30 November 2014

Le Départ

So you see, I managed to spend a month in Paris... on this blog. I actually spent about 6 hours in the city, arriving at 9:30 a.m. on October 29 and taking the 15:52 (3:52 p.m.) train back to Saint-Aignan via Vierzon. By the way, the train right after mine was going to Auneau, a town near Chartres that I've driven through a few times and whose name makes me laugh (oh no!).

I went into the station, La Gare d'Austerlitz, and looked around to see if my train was going to be on time and to figure out what platform it was leaving from. I had a reserved seat, so I didn't need to worry about getting on early and finding one before the train filled up.

If you notice on the departures board above, there are two kinds of trains that leave from Austerlitz. The one I was taking went to Vierzon, a biggish town about 35 miles east of Saint-Aignan on the Cher River. It was an Intercités train and it went on farther south from Vierzon to Limoges and Brive-la-Gaillarde. The other trains are called TERs — Trains Express Régionaux. Those are the blue trains (not a "bullet" or TGV train though with a similar look) like the one in the photo below and they run, for example from Vierzon to local destinations like Saint-Aignan/Noyers.

Since I had time, I sat down and had a glass of wine (a Touraine Sauvignon) before getting on the train. It was good that my seat was reserved, because it was very full. I was in Vierzon by about 5:15 and back in Saint-Aignan before 6:30 after a 20-minute layover spent in the Gare de Vierzon-Ville.

I have enjoyed spending a month in Paris. I have some more photos, and I will certainly post some of them over the course of the winter. Tomorrow is December 1, and I need to move on. I still have a trip to Burgundy to document. When I interrupted that one, I had just crossed the Loire out of the Centre region into the Bourgogne region. I also have a few fall photos of the Saint-Aignan area that I want to share.

29 November 2014

Les deux bouts du pont

On the Right Bank, at the top end of the Pont d'Austerlitz, I thought this building was striking.

At the other end of the bridge, on the Left Bank, is the Jardin des Plantes and the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle. People were lined up the get in during the Toussaint school holiday.

Alongside the Muséum is this tree-lined alley, which was also crowded with people out strolling.

I'm almost in the train station at this point. I think I might be leaving Paris tomorrow. I'll come back to Saint-Aignan for a day or two, and then I'll return to Burgundy — speaking as a blogger, I mean.

28 November 2014

A boat and a car on the boat

This is a péniche or barge on the Seine over near the Place de la Concorde. I assume somebody lives on it, because there's a car parked on the stern of the boat.

If I'm not mistaken, the little red car is an "amphibious" vehicle. It can be driven on the road, or it can be launched on the river and driven like a little boat.

It's the Amphicar and dates back to the 1960s. It's German and was the first vehicle of its type that was mass-produced for sale to the public and for recreational use. Here's a link to the Wikipedia article about it.

27 November 2014

Today's Paris

Paris is a huge, modern city, with all the pleasures and tribulations of the 21st century. It's the most densely populated city in Europe, with 2.25 million people crammed into just 105 square kilometers — about 41 square miles. San Francisco, by comparison, covers 47 square miles but has a population of only 840,000. A Parisian might feel a little lonesome there! The island of Manhattan in New York City is more densely populated, but there are many more high-rise apartment buildings there.

Not all the streets in Paris are narrow and quaint. In fact, it's mostly a city of grand avenues and boulevards. Above you see the 59-story Tour Montparnasse (an office building) from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, looking up the Rue de Rennes. Many people hate it, but it's been there for more than 40 years now, which means that for people like me it has always been part of the Paris skyline. It just is.

Construction cranes are also a feature of the skyline these days. New buildings are going up all around the edges of the historic core of the city. The city changes constantly, but it keeps its character. This is a view of the Right Bank from a spot near the Jardin des Plantes and the Gare d'Austerlitz.

These are on the Right bank too, along the river across from the Austerlitz train station. The eastern part of the city, which was given over to warehouses and even factories well into the 20th century, is being redeveloped. There's a lot of steel and glass.

There's a lot of car and truck traffic in the city, but maybe less than there was 30 years ago. Dedicated bus, taxi, and bike lanes have been created to encourage people to get out of their cars and move around by public transit, on bike, or on foot. There is no such thing as unpaid parking any more. Paris is a world unto itself. It has been said that Paris and France are two different places, and there's a lot of truth in that. Mais Paris est aussi la France !

