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Tuesday
Jul272010

Nike - Just Do It

Of all of the magnificent works of art at the Louvre, there are a few that really blow my mind.  People often ask me during tours what my favorite is, and I seem to have a different answer every few days.  Although more often than not, my answer is Nike of Samothrace, the Winged Victory.

It seems to be a common favorite of my tour guests as well.  On the occasions that people have been overcome with emotion during a tour, it’s always with her.  She’s a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture, capturing the instant when the goddess Nike descends to alight on the warship - just one foot fully touching the base.  I imagine the huge fluttering wings slowing her descent to touch down lightly as her body is buffeted by the wind and spray that shift the folds of her clothing.  The unknown sculptor managed to convey the impression the clothing is wet as the fabric clings tightly to the contours of her torso, exposing her belly button.   It's often hard for me to truly grasp that his was chiseled in marble more than 2,000 years ago using relatively simple tools.

Most visitors just want to take her picture, or pose with her.  But sadly few seem to really look at her.  If you happen to be in Paris, I highly recommend you pay her a visit.    If you like, I’d even be happy to introduce you to her myself.  

But in the meantime, you have another chance to get to know her better.  The Louvre website offers a closer look at this spectacular work.  Giving us a chance to marvel in her beauty and better understand the details that make her so special.    

See Nike of Samothrace - A Closer Look at the Winged Victory

Images: © Louvre Museum Paris

Monday
May172010

Pause Gourmande

Mr Creosote - Monty Python's ultimate gluttonA Gourmand or Gourmande, depending on if you are speaking to a man or a woman (the feminine form has an "e" at the end) can be gentle teasing way to call someone a glutton.  A pause gourmande, pronounced Pose Gor-man-d, is a little gourmet break, a delightful snack.  A good way, I think, to introduce a quick post about eating in France.

 

I was having lunch with J recently and he noticed on the menu, hiding amongst the desserts, something called “Café Gourmand”.  It was priced at 7€50, slightly less than the other desserts yet much more expensive than a coffee.  Because he knew both meanings of Gourmand, he cynically joked that it was the owner who was the glutton, gouging the customers with his overpriced “gourmet” coffee.

In fact, this is a recent trend that has started to appear more commonly on Paris menus.  A Café Gourmand is not an overpriced “gourmet” coffee, but three small desserts paired with a little espresso.  Or for those in the know, a Noisette.  A great guilt-free dessert where you often get to sample three mini-versions of the desserts on the menu.   It’s the perfect end to a nice lunch and ensures you get “just a bite” of dessert without having to cajole your friends into ordering a full dessert to share.

During the course of another lunch, with MC, a close friend who frequently inspires my posts, we talked about table manners.  Her French husband is quite a stickler for the rules, even though he breaks them with abandon himself.  He shrugs off protests from his family with the classic comment “its okay to break the rules as long as you know what they are”

We were having Terrine de Fois Gras, a chilled version of Fois Gras, usually served with little Brioche toast points and some sort of sweet relish.  That day it was a mild Mango Chutney.  As we ate the Fois Gras, MC explained to the others at the table the proper way to eat such a dish.  Voila, more rules about eating in France.  You see, there is a tendency for people to spread the creamy rich fois gras on the toast point and then happily eat it like a breakfast Tartine, akin to an open-faced peanut butter sandwich. 

The word tartine (Tar-Teen), comes from the verb tartiner (Tar-Teen-Ay) which means to spread.  A Tartine is a 3-4 inch long half baguette spread generously with butter and sometimes jam too - if you are a gourmande.  This is dipped in the bowl of coffee for breakfast.  Well, just like a big milky coffee, that’s the end of “tartines “ – “spreading” for the day. 

Here’s the rule, aside from breakfast you should never - tartinez- at the table.  So, taking a big chunk of Fois Gras and spreading it all over the toast to make a sandwich is not correct.  With the tip of your knife, you pick up just enough Fois Gras for one bite and you put this on the corner of the toast.  Then you take a bite of the toast along with the morsel of Fois Gras.  Then savor the perfect bite...

