Weird, wonderful Paris, or Oh the places you (probably) won’t go

My sister sent me the classic George Carlin bit about STUFF. (Yes, all caps. We’re talking of the stuff that makes up most everyone’s entire raison d’être so it requires grand, philosophical, capitals.) If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, check it out. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

I realize my life has become a punchline from that bit:  if you didn’t have a house, you could spend all of your time just walking around. And we do.

Sticking in and close to Paris as we do these days, we’ve seen the great sights many times over. We’ve done quite a bit of random walking to see the everyday non-sights, so much so that we can hardly get good and properly lost anymore. My new project is the middling sights, the small, or strange, or out of the way attractions that make up weird, wonderful Paris. Here’s a smattering of them.

The Musée Bourdelle, Paris. If you pronounce that poorly, it sounds like you’re saying whorehouse, or huge mess. Ask me how I know.  Bourdelle was a student of Rodin and an underling in his studio before striking out on his own. I thought his work was Rodin warmed over, but it was well worth going to see his intact studio, which is a bit of old Paris tucked away for safekeeping. He was also Giacometti’s teacher, so maybe I’m being too harsh on the guy.






The garden was tiny, but a gem.  I could see dropping by when we’re out in that part of town for a respite. Added bonus: the museum is free.  I may even start to appreciate his work.


The Park of Saint Cloud.  Saint Cloud is a suburb of Paris, but easy to get to.  This park was the domain of a now departed castle.  The grounds were designed by Le Nôtre, who was the landscape architect of Versailles.  It’s the height of the French formal style, those geometrical gardens epitomizing the triumph of reason over nature.


Shrubbery so precise you could cut your finger on it.


IMG_20190815_135057121_HDR.jpgNo, it’s not autumn.  We’re having a drought.


A glitch in the matrix.  Or a sign that the gardeners were short staffed in August.  Take your pick.


The Basilica of Saint-Denis, just outside of Paris.  Another suburb, this one far shabbier than Saint Cloud.  Now, this one wouldn’t count as a middling sight, but it is a weird one.  The site was a pagan temple, but lo and behold Saint Genevieve (the patron saint of Paris) declared it as the VERY spot where Saint Denis (the patron saint of France) laid himself and his head down after being beheaded on Montmartre (mountain of martyrs, clever huh?).  Amazing how those Catholic saints always wound up finding their way to pagan sites.  The whole thing smacks of the miraculous.

The Basilica itself is well worth your time.  It’s considered the first completely Gothic cathedral.  But even if Gothic cathedrals aren’t your thing, the crypt is from the 3rd century, and the cathedral is the final resting place of the monarchs of France, inside their carved tombs.  Ok, their bodies are no longer in them, the revolution took care of that.



A few of the original 12c stained glass windows remain.  This blue was invented for the cathedral and is sometimes referred to as Suger blue, Suger being the abbot of Saint Denis at the time of construction and the driving force behind the whole shebang.  I’ve read that the recipe for this particular blue has been lost and that modern glassmakers are unable to reproduce it, but apparently that’s a romantic legend.  Everyone wants to be special.




More decapitated heads?  The mystery deepens.




Now, I said it was a weird place, and you’re probably thinking yeah, not so much.  So while it’s true that the bodies of the kings and queens are no longer in their tombs, the exception is  this sad treasure, the heart of the 10 year old prince Louis the 17th, which was relocated here some 200 years after he died in prison of tuberculosis after his mum and dad had their own Saint Denis event.


I could go on and on.  And perhaps I will in a future missive. We’ve seen so many things that make you say what the…?  But we don’t have the corner on the market of weird and wonderful.  What’s in your neck of the woods?



