notice that starting a blog is kind of asking for it.  It’s like making a public announcement of your intention to lose weight.  Works great as long as you are actually doing it, but then as soon as you slack off for one reason or another it becomes a daily reminder of your lazy inability to stick to an old project.  “Haven’t seen any blog posts lately,” people say.  “How’s that diet coming?”
There were all the usual reasons for not posting.  Busy, of course.  But the big reason was that something happened that wasn’t amusing, mostly because it is tragic, and also because it put us right back in the old, anxious, scary, what’s-going-to-happen mode we were in when we were trying to close the deal last fall. 
It started February 24, just about a month ago.  Back then, my excuse for not writing was that things were just going too well, so there was nothing to complain about.  We were ahead of schedule and under budget.  We had bought our tickets to go stay in the apartment for the first time during the kids’ Spring Break the first week of April.  That morning we got the fateful email from our architect, Monsieur P.  Our contractor, Monsieur K., was dead.   The 24th was a Wednesday.  On that Monday Monsieur P had shown up at the apartment for his weekly inspection and meeting, but there was no one there.  A few phone calls later, he learned that Monsieur K had died in his sleep Thursday night.  He was 49 years old.  We only met him a couple of times.  He was always pleasant, gruff but deferential to our role as proprietaires.  From our perspective on the jobsite he seemed more like the foreman than a general contractor, that role being filled by Monsieur P.   He was Polish, actually, although I think he had been living in France for some time.
Work, obviously, was at a standstill, but it took a couple of days for it to sink in just how dire the situation was.  Monsieur K’s death was a perfect storm of delay that we seemed powerless to do anything about.  If the job site had caught on fire, our insurance would have paid for it.  But here we were, 3000 miles away, the project was at a standstill while we paid full freight on the mortgage, no rentals, the furniture couldn’t be delivered, and even in our deepest extremes of panic we couldn’t even imagine selling the place—who would want a half-renovated apartment?
Even Monsieur P., always cool and in control, started to sound worried in his emails.  This has never happened to me before, he kept saying.  But he had a plan, more or less.  He could find another contractor to take over the job.  But first, he had to meet with the late Monsieur K’s daughter and accountant, and try to figure out exactly what had been ordered, how much money had been spent, what still needed to be done.  He couldn’t even offer a guess about when the job might start up again, much less finish.  We had tickets for our triumphant first stay in the apartment the first week of April.  That, depressingly, was out.  We would still go, can’t return the tickets anyway, and there would have to be some kind of business to conduct, but what a bummer.  We rented an apartment in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, there was one very mysterious thing.  Philippe went by to visit the place and take a couple of pictures, and to his surprise he found a couple of workers in there, laying tiles in the kitchen.  The guy said he worked for Monsieur K, he was just trying to finish a few things up with materials that were lying around the apartment.  OK, but it sure seemed strange that Monsieur P hadn’t mentioned any of this.  We figured maybe he was a sub-contractor, a tile guy if they do things that way over there, he had been paid already and was finishing the job he had signed up for. 
And that was about it for three weeks.  It was an old cycle.  We emailed everyone we could think of:  our lawyer in Paris, the rental agency, Mme. L at the mortgage broker, but no one answered, or if they did they just said, “Wow, that’s terrible.”  No one even had a theory about what we might do.  And as happened several times already, our anxiety started to mount, as more and more we felt as though we were helplessly hemorrhaging money, drip drip drip.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Back on the Horse

You are trying to do something every day, or almost every day.  It goes well for a while, then you get busy or sick or lazy, a few days go by, so when you look to get back to it things have piled up a little and the task seems a little overwhelming, you are still busy, so you put it off.  A couple of days later it’s even worse, you feel behinder and behinder, and before you know it a month has gone by.  You feel guilty about the whole thing, which takes all the fun out of it, seems like a chore now.  Gets tempting to just let it go. 

How good habits get broken.  Losing weight, exercising, and of course writing.  All that plus everything has been going so well there isn’t really anything to complain about, and some of the most recent complexities with the apartment are in the present tense.  It was easier to write about things that have already happened than it is to discuss things that are happening now, because the present comes with the possibility of offending someone, or divulging something before it was supposed to be public, or something like that.  Of course, good blogging is all about divulging in the present tense, risk of offense be damned.  Or it’s about the ongoing tension of deciding what to divulge, taking chances with offense.  I think that’s why I could never be that kind of writer.

Anyway, like I said, things seem to be moving along in the apartment.  It is very odd to be watching an expensive renovation from such a distance, getting an update every week or so, if that often.  The architect, Monsieur P, sends us an official update every week, but so far it is mostly about wiring and where the gas meter is going to go.  There are picture, via Philippe….


The Livingroom…..










The painter… nice picture, Philippe,





And the toilet, looking particularly nice.


Still worried about that separate toilet.  The main bathroom might feel small withobathroomut it.  Here is some kind of view of the bathroom.  That’s a skylight up above, we are replacing it.


That’s the plasterer, working in the kitchen.

To wrap up an old drama, a month ago I emailed the previous owner, Monsieur L., to see if there was any chance he might give us the keys to the mailbox and the bicycle room that he had never left.  I didn’t really expect to hear back from him, but a couple of weeks later, out of the blue, there it was.  Yes, he had indeed found some extra keys.  I passed the email on to Philippe, they got together, and he handed them a huge ring full of unidentified keys.  Somewhere in the mess was the mailbox key, and….. we haven’t gotten any mail.  No one knows we live there, or don’t live there, or whatever. 

Have I mentioned that we have had more snow here (Virginia, that is) in the past month than in the last ten years combined?  Yeah, that’s why I haven’t been blogging. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cool Website, Brief Post


Photos of Paris now and a long time ago….

