Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why isn't Paris number 1, or at least in the top 10, in the newly released 2011 Quality of Living Index?

It's a good thing that my eagle-eyed Swiss editor is traveling again this week because otherwise this post wouldn't make it past his desk. Oh, sure, he would love seeing that three Swiss cities - Zurich, Geneva and Bern - are listed among the top ten in the recently released Mercer's 2011 Quality of Living Index and would more than likely gloat about the rankings. Well, come to think of it, Swiss people don't gloat. They just look smug while pointing to the majestic mountains, strong Swiss franc and the following list:

Top 10 (quality of life):

Vienna (Austria)
Zurich (Switzerland)
Auckland (New Zealand)
Munich (Germany)
Dusseldorf (Germany)
Vancouver (Canada)
Frankfurt (Germany)
Geneva (Switzerland)
= Bern (Switzerland)
= Copenhagen (Denmark)

What my editor wouldn't like is my suspicions that the research was funded by one of the Swiss banks and that someone falsified the data. What is Paris doing way down at number 30? And why aren't American cities, like New York (#47), Chicago (#43) and Boston (#36), in the top ten? While Mercer provides a convoluted explanation about points being awarded for a range of criteria, such as political and economic stability, culture, health and sanitation, quality of schools, public services and housing, we all know they can't be right.

C'mon, look at Paris. She's beautiful and doesn't have any flaws. Or, perhaps, as the people sleeping outside on the benches and rummaging through the garbage for food would remind me, I don't see them when I'm drinking Serendipity cocktails at the Ritz and gazing at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

Many thanks to my "friends in Boston" for sending me the link for the CNN article about the rankings and for advising me to read the comments. You're right, they're priceless. And to the Swiss government, please remember that I'm very grateful to have a Swiss passport, especially when I need it to bypass the long immigration lines at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Wondering about the "happiest nations"? Take a look at this post.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Feel like "Putting on the Ritz" in Paris? Better hurry because it's closing for renovations soon.

If you feel like “putting on the Ritz”, you better hurry because this luxury hotel at the Place Vendôme will temporarily close its doors in 2012. Upon learning that the much needed renovations will require two to three years, Stephane and I went to the Bar Hemingway a couple of weeks ago only to discover that it’s a very popular destination on Saturday nights. Looking at the crowded bar full of happy people and wishing that we could join them, we vowed to return on another occasion.

Wanting to increase our chances of getting a spot in this famous watering hole, we decided to occupy some of the comfy sofas in the Ritz while waiting for the bar to open last Sunday evening. Joking that we probably looked a bit desperate for a drink, Stephane, Sara and I were pleased when an English couple and an American family of five joined our vigil. Opening the doors promptly at 6:30 p.m., the bartender invited us to take a seat in the leather chairs and then made his way around the room describing three special cocktails ranging from “nice” to “naughty”.

Even though Head Bartender Colin Field, who was named best barman in the world by Forbes magazine in 2001, wasn’t there, we decided to try one of his creations that is also the Hemingway House Cocktail. "Serendipity", as described by the customer for whom Colin created the drink, is when you find what you’ve always been looking for without knowing that you were looking for it.

Serendipity, the cocktail

2/10 Calvados
1 sprig of fresh mint
1 teaspoon of sugar
3/10 clarified apple juice
5/10 Ritz champagne
ice cubes

Gently mix the Calvados, fresh mint and sugar in a tumbler. Add a few ice cubes and the clarified apple juice. Top with champagne. Serve with a white orchard for the females. Enjoy.

With hindsight, I wish that we would have sipped our Serendipities at the bar rather than at a table because the bartenders are well-versed in Hemingway lore. Eavesdropping on the bartender's conversation with some of the other guests, we found out that Hemingway was the first American to enter the hotel after Paris was liberated from Nazi Germany, thus becoming the liberator of the Ritz on August 25, 1944. Forget his literary career, that's quite a claim to fame!

Hemingway once said, "When in Paris the only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you can't afford it" and that's how I felt about the cocktails. At 30 € ($ 40) the Serendipity is the most expensive drink that I've ever tasted, but perhaps it was worth it to share a moment of history with Hemingway.

