Bastille Day 2012

Thank you all for your patience and understanding as I have been waxing philosophical about my time here in Paris and my upcoming plans. Now, enough about all of that and back to the Parisian adventure, oui?

In the past, I have entrenched myself on the Champ de Mars early and picnicked my heart out while watching the exceptional spectacle that is Bastille Day in Paris – and by this I mean both the fireworks and the company. This year, due to inclement weather and an early morning wake-up call on July 15th, I decided to forego the Eiffel Tower experience and instead see the military parade in the morning (something I had not yet done) while trying to catch the fireworks from a distance that evening.

First was the quest for a curbside spot in order to watch the parade on the Champs-Elysées. I had slept in a bit, mistakenly hoping that the forecasts for potential downpours might keep the crowds away; by the time I arrived it was packed and I could only find a place six people deep (most with children on their shoulders) from the street. I was able to get a few shots of soldiers with big guns, ready at attention and a passing horse brigade before getting tired of using my camera as a delayed action periscope. I decided to backtrack and meet up with a friend at Madeline, the end of the parade route.

By the time I made it back, the crowds had gathered and, although not able to meet up with my friend directly (her side of the street was already closed), I was able to find a great corner spot – behind  a very nice New Zealand couple – from which to take in (and photograph) the parade. Let’s get to the parade, shall we?

Flyovers

I’ll be kicking myself for missing the tricolor fighter jet flyover for some time to come. However, unlike the US, this were not the only fly-by to kick off the festivities. The planes kept coming – from the state-of-the-art aircraft through WWII-era bombers and bi-planes.

Units

Next came several units/squadrons from different branches of the French forces. The neatest part about this, besides their outfits, was that they were each singing their specific anthems as they marched in formation down the street. It created a surprisingly intimate atmosphere, especially when I realized that some people around me were singing along quietly. I cannot tell which units belong to what military groupings, as I have absolutely no knowledge about the structure of these things. What became clear is that it is all far more complex than I could have possibly imagined and that whomever designed their headgear (and capes! and aprons!) deserves a raise.

*the officer directing this group, walking alongside, almost looks like he is tipping over on account of all of those medals on his chest.

* this guy – and his moustache – are just awesome.

Bands

As a proud (yes, really) member of band throughout secondary school and college, I had a soft spot for the marching bands that followed. Especially when they were throwing their horns. And really, what are those things behind the drumline?

Vehicles

The last thing to pass by was the military vehicles – tanks, jeeps, even dump trucks (I have this vision the dump truck driver throwing a temper tantrum when he realizes all the other guys who drive cooler cars get to be in the parade and then being given reluctant permission to join in at the last minute).  Seeing real military equipment up close and personal is always exciting (at least for me). My only real point of disappointment was that the drivers rushed by us scarily fast precluding any decent photograph from being taken. My assumption is that, after going incredibly slow as part of the procession down the main boulevard, by the time they got to the end of the route they just wanted to gun it (pun intended). I don’t blame them – if I had the chance to rip up the streets of Paris in a giant tank, I’d take it too (in a friendly way, of course).

* you can’t really tell from the photo, but this guy was saluting us.

After it was all over, some of the men in uniform gathered to allow the public to see into the tanks (and dump trucks) and for photo opportunities – also a chance I could not miss.

As for the fireworks, I was far away and missed the percussive booms that almost blow you over when close, but even from a distance they took my breath away.

 Don’t let anyone tell you that Paris doesn’t know how to party…

Last Call

I received an extremely crucial (and insightful) piece of advice from Meg not so long ago. No nonsense, eye-to-eye, I-know-what-I’m-talking-about words of wisdom: “Figure out what your priorities are for the rest of your time in Paris and DO them… the lab is not going to love you back…” Her blunt honesty stunned me into several long seconds of silence, followed acceptance of the truth and, finally, by a slow, affirmative (and still silent) nod: Yes.

Don’t get me entirely wrong, I have been working hard on (and still love) the science (especially now that the countdown is always ticking in the background) and I’m not about to toss my lab coat in a corner and never look back. However, there is a lot of Paris, and France (possibly even further afield in Europe) that I have not yet seen. Knowing that I am easily caught up by my overdeveloped sense of obligation, I need to be sure that I set aside time for me, in addition to the lengthy (always growing) list of experiments.

