Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Writer’s Surreal Quest for a Shared Paris Nest by Annabel Hertz

Author Annabel Hertz feeling victorious after finally finding her solo flat in Paris!

Guest post by Annabel Hertz, author of Seeing Green

While based in Geneva a few years back, I came to spend enough weekends in Paris that it made sense—or so I easily convinced myself—to maintain my life-sustaining (slash) luxurious addiction to the City of Light via flat share. But this seemingly manageable goal turned into the real estate misadventure of a lifetime (and this from someone who has flat hunted in NYC).

Still, I was in it to win it.

The hi-jinks started with a stunning three-bedroom apartment in the southeastern lowlands of Montmartre. Though I normally shied away from the touristy Ninth arrondissement, the email photos of the room for rent had me at JPEG. A distressed antique chair sat facing a floor-to-ceiling window, basking in its bright light: a writer’s dream come true! Not to mention an enormous, fully equipped kitchen—a rare find in Paris. Upon arriving, I reveled further in the nearby farmers market (Metro Anvers) and the uncharacteristically spacious and fast moving Deco elevator that would carry me home each day. In such a place, I could easily conjure up feasts both real and fictional.

But my fantasies were put to rest when my potential—and pleasant enough—colocotaire gave me the tour. First, the antique chair I had seen in the photo was, in fact, only about two feet tall (intended for infants of generations past). The floor to ceiling window was therefore in reality probably six feet tall. I turned to the owner with a look of confused horror on my face, and she explained with a giggle that she was once a fashion and design photographer and could do wonders with angles and interiors. And before I could even process—let alone protest—such a gross misrepresentation, and the fare and time I had allotted in travel to the flat, she directed me to a slender armoire in the corner and opened it. “You can put your things here,” she said, pointing to the half of it that was empty. There was almost enough space for a single pair of shoes and two hanging suits—but not quite. (The shoes would have to be stacked.)

Sacré-Coeur Basilica perched high above Paris on the Butte Montmartre

At that point, I flinched, covering my open mouth. I may have even made an instinctive, jerky move towards the exit. But my smiling tour guide remained oblivious to any signs of personal distress and began reciting a long list of house rules. Thus, it hit me (and hard): her Internet optical illusion had been working! Indeed, there must have been a steady stream of young students, fresh off the plane and so hard pressed for housing, that they were willing to overlook things like wearing clothes during their time in Paris. Talk about twisted market forces!

I was then led to the oversized and empty kitchen. “This is where you can store your food,” she instructed, pulling aside a homemade curtain that covered a plastic crate on its side. (I had to admit, the allotted space was generous compared to the clothes closet; I might have fit two good-sized boxes of energy bars in there.) As it turned out, this potential colocotaire not only did not cook (probably the one Paris born individual who consumed only raw, macrobiotic foods) but admittedly, “did not enjoy eating” per se, and discouraged her tenants from cooking and eating as well.

Going without clothes was one thing. But the idea of a kitchen for visual purposes only, in a city so devoted to the love of food and in which good kitchens were so hard to come by, in a flat so near a famer’s market, was just too much to bear. I fled.

Le Café Montmartre. Photo credit: Annabel Hertz

Once I had recovered, however, I investigated a flat share in the beloved 11th arrondissement, tucked away on a maze-like side street between Voltaire and Charonne Metros. I had always appreciated the lower key cafes on some of the lesser-known streets in this part of town. It was an area in which people might even learn your name. A writer and her laptop could actually get some traction in the morning without being shooed out for the lunch crowd.

The woman renting out the room was a professor with a lovely, welcoming and open demeanor. Unfortunately, the flat itself was a bit less expansive. As it was, there was no room to stand—much less sit—save for in the shower, at the stove, or at the foot of the bed in the room for rent. She suggested that given the lack of common area, one could simply stand in the doorways. I said that at least she had a high-end swivel chair to sit on while working at her desk. But then I noticed the rest of her bedroom was taken up by her sleeping arrangement—and by “arrangement” I do not mean “bed,” but rather a sleeping bag on the floor. “No one really needs a matelas or frame,” she explained. And who was I to argue? Nevertheless, I was intent on renting a place where I could stand, or even sit, outside of the moments I was asleep, making coffee or bathing.