15, Place Vendôme
75001 Paris

Head Bartender Colin Field making a Serendipity.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday Morning Musings on Pickpockets on the Metro in Paris

Metro station, Arts et Metiers (Lines 3 and 11)

After dodging holiday shoppers and having my foot run over by a renegade baby stroller while visiting the Christmas Market on the Champs-Elysées yesterday, Stéphane, Sara and I decided to take metro line 1 from George V to Tuileries to have some hot chocolate. As we always seem to arrive at Angelina's just after it has closed for the night, I stood on the metro platform with my back to the wall to check their opening hours on my iPhone. Stéphane and Sara were facing me, we were speaking English and for all anyone knew we were tourists in Paris.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a group of young teenage girls with long hair and cell phones. They looked familiar because I had seen them, or girls who look exactly like them, causing a commotion on line 1 a couple of times. Not wanting to jump to conclusions, I nevertheless had an instinctive feeling that something wasn't quite right, especially when they kept walking back and forth behind Sara and jostling her. Momentarily distracted from my iPhone, I thought that they were just rude teenagers who didn't have anything better to do on a Sunday afternoon.

When the metro train pulled into the station, the cluster of girls broke into small groups (strange!) and approached separate cars. By the time that one of them nudged in front of me to follow an Asian man, alarm bells were going off in my mind. Looking down, I noticed that her jacket was draped over her arm and that her hand was reaching ever so carefully into the man's jacket pocket. Without taking the time to think about French etiquette, I demanded, "Mais, qu'est-ce que tu fais?" (But, what are you doing?). Unintentionally using the impolite form of address (tu versus vous -- but how should one address a pickpocket?) in a rather loud tone caught the girl's attention because she jerked to a halt and withdrew her hand from the man's pocket. Like water slipping through your fingers, she was off of the train in an instant. Everything happened so fast that the doors hadn't even closed yet.

Meanwhile, the Asian man and the group of four women with him cast a startled glance in my direction. Realizing that they were tourists, I asked if they spoke English and explained that the girl had been trying to steal his wallet from his jacket pocket. After checking his other pockets and confirming that he still had his wallet, he said that fortunately it hadn't been in that pocket even though that's where he normally carries it. True enough, the wallet had left an imprint on the material, which is why the girl was rummaging around in that particular pocket.

Since it was over in the blink of an eye, Sara asked Stéphane and me what had happened. After telling her that the girls were pickpockets, a panicked look crossed her face as she remembered how they had been jostling her on the platform. Saying that she didn't see how they could have taken anything from the zippered purse that she was holding clenched under her arm (that's my girl!), she confirmed that everything was there. By taking the necessary precautions, the Asian man was lucky and Sara was lucky -- but don't count on luck. Here are a few things that I do while riding public transportation:

  • Look as if you know where you're going, even when you don't. If you need to look at a map or your iPhone, move to an uncrowded part of the metro.
  • Keep your purse close to your body. Mine is always held tightly under my arm and slightly in front of my chest. 
  • Pay extra attention to your belongings on routes that have more tourists, like metro line 1, and when you're entering and exiting the train. That's when the girl was busy searching the man's pocket for his wallet.
  • Sit whenever possible. Otherwise, stand with your back against a wall rather than holding the pole in the middle of the car.
  • Sorry to say, but I've heard from many people that racial profiling does exist as far as pickpockets are concerned. Because Asians tend to carry more cash and have the latest technological gadgets, they seem to be prime targets. This was confirmed by my Japanese friend Itsuko who told me that her wallet was stolen while riding the metro.
  • Any other tips? Please leave a comment.

Let me end this post by saying that Paris is a large city and it's best to be careful, just as you would in any other metropolis. Fortunately, I've never had the misfortune of having anything stolen by a pickpocket. A thief did, however, take my father's wallet while I was with him on the metro during his first trip to Paris many years ago. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

Sorry, unlike those of the bracelet scam guys near the Sacré Coeur funicular, I wasn't able to take any photos of the pickpockets on the metro. Here's a picture to remind you that Paris is busy, beautiful city full of people.

Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysées 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday's pictures and a song - Just before Sunset

Thankful to have a seat next to the window while riding home on an overcrowded bus last week, I noticed that the light at the Place de la Concorde was exceptionally beautiful. Big dilemma! Should I give up my seat and get off the bus in the middle of rush hour or continue on my way and miss the opportunity to take some photos. I jumped off just as the door was closing...

From the movie, Before Sunset:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Carte Blanche at Chez L'Ami Jean, the perfect Thanksgiving Dinner in Paris

Carte Blanche menu for 80.00 € ($106.00)
Travel through the flavors and subtleties of our beloved French cuisine. 

After strenuous tugging and a massive inhalation, there's a slim (no pun intended) chance that I'll be able to squeeze into my jeans next week. In the meantime, I'm sticking with loose dresses and leggings after overindulging at Chez l'Ami Jean last Thursday evening.

