Archive | August, 2011

Le Bar Brigadoon – an enchanted birthday on rue de Lappe

25 Aug

neverending happy hour photo by Elizabeth DownhowerTwo drunken Australian early twenty-somethings got on board the Metro a couple of weeks ago.  You could hear and smell them at the other end of the carriage. They scanned the Metro riders for people to talk to and finally found a 20-something French couple.

Bonjour,” one Aussie said with obvious discomfort. His face contorted and his mouth did not want to cooperate with the foreign word. “Do you guys speak English?”

The French couple looked at each other as if for reassurance. “Yes,” the French woman answered.

“Excellent,” the Aussies gave each other high-five. “We’re staying by the Bastille. Where should we go for a bit of a party? You know, a few beers, some girls and some fun.”

The French man and woman looked at each other, looked back at the Aussies and said in unison, “Rue de Lappe.”

Every town has a street like rue de Lappe and everyone has at least one under-age, alcohol-impaired, half-memory of an evening there.  Bar after bar, lurid neon advertising cheap drinks and seedy bouncers lounging at the doors. Stale beer and urine are the overwhelming smells during the day.  Eager hormones and the smell of spilt pitchers of sickly sweet cocktails fill the air at night. Large groups of young men or women stumble out of one bar and fall into the next.

Rue de Lappe was not where I thought we’d end up on Saturday night.  When we entered the street I was certain we would pass through it on our way somewhere else. My husband and I were with one of my best friends in the world who had come to Paris to celebrate a big birthday.  While my friend and I had shared a few buckets of beer (yes, literally buckets) in the Ohio version of rue de Lappe many years ago, I think we had something a little more grown-up in mind for Saturday night.

However, about half way down the street, my husband and friend both stopped in front of a bar and looked in.  In between the other large-fronted, loud establishments there was a little slip of a place. As you looked in, there was just enough room for the long bar down the left side, a row of stools and a bit of space for people to squeeze past to get to the few tables in the back. In contrast to its crowded neighbours, this little bar only had a few punters. It was a dive and I can’t explain it any other way than to say something about it called to us.

“Do you want to go in for one?” my husband asked in disbelief. My friend and I both nodded yes and then shrugged at each other because we didn’t know why we didn’t march on.

My friend led the way to the end of the bar. We sat and they ordered beers. This was not a place that would serve my favourite tipple, fizz, so I asked the barman if he had a cocktail de la maison. The barman was a slim man with a mop of curly grey hair, boyish eyes and a deeply creased face. He could have been anywhere from 45 to 65 years old. He nodded and smiled causing his thin lips to part and reveal the three remaining teeth that clung to his top gums. He assured me that he would make me something, “très spécial”.

I could see him set to work in the tarnished mirror above the bar.  A tiny workspace was squeezed into the gap between the till and a turntable.  The turntable propped up a large collection of vintage vinyl. Solid Gold Soul was the sleeve facing outwards. A woman with brassy cropped hair appeared behind the bar and inquired what the barman was doing. Clearly cocktails were not the norm. He gestured to me, she looked over and saw me looking at the records. “We have a CD player but don’t really use it. There’s nothing like the sound of a needle on vinyl.” She arrived from London for the weekend 35 years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had landed in this bar that very first day and never left.

The barman proudly put my drink down in front of me. It consisted of one thin slice of lime quartered, a little sugar and overproof rum, and was served in a glass a little larger than a shot.  I tasted it. It nearly blew my head off. I asked for a little water and the barman looked wounded. He never gave me water, but did give me a tall glass and a few ice cubes.

While I sipped my toxic drink I had a look at the other occupants in the bar.  A couple of stools down from me on my left was a black man about 60 with snow-white hair. It was cropped close on the sides and in the back but rose like a cliff a full 4 inches over his wrinkled forehead. He had a large gold hooped earring and wore a red silk cravat, dark blue collared shirt and bright yellow waist coat.  The man next to him had a shiny round bald head, a round face and round, aviator-shaped, thick gold and white plastic 80’s style glasses.  He had a thick gold bracelet and necklace to match and white track suit with green Adidas stripes that looked more pimp than athlete.

My friend’s voice brought me back to our end of the bar.  “Merci beaucoup,” she enthused and I saw she was petting something green, yellow and furry on her finger. “Look, the barman gave me a birthday present!” She put her hand in front of me so that I could see the little knitted turtle finger puppet she proudly wore on her finger. “Wow, what a present,” was all I could think of saying. It looked like it had been chewed by a dog. The barman beamed a shy, three-toothed grin.

