Archive for the ‘Paris’ Category

Julia’s Paris

Back in February I mentioned that I had just finished reading Julia Childs’ memoir My Life In France to my friend Nina (also one of the best cooks I know, and a big Julia fan), and I had recently wandered past the building where Julia and her husband Paul lived in the 1950’s.   I promised her I would go back and take a picture, so she could see it too.  But, not one to stop at the exploration of just one semi-historic site mentioned in a book, I decided to take a little tour of places Julia liked.  Of course, despite appearances, Paris has changed quite a bit in the last 60 years, so many of the exact places she mentions are gone now.  But, after wandering around for most of a rather rainy day searching them out, I figured I should share what I did find…

Our tour starts at 81 Rue de l’Universite, in the 7th Arrondisement, where Julia and Paul lived for most of their years in Paris in the 1950s.  They affectionately nicknamed it “Roo de Loo,” which is possibly the most adorable nickname for a house, ever.  Julia mentions that it was not far from the Assemblée Nationale – what she doesn’t specify is that, from where I was standing to take this picture, I would have to go about 20 feet to the right and across one small road in order to walk smack into the side of the building.  It’s also two blocks from the Seine, and about a ten minute walk to the Musée d’Orsay (then just the somewhat out-of-comission Gare d’Orsay – but, still).  Nice digs.

From Roo de Loo we head right, around the back of the Assemblée Nationale, to Rue de Bourgogne, where Julia did most of her daily shopping.

Today it’s no longer a market street, and is full mostly of shi-shi furniture stores – the kinds that only sell, say, mid-century style chairs in blue upholstery.  But, back in the day I imagine it looked much like this –

That’s actually Rue Cler, on the other side of Les Invalides, but a market street is a market street, really.

Julia talked a lot about discovering the joys of shopping at the small shops in Paris – the boulanger for your bread, the fromagerie for cheese, and the epicerie for produce and other staples.  She frequented one particular fruit and vegetable shop run by the formidable Madame Les Quatre Saisons.

“Four Seasons” is a fairly common name for greengrocer’s shops in France, so there is probably no relation, but whatever, go with it, ok?

Julia believed, like any cook, that good ingredients were the basis of good cooking.  But an artist can’t paint with out a brush, and a chef can’t cook without tools.  So Ms. Child developed quite a habit of visiting Dehillerin’s shop near Les Halles, which, thankfully, is still there in all of its hodge-podgey glory.

As soon as you walk though the doors you enter this dimly lit, slightly dusty cavern of unfinished wooden shelves loaded with mounds of cooking equipment.  Stacks of muffin tins.  Heaps of cookie cutters.  Piles of casserole dishes.  Not a safe place to go if you have money to spare and space in your suitcases.  Thankfully, I had neither, but those mini springform pans were still awfully tempting.

You can understand how Julia ended up with so many pots and pans, whose outlines Paul drew on the peg board where they hung in every kitchen they ever owned.

The problem with trying to tour Paris (or anywhere, really) from a historical source is that nothing ever stays the same.  Case in point:  I walked for an entire afternoon trying to find the location of the school where Julia first started learning french cooking.  Le Cordon Bleu still exists.  I knew this for a fact, and I had the directions that were spelled out in the book – Julia would take their car, The Flash, across the bridge to Place de la Concorde, turn left up Rue Faubourg St. Honore, park and walk up to the school near the backside of the American Embassy.  All of these places still exist, but could I find Le Cordon Bleu?  Mais, non.  And here’s why – it’s now on Rue de Leon Delhomme, across the river in the 15th Arrondisement.  Oh well, she never liked their kitchens anyway.

To make up for my Cordon Bleu fail I hopped on the Metro and went over to the Palais Royale (which I knew I could find, reaffirming my confidence in my Parisian geography).  Julia and Paul had several favorite restaurants in Paris, but this one, on one corner of one of the most famous courtyards in Paris, was also the first grand public restaurant ever opened in Paris, in 1784.

The prices, me thinks, have gone up a bit since the Childs spotted Colette eating there at a corner table by herself.  Either that or Paul’s government salary as a mid-level diplomat was nothing to sneeze at.  It also, to much shock and dismay, lost one of its Michelin stars in the mid-’80s.  Quel horreur!  Still, its probably worth a visit if you have a 100-euro/lunch budget.  And who doesn’t?

