Friday, October 28, 2011

Bon anniversaire, Statue of Liberty

La Liberté éclairant le monde.
      That’s her real name. Liberty enlightening the world.
     But we all just call her the Statue of Liberty.
     No one alive today remembers when New York Harbor wasn’t enlightened by this gigantic lady with the torch. She’s been there since October 28, 1886.
     125 years ago today.

As much as France and America have had a love-hate relationship, the love part seems to win out over the hate part whenever either is in need. But when things are hunky-dory? Not so much.
Auray, France - where Franklin landed in France, due to a storm
When the Colonies wanted their freedom from England, they turned to France, sending Benjamin Franklin to seek funding from the king in 1776 - and then sending him back as America’s first ambassador (1776-85). Of course, France did it mainly to niggle England, its "hereditary enemy", but still... without France’s financial aid and arms shipments, Americans would be driving on the left side of the road and talking with a funny accent. Then, when France had a little Revolution of its own, America was the first to help, albeit also to thwart England. (Great minds think alike.)
     When World War I broke out, America belatedly came in on the side of France and its allies in 1917. On July 4th of that year, Colonel Charles Stanton (and not Gen. Pershing) came to the Paris grave of French General Lafayette and said "Lafayette, nous voilà" (Lafayette, here we are), thanking him for having fought at George Washington’s side. 
     In World War II, America ultimately came again, this time on June 6, 1944, and sacrificed the lives of 2,499 Americans on the beaches of Normandy that day to start freeing France and the rest of Europe from Hitler’s madness. And when France celebrated the 50th anniversary of D-Day, no American I know of - myself included - was allowed to pay for one single drink anywhere in Paris. As much as they hate to admit it sometimes, the French remember. And so do we.
American Cemetery, above Omaha Beach

But back to the Statue. Today is her 125th anniversary, but she’s older than that.
     The idea that led to her birth is older still and leads back to a French law professor, Edouard René de Laboulaye, who supported the Union during the Civil War. A year after it ended, Laboulaye said, "If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort - common work of both our nations." Which is what happened. France provided the statue; America built the base.
     At the dinner where those words were spoken was a young French sculptor, Frédéric Bartholdi. He thought it sounded like a fine idea, but French ruler Napoleon III wasn’t all that convinced. And then came the Franco-Prussian War, so the project went on the back burner again. Finally in 1871, Bartholdi went to America to propose his services. As his ship sailed into New York Harbor, it passed Bedloe’s Island and the sculptor realized that all future ships would pass here, making this the perfect spot for the statue he had designed: a woman breaking free of chains. But coming so soon after the Civil War, Bartholdi thought that concept unwise and changed it (although there are broken chains at the statue’s feet; infer what you will.).
     The French government gave money, individual cities and regions pitched in and ponied up... even schoolchildren gave of their lait money. Bartholdi set to work, making two smaller models to test his design, both of which are still standing in Paris. The smallest is at the far end of the Luxembourg Gardens; the mid-sized one stands at what was then the limit of Paris, just past the Eiffel Tower... her back to it because she looks westward, beyond the horizon, to where her big sister stands.
     When the statue was finally completed, it was one of the technical feats of the 19th century, with Gustave Eiffel creating the framework that holds it up. The size of the figure meant that it had to be light, so copper was chosen and beaten into shape using the repoussé method in the foundry of Gaget, Gauthier & Co. (By 1900 the copper color had started to turn green, and the entire statue was green by 1906.)
     The statue’s arm was finished first and sent to the 1876 New York Centennial Exhibition to help collect funds for the building of the base, including a drive by publisher Joseph Pulitzer. When the centennial was over, the arm headed back to France. By 1878, the head was finished and it was put on exhibit at the Paris World Fair. The first rivet fastening the copper "skin" of one big toe to Eiffel’s framework was driven in by U.S. Ambassador Levi Morton, and the completed statue was accepted by Morton on July 4th, 1884. It was presented by Ferdinand de Lesseps, architect of the Suez Canal - which shows that this statue co-opted all those involved in the century’s technical feats.
     Now all France had to do was take it apart again and ship it across the Atlantic!
     Lady Liberty was given the first ticker tape parade ever and President Grover Cleveland presided over the dedication ceremony. A fit welcome for a lady who traveled across the ocean to lift her lamp beside our golden doors.

