Sunday, April 29, 2012


I'm sure I blew your mind with my ruminations on life and vacation in my last post, but today I experienced some mind-blowing of my own at two excellent exhibits at the Jeu de Paume.

The first was an exhibit of Berenice Abbott, who was a photographer in the first half of the 20th century.  She worked in Paris for a few years, mostly in portraiture, but her work really took off when she began capturing images of New York City in the 1930s.  She had a sense that the city was going to change - she is quoted saying that capturing a metropolis is not about the past or the present, but about capturing the "vanishing instant."  Her photographs are a remarkable visual history of both the architecture and the people & places of everyday life.  She also said that when she arrived to New York from Paris, she was bored with portraits - that everyone's faces looked the same.  But that how you can really learn about people is from their buildings.  (This is a not-quite-verbatim line from an article about her in Life magazine in 1938 that was shown at the exhibit).
"Canyon", Berenice Abbott
"Newsstand", Berenice Abbott
"Court of the First Model Tenement", Berenice Abbott
"Manhattan Bridge", Berenice Abbott

Abbott also traveled around the South, taking photos like this one of Colliersville, Tennessee in 1935.
With funding from the WPA, she criss-crossed the city and provided us with some iconic shots of New York.  And while her photos alone are amazing (not to mention that I love that she was a woman doing this in the 1930s), it was also a fantastic juxtaposition to the other exhibit at Jeu de Paume, Ai Weiwei's Entrelacs (which means "interlacing").

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese photographer who, in essence, is not that different from Berenice Abbott.  He takes photos of everyday life in China, everyday places and people.  The difference is that while Berenice Abbott's work was supported by government dollars to capture the life of a city - the good and the bad - Ai Weiwei has ended up a political prisoner of the Chinese government for doing much the same thing.  In 2011, he was arrested and held in prison for several months.  While currently out on bail, he is prohibited from leaving the country. His popular blog was taken offline as well.
"Seven Frames", Ai Weiwei

After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that killed approximately 68,000 people, Ai Weiwei took many photographs of the ruins and rubble left behind.  He focused particularly on the schools that had been destroyed in the quake, killing so many children, because of shoddy construction.
Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei helped design and support construction of an arts & cultural center outside Shanghai that also served as his studio.  Weiwei was asked by local government to make this building a reality.  Then, overnight, in early 2011, Chinese government authorities demolished the studio with virtually no warning.

Halfway through demolition - Weiwei was able to arrive in time to take these shots.

But I'm not a political person by nature, and this blog isn't about platforms and causes.  What I found so interesting seeing these two exhibits in the same building on the same day is to see the difference between when capturing life is supported and praised, and when it is criticized and denied.  Sometimes art is art, but sometimes art really is about free speech and freedom more generally.  Living my life in the US, and now France, I realize that we take these things for granted.  Most of Weiwei's photos are just people - people in his life, the homes of his family members and friends, places around China. 
Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

Look, I can also say that the guy is clearly a little weird, and a lot of his art is the kind that is way beyond my comprehension or interest (a million porcelain sunflower seeds, for instance).  But I get to have my blog, and I wish he was allowed to have one too.

PS Read an interesting interview with Ai Weiwei and Time Magazine here.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Life vs Vacation

For many months now, Mr. Oil and I have a weekly conversation that goes something like this:

Mr. Oil: Do you want to meet me for lunch one day this week?
Me: Well, not with Baby Oil. Too complicated with naptime. Maybe one day when I have the nanny?
Mr. Oil: Okay, how about one of those days?
Me: That could work, it would have to be early since I only have the nanny until 2pm.
Mr. Oil: Oh wait, I have a [insert: meeting/work lunch/French class/deadline].
Me: Oh wait, I have [playgroup/playdate/errands].

So we never have lunch.  The stars aligned this week, however, and we met up for a Parisian lunch at Coutume in the 7th arrodissement.  Immediately upon entering, you know Coutume is not your average Paris lunch spot.  It is light and bright and is a place very clearly focused on coffee.  Fortunately, they also focus on the food.

