Why this blog?

To understand why this blog was created and where it got its name, start here

Sunday, August 29, 2010


I found an apartment. Yay! No, that's not the surprise. I signed a one year lease through October 2011. No, that's not the surprise either. I was on my bike yesterday, delivering the deposit to secure the apartment, and I wanted to start exploring the neighborhood.

I could see on the map that there was a park nearby, but I had never visited it. It's the André Citroën Park, opened in 1992. Here is one of the gates to the park.

Lots of joggers, and that's the Seine just beyond the overhead bridge.

A fountain, with a balloon in the background.

I noticed people waiting in line. Hey, maybe I'll check it out.

What?! Only 10 euros for a balloon ride? It's a gorgeous Saturday morning and there aren't that many people in line. Sign me up!

That fountain? Here's what it looks like from above. That tower in the upper left hand corner is the Montparnasse tower.

Here you can see the where the joggers were, with the Seine behind.

The balloon is filled with helium and could simply float away if it weren't for this cable tethering it to the ground. BTW, this might not be too much fun if you suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights).

Here's the view to the north and the Eiffel Tower which is walking distance from my new apartment.

The park and the balloon ride were a complete surprise. I had no idea they were here. I smiled all day long . . .

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paris as seen from the air

Here's a view of the Paris that I love. Be sure and turn on the sound!

Paris vu du Ciel de Yann Arthus-Bertrand
envoyé par mairiedeparis. - L'info internationale vidéo.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


"La Rentrée" (the return) is in full swing in Paris. People are finally coming back from vacations, parents are shopping for school supplies, and shops are coming back to life.

Yesterday was reopening day for the Cabane à Huîtres. I went there for lunch and took along printed copies of the photos and blog posts from my trip to Arcachon for Francis who doesn't have a computer. As I was slurping up my oysters I struck up a conversation with a couple sitting nearby. Parisians here for the first time, they were oohing and aahhing over the freshness of the oysters. Wow, what a find, they exclaimed, you rarely find this kind of ambiance in a Parisian restaurant. We continued to chat through the remainder of the meal and during dessert they mentioned another tiny bistro that has a similar family atmosphere. My ears perked up. I love to find small, out of the way places recommended by locals. I made sure to note the name and adress before leaving.

Today's errands took me to the north side of town and I decided to stop into the Clos Bourguignon mentioned the day before. On a small side street without much traffic, the place was packed! People were spilling out onto the sidewalk, waiting patiently to squeeze inside. I waited at least 20 minutes just for a seat at the bar. There are some advantages to flying solo. Who knows how long I might have waited for a table?

I immediately ordered the house specialty - Hachis Parmentier(following the advice from yesterday's conversation). This is NOT haute cuisine. Hachis parmentier is translated as "shepherd's pie". What's that? Essentially a casserole of ground beef with mashed potatoes and some melted cheese on top. But that description cannot possibly capture the flavor of this dish. It was family style, stick-to-the-ribs, and absolutely delicious. It was also a very large helping - as I'd also been warned.

As I sat enjoying my lunch - along with a chilled glass of Brouilly (red wine). I started noticing the interaction between the crowd and Mr. Louis the owner. I'd say fully half of the diners were greeted by name, and with handshakes or hugs. I couldn't help chatting with a couple of the regulars who were standing at the end of the bar waiting for their own tables. Mr. Louis had jokes or friendly snide remarks for most.

I couldn't finish my portion, and sure enough, Mr. Louis noticed. Whose plate is that? he glared. I did my best, I whimpered, it was delicious but I just couldn't finish it all. Well, if you did your best . . He let me off the hook. And then shared the secret behind the flavor. We start with beef that's been cooked in a pot au feu. Aha, that would explain the flavor. I imagined beef simmered for hours with onions, carrots, and savory spices until it's falling apart. No wonder the flavor was so intense. I'll be back. And next time I'll save room for cheese.

I didn't get too many photos - the place was 100% French and I didn't want to break the spell and look like a tourist by bringing out my camera and taking pictures of my food. Here's a shot of the exterior. You can see how crowded the place still was when I left after 2 PM.

