Notes from Paris 2 Wednesday, Mar 19 2014 

Today’s post is a follow-on to the previous “Notes from Paris” describing current events and activities all over the city. You’ll have to agree, there’s always something happening in Paris!

TRANSPORT NOTE: Even in Paris, good things can have a down side. The sunny, warm and windless weather that recently brought everyone out of doors and into the parks, sidewalks and cafés has also delivered high pollution levels in Paris and northern France. The City has taken drastic measures over the past several days to help decrease particulate matter in the air. Wood-burning fires have been banned, covoiturage (ride-sharing) has been encouraged, car speeds have been reduced by 20 km per hour (about 12 mph), and public transport including the Métro and buses has been free for many days running. To top it off, government officials declared a partial driving ban this past Monday – only cars with odd-numbered license plates were permitted on the roads (electric and hybrid cars and vehicles containing three or more people were exempted). As you might imagine, all this has caused both hurrahs and headaches. Thankfully the wind has picked up and the pollution has abated – but everyone has to pay for public transport again.

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I love the Paris buses that run under the south wing of the Louvre Museum.

BIKE NOTE: On the subject of transportation, bikes are gaining ground as the vehicle of choice in Paris. Loads of my Parisian friends use their bikes to get around the city. And Paris is creating more and more bike lanes – taking parts of regular roads to do so – much to the chagrin of taxi drivers and regular drivers. However, in case bike riders think traffic rules don’t apply to them, there are regulations, marked lanes and even dedicated stoplights to remind riders to stay in line. Bonne route (happy riding)! 

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EVENT NOTE: You’ve gotta love this cool event that popped up in Paris week before last…hopscotch, or la marelle in French, for everyone. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Argentine writer Julio Cortazar who wrote a novel set in Paris called “La Marelle,” Argentine performance artist Marta Minujin created a Paris hopscotch zone in the Place du Palais Royal. The hopscotch fest lasted three days and drew the participation of kids and adults alike. 

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FOOD NOTE: Just recently, our antiques trip group was treated to a private tour of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and got to see up close some of the most beautiful French furniture and objets d’art from the 17th and 18th centuries. Following our visit to the “Arts Déco,” we went to the nearby Le Soufflé for lunch. (Click here for a previous post on this classic Paris restaurant.) For dessert, I decided to branch out from the decadent soufflé au chocolat and try the soufflé aux fruits rouges – red berry soufflé. It was divine, tasting like the most sweet and fragrant raspberry you can imagine. But I was more struck by how the big pink soufflé looked like a giant cupcake!

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MUSIC NOTE: There are always fabulous classical music concerts happening in Paris. If you’ve never taken in a musical performance at the Salle Pleyel or the Palais Garnier or one of Paris’s many churches, I would highly recommend putting this on your Paris to-do list. To find a performance, you can look up the venues online ahead of time or when you are there, look for the posters publicizing these great offerings. Tomorrow night and Tuesday night at the stained-glass heaven of La Sainte Chapelle for example, the Orchestre des soloistes français is performing works of Bach, Albinoni and Mozart.

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BOOK NOTE: Walking down the Left Bank’s Rue Jacob the other day, I was stopped in my tracks by all the women pausing in front of a window display. Intrigued, I went closer to see what they were looking at. It turns out the new Dictionnaire universel des créatrices was just published in France, and the Espace des femmes at 33-35 rue Jacob was sponsoring a photo exhibition to celebrate the event.

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Upon entering the gallery, I found out this new comprehensive dictionary of creative women – “creative” in every sense – includes more than 10,000 articles on well-known and lesser-known women and their contributions over the centuries. French feminist Antoinette Fouque was one of the driving forces behind the work. According to a recent interview in Le Figaro, she noted that while women make up half the population on the planet, only 5 to 10% of entries in dictionaries of proper names included women. So the idea for “Universal Dictionary of Creative Women” was born.

I spoke with a nice young woman there at the Espace des femmes. She mentioned that for printing reasons, the dictionary does not contain photographs of the women listed. So the gallery was exhibiting photos of many of them along with illustrations by French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, some of which do appear in the publication. The woman also mentioned that an English translation of the dictionary is in the works and should come out later this year. Click here for more information on the Espace des femmes and this great contribution to the world of dictionaries.

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Notes from Paris – March, 2014 Tuesday, Mar 4 2014 

What a difference a year makes. Just after I arrived in Paris last March for the annual French Affaires’ antiques trip, the French capital was blanketed with a thick layer of snow. Verrrry chilly temperatures accompanied us for days as we zipped around to the various Paris antiques fairs and flea markets. This year, the wintry weather is back in the U.S., and Paris is set to be sunny and almost balmy this week. To capture the ambiance of Paris at the moment, today’s post includes notes and impressions from the past few days here. Enjoy!

