An adventure in Search of a Gluten-Free Lunch June 1 2014

The Other Side of Paris

 

This morning, Nancy and I decided to embark on an adventure in search of gluten-free treats.  France is way behind the US in terms of commercial baking for people with food allergies. After a certain time, being a food outcast begins to become burdensome. 

  Especially, the experience at the Lebanese cafe housed in the Arab Institute a couple of days ago had whetted my appetite for a less frustrating food situation.  At the Lebanese cafe, practically every item on the menu had some involvement with dairy or gluten.  I ordered chicken Kabob, which seemed the best possibility.  It came enclosed in a pita that had stuck tenaciously to all sides of the meat.  Around the pitachicken were arrayed dollops of yogurt, and a large mass of tabouli, made with parsley and Couscous (wheat).  Fortunately a small scoop of hummus also sat amid the tabouli and yogurt so I wouldn’t have to eat the chicken totally dry.  I was very hungry, as it was already 4 pm without any opportunity to eat lunch.  But I found myself, using my fingernails,  painstakingly peeling the tiny scraps of pita off the whole surface of each piece of chicken so that I could eat the meat, while I also tried to keep the chicken from contacting the yogurt and the tabouli.  It felt very discouraging to be trying to eat crumbs from among this plenitude of food that would make me ill.  

 As a result, I was ready to embark on a long bus ride, with a transfer in an unfamiliar place, to get to the 10th arrondissement where, somewhere, on a small street, was located the one reputedly gluten free bakery and restaurant in Paris.  

 Their website told us they were serving brunch from 12 to 3 pm.  We left the house around 12:30, figuring we’d have plenty of time to get there by 2, and we’d be able to enjoy eating their brunch and feeling liberated.  

 We had to take bus lines we didn’t know from stops we hadn’t encountered before — an adventure.  It was about twice as far as we had expected to the stop for the first bus — about 10 blocks from our apartment.  We finally found the right street.  The bus ride was long — about a half hour —  to one of the train stations on the other bank of the Seine.  The train station where we were to change buses was a huge correspondence point, with a good dozen bus lines crisscrossing in a 3-4 square block grid with bus stops lined up on each street.  Each line has its own stop, separate from the others.  We were wandering around, looking at all the streets and all the stops, till we found the right one, and then we felt fortunate that a bus came along in less than 10 minutes.  

 That’s where the adventure got interesting.  As we got closer and closer to the stop where we were to get off, it was clear we were in a less and less prosperous area of Paris.  Large, identical apartment blocs lined up monotonously — projects.  The people on the bus and on the streets were clearly not tourists, but Parisians from less prosperous groups.  In addition, we saw many obviously recent immigrants from Africa, with their brightly colored native costumes. Graffiti covered every possible surface.  Many blocks were empty of inhabited buildings. 

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  The bus stops got further and further apart.  In the more prosperous arrondissements in the center, the buses stop every couple of blocks.  Further out, in this less prosperous area, we went 15 or more blocks between stops.  We crossed the Canal St. Martin, which has looked charming in photos I’ve seen of it.  In contrast to the photos, however, the buildings were empty and run down, and every possible surface was covered with graffiti.  Fortunately, just before our stop, we began to see some inhabited commercial areas, with a few people walking on the sidewalks, and a couple of cafes open, if rather empty. So when we got off the bus at our stop, we could ask the proprietor of an open cafe where the street was that we were seeking. 

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 The gluten free place was allegedly on rue Bichat, a small, three block long street lined with empty buildings and buildings being worked on. So few businesses were open that I couldn’t imagine the bakery being anywhere around.  But finally, we found it, at the end of the street — and it was open and very full of people.  It had taken us about two and a half hours to make the trek from the Latin Quarter to this area on the other side of Canal St. Martin, and by the time we got there, they had stopped serving brunch.

We were able to get a coffee and a gluten free pastry, however.  And the pastry was delicious, as we had hoped. We picked up a couple more pastry items to take back home with us, and left to make the return trip.  

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Pondering how long it had taken us to get there, we thought that the Metro might be faster than the bus.  Maybe it was, slightly. The closest Metro line did go back to the center of Paris, “Chatelet,” near Notre Dame.  Chatelet is another huge correspondence   point for both metro lines and buses — close to a dozen Metro lines and over a dozen buses cross paths in that general area.  We got back to Chatelet fairly quickly — maybe about 15 minutes after we went underground.  But the underground Chatelet station was like a maze.  We walked and walked, and the “exit” signs were crossed out because different passages were being worked on.  Finally, we decided we had to head toward a crossed out exit — otherwise it seemed like we might be stuck down there forever, making me think of a song from a long time ago, called “Charlie on the MTA” — about a fellow who went into the Boston underground and never found his way back out.  And indeed, finally, we found an exit that was open, although all the signs said it wasn’t.  

We came up in a place we hadn’t been before:  Boulevard Victoria and Boulevard de Sebastopol.  Hmmmm……   we were totally disoriented.  The Seine and Ile de la Cite were someplace within four or five blocks, but in which direction?  It was impossible to tell.  We found a bus stop with a map and studied the map. One way streets were indicated with little arrows on the map, and we saw that if we went down Boulevard de Sebastopol against the flow of traffic, that was likely to be the right direction.  Then we saw the familiar 21 bus, its destination sign indicating it was going in the opposite direction of home.  So we knew we were going in the right direction, and would find a bus stop for the bus going the other way.  And then,there  appeared the bookstalls that line the quais of the Seine, and we could see the towers of Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle, and the great medieval clock on the facade of the blocks long fortress/ prison of the Conciergerie.  

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So then we could find a bus stop for the ride back to our apartment, where we arrived at about quarter to 6, about 5 hours after leaving to go have lunch and finding instead a pastry and a coffee across Paris from where we are staying.  But it was an interesting adventure — a foray into decidedly untouristic streets of Paris projects and deserted factories.  We also experienced a challenge to our urban orienteering abilities. And we discovered the bleeding edges of an area just beginning to undergo gentrification, with the displacement and demolition that process involves. 