Apartment hunting

I've visited several apartments in the last few days. I've been scouring the ads on Craigslist and have even placed an ad of my own. Trolling through this process is sort of like kissing frogs in order to find the prince - you have to check out several and there aren't that many princes out there. The apartments are either too expensive or too dark, too noisy, too small, too far away from the center, etc. However, I'm not discouraged and expect to find a place that is just right before the first of October.

Speaking of kissing frogs (groan) I have recently signed up for the French equivalent of eHarmony - purely as a social anthropology research project of course . . ;-)

Stay tuned as I analyze the similarities and differences between U.S. and French approaches to the topic . . .

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blue stuff

As the months go by I've started running out of the supplies I brought with me such as toothpaste and shampoo. I can't find my favorite toothpaste, so while examining the myriad options I thought I'd try the one that advertised "teeth instantly whiter from the 1st brushing - clinically proven". After all, age, strong coffee and red wine do take their toll on the color of teeth. It seemed to work OK and I didn't think any more about it.

Later, I succombed to the sales pitch of Steeve the hairdresser who proposed a shampoo specifically designed for gray/silver hair. Why not? Especially since it was less expensive than the last "professional" shampoo that the salon recommended. Again, I didn't think too much about it until one day I noticed blue spots on the shower curtain. Huh? I did notice that the shampoo seemed awfully BLUE, almost purple. I started reading the fine print. Will my hair turn blue? Remember the blue-haired old ladies? Will I become one?

I read and translated the fine print on the bottle: "Effects are optical only. Do not use every day." That made me wonder about the toothpaste too. Sure enough - the fine print also says something about optical effects. . .

Eeeuw. Do they sell stuff like this in the U.S. too?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Looking for a new apartment

I have to move out on Aug 31st and searching for a new apartment is a time-consuming, gut-wrenching process. It will be hard for me to find something that I like as much as the place that I'm in now. It is large, well equipped, sunny, quiet, near markets and three bus lines. It's a place where I can invite friends for dinner. I have a desk to work at, good internet connection, a TV, a separate bedroom, an elevator, a place to put my bike. And it's affordable.

I just gave up an option on another place - that's the gut wrenching part. It was in a fabulous neighborhood, with markets and four bakeries within a half a block. Two parks nearby too. Sunny, not too noisy, but smaller and more expensive than the place I'm in now. No desk, no table for eating and working.

It's the second guessing that is bad. What if I let that one go and I don't find another as good?

But maybe I'll find something even better? I have another lead - a larger place in a good neighborhood, great view, quiet, but more expensive, no elevator, the nearest bakery at least a block away. It's got better transport connections, but there's something about it - maybe the pictures on the wall? - that make it seem "old".

Wish me luck as I try to find another place to live that I can afford and that fulfills most of the items on my wish list.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Marché Castagnary

I got my hair cut on Thursday and chatted with Steeve, exchanging oyster stories. Of course I told him about the Cabane a Huitres and my recent visit to Arcachon, and he told me about the famous Castagnary fish market. I've never heard of this market so I set out to find it.

You can't miss it, he said, just look for the lighthouse. And sure enough:

I got there about 11:30 on a Friday morning and found the three employees sitting bored in the vast hall without a single customer. We struck up a conversation and I heard how the place is usually mobbed with dozens of vendors and hundreds of customers - especially on Sunday mornings in the winter. But Paris in August is dead. I'll have to come back later in the year to see some action.

After chatting for a while and taking a few pictures, I figured I should probably buy something, so I asked the poissonnier (fish guy) for a recommendation. He instantly recommended the bar (sea bass) and I took one home to eat for lunch.

Simply pan fried and served with purple heirloom tomatoes. Yumm. BTW, fish is always sold with the head on, but I cut it off to fit in my frying pan.

Moving day in Paris

The places I've stayed in Paris have had either narrow winding staircases

or miniscule elevators

I always wondered what people did if and when they moved. Here is the answer. Suddenly the summer months have sprouted contraptions like these for moving household goods out through the windows.

