Thursday, June 28, 2012

Stay in and read some books - Village Voice Bookshop, The House I Loved and A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi: The Ideal Guide to Sounding, Acting and Shrugging like the French

Today is a sad day for Anglophone book lovers in Paris - it marks the last author event at the Village Voice Bookshop before it closes its doors definitively on July 31, 2012. Even though I wasn't a frequent customer, I'll always remember the store fondly because it's where my daughter and I listened to Amy Tan talk about her writing, growing up as the child of immigrant parents in the United States and coping with the painful loss of her mother. Creating an intimacy that I've never experienced with a group of strangers, Ms Tan laughed, cried and charmed us all. It remains one of my most memorable evenings in Paris.

At 7:00 pm tonight, the author of The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje, will discuss his new novel, The Cat's Table. Be sure to arrive early because this event will draw a large crowd.

People often purchase books to help set the mood for travel and that's exactly what my friend Heidi did in preparation for her recent trip to Paris. Being the generous soul that she is, Heidi left The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay and A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi: The Ideal Guide to Sounding, Acting and Shrugging like the French by Charles Timoney for me to enjoy.

While I had been intrigued by the premise of The House I Loved ever since I heard Tatiana de Rosnay talk about it at the American Library and would still recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Hausmann's dramatic transformation of Paris, I wish that Ms. de Rosnay would have had more confidence in her readers. Rather than emphasizing how Rose felt when she learned that her husband's familial home on rue Childebert was to be destroyed to make room for the boulevard Saint-Germaine, I would have preferred to have become so absorbed by the descriptions of Rose's neighborhood that I couldn't imagine wanting to live anywhere else, not even in the Emperor's newly created modern city of broad avenues and clean air.

If you want to pass for a French person, Charles Timoney's second book, A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi: The Ideal Guide to Sounding, Acting and Shrugging like the French is full of excellent tips, such as how to gesticulate and exclaim, how to deal with waiters and find the restroom in a restaurant and how not to look like a tourist. Perhaps more importantly, Timoney answers the age-old questions...."But what exactly is a bidet for? And at what moment in the day is it used?" I guarantee that the answers aren't what you expect.

Buy some books and support your local independent bookstore! Otherwise, they'll go the way of Village Voice Bookshop.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ride your bike from Paris to London, use your iPad in the metro and beware of birthdays!

Here are just a few of the topics that caught my attention on Twitter recently:

The Green Way Paris-London (Avenue Verte Paris-Londres)

Thinking about going to the Olympic Games but don't want to fly, take the train or drive a car? Then you'll be pleased to know that there's a newly opened bicycle path between Paris and London. Standing at Kilometre Zero in front of Notre Dame, French and British officials inaugurated the Green Way on Saturday and waved goodbye to a group of cyclists who are pedaling their way towards London for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on July 27.

At the moment, one third of the route is on cyclable green paths while the rest is on minor roads. Plans are to create a fully cyclable route using old rail lines and available land. 

Just how far is it from Paris to London? 295 miles (474 km) via Beauvais and 254 miles (408 km) via the Epte Valley.

Avenue Verte Paris-Londres, official website in French
Itinerary Avenue Verte Paris-Londres
One man's account in English of cycling the Green Way when it was first conceived in late 2010.

Free Wifi in Paris Metro

As of today, travelers can surf the web for free while riding the metro. Still in its testing phase, a total of 66 hotspots are available in the transportation network. People wishing to use the free service should connect to the portal GOWEX and enter their details to receive a password to access the internet. Just remember to use your devices with caution and to be on the alert for pickpockets.

Additional information in French.

Birthdays aren't good for your health! People are 13.8% more likely to die on their birthday than on other days of the year.

Stephane scoffed at this bit of Twitter news until I told him that it's based on a Swiss study that set out to determine the relationship between the day of a person's birth and the day of their death by analysing the death records of more than two million people over a period of forty years. It turns out that 13.8% more people die on their birthday than on other days of the year, which indicates that “birthday blues” is a real phenomenon.

And speaking of birthdays, be sure to get your free ticket to Disneyland Paris. It's valid on your birthday or on one of the seven days immediately following it.

Last but not least, there's a newly opened Chipotle in Paris. As they say on their website, "Vive la révolution"! Burrito revolution, that is! I know where I'm going to have lunch in the near future.
Summer? Even though it doesn't feel like it, the Ferris Wheel has already made its seasonal appearance in the Tuileries Garden.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"Night of the Muses" - 2,000 candles, fireworks and champagne at Château Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Fireworks at Vaux le Vicomte castle. Photo credit: Stéphane.

