Monday, July 11, 2016

Out and About: Exhibits: Artists in Montmartre, from Steinlen to Satie

Sometimes, when you’ve lived in a place long enough, you think you know it.
     And then you find out you don’t.
     I’ve lived in Montmartre since 1970 - with a short interlude - and I know it well.  I’ve visited the Musée de Montmartre many, many times.  But it was a nice afternoon, with nothing else to do, so I decided to walk over (well, up and over and back down; it’s a steep hill) to see the current temporary exhibit: Artists in Montmartre: from Steinlen to Satie.  And to discover Suzanne Valadon’s artist studio.
Clos Montmartre
The museum used to be small.  It had a tiny shop on Rue Cortot where you bought your tickets.  Later they added a bookshop across the flagstone path leading to the house.  And that was all there was. Just a small three-story house that used to be the country home - when the Butte Montmartre was far outside Paris - of famous actor Rosimonde, successor to Molière.  It was a museum that I could navigate with my eyes blindfolded.
     (Anecdote:  Rosimonde died in the wings of the theater after starring in Le Malade Imaginaire, just as Molière had before him.  The name of that play means “the hypochondriac”, which is ironic to the utmost.  The year was 1686.  It’s an old house.)
     All that has changed.  You still buy your tickets at the same place, but it’s bigger and sells books and cards and magnets, as do all Paris museums.  And now you enter the museum from the garden level, around the back of the house.
     As the garden is open to the public, I decided to start there, exploring the many levels that spill down to where the Clos Montmartre starts - the last vineyard remaining within Paris proper. The garden is very much as it must have been in Rosimonde’s day, which is kind of exciting to a history geek like me, in and of itself.  But on the east side of the garden I discovered  a gate, and that gate leads to the St. Vincent Garden, or it would if you could open it.  More about that in another blog.  Suffice to say that for almost half a century this garden remained closed to the world since 1940.  Even now it’s locked tight except for two half-days a week... or for school science trips.  There are things living and growing in there that are found nowhere else in Paris any more.  (It’s presumed that the newts that appeared spontaneously in the new Jardin Renoir ornamental pond migrated from there.)

Inside the museum, the lower level of Rosimonde’s home is still for exhibits.  There are works by known artists and also a few new names.  One of the works by Alfred Renaudin shows Paris in 1899, as viewed from where the steps now lead up to the Sacré-Coeur.  (I have a copy of it in my home because for 27 years I lived right across from this hill and my windows opened out onto it.)  There’s also some artwork from the Shadow Theater of the famous Chat Noir cabaret, as well as old photos of Montmartre before the developers got their hands on it.
     On the middle level is more art, and an actual bar that escaped from the Nazi requisitions, now tended by a portrait of Suzanne Valadon. The front of the bar is veined wood, the top is the quintessential zinc, and it comes equipped with a water dispenser for your anisette or absinthe, the Green Fairy that was the downfall of many an artist or poet.  Other rooms house a collection of porcelain and sheet music, along with a plaster cast of Montmartre from 1955.

Jardin Renoir
So much for the old building, the Museum as it was for decades.  Now on to the “new” building.  To reach it, you exit where you used to enter Rosimonde’s house and cross a lawn with tables and chairs scattered around that ornamental pond with the migrated newts from an earlier era. You can sit and talk, or order coffee, tea, pastry, ice cream (in season) or light snacks from the Café Renoir.  (And yes, Renoir did have a studio here for a while.)
     This other building is the Hôtel Demarne (which doesn’t mean a hotel, but rather a private home).  The house went with the now-locked gardens and stood vacant for decades, once it - and the garden - were turned over to the City of Paris in payment of past-due property taxes.  For a while it was used occasionally for meetings and private dinners, but now it has become part and parcel of the Museum. Which is wonderful because here is where Suzanne Valadon lived with her young lover-husband and her illustrious but fatally flawed artist-son Maurice Utrillo.
     There is plenty of floor space for temporary exhibits; this one is Artists in Montmartre: 1870-1910.  But what fascinated me was the reconstituted apartments where Valadon lived, and especially her studio, filled with light (with a northern exposure, which was de rigeur).  The artifacts gathered here, whether hers or not, make it seem as if she just stepped out to the Rue St. Rustique one street over to buy some more colors or canvases.  (That shop is still there, the last art supplies shop on the Butte, but for how long?)