26 November 2014

Le Port de l'Arsenal

The next sight along my way from the Marais neighborhood, walking along the Right Bank toward the Pont d'Austerlitz and the train station, was what I would call a yacht basin. It's called Le Bassin and/or Le Port de l'Arsenal. Until recent times, it was the site of a commercial port facility serving the city of Paris.

In the 1980s, the Port de l'Arsenal was transformed into what is called a port de plaisance. Boats in this harbor have access to the Seine through a narrow channel and a lock — the water level in the basin is three meters (nearly 10 feet) higher than the level of the Seine.

To the north is the Bastille, with its tall green column, and the Canal Saint-Martin leading up to La Villette and the north suburbs of Paris.When the old Bastille château-fort still existed — it was knocked down during the French Revolution after serving for hundreds of years as a much-hated prison — the ditch that had fed water from the Seine into its moat was dug out to create today's Port and Bassin de l'Arsenal.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the new basin became an important commercial port and carried mostly péniches — barges.

There are berths for more than 175 boats in the Bassin de l'Arsenal. The péniches you see in the port are surely barges that have been converted into pleasure boats or even house boats. At least one of the two above was for sale when I was in Paris (four weeks ago today!).

25 November 2014

Chez le fleuriste

Most of the florist shops in Paris devote the majority of their display to chrysanthemums in late October. Mums are the flowers people set out in graveyards in France at this time of year, to honor the dead on the Toussaint (All Saints' Day) holiday. In fact, mums are not a flower you would give as a gift to anybody in France, because they are so closely associated with death and graveyards.

This fleuriste is on the Boulevard Henri IV at the corner of the Rue des Célestins, caddy-cornered from the Café Sully, in the Arsénal neighborhood of Paris. It's called Carrément Fleurs — "squarely" or definitely flowers. Florist's shops like this one dot the whole city.

Right around the corner is this over-the-top building façade, in the Spanish style, from what I've read. It's called the Hôtel Fieubet and dates back to the 1670s. Nowadays it's occupied by a private school (Ecole Massillon).

Finally, a view from farther downriver of the area shown in the photos above and in yesterday's post. This is the Pont Marie that links the Right Bank to the Ile Saint-Louis. It was built in the 1600s, at the time when the Ile Saint-Louis was being developed as a residential neighborhood, and is named for the architect who designed and built it, Christophe Marie.

24 November 2014

À boire et à manger

Paris, Right Bank, late October. The neighborhood: L'Arsenal. Along the river, toward the eastern end of the Ile Saint-Louis and along the Seine, a huge grange or warehouse was built in the 1500s and in it cannons were manufactured. And gunpowder too, of course. In 1563 the building exploded, and the sound was heard for many miles around.

The neighborhood is a lot quieter these days. If you're walking from the Marais over to the Gare d'Austerlitz, you can stop in at the Café Sully for refreshments. Now that I've looked at the web site and the menu, I wonder why I've never had lunch there. Next time, maybe. Right next door, there's an information center, Le Pavillon de l'Arsenal, with displays that show different aspects of the history and evolution of Paris architecture and urban planning. It's free, and it's very interesting. Go.

If you need a kilo of potatoes or oranges, or whatever, stop in chez Ben l'Epicier ("Ben the Grocer's place") on your way to the train station. Ben Maamar Abderrazak's shop is at 12, boulevard Morland, métro Quai de la Rapée, not far from the Pont d'Austerlitz and the station.

23 November 2014

A Saint-Séverin Sunday

The Eglise Saint-Séverin is in the Latin Quarter of Paris, not far from the Sorbonne and Notre-Dame. The current church building dates back to the first half of the 13th century, but an earlier church on the site was already "in business" in the late 11th. It's a church in the Gothic style but with, as usual, subsequent modifications.

The building in the foreground, along the sidewalk, is the old charnel house. It dates from the Middle Ages, when the custom was, when the cemetery ran out of space, to remove the the bones from the graves and store them in this structure. It's the only charnel house that still exists in Paris, according to the Michelin guide.

