Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fine dining with a discount - Le First, restaurant boudoir Paris (The Westin Paris - Vendôme)

Dieppe scallops with diced pumpkin/Chinese artichoke and garlic cream with beetroot

It has been almost three years since Stéphane and I moved to Paris. Time enough, you would think, to visit all of the "must try" restaurants, bistros and wine bars on my list. But with a city full of tantalizing dining options, it's sometimes hard to keep moving forward rather than returning to tried and true favorites. Our recent lunch at Le First, restaurant boudoir Paris is going to make it even more difficult, especially since this fine dining establishment is currently offering a discount when booked with La Fourchette

Lunch at Le First, restaurant boudoir Paris (The Westin Paris - Vendôme)

Le First's plush velvet banquettes, dim lighting and romantic atmosphere offer a welcome retreat from the bustling crowds on the Rue de Rivoli. Seated next to one of the windows with a view of the Tuileries Garden, Stéphane and I perused the inventive menu created by Chef Gilles Grasteau before settling on a Brittany-style pot-au-feu made with fish rather than meat and Dieppe scallops served atop a colorful combination of diced pumpkin/Chinese artichoke and garlic cream with beetroot. My scallops were so delicious that it was one of the first times that I've refused to swap plates with Stéphane. If his half-hearted offer was any indication, he wasn't interested in exchanging dishes either. Before moving on to dessert, we had already decided to return to Le First. Stéphane's apple tart tatin served with lime shortbread and my floating island atop caramelized pineapple sealed the deal.

When booked with La Fourchette, there is a 50% discount for lunch (starter/main or main/dessert) on Monday and Tuesday; 40% discount for lunch (starter/main or main/dessert) from Wednesday to Saturday and for dinner (starter/main or main/dessert) Sunday to Tuesday; and 30% discount for dinner (starter/main or main/dessert) Wednesday to Saturday. Ssshhhh - it's one of the best dining deals in town!   

234 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris

Insider's tip: Be sure to check out the empty beehive at the entrance to the restaurant. A couple of years ago, the Westin installed six beehives on its roof. With the Tuileries Garden and all of its trees and flowers a short flight away, the bees keep Chef Gilles Grasteau supplied with honey for his culinary creations. There's even a special €60 "Variation on Honey" menu.

Related post: Dining and Saving Money in Paris with "The Fork" ("La Fourchette")

Floating island atop caramelized pineapple in an English custard with Tahitian vanilla

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Nuit de Chine (Night of China) extravaganza at Grand Palais kicks off year of Franco-Chinese celebrations

Nuit de Chine (Night of China)

A few days before the official start of the Chinese New Year, celebrations for the "Year of the Horse" got off to a gallop at the Grand Palais in Paris on Monday night. In addition to the official guests of the Chinese and French governments, more than 2,000 Chinese students were the guests of honor at an extravaganza celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

On January 27, 1964, General de Gaulle issued an official communiqué making France the first major Western country to officially recognize the “eternal China” of President Mao Zedong. Throughout 2014, France and China will host a series of exhibitions, symposiums, encounters, shows and concerts highlighting the areas in which both countries excel.

Equestrian performance at Nuit de Chine (Night of China)

Billed as an evening of images, lighting and sound, Nuit de Chine (Night of China) kicked off the yearlong celebrations with an invitation only piano recital by Chinese pianist Wu Muye and an equestrian performance choreographed by Bartabas, the French creator of a new art form combining horsemanship, music, art and dancing. The first portion of the evening also featured principal dancers from the Chinese Central Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and the performing troupe of Tagou Martial Arts School.

Transformed into a monumental showcase with multiple stages, the Grand Palais opened its doors to the general public at 9:00 pm. Images of Chinese films that had won prizes at Cannes and famous works of art belonging to the French National Collection were projected on billowing material screens hanging form the ceiling. Accompanied by an “Electronic Soundscape” mixing film sound tracks, Chinese music and compositions by Patrick Vidal, the projected images evolved to include urban and rural scenes of China. The sensation was of a hallucinatory journey.

