Barking up the wrong tree, or one of the pitfalls of urban living

2 Mar

A man and his dog in the Marais Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerEvery day, several times a day, I have to endure the sound of an Alsatian/German Sheppard and her owner going down the tiny, twisting communal stairs in my apartment building.

My apartment wraps around the stairwell so there is no escaping the sounds. Their tortured journey starts somewhere high above in the roof space. Scratch, scratch, draaag, scratch—the dog’s claws struggle to get a grip on the wood treads. Scraaaape, scrape, scraape—the dog is dragged towards the next flight of stairs around each tight landing. Yu yu yuuuu, woof, woof—the dog’s protest moans and whines get louder and harder and more painful to listen to as they descend the stairs. The dog continues her excruciating chorus, around each landing, down each flight, below me through the passage way and out on to the street.

It is very distressing to hear such an unhappy dog every day. I have often been driven to the point of having my hand on the door handle ready to fling it open to shout at the dog’s owner, “What are you doing to this poor dog? Why do you have such a large dog in such a small space?  How can you be so cruel? Make the scraping and the whining stop NOW!” But I never have.

Neighbourhood gossip is that the dog’s depressed owner jumped from the building a several years ago, but was—thankfully—saved by landing on the roof of a parked car below (It seems my building encourages downward flight). By the routine they keep, I know he must either work from home or not work at all. When the dog’s moans get to me I think about how it must be very tough for the owner to be in the house all day. Does the man feel lonely and isolated? Does the dog help him get over his depression? Is there anything I can do to help? In a city, misery can be hidden on the other side of a wall, only a few feet or even inches away.

The other day I happened to be building entryway when I heard the familiar whine and scratching. My heart jumped a little at the thought of seeing the owner face-to-face and witnessing their tumultuous decent. Could I stay quiet if I saw the dog in obvious distress? What would I say? What if the owner became aggressive? What if the dog became aggressive? Would I be able to phrase my intervention in a way that showed I understood that he might be hurting too? Did I want to get involved? Would he understand English?

I started up the stairs and coming to the first landing I spotted the dog, unleashed, running down the flight above, trying not to slip—scratch, scratch, draag, scratch. Where was the owner? I’d always imagined the owner pulling the reluctant animal down the stairs. The dog got to the landing, its tail wagging, and hopped in a little circle—scraaape, scrape, scrape—and then—yu yu yuuuu, “hurry up man”, woof woof, “I can’t wait to get outside”— another circle with more furious tail wagging. After several moments, at the instant the owner appeared at the bend in the flight above, the dog excitedly bolted from the landing past me and down— scratch, scratch, draag, scatch—towards the entry way. Yu yu yuuuuu, “come on, come on, let’s get outside.”

The owner passed me and gave me big smile. “Bonjour!” he said cheerfully and with a wink!

Oh dear, it looks like me and my imagination are the ones who need to get out more; we’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Is Le Corbusier’s “box in the air” all hot air?

20 Jan

Villa Savoye Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“All of the bathrooms would have to be replaced.”

“Yeah,” my husband agreed. “We’d also have to do something with the kitchen.”

We sat on two chairs left behind in the large living room of the house we went to see a few Sundays ago.  My husband and I have renovated 5 flats in the last 10 years and we are always looking for new projects and ideas. 

“I am not sure about this colour,” my husband gestured to the salmon-pink wall. He then turned and nodded a greeting to another couple who entered the living room, also looking at the house. The place was crawling with couples under 40. These types of homes always were.

I took another look around.  The giant glass wall that invisibly separated inside and out could be slid back to unite the huge living/dining area with a beautiful landscaped roof garden. It was a dream space; a template for modern living.

“There are the issues with the leaks,” I said, trying to be practical.

“It’s too much work,” my husband said. 

The divine Mr W at the Savoye's Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“Yeah, you’re right,” I looked admired him reclining comfortably on a Le Corbusier chaise lounge and then looked at our brochure to see where the tour took us next.

“To the solarium?” I asked.

“To the solarium.”

