30 April 2007

Beauty and the beast

Five pictures for the last day of April. It's been the warmest and sunniest April in a long time in Saint-Aignan. All the flowers are blooming early. Our muguets, the lilies of the valley that are traditional on May 1 in France, have finished their bloom already.

Here's the beauty part of this note, the flowers around our house right now.

Campanules — bellflowers (campanula)

Pivoines — peonies

An early red rose — we usually don't have roses in April

When you spend a lot of time outside, as I have recently, you get to enjoy the beauty, but occasionally you encounter a beast as well. In our yard and garden we have bees and bumblebees, snails, lots of lizards, some toads, and, of course, a slug or two.

A mottled brown slug I found hiding under a planter box

This slug was about three inches long when it was "running" away from me. Down the road a few hundred yards from the house I often see much bigger orange slugs that remind me of the yellow banana slugs we used to see in the Santa Cruz Mountains near San Francisco. I posted a picture of one of our orange slugs here back in November 2005.

Escaping at full speed, fully extended — flat out, as it were


The Callie card

Our good friend Sue found and sent us the perfect card for the occasion of Callie's homecoming. Here's the front of the card, which I scanned. Can you tell that this dog is the spitting image of what Callie will surely look like when she grows up?

Callie as she is sure to look when she grows up.
It'll be summer and we'll hide the bedroom slippers.

Here's the latest picture of Callie the Collie that we have. Excuse me, that's Mlle Callie du Vent des Moissons de la Vallée des Géants. She was seven weeks old here. On Thursday, when we drive down to the Montluçon area to get her and bring her home, she will be exactly 10 weeks old.

Callie at seven weeks

29 April 2007

Moroccan chicken with artichokes
and green peas

This is how I'm cooking in the new tajine I bought in Paris. You could make this in any covered dish or even in a pot on top of the stove. And the spices are optional. Use whatever spices or herbs you like.

Peel two medium onions, cut them in half through the root end, and slice the halves vertically into crescent-moon shapes (does that make sense?). Or cut them into rings. Sauté the onions lightly in a mixture of butter and oil, salted and peppered, just until they start to become transparent. Take the onions out of the pan with a slotted spoon.

Sauté the onions in a pan and then
transfer them to the baking dish.

Cut up the chicken and sauté the pieces in the same pan as the onions, on medium heat. Sprinkle salt and pepper and curry powder to taste over the chicken pieces while they are browning. Keep the heat low so it doesn't burn. If you can get the Moroccan Ras el Hanout spice powder, use that. Or make your own mixture of cumin, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne, turmeric, allspice, and other spices.

When the chicken is lightly browned, remove it from the pan. Pour about two cups of chicken stock or white wine or water, or a mixture, into the pan to dissolve all the spices and cooking juices that are stuck on the bottom.

Lay the sautéed chicken over the onions in the baking dish.

Put the onions in the tajine or another oven-proof dish and lay the sautéed chicken pieces on top. Top the chicken with four or more artichoke bottoms (I used canned ones). Artichoke hearts, canned or frozen, would also be good.

Pour the liquid from the sauté pan over all. It shouldn't cover the ingredients, which will steam in the covered dish. Just enough liquid in the bottom to produce some steam is what you want, and you can always add more if needed during the cooking. Put the lid on dish and put it in a very hot oven.

Sautéed onions, browned chicken pieces,
and artichoke bottoms in the tajine.

When the liquid in the baking dish is boiling and the dish is steaming, you can turn the heat down to about 375ºF (200ºC) and let the chicken and vegetables finish cooking. Let it cook for 45 minutes to an hour to make sure the chicken is well cooked.

Extra broth and the green peas to finish the dish

You can use peas out of a can. As our English friend Janet says, the peas in tins here France are very, very good. You could of course use fresh or frozen peas instead. Pour the canned peas over the chicken and artichokes about 10 minutes before you are going to take the chicken out of the oven so that they have time to heat through and cook a little. You might need to put fresh or frozen peas in early to give them time to cook.

