Paris in the Time of Covid

Paris is weird right now. At least that’s what the Parisians I met on my recent visit told me. It’s too quiet. There’s no buzz, no excitement.  Doubtless that’s true.  Certainly traffic at restaurants, hotels and stores has all but collapsed, first under strict stay-at-home rules to prevent the spread of the corona virus

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Not enough space in front of your cafe to put tables out there?  No problem, run them down the sidewalk in front of the neighboring school!

and now from the dearth of summer tourists. Theaters, large and small are dark.  The big Paris l’été festival has been cancelled.  Restaurants have largely closed their interior dining rooms and moved what tables they can outside.  Traffic, both pedestrian and motorized, is scant, though bicycles and scooters are abundant.

But here’s the happy little secret:  For those of us fortunate enough to be tourists in Paris in this bizarre summer, it’s fabulous.

The museums are open and blessedly uncrowded. All museums and monuments are requiring advance reservations, in order to enforce social distancing and hold attendance to just 50% of usual. But for the most part, the strictures are moot; there aren’t enough people requesting slots.   I booked a reservation for the Louvre the

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Short lines at the Louvre. Yippee!

day before I wanted to go. It took no more than 5 minutes to get through the first ticket check and security.  A year ago, I waited at least 40 minutes in last July’s heat wave to spend my allotted ten seconds in front of the Mona Lisa.  This year, the line was minimal and guards were more relaxed about moving folks along.  (Still, it wasn’t worth a second look, as the museum’s most popular exhibit rests behind glass and 20 feet away from viewers.  I’d rather go gaze at the spectacular Winged Victory of Samothrace, instead.) The Orangerie, where Monet’s monumental water lilies panels are mounted, was nearly empty. So was the Marmotton Monet museum, with its special exhibit on Cezanne.

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If ever there were a year to visit Versailles, this is it.

The longest I waited in line for anything, was about seven minutes, to get into a special exhibit of James Tissot’s work at the Musee D’Orsay. But that was on late-opening night, which usually attracts larger than usual

Another plus: Getting great photos was easy. I often end up not even taking pictures of places I’d like to remember because I hate photos with people in them. Especially people I don’t know, casually smoking a cigarette in the doorway of an elegant 18th century building or striding purposefully across an exquisite garden in shorts and a vulgarity-stewn T-shirt.  This year: No problem!

But perhaps the best thing about visiting Paris in this strange year of Covid, was the  slowed-down pace.  Without having to worry about fixed time to visit a museum  or wasting precious hours in lines or standing about waiting for a table at a café, I had

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A walk by the Seine.

oodles of time to just relax and ramble through the city.

One day, I found myself in a district dotted with stores providing specialty cookery, pastry and candy making equipment.  In retrospect, it made sense, as it was close to Les Halles, which until 1971 was Paris’s central fresh food market.  The grand-daddy of the shops, E. Dehillerin’s feels more like an old-fashioned hardware store than an upscale cookware supplier.  Its wooden floors creak and its few cramped aisles are crammed floor to ceiling with copper pots, brioche pans, fluted tartlet tins and the like. When you’ve found what you want (or asked for it), a shop assistant carefully takes your finds to an old wooden countertop and slowly and carefully wraps each item in paper.  Once you’ve paid, you present him with the receipt and he hands over your new treasures.  The minute I found the shop I knew:  This was it! This was the Parisian shop where my sister must have found that perfect little wooden-handled angled spatula that I covet and she zealously protects.  Eureka!

Another day, while meandering around looking casually for a cobbler who I might persuade to punch a new hole in shoe strap, I came upon Le Grand Café Tortoni.

 

Tucked away on a Marais street which seems to specialize in gentlemen’s tailoring, the 19thcentury shop is a wood, glass and marble step back in time. At one time a very successful and popular café and ice cream parlor, founded by an Italian gelato maker, it’s now home to a small café cum perfumerie, carrying scents, oils, lotions and so on from one of France’s oldest perfume makers.  Officine Buly was founded in 1803 and revived after a century of sleep in 2014. I can’t tell you how good all the company’s dozen or so fragrances smell, since I went straight for the one with a name that conjured up the crisp, green scents I love:  Scottish Lichen.  It came home with me that day.

