POSTCARD FROM PARIS & BRUGGE

POSTCARD FROM PARIS & BRUGGE

It was the best of times; it was the briefest of times. We had not been back to Paris since Peter and Stephanie’s marriage a little over five years ago, and we were excited at the prospect of seeing them in their natural habitat, in their new home. Air Tahiti Nui has a non-stop from LA to Paris, and before you finished saying “fromage,” (the food on the flight was excellent, including ample samples of the aforementioned substance so essential to French life) we whisked through customs at Charles de Gaulle. After negotiating a small confusion as to which level of the airport garage we were to meet son Peter and our daughter-in-law, we successfully united, to be swept away by Stephanie in her Renault Twingo into the city. We had never ridden in her car before, and had minor concerns regarding the four of us fitting in her small vehicle with even our limited carry-on luggage. We needn’t have feared, as the Twingo accommodated our stuff behind the seat, and we found the back seat to be surprisingly spacious and comfortable. Stephanie, who drives with the élan and skill of an F1 Formula driver, had us back in the heart of Paris in record time. Weekends are definitely the time to arrive here, as traffic is light, and you avoid the many bouchons (traffic jams) frequent at other times.

Peter found us a hotel, the Residence Quintinie Square in the 15th, literally around the corner from their apartment. Our room was nicely appointed with coffee service on the table and a view of the park across the street out our window. It had a functioning elevator (not a fact to be taken for granted in Paris) and was very comfortable. After unpacking and briefly freshening up, we proceeded next door for our introductory visit to their home.

Peter and Stephanie live on the fourth floor (which in France is really the fifth floor, as the ground floor is considered to be 0) in a renovated building with a winding wooden staircase. There is no elevator, so you better check what you want to bring with you before leaving the apartment, or be prepared for more exercise. I now have a better appreciation of how the French are able to consume the quantities of baguettes and croissants they take in regularly, and still manage to stay slim. Between the stairs on the Metro you negotiate regularly up and down, walking and carrying groceries, then dealing with the stairs in your building, you really don’t need a Stairmaster or a gym membership.

Their slightly larger than 70 sq. meter apartment is very cute, efficiently laid out, and filled with wonderful light. I especially liked their wooden floors, the working fireplace in the living room (which they hadn’t yet used, but were planning to do so soon) and their newly remodeled kitchen. They wisely chose to furnish the place in a tasteful, minimalist style, yet with comfortable chairs and couches. Steph seems to have successfully reigned in Peter’s tendency for clutter and hoarding, which I must confess, has a genetic predisposition.

Shopping for food in Paris is daily ritual, made so by the small size of apartments and storage facility, as well as by the admirable desire to eat fresh food daily. While supermarkets are to be found in small numbers in parts of the city, most people still shop for their vegetables, bakery goods, meats, fish, and wines in separate stores. This is certainly less efficient than our one stop shopping, but it also provides a much more personal experience with the shop keepers who know their regular customers, as well as for a less homogenous choice of probably higher quality products. So far, Parisians have been able to resist the ruthless efficiency of the marketplace to maintain this style of life. Personally, I hope they always do. I also was impressed by the artistic arrangement of the food products in all the stores we passed, as well as by the abundance of floral stands along our way. No wonder Paris is the trendsetter for beauty throughout the world!

After laying in provisions for dinner, the kids took us for lunch at a small near-by restaurant.  It was one of those little, hole-in-the-wall places, filled with charm and eccentricity that can be found in a few cities around the world, but not many.  Drapeau de la Fidelite is owned by a Vietnamese gentleman who apparently was a professor of philosophy in Saigon. The small restaurant is filled with books, including many classics, primarily in French. Diners are free to browse through the collection. In addition, they can purchase one of the three books written by the owner on various philosophic topics. The food was extremely reasonably priced, excellent, and consisted of mostly Vietnamese dishes. Students are given a 10% discount on the menu items. It was a great introduction to our Paris sojourn.

