ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort

(#6)

 Paris?

I've been a permanent resident of the City of Light for years, 34 years to be exact, but the seduction of the world's most beautiful city continues to operate. Whether strolling past the Eiffel Tower, sipping an espresso in a café, or ambling by the Seine, the charm never dulls, the glow never dims.

To live in Paris is to live with the constant jolt of beauty. Writer Joe Murray opined that "Paris should be declared as an international shrine...The people of Paris should work at no other job than simply that of being Parisians."That's a job I'm definitely happy to work at.

The Paris Diary, a selection of some of my monthly Letters From Paris on The Paris Pages, brings you one writer's musings on life in France.

And now en avant !

November 2004 - Eating in the dark in Paris (Letter from Paris )

One of the many things I love about Paris is that along with all the traditional monuments and places to go (Napoleon's Tomb, the Louvre, the Catacombs) there are always new things to do and discover.

Take a recent dinner we had at a newly opened restaurant in Les Halles called Dans Le Noir. It had to be one of the most unusual and certainly memorable experiences I've had in Paris for a long time.

I'd read about this restaurant in a couple of papers and decided to reserve for my birthday. We could have celebrated in a three-star but I was up for something out of the ordinary.

And did we get it!

Before entering the restaurant which is on the rue Quincampoix in Les Halles, we circled the block and checked out the facade. The building is painted white but the windows, instead of highlighting happy chattering diners inside, were entirely blacked out, an omen of what was to come.

Fortunately, inside the foyer, the lights were bright, drinks were flowing, and we did indeed find our soon to be chattering fellow diners. We ordered our drinks and descended to the downstairs lounge where a group of people, presumably the staff, were eating. Nothing unusual in that, except that when one of them got up to leave the table, she stumbled slightly before getting her bearings and continuing on her way. She, like the rest of the wait staff, was totally blind.

Per instructions, after our drink, we made our way back upstairs and were surprised to see how many people had arrived. We put our coats and personal affairs, including glasses (we wouldn't be needing them) in lockers on the right side of the room, placed our order (we started with terrine, thinking it would be the easiest to eat in the dark and besides, if we couldn't manage it with a knife and fork we could always just tear off pieces and stuff it into our mouths), and waited to be called.

"Harriet?" the waiter asked. He instructed us to line up Indian file with the other guests at our table. Celine, our blind waitress, appeared from behind a black curtain to reassure us and to tell us she would be taking care of us for the evening. All we had to do was follow her and hang on to each other.

I put my hand on my husband's shoulders and a rather nervous looking young fellow who had come with his beautiful if somewhat reserved girlfriend put his hands on my shoulders and thus attached to each other, we filed into a room which was not just dark, but pitch black. We are used to being in the dark with little lights on, light filtering through the shutters or the hour of the radio. In this room, there was absolutely no light at all. (One good thing about it was that no one could smoke!)

It's very strange to be dependent on someone else but we had to be to get to our table and be seated. Once Celine had escorted me safely to my chair, I felt the knife and fork, touched the water and wine glasses, and just to make sure he was in front of me, reached across the table to locate my husband's face. Satisified it was HIS face, I started to relax, although I kept waiting for someone to turn the lights on - and it wasn't going to happen.

Rapidly, the sound level increased measurably. It was as if, having lost our vision, we were all compensating by talking loudly. So loudly that several times during the evening there would be a loud "Shhh". We never knew if it came from a table of guests or if it was the staff.

We hadn't come to this restaurant for the eating experience, figuring that food would probably be a secondary concern. We were wrong: the terrine, followed by a perfectly cooked sea bream with a Basque piperade (a sweet tasting vegetable assembly of bell peppers and tomatoes, onion and garlic), and the fondant au chocolat were delicious.

My husband admitted he had eaten the terrine with his hands. I proudly stated that I had eaten my entire meal with knife and fork. However, when my napkin slipped off my lap, I let it be and didn't search for it. Which was too bad because I had slightly missed my mouth with the chocolate dessert. Too bad. I decided to leave my chocolate cheeks and not worry about it. I mean, who was going to see me?

I noticed that one's priorities are important: my husband managed to pour the wine admirably, following Celine's advice that we put our fingers in the glass to ascertain the level.

During the meal, we conversed mainly with a gay couple on our left (near the wall, apparently). On our right was a young couple who seemed to be immersed in their own conversation. Strangely enough, at one point, I didn't hear them any longer, not that I'd heard all that much from them before, and became convinced they were no longer there. But how to know? I decided I'd pat the back of the chair and if I ran into a shoulder or back, would apologize. I didn't need to. The chair was totally empty and my hunch had been right. How they left I'll never know for it is impossible to leave without the help of staff. Talk about discreet!