If you leave a little to serendipity, you’re sure to find delights in Paris:  The last remaining puppet shop in the city on the Ile de St. Louis.  Betrand’s, a bakery/café on the

left bank with a window full of the biggest, most colorful (and most delicious) meringues you can imagine.  The fascinating exhibit hung on the protective fence around the construction site of Notre Dame, explaining how the cathedral’s structure is being carefully dismantled and/or shored up in preparation for eventual repairs.  A tiny shop that specializes in beautifully made hand-forged Laguoile knives.  The charming little house of an 18th century Italian rogue who convinced a gullible Bishop that he had cured him of asthma before the two were caught up in the infamous “affair of the necklace”, which helped turn the Paris populace against Marie Antoinette.

Oh, and by the way, Parisians are doing a great job complying with Covid health and sanitation measures.  Every shop has hand sanitizer right at the door and shop assistants are vigilant about insisting customers use it.  Ditto, mask use and limitations on how many people are in a small store at one time.  About a quarter of the general population seems to be wearing masks walking in the streets or parks, but all put them on when entering a building or transit of any sort, and even when just standing at the bus stop.  Hand sanitizers are everywhere, including stands at every bus stop and at the entrance to every Metro stop.

 

The 10 Best Things about Montpellier

  1. Passion-fruit sorbet shaped like a flower in an ice cream cone. Aside from how pretty it looks, it has a sweet-tart tang that makes the world seemIMG_2021 cropped like a happier place. And it reminds me of Hawaiian Punch, a favorite beverage when I was young.
  2. The English Book Shop on the Rue de la Bras Fer, crammed with English language books of all sorts and IMG_1991offering tea, coffee, soft drinks and assorted goodies. It’s also where a small mob of native English speakers and a polyglot mix of others eager to practice their English skills cram a downstairs room every Friday from 5 to 7 pm.
  3. The limestone paving in a small pocket of streets in the Ecusson—the old city. The Rue de l’ Ancien Courier and others nearby are narrow and twisty, IMG_0998filled with history and crammed with cute little boutiques. The Rue du Bras de Fer even has one of the few remaining original arches crossing the street, which is actually a series of wide shallow steps.
  4. Tuesday evening organ practice at St. Michel’s church just around the corner from my apartment.
  5. The colorful trams, with paint jobs designed by the likes of Christian La Croix. In fact, the public transit as a whole is pretty great. A 10-trip ticket for the tram costs 10€. IMG_1977Ditto, a 10-trip ticket for the regional bus system, which will get you the 20 minutes away to the Mediterranean beaches or 40 minutes to the gorges and mountains of the Cevennes.
  6. The Monoprix, where you can buy “une cannette du Coca Light” for  0€89. Plus, it’s actually cold and not just slightly chilled as most soft drinks in France and Germany are.
  7. The fedoras. Everyone–male or female, young or old—wears them.IMG_1979 cropped
  8. The trompe l’oeil buildings.  I had to go up to and touch this building before I understood that it really is just one big flat wall.IMG_1982
  9. A cold Monaco—a frothy pink concoction of beer, grenadine and either lemonade or lemon-lime soda. Probably too sweet for real beer dinkers’ taste,but surprisingly good on a hot afternoon.
  10. The quirky bicycle art scattered around the city. IMG_0953 I’ve spotted one emerging from a staircase, three whole bikes emerging from a wall two stories up and one with half the bike on one building and the other across the alley. I’ll bet there are lots more in the outer sections of the city.

Rocks and Trees, French Style

Can someone explain this to me?  I don’t get it.   This particular “objet” sits outside IMG_1708the St. August church  30 feet from my apartment in Montpellier. It looks like some kind of oversized, formless chia pet. Other larger versions of what I think might be viewed as some sort of living sculpture are sprinkled around the city. In the garden opposite the Gare St. Roch rail station, a large boulder sits in the middle of a fountain. Water seeps down the sides of the boulder and plants of varioIMG_0962us types sprinkle it with green. There’s a scrawny wildflower here and there, and what looks like some form of lichen creeping over and into some of the crags. At the PrIMG_1263omenade du Peyrou, there’s another such boulder–this one with a small tree growing out of it–in the middle of a reflecting pool.  A third boulder sits in a plaza fountain surrounded by outdoor cafés.

