Saturday, October 26, 2013

Out and About: Exhibits: Félix Vallotton

Vieille rue de Marseille, 1901
I defy anyone to come to Paris and not find an art exhibit they want to see.  Even if they don’t know they want to see it.
     That’s what happened to me.  During a lunch with a good friend with impeccable taste, she mentioned a show at the Grand Palais:  Félix Vallotton.  And I didn’t know who that was.
     I should have.  He was painting during a period I know fairly well because I love Impressionism and his artworks start around 1887, which means he’s a contemporary of all the Impressionist masters:  Pissaro, Sisley, Degas, Morisot, Cézanne, Renoir, Cassatt, Caillebotte... even the great Monet.  He’s also a contemporary of the Post-Impressionists Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec.  All of them, I know.  Vallotton?  Walou ( which means “nothing” in the Arabic that has infiltrated today’s French slang).
     So trusting Catherine’s taste, I head off on a sunny Monday to the Grand Palais.

First a word about the building.  The Grand Palais was built for the 1900 World’s Fair (Exposition Universelle).  That fell right in the middle of the Art Nouveau wave and its architecture nods to that movement.  Neo-Baroque stone on the outside, but airy inside, thanks to an Eiffel-like structure - including intricate, flowing ironwork on the staircases - and of course to its glass roof.
Femme fouillant dans un placard, 1901
     The building totals 77,000 square meters of exhibit space.  And if you don’t understand how much that is, it’s equivalent to 19 acres.  The technical prowess of creating such a building lies in the fact that it’s all roofed in by a glass structure, the likes of which had never been possible before.
     The Exposition Universelle ran from April to November of 1900.  When it closed, the Grand Palais became a museum, except for during World War I - when it served as barracks for colonial troops and later on as a hospital - and during World War II, when the Germans requisitioned it for garage space.  Oh, and then in 1944 it was used illicitly to house a circus, until a fire broke out and the firefighters had to battle not only the flames but the wild animals!
     Across the street from the Grand Palais stands the Petit Palais, its little sister, also now a museum.  It, too, dates from the Exposition Universelle.

But back to Félix Vallotton.
La blanchisseuse, 1895
     Born in 1865 in Lausanne, he studied art in Paris at age 17, eventually taking French nationality in 1900.  His illustrations and woodblock prints made him famous in his twenties, and attracted the Nabis, a movement he joined for a while.  Vallotton painted prolifically, as did Van Gogh, and was always looking for new topics.  World War I is a dark period in his works, which express the horror of this War to End All Wars.  Afterwards, he turned back to other topics, and his fame grew until his death in 1925.  Vallotton is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery, if you want to drop by and say hello.

This show covers the length and breadth of his art, with many works from the Musée d’Orsay and woodblocks from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.  But many other canvases come from Swiss and American museums:  Bern, Lausanne, Geneva, Zurich, Chicago, Baltimore.  And, of course, from private collections.  It’s set up chronologically, more or less.
Le provincial, 1909
   The first work is a self-portrait at age 20 and another at 32.  There are other portraits, including one of Emile Zola and a woodcut of Edgar Allan Poe.  There are also a few magnificent ones of African women that show great mastery in the transfer on canvas of skin colors and facial traits.  Others were probably commissions.  And there are nudes, mostly reclining but one tender one showing two bare naked ladies playing with cats.
Honfleur dans la brume, 1911
   Throughout the exhibit are many landscapes, mostly along the seaside.  One depicts a beach at Etretat, with ladies doing their laundry.  Another, of Honfleur, is so real that from across the room I think it might be a photograph.
     I most like what I call Vallotton’s snapshots.  There’s one of a laundress scurrying through the streets with a load of laundry in her arms.  Another shows a woman’s silhouette searching for something in a cupboard; I imagine her being a maid because of her headscarf, or maybe she’s just the lady of the house doing some spring cleaning.  Yet another, more dreamlike, shows a boy playing with a red ball.
Le ballon, 1899
     Of the multiple rooms, two focus on his woodcuts.  Vallotton did several series, one being what I would describe as the “ills of society”.  Another series zeroes in on what the French used to call “Le Cinq à Sept”, meaning the hours between 5 and 7 pm when men would sneak out of their office early to visit their “fancy ladies”.  The one I enjoy particularly is called L’Alerte and shows a flock of swans attacking a swimmer trying to escape to the safety of the beach.  One swan rips a hole in her bathing suit, revealing her buttocks for all to see, which was very taboo and risqué in those days.
     Somewhere in the second part of the show is a room with very strange - and large - works of what the exhibit calls “modern mythology”.  Here are women being carried off by bulls or satyrs.  Dionysus and Saturnalia are rife in this room.  That room is followed by another with scenes of horror from World War I.  I find neither of these themes attractive, and they stand in sharp opposition to the rest of his works, both in style and color.
La valse, 1893 
   Overall, Vallotton floated from style to style.  Some works were very Impressionistic.  Others were definitely Nabi-influenced but most would probably fall into the vague catch-all category of Post-Impressionist.  They reflect a personal impression of a scene yet sometimes reducing things to bare bones, such as the boy and his ball, or the white beach with two solitary figures, or the minimalist silhouette of the woman in Le Provincial.  Some are almost photographic, like his nature morte of the bell peppers.  One dream-like oil of the Nabi variety attempts to show the movement of dancers waltzing, as did the movement of the flags flapping in the wind in Monet’s Rue Montorgueil or Hôtel des Roches Noires.
     For all these reasons, Félix Vallotton is hard to pigeonhole.  Which makes it a safe bet that everyone will find something they can connect with.  A good reason to go take a peek.