Having arrived at 9 AM, and now starting to fight the nine hour jet lag, we knew it was not a good idea to give in to our fatigue, but stay up as late as possible to get adjusted to our new time zone. Accordingly, Miki, Peter and I headed out to the Place de la Concorde on the Metro, while Steph went back to the apartment to grade some of her students’ papers.  Now best known for the impressive 3200 year obelisk from Luxor given to King Louis Philippe by the viceroy of Egypt, the magnificent and historic square was once also the home of the guillotine, where in 1793 Louis XVI was beheaded, followed by over 1300 others, including Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Madame du Barry, and Charlotte Corday, Marat’s assassin. The optimistic current name of the square was given the year after, when the Reign of Terror ended.

By this time, we were running out of energy, so we found some comfortable chairs by one of the fountains in the Tuileries, along the scenic garden path connecting the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde. Here, we proceeded to partake in one of our favorite travel activities, people watching. It was a sunny and balmy afternoon, drawing large numbers of locals as well as tourists to enjoy the charms of the park. We spent a couple of hours immersed in the flow of life around us, which Miki also used for what she considered to be a surreptitious nap. Then it was getting late, so we headed back to meet Steph. By the time we got to the apartment, we decided we were too tired to have dinner, so we opted for some cheese, sliced cold cuts, and a glass of wine before calling it a night. Steph had to work the next day, and we agreed to meet Peter in the morning for breakfast.

Neither of us had any trouble falling or staying asleep. I was awakened the next day by what I thought was the buzzing of the alarm clock. When pounding on the switches didn’t diminish the annoying “bbrrrr, bbrrrr, bbrrrr” noise, I decided to pick up the phone. The voice of the concierge conveyed to me in his limited English, “Call to you,” which was followed by what suspiciously sounded like a dial tone. I looked at the phone to see if there were any other buttons to push, and finding none, proceeded to yell “hello” several times without response. Miki finally woke up enough to ask “Who was that?” and to inform me it was 7 in the morning. Unable to elicit a response, I hung up the phone, only to have it ring again, and be greeted by the same message from the concierge, followed by the same dial tone. When the phone rang for the third time about 30 seconds later, I finally got Peter on the line, wanting to know if we were O.K. “Of course we were O.K.” I told him, “but why the hell are you calling us at 7 in the morning? Is something wrong?” He seemed taken aback at first, but then confirmed it was really 12:30 in the afternoon. With the curtains closed and the room dark, we had slept for over 16 hours! This was a new record, even for Miki.

With over half the day already behind us, we met Peter in the apartment for our next foray into Paris life. After some coffee and a piece of baguette generously slathered with Regine’s (Steph’s mom’s) wonderful homemade confiture, we were ready to face the world. Fortunately, we had both spent enough time in Paris on prior visits that none of us felt the need to do the usual touristy things (much, I suspect, to Peter’s relief.)  Instead, our goal was to explore some of Paris’s varied neighborhoods, immerse ourselves in the local life, and meet some of Peter’s many eclectic friends. Thus, we headed out to the Canal St. Martin, a 5 km. waterway with numerous locks from the 1800’s built to create a shortcut for river traffic between loops of the Seine. Still in use today, its tree lined quays, iron footbridges and public gardens are ideal for a leisurely stroll. Peter told us that on summer evenings, the banks of the canal are filled with picnickers and young lovers (not necessarily exclusive of each other.) There is a peaceful feeling walking along the well-worn steps and cobblestones of the quays, with overhanging trees providing a canopy filter for the wonderful light that has made Paris every photographer’s dream.

Peter had called his friend Jim to meet us at a waterside café. We had met Jim briefly at the wedding, and had a chance to chat with him at the time, as he and his girlfriend were sitting at our table. Five years later he was still the warm, interesting man I had remembered. He and his Vietnamese girlfriend, M.C. were still together, but he had recently taken leave of his IT job of many years, and was taking a sabbatical to consider what option to pursue for the future. He is an avid photographer, an avocation he shares with Peter. I admired his willingness to take risks, and give thoughtful guidance to his future, rather than drifting through life as many others seem to do. We had a pleasant, albeit brief, time at the café, as I had many other issues I would have liked to have discussed with him, but they will have to wait until our next meeting. After the café, we stopped in one of the many wonderful book stores found all throughout Paris – this one specialized in books on art and photography. (Sadly, the big book chains in the States have just about driven these great repositories of art and culture into almost complete extinction.)  I could have easily stayed in the store (or several of the others we had visited during our stay) for hours, but the troops were getting hungry, so it was time to head home.  On the way back, we again visited Peter’s local produce stand and boulangerie (Miki was not about to be deprived of her baguette!) while I popped into the wine store to pick up a bottle to complement our dinner.