The house, built between 1928 and 1931 in the village of Poissy just outside of Paris, was commissioned by the Savoye family to be their weekend home.  Their architect, Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret and also known as Le Corbusier, designed it to be the model of his philosophy of Modernist architecture.

The conflicting aims of the parties meant that the house was dogged with problems from the start.

A letter from Madam Savoye to Le Corbusier in Sept 1937:

“It’s raining in the hall, it’s raining in the ramp, the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked. What’s more, it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods every time it rains.”

Le Corbusier largely ignored this and other pleas to fix the many mechanical and structural problems with the house while aggressively promoting the house internationally as a manifesto of his ideas.

The family never really moved in and eventually had to leave it altogether. Legal proceedings between the Savoye family and Le Corbusier were stopped by the onset of WWII. Abandoned, the house went into steep decline and was forced to suffer indignities such as abuse by the German’s after their occupation, being shot at by Allied troops, and finally, its use as a barn.

The village of Poissy bought the house from the Savoye family in 1958 with theDown the drive at Villa Savoye Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger intention of demolishing. It  gifted the property to the French state after an international campaign to save the house. It was declared a National Monument and underwent extensive restoration between 1963 and 1997.

Despite its problems and the fact that the French Government would not let me, it is a house I would love live in.

The Savoye family named the house les Heures Claires or “the box in the air”. It does float in the centre of the large wooded plot on Le Corbusier trademark stilts.  The views from the windows that cover every wall of the living areas on the 1st European/ 2nd American floor make you feel like you are hovering over the beautiful Seine valley countryside.  The seamless boundaries between the open plan living areas and the huge roof garden inspire daydreams of lazy sunny Sunday afternoon entertaining. 

We won’t live in this house but my husband and I sent a postcard from Villa Savoye to our architect telling him that we were getting ideas for our next project.

What not to wear to the Conciergerie

13 Jan

Fifi and los vaqueros Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI had mixed feelings about visiting the Conciergerie and what to wear had nothing to do with it. The imposing, turreted building on the Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame was originally built as a royal palace.  At the end of the 14th century, the king moved out and it became the Palace of Justice and a prison.  In the 1790s, so-called “enemies of the revolution” were incarcerated here before they went in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal for judgement and—for nearly 2600 of them in just 13 months— to the guillotine.

I knew it would be an excellent place to start to understand some of the terrors of the French Revolution and the legend that surrounds the Conciergerie’s most famous prisoner, cake-loving Marie Antoinette. However, based on my experiences of other sites of crimes against humanity, I was prepared for a distressing visit.

I was not prepared for modern art. The ancient and cavernous Hall of Men at Arms at the start of the visit was filled with paintings, sculptures and installations that appeared to have nothing to do with the palace or the revolution. I had been warned about the use of creepy mannequins in the cell reconstructions, but I was faced with a white plaster man on all fours who carried an 8-foot whale on his back, a bronze of a female dog with 6 silicon-enhanced human-like breasts, and a floor-to-ceiling fabric vessel full of live flies.

I needed some answers. The turgid brochure gave me this:

Bêtes off - Who are these other beings that inhabit the world along with us? What does their silence mean? What do they perceive when they look at us or beyond us? The animal question is gaining ground in contemporary thinking, and is also a theme which stimulates artists.”

It took me a few minutes to shift gears. I looked at some of the other pieces in the exhibition. There was a taxidermy deer with its neck buckled under the weight of its more than 30 points and 6 feet of antlers.  There was the skin of a unicorn on the wall. Through the slats of La sale des Trophies one saw wooden but clearly distressed horned animals and mounted heads.

Skin by Dimitri Tsykalov Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerOne piece did make me smile.  As I looked at it, I netted the most recent in my large collection of chatty Parisian museum guards.

After the ubiquitous pleasantries, he gestured towards the piece, “It is very interesting, no?”

“Yes. This one is one of the few that makes me smile.”

