20 October, 2006

Sunday in Paris

OK, this is ridiculous. I'm getting my knickers all in a twist over my writing class today. "Creating Fiction," it's called. Why does that carry with it the knell of doom? I don't have any trouble "Creating Nonfiction." I have slaved for WEEKS on these precious 2500 words that I'm meant to be reading aloud in three hours to twenty hypercritical classmates. Well, guess how long yesterday's post was to this darling blog? 2250 words. And readers, I assure you I did not slave over it. What makes fiction so much harder? I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday night in Paris found us all completely exhausted! Sarah's happy hour resting turned out to be an Hour From Hell listening to the girls play their annoying Nintendog, with whatever little beeps and blips and little barking sounds accompany it, so she had been rode hard and put away wet by the time we met up and was sorely in need of a demi-bouteille de vin rouge. I laid our case before the concierge. We wanted a dinner out that was charming, authentic, kid-friendly and close by. "But of course," he purred, "the Brasserie Balzar is what you want. Just around the corner," and he gave us tres short directions to this little spot. Sarah and I looked at the girls, slumped in their chairs in the lobby, and looked at each other. "Let's just see for ourselves how close it is, and come right back," she said, so we exhorted the girls to stay put and ran out. Sure enough, it was literally around the corner, and we stopped to study the menu. A man appeared at my shoulder. He looked both of us up and down and then said, in French, "Would you like to come in and have a drink with me?" I almost, but not quite, burst out laughing. "Non merci," I said, and Sarah surfaced. "What was that about?" "We just got propositioned," I said. We looked at each other. Finally Sarah said, "Let's tell him we changed our minds, and we'll just run get our children and be with him in two seconds. That'll teach him."

Ten minutes later we were happily settled at a typical French dinner table covered with heavy white linen, not so happily surrounded by smoking diners, the only complaint we could make about the darling restaurant. I did not realize that the typical French brasserie, somewhere in between a fancy restaurant and a bistro, was an endangered species. Not that it's going to disappear, but that it's going to be taken over by a chain of bigger restaurants and slowly go in the direction the entire world seems to be going: bigger and all alike. So we were happy that even though Balzar had in fact become part of a bigger restaurant group called Flo, it retained all the beauty, expertise and charm of its sistren throughout the city. Waiters balancing untold layers of plates climbing up their arms, their faces sporting handlebar moustaches, lots of potted palms and foxy mirrors tilted from the wall to afford diners the best possible view of everyone coming and going, a swinging kitchen door that threatened to topple every waiter who came in or out but never did. And interesting diners. A very elegant single lady next to us with her half-bottle of Cotes du Rhone, a nice gay American couple on the other side speaking fluent French with the waiter, lots of Frenchy people smoking like chimneys. Ours were the only children and they were properly subdued.

Because we don't get it to eat it at home anymore (unless cuteness-protesting Avery is away), I ordered lamb. Gorgeous thin salty chops, not too Frenched, so there was still a bit of gnawable crispy fat left on the bones, for me and for Eve, while Avery had one more coeur de rumsteck, and we all had pommes de terre purees; why are they so much yummier than ordinary mashed potatoes? Again, is it just atmosphere? But the true star of the evening was Sarah's steak tartare. For some reason I am always a sucker for raw whatever: I love the Korean dish of ground raw beef with a garnish of pear and mushroom slices and a quail's egg broken deliciously over the top, or sashimi of tuna with a nice spicy dressing on a bed of greens. This was an indisputed masterpiece of freshness, a perfect balance of flavors, and most mysteriously, the supreme texture of hand-chopped meat. I have to admit that I came home and tried making it the other night, and while it was fine, good quality, looked nice, it was nothing compared to the Brasserie Balzar. We identified the usual ingredients: capers, scallions, tabasco, all perfectly mixed with the chopped filet mignon. Simply sublime. Cold, cold, cold of course, on a chilled plate. It was a large portion, so my friendship with Sarah was not compromised by my fork's little voyages to her plate. Oh la la.

Back to the hotel where we hung around the lobby trying to decide what to do the next day, asking the advice of the two concierges where we could possibly find shoes for Avery, whose feet had mysteriously grown out of her shoes over the course of the day. As we dickered, the girls played little games with the tiny colored lights adorning the floor of the lobby. One mysteriously turned from red to green to off with unpredictable frequency, causing much to-do for our detail-oriented children. Finally they decided they had to alert the concierge to this flaw in his otherwise perfectly-oiled machine of a hotel. Now, Avery, while not possessed of what I would call even a minimal grasp of the French language, has nonetheless a rock-solid memory. So it was but the work of a moment to teach her to say "Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, mais quelques uns de vos lumieres ne marchent pas," meaning, "I'm sorry, sir, but some of your lights are not working." And because she is a perfect mimic, her accent was spot on. He looked down gravely at her and said, "That is to give you something to think about, little one."

