Last week I wrote a post about my neighborhood and my apartment. This week, I’m going to whisk you to the opposite side of Paris, to examine the lives of people who are, in many ways, quite opposite of me. The 16th and 8th arrondissements of Paris, which form the western wall of the city, contain the upscale shopping street of the Champs Elysee, the Arc de Triomph, and Trocadero (with a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower). With it’s ornate 18th century buildings and grand boulevards, these are the neighborhoods that strike the fantasies of Paris admirers worldwide.
These streets have been the home of French high society for generations, and the splendor of the homes there attest to this. I first stumbled upon the neighborhood on my first and only bike ride in Paris, and it was like rolling in to another world. As I glided down the quiet, tree-lined Boulevard Pereire (itself named after prominent 19th century bankers), I honestly wondered if I had somehow accidentally crossed the periphique and had biked out of Paris altogether. Unfortunately I didn’t stop to smell the proverbial roses on that first trip out, but I always vowed to go back and explore. I finally made it back out there, under the pressure of my Parisian adventure coming to an end, and vowing to see 10 new things in my last 10 days. The starting place for my adventure was Parc Monceau. It was originally designed in the 18th century by the Duke of Chartres as a playground of sorts for the rich and famous to come and enjoy themselves. Complete with an Italianate grotto, pyramids, temples, windmills, and even a small farmhouse, it was a perfect place to come and let your imagination take hold. Today, what remains of that luxurious escape is a pyramid and the grotto, complete with a friendly patrol of ducks. The Parc is also interesting for being the landing site of the first parachute jump from a balloon, performed by a fellow named André-Jacques Garnerin in 1797. At the time, ballooning had become a type of entertainment (much the same as taming tigers at the circus or balancing on a tightrope over the grand canyon or those daredevil pilots walking on the wings of airplanes), and during the 19th century, balloonists would travel around and put on spectacles in the air. In some cases, it was a family affair, and Garnerin’s wife was also a famous balloonist, as was his niece, Eliza. Her friendly rival was another woman named Sophia Blanchard (who herself took over the family ballooning business when her husband fell out of his basket after suffering a heart attack). The Garnerins and Mrs. Blanchard competed with each other, each becoming more and more daring in response to the others’ latest feat. The competition finally came to an end when, sadly, Mrs. Blanchard died after setting off fireworks from her balloon.
As home to the rich and famous, the parc is bordered by stately mansions, many of which are now museums. Among my favorites in the area is the Musée Cernuschi, which houses the late Henri Cernuschi’s impressive collection of Asian art in what used to be his home. It’s not a big museum, but it is very interesting, informative, and well-displayed. There are also, within short walking distance, the Musée Jacquemart-André, the Musee Clemenceau and the Musee Nissim De Camondo. All are very, very worth visiting, and, frankly, I prefer them to many of the more famous museums. They are house museums, restored or maintained in the styles of their former owners, and attest to the richness and luxury enjoyed by 20th century Parisian upper classes. They also, especially in the case of the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, contain very noteworthy art collections, which includes artists spanning the entire European continent, from Mantegna to Rembrandt, Jacque-Louis David to Botticelli to Thomas Gainsborough.
If you decide to venture out and wander aimlessly around the neighborhood (as I tend to do), you may find yourself facing some very interesting architecture, such as this very-misplaced Chinese Pagoda wedged in among the usual mansions on Rue de Courcelles. After a little research, I found out it was built by a Mr. Ching Tsai Loo, who was a prominent dealer in asian art and antiques around the turn of the century. He specially constructed this building to use as his gallery, and no doubt ran a good business from there. Nowadays, the building can be rented out and used for special occasions. A quick google search reveals that the interior is just as impressively decorated as the exterior.
Hailing from yet another corner of the globe, I found this Russian cathedral just blocks from the Arc de Triomph. I was immediately struck by the mosaic and wanted to go inside, but the crowd of people out front made me wary that perhaps something was going on inside. The church has been in use since 1861 and has played host to many important occasions and interesting parishioners, from Pablo Picasso (who got married here) to Ivan Turgenev and Wassily Kandisnky (both of whose funerals were held here). Across the street are several heavily decorated little russian restaurants, and I am still kicking myself for not stopping in for Vareniki.