Little Seb Photo by Elizabeth DownhowerYou have to understand that most places we go with my good friend we get special attention. She is tall, blond and beautiful. This combined with her chatty, flirty French encouraged by the bottle of bubbles we had before we left our flat made her a star attraction. A small man in a Converse t-shirt was the first to try to get her attention. Then two students made an attempt, and then another guy.

While I watched all the drama, two men appeared at the end of the bar.  They were regulars and greeted the barman with kisses, as the French do. The older, smaller one had dark eyes, chiselled features and silver/white well-groomed hair that was tidy on the sides but longer on top. He also had a chiselled body that was shown off by a tight, but not too tight, t-shirt and well-fitting jeans. The younger, tall one had short dark black hair and a Roman nose. His body was also well-defined.  If the older man looked like he took care of himself, the younger man’s fitness looked more natural or rather acquired by a labour of love.

The older man was the only one, other than the barman who managed to engage my friend in conversation and the younger man sat quietly by his side.  My husband and I could not figure out the connection between the two men. The barman put us out of our misery – they were father and son. The barman also said that the older man was a magician. The younger man rolled his eyes and shook his head. Excellent, I thought, my husband is stuntman and I am a spy.

Magician and turtle photo by Elizabeth DownhowerThen the magician took the knitted turtle and proceeded to do 5 minutes of slight-of-hand tricks with it.  The turtle was in his hand, and then it was gone. It was back in his hand, then put in his mouth and then pulled from behind the barman’s ear.  He appeared to throw it into the air, and then he pulled it out of his pocket. Then up in the air again to be caught behind his back and then gone completely.  Over, up, down, gone, pulled out and then finally, produced on a business card that said he was, in fact, a magician.  Wow.  The card had a photograph of the man in a tuxedo and black bow tie and detailed that he was not only a magician but a “Gentleman Magician”. The son, we found out, played volleyball for Italy, hence the well-toned physique, and was an industrial designer. 

Both men were a little put out when my friend said to me that she was trying to get the attention of another young man sitting at the table behind the bar.  “What should I do?” she asked. “Go talk to him,” I said.  The father-son team gave me simultaneous look of despair, what did they have to do to get her favour, they’d literally been doing magic after all.

While my friend went over to try to chat to the only man in bar who hadn’t been trying to get her attention, I got some of my own.  Didier pulled up a stool next to mine and sat down.

Bon soir,” he said. “Le blah blah blah, blah blah.”

“I am sorry I don’t speak French,” I said and this was one of the few times I was glad of it. Didier was not my type.  This did not deter Didier, “Le blah blah blah.  Blah blah blah.” The English woman behind the bar caught my eye and said, “That’s Didier. He has a bit of a reputation as a lady’s man, a bit of a Casanova.” The magician and his son both nodded in agreement.

I looked back at Didier. He was about 5ft 2in tall and wide.  He was bald, pie eyed and pie-faced. I looked back at the woman behind the bar, the magician and the son, and asked, “This man is a Casanova?” They all nodded vigorously in agreement and in all seriousness. The woman behind the bar said, “He is and he’ll sit there as long as he thinks it’ll take.”

Didier raised his glass to me and gave me what he probably thought was his sexiest smile.  “Blah blah le blah.”

For a second, I was intrigued. Had I been a bit too harsh in my assessment of Didier? This was France after all, maybe he had some secrets.  I looked into his eyes. “Blah blah. Le blah blah,” he said spitting a little and struggling to keep me in focus. He then spilled a little beer.

“Didier, I’d like you to meet my husband.” The woman behind the bar translated this and Didier smiled and raised his glass to me and my husband but remained firmly seated next to me. “Blah le blah blah. Blah blah, blah blah, le blah blah.”

ED, beer and birthday pressie Photo by Barrie WestIt was then that the magician decided to make his move.  I imagine that he saw the geeky, spectacled young man my friend decided to chat up and figured he still had a good chance.  Him or the pipsqueak? Everyone in the bar would have put money on the hot magician. He went over to their table, sat down and joined the conversation.  My friend’s original pursuant in the Converse t-shirt strangely took the magician’s move as a cue to try again also and started to do a little po-go dancing around their table.

The son looked even more forlorn. “Why wasn’t she interested in me?” he asked. I suspected that he’d had a lifetime of being overshadowed by his father. I wanted to tell him that his volleyball body would have been more than enough for me, but I am happily married after all.