When I took these pictures of the back end of the church, I was walking down the Rue Saint-Jacques toward the Seine and Notre-Dame. La rue Saint-Jacques is one of the oldest streets in Paris. It was the Roman road leading south from Lutèce (Roman Paris) and may well pre-date the Roman conquest of Gaul.

22 November 2014

La rue des Lions-Saint-Paul, suite et fin

Why is this street called « la rue des Lions » anyway? The street was originally just a walking path on the grounds of the royal palace built by the king Charles V in the 1360s and occupied by him and then by his son, the king Charles VI until 1422. Either there were lions painted on the door or gate leading into the property, or the king had a small menagerie/zoo there that included a lion or two.

I thought the house above, on the corner of the Rue des Lions and the Rue Beautreillis, was unusual, and I thought it was older than it turns out to be. According to a real estate web site, it was built in 1800. It contains eight apartments, and the price per square meter for an apartment in the building is about 11,000 euros! A fairly small unit would cost about half a million euros, at that rate.

The Rue des Lions changes names (at least that's how Americans would describe it) and becomes the Rue Jules-Cousin for one block before you arrive at the Boulevard Henri IV and the building occupied by the Garde Républicaine — its headquarters, in fact. It's a unit of the French gendarmerie nationale. Turn left and you arrive at the Place de la Bastille after a short walk up the boulevard, and turn right to get to the Seine and the Ile Saint-Louis.

21 November 2014

Urban realities

Farther along on the Rue des Lions-Saint-Paul, I noticed a couple of things that reminded me I really was in the middle of a big city. Here's the first one. It has to do with parked cars — and local residents' complaints about where people park them.

It says, basically: "To whom it may concern, May we point out that stopping and parking [in front of this doorway, I assume] are not allowed. In the case of unwelcome stopping, we will call to request that your vehicle be towed and impounded. Cordially..."

And then I saw this example of what I assume is street art. It's posted on a wall that seems to have had graffiti painted on it, which has been painted over.

I'm not sure exactly what this colorful message is supposed to mean. It says something like: "Silence wears us down" or "...eats away at us." The verb miner is related to our verb "to undermine". On Facebook or other blogs, I've found photos of several other signs like this one the people have seen in different parts of Paris, but nobody says who put them up or what political goal or social cause is behind them.

20 November 2014

Un Restaurant, toujours un restaurant

Another feature of the Rue des Lions-Saint-Paul (on the corner of the Rue Saint-Paul) is this restaurant called Mères et Filles — Mothers and Daughters. There seems to be a restaurant on almost every street corner in Paris.

At Mères et Filles, the menu includes quite a few exotic touches. Wasabi, a cheeseburger, Black Angus beef, chimichurri sauce, Thai Tom yum sauce. Curried monkfish with plantain chips and sweet potatoes. "Fish and chips" (en anglais dans le texte). Cheesecake with speculos cookies (the crust, I assume). Tarte Tatin (well, that's not really exotic...).

And wine by the glass. This is France, after all. Maybe I should have been more patient and not had lunch elsewhere.

19 November 2014

Peeking inside

I've always been really curious about what might lie behind all those huge carriageway doors, or portes cochères, that stand in the façades of so many Paris houses and buildings. Since they are normally shut and locked, it's a real treat to find one open, leaving the courtyard visible to passersby. Here's the Google Maps street view looking up the Rue des Lions-Saint-Paul toward the Rue Saint-Paul:

It looks like hundreds or thousands of other short, narrow streets in the city. But imagine walking down such a very narrow street lined four- or five-story buildings and parked cars, without a single street tree, and then seeing this through an open doorway:

Wouldn't it be paradise to live in a place like this in the middle of Paris? It's just steps from the Bastille, the Place des Vosges, the Rue des Rosiers, the Seine, and the Ile Saint-Louis. Notre-Dame, the Latin Quarter, and Les Halles are within easy walking distance. Here's a wider view from the sidewalk outside:

And when you step into the courtyard from the street, or emerge from the door of your apartment building, you find yourself in this green space, as if you were out in the country somewhere. There aren't many such private green spaces in Paris. I'd move in tomorrow... if I could afford to.

