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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

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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.

Paris flea market – A photo essay

10 Sep

puce1 Photo by Elizabeth DownhowerGuest Contributor – Photographer and vegan food blogger (www.littleredradish.com) Elizabeth Downhower shares photos and thoughts on a trip to the Saint-Ouen Flea Market on the outskirts of Paris.

On a rainy Saturday in mid-August, two lifelong friends, The Accidental Parisienne and myself, A Deliberate San Franciscan, visited the Paris Flea Market (Le Marche aux Puce de Saint-Ouen).  Our journey began with a half-hour metro ride through Paris with lovely above-ground stretches, followed by a brisk walk down shop-lined city blocks, where we dodged street-side vendors offering D&G emblazoned belts and knock-off watches.  We continued past the open-air stalls overflowing with Rasta-themed t-shirts, bedazzled cell phone cases and cheap jewelry – for this was not the market we were after! Our destination lay just beyond, where a small side street leads to the entrance of a labyrinth of garage-sized shops filled with vintage treasures. Here you will find everything you need to decorate a Parisian flat with gorgeous antique furniture, lighting, linens and housewares. Vintage Chanel jackets.  Western wear?! Old postcards of Paris, organized by Arrondissement. From books, fabrics and trims to much larger items; spiral staircases, piles of doors and other architectural salvage. We even stumbled upon stacks – no a mountain! – of hot water heaters. If you can dream it up, they have it.

  
We spent the afternoon wandering aimlessly through the lanes, trying to stay dry from the intermittent showers, and of course, taking photos.  I’d love to go back and photograph the proprietors of the varied stalls, each of which fit seamlessly into the backdrop of their particular wares. The tall, sharp-featured man selling antique books who first kindly joked about my picture-taking but then, as I continued, turned into a finger shaking librarian chasing us out. The elderly, well-appointed woman sitting on a divan outside of her overflowing shop of classical antique lamps, staring off into the distance. She smoked a cigarette in her right hand while the left hand stroked a small cat who sat next to her on the sofa.  Alas, those pictures are for another day. In the meantime, I hope this gives you a good sense of the market as we experienced it. Enjoy! Et Bonnes Vacances, Mlle Accidental Parisienne! Can’t wait for more of your posts upon your return! xoxo

puce2 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce3 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce2 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce5 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce6 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce7 Photo by Elizabeth Downhower

puce2 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce9 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce10 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce11 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce12 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce13 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce14 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce15 Photo by Elizabeth Downhower

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.

7 things I wish I’d known before Bastille Day

15 Jul

Nice hat Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger1. The French like to practice

Last Wednesday morning around 10 am I heard the low droning sound of what I’d grown up to recognise as a tornado siren. It starts loud, progressively gets louder, and then gets quieter again a bit like someone slowly revving their engine.  In Ohio, this siren meant get your bottom to your basement or get in a safe place because a tornado might touch down. However, Paris is not tornado country.

What was this about? It took a matter of a millisecond and the help of my overactive imagination for me to jump from a conversation I had with someone about Paris during WWII to, oh god, these air raid warnings! Where do I go? What do I do? I ran to the window to see if I could detect any activity or clues. As you would expect, it was quiet and everyone was going about their business.  I sort of remembered hearing the same sound about a month ago on a Wednesday, ah a monthly drill…

However, when I heard the unmistakable roar of fighter planes flying very low and almost directly above my building only a few hours later I started to get scared again. There were five in v-formation, then three more, then a bomber and two more jets. I kept thinking it was over and then another roar would bring me to my window. There were too many for this to be an exercise! Was this connected to the sirens I heard in the morning?  What was I supposed to do? What about my husband? My neighbours were also taking a look. But everyone was calm, even taking pictures.

Anxious, I put a call out on twitter, the most obvious thing to do in an emergency:

Sirens this am, 6-10 low military jet flybys over central #Paris just now – Is this all prep for Bastille Day or do I find a shelter?

One reply came from @EvelyneLetawe

@JenFluke Don’t look for shelter in Notre-Dame 🙂 http://t.co/43lYECe

Planes over Notre Dame photo by @EvelyneLetawe @http://twitpic.com/5m1qtzIt linked to a picture of plane flying over the famous towers of Notre Dame with the caption ‘Neat terrorist attack on Paris Notre-Dame or rehearsal for July 14?’