Decision, decisions, decisions. Perhaps one of the most difficult things about living in Paris is that there's always so much going on that it's hard to choose what to do. Take last Saturday as an example - the dilemma of the day was deciding if we should celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Velib bike sharing program on the Champs-Élysées, watch the Euro-Cup quarterfinal soccer game between France and Spain on the big screen at Trocadero, see the seven-time World Champion pétanque player in action at the Hôtel de Ville or go to the candlelight evening at Château Vaux-le-Vicomte.

"Night of the Muses" at Château Vaux-le-Vicomte. Photo credit: Stéphane.

As it was also "Night of the Muses", an annual fundraising event when people bring their dinner in elegant picnic baskets and compete for a prize for the most beautiful table decorations, Stéphane and I opted to check out the competition at the castle so that we'll know what to expect if we participate next year. After dining on the terrace overlooking the gardens that served as the inspiration for those at Versailles, we arrived at the Great Water Mirror in time to watch the judges evaluate the elaborate decorations.

Some people went all out with blue decorations, drinks and even blue bread!

According to the rules, participants had two hours to adorn the tables with cloths, dishes, candle holders, dinner and wine in keeping with the theme "Water" (blue and white). A rectangular table and chairs were provided. In all honestyI'm not sure how the judges could pick a winner because it was a real challenge selecting the photos for today's post. Here are just some of the decorations that impressed me.

Please click on the photos to enlarge. Take a look at the cakes in the background.
One table even had a small fountain with blue water.

I like the elegant simplicity of this table. Plus, they went the extra step and covered their chairs with lace and material.
Sophisticated and silly! Pommery champagne and candy Smurfs. 
I'm fairly sure that I wouldn't have thought to bring a flower arrangement...
And I'm positive that I would have never thought to make blue hard boiled eggs like the ones at the end of this table.

Even though Stéphane and I have visited Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte on several occasions, there's something even more magical about being there on a summer evening. As the sun set over the gardens, the flickering lights of 2,000 candles created a magical effect that gave us an inkling of how Nicolas Fouquet's guests must have felt when they were invited to the festivities held in honor of King Louis XIV on August 17, 1661.

As for the Eurocup match between Spain and France, Stéphane was happy to have cell phone reception so that he could follow the score. With hindsight, it's better that we didn't watch the quarterfinals at Trocadero because we heard that the police used tear gas on the crowd when some of the fans started getting rowdy after Spain scored a second goal.

Candlelight evenings at Château Vaux-le-Vicomte are held every Saturday from May 5 to October 6, 2012. Fireworks are on the first and third Saturday of the month during the Candlelight evenings.

Fireworks and 2,000 candles at Château Vaux-le-Vicomte

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday's Picture and a Song - Buridane, the Fête de la Musique and "Work-Life Balance"

Buridane at the Fête de la Musique at the Palais Royal.

Even though people in France have a lot of compulsory vacation days compared with those in other countries, the concept of "Work-Life Balance" is a hot topic because French workers are among the most dissatisfied in Europe. As part of an ongoing effort to keep their employees content, the human resource department at the company where Stéphane works sent out the following general email on Thursday:

... 21 June, already? Hey, that's the Fête de la Musique! OK, so perhaps you've got a few things to finish off, but that's no reason to work late when everybody else is out partying! Tonight you should make some time for yourself. Turn off the computer and drop in on your colleagues to rally some support. Alternatively, you can arrange to hook up with your better half and little darlings. Whatever you do, tonight is about enjoying yourself! And you can be sure that there's something for everyone!...

...We've dreamed up the perfect programme:

6pm: lights out at the office— just for once! Destination Café Français on the place Corentin Celton, for a jazzy hour of warm-up with the New Farmers. 7pm already? Off to the place Madaule for acoustic concerts until 9pm. All right, so acoustic is not your thing... In that case, Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, for the latest vibes. And if you're looking for classical, forget all the above! See you at 8.30pm at the Chapelle du séminaire de Saint-Sulpice for the annual concert of the Neidermeyer Conservatoire.

I'm pleased to report that Stéphane followed their advice, turned off his computer at 6:30 p.m. and enjoyed a "night off" at the annual Fête de la Musique with me.

Buridane rehearsing and getting ready for the crowd.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Swiss Chocolate Train (Part 2) - Gruyère Cheese Factory

For some reason that I've never understood, the Swiss cow who narrates the tour of the Gruyère cheese factory has a posh English accent more suited to the streets of London than the mountain pastures of Switzerland. Even though I've been taking the tour for years, it always catches me off guard to hear "Cherry" tell me about her diet of fresh grass, hazelnuts, wood shavings, chestnuts, mint and violets that make up the 75 different identifiable scents in Gruyère cheese. You just don't expect to hear a refined cow bragging about her four stomachs and the manner in which she ruminates, or chews her cud.

Sue, an American friend who recently moved to Vittel, France, smelling one of the scents found in Gruyère cheese.