IMG_1515 One of the city’s largest and most famous public statues—the The Three Graces, sitting in the middle of the city’s Place du Comedie—incorporates a mound of natural rock, adorned both with chubby  cherubs and scraggly plants. It’s unclear to me if the cherubs were carved from the rock or were somehow cemented into place. Either way, the juxtaposition of the formal statuary and the rough rock is, to my eye, at least, weird.

Equally strange is the French predilection for sculpting trees into unnatural forms. I’m not against pruning or shaping trees in principle. Sometimes there’s a very good reason for it. Fruit trees, for example, are often espaliered—a French word (just saying). They’re rigorously pruned and trained to grow flat against a fence or trellis. Ditto, a variety of flowering trees.  In the first case, the treatment makes it easier to pick the fruit and in the second, makes a pretty spectacular privacy barrier around a courtyard or patio.

A bit of judicious pruning can enhance IMG_1897a tree’s natural shape, too. These beauties–called plantanes in France and Germany and plane trees in Britain–often line a town square or the drive to a stately home. In fact, they often line streets–most often main arteries leading into country towns but sometimes what seem to be just random bits of road. They’re closely related to what we call sycamores in the U.S., and, well pruned,  they form a beautiful high canopy. So why prune them to look like giant candelabras? They look strange and unnatural even when they’ve leafed out fully. When they’re bare, they’re ugly graceless things.

Still that’s mild compared to the trees that have been pollarded–at least, I think pollarding is what is being attempted. When you pollard animals—deer, cattle, sheep, for example—you cut off their horns or antlers. (Language digression here: A polled breed, such as polled Hereford cattle, is one which has been developed from a natural genetic mutation causing it to be hornless.) But when you pollard  a tree, you don’t just lop off a limb or two. You shear every limb off every year, causing the tree to form large bulbous knobs.

It’s thought that the practice of pollarding trees arose in the Middle Ages so that the new growth would ensure an adequate annual supply of kindling. That’s no longer the case, of course, so pollarding is done for purely aesthetic reasons. Aesthetic reasonIMG_1890s? The result is a tree that at its best—for a few months in summer—looks like a ridiculous beach umbrella with a supersized center pole. At its worst—which is for the remaining two-thirds of the year—it looks like an arthritic troll: gnarled, knobby and disproportionate, with a trunk far too thick for its height.

Some poor trees are truly tortured. The tops are simply lopped off, along with all of their limbs in spring to keep them from growing taller or wider or–evenly.  Some, for example, find themselves shaped  like lantern arms or street light poles, with a single horizontal limb.

Other IMG_1283trees are simply sheared into conformity. We’ve all seen squared-off hedges. But full-grown trees?  How do they even do that? I doubt I could make such a level cut on two-foot wide privet hedge.  How do they evenly shear off a 30-foot wide, 40-foot high tree canopy?

And why do it, anyway?   It’s not as if this public park is an immaculately kept formal garden. It’s pretty much a IMG_1284big  litter-strewn gravel square, though it does lead up to the rather lovely classical Chateau D’Eau, which, coincidentally, sits on its own hunk of natural rock in a reflecting pool.  At least in this case, though, the natural rock base is strewn with flowering plants. Incongruous perhaps, but pretty

 

A Retreat for the Weary

Before he was a saint, Guilhem of Orange was a soldier. Born in the mid 9IMG_1386th century, he was cousin and confidante to Charlemagne. Renowned as a warrior, he fiercely defended the southern borders of the Frankish empire, battling Gascons, Basques and Moors, ultimately forcing these last to retreat to Barcelona. Then he retired.

Seeking peace and quiet after years of battle, Guilhem founded a Benedictine monastery in the remote Gellone valley in 806. For the next several centuries thIMG_1370e abbey thrived, drawing pilgrims with two reliquaries: one containing the remains of the abbey’s famous founder; the other, several small pieces of wood, said to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and given to Guilhem by Charlemagne. Indeed, the abbey became an important way station alongIMG_1374 one of the European routes to the shrine of St. James in Compostella, Spain. By the middle of the 11th century, the monks at Gellone Abbaye, now renamed the Abbaye de St. Guilhem, in honor of its recently canonized founder, were wealthy enough to build a new church and cloister.

