18 October, 2006

marionettes and foie gras

I think I need to describe our trip chronologically. It will give a better sense of what's possible to do, odd to experience, fun to eat, and easy or difficult to get to on any given day in Paris, with two ten-year-old girls. Which I am certain is a manifesto for more people than I might think!

I'm sorry to say that the Eurostar was a complete bore. Might as well have been on New Jersey transit going from Newark to Philadelphia, except for the French accents of the chefs de train. I think my preconception was colored by the fact that reportage was done by John, who has always traveled some expensive and fancy way via business trips. Alas, we went by second class. Yawn. Cramped, not particularly comfortable. However, the fact remains that an hour and some speeding through English countryside, 20 minutes in the dark tunnel under the English channel, and another hour and some speeding through French countryside, and you emerged into the Gard du Nord! Such a gorgeous train station. A brief kerfuffle trying to get Euros, realizing I was traveling with three bags and allegedly an extra person, except that Avery's arms were completely occupied by her doll Holly and so she did not actually serve as a person to help carry baggage.

I had forgotten how completely... French Paris is! Whereas London has become a bit too, in my opinion, Starbucks-ized and Pret a Manger-ized and any other chain you can imagine (the English imagination running to the predictable and the frequently available, as far as shops go), Paris is resolutely, trenchantly, rebelliously ITSELF. Everyone smokes, there are seventeen cafes on every block, everything looks a hundred years old and completely solidly... French. And so very, very beautiful. All the ornate ironwork and stuffed flower boxes, the brass door surrounds of all the cafes, the dark red awnings protecting the ubiquitous lounging Parisians puffing away and sipping endless cups of coffee and verres de vin rouge, at all times of the day. We jumped in a taxi and sped away to the hotel, the Grand Hotel St. Michel, to meet up with Sarah and Eve. However, we were met by a most gracious hotel concierge who hastened to take our bags and say that he had made une faute, and was actually fully booked for the night, and so was taking us to a sister hotel around the corner. We arrived at the Hotel Select on a darling little open piazza, the Place de la Sorbonne, because guess what was across the little street? The Universite de la Sorbonne, full of sophisticated-looking students puffing away, of course, elegant in their completely understated French way, comparing notes, exchanging books, generally looking much cooler than their English or American compatriots. We checked in to the modern and sleek hotel, my French returning in leaps and bounds, and before we knew it there was a knock on our door and there were Sarah and Eve! Much hugging and kissing, and we spilled out onto the street to explore.

Avery and Eve lagged behind Sarah and me, and they were clearly getting to know each other very quickly. It's really a case of two girls' being forced to be friends because their mothers are friends. But it did not seem to be anything of a hardship. Eve is much more the urban-looking child, with jeans and a backpack, even though she's spent her entire life in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, whereas Avery, born and raised in New York City and now living in London, looked like some throwback to "The Little Princess," having dressed up for her trip to the big European city. They chattered away and Sarah and I caught up on what's been happening in our lives, our husbands' activities, her artwork, my writing classes, our children. She had left her son Noah at home with her husband Mike, and seemed not at all certain that both of them would be intact when she got back. "He's already had to raid Eve's savings to pay the cleaning lady, so anything's possible," she said ruefully. I reported this to John, laughing, and there was a little silence. "How much do I pay Dorrie?" he asked anxiously. Husbands left at home are a breed apart.

We stopped for lunch at a little sidewalk place in the rue St. Germain and ordered salades nicoises, while the girls had croissants stuffed with cheese and smoked salmon. Complete heaven. Unfortunately Avery is now acquainted with a real croissant, which will decimate her opinion of the English cousin croissant with which she's been content up to now. I remember so clearly coming home to Indianapolis after my blissful summer in Brittany, when I was 16, and my father and I scouring the so-called bakeries for croissants, much less the pain au chocolat which I craved. There was no joy. Just think of the French food you can get in Indianapolis now, I'm sure. Still, nothing beats the native baby, and boy did those girls eat. Our salads were very odd: one grated vegetable was unidentifiable by either of us, and we're neither of us food slouches, so I asked the waiter, straight out of central casting with a big gray moustache and white shirt and tie, and he said, "Celeri," which is celeriac to you and me. Most odd. Still, any good in Paris is better than most food anywhere else, so we were quite content.