While the extravaganza was spectacular, the best part of the evening was seeing the interactions between the Chinese and French students. As honored guests of the inaugural event celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations, Night of China gave them the opportunity to forge bonds of friendship and understanding that will extend into the future.

To welcome the Year of the Horse, there will be three large parades in Paris.

Sunday, February 2 from 2:30 pm starting at the Hôtel de Ville and ending at rue Beaubourg. FREE face painting for children from 10:00 am - 12:00 pm at 29 rue Michel Le Comte.
Sunday, February 9 from 10:00 am following the route Métro Belleville - Boulevard de la Villette - Rue Rebeval - Rue Jules Romains - Rue de Belleville - Rue Louis Bonnet - Rue de la Presentation - Rue du Faubourg du Temple - Métro Belleville.
Sunday, February 9 from 1:00 pm the largest parade with more than 2,000 participants will start at 44, Avenue d’Ivry - Avenue de Choisy - Place d’Italie - Avenue d’Italie - Rue de Tolbiac - Avenue de Choisy - Boulevard Masséna - Avenue d’Ivry.

Click here to see more photos of Nuit de Chine (Night of China) on Facebook.

Images of France juxtaposed with those of China at the Nuit de Chine (Night of China)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Up in smoke: My dreams of sitting next to a roaring fireplace in Paris

Ballon de Paris - Atmospheric Observatory at Parc André Citroën 

Oddly enough, considering the fact that we've never used them, the working fireplaces in our living room and bedroom played a major role in my decision to rent our 1930s apartment. I envisioned rainy afternoons spent reading books next to a blazing fire. What I didn't consider is that the entire project would require some foresight. For the plan to work, I would have to remember to buy a bundle of wood from the grocery store when I wasn't already burdened with laundry detergent, a jug of milk and lots of heavy vegetables.

But now that the city of Paris has announced that fires for pleasure* will be strictly prohibited after January 1, 2015, it's no longer going to be an issue. My barren fireplaces will serve as a reminder that I'm doing my part to keep the air quality of the city at breathable levels. If I need another indicator, I'll step out on my balcony and observe the color of the cars and monuments on the Ballon de Paris. When the monuments are light green and the cars are orange, like they were when I visited Parc André Citroën on Friday afternoon, it means that the outdoor air quality experienced by the average citizen is good while the roadside air quality is moderate. Generally, the poorest air quality is found on busy streets, like the the ring road (périphérique), Place Victor-et-Helene Basch near Porte d’Orléans, Champs-Elysées, Place de l'Opéra and Boulevard Haussmann. People living, working and visiting these streets are all affected. Riding in a car or bus doesn't protect you from inhaling air pollution.

In December, Paris was put on an air pollution alert when cold weather entrapped diesel fumes leading to the most severe smog since 2007. To encourage people to leave their cars at home and use mass transit, residential parking was free and speed limits were lowered along the Parisian ring road and major arteries leading to the capital. The city's electronic signboards advised residents of the high levels of pollution, which are of particular concern for anyone with existing conditions, children, older people and pregnant women. Residents were also advised to abstain from outdoor sporting activities until the quality of the air had improved.

The five European cities with the worst outdoor air pollution. Pollution is defined as airborne particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10). Values shown are annual averages in micrograms per cubic meter of air. Quartz

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the world’s worst environmental carcinogen and more dangerous than second-hand smoke. Rather than worrying about the number of cigarette smokers in Paris, I'll gladly do my part and forgo reading books by a roaring fire. It won't be too much of a sacrifice!

*Fires used as the primary source of heat have been prohibited in Paris since 2007.