As I departed the 11th, I wondered: was I witnessing a trend of self-imposed asceticism—perhaps as a rebellious countermeasure to such an aesthetically pleasing city? This idea propelled me onward to the next flat. I was fascinated in the way anthropologists become obsessed by the discovery of new people and their ways of life. Of course, there was nothing particularly French or Parisian about this lifestyle, but I was certain I had stumbled upon a unique underworld of flat sharing with random foreigners—a sub-cultural context of distorted supply and demand.

View of Notre Dame Cathedral from the terrace of the Institut du Monde Arabe

Perhaps survival in Paris simply required living one’s life outside of one’s abode. Flat sharers might settle for a place to sleep, shower and receive the occasional piece of mail. Or maybe, as I came to understand on my visit to a flat near Strasbourg St Denis, you would simply forego the sleep. (Afterall, one could probably cuddle up during the day at the Institut du Monde Arabe or the Bibliothèque Nationale.) I had always found this quartier a transitional segue between neighborhoods, but given its convenient and central location, I was hoping to being persuaded of its charm: and certainly the flat had its size and brightness going for it. There was even common space and access to the kitchen with no restrictions.

I asked if the bedroom for rent had a good-sized armoire or closet. The keeper of the flat, a shirtless young man who had greeted me with sleepy eyes, led me down the hall and opened a door. The room did not exactly have a closet; it was a closet. A reasonably-sized, corner closet. By this, I mean it was reasonably sized for hanging clothes (especially compared to the Montmartre armoire). I pictured all my shoes and clothes fitting nicely in it. The one problem with the room, as he called it, was that while a twin mattress could actually fit in it, the mattress could not be laid flat given that the space was essentially a triangle, so renters normally positioned the mattress diagonally and folded half of it up against the wall, sort of like a chair. The renter could then sleep sitting up. With all the comfort of sleeping on a plane, I noted, minus the tilt-back function of the seat and headrest.

Streetscene in Charonne. Photo credit: Annabel Hertz

I told the guy that I wasn't very good at sleeping at ninety degrees—then clarified I meant the angle, not the temperature in Fahrenheit/English (though, conceivably, that could also be tough.) There was still the critical matter of breathing in a windowless space, but I refused to believe that house rules precluded leaving the closet door open. Still, I didn’t ask…

I left that flat feeling I had been altogether wronged by the right—bank that is. Though I eventually found a six-floor walk up loft with a sprawling internal courtyard less than a mile east of Bastille. By then, the search for a flat share had presented its fat share of problems, so I ignored a gross architectural misdemeanor committed by the owners: a pseudo gazebo built around the dining area. Though tacky beyond measure, that gazebo did not stop me from cooking, lounging, sleeping or making significant inroads on my novel, Seeing Green. I had a spectacular view of the gray Mansard rooftops perched on the other creamy lemon Haussmanns that surrounded our building. Situated at the mouth of the Faidherbe-Chaligny Metro, the flat was a quick walk to Marché d’Aligre, and fifteen minutes to Gare de Lyon (and the train back to Geneva).

Of course, such a situation did not last long; the owners came back to reclaim their rightful place in the 20th, and the next time I would find a Paris flat, it would be solo. Nevertheless, I had triumphed, and Flat-share-boot-camp had given me a fundamental appreciation for all co-housing arrangements thereafter. Once secure in my lodgings, I could delve into the dramas of my novel’s protagonist, and leave the real life spectacles behind. I never looked back on that underworld (until now). I consider my voyage there a true testament to what people are willing to do for a Paris address.

Author Annabel Hertz's Seeing Green is a “timely, energetic and witty” story of a young woman “on a mission to puncture the stasis" of environmental policy (HuffPo). The novel takes place in the lead up to a Paris Ministerial (much like this December's climate change conference in Paris) and pays homage to international---and office---politics, and idealism. This "felicitously fast-moving, tightly organized narrative” also explores the rocky and rewarding terrain of family and personal relationships from the perspective of a multicultural protagonist. Connect with Annabel Hertz via Facebook.

Don't miss the giveaway of Seeing Green on Out and About's Facebook page on Thursday, August 13, 2015!