After a while, my friend came back to the bar and said that Sebastian, the specky boy at the table, was a German student. She petted her turtle gift and said it was maybe time to go home.  I asked if she was sure she did not want to talk to the magician and the volleyball player again, after all a father/son team is what a million big-birthday daydreams are made of. But she said no, it was time to go home.

We said our goodbyes and the cast assembled to send us on our way.  Arm in arm, my husband, my friend and I walked down rue de Lappe and my friend christened the turtle finger puppet, Sebastian. I looked back over my shoulder to see our new friends waving goodbye and they seemed to be disappearing in the 2am mist. I wanted to remember this night and looked above the door, but could not see a sign or the name of the bar. I looked down again for the crowd and they had all disappeared. I remembered the story of  Brigadoon, an enchanted Scottish village that only appeared once every hundred years, and wondered if I came back to rue de Lappe I’d be able to find our little enchanted bar.

Happy birthday ED!

The birthday girl and me Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

It’s a small world – Omaha Beach to Florida to Paris

19 Aug

From http://www.dday-overlord.com/img/dday/ob/omaha_beach_barge_approche.jpgMy landlady told me this beautiful story and I had to share it.

Around 20 years ago while on holiday, my landlady and her husband befriended a couple from Florida. The two couples stayed in touch and have even been on vacation together several times.

A few years ago, the couple from Florida contacted my landlady to let her know they were taking a cruise that would stop at several points along the Northern coast of France. My landlady and her husband traveled to Normandy to meet their friends off of the ship.

The first day they met up they went to visit Omaha Beach, the sight of one of the deadliest D-Day battles. The father of the man from Florida had been a survivor of this battle and his son wanted to see the site where it had all happened.

While visiting the beach the two couples were told by another tourist that a veteran, a man who had participated in the landings, was down the path and was sharing his experiences and answering questions.  The other tourist explained that they had better hurry as the veteran looked like he might be getting ready to go.

They found the veteran and the man from Florida was able to confirm quite a lot of the details his father told him about the battle.  So many details were similar that the veteran asked about the man’s father’s name and his division. The veteran and the man’s father had been in the same boat and knew each other quite well. The veteran was able to tell him details of his father’s life in the army and specifically what his father did during the battle.

The veteran had answered some of the assembled tourists’ questions in French.  My landlady enquired where he had learned to speak French so well.  He had grown up in France, he said. Before the war, he left Paris to go to university in New York.  While he was gone, the Germans occupied Paris and he was unable to return home to Europe.  While in the US he received news that his Jewish family had been rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.  On hearing this news he asked if he could join the US Army and they agreed to let him serve.

My landlady asked, in which part of Paris did he grow up?  In the Marais. This is the area where my landlady and her husband  have lived all of their lives.  Further questions revealed, the veteran had known my landlady’s father.

French and American friends by chance meet a Omaha Beach veteran on Omaha Beach who knew both of their fathers and could bring history to life. Incredible.

[Photo credit: http://www.dday-overlord.com/img/dday/ob/omaha_beach_barge_approche.jpg]

Goodbye Champagne – 10 things to do in Paris for less than 4€

12 Aug

Winter in Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSome of you may already know this but recently I recently quite literally ‘quit my day job’ in Edinburgh so that I can stay in Paris and write a book.  While I am very excited about this decision and my writing is going well, it has put me in a position where I have to look at Paris in a very different way. 

Paris, like most large cities, can be very expensive. A used book in English can cost 20€ ($US29/£18). A soft drink at a small cafe, away from tourist areas, perfect for writing costs 6€50 ($9/£6). A pretty normal salad in a normal restaurant will set you back 15€-19€ ($22-27/£13-17).  My husband recently paid 116€ ($170/£100) for 7 drinks. Someone else, very kindly, paid for dinner.

So with my new, let’s call it ‘leaner’ situation, I decided I come up with a list of 10 things you can do in Paris that cost less than 4€ ($6/£3.50).