I had more peas than I needed for the dish, so I heated them in the microwave in the extra cooking broth and we had them alongside.

Voilà ! Tajine de poulet aux artichauts et petits pois.

Serve with steamed couscous or boiled rice, or just as it is. The peas are starchy, after all.


27 April 2007

The French communists

After our Thai lunch, we walked down the rue de Belleville toward the Belleville métro station. We were looking for a place to have coffee and maybe even a dessert, which we hadn't had at the restaurant. The street turned into the rue du Faubourg-du-Temple and it was lined with all manner of shops, but no inviting cafés. The sidewalk was crowded with people too.

Bookstore in the 10th arrondissement
for the books you can't find elsewhere

We turned north on on the rue Saint-Maur into the 10th arrondissement and Walt realized we were just a few steps from where he lived in 1982, when he was a student in Paris. His apartment was on the rue Juliette-Dodu, right behind the Hôpital Saint-Louis.

We headed up that way, and Walt said there would be some big cafés on the Place du Colonel-Fabien, just a little farther up. I asked Chris and Tony if they had ever seen the headquarters building of the Parti Communiste Français, which is located on that place. They hadn't, so it was another sightseeing opportunity.

The austere headquarters building of the Parti Communiste
Français, on the Place du Colonel-Fabien in the 10th.

In this time of presidential elections, it's interesting to see what has happened to the French communists. Their electoral base has nearly disappeared. In the 1960s and '70s the communist leader, Georges Marchais, was a major political figure, right up there with Mitterrand and Giscard, and he and his party's other candidates got as much as 25% of the vote in presidential and legislative elections.

But the late '60s and the '70s saw the communist party's decline in France. The Soviets sent tanks into Prague to put down a liberal regime in 1968, and that looked bad in the West. Marchais allied the communist party with Mitterrand's socialists in the early 1970s, and he ended up playing second fiddle to the socialist leader. And then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

A campaign poster for the communist candidate for president,
Marie-Georges Buffet,
that we saw on the rue de Belleville

I remember knowing young French people back then — people of my age, since I turned 30 in 1979 — who were committed communists. It was a idealistic thing. The communists had played a major role in defeating the Nazis. The communist ideal proclaimed egalitarianism and a classless society, including limits on the power of the rich and the big corporations. But when Moscow sent troops into Afghanistan, their disillusion was complete. That wasn't how they thought a communist state should operate.

Do you think you'd see this kind of advertising in an American city?

The French communist party went into a steep decline, especially when Mitterrand and the socialists took the French presidency in 1981 and relegated the communists to a minor role in the coalition.

In the latest election, the Parti Communiste's standard-bearer was a woman named Marie-Georges Buffet. She ran not as a communist but as an anti-libéral candidate. That's anti-liberal in the French sense, which means anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, and anti-free-trade.

Buffet got just 1.3% of the vote in the first round of the presidential voting a week ago, compared to socialist Ségolène Royal's 26%. In other words, she did even worse than her predecessor had done in the 2002 presidential election, failing to reverse the communists' decline.

Meanwhile, we walked up the rue Juliette-Dodu (she was a hero of the Franco-Prussian War) and past the building where Walt lived for a while. I have good memories of that place — we had my 33rd birthday party there. The neighborhood has changed a lot in 25 years, with new buildings all around.

Trompe-l'œil façades painted on buildings on the rue Juliette-Dodu

We walked on and found a café with tables out on the sidewalk facing the communist party headquarters. We had our coffee but no dessert. It was hot sitting in the sun and it was time for Walt and me to start our trip back to Saint-Aignan. We walked down the Boulevard de la Villette to the car, and on the way we passed a store on the Boulevard de la Villette that had the Moroccan cooking dishes called tajines on display in its windows.

I went in and talked to the shopkeeper. He showed me tajines in several sizes, and I decided to buy one that looked big enough to hold enough food for at least two people (at 24€, not a bad deal). Tajines are made of terra cotta (terre cuite).

The man explained that you can cook in a tajine on a gas burner on top of the stove, but not on an electric burner unless you put on of those little wire grates between it and the hot cooking surface. I'll just use it in the oven. There's a little vent hole in the conical lid that lets steam escape during cooking.