To that end, I am currently writing from a hotel room in Caen (one of the larger towns in Normandy) where I am taking in the sites with visiting family. For the first time in almost four years, I have taken a week off of work and stayed here. I am giving myself the time to get a bit more organized, see the sites and enjoy the time I have with my family on this side of the world. It is glorious.

As both a way to hold myself accountable and get the word out to my Paris friends, I thought I’d post my ‘to-do for FUN’ list here and keep track of things as I see them (and write about them, of course).

So, here is my dream list of places to see and photos to take before I depart in November. I would also really enjoy hearing your suggestions – food, landmarks, museums and/or views that are wholeheartedly recommended as ‘can’t miss’ when visiting the City of Light. Please, give me more ‘work’ to do!

Paris (and vicinity)

Museums:

Musée Rodin (27 July 2012)

Musée des Arts et Metiers (26 July 2012)

Musée de l’Orangerie

Espace Dali (this is embarrassing as it is around the corner from my house)

Jardin des Plantes/Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

Musée Dupuytren (yes weird, possibly disturbing, but still fascinating)

Musée Carnavalet (did this past weekend-post forthcoming!)

Churches/Landmarks:

Madeline (did this past weekend – post forthcoming!)

Pantheon

Opera (the building definitely, but also – if I’m lucky – a performance?)

Galeries Lafayette  (for the building this time, not the shopping – I am on a post-doc salary, a French one, no less…)

Fontainebleau

Versailles (I have seen the gardens, but never the chateau)

Basilique Saint Denis

Night cruise along the Seine

Views

Arc de Triomphe (29 July 2012)

Tour Eiffel (yeah, have not done this yet, shaking my head in shame)

Tour Montparnasse (top of)

Dome of Basilica Sacre Coeur

Towers of Notre Dame Cathedral

Cemeteries

Montparnasse

Montmartre (28 July 2012)

Beyond Paris

Normandy (23-25 July 2012)

–       Mont Saint Michel (24 July 2012)

–       Omaha beach (25 July 2012)

Tours

Rouen

Bruges (mainly because of this and because it is GORGEOUS)

Yeah, so remember I did say dream list. However, please do suggest other things I may have missed. And, Paris peeps – let me know if you want to join the adventure(s)!

On risotto and laughter (Weekly Harvest)

One of the few advantages of my unexpected blogging hiatus is that I have stockpiled enough panier posts to get us through the next several weeks sans new fodder. Although I will never get used to receiving the notification that my vegetable deliveries are stopping just when things are getting good, through the month of August (images of overflowing baskets of warm summer peaches, tomatoes off the vine and copious zucchini dancing through my head), I do recognize that this is la vie française – here vacations are untouchable, even for vegetables. Knowing that my return to California is inching closer each day, I have been trying to see friends as much as possible. Between my long days in the lab and their varying vacation schedules, this has been a bit of a challenge. Yet, with birthdays to celebrate, vacations to kick-off and a truly summery panier (peas! In their pods! More strawberries! The first of the summer’s zucchini!), this evening came together with very little effort and was filled with tasty food and raucous laughter. Food-wise, once I saw the green peas and zucchini, risotto immediately jumped to my mind as a good option to serve our group of six (especially as it includes a few dedicated vegetarians). For me, risotto used to be something relegated to a fancy dinner out – a dish that I always enjoyed but could not imagine making myself, especially as a superficial glance at risotto recipes across the internet did nothing to abate my fear of spending the entire evening slaving over a hot stove. Camille’s excellent tutorial debunked that myth for me long ago and today, using her template as a starting point, risotto has become a familiar dish in my kitchen, especially as a delicious way to use extra panier fare. On this particular evening, I sautéed shallots and mixed in roasted zucchini, fresh peas and goat cheese. Good reviews were given all the way around, which means even more coming from Camille, she of the initial inspiration for my culinary creativity.