In the words of anyone who has ever tried to keep a blog: "I've been busy." Seems as though things have been moving along at the apartment.  Philippe was over to take some pictures, and it seems like the basic activity is getting the walls roughed in.  Yikes, it's tough to position images in a blog post!  Some people have beautifully designed posts, there must be a better way to do it. 


The only minor issue that we have to get resolved involves doors.  The doors in the apartment were all unpainted varnished wood, which I actually kind of liked, but the consensus is that they are too dark and would be better off white.  In Philippe’s recent pictures it looks as though they have been rehung unpainted. And the front door to the apartment had a  a row of big hooks along the top of it, where the previous owners, in the French style, had hung a curtain over it.  I’m not sure why French people do that.  We had asked for the hooks to come down, but it looks like they are still there.  The door on the right is to the toilet, the one that will be forever be separated from the rest of the bathroom….


The other thing Philippe accomplished was finally making contact with T., the woman on the first floor who (as it turns out) cleans the building, and whose husband does the maintenance.  Apparently T. used to be the gardienne, a typical French role kind of like a live-in doorman.  She no longer is, there is no gardienne anymore, although the distinction between a gardienne and a person who lives on the first floor and cleans is a little lost on me.  Anyway Philippe chatted her up, offered her a little holiday tip from us, and generally spread good will.  It will be nice to have her on our side if it works out that way.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2009 Quality of Life Index

2009 Quality of Life Index: "For the fourth year running, France comes first in our annual Quality of Life Index.

For all my complaining about the complexities of conducting business long-distance, I love France!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Subfloor Progress (pictures)

Not much has happened over the holiday, but they did get down new concrete subfloors….. Work is supposed to start up again tomorrow.

Living Room

living room







Also, the bank paid the contractor!  They never did send the confirmation I asked for, though.

Visit to Paris 3

that evening we ate at Au Gout Dujour, another restaurant close by the Rue d’Ouessant apartment.  CAM had potage potiron (Pumpkin soup again.  Pumpkin in one form or another is all the rage in Paris restaurants these days.  AuGoutduJourOne of the fun things about eating here is following the little fashion trends that come and go.)  She then had magret du canard (duck breast) and mont blanc (chestnut cream with meringue) for dessert.  I had an appetizer that I have lost track of… a salad with mache (kind of a field green), artichoke puree and something, but I forget what the something was… boudin noir, and cheese for dessert.  It was good, but frankly not as good as Le Marcab the night before. 

AuGoutDuJour Menu

The next morning we headed out to Monsieur P’s office, also in the 15eme.  It looked like an architect's office: big glassed-in rooms with drafting tables, big Macs with enormous screens.  Like the day before, the process was familiar:  pick paint colors, pick this, pick that.

It took a while, and by the time we were done, we were pressed to make it to our next stop, at ParisPerfect, the rental agency we hope to use to rent the apartment once the renovations are complete.  One of the staff people there, a young American woman married to a Frenchman, was going to show us around a few of their apartments.  CAM had already seen a few on a previous visit.  Most of their apartments are in the fancy parts of the 7eme.  I was worried that when we saw the apartments we would feel like ours wouldn’t hold up, but I was pleasantly surprised on all counts.  Their apartments are beautiful, and a few of them have heart-stopping views of the tower, but our apartment, or at least my image of what our place is going to look like, stood up very well.  Among other things, the lobby and stairway to our building is nicer than most of what we saw.  A funny thing about Parisian buildings is that even very fancy buildings can have dark, unappealing lobbies.  I presume that is because they are very old, and because there is often no clear collective way to pay for the upkeep.  Another very positive sign about ParisPerfect is that the cleaning crews were in a couple of the apartments we visited, and they seemed serious.  The head of the cleaning staff was full of suggestions about materials we should and shouldn’t use in the apartment.

OK, I am going to finish this up.  Another general writing rule is that once you get behind on this sort of thing it’s all over.  descartes The one other fun part I want to make sure to get down is dinner with Sandy and Philippe than night at Descartes, a little Bistro around the corner from them in the 5eme.  It’s more a bar than anything else, I see now they call it a brasserie, which is just that.  The word brasserie means brewery.  Anyway it was packed with young people at the bar, they looked like students, or like people you would see in a young-people neighborhood in New York.  The waitress was dressed in jeans and informal.  Anywhere else, a place like this would just have bar food, but here it was wonderful.  Their specialty is a think vegetable soup that comes in big tureens, really it would have been fine for dinner all by itself.  I also had the “AAA” rated andouillette, another sausage, served in the traditional way with lentils.  It was wonderful eating with Sandy and and Philippe, mostly for their wonderful company, but also because I always learn more about being in France, watching what they do and how they talk.  They are so friendly and extraverted that they are regulars everywhere they go.  My fun fact for the evening involved ordering wine in a fillette, which is a special bottle with a heavy bottom into which wine is decanted like a carafe.  fillette I am always confused in restaurants about ordering wine in a bottle (expensive, and too much, as CAM usually doesn’t have any), or a half-bottle, or a glass (restaurants often don’t list their wines by the glass) or a carafe (which they usually have but don’t usually list) or a pichet, or pitcher.  Plus French waiters don’t respond well to a request for “red” wine, they look at you like you just asked for “something to drink.”  It makes no sense to them that we don’t have a more specific idea of what we want. 

I am no different than any other American in this regard.  As much as I love food and wine, I am completely hopeless at keeping track of differences among kinds of wine.  I love good wine when I drink it, but the truth is it resides in my memory mostly as good and not-so-good, red and white.  Maybe also as robust and light, which is one of the questions the waiter will ask you if you just ask for red wine.  I should look up the French words for that, I can’t remember them at the moment.  Frankly, when confronted with a wine list, I just pick something by price and the availability heuristic (i.e., I have seen it before) and fake it.  Oh well.