Peter is most fortunate in having not only an intelligent and beautiful young wife, but also one who is an excellent cook. I must say, we enjoyed our role as honored guests, sitting at the table munching on appetizers and sipping wine, while the “children” prepared dinner for us. Steph’s salad was delicious, and her Cake aux Cardons et au Romarin was light and scrumptious. If you beg her, as I did, she may share the recipe with you. Sated with great food and good wine, we headed off to sleep.

The following day, Miki had made arrangements to meet her classmate from the Harvard orthodontic program in Chartres.  Nil lives in Paris, but commutes each day an hour by train to his office in Chartres.  He is a wonderful, warm man with courtly manners, who met us at the train station and proceeded to take us for lunch at Le Grand Monarque, one of the top restaurants in the city. Waiting for us at the table were Nil’s two office assistants, the vivacious Martine who loves to dance and smiles with her eyes, and the charming Francoise.  The restaurant, with its glass ceilinged atrium, attentive staff and rich linens brought back the quiet elegance of a bygone era. Nil, as always, was the perfect host, and any meal that starts off with champagne and foie gras, proceeds through wine and fresh sole that melts in your mouth, then finishes with a grand cafe royal, is not one to be forgotten.  As enjoyable as the meal, so was seeing the happiness and affection of two old friends reunited again.

Nil is very lucky to have Martine and Francoise, two women who have been with him for a long time, who obviously care about him, his patients, and each other. They appeared to make a well-functioning team, as after lunch they showed us around Nil’s office, located in an old house just a seven minute walk from the train station.  It felt more like a home than a dental office, and I’m sure its atmosphere, along with the warmth of Nil and his team, helped to ease young patient’s anxieties.

You can’t come to Chartres and not visit its justly famous cathedral. Arguably, it has the most magnificent stained glass windows of any church in the world. We were certainly dazzled by the panoply of colors on display, including the unique Chartres blue. The edifice and its brilliant colored windows draw the eyes of every visitor skyward, just as their creator intended. Regardless of your faith, you cannot escape a sense of awe in a place like this.

I could recount the chronology of our entire visit, but that would only bring boredom to those of you who are already getting tired of reading, so allow me skip around, and hit a few highlights.  Did I mention the food? Aside from the great meals Stephanie prepared for us, we found another noteworthy restaurant by serendipity. Prior to our visit, we were watching a program by Anthony Bourdain about some of his favorite French restaurants. Some were places that required reservations months in advance, and a mortgage on your house to pay the bill.  However, he mentioned a small place that served excellent food, was reasonable, and that he recommended highly, Je the…me. Turns out, we found a card for the place posted on the bulletin board of our hotel, and it was located just a few blocks from where we were staying. Miki and I took Peter and Steph there for lunch, and the place lived up to its advertised reputation. Uncharacteristically for French waiters, our server not only shared with us his opinions and recommendations about the items on the menu, but also his opinions about politics, tourists from other countries (the Russians are the worst) and the state of the economy.  The lunch was sufficiently tasty that we decided to come back for a farewell dinner the evening prior to our departure for the States.

You can’t be in Paris without paying a visit to Montmartre.  The steep hill has been associated with artists for over 200 years, from Corot to Utrillo to Modigliani. Today, street artists thrive predominantly on the tourist trade, but much of the area still preserves its villagey, sometimes seedy, prewar atmosphere. Street performers are abundant. Two standouts included a group of three young men from South Africa singing self –composed ballads in French that carried both a flavor of jazz, native African rhythms and gospel.  Le Presteej (the name of the group) sounded so good that we stopped for over a half hour to listen to them play, then went on to buy one of their CD’s. We were far from the only ones to do so. Standing on the bottom steps of the Sacre Coeur, the impressive white basilica best viewed from the outside rather than from within, the “White Man” was doing his shtick. Looking at first glance like a statue, he would periodically come to life to the amusement (and occasional shock) of passers-by.  However, the performer who deservedly garnered the most attention was a young black man with a soccer ball across the street. Bouncing and dribbling the ball with his feet, knees, shoulders and head was impressive, but nothing I hadn’t seen soccer players do before. It was when he proceeded to climb a thirty foot light pole while performing these same feats that he set himself apart from mere mortals and joined the ranks of the top Cirque de Soleil performers. The appreciative crowd rewarded his feat with showers of euros.  The panoramic vista of Paris from the basilica steps is alone worth the climb up the Montmartre. And for those who have the energy, I recommend avoiding the ease of the funicular, but rather walking along the streets to see the windmill, the still working vineyard (whose wine is auctioned off after the harvest each October) and various small shops with window items ranging from the artistic to the bizarre.