The Prefecture of Police museum.  Perhaps another time…




Multiplying Coincidences

You know how there are some things that line up too well that convince you that not only is the universe intelligent, but that she’s messing with you? Or that world events are scripted and the writers are getting lazy? Why is it that fiction has to be plausible, but reality doesn’t have to be? I’ve been feeling like that lately, usually when I read the news. Sometimes it happens in so-called real life. Several months ago, Mark and I were in a Belleville jazz bar that we’re fond of. There was an American woman singing there that night. We’d not heard of her, but an acquaintance of ours (the woman who had initially recommended the bar to us) told us she was going and that she thought it would be a good show. We arrived early, as usual because it can get quite crowded and we like to have a planche (a cutting board filled with various cured meats and cheeses which makes an ample dinner) with our wine. The singer was standing at the table perpendicular to ours, introducing the older couple sitting there to a younger man. She told the younger man that the older couple were friends of hers who had chucked it all, loaded up a couple of suitcases, moved to Paris just over a year ago, and were currently living in the 11th. Familiar story, right? When the younger man left, I tapped the man on the shoulder and said, “I think we need to meet”. Friends, meet Joel and Tish.

We met for coffee a couple of days later and have been hanging out regularly ever since. It turns out that not only do they live a stone’s throw from us, but that Tish was also an herbalist and had studied with another well-know teacher and we knew people in common. Sure, crap-ditching American expats living in Paris are a dime a dozen, but crap-ditching herbalists? Ok, maybe that’s just a nice coincidence, let’s see if I can up the ante.

My dear friend Joan has a college buddy, Sheila, who has been living in Paris since graduating Rutgers University in the early 60’s. That would be enough to make Sheila super cool in my eyes, but on top of that she has done the much needed and monumental work of a new and unabridged English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. That makes her a feminist hero in my book. She’s actually the co-translator, along with her good friend Connie, a fellow student at Rutgers, who move to Paris at the same time as Sheila. I’d read excerpts of the original translation at school, which was done in the 1950s by a man who was a zoologist, not a philosopher. As you can imagine, it was lacking in nuance, not to mention the entire sections that were left out, at the behest of the publisher from what I’d heard. Sheila and Connie were going to be giving a talk about their collaboration at the American Library. I asked my friend and French conversation partner Janine if she would like to go. Janine and I met through a site called Conversation Exchange which is essentially a message board for people wanting to improve their language skills either through face-to-face meetings, via Skype, or even simply writing. We’ve been meeting for coffee weekly for over a year now and we sometimes go to English language events together. The lecture at the library was an interesting conversation with an animated Q and A, but Janine seemed distracted, which is quite unlike her. She was looking at her email. When it was over and we were going up to introduce ourselves to Sheila, Janine said, I think Connie is a friend of my American friend Chris. Chris is Janine’s language exchange pen pal who lives in New York. They’ve been writing each other for several years and visiting when they happen to be in the same country. Seriously? Sure enough, in her email was a picture of Connie and her daughter. So the two of us are friends of friends of the two friends who collaborated to translate The Second Sex.


Meeting up with Sheila at her incredible flat in the Latin Quarter

I love living the Dr. Seuss book Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Now I want to collect stories for Oh, The People You’ll Know! How about you? Any good tales of coincidence?

P.S. I just heard from a friend who told me G. K. Chesterton called coincidences “spiritual puns” !  Isn’t that marvelous!

Troyes, worth its weight

After our last outing to Saint Quentin, I’ve been thinking about traveling and what makes a place sing to you. I was talking with my neighbor Julie about this and she told me that when she and Pat lived in Hungary they spent every weekend at first going to different towns. One day Pat said, let me guess what we’re going to see. There will be a square, a church, and a market; we’ll eat Hungarian food and drink some Hungarian wine. After that, they cut way back on outings. As foreigners it’s easy to get excited by places that don’t look like home, that have a foreign-ness. And then when the sameness kicks in, you might as well stay home. Saint Quentin was lovely, don’t get me wrong, but I thought we should try upping our game.