Throwing caution to the wind, Stéphane, Sara and I selected the Carte Blanche menu giving chef Stéphane Jego full discretionary power over our Thanksgiving dinner. On a day that is frequently full of stress and hard work, we had only to relax and enjoy course after course of exquisitely flavored French food with a Basque twist.

Here's our Thanksgiving dinner à la française. Feel free to click on any of the photos that you would like to enlarge.
A steaming bowl of delicately flavored yet spicy fish soup
Canadian black rice risotto and seasonal vegetables with a squid ink emulsion
Giant sea bass a la plancha (grilled on a metal plate) with strips of farmer's bacon
 and what we thought was probably some more squid ink emulsion, although we forgot to ask one of our charming waiters.
A richly flavored traditional dish that is made from hare marinated
 in its own blood, which is cooked, marinated and re-cooked over a period of 7-8 days.
Foie gras and chestnuts are used to thicken the sauce. 

Even though I consider myself a fairly experienced eater who knows how to pace myself, it was at this point that I thought I had hit the proverbial wall. Reminding me that it was Thanksgiving and that tradition requires us to eat until we’re stuffed, Sara ever so discretely unzipped her skirt while I removed my wide belt. Ahhh....time to move on to the next course.

An entire roasted partridge (beak, brains and all) per person.

With a da-da-da DUM, our waiter presented the main course, an entire roasted partridge for each one of us. While we usually listen to Christmas carols after Thanksgiving dinner, Sara and I felt compelled to sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to Stephane before devouring the last partridges that may have been in a pear tree. As far as we know, the six geese will still be a laying (unless l’Ami Jean gets to them first)!

Bread, cherry jam and cheese made from sheep's milk

When the waiter asked if we wanted the cheese course, Stephane declined - probably because he hadn't removed his belt! But as Sara and I said that we couldn't refuse, Stephane’s competitive instinct kicked in propelling him back in the game. Although the three of us put up good fight, we were almost overwhelmed by the last piece of cheese. After encouraging us to finish it, the waiter jokingly refused to believe that we had and said that he suspected that we had disposed of it under the table.

A creamy rice pudding unlike anything that I've ever had
served with nougatine and confiture de lait

Amazed by how much we had already consumed, our French neighbors applauded our Herculean efforts and asked if we were writers for a gastronomic magazine. After we laughingly explained that it was Thanksgiving, they shared that they were in town for the Independent Winemaker's Fair and were enjoying a night out in the big city. Even better, I now have a destination in Bordeaux – Château Chadenne – and a future post in mind. 

Thanks to 3 Michelin star chef Grant Achatz of Alinea Restaurant in Chicago for the wonderful recommendation. Chez l’Ami Jean is the perfect place to go for Thanksgiving dinner or an authentic French dining experience. [Edit] After reading Anne's comment (see below), I thought that I should mention that the restaurant is small and that the tables are close together. If you're looking for a quiet, intimate restaurant or have a vegetarian in your group, save Chez L'Ami Jean for another time.

Chez L’ Ami Jean
27 rue Malar
75007 Paris
tel: 01 47 05 86 89
Cake with pear and some other things that I don't remember because our bellies were stuffed!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Out with the old, in with the new - Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysées

Old fashioned lights on the left, LEDs on the right.

Call me old fashioned, but Christmas lights are supposed to look like they did when I was a child and not like the new space age light-emitting diodes (LEDs) adorning 200 of the trees along the Champs Elysées. As envisioned by ACT Lighting Design, the Belgian company whose proposal was selected from amongst 27 other international projects, the three rings encircling the trees are supposed to appear as if they're floating above the ground, while metallic mirrors hanging from the branches flutter in the wind and reflect the colored lights. It sounds magical, doesn't it?

In reality, the 13,685 yards (12,485 meters of red, green and blue LEDs cast a garish glow that is more futuristic than festive. The upside, however, is that they're more eco-friendly. Power consumption will be 31,000 kWh per year versus 50,000 kWh between 2007-10 and 480,000 kWh before 2006.

The three rings, symbolizing unity and gathering, are independently controlled with some special surprises in store for the evenings of December 24 and January 1. 

As the Champs-Elysées welcomes 500,000-600,000 visitors each day during the holiday season, the LED displays will be getting a lot of attention from 2011-15. 

Out with the old, in with the new energy saving LEDs - what do you think?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: The American grocery store in Paris, not the holiday!