  Neighbors in the area of the gluten-free bakery are indignant that Monoprix (the Walmart-like French discount store) had torn down buildings on rue Bichat that had sheltered at least 15 small businesses and crafts sudios, planning to replace them with a mega-store (by Parisian standards) that would further destroy independent business opportunities for ordinary people. The neighborhood where the gluten free bakery had opened its doors to a clientele a majority of whom clearly didn’t live near there, is filled with Haussmannian 6 story apartment buildings that are similar to those closer to the city center, although in neglected condition. However, many of them are surrounded by scaffolding, and by peeking behind the barriers, it’s clear that many of these potentially beautiful buildings are in the process of being rehabilitated. It’s probably possible around there to get an apartment fairly inexpensively (knowing it has to be gutted and rehabbed).  

Finally, once again, the experience of missing out on lunch but having no problem finding candy or other sweet treats made me wonder once again if perhaps Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” might not have been quite as outlandish in a Parisian setting as it always seemed from the US.  Sometimes it really is easier here to end up eating sugary delicacies than to find basic, nourishing food, and this wasn’t the first time during this trip that I’ve experienced that apparent contradiction.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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May 31 2014 A Wonderful Day in Paris

A Wonderful Day in Paris May 31 2014

Today, we decided to just accept the timetable that seems to be working for us – leaving the house around 3 pm and doing the things that appeal to us, through the evening, getting home by around 11 pm or so. 

The day started earlier though, with Nancy going out to get her fresh croissant from the bakery down the street, and coming back not only with her breakfast, but with a bag of delicious Paris macaroons for me.  She put the bag at my place, and said she was joining Marie Antoinette in proclaiming if I can’t eat bread, let me eat cake (referring to the distinct inconvenience in France of my gluten intolerance that rules out bread in the country where bread is the focal point of every day). 

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Around the corner from our apartment, going to the bus stop. 

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On the bus to Luxembourg Garden.

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Busy Luxembourg Garden on a sunny Saturday in May

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Every single ice cream shop has a line outside it.

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Paris is a very densely peopled experience!

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The “grand bassin” in the garden, with the traditional sailboats belonging to various children.

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Cafes in parks are very popular on warm, sunny days.

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I’ve heard there are five kinds of police in Paris.  This is a “gendarme.” 

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The flowers are stunning as a part of the whole composition of gardens and palaces.

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Many people were playing chess at tables and on chairs in one section of the park.

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Younger Parisians had their own amusements.

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The park is enormous.  This is one of the signposts for pedestrians. The pavilion was the site of chess playing.  The jeux-attractions included a large complex of sandboxes and a small carousel for children. The verger and  rucher — vineyard and beehives — were, I guess, for those who wished to imagine themselves far out in the country in this Parisian garden.

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Nancy inside the museum admiring some of the golden tea service that had belonged to Josephine Bonaparte. 

 

We had decided to enjoy the Luxembourg Garden and visit the Luxembourg Museum with its special exhibit marking the 200th anniversary of the death of Josephine Bonaparte in 1814.  I had known that Josephine was the wife of Napoleon.  But I had never learned much about her – she existed only in his shadow in my mind.  I found it fascinating to learn a bit about her in her own right.  Like Napoleon, Josephine had been from the margins of French moneyed society – he from the island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean – French territory but Italian ethnicity, and she from a sugar plantation on the French Caribbean island of Martinique.  Like Napoleon, Josephine had been a shrewd and successful promoter of her own success, both in marrying into wealth and power twice (Napolen was her second husband, after her first was executed at the Guillotine during the French Revolution), and in maintaining herself between marriages in the center of noble society of her time.  Although they were married for only five years, Napoleon and Josephine were truly in love with each other, from the time they met until their deaths several years after he had their marriage annulled so that he could marry a younger woman with the hope of fathering a male heir. In addition, after returning to single life after her marriage with Napoleon, she successfully mentored her two children by her first marriage so that they and their children married well into royal and powerful families, so that her descendants found themselves in the palaces of several European countries, and she kept a good relationship with both her children and her grandchildren.  And she advanced the cause of science by fostering exploration of the first deliberate hybridizing of roses, resulting in roses becoming popular garden plants.  Napoleon had given her the name “Josephine.”  Her birth name was Marie Rose, and her family of origin knew her as “Rose.”  She loved roses because they invoked her beloved name.    

The exhibit did an excellent job of  portraying Josephine and her life through artifacts, paintings,  and clothing.  It was organized chronologically, from her girlhood in Martinique through her first marriage to a Parisian military man of noble parentage, her widowhood and imprisonment during the French revolution, her early days with Napoleon, leading up to her coronation by him as Empress of France and Italy.  It then followed through in depicting her years as Empress, and finally, her years in her own home of Malmaison outside Paris, again single, till she died of pneumonia in 1814.  In contrast to the earlier French queens, she was generally regarded with appreciation.  People found her kind and gentle, in addition to enjoying her lively beauty. 

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Josephine in her later years.

We enjoyed a wonderful surprise during our visit to the exhibit – an hour long informal  chamber concert that lasted close to an hour.  The 6 musicians – flautists, violinists, a cellist, and a harpist – strolled through the exhibit and played from different locations.  It was a quite delightful accompaniment to the elegant and rarefied atmosphere of the exhibit itself. 