One bottle of wine and much conversation later, we were told that the dinner was over and we would be led back to the light. We emerged, squinting. My husband told the gay couple he had mixed them up. Having caught a glimpse of them before entering the dark, he thought the whole evening long he was talking to the bald Chinese guy when in fact it was the French guy with a nice head of hair. Speaking of hair, the French guy told me he thought my reddish-toned hair was much darker. "Is that your natural color?" he asked. (I told him I couldn't even remember what its natural color was!) And, after casting a look at my distinguished looking husband who is surely the age of his own father, he apologized to him for some rather risqué comments he said he never would have made in the light!

We all agreed that we had just undergone one of the most incredibly unusual experiences of our lives. Have you ever closed your eyes for a minute or two and tried to imagine what it is to be blind? Imagine doing this for a full two hours. There's no way it won't awaken you to what it is like to be in the dark forever, with no lights ever turning on. And it leaves you astounded at how blind people maneuver - how, we wondered, did the blind staff manage to go back and forth to the kitchen and never drop a plate?

The "Dans Le Noir" restaurant also has happy hours, a philosophical café (imagine talking philosophy in the dark), and drinks from 11:30 pm to 2. Judging from its popularity, Dans Le Noir is here to stay.

Restaurant Dans-le-Noir, 51 rue Quincampoix, 01 42 77 98 04

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November is a busy month, first with my birthday (I share November and the same sign of the horoscope with Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton for what that's worth...), then with our wedding anniversary, and Thanksgiving to top it all off at the end. We celebrated our wedding anniversary with a romantic pilgrimage to the place we first met in Paris - Le Sélect on the Boulevard Montparnasse. There were, to be sure, a few differences - one being that we were 33 years younger, and the other being that we met in the summer and so had sat on the open terrace instead of inside as we had to do in the cold, damp month of November. But everything else was just the same at this landmark café, which opened in 1923 and was the gathering place for Picasso, Cocteau, Max Jacob, Foujita, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, to name but a few of the illustrious people who passed its doors. Oh yes, and us, of course!

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As for Thanksgiving, it's my favorite American holiday and I've never missed a celebration of it in France. Some years I've even had as many as three Thanksgiving dinners in a one-week period! This year is one of those "what are we going to do?" times where the chances of ending up in an American restaurant in Paris - or eating an "escalope de dinde" in the kitchen - are growing greater by the minute. But I can tell you one thing that's changed since I first came here some 30 years ago: you now see signs in front of butcher shops - in English - saying "We Have Thanksgiving Turkeys". And they say the French are anti-American?!

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November was also the month of one of my wine and cheese tastings. I started these a few months ago as a way of promoting my books and sharing my love for French cheese and they've turned out to be successful beyond my dreams. Why? People love wine and cheese - and they're right! The November gathering was a special VIP event - special because not only was there wine and cheese but there was champagne and pear alcohol and the presence of my French husband who charmed the visitors with tales such as just how the family pear alcohol is made (a glimpse into French life the casual visitor would never have). We started with Camembert, of course, mainly to illustrate the difference between the pasteurized Camembert we get in the States and the raw milk Camembert you get in France. Believe me, there's a difference! We served Bleu d'Auvergne, Maroilles, Soumaintrain, Livarot, Comté, plus a variety of other cheeses and tasted five different wines with them. We had a great time chatting throughout the tasting and the soupe Parmentier, my special endive salad, and the mousse au chocolate that followed. As one of our guests said when she left: "You should call this a "salon du fromage". A salon where people visiting Paris or living here as expats get to see, smell, taste and learn about an astonishing variety of cheeses (France has more than 360), many of which are completely new to them. Check out www.hwelty.com for announcements of further tastings, both regular and VIP, in 2005. Perhaps I'll get to meet a few Paris Pages readers in person! A bientôt!

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October 2004 - Vacation ! (Letter from Paris )

Vacation! I don't want to make my non-French readers jealous or anything but you've got to hand it to the French: With 6 to 8 weeks of paid vacation a year, they're way out there in terms of working to live rather than living to work.

No self-respecting French person would even relate to the latter.

Mais non!

Life is to be lived. Work is what you do to make money to live better.

Of course there are always a few French people who don't totally subscribe to this theory.

And as fate would have it, I just happened to marry one of them.

My particular Frenchman jumps out of bed at 7 a.m. and never leaves the house later than 7:30 so he can be first at the office to start his day. He almost never gets home before 8 p.m. (It used to be 9 pm. Things have improved.)