2.       You get a wake up call

Sorry to go back again to my Ohio roots, but on the 4th of July, American Independence Day, a network of volunteers who did not like friends would drive around my town at some ungodly hour shouting through a bull horn, “It’s the 4th of July! It’s time to get up for the Parade!” I always thought this was a quant custom from a small town in America.  However, yesterday at 8am in central Paris I also got a wake-up call.  About 100 military-men in smart red uniforms on horseback blew trumpets at the end of my block. I hate to say it, but this was a slight upgrade from the bullhorn.

3.       When they say military parade, they mean military parade

Tanks down rue Royal Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerA friend who has lived in Paris for 20 years gave us the top tip for watching the parade.  After the parade passes the French President and other dignitaries on the Place de la Concord, it takes a left up rue Royal and past the Madeleine where it finishes. This area is much less crowded than the zoo that is the Champs Elysee. We arrived about 30 minutes before the parade started, got two spaces on the lower steps of the church and had a great view. We even got to see the flybys I’d watched them practice.

This parade is a military parade and is a lesson in different marching styles and variation in military uniforms.  If this is your thing, you will be in heaven.  While this was interesting to me for a while, I like a bit of music with my parade. Some of the groups that pass did sing, but most just march.  The only band brought up the rear of the parade.  Don’t expect to see floats either.  Military hardware is the closest thing. We saw everything from tanks to digger trucks all covered with men and women with guns.

4.       Wear comfortable shoes and carbo load

Quite a lot of walking is required to take in all the Bastille Day sights and activities.  Public transport is running but very crowed so often you will have to walk.  There are also many distractions.

Galleries Lafayette, Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerShopping and looking at the view – I was surprised that most bigger stores were open on the national holiday. The legendary summer sales are on in Paris. Our parade viewing spot was close to Galleries Lafayette, one of Paris’s largest and oldest department stories, and we had to have a look.  Galleries Lafayette is a beautiful store that features a 7-story stained-glass rotunda over the main sales floor. It also has decent food options on the top floor and has one of the great views of Paris from its roof.

Museums– Many of the main museums are free on Bastille Day including Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and many others.

Fair at the Tuileries Gardens – A huge Ferris wheel and other fairground rides are set up in the Jardins des Tuileries. This is also close to the parade route. (Apparently, Madonna and her kids were spotted there yesterday.)

5.       Recharge you camera battery between the parade and the fireworks

No explanation needed, other than this is why I have no good pictures.

6.       The Eiffel Tower is not everything

I must have read 20 times that the fireworks are shot off from the Trocadero, the complex on the other side of the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. However, in my mind the Eiffel Tower was the centre of the fireworks display.  While the Eiffel Tower does play a large part in the finale and is lovely to look at as you stand with everyone waiting for the show to start, the bulk of the fireworks go off on the other bank and many don’t reach the height of the top of the tower.  Keep this in mind when you are choosing a spot to view the fireworks. Just because you can see the Tower does not mean you will have a great view of the show.

We watched on the Pont de l‘Alma and did have a great view of the spectacular show. However, next time, short of finding friends with a flat with a good view, I would probably brave the crowds in the Champs de Mars or the Trocadero.  This is what you would have seen of the finale of the Paris Bastille Day fireworks from the Champs de Mars last night.

Alternatively, it looked like you could get reasonably priced food (read picnic style food and self-service) and a table with an amazing view at the Palais de Tokyo. A few tables were still available when we passed by at about 9pm. Sadly, as newbies, we pressed on. It would be worth checking this option out for next year.

7.       Save a little for after

Tired from a wonderful and full day we staggered from the metro stop at Saint Paul to head home.  As we neared the rue Sevigne we could hear the music pumping out of the Fireman’s Ball at the Marais fire station.  Fireman’s Balls are held as fundraisers in fire stations all around France.  They all have a different personality, but the one in the Marais has a reputation for being one of the liveliest and most popular.  It looked like great fun and we wanted to join the party, however we saw the queue that stretched down the block and we felt our aching legs. Next year!

Really helpful sites:

http://www.bonjourparis.com/

http://en.parisinfo.com/shows-exhibitions-paris/

[photo credit of planes flying over Notre Dame  by @EvelyneLetawe @http://twitpic.com/5m1qtz]

The Wedding and me

6 May

Hats at Le Grain de Sable photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe Royal wedding last Friday caused me a number of humiliations this week.  To understand why, you have to know three things. 