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One of thousands of sidewalk cafes in Paris — this one in St. Germain

Before coming to France, Nancy had offered to take me out to a wonderful French restaurant as a delayed Christmas gift.  We had decided that today would be the day.  We made a reservation for 7 pm at a restaurant that Nancy had noted before we left Durham.  The restaurant is called “Un dimanche a Paris.”  It was located quite magically in a medieval alleyway accessed through an arched gate  in the façade of a  19th century building along the bustling Boulevard St. Germain.  The alleyway was called Cours du Commerce St. Andre.  It reminded me strongly of the passage in the first Harry Potter book when Hagrid took Harry shopping for his Hogwarts supplies, and they somehow magically passed from a bustling London street into an alleyway of medieval shops.  It was that sudden and amazing.  The alleyway was  narrow enough  to support the illusion that two people standing together in the middle could stretch out their arms and simultaneously  touch the buildings on both sides.  One feature of the alleyway was the continued existence of a round stone tower from the 1200s that had been part of the walled fortifications of Philippe Auguste (the walls that protected Paris through most of the Middle Ages).  The tower wasn’t visible from the alleyway, but when we entered the restaurant, we were ushered to a table situated at its base.  The restaurant’s building had been built around the medieval tower! 

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Looking out at the alleyway

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Dinner was a three course marvel.  The restaurant’s specialty is the use of chocolate in many recipes.  So we had mushrooms with a very subtle chocolate sauce, and  lamb shoulder and a kind of Paella with chocolate sauce.  The chocolate touches in these dishes were not at all obtrusive.  They simply added depth and richness to the palette of flavors.     Nancy’s dessert was totally chocolate.  Mine was a gluten free (a real rarity in Paris) strawberry tart garnished with squares of dark chocolate – Yummy!  It was a wonderful ending to a very enjoyable day, for sure. 

 

 

 

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The Cour du Commerce St. Andre off Boulevard St Germain

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Back on the boulevards, waiting for the bus to take us home — a typical 19th century Paris apartment house.

 

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How We See Each Other 2: The Arab World from a French Perspective

HOW WE VIEW EACH OTHER CONTINUED — THE ARAB INSTITUTE EXHIBIT ON THE HAJ

 

One of the hallmarks of Paris is its dense, multi-hued, poly-linguistic human diversity.  This is true in any large city, of course.  Because France had an empire comparable in size and global span to the British Empire, people from many far-flung places in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East were educated as citizens of France, and France has welcomed people from the countries of its former empire. The French people feel very strongly about the importance of their government keeping its promises to its former colonial residents to protect and welcome them.  Yesterday, we were having a “glass” with Gilles, who was giving us a tour of the Marais area of Paris.  As seems inevitable, the conversation turned to world politics (the French delight in political discussion). We were discussing the topic of when a country is obliged to intervene in another country’s disputes, and Gilles dogmatically and emphatically stated that of course, when a discord involved a former French colony or ally — in this case, Lebanon — the French people would be indignant if the French government did not send military units to assist their allies or former colonies.  

 

Many of these allies and former colonies are part of the Arab world —  across North Africa, for instance, or in the Arabian peninsula.  Consequently, there is an enormous presence in Paris of French-speaking Muslims  from many countries.  

The Institute of the Arab World is one of the most beautiful modern buildings in Paris.  It houses a stunning museum of Islamic artifacts and art works.

Following are three views of the ingenious and beautiful walls and panes of this amazing building.  The wall is completely made of different size lenses, each with its own mechanism for opening and closing, similar to the lens of an eye or a camera.  Each one responds differently to the light, and the effect is an infinitely varied display of lenses at various stages of response.  If you look closely at the different apertures shown in each photo, you will see the wide variety of possible lens positions. 

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 When we first arrived in Paris, we noticed ads on buses for a current exhibit on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca called the “Haj,” the practice enjoined on all Muslims who are physically and financially capable of fulfilling it.  Every Muslim, if possible, is supposed to make this pilgrimage at least once in his lifetime. It is a mass experience, as there is one week in the year when it can be fulfilled.  Of course, for many people before modern improvements of mass transportation, starting with the steamboat, it might have taken months or even years to walk or sail from wherever they lived to get to Mecca.  

 In the early days, important pilgrims rode in Palanquins, tent-like structures enclosing a saddle on camel-back.  The exhibit contained a perfectly preserved brocaded palanquin used by Egyptian dignitaries in the 1800s.  Beside it was a painting in which a similar palanquin is shown on a camel in a scene showing the departure of a huge group of Haj pilgrims ready to walk to Mecca across the desert. 

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Beautifully Korans illustrated and lettered by hand were produced for pilgrims to carry with them to Mecca as a part of this crucially important event in their lives — their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the holy places. 

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As transportation has gotten more and more efficient, the group of pilgrims completing the Haj in any given year has grown from several hundred as late as the early 1800s, to millions at a time now. The exhibit included modern films showing the pilgrims fulfilling the rituals for the different days of the pilgrimage sojourn in Mecca — throngs as far as the eye can see, elbow to elbow, all wearing the white garments and shaved heads of the purified Haj pilgrim.  Watching these films gave us a deeply moving perspective on the globalization of human experience as we move into the era of instantaneous worldwide communication and commerce.  

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The pilgrimage is experienced through a series of deeply spiritual rituals, and important works of art attest to its importance in Islamic  culture down through the centuries.  The exhibit includes a wide range of amazing handmade books, documents, art works, banners and tapestries, artifacts, and photographs documenting the phenomenon of the Haj from the early days after Mohammed right up to the present. We found it fascinating and impressive.  We were also surprised to learn a bit about the traditional basis for Islam, identical with the stories told in the Hebrew testament. Like the Jews, Muslims trace their history back to Adam and Eve.  In fact, the sacred center of the Mosque in Mecca — the destination for the Haj Pilgrimage —  is the Q’aba, a cubic structure that is said to represent the final  habitation of Adam and Eve and their family.  

 One room of the exhibit was devoted to a beautifully interactive and dynamic contemporary work of art called “The Black Arch.”  This piece beautifully represented the Hajj experience using stainless steel balls, a black cube, moving lights depicting water (washing and purification are a crucial part of the rituals), and projections of abstracted images based on the movements of throngs of people through the pilgrimage rituals, reflected in mirrors that were part of the art piece. 