Montmartre would not be Montmartre without its artistic heritage. The fact that the City of Paris has handed this property over to the Musée de Montmartre, and that the museum has worked for years to preserve part of Montmartre’s heritage is a wonderful thing.
     As the nearby Place du Tertre becomes increasingly handed over to the cafés, squeezing out the artists who once took up the entire square, it’s important that the Butte’s history as a place where artists lived and created be preserved.  The Musée de Montmartre has truly done that.

Les Impressionistes à Montmartre,
de Steinlen à Satie (1870-1910)

Musée de Montmartre
12 rue Cortot; 18è
Métro:  Lamarck-Caulaincourt

Until Sept 25, 2016 (Valloton studio all year)
Daily 10-7 / Sat & Mon open until 9

9.50 & 5;50-7.50 € (free under 10 years of age)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Out & About: Exhibits: Les Impressionistes en Normandie

Musée Jacquemart-André

In a very chic neighborhood just north of the Champs-Elysées and south of the Parc Monceau is a late-19th century home that once belonged to a very rich family.
     What is now the Musée Jacquemart-André was once a home built at the request of Edouard André, art collector and descendant of an old Protestant family (a minority in Roman Catholic France) who struck it rich - very rich - under the Second Empire.  André wanted a mansion with all the modern conveniences and decorated as if it were a theater set.  And that’s what he got.  (The Jacquemart part of the name comes from his wife Nélie, a budding artist.)
     After the death of both Edouard in 1894 and Nélie in 1912, the residence was handed over to the Institut de France (created by Cardinal Mazarin in 1661) for the purpose of becoming a museum so all the world could admire their art collection as they and their guests once did.
     In addition to a tour of the house, which is still furnished and decorated as it was when it was their home, there are now temporary art exhibits in a part of the upstairs.  The one showing now is “The Impressionists in Normandy”.

During the late 19th century, just as the Impressionists were rewriting the precepts of what art is, Normandy became a vacation spot.  Spurred by the British, who seemed to enjoy bathing in the cold waters of the English Channel, this coastal region northwest of Paris became very much in vogue.  Many artists chose it as a setting for their easels, starting with Boudin and including Courbet, Degas, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro and Gauguin for the French, Jongkind for the Dutch and Turner for the British.  Over fifty works by these artists - their impressions of Normandy - are on display on the upstairs level of the Jacquemart-André home.

The exhibit provides excellent explanations on panels in the various rooms.  Unfortunately they are only in French.  But you can get an audioguide in English - or other languages - as you enter.   The panels and audio commentary give a background of the Impressionist movement and walk you through the various works.
     The first room has a wonderful canvas by Claude Monet, one of my favorites, but I admit a weakness for Monet.  It’s called La Charrette (The Wagon), and shows a horse and cart disappearing down a snowy lane past two typically Norman-style houses.  The sky is that thick, sodden off-white that anyone from cold climes will recognize as promising more snow.  Its snowy landscape foreshadows one of my all-time favorites of the artist, painted four or five years later:  The Magpie, with the bird perched on a gate in another snowy, but more sunlit Norman landscape.  Both are usually at the Musée d’Orsay, another favorite of Impressionism lovers.
Caillebotte, Regatta at Trouville
     The second and third rooms focus on the Normandy beaches and all their social activities:  swimming and boating, but mostly people walking along the boardwalks of Deauville or Trouville, or women sitting in the sun under a parasol.  There’s also one of Degas’s first paintings of a horse race, and a Caillebotte from the Toledo Museum of Art:  Regatta at Trouville.  The fourth and fifth rooms contain views of several ports, and especially a Gauguin canvas of Dieppe on loan from Manchester, England, and a marvelously simple seascape with startling blue water by Berthe Morisot that usually lives in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  There’s also a second Morisot, a view of the port of Cherbourg, on loan from Yale.
     In the last rooms are a duo of Monets, hung side by side, and they’re very different from what one usually expects from that artist.  They are both fishing boats and from the 1860s, but drawn in the Japanese style, with a flat stroke and bold black outlines.  They have never been seen together before, especially as one is from a private collection and the other from a museum in Bucharest, Romania.
     With all these different museums represented, plus pieces from Germany and a Turner from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, this is truly a wonderfully international collection of masterpieces.  The Impressionists may have painted side by side along the Normandy Coast as the 19th century drew to a close, but you will never see these canvases together in one place again.  Well worth the time to drop by the Jacquemart-André Museum if you’re in Paris.