L'Africaine, 1910

Félix Vallotton - Le feu sous la glace

Grand Palais
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until January 20, 2014
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Saturday, October 19, 2013

On the Road: Albi

Albi, with the cathedral on the right

On my third day in southwest France, Daniel kindly drives me all the way to Albi, even though he has lots of other things he’s put on hold while ushering me around his adopted region.  His car door still not repaired (see my previous blog, On the Road - Quercy), we set off in another borrowed car.  On the way, he stops so I can get a photo of Cordes-sur-Ciel, which he decrees is a tourist trap not worth visiting.  But more on that later.
  After about an hour, we arrive in Albi, with its fortress cathedral and Toulouse-Lautrec Museum.  Daniel delivers me to the B&B which will be my home for 48 hours, gives me a bear hug and heads back to Saint-Antonin.

Cathédrale Ste. Cécile, Albi
In order to understand Albi, and much of this part of southwest France, it’s good to know a bit about what went on here in the 13th century.  That would involve Catharism, a word taken from the Greek katharoi meaning "the pure".  This religious movement, somewhat similar to Martin Luther’s Protestant Revolt later on, thrived between the 12th and 14th centuries in southern Europe and posed a direct challenge to the Catholic Church, which cried “heresy” and called it the Church of Satan.  So in 1208 Pope Innocent III sent a legate, Pierre de Castelnau, to meet with the leading and powerful noble of the region, Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse.
Albi on the Tarn River
  Unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands of people subsequently slaughtered, Castelnau was murdered, declared a martyr by the Pope and the Albigensian Crusade was off and running for some 20 years.  Any noble who sided with the Pope was allowed to confiscate land held by the Cathars or their supporters, which made just about everything fair game.  And this land was rich.
When the question arose of how to tell Cathars from Catholics, the reply was “Kill them all; God will recognize His own.”  No consideration was given to rank, age or sex.  Simon de Montfort was one of the most blood-thirsty of all the Pope’s soldiers and it eventually won him the title of leader of the Crusader army.
To mop up any Cathars who managed to escape, the Inquisition began, with the goal of annihilating any remaining heretics.  Those who weren’t burned at the stake were forced to wear a yellow cross on their outer garments and live in ghettos (sound familiar, right down to the color?)
  And that, in a nutshell, is Catharism.

