mercredi, décembre 31, 2008

The New Year's Eve Mega-Post

Hoo boy, this is a long one. Brace yourself and let's get started.


New Year’s Eve! Well, not quite yet; it’s still daytime.

For some reason (probably excitement), my body insisted on waking up early, so I forced myself back in bed and slept until noon. I probably wouldn’t sleep again until late New Year’s Day, so I needed my sleep, dammit.

Once I got up, I showered, changed, and headed out in search of a bite to eat and an internet café. I grabbed a croissant at a Konditorei nearby, hit a cybercafé at Nollendorfplatz, and then grabbed a currywurst on the way home at Winterfeldplatz. I thought about stopping at a grocery store, but all of them had closed at 14h00 for the holiday, so I just headed home and finished catching up on blog posts. Yay!

Nighttime Part 1: Dinner at La Cocotte

Part of the evening’s celebrations involved a New Year’s dinner (Réveillon, in French) at a French restaurant called La Cocotte. One of my friends from Paris, D., spent a year as an exchange student in Berlin and used to work at La Cocotte as a server, and ever since she’s made it a tradition to come to Berlin for New Year’s with some friends and attend the Réveillon at La Cocotte before continuing her evening at Berghain. So, when I announced in late November that I had finally decided to spend New Year’s Eve in Berlin, she immediately told me that we would be having dinner at La Cocotte, it would start at 20h00, and the theme was “Air Cocotte.” (Cocotte in French means a cast-iron dutch oven, but it’s also the feminine diminutive form of coq, or rooster.) By the way, you can see my previous visits to La Cocotte here, here and here.

And the staff of La Cocotte took the theme seriously. All of the servers were in coordinated flight-attendant outfits, and the guests had been encouraged to dress up in a style befitting the theme. Our little group hadn’t gotten around to dressing up, but there were some guests that came in full costumes, some of them even with back-stories (one person at the table of Americans next to us came as that annoying lady that complains endlessly and demands water at all times).

But before I get to the theme of the evening, here is the menu, which was pretty impressive. It was a nine-course menu, not including a pause for fireworks between the main course and the cheese course.

  1. Apéritif: Kir royale made with champagne and violet syrup
  2. Hors d’Oeuvres: foie gras on toast, oysters (fines de claires no. 2), and frogs’ legs in butter.
  3. Appetizer 1: Oxtail soup with beef (and pork?) paupiettes, which are dumplings made by wrapping a tenderized piece of veal or fat netting around the filling and then simmering gently.
  4. Appetizer 2: filet of sole in saffron sauce, wrapped with some sort of Chinese cabbage green (bok choy?).
  5. Main Dish: faux-filet (sirloin steak) of beef with a gratin of semolina and rosemary, with a honey and fruit glaze

  6. (Fireworks! Happy New Year!)
  7. Cheese: Mont D’Or, slightly warmed and served with bread.
  8. Dessert: sabayon with fresh fruits in a chocolate wafer cup.
  9. Coffee: with little cookies or bonbons
  10. Soupe à l’oignon. Apparently, this is typically French for New Year’s.

The strongest courses were the oxtail soup, the oysters and the frogs’ legs. I found the bread on which the foie gras was served wasn’t toasted enough, so there was no crunchy texture to offset the fatty, squishy texture of the foie gras. The faux-filet was a bit tough, although that might’ve just been the cut of meat, as it was very lean and the inside was the right color (i.e., red). Finally, the sole had a great presentation—wrapped with a leaf of some sort of raw cabbage into little rolls; however, the sauce was too saffron-y and so any other nuances in the sauce were effectively overwhelmed. Having said all of that, though, the meal was delicious and a great way to start off our evening.

And so, now the “theme.” There was a multitude of ways in which the staff built upon the theme of the evening. The basic concept was that the dinner was a kind of culinary flight, so arriving for dinner was “checking in” and the countdown to midnight was the landing of the airplane. Since I like lists, here are the specifics in point-form:

  • A “Check-In” desk outside, where one of the staff members gave you a boarding pass and then frisked you.
  • A whole series of flight-attendant-like announcements between each course, such as safety instructions in the case of a party, and how to properly stow your champagne.
  • A dinner-time game where you had to find a “bomb” hidden in the restaurant, and the person who found it would win a bottle of champagne for the table. (A guy from our table won it, but he only shared the bottle with his boyfriend.)
  • Another game where you had to make a design on your tablecloth with (leftover) glitter stars, representing “Air Cocotte.”
  • A staged (and somewhat culturally insensitive) airplane hijack scene, involving the kitchen staff bursting into the dining room wearing Saudi-style headdresses made of cloth napkins and twine. The day is saved when the bartender, speaking with an excellent American accent, appears covered in bullet cartridges and automatic weapons à la Rambo and forces the “terrorists” back into the kitchen. A great allegory for class struggle, perhaps, but sort of the equivalent of having a “ghetto” theme party in the US and wearing do-rags and weaves, drinking 40s of malt liquor and eating fried chicken.
  • A HUGE amount of fireworks for midnight.
  • Pam Ann clips running on loop on the flat-screen TV in the back room.

During the evening, a rather intense rivalry emerged between our table (all French) and the table next to us (all German). Meanwhile, the table of Americans on the other side of us remained largely neutral until someone threw confetti on their table. Any similarity to 20th-century history is purely coincidental.

Also, near the beginning of our meal, one of our friends discovered a silver glitter star at the bottom of her glass of wine, which she interpreted as a good omen.

After spending at least ten minutes outside setting off fireworks, we came inside and ate some of the cheese and dessert and then started planning to leave. We were already too full to eat the final onion soup, especially considering that we were planning to dance all night. But more importantly, D. and her crew had been left somewhat scarred from getting refused entry into Berghain last Saturday, so the plan for tonight was to get there super-early (i.e., before 3h00), partially to avoid a long lineup but also to avoid being turned away if the place was at capacity. Normally I would dismiss all of this planning and worrying as unnecessary, but all bets are off on New Year’s Eve.

Nighttime Part 2: Picking up O.

No, “O” isn’t some new slang or abbreviation for illicit substances; it’s just the shorthand pseudonym for a friend that hadn’t joined us for dinner, but would be joining us for the partying. Just to review: our crew so far included me (natch), my friend and former Cocotte employee D., her boyfriend R., and another friend M., all of whom are part of my group of techno-loving friends in Paris and two of whom were part of my “Frenchy-krew” from this summer in Berlin.

We were supposed to collect O. from an Italian resto-bar over in Kreuzberg, near Schlesisches Tor, which is a long way from where we were in Schöneberg. D. had called a taxi, but the noise in the restaurant prevented her from hearing if the request had actually gone through, so we were planning to just walk up to the next main street and hail a cab. As I was heading out the door with my jacket in hand, there was a taxi driver standing inside the entrance to the restaurant, asking if I had ordered a taxi. Not putting the two and two together, I said, “No, but we need a taxi anyway.” He said sure and followed me outside where the rest of the group had already been waiting, only to realize that he was the taxi that D. thought she hadn’t been able to call. Good luck on our part, I suppose.

So we got to the Italian resto-bar to find that O. was feeling a bit sick and was on the verge of cancelling her night out. D. switched into maternal mode and told her sternly that there was no backing out of New Year’s Eve, and that she should just drink some coke and walk it off. We actually did walk it off, hustling briskly in the cold winter night from the eastern end of Kreuzberg, across the river and to Berghain near Ostbahnhof. On the upside, O. said that the walk helped a bit.

Nighttime Part 3: Getting into Berghain

The lineup at Berghain, however, wasn’t helping O. at all, especially as the claustrophobic crush of people was magnifying her nausea and general malaise. And it didn’t help the mood of any of us that some of the people in line were being annoying jackasses.

We got there at around 2h00 or so, which is pretty early for Berghain, but there was already a sizeable line; mind you, it was only one-quarter of how long the line can be at peak hours. Nonetheless, things were all the more chaotic because the line was really boad and disorganized—more a cluster than a line. It narrowed near the entrance, where there were the sort of fixed metal stanchions you see at an amusement park, and this inevitably led to squeezing and crushing of people as a line 15-people wide slowly inched through a space 2-3 people wide. In addition, this meant that the wider part of the line was moving much more slowly. Also, there was a separate line for those who had pre-sale tickets (not us), which meant that the non-presale line (us) moved even slower, as the presale line had priority.

So all of this is to say that it sucked out loud to be in line at that moment.

We were a group of five, so we decided to break up into two groups, with S. and D. as a couple, and M. and O. with me. That way, there would be one boy in each group, which was helpful for getting into Berghain, since it is still a primarily queer club and the bouncers tend to reject groups of girls (BUT groups of lesbian-looking girls get in; BUT also straight boys that look queer or gay-friendly; BUT also groups of straight-looking girls that dress in elaborate outfits…there are a lot of ways to get into Berghain, but there are even more ways to get bounced away). So we formed our groups and then separated ourselves a bit in the line so that there was no chance of mistaking us as a group of five.

One of the bouncers was busily re-shaping the line so that it wasn’t such a stampede hazard, getting people to step back and then form a thinner line. When he grabbed me to pull me back, we both got a good look at each other. This was the guy who had taken me to the front of the line this summer with a friend of Fantômette’s. And, apparently, he recognized me as well.

He told me to “go to the other side and I’ll let you in.” I pointed to O. and M. and said they were with me, which he said was OK and then went back to working on the line. However, I obviously didn’t understand him well, as there was a bit of confusion as to what that statement meant. I remembered that the last time he had brought me to the front of the line, I had been up against the barrier on the right, which normally divides the regular line from the “walk of shame” and “I already have a stamp” corridor (depending on which direction you’re walking). So I dragged M. and O. over to the right barrier and waited for the bouncer to come by and pick us up.

He walked by and didn’t look in our direction as we tried to get his attention, and I was reluctant to just jump up into the line-pass corridor and walk up to the door, since I thought that might be too forward. When it comes to getting into clubs in Berlin, your fortunes change on the whim of a bouncer, so I didn’t want to just stride up to the door without that same bouncer pretty much leading us there.