We once traveled through the south of France via car with a Michelin atlas. If you only know about Michelin’s restaurant ratings, you should also know that Michelin rates places too, from one to three stars. One is classified as interesting, two is worth a detour, three is worth building your trip around. Saint Quentin is a not too shabby one star town. Unlike restaurants, where I feel anything above one star would be wasted on my taste buds, I can definitely tell the difference between a one and three star town. So we got a new Michelin atlas, drew a circle around Paris at an hour or two distance and started looking for likely three star candidates. Anything that was just a chateau was out (gold leaf makes me gag) as was anything accessible only by car. Which is how we ended up for an overnight in Troyes. Troyes is in the champagne region, and the old town itself is said to be in the shape of a champagne cork. Troyes may have been originally a Celtic settlement, it was definitely a Roman town. Its heyday was during the medieval era when it was a major fair town, and it is from that history of trading with foreigners and the need to standardize measures that gave us the troy weight. The town was destroyed by fire in 1524 and rebuilt in one fell swoop, which means the center of town is now remarkably uniform.  We were there to see the some 450 remaining 16th century timbered houses.





The whole place is cattywampus.  Houses were taxed based on the square footage of the ground floor.  As no one in history has ever liked to pay taxes,  the fine people of Troyes used corbels to increase the square footage of the upper floors.  Which lead to streets like the Ruelle des Chats, so called because the upper floors touched their neighbors and the cats could easily come and go.  Which probably wasn’t the brightest idea in a town that had recently been leveled by a fire, but hey, taxes.


I was particularly taken by the many beam ornaments






Troyes also has hell of a lot of churches.  10 in just the old town.  You can’t spit without hitting one.


And they have excellent put-the-fear-of-god in you howling human gargoyles



The church of St. Madeleine has one of the few remaining choir screens in France and it’s a spectacular one.




I have a theory that the people of places like Troyes, with its density of churches that are often built on pagan sites, didn’t think of their local church as we would a parish church, that is one size fits all.  I think they would have shopped around for their beseeching needs, going to the shrine of the appropriate saint/renamed pagan god on a case-by-case basis.  I have nothing to back this up, that won’t stop me from making it my firm conviction.


Lest I get too philosophical on you, let me leave you with some rude architecture.







Saint Quentin

Sometimes I like randomness in practice, other times only in theory. I have this idea that one day I will walk into a train station and get on the next train, destination unknown. But in reality I often prefer knowing if I’m going to need to pack a sandwich. When Mark and I were waiting for our train to St. Malo last month, I looked up at the departures board and the next train was for Saint Quentin. I told Mark, we’re going there.  Not today, but we’re going there.  It wasn’t a completely random decision, I have a notebook of destinations. Whenever someone tells me about a place, or I read something, I add it to the list. I knew that Saint Quentin had a cathedral (not that that’s unusual, there’s a boatload of them in France. What’s the collective noun for cathedrals I wonder, an awe?) that had a 15c labyrinth. A bit of research and I discovered there was also an insect museum, a number of art deco buildings, a large riverside park with a marsh known for its wide variety of bird species, and that it was a decent sized town, thus no sandwiches required. Sold.

Saint Quentin is the the Picardy region and about an hour and a half northeast from Paris.  First stop was the tourist office to pick up a map. When I asked if there was a map noting the deco buildings, they told me there would be a walking tour at 2 pm since they and the other towns of the region were celebrating 100 years of art deco. I didn’t know that art deco originated in France and that it is short for Arts Décoratifs. The northeastern part of France was a hotbed of art deco as the area was heavily damaged during WWI and the rebuilding was often, though not always, in the new style. The tour would be in French of course, Saint Quentin isn’t exactly on the foreign tourist radar, but the lovely man in the tourist office assured me I would have no trouble as I was clearly fluent. I’m not, but who was I to argue in the face of such flattery?

We had enough time for lunch beforehand and we’d spotted an Indian restaurant nearby. It looked to be a husband and wife team. We were seated, and I started to order. The man said, English? and switched languages on me. Damn! From fluent to unable to order lunch in less than 5 minutes!

After lunch we also had time for the cathedral. It’s another Notre Dame, and it was heavily damaged during the second world war. The labyrinth survived. It is said to represent a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in a handy travel-less size. It is supposed to be traversed on the knees. I demurred. But I was happy to be able to walk it, as I’ve already been to both Amiens and Chartres, sites of the other remaining labyrinths in France, and they were covered with chairs.


The evident repairs


Shrapnel wounds



Some highlights from the walking tour.   We learned the stylistic basics of art deco architecture, and yes, my French was up to the task even though our tour guide spoke a mile a minute.  She was clearly very knowledgeable, and being a local she was also able to tell us more detailed histories of the building’s owners.