18 November 2014

La rue des Lions-Saint-Paul in Paris

After my lunch in Paris, I walked up into the Marais to look for some bagels. It was just an idea that occurred to me. I also stopped in the shop called Izraël to look around, and I bought a little bottle of sesame oil, which we can't find locally. I never did find any bagels of the kind I wanted to take back home to Saint-Aignan. Tant pis...

Following my walk along the Rue des Rosiers, past the restaurant called L'As du Fallafel and its long line of customers, I thought I'd better head back down toward the river and the Gare d'Austerlitz. I didn't want to miss my four o'clock train. As I wandered, one of the most interesting streets I discovered is the one that carries the sign to the left.

I don't think I'd ever walked through here before, in all my years in Paris. The street starts on the Boulevard Henri-IV, not too far from the Pont de Sully, and ends at the Rue Saint-Paul. Another street in the area that I want to go back to and explore is the Rue Beautreillis.

My walk through the street started here, at its top. The corner tower (tour d'angle) was what first caught my eye:

It turns out that the Rue des Lions-Saint-Paul was created in 1560 in a neighborhood that had been the site of a royal palace in the late 1300s, during the 100 Years War, under kings Charles V and Charles VI. Their residence was demolished during the Renaissance under king François 1er's reign and several of the streets in the area date back to the mid-1500s.

More tomorrow...

17 November 2014


In the Marais neighborhood of central Paris, schoolboys play basketball behind the Eglise Saint-Paul Saint-Louis during the Toussaint holiday break.

The dark red porte cochère (courtyard door) in the background is the entrance to the Lycée Charlemagne, a high school.

The church tower, covered in tarps and scaffolding, is undergoing renovations.

16 November 2014

A "sounder" of wild boars

But first, if you comment here regularly, maybe you've had trouble getting Blogger to let you post your comments lately. Several people have written to me over the past few weeks to tell me they are frustrated with Blogger's comment feature.

So I've made a change. Now I've made it possible for any and all to leave comments, even if they are anonymous and don't have a Google or other account. And instead of turning on the word verification feature, which requires the commenter to decipher some basically illegible set of numbers or letters, I've just turned on comment moderation.

That means that every time anyone leaves a comment, I get it by e-mail first, and then I can choose whether to publish it on the blog or not. So don't be surprised if your comment doesn't appear immediately after you leave it. I keep up with my e-mails hour by hour most days, and I'll publish your comment ASAP (unless it's very rude, of course LOL).

Sangliers in French are what we call wild boars in English. They are native to Europe and Asia, and they have been introduced to North America over the centuries. There are quite a few of them around here, especially up to the north and east of us in the forested area called La Sologne.

We have seen boars around here before. Nine or ten years ago, when we were young and foolish, Walt and I drove up to Paris to spend an afternoon at the movies and an evening with a friend (Mimi) who was visiting Paris from Boston. We took her to dinner at Le Petit Prince de Paris, a nice restaurant in the Latin Quarter, and we had a great time. The weather was rainy and blustery, but who cared? We ended up leaving Paris at about 11 p.m. to make the drive back to Saint-Aignan, where we had left the dog closed up in the house (poor thing).

We drove down toward Orléans in heavy rain and a real windstorm. We saw one scary car accident on the way, with half a dozen police cars and ambulances along the road, all their lights flashing. At least one car had run off the road and was just visible down in a low wooded area. There might have been another, or other, cars involved. After Orléans, there were a lot of tree branches down on the roadway that parallels the Loire down to Blois, so we had to drive slowly and try to avoid running into or over the biggest of them.

Before Blois, we turned south, crossing the Loire on a narrow bridge that took us toward and around the Château de Chambord. Along that road, we saw a lot of big animals. There were deer, large and small, standing along the edge of the pavement. We saw at least one fox, and we saw a boar or two. Big white owls would suddenly take flight at the approach of our headlights, rising up out of ditches or brush along the shoulder and looking, in the beam from our headlights, like something out of a wild dream.

As we got close to Saint-Aignan, we drove through a wooded area (La Forêt de Gros-Bois) between Saint-Romain and Noyers-sur-Cher, not more than 6 or 8 kilometers from our house. It was between 2 and 3 in the morning by this time. Suddenly, we saw in the headlights a big boar emerge from the woods and start to run across the road in front of us. It was close enough that I had to slow down but not so close that I was worried about running into it.