Seeing Green by Annabel Hertz

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Hip, New Way to Experience Paris - Le Marais Street Art Polaroid Tour with Mon Beau Paris

Polaroid photos taken during Le Marais Street Art Polaroid Tour with Mon Beau Paris

Whether they're family, friends or complete strangers, people frequently ask me some variation of the following two questions when they start planning their vacations in Paris:

I've already seen all the touristy sights. What's something different/unique/off the beaten path that I can do?
What should I do with my teenagers/children?

Up until recently, I've responded with some fairly standard answers about the catacombs, sewers of Paris and Pari-Roller's weekly Friday night get-together to rollerblade through the streets of the city. Now, thanks to Mon Beau Paris, I have a new response. Try Le Marais Street Art Polaroid Tour!

While Mon Beau Paris isn't the first company to offer street art tours of the French capital, what I found intriguing when they invited me to join one of their tours is that Mon Beau Paris provides their guests with Polaroid cameras to immortalize their favorite street art on film.

Jef Aérosol's "Chut!" ("Hush!") by the Centre Pompidou is a
reminder to listen to the sounds around you.

"This tour is never the same," explained our guide, "because street art is constantly changing." While Aurélie, who is an official licensed guide with a background in art history, told us about the history of street art and defined some important terms, like graffiti and tagging, other members of the Mon Beau Paris team distributed Polaroid cameras and much appreciated bottles of water to quench our thirst on a hot Parisian day.

Strolling along the familiar streets of the Marais, I found myself looking up, down and all around as Aurélie taught us to distinguish between works by Jef Aérosol, Le Diamantaire and M. Chat. The neighborhood took on a new dimension as we scanned the walls for stickers or words. While some artists use urban spaces to provoke thought or make statements about socially relevant themes, others view street art as a way to share their creations freely with the world.

The Polaroid cameras are a brilliant addition to the tour because they provide an innovative way for visitors to interact with street art and create entirely new pieces of art. I'm so pleased with my Polaroid photos that I'm planning to make a framed collage with them. It will be a uniquely different souvenir of a fun afternoon in Paris.

Mon Beau Paris
34 rue de Cléry
75006 PARIS

Mon Beau Paris currently has a 5/5 rating on Trip Advisor.

Tip: After juggling two cameras and my iPhone during the tour, I would suggest leaving your regular camera at home. If you want to take digital photos of the street art, you can always retrace your steps at a later time. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing.  

iPhone photos taken during Le Marais Street Art Polaroid Tour with Mon Beau Paris 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Climb to the top of the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral for one of the best views of Paris!

Stryga, the most famous of the chimera at Notre Dame Cathedral, observing the ever-changing city.

Like Stryga, the most famous of the chimera at Notre Dame Cathedral, I was frozen in place while I gazed at the cityscape of Paris yesterday evening. Tourists with backpacks jostled behind me as I turned my head slowly from Sacré-Cœur Basilica perched high on a bluff to the golden dome of Les Invalides in the distance. The muted sounds of street performers and boats on the river Seine heightened my sense of detachment from the crowd below. Not even the romantic couple with their arms around each other made me regret that Stéphane was on a train and I was there alone. For I wasn't really by myself. Fantastic birds, hybrid beasts and mythical monsters entertained me while I waited for sunset to mark the end of another day.

Notre Dame Cathedral

More than four years, that's how long I had waited to climb the 387 steps to the top of the South Tower. With hindsight, it seems silly that I postponed seeing one of the most spectacular views of Paris for such a long time. I had been waiting until all of the conditions were perfect. When the late evening sunshine illuminated the facade of Notre Dame yesterday evening, I decided that it was finally time to make the ascent.

My heart sank when I turned the corner of the cathedral and saw the long line of other people who had exactly the same idea. Fortunately, I hung around long enough to learn that the wait wasn't expected to last more than 20 minutes. Reading "Towers of Notre-Dame", a brochure distributed to all the visitors standing in line, helped to pass the time.

Emmanuel, Notre Dame's largest bell

One of the unexpected bonuses was the opportunity to see Notre Dame's largest bell, which weighs more than 13 tons. Emmanuel's clapper alone weighs 500 kilos! The 17th century bell is only rung on major Catholic feast days, whereas four other bells in the north tower peal several times a day.