  1. The Royal wedding is but a warm-up event to The Wedding of my brother-in-law and his fiancé in just over 2 weeks time in Scotland. 
  2.  My husband’s family’s motto is ‘to look good is better than to feel good’. We had spent countless (and I am not exaggerating) hours  discussing the minutiae of hair possibilities, make-up options, undergarment alternatives and even the impact of fake tan to the perceived colour of stockings. 
  3.  I had decided not to wear a hat.

Within seconds of Victoria Beckham, and that hat, appearing on my TV screen last Friday, there was a cross-channel call with my mother-in-law. “Did you see her?” was the almost breathless question. I was always going to do something with my hair for The Wedding, but now I was wearing a hat.

At first, the thought of a tour of the milliners of Paris sounded wonderful. But did the small shop where I could pick up a vintage Dior or the old-fashioned store filled with hats that looked amazing on me and were perfect for the dress, even exist?.  More crucially the dress and shoes are in Scotland. I’d have to rely on my not-so-reliable ‘vision’ to complete the outfit.

However, such is the power of my married family’s motto that it can make a girl from Ohio, whose personal motto would include something about a good meal and comfortable shoes, believe that this mission was not only possible, but worthwhile.

And so I set out.

My neighbourhood seemed the best place to start.  Le Marais is packed full of cute independent boutiques, i.e. natural habitat for a hat shop. Or so I thought.  After several hours of wandering the collective advice was that I was several weeks too early (wedding things come into the shops mid to late May) and that I needed to go to another part of Paris. A nice sales assistant suggested a place where it is always wedding season: Barbes.

As I set off on the metro, the sales assistant’s warnings about my safety started to concern me.  He’d warned me that Barbes was not like Le Marais and that I would need to be careful. When I left the Barbes metro station, I could immediately see that I was in a very different part of Paris. There were women in colourful West African robes, crowds of North African men trying to sell me cigarettes, people and noise, everywhere. I wasn’t totally sure which direction would take me to the ‘many, many’ wedding shops I was promised. So I headed where the crowd was taking me.

Tati Lingerie Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerUnwittingly, I had been into a Paris institution that had nothing to do with weddings, the Tati shops.  Think of a city block full of individual Dollar or Pound stores, each with a different category of goods.  Imagine that each of these shops is packed to bursting with women digging through bargain bins and filled with the smell of clothing dye and cheap shoes. Imagine that each of these stores has three floors, equally as busy and smelly as the first, and joined together by mirrored, yes mirrored, staircases.  Imagine that all of these stores and this activity are bound together by one exterior facade wrapped in a baby pink and white hounds-tooth pattern with large signs declaring “le plus bas prix!”, the lowest price.  That’s the Tati shops. Tati has been selling discounted goods in this location for more than 60 years and, if the crowds can be trusted, it’s very popular.

Espace Mariage Damas-Barbes Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerHowever, I needed to stay focused on my mission and set out to find ‘Wedding Shop Central’.  It didn’t take me long. Like the rest of my Barbes experience, this was also a world where more was more. No subtle wedding dresses here. I imagine the store owners and their customers would have been disappointed that Kate hadn’t made more of an effort. If you wanted princess gowns, these places had more tulle, more sequins, more razzmatazz than any place I’d ever been. But no hats.  As much fun as this was, what had the guy in Le Marais been thinking?

In the afternoon, I went to Plan C. I went to the much quieter area between the Blvd St Germain and the Seine on the Left Bank and found A la Recerche de Jane (41 rue Dauphine).  This was more like it. The milliner was a woman in her 50s and a very smart double-breasted dress with brass buttons. The shop was full of her beautiful creations. I showed her a picture of the dress. She said, of course she could help.

“Ah, with such a special dress you need a very special hat.”

She ceremoniously pulled a large hat from the display area and placed it on my head.  It was possibly the most ridiculous hat I’d ever seen.  It looked like a giant gold balloon that had deflated on my head.  Was she kidding?  Apparently not.  

“Very special, no?”

No.  “I think something a bit smaller would be better.”

“Oh, I see you need something a bit safer,” she made a face. “Try this one, it is my speciality.” Had she insulted me and glorified the so-called ‘safe’ hat at the same time?

This hat was lovely, but also not right.

And then she said again, “With such a special dress you need a very special hat,” and produced another possibility with a sweeping flourish.

No, not right.

And again with a sweeping flourish, and again as if this was the first time, “With such a special dress you need a very special hat,” she produced two hats. She’d given up putting them on my head. One was quite pretty, but sadly,not right for the dress. The second had a cuddly teddy bear and feathers  attached to the crown. Now she really must be kidding.  Again, she was not.