The apartment where I am currently staying has no access to the street. Now I understand why most of the furniture is IKEA-style, requiring assembly. Fortunately, all I have to move is one carry-on suitcase carrying my clothes, a small back pack with my computer, and a sack full of books. I can be packed and out of here in less than an hour. No window lift required.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Paris in August

Parisians take their vacations very seriously. They also have a LOT of vacation time each year - a minimum of six weeks - and some have even more than that. And they use it! Traditionally, the country almost shuts down during the month of August. The government has tried to encourage people to spread out vacations so that everyone doesn't leave at the same time, but the months of July and August are marked by huge departures. Everyone wants to leave the city.

Shops close. And suddenly storefronts sprout signs announcing dates of closure. Some "critical" businesses - like bakeries - have signs giving alternate addresses where you can buy your baguette. And yes, French people really do buy fresh baguettes EVERY day. Here is the sign on my "favorite" bakery.

Some shops take advantage of this closure for facelifts.

It can be somewhat exasperating to head for your favorite butcher shop just to find it closed for a month. But the good news is that I've discovered a new favorite butcher shop, new favorite fish market, and a passable substitute bakery as each shop rotates closures, often posting alternative suppliers. Everyone will be glad when all of the shops are open again.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I wasn't much help in the oyster beds. Watching the speed and efficiency with which Frédéric was working on the maintenance projects, racing through the narrow window between tides, I tried to lend a hand. But each time I volunteered, it was apparent that it wasn't worth the trouble to teach me when he could do the job ten times faster. So I was free to play.

François showed me how to find couteaux ("knives") hiding underground. A couteau is a bivalve mollusk that looks just like a pearl handled knife - hence the name. I saw some back in April at a market in Paris but didn't know what they were.

The first step is to identify the distinctive shape of the air hole that they leave in the sand - it's rectangular rather than round. Once you find a likely hole, you sprinkle little bit of rock salt into the hole, followed by a few drops of sea water. You are tricking the couteau into thinking that the tide has come back in! Next, the couteau gives a telltale "souffle" or blow - that shows you that indeed, you've found one. Patience is required as first the couteau sends out a tentative, soft "foot". Moments later, the knife shell appears. Then you grab it! But gently! You can feel it struggling to escape underground and if you pull too hard or too quickly, it can break off. Finally, you ease it out of the ground and go off in search of the next one.

And then? Bring them home, allow them to disgorge in water for about an hour (to get rid of the sand). Then heat them in the skillet (in the shell) - briefly - just until they open. Take them out of their shells, cut into small pieces, and saute quickly in olive oil with garlic and parsley. Don't cook them too long or they become rubbery. Serve as an appetizer accompanied by a white Graves. Yummmm! Delicious!!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Oyster babies

Timing is critical for the placement of "collectors". Oysters spawn once the water reaches a certain temperature - usually in July or August. Hence the myth of not eating oysters during months without "R". Oysters about to spawn do become "laiteuse" (milky) when they're full of eggs, but they are still edible.

Once the eggs are released and fertilized they become free-swimming larvae for about two weeks. At the end of those two weeks of freedom, they must find something to attach to in order to grow a shell and survive. This is a critical period for oyster farmers - to recognize when the oysters have spawned and then to place collectors to provide a point of attachment for the oyster larvae.

The most common kind of collectors in the Arcachon basin are ceramic tiles (kind of like roofing tiles) which must be dipped into a chalk+sand+seawater bath and allowed to dry. This is another laborious step as it is done by hand. Here's what the tiles look like after they've been dipped and are ready to go:

They will be placed in the bay in a special bed out of reach of winter storms and will be left there over the winter. In the spring time - if all goes well - the tiles will be covered with baby oysters about the size of a quarter. Then the tiles will be picked up, brought back to port, and the baby oysters scraped off of the tiles by hand. Some producers use machines for this process, but the Dubourg family does things the traditional and time-consuming way resulting in less damage to the delicate oyster babies.

Following this step, the small oysters are then distributed or sometimes placed in bags to protect them during the first year. Even if Frédéric uses sacks for a short time as a protection from predators, he still retrieves and liberates the oysters to spend their second and third years directly on the bottom of the oyster park.