And then we saw that behind the adult boar were several young ones (they're called marcassins) running across the road in single file. There were four or five of them, and they ran behind the adult that I assume was their mother, jumping, one by one, over the ditch that parallels the road there. All except for the last one, that is. That one suddenly froze in panic and turned and ran back to the opposite side of the road from the rest of its family.

We drove slowly on and got home safe and sound at about 3 a.m. The dog was glad to see us, and we swore we would never be so silly as to drive to Paris again. Or at least not to drive back to Saint-Aignan in the wee hours of the morning in a storm.

Anyway, just a couple of years ago we were driving through that same stretch of woods at about 7:30 one evening and we saw a group of at least half a dozen wild boars standing on the side of the road, probably waiting to cross over. It was already pretty dark, but I was still surprised to see boars at that early hour of the night.

Well, this past Wednesday I drove over to Romorantin, the closest big town, where there is a major shopping area. I needed some new hiking boots, and I wanted to get a new set of hubcaps for the car. I also wanted to do some grocery shopping in the new Centre Leclerc superstore over there.

Most of the drive to Romo, as we call it, is on a straight stretch of highway that runs east, parallel to the Cher River and along the southern edge of the forested Sologne region. It's an easy 25-mile drive. There was some road work around Selles-sur-Cher, but it didn't slow me down much. Six or eight miles farther along, I was driving with no cars ahead of me and no oncoming traffic when I saw a mass of black animals on the edge of the road.

The herd of animals (a herd of boars is evidently called a "sounder" in English and « une compagnie » in French) was about a hundred yards (meters) up the road from me when I noticed it. Suddenly it started moving as a single entity. From my viewpoint, it looked like a black mass that slowly lengthened as the individual animals ran across the road, almost in single file. I wondered if the animals were sheep — but they were too dark in color.

I was close enough to see the movement of legs under the animals' massive bodies, but not so close that I really had to slow down much. My first thought was that it was a flock of sheep. But it was a group of boars, at least a dozen and many as many as twenty of them. The ran across the road and jumped up an embankment of the opposite side, disappearing one by one through a hedge. It was over in a few seconds. Since I was driving, I couldn't take any photos.

As the animals disappeared into the hedge, one stayed behind, standing up on the top of the embankment looking back across the road, probably making sure that all the others had successfully crossed. That boar pushed through the hedge and disappeared just as I approached. So I got a good look at it.

It was about 10 a.m. and therefore broad daylight. I was really surprised to see a compagnie de sangliers out at that hour. I wonder if they're numbers are on the rise around our region.

15 November 2014

A postprandial Paris promenade

After I left the Café Louis-Philippe, with a good hearty lunch and some wine under my belt (or "behind my tie" — what tie? — as you might say in French — derrière la cravate), I headed north into the Marais proper. I still had more than two hours to make it to the Gare d'Austerlitz to catch my train back to Saint-Aignan.

The scene above shows a famous fast-food place on the Rue des Rosiers, which is the heart of the old Jewish community in the now-trendy Marais neighborhood. All these people are lined up to buy a falafel sandwich and take it someplace else to eat it. I did this once, on a summery day, with friends (Evelyn, Lewis, Marie, and Linda). We took our falafel and crudités sandwiches over to the Place des Vosges and found a bench where we could sit and eat them.

On another subject: I didn't take any pictures yesterday, and I didn't have to do any eavesdropping. English and Australian friends came over for a lunch that lasted most of the afternoon. This is my note to myself so that I won't forget the details.

On the menu:
  • as hors-d'œuvres, smoked cod liver canapés + little puff-pastry shells stuffed with snails in garlic-parsley butter
  • creamy corn (garden-grown, BTW) and potato chowder as a starter course
  • for the main course, braised Belgian endives and ham in a cheese sauce (gratin d'endives au jambon)
  • goat's- and ewe's-milk cheeses pre-dessert (because we really needed to eat more cheese)
  • for dessert, a Walt's special blueberry tart
  • Chablis, Irancy (Burgundy), and a couple of our local Touraine wines to wash it all down

Most of the recipes were fairly simple, but a lot of prep work went into making everything, much of it from scratch. It all made for a very pleasant afternoon of conversation with interesting guests.