Les Impressionistes en Normandie

Monet, La Charrette

Musée Jacquemart-André
128 boulevard Haussmann; 8è
Métro: Miromesnil or St. Philippe du Roule

Until July 25, 2016
Daily 10-6 / Sat & Mon open until 9

12 & 10 €


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Baccalauréat, the classic French rite of passage

“Passe ton bac d’abord.”
     That’s what all French children hear.  “Get your diploma first.”
     The baccalauréat is the diploma at the end of high school.  It’s the same exam with the same questions for every student in a given subject throughout the country, as well as in the outlying islands and nations that are part of France:  Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guyana, St. Barthélémy (aka St. Barts) and half the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean; farther north St. Pierre & Miquelon off the coast of Canada; La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean; New Caledonia, Tahiti and Wallis & Futuna in Oceania.

Juniors in high school take only one bac exam, and that’s in French (grammar and literature).  You could view it, I guess, as a kind of practice exam, like the PSAT that college-bound American students take in their junior year.  Except that it isn’t practice.  It counts.  It counts a lot.  All four hours of it.  Yes, you heard me right.  Four hours!  All essays.  Which is why American college tests, with their multiple-guess and true-or-false questions, came as such a shock to my daughter when she started college in the States.
     The first part of this exam is a commentary of a text - last year a text by Lamartine, Racine, Ionesco or Victor Hugo - and it counts for one-fifth of the final exam grade.  A “commentary” is a highly stylized approach to a text, and you better have the formula down pat.
     The other part of the exam is a dissertation, which has its own methodology and counts for the other four-fifths of your grade... so it’s really make-it-or-break-it.  The topic of the dissertation in 2014 was “Do you expect a novel to transport you into the mind of a character?  Base your answer on the texts and works you have read and studied.”  Another year it was “Where does the emotion one feels when reading a poem spring from?”
     All very philosophical when you’re only 16 or 17.

All subjects besides French are tested in the senior year, which the French call “terminal”.  And I’m sure when you’re studying for it, you feel like it may prove terminal.  As I said, it’s a huge affair for a student, one that puts your mettle to the test.  Not to mention deciding which university will deign to enroll you, and thereby determining - for all intents and purposes - your entire future.  Nerves of steel come in handy here, but what teenager has those?
     The first senior-year test is always philosophy, and that happened yesterday, June 15.  Students have the choice of three questions, it being a free country.  Here are a few examples from the past:
     - Is moral action possible without an interest in politics?
     - Is work compatible with self-awareness?
     - Do works of art educate our perceptions?
     - Can one be indifferent to truth?
     - Is having a choice enough to make you free?
You have four hours.  Use them wisely.  Few students take less than the full four hours.  And God help you if “pencils down” is said before you’ve finished and tied it all together nicely.

Depending on what kind of college studies they’re planning, seniors will be in one filière, one educational lane, or another.  For the moment, those lanes are Literature, Economics, Science, Technology or the Arts, although they’ve evolved over the years.  The 0-20 grade you get on the philosophy exam will be multiplied by a “coefficient” that varies depending on which lane you’re in:  multiplied x7 if you’re in Literature, x4 for economics, x3 for science and art.  (Don’t know what it is for technology.)  So if you get a 10 on the exam and you’re studying in the Literature lane, you chalk up only 70 points toward the total that will say “Open Sesame” to the School of Your Choice.  If you get a 15, you’re up by 35 points to 105 and things are looking rosey.
     Are you still with me?
     Other subjects also have coefficients - mostly 2, 3 or 4.  But philosophy is The King of All Subjects.
     There are options you can take to buff up your final bac score.  This is where knowing yet another language not on your curriculum can come in handy, including sign language and “regional languages” such as Basque, Corsican or Breton.  Also playing an instrument or a sport with proficiency can rack up a few extra points.  But you can add on only two such “extras”, so the emphasis is still squarely on the traditional curriculum:  math, science, history/geography...