The lovely modern post office with brick made of that modern miracle material asbestos.



The best part was getting to go into the Town Hall and see the courtroom


The insect museum was a bust with very few specimens.  The marsh on the other hand was fabulous.  We didn’t see any new bird species, but we did get to sit, soak up some sun and listen to frogs.




Would I recommend Saint Quentin to visitors?  Probably not.  Frankly, there are so many spectacular places to visit in France that unless you’re parking yourself here as we are, it’s probably not worth your while.  Was I happy we went?  Absolutely.

Ruins and ruination

April in Paris is nothing like the song. I read somewhere that the lyricist would have preferred to call it May in Paris, but he needed two syllables. In general, it’s rainy and chilly and then chilly and rainy, not to mention windy. Wouldn’t that just make you want to go south? It did us. We had planned a trip with friends from our old neighborhood, Keith and Meghan. Somewhere with blue skies and at Keith’s request, somewhere he could wear shorts. We kicked around a few ideas until we landed on Greece.  Sun, that particular shade of Aegean blue, seafood, and ruins sounded like a winning combination.  Spoiler alert: it was.

Athens struck me just as so many people have described. Incredible ruins surrounded by a shabby city. The ruins didn’t disappoint.  Nor did the city, as I wasn’t expecting much. Upon our return, I read a new post by a blogger I follow that has made me realize there’s much more to Athens and that I didn’t give it a fair shot. Now I need to return.  Damn. I can never cross anything off my list, it only grows.



The Acropolis, Porch of the Caryatids, for you art history nerds.  Blue to die for.


View of Athens from the Acropolis



The tower of the winds.  This is considered the world’s first weather station.  It had a weather vane, sundials, and a clepysdra, or water clock.  The bas relief friezes around the top depict and are dedicated to the eight gods of the winds.  Being as how I nixed living in Provence after experiencing a 10 day mistral, telling Mark I could never live where the wind has a name, it’s a pretty safe bet we won’t be moving to here.



Greece has so many extraordinary sights and ruins that you could get jaded from the sheer overload.  That in mind, I won’t overload you either.  But my favorite spot might have been our trip to Ancient Olympia.  It was beautiful and quiet and somehow easier to picture it as it once was, despite the fact that few buildings remain standing. Or maybe it’s just more fun to imagine naked, sweaty guys throwing discus.







From the museum




If only I could be this bemused with someone chomping on my arm





Most days we had perfect weather.  This was not one of them.  But the site more than made up for the gloom.  Mycenae is thought to have been continuously occupied since the neolithic and reached its height during the Bronze Age.  Its destruction is subject to speculation, my favorite theory being that of invasion by the mysterious Sea Peoples.  This makes me think mermaids attacked.

The famous Lion Gate, the largest sculpture of its kind and age, 1250 bc ish.  It was never buried and thus was always known and not rediscovered.


The royal shaft grave burial site.  Meghan said this whole site felt sacred to her. I had to agree.



However, rather than imagining the ruins of ancient cities as the once were, I like to imagine our present cities as ruins. Not in an apocalyptic way, but in tens of thousands of years time. How does this happen? Successive catastrophes, societal collapse, disuse, and dust. Lots of dust. Earthquake. Fire. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Ozymandias on you. Nevertheless, despite being rather unsentimental and for the most part accepting of disorder, decay and entropy, I’m in no hurry to see this in my lifetime.   Witnessing the near destruction of Notre Dame as we did last night was something I might not ever be able to articulate.  All I can tell you is that the silence of the crowds streaming towards it, and then standing and watching was a moment I’m not likely to forget.  It didn’t feel like disaster voyeurism, it felt like collectively bearing witness.   As of now, they think the structure has been saved.  I’m left with vague thoughts of the chaos of history and how without change there’s no room for new things to emerge, even as my mind is saying, okay yes, I get it, that works for the ancient world but please, not Paris.