Ste. Cécile & Albi by night
The struggle between the Catholic Church and the upstart religion of the Cathars also explains the fortress cathedral of Albi - Sainte Cécile’s - and the adjoining fortress palace of Berbie, both made of red brick, the building material of choice in this region.  Construction of the cathedral began in 1282 and stretched over more than a century.  It was meant to make the Cathars cower in awe of the conquering power that the Catholic Church had just demonstrated and to loom above the city as a constant reminder to heretics to stay in their place, or else.
  Once inside Ste Cécile’s, you see a cathedral as they all were initially:  painted from floor to ceiling... and then across the ceiling as well.  Hard to imagine that Notre-Dame in Paris once looked like this, but here you don’t need to summon up your imagination.  Just look around.  On either side of the altar stretches a fresco of The Last Judgment.  The column to the right visualizes the punishments that await sinners; the column to the left, the joys that will reward the sin-less.  In an era when most people didn’t know how to read, one picture like this was worth a million words.
  In addition to this every-day altar, Ste Cécile’s has another one at the opposite end.  This one was decorated during the 15th century in Gothic flamboyant style and is now visitable only at a fee, a modest one of 2€ that goes to maintain all this magnificence.  It’s well worth that price - less than a coffee - if only to see the carvings of the wooden stalls, the miserere on which the priests rested their opulent behinds.  One is of a voluptuous mermaid, which I guess made it acceptable to show bare breasts; after all, it wasn’t a real woman.  And there are several scenes of the tribulations of Hell, which often involve the Inserting of Things Up One’s Bum; still, that Biblical explanation doesn’t make it seem any less risqué in such a place of worship.
Palais de la Berbie
  The Palais de la Berbie between the cathedral and the Tarn River was the residence of the bishop of Albi.  It, too, is built like a fortress, with tall fortifications protecting it and its formal French gardens.  Today the palace is neither military nor episcopal, but rather cultural, ever since the art collection of native boy Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec moved in.  Here you’ll find some of the artist’s earliest works, as well as portraits, posters (which were what paid Henri’s bills) and his famous cancan drawings of the Moulin-Rouge, of Yvette Guilbert, La Goulue and other scenes of Montmartre cabarets and bordellos.  HTL is truly Albi’s original Bad Boy.
  The museum is the first thing I visit because I love Toulouse-Lautrec.  After all, he’s part of my adopted Montmartre.  And also because it’s already late morning and the museum closes for two hours at noon, a charming tradition of the French provinces that wreaks havoc with a visitor’s schedule.  This is a trap that can be avoided by a call ahead of time, or simply looking on a museum’s website.
  After an all-too-rapid walk through the many rooms, I cross the street and disappear into the old part of town.  The winding streets branch out from the Covered Market, which stands astride the past - farmer’s stalls on the ground floor - and the present - a supermarket hidden downstairs, underground, out of sight.
  Close to the cathedral, among the backstreets, is St. Salvy Church.  Not at all a fortress, this one, and not even made out of brick.  It’s a blend of Romanesque and Gothic, even flamboyant, and marked with the arms of Albi (the state) next to those of the church.   What’s more, it still has its cloister, where I stumble on high school students laughing and flirting, along with a grandfather reading a story to his granddaughter.  This isn’t what the monks intended, but it certainly brings the old building to life.
  Coming out the back of the cloister and circling toward the cathedral, there’s an old house at what might be called an intersection if these streets were rectilinear.  But they’re not, so this house wraps around two different streets with a bit of facade on the square-that-isn’t-square.  It’s the Maison du Vieil Alby, the House of Old Albi, home to the authorities that work tirelessly to preserve and restore the historic sectors of the city.  The building’s top floor has the traditional soleilhou - a covered balcony where people used to dry their harvests, and in particular their pastel (known in medieval England as woad), the plant that made the dye that made this region rich.  It was replaced in the mid-16th century by more reliable harvests of indigo from India, and now all that remains are these soleilhous, the word “pastel” and a particular shade of blue that most local shutters are painted.
Maison du Vieil Albi
  Around another corner is the house where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, of noble lineage, was born and raised.  At age 14 he broke one femur, a year later the other, and neither leg ever grew after that, leaving him deformed, a normal man with a child’s legs.  His infirmity explains why he felt more accepted among the flora and fauna of Montmartre, its artists and prostitutes, than among his fellow nobles.  An old guide book said you could visit his home, but that’s no longer true, so you’ll just have to make do with staring at the brick walls and imagining the youth of this prolific artist.
Résidence le Castelnau
  There’s another house farther down near the cathedral... a building really.  It’s called Résidence le Castelnau and is typical of buildings constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries.  This medieval condo has a central courtyard with a well - quite a luxury at the time, the “running water” of the moment - and arcades on the ground floor plus a soleilhou on the top floor.  It was prime real estate, the top of the line of its time.
  And that’s my day in Albi.

