Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Uniquely Paris

This will be our last blog entry for our month-long trip to Paris, so we are going to use it as a catch-all for some of the things that make this city unique.

Paris is an incredibly beautiful city with a special  "look."  Even trash receptacles and public benches are all color-coordinated in a distinctive Parisian green.  And the architecture is all about grace and elegance.  A good example are the many grand townhouses called "hôtel particuliers" like this one:

When Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann designed the Grand Boulevards of Paris for Napoleon III, he created some interesting architectural challenges that resulted in these intriguing skinny buildings with a footprint that was often not rectangular, but wedge-shaped:

On the streets of Paris

Anne's favorite building in all of Paris is the Louvre with its distinctive Mansard roof, a common feature in French Renaissance architecture.  Here is a view of the Louvre across a small pond where ducks swim and children sail wooden boats (just like at Luxembourg Gardens).  These peaceful little sanctuaries are all over the city, and are reminiscent of idyllic turn-of-the-century lifestyles, when women in bouffant dress sported lacy pastel-colored parasols, and on a sunny day, walked arm-in-arm with their men along the grassy pathways of these very same retreats.

The famous Louvre in Paris

Of course, trying to shoehorn modern conveniences into old buildings like these is no easy feat.  You may remember the skinny elevator in our apartment house.  Here is a picture of the two of us jam-packed like French sardines into what is supposed to be a three-person elevator!

Negotiating our tiny apartment elevator was always fun!

Even our lovely, modern apartment had some challenges.  The French are artists and great lovers of beauty, no question about it, but when it comes to practical matters, it's not their strong suit.  For example, our dishwasher produced sparkling dishes, but the wash cycle took over 3 hours!  And when the dishwasher finally finished (usually in the middle of the night), it would beep 5 times, wait 5 minutes and start beeping again, and then again another 5 minutes later.  Why? 

If you are a light sleeper, you will not be happy with these machines and their beeping in the middle of the night.  We saw no reason why the dishes couldn't wait quietly to be retrieved in the morning!  But if you want to get any sleep, you must roust yourself from bed, open the dishwasher door, and turn it off to disable the beeper.  It's lots of fun at 3:00 in the AM!!

The combination microwave/convection oven was also tricky.  (We never did master the convection oven operation completely.)  But at one point, we did "break" the microwave -- at least it appeared that way since none of the functions would work.  After Anne spent some time trying to decipher the French Operation Manual, it turned out that we had inadvertently triggered a special function to "lockdown" the microwave to prevent children from using it. 

We were very fortunate to have a separate washer and dryer (French apartments often come with a kludgy washer/dryer combination all built into one nice neat machine; it seems a brilliant idea at first, until you go to retrieved your still-damp, wrinkly clothes).  Once again, these appliances worked just fine -- if you had half a day to wait around!  A load of wash took well over an hour and the spin cycle seemed to be optional -- sometimes it ran, sometimes it didn't.  The dryer required at least 2 hours to produce dry clothes (most of the time, we gave up and air-dried them).  Frank concluded that "system design" courses with an accent on speed, simplicity, and efficiency do not seem to be part of the university teachings for the French engineer.

Our beautiful, but sometimes challenging, French apartment

One of Paris's charms is that you never know what to expect.  Each day is filled with surprises.  Like this bit of street art -- a clay figure half-buried in the gravel of a walkway in the Tuileries Gardens, one of the many parks around Paris.  We actually met the artist who planned to move the little sunburned guy around the city (notice the yellow lip balm) -- just to see what kind of reactions he would get.

Sculpture at the Tuileries
Paris is also known as one of the fashion capitals of the world, and it's great fun to window shop -- what the French commonly call "faire du lèche-vitrines" (literally it means "licking the display windows"). 

Here is one of the most colorful windows we saw (doesn't the dress remind you of one of those multi-colored lollipops?):

High fashion in Paris garmet shop

And of course, shoes are a huge part of haute couture.  This shoe is a creation of Christian Louboutin, perhaps the most famous of all French shoe designers.  His shoes start at about 450 euros (almost $600 U.S.).  Louboutin once commented that putting on a pair of fabulous shoes was like being sprinkled with fairy dust!