In a most unladylike fashion, Cherry proudly reveals that she spends her days eating enormous quantities of fresh grass and drinking copious amounts of water to produce 7 gallons (25 liters) of milk per day. 

Cherry's milk is delivered to the factory where it's put in a large copper kettle that holds 1,268 gallons (4,800 liters). Incredibly, all of this milk only makes 12 Gruyère cheeses weighing 77 pounds (35 kg) per wheel.

During a complicated process in which rennet, the membrane lining the fourth stomach of a calf, is used to curdle the milk and transform it from a liquid state to a more solid mass, the cheese maker carefully monitors the mixture. As soon as he determines that it has the correct texture and elasticity, a pump empties the contents of the kettle into the moulds in less than four minutes. Each mould has a casein mark that identifies the day and month of production as well as the factory identification number.

For the next 16 hours, the cheese is turned and pressed, beginning with a pressure of 662 pounds (330 kg) that is gradually increased to 1,984 pounds (900 kg).  

After removing the wheels of cheese from the moulds and smoothing their sides, they're placed in a brine bath for 20 hours.

Now that the production stage is finished, the cheese is taken to a maturing cellar for a period of 5-6 months for mild cheese to more than 15 months for mature cheese.

Gruyère cheese has been made according to the same traditional recipe since 1655. The rounds of cheese were frequently transported over the mountains, across the lake and down the Rhône River to Lyon, France, where more than 40,000 rounds of Gruyère were registered annually at the end of the 18th century. 

Today, 59% of Gruyère is consumed in Switzerland, 10.3 % in the USA, 9% in Germany and 7% in France. The next time that you take a bite of Gruyère cheese, remember Cherry's diet and see if you're able to identify some of the scents of the Swiss mountain pastures.

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Play Me, I'm Yours" - 40 Street Pianos in Paris

Whether you're a professional pianist...

Or just starting out...

There are 40 brightly decorated pianos at your disposal on the streets of Paris from now until July 8, 2012. Look for them in popular tourist areas, public spaces and parks around the city. If you're not a musician, enjoy listening to the tunes of blues, rock and roll or classical music as others tickle the ivories from 9:30 am until 8:30 pm.

"Play Me, I'm Yours" is an art installation by British artist Luke Jerram and has been touring internationally since 2008. After spending 17 days on the streets, the pianos will be lent to a local non-profit organisation until the next edition of "Play Me, I’m Yours Paris" in 2013.

Knowing that the pianos would be in the Jardin du Palais Royal for the Fête de la Musique, I was excited to see a tweet by blogger "Aussie in France" about some mysterious covered objects encircling the fountain. Taking a quick look at the attached photo, I tweeted back to tell her that  they were pianos and that I was planning to attend the concert in the afternoon. Much to my delight, she tweeted back an invitation to have a bird's eye view of the festivities from her lovely apartment overlooking the gardens. Talk about a treat. Take a look at this view!

Click here to read Aussie in France's post about the pianos and the Fête de la Musique.

A full list of the pianos' positions can be found online at "Play Me, I'm Yours" Paris 2012, a website where people are encouraged to upload and share videos, photos and stories about their encounters with the pianos.
The view from Aussie in France's apartment

Aurélie Filippetti, the French Minister of Culture (2nd from left) with the British artist, Luke Jerram (right)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Riddle for the day - how would you use these objects?

How would you use the item hanging from the beam on the right? The cowbells are a clue.
The photo was taken at the Vieux Chalet restaurant in Gruyere, Switzerland.

Answer: It's a strap on milking stool that leaves hands free and clean. It also cuts down on aching backs and saves time and labor.

The angle of this picture makes it slightly more difficult to figure out the purpose of this object. This large stone structure sits in the center of Gruyere in front of l'Auberge de la Halle, where most commodities were sold. It was also the only establishment that was allowed to sell alcohol.

Here it is from another angle.

It shouldn't be confused with this picture of the toilet bowl on the Swiss Chocolate Train. That has a completely different use!

Answer: They're ancient grain measures. After the opening was closed, grain was poured into the receptacles under the watchful eye of the bailiff to ensure that the merchant didn't cheat his customers. When the bowl was full of grain and level at the top, the hole was unplugged so that the grain could flow into a sack.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Prix de Diane 2012 - Hats and Horses (Part II)

Racehorses run at 37-40 miles (60-65 km) per hour.

In theory, I should know a lot more about horse racing than I do because my eldest sister, who is the executive director of a therapeutic equestrian center, is also an ex-jockey and ex-trainer. In reality, I've been scared of horses ever since one kicked open my shin while I was riding in a simulated fox hunt when I was about 10 years old. That experience combined with another where I ended up flat on my back gazing at the belly of my horse after being thrown convinced me that these powerful animals are best enjoyed from a distance.