We both considered the clever, wooden representation of a bear skin rug on the wall. I’ve always had this thing for brown bears. The piece reminded me of the soft toy versions of bear skin rugs I’d seen for children’s rooms and my faithful ted, Bill Thomas, who I rescued last year from a box in my parent’s attic.

“I mean some of these pieces are pretty heavy,” I continued. “At least this one is a bit light-hearted .”

The previously talkative guard did not say anything and continued to look at the piece. I filled the slightly uncomfortable silence.

“I mean this one feels better.”

The guard turned and looked at my face. Then he looked at what I was wearing. I was hit by painful spasm of self-awareness. I was standing in an exhibition about animal rights and celebrating a dead bear while wearing a sable coat.  Oh god. I clutched my arms self-consciously around me and my fur.

“It’s vintage,” I wanted tell him. “These animals died a long time ago.”

He just looked at me.

“It’s not my fault!” I wanted to yell.

My face burned. I put my eyes back on the bear. I noticed something else. Some of the wooden crates that made the piece had writing on them.  “WINCHESTER” one said in red capital letters.  “AK-47” was stamped across the bear’s right shoulder. OH GOD, this “light-hearted” bear was constructed with gun boxes.

I had to get out of there. I started to try to make my way to the door and to the rest of the museum, but thanks to the layout of this “wild space [where] the visiting public will experience some strange encounters”, I ran into a dead tree whose branches were full of snakes hanging limp from their necks.  I looked down at my snake-skin cowboy boots.

“They said they were ethically sourced,” said a pleading voice inside my head.

Alright, maybe one might argue that the Reign of Terror has a connection with the way we treat animals. Was that what the curators were trying to say with this exhibition here at the Conciergerie or was it just a display space?  Either way, I had to get out of there. Bring on the prison and Marie Antoinette.  

As I anticipated, the tour of the prison cells and video presentation were difficult and thought-provoking. An examination of how the ideals of a revolution can be so perverted in practice has a lot of current relevance.

The last stop on the tour was a reconstruction of Marie Antoinette’s cell.  I looked at the slightly distracting mannequin that was supposed to represent the much maligned queen. I wondered what she might have thought about in those days before she was killed.

She was, of course, most famous for responding to the news that the poor did not have enough bread to eat with, “Let them eat cake.” I wondered what she regretted. I wondered if she ever wished she’d been a bit more observant or thoughtful before she opened her mouth. I know I sure wish I had been.

Christmas dinner in Paris – The buck stops for the duck

6 Jan

Confit de Canard, the buck stops for the duck at G.Detou Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerVoulez-vous ceci . . . ,” the woman to the side of the counter put her hand in her armpit and waved her elbow around like she was trying to fly.

 “. . .ou cela?” She balanced on one leg and shook the other.

People in the long queue behind me were enjoying the show.

“We don’t need to speak French to provide good service,” she said—or probably something like it—and took a little bow.

I shook my leg and held up 5 fingers, “Pour cinq personnes, s’il vous plait.”

More giggles from the crowd.

My parents and I were at G. Detou (58, rue Tiquetonne), stop number two on a culinary walking tour of Paris drawn up by a good foodie friend. The store’s name is a pun, according to Paris food author and writer Clotilde Dusoulier. “G. Detou” sounds like “J’ai de tout“, meaning “I have everything” and I believe it.

Friendly service at G.Detou Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe store is divided into two parts. One was packed to the rafters with weird and wonderful foodstuff and ingredients from all over France. Some of it I recognised: chocolate, mustards, teas, large bags of fresh nuts, fruit in jars, and sardines. Much I did not know existed or how  it might be used: flavoured essences, metallic edible balls, flower petals, a multitude of different sugars and honeys. Fresh food like meat and fish were in the second section located in the store front next door.  

After 15 minutes in the queue, I was finally in front of the counter and, with the help of a few charades, had just ordered the main event of our Christmas dinner: Confit de Canard.

My first exposure to Duck Confit was at my landlady’s house in May. She graciously offered to loan me a scarf for a wedding and make me dinner.

“I think the first one is the best: the white one with the small flowers,” she said.  I looked at the 6 scarves laid across the bed.