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The story of Abraham being led by God to sacrifice his son, and his hand being held back at the last minute by an angel who allows Abraham to replace his son with a ram as sacrificial victim is a fundamental story in the origins of Islam.  The curious thing for us about this story was its duplication in every detail of the story in the Hebrew scripture of Abraham and his son Isaac — only in the Islamic tradition, the son is Abraham’s other son by his wife’s slave, the son named Ishmael.  In the Hebrew scripture, if I remember correctly, Ishmael is sent away to wander with his mother, and that’s the last we hear of either of them.  Yet, Muslims trace their origins back to Ishmael, and the story of Abraham is told of Abraham and Ishmael, not Isaac. 

 This whole experience invited us to consider the spiritual resonance that binds Judaism and Christianity together with Islam as religious traditions stemming from the story of Abraham and his obeisance to the one God.  The intercultural throng of visitors to the exhibit also emphasized our cultural and spiritual unity, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims, side by side, moved from one artifact to the next, in a spirit of friendliness, respect for others,  and shared interests. 

 The Museum has an incredibly huge bookstore focusing on Islamic history, culture, and art.  As we moved among the books, it was amusing, amid all the volumes titled and printed in Arabic, to feel that the books in French were the reassuringly familiar ones.  Usually, in a French museum bookstore, the English language publications play that role for us. 

Finally, the café terrace on the 9th floor of the building provides wonderful panoramic views of the Ile de la Cite and the Right Bank areas of Paris.  We were very happy to enjoy these beautiful perspectives on an exquisitely varied section of a memorable city.

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Franglish — How French People and Americans See Each Other

FRANGLISH — HOW WE VIEW EACH OTHER MAY 29 2014

 

One of the MeetUp groups we’ve joined here meets several times a week at different places, for English and French speakers to practice speaking each others’ languages.  It’s a very interesting concept.  In fact, Parisians seem fascinated with the US, and many of them speak enough English to communicate about basic concepts, especially relating to their work.  Waiters routinely switch languages, depending on the ability of the customer to speak French, for instance.  We were surprised when we went to the post office on the corner to open a temporary PO Box, that the clerk we were working with was proud to show off his English.  He did pretty well, too.  Apparently he’s learned English by watching over and over every episode of “Little House on the Prairie,” in English.  He says he owns all of them, plus all the books.  Nancy and I both wondered to each other afterwards what his impression is of the US.  

 

The Franglish group is a bit like “speed dating.”  Attendees are assigned two to a table, with a French speaker and an English speaker paired up.  For 7 minutes, the pair speaks one language and then for the next 7 minutes, they switch languages.  Fourteen minutes is long enough to start an interesting conversation, and it’s also short enough that if there’s no juice to the exchange, it doesn’t become totally agonizing. After fourteen minutes the host directs everyone to a different table to start with a different partner. This happens five times during the evening.

 

  The Franglish group we’ve attended twice takes place in the basement “club” of a cafe bar near the Paris City Hall. Both times, the attendance has been almost greater than the space can hold.  The French speakers all seem fascinated with New York, and everyone we’ve talked to dreams of visiting that city some day.  

 

Many are younger professionals who want to add English speaking ability to their technical, business, or scientific skills.  A couple of the people we’ve spoken with have been interesting people who are thinkers, and ask questions that provoke fascinating discussions.  With one, a very extraverted Lebanese fellow who has chosen to live in Paris and who one day will probably go to Senegal to open a business, we have discussed French and American definitions of democracy and how democratic or not each of them is in real life.  With another young financial planner, we explored the question of Obama vs. Hollande (both idealistic and essentially ineffective and disliked by the public), and how neither of them is able to do what they want because of the oligarchy of the Far Right and the consequent lack of funds for public services.  

 

With a third Franglish participant, the differences in attitudes toward taking vacations between the French and the Americans came up.  His take was that French people, attached to their universal legal 5 weeks of vacation, work hard when they’re working, and are totally on vacation when they’re on vacation, because they have enough time to actually relax when on vacation and vacations are an important part of their lives.  He wondered — interestingly — if Americans compensate for our lack of vacation time by slacking off when we are at work.  Interesting hypothesis!  For the most part, that’s not borne out by our experience, but I’m sure many potential factors could be involved.  But another Franglisher, on the same topic, cynically concluded that everywhere things are the same — 20% of the people do much of the work and 80% goof off most of the time.  

 

 

And then, today, as we took a free morning, we were surfing television channels, enjoying the strong sexual innuendos in many of the advertisements (Ooh la la!  That is still very characteristically French!). Watching television ended up feeling surreal, as we watched some minutes of a documentary on fishing and recreation along the North Carolina Coast, with the rich, deep coastal Carolina accents of the people being filmed somewhat obscured by the dubbed French translation. Wouldn’t you know, the last program that marched across our screen before we turned it off was the header for “Little House on the Prairie,”  in English?!  

 

In one of the Franglish sessions, someone commented on the rich and complex history of Franco American relations, basically since Benjamin Franklin and John Adams spent years at a time in Paris in the 1700s, learning from discussions with French leaders how to launch the American Revolution and write a new constitution. That fascinating exchange of friendship and influence continues today, and as Americans in Paris, we find how the French see us and interact with us to be one of the most interesting aspects of being here.  