With a whole other day at my disposal, and a friend with a car, it’s time to see the environs.  Michel insists that we visit Cordes-sur-Ciel, obviously not sharing Daniel’s disdain of it as a tourist trap.  As it turns out, and with October not really being a tourist season, much of the town is boarded up... some of it because no one obviously lives there any more, given the state of disrepair and overgrown shrubbery.
  Our first stop is at the bottom of the hill, to buy some eau de vie - plum brandy - and some chocolate-covered raisins from the nearby Gaillac vineyards.  Then a long slog uphill in a mist that makes the cobblestones slick.  After three medieval gates now missing their portcullis, we reach the top.  It’s turned cold out on the terrace of the only flat part of the town, so I order a glass of port wine from the café to get the blood flowing.
  We poke around some more and find lots of cats but only a few crafts shops open, including one that sells jewelry made of vegetable ivory - yes, you read that right.  It’s what buttons were made of before plastic was invented.  It turns out to be the seed of an Amazonian palm tree that, when sliced up, turns hard and the color of ivory.
  Then we discover a shop that not only sells foie-gras, but also has a tiny room with four tables and a view of the kitchen where we can get some lunch.  (Well, there’s a terrace, but it’s not really terrace weather.)  The tagliatelle with foie-gras sauce does more to warm me than the port did, and the young owner and his chef keep a sprightly conversation going.  They tell us how, after the tourist season ends, Cordes is dead, and that the few places still open now will close within a fortnight.  I can’t imagine how lonely this town will be then!  Only the cats will be left.
  We slip and slide downhill to the car and take off for something bigger:  Villefranche-de-Rouergue.

I’ve read about how rich Villefranche once was, how it’s one of the best-preserved of all the bastides built 700 to 800 years ago when England’s King Henry II Plantagenêt and French King Phillip Augustus fought over this countryside.  The bastides, with their straight streets running off of a central square with arcades, were the first experiments in urban planning.  Well, right now the square is being renovated, so all the paving stones have been ripped up, which definitely detracts from its pizzazz.  The wood of the arcades could use some paint or varnish as well.  And the resolutely grey skies do nothing to set off the beauty of the bourgeois houses above the arcades.  There was once great wealth here, but it just looks sad now.  Maybe with some sun and loving...
  By the time we’re ready to leave, I’m way too cold to visit the Chartreuse St. Sauveur, which a sign says is the largest cloister in all of France. Maybe another visit, once the square has been repaved and the arcades restored.

The road back to Albi skirts harvested fields and thick forests as it winds along the southern folds of the Massif Central’s ancient lava flows.  With a bit more daylight left, we detour to see a smaller version of Cordes.  Such hill towns aren’t really difficult to find because in medieval times, farmers all over France took refuge from raiders by heading for the high ground.  In the north, it was from the Vikings; in the south, from the Barbary pirates (and actually more Vikings!).  Not to mention from English armies during the Hundred Years War.  The local people were always trying to keep invaders out, keep them from killing the men, raping the women, eating the food and running off with the livestock.  That’s what all those fortifications were for.  At best, to dissuade.  If not, to tire the invaders out with a long uphill trek.
  Castelnau-de-Montmirail, our detour, is one such village.  As there are many Castelnaus throughout France - and being of a curious nature - I looked up the word in a Middle French dictionary; it means “a village or town founded in the Middle Ages near a castle”.  Today many of the castles have disappeared, but the villages are left.  They’re all a skein of narrow streets, except for the central square... in this part of France, always with arcades.  This village comes without tourists but with children, which makes me love it all the more.  Children mean vitality. A real year-round life, not just a summer mirage.  And there’s a post office, as well as much renovation work, including on the church.  I see a poster on a lovely newly-restored house just off the square and note down the number of the prospective seller.  Out of curiosity, I call to find out how much they’re asking.  Answer:  a third of what my small Paris apartment would bring.  Something to dream about on my last night’s sleep in Albi