Related posts and websites:
Up, Up, and Away - A Bird's Eye View of Paris from a Hot Air Balloon
Ballon de Paris
Airparif: non-profit organization that monitors the air quality in Paris and the Ile de France region

Thursday, January 23, 2014

To our martyred King Louis XVI - Remembrance and Forgiveness 221 Years After Your Execution

"A notre Roi martyr - Souvenir et Pardon" (To our martyred King - Remembrance and Forgiveness)

Heavy dark clouds hung over the Place de la Concorde giving it an ominous air on Tuesday afternoon. With the tops of the Eiffel Tower and the Montparnasse Tower obscured by mist, it was all too easy to imagine what it would have been like when King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine at the Place de la Révolution (Place de la Concorde) on January 21, 1793. Shivering from the cold, I recalled Abbé Edgeworth's description of King Louis's last minutes on earth:

The King, finding himself seated in the carriage, where he could neither speak to me nor be spoken to without witness, kept a profound silence. I presented him with my breviary, the only book I had with me, and he seemed to accept it with pleasure: he appeared anxious that I should point out to him the psalms that were most suited to his situation, and he recited them attentively with me. The gendarmes, without speaking, seemed astonished and confounded at the tranquil piety of their monarch, to whom they doubtless never had before approached so near….

King Louis XVI receiving the Last Sacraments from Abbe Edgeworth.

When the revolutionary journal 'Thermomètre du jour' published an inaccurate account of the King Louis XVI's execution stating that the King had to be led to the scaffold with a pistol held to his temple, Charles Henri Sanson, the Royal Executioner of France during the reign of King Louis XVI and High Executioner of the First French Republic, wrote a letter to the newspaper recording "the exact truth of what happened". Sanson, who was fourth in a six-generation family dynasty of executioners and oversaw nearly 3,000 executions, declared that the King Louis XVI had shown considerable bravery and calmness of mind. Sanson's first-hand account was discovered two hundred years after the monarch's death.

Paris, 20 Feb. 1793; 1st year of the Fr. Rep.


A short absence has prevented my sooner replying to your article concerning Louis Capet. But here is the exact truth as to what passed. On alighting from the carriage for execution, he was told that he must take off his coat; he made some difficulty, saying that they might as well execute him as he was. On [our] representation that that was impossible, he himself assisted in taking off his coat. He again made the same difficulty when his hands were to be tied, but he offered them himself when the person who accompanied him [his confessor] had told him that it was the last sacrifice [the Abbe Edgeworth had suggested to him that the Saviour had submitted to the same indignity]. Then he inquired whether the drums would go on beating as they were doing. We answered that we could not tell. And it was the truth. He ascended the scaffold, and advanced to the front, as if he intended to speak; but we again represented to him that the thing was impossible: he then allowed himself to be conducted to the spot, when he was attached to the instrument, and from which he exclaimed, in a loud voice, "People, I die innocent!" Then, turning round to us, he said, "Sir, I die innocent of all that has been imputed to me; I wish that my blood may cement the happiness of the French people!"

"These, citizen, were his last and exact words. The kind of little debate which occurred at the foot of the scaffold turned altogether on his not thinking it necessary that his coat should he taken off, and his hands tied; he would also have wished to cut off his own hair [he had wished to have it done early in the morning by Clery, but the Municipality would not allow him a pair of scissors].

And, as an homage to truth, I must add that he bore all this with a sangfroid and firmness which astonished us all. I am convinced that he had derived this strength of mind from the principles of religion, of which no one could appear more persuaded and penetrated.

You may be assured, citizen, that there is the truth in its fullest light.

I have the honour to be
Your fellow citizen,

On January 21, 2014 at precisely 10:22 am, the moment when King Louis XVI was executed, a group of approximately 50 royalists gathered at the Place de la Concorde. They left two bouquets of white lilies on the ground to mark the exact spot where their monarch was guillotined 221 years ago.

A mass for France and the royal family was held at the Chapelle Expiatoire on Sunday, January 19, 2014.

Related article: Louis XVI blood mystery 'solved'

Flowers placed near the statue of Rouen at the Place de la Concorde. King Louis XVI was executed nearby.
Two bouquets of white lilies placed on the ground where King Louis XVI was beheaded.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Elegance and fabrics at the time of The Great Gatsby" - Exhibition at Prelle et Cie

Photo credit: Prelle et Cie

Like any lady, the city of Paris harbors her secrets. One of them, known almost exclusively by museum curators and interior designers, is the address of the legendary Prelle et Cie situated at the elegant Place des Victoires. Using the same techniques as they did in 1752, Prelle weaves reproductions of silk fabrics, such as the peacock feather silk wall hangings in Marie-Antoinette's bedroom at Versailles and the fabrics adorning the foyer of the Palais Garnier, for palaces, museums and historical homes in France and around the world.