So we waited and waited for him to come back through the line and let us in. Meanwhile, O. was leaning over the barrier and threatening to puke from the mixture of cold and claustrophobia, and part of the crowd in the lineup (a mixture of French folks and Italians as far as I could tell) decided to start singing Auld Lang Syne and random Christmas carols. Much like during my stay in Berlin last summer, I looked on these folks as “marked” already with rejection; yelling and acting rowdy in line was sure to get you turned away at any club in Berlin—but especially at Berghain—and the bouncers do watch the line and remember your face when you get to the front. For me, this always gives rise to feelings of both compassion and aversion: I see them getting excited for The Best New Years Ever At This Club We Keep On Hearing About and I feel bad for the disappointment and rejection they are likely to feel very soon; but I also want to put as much distance as possible between me and them, as if their inappropriateness was contagious. (See this post from almost 6 months ago for a similar sort of moment that ended very differently.)

Anyway, we were at our wits end as O. was looking more and more like she really was going to be sick and the rest of us were just freezing cold and cranky. Finally, when I saw that “our” bouncer was working the door, we hatched a plan. I would just walk up and ask him if it was still okay to get in, and then if so I would run back and grab the girls.

As soon as he saw me at the door, he waved for me to come in, so I said I would grab the others and come back. Then, thinking quickly, I decided to press my luck and ask him if I could bring in my other two friends as well. I asked this in the most tentative, indirect way I could manage in German, saying something like, “I have two other friends with me, is that OK?” He paused for a moment, looking a bit displeased, and said, “Well, just how many are you, then?” “Five, in total.” Sounding skeptical, he says, “I’ll need to seem them first, but five is OK.”

This may not seem like a huge deal if you’re not familiar with Berghain’s door policies, but groups here are severely discriminated against, to the point that I’ve overheard bouncers say, “Three people? No way. If you would’ve just been two, maybe.” As usual, it always depends on other factors as well, but most of the time a group of partygoers will break up into pairs or singles and then not talk to each other once they got to the front of the line. Anyway, that he was OK with a group of five was extremely generous on his part, as he could’ve easily said no.

I ran back to the lineup and picked out O. and M., and then pulled S. and D., who had both pushed their way over to the barrier where they were more visible to the bouncers (D. has been let in like this as well in the past). We came up to the door, and as we were waiting for the bouncer to finish sending in the next group of people, an Italian guy started asking me if I could pretend that he was in our group. I told him that I was sorry, but no, we had already told the bouncer how many were in our group. D., in French, said to me, “Don’t let him, Luis, we’re not going to get in with him,” and the others muttered in assent. On the one hand, he looked the part of someone who would get in, looking to be in his late thirties, alone, dressed in a faded bespoke parka and a pointed toque; on the other hand, he was standing on the “rejection” side of the door, asking us to bring him in. I saw him inside later with a woman, so I suspect that his partner was already in the club and he was waiting for her to come down and bring him in (which you can sometimes do).

Finally, the bouncer came out, I pointed to the members of the group, and we got in. After the usual intense frisking and passing by the box office, we got in line at the coat check and spent nearly five minutes releasing all of our nervous energy, repeatedly saying just how relieved we were to be past the lineup, as if we needed to convince ourselves that we were finally inside. And, for a little while, I was showered with praise from my friends as the “saviour” of the evening, which meant a lot coming from a group of partygoers who have been coming to Berlin for far longer than I have and know the language better than I.

Nighttime 4: Berghain / Panorama Bar

0h00-4h30: Dinky (Panorama Bar)

[Meanwhile in BERGHAIN: Marcel Dettman and Ben Klock]

By the time we got in and checked our coats, it was 3h30, so we got in just before the lineup was getting hectic outside. As we entered into the large chamber on the ground floor, we noticed that there was a door open that usually isn’t open, and we all remembered that, for New Year’s, the bar had been planning to open the door between Berghain / Panorama Bar and Lab.oratory the very kinky and very hardcore sex club in the rear portion of the building.

So we decided to do a quick walking tour of Lab.oratory, although we didn’t venture too far into the dark corners or backroom areas. The space—especially the dancefloor—reminded us a bit of scenes from the film Aliens3 or something. Lots of bare concrete and cages and shirtless men and the smell of sweat and sex. Nobody was actually having sex out in the open (yet), but S. and D. later told me that they witnessed a rather intense fisting scene that night up in the Berghain area. So this place continues to live up to its reputation. I made a mental note to come back later in the evening and take a better look at the place, as I don’t have the wardrobe to ever get into Lab.oratory on a regular fetish night, but I never got around to it.

So we headed upstairs, through the Berghain room and up into Panorama Bar. Just as we were getting into the main dance area, Dinky was spinning this track by Reboot that I have been really enjoying, ever since I first heard it in Berlin near the end of the summer. This post is too long for me to be embedding a Beatport Player with the track, but you can go to Beatport and search for the track by Reboot, which is called “Vandon” in the Sidekick EP, released on Below. I’ve noticed that in this review of the release on Resident Advisor, the title is alternately spelled “Vandong.” Anyway, it’s a great track and represents a lot of what was in during the summer of 2008 in Berlin, so it was a great “welcome back” for me.

We grabbed a spot in our usual corner, near the front of the room and close to the windows, and got our dance on to the last 30 minutes of Dinky’s set.

4h30-8h00: Margaret Dygas (Panorama Bar)

[Meanwhile in BERGHAIN: still Marcell Dettman and Ben Klock]

Another great set by Margaret. Since I first saw her spinning at Club der Visionäre [LINK] in Berlin this summer, I’ve seen her spin a number of times and each time her sets are stronger and her technique is smoother. Her sound has also become harder and less delicate as time has gone by, but that seems to be a common trend in resident DJs of Berghain/PanoramaBar.

At some point during the set, the girls (D., M., and O.) went downstairs to the Berghain room to check out Marcel Dettman and Ben Klock. Toward the end of the set, D. came back up, telling me that M. and O. had gone home to take a nap.

This is one of the nice things about partying in Berlin—and especially of Berghain—things run right through the next day, so you can go home and take a nap or a shower or get some food and then come back and skip the line (you get a stamp on your hand which lasts the night). The girls were particularly excited about Luke Slater, who wasn’t even starting until 13h00, so they had some time to get some rest and come back. Hopefully O. will feel less puke-y.

8h00-12h00: Cassy [LINK] (Panorama Bar)

[Meanwhile in BERGHAIN: Marcel Fengler]

Cassy’s set was very good as well, and quite similar to the set she did back in November for her birthday party. It still had a heavy house influence and frequent use of vocals and disco- or funk-inspired sounds, but at the same time the overall texture was very percussive and bass-heavy and pretty intense. When I think about it, it’s a night-and-day contrast with the mix-CD she released a couple of years ago to inaugurate the PanoramaBar label.

I followed S. and D. downstairs to Berghain to check out Marcel Fengler, whose set was very much in keeping with the Berghain sound, i.e., pounding and intense techno, very little if any traces of house, and a minimalism that focuses more on minimal and gradual change, rather than minimal and sparse texture. It was a good set, but my preferences tend to lie in the Panorama Bar sound, and so not much later I found myself going back upstairs to dance to Cassy.

I also ran into two Frenchy friends of mine living in London (previously seen here, here and here), so we had a warm reunion and danced together for a bit. They also introduced me to a pair of their local German friends, who were both very friendly and a lot of fun.

By this time my left contact lens had started acting up, which was a bad sign. It had already happened to me once this summer that I had to cut a night short because my contacts were messing with me, and that time it took several days for one eye to recover and I somehow got a cold at the same time. So I was determined to tough it out this time. I had brought lubricating eye drops with me for just this occasion, so once it became clear that the soreness wasn’t going to go away on its own, I headed over to the bathroom and put in a few drops. It helped for a bit, but then things just got sore again.

So a while later I went to the bathroom, washed my hands very thoroughly, and then pulled out my left contact lens, cleaned it in my mouth, and put it back in. No dice. A little while later, I pulled it out again and washed it with tap water and gave it a good rub, but my eye was still sore.

Part of the problem was that it was the end of the month and my contact lenses are monthly lenses. So, by the end of the month, the contacts are usually beginning to degrade and they develop protein buildups, small tears and folds, and so on. I had thought ahead a brought an extra pair of contacts with me to Berlin, but I had left them at the apartment, which was clearly a mistake. Now I needed to go home and change the contacts and come back.

I conferred with S., who was sitting on one of the couches at the back of the Panorama Bar with D. napping on his lap. He pointed out that, if I left now, I would probably be back in time for the beginning of Luke Slater’s set downstairs. So off I went. I couldn’t find my London-dwelling friends, so I hoped that they wouldn’t mind my temporary absence and I headed off back to my place.

It was 10h40, it was very cold outside and the sun had risen on a cloudy and snowy morning as I walked to Ostbahnhof to catch the train back to my place. At first, the cold air soothed my now-inflamed left eye, but in a minute or so it got even more sore and I felt like I needed to do something about it right away. So I pulled my left contact out, threw it on the ground, and continued heading home half-blind.

After a long ride home, I took out the other contact lens, took some anti-inflammatory pills (ibuprofen) and put some Visine in my eye (which I am convinced stings more than it helps). It was becoming clear that my eye was seriously angry with me and that it was probably too inflamed to accept another contact lens, however new it may be. So I put on my thick-rimmed geeky glasses and decided to party the rest of the night looking as if I had planned to do the geek-chic thing all along. On the upside, all of my friends complimented me on my glasses when I returned. On the downside, they’re about 2 prescriptions old, so my eyesight wasn’t perfect. That was fine in the club, where everything’s hazy and under-lit anyway, but it was annoying during transit, when I was trying to read signs for the U-Bahn stations and such.

12h00-16h00: Nick Höppner (Panorama Bar)

[Meanwhile in BERGHAIN: Luke Slater]

When I first got back, I made a tour of the building to look for S. or D. and couldn’t seem to find them. Just after sending S. a text message, I turn a corner in the bar area on the Berghain level and see S. sitting on a couch. Yay! However, D. had gone home to join the other girls in a nap and possibly brunch. Boo! Well, they’ll hopefully come back soon. Luke Slater’s set down in Berghain was technically perfect and well-mixed, but the overall aesthetic he was going for was too bombastic for my tastes and lacked the warmth of house that I usually appreciate in tech-house and microhouse genres.

So off I went to Panorama Bar to hear Ben Höppner’s set, which was a bit of the opposite case; his selection was mostly spot-on (if a bit too heavy), while his technique was surprisingly sloppy. There were a lot of near-miss trainwrecks, which surprises me from a guy who is a member of MyMy. As a group, MyMy tend to put in very smooth and skilled performances, so I wasn’t sure what was going on tonight. Nonetheless, I forgave his coarse mixing and kept dancing.