Another perfectly cozy night in our little beds, except for one small thing: we woke up with mosquito bites on our hands and faces! I think they came from the lovely fountains outside the hotel, which must get switched off during the night and provide a perfect bed for bugs. Ah well. We met up with Eve and Sarah, they headed to the post office for postcard stamps, and I checked out of the hotel. Thence to the Ile St. Louis, a part of Paris I had never visited during my times there, since it contained no art history libraries. Isn't that pathetic? But Sarah, being an adult without a mission except having fun, had tracked down this beautiful area and in particular the rue Saint-Louis-en-Ile, a gorgeous tiny road lined on both sides with purveyors of fine food products. So we ambled up the street, taking in olive stores, ice cream stores, a chocolate store called Cacao et Chocolat where we came away with gorgeous chocolate pillows made with sea salt, so not too sweet for me. And a beautiful epicerie, or spice shop, called oddly enough l'Epicerie where I bought some fish spices for my mother in law, some raspberry-flavoured sugar for Avery's breakfast toast, and for me, because I couldn't resist the darling little cans, a container of mousse d'homard which will either be delicious because it's lobster or degoulasse because it's all been mashed up and put into a tiny tin.

Finally, however, it was time for Eve and Sarah to head off to the airport, so we parted sadly outside Notre Dame with many promises to meet up in London soon. Eve and Avery have made fast friends, so I don't think there will be any problem convincing them to travel wherever it takes, to have another adventure. The perfect traveling companions!

To distract ourselves from both our sadness at parting from them and Avery's itchy mosquito bites, we dipped into Notre Dame, just for a glimpse of the imposing facade, a nice short lecture on one of my favorite architectural elements, the "flying buttress," and a look at the gorgeous stained glass inside. We lit a candle to whatever cause Avery had in mind (probably something to do with a French pony), and ducked back out again. Not exactly the semester-long lecture course on the church that I remember sitting through in graduate school, but hey, she's ten years old. Time enough to bore her to death in future years. It was time to SHOP. We jumped in a taxi and took the most scenic route you can imagine, along the rue du Rivoli, past the Opera House, to the Galeries Lafayette, a ridiculously enormous and elaborate department store. I think it's sort of the Saks, or the Harrods, of Paris. It reminds me of the huge department store GUM in Moscow, where were used to wander around in 1991, still sporting its Art Nouveau architectural glory, but empty of anything to sell. Well, Galeries Lafayettes has plenty to sell! Just ridiculous. However, we made a beeline for the children's shoe department and, an hour or so later, emerged with a darling pair of ballerina slippers and a cute pair of knee-length boots. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to explain "narrow feet" in French, as well as "no, no laces please, nor Velcro," but we pulled it off. It was actually a lot of fun to accomplish, and I came away with a whole new set of vocabulary words as well as a renewed respect for the subjunctive and the conditional and other grammatical conundra that I had forgotten since about 1986.

We tried and tried to find something for me, but I get very easily flummoxed and feeling all Socialist when confronted with a great deal of expensive merchandise. We had almost given up when the agnes b shop presented itself, and no matter that I pass the shop here in London on the way home from Avery's school every single day and have never gone in: no, this time I found the perfect, perfect little short brown skirt, and a cardigan with little knitted thingys that fit over my thumb! I changed into them and came out feeling quite French. We smiled at each other in mutual satisfaction, and headed out, back down the rue du Rivoli, to Brentano's, the great French-English bookstore where I spent a lot of time my last trip around Paris. "Oh my goodness, the last book in the "Series of Unfortunate Events" is out!" Avery gasped. Naturally, we would buy this in Paris. We collapsed at a sidewalk cafe to have some lunch and I cruelly did not allow Avery to read, otherwise she would run out of books for the train ride home. We shared an incredible platter of smoked salmon and foie gras, with perfect toast, and I felt very sad that I was leaving a city where the most ordinary of food establishments offers up something so superior to anything either London or New York can aspire to. How is that?

Back to say goodbye to the hotel and collect our incredibly enlarged baggage, in a taxi ride that took us down the Quai de la Megisserie, possibly the strangest street I have ever seen. Why would one particular street contain all the city's collection of both garden centers and pet shops? Honestly, one after another, jardinieres and magasins aux animaux, with cages full of parrots adorning the sidewalk in front of one shop, and then next door to it a motley assortment of garden gnomes. I'm none the wiser for looking up "megisserie" in the dictionary and finding that it means "tawing, or leather-dressing." Hmmm. Of course, New York has its flower district, and London has its bookshop district, but pets and plants together? Just another indication of how Paris doggedly maintains its idiosyncracies. I like that.

And off we were to the train station, and through immigration. The English passport chap gave us the usual skeptical "why do you have two different last names" scrutiny, asked what my husband did in London. "He works for Reuters America," I said patiently. "And you believe him? Would you trust him if he told you he worked for Reuters Uzbekistan?" he asked. "I'm not a very trusting person," I told him, and for whatever reason, it worked. We got in the train, stowed away our belongings, and settled down for a return to... normal life. But I must admit, normal life isn't too dreadful when it means being met at the train station in London by John in our darling Mini Cooper, and being driven home in the nice foggy dusk past the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park. Not too dreadful at all.

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