If anything, the 8th Arrondisement speaks both to the wealth and splendor of the Parisian aristocracy, but also to its incredible diversity. While it’s tempting, as a tourist, to stick to the big well-known attractions along the river, I would urge you to also take a couple hours to venture out and discover some of these hidden gems a little further off the beaten path. You will not regret it.
I left Paris a month ago, and I think I’ve been gone just long enough to miss it now. Looking back on my time there, I have mixed feelings. I think, when you invest so much of yourself in something, you expect to be able to look back on it with total satisfaction. I’m not sure that’s reality, because I’m not sure I really loved Paris. Despite the ups and downs, however, when people ask me about my experience there, the answer I give is truthful: It was amazing! Paris is a city with a lot to offer, from it’s museums to it’s charming neighborhoods to the delectable pastries. However, it’s also a city like any other…a city where people live and work, with all the good and bad that comes with it. It’s crowded, noisy, expensive, smelly, and polluted. It’s exhausting to live day in and day out in another culture, without the comfort of your own language and the confidence that comes with simple understanding. But I can’t complain too much…despite the minor hardships and irritations, my experience there was a very rich, rewarding time and I cannot understate how valuable that experience will be to me, both in my professional career and in my life.
I’m feeling a little nostalgic, and a glance back through some old pictures reminded me I never fully showed you where I lived. My apartment was located just two blocks from the river Seine, in the charming Saint Paul neighborhood. Defined by its shops selling crafts and antiques snuggled around mossy cobblestone courtyards, and of course by its large Baroque-style church, the Village Saint Paul is a perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon, wandering lazily and browsing at interesting trinkets.
It’s all part of a broader area of Paris known as the Marais, which is among the oldest sections of the city to survive the centuries more-or-less in tact. Prior to the Revolution, it was the district for the wealthy and powerful Parisians, and many of their homes have survived as a testament to the golden age of French aristocracy. Today, it’s a very trendy place to live, with some great shops, restaurants, galleries, and a lot of personality. The Marais is also famously home to an important Jewish population in Paris, which I am sure I will write about one day. But for the average visitor, It’s simply a great area to explore–full of winding, narrow paths, old buildings, museums, and important landmarks.
Also a few blocks from my street is the Bastille neighborhood. The Bastille was formerly a fortress and prison, now infamous for being destroyed by revolutionary forces at the start of what was to become the French Revolution. Today a monument marks the site, and the neighborhoods around it are full of good restaurants, quirky shops, and museums.
On Thursdays and Sundays, there’s also an excellent Farmer’s Market there, where you can get just about anything, from fresh fish to a new sweater. Many other neighborhoods in Paris also have street markets certain days (or every day!) of the week. I highly recommend anyone visiting Paris to find one close by, pick up some fresh bread, cheese, and fruit, and then treat yourself to a picnic in the nearby park. It’s a fairly authentic Parisian experience; on a beautiful day you’ll find many French couples doing the same.
I, however, mostly venture out looking for pastries. I may not have visited many fancy restaurants in Paris, but I never pass by cake. I have one cardinal rule for dealing with Parisian boulangeries and Patisseries:: If I see one has a line, I get in it. You’ll rarely find yourself steered wrong this way. And, as it happens, finding lines out the door isn’t all that uncommon–especially at peak hours in late afternoon–and for a while there I had a little project going where I ranked every patisserie I passed based on the quality of their croissants. This is just to say, I’ve eaten a lot of pastries. If you’re in Paris and don’t know where to start, I can probably provide a list.
I was lucky; I lived on a quiet street with minimal traffic all times of day, directly across from a laundromat and a cafe, and a short walk to a convenient metro. The famous Place de Vosges was just north of me, and provided a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle. Notre Dame is about a 15 minute walk via the Ile Saint Louis (It’s connected to Cite by a wide footbridge, and is totally worth a visit. A lovely place in its own right, with an almost small-town charm to it’s quiet central street…not to mention some of the best ice cream in Paris). Rue de Rivoli is one of the most famous commercial streets in town, and following it will lead you straight to the Louvre.