I found my friends from London again, who had indeed been worried that I had gone home. We spent a good long time talking about the music scene in London and discussing the ups and downs of Höppner’s set as it happened. Indeed, by the end of his set, his track selection had become much more uneven. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I was only liking every other track, but rather that he was shifting between affects and styles in a way that felt disjointed, rather than part of a continuous stream of music. Anyway, his set was overall a lot of fun, but I was ready for the next set by the end of it.

By the way, you’ll be happy to know that my left eye was feeling a lot better. Although it was sore when I first got to the club, after 30 minutes or so, it calmed down quite a bit and then I didn’t notice it much for the rest of the day.

During this set, I made friends with this dude that turned to face me and started a sort of shoulder-shimmying dance-dialogue (popping your shoulders back and forth in alternation along with a twisting of the torso—i.e., like the “titty shake,” just slower—is something of a dance style here in Berlin, which I had totally absorbed over the summer). Anyway, we engaged in a shoulder shake-off for a little while and then went back to dancing.

For the next couple of hours, he would occasionally make eye contact with me and engage in short bursts of back-and-forth dancing, but no conversation or other contact. From time to time, I offered him my water and he offered me his Club Maté (a sort of soft drink made with Yerba Maté tea). He later asked me where I was from and, not having quite enough German to explain how I’m tied to at least three countries, I just said, “Canada.” He said he was from Leipzig. Neat.

A bit later, I poked his shoulder and said, “Na?” (“Well?” or “How’re you?”) and he said, “Geil, geil!” (“Hot” or “Sexy” or “Awesome” depending on context). I had been wondering during the evening if he was being friendly or flirty (probably a bit of both), but by the beginning of the next DJ’s set, it was a moot point: he and a female friend were making out like crazed weasels. Nice guy, though.

16h00-19h00: Prosumer (Panorama Bar)

Prosumer’s set was fantastic, and I have to admit that he’s becoming more and more my favourite resident DJ of the club. His set was smoothly-mixed, well-paced, and just the right mix of light, playful minimal house with punchy, punctuating beats. He also managed to bring in some older tracks and incorporate them into the set seamlessly. The one that literally made my year was when he dropped in Ken Ishii’s classic track, “Overlap,” which came out in 1996. Since Ken Ishii was himself producing minimal techno at that time, the track fit in really well with Prosumer’s set. I have all sorts of nostalgia about this track, as I was totally enamored with it during my early years of raving, so when Prosumer dropped it into his set, I nearly lost my shit right there.

By 16h30, the sun had begun to set outside, which you could see through the cracks in the blinds in the Panorama Bar room. One of my friends from London pointed to the windows and told me that this was the most magical moment of the night for him, when dusk fell again on the party and the distance from daily life seems unmistakably clear.

By about 18h00, my body said “Time’s up!” and I decided to listen. I had once again set a record for non-stop partying, so I was pretty proud of myself nonetheless.

And Afterwards,

The ride home was long and cold, made all the more unpleasant by the fact that I missed my stop and had to turn around. On the (suddenly very long) walk back to my apartment, I stopped in a Lebanese imbiss and grabbed a chicken schawarma. The guy working the counter misread my bad German and my looks as a sign that I was Lebanese, so he kept switching to Arabic whenever I didn’t understand him in German. In my sleep-deprived state, this was very disorienting, but I managed to order my food and keep lumbering home.

It was already 19h30 when I got home, so there was no point in sleeping right away and waking up at some very early time tomorrow. Instead, I thought it would be better to stay up a couple of hours longer and then sleep at a more “normal” hour.

So I made myself some herbal tea and wrote some preliminary notes on the night out. I eventually had to stop because my left eye was still a bit blurry from my adventures earlier that day and, since it’s my dominant eye, my right eye was having trouble compensating.

So, by 21h30, I was finally in bed for some well-deserved sleep.

mardi, décembre 30, 2008



Today was the flight to Berlin, so there was some last-minute preparation to do. Thankfully, I had had the good sense to pay that extra 19€ or whatever to get an evening flight, so I was able to sleep in until 10h00 and then go about preparing for the flight at a leisurely pace.

I showered, changed, debated about shaving (and decided not to), packed, and then headed outside briefly to print out my boarding pass (I still haven’t figured out how install the printer that my landlord left in the apartment).

I also went to print out the directions to the apartment where I would be staying in Berlin, along with the house of the woman who was renting it to me. Originally, I had planned to stay at a friend’s place in Berlin, but at the last minute she had to move out of her apartment and head to Australia. She’ll be back, no doubt, but for the moment she didn’t have a place in Berlin to offer me.

I had looked at the prices of last-minute hotels and despaired, and then braced myself to pay an ungodly sum of money for three nights in Berlin. On a hunch, I sent out an email to the BerlinScholars group (on Yahoo), which is how I had found my apartment for this past summer in Berlin. Within a day, I got two responses, at two extremes of the spectrum: one offered his (admittedly lovely) apartment for 350€ + 300€ deposit for three nights, while the other offered her place for 90€ all three nights, no deposit. Ha.

So anyway, I took the cheaper place (natch), which meant that I had to drop by her place in Friedenau first, and then head over to the apartment near Winterfeldplatz in Schöneberg. And since I wasn’t sure that the taxi driver would know the way, I looked both addresses up on GoogleMaps and printed them out.

With everything packed and ready to go, I headed out to the airport by RER, checked in terribly early, and then sat in a café at the base of Terminal 1 to write even more blog posts. Closer to takeoff time, I headed through security and sat at the gate, finally connecting to the rather expensive WiFi network and posting my blog notes.

The flight was thankfully uneventful and only 10 minutes late, and the taxi ride to pick up the keys went off without a hitch. However, I wasn’t prepared for the firecrackers. You see, the tradition for New Year’s Eve here in Germany (which they call Silvester, after the Feast of St. Sylvester) involves setting off firecrackers, for some reason that I’ve yet to completely understand. Anyway, I wasn’t at all aware of this, so I was a bit confused when I heard a firecracker or two in the distance while in the taxi. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a firecracker went off really close to us as I was getting out of the taxi at the apartment. I had just spent the last four days watching footage of bombings in the Gaza Strip on loop, so the sound of nearby explosions set off a bizarre and unsettling chain of associations. I kinda wonder whether the Germans maintained this tradition during the Sylvesters of the years immediately following WWI and WWII. I can only imagine the kind of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) reflexes that could set off in a city that was bombed into rubble.

Anyway, I settled into the apartment, which was recently renovated and a bit Spartan, yet comfortable and very, very German. I had Frenchy friends already in Berlin who were just finishing dinner, so they told me where they were going for drinks and I set about finding food. There were no food stands in the immediate area of the apartment, so I decided to head over to Hermannplatz, the neighborhood of my old apartment this last summer. I grabbed a massive and tasty döner kebab from my favourite Turkish grill, Güney Grill, and then started heading out to meet my friends at a lovely bar called Liebing in Prenzlauer Berg (at Raumerstraße with Dunkenerstraße).

I had forgotten how slow public transport can be in Berlin, especially since the trains come a lot less often than in Paris, so I didn’t get to the bar until nearly midnight. Nonetheless, I spent a couple of good hours with my friends drinking and chatting before we called it a night. My friends hadn’t been able to get pre-sale tickets to Berghain (they were sold out) AND they had been refused entry to Berghain for the first time, so they were a bit traumatized and we spent a lot of time speculating as to why that might’ve been and what we should do to ensure that we get in tomorrow.

Another friend of mine from the Chicago scene had told me about a party going on over at Rosi’s in Ostkreuz, but it was too late at night for the subway to be running, and I was tired and cold and not very motivated to schlep my way over to the eastern border of the city. I sent my regrets to my friend there and then climbed into a taxi and headed home.

lundi, décembre 29, 2008

Laundry and Prepping for Berlin

This was The Day Before Berlin, so my activities were pretty unexciting. After sleeping in late (still trying to prepare my body-clock for Berlin), I finished a couple more blog posts and then headed out to do some much-needed laundry.

A couple of hours later, I was folding my laundry back up in my apartment, with a semi-fresh baguette waiting for me as dinner. My usual bakery was closed for the holidays, and I’ve come to miss them terribly. Nothing is quite so frustrating as a mediocre baguette in a city full of delicious bread.

Anyway, I kept writing more blog posts (almost caught up!) while eating a deliciously cheese-heavy dinner. I’ll have to work off the calories in Berlin.

dimanche, décembre 28, 2008

Post Family, Pre Berlin

Well, not much to report for today. I didn’t even leave the apartment. I spent most of the day trying desperately to catch up on my blogging, and then I spent a few more hours catching up on correspondence that I had missed in the previous couple of weeks.

samedi, décembre 27, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 15: The Departuring

Considering how much I’ve re-calibrated my body-clock for nightlife, I was surprised at how easily I woke up at 5h00 this morning. Mind you, it still sucked, but it wasn’t nearly as sucky as I had expected.

I made it over to the family’s apartment in time to bring down the bags and then wait outside for the taxi. Once he got there, the ride to the airport was completely uneventful (thank you Jeebus), and Carla managed to check in and drop off her luggage. She still had a long time to wait until her flight and my parents flight wouldn’t be open for check-in for a couple of hours, so we found a café in the terminal and sat down for a while with some coffee and croissants.

After finally seeing off my sister, we walked over to the terminal for my parents’ flight (thankfully without having to walk outside) and headed for the Air Canada desk. They still hadn’t opened for check-in and there was nobody to be seen, so we sat down at another café for another round of caffeinated beverages.

An hour or so later, we checked back at Air Canada and they had opened. Alas, checking in wasn’t so simple for my parents. You see, my father has a very common Hispanic name, much like me, but he also has Columbia as his birthplace on his passport. This always creates problems with him when traveling, because clearly there have been other Columbians with his name that have done bad things and have gotten themselves on the no-fly list or something like that. So every time he tries to check into a flight, the desk attendant has to make a bunch of phone calls and pretty much clear it with the local version of the “Homeland Security” office before he can be checked in.

Anyway, it was time-consuming but not necessarily all that difficult, so we finally got him checked in and my parents got in the security line. I stuck around while they cleared security, as they had some chocolates in their carry-on luggage that they feared might be refused by security (these days, it’s never quite clear what’s allowed on board). The security line was a mess, though, and I couldn’t really see them once they got to the front of the line. About 30 minutes later, I got a call from my mother saying that they got through security OK, so we said our goodbyes and I headed back home.

