Monday, December 16, 2013

Château de Vaux le Vicomte celebrates Christmas!

Christmas decorations at Château de Vaux le Vicomte

Dear Santa's helpers, If you're still looking for some last minute stocking stuffers, please consider purchasing an annual membership to a local museum, castle or monument. Not only does it help preserve the historical heritage of France, it's also the gift that keeps on giving throughout the entire year.

As friends of Château de Vaux le Vicomte, Stéphane and I have strolled through the castle's French formal gardens illuminated by thousands of candles in July and sampled more than our fill of chocolate at the Salon du Chocolat in November. We've picnicked on the lawn in 18th century costumes in June and marveled at the sumptuous holiday decorations in December. With a calendar full of special events, there's always a compelling reason to visit the masterpiece of 17th century architecture and garden design created by King Louis XIV's finance minister, Nicholas Fouquet.

Château de Vaux le Vicomte

"C'est féerique!" That's what I overheard an elderly French woman whisper to another as they snapped photos of the snow flocked evergreens leading to the entrance of Vaux le Vicomte last Saturday evening. And, it was like something out of a fairytale. Classical choir music emanated from hidden speakers and the scent of smoke wafted through the crisp air. My senses tingled with a childlike sense of anticipation as we entered the large foyer. Even though I've visited the castle on numerous occasions, I couldn't wait to see the stately salons decorated for Christmas, each one more dazzling than the last. The centerpiece is an 8 meter (26 foot) tree adorned with 5,000 ornaments in the Grand Salon.

To see more photos of Château de Vaux le Vicomte majestically decorated for the holidays, please click here.

From December 21, 2013 until January 5, 2014, Château de Vaux le Vicomte welcomes visitors from 10:30 am until 6:00 pm. The last admission is 5:45 pm. The castle will be closed on December 25 and January 1.

Christmas trees in one of the salons at Château de Vaux le Vicomte

Friday, December 13, 2013

Finding the spirit of Christmas at the Trocadero Christmas Market and Ice Skating Rink

Ice skating rink at Trocadéro

For the past couple of weeks, I've been feeling really stressed. What with trying to work out the logistics of gathering our scattered family under one roof, preferably in Paris, for part of the holidays and planning a trip to Switzerland, I've been acting more like Scrooge than a jolly, old elf. I may have even muttered, "Christmas. Bah, humbug!" after being jostled by throngs of other shoppers at Printemps department store last Sunday. Shopping is my worst nightmare at any time of the year, but it's even more scary during the weeks building up to Christmas. To escape the crowds, Stéphane and I sought momentary refuge on the outdoor terrace before reluctantly returning to the trenches.

But something magical happened yesterday evening. It started with the sudden impulse to hop off the bus when I noticed hundreds of brightly colored kites blowing in the breeze at the base of the Trocadéro fountain. The sensible side of my brain told the other side not to be ridiculous. "What," it demanded, "will you do with all the bags that you're carrying?" Since my deliberations lasted for more than two stops, I had plenty of time to wonder if I had made the right decision as I trudged back to the Christmas market in the biting cold. My doubts disappeared when I was confronted by all the smiley Santa Clauses surrounding the fountain. It's impossible, I discovered, to remain grim in the face of such holiday cheer.

The scent of spiced cookies, crêpes and mulled wine emanating from the wooden chalets decorated with twinkling lights invited me to continue my stroll up the hill. At the peak, I turned around to admire the Eiffel Tower ... and saw Santa instead! There he was, with his arms outstretched to welcome travelers from around the world onto his lap. Young, old and all ages in between. Everyone wanted a chance to whisper their Christmas wishes in old Kris Kringle's ear. The jolly old elf even joined a conference call between a father and his children on Skype. As the man adjusted his iPad so that his children could get a better view of Santa in front of the Eiffel Tower, I felt my heart expanding, kind of like the Grinch's did when he realized the true meaning of Christmas:

He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe Christmas, he thought... doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps... means a little bit more! (Video clip from The Grinch)

If you're looking for some Christmas cheer, I encourage you to go to the Christmas Market at Trocadéro one evening. On December 17, the full moon will cast its glow on the Eiffel Tower and the ice skating rink. It can't get much more magical than that. Remember to dress warmly!

To see more photos of the Christmas market and the ice skating rink, please click here.

Trocadéro Christmas Market and Ice Skating Rink
December 12, 2013 - January 5, 2014
The market is open every day from 11:00 am until 8:00 pm. The ice skating rink is open every day from 11:00 am until 9:00 pm, with the exception of December 13 and December 16-19 when the rink will open at 4:00 pm. The rink will close at 6:00 pm on December 24 and at 5:00 pm on December 30. It will be closed on December 25 and 31. Entrance to the rink is free. Skate rental is 6 euros.