In 1916, German saboteurs set off loads of dynamite near Bedloe’s Island. The statue was damaged, especially the arm holding the flame and that was closed and remained so. (I would almost give my right arm to be able to go up onto the walkway around that torch and look out on Manhattan!) During World War II, the monument remained open but not illuminated for fear of air raids. After 9/11, the entire island was declared off-limits until the end of 2001. The base was reopened only in 2004 and the statue itself remained closed to visitors until 2009! Now it will be closed again for a year while the stairs and elevators are replaced, among other safety measures.
     I remember going up into Lady Liberty’s head in the summer of 1968 as a friend sailed back to France on the steamship France. I looked down from her crown and waved to him from the window, but I doubt he saw me. I saw Lady Liberty again - up close and personal - from sea level as a tug took me out to steamship France a few months later for my own trip across the Atlantic. Since then, her torch has been regilded as part of the Bicentennial of the United States of America. And now she has been equipped with a webcam in her torch, a fitting way to bring the venerable lady into the 21st century.

P.S. The statue’s real name - Liberty Enlightening the World - will forever be linked intimately to the words of a sonnet - The Colossus, by poet Emma Lazarus - auctioned off to help raise funds for the base. Lazarus worked with refugees newly arrived from the pogroms of eastern Europe and it is to them that her Colossus speaks:

Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Back and forth, across The Pond