In succeeding centuries, however, the abbey declined, suffering first from neglect and then from desecrIMG_1344ation and pillaging. Abbots drawn from aristocratic families and named by the King, rather than elected by the monks themselves, allowed the  vitality of the monastery’s enterprises to dwindle. During the 16th century religious wars, militant Protestants pillaged the abbey and defaced or destroyed much of the sculpture. By the French revolution, only six monks remained; the monastery was dissolved aIMG_1335nd the buildings sold to a local stonemason, who carted off the stone for use in other buildings, peddling choice bits to wealthy clients. Eventually, parts of the abbey–columns, windows, statuary and more– woundIMG_1359 up scattered across Europe. Some even came to rest across the Atlantic; several  columns dating from around 1200, were purchased by a wealthy American collector. They’re now in New York’s Cloisters Museum.

Today, what’s left of the abbey and the starkly IMG_1349beautiful Romanesque church sit in the middle of a well-preserved medieval village, with a population of about 250. Some grapes and some olives are grown nearby, but the village survives mainly on tourism. IMG_1354 IMG_1346In the height of the season, in July and August, thousands of visitors will make their own pilgrimage to St.-Guilhem-le-Désert. On a beautiful, warm Sunday in mid-May, the number of tourists already equalled the number of residents.

It’s no wonder. The old soldier was clearly on to something. It’s an idyllic retreat.  The lush greenery and craggy peaks are a IMG_1387stuIMG_1357nning setting for the mellow old stone walls and tile roofs. Flowers bloom profusely in the sun. And everywhere there is the sound of running water—from the small riveIMG_1310r that runs by the town, providing a series  of picturesque  waterfalls, as well as from the numIMG_1392erous spigots and fountains –flowing with potable water — scattered around the town. Even underfoot, clear water runs, criss-crossing the village in a series of open gullies and stone-topped drains.

Montpellier: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

After nearly four weeks here, it’s time to admit it. I don’t particularly care for Montpellier. I don’t wake up with a smile, eager for  some new adventure every day the way I did in Valencia. Somedays I haven’t really wanted to get up at all.

Perhaps it’s the mostly cloudy weather.  Or that this apartment is depressing. 61745_Home_Rent_House_Rental_Montpellier_France_Filename1_AppartementpanoramaWith its ancient ceiling beams, marble fireplace surround, monogrammed linen lamp shade and antique prints on the wall, it looked so charmingly French  in the online listing. And it is in many ways  a very typical old French city apartment: small, dark and smelling slightly of damp and mildew. What else would you expect from a building several centuries old with stone walls nearly a meter thick?

I knew the apartment was small—45 square meters (about 480 square feet) when I rented it. What I hadn’t realized is that there would be about 18 inches of space between the bed and the closet wall. And that only about half of the reasonably sized shower cubicle shown in the pictures is usable space. If you fail to draw the shower curtain which divides it in half or turn the shower on full blast, you turn the entire bathroom into a wading pool. And because it also has a nicely inclined floor, the deep end is near the door. Ask me how I know.

There are two nice-sized windows, which might, in theory, let in some reasonable sunlight. But the apartment is on the ground floor (admittedly a relief after schlepping up four flights of stairs in Valencia). So opening the curtains means youIMG_1250 can easily carry on a quiet conversation with the folks sitting at the café no more than 8 feet away, across the narrow street. In fact, the squeal made when you open the window shutters usually prompts most of the café’s patrons to turn and look. They nod hello and smile, and I adopt a rueful grimace and shrug an apology for the noise. At night, one draws closed the heavy wooden shutters and it’s pitch black inside the apartment. In fact, it’s still pitch black at midday the next day. If it weren’t for calls of nature, I might sleep right through from one evening to the next.

Though the apartment offers some theoretically nice modern conveniences, I am somewhat puzzled as to their operation and/or usefulness. The small bathroom, for example, has a large electric towel warmer rack. But getting up two hours before your morning shower to give it enough time to warm up rather dims the appeal of using it. Also, it’s located right next to the narrow 18-inch-wide opening to the shower, so I’ve got scorch marks on my arms from squeezing by.

And you’d  think the combination washer/dryer would be a great convenience. But after two hours of drying time, a small load of laundry is still very damp and requires hanging it on a rack in the kitchen overnight to reach a wearably dry state. (No lovely Spanish sun beating down on a window clothes line here.) The stainless steel hood over the ceramic range looks great, but the fan doesn’t seem to be connected to any exhaust vent. Glad I’m not frying any fish.