14 November 2014

Subjects of conversation

The younger of the two men sitting at the little table right next to mine at the Café Louis-Philippe immediately started telling the older man about his mother. Now this man had to be close to 70 or in his 70s, so you know how old his mother must be.

« Je suis allé voir ma mère hier après-midi », he said. « Tu ne la reconnaîtrais pas. » Apparently, his poor mother's health, physical and mental, had suddenly declined. She doesn't talk any more, the man said. She just sits and stares off into the distance. When you talk to her, you don't know if she's hearing you or not.

She used to ask me for news of my brothers and sisters and all her grandchildren, he went on, but she seems to have completely lost interest in them or anything else. The other man didn't say anything, but out of the corner of my eye I could see him nodding in sad agreement and sympathy. He was well dressed in a gray shirt and a navy-blue blazer, looking fairly distinguished. The other man wore a simple gray sweater and seemed less well groomed.

The waiter came and brought me my salad and a glass of Pouilly Fumé wine. I picked it because we had just had lunch in Pouilly-sur-Loire a few days before. The salad was Belgian endives with toasted walnuts and a big chunk of blue cheese, dressed in a very brown vinaigrette. It was good. The waiter's attentions and starting to eat lunch interrupted my listening.

Both the men at the next table ordered the plat du jour, which was a big piece of onglet grillé avec frites maison — that's a hanger steak (from what I've read) with house-made French fried potatoes. I've always enjoyed onglet, which is considered to be a notch above other cuts of steak in quality and taste. I had ordered the same thing, but as part of a menu that included a starter course and a dessert.

Before taking up a new subject of conversation, the younger man concluded his story about his poor mother. He said she had suffered a fairly sudden mental decline three months ago, but that her physical condition hadn't followed the same course. He used the word « malheureusement » at that point, implying that her passing would have been preferable.

The men's next subject of conversation turned out to be Burgundy. Not the wine, but the place. The man in the blue blazer said he had just come back from spending a few days near the town of Montbard, which is just north of Dijon. Somebody he knew — a friend? a son or daughter? — had bought an old house down there and renovations were under way. The place evidently needed a lot of work, and was in an isolated setting.

The two men agreed on one point: Burgundy is a cold, damp region. It's surprising anybody would choose to go live there. That was interesting to me because Walt and I had been in Burgundy just a few days earlier, and we had driven through Montbard on our way to see the nearby Abbaye de Fontenay. And guess what — it was raining that day and we had to give up on the idea of taking a walk through the gardens at the abbey with Callie. We had even talked about the possibility of one day moving to Burgundy, maybe near Auxerre and Chablis, one day. Maybe not...

The waiter brought my steak and set a pot of mustard on the table. I ordered a small pitcher of Côtes du Rhône wine, a red, to drink with it, as had my dining companions. The onglet was a big hunk of meat, and it was very tender and delicious. I ordered it rare, and it came "dressed" with oignons confits — onions cooked slowly for a long time in wine. The frites were as good as I hoped they would be. I'm sure they were cooked in some kind of saturated oil or fat like Végétaline or coconut oil that I wouldn't want to eat very often, for health reasons, but they were tasty.

The next subject was a long discussion about a woman who was a relative, I believe, of the younger man — maybe a sister-  or daughter-in-law. She wasn't someone he had chosen to have a connection with, and he really didn't like her much. He talked about her for a long time, and I sort of lost interest. His sentiment wasn't so much dislike as indifference. The restaurant had gotten more crowded and it was harder and harder to hear individual conversations. Maybe the wine was reducing my auditory focus and attention span.

The thing I remember hearing the man say about the woman in question was that while he didn't think the woman in question was malicious or disagreeable, she was just not somebody he was interested in knowing or spending time with. If I had never met her, he said, my life wouldn't be any poorer for it. I thought that was pretty blunt talk. The other man didn't say anything, as far as I can remember.

I was eating my dessert by then. I had ordered a mousse au chocolat, because it had been years since I'd had one in a restaurant. A waiter had brought the two men at the next table each an espresso and a tiny glass of some kind of eau de vie. They didn't have dessert. The brandy was on the house, I gathered. I ordered my coffee.