In the morning, the sun is shining - briefly - but the bottom has fallen out of the thermometer.  Forecasts were for highs of 21°C (70°F) throughout my trip, but this morning the mercury reads a mere 8° (46°) and hopes are for only 15° (60°).  My light jacket is no match.
  Michel drives me to the train station in Toulouse, about an hour away.  My plan was to drop off my bag at the consigne and walk around town taking photos.  Toulouse has a reputation for beauty, la ville rose - the pink city (because of its bricks).  This is the third time I’ve been through here, and each time something gets in the way of discovering its charms.  Already shivering, my mitten-less hands chilled to the bone, I decide to let Fate decide and check whether there’s a seat on an earlier train.  There is.  So instead of five hours roaming the streets, craning my neck at historic buildings, I opt for a cup of tea in the fleeting sun across from the station and then a ride back to Paris on the 1:00 train.
  “Tomorrow is anothah day,” drawled Scarlett O’Hara.  I’ll be back when it’s warmer.

Cordes-sur-Ciel , rising above the morning fog

Monday, October 14, 2013

On the Road: Quercy

Gare Montparnasse
Paris is beautiful, but France is vast and varied.  So I’m off to the train station, headed southwest.
In the seat next to mine, a charming lady who’s crossing two-thirds of France to see her son.  She’s been traveling since 7 a.m. and this is her second train, but not the last.  I’m lucky; my trip is direct to Montauban, no changes.
My sandwich is dispatched before we clear the suburbs, it being well past noon by then.  I manage to stay awake until Tours, then fall asleep and only wake up when we slow down for the narrow gorge of Poitiers.  Then it’s Angoulême and finally our first stop:  Bordeaux.  After that, I’m on my own for the final two-ish hours.
My old friend Daniel comes to meet me at the station in Montauban.  In spite of a beard I’ve never seen, I recognize him at once by his pipe.  What a shock when he tells me it’s been 25 years since we last saw each other!  Twenty-five years since he moved out of the Montmartre apartment next to mine.  (Thank you, Internet, for locating him for me.)
He guides me down some medieval streets and into a newly-restored square where we sit at a table outside and enjoy a drink.  Dogs come sniff our ankles and a father is teaching his son to kick a soccer ball.  All this while we catch up with the past 25 years as best we can.
Before it gets too dark, we head off for dinner high above the Aveyron River Gorge, which turns out to be more of an adventure than we expected.  The road is narrow and winding - as befits a road along a river - and Daniel’s car door on the passenger side (mine) has decided not to latch so I have to put my arm out the window and hold it shut.  Then when we get through the switchbacks and up to the top we find the restaurant in Penne is closed - it’s Monday - so back down we go and into Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, my door coming ajar with each left turn.
Once safely home, we drop his car off at the Renault garage conveniently located across the street.  Given that it’s Monday (see above), our food choices are extremely limited and we end up at a Basque restaurant.  We could do without the music but the food is tasty and the owners cheerful.  Then off to bed.