There’s no oven either—something I probably should have anticipated from all those International House Hunter episodes I’ve watched. This, I admit, doesn’t bother me much. Why bake, when you can buy such good bread and luscious pastries, right down the street? Roasted chickens, too.

As for the city of Montpellier itself, the gray weather has done little to brighten the appeal of street after street of monochromatic limestone and shutters, by ordinance, painted a uniform cement color. Flower boxes, climbing vines and other greenery–so cheerfully prevalent in cities I’ve visited in Germany—are missing here. Many of the pedestrian-only streets in the old quarter are unattractively—and poorly–paved with asphalt, though some retain the original stone.

Still, the city does have some charms. Thanks to the zeal of religious reformers who tore down many neighborhood Catholic churches during the religious wars of the 16th century, there are many open spaces scattered throughout the city–small plazas filled with open-air cafes. It’s often frustratingly slow to catch a server’s attention and order, but there’s also no rush to turn the table. Servers don’t hustle  you out once you’ve finished your meal or glass of wine. Indeed, they don’t seem to mind if you linger for hours over a single, long-since emptied glass. Meanwhile, there’s usually entertainment nearby–street performers of all ilks, including a New Orleans style band and a troupe of  swing dancers.

It’s a kick, too,  to step into the boutiques and restaurants nestled into the ground floors of Gothic mansions. Whether to spareIMG_0998 the expense of remodeling or to evoke some historic charm, many expose the original stone vaulting and heavy beams. Touching the carved arches around a 14th century door and the iron rings where peasants tied their donkeys when they came to town connects me to history in a very real way. My special guilty pleasure: Reimagining the scenes from my favorite historical novels.

I’m guessing that in centuries past, the dog poop that litters the streets and walkways was even worse and almost certainly accompanied by donkey and horse poop.  I’d forgotten what it was like to have to watch where you’re walking. Like the haze of cigarette smoke in restaurants, shit on U.S. sidewalks was common not so long ago. But Americans now take the absence of both for granted.

In the last few days, the weather has brightened; the sun is out, the skies are blue and daytime temperatures are toasty.That’s done a lot to improve my mood and help me remember  why I wanted to come here. But what’s probably done more is escaping the city. Montpellier and the surrounding area have a remarkably good and wonderfully cheap public transportation system. For one euro, I can take the tram to the far outskirts of the city. For one euro sixty,  I can take a regional bus to a variety of charming towns within an hour or two’s travel. Suffice it to say that I’m aiming for at least 5 day trips a week from now on. Today, I went to see an acre or two of irises in bloom. Tomorrow, there’s a goat cheese festival  that’s calling my name.

Le Supermarket

So how would you expect a French supermarket to differ from your average suburban Safeway?  Some of my expectations were right on the money. Others, not so much. The French cheese selection was pretty phenomenal–got that one right. Ditto, the wine department. The variety there dwarves the pretty meager selection of soft drinks–the reverse of what you’d find in a U.S. supermarket. IMG_0931 IMG_0932

IMG_0937 But the prominence of Red Bull?  That was unexpected, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. I didn’t realize that it was a European (Austrian) company. Slurping up sweet, super-caffeinated soft drinks seems so quintessentially American. IMG_0925

The French don’t have Americans’ mania for low-fat, low calorie versions of everything. Lots of yogurt, for example. But in that whole big dairy case, there were only two low-cal fruit-flavored versions. Plenty of “cane-sweetened” ones and lots of plain–aka.”natural”–yogurts-plus a smattering of Greek style yogurts. But no flavored Greek yogurts with low-cal sweeteners.  I miss my Chobani!

IMG_0922 It was surprisingly difficult to locate the milk in the store. That’s because the packaging in France makes it look like a cleaning product and it isn’t located anywhere near a refrigerated case. IMG_0929

Prepared entrees are more exotic  than in the U.S.   That “Lapin” in the lower corner…it’s rabbit.

IMG_0919 cropped And if you think Americans demand convenience, check this out: The French can buy their bread with the crusts already trimmed off! IMG_0934 cropped

And finally, the French are known for their design esthetic, right? But  neon-colored toilet paper? Really?