23 January 2006

Signs of Paris

It's ironic. Walt and I used to spend more time in Paris when we lived in San Francisco than we do now that we live in the Loire Valley. But the idea of wandering through the streets of the city is still so attractive. Here in the country, the trees are bare of leaves, the sky is leaden gray, and there aren't any people around besides the hunters on Sundays and the 5 or 6 people who work in the vineyards during the week. There certainly aren't any bright city lights.

When we lived in SF, we could travel to the extent our time off from work would allow. We could arrange for somebody to watch the house and the dog while we were in France (because we seldom went anywhere else). Nowadays, our budget is more restrictive. We haven't found anybody to watch the poor old dog. So we stay close to home. Of course, we are in France, so many of the things we enjoyed in Paris -- markets and restaurants, mainly -- we also have here.

Looking at the pictures of Paris, many taken in wintertime, is good therapy, though, on days when the winter weather is dull. For example:

The Olympia is one of the most famous theaters (what the French call "music halls," using the English term) in Paris. Jacques Brel became famous singing here in the 1960s. For French singers (and others -- I saw Simon and Garfunkel at the Olympia in 1970, if you can believe that), performing at the Olympia is a kind of consacration. It's a sign you've made it.

In January 2000, Walt and I flew to Paris for a long weekend to see and hear Véronique Sanson perform. That's how ample our resources were then. It's a long story for a very short trip. We had happened to drive through Las Vegas in September 1999. The Paris-Las Vegas resort had just opened, and a French singer named Liane Foly was listed on the marquee as performing on Columbus Day weekend in October. We thought it would be fun to go see her. When we got back to SF, we made calls to the hotel and the airlines. The hotel wanted $300 a night for a room. The airlines wanted $500 round-trip for the one-hour flight, because it was a holiday weekend. So the trip was going to cost us at least $1500 if we stayed two nights, plus food, drink, and other expenses. That was too much, for what it was.

Coincidentally, I learned that Véronique Sanson was doing a "come-back" appearance at the Olympia in January after a long hiatus from performing. "Let's go to Paris instead of Las Vegas," I said to Walt. It turned out that we got two round trips on Air France for about $500 apiece, and I found an apartment to rent for three nights at $75 a night. That was half-price -- a January, off-season special. And it was an apartment we had rented before, so we knew what we were getting. We went.

Véronique Sanson is a woman who is exactly my age. I've been listening to her songs since the mid-1970s. I "grew up" -- it was my second childhood because I was in my 20s living in Paris -- with her music in the background (along with Souchon's, Voulzy's, LeForestier's, and France Gall's, singing Michel Berger's songs). I had never seen her on stage before. She lived in America for many years, married to Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fame. It was worth it to me to fly to Paris for the event.

On that January weekend trip, we had dinner at midnight in a restaurant not too far from the old Paris opera house, across the street from the Bourse (the Stock Exchange). The place was packed and noisy, and the food was good. I'm not a night owl, so I was suprised to see so many people in a restaurant so late at night.

I took this picture of the restaurant, Le Vaudeville, during that same weekend. In both these pictures, you can see the red lights and awnings reflecting their color off wet pavement. That's Paris -- it's actually at least as pretty in the rain as it is when the sun is shining. Out here in the country, we don't even have street lights, much less neon signs and red awnings.

We spent that weekend in January 2000 just walking around the city, stopping in cafés and restaurants to warm up and dry off when we needed to.

I thought this café-tabac had an especially appropriate name. It's not far from the place de la Bastille, on the avenue Henri IV.

Here's another place, one where we used to go for dinner back in the early 1980s, when we first met. It's called Les Noces de Jeannette, Jeannette's Wedding. We haven't been back since then, partly because I heard the place had begun specializing in feeding busloads of tourists from Japan and eastern Europe. Maybe I need to read about it and see if it's worth a return visit. Again, red light reflects off wet pavement.

Here are a few more random pictures of Paris street scenes.

"Le Chien qui Fume" (The Smoking Dog) is a café-restaurant on the boulevard Montparnasse. That green sign represents a métro ticket -- you can buy subway tickets here.

The Restaurant Chartier is a Paris institution. It's just off the Grands Boulevards, not far from the Opéra Garnier, at Métro Grands Boulevards. It's a bustling, crowded Paris bistrot with the most extensive menu you can imagine. You can order the day's specials or any of a hundred dishes off the standard menu. There's usually a line out the front door. If there are two of you, you are likely to be seated at a table with two other people. The tables have paper tablecloths on them, and the waiter writes down you order on the paper so he can keep track of it. Prices are very reasonable, and the food is good and honest (don't expect too much!).

I took my mother and my 15-year-old niece to Chartier for lunch in the summer of 1997. We had no problem finding just what we wanted to eat -- there's something for every palate. But my niece ordered un épis de maïs -- corn on the cob. That was a mistake. It was feed corn, and it had been cooked for a long time. Still, it was too tough to eat. Don't order corn in France.