It seems hard to believe, but a year ago at this time I was still living in Switzerland and trying to imagine what my new life would be like in Paris. Whenever Linda, an American friend who used to live here, and I got together, she would invariably tell me to go to Thanksgiving. As I had always thought of Thanksgiving as a holiday and not as a small grocery store that is stocked full of American treasures, her recommendation always confused me. It turns out that Thanksgiving is THE place to go if you're ever craving Kraft's Mac and Cheese, Stove Top stuffing or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Which, let's be honest, are the kind of things that Americans inexplicably start craving as soon as we leave the country. Sure, the prices are higher than what you would pay at your local grocery store in the United States, but where else can you get these kind of delicacies in Paris? And best of all, Thanksgiving is open from Tuesday-Saturday and not just the fourth Thursday of November.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and please eat a bit of turkey, cranberry relish and sweet potato casserole for me!

Thanksgiving (the store in Paris and not the holiday!)
20, rue Saint Paul
75004 Paris

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Picayune Pecan Pie - the best pecan pie...ever!

Pecans and Karo - a very special delivery from the USA

On the way home from picking our daughter up at Charles de Gaulle airport early this morning, Sara shared stories of how her friends will celebrate Thanksgiving in Boston and expressed some surprise at how important this holiday is to Americans. Feeling a pang of guilt, I wondered if I should have made more of an effort to duplicate my own childhood memories of a dinner table laden with turkey and all of the trimmings for my American/Swiss children, who grew up in countries far from the United States. But since I never  saw anything that came close to resembling a turkey or cranberries in Indonesia, our children have different traditions and memories than mine.

Whenever we can find the ingredients, one of the constants on our holiday table is the Picayune Pecan Pie that my mother used to make. Thanks to a recipe that she found in Peg Bracken's The I Hate to Cook Book, my mother, who was born and raised in the northern state of Minnesota, mastered this pie that is originally from the southern part of the United States and impressed all of our neighbors in Texas and Tennessee. You can, too! It's as easy as counting 1 pecan, two pecan, three pecan... In fact, Stephane became addicted after only one bite during our first Thanksgiving dinner together and has taken over the job of baking it ever since!

I guess that's the essence of Thanksgiving - sharing favorite foods and memories with those you love.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! There will be another Thanksgiving post tomorrow, but I wanted to share my mom's recipe with you today in case you want to bake the best pecan pie...ever (!!!) for your family and friends.

Fresh out of the oven. Stephane's pecan pie!

Picayune Pecan Pie from Peg Bracken's The I Hate to Cook Book

Unbaked pie shell

3 eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream less 1 tablespoon
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons butter
1 tablespoon Sherry
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups pecans, plus enough to ornament the top

Put everything into the blender in that order, except decorative pecan halves. Turn on blender for about 10 seconds (counting 1 pecan, two pecan, three pecan, etc...). Don't over blend. Pour it into pie shell. Bake at 400° F (205 C) for 25 minutes. Decorate with pecan halves. Bake it for 10 minutes more (if the middle is still shaky, it might take another 5 minutes). Cool before serving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanks to lunch at Les Bouquinistes, my relationship with Paris is still in its honeymoon stage!

After a string of sleepless nights due to our noisy neighbors, whose nocturnal habits are starting to make us think that we're living under a family of vampires, and a frustrating visit to the bureau of motor vehicles, where a petty bureaucrat found one reason after another to deny the applications for our French driver's licenses, Stéphane and I were sure that the honeymoon stage of our relationship with Paris had come to an abrupt end.

Grumbling about wasted mornings and rigid French rules, we made our way to Les Bouquinistes, a Guy Savoy restaurant, and bemoaned our fate. Gone were the rose-tinted glasses with which we had lovingly viewed the city and all of its inhabitants as we felt ourselves rapidly approaching the next stage of culture shock - rejection of the country in which we live.

As it was already past lunchtime, we decided to have something to eat before completely renouncing all things French and quickly settled on the three-course Menu du Marché with a glass of wine for 31 €. While sipping my Sauvignon Blanc and gazing at the outdoor booksellers next to the Seine, I started to feel something akin to affection for Paris. Reminding myself that I still didn't have a French driver's license, I steeled my resolve to resist her charms.

Carpaccio de queue de boeuf, rémoulade de légumes racines
Filet de bar à la planche, purée de brocolis, choux, romanesco
Joue de boeuf braisée, pommes grenaille et légumes étuvés
Saveur figue-framboise
I would have succeeded if our lunch wouldn't have been so delicious from start to finish and if the service had not been so aimable and professional. Admittedly, there was a slight problem when one of the servers dropped a sauce spoon on the tablecloth during the second course, but they quickly moved us to another table with a better view. And to seal our fate, we were told that our meal was on the  house when we asked for the bill. As we left with smiles on our faces, our servers said that they hoped that we would return to Les Bouquinistes. We certainly will - it's the perfect place to go for lunch whether you're in love with Paris or not.

