Copyright © 2002 by Martin S. Reff
All Rights Reserved
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Our arrival this morning was auspicious in that the plane was lighter than it should have been because our luggage was in Montreal. Delivery was promised for the next day. Marcia was worried (I would learn later why.) but I was confident it would arrive.
Our landlady, Mme. G and her husband welcomed us. We signed an official lease but merely initialed the inventory which we both agreed not to review. I cashed traveler's checks and paid three month's rent. The security was paid in traveler's checks to be returned before we left. With all details complete, they left for their home in La Rochelle, a picturesque ##seaport between Normandy and Bordeaux which we had visited years before. A painting of it with its distinctive fort and a few sailboats hung on each wall and even on the door. That one extended beyond the door frame so that the door could not open fully. We considered removing the fort with a knife.
We were on the eighth floor of a ten story twenty year old building, a giant of a residential structure. Our apartment is smaller than I imagined, but the panoramic view of Paris compensates. Before us is the skyline of Paris including the La Tour Eiffel, the Assemblée Nationale and l'Église du Dome (Napoleon's tomb), Palais de Chaillot at Trocadoro, the roof of the Arc de Triomphe, and in the distance the new city of La Défense.
Looking out onto the tops of buildings in the distance mentioned the strange orange containers. Marcia promptly provided the answer, "The chimneys of Paris." I had completely forgotten.
Long "French" windows in our apartment have been replaced with heavy sliding glass doors opening to a narrow straight balcony which extends about four feet from the building and runs parallel to it. Indeed, it continues on to the apartment next door on our right. The tall vertical traditional shutters have given way to a roll of wooden slats that come down much like a hurricane shutter. No drapes.
No drapes. As Marcia put it in her first letter: "We feel like we are in the movie 'Rear Window.' We watch everyone and they watch us, but we are in the tallest building but I still move back from the window when I dress and undress - at least sometimes. The apartments we see are all quite nice and also with lots of balconies/porches many with plants and flowers and some with trees. The gardens below are green and yellow. Paris is beginning to burst out in all the glory of spring.
The apartment had been, and probably still is, used for serious entertaining. Sixteen people can be seated, nine on chairs and the remainder on two sofas. Add an oval table 3 x 6 and, finally, add the following: 22 dinner plates, 24 smaller plates, 3 sets of wine glasses (12 for wine, 12 for water and 12 for cordial), demi-tasse coffee cups, thousands of forks, knives, and spoons, three extraordinarily large serving platters each in the shape of a fish to remind us of the port at La Rochelle, bowls, small fish shaped nut dishes, a collection of glass fish and other knick knacks, and a collection of art books. A typical French apartment. Unfortunately all this left little space for us because we had lugged with us as much as we could.
The two burners on the electric stove look normal but within a day we found controlling the temperature was all but impossible. An ancient 750 w. microwave was not much better and without instructions, using it effectively will take time. But Marcia is resourceful and I am confident that we will overcome.
While we waited for our luggage, Marcia rearranged storage to make room for our needs. Later that day we went shopping for food and household goods including two mugs; Marcia was not about to drink her tea from a cereal bowl! I remembered using one 50 years before.
Our neighborhood is good and convenient: a big supermarket two blocks away with a smaller one across the street; a bi -weekly open air market; three boulangeries (bakeries); plenty of transportation and restaurants.
We live in the Montparnasse area which is famous in its own way. Originally the name was Mont Parnassus, the mythical mountain top where the Greek god Apollo resided with his muses. The name was given to the area by students who had been forced to leave their usual meeting place, a nice meadow near the University and the river Seine. The "mont" became theirs and they continued to frequent the area. Today it remains somewhat Bohemian, a youthful center of art, peppered with cafés, movie houses, and bistros...one of the liveliest spots in Paris. It houses a railroad station and sports one of the tallest structures in Paris, the Montparnasse Tower. And its métro station, Montparnasse Bienvenüe, is the junction of four lines. For many years that the "Bienvenüe" was the word for "welcome." The name the station and the welcoming word. Marcia discovered, however, that "Bienvenüe" is the last name of the engineer responsible for the métro (Fulgence Bienvenüe). Bienvenue, the French word for welcome, doesn't have the dieresis over the letter "u".
Had our first dinner at an old bistro on boulevard Montparnasse
which Marcia had found in her notes. Huge mirrors on every wall,
hand painted tile, glass lampshades - an old world welcome we
liked. Marcia enjoyed her Blanquette de veau (glorious veal...stew
- what a poor word for a feast!). My Magret, a breast of a duck
usually sliced and treated like steak, was poor - not tender and
certainly not tasty. Indeed, even Marcia complained that her
blanquette needed salt.