From there we walked to the Jardins Luxembourg
to find the marionette show Eve had been keen to see. The park was gorgeous in the October late-afternoon sun, and the weather completely perfect: perhaps 70 degrees and breezy. The trees were just beginning to turn and the girls cantered ahead (Eve being quite a keen horsewoman as well as Avery), toward the bell that a fellow was ringing in front of a tiny little white clapboard theatre. Avery said dubiously, "If he's hoping to get customers with that bell, someone should tell him it's actually more of a deterrent." Truly! We got tickets, and submitted to a bizarre entry ritual where the ticket taker bellowed out the number written on people's tickets, and admitted perhaps six people to the theatre at a time. We waited anxiously for "41" to be called out and when it was, entered the theatre cautiously. Never found out what the rigmarole was about; they just let us sit anywhere. Except that the children were sent to the first few rows. After a bit, the puppet show began, and there followed the funniest, strangest hour of theatre our girls had ever encountered. "Little Red Riding Hood", in FRENCH. Truly silly puppets, lots of dashing about hitting people over the heads with broomsticks and a wolf with lots of white teeth and red gums, all in FRENCH. I began to realize, as the play went on, that it was running true to the classic pantomime form, in French and English theatre. I had wondered what "panto" was, as I always read about in Hello! magazine. Actors being interviewed about their love affairs with other actors always saying, "We met in panto." Well, I asked in my acting class, and it turns out it's a classic show form with many set characters, who given the individual drama play out their parts basically as always the same character. So there is the evil witch, the good witch, the jolly professorial type who saves the day, the good prince and the prince of darkness, and the old man played by a woman and the old woman played by a man. Too funny! One chap who appears all the time is "Guignol," and this time he was the sort of deus ex machina who saves Little Red Riding Hood from the terrible jaws of the wolf in grandmama's clothing.

So all the French children knew when a classic question would be asked of the audience and what to reply. Our children were completely mystified! Not to mention that the questions and answers were in FRENCH. At the interval when the French children were grizzling for sweets from the sweets lady, our girls rushed back to where we were sitting and said, "We have no idea what's going on!" So we reviewed the story plots, and tried to give them some phrases, or at least words, to look for in the next act. "Mon Dieu, mere grand, que vous avez des grands yeux!" "My goodness, grandmother, what big eyes you have!" But it was too hard. So they sat with us for the second half and we tried to translate, and at least they were able to shout "loup!" at the grandmother when the wolf came in to fool her.

It was truly the most French-child thing they could have done!

We emerged into the sunshine, and there trotting along ahead of us were a bunch of little children having pony rides. The girls joked broadly about what fun it would be to take a pony ride, and "then we could just casually say, 'Canter on!' And no one would be able to catch us!" Sarah and I kindly refrained from pointing either of the obvious flaws in this: they don't know how to say "canter" in French, and we also doubted that any of those animals had cantered in many, many years. Nevertheless.

Back to the hotel for a little rest, a little reading, and then I ran down to the lobby to ask the concierge for some ice, and help in making reservations at Cafe Max for dinner. Alas, it turned out the cafe is closed Saturday AND Sunday. What? Next time. But dear readers: I accomplished this all in French! My grammar came back, my vocabulary, and my accent got better as the minutes went by. I must say, what a pleasure to know that a skill I spent so many years honing, and then just as many neglecting, was still functional. What fun to speak French. So the nice concierge sent us to a restaurant he was very fond of, Les Editeurs. "Bon, it's not too far, and the atmosphere is excellent, and they will be nice to your little girls," he assured me. So we met up outside the hotel and set off, and sure enough, it was near the Place de l'Odeon very nearby and adorable. Frequented in the olden days by members of the literary community, the walls were lined with books and painted a cozy dark red. We were ushered upstairs, and had simply the most divine meal. I'll tell you both the French and English descriptions, so you can order them for yourself. I started with saumon marine a l'anthe et deux poivres, creme legere a l'anthe et toast de pain bio, a gorgeous dish of marinated thinly sliced salmon with two peppers, and a light cream dressing. Now, however, what is "anthe"? I have looked it up in vain. Possibly something related to anise? I don't know. Not a strong flavor, in any case, and the fish was perfectly prepared. All accompanied by the typical French salad of frisee and other bitter greens. Sarah had a tarte fine d caviar d'Aubergine et anchois, a small tarte with eggplant caviar and anchovies. Then we each succumbed and had a belle tranche de foie gras de canard et toast compagne grilles , huge slabs of duck liver with gorgeous triangular slices of grilled country bread. The girls shared a coeur de rumsteck et frites, a perfect rare filet of rump steak with French fries. We were all frankly thrilled to bits. Avery and Eve amused themselves drawing strange cartoon characters and discussing "electronic toys I have known", in Avery's case followed mournfully by "that my mother and father will not let me have," like Nintendog. When dogs fly, maybe, but not until then.

Back to our hotels to collapse. Avery and I each had a cozy, puffy single bed, with fluffy eiderdowns and really good pillows. I opened the casement windows wide and our room looked directly onto the carved marble figures adoring the rooftops of the Sorbonne. Gorgeous. We could hear the splash of the fountains in the piazza and the sounds of street musicians. "I don't ever want to leave," Avery proclaimed. And so to sleep.

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