As you know by now, I split my time between opposite sides of the North Atlantic. It wasn’t planned that way; it just happened. This ping-ponging back and forth across The Pond has many advantages. But it involves some cultural juggling as well.
      That becomes immediately obvious the first time I try to turn on a table lamp. In the States, the on/off switch is near the light bulb, whereas in France it’s lower down, on the cord. Usually I can remember this when it gets dark on my first evening in Montmartre. But the following morning, if the sun’s not up yet, I tend to forget and fumble around my nightstand before the penny drops and the light goes on, first in that little cartoon cloud over my head and then in the bedroom.
     Then there’s the question of floors in a building. In case someone invites you over and says they live on the troisième étage - third floor - remember that while Americans count the ground level as the first floor, Europeans - including the English, who are separated from us by a common language - feel the first floor is one flight up. It’s the ground floor that’s on the ground. So you’ll have three flights of stairs to walk up, not two. (N.B.: In French "ground floor" translates to rez-de-chaussée, rez meaning level - as in the verb "to raze" - and chaussée being the pavement... thus "level with the pavement".)
     Even household chores can prove foreign. First of all, there’s vocabulary... practical words such as "can-opener", which I did not learn in college French - thus making me look stupid in a certain Parisian hardware store. And then there’s the ignominy of helping a friend set the table and being told ever so nicely that I was doing it all wrong. So just so you know: the fork lies tines down, the knife blade faces left and the dessert spoons and forks go head-to-toe at the top of the plate, at 12 o’clock. That’s how it’s done à la française.
     And while we’re on the subject of eating, Americans need to get it right. An entrée - with or without the snobbery of an accent - is not, I repeat not the main dish. The main dish is the plat principal in France, the principal plate. An entrée is the dish you enter into the meal with, as you use the entry to enter a house. This is something that still confuses me no end when I read an American menu, maybe because it is so etymologically counter-intuitive.
     But these are all details. The bigger issues come when you go about planning your day to accomplish all those ordinary tasks. For instance, checks. Lord knows how many checks I’ve had to throw away on both sides of the Atlantic because I filled them out wrong. Leaving aside the issue of writing francs instead of euros for months after the single currency went into effect, I’ve ruined many a check by writing the wrong thing on the wrong line. Let me explain. In the U.S. of A., the person you write the check to goes on the top line. But in France, it’s the sum that goes on the top line and the beneficiary on the line below. The tacit logic behind this is "pay the amount of (fill in the blank) to (fill in the blank)", instead of "pay to ..." - well, you get the idea. And just when I get the hang of it in France, I travel back to the States, where I blithely write out "Pay to the order of $20" on a good half dozen checks before my mind shifts gears.
     There’s another problem that arises in writing checks - and elsewhere - and that’s the date. In the U.S., we write October 23, 2011. Or in figures: 10/23/11. Whereas Europeans - even the Brits - write 23 October, which translates to 23/10/11. With numbers like these, there can be no doubt that a mistake has been made, given that a year here on Earth has only twelve months. But some dates can prove problematic. For instance, when I first enrolled at the Sorbonne I filled in my date of birth as 8/6/... (never mind the year). My credentials all came back with my birthday marked as June 8th. It took me a while to figure it out. And then I had to go through all the red tape of French bureaucracy to correct it. Believe me when I say that making a mistake is much easier than rectifying one.
     Even calendars are a trap. In America, the week starts with Sunday on a calendar. In France, it starts on a Monday, which is more in keeping with "...and on the seventh day, He rested". So I have to be very careful that I write a Tuesday appointment in the second square of the week, instead of the third. Otherwise a superficial glance at the calendar tells me I have all day to soak in a tub, from which I’m rousted by an angry phone call from the dentist’s office asking where the hell I am!
     Add to that the fact that the French use a 24-hour clock, in which 3:00 becomes 15.00, and you have grounds for also being two hours late for something. (I once missed my transatlantic crossing on the steamship France because of that. It took a tugboat and stopping the France twenty minutes off of the Statue of Liberty to get me on board... but that’s another story.) So when looking at timetables or TV programs or movie schedules, remember to subtract 12 from anything over 12 in order to get the correct U.S. time.
     And then there are errands, which do not follow the same daily rhythm on both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, in America, you can do your shopping just about any day of the week. And you can eat at most restaurants any time of the day. In France, however, many banks close at lunchtime for one or two hours and most restaurants - except brasseries - have specific hours for lunch and supper, especially in the provinces. So when traveling outside of Paris, make sure you stop for lunch by 1:15 (or 13.15) if you don’t want to go hungry. On the other hand, shops and stores usually stay open later than in the States, which means you can still buy things for dinner until 7 pm (19.00), by which time dinner would be over in Massachusetts, the dishes washed and the TV already on. And most restaurants don’t even open their doors until 19.30, so if you’re planning to eat out, be forewarned.
     Then there are Sundays. Almost all stores are closed on Sundays, except for the corner shops. The idea is to give small businesses a chance not to be run out of existence by big box and chain stores. So don’t expect to do the week’s food shopping on a Sunday. You won’t find anything but the Arab green grocer open, and he’s pressed for space so his selection is limited. Mondays aren’t looking good either. Most shops are closed on Mondays, as are many restaurants - all because French law requires businesses to give their staff two consecutive days off. So plan wisely, Grasshopper. (I won’t go into the August Problem because I covered it already in "Not April, But August in Paris" - Aug. 20, 2011.)
     The French have other ways of doing things, and other priorities. It’s not rocket science, but it toys with the way we’ve almost hard-wired ourselves to plan out our days. Just don’t lose your sense of humor and you’ll be fine.
     There’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.

P.S. Warning: if you’re ever working as a spy, do not count 1-2-3. with your fingers. It is always thumb-first, not last! I saw a war movie where this got someone shot.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Out and About: Diplomatie