I cooked a pork roast in it day before yesterday, and today I'm going to make a tajine of chicken with artichoke bottoms, green peas, and Moroccan spices. It's time to go cut the chicken up now.

This is the pork that I roasted in the tajine a couple of days ago.

26 April 2007

Paris: Rue de Belleville

Last Saturday, we spent the morning in the Belleville neighborhood in northeast Paris. The rue de Belleville is the border between the 19th and 20th arrondissements. We parked the car near the Belleville métro station about 8:45 and then walked up to the Pyrénées station and on to the Buttes-Chaumont station.

It turned out that parking was free on the boulevard de la Villette on Saturdays, so we were able to abandon the car for the morning.

It was just Walt and I, and we were looking for a restaurant he had read about on Clotilde's Chocolate and Zucchini blog. It's a Thai restaurant called Lao Siam, and we want to have lunch there. We were supposed to meet Tony and Chris at the Buttes-Chaumont station at 10:00.

We walked up the rue de Belleville, very quiet at that hour, looking for the street number (Lao Siam is at number 49). That's how I noticed this door with a plaque over it. It said, among other things, EDITH PIAF in all caps.

The singer Edith Piaf was born here,
at no. 72 on the rue de Belleville in Paris.

I crossed the street for a closer look. The sign says Piaf was actually born on the steps in front of this door (translation in the photo caption). Piaf's birth name was Édith Giovanna Gassion. After a tumultuous international career France's best-known singer, she died at the age of 48 in 1963. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Paris to attend her funeral at Père Lachaise cemetery.

On the steps of this building
was born on the 19th of December 1915
in utter destitution
whose voice, in later years,
would shake the world.

People all around the world know the sound of Piaf's voice and at least one of her famous songs: La Vie en Rose. She wrote it in 1945. A new movie with that title is out now and the reviews have been good. In France, the film is called La Môme (The Child), which was Piaf's stage name at the beginning of her career in Paris.

Walt and I found the restaurant, which looked like it might be open for lunch that day, and continued our walk up the rue de Belleville. When we got to the Pyrénées métro station, we went into a café to have breakfast. For Walt, that was a grand café noir (also called un double express). For me, it was the same thing plus a croissant.

A butcher shop on the rue de Belleville

Then we walked up the avenue Simon-Bolivar to meet Chris and Tony at the Buttes-Chaumont métro stop. We were going to take advantage of the fine weather by taking a stroll through the park and taking some pictures. It was full of joggers and people walking dogs. Other people were pushing strollers or walking their toddlers. The flower beds were in full bloom and the views of Montmartre were spectacular.

Sacré-Cœur and the Butte Montmartre
seen from the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

After seeing the park we walked back over to the rue de Belleville. We walked up even further, since we had an hour or so to kill before it would be time for lunch. We went into a church and looked around, but mostly we just walked along the street looking into shop windows.

This is not a great picture, but it shows how steep
and shaded the rue de Belleville is. You can see
the Eiffel Tower off in the distance.

At noon we had a fine lunch at Lao Siam. I remember we had prawn spring rolls and also beef spring rolls as an appetizer. I had prawns with vermicelli noodles as my main course, and Chris had a stuffed crab, but that's all I remember. You can read some customer reviews (in French) of the Lao Siam restaurant here.

To the memory of the pupils of this school
deported from 1942 to 1944 because they were Jewish,
innocent victims of the Nazi barbarity
with the active complicity
of the Vichy government
they were exterminated in the death camps

After lunch we walked on down the rue de Belleville, looking at all there was to see, including the plaque pictured above, and continued on into other neighborhoods.


After our shopping trip in the Marais on a Friday afternoon, we went back to move our car, which we had parked on the Place des Vosges. We then decided to drive down into the 13th arrondissement to buy a mortar and pestle at the Tang Frères supermarket, which specializes in Asian food and cooking products. I've written about Tang Frères several times on this blog.