One rainy day, we met up with Mark, the best man at Peter’s wedding, a writer now working on his Ph.D. while teaching at the Sorbonne. An Irishman with a neatly trimmed beard, prematurely thinning hairline, and lively dark eyes, he exudes intelligence, focused energy, and the charming story-telling ability made famous by his other countrymen.  Miki and I were both charmed by his company, and were grateful that Peter had made a friend like him. He promised to help us plan our trip to his homeland, a promise I intend for him to keep.

One Sunday when Stephanie was off work, we all drove to Sceaux on the outskirts of Paris, close to where she and Peter used to live before moving into their current place. They treated us to a wonderful al fresco lunch, then gave us a tour of Parc Sceaux and its chateaux.  The vast grounds are an appealing mixture of formal gardens, woods and water. The gardens use water to a great effect, with tiered waterfalls and fountains presenting a moving staircase that cascades into an octagonal basin. The basin feeds into a grand canal offering poplar lined views of a baroque pavilion. Though smaller in scale than Versailles, to me this park held the greater appeal.

One afternoon we met two more of Peter’s friends, Jason and Chris. I had heard a lot about both of them, so I was looking forward to seeing them in person. Jason is a young American with long blond hair, filled with energy, who is in the process of re-writing his life – literally. He had a rough start, with many of the detours that alcohol and drugs can bring, but decided to choose life over oblivion, and was now attempting to use the material of his prior existence to inform his current writing and work. An admitted autodidact, he was an interesting conversationalist. Chris is British with some of the reserve for which the English are known.  He works as sportswriter covering professional soccer, and was due to cover a soccer match in Brugge, which also happened to be our next destination. He was quite surprised when we told him about our good luck in avoiding the train strike in Belgium, scheduled right after our departure. Turns out, that was the day he was scheduled to leave! (We later found out he ended  up having to take the bus.) Chris also turned out to be the top ping pong player in our group, followed by Jason, then Peter, with myself as a distant fourth. Watching people play any sport reveals a lot about their nature, and for all his quiet demeanor, it was obvious that Chris is a fierce competitor, but one who is content to let his opponent make a decent showing, as long as the score is not too close. Jason also has a lot of drive – he and his girlfriend were in training to run the marathon this fall – in Greece!

We had many more pleasant and interesting Paris experiences (did you know that Paris has a counterfeit museum? (Musee de la Contrefacon) And that besides Gucci and Louis Vitton knock offs, there are counterfeit drugs, wines, and even Tabasco sauce and Bic pens?) but we have to move this story along or it will become a novella, so let’s move on to Brugge.

Having nixed our plans to rent a car and drive to Brugge (read the fine print in the car rental contract before you rent one next time outside of the USA) we had our reservation on the Thalys (Belgium’s answer to the TGV, France’s high speed train system) that thankfully departed hours before the above mentioned strike went into effect. For those used to US trains, being whisked along at 200 km/hr. without much perceptible noise or vibration is a pleasant experience.  Even with a change of trains in Brussels, we arrived in Brugge a mere two hours after leaving Paris.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bruggge is a wonderful place preserved in time, offering an easily accessible collection of medieval and Gothic architecture, museums, culture, music, and wonderful food. If you love chocolate, this is the place to come, for if Belgium is the chocolate center of the world, Brugge is its capital. Without exaggeration, there are two or three chocolate shops on every block, each selling their unique, homemade products. Needless to say, we sampled several.  Our only saving grace was that the chocolates were not only fantastic, but by our standards, fantastically expensive.  So we contended ourselves to eating one piece occasionally, which is no doubt the way they were intended to be consumed. Ah, but how satisfying that experience!