My coffee was served in a demi-tasse and I ended up by borrowing Marcia's tea. We both laughed recalling how I developed this habit years before.
We had no trouble getting to sleep even after walking a while, "supervising" as we call our habitual evening activity
We awoke 3:30-4 in the morning, had breakfast, straightened our abode - which will need "straightening" regularly. Tables attract precious things, such as books, wallets, computer glasses, airline tickets, baggage claim checks, a flashlight and a tooth polisher that needed a battery, American coins, French monai, colored pencils, pens, money belts, keys, pads, envelopes, regular pencils that will need to be sharpened with a sharpener that will need to be purchased, eye glass cases, the daily newspaper Le Figaro, and, finally, the red book in which I inscribe the date I last changed my hearing aid's battery and filter, how much we spent the day before, names addresses and telephone numbers, and metric conversion data. I cluttered three tables and the long oval one that faces the window.
As an early riser I claimed the role of straightener many years ago. I am always rewarded at least by the satisfaction of a neat arrangement. Occasionally, I find a gem such as an email address or a note to myself to find out something about Armand Moisant, the man whose name is the name of our street. Most of the time, though, I don't do a thing because I don't want to disturb Marcia.
At about 6 o'clock we returned to bed and fell deeply asleep which we attribute to Marcia's cup of regular tea with non-caffinated milk and my two bowls of regular black coffee.
Four hours later we awoke, looking forward to our luggage which we expected sometime between 11 am and noon. During our lunch (mackerel in white wine for me and cereal and banana for Marcia) we learned that the delivery would be between 3 and 5 o'clock. Periodically, throughout the afternoon and into the evening hours, I visited the front of the building, ready to supervise delivery of the luggage. At about seven o'clock it arrived.
We spent the next two hours finding space for what we unpacked. Because the lock on Marcia's case had been broken and she couldn't find the shoulder pad for her violin, she believed her case had been opened. She mentioned to me that she had carried those long metal legs of the music stand, my tools, and two cylinders of powder which might look like orange coke but were in truth my Metamucil. Her pad had turned up in my case and I explained that the lock had been broken earlier. I didn't learn what really worried her until she prepared our first dinner. She had carried with her contraband: small plastic envelopes containing a good supply of powders and leaves - her spice cache. I had warned against doing that, envisioning dobermans confusing coriander with cocaine or curry with cannabis and alerting custom agents. Alas, she was right. No doberman but plenty of spices which we used every day.
Marcia found space for all our belongings as I knew she would. Indeed, that talent was one of the reasons why I married her. Twenty-five years earlier she had accomplished the feat of squirreling at least 10 cartons of supplies into my 30 foot Trojan powerboat. I had to ask her for everything.
With Radio Shack's smallest telephone and the needed adapter in place, we called our dear friends Charlette and Michel and were invited to lunch the following week.
We found what turned out to be a fine small restaurant nearby. "A la Ville de Morlaix." I selected the fixed price meal at 89 francs [equal to about $12 at 7.4 francs to the dollar]. My appetizer was filets of herring served on a bed of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and wine sauce...almost a meal in itself. A thick slice of salmon made with salt in a Scandinavian fashion accompanied with a delicious sauce followed. Also on the plate were two kinds of vegetables and a portion of potatoes. Marcia, who had chosen a large bowl of mussels a la carte, started when I did and ended long after I finished.
A pitcher of dry white wine helped us with the digestion. Later we had a good sized bowl of fresh giant strawberries followed by two cups of coffee for me and two cups of tea for Marcia. In paying the bill I made the grievous error of not determining if the service was included. The bill came to 220 francs. I added 15% which came to 253 francs. I made it an even 260. Marcia asked me outside about the tip. Nothing on the bill indicated that it had been included but the flyer posted outside indicated that the price of 89 francs for the fixed price mean included the tip. What happened was that the tip had been included on mine but not on Marcia's. What I should have done was to subtract 89 from the 220 and paid a gratuity on the difference. If I had I would have saved 20 francs. The last time we were in Paris the tip was not included. Now, with "service compris" I should leave something more if it is extraordinarily good.
We left the restaurant and walked the long way back where we read and talked and went to sleep near midnight.
We both slept the sleep of very weary travelers, soundly with a minimum of interruption. I got up at twenty minutes to nine, having slept 9 and 1/2 hours with a pit stop or two...the longest I've slept in years. Marcia woke up twenty minutes later. She said she had been awake for awhile during the night.
Off to the Saturday open air market. We both looked forward to this and weren't disappointed. The market occupied the center of a three block island mall: one wide aisle, with stalls on each side.