Famous Christian Louboutin high heels

Anne sported an unusual fashion accessory -- one that definitely discouraged any kind of high heels (see below).  Unfortunately, Anne got a bad case of "Paris Foot" (or more accurately "Montmartre Foot").  Montmartre, the section of Paris where we are staying, is known for its hilly, sometimes steep terrain.  Apparently all that walking, especially up and down the hills of Montmartre, caught up with her.
Luckily, Frank came to Anne's rescue and found a snazzy colorful cane at a local Pharmacie.  At first, the woman in the Pharmacie brought out some ugly grey masculine-looking canes, but Frank told her, "J'ai besoin d'une belle canne pour ma femme."  (I need a pretty cane for my wife.)  And she came up with this beauty.  Wow, those French lessons really paid off!

Anne shows off her colorful Parisian cane

The French sense of style also extends to transportation like this strange looking motorcycle with a covered cab and lots of storage space:

Anne eyes up some transportation to ease her sore foot

Of course, more that anything else, Paris is known as a city for lovers.  And nowhere is this more apparent than on the Pont des Artes (bridge).  Even from a distance, you may be able to see strange twinklings on the fence of this foot bridge.

Pont des Artes

Look closer and you will see that the railings on the bridge are covered with padlocks left by lovers who purchase a padlock, then attach the lock to the fencing, and throw the key into the Seine.  No one knows where this "love lock" craze originated -- Florence and Moscow have also been "padlocked."  Two years ago the city of Paris threatened to remove the locks, but apparently true love has won out, as the locks still remain.

Padlocks adorn this pedestrian bridge across the Siene River in Paris

Haaaaa!  And, if you look carefully here, you may even see two names that you'll recognize.  Paris, je t'aime!

Our very own padlock!

The Shoah Memorial

"Shoah" is a Hebrew word meaning calamity or catastrophe and the Shoah Memorial is dedicated to the memory of all the Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis.  Today we visited the Shoah.

When you enter, the first thing you encounter are stone walls etched with the names of the 76,000 French deportees who died either en route to or within Nazi concentration camps.  Very sobering -- especially when quite a few of the victims had the last name Gross (Anne's maiden name).

Walls with the names of 76,000 French
Deportees who were killed during WWII

In the basement of the museum is a burial crypt covered with a black marble Star of David that measures about 10 feet across. An eternal flame burns at its center.  The ashes of the victims were collected from concentration camps all over Europe and buried here along with soil from Israel.

A room of files adjacent to this crypt area holds the original index cards created by the French Vichy Government when these people were first interned. The same files are still used to track down the whereabouts and the ultimate destiny of each French Jew that was deported. 

The Crypt and recovered ashes of the
French Jews who were killed in the Holocaust 

Especially moving were these portions of the walls from "Drancy", an infamous French detention center where Jews were assembled before being deported to concentration camps.  The walls contain graffiti left by the Jewish prisoners.  If you look closely, you may be able to make out the name Grunstein.  This graffiti was only discovered 4 years ago and by researching the index cards in the government files, the fate of many of these individuals has been determined (usually death in Auschwitz).

Stone tablet cut from a jail cell wall at the
 French Detention Center known as "Drancy" 

These displays are very important because for many years after the war, France denied any involvement, blaming all the deportations on the Germans. It was only in the year 1995, when President Jacques Chirac became the leader of France that France publicly admitted its responsibility in the deportation and death of thousands of Jews.

The museum also included a fascinating exhibit on Hollywood films produced during the time period.  Like this one:

Movie Poster

The main exhibition contained hundreds of photos, artifacts, and videos detailing the unique events of France and its people during the war, and the implementation of "The Final Solution."  In another room, visitors were watching video testimonials (in French) given by survivors of the Holocaust; these people were riveted to each of the many video screens there, crying at the horror of the stories being told.  It was a very emotional place.