Notre dame.jpg





I like having wide-open days in our schedule to allow for spontaneity.  One day last week I got up early as usual, and spring was definitely in the air.  By the time I heard Mark stirring I had a few ideas.  His morning yawn was greeted by me with “Medieval town or riverside?”  He said medieval town.  Good choice.  We were off to Senlis.  After coffee and breakfast of course, I’m not that cruel.

Senlis is an hour from Paris by a combo of train and bus.  It was first settled by the Romans who gave it the usual treatment of an arena and a defensive wall, the ruins of which remain. On the Roman foundations, the early kings of France built their castle.  The kings were a fickle lot, and changed the seat of government soon after.  In the 12th century they came back and under Philippe Auguste, the town got its second set of walls.

Roman remains



The castle of the French kings was built incorporating the Roman fortifications.  You can tell a Roman wall by the line of red brick they used to make sure it was level.  The Romans made great walls.  King Louis XIV called the facade of the Roman theater in Orange “the finest wall in my kingdom”, a line I use anytime I see an outstanding wall.






There is a magnificent Gothic cathedral, Notre Dame, started in 1153.


We’re generally inclined to picnic on days like this.  Not only have we been disappointed by middling restaurant meals, but who wants to be inside when the weather is wonderful?  We got a standard ham and butter baguette sandwich at the boulangerie, and a great looking ham and cheese croissant that they warmed up for us.  Ugh, who puts béchamel sauce on a croissant?  The French, apparently.  Mark said this is a sandwich that should not be legal.  I said not unless it’s served with an arterial shunt.


Sleeping it off



Walking the ramparts of Philippe Auguste’s wall



On the 13c church of Saint Pierre are these undated carvings



From a house destroyed by the Germans in 1914



Quite a few French films are shot in Senlis.  Doesn’t it look quintessential?






This is for my herbalist friends.  Mark and I collect aptronyms (when one’s last name is curiously fitting for one’s profession) for doctors.  A friend’s podiatrist was called Dr. Contento.  My mom worked for an orthopedic surgeon named Bonebreaker.  You get the idea.  Here is an apothecarist named Baume, french for balm.


I’ll leave you with a picture of a nice kitty just because.  Cheers!




St. Malo and the weather (or not)

Where to go for a weekend in March? Before we embarked on our travel fast, we had a few exceptions already in the works. Back when we’d said there was no way in hell we were spending another winter in Paris, we’d told a friend she could have our apartment for a weekend. We were not about to renege, we would be going somewhere. The criteria: under 2 hours away by train and someplace we’ve not been before. Given that we’re spoiled for choice, we asked around. St. Malo was the answer. It had been on our list for a while, so with no further thought we booked our tickets. It’s on the northern coast of Brittany, France’s dairyland and home of my favorite yogurt, the eponymous St. Malo brand, which still comes in waxed paper cups.




And yet northern Brittany in March was probably not the best idea we’ve ever had. But we’re intrepid (motto: there’s no such thing as bad weather) to the point of stupid (yes, there is). The forecast called for rain and 40-50 mph winds.


The truth-in-travel shot


More heartbreak: we discovered there was an all-butter restaurant in St. Malo too late to make reservations. I come by my dairy fixation honestly;  I was born in Wisconsin in an era when margarine was illegal. My infinite regret was somewhat relieved when our neighbor Julie told me that the butter that restaurant makes is available at the Italian deli just around the corner from us in Paris (go figure).




The weather wasn’t all bad, we had glimmers of sun between the downpours.




We did drink an awful lot of coffee though, dodging the showers.  Does Mark look tired?  This is at the same bar we’d stumbled into (and then out of) the night before attracted by the sounds of a 2 man band and the local stout beer.



Being a seaside town, fishing was a major industry in St. Malo.  (So was pirating apparently.)  Mark had read about this style of vernacular architecture for fish markets and  was excited to see one in the wild.




You know this is a bad-ass town when you see the manhole covers




A good portion of St Malo was destroyed in WWII by allied forces, thinking it was a major base of German troops.  It was painstakingly rebuilt and while you can tell which portions are new, it doesn’t detract from the whole.






Protection from the sea.  From Nazis, not so much.



Till next time!