  1. Take a bus tour – I am not talking about the hop-on/hop off guided tour bus that will set you back 29€, I am talking the self-guided variety that will cost a mere 1€70.  My current favourite is the No. 69 city bus –You use the same tickets you use for the metro, but this is all above ground.  Arm yourself with a free map and your guidebook you bought at home and keep track of the sights along the way. One end the route starts at Père Lachaise cemetery where Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein, Colette, Oscar Wilde and many other famous people are buried. The route then heads past the Bastille, through the hip Marais area and past Hotel de Ville. It takes a dramatic turn; the bus has to slow down to literally squeeze under an archway through the Louvre building. You emerge to see, on one side, IM Pei’s amazing pyramid, and on the other, the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries. After you cross the Seine to the left bank, you go past the Musee d’Orsay and then up along fashionable rue St Gremain, rue du Bac and rue de Grenelle. Then past the magnificent Hotel de Invalides and you end up at the feet of Eiffel Tower. That’s a lot of Paris for a 1€70!
  2. Buy a souvenir – What trip to Paris would be complete without one of these? You can get a Paris snow globe for 2€50 at the Galleries Lafayette (the cheapest I’ve seen in town) or an Eiffel Tower key chain (4 to 6 for 1€) available just about everywhere from street vendors.
  3. Buy lunch – You can get a bottle of wine (hey, you’re in Paris) for as little as 1€50 and a baguette for just less than a euro. For the gluten- and wine-allergic like me, a gluten-free crepe de Ble Noir or buckwheat flour crepe is 3€50 and a water .50€.
  4. Take a ride – If staying on a bus cramps your style, rent one of the bicycles on the city’s  Velib scheme. Velib stations are everywhere and you use bikes all day for 1€70.  Rent a bike, take it to where you want to go and park it in the station nearby. When you’re ready to move on, type in your rental code and take another bike. Easy!  My current favourite Velib trip is along Canal St Martin, a hip area with a lot of cute independent shops for window shopping and great stretches for a picnic. I’ve watched locals play petanque (boules or bacchii ball) on a sunny afternoon and I’ve danced to live DJs on a warm evening along this stretch – there is usually something fun going on.
  5. Eat cake – As long as you deny your Marie Antoinette 3euro yummies Photo by Jennifer Flueckigertendencies and steer clear of Le Notre, Laduree or Fauchon, you can get an éclair du chocolate or some other fancy cake at a neighbourhood patisserie for less than 4€.  For the gluten-challenged, a large macaron for 2€90 or a slice of polenta lemon cake from the Rose Bakery at 3€30 will do nicely, thank you.
  6. Get an eyeful of the Eiffel – Why pay to go up the Eiffel tower (13€40) when the tower itself is what you really want to see. The best views of the tower and Paris are free!  Once you get off of the No. 69 bus at the Champs de Mars, you are right there at the iron lady’s feet.  The roof top viewing area at the Galleries Lafayette gives you a wonderful free view.  Plus on your way up you can enjoy the stained-glass rotunda that covers the centre of the store and on level 3 (I think) there is a free rest area and water cooler.  The top of the Pompidou Centre is also an amazing place to take in the view. I like to go to the red lift, to the left of the main door, which is reserved for patrons of the fancy restaurant, George, at the top.  I have actually patronised this restaurant once in more affluent times and, who knows, may someday again, so I feel happy to consider myself a patron and use the lift.  The lift deposits you right at the top. That door opens and wow, Paris is in front of you. I like to walk along the top and then go back down to earth on the escalators. 
  7. Take in a show – As you descend on the Pompidou Centre escalators, shift your attention from the view of the rooftops to the entertainment in the square below. The public space in front of the Centre is always full of people and often street entertainers. We have seen acrobats, jugglers, clowns, and an amazing street dance troupe.  Remember they are artists trying to make a living, so if you enjoy the show leave a little something (2€ -4€).
  8. Decorate your house – Paris flea markets are legendary but some of the big ones can be expensive.  For a little something French and inexpensive for my house back home I would avoid the famous Puces de St Ouen and head to my little neighbourhood Puce d’Aligre.  It’s open every day but Mondays, also sells wonderful produce and, who knows, it might be the place you find a treasure for less than 4€.
  9. Take in some culture – While many of the famous museums in Paris are at least 10€ to enter, there are some really wonderful museums and exhibits that are free. My favourite at the moment is the Musée Carnavalet (see my post on the Musee Carnavalet here).  It features exhibits about the history of the city of Paris and is housed in an amazing Parisian mansion with a beautiful garden. It is almost like getting two museums in one.
  10. Seal your love in the city of love – Believe it or not, you can afford to be wildly romantic, even on this budget.  Buy a padlock at the Bastille Market (3€50).  Take it and your loved one to the Pont de l’Archeveche, the bridge that has the famous and beautiful view of the Seine and the back of Notre Dame.  Declare your love and seal the deal by fixing your padlock, along with those of a thousand other lovers, to the railing of the bridge. Your loved one may prefer a ring from Dior, but they’d have to be cold-hearted not to be charmed by this lovely (and inexpensive) gesture.Love Bridge Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

Locked in Love Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerIf you know of any other under 4€ treats please let me know.  I’ll see you there – when I’m not busy writing my book, of course.