And that's not all: He rarely takes one of those famous three-hour French business lunches and when he does, he gets right down to business between the poire et le fromage.

For my husband and others like him, and there are more than one might think, the mandatory imposition of the 35 hour work week is a farce and a fallacy - fine for clerical workers or others whose jobs fit neatly into the category but impossible for doctors, lawyers, businessmen, entrepreneurs (yes, the French have entrepreneurs in spite of George Bush's famous line "the French don't even have a word for entrepreneur").

To my mate's credit, when he doesn't work, he doesn't think about work. And since he's French and a French history buff, going on a trip in France with him is like being hooked up to an encyclopaedia, a living, walking, breathing, and funny encylopaedia.

Now that our sons are grown and on their own, we generally take our vacations in June or September, far from the madding crowds. This year it was September, a trip to the Haut Var region of Provence where we spent ten days in a bed and breakfast on top of a mountain in a little medieval village.

Nothing to do but take long walks, read books, stroll around the hamlet of 20 souls, occasionally get in the car and drive to a nearby town. Another activity was watching the guesthouse owner's dog, Mona, bark at the cats when they would get up on the roof. When I remarked that Mona seemed most conscientious, she explained that Mona had been trained as a guide dog to the blind and then abandoned. Retaining her powerful sense of duty, Mona watched over the owner's son when he was at the tree-climbing age and now that he's no longer around, she has switched her attention to the cats. Between such laborious activities as watching Mona and or catching magnificent sunrises or sunsets and ending the day with a convivial repast with other guests, time passed only too quickly.

Getting there didn't, though. We decided to take the slow road to our destination. Instead of whipping down the "autoroute" in a frenzy, we got off of it and meandered south from Paris through the beautiful Beaujolais region near Lyons. This area is sometimes called "the Tuscany of France" because of its gently rolling hills and the warm yellow stone of its houses. When my husband was a student in Lyons, he and his friends would often spend week-ends in the Beaujolais drinking...Beaujolais, of course.

In fact, the Beaujolais most of us know is the "Beaujolais nouveau" that comes out with great fanfare every year in November. There's better than that, though, as we know from dipping into a wonderful Julienas with our tasty meal at Au Coq Julienas in the town of the same name. For 22.50 euros, thirty-five year old chef Luc Dervieux served up a delicious "jambon persillé à la bourgignonne, crème légère et moutarde à l'ancienne" for me and a "terrine de pintade aux lentilles confites au vin rouge, salade frisée", for my husband, followed by "petite friture" for me and a "pavé de thon roti au sesame and fondu de courgettes au soja" for my husband. We followed this up with "fromage blanc à la crème", my husband's favorite dessert, and a "charlotte aux mirabelles et son coulis", for me.

The Beaujolais is a tiny little territory of small roads winding through the wineyards that cover the hills starting from the roadsides. The wines, which bear the poetic names of St. Amour, Julienas, Morgon, Chiroubles, Chenas, Brouilly, Cotes de Brouilly, Regnie, Fleurie and Moulin à Vent are named after the charming villages that dot the hills.

And those hills are steep! In spite or because of this, many tourists go on bike trips through the Beaujolais. A few years ago I met a woman who was tucking into a huge five-course meal in the same restaurant I was in. She told me that she had been cycling all day long and was famished. "How do you put away all that food and get back up on the bike the next day?" I asked. "We have porters," she replied, "so they carry our bags to the next stop and all we have to do is get there." Still....as the French say, "il faut le faire" (it ain't easy!).

My husband and I didn't worry about taking a bike the next day as we gaily plowed through our Julienas. And did we ever sleep well in our hotel in the middle of the vineyards! As we left the Beaujolais, the morning mist gave a ghostlike aspect to the huge amber-toned properties in the vineyards and then the sun came out, revealing the empty roads which in the next two days would be clogged with the cars and trucks of the wine harvesters. With a twinge of regret, we left this magic kingdom of red-tiled roofs and vineyards marching up the hills with and hollyhocks, geraniums, and roses at every bend.

On we drove towards Bourg-en-Bresse (known for the poulet de Bresse),through a flat land called the Dombes (which means ponds) punctuated with high corn and sunflowers. then Chambéry, where Rousseau spent a big chunk of time with his mistress Madame de Warens, and Grenoble, known for high tech and the great French writer Stendhal.

