Thursday, June 30, 2005

Busy Day

We slept in this morning as we are all exhausted by the heat and just in general. The buffet breakfast at Hotel Cayré, is amazing though not especially french and we meet some New Yorkers and a woman who grew up in the town next to my mother. It’s a small world after all (not that I ever doubted that song)

Off to the Bateau Mouche in the humidity. I must say that there is a depressing aspect to doing any of the touristy things in Paris, like anywhere. The people, the lines, the souvenirs are just not my thing, but the view of Paris is lovely, and being on a boat of any kind, fun. I did manage to learn a bit too, and loved the Pont Neuf, with it’s history of not being the newest bridge as its name would suggest, but rather the oldest. It was called new at that time (XVI siecle??) and was the first bridge constructed that people did not live on, as previously the bridges had all had houses on them. The reason that they didn’t want houses on it was that it blocked the view to God (and perhaps to Notre Dame???) I don’t want to spread unhistory hear, so I’ll stop, but I loved all the sculpted masks on the side and the simplicity of the construction, and o.k. — the history.

Our idea of going directly to the Eiffel Tower is defeated because the lines are a mile long and the heat is intense. We decide to go back to the hotel (Daisy is waiting patiently for us in the room), grab lunch, see Paul off to the airport, and regroup. As we promene le chien, we come upon one of my favorite stationery stores, filosofi, at 68, rue de Grenelle. This sparse yet elegant boutique does for stationery what Paul Smith does for fashion. Fabulous conceptual things! I plan to order from them this September when I come back for the show. They’re a perfect fit for Basic French. We buy triangular paperclips, carpenter’s pencils with metric rulers and the phrase “which came first the chicken or the egg” in french, journals, pencils, a greeting card, an eraser and sharpener. Beautifully and painstakingly emballé, our purchases are just so chic.

Later that evening, we meet up with Lisa and Henry at Agnes B on rue du Jour to catch les soldes. I buy a fabulous little black cotton dress (big surprise), matching jacket with funky collar and a great t-shirt — all moins 50%. This little street, next to Les Halles, is my favorite. All the Agnes B stores are located here, homme, femme, enfant, bébé. Hallie locates the missing top to a bikini we bought on sale last summer in Lyon and Abbie, a pink cotton cardigan, like the ones I wear. Lovely. I’m all shopped out.

Next door is the beautiful gothic Cathedral St. Eustace and it’s vibrant Place. Isa and the boys arrive in the chaleur (c’est encore la canicule) and the girls are once again reunited with their summer friends. In the middle of Place St. Eustace, there’s a huge statue of a head on it’s side. The children run around and play what is now called “Au Chat,” but used to be called “Au Loup” — what we know as tag. I wonder why the name has changed for this generation? I guess there aren’t a lot of wolves around in France these days (not a lot of wild animals in general we notice, though I have some stories to tell...)

Chinese dinner in the 2eme arrondisement on Rue Montorgueil, a street known for it’s assortment of food purveyors, is not exceptional, but the kids eat and it’s too hot to be interested in food anyhow. This very vibrant neighborhood that Isa lives in is getting very chic and reminds me of the East Village. A lot of young funky professional families and great, spacious apartments hidden behind non-descript buildings. In the book, “Almost French,” which I just finished before coming here, the author, whose name now escapes me, an Australian married to a Frenchman, details life in this branché quartier. It’s worth reading about.

Up 4+ flights of stairs to their apartment and for dessert, Magnums, (or an equivalent) the girls’ favorite ice cream bars. The five children run around and tear up the house, so to speak, playing Star Wars. The girls are Padmé and Leia. It’s amazing how they can all just go with the flow and move past the language barrier.

Our attempt to find a taxi in this neighborhood is brief and we decide to take the metro which is fast and easy. I never take taxis when I am in Paris alone, but it has seemed easier than the subway with the kids, dogs, and oppressive heat. En plus, I still feel jet-lagged and I think the girls do to. Tomorrow we will brave the crowd at la tour Eiffel.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Gay Paris (Ode to Gran)