The wonderful thing about Paris is how it’s managed to retain its historical flavor without turning into a museum of itself.  So, Julia Child’s Paris was a lot like mine in many ways.   Her’s had more mom-and-pop stores, a lot fewer grocery chains, cooler cars and more post-war decrepitude, but you can still walk to Montmartre for dinner, if you feel inclined, and the bakers will still yell at you if you get to the counter and don’t know which kind of baguette you want.

“Lipstick on my belly button, and music in the air – thaat’s Paris, son.  What a lovely city!  What grenouilles a la Provencale!  What Chateauneuf-du-Pape, what white poodles and white chimneys, what charming waiters, and poules de luxe, and maitres d’hotel, what gardens and bridges and streets!  How fascinating the crowds before one’s cafe table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues.  Those garlic-filled belches!  Those silk-stockinged legs!  Those mascara’d eyelashes!  Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work!  Hola!  Dites donc!  Bouillabaisse!  Au revoir!”

-Paul Child, in a letter to his brother Charlie, as quoted in My Life In France


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The Race to the Finish

The last month has flown by in a flash – which is to say, even faster than the otherwise speedily-whizzing months before it.  After our fun and eventful trip to Spain Emily and Greeley stayed here in Paris through New Years, when we learned that there are no city-sponsored fireworks in Paris for La Nouvelle Annee, but lots of people drive in circles around Place de la Concorde until the sparkling Eifffel Tower signals the arrival of midnight, when everyone starts shouting out their windows and honking their horns.  Festive!  Also, there are no laws about alcohol in public spaces (just lots of ignored signs about not bringing glass bottles outside), so we saw countless groups and couples, many middle-aged or older, toting around their bottle of champagne in preparation for the big moment.  It was pretty adorably French.

My parents arrived the week after my friends left, and the three of us spent a great week exploring Paris, and took two day trips out of the city.  The first was to Chartres, which I had been to before but was eager to see again.  It was a cold, grey day after a snow storm, so the town was quiet but lovely.  We spent a long time wandering around the almost-deserted cathedral, had a nice lunch to warm up, and then were serenaded by two teenaged boys playing cell phone ringtones the whole way back to Paris.  But, really, it was a great day.

Our second trip was to the town of Poissy, which is on the northwest edge of the Parisian suburbs, and which is home, most notably, to a huge Citroen factory, and Le Corbousier’s Villa Savoye.  The latter was far more aesthetically pleasing.

Also in Poissy was this, perhaps the most awesomely named feminist-historian geek-tastic intersection in the world –

Yes, that’s Avenue Christine de Pisan intersecting with Avenue Blanche de Castille.  I know, right?

Once my parents had sadly headed back home, to their regular life lacking in daily croissants and café crème, I only had two weeks left of class.  These mostly involved a very French series of practice tests for our final exam.  We practiced on old copies of the final exam, and as we moved through them chronologically we realized that there was an underground narrative unfolding through the passages of text in the conjugation section.  For several years there was a passage, given in the present tense, which students had to transpose into the past and/or future tense.  But, no generic, unconnected passages for these folks, oh no.  Angela and François had a history.  First they are planning an outing.  Then, the next semester, they’re going to dinner with some Swedish friends.  Walks in the Luxembourg Gardens and dinners alone follow.  Then, c’est très triste, François calls his friend in a panic.  Angela has refused to move in with him – because she has too much stuff and she says his apartment is too small for her! – and not only that, but she’s decided to leave town. For the Antilles!  Honestly, he’s better off without her though.  And don’t worry, his friend Juan has been keeping him busy, going to the theater and such.  He’ll be fine.

Sadly, Angela and Francois did not appear on our final exam, when we finally sat down for it in the truly bizarre Maison des Examens.  This building, in the banlieu just south of Paris, is a monstrous, hideous, would-be-terrifying-if-you-had-test-phobia tower who’s sole purpose is to host the major standardized tests that are the backbone of the French education system.  It is not a happy place.

But, exams are now finished, and I leave Paris in less than two weeks.  I’m sad to be leaving, but also excited to be going on to my next French adventure.  Next Saturday I’ll be taking the train to Gascony, where for the next 10 weeks I’ll be a working student at a dressage barn near the town of Auch.  (Which, I’m told, is pronounced “oh-sh.” I know, unfortunate.)  I can’t wait for fresh air, beautiful countryside, and a major fix for my horse deprivation.  But, Paris is one of those places that’s hard to leave, and I’ve been so happy and comfortable here that it’s especially bittersweet.  But, I have ten more days to cram myself with as many experiences of it as I can, and that’s what I intend to do.

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