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.