No, that’s not a spelling mistake. That’s the name of a play I saw in Paris in the spring. It means diplomacy, in French. (But you figured that out, didn’t you?)
     Anyone who has lived in Paris for a while knows the story of the near-destruction of the French capital by the Nazis at the end of World War II. Those plans were also covered in a famous 1966 movie - "Is Paris Burning?" - by French film director René Clément, acted out trilingually by a cast of stars from France, Germany, England and the United States.
     The plot, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the true story, is a fascinating one. On August 25th, 1944, the Allies were at the gates of Paris. As dawn broke, Dietrich von Choltitz, Military Governor of Paris, was ready to execute Hitler’s orders to blow up the capital before the Nazi’s retreat: "The city must not fall into the enemy's hand except lying in complete debris." All the bridges were to be blown up, which would dam up the Seine River and flood all the low-lying neighborhoods of Paris - a good fifth of its total surface. And all the monuments were to be destroyed, from the wedding cake-ness of the Sacré-Coeur and the lacework of the Eiffel Tower to the venerable Notre-Dame and the prideful Arc de Triomphe. Nothing would be left of Paris, and its population would be either blown up along with it or demoralized for years to come, its economy in tatters and faced with the enormous cost of rebuilding. Von Choltitz was a general of the old school whose loyalty to the Reich had never been questioned, either by himself or by anyone else. But as the glories of Paris can still be enjoyed today, the question is: why did von Choltitz not carry out those orders?
     The course of history was perhaps changed by a dawn meeting between von Choltitz and Raoul Nordling, Consul-General of Sweden in Paris. The two men had met before. Could Nordling have convinced the General to refuse to carry out an order from his commander-in-chief? And if so, how?
     Given all that, the interest of the play - as in Greek tragedies - isn’t so much what is going to happen but rather how it is presented. And that’s where Diplomatie really shines.
     The play was written by Cyril Gély, who imagined the negotiations between these two men and how Nordling, who was born in Paris and loved it dearly, might have won over the loyal general. During the one-act play, which runs a fast hour and 40 minutes, the upper hand is volleyed back and forth. And as it is, these two men are gradually fleshed out with emotions that are easy to understand, managing to make the German general a surprisingly touching figure.
     Added to a most excellent script is the play’s tight direction by the ever-talented Stephan Meldegg, a convincing and effective stage design by Stéphanie Jarre, and highly inventive lighting effects by Roberto Venturi. But more than all that, these are absolutely brilliant tag-team performances by two fabulous actors: Niels Arestrup and André Dussollier.
Niels Arestrup
     Arestrup is probably the more familiar of the two because of the films he’s made over his 30-year career (including Julian Schnabel’s much-awarded "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"). In addition, Arestrup has won two Césars (the French Oscar) and is currently starring in the gripping movie, "Tu Seras Mon Fils" by Gilles Legrand, which has still to cross the Atlantic.

André Dussollier
     André Dussollier also has a career of some 30+ years as well as three Césars (plus five more nominations) for his screen roles - not to mention countless appearances on television and four Molières (French Tony Award) for stage roles ranging from slapstick comédies du boulevard to the classical Molière himself.
     All this combines to make this one of the best plays I’ve seen in years, fast-moving and full of rebondissements, which is French for "you never know what’s going to happen next".

But why is she telling us about something we won’t be able to see, you ask? Ah, but you will!  Because this play will be back on stage by popular demand at the Théâtre de la Madeleine from October 1st through December 31st of this year.  And by the way, both actors say it's the last stage play they will ever do - which makes it even more compelling to see.
     There are also plans to make Diplomatie into a movie starring Arestrup and Dussollier, hopefully filmed in a way that preserves the tête-à-tête intimacy of their historic dilemma. So even if you can’t make it to Paris, you may one day be able to see this remarkable performance on the silver screen.

P.S. In the movie "Is Paris Burning?", the role of Nordling is played by Orson Welles and von Choltitz by Gert Fröbe, the nefarious Goldfinger of James Bond fame.