Photo credit: Prelle et Cie

Two to three times a year, Prelle hosts exhibitions that display items from their extensive archives of historic designs. The latest, "Elegance and Fabrics at the Time of The Great Gatsby", features brightly colored panels of silk decorated with fountains, waterfalls and flowers along with magnificent dresses, hats, fans and a pair of silver lamé pumps from Les Années folles ("Roaring Twenties"). Having just finished Season 4 of Downton Abby, I was delighted to see a black beaded dress with a pair of white evening gloves that would have looked smashing on Lady Mary and a spectacular "Queen of England" coat with a fur collar that would have been perfect for Lady Edith. Timed to coincide with "1925, When Art Déco dazzled the World" at Cité de l’Architecture, the Prelle exhibition includes pieces by Maurice Dufrêne, Suzanne Lalique and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. 

"Elegance and Fabrics at the Time of The Great Gatsby" until March 29, 2014 
The exhibition is free and open to the public Monday to Thursday from 9am - 6pm and Friday 9am - 5pm
Prelle Showroom
5, Place des Victoires
75001 Paris

Please click here to see additional photos posted on Facebook.

In the United States, Prelle silk has been commissioned by many museums and stately homes, including the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and Marble House, the Vanderbilt's "cottage" in Newport, Rhode Island. (To see the complete list, refer to Prelle's Historical References 1947-2013)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Who wants a cardboard crown when you can have a diamond tiara? "Cartier: Style and History" at the Grand Palais

Laurel Tiara. Cartier London, circa 1930. Platinum, diamonds, aquamarines

It's January in France, which means that people are devouring slice after slice of galette des rois (King Cake) hoping to find the hidden trinket that will make them king or queen for the day. After Stéphane inadvertently, or perhaps purposefully, cut the trinket in half, the cardboard crown that accompanied our galette des rois ended up in the recycling bin rather than on my head. No matter. Thanks to Cartier: Style and History, an exhibition of exceptional treasures created by the "jeweler to kings", I've got my eye on a diamond tiara.

Kokoshnik Tiara. Cartier Paris, 1908. Platinum, 15 pear-shaped diamonds, pearls.

The exhibition, which is at the Grand Palais until February 16, opens with a jaw-dropping display of ten tiaras. Not wanting to commit to the first tiara I saw, I steadfastly ignored the gasps of appreciation that accompanied each piece until I finally decided that the elegantly simple Kokoshnik Tiara, with its 15 pear-shaped diamonds and pearls, would look perfect atop my humble head. The hanging diamonds are one of the earliest examples of the technique known as "muguet" (lily-of-the-valley) setting. A delicate rim of platinum in the shape of a lily-of-the-valley holds a large brilliant surrounded by several tightly packed diamonds giving the impression of a single stone.

Reluctantly turning away from the glittering tiaras, I tried to focus my attention on the audio guide's explanations about the history of the jewelry house. It was impossible. With images of sparkling jewels projected onto the vaulted ceiling of the Salon d’Honneur, I had the odd sensation of being inside a rare gem. It was exhilarating. Rather than try to learn anything, I decided to give in to the seductive allure of the jewels.

In addition to tracing the history of Cartier, the exhibition also pays homage to some of its most devoted customers and their jewelry. Princess Grace of Monaco's tiara, American heiress Daisy Fellowes's extravagant Hindu necklace executed in Cartier's Tutti Frutti style, Queen Elizabeth's pink diamond flower brooch, Elizabeth Taylor's ruby collar and the 1936 "Halo" tiara worn by Kate Middleton for her wedding to Prince William, are all on display.

Even though "diamonds are a girls' best friend", I wish that I would have asked Stéphane to accompany me to the exhibition. He would have been fascinated by the "mystery clocks", captivating works of art in which the hands appear to magically float within the crystal, and a scale model of the lunar vehicle used for the Apollo 11 mission. Commissioned by the French newspaper Le Figaro to commemorate the historic mission, a model of the lunar vehicle was presented to each of the mission's three astronauts when they visited Paris.