The restorative quality of pastries – Ladurée

5 Aug

A little bit o' heaven Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe first time I was aware of it was when my sister caused a family argument.  She was in her junior year of high school and was getting ready to apply to college when she dropped the bomb – she wasn’t going to ‘normal’ college, she was going to train as a pastry chef.  Being a sceptical older sister, I suspected that this was a ploy to upset my mom and dad. If that had been the intention, the ploy worked and after many ‘family discussions’ she went with plan A, ‘normal’ college.

However when I look back over the years other clues fall into place.  First, my sister can almost always be counted on to order dessert. Second, she has a library-sized collection of cookbooks where all the titles, if not specifically about desserts, definitely cover some aspect of dessert making.  Next, several years ago she made batch after batch after batch of les macarons – the deceptively simple sandwich cookie made with almonds, eggs, sugar and water – hoping to replicate, exactly, the ones she tried on a trip to Paris.

Then I suppose the ‘icing on the cake’ (sorry couldn’t resist) was her weddingSweet couple last year. The wedding cake was more important than the dress. The right baker was essential and she interviewed several that did not make the cut. 

In addition to the wedding cake, she organised a cookie table.  A cookie table is a Pittsburgh, USA wedding tradition that involves guests contributing cookies, homemade or specially purchased, to the wedding reception. These contributions are laid out buffet-style for all guests to sample during the festivities or to take home in specially provided cookie-table carry-out boxes (look at this link to see a video about cookie tables). 

Despite the fact that we are not from Pittsburgh nor do we have any tradition of cookie tables in our family, she not only had a cookie table but also developed a cookie table cookie registry.  Its purpose, like the gift list or registry, was to guide potential cookie-providing guests towards the cookies that the bride and groom would especially like to see and cookies that had some particular meaning to them.  It was important that all the meaningful cookies in their lives were represented.

Finally, the groom, who has a lot of sugar in him anyway, makes chocolate. They are a sweet match.

So, when my sister said she was not having a good day during a recent trip to Paris, I knew immediately what had to be done.  A pastry intervention was necessary and there was only one place to go – Ladurée.

Ladurée is a Parisian institution that has baked sugary delights since 1861 and was one of the first salon de thé in Paris.  The original store is on the rue Royal, however we went to the newer, bigger Champs Élysée location.

Heaven Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe light sage green and gold embellished canopy over the door provided only the smallest hint of the pastel and sugar-coated dream that is inside.  Red marble table tops, rich wood panelling, thick drapes lined with gold fringe, Louis XVI style sofas upholstered in white and light blue striped fabric, large gilt mirrors and painted cherubs on the ceilings playing amongst fluffy, pink, sliver-lined clouds. While the decor was not as fresh as it once was, there was no mistaking its luxurious intention to seduce and pamper. We were in the right spot.

The encyclopaedia-sized menu arrived and we set to the serious work of decision-making. Being gluten and dairy free, I resigned myself to the fact that my experience was to be limited to tea and atmosphere.  Before going in, I had even agreed to my sister’s request that I order a pastry anyway so she could have two. However, les macarons are naturally gluten-free and, while most have a dairy filling, they can also be filled with jam. Ladurée had one macaron on the menu filled with jam, so my order was easy – strawberry macaron with strawberry and mint jam and a scoop of strawberry sorbet. 

My sister’s choice was significantly more complicated.  Which one to choose? We were seated in the upstairs dining room, too far from the pastry counter to have a look and choose by sight. She went over the multiple pages of pastry descriptions many times but finally came to a decision – Millefeuille Praline – multiple layers of praline pasty and cream.

Our order arrived and we savoured the first bites. Mission accomplished: my sister had a smile on her face. Everything was going to be all right. Or was it? I could sense that something was still a little wrong. The Millefeuille Praline was great, but what about the others?  Had she ordered the right one? And I, like the evil older sister I am, had promised salvation only to cruelly opt to order my own cake and not a second for her.

Dreamy Take-away Photo by Molly FlueckigerNever fear, Ladurée does take-away.  After we paid the bill we went downstairs and ordered more for later. Paradise was restored. Always remember, the restorative quality of pastries should never be underestimated.