It being autumn, there’s often morning fog in the valleys here and if you get the timing right you can look down on it from the heights.  So Daniel makes a thermos of tea, we buy some croissants and we’re off in a borrowed car through the fog to the top of a hill where we wait patiently - still catching up those 25 years.  Unfortunately for us, the fog didn’t get the memo and never rises, so we head off to Penne... again.
Today the restaurant is open but we’re already invited to a duck confit lunch shortly, so we walk around the village a bit.  Daniel sends me off to admire the fortress at the very top of the town, up where all respectable fortresses are built.  I’ve always found it hard not to go to the end of a road or an island or to the top of a hill... too curious for my own good.  So I decide to scrabble up to the very top and enjoy a magnificent view out over the valley, now that the fog has finally lifted.  My leg muscles won’t thank me tomorrow but the view is well worth every ache I’ll get.
After lunch - Lord, how I love confit! - Daniel takes a siesta and I go on a second photo safari through the streets of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. This was once a rich town that manufactured cloth and leather sold as far away as Genoa, and many, many houses have interesting carvings over their door. Stone-carvers were both craftsmen and artists much in demand back in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries when most of these houses were built.
Château de Cas with pigeonnier on far left
After his siesta, Daniel drives me around the countryside to a whole necklace of natural jewels.  First there’s the Château de Cas, with its own chapel, probably because it was a Commanderie built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century.  It also has the requisite pigeonnier (dovecote) allowed to all castles, with the number of pigeons allowed proportional to the size of their landholding.  Pigeon droppings, like guano, were the only fertilizer available in this region back then so it was a valuable commodity.
St. Symphorien
Next on the necklace is a hamlet on the opposite side of the valley called St. Symphorien, with just a church, a priory... and a tiny graveyard which is being groomed as we arrive.  Tombs neat as a pin, hedges freshly trimmed and this in the middle of absolutely nowhere.  It’s near Caylus, a metropolis of about 1,000 people and our next stop.  In the town church hangs a huge wooden crucifix by famous Russian expatriate sculptor Ossip Zadkine, with Christ hanging by one arm and no cross in sight; it’s quite striking in its modern-ness and was gifted to the town when Zadkine lived near here, in thanks for hiding Jews like him during World War II.
Abandoned mill
Just outside bustling Caylus, where dogs sleep undisturbed in the middle of the street, Daniel sends me on a walk down one of the steepest, slipperiest trails ever, where no less than seven mills, one above the other, stretch backwards in time, the oldest just a remnant of walls with centuries-old trees growing out of the windows and through a non-existent roof.  At the end of the trail flows a strangely smooth waterfall that advances every year as the minerals in its water build it outwards, like the stalactites in limestone caves nearby.
Last of all is Lacapelle-Livron, another farm village of only about 100 souls.  Along with a few similar farming outposts on this ridge, it was built in the 12th century by the Knights Templar, home from the Crusades.  When the Order was disbanded by the pope in 1312 the village was taken over by the Knights of Malta, who held it until the French Revolution in turn put an end to the world as they knew it.  Like all the Templar villages, it’s made up of a fortified manor with its roof of flat stones called lauzes, a Romanesque church and a few farms.  That’s all.  But the most remarkable jewel of all is tiny Nôtre-Dame-des-Grâces nearby, a chapel for pilgrims.  It stands all alone by a simple stone cross and balanced on the edge of the ridge overlooking the Bonnette River, a little fortress worthy of the ghosts of the Crusaders.
City hall of St.-Antonin-Noble-Val, built in 1125
After all these sites of quiet beauty, it’s back to Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val for dinner with poet friends of Daniel’s, and a good night’s sleep before he drives me to Albi in the morning.
There’s so much peacefulness now in this region once torn by bloody religious wars stretching over centuries.  And Albi was one of the centers.  But that’s tomorrow.
Pigeonnier of Château de Cas

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Le Dernier Métro

It’s July 1st.  I’m leaving tomorrow, back to Michigan.  This is my last night in Paris... and I’ve spent it in the suburbs.
One of my oldest friends, met during my film-subtitling days, is celebrating her birthday and for once I’m in town.  As a matter of fact, I planned my return flight around this evening.  And it’s been great.  Wonderful food, excellent wine, sparkling conversation with interesting people... all of it out on the terrace overlooking the hills beyond as this sunny day turned to rosy evening turned to starry night.  And now it’s time to go home.
Someone offers me a ride to the Métro because there aren’t any more trains at this hour.  It seemed straight-forward enough of a proposition.
Notice the word “seemed”.

We say our good-byes, kisses on cheeks, hugs... then out into the night.  All five of us squeeze into the European-size car and we’re off down the hill on winding streets that rock us back and forth into one another.  Then across the Seine and to the Métro station.  I say a quick merci and scramble down the steps.  This is not the only subway train I need to catch, and the expression “it’s later than you think” keeps popping into my mind.  Precision on this trip needs to be as well-timed as a Swiss watch in order for me to make them all.
If my escort had left me at another subway line, I’d have had various possibilities, some with only one change of trains.  And one of those lines would have been a slam-dunk:  one change and then my usual line that would drop me off at my friendly neighborhood station.  But I’ve been dropped off at Pont de Sèvres, the nearest to my friend’s house but the most remote from my home.  And with two subway changes, it’s the least favorable configuration for what’s facing me:  the prospect of missing le dernier métro  (as in Truffaut’s film) and being left to finish my return trip on foot, alone, in these wee small hours of the morning.  It’s been years since I worried about catching the last subway home.  In fact, it’s been decades.  Have I still got What It Takes?
Unfortunately this first subway train keeps us waiting for about seven minutes.   I say “us” because I’m not the only person waiting on this platform.  There are young people who have been drinking a bit too much but are just happy to be together.  There are families who were probably also visiting friends and are headed home with sleepy children, some in drag-footed  tow and others already sleeping in their parent’s arms.  There are cleaning ladies who have finished putting floors and floors of offices back into working order for tomorrow’s business.  There are lovers either having one last snuggle or warming up for the coming night’s caresses... who’s to know?

