Tag Archives: travel

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

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My dinner with Kayne West

29 Apr

 

me outside spring photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

My brother-in-law and I had dinner with Kayne West last Saturday night. Ok, we weren’t exactly at the same table, but he was at the next table over.  We even made eye contact a few times, although he didn’t smile.  I couldn’t decide if this was because he thought I looked too cool for a common acknowledgement or he thought, ‘I wish that crazy woman would stop turning around and looking at me.’ 

Either way, maybe it was best we did not actually converse.   I am not sure I could name a Kanye West song if my life depended on it. Also, MTV recently gave him the honour of having the ‘best tweet of the year’. Here it is:

“I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle”

I had thought for a moment that this might be some sort of deep statement about each individual’s environmental responsibility.  Then I read some of his other top tweets:

“dating models I had to learn to like small dogs and cigarettes”

“I specifically ordered Persian rugs with cherub imagery!!! What do I have to do to get a simple Persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh.”

Also, if I’m honest, he wasn’t who I hoped to see. When we were seated the server leaned over and told us in a hushed voice that Beyonce was dining there tonight.  This really did excite me.  I am a little embarrassed to admit this but I am a bit of a fan (I actually own several albums) and, it was possible, as I had seen on twitter that Beyonce and her husband Jay Z were in Paris.

When Kanye and his party were seated at the ‘Beyonce’ table, there were two extra seats.  I kept looking round in hope but alas, she did not join them.

However, we didn’t go to this restaurant for star spotting, we came for the food. My brother-in-law was in town for the weekend and asked me to book something special. Given the daunting task of choosing a special restaurant in a city where even a neighbourhood bistro will offer something I have never tasted before, I employed help. Excellent foodie website parisbymouth.com actually lets you choose Paris restaurants by number of Michelin stars, but also has a less daunting list of editor’s picks. Paris-based food writer and pastry chef David Lebowitz also has a list of favourites. Restaurant Spring (6 Rue Bailleul) appeared on both.

Both sites also said that it was necessary to book reservations at least a month in advance.  I was only two days out.  I decided to give them a call just on the off chance that they had a cancellation.  I was in luck. Each sitting they offer a limited number of seats at the bar on a first-come, first-served basis.  The maitre’d advised us that we were to get there no later than 7.30 (on time and early, both things unheard of in France) to get a seat.  He also showed no signs of panic or horror when I let him know about my food ‘issues’. ‘No problem at all, madam.’

And what a delight! We were also freed from actually thinking about and choosing what we wanted to eat and drink. The chef prepares a new, seasonal menu each night and the sommelier chooses the best wines to go with each course.  (If you need proof that each night’s menu is a one off here it is: I went back to the restaurant yesterday to confirm my memory of the menu and they had to think hard about what they’d served for dinner on Saturday as they’d served 4 other different menus after it).

They asked us at the start if we wanted to know what was coming or enjoy the surprise.  We loved each dish being unveiled to us.

  • Potato croquettes with cheese and anchovy paste (champagne, for me)
  • Morel mushrooms, radish and carrot in chicken consumme with a leaf of a French wild herb
  • Langoustine (hot fennel salad, for me)
  • Pigeon with marinated grapefruit in a pigeon jus
  • Strawberries and rhubarb with Normandy cream and strawberry syrup
  • Creme fraiche sorbet with lemon (double helpings of the chocolate for me)
  • Chocolate sorbet

Yes, three desserts! And, champagne and wine to match all the way through. Special food, excellent service and good company. What a great night.

(Another reason to be glad we weren’t at Kayne’s table: apparently there was a small problem with the bill at the end of the night. One of the servers had to chase him into his limo.  I am sure that whipping out a credit card might cramp his style and he has people to handle these things.  The meal, I’m told, has been added to his hotel bill.)

Feminism and the museum guard

26 Apr

Courtyard Musee Carnavelet Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerUncomfortable official uniforms and cheerless expressions do nothing to suggest to me that museum guards love their jobs. I can’t claim to know what their full job description looks like, but from what I see, standing in a room for hours making sure people don’t make off with or stick their mucky fingers on museum pieces must be mind numbing.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised then, when, the other day, a museum guard wanted to chat, but I was. When he first spoke to me, my instinct was to take a step away for the picture I was looking at, put my hands in the air, and look at him with an, ‘I’m not doing anything wrong’ expression.