 

So now we’re off to meet with a longtime friend of Nancy’s who moved here 15 or so years ago from Durham, and has become a permanent American expatriate.  This will be an interesting continuation of the subject of Franco-American perspectives.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Bus Mistake and an Unexpected Day

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An Unexpected Day May 26, 2014
So today was a rainy day, and museums were open – a no brainer. One of the museum exhibits we’d highlighted on our to-do list was the Paris 1900 exhibit at the “Petit Palais,” a building from the 1898 Paris World’s Fair (which was also the source of the Eiffel Tower. ) We got on our handy dandy bus route maps and figured out how to get there, and off we went.
After a while, as I was watching bus stops go by and calculating how far it still was to the stop at which we needed to get off to change buses, I suddenly realized – Oops! We were on the wrong bus! Hmmmm!!! On the bus, we couldn’t use our cell phones to figure out how to change the route. So, remembering that the bus we were on went through the courtyard of the Louvre, I suggested we get off there, and go visit the Louvre shop instead of trying to get to the Petit Palais. I say the “Louvre shop” because the museum itself is so intensely crowded — a constantly shifting sea of humans — that it seems unimaginable to spend enough time in the mob to actually try to see anything. But last year, we visited the Louvre shop, found a section where they were selling old etchings, and we each found a reasonably priced old original etching to bring home as a treasured souvenir. We hoped we could repeat that lucky find. Unfortunately, it was not to be! In the interim, they have totally redone the graphics shop, in the process dramatically reducing the range of works offered – dumbing it down dramatically. I asked the fellow behind the counter what they had done, and he said, well they had reduced the number of works “a little” (like about 90%!). He wouldn’t cop to more than that. Bummer!
We left the shop to cross once again the mob scene in the entry foyer, and what we had dreaded happened. I turned around, and Nancy was not behind me. Oh, dear!! Our phones aren’t working here. How to communicate to find each other again?? I stood still for a while, and looked around carefully. Finally, a gap opened up in the crowd, and I could see her, also standing still, about 40 feet away. It was good that we each knew to stop and wait if separated!
Then, reunited, we strolled down the street and found a café that was a bit more plush than our usual type of hangout. The food turned out to be exceptional, and we enjoyed a full two hour Parisian lunch.
As we were watching the people passing outside the café, it occurred to me that Paris has become a bit like Disney World. The tour buses pass by incessantly. And the pedestrians are mostly composed of groups of 30 to 60 tourists being led around by a guide holding aloft some agreed upon item – a huge artificial flower, a brightly colored umbrella, or perhaps a sign of some sort, or a flag. They don’t dare get separated, so the group members huddle together and move en masse. It’s always possible to tell a group –in addition to the swiftly moving leader, all their members have something in common that makes them stand out from the French public — youth, nationality, language, ethnic appearance, type of clothing – and there are all kinds of groups. I’m glad that on this trip we’ve mostly been able to keep a distance from the most crowded tourist haunts, although even so, the human environment on the streets and in the cafes is multi-ethnic and polyglot. Only the bus riders are fairly consistently French.
Finally, refreshed after our mega-lunch, we left the café and walked the two blocks to the Tuileries Gardens, which abut the Louvre. We hadn’t really planned to go to the Tuileries, but I’m so glad we were right next door because of our bus mistake this morning. It was more beautiful than I could ever have imagined, and it was a spectacular way to end our day in the 1st Arondissement.
Coming back home, we actually figured out — without online access — a way to take a bus from where we were to a point where we could connect with a bus that would take us back home. We were proud of ourselves.

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The American Church in Paris

The American Church in Paris, Sunday  May 25 2014

  Nancy and I decided to attend the 11 o’clock service this morning at the American Church in Paris.  It’s a large complex on a fancy street.  We were surprised to learn that it was first established over 200 years ago – 1814!  To think that even that far back there was an American presence in Paris large enough to warrant an American Protestant church here is pretty amazing.  Apparently, since the birth of our nation, Americans have been fascinated with France.  The buses run especially slowly on Sundays, and we arrived, from a fairly large distance, after the service had begun.  People were still arriving, and the sanctuary was full – no seats anywhere.  We finally found two seats way up toward the front on the other side after exiting and then re-entering the sanctuary on the side further away from the entrance from outside.  

This church is non-denominational, with a mainline protestant feel.  In fact, most of the present staff turned out to have Presbyterian origins, but that varies over time.  It is not affiliated with any specific denomination, although there is a loose alliance of “American churches” in several European capitals.  The service felt very comfortable and familiar.  The special music was provided by an excellent choir visiting Paris from New London, CT .  One surprising aspect of everything we experienced was that it was very American in every way, although as we met different people, they turned out to be from all over the English speaking world.  There was also a seminar on pastoral caregiving being given during the afternoon by a Chinese-American psychiatrist and teacher of pastoral counseling from New York City.  We stayed to hear her, and enjoyed a very interesting and useful experience. 

I found it fascinating to talk with American expatriates who had been living in France for some time – in some instances, decades.  They shared a common feeling that they would never really fit in as if they were French.  When I had spent three years in France as a graduate student many years ago, I had come to a decision point at which I knew I could work and live in France, which I loved – I could spend my life here.  I also knew, precisely, that I would never really fit in, as I had gotten pretty well acquainted with other Anglophones, mainly from Britain, and despite their apparently perfect integration into French life, they still felt very foreign.  Based on that observation, I decided to return to the US rather than spend a fourth year in France.  I know now that I was never destined to fit in that well in the US either.  But if I had stayed in France, I never would have realized that, and, like these expatriates we met today, I would probably have maintained a nostalgia for the possibility of fitting in well somewhere.  

I traveled back and forth quite a bit between France and the US for about 10 years after I returned to make my life in the US.  Finally, though, pinned down by job and family duties, it became too onerous to go back and forth, and I ended up spending my whole career and raising my daughter in the US.  Now that I have started to come back again to France, I’ve realized that in addition to my relative comfort as a US citizen and resident,  a part of me also needs to speak French and to experience the rhythms and  spirit of life in France.  That connection with France and with the language and culture of France  from my young years became a deep part of my being, and in a way I belong here in France  almost as much as I do in the US.  I’m glad that my life circumstances have allowed me to return here, to rediscover and reawaken  that neglected region of myself.  In doing so, I’ve experienced a sense of deep fulfillment of a need that I had forgotten about.

Visiting the American Church today, with its American language and atmosphere led me to reflect on  my American side in contrast to my French self. I found it pretty amazing to have that taste of America in the course of a Parisian Sunday.     