I already knew this rule about Fois Gras, but MC called me out a bit later when I was liberally spreading the amazing Bordier Smoked Salt Butter all over a piece of bread.  It turns out that the rule “No spreading after breakfast” applies to butter as well.  You are expected to put just enough butter for one bite and never to spread the entire piece of bread with butter, take a bite and set the rest down on your bread plate. Well, on the table actually. 

That is another odd thing; if you have been to France you know there is almost never a bread plate.  Once you have taken a piece of bread, between bites you set it directly on the table to the left of your plate.  This is probably because that the French use bread the way the rest of us use a knife so it rarely gets put down.  Any time you need to push something onto your fork it is more polite to use the bread than a knife.  Most important of all, you must never “sauce” with bread.  This is using the bread like a sponge to wipe up any remaining sauce and pop it into your mouth - Very tempting with most French sauces.  One exception, allowed only at home, is to spear your bread with the fork and “Sauce” using your fork to hold the bread.

The last and most counter-intuitive point in French table manners is that you are never allowed to put your hands in your lap during a meal.   I had heard this early on, but didn’t really believe that this could be considered impolite.  After all, I’d been badgered in the opposite direction for years as a child. 

One day over lunch with Jacqueline, a very feisty friend in her seventies, who I consider to be my French Grandmother.  At a moment between courses, I placed my hands politely in my lap.  Hey, she said “Qu’est-ce tu fais là-bas” essentially, “What are you doing down there”?  A bit embarrassed at being accused of who-knows-what, I put my hands above the table.  No elbows, just the forearms and hands.  “C’est mieux” – “That’s better” she said and we resumed our conversation. 

"Souper chez le Prince de Conti", 1766 by Michel Barthélémy OllivierI don’t know the origins of this rule come but one imagines the famous intrigues of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and other clandestine love affairs between gentlemen and their mistresses.  Affairs that went on under the noses of husbands and wives, perhaps at dinners with all parties present.  In such a case it would be very important to know what people were up to “under the table.”

In the immortal words of Julia Child, a fellow alum from the Cordon Bleu Cooking School - "Bon Apétit!"

Sunday
May092010

Talk like a Parisian

I’ve come to the conclusion that since the tours created by my company afford visitors a glimpse of Paris that isn’t in the guidebooks, the people I meet are especially curious about French life and culture.  As a result, we are often asked what French to learn before coming to Paris. 

Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone can actually “learn to speak French” in the course of planning a holiday vacation to France.  However, you can use a few commonly known words to your advantage.  You just have to use precisely the right word at just the right moment. 

The best place to start is to forget everything you think you know.  There is a charming term used in French language schools called the “Faux ami” – pronounced Fauze-amie.  This translates litteraly to false friend and refers to words that seem like they should mean the same thing in English and French but don’t. 

An example is “excusez-moi” which is generally thought by English speakers to work like “excuse me” when it’s closer to “sorry.”  “I’m sorry” is actually “Je m’excuse”  So this is the first thing to remember.  In my opinion you should forget about “excusez-moi”.

If you are in a crowed place or in the Métro and want to get by the thing to say is not "excusez-moi", but “Pardon” pronounced par-DON.  With the emphasis on the second syllable and with a nasal “own” sound if you can manage it.  When the doors open in a crowded Métro car and you are stuck far from the quickly closing door, saying Pardon firmly and emphatically will part the crowd in seconds. 

If you are curious about other ways to attract attention, you can read this post for advice on service in restaurants.

The next thing to learn is when to use the words Bonjour, Bonsoir, Au Revoir and Adieu.  “Bonjour” which means “Good Day” is used from morning until dusk.  “Bonsoir” is “Good Evening.”  Both greetings are used in common speech so there’s no faux-ami lurking here.  While there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule about when to switch, it seems that this often happens around dusk  I notice it also can happen when you meet someone working in a shop in the late afternoon who has become bored and tired.  I think they say Bonsoir out of wishful thinking that their workday is almost over.  I would say, it's a safe bet to start using Bonsoir about 6pm.  Of course, you will quickly relize that you are using the wrong greeting when you say "bonjour" and the person responds "bonsoir."  Note: This only works with native speakers, the rest of us are sometimes as confused as you are.