I decided that I needed to reset my body-clock, since in a few days I would be going to Berlin for New Year’s Eve, so I took a nap until the late afternoon. From there, I fixed a light dinner of roasted winter vegetables and set about writing up my blog notes on the last two weeks. Also, today was the sudden beginning of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza, so I spent a large part of the evening transfixed by the news coverage and watching various political representatives tear into each other on news “debate” shows.

vendredi, décembre 26, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 14: Last Day of Shopping, Le Dome again

Since both my parents and my sister were going to be leaving town tomorrow, this was really the last day to see Paris and run any gift-buying errands. So my parents went off to the Bois de Vincennes to look at more trees, and Carla and I the morning doing what felt like a (stereo)typically Parisian shopping trip.

We got up painfully early to be at the Pierre Hermé shop around opening, so that we would be sure to get all of the flavors of macaron that we wanted. We get to the location near Place de la Concorde, and the shop is closed, despite the posted hours. So we walk over to La Durée, which was already open, to pick up some chocolate gifts in pretty boxes for Carla’s friends back in NYC. For some of her friends, she said, it was more about the pretty boxes from La Durée than the chocolates inside.

We decided to take a walk around place de la Madeleine, since we were already there, and we ended up going into Hédiard and getting a box-set of patés and foies gras for another friend of Carla. From there, we decided to kill some time at a café nearby, warming our hands with mugs of hot chocolate.

We walked back to Pierre Hermé and it was finally open, so we bought a massive box of macarons, only later realizing that we would have to eat all of them before tomorrow (macarons don’t travel well. At all.

My sister wanted to hit a store on Ile Saint-Louis to buy a hat for another friend, so we stopped by the apartment to drop off our wares and headed over to the island. The store was closed. So, again, we found a café on the island and sat down for a drink. After an hour or so had gone by, my sister went back to try the store again (theoretically, it should open no later than 11h00), but it was still closed. Thankfully, she found the same hat in a store nearby. Mission accomplished!

Our “big meal” for the day was scheduled for lunch instead of dinner, since they were going to travel very early the next morning and they didn’t want to be sluggish and half-drunk on wine when they got up. So we had made reservations at the Dôme du Marais, the same place we went to last week.

When we first got there, around midday, there was an elderly and wealthy-looking matron who had just arrived, taking off her coat. She was clearly not used to waiting for anyone, let alone the rest of her family / future inheritors, so she was restless. She would sit down at the table, fidget, then get up and ask the maitre d’ if he had heard from the rest of her party, then she would check her phone, then she would get up and go to the washroom, and so on. About twenty minutes later, the rest of the group arrived to a somewhat frosty welcome.

The menu today was the same as last week, so mom and dad just chose different dishes from the same selection and my sister got to try out the same thing, but I decided to try another menu available, with slightly fancier offerings. My appetizer was a potato and leek pompadour (i.e., scalloped and covered in a cheese sauce), which came with a mountain of fresh shaved black truffle. I’m not talking little grated bits of black truffle, I’m talking whole slices of the thing, piled up in to a heap about the size of my palm. In North America, that much truffle would’ve cost half of the menu at least.

My main dish was a fish called courbine in French, otherwise known as maigre and meagre, which is apparently a kind of bass that lives in brackish water. It was, as you might imagine, fantastic; not too dry, not undercooked, and with a little shell of fried potatoes on top. The dessert was a soufflé flavored with Chartreuse liquor, which was exquisite.

Anyway, the meal was great and we left feeling full but not uncomfortably so, so Carla and I went off on another shopping mission. This time, we headed over to Denise Acabo’s “A l’Etoile D’Or” chocolate shop (now dubbed “la loquita” by my parents), where we bought a very fancy collection of chocolates for one of her friends, and then a little bag of chocolates for ourselves. On the subway ride back to the apartment, we ate the whole bag and felt a bit sick.

At the family’s apartment, they finished packing and then we took all of the perishable food items from the fridge and put them in a series of bags to carry over to my apartment. We hopped on the subway, got off near my place, and then passed by a bakery for some bread. Once we had climbed the stairs to my place and unpacked the various bags, we sliced up the bread and had a sort-of dinner of cheese and sausages and patés. A couple of hours later, I was shuffling them out of the apartment and back to their place to rest up for the trip home.

jeudi, décembre 25, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 13: Procope, shopping, Sichuan food!

Christmas Day! Since we celebrate on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day is usually a day of sleeping in and lounging around, followed by the annual Garcia Family Trip To The Movies Because We’ll Be The Only Ones In The Theatre And We Hate Other People. Although there was still some sleeping in, this year’s Christmas Day was a bit different.

To begin with, we had lunch reservations, rather than eating leftovers at home. We headed off to Procope for lunch, the restaurant that has been in business since 1686. We got there a bit too early for our reservation and the sky was nice and sunny, so we walked along rue de l’ancienne comédie up to l’Institut Français and back before claiming our table.

As we waited to speak to the maitre d’hôtel, a family came in behind us with two completely out-of-control children. They were two boys of about 10 or 12 years of age, and both parents were exercising the worst kind of parental reaction to bad behavior. As their boys tipped over chairs and banged on the aquarium and nearly tripped a server, the mother would half-heartedly ask them to stop in a whiny voice without doing anything to physically stop them, while the father would alternate between being completely oblivious and then snapping and roughly yanking them back by their jackets. It was a disaster I could hear behind me before I had even turned to look over my shoulder.

As one of the servers walked us to our table, I said quietly to her, “Please tell me that we’re not sitting next to those two kids.” She smiled uncomfortably and didn’t say anything, which I understood; it’s a bad idea to badmouth one client to another, regardless of the temptation. In contrast, we ended up being seated next to an Italian family, whose children practically marched in lockstep. They were quiet and well-behaved, without looking subdued or depressed. A whole series of books could be written on the various parenting styles of Europe, but I’ve always noticed that Southern-European kids are kept on a much tighter leash than in Northern Europe. South America certainly seems to have adopted some of this from the Spaniards; one of the worst insults to parents in Peru is to call their children malcriado (“poorly brought up”).

Ironically, it was the father of the family who ended up making a scene. They had ordered kids’ meals for the two children (a sign that Le Procope has become primarily a tourist restaurant), which had the option of chicken or fish for the main dish. They had picked the chicken, but apparently the kitchen ran out of the chicken dinners as they were making their meals, so one got chicken and the other got salmon. The restaurant screwed up by not coming out and telling the family right away that they had run out of chicken dishes and perhaps offer something else instead. On the other hand, the Italian family took the salmon without complaint when it came to the table and then complained about it when they had finished the main dish and the daughter had eaten the fries and left the fish untouched. After a bit of arguing, the waiter took that one kid’s meal off the bill, but the father insisted that they make another dish for her. The waiter said that the table had already accepted the main dish and eaten half of it, so any “replacement” dish wouldn’t be free. The waiter wouldn’t budge on this, and eventually the Italian family accepted a complimentary crêpe instead, but not before some stereotypically Italian fireworks.

Anyway, the meal here was great, although I’m a bit foggy on what everyone had. I had os à la mœlle (marrow bone) as an appetizer and the rest of them had salads (I think). For the main dish, I had a really lovely coq au vin, my dad had a plate of shrimp, my mom had trout with meunière sauce, and my sister had roasted Bresse chicken with morel mushrooms and potatoes in a cream sauce. All very, very tasty. Also, I had “cocoa sorbet” for dessert, although I’ll admit that it tasted more like regular chocolate ice cream. Nothing like the dark chocolate sorbet at SOMA back in Toronto.

As we left the restaurant, the sky had gone grey and the temperature had dropped, but we still wanted to go for a little walk. And by “little walk” I mean “walk all the way along the Seine to Invalides, across the river, and all the way up the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe.” Good times, but was it ever cold. There was another winter market at the Champs-Elysées, but at this point we had realized that there was the same set of 10 or 15 types of booths at all of these winter markets around Paris, so we pretty much walked right by it.

We presented the Arc de Triomphe to my dad, who was mildly impressed; then he became much more interested in identifying a flag flying over some random building nearby. How very dad.

At just the same time, as we were getting ready to head into the subway station, all the lights on the trees of the Champs-Elysées were turned on at once, which was pretty impressive. Of course, my mom had to take pictures of this, so my sister accompanied her over to the street, so she could take a picture from the “center” of the road.

So as my mother plunges into Paris traffic with my sister trailing behind her, my father says, “I’m going to go check out that flag over there” and disappears around a corner. Carla comes running back without mom and we have the following conversation:

“Where’s dad?!”

“He’s over there somewhere, looking for a plaque to explain some flag or something. Where’s mom?”

“She’s standing in traffic, taking a picture of the Champs Elysées.”

“It’s like babysitting hyperactive kids!”

“I had been warned about this! It has come to pass! The roles have been reversed!!”

After a good laugh, we collected our parents and guided them into the subway before they could get into any more trouble.

By the time we got back to the apartment to drop off our stuff (we had made a few purchases) it was almost time for dinner. So we had a leisurely coffee at the apartment, re-heated ourselves, and then started walking toward our dinner destination, a fantastic Sichuan restaurant up in the Strasbourg-Saint-Denis area. The walk was long, but good for building up an appetite, and we were able to take a detour through the Turkish strip of Saint-Denis, down the passage of Indian restaurants, and (of course) past all the hookers in that area. My dad’s tour of Paris was very comprehensive.

I’ve been to this Sichuan restaurant, appropriately named Le Restaurant de Chengdu, once before with a group of friends, including a Mandarin Chinese pal who declared the restaurant “authentic.” This time didn’t disappoint, either. Here’s the pile of food we ordered:

  • Dry-roasted chicken and vegetables, Sichuan style (i.e., very spicy)
  • Ma-Po Tofu (spicy tofu)
  • Chinese eggplants simmered in pork broth and sweet soy (AMAZING! ORGASMIC!!1!)
  • Breaded and fried shrimp
  • Wontons
  • Cantonese fried rice
  • Ginger Beef.

The dry-roasted chicken and the eggplants were the real stars of the meal, although all of it was tasty and satisfying. We actually ordered a second portion of the eggplants.