We started with an entree (remember, this means appetizer in French) of two light spreads - one from peas, and the other from eggplant with lightly toasted bread.

Then I had smoked salmon on "pancakes" that was served with a light, just a tad creamy sauce and Mr. Oil had a delicious concoction called "comme une pizza" (like a pizza). Yummmmmmmm.

We ended with excellent coffee.  Sadly, we were unable to experience the Cafe Coutume, which is their special siphon-brewed coffee, as they had stopped serving it for the day.  But my mocha was just the right amount of sweet, and I savored every drop.
The big glass contraption is their special coffee making tool.

Partaking in adult conversation in the middle of the day is a bit of a rarity for me at this point, so major points to Mr. Oil for making this happen.  And it still feels strange that we actually live in Paris when we get to do things like this.  Which in turn leads to an ongoing conversation topic of ours - is it bad to feel like your life is vacation?  What do you do on vacation if vacation is your life?  We'll be answering that soon as we're off to Italy in just two weeks!

By the way, there are four French public holidays in May.  That's right - four. May 1, 8, 17 and 28.  But before you go thinking this country is full of non-working slackers, I've just been informed by Mr. Oil that he will still be at work on May 1 and May 8.  To which I say - how is life a vacation if you have to go work on vacation days?!

Monday, April 23, 2012

It Rained on the Sun King

In the continuing parade of (wonderful) visitors, this past weekend we had the Honeymooners in town.  Yes, on their honeymoon.  This was one visit we knew would occur almost before we left, so we'd had quite a few months to get excited.

The Honeymooners wanted to see Versailles, so we hopped on the train and a quick 30 minutes later we were in Versailles. The town, not the chateau.  There's a helpful map in the train stations that guides you to the chateau, but if you are ABSOLUTELY certain that you know where to go, then 45 minutes later you too can walk by a large pasture of sheep and enter through the bottom of the gorgeous Versailles grounds.  But we totally did this on purpose.  Because who doesn't want to see sheep on their honeymoon.
Approaching Versailles from the back

On the weekends, they pipe symphony and opera scores throughout the gardens.  And while it doesn't really make sense that you should have to pay extra to hear recorded music, it certainly adds to the ambiance. Walking through the maze-like "woods" that skirt the main drag of the gardens, listening to classical music, you almost feel you could turn a corner and be swept into the world of Louis XVI (before the beheading phase, of course).

And then it rained.
The gardens are less enjoyable in the cold rain.
The gorgeous solitude of the gardens suddenly became less appealing, and we hightailed it up to the actual palace. And while the place was plenty crowded, it turns out that Versailles is actually a fantastic place to go with a toddler.  Why's that, you ask?  Three words - free audio guide. Baby Oil could not get enough of the free audio guide. He pressed the buttons, tried to eat it, drooled on it, dropped it, pretended it was a phone, and more.  He was thoroughly entertained for the duration of the visit - vive le audio guide!
I am tres cool. Let us proceed now to the Hall of Mirrors.

A toddler marching through Versailles with his own audio guide attracts quite a bit of attention. Random strangers took Baby Oil's photo (but what else is new), and many smiles, giggles, and pointed fingers were directed his way.  We thought it was pretty cute too.

And finally the sun king came out to play.  (And if you're confused, Louis XIV, who built Versailles, was called the Sun King. And by "built Versailles", I mean, arrested and imprisoned a man who had built a large and beautiful chateau not far away, hired away his architects, and had them build an even larger and more beautiful chateau. Oh France. Your history is so lovely.)

Versailles - we saw, Baby Oil conquered. We were reminded once again that it is easier to get out of Paris than it often seems, that Baby Oil loves a good chateau, and that taking the scenic route is under-appreciated.  I'll say it again - vive le audio guide!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ooh La La

We knew when we moved to Paris that our apartment was in a fairly chic part of town.  I hadn't anticipated meeting Parisians around town, telling them where we lived and having them respond, "Oh la la! Tres chic!"  Frankly, I don't much enjoy it - I always find myself quickly explaining that we aren't fancy people, that we have a small apartment, that it was pure chance that we ended up in the 8th arrondissement when we wanted to be in the 17th.