The young waiter was quite taken with my niece. He gave us very attentive service and flirted with her. Over the next few days she kept saying she wanted to go back to Chartier for another lunch. We returned three or four days later, and my niece was disappointed when we were seated in a section that was served by a different waiter. Across the big room, we saw the one she had wanted to see again. And he saw us. He found the time to come over and say hello, and he actually kissed my niece's hand in greeting her. I thought she was going to go into a swoon (c'est à dire tomber en pâmoison). It was a very nice experience for her.

Another thing we miss out here in the country -- couscous. It's a big North African stew of vegetables and meats (chicken, lamb) served with spicy merguez sausages and couscous grain. We have to make our own, these days.

I miss the warmth and the good food in café-brasserie-bar establishments like this one on the rue Saint-Dominique in the 7th.

Another place called Le Week End, this one on the rue de Sèvres in the 7th. It's closed for the day and the metal shutters inside the veranda are pulled down.

The Bistrot de Papa restaurant, near the Ecole Militaire métro stop, is a typical-looking place with a wooden front and big windows.

The least expensive wine list in France, the sign says. It's at least worth checking out, don't you think?

Here's the fancy façade of a cave, a wine shop, in the 13th arrondissement.

That's my therapy for the day, which is gray and cold. They're predicting snow for later in the week. Time to hunker down and finish that coq au vin I made over the weekend. More about that later...


  1. Hi Ken,
    Thanks for the mini voyage, and I hope that the therapy worked for you, or that the sun comes out soon. I remember hearing about le weekend Sanson.
    It's 5 am here. We're up early because the battery in one of our smoke detectors wore out and beeped to wake us up. It always happens in the wee hours of the morning. See you soon!

  2. For what it's worth, Ken-it's rainy and dark here in 'Bama, the heart of Dixie;-) But we've seen daffodils already, so Spring is on its way. Neverfear.

    Our morning's paper said that Jan. 23rd is the most depressing day of the year.

    I love your sign photos! They make me long to be in France. I do love Paris, but my favorite thing is to drive around France just enjoying its immense variety.


  3. Bonjour Ken, Walt et... Evelyn ;-) !

    Ken, Francis is like you, "il aime bien" Véronique Sanson :-) !

    So, eventually, you've become "un vrai provincial" since you long for Paris but can't go there as you'd like... And you can understand why people living "en province" and working throughout the week (like Francis, since I've a lot more of free time) feel too tired to "monter dans la capitale" at the weekend ;-) !!! I used to be surprised at reading the posts of all these foreigners who spend so much time in Paris and seem to be able to afford having meals in prestigious restaurants every day... Most French people won't be able to enter these restaurants because they are way too expensive for them... Well, tourists are bringing us currency and help French economy, so it's a good thing, yet, the image they get of France is often a distorted one... Here are my two "centimes" :-) !!!

    Anyway, thanks for this interesting "billet d'humeur" which lets a certain nostalgia show... The pictures are great ! Bises. Marie

  4. Sun came out this afternoon, but it's pretty cold. It's supposed to be even colder tomorrow. But sunny. That's better, especially after a week of gray days.

  5. Dennis, I lived in Paris for 5 or 6 years in the 70s and early 80s, so I have lots of memories there. And then I spent many vacations in the city when I used to come to France on vacation.

    Don't get me wrong -- I love living here in the country. But I can't help but miss the city too. I will probably go up to spend a day in Paris next week.

  6. Bonsoir Marie, oui, un peu de nostalgie. Pour les villes en général et Paris en particulier. C'est normal -- j'ai vécu 25 ans dans les villes avant de venir m'installer dans un environnment plus ... bucolique.

    For now, the thing that prevents us from spending more time is Paris is the dog. And the cost. Even if you don't go to expensive restaurants, you end up spending a lot of money on food and lodgings. I like to go to places like Chartier that have good, honest food at good prices. It isn't always memorable, but sometimes the food is amazingly good. And you can have fun, which is not usually the case in the fancy restaurants.

    As for going to the city on weekends, it was the same in California. In 1992, Walt and I moved to a town, Sunnyvale, that was 75 km south of San Francisco. We both worked down there in Silicon Valley, so it made sense. We thought we would go to San Francisco most weekends to enjoy restaurants, concerts, and theater. But we realized after the first year that we never actually went -- or not often. We were too tired after working all week, and we had too much to do on Saturdays and Sundays to keep our home life going. And we had the dog! It wasn't fair to have a dog that stayed alone in the house all day, every day, so we needed to be there on weekends. After 3 years or so, we moved back to San Francisco.

    Like Dennis, we considered going to live in Paris but we couldn't afford it. We wanted a house and garden, so we moved to the country.

  7. Evelyn, that's interesting about Jan. 23. I never heard that before. I guess a month after Christmas we start longing for spring in a serious way. Winter has been fun (!) but it's time for a change now. Problem is, the weather seems to be turning cold again. Sigh...

  8. Mais, quand-même, tu es d'origine bucolique. Comme une phalène...
    Drawn to the lights of the big city. Comfortable in the country.


  9. Like a moth to the flame, eh? Yes, I've been burned many times.

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