Much like Amsterdam,  Brugge is laid out along canals, which add a picturesque charm to the city, and also allows visitors to tour around in one the several boats offering this service. We availed ourselves of this opportunity, and if any of you choose to visit here, I would strongly recommend you do the same. For those preferring land based travel, horse drawn carriages make their way all around the city, but thankfully without producing any of the by-product this type of propulsion creates.  (A clever leather collection apparatus at the tail end of the equine engine gathers all the waste.) Inveterate walkers that we are, we eschewed the carriage rides, but for those with limited time or mobility issues, I can see the benefit.

There are sixteen museums in Brugge, and I must confess, we didn’t see a single one. Not that the museums didn’t offer any art of note; just that to me, the city itself was the most interesting art work to be seen.  The Church of Our Lady, with its 122-meter brick steeple, dominates the skyline of the city. Its stone work is the high spot of the medieval stonemason’s art.  Inside, you can find the classic ‘Madonna and Child’ by Michelangelo. Brugge’s town hall dates from the late 1300’s, and the Gothic entry chamber and polychrome ceiling makes for an impressive work of art in itself. While we were there, we found a movie set in the Middle Ages being filmed there. The actors, in their period costume, helped to complete our time travel back to life 500 years ago.

The Belfry tower on the Market square contains an impressive clock and a carillon with 47 bells. They have a two hour concert daily each summer, but during our visit, the music was reduced to thirty minutes. There are benches in front of the Belfry, providing a wonderful vantage point from which to survey the passing of city life. Again, we had a great chance to indulge our second favorite travel activity – people watching.  In case you hadn’t already figured it out, eating ranks at the top. There were certainly no shortage of bistros from which to choose.  Moules (mussels) and frites (French fries) are Belgian staples, and almost every restaurant we saw had them on the menu. And there is a reason they are called Belgian waffles… Our favorite food find, however, turned out to be a tiny restaurant, Malesherbes, tucked in alley so narrow we initially missed, though we were looking for it. Owned by a Parisian but run by a Belgian staff, the place was my idea of what a perfect restaurant should be – warm, cozy, with a helpful and attentive staff, offering a menu filled with scrumptious choices that made you want to go back and try every dish, a wine list with reasonably priced bottles from a wide choice of varietals and geographies, and an aftertaste that stayed with you and made you lick your lips periodically, hoping you’d find a morsel you’d improbably missed – yes, we loved it!

One of the nice things our hotel provided was a booklet about the city containing four different walking tours, along with a brief description of what you were seeing along the way. Each walk was 2 ½ to three miles long, and in our four day stay, we managed to do all of them. One took us along the periphery of the city along one of the larger canals, taking us past a beautiful and peaceful Jesuit monastery, a verdant levee dotted with four working windmills, and a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built by a returning pilgrim from the Holy Land a couple of hundred years ago. Another meandered through Lowland shops and residences, the gardens of convent, past almshouses (small homes for the retired and the infirm built hundreds of years ago, each containing a tiny chapel where the residents were expected to pray for the benefactors who supplied their abodes,) and the inevitable canals. Everywhere the homes had windows with custom lace curtains (lace and tapestries, along with chocolate, being the most famous exports of the region.) Each window had a window box filled with blooming flowers. The streets are all spotlessly clean, broken up by small parks containing statues and more modern art pieces.

Last, but far from the least, there is another reason to visit Brugge – the beer. Neither Miki or I are particularly big beer drinkers, but we both enjoyed our sampling of local drafts. As many bars and restaurants offer up to 200 different brews, the choices were almost overwhelming. We loved all the ones we tried, and I seriously doubt we could have found one not to our liking.

I could write a great deal more, but if you haven’t already formed an image of what our trip was like by now, I doubt more description would help. Needless to say, we loved every moment, especially the time spent with Peter, Stephanie and their great collection of friends. If your name hasn’t appeared in these pages, it’s not because we didn’t think about or talk about you during our travels. The fact is, you, our families and friends, travel with us wherever we go. Be well.

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