Having (almost) all the girls together for the first time in many months to share stories, food and (not a small amount of) wine was such a pleasure. Especially when one of them pulled out a collection of Fingerstaches, a stellar birthday present she was gracious enough to share with the rest of us. General hilarity ensued, as can be imagined. I laughed harder than I have in a long time – hard enough that my abs hurt the next day (probably a comment on my abs – or lack thereof – but also very positive commentary on the wit of my friends). I spent the evening constantly reminded of how incredibly lucky I have been to connect with such amazing people and also sad at the thought of walking away, yet again, from people I love.  However, I know that friends like these do not fade with distance. Plus, a girls (long) weekend to San Diego is going to sound mighty fine come the cold, dark days of February in Paris. See you there???

And Now for Something Completely Different…

I am nothing if not a creature of habit. Once again, it has become clear that I tend to disappear from the blogosphere when I get caught up in a vortex of endless to-dos in the lab, or am lost in single-minded navel gazing. As someone who processes best by talking things out (another well worn habit), this propensity to spontaneously hibernate surprises me, but I have not quite gotten the hang of contemplating out loud on a public blog (although I do have moments of inspiration). Plus, in most cases, whining about bureaucracy does not make for a narrative that will keep you all on the edges of your collective seats…

My most recent month (!!)-long hiatus has not appeared to be all that different from that cycle on its surface – lots of late nights in the lab and long conversations with friends. Yet, this time there more was at stake than merely driving myself (and those around me) to distraction. For a variety of reasons it had come time for me to define and develop my next steps – beyond my current position and beyond Paris.

I have no idea how to even begin to explain what these four years in Paris have meant to me – how much I have grown, both personally and professionally. In fact, I strongly suspect that I utterly underestimate the extent of its impact on the person I am today. Since arriving here I have come to understand my strengths and weaknesses, formed a clear image of the person (and scientist) I would like to become and have learned to love myself no matter the differences between those two. These reasons alone are priceless, but they are nowhere near comprehensive – the places I have traveled, the food I have eaten and the friends I have come to love as family will forever shape the way I see the world in the years ahead of me; simply put, it has been life-changing.

However, even the most formative experiences come to an end. I have learned the science that I came here to learn (and have almost finished the projects that I came here to do). I have explored the city, country, continent and beyond. As the summer rushes forward, I realize that it has been a long time since I have been in a place that I could call home, at least ‘home’ in the true sense of what that word means to me: comfort, love, belonging and family.  I first glimpsed what it meant to be on my own in Boston during graduate school, and I have found happiness, solace and comfort in that space in Paris but, to this day, California is still home. So, after 11 years, it is to San Diego that I am returning.

I worry a bit about returning to a place that held meaning for me in the past. I spent 4 years in San Diego, going to UCSD as an undergraduate – and it is to UCSD I return, as a post-doctoral researcher. However, in those years my family has expanded – we are welcoming two new additions (a niece and a nephew) this fall. Several close friends remain in the area, and they have been able to successfully redefine what the city means to them beyond the college years, and I am looking forward to undertaking that challenge myself. And, through a series of events that feel as if they were torn from the pages of a summer beach read, I have met someone incredibly special. He knows a completely different San Diego than I ever did, and I am so excited to explore the city together.

I have given my notice (October 31) and bought my one-way ticket (November 5). I have a few more months to soak up Paris, finish my work in the lab, spend time with my friends and get ready for the next big thing. I am very sorry for recent silence, but I am sure everything that is about to happen will be worth the wait.

(For those of you wondering – yes, I have already registered a San Diego blog address… now that I’ve caught the blogging bug, I do planning on continuing)

Paris Bites: Verjus

One of my favorite feelings has always been one of community. I find it deeply gratifying to have a sense of place and belonging among a group of people or the intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of a quiet neighborhood. As an adult this is epitomized by individual relationships built over time at places where, after many late nights, everyone knows your name. I have found a few of these places in Paris where I actually feel like a local. I have recently discovered another – Verjus – and I am completely infatuated.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Verjus is no longer the hidden jewel it had been since their opening last October. After recent reviews in Saveur and Bon Appetit, this muchbuzzedabout, American owned and operated wine bar/restaurant is definitely on the map for food savvy tourists and the Paris ex-pat community alike. This means, mainly, that it is mostly English spoken around the bar – a fact that, to be honest, does not bother me at all. Sure, perhaps we are indulging in a bit of Anglo-self-segregation, but stepping into a room where most everyone speaks my language, gets my humor, plays my music (this playlist rocked my world) and plies me with indulgent food and drink after a long week (or long Monday) can feel like heaven.