Reluctant to leave the top of the tower, I waited until the very last minute to begin my descent. That's when the evening star made it's appearance in the west.

This lucky Chimera at Notre Dame Cathedral has a view of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower!

On Friday and Saturday evenings in July and August, the Towers of Notre Dame are open until 11:00 pm. Last entrance is 45 minutes before closure.

From April 1 until September 30, the towers are open every day from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. From October 1 to March 31, they're open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. The towers are closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25.

There are 387 steps (no elevator) to the top of the tower so it's best to be in good shape.

Paris, as seen from the top of the south tower of Notre Dame Cathedral

Thursday, July 9, 2015

L'Hermione 2015: Bringing Lafayette Back to Life!

L'Hermione's arrival in New York City. Photo credit: Cissy Paul

Guest post by Cissy Paul

After $32 million and an eighteen year endeavor, L'Hermione departed from Rochefort, France on April 18, 2015. The Marquis de Lafayette's mottos, "Why Not?" and "Anything is Possible", have come to fruition once again with the help of artisans from all over the world, thus bridging the gap between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries.

The nineteen year old French aristocrat, who volunteered to serve with General George Washington, played a vital role in the American Revolutionary War. When Lafayette returned to America aboard L'Hermione in April 1780, he brought fresh hope with the welcome news that King Louis XVI had agreed to send a French Expeditionary Force of 6,000 elite troops, artillery pieces, munitions, ships and money. It was a key turning point during America's war against the British.

Captain Yann Cariou and Chief Mate Charlene Gicquel of L'Hermione.
Photo credit: Cissy Paul Photography

In order for the exact replica of L'Hermione to be deemed seaworthy in the twenty-first century, the Coast Guard required only three changes: an engine, latrines and women. Captain Yann Cariou and Chief Mate Charlene Gicquel lead the crew of 74 of which one third are women. Adam Hodges-LeClair plays a distinguished, confident Marquis Lafayette, who takes his role seriously.

Young students from French lycées, sponsors, journalists, musicians, tourists and L'Hermione enthusiasts arrived in New York City on the first of July. While observing the docking process and mingling aboard the frigate, I witnessed brawn, team work, exuberance and a zest for adventure. After sailing for more than two months, the crew met us with fresh smiling faces and an eagerness to share this vital oral history.

Cissy Paul with Robert Boulitrop

I had a special interest in one of the guests, 93 year old Robert Boulitrop, from Charleville Mezieres, France. After observing that I was photographing him (appreciating his French characteristics) we began talking and I teasingly asked if I could join him for the ceremony! He responded, "Oui, if you will marry me!!". We are email friends now and what a treasured memory I have.

As part of the Heritage Village, some of the other events included a quay side outdoor museum of the history of the original frigate and the back story of the replica. Storytelling, musicians, reenactments, daily deck tours and a private evening on board provided additional entertainment.

L'Hermione's crew greets the spectators in New York City with a song! Photo credit: Cissy Paul

On Friday, July 3, the Lower Manhattan Historical Society sponsored the first Fourth of July parade in forty years. It went from Wall Street, where George Washington was sworn in as America's first president at Federal Hall, to Bowling Green. Guest speakers shared historical events, of which Lafayette played a vital role, including the raising of the first flag with the original thirteen colonies in the exact spot where we congregated. What made this ceremony so special was that both the French and American flags were raised while their respective national anthems were played.

Saturday, spectators gathered to watch the Parade of Ships showcasing L'Hermione as she was surrounded by a hundred ships sailing from the Verrazano Bridge area to the USS Intrepid. At this point, L'Hermione turned and headed to Govenors Island, docking for the last time for a private event and Macy's Fireworks! The French frigate set sail for its next destination later that night.

View of L'Hermione from the ferry. Photo credit: Cissy Paul Photography

Taking the ferry to Govenors Island after the flotilla, I wanted to gaze one last time at this magnificent ship; so appreciative was I of the opportunity to witness history in the making. As the ferry pulled away headed for Brooklyn, a French mother and her toddler called out many times, "Au revoir bateau!" ("Goodbye boat").