Yet when I heard that the Tourist Office of Chantilly was offering a special behind-the-scenes tour of the hippodrome prior to the Prix de Diane on Sunday, I decided that it would be a good opportunity to learn more about the Sport of Kings.

The thoroughbreds and their head traveling lad or lass arrive at Chantilly on the morning of the race. International horse transport companies move racehorses from one country to another. The twelve fillies running in the Prix de Diane traveled from Great Britain, the United States, Ireland, Germany and France.

As thoroughbreds are highly strung animals, they receive a shower shortly after their arrival to cool them down and help them relax.

To ensure that one horse has not been switched for another, each horse has a barcode embedded in its neck that is scanned before each race.

Johnny Murtagh, the winning jockey of the 2012 Prix de Diane.
The jockey is weighed in his race clothing complete with saddle before and after the race. If there is a discrepancy, the jockey may be disqualified. In Europe, jockeys should weigh no more than 115 pounds (52 kg).

The Future Racing Stars at the Prix de Diane ranged in age from 16 to 21 and came from England, France, Germany, Italy and Ireland. The winner was Angelo Citti, a 20 year old jockey from Italy.

In France, jockeys start their official training at the age of 14 at the Ecole des Courses Hippiques. While horse racing used to be a predominantly male sport, 70% of the current students are females.

Johnny Murtagh astride Valyra, the winner of the Prix de Diane.
Immediately before the race, the jockey receives his orders from the owner and mounts the horse, frequently for the first time. The horses are presented to the Owners' Tribune, while experienced bettors examine the animals for any signs of nervousness or fatigue.

For some of the jockeys, it will also be their first time racing at Chantilly. According to our guide, all of them know to start pushing their horses as soon as they reach the chapel near the Château de Chantilly.

While the rules of modern horse racing were created by the English, it was an American jockey who introduced the short-stirrup riding style that lifts the rider over the horse's withers called the "monkey crouch" or the "American seat".

At the end of the tour, our guide recommended that we watch Lads and Jockeys, a documentary that follows three 14-year-old boys training to become jockeys in Chantilly. It makes wearing a hat and cheering from the sidelines seem like the best way to enjoy the Prix de Diane! 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Prix de Diane 2012 - Hats and Horses! (Part 1)

Whew! This is another one of those Mondays when I'm thankful that I don't have a real job. I'm exhausted and suffering from sensory overload after marveling at all of the elaborate hats at the Prix de Diane yesterday. But I wouldn't have missed a second of it because I've been looking forward to the famous horse race ever since Stéphane and I first went to Chantilly last year.

Click on photos to enlarge.

The excitement must be contagious because our friends, Heidi and Paul, are planning to join us again next June. It's quite a turn around considering the less-than-enthusiastic response that I received from Heidi shortly after informing her that their visit to Paris would coincide with the Prix de Diane:

OMG!!!! I HATE HATS!! But I love champagne… So, I guess we have to make a good Swiss compromise. Are you going to wear the same hat as last year or are you already hunting for a new model ??

I’ll need some time to get used to the idea… Love, Heidi

About two weeks later, I received another email from Heidi:

Well, about this hat… I’m still looking. If only there was a model that is elegant yet not too eye-catching, it should be simple but in the right shade of beige or brown or grey, and there’s absolutely no reason for this thing to have flowers on top! Do you think the one that I could and would wear exists??? And for Paul – he has no idea yet what’s in store for him.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Being the adventurous woman that she is, Heidi finally ended up with a hat that was remarkably similar to mine. While we may not have looked as stylish as some of the people at the Prix de Diane, Heidi, Paul, Stéphane and I were unintentionally color coordinated in black and white. I guess that's to be expected since we've been friends for such a long time!

On the way home, we started talking about our outfits for next year. Heidi's adamant that she won't wear orange or pink, but I've got an entire year to convince her!

Many thanks to Bridget for telling me that Ascot has a strict new dress code for 2012. In the royal enclosure, fascinators are no longer acceptable. The new code states: "Hats should be worn; a headpiece which has a base of four inches (10cm) or more in diameter is acceptable as an alternative to a hat."

While I saw hats of all different colors, shapes and sizes at the Prix de Diane, some were definitely larger than others!

Click on photos to enlarge.

Additionally, women in the royal enclosure at Ascot will be expected to wear skirts or dresses of "modest length" which fall just above the knee or longer.

For men, black or grey morning dress with a waistcoat and tie are now compulsory in the royal enclosure and cravats will not be allowed.

A black or grey top hat and black shoes must also be worn.

With the exception of the socks and shoes, I think that the Parisians are following the rules for the royal enclosure at Ascot reasonably well!

Garlic, peppers, grapes and a crab!
Horses, euros and betting forms - everything you need for the racetrack.

Photo credit: Paul