Speaking of otherworldly goodness, let’s gawk at and drool over the food. Verjus is divided into an upscale, multi-course/chef’s tasting menu-type restaurant upstairs, and a wine bar serving small plates in the cave below. Although I did have the pleasure of indulging in the full restaurant dining experience once and highly recommend it (if your budget allows), what I cannot get enough of are the small plates at the funky wine bar down below.

Combined with a tasty and affordable list of wines by the glass, a few of these small plates can easily be combined to complete a stellar dinner – especially if you bring a few friends and can try one of everything. Case(s) in point:

Celery root dumplings with dan-dan sauce, chives and toasted peanuts

Skillet broccoli with Korean rice cake, anchovy and parmesan

Buttermilk fried chicken with napa cabbage slaw and micro-greens

Veal meatballs, shaved fennel, lemon and truffle oil

Crispy Basque pork belly, grilled and pickled chiles, spicy mayo

Shoestring fries with togarashi and catsup

Selection of cheeses and house accompaniments

I have been several (ahem) times in the past few months and every time the food is deliciously spot-on, the company (both with me and behind the bar) is good fun and I leave wondering when I can return next – just so they remember my name, of course.

Verjus Bar à Vin

47 rue de Montpensier

Paris, 75001

01 42 97 54 40 (reservations not accepted at the bar)

First Sunday: Musée de Cluny (from the archives*)

When it comes to choosing museums to visit in Paris, clearly there is an extensive list from which to choose. Personally, my favorite of them all (thus far) is the Musée de Cluny (officially known as the Musée National du Moyan Âge, or National Museum of the Middle Ages). Although it stands smack in the middle of the city, a sprawling complex on the corner of Boulevard Saint Michel and Boulevard Saint Germain, it tends to be relatively overlooked by visitors and is therefore a great candidate for (Free) First Sunday viewing.

The museum itself is architecturally divided into two parts. The permanent art collection is housed in the palace that initially was constructed in the 1300s for the abbots of Cluny. The visiting expositions are usually displayed in the soaring “Frigidarium”, the spacious remains of the Thermes de Cluny, an ancient Roman bath that first occupied this plot of land. Not only does the museum house an extensive and extremely well curated collection of medieval art, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to explore both the ancient baths and the palace, which are also very well preserved.

I have to admit that I am biased when it comes to my appreciation for the Cluny collection. In addition to my training in science, I also hold a degree in medieval history (yeah, I am not the most decisive person around). The reasons why are extensive and fun to discuss over a beer, and it does mean that I have boundless enthusiasm when it comes to looking at illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, tarnished reliquaries and broadswords. I am truly in my geeked-out element here – bring on another Madonna and Child triptych, I can take it!

One of my favorite stories about the museum involves this collection of heads (and the corresponding decapitated statues across the courtyard).

From the late 1200s, onwards, under the balustrade of the west façade of the Notre Dame Cathedral stands “The Gallery of Kings”, a row of larger-than-life statues representing the Kings of Judah, the ancestors of Jesus, looking down on the crowds as they enter the church. During the revolution, everyone was guillotine happy, particularly when it came to cutting off royal power (so to speak). Within this population there appears to have been some confusion – these statues were apparently thought to be representations of the French monarchy, rather than the biblical forefathers as originally intended. In order to remove any semblance of royal power from the symbols of the city, the façade was scaled, statues torn down and then beheaded and tossed into a mass statuary grave – just to be sure everyone got the point. The Cluny now houses some of the remnants of these victims of mistaken identity and mob rule.

The museum’s most famous piece is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. These six tapestries are considered by many to be the greatest works of art of the European middle ages. Five of the tapestries represent one of each of the five senses (guess the one above!) and the meaning behind the sixth is still not agreed upon, but thought to represent some combination of love and understanding. The curators of the museum have built a special viewing room that has low light and is temperature controlled for optimal preservation. It is a special place to sit and imagine the years of weaving that went into each piece, to experience how saturated the colors remain after several centuries and to walk up and look at them so closely that you really can examine each stitch. They are stunning (plus, each one has a monkey and I love monkeys).