At the same time, I've realized that we really are in quite a posh area (I'm really enjoying incorporating more British-isms into my vocabulary, definitely perk of having British friends and living close to the UK).  Nowhere is this more true than in Parc Monceau.  Having this truly verdant, lush, gorgeous park as my backyard is amazing.  But it is a bit intimidating when you stroll into the park, pushing a stroller while wearing your Old Navy jeans and a t-shirt from Target, and see this woman walking just ahead of you:
Those are some heels. And a tight dress. And this was about 3pm.

Or when you're at the playground, unsure whether you've showered in the past two days, and you're joined at the play structure by this woman, with her pristine Birkin bag matching her snazzy sneakers:
By the way, her kid was also dressed impeccably - gray suede loafers, and even a scarf. When they left he called out to Baby Oil, "Au revoir, petit garcon!" Tres adorable.

I wasn't able to snap a pic of the grandma in the playground another day, fully decked out in a little black dress and Christian Louboutins. So while I don't want people to confuse me with these actually fancy people, I have to say that if the high heels or Hermes bag fits, then Parc Monceau is certainly worth an "ooh la la." Or two.

When you live in a chic neighborhood like this, you have neighborhood events like the antiques and contemporary art street sale that took place along Boulevard Courcelles this past week.  No ratty flea market kind of thing like we've seen in other neighborhood brocantes - this one was full of legitimate antique and art dealers.  And naturally, even champagne was available.
"Hello, I'm just a regular French guy drinking wine in the afternoon on a Tuesday."

Speaking of enjoying a drink or two in Paris, I spotted this awesome product in the epicerie down the street:
That's right, it's called "Cocktail Me." You add it to alcohol, and voila! Cocktail. Mostly I love that they look exactly like the squeeze-y packs of fruit that Baby Oil eats almost every day.

And to cap off this review of fabulous neighborhood items, I loved this great t-shirt for sale in our neighborhood Monoprix.  I get such a kick out of European concepts of America.  Hey, France - it's Northern California.  Not North California. And I'm not sure what the kids are doing every week.

And in our newest, most exciting news in Paris - Chipotle is coming! Not to our neighborhood, of course - we are too fancy for that.  But not too far either.  Yes, we will go there. Who doesn't need a little Chipotle in their lives?! As the storefront says, "Vive le Burrito!"

Monday, April 9, 2012

Pass the Matzah

It's the mother of all Jewish holidays this week - Passover.  This year was the first time in Mr. Oil's life that he wasn't with his family in Akron, where I have also had the chance to spend the previous wonderful 7 Passovers.  So we were on our own in Paris, but determined to make it feel like a holiday nonetheless. 

We handily dealt with the "on our own" aspect by welcoming friends currently living in Copenhagen for the weekend.  Mr and Mrs Copenhagen, and their son who I'll call the Copenhagen Cutie, are friends from DC. Their son is 6 months older than Baby Oil, and they moved to Copenhagen about 6 months before we came to Paris.  Baby Oil and Copenhagen Cutie (a mouthful, but I'm a sucker for alliterations) had never met, but they were immediate buddies.  And by that I mean nobody got shoved, though there was some occasional tussling over various highly-coveted toys.

The Copenhagens absolutely earned their stay by not only being great house-guests, but even babysitting for us when Mr. Oil and I attended our long-scheduled wine tasting course on the wines of Italy.  Since we are going to Italy next month, and since we enjoyed the last wine tasting so much, we couldn't pass it up.  We felt much more confident going in to the evening - we were no longer fresh off the boat, we knew our way around a wine tasting and around Paris, and we were ready to spew ridiculous adjectives with the best of them.  I'll spare you the details of the wines - there were some good ones - and just sum up the evening by telling you that eventually we had a team huddle, and decided that it would be better in the long run for our reputations if we stopped making what we believed to be hilarious and witty comments.  And no, we don't remember what any of those hilarious and witty comments were.  Italian wine is good stuff - Italy, here we come!