Looking toward the south down my street, you can see a nest of trees, where the road ends and a small grassy square appears–complete with a playground for the children who spend their days at the nearby elementary schools. It was never uncommon to see teachers leading lines of students down the road for some outdoor playtime–even on the coldest of winter days. Just on the other side of the park is the river Seine.
Parisian apartments are small, especially in comparison to the types of homes we’re used to in America. However, my apartment never felt *too* small, and even in friends’ apartments, there always seemed to be plenty of room. Granted, my landlady didn’t really have a lot of things to take up a lot of space. For example, the refrigerator was much smaller than any you’d find in America, and the entire kitchen pantry was confined to a few shelves. Y’know what, though? It really isn’t that hard to adjust. We were also lucky that our 4th floor (5th floor for all those Americans who don’t start their numbering at zero) was accessible by elevator–sometimes a rarity in old buildings. Walking in the front door, this is the view. Reflected in the mirrors you can see the built-in bookshelves lining the walls. Directly through the mirrored door is my landlady’s bedroom and bathroom. The kitchen was brightened by sunny yellow tiles and a large window overlooking the building’s central courtyard. The cabinet doors were always hanging open—we eventually figured out that the wood was literally rotting away from the hinges. on the left under the counter is the little clothes washer. When the cycle was done, we’d hang the wet laundry up to dry in the “drying closet”….an invention that might save a little space and keep things out of the middle of the room, but was always in danger of leaving things a little bit musty. more shelves line the living room. there was a little leather couch, a couple chairs, and just out of the picture was a dining room table. On one wall was a television, but it was never turned on once during the duration of my stay, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have worked even if we had tried. My little room was at the front of the building, with a big window to let in sunlight during the day. It really was a cheerful little room during the summer, but once winter came, it unfortunately turned in to a rather cold and dark hole. half the room I arranged to be a little sitting area, with a lumpy futon and a little coffee table.I slept in a bed lofted over a desk. In the little black cabinet behind it is a wardrobe for my clothes and also a couple shelves that I used to store office supplies and other miscellaneous items I liked having on hand.
To have such a beautiful room in such a beautiful neighborhood made me a very lucky girl—despite my complaints about my quirky (but very well-meaning) landlady. To have lived out in the suburbs somewhere would have given me a very different Parisian experience…I know, because my first trip to Paris (back in 2006), we stayed in the cheapest-available option, way out in the suburbs. Always having to plan around train schedules and how long it takes to get somewhere means you have that much less time to actually enjoy the city, and even less inclination to get out there and make the most of it. When I was first hunting for apartments, the advice that stuck out to me most was “pay the extra money to have a view of the Eiffel Tower from your window. It’s worth it.” While I didn’t quite manage that myself, I echo the same sentiment:: walking out your front door and being at the center of one of the greatest cities on Earth, with the feeling that every day there is something new to explore right at your fingertips, really is one of the most most incredible gifts you can ever give yourself.
As I was reading through my backlog of Food Arts magazines (which, unfortunately, weren’t forwarded to my Parisian address), I paused at a humorous article about the French President’s recent attempts to promote Foie Gras to the American Palate. Hats off to him, he clearly has no idea what he is undertaking….it seems Americans have evolved into a culture with the utmost contempt for offal-eating, no matter how luxurious of a product you try to market it as. Of course, fatty livers have never been a mainstay in our diets, and most of us have seen no disruption in our lives by the recent banning of the delicacy in California. But, the French lawmakers are still disturbed, and worry that a ban in California could spread to other states or countries, and challenge their “right” to export this “great french product.” Apparently President Hollande has taken action in defense of his favorite treat, and has been sending samples to US lawmakers in hopes of persuading them to change their minds about Foie Gras. His plans for retaliation also include encouraging a reciprocal boycott on California wine in France.
Now, I really don’t know what France can actually do about the California ban even with their best efforts, but I couldn’t help smiling at their characteristic allegiance and defensiveness to their favorite product (or the fact that, once again, French politicians are fighting the wrong battles and proving themselves useless). France produces nearly 20,000 tons of Foie Gras annually, but 80% of it never leaves France anyway. The banning in California probably will have very little effect on any Foie Gras producers in France, the same as a banning of California wine in French restaurants probably isn’t much to faze California wine growers. It all is just too much to be taken seriously. Silly French.