It was 5:00 p.m., rush hour, on a Friday afternoon, and we got stuck in some traffic down at the expressway that runs along the Seine, but we didn't stay in it long. It wasn't bad.

The mortar and pestle. The wine bottle is just for scale.
Now how did that get empty? Oh, I see — it has a hole in it!

We found and bought the mortar and pestle and stowed it safely in the trunk of the car. Then we drove across Paris, up the Boulevard Raspail to the Boulevard Saint-Germain and over the Seine to the Place de la Concorde. Then we headed up the Champs-Elysées to the Place de l'Etoile, with the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of it.

A café at sunset in Asnières-sur-Seine

I was driving so I couldn't take any pictures. Chris and Tony said it was a thrill to actually drive around the Etoile in all that traffic (even when traffic is light, you can count on a confusion of cars around the Arc de Triomphe). We ended up driving around it a second time later in the evening.

We were on our way to La Défense, the gigantic "financial district" on the western edge of Paris. It's about as big as San Francisco's financial district, with dozens of skyscrapers, and it is entirely outside the old city of Paris. Chris wanted to see it, because she had never been out there before. We just drove around it; it has its own ring road. Some of the skyscrapers are impressive, and the Grande Arche de La Défense is quite a monument.

We walked down the main street in Asnières and saw this street art.
Do you recognize these two men? One of them is a real icon.

At that point, I decided I wanted to go to Asnières-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris where I lived for 18 months in 1974-1976. It's just a mile or two north of La Défense; I used to go to La Défense by train to do grocery shopping when I lived there. At the time I was working for the University of Illinois year abroad program and also teaching English in various schools in Paris.

I had a small apartment on the third floor (deuxième étage français) of a 1930s brick building, with a bakery — boulangerie-pâtisserie — just below. When I opened the windows in the morning, the smells of fresh bread and croissants poured into my apartment.

I remember buying cheese here often — 30 years ago!
I was a very young child then, of course.

The aparment had a small bathroom (shower, sink, toilet) that had only recently been put in, so it was modern for the era. And it had a small kitchen with a stove for cooking and a sink of course, but no refrigerator. I guess I could have bought one but I didn't know how long I would stay there and what I would do with it when I left. I'm not sure there was even room for a fridge in the kitchen.

I think the rent back then was about $75 a month, and I didn't have a lease. I paid the landlady, Mme Léandri, in cash on the first of each month (350 French francs, if I remember correctly). She was older and sometimes got a little confused. Once I paid her the rent as usual, and then three days later she came and said I was late with the rent. She never gave me a receipt.

I said I had paid her three days earlier, but she didn't remember. I told her son, who was about my age, what had happened, and he went and looked in the cookie jar (or whatever) where she kept her cash money and found the 350 francs there, so he believed me. From then on, I paid him, not her.

This is the building I lived in: 23, rue de Bretagne, in Asnières-
sur-Seine, on the corner of the rue d'Anjou and across from
the train station. Nothing has really changed in 30 years.

On Saturdays, the street just below my window, the rue de Bretagne, was taken over by an outdoor food market. I lived right next to the train station, and it was just three stops to get to the Gare St-Lazare from Asnières. At St-Lazare, you could get the métro or a bus to go over to the Latin Quarter or St-Germain-des-Prés, which was where I worked. The Illinois office was on the rue Soufflot, and I was consulting and teaching at the Sorbonne, at Censier, and at a school on the rue des Saints-Pères near St-Germain.

Just on the other side of the Asnières train station (which was more like an elevated métro station than a real gare SNCF) there was a big supermarket, a multiplex movie theatre, and a full range of small shops selling cheeses, charcuterie, meat, and so on. There was a laundromat with Speed Queen washers and dryers where I could do my laundry. It was a pretty nice little business district.

Another café near the station in Asnières, on a warm afternoon.

The other day, we found a parking space and walked around for half an hour or so, just to see the place. It has hardly changed at all in the 30 years since I lived there. The boulangerie in my old building has been remodeled and is surely under new management, but it's still there.