“That’s all I have,” she said. She pushed passed me, and took a seat behind the desk at the back of her shop.

At this point I was losing faith in my mission.  The ‘comfortable shoe’ part of my own personal motto was starting to win out over the quest to look good.  My feet hurt and this was not as fun as I’d hoped.  I’ll try one last place on my way home.

Le Grain de Sable Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerLe Grain de Sable (79 rue St Louis en l’Ile) is  on the island of St Louis in the Seine, across a small bridge from Notre Dame.  Again I produced a picture of the dress and again the dance of the many inappropriate hats commenced. 

“Did you see the Royal Wedding?” I asked. “Did you see Victoria Beckham’s hat?”

I think you understand that I was getting desperate. I think you understand that with all of the other humiliation I’d suffered, I might as well go that last step, for the sake of the mission.

“Could you make something that looked like that?”

“Yes,” she said. “But you’re not Victoria Beckham.”

It was going to take something special to get me through those next moments and magically there it was. After she had inserted the knife, she put The Hat on my head. 

I pick up my custom-made, cream-coloured chapeau a week on Tuesday.  Remember, it’s better to look good than to feel good.

Hats

The first lady of Pletzl

21 Apr

Sacha Finkelsztajn bakery, rue des RosiersWhat my landlady lacks in height, she makes up for in energy. When I met her for a promised tour of the neighbourhood, her kitten-heeled sling backs brought her up to a mighty 5’1’’.  They also powered a three-hour purposeful march through the history of the Marais and Pletzl areas of Paris, stories of her childhood, book advice, where I was to buy the best baked goods and even the best gay cruising spots.

After a nearly 60 years in the area she knows the labyrinth like streets of the Marais well and she had a story for every corner, every shop.  She darted down alleys, into courtyards, I was lucky to keep up.  I was also lucky to come out alive. She says she doesn’t use her white stick because she claims it makes her a target and invites unwanted help. I felt like a target as she literally led us blind into the middle of crowds and into the middle of traffic, but always on course.

‘They say that I am the lady who sees everything,’ she said of the would-be shoplifters at store she owns with her husband. ‘I stand and move my eyes around the store.  But, they could steal a suitcase from in front of me and I would not know.’

She said she hates what she has become.  She was a surgeon before her sight started to deteriorate and I am sure her life has changed in innumerable ways that a sighted person cannot understand.  However, as with the would-be thieves, how one approaches the world has a lot to do with how people respond, and we were on a mission.

The village of Saint Paul (off rue St Paul) was her first top tip. A series of courtyards filled with cute antiques shops, artist’s workshops and cafes. The weekend seems to be the best time to catch the action at St Paul. We could only window shop as nothing was open at 11.30 on a Friday morning. By way of explanation my guide said this was because they were run by ‘BoBos’ who didn’t feel the need to get up and do a day’s work like the rest of us.  She assured me that this was an affectionate term and she was a fan of this area, but according to my landlady this group seemed to be at the root of many of the changes to the neighbourhood that she chronicled during our walk.

Bourgeois Bohemians are just the latest of many groups that have seen this neighbourhood change over hundreds of years. The aristocrats who first developed the area with beautiful mansions moved out in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and working people gradually moved into their palaces. A Jewish community has been in the area for hundreds of years and there are still kosher stores, bakeries and Jewish bookstores.

She showed me where many Jewish stores used to be, now trendy clothing stores. You can see some of this history as original signs  have been conserved when the spaces have been converted.  Of the stores that remain, the L’As du Felafel (34 rue des Rosiers) restaurant and the Sacha Finkelsztajn (27 rue des Rosiers) bakery were favourites.

She remembered the neighbourhood of her childhood, where it felt like a real community and people looked after each other.  She said that her family did not have a lot of money, but talked of living in a house that had a grand sweeping staircase and French doors between rooms with high ceilings. With the new wave of people coming into the area, house prices went up and people who had lived here all of their lives could no longer afford to do so.

Even with all of the changes, she would not live anywhere else. The renaissance courtyard of the Hotel de Sully (62 rue Saint-Antoine) and the Musee Carnavalet (23 rue de Sévigne), a free museum dedicated to the history of Paris, are some of her favourite places in the world.

‘Everything is here,’ she said.  However, she recommends coming on weekday mornings before all of the BoBos wake up and you can’t move for people.