Insider's tip: To avoid the crowds, one of the guards told me that the best time to arrive at the exhibition is at 6:00 pm. It worked for me.

Please click here to see additional photos posted on Facebook.

Cartier: Style and History
At the Grand Palais until February 16, 2014

Monday, January 13, 2014

"There's a place in France where the ladies (and men) wear no pants" - No Pants Subway Ride 2014 in Paris

Metro line 1 is notorious for pickpockets. Every couple of stops, there's a public announcement in at least four different languages warning passengers to keep a close eye on their belongings. If you happened to be riding the metro from Charles de Gaulle - Étoile in the direction of Bastille at approximately 3:45 pm yesterday, it might have occurred to you that the pickpockets had been busy stealing more than just wallets. In honor of the third annual No Pants Subway Ride in Paris, many of the passengers were traveling trouserless. While participants without bottoms read newspapers, studied route maps or nonchalantly chatted on cell phones, astonished passengers tried their best not to stare at all the exposed limbs in the middle of winter.

The No Pants Subway Ride is an annual event staged in more than 60 cities in over 25 countries around the world. Originally created as a prank by Improv Everywhere in New York City in 2002, the idea has grown into an international celebration of silliness. The concept is simple: random passengers without pants board a subway car at different stops. They're normally attired on top and scantily clad on the bottom. Yet, all of the participants act as if it's just another regular commute. If they're questioned about why they're not wearing trousers, they're to respond that they forgot them. As the number of pantless passengers exceeded the number of those wearing trousers by the end of the route yesterday, I'm sure that more than a few tourists will go home and tell their friends, "You won't believe how they dress in Paris!"

Click here to see more photos posted on Facebook.

No Pants Subway Ride 2014 Paris

Friday, January 10, 2014

Le Café des Chats: Paris's first cat cafe is the purrfect spot to spend a rainy afternoon

Nap time at Le Café des Chats in Paris

Paris, the culinary capital of France, has approximately 16,255 restaurants. But, there's currently only one café where you can cuddle a cat while savoring a slice of artisan quiche, salad or a muffin. Inspired by the success of cat cafes in Taiwan and Japan, the recently opened Café des Chats is so popular that visitors are advised to reserve three days in advance during the week and as much as four weeks in advance for the weekend.

When I made a last minute decision to have lunch at the cafe yesterday, I felt fortunate to get a table. In the anteroom, the hostess quickly went over the rules:
  • No flash photography
  • Don't disturb or pet a cat if it's asleep, no matter how adorable it looks.
  • And most importantly, don't feed the cats, even if one climbs on your table and beseechingly meows for a piece of salmon. You may, however, gently encourage cats to leave your table.

After disinfecting my hands, another one of the regulations, I pushed open the wooden door with some trepidation. Expecting cats to be prowling around the room, I was somewhat surprised that the cafe, with its exposed stone walls, wooden beams and bookshelves, resembles many of the other trendy spots in the Marais. There wasn't a cat in sight. It was only after sitting down that I noticed a tortoiseshell colored cat curled up on a window sill and another one snoozing daintily on a turquoise pillow. My interactions with the felines were minimal because they were all in the middle of their afternoon naps.

Two Parisians at Le Café des Chats.

Things were a bit more lively downstairs. Of the ten cats rescued from animal rescue centers, seven of them were hanging out in the vaulted 15th century basement. With a piano, leather sofas, mismatched chairs and intimate tables tucked away in private niches, this is the place to enjoy a soothing cup of Kusmi tea with a cupcake if you're not claustrophobic. Aimed at Parisians who are unable to keep pets in their tiny apartments, an added benefit of the cat cafe is the ease with which customers interact with each other as they respectfully observe the cats. An elderly couple from Germany chatted with two young Parisians while another group willing made room on their sofa for new arrivals. Not only does "purr therapy" produce vibrations that relieve arthritis and rheumatism, it's also good for your heart!

Insider's tip: If you would like to play with one of the cats, the hostess said that they're most active when the cafe opens at noon and shortly before it closes for the night.

Le Café des Chats
16 Rue Michel Le Comte
75003 Paris
Open every day from 12:00 to 10:00 pm. Reservations highly recommended.