Sometimes, the oysters don't attach and several weeks of work are lost. This happened earlier this summer when Frédéric placed the collectors at a time he thought was right but none of the oysters attached. Was it the temperature? The algae or lack of algae? Every season teaches new lessons. And at the end of the day "la nature reprend ses droits" or "nature always wins". Only one in 100,000 larvae ever reaches adulthood.


Tides dictate everything in the bay of Aracachon. My trip was timed to coincide with the few days in the month of August when the tides would be high enough (and low enough!) to access the oyster beds where the oysters are grown on the ground. Our outings on the boat each day were timed to leave the port with just enough time to cross the bay, reach the oyster bed, drop anchor, have lunch, and wait for the tide to recede. If you wait too long at the port, the boat is grounded and the shallow channel accessing the port is empty. You've missed an entire day of work. I had no idea what to expect and was completely surprised as we calmly had lunch waiting for the tide to recede leaving the boat high and dry! No way to leave until the tide comes back in again.

Frédéric Dubourg (pictured above with his father Francis) is a 5th generation oyster farmer in the Bay of Arcachon. He is the last to cultivate oysters in the traditional way - directly on the ground - rather than in sacks on iron platforms. This gives the oysters a more natural flavor or "goût du terroir" much like the distinctions acquired by wines whose subtle differences in flavors depend on where they are grown. Another comparison could be made between free range chickens vs. industrial chickens. The oysters are not squashed together in bags and suspended on platforms for the comfort of workers, they must be laboriously spread, turned, sheltered and gathered by hand. Free range oysters are also more at risk for predators including certain kinds of fish, crabs and burrowing snails. But the payoff in this labor of love is a better tasting natural product.

On the boat, leaving the port:

Oysters for lunch while waiting for the tide to go out:

White wine to go with the oysters:

Red wine to go with the pâté, roast chicken, and then the cheese course. Hey this is France!

Tide's out. Time to go to work.

That's François, Frédéric's brother-in-law in the yellow jacket, and Christian, a family friend visiting from Paris in the middle.

As the tide comes back in, it's time to gather up the tools.

Frédéric is spreading out some oysters below. He has 5 different "fields" and just like the farmer who turns his flock into different areas, he rotates the oysters through the different areas, always keeping track of temperatures, predators, and the natural elements in the water. The neighboring oyster farmer is using sacks on platforms. Oysters grown in sacks are out of the water for longer periods of time and don't grow as fast or taste as good.

It's a labor intensive business and subject to all of the laws of nature - storms, predators, and climate change. But the Dubourg family is passionate about the their traditional way of growing oysters and bringing them directly to the public in the tiny Cabane a Huîtres in Paris.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Arcachon oyster beds

I'm back! I am busy sorting photos and writing up some of the many facts and stories that I learned and enjoyed while visiting the Bay of Arcachon with Francis Dubourg, owner of La Cabane a Huitres in Paris. Stay tuned and check back soon :-)

Monday, August 9, 2010


I'm leaving early Tuesday morning to visit Arcachon on the west coast of France near Bordeaux where those delicious oysters are cultivated. I don't know if I'll have internet access there, but stay tuned for more oyster stories when I return this weekend.


80th Birthday

Today is Pierre Lefebvre's 80th birthday. Odette invited me to join her and Pierre for lunch at her apartment. I have written previously about our history with the Lefebvre family. I mentioned that I don't see Pierre very often since he and Odette have been separated for over 25 years. They stay in touch, however, which is normal if you have 4 children and 9 grandchildren in common.

Pierre certainly doesn't look or feel his 80 years! He travels extensively and always has lots of interesting stories to tell.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch and a good bottle of champagne. Pierre and Odette will meet again this evening for a special dinner cruise with two of their four children aboard the Bateaux Mouches.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Yves Saint Laurent

I've just returned from a stunning exhibit at the Petit Palais. It is a retrospective of the life and work of the designer Yves Saint Laurent.

You may have noticed from previous posts that I am self conscious about my "look" and really fairly ignorant of the whole world of fashion. It's just not something that I've ever paid attention to. I tend to be quite practical when it comes to clothing and much prefer comfort over style. That said, I do appreciate really well designed and well cut clothing and much prefer to invest in something that I know I will really wear and appreciate rather than something that happens to be fashionable this season.