As part of "The Final Solution", children and the elderly were considered particularly dispensable. One of the most heart wrenching displays of this whole memorial is a room with walls covered from top to bottom with photos of children who were slaughtered in this horrific catastrophe known as the Shoah.

Children slaughtered during the Shoah

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Les Jours des Chocolats

I think we have a problem.  Seriously.  Is there such a thing as "Chocoholics Anonymous?"  We are definitely going to need a support group when we get back home -- the chocolates here in Paris are simply the best anywhere.  And maybe the most expensive too!

Paris is called the dark chocolate capital of the world, giving us just one more reason why she is the greatest city on the planet. Paris has about 300 chocolate shops -- we could not visit them all, but we did our best!

To begin our chocolate explorations, we signed up with our favorite tour group, "Paris Walks", for their Chocolate Walk.  Our guide, Brigitte, talked about the history of chocolate as she led us from one big name chocolatier to another: Gosseln, Michel Cluizel, Cote de France, and Jean-Paul Hévin.  With tastings at each one.  Mon dieu!

Brigitte taught us the secret of knowing good chocolate when you're eating it.  She said that just a little bit of good chocolate will satisfy - that's how you know it's gooooooood choco.  If your taste buds demand more and more of that choco bar you are eating, then it's NOT good chocolate.  And here's why:  you are not getting that vital "fennel-ethylamine" hit that good choco always has in abundance, and that satisfies the palate in small doses.

So, bottom line, if you down that whole chocolate bar that you've been chomping on, and still crave more, you were NOT eating the good stuff!!  Just a small piece of good choco will sate the palate.

Cocoa beans grow on trees in a fairly limited part of the world, within a narrow band that lies 15 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator.  Cocoa beans love the shelter of the rain forest and thrive in the high humidity and constant temperature. 

We have come to realize that chocolate is NOT just for kids.  This is a complex food that needs to be studied (and tasted, of course) much like a fine wine.  The beans come in three varieties: 1) Criollo, originally cultivated by the Mayans, is the very best quality chocolate and is now grown in Mexico, South and Central America, and Indonesia.  2) Forastero, grown in Brazil and West Africa, represents 90% of all beans, and 3) Trinitario, which is a cross between the first two and is unique to Trinidad.

Cocoa Trees with bean pods

And, if you wish to fine-tune the selection of good choco even more, there is a Criollo chocolate bean called "Porcelana"; this is a white-ish bean that got its name because it looks like porcelain. It is grown around Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, and has a limited amount of harvesting each year - only a few thousand pounds are made into choco.  In the chocolate community, it is touted as one of the best tasting chocos, and it is one of the rarest too.

The porcelana bean is a tiny subset of the Criollo family, and is considered to be the most genetically pure.  Naturally, we sought out the porcelana for a try, and we found some. Yesssssss!

Porcelana Chocolate Bars

Fine chocolate in Paris costs about 95 to 150 euros per kilo.  In the English system of money, that's about $35 - $60 per pound.  But, this is just the beginning.  Depending on the intricacies of making the chocolate, the price can go much higher.  It has a cachet similar to gold, and, as a matter of fact, in days of yore, it was used as money by the denizens of countries where chocolate beans were harvested.  Ten choco beans could buy a whole dead rabbit (for dinner); 3 choco beans could buy a single turkey egg; and 1 bean could buy 5 green peppers, or one large tomato, etc, etc.

But let's move on to some actual tasting.  If you look closely at the chocolates shown below (these babies are called "Operas"), you will see the flecks of honest-to-God edible gold leaf on the top-center of each brownie-sized chocolate.  Yes, we ate gold on this tour; granted, it wasn't much gold, but real gold nonetheless!  Only the best for us choco lovers in Paris!
Chocolate with "edible gold" chips on top

We won't tantalize you by recounting every delectable chocolate morsel that we ingested, so our account here will only address some of the more interesting.

This coin-shaped wafer about the size of a silver dollar is made of 99% pure cacao (cacao is just an earlier version of our word cocoa -- you say cocoa; I say cacao).  This wafer is called a "Pistole" by the French. We thought these pistoles might be overly bitter given the high density of cacao, but they were actually not too bad at all - an acquired taste, like wine. 

