Monday, July 9, 2012

A Birthday on the Seine by the Effiel Tower

Sunday, July 8, 2012
Paris, France

I had stayed up till 12. 15 at night blogging, so I really did see my birthday dawn while the rest of our household snored: Llew and our French friends from Normandy, Jacques and Florence. They continued to snooze through a sun-filled morning but, eventually, we all dragged ourselves out of bed to eat petit dejeuner. I made scrambled eggs with bacon and we ate it in our dinette in our eat-in kitchen with a variety of French bread (baguettes, brioche, pain du chocolate) and coffee.

Unable to decide exactly how we should spend the morning, Florence the architect, wished to see the Fondation Le Corbusier. Unfortunately, we discovered that it was closed on Sundays. Instead, she recommended the Musee des Arts Premier, known locally and better as the Musee de Quai Branly. Since this place happened to be located right by the Eiffel Tower, it made sense for us to take a walk around the iconic monument, the Palais de Chaillot and the Trocadero gardens.

Memorials to Jews at Bir-Hakeim:
But first, since we got off the metro at Bir-Hakeim, I wanted to find out a bit about the history of the place in Northern Africa for which the metro station is named. It is the site of a pivotal victory for the French in World War II and there is a small exhibition at the station to inform the passer-by of this important juncture in war history.

However, my aim was to stride down the Rue de Grenelles to try and find the monument to the French Jews who were rounded up and penned inside what was known as the Velodrome d'Hiver (Vel d'Hiv for short), a former stadium which no longer stands. The venue served as the first collection point for Jews who, in 1944, were deported to Auschwitz, many never to return. Although the French authorities state that the razing of the stadium had nothing to do with its notorious Nazi past, I find that hard to believe. The conditions under which they were held and the suffering their underwent during the five days of itnernment before they were sent off to Drancy and then to Auchwitz is superbly delineated by Tatiana Rosnay in her novel Sarah's Key (which is also a movie starring Kristin Scott-Thomas).

We found the monument to the Jews just a few feet away on the Boulevard. It consists of a plaque that details the unfortunate collaboration of the Vichy-France government of General Petain with Hitler. There were a few steps leading up to the plaque, small flower beds on both sides and a wreath to mark the spot where so many Jews were holed up. It was, like most such memorials, a very moving sight and after taking a few pictures, we moved on.

Gazing up at Eiffel's Tower:
Hard to believe that we had left Paris' most popular tourist attraction for our last few days--and for very good reasons. We've been there before (several times--Llew has even taken the elevators up although I have never done so). The wait on line was two hours as there was only one elevator in operation. So it was not a priority. Besides, we have been passing by it several times in the metro trains--so have 'seen' it often.

Eiffel's Tower is one of the world's buildings that no matter how often one has seen it, there is another detail to be noted for the first time. For instance, I had not realized that just above the arch that supports the entire structure is engraved the names of France's most distinguished engineers. Florence pointed out a few interesting structural details to us and it was great to have her studied eye accompany us on our perusal of Paris' best-designed buildings.

We had a blast as we attempted to get pictures of ourselves and the entire length of Eiffel's great work: Jacques actually lay down flat on the pavement. A little while later, Llew followed suit and while he was still on the ground, was requested by another couple of tourists to take their picture. "Five Euros", he said, with a perfectly serious face, much to their confusion! After a great deal of hilarious laughter in which we actually did stop traffic (an open top tour bus stopped right next to the spectacle to entertain the passengers inside), we moved on.

The Musee de Quai Branly:
Thanks to Florence, I became introduced today to the work of France's most innovative contemporary architect Jean Nouvel at the Musee de Quai Branly. We walked alongside the Eiffel Tower to arrive, first of all, at his Jardin Suspendu ("Hanging Gardens")--a veritable glory of potted plants (I recognized coral bells, ivy and even hosta!) that made up one entire wall of a six story building! It was simply unbelievable! We actually looked for the irrigation mechanism that keeps the wall watered and it was practically invisible although we could feel the shower of drops that kept the environment moist!

It was then that Florence told us about Jean Nouvel's aesthetic: he attempts to shut off urban noise to introduce the sounds of nature--such as running water and birdsong. In the case of this building, he achieved it by creating a tall thick wall of glass. Incredibly, just as we walked past it, we shut off the traffic that zipped by the Eiffel Tower behind us and might as well have been entering a rain forest. I repeat--it was incredible!