Click here to see more photos on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Don't miss "The Calendar Story", the MaGMA Collection at Sotheby's France

Collector Guillaume Lévy-Lambert in front of a reproduction of the Roy Lichtenstein painting that changed his life.

Maybe a painting can save a life. 
One changed mine.

Above all else, The Calendar Story is a deeply personal story, a love story. It recounts the tale of how Guillaume Lévy-Lambert and Mark Goh's lives were irrevocably changed when they stumbled upon Roy Lichenstein's Desk Calendar at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and were struck by two dates: May 21, 1962, the exact date of Lévy-Lambert's birth, and October 26, Goh's birthday, which is inexplicably circled with an arrow pointing at it. Feeling as if they had just won the $100 million lottery, the newly acquainted companions interpreted this fateful encounter as a divine sign.

For the next 15 years, businessman Guillaume Lévy-Lambert and urban planner Mark Goh, who are based in Singapore, jointly collected over 300 works of contemporary Asian art. The Calendar Story is the culmination of this adventurous collecting. Each work is accompanied by an intimate anecdote in English and French from Goh and Levy-Lambert's lives. Rather than being distracted by these stories, the vignettes add another dimension to this exceptional exhibition. Mark Goh's wish is that "The Calendar Story will have the power in each of its intriguing episodes to extend what has been a personal narrative, into a compelling story of life, love, fate and the quest for truth that will touch you." It certainly touched me when I attended the pre-opening party last night.

Highlights of The Calendar Story include Mask No. 6 and Untitled (Mr Dai) by Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi. There are works by other Chinese artists, including Wang Guangyi, Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun and Zhou Chunya, and Indonesian artists Agus Suwage and Nyoman Masriadi.

Insider's tip: MaGMA collector Guillaume Lévy-Lambert will give guided visits and answer questions at 4:00 pm every day. Don't miss this rare opportunity!

The Calendar Story (MaGMA Collection) - Free admission from January 6-18, 2014, closed January 12.
Sotheby's France
76 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
75008 Paris

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Great Elephant and Marine Worlds Carousel at Les Machines de l'Île : Things to do in Nantes, France

The Great Elephant at Les Machines de l'Île in Nantes

"I didn't know that you wanted to go for a ride on the elephant," Stéphane said before consoling me with a spin on the carousel. Lest you think that I've become a petulant child in the past couple of weeks, let me explain that the elephant that I wanted to ride is as tall as a four-story building and carries 50 passengers at a time. The Great Elephant, as he's appropriately called, is one of the attractions at Les Machines de l'Îles. It's as if Leonardo da Vinci joined forces with Jules Verne, a native son of Nantes, to design a mechanical creature that sprays astonished onlookers with water from its trunk. Made out of American Tulipwood, the majestic animal sounds its trumpet as it carries passengers around the former shipyards.

The Marine Worlds Carousel on which Stéphane proposed we go for a ride is equally amazing. Winner of the 2014 THEA Awards Los Angeles for the most original attraction in the world, the carousel's three levels take you from the depths of the sea to the surface. A giant crab and reverse propulsion squid inhabit the sea bed while a Deep Sea Lanternfish, Manta Ray and Pirate Fish are suspended above the floor of the ocean. On the third floor, boats are tossed about by 24 mechanical waves as ship captains steer their vessels through thick fog. Stéphane and I almost spent New Year's Eve inside the belly of a colorful fish when the attendants didn't see that we were still locked inside. Fortunately, we caught their attention before they departed for the evening. Everyone had a good laugh about what would have been a unique way to welcome in the new year.

Located in the former shipbuilding warehouses of Nantes, Machines de l'Île is part of the Île de Nantes urban renewal project. Unlike enclosed theme parks, the site it open to visitors and conveniently close to the historic city center. Admission is charged for the rides and to visit the Machine Gallery, workshops that feature the entire creative process of the machines. The next ambitious project is a monumental tree that will have 22 branches on which people will be able to walk and ride mechanized insects, like caterpillars and giant ants.