The girls are getting used to the drive to Lyon, so getting to la Part-Dieu was pas grand chose. Having to park however at the Centre Commercial because the Gare Parking was complet ended up being vachement embettant because not only did we have to walk through a huge mall, which is no different than an American mall except for the stores, but we also had to carry all our bags and Daisy in her crate. Traveling with a dog, even with a pocket puppy like Daisy (or Pocket as we sometimes call her) is an effort. But, we made it on time, got onto the wrong car of the TGV and had to run all the way down to the last car at the last minute (with a dog crate,) found our seats on the upper level of this gorgeous high-speed train and collapsed. One hour and 55 minutes of seamless travel and we arrived on time at the Gare de Lyon

Well, if you think that New York is a melting pot, you should see Paris. There are people of all color, shape and size. I am mesmerized by all the African woman in their beautiful, colorful, handmade robes and headdresses. I want to know their stories, imagining all these wild tales, like the ones that Margaret has to tell if you give her time. These women seem so powerful to me, the grand matriarchs.

Taxiing to my new favorite hotel, Hotel Cayré, is a breeze and I am welcomed, as always, as if I was there a month ago (has it really been 10 months?) I have been a loyal fan of the Hotel Lutetia since 9/11, where I was so well and sympathetically treated for 5 extra days when all international flights into New York were canceled. That experience was so etched in my brain that I felt disloyal changing hotels, and fickle even thinking about it, especially since I had become friends with Benoit, the young and dashing head of la Reception. He always found me a quiet room when they were full, always gave me the best rates. Yet, when the Euro gained so much strength against the dollar, even my budget room was costing a fortune, and Benoit again bailed me out and found me a room at Hotel Cayré.

Room 305 looks out onto Rue du Bac, a fabulous little shopping street in St-Germain-des-Pres. It is perfect (and mercifully cool since Paris is broiling at this moment) but for the fact that it’s on a smoking floor, which I sense immediately. There is only one triple out of 75 rooms on a nonsmoking floor and our dear friends Lisa, Paul and Henry, who we’ve come to meet, are in it.

The only 2 things that I want to do with the girls in Paris are go on the Bateau Mouche and go up La Tour Eiffel. I am the worst tourist in the world and generally avoid all things educational, historical. I hate crowds and traffic and lines and waiting in them. As the 6 of us wait for a taxi to take us on an evening cruise, it begins to rain. Thank God Paul Smith, my favorite British store, is one block down on Boulevard Raspail. Saved again, I can go window shopping and it’s Les Soldes. Paul Smith is such an amazing designer. Whenever I go to the show Maison et Objet in Pais, I inevitably get a bit brain washed by all the pretty french things and I always need to shake things up a bit, for visual inspiration. I can always count on P.S. to point me in a new direction. You see a lot of imitators these days, but very few true trendsetters. I buy a man’s hat in a funky floral pattern. I’m a hat person.

Next stop, Bonpoint, my favorite classic kid’s shop on Rue de la Université. Even 40% off, with the Euro at 1.22 against the dollar, everything is unaffordable. I buy Abbie 2 pairs of pink cotton ankle socks and a pink gauzy overcoat thing, which is just soooo Abbie. She looks amazing and feels like a princess. Hallie is just too tall for these clothes, even the size 12. Yikes.

Dinner at Cinq-Mars on 51 rue de Verneuil in the 7th (0145446913) is delicious. Paul and Lisa discovered this small branché neighborhood spot and we have a great meal despite the 100 degree atmosphere. I have a Cardinale pour l’aperitif and a yummy steak dinner. The kids are restless and make 10 trips to la toilette. We leave in a downpour with one small umbrella for 6. We laugh and run and splash through puddles arriving safely home, drenched to the bone. On a bien rigoler.

Loving Paris, as always. (Bonnie, blithe and gay)

Monday, June 27, 2005

One Frenchman’s Junk is Another American Girl’s Treasure

The sign for the fete d’ete at Aveize said “brocante” and while this word can mean a range of anything from junk to collectibles, to me it means potential treasure trove. In this case, all the local people from the town of Aveize had their personal stuff that they were fed up with out on tables. The range of stuff was huge. I must say, I am a master at these things. I can zip through and find the perfect things in record time. Let’s see...I bought 2 round rattan chairs from the seventies (12 E), the perfect painted white paper towel holder (3 E), 2 large willow laundry baskets (30 E), 3 marble egg cups (3 E), a beurrier (1 E), the perfect painted white bamboo style bathroom mirror (5E) and a few Barbies and Kens (bribery). All in all, a great haul.