As many have said, Lady Liberty was the second gift France gave to America. L'Hermione and Lafayette were the first.

Well-planned events throughout the French frigate's four-day stay would not have been possible without the support of Moët Hennessy, the Grand Sponsor; Tall Ships of America, Founding Maritime Partner; Poitou Charentes Region of France; the French Embassy and the New York Parks and Recreation Association.

Cissy Paul: Cajun, wife, retired Elementary Education teacher, mother & grandmother.
Lover of geology, bridges, photography, architecture, history, fashion, reading/research, parks and the arts. Enjoys daily serendipitous moments whilst exploring on holiday or NYC's five boroughs. Member of the Central Park Conservancy Horticulture Volunteers (gardener) and the NY Walker's Club (Saturday Race-walking at Central Park).

Follow Cissy's exploits on Facebook: Cissy Paul, Instagram: passionfornyc and Twitter: @cissypaul.

Cissy Paul with L'Hermione's bell

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Thrill of Attending the Tour de France in Paris According to "A Tour of the Heart"

Guest post by Maribeth Clemente

I lived in Paris eleven years without ever attending the Tour de France. It wasn’t until I moved back to the United States and grew a whole new me that I discovered the joy of cycling and the thrill of attending the Tour de France, the greatest bike race in the world. This grueling, three-week-long extravaganza weaves around France–and dips into at least one neighboring country–with all the color and might of the TGV blazing to Lyon on a bright summer’s day. One of the world’s best-loved sporting events, the Tour always ends in Paris, punctuated by the riders doing laps on the Champs-Elysées in front of throngs of cheering crowds.

The following is an excerpt from my fifth book on France, A Tour of the Heart: A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France. Part memoir, part love story, A Tour of the Heart is a romantic ode to the most visited country in the world. It highlights the life of a travel writer, France, cycling, food and wine, the Tour de France and the joys and travails of traveling à deux.

Pete and I made our way to the middle section of the grandstand in front of the Champs-Elysées, ideally situated beneath the shade of an enormous chestnut tree, directly across from the big screen TV. We were ecstatic. We joked about pinching ourselves since we still couldn’t quite fathom we were really there, ready to watch the final stage of the Tour de France together on the Champs-Elysées. We were in a great place to people watch too, which we did enthusiastically as we observed the diverse range of spectators filling the stands. “Some of the friends and family of a few of the Dutch cyclists sat down behind us,” Pete whispered. Indeed, people from all over Europe and beyond claimed seats around us.

“This is truly an international event,” I said. “I still can’t believe I missed this all the years I lived in France.”

“I can’t believe it either,” Pete said shaking his head.

“Oh well, I’m making up for it now, aren’t I? It’s nice we can share this big first- time event together,” I said as I gave him a squeeze.

Once the grandstand became almost entirely filled up, Pete loosened up even more. “I’m glad I can finally relax,” he admitted. “I kept thinking we were going to be booted from here.”

“You just stick with me,” I teased. “It seems as though I’ve come to know my way around the Tour scene pretty well.” Just then we spotted a woman descending the aisle distributing ice-cold Cokes.

“It looks as though they’re free,” Pete said.

“Yeah, and that other person is passing out sandwiches,” I replied. Our luck was doubling by the moment.

The 2014 Tour de France cyclists shortly after they entered the city of Paris.

Halfway through our most welcome yet unexpected picnic, the giant TV screen was turned on revealing the race in full Technicolor splendor. The Tour riders were approaching the capital. I could sense the excitement mounting all around me with each kilometer that brought them closer to the Champs. The publicity caravan blasted in with all the hoopla of a fast-moving circus coming to town. The fanfare surrounding this colorful cavalcade of promotional vehicles provided an excellent distraction as we sat on the edge of our seats in anticipation of the cyclists’ arrival. If the pretty girls that touted the sponsors’ products were tired out from three weeks of being on display, they didn’t show it. Each was fresh and smiling, waving from the many vehicles like beauty queens at a pageant. They knew what it meant to parade up and down the Champs-Elysées.

“Look, that colossal shopping cart with the giant cup of steaming café au lait even made it to the end,” I said. “This is a triumphant finish of sorts for them, too,” I laughed.