When the train arrives, we hurtle along the tunnel at breakneck speed and when we reach a station the driver leaves barely enough time for people to get off and on before shutting the doors and steaming off again.  He knows we’re all anxious to get home.  So’s he, I’m sure.  It’s well after 1 a.m.  One stop, then two, three... all the way to the eleventh:  Trocadéro.
I jump off and walk as fast as I can down the hall with a passel of other scurrying people.  We’re all looking at our watches, if not actually, at least mentally.  I start to feel pretty optimistic though when my second train comes almost immediately.  Only three stops on this line and then it’s the home stretch.  I can smell success already.
We arrive at Etoile and everyone starts scrambling, me included.  I know this change so well I could do it in my sleep.  Down the stairs and along the hall and BINGO!  There it is!  The Promised Land.  The platform of the third subway line that will take me to Pigalle.  Then I only have to walk up the hill.  I look at the board overhead and see that le dernier Métro is in two minutes.  So I wait.  We all wait.  All is well.

There are two Pretty Young Things standing nearby on the platform, two Americans, a tanned blonde in short shorts (remember, it’s July) and a pale brunette in jeans.  They’ve attracted the particular attention of two young men who also aren’t French.  The more forward of the two, the one with a baseball cap on backwards, tries to talk to the blonde, while the brunette and the shy guy look on from opposite directions.  The blonde seems to be enjoying it; the brunette?  not so much.  That goes on for more than two minutes.
Two minutes?  Hmmmm.  I look up at the board.  It says “Next train: 1 minute”.
Bold Guy asks Blondie - in fairly good English but with a heavy Italian accent - where she’s from.  “Florida, and she’s from Tennessee.”  Bold Guy knows of Florida but not Tennessee; he even has family in Florida, or so he says.  Then the usual questions.  How long have you been in Paris?  Are you having a good time?  What have you seen?  “Eiffel Tower, but it was closed.”  “Well, my cousin and I are from Italy.  We know Paris.  We can take you there tomorrow morning...”  I watch covertly and listen, amused, remembering an infinite number of such conversations from my days at the Université de Paris, addressed to me or to my girlfriends.  Standard Operating Procedure out of a script that hasn’t changed.  Ever.
Hey, hasn’t it been one minute yet?  I look up at the board.  It says “Next train: 2 minutes”.  Something’s not right.
Bold Guy calls Shy Guy over and introduces him.  Tries to hook Shy Guy up with Brunette.  Neither seem comfortable with the whole deal.  Brunette sends angry glances to Blondie.  Doesn’t look like this is their first rodeo here in Europe and it’s starting to get old.  Blondie replies silently with the “oh-come-on-what-harm-can-it-do” look.  During that time, The Guys appear hopeful; they think their prospects for the rest of the night have brightened considerably.
And then the bottom falls out of the whole thing.
Four men dressed in Métro uniforms come down the steps and onto the platform.  “We’re closed,” they shout.  General uproar!  “There are no more trains.  Everybody has to leave.”  Protests all around.  Angry glances and incriminating fingers pointing to the sign above that still says “Next train: 2 minutes”.
Then the four guards start herding us toward the exit stairs.
The girls look at each other, panic in their eyes.  “What do we do now?” Brunette asks Blondie.  The Italian Duo offer their escort services.  The girls look even more uncomfortable.
I step up and ask in English where the girls were headed.  The foursome look at each other in surprise as they realize someone has understood their entire exchange.   The girls’ hotel turns out to be in my neighborhood.  “Come on”, I tell them.  The Guys look at me with daggers in their eyes.  But I turn my back and head off up the stairs... and the girls choose to follow.  Bold Guy and Shy Guy just stand there looking at each other.  I think I hear some cursing in Italian behind us on the platform.