Wonderful displays of fish - so many, all fresh, many whole with bright eyes; and oysters from every part of every coast; and mussels; and scallops including the coral, or red roe, which you never see in the States because you never see the scallop in its shell. But our hearts were taken by the rabbit (lapin) which Marcia stewed that night with a sauce most restaurants would envy. Fine white wine from Alsace for her and a Bordeaux, Chateau Bertruc, for me. Both bottles of wine were inexpensive ($5 and $3) but very good. With the lapin came potatoes, followed as usual by a salad, coffee and tea with French cookies. But that was in the evening.
In the afternoon we walked around our neighborhood and finally down rue des Rennes to boulevard St-Germain.
After that rabbit dinner we took the Métro to the Latin Quarter. The métro in Paris ("underground" or "tube" in London and "subway" in New York) works well and is easy to understand. A carnet, a packet of 10 tickets, costs about eight dollars. At the entrance, making sure no one was looking, I tried one of a half dozen tickets I had kept from our stay in 1992. It worked! And so did the others.
The walls of many stations are covered with art; indeed, the station at the Louvre is a small gallery. The trains are, if not comfortable, speedy. When our train stopped, it took a split second though to remember that I had to unlatch the door; on most lines they don't open automatically.
A restaurant, Le Hostellerie, one of our favorite, was as crowded as ever and one of these days we will have dinner there. We walked up boulevard St-Michel to place de la Sorbonne where I went to school more than a half-century earlier. And then back home.
It's 11:52 and my Apple Macintosh computer, the iBook, is working fine. We bought it before our trip, not only to use for writing a log, but to access email which we are having a problem with since we arrived.
Finally discovered why our email was not being sent. I needed an "ismpt" in front of the earthlink.net. Earthlink, the ISP we're using while in Europe, failed to let me know that important bit of information. Our letters went off and now people will know that we are safe and happy.
Morning found us at one of the most unusual museums in Paris, the Musée d'Orsay. When the structure had housed the Gare d'Orsay, a grand railroad station back in 1950, my mother, for whom I reserved a room at the Hotel d'Orsay next door complained about the noise of trains. Later I moved her but while there she had a glorious view of the Seine and the Louvre across the river. She also had a view of a traditional Paris convenience, the pissoir. This was a round kiosk about 12-15 feet in circumference that held running water in a circulur trough. Men urinated trough in the center. Their bodies from knee to shoulder were hidden by a round shield. I explained this to my mother as we peered down from her bedroom window on the 5th or 6th floor; the vespasienne (its more formal name) had no roof.
Today, there is no pissoir on the sidewalk and inside neither a train nor a bedroom. What you see in the center when you enter is a vast open area dedicated to sculpture - a garden of sorts - on steppes with places for you to recline so that you in turn can meditate on a reclining nude or white alabaster warrior gowned in black alabaster. And when you stand at a look-out point near the ceiling the awe of magnificence is almost palpable.
We walked on the main floor among the familiar figures and then the side alleys holding Daumier and Henri Rousseau. We compared milkmaids with shepherdesses, and in examining each, we discovered not only what we had found years ago, but subtler lines and muted colors. What I had just enjoyed 10 years ago, I fell in love with that day.
We never tire of visiting museums because we never stay too long at any one. An hour or an hour a half of beauty is a much as we can manage and so we left after visiting just one floor.
Had lunch in a small café called Bistro 1900 located in the Rohan Courtyard where the guillotine was invented (then called a philanthropic decapitating machine) by Dr. Guillotin. The court is famous. Marcia and I had visited it a decade earlier when the City of Paris was refurbishing the actual building. It now houses a tourist bureau and a restaurant.
Afterward we walked down rue St-André-des-Arts, As we approached a familiar site both of us recalled the pigeon who "shat" on my head as were walking by many years ago. We stopped a few doors down for coffee and tea and then shared a chocolate cake...lots of cake with little chocolate.
St-André-des-Arts ends where the milieu of student/tourist/youth heaven come together at the intersection of boulevard St-Michel ("Bull Mich") and boulevard St-Germain. We crossed the Seine which was in full flood from the rains some weeks back and then stopped at the Conciergerie for a poet festival.
Our eyes led us to l'Hôtel de Ville, the City Hall of Paris where we waved at BHV (Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville) across rue St-Antoine. BHV (pronounced bay-ash-vay) had been our favorite hardware store. Nearby we found the inexpensive restaurant on an ordinary side street off rue St-Antoine in which we lunched on many occasions. Jambon de Bayonne was run by two women and a man. A crowd used to frequent the long tables where the main dish was Chicken Basque. We expect to eat there soon.
On Mondays most museums and official public places are closed so this Monday we decided just to walk and walk we did...from Gare Montparnasse outward - all afternoon and into the early evening. It had been an invigorating day full of reminiscing.
We shopped for a lined notebook, an electrical plug, and a modem connection.
Marcia was pooped. While she slept, I shopped for and found a bathing cap - required for French swimming pools.
Prepared cod in the evening with potatoes and leek.
When I tell people in the States about living in France they assume that we speak French. Well, we don't. During my last term of college I took my first course in French. When I arrived in Paris, I took a 2 week "refresher" at the Alliance Française and I continued a weekly session in French at the Sorbonne. I learned a bit but not enough to be comfortable. I'm not sure when the transition took place. I know that I studied French on my own when I got back to the States. I used it to fulfill my foreign language requirement for the doctorate. All I know was that when I returned for a brief visit of 10 days in 1968, I knew enough to get around. Confidence was what I had. When we arrived in 1987, that confidence allowed me to manage the bureaucracy of our visa and other matters.
Marcia studied, listened to tapes, and learned a lot but did not have the confidence that I had. But she developed a wide knowledge of the language and often, it was she who understood what was being said to me and told me so that I could respond.
Knowing some words is vital. Being able to smile and start
the conversation in French is very important. The French like
an American who tries.
We set off to explore our own neighborhood discovering a laundromat, a restaurant, and some interesting nooks and crannies in the warren of French architecture that we love so much. Then we just continued to walk. We found the administrative offices of the train station and a lovely park in a courtyard. Growth was cut to bloom shortly and, indeed, some cherry blossoms had already burst.
Since one of the addresses for a computer store was some blocks away we aimed for it, presumably located on avenue du Maine and so we cut over to that street. When we arrived at 1400, we found a closed establishment. I had forgotten that one must call before you visit a small shop in Paris. By the way the French use the 24 hour system of keeping track of time. 0700 is 7 A.M. and 1900 is 7 p.m.
I had to use a toilet and when we spotted one a few blocks up I was happy. The portable facility, made of plastic and steel, is modern, and not unattractive. You need two francs (I got change across the street at a café. Later we would always carry change with us.). On the outside of the booth are two lights: one for "occupied" and one for "free." I inserted the francs, the door rolled open, I entered and the door closed. It's a small compartment with a toilet and above that, a small alcove to wash your hands. After you are done, you open the door and exit. It closes automatically. The toilet is flushed and the complete interior is washed and sanitized.
We returned on avenue de General LeClerc. The charm of French street names! All names of people, places, and events. History wherever you walk or live. We live on rue Armand Moisant. Later we were told that Moisant had been an architect. (When I returned to the States, I searched the Web to verify that pedigree. Of the 190 references to "Armand Moisant" not one was about the man; all referred to sites on the street which is extraordinarily small, only one block long.)
We found a very inexpensive shop and bought a short electric extension cord for 12 francs and a package of eight plastic containers of varying sizes for 39 francs ($5.25). Plastic in France is expensive. At a computer store we were given directions to Darty, a computer, telephone and radio complex near Montparnasse where we live. This was fortunate because I needed a small separator to divide the incoming telephone line into a modem line and a telephone line.
Rather than take the wide connecting street, Marcia picked rue Daguerre which turned out to be a market street. We found a shop that sold accordions; its window was crowded with antique instruments that were works of art.
Darty didn't have the connector we wanted. Home then for a lunch of cereal for Marcia and sardines for me. We took our first nap and after went shopping at our local supermarket INNO which is connected to Monoprix, a chain which we know.
Fortunately for Parisians and for us étrangers (foreigners) supermarkets haven't overwhelmed traditional "mom and pa" stores. Indeed, when we lived here permanently, we bought meat, cheese, wine, and fish from individual merchants. Now, we noticed that some of the supermarkets have departments for each of these categories. In the INNO market near Montparnasse the display cases that contain cheeses are arranged in a 25 foot square.
The American supermarket and its French counterpart are alike in many ways but let me describe the differences.
In general supermarkets are but one department of a large store that sells many other products including clothing, hardware, stationary, etc. The food market is usually located in the basement. The smaller market chains cater mainly to food.
Shopping carts are available but you need a 10 franc coin to secure one; the coin is retrieved when the cart is returned. As a result one doesn't find discarded shopping carts strewn anywhere; they're almost worth their weight in francs.
Like the public street market the supermarket offers an overwhelming variety of certain products such as wine, cheese, seafood, and delicatessen; for example, a wide 6 tier refrigerated display unit is dedicated just to smoked fish - mostly salmon but you will find eel and trout as well. Six feet of shelving with about 8 tiers hold just chocolate in bars.
Soups, sauces, as well as pasteurized and radiated milk are packaged in cartons. Frozen food is available but it is usually carried in a specialty shop. Beef, veal, pork, rabbit, chicken, duck, and turkey can be found in refrigerated displays. These varieties are usually not cut or packaged locally as is usually the case in an American market. In a supermarket a butcher is available at a counter to provide service on special cuts.
Vegetables are given to an attendant who bags and weighs and then returns them to you with a price sticker. In the smaller supermarkets the customer bags the vegetable and then weighs it. The scale delivers a sticker which the customer affixes on the bag.
At the checkout counter you are responsible for packing your purchases; the clerk is only a cashier and because there is nothing to weigh, she/he never touches your food. With the exception of public street markets only cashiers handle money. A butcher will cut meat but another person will take your money. In the bakery if there is no cashier during off hours the attendant will use paper to pick up a baguette or a tarte and then take your payment.
We bought paprika, milk, orange juice, salmon, radishes, lettuce, broccoli, crackers, and cheese.
Making dinner is a production with our two burner stove and microwave oven. Tonight we used both. We used the microwave for the broccoli which took longer than we anticipated because the oven is old, not very speedy nor powerful. I prepared the pan for two fillets of salmon cut thick enough to call steaks. I started the salmon in a frying pan in the rear and then Marcia started the rice in a pot in front. At the same time we had to supervise the microwave which really is a dumb box.
It all turned out well.
Later that evening while Marcia played bridge and wrote a letter home, I walked up boulevard Montparnasse to where it intersects with boulevard Raspail. What a sight. I didn't remember ever having seen as many people in so many cafés and restaurants. So much life and so many colors. Young people and old. Colored bright lights everywhere, traffic, and animation. I was reminded of Gershwin's "Ammerican in Paris."
By the way young people abound - everywhere. The run-down look prevails; informal Fridays begin on Mondays. Jeans are ubiquitous. Exceptions are female adults who've learned that neat coordinated color, fine line, and flair set you off. Ties, shirts, suits, leather shoes, and neat hair have been found to do the same by their male counterparts.
Mature adult women try to pick the high ground in fashion but heavy clothing and dark colors that prevail during the winter months are not particularly attractive. With each spring day more colors appear on the tips of shoes, scarves, and costume jewelry.
Many women and even men enjoy the sound of the leather heel. It demands attention.
As a person who swims 400 to 800 yards most mornings, I was looking forward to this early morning venture. I had visited the community pool under the Montparnasse tower before to learn about pricing, hours, lockers, etc. and now, with a new sleek silver swimming cap, my towel, and a few francs, I headed out at 6:30 AM into a cold damp morning. I was surprised at the number of people waiting for the doors to open. But what really got to me were the number of the swimmers in each of a half dozen lanes in the pool devoted to advanced swimmers. I swam but it was no fun. I'm used to having a lane for myself. Now with four to six swimmers in each, the traffic was worse than a Paris street and equally dangerous. I gave up after a few laps and didn't return. I would walk instead.
After lunch and a nap we went to the Louvre where we purchased a year's membership in the Friends of the Louvre for 450 F ($66) which allows us unlimited access to the Louvre through a private entrance at any time it's open without waiting on line. Our member's card allows us access to other exhibits as well.
After checking our jackets etc., our first priority was the new Richelieu wing which we had seen being built 10 before. Our last view of it was a excavation in the ground off rue de Rivoli. This wing of the Louvre had been used since Napoleon III by the Minister of Finance and his department. We were not prepared for the magnificence of the sculpture display in the Puget Court. It seemed as high as it was wide and was filled with human and animal figures, some larger than life, but all caught in contortions of pleasure, pain, and majesty.
We wandered in an out, one moment admiring the two infants sitting on a goat with a blanket of grapes around them all, and another comparing the St. George and the dragon in front of us with the copy in the restaurant of the same name in Naples, Florida where we live now.
Walking on the marble with the afternoon light streaming in long windows was like walking in a garden in an exotic clime. We very much enjoyed our first visit in almost ten years.
When we left the Louvre we walked east on rue de St-Honoré looking for a café where I could buy a lotto ticket. (We won some money on a lotto while we were in France in 1991.) We were also looking for a small Italian restaurant which we frequented for lunch. We found both.
Home again by métro. Marcia prepared a delicious curried chicken with rice and broccoli, followed by salad, some brie for me, coffee/tea and cookies.
By then it was almost 10 PM.
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