“Which one?” I asked.

Sardines at G.Detou Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“The one with the tiny flowers . . . ,” she said and picked up one of the scarves. “This one.” She handed it to me. It was white, but the blue flowers on the scarf were the size of volleyballs. My landlady functioned so well I often forgot she was almost totally blind.

Misidentifying the scarf was no big deal but I was very concerned about dinner.  Before we went to her room to choose a scarf, she arranged white, frozen duck legs in a pan and said they would only take 10-15 minutes to heat through in the oven. Frozen to cooked in 10-15 minutes? Had she taken the wrong pan out of the fridge and not noticed? Clutching the large patterned scarf to my chest, I was anxious about how to politely handle a situation where we all cut into raw, cold duck legs.

However, they weren’t raw and were steaming hot.  The duck legs hadn’t been frozen at all. The white film I saw as she arranged the legs in the pan was duck fat, not ice crystals. To make Duck Confit, duck legs are salt cured and then slow cooked. To preserve the legs, they are submerged in duck fat and stored in a can/tin. The fat, solid at room temperature, clings to the skin, and melts while the legs heat.

Ahh, my first duck confit—the tender, tender meat and the rich, salty, plumy taste—where had it been all of my life?

Despite my description of heaven, I had a bit of convincing to do when I suggested duck confit to my husband a few months ago. 

“Meat from a tin?” he asked.

It did feel so wrong to venture into a foodWindow at G. Detou Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger area also populated by Spam, corned beef and Vienna sausages, but I had tasted the truth. I knew I needed to be brave and bought a tin of Confit de Canard from Monoprix, an upmarket supermarket. I reasoned that if I paid mre for it, it would have to be good.

I put the tin in a bath of warm water to melt the fat.  I removed the legs and put them skin side down in frying pan. I threw in some sliced potatoes to let them cook in the duck fat.  When the skin was crispy, I served the legs with the fried potatoes and green beans. After one bite, my husband declared with a big smile, “This is Christmas dinner.”

And so it was, and mighty tasty, too! 

I would like to say a special thank you to my parents and  friend who helped make Christmas dinner such a treat.

Mom, Dad and the shop that has everything Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

Pooped in Paris

2 Dec

Pooped in Paris Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

I’ve not been here around lately. Some of you may have even noticed.

I’ve been feeling a bit like my friend in the picture up there. I‘ve been feeling pooped in Paris.

This city is wonderfully inspiring. It allows many people to reinvent themselves and do things they did not feel able to do before they arrived. I am part of this group and I am a different person for living here.

However, in the excitement of my Parisian life I forgot for a moment that I am still me and that my body is still mine.

Some of you know this, but a little over 10 years ago I started to feel terrible.  I eventually had to quit my job and most normal activities, and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  I worked very hard at getting better and 4 years ago this week I was able to resume work and two years ago to start to coach soccer/football. 

Coming to Paris has been a treat for me. I feel like it is a little reward for the several years I was in bed. I know it’s cliché but we only live once and I understand that what you have today can be taken away tomorrow. I want to make the most of my luck and opportunities.

I have done that. However, I have to understand that upon entry to the magical island that is Paris, no one is handed a “Super-suit” that makes them impervious to fatigue and illness. I have to understand that, like the several years before coming here, I will have days–and sometimes weeks–where I have to lie low for a while. I have to remember that getting upset about the fact that I am not feeling my best doesn’t do any good. I have to understand that if I take care of myself, I will have good and great days again.

I have a lot of fun writing these posts. If I am absent for a little while it is because I am taking care of myself so I can share more of my Parisian adventures. I am looking forward to it!

Louis’s queue – A chance to see the Louis Vuitton workshops

18 Oct

Louis Vuitton Workshops Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThis weekend I got yet another reminder of the accidental Parisienne I am. On Thursday a good friend tipped me off on a wonderful only-in-Paris-and-free-can-you-believe-it event. The Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo, Guerlain, Louis Vuitton workshops and haute couture salons all opened their doors to the public for two days over the weekend.  These tours promised rare behind-the-scenes access to these iconic fashion houses and their historic locations. Even if I had the money I would probably never own a Louis Vuitton handbag or a Dior dress (well, maybe a Dior dress).  However, the lure of seeing how these works of art are made seemed irresistible.