FASHION NOTE: It’s fashion week in Paris and Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel has just made headlines with his “Chanel Supermarket” at le Grand Palais. Under the sparkling glass dome, Lagerfeld accomplished another fashion first as he showed off his fall-winter collection on models roaming grocery store aisles lined with Chanel ‘food products’ and other goodies.  What a spectacle! Click here for a photo series of Chanel’s new supermarket chic.

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FOOD NOTE: Speaking of supermarkets and chic, my favorite neighborhood cheese shop was closed Monday so I went to La Grande Epicerie, the gourmet food halls of the Le Bon Marché department store for some good fromage (cheese). After extensive renovations, La Grande Epicerie is more gourmet than ever. They have a fantastic selection of everything food related from France and around the world and it’s all gorgeously presented. However, the store is now so beautiful and mod that it almost feels like a museum. I half expect to see signs – Merci de ne pas toucher (don’t touch). And the prices are not for the faint of heart. Still, the quality is outstanding so I knew I’d get some great cheese.

As I waited in line at the cheese counter, an older French gentleman was putting in his order for camembert. So typically French, he began a long discours (speech) about how exactly he liked this Normandy cheeseun demi camembert au lait cru…crémeux mais pas trop fort…et pas de blanc (half of a raw milk camembert, creamy but not too ripe, and no white chalky layer in the middle). The saleswoman opened several of the round boxes to find the right one for monsieur and finally wrapped up one to his liking. Fortunately for me, this is exactly how I prefer my camembert so I then stepped up to buy the other half. Perfect!

Had I had a little more time, I would have taken the escalator down to the snazzy wine department on La Grande Epicerie’s lower level. They are always having great tastings of wines and champagnes. I have a good American friend and long-time resident of Paris who heads to La Grande Epicerie for her Vidalia onions – the only place in Paris that sells them – and also for a nice free glass of champagne at the same time. Only in France.

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RESTAURANT NOTE: La Grande Epicerie recently opened a gourmet restaurant called “La Table” on the second floor of the store.

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Sleek escalators whisk you up to the glass atrium accented by four full-size trees. This indoor-outdoor space features numerous tables and a bar where lunch and afternoon tea are served. I met a French friend for a mid-day bite this week and the place was packed.

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We both chose the suggestion du chef (featured dish of the day) which was a delicious beef parmentier – a French specialty of slow cooked beef in a lovely sauce layered with mashed potatoes…and this version was flavored with truffle and served with dressed greens on top. A great choice.

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WINE NOTE: I decided to stop in my neighborhood wine shop for a nice red to go with the camembert, incidentally one of the most difficult cheeses to pair with wine. Still, a full-bodied red sounded good so the monsieur gave me some ideas. As he was wrapping up my purchase, I asked about his training in French wines and vineyards. As I expected and hoped he would do, he launched into his own discours in French about how to appreciate and taste wines. He repeated it was crucial to taste wines “avec humilité.” He said to forget about the pretensions of whether this year or that year meant a great wine. Just taste it and let the wine speak for itself, he insisted. Excellent advice.

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TV NOTE: There’s good news and bad news about French television. On the plus side, I caught a program the other day where a French family decided to bypass their local charcuterie (deli) and make their own pâté, rillettes et saucisson (pâté, pork spread and sausage). It was fascinating to watch the process and see how a father and daughter mastered what has almost become a lost art. On the down side, current commercials on French TV include Old El Paso and Advil brand products. Seriously? And there was a French version of “The Bachelor” on the air. Were it not in the French language, you would have thought you were in America. Thankfully, one can turn the TV completely off, walk outside and enjoy real French life.

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PARIS TRANSPORT NOTE: The Paris Métro and Bus system makes getting around the city pretty easy. I hopped on the 63 bus the other night to meet a friend for dinner in the 5th arrondissement. To my dismay, my bus/métro ticket – they can be used for both – had become démagnétisé. In other words, the magnetic strip on the back allowing it to be validated in the bus ticket machine was no longer working. This phenomenon happens when you put the tickets in close proximity to a cell phone or some other magnetic field. In any case, I needed to make a bus transfer to another line to reach my destination and therefore required a validated ticket to continue. I explained the situation to the bus driver who kindly took the time to mark my ticket with the bus number, date and time. I then was able to change to the 47 bus with no issues at all. The French can be very sympathique (nice)!