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Feasts for the Nose — Street Markets in Paris

Feast for the Nose and Eyes  — Street Markets in Paris, May 23 2014

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Bakery Rue Mouffetard May 2014

Street markets abound!  Suddenly, tents mushroom where there were none before.  And then,  for a morning or a day, a feast for the eyes, nose, and taste buds  continually entices passers-by to stop, examine, be drawn in by a friendly greeting and the gift of a bag in which to put selected items to be weighed and purchased. 

Several days ago – at the end of last week, actually – we had purchased at one of the regularly held neighborhood street markets  wonderful fresh produce and prepared foods to provide us with several beautiful lunches and a dinner at home. 

Then yesterday, we wanted to go to a larger market a little further from home.  But we got out of the house too late to see most of the temporary booths.  However, the street that hosted that market was an extremely narrow (maybe 5 feet across, tops) medieval street lined on both sides with shops whose fronts were open to the street.  As we made our way along, I became aware that many shops were announced first by the tantalizing fragrances that greeted my nose.  The cheese shop’s pungent blend of ripe goat and cow cheeses drew my eyes immediately to the beautiful  twenty foot long display of different shapes and colors of cheeses, from little round full cheeses barely 2 inches  across, with thick crusts, to huge wheels of cheddar or Swiss hard cheeses. 

 

And then we came to the organic fruit stand.  Oh, my!  First our eyes lighted upon 10 feet of fresh cherries piled high, surrounded by peaches, apricots, nectarines, “nefles” (whatever they are – kinda sour.  We decided after our first trial that we’d leave those alone).  And the strawberries!  Several feet of containers of perfectly shaped, ruby red, perfectly ripe berries, with an irresistible fragrance (and flavor.).  We entered the store to pay for our selection of fruit, and just wanted to linger, to enjoy the symphony of sweet, aromatic perfumes.  Strawberries, raspberries, small sweet melons – the “fruits of love” – along with  peaches and apricots, all smelled forth  at a perfect pitch of ripeness.

Further along, the sausage shops added their pungent array of herbal smells to the harmony we had already enjoyed.  These smelled like the brass members of the olfactory orchestra.  

And even the chocolate and nougat shops added a grace note of sugary sweetness to the atmosphere of the market street. 

We reached the end with a deep feeling of satisfaction, having inhaled deeply, savored the complementary  harmonies of ripe, assertive smells, and felt somehow complete.  It dawned on me that in the US this component of smell is dramatically lacking from our experiences of purchasing food.  I regretted this lack in the completeness of our sensory palette as Americans.  The addition of wonderful smells to a walk down the street  will provide an unexpected richness  to savor as we bring memories home with us at the end of this visit to Paris. 

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Fruit market, Rue Mouffetard, May 2014

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The Lady and the Unicorn, Musee de Cluny, May 24 2014

The Lady and the Unicorn Musee de Cluny May 24 2014

(Photo from Wikipedia)

I remember when I was in Paris the first time, in 1961, going to the Museum of Cluny, and falling in love with the beautiful tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn.” Although I have been in Paris several times since then, I’ve either not had enough time to revisit the museum, or the museum has been closed, as it has been, for years at a time at various points in the 20th century, for repairs, renovations, or rehabilitation of the medieval pieces of art that it contains. Today, there was a guided tour of the tapestries advertised for 11:30 am, and we determined to go, not only to see the museum, but to learn more about that set of beautiful tapestries.
About a dozen people had bought tickets for the guided tour, and we each wore a special decal on our clothes to indicate that we were in the chosen group. At 11:30 promptly, a very efficient, pleasant looking woman, in businesslike clothing and carrying a clipboard (they must be universal, those clipboards) came into the foyer and greeted us.
We followed her upstairs, and she proceeded to tell us, in rapid-fire French, the historic and artistic perspectives on every tapestry In every room of the museum. It was useful, actually, because before we finally saw the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, we were able to develop a contextual appreciation for different facts about medieval tapestries in general.
Generally, they were used to cover the stone walls in cold, unheated houses, to create more comfort. The tapestries, being made of wool and silk, both held in heat and reduced the resonance of noises. They were extremely expensive, because of their size, the months and years it would take to weave them by hand, and the cost of fine materials such as woolen yarn, silk threads, good quality dyes from plant, mineral, or animal sources, and the cost of labor. A good number of weavers specialized in making tapestries. These were family owned workshops, with 5 to a dozen family members certified by the tapestry weaving guilds as master craftspeople. The guilds were assiduous in making sure that the work, the workmanship, the qualifications of the weavers, and the quality of the materials all met the standards set by the guilds. These specialized weavers differed from ordinary weavers because they wove original works of art, based on “cartoons” – patterns that were drawn by specialized artists to depict a specific scene, often with specific people. The work was exacting, as each thread had to be woven perfectly in the exact color required at that place in the cartoon.
The tapestries were woven on huge looms, with the cartoon on the floor underneath the boom. A weaver was stationed every 80 centimeters across the width of the loom. Where colors changed, slits were left by the discontinuity of thread, and at night someone in the family would be charged with crawling around under the work in progress and sewing together all the places where slits had occurred so that the entire tapestry was presented as one fabric.
When a wealthy patron wished to commission a tapestry – often for an important occasion such as the marriage of a daughter or son – he contacted a tapestry broker who maintained a relationship with at least one tapestry workshop and negotiated the terms of the contract – its components, its colors, its types of thread, the density of the weave, and the time frame in which it was to be completed.
Tapestries were an important part of a household’s furnishings, and whenever they moved, the tapestries were rolled and placed in special wood trunks to be transported to the next domicile. They were also important investments. Thus, when a patron needed money, he might sell a tapestry or a portion of one. As a consequence, many tapestries on exhibit had either been cut from the original whole, or had been pieced together, uniting two scenes that seemed related but were not from the same original fabric. The quality of finishing in these instances was quite astounding. You could tell from the fact that a story seemed incomplete, with missing figures, or from the discontinuity of motifs across the seam uniting two tapestries that they had been manipulated in these ways. But you wouldn’t know from the edges or ends of the resulting fabrics because they had been so well finished.
When we finally reached the room of the Lady of the Unicorn, the room in its present arrangement did not correspond at all to my memory of it. The tapestries were in a different order, and they were much higher up than when I had originally seen them. At the time of my 1961 visit, , it was possible to walk by them, in a continuum, at eye and body level. I remember having felt drawn into them, feeling intimately connected with the figures and the animals depicted – feeling somehow part of the story. Now they seemed more remote, further removed from the eye. I asked the guide about this, and she confirmed that since the 60s, the tapestries had been taken down, restored, and then hung in this new room, arranged in a different order and following a different set of hanging specifications. They are still an exceptional piece of work, of course – with very fine details and beautiful colors and shapes. But the present configuration is less satisfying to the soul, somehow, or at least that’s what it felt like.
The meaning of the story depicted is controversial. The unicorn, of course, has a sexual connotation, with its goatlike hooves and its long, slender horn. I hadn’t realized previously that the unicorn was depicted as hovering somewhere between resembling a horse or a goat. Regardless of the form it takes in a specific representation, it always has the horn and the cloven hooves. But the verbal legend of the unicorn has it being a manifestation of Christ Jesus in its purity, and only a young girl who was sexually pure would be able to attract it, as did the girl in the last tapestry. So it certainly is surrounded by sexual innuendo. The presence of may recognizable species of flowering plants and both familiar and wild animals certainly refers to a great appreciation for nature on the part of medieval people. And imagine my surprise, upon coming to the last of the tapestries, the one called “mon seul desir” (my only desire), to see, sitting on a stool next to the girl, a perfect representation of a Maltese dog from the 1400s!
Yes, we do miss our dogs from home, including our Maltese, Deva!
We were really happy to have the opportunity to participate in this event, appreciate a lot of beautiful and very old art works, and learn a significant body of facts about tapestries in general and about this favorite set of tapestries in particular.
And then we had a delicious lunch in a café neighboring the museum, and even succeeded in finding a round battery for the “Fit Bit” that we’d been using to determine how much we had walked each day — to replace the battery that had suddenly decided to die. All in all, it was a successful outing. And we were proud to be up and out of the house on time while it was still morning, to ride the bus to the museum on time for the guided tour.