What about Au revoir and Adieu you ask?  Well, just thinking about what each of these words mean will give you a clue when to use them.  “Au revoir” translates to “See you again” and “Adieu” is “To God”.  Clearly the finality of “To God” makes it something that is not necessarily used when saying “goodbye” to people.  The lesson here, unless you are at a funeral, forget Adieu.

I’ve saved the easiest for last.  “Merci” and “Merci beaucoup”.  “Thank you” and “Thank you very much” – nothing tricky here.  At last -- Something that you can thank Madame Charles, your Junior High School French teacher, for telling you. 

Now that we’ve reviewed the words, we can now discuss the more challenging part of this effort.  When to use the words to get the effect we want --  Like when we need to get people to step aside quickly to let us out of the Métro before the doors shut.

There is a myth that the French are rude, but I think this is no more true in Paris than any other big city in the world.  In most cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, there are some basic cultural guidelines for being polite to strangers that don't necessicarily apply in English speaking countries. 

When you enter a small boutique or a café  you are expected to say “Bonjour” (or Bonsoir) to the person working there.  Once you have looked around (and regardless of whether you’ve bought anything) one says “Merci – Au Revoir” when leaving.  This is also regardless of whether the person in the shop has even bothered to come over and offer to assist you.  But I can assure you, no matter how disinterested the person working in the shop may have seemed, when you leave and say “Merci – Au Revoir” they will respond with “Au Revoir.”  

The same is true when you leave a neighborhood café.  I have already written about how to order coffee in Paris, but after a having a coffee at the counter or a table, when you pass by the bar on your way out the door, you should say “Merci – Au Revoir”.  Again, no matter how disinterested the barman may seem they will generally respond with an automatic “Au Revoir.”

The final and perhaps most important moment to use “Bonjour” and “Bonsoir” is when you are asking a question in any store, shop, grocery store or department store.  Imagine you have been looking around inside for a little while and now have a question for someone working there.  In English, it’s acceptable to glance over and say “Excuse me, do you have this in red?” all in one quick and efficient phrase. 

Not so fast there partner, we’re in France;  things are different here.  I learned this the hard way in the first few weeks of living in Paris back in 2001.  Armed with just a couple of weeks of French studies, I went to the Monoprix grocery store in my neighborhood of Passy.  I was looking for something that I was sure they stocked but I simply couldn’t find. 

I looked around and found a man who was stocking the shelves.  I went over to him and said – “Excusez-moi ou est mayonnaise?” -- “Excuse me, where’s the mayonnaise?” Okay, it was a bit roughly said, but I thought I was getting my point across.  After all, I'd only been studying French for two weeks.   The man responded with a blank stare and replied “Bonjour”.  I repeated my question differently assuming I'd made a mistake.  “Je cherche mayonnaise” - “I’m looking for mayonnaise”.  Again he replied “Bonjour”.  The third time I thought I should keep it simplesaying only “Mayonnaise” which I probably pronounced slowly “May-onnnn-NAIZZZZZE” to ensure that I was as clear as possible.  By now I became convinced that "Mayonnaise" was not actually a word in French because he responded again with “Bonjour”. 

Exasperated, I didn’t know what to do.  It was clear that I was not going to be buying any mayonnaise that day.  So, I started to walk away.  “Monsieur” the man called after me “En France on dit Bonjour d’abord” -- “In France we say Bonjour first”. 

Ah, I finally understood, and started over.  This time I said “Bonjour”.  He replied “Bonjour”, then I said “je cherche mayonnaise” and he replied “Aisle five”.  Success!  It was my first cultural lesson, and it happened right there in the middle of the Monoprix where I recently had another cultural awakening.

One last moment when I think it’s very important to say Bonjour is on the bus.  When boarding the bus, most people greet the driver who says “bonjour” in return.  A nice custom I think.  In general, when you come up to someone and you want to ask them a question, start with “bonjour” or “bonsoir” and you'll never go wrong.

So, it’s not necessary to learn a lot of French to blend in a bit and give the people you meet in shops and cafés the impression you are making an effort.  In reality more and more people speak English in France and so it’s generally not so difficult to communicate in most shopping, eating or sightseeing situations.  In most shops even if the person you first greet doesn’t speak English, they will find a colleague who does.