The men stayed for a while, and after a few minutes a different young waiter came to say hello to them, and he brought them two more glasses of brandy. He also put one down on my table, saying « comme ça il n'y a pas de jaloux... » The older man looked at me, held up his glass in a kind of toast, and said: « C'est du calvados. »

13 November 2014

Eavesdropping in Paris

When I go to have lunch in a restaurant alone, I turn into a shameless eavesdropper. I don't like to sit in silence, and often the tables in Paris restaurants are too small to give you room to deal with a book or newspaper you might want to read while you eat. Listening to the conversations of the people around you is the most satisfying sort of entertainment in such situations. (If you ever notice me alone in a restaurant, watch what you say!)

This café at Saint-Germain-des-Prés was clearly not "ripe" — too empty. Besides, the lunch crowd might be a little young for my tastes.

The restaurant, preferably in Paris, needs to be lively enough to have some interesting conversations going on at neighboring tables. The people talking need to be Parisians, or at least French — there's no need to listen in surreptitiously to people speaking English; the conversations they have in France are usually boring.  If the conversation is not in English or French... well, what's the point of trying understand snippets or sentences of a language you don't really understand?

These people were American. I couldn't help but hear the odd sentence, but I tried hard not to focus on their voices. The French woman next to them, wearing the purple scarf, ordered and slurped down a dozen oysters on the half-shell.

Parisian diners have the most interesting conversations. Maybe it's because they're used to spending time at the dinner table, whether at home or in restaurants, and talking things over. They talk about politics, their families and relatives, their work and travels, and their daily tribulations and joys. It's real life. They gossip. Listening to what they are saying is like being in a movie theater watching — or plutôt listening to — a good, talky French movie directed by, for example, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, or Sautet.

 This place was a definite possibility, but street noise might have been annoying.

In the ideal eavesdropping restaurant, the tables have to be close together, and there can't be enough noise to make one conversation indistinguishable from another. It's nice to be able to sit outdoors, but then the din of car, bus, and motorcycle traffic can be irritating. The best situation is the one I found myself in the other day when I was wandering around Paris — glassed in, but in a space open to the sky.

Here's the perfect situation: outside with sunny weather, but in a glass-enclosed space with little extraneous noise.

When I sat down, I chose a little table next to a man who was obviously finishing his lunch. I figured he wouldn't stay long, and he didn't. He finished his dessert, drank his coffee in one big gulp — cul sec — and was gone. Then two young women came and took the table on my other side. I could just barely hear their soft voices. A few minutes later, though, just as my salad arrived with a glass of Pouilly Fumé white wine, two men d'un certain âge entered the restaurant.

The people closest to me when I first sat down seemed to be German — a boy with his grandparents, who kept telling him to finish his lunch, if I understood correctly. He didn't seem enthusiastic about the food.

I was happy when they sat down next to me. One man was probably 70 or older, and the other closer to or beyond 80. They apparently lived in the neighborhood (the Marais) and they were regulars, I think, because all the waiters seemed to know them. They both ordered the plat du jour, and they asked for a half-bottle of Côtes du Rhône red wine to go with it. They immediately started talking. I pretended to be lost in my own thoughts...

12 November 2014

Le Bar à Huîtres Saint-Germain

Even though I didn't think we were having oyster-eating weather when I was in Paris two weeks ago today, I was really tempted by the display of coquillages et crustacées (shellfish) at the Bar à Huîtres (the oyster bar) on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The man who was arranging all the shellfish on the display out on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant just kind of grunted his assent when I asked if it was okay for me to take a photo. He must be used to it.

I do love to eat oysters, raw or cooked. On the half-shell, with lemon juice or shallot vinegar. Steamed with cocktail sauce. Fried with sauce tartare. I guess I should have treated myself. Cooked oysters, by the way, are still kind of a novelty in France. Most people would say that cooking them ruins them.

I guess I just wasn't in the mood. And the restaurant was nearly empty, because, I guess, of the early hour. Fresh oysters are easy to get here in Saint-Aignan, anyway. The fishmonger from Marennes-Oléron makes sure of that by coming to the Saturday morning market every week. I'll wait for the weather to cool down.