So on Saturday midmorning, off we went to the suburbs where the LV workshops are located. We felt pretty proud of ourselves for actually leaving the city and buying a metro card that took us out of Zone 1.  It felt adventurous that the location of the workshops was off my Paris Moleskin map and that I had to draw a little map to get us there.  We had a vague idea that we wouldn’t be the only ones to find this opportunity interesting, but figured this site was out-of-town and was less likely to be as popular as some of the other sites involved in the open day.

Oh dear, I hear you saying. Yes, the innocence of those not in the know.  The worst part is that I had enough evidence to point to the inevitable conclusion.  I had seen the daily, yes, daily queue of the legions of LV fans outside of the store on the Champs Elysees.  I had seen the 41,604+ likes on the open day Louis's queue Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerFacebook page.  I read clearly (well, with the help of about 3 translation programmes) that all the free tickets for accessing the workshop had been taken. The website also said something like, “come along anyway, you might get lucky and get in”, or I think that’s what it said.  And that’s what I chose to see. You can’t say I’m not an optomist.

I was in denial even when the security guard around the block from the entrance said the wait would be 3 hours. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day and I’d learned that sometimes when they say 3 hours they didn’t really mean it.  In this case he didn’t mean it, after about an hour waiting we heard that it would be another 4 hours, if we were lucky.

The bad news - Louis Vuitton Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerNeedless to say we left Louis’s long queue when we heard this announcement.  However, the other hopefuls, the true fans, were undeterred by this news.  This group of diehards were interestingly mostly French and looked, well, kind of boring.  They were not fashion-types  in all-black. Nor were they LV fetishists, decked head-to-toe in the label and anxious to show anyone and everyone the famous interlocking LV they had tattooed across their butts. No, our fellow queuers were a group of nondescript, casually dressed people of mixed ages.

The closest our fellow queuers got to fanatic was the man who brought out a “look book” of all of LV bags he owned to share with the security guard. He leafed through the small glossy pages of amateur snaps stopping at the of one or two of his favourites: a yellow leather suitcase, a vintage trunk. I suspect he was trying to convince the guard of his allegiance and a possible promotion in the queue.  It didn’t work.

Maybe the absence of the fashionistas, fetishists and other stereotypical fans was because they had gotten their act together, reserved tickets and thus, walked right past the want-to-be queue. However, if the want-to-bes were all Johnny-come-latelys like us, they would have left with us. And this crowd looked dug in.  A group or two in front of us brought a picnic.  The man behind had his Kindle. Rodin's queue Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerA rare chance to see behind the scenes of such an iconic place must focus minds. Maybe people who love excellent craftmanship and design come in all shapes and sizes. Of course they do, it’s only the ads for the products that suggest a certain lifestyle. I hope they did eventually see the no-doubt fascinating LV atelier.

After deserting, we nipped off to salvage the beautiful day and go to the Rodin Museum. We got there only to find out that Rodin’s queue was long too. Too long. So eventually we had some food in a cafe in the autumn sun and walked home along the Seine – by accident, another only-in-Paris-and-free-can-you-believe-it day.

The fall

11 Oct

Paris Windows Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSometime between 5.30 and 6 am last Sunday, the doorbell woke me up. My husband was surprisingly already out of bed and went to get it.

I heard talking. I heard the door close and my husband make his way back to the bedroom.

“What’s going on? What did they want?” I was really tired and really wanted to go back to sleep.  “What time is it?”

“There’s been an accident next door and they needed a broom.”

“An accident? A broom? Who needed a broom?”

“He kept saying something in French, then did some rowing movements. I finally figured out he needed a broom.”

“Why did he need a broom? What’s happened? What time is it?”

My husband had a serious look on his face. “Ah … I think someone fell out of a window and into the flat next door. They need to sweep up the broken glass.”