Santa Claus, with his arms open wide!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris" - Talking with author Ann Mah

Ann Mah, author of Mastering the Art of French Eating

Mastering the Art of French Eating has received rave reviews and praise from The Wall Street Journal, Library Journal and The Daily Beast. In June, I had the pleasure of talking with author Ann Mah about her food memoir and experiences as an expat in Paris.

The title and description of your book pays tribute to Julia Child, another diplomatic wife. Do you feel a special connection with her?
AM: As soon as we learned that my husband's next assignment would be in Paris, we started studying a map of France and plotting destinations using Julia Child's recipes as a sort of guide. Because her recipes span the country, we thought that these culinary adventures would provide us with an excuse to travel and eat.

With all of your advance planning, it must have come as quite a disappointment when your husband was called away from Paris for a year long assignment in Iraq. Do you have any tips for single travelers who would like to experience French food in restaurants but are hesitant to dine alone?
AM: It's true that dining alone can be awkward because it's usually a communal activity, one in which we find joy in being together. Going to a restaurant on your own requires a certain fearlessness. You can't be intimidated. To keep myself occupied between courses, I usually take a book with me.

Last year, I had the pleasure of hearing you speak at "What's Eating Paris", a panel discussion that featured food bloggers and journalists. One of the questions was about the reliability of restaurant reviews on community websites, like Trip Advisor and Yelp, versus blogs. How do you decide which restaurants you would like to try? 
AM: My best resource for finding new restaurants is the internet, but I take my research very seriously. First, I compile a list of suggestions from Chowhound. If I'm planning a weekend trip to Vienna and want to know where to get the best wienerschnitzel, I'll cross reference the suggestions from Chowhound with information that I find on blogs. I rarely rely on one person's advice because I don't know if our tastes are similar.

For first time travelers to Paris, which French foods are worth seeking out?
AM: Definitely the viennoiseries, like croissants and pain au chocolat, and bread from Poilâne. For the experience of tasting French wine in a convivial atmosphere, I recommend going to a modern bistro or wine bar. Au Passage in the 11th arrondissement is a good choice. Their menu includes a selection of creative small plates. Steak frites is also quintessentially French. It's featured in the first chapter of my book.

What are the other chapters in your book about?
AM: There are 10 chapters and each one is dedicated to a particular region and speciality.

Which region or speciality was the most surprising?
AM: Andouillet, a pungent tripe sausage, from Troyes.

(Wrinkling my nose), I don't know if I would have the courage to try andouillet. I've heard that it smells like ... well, like ...  I've heard it stinks!
AM: It's definitely something that you have to ease into. The texture is kind of like a stretched out rubber band and it tastes like bologna. But it demands a lot of respect because of its place in the culinary culture of France. If it's your first time to try andouillet, it's better when it's served cold. The flavor isn't as strong. (Responding to the look of skepticism on my face) You could order one and share it.

What is your favorite French comfort food?
AM: Cassoulet, a hearty stew of sausages, duck confit, pork sausages and white beans, from the Languedoc.

How has your view of food been influenced by France?
AM: One of the biggest surprises was that people are encouraged to stop working during their lunch break. In Beijing and New York, all of my colleagues used to eat lunch in front of their computers. There's a great deal of respect for food and the ceremony of food in France.

What's your perfect day in Paris?
AM: If it's a Tuesday, I would start my day with an early morning visit to Raspail market. After dropping my produce off at my apartment, I would meet a friend for crêpes at Little Breizh in the 6th or West Country Girl in the 11th arrondissement. After lunch, I would go for a long walk. Once I was at home, I would write. Otherwise, I would feel guilty. For dinner, I would cook something from the market, probably fish or seafood.

As a former expat who now resides in New York, what advice would you give to other expats, like me, who will have to leave Paris one day?
AM: Part of the experience of being an American expat in Paris is leaving Paris. It's bittersweet. It's makes the city even more lovely because we know that we'll have to leave it. One of the saddest days of my life was when I moved, but life exists afterwards.

Please visit Ann Mah's website for "Adventures in Food, France and Beyond".