However, I am interested in Hollande’s defense of Foie Gras as an important part of France’s gastronomic heritage (a statement which of course earned him the black spot of death from PETA). Granted, I don’t think that “gastronomic heritage” is reason enough to continue abusing animals, but as a historian who enjoys studying food for its cultural value, giving foie gras a deeper look has been an interesting exercise.
You see, Foie Gras has been produced since ancient times. Since the birds are easily kept, sustainable, and have a natural capacity for weight gain, they became a mainstay in diets around the world. It was the Egyptians who first discovered wild geese developed fatty livers in preparation for their long migration, and then replicated it by force feeding. In Europe, the traditions were carried on first by Romans and then by Eastern European Jews, who eventually carried it to France. It’s easy to forget that not too long ago, people depended on the duck and goose fat for everyday life—-cooking, preserving, for making necessities such as candles or soap, or even medicinal properties. The fatter the duck, the longer it could sustain a family. Every part of the duck was, and still is, used. To many people, a fatty liver was a byproduct that came with the extra fat production, even if an especially delicious one. It was also an excellent source of income should one want to sell it, as Foie Gras has always been known as a luxurious product, eaten by kings.
Unfortunately, many ducks raised for foie gras today are raised by large factory farms, not the smaller family-owned farms that President Hollande would like you to think. Such is western production these days. BUT, I have had the opportunity to visit a foie gras farm and witness the ducks being fed, and I am here to say that, small farm or big farm, it’s not really a pretty sight. It is, however, an issue that is very relevant to French cooking, and anywhere foie shows up on the menu, and anyone who eats meat has a responsibility to be educated about how these animals are treated. But mostly, I just find it interesting. When we arrived, the ducks were enjoying life in the field. Ducks becoming foie gras are only moved indoors and force-fed the last two or three weeks of their life, and for the rest of it, they enjoy a relatively carefree existence. However, in the aim of full disclosure, these ducks and geese rarely ever see more than a few months of life in all.
The ducks in the barn generally seemed happy enough and all appeared healthy, if a bit dirty, as they awaited their feeding. Done right, the birds are not hurt by the process. They were quacking and flapping as any duck would, could walk around in their pens, and none seemed traumatized, stressed, or in pain, although I’m sure the process was is an enjoyable one for them (how would you like having a metal rod crammed down your throat?). There is a strong incentive to be gentle with the birds, as those who are mistreated or otherwise damaged (broken bones, bruising, etc) are reduced in price or sometimes unsellable.
The feeding takes no more than a couple seconds per duck. It is still carried out much the same way as it was a hundred years ago (even if the machinery has gotten a bit more complicated, the idea is the same). The feeder uses a plank of wood to make a barrier for the ducks, catching them one at a time between his legs, quickly dispenses the pre-measured feed into their stomachs via a long metal tube, and then releasing them on the other side of the barrier. One man is easily able to feed a hundred ducks this way in a relatively short time. The ducks, in fact, get used to his presence and his scent, and as a result are actually calmer with him than they would be if they were subjected to different people every time.
The farm I visited takes 100% control of its operations, from raising the baby birds to putting the finished meat in tins. After seeing the ducks being fed, we were led to the slaughterhouse.
Birds are dipped into electrified water and shocked, then turned upright in those cones to have their throats slit.Overall, it makes for a quick and painless death.They are then defeathered, and sent along via conveyor belt to the next station.
The bird is hung up on these racks, when make access to the liver much easier and as noninvasive as possible. Again, the idea is to treat the bird carefully, to minimize bruising, and the fewer cuts, the better. From this position, the legs can be removed and the liver pulled out without trouble. In France, it is nearly impossible to buy a duck with it’s liver still intact outside of the Perigord region. Luckily, we were able to acquire two back in Paris, and I shared briefly about the experience with you then. However, i declined to post the video, but I’m uploading a snippet now. It’s fascinating to see how all the organs fit in the animal, and how HUGE the liver is in comparison to the body of the duck. incredible.
Anyway, this was not meant to be a political post, and I think everyone should follow their own conscience in regards to what they will and won’t eat. I am certainly not trying to persuade anyone one way or another, but i found it all interesting. If, in fact, you’re not opposed to a little offal in your life, it’s worth a taste (as long as you’re not in California).