“Yeah, but that’s nothing compared to the more than 2,000 miles riders log across France during the three weeks of the Tour.”

“Belgium, too. Remember they also rode through Belgium,” I added in a know- it-all kind of way.

As the caravan continued to do laps up and down this grand avenue, our attention quickly shifted to the Jumbotron across from us. “There they are,” Pete shouted. And when I looked up I saw that the cameras had captured the riders cruising alongside the Seine with the Eiffel Tower perfectly positioned in the background.

“The whole scene practically gives me goose bumps,” I said.

Not long after the publicity caravan dispersed, a whole squadron of motorcycles buzzed by in front of us. Pete and I–and apparently the rest of the spectators– knew that this pack of motos indicated the eminent arrival of the cyclists. We all craned our necks toward the place de la Concorde as we followed the action out of the corner of our eyes on the Jumbotron. As everyone jumped to their feet and began to cheer wildly, the peloton zoomed into view and barreled up the Champs-Elysées with the force of a fierce wind. After the initial big swoosh, I realized the cyclists were traveling as fast–probably about 25-30 mph–as the motorcyclists that rode ahead of them. It was a glorious sight. And as fast as it all happened, I could see the U.S. Postal team lead the rest of the Tour riders into Paris, as is the tradition for the winning team.

The 2013 Tour de France cyclists whizzing along the rue de Rivoli.

It was great to be across from the big screen TV as the cyclists made their way up and down the Champs-Elysées and back down by the place de la Concorde, along the Seine, through the tunnel, and up part of the rue de Rivoli, we could follow every bit of the excitement. “This is the best,” Pete said. “The riders don’t just blow by once. Here–along this loop–they pass ten times.

“Yeah, it’s really impressive. Each time the peloton whizzes by, you feel a big rush. I’m over the moon,” I said to Pete. I had viewed the workings of the peloton–a group of approximately 150 cyclists–in action before on TV, but being here in person provided a whole different experience. You could feel the thrust of their combined efforts as the riders pushed the air before them. Everything I had learned about the power behind the peloton was playing out before my eyes. All the principles of drafting were revealed to me in full force. I could see how the riders could race faster for an extended amount of time when they were part of one big, powerful train. Lone riders were at an obvious disadvantage; they had no one to break the wind for them, no one in front of them to create a good draft.

Like a colorful swarm of bees buzzing by, the peloton fascinated me both by its sight and sound. The sound of grace in motion I thought to myself as I watched and listened as I felt another swoosh pass before me. Even I could tell that the pitch on this sprawling avenue only enhanced the beauty of the workings of this massive assemblage of athletes. The conditions were ideal for all the cyclists to work together. “Whoa! There goes someone,” I yelled as I spotted a cyclist break away from the main field on the giant TV.

Tour de France 2013 circling the Tuleries Garden.

“Oh, you wait and see,” Pete said. “They’re all vying for their moment of glory on the Champs-Elysées.” And sure enough, true to Pete’s prediction, one daring cyclist after another pedaled forth with all his strength in an attempt to separate himself from the mighty peloton. Little groups of intermittent breakaways formed throughout the course. But it seemed as though big gaps turned small again, until finally even those daring souls were gobbled up by the mass of cyclists moving ever faster. Surely it was a challenge for even the best riders to do much work on their own after so many miles and days of racing.

“This is a sprinters’ dream,” Pete declared. “This stage always is. You wait and see–it’s going to come down to the wire. It’s all about positioning and sheer strength in the end.”

MARIBETH CLEMENTE is the author of The Chic Shopper's Guide to Paris, The Riches of Paris: A Shopping and Touring Guide, The Riches of France: A Shopping and Touring Guide to the French Provinces and A Tour of the Heart: A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France. She now lives in Colorado where she writes about her highly contrasted life at her blog, Bonjour Colorado, hosts Travel Fun, a talk radio show on KOTO and writes for various travel publications and websites. Connect with Maribeth on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Don't miss the giveaway of A Tour of the Heart: A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France on Out and About's Facebook page on Thursday, July 2, 2015!

The Vittel float, part of the 2013 Tour de France caravan.
The 2014 Tour de France cyclists shortly after they entered the city of Paris.