Les Machines de l'Île
Parc des Chantiers
bd Léon Bureau
44200 Nantes

Where to sleep and eat in Nantes: The Radisson Blu Hotel and La Cigalle

Marine Worlds Carousel at Les Machines de l'Île in Nantes

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Yves Saint Laurent - the biopic about the French designer starring Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne

If I could use only one adjective to describe the French biopic Yves Saint Laurent starring Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne, it would be disturbing. During the first part of the film, Saint Laurent is suddenly thrust into the limelight when he becomes the creative director of Dior at the age of 21. When reporters pepper him with questions, "Do you not feel too young to be heading up the largest Haute Couture fashion house in France?" and "Can you tell us what you have in mind for your first catwalk show?", my protective instincts were ignited. Saint Laurent seems too frail, too vulnerable to be asked such probing questions. Yet, in response to a reporter's question about how he feels, Saint Laurent gamely responds, "I can't describe everything I feel, but I'll do my best and to the end". For the remainder of the movie, we watch Saint Laurent strive to keep his promise, even after the great designer's mentally disturbed mind has succumbed to the lure of cocaine and alcohol.

Pierre Niney (Yves Saint Laurent) and Guillaume Gallienne (Pierre Bergé)

When Stéphane and I went to the advance screening of the movie with the actors and film crew on Thursday evening, Guillaume Gallienne, who plays the late fashion designer's partner, Pierre Bergé, thanked the director for always encouraging the actors by making them feel as if they were doing a tremendous job. His technique paid off because Niney, who at 24 is the youngest actor to be employed by the Comédie-Française, is so convincing in his role as Saint Laurent that an appreciative hush fell over the audience at the end of the screening. We had to process our emotions before we could break into applause.

Fashionistas will be delighted to see the originals of some of Yves Saint Laurent's most sublime creations and sketches from the archives of the French fashion house. Francophiles will love the captivating views of Paris.

Two biopics about the glamorous yet complicated designer have been scheduled to be released over the next couple of years. Yves Saint Laurent is the only one that has received the blessing of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent's business and former romantic partner. It opens in theaters on January 8.

Photos taken during the filming of Yves Saint Laurent are currently on display at the Westin Hotel on rue de Castiglione. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Photo taken during the filming of Yves Saint Laurent on display at the Westin.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

King Cake (Galette des Rois) and the meaning of "Maladie Orpheline"

A pastry chef selling King Cakes (Galette des Rois).

In spite of having been married to a native French speaker for many years, I'm not fluent in French. But since we raised our children in a bilingual home, my comprehension is usually fairly accurate. All of this is just a roundabout way of admitting that I felt really foolish after incorrectly translating maladie orpheline on Twitter. Here's the tweet:

Best pastry chefs in Paris sell King Cakes to fight childhood illnesses. Jan 4. Place Saint-Germain des Prés:

In a hurry to help spread the word about a fund-raising initiative by some of the top pastry chefs in Paris, I didn't take the time to google maladie orpheline. Instead, I rapidly translated it as "childhood illnesses" and waited until my walking French dictionary returned home from work. "I'm confused about something," I told Stéphane as soon as he walked through the door, "Why would orphans be more susceptible to chronically obstructed intestines than other people?" With a baffled look on his face, Stéphane asked why I was suddenly worried about orphans with obstructed bowels. "Because they're selling King Cakes to raise money for childhood illnesses. This year the illness is chronically obstructed intestines," I explained. As Stéphane's attempts to follow my tangled thoughts proved unsuccessful, I went straight to the heart of the matter and asked him to translate maladie orpheline into English. When he told me that he had never heard the term, we googled it. Maladie orpheline means rare diseases, not illnesses that are contracted by orphans or children.

[Edit] Rosemary of Aussie in France provided additional information about maladie orpheline in the comment section: "Maladie orpheline" is a strange term, isn't it? I came across it a long time ago in my translation business. In fact, it is not only a rare disease but a disease for which little research is being done. The "orpheline" in fact refers to the lack of research and not the rareness. 

The sale of King Cakes was so successful that the pastry chefs joked that
 they were going to start selling the crumbs for 2 euros a piece.