Chris said she could tell we weren't in Paris; Asnières had a different feel to it. The buildings are smaller, I think. But there are cafés and since the weather was nice a lot of people were sitting out on the sidewalk terraces having a coffee or a beer. I enjoyed seeing the old stomping grounds again. My last visit was in the early 1990s.

Buying bread on the corner of the rue de Bretagne
and the rue d'Anjou in Asnières.

We drove back into Paris, rounded the Etoile the second time, and went on down into the 15th. We had dinner at a couscous place called Le Vent de Sable on rue Mademoiselle. I had couscous with méchouis (spit-roasted lamb), and Chris, Tony, and Walt all had tajines of braised lamb. Walt's was lamb with prunes, Chris's was lamb with artichoke hearts and green peas, and Tony's was lamb with almonds. It was all very good, and we washed it down with a chilled, rich rosé wine from Algeria.

25 April 2007

Paris: Izraël & le Marais

After our sushi lunch in the Japanese restaurant at Sèvre-Lecourbe last Friday, we drove over to our hotel, an Ibis at the Porte de Gentilly, to check in. We've stayed there many times since 2003, and when you are with car in Paris it's very handy and inexpensive. Not charming, I guess, but clean and comfortable. The rates: 55 euros a night on weekends — with the moribund dollar, that's $75.00. Not bad. And the parking is free, on the street.

We didn't linger at the hotel because we had told our friends Chris and Tony we'd come to their apartment in the Marais at 3:00. We drove up there and around the block a couple of times looking for a parking place. The Marais is a very densely built-up neighborhood and street parking is scarce. I was about to give up and head for an underground garage when I noticed what looked like a half-space right on the Place des Vosges.

Well-stocked shelves at Izraël, l'Epicerie du Monde, in the Marais.

The Peugeot 206 is pretty small, but this was going to be tight. I backed in and nudged backward and forward five or six times. It fit! We had about three inches between our bumpers and the bumpers of the cars in front and in back of us. We paid the meter — two hours maximum — and headed out on foot. We were only steps or so from our friends' rental apartment at the corner of the rue de Turenne and the rue des Francs-Bourgeois.

Our plan was to walk over to the shop called Izraël, which specializes in exotic products and ingredients, to look for some spices we and Chris & Tony wanted to buy. Izraël, l'Epicerie du Monde, is at 30, rue François-Miron, very close to the intersection of the rue de Rivoli and the rue Vieille-du-Temple. As you can see, everything there was beautiful and appetizing. They carry products you'd have a hard time finding elsewhere in Paris. Check out this blog for more pictures and information; it's in French.

We have walked by there a thousand times over the years and I had never noticed the Izraël shop before. Right next door to it is a wine shop, and I know I've bought wine there several times in the past — including some California wine for French friends one year.

It just goes to show you that you can walk right by a place many many times before you ever focus on it. That's the beauty of Paris — there is so much there (I almost said "there there," if you know what I mean) that you can never know it all. There's always a new discovery around the next corner. I've had friends who lived nearby and spent time in this neighborhood since the late 1970s!

Walt and I were looking for a smoked paprika from Spain to use in our cooking. We wanted hot smoked paprika (fort), but Izraël only had the mild (doux) version. Fine; we can add some hot unsmoked paprika to it, or some ground cayenne pepper. We bought a good supply of the smoky stuff.

Chris & Tony were looking for a ground hot pepper powder they had gotten as a gift from a friend who brought it back from the Ivory Coast in Africa. They didn't have a name for it. They said it had a deep, rich flavor that you don't get with ground cayenne or other hot pepper powders they've been able to find in California.

The staff at Izraël recommended the North African spice blend called harissa — in powder form, not the paste you normally eat with couscous. They bought some and will try it when they get back home.

We had walked from the Place des Vosges over to Izraël's shop, and we walked on to the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville after that. It's not far. Walt had a specific item he was looking for, and he found it. After that success, we walked back through the rue des Rosiers, the heart of the old Jewish neighborhood that is the Marais. We noticed that Jo Goldenberg's restaurant there, a real landmark, has closed down. The storefront was empty.