So, now spectacularly full, we walked back to their apartment, this time passing by République and rue de Turenne, hoping that we would feel less excruciatingly full by the time we got home. From there, I hopped on a vélib and slowly pedaled my way home.

mercredi, décembre 24, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 12: Xmas Eve

Today was THE DAY of THE FEAST for the holidays. Like good Latinos that have adopted the Catholic observances of continental Europe, we celebrate Christmas on the Eve rather than the Day. Ideally, you have a huge feast late in the evening, then you go to mass at midnight, and then you come home and exchange gifts. It’s been a while since our family has been motivated to do the full midnight mass with the throngs of un-lapsed Catholics, and this year was no different. The plan was to go to mass around 18h00, eat dinner around 20h00, and then stay up chatting and drinking until midnight, at which point we’d exchange gifts and call it a night.

I had ordered a duck to be roasted at a nearby butcher’s shop, which we would need to pick up before 18h00, but otherwise our day was pretty open. So we started the day making a final attempt at shopping for gifts; in particular, my mom wanted my sister to pick her gift out herself. So we made the rounds of the shops in the Marais, then through the gay area, then through BHV, and then down to Ile Saint-Louis. We stopped on the island for a coffee and some ice cream (Berthillon!) and then kept on shopping.

While we were walking, I got a call from a friend of mine from Berlin that was in town, saying that she had a bit of time to meet me for a drink. We made a date to meet in about an hour and I left my parents and sister to keep shopping. I took advantage of window of time to dash off to Colette to buy my sister a book of bird drawings that she had seen a couple of days ago and really loved. Despite my fears, the shopping dash was a success, in no small part due to the fact that the salesperson took me to the upstairs cashier rather than the downstairs one (which was totally rammed with customers).

I arrived at the Saint-Paul square just in time and grabbed a table at a café directly facing the butcher shop where I needed to grab the duck as well as the church where I would meet my family for mass at 18h00. As it turns out, my friend was super-late, so by the time she met me I had to go get the roast duck. The woman at the butcher shop had made it clear to me that I had to pick it up before 18h00, or else, and I was inclined to believe her. So the two of us picked up the duck, dropped it off at the family’s apartment, and then headed back to the café to finally have our drink. By the time the drink was done, however, I had a message from my mom saying that mass was over and they were walking home. !@#$! I said goodbye hastily to my friend, sent an apologetic text message to my mom, and rushed off to find them. I wasn’t sure how mad my mother would be about this, since she can be unpredictable about how important these sorts of family rituals are to her, but this time she was cool with it, thankfully.

From there, we headed back to the apartment and cooked a massive dinner, which took us hours to eat and produced more leftovers than we knew what to do with. Gifts were exchanged, desserts were eaten, TV was watched, belts were loosened. And, at some ungodly hour of the night, I biked my way home in the cold.

mardi, décembre 23, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 11: walking, shopping, Les Trois Marmites

Plans for today were pretty nebulous. Carla was going to join me at my place to hit my neighborhood market. We were going to meet the parents at their place for lunch around 13h00. And then at 20h00 we had reservations at Les Trois Marmites. Otherwise, our schedule was open.

Carla did indeed join me at the market, while my parents went off to the jardin des plantes again so that my dad could admire more trees and birds. The trip to the market was pretty uneventful for us, with the exception of finding a lovely chocolate shop near Place des Vosges on the way back from the market. I think the chocolaitier was called Joséphine Vannier. Anyway, we met the parents back at the apartment and had a pretty substantial lunch of breads and cheeses and salad.

Well, what to do now? We hadn’t walked through the Nation area of Paris, so we headed over to place de la Nation and walked all the way east to the Porte de Vincennes. From there, we swung back down side-streets and made our way back to the Nation métro station and decided that it was high time we re-visited the Latin Quarter. We took a walk through the crowded, zigzagging medieval streets of the Latin Quarter, then walked along boulevard Saint-Germain until we passed the original Paris-Sorbonne medical school. We took a moment to contemplate the building. For my parents, both trained as doctors in South America during the 60s and 70s, the “style” of medicine they learned was the French School, so this was sort of the birthplace of their clinical pedagogy.

As we passed the statue of Danton at the Odéon, I pointed out the longest-running café in Paris, Procope, which kept serving food right through the French Revolution up until today. As it turns out, they were going to be open on Christmas Day, so we made a reservation there for lunch. Yay!

We ducked into a Célio store to look for gifts for dad, quietly conspiring with mom to keep him busy while Carla and I did the shopping. With purchases in hand, we kept walking until we got to the church of Saint Germain-des-Pres. There was a small but unexceptional winter market out front, so we ignored it entirely and went into the church for a quick walk-around. With our touristic impulse for the day satisfied, we headed back to the apartment to get ready for dinner.

Dinner at Les Trois Marmites was fantastic as always, but I somehow managed to forget most of what we ate. I know that Carla discovered the wonders of Martini Rosso as an aperitif (which is a kind of vermouth). For appetizers, I remember that my mom had a sort of soft fish dumpling made out of pike, and that my sister had the same savoury clafouti I had had the week before. I had boudin blanc, which is a white-meat sausage usually made out of veal or chicken or pork. Also, I’m pretty sure my dad had a crab salad at some point. Main dishes? I can’t remember. Desserts? I know they were delicious, but I couldn’t tell you what they were.

After dinner, we headed back to the family’s neighborhood and saw the parents to bed, and then my sister and I decided to walk over to Place des Vosges to have a post-meal coffee. The coffee went well enough, but we managed to totally space out on the bill. We didn’t dine-and-dash or anything. Rather, the waitress brought out the drinks while I was in the washroom, and my sister hadn’t been in France long enough to realize that, in cafés, the check usually comes right away with the drinks. I got back from the bathroom to find the drinks there and gave no thought to the bill, which was tucked under the saucer holding the milk for my sister’s tea. As you might imagine, the waitress also didn’t think that we weren’t aware of the bill sitting on the table. It was almost closing time for the café, so the result of this collective absent-mindedness was the following conversation between me and the server around 1h30:

“I gotta cash out for the night, so can we settle up?”







“Any time now…”

“I’m just waiting for the cash…”

I eventually realized that the bill was already on the table and I paid quickly, leaving a bit red-faced.

lundi, décembre 22, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 10: Shopping! L'Ilôt Vache

So today’s plan was to begin by securing ticket’s to the ballet currently showing at the Opéra Garnier, Raymonda. We’d buy them for tonight ideally, and then book a really late dinner after the show at Chez Denise.

Neither of these things came to pass. Raymonda was sold out for the entire run, and Chez Denise didn’t have any tables open tonight. Nonetheless, we managed to make a good day of it.

My sister and I set out to the Opéra to try to buy the tickets, while my parents went off to discover the jardin des plantes (the botanical gardens). When we found out that the tickets were all sold, I sent a text message to my mom to break the news, and then Carla and I consoled ourselves by shopping. I took her to the nearby Galeries Lafayette and Printemps to look at the famous display windows (much like I did last week with my parents), which she loved. She was especially smitten with Lafayette’s Alice in Wonderland theme.

We also checked out purses, all of which Carla declared to be boring. It’s a bad season for purses, apparently. After hitting C&A to buy some stockings (Carla says they’re better here) we headed down rue de la Paix so I could show her all of the super-fancy jewelry stores.

Once we made it to rue St. Honoré, we walked over to Colette, the posh concept-store that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. We ended up buying a set of really adorable vinyl wall stickers for Carla’s apartment, but I couldn’t help being annoyed by how invasive the store employees are there. I just want to shop, thank you.

We decided to cross the river and hit the other grand magasin, Le Bon Marché. We did this partially to check out the hat section for some gifts for friends of Carla’s back in NYC, but it was also partly so we could hit Le Bon Marché’s Grand Epicerie (“Great Big Grocery Store”), which is like the Saks Fifth Ave of foodstuffs. Carla wanted to stock up on some flower-scented syrups that she hadn’t been able to find since her last trip to Paris. We only found a couple of them, but I made a note to myself to come back after the holiday season to see if they had been re-stocked.

We had the bright idea of hitting the winter market in front of Saint-Sulpice, which had the (totally unintended!!) advantage of taking us right near the Pierre Hermé pastry shop. When we got there, however, there was a lineup all the way down the street, so we said—and I quote—“Fuck it” and kept going. The winter market netted us little in gifts, other than some interesting chocolates made with olive oil (gifts for friends back in NYC). So we headed home to catch up with the parents.

So, after recounting our respective days to each other, we got ready for dinner. I called over to Chez Denise and they actually had no tables available at all the whole night (except for something like 23h00), so we gave up on that. I tried calling Le Dôme du Marais, but they were closed. We were ready to give up and just wander around the neighborhood looking for a likely place when I had a thought: L’Ilôt Vache!

L’Ilôt Vache is one of those painfully cute restaurants makes food several notches above its décor. The restaurant is named after the history of the island on which it is located, l’Ile St.-Louis, which was first a grazing pasture for cows before being populated. The décor is this odd mix of mismatched plates, cow-themed kitsch on every available flat surface, and yet toweringly elegant and exotic floral arrangements on every table. And the wine list is nothing to sneeze at.

Anyway, I called ahead and booked a table, and then we walked over to the island. After a brief stop at an "ethnic" shop called Diwali to buy some of those light crinkled-cotton scarves they sell (chech scarves) as gifts to various people back home, we headed into the restaurant. Again, here’s the point-form roundup:

  • Very fine food, good service, excellent Berthillon ice cream and sorbets.
  • Appetizers: foie gras for me, the house terrine for mom and Carla, and a salmon-citrus marinade.
  • Main: magret de canard (breast of fattened duck) in raspberry sauce for me, a goat cheese salad with smoked magret for my sister, the catch of the day for my mom, and a large beef skewer with béarnaise sauce for my dad.
  • Dessert: tarte tatin for my dad, nothing for mom, and Berthillon sorbets for my sister and me.

In a welcome contrast to the last two nights, we returned home feeling only mildly overfull.

dimanche, décembre 21, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 9: Versailles! l'Astier


We had waited until Carla got here to go to Versailles, despite that fact that she’s seen the place before. The difference for her was that, this time, there was a Jeff Koons exhibit going on. I had already gone to see it a couple of months ago, but it was pretty amazing and I was more than willing to take them all there again.

So we got up rather early and headed over to Versailles by RER, but by the time we got there, there was already a long lineup to buy tickets to get into the palace. We resigned ourselves to waiting for a long while in line, but then a young employee came out with a little loudspeaker and announced that those interested in guided tours could buy their tickets without waiting in line. That was all my increasingly impatient mother needed to hear, and off we went to buy guided tour tickets.