So, I go to retrieve my car from far off and drive right up to the square where I must collect and pack up mes achats. These middle-aged men who are all waiting in line for le dejeuner a midi (which must be part of the festivities) all start harassing me, “Madame, you cannot park there, it’s forbidden. Watch out, watch it, you’re backing into something,” So naturally, not being a local girl, I am inquieté since the French are all about rules and regulations and doing things the right way – their way. I ask a nice seeming guy, former possessor of 3 marble egg cups, if indeed parking is interdit there. “No, their just teasing you.” And I think of what I would say to them if I was back home (not polite) and pretend I don’t hear their silly comments. These french men need a lot of attention, il me semble. Hmmmmmm

I’m sure I stand out like a sore thumb here in La France Profond – single mother, dressed in Agnes B black dress and brown flip-flops my mother recently bought me “down the shore” (with my best Rid accent). I clearly speak french, but everyone must immediately know that I am not a local girl. Perhaps they think I am from Paris until I open my mouth. I was once standing in line a la Poste with my friend Anne in Perigord, where I used to rent a house, dressed in practically the same black dress (but a size 8, sadly), and these 2 old widows kept staring at me with sympathy. It took me a while to understand. They had lost their husbands recently too, they wanted to reach out to me. I laughed then, but now I think it was so sweet and I wish I could tell them so and perhaps console them for their true loss.

Lunch at Z + J’s is always memorable. The Latvians are there and sing grace for us again, but in English this time. Isabelle, my dear friend, is back from Switzerland. It’s great to see her. She is my connection to this whole wonderful place. Pierre and his 3 daughters are there too, so as usual, lunch en famille, is a big event. Everyone pitches in.

Zizou is a great and simple cook. Her Poulet au Citron is legendary and I adore it. Here’s the recipe:

Take the equivalent of one whole chicken, season with salt, pepper and herbs (my preference, fleur de sel aux épices grillés and poivre de Penja from Basic French, cut in pieces and brown in olive oil in a large skillet on both sides. Brown really well, on high heat. Add 2 cups of piquant green olives (which can be hard to find, but I usually pick the ones with pimento or garlic at home,) 2-3 lemons cut in round, thin slices and one cup of water. Keep on medium high heat and cook covered for 45 minutes, turning chicken occasionally. Cook uncovered for the last 15 minutes so that the remaining liquids begin to thicken and everything begins to sizzle. You almost cannot overcook this — the chicken should be falling off the bone. Serve with brown rice, fresh salad with vinagrette and a bottle of St. Joseph.

The girls are still a bit shy, but the pool serves as an embassy, welcoming Americans and Latvians alike and by the end of the day, with sunburned shoulders and pink cheeks, all nations are one in an exuberant and splashy game of “avoid the shark”

We make our way home, bellies and car full. I wouldn’t change a thing about this day. I have discovered my own treasure.
Driving the Figure Eight

The girls and I have been playing a running game of Monopoly Europe (french version) which is actually quite a clever and sneakily educational game. You can learn about all the major cities and countries of Europe, about the Euro and a bit of french too. I think this would be a good Basic French product (and I hope Monsieur Milton Bradley will support me in this effort and allow me to buy just a few, not 5 million like Toys R Us)

I call Monsieur Bernard, Zizou’s tile merchant, to find out the Saturday horaires. 8 heure jusqu’a midi. So, I rush Daisy into her crate (as she has been known to disappear periodically and promenade down to Madame Gregoire’s for some french Friskies,) give the girls a Dramamine and promise to do anything they want for the rest of the day if we can just go look at tiles NOW. It’s 10:47 AM and Tassin-la Demi-Lune is a good 40 minutes from here so with my abstract calculation, that will give us about a half an hour to find the perfect floor tile at half the price of La Carotheque.

We are about 10 minutes from the nearest small town (population 2,500) and the roads are one lane and very curvy. We head in the direction of Lyon, northeast, and it’s going to be tight, but I think 20 minutes is enough time to find the perfect tile. St. Martin, Brindas, Craponne, rond point, rond point, rond point and now I have the girls helping me look for street signs and numbers. Well, Tassin-la-Demi-Lune seems like a really big town when you drive around in a figure eight for a demi-heure. We stop for directions twice — I am not proud — we enter and leave the town of Francheville at least 10 times from every possible direction and finally, charming french antique dealer of Craponne points us in the right direction. We arrive at Monsier Bernard’s at midi et demi, just in time to imagine how perfect that perfect tile is, behind locked doors.