For reservations and a clip of the play itself, click on:
Théâtre de la Madeleine
19 rue de Surène
75008 - Paris

All photos © Dunnara Meas

Sunday, October 9, 2011

E. Dehillerin: A kitchen store that sells things you don't even know exist

If France is the country of fine food, and Paris is the capital of France, then it should have a place where one can buy all the utensils necessary to create said fine food. And it does: E. Dehillerin, appropriately located in the neighborhood that was once Le Ventre de Paris, the Stomach of Paris, i.e. Les Halles.
     Since 1820, Dehillerin has been purveying all things needed to make a perfect soufflée, an outstanding roast or an exquisite île flottante. They advertise themselves as a family business that selects "the very best in professional utensils for cooking and pastries". In short, everything you need to cook from soup to nuts.
     The store is famous for its copperware, which is featured in a window that hasn’t changed in all the time I’ve been going there. That exquisitely crafted copper rooster still sits on that copper ball, and the dust on him has almost become a patina. But the store also carries a full line of cast iron cookware, as well as aluminum for induction ranges. Not to mention any kind of cutlery you might desire, including knives sharp enough to replace a guillotine. (I saw my first zester here and have since bought many of them for my gourmet friends.) They also sell cooking apparatus such as food mills and ricers and graters and wickedly sharp mandolines that will slice even the most recalcitrant vegetable. Plus an assortment of molds - ranging from the comically tiny (for petits fours) to the unimaginably gigantic - and the very latest in non-stick Flexipans. In short, if you want it, they’ve got it. And all at an amazingly reasonable price.
     On my recent visit, workers were busily repainting the entire facade in its trademark forest green. And a faster paint job I’ve never seen. It was a Monday, and the store usually closes for an hour and a half for lunch so I’m betting the intention was to finish the job during lunch, but it ran over. They hadn’t even taken time to put up "Wet Paint" signs
     Dehillerin has the reputation of being snooty, but that has never been my experience. Quite the contrary. The moment you come through the door, someone asks what they can help you with. And you feel you really ought to know, because one look around tells you they’re very busy people. If you’re not sure what you came in for, or you’re there just out of curiosity, simply say you’d like to look around a bit. They’ve heard it before. They’ve heard it all before.
     And they’re very handy with advice. I buy my skillets there: "Made in France since 1830 by de Buyer. Extra thick black steel (2.5 mm thickness). For use on any heating element: gas, vitroceramic, electric, and induction. Riveted steel handle." Sure these skillets are heavy, but they cook up a storm. When I bought my first one, the clerk sized me up and decided I wasn’t a professional. "Now NEVER wash it with detergent," he chided me, "and NEVER let it sit in water." I assured him I wouldn’t - but I have, once or twice, when it proved stubbornly impossible to clean otherwise. This time I get the same admonition, and I admit I have washed my old one (instead of just wiping it clean immediately and scouring it with coarse salt, if need be), and he frowns, but I say I never leave it to soak. He still looks saddened, so I add that I always sit it back on the burner for a minute or two to make sure it’s really dry before I put it away, and that seems to reassure him because he smiles and says, "Ah, bon, dans ce cas...".
     Even if I come in with some specific purchase in mind, I always like to poke around the store to see what else they have. The place is tiny and the aisles are narrow with stock piled high on plain wooden shelves. And there’s even more downstairs in the basement - a mysterious place indeed, dimly lit and dusty, reached by appropriately creaky wooden steps (like the ones that led down to my grandmother’s cellar in Pennsylvania). That’s where all the more professional stock is kept, especially all those huge cafeteria-size pots large enough for a cannibal to cook a whole person in!
     The entire store is no-frills and glamour is considered superfluous. Not one inch, not one centimètre of space goes unused. (Which is similar to many a kitchen I’ve seen in pocket-sized French neighborhood restaurants.) Shelving soars right up to the very high ceiling, requiring a ladder to retrieve that much-coveted Dutch oven. Baking rings are suspended from the ceiling, including one large one shaped like the Eiffel Tower. Other utensils hang from pegboard mounted on all the walls. The clerks are constantly climbing up and down, handing things over people’s heads, or weaving down the aisles past customers from all across the globe. In the time it took to buy my skillet, I heard customers conversing in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, French - of course - and American... a lot of American.
     Once you’ve found what you came for - or something brilliant that you never knew existed - you find a clerk, if he - or now she - hasn’t been accompanying you all along. They write you up a bill and escort you to what passes in France for a line at la caisse, where you pay up. Then your goods are passed to a young gentleman whose one purpose in life - day in, day out, all year long - is to wrap your purchase in traditional plain brown paper. As he’s the only one who has time to quip, I ask him what he does at Christmas. He replies that wrapping Christmas presents is his wife’s job. Understandably.