He smiled and asked again, ‘Where do you come from?’ in heavily accented English. No one else was around and he wanted to talk.

He’d been to Scotland, didn’t see the Loch Ness monster and was a fan of Sean Connery. He didn’t much care for Scotch, preferring Cognac, but did like Braveheart. This established I moved to start looking at the exhibits again.

‘This time was a very violent time,’ he said gesturing around him.  We were on the top floor of the Musee Carnavalet, in the section devoted to the French Revolution.  ‘I hear teachers everyday tell their students that this was a marvelous time for France. But the truth is, this was a very violent time.’

Indeed, we were standing in front of a picture depicting an angry mob pulling an aristocrat from his home. The aristocrat’s wife and children, huddled together with pained faces, were to the right of the action. In the centre, two men held the aristocrat’s arms. A third member of the mob was raising an ax.  The aristocrat’s face was painted grey anticipating death.  It was pretty terrifying.

The museum guard gestured to a painting on the opposite wall, ‘This was important.’

The painting portrayed the contents of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  This document formed the basis of the first French constitution and was heavily influenced by the US Declaration of Independence.

‘Did you know that a Declaration of the Rights of Woman was written the same time this was written?’ the museum guard asked.

‘I’d like to see that,’ I said. ‘Do you have a copy here at the museum?’

‘No,’ he shook his head. ‘And you know what, I’ve never seen a copy of it.’

One woman not forgotten at the Musee Carnavalet is Madame de Sevigne (1626-96).  The magnificent, Renaissance -style Hotel, or mansion, which houses a large part of the Musee, was her home for the last 20 years of her life. I am currently reading a selection of her letters, which she is famous for, and could not help but try to imagine her, writing, in many of the rooms. 

The forward to the translation of her letters starts in the following way:

‘With the possible exception of Voltaire, Mme de Sevigne is the greatest letter-writer in French literature.’

However, translator Leonard Tancock (1982) then tries not to apologise for the content of her letters being domestic in nature and full of gossip. He then describes her as “… a writer of supremely articulate ‘averageness’….”  Surely, if we are still reading her letters 340 years after they were written, the woman was anything but average.

Sadly, the section of the museum devoted to Madame de Sevigne and the 17th century was closed the day I visited.  I will have to come back to this wonderful museum to see how she is commemorated and look elsewhere to see, hopefully someday, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman.

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.

Happy accident or trainwreck?

20 Apr

forbidden fruits - bread, cheese, wine

 

Ok, here we go – thoughts on my meanderings and people I meet in Paris.  I’ll probably talk a lot about food, too.

I am in Paris for at least the summer and am here, as the title suggests, by accident.  This isn’t an Eat Pray Love sort of journey.  I was really happy where I was.  However, when someone offers you 6 months in Paris (my husband took a job here and wanted a partner in crime), if you can, you take it.

Besides the disappointments in temporarily leaving my happy life back in Scotland, there are several other aspects to this adventure that make accidents more likely. 

First, there is my ambivalence towards Paris.  I’ve been, it’s a nice place, but there are so many other places to see.  When the trip was first mentioned Paris felt a bit ‘old world’, a bit like well-covered territory, almost cliché. Everybody either loves Paris or dislikes the French … or a mixture of both.  Rio, Mumbai, Shanghai – these are places you can write home about.  Paris – haven’t all of the stories been told/heard before?

My next hurdle is a communication problem. I don’t speak French.  I had a good old American school stab at learning Spanish and later, in situ, learning Japanese. Based on these experiences I can say with quite a bit of authority that I am not a linguist.

Finally, and possibly the most accident-inducing aspect of my time here is food related. Imagine telling a French person that you don’t eat bread, cheese, butter or drink wine.  I do eat meat and, by some chemical miracle, can drink champagne, but I am allergic to gluten, dairy products, fish/seafood and wine.  I don’t go into anaphylactic shock if any of these substances come my way, but I am pretty uncomfortable until they clear my system. Wish me luck and send toilet paper.

Anyway, will my time here be a happy accident or a trainwreck? Let’s see.