The girls are so patient. I’m a handful of a mother I sometimes think, but they are stuck with me. Our ride home listening to FranceInter (french public radio) is peaceful, Hallie and Abbie having passed out from the Dramamine (drama?). I make a fabulous salad of fresh buttery lettuce from Monsieur Jacoud (my favorite next door neighbor, who brings me his garden overflow each morning,) lardon, oeufs dur and chevre chaud. The girls are recharged.

Later that afternoon, a big orage blows in and we watch as the sky grows dark and the lightening strikes the mountains in the distance. We have our storm rituals, having once fried our new DVD player. Everything unplugged, we run out to the clothesline and yank off the almost dry towels. We are ready and it’s exciting. I tell the girls that we could not be safer than in a 200 year old stone house. It feels safe. The storm passes quickly and it is only later at dinner at Monbret that Zizou and Joseph tell us they were badly hit. We joke that we blew the storm their way.

Z and J have six Latvian visitors today and we are invited for dinner, to speak a bit of English and smooth things over. I feel like family. The guests are observant Lutherans, which I find interesting and I am the one who makes all the inquiries at dinner. The French are way too polite or non-confrontational for this. I am just fascinated by religion and how people integrate it in their lives. Martin, a young architect that works with Zizou in Riga, his wife, daughter and two young friends who have all met in theology school, sing their prayers before dinner. Evidently, the Latvians (population 2.5 million) are known for their singing. I barely even know where Latvia is, so I feel like I have learned alot this evening. Must consult a map of the Baltic states one of these days. (Dad, can you help with this?)

At midnight, we drag ourselves home. The girls have begun their reconnecting process with all of the children. At first, it is awkward with the language barrier. Everyone is afraid to talk, so I am translator. I assure them that it just takes time and that like me, discovering Monsieur Bernard’s tile store in Tassin-la-Demi-Lune, they will find their way, and the door will open wide.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A Tile is Not a Tile

I have always been very particular about design and style. I remember being about 10 years old, the same age as Halliday is now, dragging my poor mother and sister all over the “Main Line” (where we did not live, on purpose) in search of the perfect pair of shoes for La Rentrée. I didn’t know what they looked like, but I knew they would find me, if I was focused. And they did (at BAltmans) the perfect buff, new buck laceups — twice the price of any other pair. I loved these shoes soooooooooo much that I wanted to sleep in them, which is what I did in those days.

Well, here I am, a few, just a few pairs of shoes later, having to pick tiles for the kitchen here in Balmont. My mission, to find faience (accent lazy again, sorry) for the back splash, les carrelages pour le sol (floor tiles) and le plinthe (the kick plate, would we call it?) I have in mind something very basic French, like one would find in une maison bourgeoise de XVIII siecle. I’m thinking simple white faience squares or maybe metro tiles for the black splash, and hexagonal stone or cement tiles for the floor. I have pictures in my head. I know I have seen the perfect thing a hundred times in Coté Sud or Maison Francaise.

So, we pop in the Peugeot 407, a car I lease thru AutoEurope in Portland, Maine, and head to Lyon. I am never exactly sure how to get to Lyon, but again I have images in my head and fancy myself to have a good, yet abstract sense of direction. And, like Kingston, NY, all roads eventually lead to the same place. I pick the scenic route, via St. Martin en Haut. Well, my mistake. Did I mention that this area, les monts du lyonnais, is a small mountain range, an area that I would politely describe as valloné (hills and valleys)? By the time we get half way there, the girls have green faces and I am so cranky, imagining a full day of this. It is broiling here, even at 10 in the morning and by the time we get to the parking garage in the centre ville, we are truly miserable.

I bribe les filles with the promise of a carousel ride at Place de la Republique and a Magnum (like a Haagen Daz bar.) That usually works. Anyway, the good news is we all feel better once out in the sweltering urban air. We do a little shopping for my friend’s brother’s new baby daughter, who is supposed to arrive today of all days, at Printemps, and for me, at one of my favorite home decoration stores, Habitat, formerly owned by Terence Conran. The girls pick out a Petit Bateau t-shirt and a Moulin Roty doudou toy (which I would like to snuggle with) for bébé Anis and a round white linen tablecloth on sale moins 50% for moi. Good buy!