So instead of studying French, I recommend you spend your time reading guidebooks and scouring the internet for places to go, things to see and hidden restaurants to discover.  Or, you can let our concierge do the planning for you and simply enjoy the result.  Bon voyage!


Thanks to Scott Schuman from sartorialist.com for the images.

 

Monday
May032010

How to order coffee in Paris

It would seem that in the past couple of decades, America, Canada and the UK have caught up with the rest of the world, namely Italy and France with their understanding and taste in coffee.  One notable exception seems to have been Australia.  Even when I was living there in the 80s you could get a good Italian style coffee drink at any corner milk bar or sandwich shop.

Out went the dishwater-bland over perked coffee our parents and grandparents favored for the rich, dark roasted coffee that comes in a dozen forms.  In the US and UK, the point of reference for naming coffee drinks is Italy.  We have all become familiar with the words Cappuccino, Latte, Espresso and the like.  So today, an American or Brit travelling in Italy can order coffee in Italian like a native.  For the same reason, I’ve always felt a certain comfort going to Italian restaurants in countries where I don’t speak the language.  Because, even in the furthest reaches of Anatolia for example, the menu is in “English”.  Well, it’s actually Restaurant Italian which simply seems like English.  Who wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing the words Lasagne or Spaghetti Bolognaise on a menu in Turkish.  

Well, in Fance, things aren’t often as easy.  As my good friend J always says “Those French, they’ve got a different word for everything” and this is certainly true for coffee.  So here’s a quick primer on how to get a satisfying cup of Joe just like you enjoy on your way to work back home. 

The first thing to forget is the Café au Lait.  This is what many people seem to associate with coffee in France, but no Frenchmen are ordering this in their local café.  The closest thing is a Café Crème which comes in two sizes, one called a Café Crème and the larger a Grand Crème.  This is a steamy combination of espresso coffee and steamed milk topped with foam – much like a Cappuccino.  For those of you that prefer a drip style coffee, there is the Café Allongé.  This is espresso diluted with hot water.  Sorry, but aside from a few hotels, real drip coffee is only made at home here.  If you like drip coffee with milk, and I’m sure you do, then you have to ask for it.  You’ll say “Café Allongé avec du lait à coté” – Cafe ah-longe-ay ah-veck doo lay ah co-tay.  If these seems too complicated, you’re right.  I say unless you drink your coffee black, stick with a Café Crème.  

After that, if you only know one French word for coffee you’ll probably order a Café and perhaps be disappointed when you are served a tiny espresso.  But here’s where it gets complicated, or for some of you -- interesting.  Like nearly everything in this food obsessed culture, there are rules about coffee. Just like the rules for cutting the cheese or what to serve at a dinner party that I've written about before.  Okay, these are not really rules, but more like cultural expectations.

The big milky coffees favored by Americans are only drunk in France for breakfast.  At home, morning coffee is usually from a bowl, not a mug.  This makes it easier to dunk the leftover baguette bought for dinner the night before into your coffee.  Yes, besides the idea of ordering café au Lait, the idea that Frenchman head out merrily each morning to buy a baguette is also something of a myth.  Sure, people head out to buy croissants on the weekends and perhaps the odd occasion when they want to impress someone new who’s spent the night.

After about 10am, most people have switched to café (espresso) and after a meal they'd never ever order a big milky coffee.  I’m not sure what comparison to make to define the puzzled look sometimes seen on waiters’ faces, but it’s akin to ordering a bowl of cereal for dinner anywhere but a 24-Hr Diner.  When you think about it, having a big steaming mug of hot milk with a small dose of espresso after a three course French lunch with wine and cheese does seem a bit strange,  if not a bit hard to digest.  But who knows, maybe I’ve just gone native.

“Hey, wait a minute” I hear you saying, “I hate coffee without milk.”  Well so do I.  So here’s a trick to order like a local and still get a really nice mid-day or post-meal coffee.  Order a “Noisette”.  In French, Noisette (Nuh-wah-zet) means Hazelnut and might refer to the color of the coffee.  It is also a cooking term used in recipes to describe a small amount of butter.  In the UK they say “add a knob of butter” where the in French one says “ajoutez une noisette du beurre” so who knows.  Besides, we need to order a coffee.