Exams are both written and oral.  And scored 0 to 20.  If your written score is high enough, you get to go on to the frontal attack of the oral exam, which is another tense moment in and of itself, but most people are happy to have reached that stage
     And grading is tough in France.  When I arrived at the Sorbonne, with an A- average from University of Michigan, I was shocked at the relative mediocrity of my grades:  10 or 12, which in America would be viewed as average at best.  The professor explained that 20 was for God and 19 for the teacher; the most I could ever hope for was 18.  All you need to pass the written part of the bac is 10 out of 20.  If you get 8, you’re offered a second chance, with different questions of course.  As of 12, you get honors.  14 gets you High Honors and 16 will get you whatever comes after High Honors in France.
     Passing both written and oral parts is necessary to win the prize.  The baccalauréat.

The age of students taking the bac varies, but 17 or 18 is the norm.  The questions are the same for all, regardless of age.  Last year the youngest candidate was 13; the oldest, 91, a senior citizen who sat down to the exam at the same time as his teen-age grandchild.
     Which personally I think merits some kind of celebration, especially if they both pass!

P.S.  Given what’s at stake, you can well imagine that knowing what questions are going to be asked would afford you an enormous advantage. And there has been skullduggery in the past. Which explains why the test folders are kept in a safe inside a safe inside a safe, all 60 million copies of them.  It also explains why any misprints are not just thrown away but shredded.  No dumpster-diving possible.
If you understand French, take a look at this video from TF1:

Added comments 2016:

With the high terrorism alert level this year, the subjects are not the only things being carefully guarded. Thinking that blowing up several hundred high school students might be an easy target for Daesh, this year the students have to be there early (7:20 am for a start at 8 am). They must have valid ID and their bags will be searched, as will those of anyone working in the establishment.
     As if those poor students weren’t already stressed out enough!

Subjects for 2016:

- Are our moral convictions based on experience?
- Is desire unlimited, by definition?
- Does working less mean living better?
- Do you have to be able to prove something in order to understand it?
- To be just (fair), must you obey the law?
- Can we always justify our beliefs?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Eating Out: Le Bouillon Racine

When I signed up to go to Russia last June, I didn’t know I’d be eating in one of the oldest restaurants in Paris today.
     “What’s the connection?” you ask.
     Easy.  One of the other people on the Russia trip is now a good friend of mine - I hope for many years to come - and she met me for lunch at a restaurant of her choosing.  One I used to walk by during my Sorbonne years:  Le Bouillon Racine.

Actually, there are two signs over two adjacent doors, indicating that there were once two rivals side by side: Bouillon Racine, named for the street, and Grand Bouillon Camille Chartier (not to be confused with Bouillon Chartier on the Right Bank).  Now they’re more or less one, except the one on the left offers international cuisine, I’m told, while the one on the right is traditional French.
     There’s a blue plate special daily, and you can lunch on any two of the three courses for a mere 15€95, approximately $18.  Today’s starter was a cream of carrot soup, as thick as if it were jut pureed carrots, sweet and full-flavored with a hint of herbs.  The main dish was a lamb stew with cumin, served with semolina.  The dessert was a cheesecake with a crumb pastry made of those speculoos cookies you find in Holland.  You know, the ones that fill your mouth with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger flavors.
     My friend opted for the blue plate special, minus the dessert.  Not feeling very hungry, and always unable to refuse a good risotto, I chose the risotto with gambas and scallops, all of it bathed in just the right amount of creme of seafish and pistacho, all of it served up on the plate as if it were an Impressionist tableau and taking what I call The Art of the Dribble to new levels of maestria.  I can honestly say it was every bit as delicious to eat as it was lovely to look at.
     Other items on the menu include four different soups; raw things (tuna tartare, beef carpaccio), foie gras and snails for starters; four different salads for those watching their waistline, as many French women are; six meat and four fish main dishes to choose from; a cheese tray; and eleven desserts to tempt you more than anyone should ever be tempted, including one that is called Forbidden:  caramel, dark chocolate and mascarpone ice creams sprinkled with caramel bits and draped in caramel sauce!
     Everything is cooked in-house, from fresh ingredients - no boil-in-the-bag here.  And yet the service is fast, which would indicate some serious food preparation in the kitchen.  I’m sure anyone working there gets excellent training in what being a chef should involve.