Alas, it was a bit misleading: you could buy your tickets right away, but the guided tour we were booked for was scheduled one hour later. Nonetheless, we were now free to wander around the gardens behind the palace before returning to the entrance for the tour.

The guided tour had the advantage of giving us access to the royal apartments—most of which are inaccessible to regular tourists—but the purportedly informative commentary provided the guide herself was reduced by her odd accent. She had clearly not been prepared to conduct the tour in English, as she had started in French until another employee jumped in and corrected her. The main problem with her accent was that she constantly mixed up vowel quantities, causing her to utter phrases that sounded absurd. For example, “fifty” became “fufty” and “leave” became “love” or sometimes “loaf.”

This finally surfaced as an issue when the tour guide pointed to a chest of drawers and said that King Louis XIV kept his “needle” collection there. My sister put up her hand and asked for clarification:

“Needles? He collected needles?”


“Like for sewing?”

“Eh, non….like coins and medallions…”

I cut in: “Medals, she must mean medals.”

There was moment of embarrassed relief as the entire group of confused-looking Anglophone tourists had a collective “A-ha!” moment. No, Louis the XIVth didn’t collect embroidery tools.

The most amusing moment from the tour was near the end, when the tour guide took us into the palace chapel. She got us past the barriers at the chapel door and into the chapel proper, where we stood in the middle of the space while the guide gave the last commentary of the tour. She muttered something about everybody staying close to her, but within half a minute, several people had started walking around the chapel. Some of them started taking turns having their picture taken at the altar, which my mother observed with some horror, as the chapel was still active and the altar should therefore be considered a sacred space. Eventually, one of the security guards near the entrance of the chapel noticed what was going on and came running over, interrupting the guide’s commentary with high-pitched French noises of outrage. Rather than apologize to the guard for her group’s behaviour or doing something to stop it, she just shrugged her shoulders and said that she couldn’t understand why these tourists would think it was OK to do that. The tourists involved were definitely being insensitive, but part of that was probably ignorance; not all tourists to France are practicing Catholics, and not all of them will automatically understand which parts of a chapel are sacred and which are not.

Anyway, after that odd moment, the guided tour was over and we were left to tour the public parts of the palace on our own. You can see some photos and more detail about the Jeff Koons exhibit in my original post on it. As before, I was really charmed by it, and my sister loved it. My parents were both endlessly amused by it. At one point, I overheard a scandalized Frenchwoman declare that the juxtaposition of Koons’s lux-pop art with Versailles was “obscene,” which we all agreed was precisely the point. Considering what life was like in France for non-nobles during the eighteenth century, Versailles’ opulence is truly obscene. Pretty, yes, but also obscene.

Once we were done with Versailles, we got back on the RER and headed into Paris. Our reservation for dinner was at 21h00, so we still had some time to kill. We got out around Saint-Michel and walked across the islands again, stopping at a café on Ile St.-Louis for some mulled wine before walking the remaining distance to the Marais. After a short pit-stop at my family’s apartment, we loaded onto the subway and headed to my neighborhood for dinner at Astier. Once again, here’s the point-form review of the resto:

  • This was the first time I’ve eaten here.
  • The overall theme is very “homestyle” and sometimes rustic, with heavy meat dishes and stews. Multiple orders of one dish often come in large shared casserole dishes.
  • However, their wine cellar is pretty kick-ass. You could easily triple your bill with wine if you’re not careful.
  • The look of the place is also homsetyle, with hardwood everything and red-checkered napkins.
  • Our server was very chatty and friendly (and a bit cute).
  • I had some sort of smoked sausage from Lyon called a sabodet [which I have since discovered is made from pig head and pig skin!] as an appetizer. I think the girls had an endive salad of some sort.
  • My dad had a braised beef shoulder, while the rest of us had chicken fricassee.
  • I can’t remember dessert… I think tarte tatin was involved for some of us…
  • We had a Châteauneuf-du-Pape (red wine from the Rhone region) that tasted nothing like the wines that usually come from that region. Still delicious, but surprising.

And at the end, we crawled home, painfully full.

samedi, décembre 20, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 8: Carla arrives!

Carla-time! It was Carla’s day to arrive, so the plan was that I would go get her from the airport and my parents would go for a walk and get some bread and fixings for lunch. The flight was a bit late and luggage claim was the usual slow mess, so we didn’t get out of the airport until maybe 13h00 or so, but Carla was nonetheless amazed at how non-traumatic the experience was. Usually, travelling through Charles-de-Gaulle airport is a scarring experience.

We got back to the apartment to find my mom hanging out of the second-floor window, shouting, “Hey! Hi! I see you! Welcome to France!” Sigh. So much for acting like locals.

Anyway, we ate a light lunch of bread, salad and small quiches from the nearby bakery, and then asked Carla what she wanted to do. Stunningly, she had actually slept during her red-eye flight, so she was fully awake and ready to go for a walk. We headed over to the St. Paul Village just south of rue Rivoli, and found the shops to be mostly “boutique artisan” shops of the sort you find in the Distillery district in Toronto, mostly full of hand-made tchotchke.

From there, we walked over the river and onto the island of St. Louis, where we wandered along the shops of the main drag. We made it to the other island (Ile de la Cité) and walked through Notre-Dame, since there wasn’t much of a crowd.

Just as we were getting ready to leave the church, an evening mass started. My mom wanted to stay for the mass and my sister agreed to accompany her, but my dad was in no mood to stick around, so I left with him and we walked around the island for a while. We sat down in the café facing the church for a coffee, where we were served by this adorable young guy who was probably 20 but had been dressed up in the most stereotypical, old-fashioned café garçon outfit I could imagine: black vest, pocket watch with chain, bottle opener hanging from the vest by another chain, little change apron, etc. Also, he was remarkable for being the only person I’ve seen so far whose butt looks good in those schlumpy black slacks that all café waiters wear here.

We timed the mass pretty well and met the ladies in front of the church as the service was letting out. We decided that an early and light dinner would be a good idea, so we walked back across the river and caught the métro to Belleville, where we went to my favourite Vietnamese Pho shop, TinTin.

There’s no point in describing the dinner in detail; I’ve written about this place numerous times before on this blog. The pho was delicious and satisfying, the tea was pretty good, and the Vietnamese spring rolls were pretty tasty.

After dinner, my sister was beginning to feel tired, but we all needed a long walk to digest the massive quantity of soup that we had just ingested. So we walked around Belleville, down Faubourg du Temple to avenue Parmentier, and then down past my apartment. From there, I sent them on their way home and I climbed the 6 flights of stairs to my place…slowly.

vendredi, décembre 19, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 7: Bois de Boulonge, Shopping, Le Dôme du Marais

Well it was cold today, but at least it was pretty sunny. We decided to take advantage of the sun and go check out one of Paris’s two big forests, the Bois de Boulogne (the other one is the Bois de Vincennes). We got off at the Porte Maillot métro stop, at the north end of the park, and walked right through to the south end. Of course, we had to stop frequently so that my dad could identify the trees and the birds.

We especially spent a lot of time around the lakes at the center of the park, which had a cute island in the middle and was inhabited by lots of waterfowl. We had bought some sandwiches and brought them with us, so we spent a few minutes sitting next to the lake, eating our little lunch happily while the ducks looked on expectantly. Of course, my dad made a sport of tossing bread to the ducks (and the one lone goose), from a bag of day-old bread he had brought from the apartment. The pigeons and gulls came over pretty quickly, too, but the most impressive characters were the ravens, who stood on the shore next to us, watching my dad’s hand carefully. As soon as he threw a crumb in the air, the ravens would fly over and try to catch the crumb before it hit the water. They were surprisingly fast, catching almost half of the bread before it even got to the ducks. Natural selection, I tell you.

Anyway, we had had designs on getting onto the island and having a drink at the café there, but apparently it was closed for the day (despite there being people visibly going in and out of the café), so we shrugged and kept walking. We never found any other cafés open in the park, so we eventually hit the southern end of the park, walked along past the Roland-Garros tennis courts (home of the French Open) and found ourselves at Porte d’Auteuil. There was a café right next to the métro station, so we treated ourselves to a very, very expensive coffee (we were in the 16th arrondissement, which is the wealthiest).

Mom wanted to do some xmas gift shopping, so she asked me where the middle and lower classes do their shopping (all of the shops she had seen in Paris so far were well out of our price range). I told her, “In chain stores and shopping malls, mostly in the suburbs.” Thankfully (or not), there was at least one shopping mall within Paris proper, so we hopped on the subway and headed over to Place d’Italie.

This was an American-style indoor shopping mall, so you can probably imagine what the interior looked like. I felt like I was back in Westmount Mall, London, Ontario (back in the early 90s, before it cratered). The shopping was mostly fruitless, but we did find a lot of stuff at a baby / children’s wear store called Okaïdi, where we got tons of stuff for the baby that my brother and his wife are expecting. I think we left with a metric tonne of cotton “onesies.”

We also went to the grocery store, Champion, and bought about 6 of their reusable grocery bags. I know, I know, it seems like an odd thing to buy, but the bags that they sell there are just the right size for laundry or carrying other big items and they’re really sturdy. They’re about half the size of those blue IKEA bags, but with a more square shape.

Anyway, we declared the shopping trip a mixed victory and headed home to get ready for dinner. We hadn’t made any reservations to eat that night, so we just dropped off our shopping stuff at the apartment and started walking around the neighborhood. I had read in one of the guidebooks left at my parents’ apartment that there was a restaurant in the Marais called Le Dôme du Marais, so we decided to go check it out. The guidebook said that it was the sort of place where you could show up in jeans or in a tux and feel equally at ease, but I realized as I took off my jacket that I was pushing it, wearing only a t-shirt. I took my wide cashmere scarf and wrapped it around my shoulders like a sort of shawl, making me look like a bearded old lady, but at least covering my forearms a bit.

The restaurant itself is located in some old building next to a convent that has this beautiful glass dome in the middle. The table settings are all white linens and silverware, which is a bit much for a "bistro" restaurant. Nonetheless, that didn’t prevent the restaurant from being one of the best of my parents’ entire visit.