A Noisette is an espresso, with a dollop of foamed milk and a tiny bit of milk.  Just like a Macchiato in Italy or a Café Cortado in Spain.   In better restaurants and some cafés they bring you an espresso with a tiny pitcher of milk so you can make your own blend – my personal favorite.

That covers the options for what to order, but budget conscious visitors will be interested in one further tip.  When you are in an average neighborhood café in Paris, you have three options where you can order and consume your coffee.  Outside on the terrace, inside at a table or at the counter. “Au Bar”.  The prices are different between the bar and the tables.  A simple Café is 2.50€  or more when served at a table, but rarely more than 1.20€ at the bar. Often 1€.  So if you want to have a quick coffee break and save money, order and drink at the bar.  It’s also the fastest way to use the restroom without any hassle, if you are having trouble finding one.  This applies to all drinks, so you can have a budget aperitif at the counter as well.  If you are unsure if the café you've entered serves at the bar, look for the tell-tale sugar bowls set out on the bar to indicate they serve coffee there.  After all, coffee without sugar is as unthinkable in France as coffee without milk in the states.

One last tip for ordering coffee in a Café, if you arrive around lunchtime and only want to have a coffee on the terrace, choose a table that is not set with silverware and glasses.  Those tables are reserved for people eating, not drinking coffee.  So you will likely be shooed away.  The same is true in the evening when you might like to have an aperitif on the terrace.  But if most of the tables are empty, just ask and they will often let you sit there.

Glossary

English / Italian    French                  What to say           Prononced
Espresso                         Café                      Café                       Ca-fay
Cappucino                     Café Crème        Un Creme              Uhn Khrem
Macchiato                     Noisette                Une Noisette       Eywoon  Nuh-wah-zet

Tartine photo credit - Croque Madame

How to order coffee in Paris

Monday
May032010

A Room With A View

 

Most everyone dreams of an apartment in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower or perhaps the river Seine.  But alas it’s only the “lucky few,” as they say, who get to live the dream.  Ironically, my first apartment in Paris did have a view of the Eiffel Tower from my bedroom.  Back then I took it a bit in stride, after all I was only supposed to be here for a couple of months and I was making the most of my experience living in Paris.

 Well, now nearly ten years later, I am still making the most of living in Paris, but I have long ago left that apartment in the far corner of the 16th.  Along the way, I lived on rue Montorgueil, a bustling market street near Les Halles with a view of the steeple of St Eustache.  Just after, I lived in Place Dauphine, a charming little square hidden on the tip of the île St Louis.  This apartment looked over the small tree-lined park and down to the grand entrance of the Palais de Justice.  A beautiful view for sure, but what I didn’t have was many neighbors. 

Not surprisingly, the apartments in the Place Dauphine were most likely owned by foreigners who rarely came to Paris.  Mine was owned by a Belgian Count who insisted I include his title on the monthly rent check.  Only about 10% of the apartments in Place Dauphine ever had the lights on in the evening.  A pity really, I learned from one of my neighbors in the building.  This woman had lived there for more than fifty years.  She told me of the lively weekly market and all of the small bakeries, cheese and butcher shops that were there when she moved in.  It was really a village square back in the 1950’s, catering to the growing families that lived there.  It has also been the lovely Paris setting for many movies, and it was quite a treat to see my front door on “Sex and the City” when Carrie and “The Russian” walked by.

Now I live in a larger apartment, away from the river, across the street from a historic covered market.  Unfortunately, its 19th Century iron and glass roof was removed and the market is now covered with an unattractive modern apartment building.  At least there are trees along the street.  In short, after all these years in Paris, I live like a typical Parisian.  Since of course, the average Parisian doesn’t have a view of the Eiffel Tower, the river or even a small square with trees.  It’s also rare that people here will get to know the neighbors living in their building.  If you own your apartment, you certainly meet them at the co-op meetings, or worse when a leak in your kitchen floods their apartment in the middle of the night. (as happened to me a few months ago)  But realistically, aside from a simple bonjour or bonsoir as you pass in the courtyard, there isn’t much interaction with the people in your building.  Life at home is a pretty isolated existence which has no doubt spurred on the tradition of hanging out in cafés.