In addition to the cuisine and the service, something else that is lovely is the decoration.  This restaurant was created in 1907 and its founder Mr. Chartier chose Art Nouveau as his theme.  It starts as of the façade, with sculpted wood, mirrors and huge windows for ample light inside.
     And inside is more of the same:  sculpted wood, mirrors, ceramic edging and tiles, Art Déco representations of iris and roses... Even the furniture has flowing lines reminiscent of the Art Déco style.
     Bouillon Racine has been on the National Historical Monuments list of Paris since 1995, and rightly so. A meal there is like time travel back to the start of the last century.  And very tasty time travel at that.

Restaurant Le Bouillon Racine
3 rue Racine
Paris 6è

Daily noon to 11 pm
From 3 to 7 pm, tea is served
Happy hour 5 to 7 pm

Although in French, here are some links with lots of photos:

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Accras

France is largely a Roman Catholic country, although most people don’t attend mass on a regular basis, except for Christmas and Easter... maybe.  It’s said a Frenchman attends church four times during a lifetime:  for his christening, first communion, wedding and funeral.
     I usually recommend this recipe as an appetizer in February or early March, for Lent, as it's a fish recipe:  accras.
     That also offers me an excuse for slipping in a recette antillaise, a West Indian recipe.  While the sun once never set on the British Empire, France was no slouch either in that category.  French colonies dotted the globe: Africa, the Far East, eastern Canada, many Pacific islands... and even French Guyana in South America as well as several islands in the Caribbean.  My personal link, through the family of my children and my ex, is to Martinique.  Madinina - the Island of Flowers - as it was called in the Carib language of its inhabitants when Christopher Columbus “discovered” it in 1502.
     There are many typical créole recipes, and accras is one that has crossed over to many French plates and palates, provided there’s not too much piment (hot pepper).  Although it's a traditional appetizer made with salt cod - it’s a poor man’s dish - famous chefs now often replace the cod with crabmeat.  I love crab, but I find it far too bland to stand up to the other ingredients.  So let’s stick with the classics.
     Accras are small puffs, so the cod must be shredded rather than cut into hunks. Shredding also releases more taste.  Fingernails come in handy here.  Be sure to weed out any skin, bones or “stringy  bits”.  Another heads-up:  you might want to wear rubber gloves to cut the chili pepper because if you get it on your hands and then touch your eyes, it’ll really burn!  And for the parsley, a Frenchwoman taught me to place the leaves in a jelly glass and snip them with scissors until they’re minced; I find this so much easier than using a knife and cutting board.  Lastly, remember that, although you’ve soaked the cod, it was salt cod to begin with, so go sparingly with the salt shaker.
     So here’s the recipe, as dictated to me by my ex - who’s a West Indian chef par excellence.  Enjoy this bit of Caribbean sunshine, with or without a side of rum.

  • 200 g (7 oz) salt cod
  • 1 medium onion
  • 3 scallions (or the equivalent in chives)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 small fresh red chili pepper, seeds and stem removed
  • 2 stalks of parsley, minced
  • 300 g flour
  • 1 small packet of dry yeast
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ½ t of baking soda
  • salt and pepper
  • vegetable oil for frying (peanut, canola....)