To view the six tapestries entitled “La Dame a la Licorne” from the Museum of Cluny, go to this site:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lady_and_the_Unicorn

(Photo from Wikipedia)

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Concert at Notre Dame Cathedral May 22 2014

Concert in Notre Dame May 22 2014

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 I’ve been to Notre Dame, several times.  It’s large and imposing, and the detail of sculpture across its façade and around every Gothic door frame is amazing.  Last year, for some reason, we weren’t able to find any wonderful concerts while we were here.  This year, 2014, it seems that there is wonderful music  to enjoy in a church somewhere in Paris virtually every evening.  We were attracted by the posters we’d found, on walls and store fronts, promising an important and unusual opportunity to hear Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.  The orchestra was high caliber, the children’s and adult choirs of Notre Dame were going to sing the vocal parts, and the conductor of the whole event was a famous European musician.  Classical Music Radio, a public radio station in Paris, was going to broadcast the concert live.  It sounded fantastic, and we wanted to be sure to make it.   

It took us longer to get to Notre Dame by bus than we had anticipated, and we arrived only 40 minutes before the concert’s start time.  As we approached, we could see that the line to enter the cathedral  extended for at least 2 blocks, with new people adding to its length every second. 

We did not yet have tickets, not having realized that they could (and should) be purchased in advance.  Most everyone in line already had their tickets, but the same line was for people with and without tickets. ( French lines are pretty free form. )  We slowly approached the cathedral, and when we got to the gate, the ticket controller directed us to get into a second line, inside the fence, for people who still needed to purchase tickets.  This line may have had 50 or so people in it.  We waited and waited and waited, while 2500 or 3000 people with tickets filed in through the main door to find their seats.  Finally, our line started to move, but there were only third tier seats left – ones on the side aisles, outside the gothic columns and way in the back so we would not be able to see the performers.  They were pretty cheap seats, and we bought tickets and found seats after the concert had started. 

The acoustics turned out to be reasonable – not outstanding, but much better than Duke Chapel in similar seats.  The performance was sublime.  Clearly, Notre Dame was built to house this caliber and type of music.  The concert started at 8, and the sun had not set yet (it doesn’t go down here in June until close to 10 pm). 

Not being able to see the performers because of the columns turned out to be an advantage, because it was possible to enjoy the light pouring through the beautiful stained glass windows, and to examine details about Notre Dame’s construction that normally we would have passed over.  In every Gothic arch the length of the nave hung an ancient brass chandelier refitted for electricity, each fixture holding about 18 lighted tapers, in a spiral shape.  The effect was gently diffused illumination coming from many points of concentrated light.  The brass was deeply tarnished, what could be seen  of it under what looked like at least 100 years of dust.  I sat there trying to picture someone lighting so many candles before electricity, thinking that the first candles lit would have melted  significantly before the flames touched the last candles.  I also pictured the work involved after each use – someone on a very very high ladder replacing hundreds of tapers in their holders so that the next ceremony could be illuminated.  And how many decades do they wait between polishings and dustings?  How historic was that thick layer of dust, really?  Might it date from the early 1900s when the fixtures were electrified?