However, the neighbors in the surrounding buildings are a completely different story.  Here is where the real-life tapestry of Paris sights unfolds before you and reveals one of the unspoken secrets of Paris – most Parisians, for lack of a better term, are voyeurs.    

I was struck by this recently when one Sunday afternoon a few people came over to my place for tea and Galette de Rois, an Epiphany tradition in France.  One of them had never been to my apartment, and while standing at the window asked, “Alors, les voisins, ils sont comment?” (So, how about the neighbors?)

She wanted to know about the neighbors and more specifically if anyone was interesting.  I insinctively said no, but then with some thought, I then realized I could offer a quick rundown of the people whose apartments faced mine. My neighbors include a young family, an older couple with numerous grandchildren, a couple of university students and a plump middle-aged woman whose small studio apartment is decorated like a rose garden.  She watches television from the moment she comes home from work and seems to spend every sunny day on her tiny terrace tending her plants wearing just her bra and enormous white underpants.  Unknowingly, I had become a Parisian voyeur. 

This lead to a conversation amongst my guests about their neighbors; as everyone it seems, shares this inevitable pastime.  Many of the guests had a pretty good idea of who lived facing them, their general habits, who had gotten a new sofa or had a baby and a few mentioned how often they saw them in some state of undress.  Of course, like with my neighbors, rarely are these people anyone wants to see in such a state.

There were stories of daily routines which stayed unchanged for years, television preferences, major arguments, and even a proposition.  One told the story of daring young friend who was coming up the stairs of his building late one night and saw a beautiful woman gazing out the window of one of the apartments that faced his stairwell windows.  A bit tipsy, he cheekily took a few moments to enjoy the view.  The woman in the window noticed him and beckoned the handsome friend to join her for a drink, which he did!  I guess sometimes people do meet the neighbors in their own buildings.

Someone else recalled a night when the people living across the courtyard from his bedroom window where having a big party.  From the bedroom window, he had a view of their kitchen and bathroom, neither of which had much for curtains.  The music was blasting out the open kitchen window, keeping him awake.  When he finally looked though his curtains to see what was up, there was a couple (not the residents whom I suppose he would have recognized) but two party guests perched on the bathroom sink, in what could only be described as a compromising position.

Then one of the couples at my party said they live facing a Fire Station; a “détail croustillant” (In French, titillating details are crunchy not juicy) that produced some anticipatory excitement from the group.  You see, firemen tend to be quite good looking in Paris and they have something of a reputation for availability – if you know what I mean.  So you can understand the collective pique in level of interest when my friends mentioned the Fire Station.  Well, true to form, it seems that despite being surrounded by apartment buildings, the large window in the showers of this fire station don’t have curtains or even mottled glass.  You can imagine the rest.

Lastly, one woman had a story from the other side of the street, as it were.  She told us about a time, one Sunday afternoon when she and her boyfriend were getting amorous on the sofa.  As things were heating up, clothes began to fly.  Then when they were well into the spirit of the moment, she glanced over the to realize that the curtains were open.  As she looked out the window she saw her elderly neighbor across the street; sitting on a stool in the window of her kitchen, cup of tea and saucer in hand with a smile on her face, enjoying the show.  Needless to say it was “curtains” on future performances.

These stories made me wonder about the cultural differences that exist in France.  Were there any rules about this equally exhibitionist and voyeuristic behavior?  Things became clearer toward the end of the discussion when a young French woman mentioned that she lives in a long narrow apartment where all the rooms connect along the front façade lined with windows.  So even in her hallway she is in front of a window.  She said she couldn’t be bothered to close the curtains. “Frankly,” she said, “If my neighbors don’t want to see me getting dressed, THEY, can close their curtains!”  I wonder if they do…

 

Photo Credits:

Hotel Plaza Athenée

“Rear Window”  ©Paramount Pictures