Past the most glorious perennial gardens we went--oakleaf hydrangea hangs out in great big blossoms. There were many varieties of ferns and grass. Clearly Nouvel believes in the artful combination of nature and urbanity and he has done a brilliant job on this building with its colorful cubes jutting out of a plain surface, its dome-like structure at the very top and its Guggenheim Museum-like spiral main building that you climb in gradual stages to arrive at the main floor. The collection itself is color-coded, each hue representing a very different part of the world and its culture--from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. This is essentially the kind of art Llew finds attractive. It is not really my cup of tea as my taste is far more classic. Still, I got my kicks learning about Jean Nouvel and discovering, to my surprise, that I have actually been to quite a few of his international creations (and did not know that he was the architectural vision behind them): the Opera House in Lyon, for example, that I love; the Tower Agarba in Barcelona, Spain, and although I did not know it, the new Louvre in, of all places, Abu Dhabi. Overall, this was a brilliant introduction to the work of another 'artist' that I have discovered in Paris.

On to the Palais de Chaillot and Trocadero:
We walked briskly then past the Trocadero Gardens to the viewing platform overlooking the Eiffel Tower known as the Palais de Chaillot to get some good pictures of the tower as a group. The sun had its cap in again which meant that we got pictures without shadows--a good thing for photography, but not otherwise. However, we did not stay too long as our friends needed to get back to the train station for their evening train back to Normandy. We reached home in record time.

Late Lunch Chez Nous:
Our quick arrival home gave us the chance to put together a late-lunch for our friends before they boarded their train back home. I rustled up my orange mayonnaise and served it with a green salad with ripe figs, cherry tomatoes and salted almonds--deelish! This was followed by a store-bought goat cheese quiche and caramel ice-cream for dessert. We said hasty Au Revoirs, made promises to meet again soon and then they were off!

Finals Afternoon at Wimbledon:
By this time, the men's final match was well and truly underway at Wimbledon. Poor Llew was very disappointed as he could not get the match on our TV set--we do not have premium cable channels in our apartment. However, we did view it on BBC's Live Sports feed. After a bit of blogging, I jumped into the shower to get ready for our evening's appointment with our hosts, Joyce and Lester.

Dinner at Bouillon Chartier:
Bouillon Chartier does not take reservations. We were told to queue up outside and await our turn! It is a huge place--a sort of canteen--that once used to cater to workmen but is now a renowned restaurant. I read about it in Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard and had decided to try it out. My NEH colleagues had also said how much they enjoyed eating there. They had described it as "a fun place"--so it seemed like a good choice.

We decided to meet at 7. 30 but our friends only turned up at 8. 15 as they wanted to watch the end of the tennis match! We watched heaps of people go in before us as we grew more tired and hungry waiting on line. Just when we decided to go inside without them, we spied Joyce who told us how impossible it was to find parking. Anyway, at about 8. 30, we were seated in a bustling interior with a lot of 19th century atmosphere. The black-clad waiters, wearing the knee-length white aprons moved around as if on roller-skates. Menus were literally tossed at us--long white flyers that are probably printed each day. We made our selection from the limited items and then our meal began. A bottle of red wine was ordered for the table and it stimulated our appetite for what lay ahead.

Alas, the meal was not all it was cracked up to be. I enjoyed my entree--a celery remoulade, made with celeriac which is rather rarely found in the States. Llew chose the fois gras served with a strewed prune and a toast point. Since we shared, I have to say that the appetisers were probably the best part of our meal. For a plat, I chose the steak with pepper sauce and fries, Llew chose lamb chops with fries, Joyce got the duck confit and Lester ordered the entrecote. While my steak was great (the sauce was particularly flavorful), Llew's chops were a huge disappointment: they were full of fat leaving almost no meat to be eaten and exceptionally dry. For dessert, having found Peach Melba on the menu and out of nostalgia for the ones he had eaten in Quetta and Murrie in Pakistan, Llew chose it. It was nothing other than a canned peach half with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream!There was almost no raspberry sauce (an essential component to a Peach Melba) in sight. Massive disappointment for him. I ordered the Profiterole, a dessert I love. I have to say that it was just okay. The choux bun was sizeable and it was filled with vanilla ice-cream and smothered with chocolate sauce but it wasn't very tasty. Overall, I'd say we had an especially uneven meal in terms of taste and quality.

Coffee Chez Nous:
Our friends were kind enough to offer us a ride home and we insisted they come upstairs for a night cap. About a half hour later, after driving through Paris by night, we arrived at our place and sat down with lovely cups of Laduree tea. But since it was close to midnight, Joyce and Lester did not stay long. It was a nice end to an evening in which the company was far better than the food. What the outing proved for rme is that you can actually get a not-so-great meal in Paris.

At close to midnight, I continued blogging while Llew fell asleep. I had been especially pleased to talk to my family members in Bombay and the sound of their voices truly made my birthday special. To those of you who are reading this blog and did send birthday wishes my way, a million thanks. I hope you also whispered a wee prayer on my behalf. You are special people and you make my life rich and meaningful. Thank-you.

A demain!         

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