We hit the cool night air with the Arc de Triomphe in the background, its lights out at this late hour.  I walk to the side of the busy street, my protégées in tow, and I see a taxi coming.  I raise my hand and the driver stops.  The three of us pile in.
Decidedly more up-key than a minute ago, the girls ask me lots of questions about how long I’ve been here - many the same as the Two Guys asked them in the Métro.  I point out some buildings to them as we zip by - it’s a quick ride across Paris when cars are scarce.  The girls are doing a Tour of Europe for a few months.  It reminds me of the era when all American youths wandered the Old Country with a copy of “Europe on $5 a Day” tucked under their arm; now it’s Rick Steve and you can add a zero to that figure and still be optimistic.
When we reach Pigalle, I tell the driver to pull over.  My budget is greater than the girls’, so I pay him.  It seems to surprise the girls that a stranger would do that for them.  We walk up the street into what used to be a red light district.  Not a hooker of any sex (that includes transvestites) is left nowadays.  After one block, I point them on their way, which is opposite to mine, and we say good-bye.  They thank me over their shoulder for at least 100 yards.
I wonder what their version of this story will be when they tell it back home.  About how they were totally lost, didn’t know how they were going to get back to their hotel, or even find it without their mental breadcrumbs from their usual Métro stop.  And then this stranger stepped up...
I was happy to have been their mother for a minute.
I’m sure Italian Guys 1 and 2 didn’t feel warm and fuzzy toward me though.  Maybe they managed to find another two girls.
At any rate, it was a fun evening... with an interesting finish.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Recipe of the Month: Girolles provençales

Mushrooms at a green grocer stand in Montmartre's Rue des Abbesses
Fall is the season of mushrooms.  All sorts of mushrooms.
     Those of you whose relationship with mushrooms ends at the can opener have a whole new world to discover.
     In France one of the main pastimes on a crisp fall day is to grab the trusty old wicker basket, don a pair of Wellies (as the British call their rubber boots) and head out to the nearest forest in search of something to pep up a simple omelet or whip into a sauce for a slab of beef.  And to make sure they’re not poisonous, you can always take them to the pharmacist, who studied mushroomology in medical school.  Seriously.
     Where people find their truffes (truffles) is always a family secret, because they’re worth their weight in gold.  But other mushroom spots are also kept secret.  Don’t ask someone where he found those beautiful cèpes because he won’t tell.  You’ll have to find your own. Morilles (morels) are also prized, as many Michigan residents know, but that's more in the spring or early summer.  And then there are chanterelles, pleurottes, trompettes de la mort, pieds de mouton, etc.  Try a few; you’ll be surprised at the range of flavors they have!

     You have to clean the girolles, as their folds and wrinkles tend to hide soil and perhaps the odd little beast.  After you cut off the very tip of the stem, and anything that seems hard, put them in water with a bit of vinegar (save your balsamic).  Then scoop them up right away and plunge them in a second basin of water and vinegar.  That should clean them well.  NEVER leave them to soak; they’re like little sponges and they’ll fill up with water.
     Then simply place them on a linen towel or some paper toweling and pat them dry.
     Some people will say this is heresy and you NEVER get girolles wet.  If you know where they come from and they look fairly clean, you can just remove any remaining dirt off with a small brush.  The French have “mushroom brushes” but I’ve been known to use a nail brush on mine.
So many kinds of mushrooms
     Next heat some good olive oil and make them “sweat” a bit under low heat until they’ve become a bit soft and given off their puddle of water.  If there’s no puddle of water, move on to the next step directly.  (Sometimes there is none, but any water left from the rinsing will be eliminated this way.)
     Pour off this “mushroom water” and, using the same pan, heat up a mixture of half olive oil half butter.  (No, put that margarine back in the fridge!)  Add the mushrooms and sauté them over low heat for about 5 minutes.  Too much and they’ll be dry and hard.
     Then add some chopped shallots and at the very last second a bit of finely chopped garlic.
     Pour into a pretty serving bowl and sprinkle with some chopped flat parsley to add some color and another layer of flavor.

Cèpes in the foreground, pre-sliced
You can also make this with a mixture of mushrooms.  Pleurottes and pieds de mouton will take a little longer to cook as they’re thicker, so start with them and then add in the girolles. Cèpes are better all by themselves.

Suggestion for another dish:
veal scallop with girolles
(same recipe, but as a side dish)