Furthermore, my experience of clothing and fashion is inextricably linked with my childhood and (lack of) money. My nicest clothes were hand-me-downs from an older cousin.

My mother has spent a lifetime shopping in second hand stores for herself and for us. At best, fashion has always seemed an unimaginable luxury and at worst, a narcissistic waste of money. Also, as with anything we don't really understand, there is a simple ignorance of the appreciation or value that others place in a particular area.

It was with my natural curiosity and willingness to open myself to new experiences; whether as "anthropologist" or ignorant beginner that I decided to go see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit. It was a little bit like my decision to go see CSN. Who ARE these guys after all, and what is all the fuss?

Wow. I was completely blown away by the genius of his creation. The exhibit features about 300 haute couture models with a selection of pictures, drawings and films that illuminate 40 years of creation. I had no idea that YSL was one who imagined how "to give women more self-confidence". He broke with tradition and was the first to design pants for women. He also said "Fashions pass, style remains". Now those are concepts that I can relate to! It was fascinating to watch him work - he described drawing his designs as though the pencil was moving of its own volition and that he had no foreknowledge of what wanted he wanted to draw. It reminded me a little bit of Mozart or other artists who have been said to transcribe what comes through them. Gave me shivers.

He also had a lot of insight into the duality of the female experience - on the one hand wanting to be taken seriously as a professional (and looking the part), while having another 'fairy tale' or playful side and wanting to manifest that as well. He designed "costumes" for both sides. I had no idea I would relate to these concepts. And I was entranced by the clothes. You can see more here.

I continue to learn about myself. Now I understand why I love my collection of St. John knits, on the one hand, and why I still shop at second hand stores on the other hand. Now if I could just find exquisite shoes that are still comfortable (and that I can afford ;-0) ! And if I could just learn how to put in those darn pierced earrings!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

You can take Elaine out of Boulder . . .

But you can't take Boulder out of Elaine . . .

I felt a little self conscious going into fnac (a huge book and record store) in my biking gear, but I had errands to run and the bike is the best way to get around. And bike shorts and Keenes are more practical than the outfit below . . .

I think I have a ways to go in becoming bolder in my choice of clothes ;-)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Having a baby in Paris

My friend Bo Weston had a baby last week and I went to visit her at the American Hospital. (Yes, Paris has an American Hospital, an American Library, and an American Church). No, I didn't attend the birth, doulas are virtually unknown here. I could find only three doulas listed for a population of 11 million. An opportunity? or an uphill battle? Probably the latter. Anyway, back to Bo and her beautiful baby girl Margaux Ann Louise Hervé-Weston.

Here is Margaux:

And Bo:

So what is unique about Parisian hospitals? Check out the wine list on the room service menu!

The menu also included smoked salmon, melon and prosciutto, salade nicoise, and tomatoes with mozzarella as entrees, and for main courses - chicken breast with morel mushroom sauce, beef filet with bearnaise sauce, and a fresh fish option. There were five different desserts listed including a pear tarte, fondant au chocolat (chocolate cake with a warm melted chocolate center) apple trifle, several flavors of sorbet, plus a fresh fruit salad. Too bad new moms can't eat like this everyday! Yummm.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Paris Plages - Villette

Several days ago I wrote about the Paris Plages (beaches). There are actually TWO locations where the city of Paris has created a vacation experience for those who cannot leave Paris and head to the beach.

The main location is on the Seine river in the very heart of Paris. The second location is in the Bassin de la Villette, a canal system in the northeast corner of Paris - an area that I don't know very well. The weather was nice on Sunday, so I hopped on my bike to check it out. Much of the travel to get there was on bike paths like this one:

I live at point A and the Paris Plages at the Bassin de la Villette is found at point B on the map below. It's about 5 miles, one way, from point A to point B, and part of the route follows the Canal St. Martin. Point C? The parc de la Villette which has a great science museum. I rode there to check it out too.

Arriving at the "beach" I found a lot of people trying out the boats - sometimes with hilarious results and traffic jams. I think that some of these people had never tried to row before!

This looked fun:

And these little tykes were enjoying themselves.

So there you have it. Summer in Paris.