- Soak the cod overnight, changing the water twice.
- Shred the cod into very small pieces, removing any bones and skin.
- Mince the onion, scallions, and garlic, as well as the parsley.
- Remove the stem and seeds from the chili pepper and mince it.  (You could use 1-2 tsp of chili paste instead.)
- Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl.  Mix in the cod, onion, garlic and scallions.
- Add the chili pepper and parsley.
- Mix in the yeast, baking soda and egg.  Salt and pepper to taste.
- Gradually add water until the batter has the consistency of a thick pancake batter (about 1½ c) and mix until smooth.
- Cover and let the batter rest for a few hours.
- Carefully slip teaspoons of batter into very hot oil and cook until the accras are golden.
- Drain on paper towels.
Serve hot.  For 6-8 servings

You can make the accras ahead of time, and then reheat them in the oven (450° for 5 min), but I think they taste better  - and especially crisper - if you eat them right away.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Recipe of the month: Chou farci

It’s March, the month that dedicates a day to St. Patrick.  But what does he have to do with France?
     Well, he was born in Roman England (Wales, actually) in the 5th century and at age 16 was carried off into slavery in Ireland by Irish raiders. After six years he escaped, returned to Wales and joined the priesthood.  Still no French connection? Aha!  Patrick went on to study in France at the Abbey of Lérins, a then-renowned monastery on a tiny Mediterranean island called St. Honorat off of Cannes.  Right next to the island of The Man in the Iron Mask (but that's another story).
     So you see, St. Honorat - France - St. Patrick - Ireland - stuffed cabbage.  Or rather chou farci.
     In France, say chou farci and people will think Auvergne, the ancient central highlands created by now-extinct volcanos.  And yet there are other regional recipes.  In Alsace, the dish is made with a red cabbage stuffed with chestnuts and poached in red wine.  On the Riviera, you’ll find a green cabbage stuffed with salt pork, wrapped in cheesecloth and boiled in lots of water.  In parts of the Alps, vermicelli pasta is added to the cooking water and served up as a soup before the main course of stuffed cabbage.
     But one thing they all have in common:  this is a poor people’s dish, whether in France or in Ireland.  Cabbage grows even in poor soil, without a lot of care and even when it’s fairly cold.  If you can’t grow it yourself, it won’t blow your budget when you get to the store’s cash register.  So much for the chou. As for the farci, the meat used in the stuffing can be leftovers of any kind (veal, chicken, beef, pork).  Just grind it up and you’re set.
     So try it out.  It’s pretty easy and very tasty, especially on a cold day.  And if you make it on St Patrick’s Day, you can even dress in green for dinner.

  • 1 large head of curly green cabbage
  • 3 slices of dried white bread
  • 1 lb ground lean pork
  • 1/4 lb ground chuck or veal
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3/4 t ground marjoram
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 T chopped parsley
  • 2-3 slices bacon or thinly sliced salt pork, diced
  • 1½ t salt
  • 1/4 t ground black pepper
  • 1 c veal or beef stock.
  • 1½ T flour
  • 1½ T butter
  • 2 T tomato paste

- Remove any outer cabbage leaves that are discolored or hard.
- Wash the head of cabbage and cut out enough of its center to make a cavity large enough for the stuffing.
- Put the cabbage in a large pot and cover it with boiling water.  Add 1 t of salt for each quart of water.  Bring the water back to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer covered for 5 minutes. Remove the cabbage from the water and turn it upside down to drain.
- Crumble the dried bread and mix it in with all the meats plus the onion, egg, pepper and herbs.  Add about 1½ t of salt and mix well.
- Check that the cabbage has drained well.  Spoon the stuffing mixture into the cavity, and if the outermost leaves are loose enough, slip a bit between them.  Tie up the package tightly with cooking string.
- Place the cabbage in a Dutch oven or large heavy pot and pour in 1 c of stock.  Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 45 minutes.  Add stock as needed.
- Blend the flour with the butter to form a roux and add it to the stock.  Then add the tomato paste.  If the liquid is too thick, add more stock, bit by bit.  Cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Remove the cabbage, take off the string and serve whole or cut up.
- Serve up the sauce separately to be spooned over the cabbage as desired.