And then I contemplated the nooks and crannies that surrounded us.  The nave of course, was high and well lighted from the sunlight still beaming everywhere.    We were seated outside the columns in side spaces that I learned in French when I lived here many years ago, are called “bas-cotes”  — the low sides.  Each space corresponded to a Gothic arch between two thick columns bordering the nave – the long thin part of the church between the main altar in the apse – the arms of the cross that forms the whole shape of the church  — and the front doors.   The ceiling of each space formed a square shape, divided into 4 wedges by branches rising in an arch and crossing in the middle.  The ceiling of each wedge was formed by many rows of bricks of different widths, laid by hand to form the graceful roundness of its  arch.  On the outer side of each space was yet another Gothic column and arch giving onto a wide side aisle with much higher ceiling, its arched ceiling leading into side altars between the supporting columns and buttresses that form the outer wall of the cathedral.  Above the bas-cotes on each side ran a gallery that ran front to back – like an overlook onto the people and ceremonies on the floor of the nave.  Above those galleries soar the main stained glass windows in all their glory, reaching high to the final set of arched vaults under the roof.  I was imagining how all kinds of characters (like the famous probably fictional “hunchback”)  would have free run of many nooks and passages without once being visible to the people on the ground level assisting at a Mass or a concert. 

Then I proceeded to  imagining the amazing knowledge of architecture that made it possible to erect such a building, stone by stone, by hand.  And  I was contemplating the generations of stone masons and apprentices that spent their lives erecting a part of this imposing building, then passing the skill and the responsibility on to the next younger generation.  I was also reflecting on the hundreds of years that building this cathedral took, from start to finish.  The famous gargoyles looking out from the towers were only added in the 1800s, whereas the stone floors and foundation were laid in the 1400s. The cathedral was destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times in that interval, but the net effect is that its construction went on for over 400 years!  

And by then the light filtering in through the stained glass was dimming significantly, and the performers were bowing, to thunderous applause that lasted for 20 minutes or more.  We had been able to experience a  major musical event in Paris, being fully present for heavenly music in a heavenly environment that we shared for that hour and a half or so with about 3000 people under the same roof.   The whole experience was larger than life. 

We left through a side door, and strolled the length of the plaza in front of Notre Dame, crossing the Seine under the last light of the departing sun, and walking along the quai, enjoying the feeling of peace and awe that had marked the concert experience.  It was a memorable and beautiful evening! 

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Outside Notre Dame de Paris at sunset

 

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Quai de la Seine at sunset May 22 2014

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Daily Pleasures

ImageMay 20 2014

Daily Pleasures

We woke up today at a normal time – Yay!  After yesterday’s long walking around the Jardin des Plantes – several hours worth – we decided to “take it easy” today, which we’re enjoying. 

Tomorrow is our third wedding anniversary!!  Nancy found all the emails from our wedding day, and we’re enjoying reading them again.  Tomorrow is the actual day – hard to believe it’s really three years – time really does fly when we’re having fun. And we’re having lots of fun, on our SECOND honeymoon to Paris!  Last year we were tourists.  This year, we decided to try becoming short term residents.  It’s a whole different experience.  Even for this first week that is ending, our excursions and activities have not involved tourist activities, but learning how to get around, grocery shop, find the recycling bins, charge up electronic gizmos, use electrical appliances, get used to the apartment’s cooking tools, and enjoy parks and free concerts – not to mention getting back into some kind of  circadian rhythm. 

We ran the dishwasher last evening – successfully.  The apartment owner has gathered together a “manual” for tenants, containing the instruction manuals for all the major appliances.  This is very helpful.  So the dishwasher maneuver was rewarding.  Now it was time to do our first load of laundry, in the tiny dual-function washer/dryer combined.  Out came that manual – which wasn’t as simple as the dishwasher.  We put in a load of dark clothes, and figured we’d do our first round of food shopping at a local street market as the washing machine was working.  We took the grocery trolley – a handled bag on wheels – and set off down the street.  We’d located last evening where the market was going to be:  the stands were set up, although the canvas roofs were still rolled up.  It was fun this morning  to round the corner and see the stalls filled with food of different kinds, in addition to  one dress stall. 

First, we walked the whole block length of the market, examining what was available on both sides of the sidewalk.  Then we walked back, actually making our purchases as we went. We bought salad vegetables, farm fresh, to make a beautiful salad.  And we got one of the awesomely sweet and flavorful, if small, melons that are nicknamed “Le fruit d’amour.”  The “fromagerie” – cheese shop – had an amazing variety of fresh French cheeses – from cows, sheep, and goats —  cured, hard, soft, enormous, tiny, pungent, sweet,  blue, round, square, with and without rinds.  Nancy had a hard time making up her mind, and finally counted out 3 mini-round cheeses at random, since the price was 3 for 5 Euros.  The fish vendor had arranged whole fish of different sizes, colors, and varieties artistically, in groups or alone, and was shouting her wares and prices.  Finally, we stopped at the Lebanese caterer’s stall to purchase prepared foods that would make a warm meal.  On the way home, we stopped in at the Carrefour “super market” – no larger than a regular storefront, but packed, floor to ceiling, with an amazing variety of products of all kinds – to add bottles of water.  It was to carry the water that we had brought the grocery trolley – Carrying several liters several blocks at the end of the arms is extraordinarily fatiguing – probably because we are not used to carrying groceries any further than from the cart to the car and from the car to the house.  

We actually had great fun food shopping this way.  Eating the lunch we had purchased was also deeply satisfying.  Somehow, food grown in France is dramatically richer in flavor than any fresh food I’ve eaten in the US – even what is produced by organic growers, which is several levels above industrially farmed foods in flavor (and, apparently, nutritional value).

Food growers’ stalls on Boulevard  de Port Royal, Paris, may 2014.

Fish

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Produce

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Dresses

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As we were returning down rue des Feuillantines to our apartment, we commented that when the glass recycling barrel that was put out last Wednesday, almost a week ago, finally gets picked up, we’ll no longer recognize which building is ours – the uncollected recycling container has become our landmark! 

Recycling Bin uncollected for 6 days in front of our apartment, Paris, May 20 2014

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