After we finally figured out which cause we would be supporting, Stéphane and I decided to get our King Cake (Galette des Rois) a day early. We arrived at the Place Saint-Germain des Prés just in time to buy one of the last puff pastries with a frangipane filling. Rather than wait until tomorrow to see who will find the tiny figurine in their slice of cake, Stéphane and I had a piece with our afternoon tea. Since neither of us found the feve, we still don't know who will be crowned king (or queen!) for Epiphany 2014.

Interestingly enough, French presidents aren't allowed to "draw the kings" on Epiphany. In accordance with etiquette, a traditional King Cake minus the plastic figurine and crown will be served to French President Hollande at the Elysée Palace.

Galette du Coeur donors included: Pierre Gagnaire, Pierre Hermé, la Maison Kayser, Michel Troisgros, Alain Dutournier, le Moulin de la Vierge, Potel et Chabot, Poilâne, Hélène Darroze, la Grande Epicerie, Saint Clair le Traiteur, le George V, Michel Rostang, Lucas Carton, les Bistronomes, Thierry Burlot, Bakery, William Ledeuil, la Closerie des Lilas et Clerardin.

King Cake

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ringing in the New Year in Nantes (Part 1 - The Radisson Blu Hotel and La Cigalle)

The Radisson Blu in Nantes, France

A unique place to sleep:

Nantes, the sixth largest city in France, wasn't really on my radar of places to visit until Stéphane and I made a last minute decision to exchange the crowds on the Champs Élysées for something more peaceful on New Year's Eve. Searching for a hotel that is a destination in itself, I knew that we had found what we were looking for as soon as I read the description of the Radisson Blu Hotel on WineChicTravel's website:

Let’s give a big round of applause to the « Blu » for receiving the chic and prestigious Hotel Property Award 2013. This prize was simply very well deserved.

The magnificent 19th century edifice, originally the Court of Law, has now become the Hotel in the city. Courtroom, Criminal Court, Courtroom Waiting Hall, verdict, cries and gnashing of teeth are now nothing more than old sighs and memories. ... (click to read more)

The Radisson Blu's transformation of the former Palais de Justice, an austere government courthouse, into a luxurious hotel is nothing short of miraculous. From the imposing lobby cheerfully decorated with bright red and fuchsia couches to the former courtroom exquisitely transformed into a stylish restaurant with low hanging lights, Stéphane and I marveled at how skillfully the designers had merged the old with the new. It's exactly what we hoped to do as we bid 2013 farewell and welcomed 2014.

Fortunately, the thoughtful details extended to the guest rooms because the pouring rain and holiday closures didn't give us much incentive to leave the hotel. While watching back-to-back episodes of "The Good Wife", an American television series about a woman lawyer that paired nicely with our accommodations, Stéphane and I were thankful for the comfortable bed and handy Nespresso machine in the room.

When we finally emerged from our cocoon, the hotel's receptionists graciously helped us finalize our sightseeing plans by calling to confirm the schedule of the shuttle boat to Trentemoult, a colorful fishing village, and printing information about other noteworthy sights in Nantes. 

Radisson Blu Nantes
6 place Aristide Briand
44000 Nantes
+33 (2) 72001000

An unforgettable place to eat:

La Cigalle in Nantes, France.

Stephane's father has an uncanny memory for restaurants. When we called to wish him a happy new year and mentioned that we were in Nantes, Werner immediately suggested that we go to La Cigale. Opened on April 1, 1895 and classified as an historic monument in 1964, La Cigale is ornately decorated with tile frescoes on the walls, carved wooden reliefs above the doors and painted wooden beams on the ceiling. A large wooden cicada, the restaurant's mascot, gazes down on diners enjoying towering platters of fresh seafood and hearty bread slathered with hand pressed Brittany butter. While memories of my crab and avocado starter, savory scallops and decadent profiterole and ice cream dessert will eventually fade with time, I'll long recall the amazing Belle Époque decor of this traditional French brasserie.

Brasserie La Cigale is open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner
4, place Graslin
44000 Nantes
+33 (0)2 51 84 94 

Next post: Things to see in Nantes.

Tile frescoes in La Cigale in Nantes.