E. Dehillerin is not a store for the faint of heart. But even if you’re not a professional, there’s still no reason to deny yourself the pleasure of discovering this Ali Baba’s Cavern of Things Gastronomic. Don’t break into a cold sweat, fearing they’ll throw you out. They know who’s who, and what side their brioche is buttered on. They’ll take you under their somewhat rough Gallic wing and make sure you get what you need, if not what you thought you wanted. Just don’t try to engage them in conversations about your Aunt Betty’s cooking or how you make your quiche. They’re just not interested.
     They probably make a better quiche themselves anyway. And I’ll bet they got the recipe from Curnonsky himself when he came in to buy his cooking utensils there.


Open Monday from 9:00 to 12:30 and 2:00 to 6:00 and from Tuesday to Saturday from 9:00 to 6:00. Closed Sundays and holidays

18 & 20, rue Coquillière / 51, rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau - 75001 PARIS
Tel.: 33 (0)1 42 36 53 13 - Fax: 33 (0)1 42 36 54 80


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Recipe of the Month: Civet de Lapin

It’s fall. And as I traveled across the southwest of France, I saw hunters out with their dogs in the fields. My father was a hunter, which is why I know enough to make a distinction between Thumper in "Bambi" and a delicious rabbit stew set in front of me. But for all of you who are overcome by that "awwww" factor, maybe you should skip this month’s recipe. For those of you who have had to fend off rabbit attacks on your vegetable garden, however... well, maybe you’ll understand Old Mr. MacGregor enough to cook up a pot of bunny stew.
     If you need more convincing, know that rabbit meat is high in iron, which all bodies need to stay healthy. And its fat content is similar to that of chicken or turkey (i.e. low), even though it’s classified as a red meat. Rabbit is also low in saturated fats, which means it doesn’t produce the "bad" cholesterol, LDL. All of which rank rabbit as a healthy food. Does that help?
     In French, civet means "stew", but it’s a far cry from its German relative, hasenpfeffer. First of all, there’s no vinegar or pickling spices or schlag. That would be German. This is French... full of herbs and wine.  France in a pot. And a nice meal on an autumn day.

  • one rabbit, cut up into pieces (as you would a chicken)
  • 5 or 6 carrots, cut into round slices
  • ½ bottle of good red wine
  • a slice of thick-cut bacon, diced
  • a large onion, diced
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, depending on size
  • 1 T flour
  • 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1 t dried)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 or 6 large sprigs of parsley (or 2 t dried)
  • 1 T olive oil

- Heat the olive oil. Sauté the bacon and the onion. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
- Brown the rabbit on both sides. Once it’s browned, add the flour and cook for one minute, stirring. Add the bay leaves, thyme and parsley.  Pour in the half bottle of wine and the equivalent of a half bottle of hot water. Bring back to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and let simmer for about an hour.
- Add the carrots and cook until both they and the rabbit are tender.

Serves 4

If you need another vegetable, try steamed potatoes or rice or macaroni.

Serve with a full-bodied red wine.

P.S.  For more on bunnies, you can go to one of my previous blogs:  The Rabbits of Roissy.  And the good news is that I just spotted one of them on my last trip back from France, hopping merrily across a grassy patch between taxiways, then disappearing down a rabbit hole.  And no, he wasn't white, nor did he carry a fob watch and mutter "I'm late!"  I have no idea why rabbits would want to burrow in such a noisy area which must tremble with every plane that takes off or lands... and that would be about one a minute for most of the day.  It doesn't sound like Prime Bunny Real Estate to me.  Go figure.  Or ask Bugs.