On a recent weekend, I walked in the Bois de Vincennes, a huge park to the east of Paris.A group of amateur tightrope walkers had set up shop.The word for “tightrope walker” in French is fun: it’s funamble.
This year was the first time that I was available and aware of Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days, in France. For one weekend, historic cultural and political institutions are open to the public. Some, like cultural centers or national museums, are usually open to visitors but offer extra hours, free admission, or special exhibits. Others, like government offices or not easily accessible historical sites, are only open for Journées du Patrimoine. I picked up a program listing all of the places participating, and it made me wish that this event lasted a whole month. There are so many things to see that a couple of days are hardly enough.At some sites like the Elysée, where the president lives, you should be prepared to wait for hours. While I would be interested in seeing the presidential residence, I didn’t want to spend my whole day there, so my first stop was a quiet location with more staff representatives milling around than visitors. The Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la recherche houses the national office of high education and research. I know a number of people who are pursuing their Masters in Paris, so it was interesting to think that this is where decisions are made regarding their education and those of students all over the country. The building used to be the Ecole polytechnique, a school of science and engineering that is now at another site. I was standing in front of this memorial to students who died in the First World War when a security guard told me that I could take a picture. So I did. How often are we encouraged to take pictures?Inside the building I was delighted to see this work by the artist Ben. I discovered Ben a couple of years ago when I bought a series of postage stamps with his playful expressions on them. His art is words and his words are art. This piece was a very American phrase in French.The line to enter the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Site Richelieu was longer than the nonexistent wait at the Ministère, but it fed my love of beautiful libraries.Inside I also browsed the Musée des monnaies, médailles et antiques and the temporary exhibit of Greek vases.
Smaller but quite pretty too was the sunlit library in the Ecole des Mines, a school of earth sciences, engineering, math, and economics.The library contained this ubiquitous rug. One time as my colleague and I were climbing the stairs to our office, she pointed out the rug and said that it’s the tapis you’ll find in every building constructed during a certain time. From then on I noticed it everywhere. I realized that it was the same rug in the building where I live, and the same one at the Ecole des mines.In another area of the building, I walked through room after room of glass cases displaying rocks. Their collection is a feast for a geologist.
In the Journées du Patrimoine program, I read that you could see the Arche enceinte de Philippe Auguste, which is at other times closed to the public. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded intriguing. The only meaning of enceinte that I knew of was “pregnant.” Philippe’s pregnant arch?
The address of the site had no door, but a locked gate that seemed to lead to a driveway. A young woman stood in the entrance. I tentatively approached, and she asked if I was there for the Journées du Patrimoine. When I answered in the affirmative, she said that a group had just been let in and that it would be twenty minutes before a new group could enter.
No problem. I walked to the nearby Seine River to take a breather. Lo and behold, a little further along the banks, I saw a man drop to one knee to propose to his girlfriend. It warmed my heart.
Back at the mysterious gate to the pregnant arch, a crowd had gathered.The volunteer let us in, and our group of a couple of dozen people descended a dimly lit staircase underground. We seemed to be under a parking garage. We passed through a heavy metal door, and there it was. The arch.A volunteer explained the history of the enceinte to us. In the late 12th to early 13th century, King Philippe Auguste had a wall constructed around Paris to protect the city from potential English invaders. The arch we saw is a remnant of that wall. Tucked away, it was restored by volunteers.
Apparently, enceinte can also mean “outer wall.”
No doubt about it, there is a lot of heritage in this city. The great part about Journées du Patrimoine is that not only does it open private spaces to the public, but it also introduces us to places that are always accessible but not necessarily on our radar.
Last weekend I attended a cooking demo at the Cordon Bleu. I had registered in advance, for free, through my library. An audience of about eighty people watched chef Christian Moine and two culinary students prepare bar de ligne roti aux épices et aux artichauts poivrade (line-caught sea-bass roasted with spices and poivrade artichokes) and fricassee de langoustines aux cèpes, jus à la coriandre (langoustine fricassee with porcini mushrooms, cilantro flavored jus).
We were given a list of the ingredients for the dishes in French and English, which is how a class at the culinary school would operate. With the elements as a reference, students take notes on how to cook the dish. Later in the day, they have the chance to try their hand at it themselves.
At the demo individuals chimed in with questions, from
How long do you put the langoustines in the oven? to
At what point do you add the spices? to
Can you cut the artichoke more slowly so we can see exactly how you do it? Slower! Slower!
In between Moine’s narration, sommelier Arnaud Fatome discussed different kinds of wine. He explained how warmer regions, like Bordeaux, tend to specialize in red wine, while colder ones, like Brittany, are more known for white.
I commented on how good the food was to the woman sitting next to me, and she asked where I was from. Her enthusiastic reaction to my response surprised and delighted me.
Oh, New Jersey is beautiful! she said. The gardens of houses are all connected. In France there are fences separating the gardens. In New Jersey they’re all connected.
Perhaps it is the Garden State after all.
My day of seafood was not over. From the Cordon Bleu, I took the metro to a suburb of Paris to have moules-frites at a friend’s house. She and her boyfriend and I chatted over mounds of mussels and fries followed by homemade chocolate mousse in tiny glass jars.
This past weekend my friend (who is Californian) and her friend (who is French) had a costume party to celebrate their birthdays. The theme was dessins animés: cartoons.
Now, I love costume parties. One thing I know about attending them in France is that you can bet there will be a number of people who do not dress up. Tant pis. Fortunately, a bunch do get into the spirit. It’s always funny seeing the range from store bought to homemade costumes. I always put something together from items I own and supplementary pieces I make or buy.