“What?”

“The police and fire brigade are here. I think they’re going to try to lift him out of a window.”

“What?” I got up and looked out the window and saw a fire truck and ambulance.  There were police, fire fighters and ambulance workers running in and out of the building.  It was all strangely quiet – no sirens, no police radios, no running engines, no talking.  There were just people moving up and down our stairs, in and out of our building, doing their jobs, quietly.   If something terrible has happened shouldn’t there be noise?

“A man fell out of a window and into the flat next door? How is that possible?” I demanded. I was still asleep and crabby.

“I don’t know,” my husband said. He was tired and confused himself, “But I think that’s what’s happened.”

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know,” he said. “But, that’s what’s happened.”

“He fell into next door? How could that work? Our building is straight up and down with no balconies. If you fall out of a window, you end up on the ground.  Not in the flat next door.”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Oh, my god. Is there anything we can do?”

“I think stay out their way and let them do their jobs.”

“But I don’t understand what happened,” I said.

My husband shrugged.

Neither of us could go back to sleep. My husband started to clean the kitchen. He had to be busy and I don’t think he knew what else to do.

What the hell was going on? I went to the door and tentatively looked out through the peep-hole. I saw emergency workers move past the door. I grew a bit bolder and opened the door a crack.  A view into the flat next door was reflected in the hall window.  I could see people moving inside the flat and quite close to the door.  Apparently they were working on someone in the middle of the flat.  The middle of the flat?  How did he fall into the middle of the flat so far away from the windows?

Emergency workers passed, met my eyes but did not say anything.  One female police officer kept walking to the door of the flat next door, then back across the hall to the top of the stairs, and then back to the door.  A fellow officer came up and looked at her. “You ok?” he quietly seemed to ask. She shrugged.  He grabbed her hand quickly and gave it a little squeeze. I thought, they must see some awful things. The quietness added to the tension.  I wanted to yell, “What the hell happened here?”

I stopped a police officer in the hall but could only whisper, “What happened?”

“A man fell out of a 4th floor kitchen window to the 2nd floor,” he said quietly and straightforwardly.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Neither do I.”

Then I heard some noise in the flat next door. Then a voice, “What are you doing to me?”

Oh my god, the man who fell was American.

“What are you doing to me?” he said again, confused but loud and clear.

“Monsieur, you are in Paris, Monsieur. You are sick. We need to take you to the hospital,” replied the quiet, calming French female voice.

“I’m not sick. I’m not that sick. What are you doing to me?”

“Monsieur, we have to take you to the hospital,” she replied, again quietly.

“But I don’t want to go to the hospital,”

“Monsieur, do you live alone?”

“Yes, I am alone. I don’t want to go to the hospital. I’m fine,” he said loudly and defiantly.

“We have to take you. We have to take care of you.”

Then he whispered, “I am scared.” All his force had gone.

“I know,” she said softly. “Monsieur, we will take care of you.”

Everything was quiet again.

It’s been a week since the fall and, despite speaking to several neighbours and the concierge who lives in and looks after the building, I don’t know much more about what happened. No one is clear about the story. Some did not even hear anything happening. I even  had a cheeky look into the vacant apartment next door while the builders repaired the broken window.  I know that the man who fell is named John and he is from New York. I know he was only visiting Paris for the weekend but will be in hospital for a long time. 

I also found out that John has friends in Paris who are looking after him. I did not find this out until Wednesday. Until I got this information I kept hearing him say in his clear American accent that he was alone and that he was scared. I also kept finding myself imagining what it would feel like to break through a window – the impact with the glass on my head and back just before the glass gave way, my arm hitting the frame, my head and back landing on the bed of broken pieces and these pieces imbedding into my skin. I kept thinking that the medic spoke English, but what if she hadn’t. I kept thinking about the fact that until Sunday morning, neither I nor my husband knew the emergency number here in France.

I feel better knowing that he is not by himself so far away from home. I still don’t understand what happened, but whatever happened I wish John a speedy recovery.

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