"Pistoles" (99% pure chocolate)
And, by the way, chocolate this dark and pure is really very healthy; it is loaded with disease-fighting anti-oxidants needed to maintain a healthy body. (We doubt you are fooled by our attempt to pass off our chocolate binge as medicinal, but we thought we'd give it a shot!  It certainly helps us justify our sinful behavior.)   One historical note here: pistoles were the favorite candy of Marie-Antoinette.  She was somewhat of a "pistole addict" and had a continued supply delivered to her palace.

We learned that Parisian chocolates come in very specific styles -- like these dark choco "mendiants" topped with many different types of nuts (hazelnuts, pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and the like):

Dark Chocolate Mendiants

Or these chunks of nut-filled chocolate bars called "tablettes" in both the milk chocolate and the dark chocolate varieties.  The chocolatier simply breaks pieces of these tablettes into manageable sizes, weighs them, and charges you accordingly:

Nutty delights in both light and dark chocolate versions

You might think that one chocolate walk would be enough, but our "Paris Walks" tour only inspired us to put together our own do-it-yourself Chocolate Walk a few days later (after our blood sugar had normalized from the 1st tour).

We ventured out onto our "very own" self-designed Paris Chocolate Walk, in search of the most perfect chocolates, tailored specifically for the "Supsic Palates".  We began at our #1 most favorite chocolatier (from our previous walk): Jean-Paul Hévin.  Jean-Paul's chocolates really are just like his last name implies - "Hévin-ly", and although Anne has never even seen the man, she has developed a secret crush.

Jean-Paul has a sweet little tea room above his shop that was the perfect spot to fortify ourselves with a light lunch before making our second assault on his choco shop, and then, the other 299 chocolate shops around Paris.  And Jean-Paul just happens to serve a totally decadent hot chocolate with real (sweet & creamy) whipped cream.    Believe me, this is not Ovaltine!

So, in case any of you happen to be in Paris, eating brunch in Jean-Paul's tea room over there at 231 Rue Saint-Honoré, you need to order the scrumptious Chaud Chocolat Viennoise seen here to top off your meal:

Having a rich Hot Chocolate drink at Jean-Paul Hévin's Tea Shop

We left Jean-Paul's tea room, and after perusing his choco shop at length, we made our way from choco-shop to choco-shop, visiting several more of the big names in the chocolate industry, like Debauve & Gallais, the oldest choco-shop in Paris (Marie-Antoinette bought her pistoles here).

And then there is Patrick Roger (pronounced: "ROW-ZHEY") who is considered a "chocolate artist," importing ingredients like oranges from Corsica and cocoa beans from places like Vanuatu, Venezuela, and Ecuador.  Patrick Roger's choco is probably the most expensive in the world (certainly the most expensive in Paris) mostly because only the finest ingredients are dared to be used, and all of his chocos are handmade from scratch.  Notice his signature turquoise blue packaging (reminds us of shopping at Tiffanys).

We hope by now you will understand when we tell you that we had trouble fitting our newly acquired chocolate stash into our suitcases (see the goods below).  But we did it, and now we will have a little bit of Paris to nibble on back in Saylorsburg!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cooking at the Ritz

We returned to the Ritz Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie for one of their 1-hour cooking classes.  You may recall that we did one of these "Ritzy Lunch" cooking classes the last time we were in Paris.  The Ritz cooking classes here are conducted by some of the sharpest French cooks in the world, and it always offers a good opportunity to learn about some of the unique kitchen tips they pass along to novices like us.  And, one of the best parts is that these cooks teach with an element of humor, which makes it a fun event all round.  Today's class would be no exception.

Ready to get started!
Just experiencing the labyrinth cooking world beneath the famous Ritz Hotel was a humbling part of the whole experience of taking a class here.  This is where students are taught the secrets of fine French cuisine by chefs wearing the tall white toques (the higher the hat, the more experienced the chef).