The hostesses of this party were minions from the movie “Despicable Me.” In attendance were Bugs Bunny, Dora the Explorer (in boy form), Cruella de Vil, Woody from “Toy Story,” Alice in Wonderland, and, adorned with a platinum blond wig and sunglasses, Johnny Bravo from the channel Cartoon Network. In black-rimmed glasses and a matching red and white bonnet and striped shirt was Charlie, or Wally if you’re from the U.K., or Waldo if you’re from the U.S. It’s funny, I just realized that all of these characters come from American movies or TV shows.
I wore a blue dress with a slight flounce at the bottom and blue ballet flats with ankle socks. I had strung two silver mardi gras necklaces together on which I attached one sign in front and another at the back:
“PSYCHIATRIC HELP 5₵ / THE DOCTOR IS IN”
“ASSISTANCE PSYHIATRIQUE 5₵ / LE DOCTEUR EST LÀ”
I was Lucy Van Pelt from “Peanuts,” of course, or “Snoopy,” as it’s called in France.
I took the metro home around 1:30am. The cars filled up as the train approached the center of Paris. Weekend night rush hour before the last metro: it’s always an interesting ride. You have your inebriated passengers swaying and talking loudly about who knows what, your groups dressed up in flashy skirts and high heels that are probably from out of town, your nuzzling couples, your vagabonds with their tattoos and hefty backpacks and tall short-haired dogs, sometimes an older lady and you wonder where she’s coming from, and the other night, your group of international professional musicians who obviously gave a concert earlier that evening and are speaking English because it is their one common language.
Then, as I’ve done many times before, I come out of the metro station into the cool night air. People are mingling around, and I pass the bars where the last few people linger and pedestrians heading home before the streets become quieter and I enter the codes to my building, climb the stairs to my apartment, take a shower, and maybe have a ‘midnight’ snack and write in my diary before slipping under the covers and into Sunday morning.
This past weekend I went to an enormous flea market in Courbevoie, a suburb a stone’s throw from Paris. There were over 100 stands.
Often I walk around these markets and find nothing worth bringing home, but this was an exceptionally fruitful trip. I bought:
– a cozy fitted short-sleeved sweater with big buttons for 3 euros
– a red long-sleeved button-down Uniqlo blouse for 2 euros (!)
– a sleeveless short blue dress for an upcoming costume party for 3 euros
– an unopened copy of Bastille’s two-CD album “Bad Blood” for 1 euro
The only drawback to flea markets is that there are no fitting rooms. Luckily, I was able to slip on the clothes that interested me over my summer dress. Because there were no mirrors available, I asked the sellers to take a picture of me so I could see how the clothes looked. They were nice and happy to oblige. One of the Frenchies with whom I went to the brocante later told me that a French person would not have done that. True or not? It’s what I do when I choose eyeglasses too. After we had exhausted almost all the stands, we took a cat nap on the green overlooking this long bike and roller blading path next to the Seine.
I recently took a nighttime walk past the Louvre, where a thin red filament of light currently runs from the pyramid’s point to base. French artist Claude Lévêque installed the indoor lightning bolt this past spring. You can catch a glimpse of it until next autumn. Across the way, our own little “Paris eye” overlooks a summer amusement park next to the Jardin des Tuileries.Remember the Eiffel Tower made of chairs? It moved next to the Seine, still with its big sister in sight. I’ll have to keep an eye on it. How do you suppose she transported herself there?
This past weekend two friends and I took a day trip to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh spent the end of his life. Signs around town drew attention to the impressive fact that he painted more than 70 works in less than 70 days.
Right near the train station is the house where he lived.I was blown away to stand in front of the Notre Dame d’Auvers, a church he depicted in a painting I love. I had seen the original work at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and here was the actual structure rising up before us. We took a self-guided tour of the house that belonged to Doctor Gachet, who welcomed Van Gogh when he was looking for peace. The artist’s famed portrait of the doctor hangs at the Orsay.
Van Gogh-inspired art abounded in the town. This building next to the train station paid homage to his most well-known masterpieces.The encompassing splashes of color and cheer in this underground passageway connecting the two train platforms entertained us for a while. When we saw this text giving credit to François Laval for the paintings, my friend said, “I wonder why we he couldn’t finish it.”I looked at her, confused, looked back at the sign, and burst out laughing.
The sign says, “Fresque réalisée par François Laval » (“Fresco created by François Laval”).
However, she had read it as, « Presque réalisée par François Laval » (“Almost completed by François Laval”).
We enjoyed walking around the quiet town and appreciating the pretty little houses. The garden behind the Chateau d’Auvers was pleasant with hardly any tourists around. As a fan of Van Gogh, I found it quite surreal to stand in the landscapes that he rendered in his unique style during the Post-Impressionist period. We visited his grave and his brother Théo’s, which are side by side. Vincent, as he signed his paintings, was a troubled but gifted man.
You sure ain’t gonna get bread from your regular one. It’s August, and many small stores and restaurants here close up shop for several weeks to go on vacation.
Sometimes you must decipher multiple signs, much like parking in New York. Let’s look at this one together from the bottom-up. “Your grocery will be open all summer”
“Closes at 7:30pm on August 3”
“Your grocery will be open Thursday, August 15
CLOSED Saturday, August 17
Thank you for your understanding”
I like being in Paris in August. My commute is quieter, the weather is the best it’s going to get all year, and fun summer events abound. The days are long and made for leisurely walks along the Seine after work.
In this city there will always be another place to buy bread.