Another Marais landmark, L'As du Fallafel — people queue up

Our two hours were up and we had to go move the car. We walked back up to Chris & Tony's apartment — a nice studio just one floor above street level but with double-glazed windows that closed out street noise very effectively — to drop some things off. Then we walked over to the car and went for a drive around the city.

Façade of a building on the rue des Rosiers in the Marais

We drove over to the 13th arrondissement to buy some things in a big Asian supermarket, and then drove up the Champs-Elysées and around the Arc de Triomphe on our way out to La Défense.

24 April 2007

More about elections, etc.

My Site Meter counter hit 20,000 yesterday. That means my blog has been visited twenty thousand times since January 2006. That's a milestone.

If the Blogger software is working correctly, there are nearly 400 posts on this blog. I still have some indexing work to do to make them all easier to find by subject.

April sunrise at La Renaudière


Thinking about French elections vs. American elections: One interesting thing about the voting here in France is that only one office or issue is voted on at a time. Sunday's first-round presidential balloting called on voters to make just one decision: who do you want as president?

In June, parliamentary elections will be held and voters will choose their member of the National Assembly. At other times, there will be municipal elections (mayors), and then regional elections (regional councils), and finally once in a while there will be a referendum on a specific issue — the last one was on the European constitution, which failed.

In the U.S., voting is much more complicated, I think. In presidential election years, you vote not only for president but for a member of Congress and maybe one or two U.S. Senators. You also vote for representatives and senators at the state level, maybe a mayor and governor, secretary of state, attorney general, agriculture commissioner, and lieutenant governor — and judges, school board members, and dog-catchers. In California and other states, there are also usually dozens of propositions on one issue or another on the ballot.

Springtime flowers in the garden

I know in California there were a lot of people who either had to spend days studying all the candidates and propositions, or who decided it was just too much trouble and tuned out. Or they voted for one or two offices but not the others. And all the propositions! Was it better just not to vote if you hadn't had time to study the issues? Or to vote sort of randomly for unknown candidates and propositions?

No wonder turnout is low. The process needs to be simplified.

The French process does seem simpler, and it probably encourages people to participate. The turnout in Sunday's voting in France was about 85%. People get to vote for fewer candidates and propositions, but when it comes to the big offices and question, they turn out.


Flowers in a Paris garden

Speaking of voting, we can't. We are not citizens and we are not allowed to participate in French elections. That doesn't keep us from being interested in the outcome.

Here's a description of the voting process in a small town in France. It's on Amy's Loire Valley blog. She lives in Restigné, on the other side of Tours from Saint-Aignan. I read her daily.

23 April 2007

Driving to and in Paris

We drove up to Paris under clear sunny skies last Friday morning. Our route took us from Saint-Aignan and through the forests of La Sologne toward Orléans. We circled south and east of Orléans on small roads and then made our way northeast toward Malesherbes and Milly-la-Forêt, passing just west of Fontainbleau on the A6 autoroute as we headed north toward Paris.

Our first stop was in the suburbs at Evry, where there's an Ikea store. We wanted to buy a light fixture we had seen on a trip to Ikea in Nantes about six weeks ago, and the Ikea web site showed that the Evry store had it in stock. It took us three hours to drive from Saint-Aignan to Evry, in the far south suburbs, and we arrived there at 11:00.

A Paris bureau de tabac that sells
like printer paper and ink cartridges.

After the Ikea stop, it only took us about 30 minutes to get into Paris. Traffic was very light, because, I think, the Paris schools were on holiday last week. A lot of people took their kids and got out of the city, I imagine, to take advantage of the fine weather we've been having since the first of April. So there were hardly any traffic jams and street parking was pretty easy. We like to drive to Paris and, when conditions allow, we drive around in Paris to go from neighborhood to neighborhood and do what we want to get done.

Instead of going to our hotel at noon, which we though might be too early for them to have our room ready, we decided to go have lunch somewhere. We drove into the city on the avenue de la Poterne des Peupliers (13th arrondissement), drove through the little circular place de l'Abbé G.-Hénocque looking for a likely café or brasserie for lunch, and then turned left on the rue de Tolbiac and headed toward Alésia in the 14th.