We actually had two chefs:  Chef Jerome Coindre (the shorter man with the higher toque) and Chef Tino, a tall young German under-chef who spoke marvelous English and acted as our interpreter since Chef Jerome did not speak English very well:

Today we are making Beef Tenderloin with Peppercorn Sauce and Gratin de Pommes de Terrre et Celeri (potatoes au gratin and celery).  Parts of the preparation (like boiling the potatoes) had been completed for us -- necessary so that our meal could be made in just the one hour. 

We tied our beef cuts with white string (to keep their shape), pressed one side into crushed peppercorns, and seared it on both sides.  Then, with a spoon, we basted the meat in foaming butter seasoned with garlic and thyme.  Mmmmmmmm....  it looked so good!!  We added a pinch of salt at the very end (so that it would not dry out the meat).  Chef Jerome became frustrated with our minuscule sprinklings of salt and started flinging larger quantities of salt at the food, chiding us (tongue-in-cheek) in French, "Don't be afraid of the salt!"

Chef Jerome loved showing off his flambé skills, and delighted in showing us how to do it more than once:

This one looked like somebody was going to lose their eyebrows, and we thought we might have to call "les pompiers" (the French firefighters)!

Cooking completed, we each carried a dish of our concoctions into a small adjacent dining room, where a perfectly set table was prepared for us to "test eat" our lunch -- with some red wine, of course.  And enjoy lots of fun conversations with our new fellow "cooks."   Here is our delicious finished product:

And of course, we each received a certificate from the Chef:

We were especially glad that we took this course because The Ritz is going to be closed for 2 years for renovations, and Chef Jerome did not know whether the cooking school would return here or end up in a separate location. We may therefore have been one of the last classes to ever be taught in this location.

After class, we took a stroll through the lobby of The Ritz where we found a real show of affluence.  We learned that spending just one night in a basic room at The Ritz here in Paris will cost you 850 euros (about $1100).  Backpackers like us need not apply.

Flower arrangement in the lobby of The Ritz

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Musee de la Musique

Paris has so many world class sights that you may not realize how many lesser known places are out there.  One of the best "lesser knowns" is this one: the "Music Museum".  This well-designed museum has one of the largest instrument collections in the world with 1,000 instruments and art objects on display.  Plus the excellent audio guide provides a wonderful, music-filled experience.

The museum traced the history of music with gorgeous instruments like this beautifully hand-painted harpsichord with inlaid semi-precious stone on the sides:

Instruments were grouped by type so you could see how each instrument evolved.  The audio guide explained how the instruments developed over time and offered gorgeous musical selections highlighting the special qualities of each instrumental group.

The collection is quite eclectic with Stradivarius violins:

Unique instruments like these oboes:

And the largest instrument you are ever likely to see: this oversized bass that is played by standing on the wooden box to the left and adjusting a set of levers:

We spent 3 hours in this delightful museum and didn't come close to seeing (and hearing it all)!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

WWI: The Forgotten World War

One of our goals for this trip was to learn more about WWI, known as "La Grande Guerre" (the big war) here in France -- a cataclysmic event that has always been overshadowed by what came next, namely WWII.  Today, we were up before the garbage men to begin our explorations by visiting Compiegne, a small town in the north of France.  WWI ended in the Compiegne Forest at what is now called the "Armistice Clearing."

In 1918, WWI came to an end when Germany surrendered in these isolated woods inside a railroad car on the 11th of November.  The terms of the surrender were quite harsh and humiliating for the Germans (and often blamed for bringing on WWII).  The French even took the rail car into Paris to show off where the armistice was signed.

The small museum displays a rail car just like the original:

The rail car contains all the original furnishings and the place cards indicate where each individual would have been seated, including Marshal Foch, the French general who was the hero of the Battle of the Marne and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies in France. 

The museum contains many WWI artifacts, but some of the best displays were the wooden picture scopes that allow you to view old black-and-white WWI photos with a 3D stereoscopic effect.  These are gory but alluring 3D WWI images that really make you feel as if you are in the trenches!