The last time I visited the Cluny, on a First Sunday several months ago, they were featuring a special exhibit, “L’Epée: Usages, mythes et symbols”, about swords, their history, use and symbolism. Housed in the Frigidarium, the visiting exhibition took our breath away – they had the swords of famous warrior Roland, as well as that of Joan of Arc. The sword pictured above was that used in the ceremony to crown new kings of France in the middle ages, complete with bejeweled scabbard. There were illustrated manuscripts demonstrating fencing and fighting techniques and, somewhat excessively, a skull showing the after-effects of a life threatening sword blow. Most amusingly was the looping video of the ‘Black Knight’ scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, presented as a representation of the “sword and modern culture” – seriously.

Unlike many of the other big name museums of Paris, the Cluny is relatively focused, small and easy to take in on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Between the history of the buildings themselves and the extent and quality of their collection, I would highly recommend adding it to anyone’s list of things to see when visiting Paris – the Musée de Cluny does an amazing job shining a light on France (and the rest of Europe) during what we mistakenly think of as “The Dark Ages”.

*”from the archives” will be an ongoing set of posts in the coming weeks that show what I was up to when I was not blogging here over the past several months – I never stopped collecting images and stories for the blog, and I am very happy to have the chance to share them now – better late than never, right?

Long time, no FFFFP… (FFFFP #17)

Although it seems like we’ve barely entered spring when considering the novelty of seeing a strawberry – in June –, the recent onslaught of hot, sunny days does remind me that summer is almost (if not, already) upon us.  Most obviously, in Paris, summer brings with it tourists – overflowing the metro, sidewalks and parks. Additionally, the summer heat seems to inspire the French (at least the women) to make extra-bold fashion choices; mostly they wear as little, or as crazy as they can – to keep cool and make a statement, of course.

Over the past two weeks, while showing my visitor around town, I started to see this craziness pour out onto the city’s streets, from wherever it has been hidden away, hibernating during the winter months. I turned my camera away from flowers and food for a few minutes to capture the first of this seasons’ Friday French fashion faux pas(s):

The Tourist

One of the best parts about scouting tourist fashion faux pas is that you can aim a giant camera right at them and no one thinks twice. Clearly I was photographing the façade of the Louvre behind this particular woman… In all actuality, I was more taken aback by (and compelled to capture) the pink and black zebra print strapless bustier combined with the complimentary (?) pink scarf and matching nails and lipstick. How I know that she is most likely not Parisian? Sensible shoes. That’s good advice: if you are going to be scouting the city all day in clingy polyester club-wear, at least pair it with black Keds – your feet with thank you later.

Tiger

Continuing on our animal print theme, our subject here took this season’s favorite pattern and decided it would look best on her head. I have seen my share of bad dye jobs (including ones on my own hair – mostly by my own hand), however this may be going too far. Unfortunately, I don’t think those stripes are going to do her any favors in blending into the urban jungle (or escaping my lens).

Fringe

Some outfits are just funny. This was one of them. This dress looks like it either had an epic standoff with a shredder or it is some type of unfortunate cross between a flapper gown and a piñata. Her companion added further to my amusement – he’s the one with the turquoise pants on the right, looking like he had just returned from a drum circle/hacky-sack competition. They made quite the couple walking down the streets of Montmartre. (She does get points for cute shoes and crazy calf muscles – girl is strong.)

Corset

Saving the best for last was this corset/thigh-high boots combination, seen walking through the Palais Royale dressed like a pirate wench, early on a Monday evening. I have personal theories about what the height of one’s boots (not the heel, but the sheath up the leg) can tell you about career choices that immediately jumped to mind when seeing this particular outfit. Regardless, this cannot be comfortable. It is a bit difficult to see, but that corset was not just for looks – her waist was unnaturally thin. It was my understanding that womankind fought to move past this. Seeing the extent of cinch in person confirms (for me) that we don’t need to bring it back.

All-in-all, I think these photos speak for themselves. They shout, loud and clear that summer and the FFFFP is back.