The place is pretty haute cuisine in its own way, although the prices are surprisingly reasonable given the quality of the meals. The basic menu was 36€, which included three courses BUT ALSO about four mini-courses that came between the main courses. Check out this timeline of the dinner:

  1. Cheese biscuits to go with the aperitifs.
  2. An amuse-bouche of spiced carrot soup, foie gras & artichoke puree, and a savoury éclair filled with goat cheese and “iced” with roasted red pepper puree.
  3. Appetizers: a soufflé made with Jerusalem artichokes and a breaded-deep-fried-yet-soft-boiled egg for my parents; I took a winter vegetable salad with ham from Bayonne (Ibaïona).
  4. Main dishes: baked cod with sea snails in a green herb sauce for my mom, wild boar in a quince sauce for my dad, and pot-au-feu for me (a very slow-cooked stew with a clear broth).
  5. Palate cleanser of banana sorbet on a bed of chopped pineapple with cilantro (so good!)
  6. Desserts: Mille-feuille with vanilla-bean cream filling and plum-Armagnac ice cream for my parents; I had a warm pear tart with a green-apple / tarragon ice cream (!@#$ing amazing).
  7. A digestif of brandy made with berries from Houx (specialty of the house, apparently, and fantastic).
  8. With coffee, a plate of cookies and chocolates.

So we were FULL, as you could imagine, but also very satisfied. And all of that, including pre- and post-dinner drinks and a 43€ bottle of wine came to about 180€ for three people. Not bad at all, considering how very fine the food was. We made a note of the place and decided to bring my sister here after she arrives this weekend.

jeudi, décembre 18, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 6: Opéra, Chez Marianne, Moulin Rouge

The big plans for tonight were to see a show at the Moulin Rouge, so everything was organized around that. After a rather late breakfast/lunch, we headed off to the Opéra Garnier to finally take a look at the interior. I called ahead to make sure that the main performance hall would be open (since it is sometimes closed for rehearsals), which they assured me it was.

In addition to the usual mind-boggling opulence that is the Garnier opera house, there was a special exhibition of Maria Callas’s stage jewelry, some of it “costume”, some of it very real and precious. Amusingly enough, my dad didn’t have any snarky comments about the luxury here. I don’t think he necessarily had any respect for the people that once (and still) populate these halls, but at least it didn’t offend him with pretenses of helping or representing the poor.

After having been surrounded by the most literal example of the term “encrusted capital,” we decided to look at more congealed wealth by walking down rue de la Paix and across place Vendôme, Paris’s poshest shopping area and where you’ll find all of the most high-end jewelry shops. We stopped in the Piaget shop to ask about the cost of services Piaget watches, because my mother inherited a small 1950s Piaget watch from her mother, which was no longer working. Apparently, it would cost hundreds of Euros just to open it up and give it a good cleaning, let alone fix it, so we smiled and took their business cards and pretended that we could afford it.

From there, we walked along rue St. Honoré, the other super-posh shopping area of Paris, and over to place Madeleine…yet another posh shopping area. We stopped in at La Durée to buy some réligieuses for my sister (and us) and then at the Maille store to get some fancy mustard.

By then it was mid-afternoon, so we dropped by the apartment to leave our tasty purchases and then took a walk around Le Marais to look for a place that would be open for an early dinner before the show. We saw that Chez Marianne was still open, a restaurant in the Jewish quarter that is popular for it’s reliably tasty middle-eastern food. In addition to a pile of olives and bread, we shared a plate with 10 different “elements” from their cold-prep bar, including a fantastic eggplant caviar, an artichoke-citrus salad, and some méchouia (roasted spicy vegetables). The chopped chicken livers with onions, however, was a bit much.

Although the restaurant is apparently run by a Sephardic Jewish family, there was this one guy working at the restaurant that was dressed like some sort of odd caricature of an Ashkenazi Hasidic superstar. How so? He was wearing a wide-and-flat-brimmed black hat that approximated Orthodox dress, along with a full-length black trenchcoat that he never took off while working inside the restaurant; underneath, he had a white woven shirt framed on both sides by a pale blue cashmere scarf (read: Israeli flag) and hanging from his neck was A STAR OF DAVID MADE ENTIRELY OF ICE-BLUE “SAPPHIRES.” I kid you not. If there had been a discreet way to do it, I would’ve snuck a picture of him just to show the world that Ashkenazi bling is possible.

It was time to get ready for the show, so I headed back home to change into a nice suit, while mom went about trying to get my dad into presentable clothes. I was worried that we would be running late, but in the end we got there well before the doors would open, so we walked around Pigalle for a while and amused ourselves by looking at the various porn and sex shops.

We finally got into the Moulin Rouge for the show and…well…it was pretty lame. We had been expecting something closer to perhaps a cabaret, with a charismatic emcee, various burlesque solo acts, some vaudeville acts, all interspersed with the occasional mass dance number. Instead, what we got was a pale imitation of Las Vegas showgirl shows. Now don’t get me wrong, Las Vegas girlie shows can be very impressive and a lot of fun, but the Moulin Rouge troupe wasn’t even copying the formula well. It was easily 70% mass dance numbers, all of which were sloppily performed. My understanding was that the difference between the Moulin Rouge and the strip joint across the street was production values, but the only difference I saw was one of budget. The dancing was never quite in sync, the choreography itself was jerky and inelegant, the music director mistook “upbeat” for “undanceably-fast techno”, the costumes were expensive-looking but unattractive, and so on. Don’t even get me started on the bizarre colonialist aesthetics of the “Oriental” portion of the show. Gah.

Also, as if to rob my father of the only possible upside of the show, most of the dancers were also anorectic and therefore rather cureve-less. And I was surprised to see so many fake boobs in France, a place somewhat known for retaining a preference for natural breasts.

Oh, and my mother and I would like to point out that it’s not fair that the male dancers kept their clothes on.

Anyway, the sideshow acts were still pretty good (tumblers, jugglers, ventriloquists), and the champagne was tasty, so it’s wasn’t a total wash. We left the show around 22h30 and headed out in search of something small to eat before bed. We tried Café Charbon in my neighborhood, but they had just closed the kitchen when we sat down. After that, we gave up and grabbed a crêpe from a nearby stand and wandered around my neighborhood until we were tired.

mercredi, décembre 17, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 5: Buttes-Chaumont, Chez l'Ami Jean

According to the weather forcast, today was supposed to be sunny and somewhat warmer.

Lies!! All lies!

It was cold and wet the entire day, with a fine, mist-like drizzle and a low cloud ceiling the entire day. Nonetheless, this didn’t prevent us from going through with our plans of visiting the Buttes-Chaumont park. My dad’s still a farm-boy in a way, and he loves trees and birds. In particular, he loves walking through big parks and forests and identifying trees, identifying birds, and observing how they grow, what they’re doing, etc. So Buttes-Chaumont seemed like a must-see for him, since the entire park has been arranged in a sort of “English garden” style. That is, the trees and bushes and plants have been mostly arranged to look like a “natural” scene rather than a manicured garden. Also, the whole park covers a steep hillside with cliffs and waterfalls and pools and so on, so the whole thing looks really lovely.

Our walk through the park took pretty much the entire morning, as my dad needed to stop at every tree and inspect it, and then identify all of the birds in its branches. My mom obligingly took pictures of trees he couldn’t identify, presumably with the intent of identifying them later.

After the park, we started looking for a subway station and instead found ourselves near Belleville park, so we walked down the pergola-covered stairs of the park and admired the well-kept gardens, and then kept walking the short distance to my neighborhood. Somewhere along rue Oberkampf, near rue St.-Maur and opposite the very popular Café Charbon, we came across a bistro that I had heard about: Au Pied de Fouet (At the Foot of the Whip). I had been told that it served up solid, no-fuss, homestyle French food, so we dropped in. It was nearly the end of the lunch period (14h00) and they were to close between services, but nonetheless the lady server cheerfully waved us in.

The food was tasty and well-prepared and the service was chatty and casual, which made for a very pleasant lunch. I can’t remember precisely what we had, but I know that my parents both had the “salade de la mer” (seafood and rice salad) as an appetizer while I had the quiche Lorraine. I think my mom had fish as a main dish and I had chicken, but my memory’s foggy.

Anyway, I had to teach my English class that evening and I had a few things to take care of at the UofC center over in the 13th arrondissement, so I sent off my parents to wander around in their neighborhood and otherwise entertain themselves and I headed over to work. After taking care of some paperwork and some errands at work, I headed over to the Ecole des Chartes for class. The plan was to give the students an “easy” class by showing them an English-language movie, so I had rented out the film “You, Me and Everyone We Know” by Miranda July (2005), which I was pretty sure none of them had seen and which focused on the awkward banality of American suburban life—a topic many French intellectuals seem to love (mostly because they like to imagine that it only happens in the US). I quite like the film because it highlights how hard it is to maintain normality, that is, how much effort everybody expends to live a “good” / “normal” life, while trying to make it appear effortless or natural.

The movie deals with some difficult and uncomfortable topics (divorce, teenage sexuality, death, loneliness, kinky fetishes, internet courtship), but there was no nudity and no on-screen violence, so I figured that the movie wouldn’t be particularly shocking to these adult students, considering the sort of scenes regularly shown in cinemas and on TV here in France. What I had forgotten was that, as a grande école this class was largely populated by the privileged and conservative right-wing of the French population, and so their threshold for sex and difficult topics was possibly lower than the general population. Most of the students nonetheless sat through the whole thing quietly, but at least two students stormed out of the class during a scene where teenagers were engaging in oral sex off-screen. I made a point of not looking at the door as they left, so that I wouldn’t know who it was and there would be no suspicion of me “punishing” those who left. Anyway, it gave them something to talk about.

To avoid further discomfort, the other English teacher and I decided not to run a discussion after the movie, and instead let them go home early. From there, we walked back to the video shop to return the DVDs and then went our separate ways. I met up with my parents, who were waiting for me at their apartment, and we got ready for dinner.

Dinner was going to be at a Basque restaurant in the 7th arrondissement that only had a table for us at 22h00, so we had a bit of time to kill. We decided to head over to the Ecole Militaire, so that we could walk along the Champ de Mars and up to the Eiffel Tower. As I had sort of expected, my dad wasn’t particularly enchanted by the thing. He was impressed by its size and construction, but he was completely uninterested in joining the throng of people underneath the tower, waiting to go up.

From there we walked along rue St. Dominique at a leisurely pace until we got to rue Malar, where our restaurant was located. It was nearly 22h00 anyway, so we headed in to see if our table was ready.