A quiet morning in Paris

We saw plenty of cafés and restaurants but were taking our time looking. We had two hours to kill before we were suposed to call our friends at their holiday apartment in the Marais.

Traffic was so light that we just kept going. We drove the length of the rue d'Alésia across the 14th and into the 15th arrondissement on the rue de Vouillé. These are old stomping grounds for me, and I told Walt we'd find a restaurant just a little farther down on the rue de la Convention, near its intersection with the rue de Vaugirard.

Paris has become a multi-ethnic city.

Walt noticed a Japanese restaurant along the way, so we started thinking about that as a lunch option. And then we thought about the Japanese restaurant that is very near a friend's apartment on the rue Lecourbe, near the Sèvre-Lecourbe métro station. Is that too far to go? No, not with such light traffic. So we drove up there on the rue de Vaugirard and found a place to park pretty fast, on the rue Blomet near the rue des Volontaires. We walked the equivalent of four or five blocks to the restaurant and got a table immediately.

You might be surprised that we would want to eat Japanese instead of French food in Paris, but when you live in the French countryside you eat French food every day of the week. We wanted something exotic.

Walt had a rice bowl (vinegared sushi rice) with salmon sashimi. I had a plate (a board, actually) with four pieces of sushi (rice with four different fishes — tuna, salmon, a white fish, and a large prawn) along with six California rolls (sushi rice with avocado and other vegetables). Both our meals came with miso soup and a shredded cabbage salad in a sweet vinegar dressing. We had a carafe of white wine. It was a delicious lunch. Most of the other people in the restaurant were eating meat or poultry grilled on skewers, but some like us were having raw fish.

Paris sidewalks

After lunch we drove down the rue Lecourbe out to the south edge of Paris and the inner ring road. Construction of a new light rail line has recently been completed along that road, called le boulevard des Maréchaux because long sections of it are named for different French military figures of the past. We wanted to see it. The number of lanes for car traffic were reduced when the rail line was built down the center of the boulevard on a grassy median strip.

We drove (again, with little or no traffic) alongside one of the trams on the new line, and we noticed that it moved at a brisk pace. We were just barely able to keep up with it. It stopped to load and unload passengers, and we stopped at traffic lights. The whole effect was very modern, open, airy, and efficient. The look and feel of the old boulevard has really been improved. The light-rail trains have the right of way at all intersections, so cars have to wait.

In San Francisco, Walt says, it would be just about impossible to get such a rail line built. When it comes to reducing the lanes available for automobile traffic, the car lobby is just too strong in California. There would be an outcry. It would take years. Everybody would be upset. And the city would just have to watch traffic get worse and worse.

A Paris fixer-upper in the 10th

In Paris, the new tram was planned, approved, and built in record time, and the result is fantastic. The trams were full of passengers. I'm sure there were Parisians who were upset to see the number of lanes for cars reduced. But what's the point of encouraging people to drive cars in the city — especially commuters? There's too much traffic already.

So why am I driving around in Paris? Well, because I can, I guess. Once in a while. Last year when we went to spend a week in Paris, we took the train and then walked, rode the métro and buses, and didn't feel the need for a car at all. It's all in the particular circumstances of your trip. What's nice is that driving is an option, not a necessity.

Coming up out of the métro

It seems right to me that the authorities should be encouraging people to use public transit, to walk, to ride bicycles, but not to drive. Paris has an amazing métro, an extensive bus network, an efficient regional rail system, and now light-rail lines around big parts of the city. It now has a lot of bike lanes, and that's something new. There are more an more pedestrian streets, and there's talk of levying a special tax on drivers who want to take their cars into the center of the city. London has already done that.

Driving in Paris is a once-in-a-while luxury, as far as I'm concerned. Usually traffic makes it slow, complicated, and frustrating. We were lucky to end up in Paris when so many people were on holiday outside the city. If I were going to be there for more than 24 hours, I'd leave the car at home.