We skirted Grenoble and headed toward the Vercors, a spectacularly beautiful mountainous plateau known for two things, one pleasant, one tragic. The first is that it is a popular downhill and crosscountry skiing area. The second is that during World War II it was the site of one of the most horrendous massacres perpetrated by the Nazis. The Resistants thought that they were protected by the mountains and the tortured terrain. What they didn't reckon on was that the Nazis would literally drop in from the sky in parachutes, fan out, and kill both the Resistants and innocent civilians. The Resistance Museum in Vassieux graphically tells the entire gruesome story, not, as its founder notes, in a spirit of revenge but so that history will not repeat itself.

By the time we arrived at our bed and breakfast in Provence, we were ready for a rest. We knew that many boutiques and restaurants had closed down in September but we weren't prepared for the fact that when you went to get a newspaper or an apple, the shop would be closed for no apparent reason without even a sign telling you when it would re-open.

My French husband was appalled. "No one in this country works!" he exclaimed.

By "country", he meant the south of France as opposed to the North. "At least north of the Loire they put a sign on the door telling you when they'll be back!"

We were indeed out of luck almost everywhere we went. Getting a newspaper became the major event of the day. Would we find one? Or would our hopes be dashed? It was as if an evil hand had spread a poisonous gas over the land. (Or were those just the reflections of two Parisians used to kiosks at every corner?)

Finally, in a village so tiny you'd pass it if your mind wandered a minute, we triumphantly spied a gas station cum postcard/newspaper/bar that was open.

We were practically on our knees with gratitude. As we paid for our purchases, my husband commented that he was happy to have found this spot because no other stores were open.

"I need to work," the lady behind the counter said, matter-of-factly.

Which means that there's a lot of people down there who don't. Well, Peter Mayle already wrote the book on that. I wish I had!

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Ever heard of Jane Birkin? The British-born daughter of Major David Birkin, a hero in WWII, and actress-singer Judy Campell whom photographer Cecil Beaton called "the most beautiful woman in England, Jane is best-known in France for her frisky relationship with France's famous composer Serge Gainsbourg who wrote many songs for her. Since his death in ---, Jane has come into her own, both as a singer and actress and a champion of humanitarian causes.

At a recent press conference at the Alcazar bar in the Latin Quarter, Jane spoke about her upcoming tour to the U.S., Canada and Mexico to promote her latest album "Arabesque". Describing it, she commented that she's "an English person singing French songs with an Arab orchestra".

But gigs in New York and L.A. are only one part of Jane's work which also takes her on humanitarian missions to prisons in the suburbs of Paris and Marseille, to Tel Aviv, Gaza, and Ramallah, to Sarajevo and Rwanda, and soon, she hopes, to Haiti.

Although Jane just received knighthood in Paris, she said she doesn't aspire to the highest honor, the Legion d'Honneur, "because in the War my father was a spy, a navigator who did dropoffs and pickups, running 45 missions at night." For Jane, "my father was a hero and only heroes get the Legion d'Honneur." But, she added: "My father said the real heroes were the Bretons who were extremely brave and silent and never refused giving shelter to English aviators in spite of the danger."

It was strange to sit in the Alcazar chatting with Jane, now a grandmother, an intelligent, serious and funny person, belying the fluffy little girl image she projected when young and with Gainsbourg. She looks back on those days with fondness - all night long hopping from one Paris bar to another, ending up for breakfast with their children, and then going to bed at dawn.

A typical line from Jane, who loves New York and vows she'd live there if she didn't live in Paris: "I thought there was a lot of prostitution in New York before I realized that all those women out there on the sidewalks were smoking!"

Two last questions before we left: Has the French song had its heyday? "Not at all!" says Jane. "There's a new generation of singers coming along and they are fantastic."

And last but not least: "What's it like to have a Hermes bag named after you?" Jane laughed: "I made the Hermes basket popular but my stuff kept falling out of the one I had. Once, as I was boarding the Concorde, a gentleman watching me said, 'What a mess!'. I replied that I loved the bag but it needed pockets. The man said, 'I'll do it." It turned out that my interlocutor was Jean-Louis Dumas, the Chairman of Hermes! He made good on his promise and the purse is indeed named after me."

"When I sang in New York City, people said: "Jane Birkin?" "Like the bag?"
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Up for an elegant non-traditional lunch? Try Spoon, Alain Ducasse's fusion food restaurant right off the Champs-Elysées on the rue Marignan.

Although I had memories of a wonderful wine tasting at Spoon with Ducasse's sommelier, Gerard Margeon, when I was writing my book French Fried, I somehow never got around to eating there.

That was remedied with an invitation from a visitor from San Francisco who had read my book, dreamed of going to Spoon, and invited me to join him.