On the second night of Passover, we held a seder for 8 adults and 4 kids, all under the age of 2. In some sort of Passover miracle, we actually completed the entire seder, and all of the adults actually got to sit at the table, at the same time, and eat dinner.  And while I am more than thrilled that I have at least 51 weeks until I have to start cooking for Passover again, it was also a triumphant evening for my mastering-the-art-of-tiny-Parisian-kitchen-cooking skills.  Perhaps this was part of the Passover miracle.  Nothing replaces being with family, but we felt proud of having done this ourselves, having been the parents, the hosts, the cooks, the leaders.  Mr. Oil leads a bang-up seder, let me tell you. 

To cap off our successful Passover weekend, we hired a babysitter to watch the two kids for an afternoon so us adults could go on a walking tour of the Marais.  And we knew it was well worth what we paid when we returned home and the sitter said, "'Well, it was challenging...but it was okay..."  And then she fled the apartment as quickly as possible.  The walking tour, through Paris Walks, was fantastic. It was our first official tour that we've done in 9 months of living here, and we absolutely plan to do more.  We take almost all of our visitors to the Marais, and we love to go there by ourselves, but we saw new things and learned new facts and anecdotes that we are excited to share with all of our future visitors. Plus it was just cool.

For instance, did you know that Paris has a city-run pawn shop? In colloquial terms, it is called "going to my aunt's", and apparently it is completely respectable to pawn your belongings if you need cash.  The pawn shop - Credit Municipal - has been around since 1637.  At one time, you could even pawn your mattress. Then not only could you reclaim it, it would have been steam-cleaned for you.  You can still see the steam-cleaning tower peeking between other buildings today, though it is currently condemned and nobody can enter.

So it's been a busy week.  And I would be remiss if I didn't inform all the world - or at least you who read my blog - that on Sunday morning after our Saturday night seder, Mr. Oil took Baby Oil out with the Copenhagens', and I slept until NOON.  I'll say it again - SLEPT UNTIL NOON.  Honey, I will make you matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, two kinds of chicken, brisket, kugel, sponge cake, chocolate cake, matzah bagels and more any time if I get to sleep until noon in return. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Keep Portland Weird...In Paris?

Among the stranger things to have happened since we moved here, I was alerted tonight to an upcoming festival at a venue here in Paris titled "Keep Portland Weird." (hat tip Stefanie!)  Having grown up in Portland, Oregon, I'm familiar with the weirdness that is Portland - or at the least the weirdness that the rest of the country likes to attribute to Portland.  I'm pretty sure I still went to the mall, wore clothes from the Gap, was on the student council, and other typically American, non-weird things.

But Portland has its reputation, and I am all for it.  I don't entirely understand why Portland is marketing itself to Paris hipsters, but I'm happy to think that soon even France will believe as my husband does that having grown up there, I must have worn dreadlocks and smoked a lot of pot (sorry honey, both are still false).

Among the gems on the "Keep Portland Weird" promotional materials:

*Portland est un bourg rempli de hippies du XXIe siècle. (Portland is a town full of 21st century hippies).  What exactly is a 21st century hippie?

* Imaginez une petite sœur de Seattle avec une passion folle pour la cuisine bio, locale, et l'activité communautaire...(Imagine Seattle's little sister with a mad passion for organic food and community activism.)  Hey. Portland is nobody's little sister. Seattle is so early '90s.

*Depuis une dizaine d’année, le nom de la ville circule chez les mélomanes, comme Katmandou à l’époque des Hippies (For 10 years, the name of the city has circulated among music lovers, just like Kathmandu in the time of the Hippies).  What's with the focus on hippies?  It's not Berkeley.  Hipsters, Paris, it's hipsters.  Not hippies. And the Kathmandu reference is way over my head.

In any event, if you're in Paris at the end of April, you can check out the listing of films and concerts associated with Keep Portland Weird here.  I'm proud that my hometown has made it to Paris. Proud, confused, bemused.  Best get out my hippie clothes.