Following Jefferson Through the Vineyards by Ann Mah - An interesting article in The New York Times about Jefferson's travels in Burgundy.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Love, tenderness, understanding and unity: lessons learned from the men responsible for Notre-Dame's symbolic Christmas tree

For a bi-cultural couple, celebrating Christmas and other holidays can be liking walking through a cultural minefield. Christmas stockings, decorations and traditional foods can all provoke heated debates. If your spouse is from Switzerland, he may claim that Baby Jesus delivers presents to the good little girls and boys around the world when you know for a fact that it's a jolly man dressed in a red suit. As an American, I find it somewhat hard to believe that a tiny baby could handle the stress of landing a sleigh on a steep Parisian rooftop without bursting into tears. After all, Santa has a hard enough time maneuvering through the city traffic, and he's a robust man accustomed to managing an entire village of elves.

Our family's Christmas tree has long been a cause for contention. I'll never forget the first time that I saw Stéphane running the lights up and down the tree. "What are you doing?" I demanded. Baffled as to why I was asking a question about something that was so obvious, Stéphane replied that he was stringing lights on the tree. "But that's not how you do it. The lights go around the tree. Not up and down," I said. Thinking that perhaps it was a language issue, I made large circular motions with my hands to illustrate how the lights should encompass the tree. From there, the situation disintegrated. It was our first Christmas together, I was far from my family and I wanted everything to be done exactly like it was at home. My home in the United States, not Stéphane's home in Switzerland. I'll spare you the grisly details of the ensuing fight. Suffice it to say that when we get ready to decorate our Christmas tree this year, Stéphane will hand me the lights so that I can string them around the tree. It's a job that he has completely rejected ever since I criticized the aesthetics of Swiss Christmas trees.

Yoann Nedellec and Sylvio Zago of Jardin d'Edgar

All of this explains why I was so pleased to talk with Sylvio Zago and Yoann Nedellec, the two men responsible for the magnificent Christmas tree in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral. With a kindly smile on his face, Sylvio told me that the multi-colored lights running up and down the tree represent the different colors and hues of mankind. The golden lights encircling the tree symbolize unity. "With all of the trouble in the world," Sylvio said, "We need more love, tenderness and understanding." Pointing at the star at the top of the 20 meter (65 foot) tree, he declared that it symbolizes all religious beliefs, not only Christianity. When Sylvio and Yoann disappeared into the chilly night, I felt as if I had received an early Christmas gift. One of compassion. Maybe I'll ask Stéphane to string the lights going up and down on our Christmas tree this year. After all, understanding of others begins at home.

Want to see more photos of Paris at Christmastime? I've posted a lot of albums on "Out and About's" Facebook page. You don't need an account to view them.

Galerie Vivienne - decorated for Christmas
All that glitters IS gold at the Four Seasons Hotel George V!
Christmas lights in Paris
La Grande Roue de Paris (The Ferris Wheel of Paris)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Discover the Paris of your favorite movie characters with Set in Paris, Le Movie Tour

If you've ever watched Midnight in Paris and wished that you could magically transport yourself to the steps where Gil waited for the clock to strike twelve, I highly recommend Set in Paris, Le Movie Tour.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Stéphane and I escaped the dreary Parisian weather by boarding a luxurious bus for an entertaining 3.5 hour guided tour of the city. As the driver pulled away from the curb, we watched a montage of black and white film clips on drop down screens while our guide Abby explained the history of film making in Paris. When we stopped in front of a plaque commemorating the Lumière brothers' first public screening of a film in 1895, I knew that we were in for an interesting tour. I love it when I learn something new. Even though I had haphazardly noticed the plaque while strolling past the GAP store on Boulevard des Capucines, this was the first time I understood it's significance. Sorry, New York! Motion pictures actually started with the Lumière Cinématographe projection system in Paris not with Thomas Edison's Vitascope.

The luxurious bus is equipped with screens, a toilet and a coffee machine.

From there, we traversed the city while Abby regaled us with stories about recent movies shot at such iconic locations as the Louvre, Place Vendôme and Boulevard Saint Germain. At the Place du Louvre, Abby suggested that we stretch our legs with a walk to the Pont des Arts, which has appeared in several films. Even though it felt good to get some exercise, we were all happy to return to the warmth of the bus, especially since it was time for our coffee and madeleine break! Not only does Le Movie Tour give an excellent overview of Paris for first time visitors, but it's truly remarkable to watch a scene from a movie while you're parked right next to the spot where it was filmed. It's like stepping onto a movie set!

A lot of research and forethought obviously went into Le Movie Tour and it shows. Being a visual learner, I really appreciated the movie clips and guidebook with photos from different films. Plus, Abby is one of the most cheerful guides that I've ever met.

Set in Paris, Le Movie Tour

Reviews of Set in Paris on TripAdvisor

Interesting fact: More than 950 films were shot in Paris in 2012. On any given day, ten film crews are shooting somewhere in the city.

Our group with "Movember" mustaches. Stéphane is in the front, trying his best to look like Gil!