Makes 6 servings.
Preparation time:  30 min
Cooking time:  50 min

You can use the cabbage you cut out to make another dish.  In poor man’s cuisine, nothing goes to waste.  Plus the stock can be used as a base for a vegetable soup.
If you want a red wine from the region to accompany this dish, try a St. Pourçain, a blend of gamay and pinot noir varieties.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Out & About: Maison de Balzac

During all those decades I lived in Paris full-time, there were many places I never got to.  Why?  Because I was trying to hold heaven-and-earth together as a freelance translator/interpreter with two children to clothe, feed and educate.  Work came in, left, right and center, and when you’re working freelance you can never say no because you never know when the next job will come.  So spare time wasn’t really something I had a lot of. And when I did have some, there was usually a tennis tournament to applaud my son in or a gym competition to attend, watching my daughter hurtle herself in potentially neck-breaking feats of gymnastic agility that exceed my understanding.  Or there was food to buy, meals to cook, toilets to scour and...  Well, you get the idea.  Life.
     So now I’m catching up.  And one thing I needed to catch up with was to go see Balzac’s house.

I’d seen Victor Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges years ago.  It was chock-a-block with the famous author’s furniture and mementos. But Balzac isn’t Hugo.  He was never France’s national hero, and he was never financially secure.
     As a matter of fact, what the Paris guidebooks call Balzac’s home was actually just an apartment that he rented in this modest house on a hillside in the Passy neighborhood, which was then still outside of Paris.  He lived here in five small, plain rooms from 1840 to 1847.  It’s the only one of his eleven Parisian residences that still exists.  Balzac chose this modest place to hide from his many creditors, even living under a false name:  Monsieur de Breugnol. His friends had to use a password to be allowed in, a password his creditors obviously weren’t given.  And if any of them did manage to sneak in, Balzac would scamper down the stairs and out the back door of the floor below.
     Of Balzac’s furniture, all that is left is his writing desk and chair.  The rest was sold off after his death, to pay those creditors. And that leaves the rooms looking a bit barren.  The desk and chair have been placed back in the tiny room where he basically wrote many of his best novels and much of his epic work, La Comédie Humaine - The Human Comedy.  In another room, there’s a huge document showing the convoluted “family tree” of its characters and how they’re inter-related. There are also pages of his manuscripts, with his corrections on them.  So it would be of great interest to Balzac scholars.
     Furniture may be lacking but there are fireplaces and ceiling decoration in the rooms, as well as portraits of Balzac and his family:  his somewhat aloof mother, his agèd father, and his younger sister Laure, to whom he was closest*. There are also a few statues and busts of him throughout the rooms, and many first edition books written by him, although I’m not sure if they actually belonged to him.  For me, the highlight of Things Balzac-ian was his turquoise-studded cane, more flamboyant than elegant, and very reminiscent of the vanity of this famous author’s true nature.

Outside in the garden, there’s another bust of Balzac.  And chairs to sit and enjoy the quiet**.  Not to mention a view of the Eiffel Tower - obviously not something Balzac would have seen, as it was built 37 years after he died. Balzac describes his years in this quiet house as being ascetic, but his abuse of coffee as well as drugs - not to mention his ample waistline and short nights - ended his life at a mere 51 years of age.
     This ordinary house is difficult to reconcile with Balzac’s larger than life persona and profligate spending, but it provided him with the perfect setting to focus on writing his brilliant works.  And that, in itself, is something we should be thankful for.

*  The museum attendant heard my friend and I conjecturing as to who the Laure in the portrait was.  From behind our backs, we heard him say, “That was his sister.  They were very close.”  He went on to tell us other details of Balzac’s life.  This was clearly more than a job to him; he probably went home and Googled things about the author’s life and works.  How many museum attendants do you know who delve into the subject they guard instead of just making sure visitors don’t damage or steal things?
** The day we were there, two teen-age boys were stretched out in the garden.  “You know,” one said to the other, “Balzac smoked cannabis.”  I don’t know who their source was for that little tidbit but it seemed to please them.

Maison de Balzac

47 r Raynouard; 16è
Métro: Passy, or also Trocadéro

Tuesday through Sunday, 10 to 6
Closed Mondays and holidays

Entry free,
but fee for special exhibits