Monday, April 2, 2012

That's A Lot of Bottles

Underneath the city of Reims, France, there are literally millions and millions of bottles of champagne. I know this because we went to Reims this weekend and saw/drank some of them.  This is proof that you can take a 14 month old champagne-tasting, and also that we might be a little bit crazy.
This isn't champagne. But we thought this looked cool.
Why did we go to Reims, you ask?  We can't tell you. Really.  Two nights before, when we almost canceled the trip because we couldn't remember why we booked it, we decided we must have had a good reason.  It might have been because we hadn't been anywhere in a few months - if you define "anywhere" as "anywhere in France outside of Paris."  Because of course we did go to Portugal, and to the US.  It might have been because I've developed a strangely compulsive need to constantly plan more trips before we've even gone on the ones we've currently planned (for example, Italy, Denmark, and Provence, all between May 12 and June 26).  It might have been because I like champagne - and Mr. Oil does too.

In any event, we went.  And while it wasn't our favorite place in France (we're still loving Normandy), and while it wasn't our best trip ever (early train meant no coffee, which resulted in cranky parents), Reims is certainly worth a visit.

First things first, however. Let's talk pronunciation.  Say it with me: "Rhaaaance."  Think Frenchy R + nasal sound + s.

Now you're ready to tour.  Reims is the major town in the Champagne region, and as such bills itself rightfully as the Champagne capital of the world.  Many of the major French champagne houses are based in Reims (Veuve Cliquot, Pommery, Taittinger, G.H. Mumm, etc) and so the major activity in the town is to tour the caves (please pronounce this the French way - cahve) and taste the champagne.

Our first stop was Taittinger.  Supposedly you don't have to make a reservation to go on the tour. This is both true and false - if you don't make a reservation, you won't know what time the tours are.  But we convinced them to let us join a tour already begun, and we were glad we did.  Underneath the Taittinger headquarters - which look very industrialized and boring - are several million bottles of champagne stores across several kilometers of underground space.  Particularly cool was that much of the Taittinger caves make use of a medieval abbey.
One tiny fraction of the Taittinger wine caves.

Baby Oil works on his walking technique in the Taittinger tasting room.
After a classically French lunch at the Brasserie du Boulingrin (please note this meant we actually completed an enjoyable meal with Baby Oil - we are totally on our way to being French parents!), we headed to G.H. Mumm.  We both preferred Mumm to Taittinger, which is probably because a) we didn't miss the informative video with English subtitles, b) Baby Oil slept through this tour, and c) our tour guide smiled more than almost any human I've ever seen outside a Miss USA pageant. And I haven't even ever seen a Miss USA pageant (but does watching Miss Congeniality several times count?).
At G.H. Mumm. Each doorway leads to thousands of bottles.
Special cellar. Only the cellar master has the keys so he can taste the old stuff and make sure he is maintaining the Mumm identity. Or just drink really old and probably awesome champagne.

Though our first day in Reims was cloudy, the sun happily broke through on Sunday morning which allowed us to appreciate the beautiful stained glass windows of the Reims Cathedral.  This cathedral, which was built in the 13th century, was where the kings of France were crowned.  In addition to the famous and absolutely gorgeous stained glass windows by Chagall, new windows were installed just last year in honor of the 800th anniversary of the cathedral.  The new windows were designed by German artist Imi Knoebel (it's okay, we don't know who that is either).

Our visit was complete with a visit to the Palace du Tau, which basically holds a lot of old and/or broken-off pieces of the cathedral.  I'm being unfair (but only a bit) because it wasn't completely uninteresting. It's more that 15th century tapestries just aren't my thing.

Reims itself is not a particularly adorable or beautiful place.  It was largely destroyed in World War I and subsequently rebuilt, so nothing is that old.  But the champagne flows, and the caves are worth at least one visit.  The cathedral is gothic and imposing, and when the light strikes right through the stained glass, impressively beautiful.  We don't know why we went, but we're happy we did!