53 Quai des grands Augustins
75006 Paris
Tel: 01 43 25 45 94
Tarte à la mangue

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hôtel de Ville in Paris: You've seen the outside, now it's time to see the inside!

While walking from the Marais to the Île de la Cité, you may have marveled at the majestic Renaissance facade of the Hôtel de Ville and wondered if it's as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside. Thanks to the excellent tour organized by Véronique Kurtz, the Art History Director of WICE, I now know the answer to that question. Click on any of the photos that you would like to enlarge and see what you think.

With Baccarat chandeliers, silk curtains from Lyon and gold leaf, the Hôtel de Ville's opulent reception rooms pay homage to the glories of France.

Even though the ornate Salle des Fêtes may be reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, interspersed amongst the paintings depicting music and dance are features representative of the French Republic. Liberté, Fraternité and Egalité ("Liberty, Fraternity and Equality") - these ideals are enshrined in gilded letters in this magnificent room.

Paintings in the Salon Jean-Paul Laurens recount the city's struggle for municipal freedom.

It is also where the mayor of Paris welcomes the newly elected president of France. Monsieur Nicholas Sarkozy, the current President of the French Republic, was solemnly received on Thursday, May 24, 2007 at 3:00 p.m. by Monsieur Bertrand Delanoe, the Mayor of Paris. I wonder if President Sarkozy will have the opportunity to return to this impressive room after the presidential elections in April 2012.

With paintings of some of the most illustrious scientists, writers and artists, the Salon des Arcades exalts Paris as the capital of science, literature and the arts.

The juxtaposition of the portrait of Andre-Marie Ampere, for whom the base SI of electrical current is named, with the luminescent Baccarat chandelier is a tangible reminder of the contributions that the French have made to the world.

In the Salon des Arcades, paintings also feature the tradespeople of Paris, such as carpenters, stained glass artisans, stone cutters and tapestry makers.

Reconstruction of the current Hôtel de Ville started in 1873 and lasted until 1892 (nineteen years) after the previous building was burnt by Commune extremists, who had been using it as their headquarters.

Free guided tours of the prestigious reception rooms of Hôtel de Ville are available for groups and individual visitors Monday through Friday by appointment. Telephone numbers 01 42 76 54 04 or 01 42 76 50 49.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Want to "hunt" poorly parked cars in Paris? Today's the day!

The "Operation Prevention" flyer inviting pedestrians, cyclists, mobility challenged people and parents with children in strollers to "hunt" poorly parked cars and to plaster them with stickers educating their owners about proper parking procedures has intrigued me ever since I first noticed it while riding the bus.

As people are encouraged to meet in front of the town hall in their arrondissement ("district") to register and to pick up their stickers, this initiative is definitely endorsed by the government.

What do you think? Is it a good idea to arm people with stickers and send them out on a vigilante style mission to educate other citizens about correct parking practices? I'm still trying to make up my mind.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cheers to Beaujolais Nouveau - a reason to celebrate!

The evening ended shortly after midnight with Istuko and me singing along to an Edith Piaf song and saying fond farewells to a Mongolian and a Parisian woman. How did we end up swapping stories and promising to stay in touch with these two strangers? It all started with a couple of glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau at...

...Spring Boutique. Fortunately, we arrived early enough to have the opportunity to talk with Brendan and Josh, two Americans who are well versed in French wines and who obviously love their jobs. But then, who wouldn't?

The boutique took on a festive atmosphere as an ever growing crowd of expatriates and French people sampled the Beaujolais Nouveau and jokingly discussed the merits of this red wine that has only been aged for a couple of weeks. After tasting two different kinds and enjoying a savory tourte de veau, Itsuko and I ventured on to the next stop...

Le Rubis, 10, rue du Marché St.-Honoré, 75001

...le Rubis. Squeezing our way through the enthusiastic crowd outside, we managed to make it to the bar and ordered two more glasses of wine. As French law prohibits winemakers from releasing Beaujolais Nouveau prior to the stroke of midnight on the third Thursday of November, everyone was in the mood to celebrate. So, it wasn't long before Itsuko and I started chatting with Laurence and Galsan, who asked us to go with them to....

...whichever bar is across the street from Chez Dominique. And that's how four strangers - a Mongolian, a Japanese, a Parisian and an American - ended up having a wonderful time laughing, singing and exchanging stories together. As Laurence said, the much anticipated arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau brings people together. How very true!

We didn't go to Le Garde-Robe but noticed it when we left Spring Boutique.