Of course, Hitler seems to find his way into every war story, and he played a role here in Compiegne as well.  When the French surrendered to the Nazis in June of 1940, Hitler made the French drag out the old rail car and position it exactly where Germany had been forced to surrendered back in 1918.  Hitler even insisted on sitting in Marshal Foch's seat! 

Hitler took the rail car back to Germany where it was on display in Berlin for awhile, but it was eventually burned.  (Maybe when the war started to turn against him, Hitler decided he didn't want to have to revisit the rail car!)  Here is a picture of a happy Hitler humiliating the French in front of the rail car at the time of the French surrender (22 Jun 1940):

A few days later, we continued our quest to better understand WWI with a visit to the Musee la Grand Guerre.  This is a brand new museum just opened on 11/11/11 in a city north of Paris called Meaux (pronounced: moh).  Once again, we were up early and on our way to the train station.  By the way, Paris is the railroad hub for the entire country making it possible to do hundreds of day trips like this.

For France, the roots of WWI go back to the Franco-Prussian war that ended in 1871 with France having to turn over the Alsace and Lorraine regions to Germany.  This set off  longstanding animosity between the Germans and the French.  In elementary schools across France, little boys were encouraged to play "pretend war" at recess and talk about how many Bosch (Germans) they would kill.  There was a nationalistic (and militaristic) fervor that would ignite into war with any incident between the two countries.  War was inevitable, and the incident that became the catalyst for WWI was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on 28 June 1914!

All of Europe seemed caught up in the frenzy.  In many ways, WWI seems like one big "land grab."  Everybody had their own agendas: France wanted the Alsace and Lorraine back, Poland wanted to be independent, plus Russia, Serbia, and Austria-Hungary all had their eyes on the same territory.  What a setting for greed!  The opposing forces aligned themselves like this: Britain, France, and Russia on one side with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy on the other.

Body armor worn during WWI

We can't begin to describe everything we learned here, but one aspect that stands out is how primitive warfare was, even in 1914.  Soldiers still wore chest and face armour and ridiculously fancy uniforms (like some kind of modern, yet medieval knights).  Initially, the main method of communicating among the troops was by using bugles -- and then, they graduated to carrier pigeons!  (Later on, they used the telegraph.)  The museum had lots of fascinating videos, and one showed airmen dropping bombs out of airplanes by hand.  Literally, throwing them over the side of the open cockpit!

Recreations of soldiers headed off to WWI. 
(Note that horses played a major role.)

Of course, WWI has the distinction of being the first "modern war," using tanks, flimsy airplanes, and chemical warfare, particularly mustard gas.  Death by gas was slow and painful, and the use of lethal gas was eventually banned by the Geneva Convention.  Here is an actual gas mask:

When the Americans entered the war, the modernization of warfare took a step forward: each U.S. soldier was issued a sidearm that looked like it was a throwback to the Wild West and a set of brass knuckles (as shown below).

Equipment issued to each American G.I.

WWI is also known for trench warfare.  Basically, each side would dig in, roll out the barbed wire, and create a no man's land in-between.  Trench warfare was eliminated when tanks and jeeps provided more mobility. 

The museum did a good job of recreating life in the trenches where mazes of underground tunnels held everything armies needed: sleeping quarters, hospitals, kitchens etc. -- although the conditions were appalling.  The museum even had motion-activated sound effects that made your footsteps sound like you were trouncing through the sucking, squelchy mud.

A trench bedroom

A couple of comments about the museum itself.  Whenever we visit museums overseas, we have a new appreciation for our museums in the U.S.  Not that this was a bad museum, but it could definitely stand some improvement.  It seemed like the whole museum needed a clearer focus.  For example, a timeline to follow the events of the war is definitely needed, and the audio guide, which could have been so effective, was so disjointed that we stopped using it.  But here is our favorite observation: there were only one pair of restrooms for the entire multi-level museum with two stalls in the ladies room and just one stall in the men's.  And this is a very modern structure just opened less than 6 months ago!

Classic U.S. recruitment poster for WWI