Les Soldes, the biannual sale, which lasts 6 weeks, is not supposed to begin until the 29th, and that’s the law (though I recently read in the WSJ something about that law being overturned — such bad news for French retailers,) so I am surprised about my -50%. Mais bon.

La Carotheque, the tile store recommended by Eric, is a bit of a disappointment. First of all, the two salespeople barely give me the time of day when I walk in, and second of all, they are smoking in a tiny enclosed space. Yuck. I hate that about France. That and the dog poop all over the sidewalk. Is that a Cartesian rule thing? They are toooooo busy to wait on me and I have to make an appointment for 1 1/2 hours later. Bon. We go to la FNAC and buy 6 amazing CDs, a french version of the SIMS (bribery again) and have un boisson at the café, always a favorite.

So, the tile dilemma . I look around and find that the tiles in my head, the tiles that are going to find me, are of course, the most expensive tiles available. Not really, but I have to abandon the idea of hexagonal stone floor tiles completely (six weeks, custom order) and even my first choice of square stone carrelages in dark grey. It seems that dark grey must be very popular, as these are twice the price per m2 as the nearest medium grey. The salesguy treats me as if I’m annoying him and he has far better things to do, (like check messages on his personal cell phone peut-etre) and I leave thinking perhaps I’ll get another recommendation from Zizou for a tile store. This is not an atypical french shopping experience. The good news — I now know what is available and have not only an image, but a square meter price in my head. With a little imagination, I will find my perfect shoe. Demain.

A swim at Montbret for the girls and cherry picking from this awesome old tree. I keep wondering to myself why we don’t live like this in the states. Why are we so out of touch with our environment? (And a voice in my head says...Lyme Tick Disease) Can one of the big pharmaceutical companies come up with a successful vaccine, s’il vous plait? Merci!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

We made it! Yeah!

The four of us — me, Hallie, Abbie and Daisy (our adorable and portable Bichon Frisee) left upstate New York on Monday, destined for 18 hours of door-to-door travel. We had a not-so-special free (beautiful!) frequent flyer trip on KLM. I was not impressed at all by the service, the plane, the food or anything for that matter, but then again, I am a loyal Air France traveler. Anyway, I don’t really want to recount our boring trip, but suffice it to say, we’re glad to be here and to recover for a while before coming home.

I probably should have titled this entry, “Ode to Chris” as it is thanks to his suggestion, that I am writing this. So, here is where I begin my Blog de Balmont — the story of what I am when I leave my complicated life in the Hudson Valley and refind my little French life. I go away for a reason — to change my reality a bit, and this almost-summer, I really have alot to put behind me. I won’t go into details, but the last few weeks have been a bit taxing and because I am anything but basic, my life in the states has somewhat worn me out.

I am going to assume that anybody who is willing to read this will put up with my french/english confusion. At this point, I am more in my English head than my French one, but as the weeks go by, this will surely change. So, break out your french dictionary.

Day One: I unpacked (yawn), took a nap (big yawn) and met with Eric, the amazing carpenter/plombier, electrician, homme qui peut tout faire, about things in the house here. There are leaks, and broken terracotta roof tiles, missing septics, and a list of little things that need to be addressed this summer, not to mention the kitchen which is in a state of disarray/renovation, though improved.

Eric had a Ricard avec beaucoup d’eau and we went over all the intimidating things that I have to deal with this summer. No, no, it’ll be fine. I am just a bit tired and not yet up for projects, having just left my kitchen in the states under construction. Bye to the 30 year old brown GE double oven that hasn’t really worked for two years, hello new cooking possilbilities. No more toaster oven for me. I’m a real Betty Crocker now.

Ok, back to France. So, it is so bloody hot here I can barely stand it. Eric departs dans la chaleur du soir, with a cigarette en bouche, on his 30 year old moto (is everything 30 years old, but me?) A true guy. My next project is to pick out kitchen tiles tomorrow in Lyon, centre ville.

We are invited to Zizou et Joseph’s for dinner. They have an awesome piscine and the girls have been dieing to take the plunge. They swam with great abandon in the middle of the most beautiful countryside that I have ever seen. This area is incredible. So not fancy, but so profoundly beautiful and so safe-seeming to me. A big plus. I have traveled a bit in France and I must say, les monts du lyonnais is really “all that.”

A bientot (can’t figure out how to do that hat accent, so I am going to be accent lazy, ok?)