The restaurant’s called Chez l’Ami Jean (“Buddy John’s Place”) and it specializes in Basque food from the southwest region of France / northeast of Spain. As you might expect from that region, most of the food involves foie gras, duck fat, smoked duck meat, eggs, and strong-flavored cheeses.

I have only a vague memory of what we ate for dinner, but I recall my mother eating some sort of artichoke puree with bone marrow on top, I had a parmesan cheese soup, and my dad had some seared tuna. The main dishes I barely recall at all, but I’m pretty sure they were stew-like dishes. Anyway, the restaurant itself is a neo-bistro that has haute cuisine aspirations, so the dishes were perhaps “rustic” Basque classics, but the portions and presentation were very precious and the dishes were mostly given fancy twists. While the food itself tasted quite good, I got the feeling that it would’ve tasted just as good without the fancy fuss and at about half the price. Overall, it’s a good restaurant that I would happily return to if invited, but I wouldn’t got out of my way to go there, given the other options in the city.

One of the upsides of the smaller portions, though, is that we all got home satisfied, rather than nauseatingly overfull.

mardi, décembre 16, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 4: Market, D'Orsay, Trois Marmites

Well, after the excess that was last night, my parents were feeling a bit tired. Apparently, the sheer quantity of beans they had consumed had kept a certain parent up all night (the poor thing).

Nonetheless, they got up and walked over to my place this morning to join me for my usual weekly market. We all went together to the neighborhood market and started walking through the stands. We stopped at an artisan charcutier (prepared-meat person, usually pork but not necessarily), where we bought some whole foie gras for xmas dinner and some fine dry sausage for me. Aside from that, I got some vegetables, cheese, pears and eggs for my place and then we bought some basic items for a lunch. We got a big bag of mâche (lamb’s lettuce) and then bought some bread on the way home and pigged out on bread, cheese, salad and vegetables.

Today was the day for the Musée d’Orsay, so off we went to pay a visit to my favourite impressionist and Art Nouveau works, housed in a nineteenth-century train station. There was a special exhibition of pastels, which were gorgeous. I love the bright colours you can get from pastels, despite their smudgy, photosensitive disadvantages. After the pastel exhibition, we looked at all of the major impressionist works on the top floor, walked through the decorative arts sections, and then walked along the main floor to get a look at the massive main chamber.

I was going to show an English-language film for my students the next week, so we all headed over to a video rental shop near Luxembourg gardens to rent out the movie. The shop, called Vidéosphere, has a huge selection of international films, including English-language ones. After a bit of searching and finally asking for some help, I rented out a couple of flicks and headed out with my parents.

We swung by my parents’ apartment to take a break for a while, and then headed over to my neighborhood for dinner at Les Trois Marmites. I’ve been to this place too many times to link to here, but if you do a search on my blog for the keyword “marmites,” you’ll see all of it. As usual, the meal was excellent and my parents were thrilled; the food here is always simple and wholesome, but finely executed. Unlike the previous two days, the portions were large but sane, so we didn’t feel sick by the end of the meal. I can’t remember the details of what we ate, but I recall having an appetizer of a savoury clafouti made of leeks and goat cheese, which tasted like a cross between a quiche and my mom’s lasagna. Tasty!

lundi, décembre 15, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 3: Louvre, Montmartre, Shopping, Chez Denise

We got up relatively early in the morning and headed straight to the Louvre. As much as the Louvre is a beautiful place full of beautiful things, every time that someone comes to visit Paris for the first time, I encourage them to get the Louvre “out of the way,” as if it were a tiresome errand. I’m awfully fond of what is to be found in there, but the Louvre can sometimes be really tiring, mostly due to the massive throngs of people that are also visiting the place.

So, with memories of endless lines to buy tickets and then again to get into one of the three wings, I said, “Let’s do this Monday morning, when everybody else will hopefully be asleep or recovering from the weekend.” It mostly paid off, it seems, as there was only a short wait to get the ticket and no real line to get into the Denon wing of the museum. This may have been partially due to the fact that it was December and thus low season for tourism, but I also think it helped that the ushers at the doors had taken something bordering on an honour system for entry. As you approached one of the three entrances, all you had to do was wave your ticket at them and they would nod. I think that, at some point recently, they decided that it was more cost-effective to just glance at tickets and trust people than to carefully demand and inspect every person’s ticket.

Anyway, we did the major works relatively quickly: Winged Victory, the Mona Lisa, The Raft of the Medusa (Géricault), the coronation of Napoleon, and many others. After an hour or so of painting, we headed over to look at the collection of jewlrey and precious objects in a nearby wing, through the classical Phoenician and Mesopotamian collections and then over into the furniture and decorative arts section. By then, it was well after midday and we were hungry, so I suggested that we went to a place I knew on Montmartre for a salad. We walked along the gardens of the Tuileries until we got to Place de la Concorde, and then hopped on the métro and headed over to Montmartre.

The salad place that I am talking about has been mentioned on here at least a few times before, Le Relais Gascon. It’s a lovely little bistro on rue des Abbesses that serves meal-sized salads in huge ceramic bowls, topped with fried garlic potatoes. The salads aren’t just big piles of leafy greens; most of them also come with heaps of vegetables, meats, cheeses, nuts, and in one case, foie gras and smoked duck breast. The salads were delicious, but (un)surprisingly filling. As you’ll see below, it was perhaps too much and too late (around 2pm), considering our dinner plans.

We headed to the base of the hill of Sacre-Coeur, planning to scale the hill, but it was really, really cold today, so we decided to take the cable-car up instead. Surprisingly, there were none of those West-African and Central-African merchants aggressively selling string bracelets as they usually do. Perhaps the weather made it intolerable, or the low tourist season made it unprofitable. Either way, I was relieved that I didn’t have to fend them off my bewildered father.

Sacre-Coeur was of course lovely and the mosaics were as shiny and glittery as I remembered. But also, my dad’s anti-clerical streak resurfaced as he looked at the massive mosaic of the trinity covering the dome of the choir. “As I get older,” he said, “I’m coming to see the Catholic church and religion in general as a massive wealth extraction machine.” Again out of earshot from my more devout mother, I chuckled and told him that he wasn’t alone in that critique, especially in France, birthplace of modern anti-clerical sentiment.

We headed out of the church and zigzagged down the small streets on the hill and back to Abbesses, where we checked out another art-nouveau church. From there, we headed down rue Lepic and pointed to the café were Amélie was filmed, Les Deux Moulins, and then down to Pigalle. We were right next to Moulin Rouge, so we stopped in to make a reservation for Thursday night. As my mom had explained by email a few weeks earlier, South American men from my father’s generation associate a trip to Paris with the girlie shows of the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère, so we decided to splurge and pay the 99€ / person for the show without dinner.

Since we were so close by, I suggested that we head around the corner to my favourite chocolate shop in the world, Denise Acabo’s “À l’Étoile d’Or.” This woman, herself a “character” that dresses up in pigtails, plaid wool skirts, and schoolgirl blouse-and-v-neck combos despite having not been a schoolgirl for decades, collects the “Best of France” of each kind of candy and confection you can imagine: marshmallows from a convent in Dijon, salted-butter caramels from Brittany, bergamot-flavored chocolates from Nancy, and so on. Most importantly for my interests, she is the only person outside of Lyon that is permitted to re-sell chocolates from Bernachon, who is in my opinion the best chocolaitier in France. OM NOM NOM, as the LOLCATZ say.

So, after a rapid tour of all of her wares and sweets, we left with about 100€ in candy and chocolate and we were probably one of the more restrained customers that day. Her store has been “discovered” by many luxury tourism magazines—especially Japanese ones—and she is regularly invaded by busloads of heavy spenders. Anyway, she had run out of her amazing marshmallows, so I asked her to put aside a bunch for me on Thursday, so that my sister would have some to eat when she gets to town.

From there, we realized that we still had some time before dinner, so I suggested that we head over to the grands magasins and check out the famous Christmas shop windows. While we were there (by total coincidence! I swear!), we stopped in Célio and my Mom bought me an assload of new shirts and sweaters, which I declared to count as their Xmas gift for me. I usually find Célio’s stuff like a boring but more elegant version of the Gap, but this season they seem to have discovered some color, so I was happy to expand my wardrobe. Yay! Now I can’t gain any weight this holiday.

Also, we got a nice wool peacoat for my dad, which he sorely needed. He’s the kind of guy that has two or three pairs of pants and wears them until they’re falling apart, despite the pile of brand-new pants that his family has bought him. So he came to Paris with only an insulated hiker’s vest, which did not look so great for more formal restaurants.

We took a leisurely walk along the front of the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps [LINK], checking out the excellent window displays. The theme for Galeries Lafayette was apparently Alice in Wonderland, and the animated displays were really lovely and well-designed to entertain children as well as adults. The Printemps theme was “cosmic dream” or something like that, which I found less impressive. Nonetheless, very pretty.

We wandered through the luxury section of Printemps to see if we could find the La Durée counter that they had in the store, but once we found it, we discovered that they were out of the rose-flavored réligieuses that they are famous for. As we left the store, we couldn’t have known that the police would find 5 sticks of dynamite the next day in one of the toilets in the store.

It was almost time for dinner, so we headed over to Les Halles to walk around the gardens and then over to the restaurant, Chez Denise, to claim our table. If you were reading this blog when I was last living in Paris, you’re probably intimately familiar with this place, but just in case: here, here, here and here are links to my previous visits to the place. And, following in the format from last night’s post, here is my summary of dinner in point-form:

  • Surprisingly, one of the servers remembered me from when I came here two years ago, including even my name. Additionally, he was the cute one.
  • Apéritif? Yes please. Pastis for me and my dad, and Campari for my mom.
  • We had a platter of rillettes as an appetizer, which was just way too large, even for three of us.
  • Both of my parents had the famous haricot mouton (mutton and white bean stew), while I tried the tripe in calvados sauce, which was surprisingly good (I’m not usually a fan of tripe).
  • Considering we had had a late lunch and it was kinda filling, we had a lot of trouble finishing our food. However, my parents just couldn’t leave behind good beans (yes, they’re Latinos), so they were painfully full by the time we were done.
  • We had digestifs, and then staggered out of the restaurant. Between the wine, the aperitifs and the digestifs, my dad was a bit tipsy, so the walk home involved a lot of zigzagging.
  • We walked all the way back to the Marais, just to digest some of the meal, and I kept on walking from the Marais back to my neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement.