Sunday, August 23, 2009

Le Marché d'Aligre

Our friends Paul and Lucy have an apartment in the 12th arrondissement on the rue de Charenton, not far from the Gare de Lyon. The 12th is a part of Paris I wasn't familiar with, a pie wedge in the southeast corner of the city that begins at the Opéra Bastille, cuts east through la Place de la Nation to the city's edge at the Boulevard Périphérique, then south through the Bois de Vincennes to the Seine, which forms its southern border.

While the 12th is not a "touristy" part of Paris -- I've seen it described elsewhere as "working class" and "residential," and that seems about right -- Deb and I fell in love with our little quartier, thanks to the Marché d'Aligre, a wonderful outdoor market anchored by one of the last covered markets in Paris, the Marché Beauvau.

On our first morning in Paris, while I navigated the complexities of our shower (whose confident Space Age appearance belied its nervous tendency to leak a small but significant stream of water out under the bathroom door in a furtive meander toward the apparently lower territory of the kitchen), Deb set out on a reconnaissance mission to locate pain au chocolat and a baguette.

She returned to the apartment, stepping over the wet bath towels on the floor, with a wide-eyed report of an amazing outdoor market that started just a block up the street. "They have ... everything. It's huge. Anything you want. You've got to see it."

Rather than try to describe the glories of the place, I'll let some photos tell the tale...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Nighthawks (in the afternoon...)

A little brasserie, L'Escale de Lyon, was just up the street from our apartment on the rue de Charenton. We'd go there from time to time to recharge on cafés noirs: the woman behind the counter (she seemed to always be there) would give us each a glass of cool water as the coffee brewed, while Algerian music played on the radio. Deb wondered what I was pointing the camera at -- I wanted to catch a bit of the vibe of the place, and the scene I was looking at struck me as a bit "Nighthawks-esque."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Les Plats de Paris

I've been slow to recount the second part of our trip, our time in Paris, because I didn't want to say goodbye to the Quercy. Leaving there meant (means) leaving my friends in the quintet, leaving Gretchen and Fritz and the nice folks they introduced me to, and leaving Puy l'Éveque and the Hotel Henry, which wasn't a fancy place at all but which charmed Deb and me anyway.

Improbably, we had such a wonderful time in the southwest that I was afraid Paris would be ... a letdown.

It wasn't.

One big change: the way we ate. I've already rhapsodized on the glorious plates set before me in some very select restaurants in the Lot Valley. While we dined out occasionally in Paris as well (at joints not remotely in the same league as the fine establishments Gretchen had lined up for the group), most of our meals there we made ourselves, in the tiny you've-got-to-be-kidding-me toy kitchen in our apartment on the rue de Charenton, in the 12th arrondissement.

The simpler homemade fare we had there was a bit of a relief after the rich, foie gras über alles cuisine of the first week: generally more vegetarian (okay, at least let's say "duck free," which was a start), simpler, but very fresh, thanks to the glorious Marché d'Aligre right up the street (more about that later...).

As a contrast to the food porn photos I showed earlier, I thought I'd show some typical meals in Paris. The photo leading off this post was the typical breakfast: coffee, OJ, a petit pain au chocolat and a baguette from the nearby and glorious Moisan organic bakery, perhaps some fruit, some cheese.

In fact, more often than not that was nearly the formula for our dinners as well...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Meanwhile, Deb...

Deb, later, at the Palais Royal, Paris.

My trip to France was divided into two very distinct weeks, and so far I've only covered the first: my time touring in the southwest, mainly around the Lot Valley, with the Blue Lake Faculty Quintet.

For most of that week, while I was gigging and eating, Deb pursued her own agenda: she first became interested in France and French culture in the 4th grade, when she was introduced to the Lascaux cave paintings, which were not far from where we were in southwest France. (When Deb studies a culture, she likes to start at the VERY beginning...) Since this region was "where it all began" for her -- and, for that matter, where all of French culture began -- she was excited at the prospect of exploring this corner of France, which she'd never visited before.

Though Deb missed out on the extraordinary dining experiences that Gretchen had arranged for the group, she collected her own memorable moments. Deb's a near-native French speaker -- in fact, most folks would call her a native speaker, and regularly in France she was asked where she was from (Belgium? Switzerland?), because they could detect some hard-to-place "you're not from around here" aspect to her accent, but took it for granted she was a native speaker -- but Deb, as a professional in the language field, is very picky about the term "native speaker," which she pretty much reserves exclusively for ... native speakers, born and raised in the language.

Because Deb is fluent in French, she had experiences and interactions with French folks that were not possible for us Persons of Lesser Fluency. For example, she was carjacked by a little old French lady at the Château de Bonaguil.

(It's her story, and she should probably get her own damn blog if it's to be told properly, but basically it amounts to this: Deb went to Bonaguil on her own, several days before I visited it with the members of the quintet. An old woman spotted Deb at the château, chatted with her briefly about the unreliable cellphone coverage in the area, and then mysteriously appeared next to her in the parking lot at the exact moment she was retrieving her rental car. "Do you have a car?," she asked, as Deb was opening the door to the quite obvious and tangible car that she did indeed have -- in other words, at the point where plausible deniability ceased to be plausible.

"Um, yes," Deb responded, "bien sûr."

"Then you could give me a ride to the train station at [Unintelligible Name of Town]."

Deb, very game, said "Okay. But you'll have to give me directions to that town -- I'm not from around here, and I don't know it."

"Fine," the woman said, opening the door and getting in.

As Deb pulled out of the parking lot, she asked "Which way?," and the woman replied, "I don't know. You'll have to ask. That's why God gave us mouths..."

And so it went: Deb used her God-given mouth to ask random French people on the narrow roads of southwest France how to get to Unintelligible Name of Town -- which by then Deb had actually deciphered the name of -- and she had a nice little adventure with a nice little old French lady.

Now, if the woman had approached *me* at the moment I was opening my car door -- well, first off, she wouldn't have approached me, because I'm a scary-looking guy, while Deb's a very-nice-looking woman -- and which, by the way, is really unfair, since I'm actually a very nice person, in my opinion much nicer than Deb -- but anyway, if the woman had approached me and said "Est-ce que vous avez une voiture?" at the moment I was opening my car door, I'd have assumed that my French was somehow failing me, that she couldn't be asking me such an obvious question. First I'd have panicked a bit, and then I'd have regained my composure and blurted out "Um, euh, pardon? Uh, uh, répétez? Si voo play...," at which point the woman would've muttered "Oh for chrissakes, never mind, con," and left.

Children: please take this lesson to heart. Study a language diligently, and if you're lucky you might grow up to be carjacked by a little old lady in the country of your target language.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Our new home in Montcabrier...

We first spotted the church at Montcabrier on a hill high above us. What appeared at a distance to be a ruin, a lone triangular wall with holes where windows had been, was actually the very intact church's very intact bell tower.

Inside, it was cool and dark, but my camera cheerfully did whatever internal processing it does to make it seem as if the interior glowed with a miraculous inner light.

Gretchen, who knew that Deb had fallen in love with this part of France, called me over to take a picture of a little place for sale, right next to the church. She had me make sure to get the sign with the real estate agency's phone number into the shot, so we could call and find out the price. I dutifully framed the shot, and we called the number a week later while we were in Paris.

The perfect ending would be that we bought the house and lived in the southwest of France happily ever after, as I could easily imagine sipping Cahors wine while sitting in the little courtyard of our little place in Montcabrier, overlooking the church and the town square.

The less perfect ending would be that we didn't ... quite ... have the Euros necessary to buy the little house. And our time in the Lot region was nearly up.

Our consolation would be a week in Paris.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

La Récréation & Les Arques

I've already mentioned my meal at La Récréation, a charming restaurant set in a former schoolhouse in the tiny hamlet of Les Arques, and probably my favorite among a group of very memorable meals. The food was marvelous, as would be expected, and we were outside on their patio on a lovely, flawless late May day in the south of France ... in other words: heaven.

The service was also noteworthy. From my seat at our round table I was perhaps the only person able to observe some of the behind-the-scenes choreography that brought the food to our group. Far from where we were seated I spotted a server with a tray of food for us, and he lingered a bit before approaching our table, which I thought a little odd, until I saw what he was up to: he was waiting for his colleague, who had his own tray for us.

Only when both were "in place" would the servers approach our group as a pair, striding briskly and taking opposite sides of the table, wordlessly (but with big smiles!) placing the appropriate dish in front of the appropriate person. They did this with absolutely no flourish at all, nearly invisibly, as if to call no attention to themselves but instead to encourage our focus on the plate and the drama to be found there....

After dinner, Les Arques was a sweet little place to take a walk. Back in the Thirties the Russian artist Ossip Zadkine bought a summer home there; today it's a museum devoted to his work. We couldn't get in (remind me why Mondays are the universal day off in the museum trade?) but we could admire some of his sculpture around the house and the church, along with the brightly-shuttered house itself and some of the nearby buildings....

Across the street from La Récréation, someone seemed to think the only way to compete with Zadkine was to paint their shutters a manically cheerful, nearly hallucinogenic blue, and I salute them!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Le Château de Bonaguil

As our two-car caravan wound its way through rural southwestern France, always just a little behind schedule for the next gig, or meal, or other meal, or wine-tasting, or meal (some gigs too...), and with our lead-footed leader Gretchen setting a formidable pace that suggested she’d either “gone native” or was contemplating a slot in the upcoming Le Mans, us white-knuckled passengers, faces stuck to the windows, would spot through the blur some momentary glimpse of ... well: fairy tale stuff. Fanciful and possibly unreal. So that you’d say to the guy next to you, “Did you see that?,” just to make sure your brain wasn’t spinning daydreams and mirages and cloud formations (and the Cahors wine you had during lunch) into pretty things to look at out the window.

After a few days, when it became clear that every impossibly pretty thing we saw while tooling around in the south of France was indeed an Actual Tangible Part of Objective Reality, we stopped asking each other “Did you see that?” — until the final day of the tour, as we were heading toward the Château de Bonaguil near Fumel.

This was another one of those rural, backroad, single-little-lane-with-two-way-traffic jaunts through forests and hills and wine country, with the occasional sudden stop to literally let the chicken cross the road. I think it was Matt, sitting in the coveted front seat Passenger-of-Honor-and-Lord-of-the-Legroom spot in the van (“so this is the front seat,” he said as he belted himself in for his one and only moment of glory), who first spotted something out the window even more magical and unreal than the 417 previous magical and unreal somethings, and said, “Man! Did you see that?!”

Yeah, I caught a momentary glimpse of it off in the distance before it was obscured by trees: it looked like a castle. Not a REAL castle, of course: it actually appeared to be a watercolor portrait of the perfect storybook castle. You could tell it wasn’t real because of the colors: tans and browns and grays and oranges in proportions that were just a wee bit over the top — too whimsical to be real. Hell of a nice portrait, however.

Of course, it turns out that the Bonaguil Castle was real after all. And is a place where anyone suddenly becomes a genius photographer: you can pretty much just randomly point your camera in any direction on the castle grounds and snap a beautiful, calendar-ready shot.

Up close you can see that the castle is in beautiful ruins, and I wondered just what battle was lost that led to its present condition. I found out later it was the French Revolution: it was plundered and busted up and destined to be entirely destroyed, before former servants of the place stepped in to keep intact what they could.

Here are some of my genius shots of Bonaguil:

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Le canard dans tous ses états

Red wine and olive oil form the basis for most versions of the "Mediterranean diet." Locals in Quercy and the Lot Valley, in the heart of southwest France, point out that there's a third key component for healthy eating and long life: duck fat. It's entirely possible, even likely, that a meal without foie gras will kill you.

(As it turns out, duck is not the only specialty of the region's cuisine -- walnuts are another. So walnuts are also probably vital to life as we know it.)

I'll just say now that I have never ever EVER eaten as well as I did with my Blue Lake compatriots in the south of France. Ever. I've never experienced such a silky foie gras that just melted in my mouth like butter...

[Brief aside: For about 15 years I was a committed vegetarian. There are certain things I'd never eat even today, even as I've lapsed beyond all salvation: veal for instance. And human flesh. (Unless it was prepared in some ridiculously scrumptious way...)

However, even when I was a committed veg, I became uncommitted during my trips to France. I tried once, long ago, on a visit to Paris, to be true to the vegetarian principles I held at the time. It sucked. I had to forgo so many of the things I'd learned to love as a poor pre-vegetarian college kid bumming around the city. I could think of plenty of sound ethical reasons not to eat, for example, a croque-monsieur -- but when it came right down to it, I ate it. When I got back to Minneapolis, I was once again a committed vegetarian. I can't really explain it either, but I am large, I contain multitudes, yada yada.

I don't think you can really "get" some place unless you eat what the natives are eating. For me it's a big part of the cultural experience of a place, and unique cuisines are often for me some of the most memorable aspects of travel. I *know* that foie gras is ... wrong ... I also ate it and was *astonished* by it every single day I was in the Quercy...]

Gretchen had lined up some memorable restaurants for our tour:

La Terrasse, in Grezels: This was our first lunch of the tour, and am I really remembering correctly that it lasted nearly 4 hours? (In fact, after a lunch like that, can *anything* be remembered correctly?) We didn't order anything: lunch is a set menu; once you arrive, the wine and courses start appearing. It's a beautiful thing. The only decision we needed to make was whether the water was supposed to go in the big glass and the wine in the small glass, or vice-versa. It was a test we'd fail over and over again during the tour.

It was also my first duck of the trip, but oy-vey it wouldn't be my last -- in fact, if you're a duck, please make it a point to consider the entire Quercy region a no-fly zone. I'm serious about this. Just don't risk it. Fly somewhere else. You *will* be eaten, and you *will* be delicious.

Auberge l'Imhotep, in Albas: Fritz and Gretchen discovered this place entirely by accident; they walked in one day to check it out and jazz superstar James Carter was playing on the stereo. This is an extremely unlikely thing to hear as background music in the southwest of France. Now, Fritz and Gretchen have a hardcore personal history with James, as do I -- in fact, mine is even harder and corer -- and it turned out James was the owner's favorite. Jazz is the music he loves, and it's what plays in the background -- if clients don't like it, they can leave, he says. After a marvelous meal (duck was involved), we played a little informal concert: Tom and I grabbed our horns, Matt hauled over his bass, Tim swung with nothing but a snare drum, while Steve fingered air piano with Cecil Taylor intensity. In a warm and wine-cheered post-meal haze we played, between burps, All The Things You Are and Bye Bye Blackbird. (Looking back now, I realize we should have played All The Things You Ate and Bye Bye Duck...)

(A little more than a week later, in Paris, I mentioned to Deb what a weird name "Imhotep" was -- I mean, I wonder where the hell *that* came from, what a strange and not very French word -- and she said "You mean Imhotep the ancient Egyptian chancellor-priest?" I replied, "Well, yeah, of course there's THAT Imhotep, I mean, DUH!, but still, you know, it's a funny word." This is what life is like with Deb, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, except when it comes to current events...)

Restaurant Claude Marco, in Cahors: this was, I believe, the first meal where I actually took a picture of the plate set before me -- it was just that beautiful. Now, I'll admit that I felt a wee bit self-conscious snapping a photo of the entrée: we were in a lovely and fancy Michelin-starred establishment, and I realized there was a danger that taking a shot of the food on the plate might make me look like one of the Beverly Hillbillies marveling over the "Cee-ment Pond," but it was so dag-burn purdy that I just couldn't help myself.

La Récréation in Les Arques: this was probably my favorite meal of them all. It wasn't just the food, which was transcendent: my entrée, the titular canard served every which way, is the photo that begins this post. The service, the setting, and everything else was magical.

Hostellerie le Vert in Maroux: it was our last night in the Quercy, and I felt like I'd cut enough of a path of destruction through the resident duck population, so I ordered the beef, saignant. Glorious.

After this night, Deb and I would be in Paris. We never had a meal that could match *anything* I'd eaten at these places. But still we ate very well...

A little-known fact about Matt Heredia

As I've mentioned in a previous post, Matt was added to the tour very late in the game, and as a consequence did not undergo the extensive vetting process that Blue Lake typically puts its touring faculty through: the cheek swabbing and complete genetic history; the bracing and increasingly specific body cavity searches; the spelling test.

As a result, Matt brought along some unexpected "baggage" that none of us knew about until the tour was well underway. Matt called it "the troubles": he'd say "I'm sorry guys, but I can feel 'the troubles' coming again." The initial onset was slow, but when Matt was fully in their throes he'd become violent, foaming at the mouth and lashing out at anyone (or anything) near, all the while ranting incoherently. A true Ugly American.

Fritz and Gretchen had a special chamber constructed, with bars on the windows, where we'd put Matt whenever the troubles hit him. He'd stay locked in there, no danger to himself or to others, until the troubles subsided. We each had to take turns cleaning the chamber after one of his episodes (Matt was too weak by then to do it himself) -- an extremely unpleasant task, and really the only unappealing part of the tour, as far as I was concerned.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Fritz Stansell Broke My Camera

I bought this camera right before the trip, a Canon PowerShot SD780, and it's chock full of features I haven't explored and will probably never use. One of the most interesting things it does is that it somehow "reads" people's faces, and if their eyes are closed, it won't take the picture.

This is for real. I tested it by asking subjects to close their eyes while I snapped the picture -- when they did so, I'd push the button, and ... NOTHING WOULD HAPPEN!

Now, folks respond to this in 2 ways: some folks say "Wow, that's really cool!"; others say "Man, that's kind of creepy." (There is actually a third response I've heard: "Wow, that's really cool -- but don't you think it's kind of creepy?")

I can't really show you this feature in action, since by definition if one's eyes are closed it won't take the picture, and no picture equals no documentation. So I can only tell you about it and hope for the best.

Also, unfortunately, once you start talking about this, people start, you know, *thinking* about their eyes as you're taking the shot, resulting in photos like this:

Or like the following, where Deb and Tim look like okay-but-not-entirely-lifelike models from the Puy l'Évèque Wax Museum:

It also results in a photograph's subject, once armed with this information, having veto power over your photographing them. In the following gig photo from the Hotel Henry soirée (more on that later), when Tim saw I was trying to get a shot of him playing he shut his eyes and put me out of business! Only when he opened his eyes could I get the shot:

I was explaining this cool and somewhat creepy feature to Fritz and Gretchen at the Restaurant Claude Marco in Cahors, and Fritz immediately squeezed his eyes shut and said "Prove it!" I point the camera at him and ... it takes the shot!


Okay, okay, I said, let's try this again, it must've been the ... the ... what? I have no idea -- but I can assure you, if you shut your eyes, um, properly, it won't take the shot. Or shouldn't. Unless you're cheating somehow.

Fritz unambiguously shuts his eyes, I squeeze the shutter and ... have this lovely portrait as a result:

I finally found an explanation in the manual for what was going on -- there's an asterisk in the section describing Canon's Face Detection Technology (tm), and in small print at the bottom of the page it reads, and I quote: "*Does not work with Fritz Stansell."

Saint-Cirq Lapopie, Part 2

Tom's camera had some sort of exotic newfangled memory card that wasn't stocked in local shops, along with a lavish 512K of memory -- so Tom took one shot and then had no more actual use of his camera.

From that moment, for anyone unlucky enough to be holding an actually functional camera near him, Tom would -- like a frustrated out-of-work movie director watching some neophyte make a hash out of a film script he loved -- point out the shots you should and would be taking if you had his photographic eye. Here he shows Steve the shot he's missing:

Steve, on the other hand, was an "early adopter" into digital camera technology, and as a result had a camera that was able to shoot one pixel (but of such a vivid color!) every 3 seconds or so. His camera was of sufficiently early vintage that it didn't record video, but it DID record audio!! -- and if he'd been recording himself while shooting, here's what it would have sounded like, as he'd point his camera at some fleeting moment of pure French beauty and then waited an interminable period of time while his camera emotionally prepared itself to actually take the shot:

"[click] DAMN! C'mon. C'MON! DAMN!"

Here's more from Saint-Cirq Lapopie:

Friday, June 5, 2009

Saint-Cirq Lapopie, Part 1

I read somewhere that Saint-Cirq Lapopie was voted most picturesque village in France. The bottom line here is that no matter where you live, Saint-Cirq Lapopie is prettier, and you're just going to have to deal with it.

(After the quintet visited, I told Deb that she should check it out. A couple of days later she had. I asked her about her take on the village, and she kind of sniffed that she wasn't really impressed, it was just a bunch of shops and whatnot. Later still, while we were in Paris, she starts showing me various items of clothing and jewelry and tchotchkes that she'd bought. "Where did you get that?" I'd ask as she'd pull out yet another pricey looking item, and invariably the answer was "Saint-Cirq Lapopie." It turns out that for Deb Saint-Cirq Lapopie *really was* nothing but a bunch of shops -- so I offer the following pictures as evidence of the kinds of things she might have seen if she'd been able to wrench herself from the stores...)

Gigantofreak Matt terrorized the tiny villagers.

Tim Froncek for Miracle Gro!

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