We were both surprised, he because the décor reminded him of a San Francisco restaurant, and I, because I couldn't figure out how the menu worked.

Not to worry: we settled on a tapas menu called Spoonsum and had nothing else to do except sit back and relax as a succession of small dishes - creamy soups, rosy salmon, artfully cut vegetables, Chinese noodles, mini spareribs - kept coming out of the kitchen. My friend's comment: It's like a French take on Dim Sum. Very pushed up," Naturally, there were chopsticks along with the knife and fork but there was also a....spork, a combination fork and spoon I had never seen before in my life.

But the stunner was yet to come: bubble gum ice cream. Yes, I know, it sounds positively disgusting and so unFrench you can't even believe it but it WAS French and it WAS good. That's because six-star Chef Alain Ducasse is a creative genius and afraid of nothing.

OK, I wouldn't hang out at Spoon every day for the main and simple reason that I couldn't afford it (count a good 80 euros per person and more if you're having a bottle of wine) but it was a memorable experience and the food was not only interesting but tasty and good and the service impeccable.

Oh yes, I forgot: I offered a taste of the bubble gum ice cream to the urbane French gentlemen who was with us.

He politely declined with a very French wave of the hand.

"Je vous laisse le plaisir" (I'll leave the pleasure to you)", he said, with an expression of horror and amusement on his face in spite of his best efforts.

Well, hey, all Frenchmen can't be Alain Ducasse, inventing sporks and serving up bubble gum ice cream.

Mousse au chocolat, anyone?

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April 2004 - My garden in Paris (Letter from Paris )

As my readers know, I have the great luck of living in Paris " intra-muros " in a garden apartment. People who live in the States and are used to houses with back yards might think this is no big deal ; urban dwellers in Europe know what a find a plot of land, no matter how small, can be.

I especially appreciate it when the weather cooperates. Today is one of those fantastic blue sky, light wind, big yellow sun days we all crave. In Paris, when you get a day like that, you fly out the door as fast as possible to go sit on the terrace of a café. Now that we have our own little patch of Paris,the furthest I fly is out my French windows to my patio and lawn.

Of course when we bought this place, my idea of gardening was taking the dead petals off my geraniums. I didn't know about mowing lawns (yes, our lawn is big enough to mow !) or chewing my nails because my husband hadn't yet cut the dead lilac branches. Or sitting here writing like I am now all the while glancing outside and thinking that I could move this plant or that one and it would look much better.

Yes, the Reluctant Gardnerer is turning into The Gardening Fiend. Not that I know anything much about it, mind you, but I take comfort in web sites, gardening books, advice from friends, and my own instincts, some of which are good, some disastrous (pulling out " weeds " that are crysanthemums).

Gardening is, naturally, physical, but I have noticed that while one is busy pulling up weeds, wielding rake and hoe, the brain seems to be working along on its own time. As I furiously and gleefully dug up the former owner's plants in a part of the yard I think looks ratty, an analogy popped into my mind. The analogy of freedom.

When we bought this apartment, I was forever grateful to the owner for having planted such a pretty garden. After all, when she bought it,, there was nothing but dirt and a high wall. She transformed it with high conifers that partially hide the high building behind the wall and put in all kinds of colorful bushes and flowers.

 

I didn't dare touch it for the first year and a half.

I was scared ! So I decided to adapt a policy of observation. I would just see what those plants were doing and when. The camelia decided to bloom all of a sudden for a brief but luminous time in April. The rhododendron looked like it was never going to do anything but all of a sudden in May burst into glorious pink bloom. The roses, yellow ones, pink ones, white ones and red ones, bloom and bloom and bloom. They love a protected city garden.

But back to digging up part of the yard. Suddenly I felt liberated. It became MY garden. And that's when the little analogy came to mind. You know how, everytime the French get "uppity " and show their " independence ", people in the U.S. say they aren't " grateful " ?
I applied this to the former owner and her garden. Am I " ungrateful " to her when uprooting her garden ? On the contrary, I'm eternally grateful for what she did, but the place is now mine. I have my own ideas about how to weed it, what to plant in it, how I want it to look. If I apply that to nations, it seems logical that one country (France) can be eternally grateful to another, but as time goes on, must find its own independent way.

Am I stretching it ? I don't think so.

Just the other day, the former owner of our apartment was in Paris. I invited her in to see her former living quarters and especially the garden she had created, but she gently refused.

" It's your garden now, " she said.

Maybe that's what gave me the courage to get out there and really make it my own.

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Order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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