24 May 2015

With love from Paris ~ our final day

And so it comes to an end, this sojourn in Paris. One month in Paris and now, suddenly it seems, we must leave.

We don't really want to leave, yet it will feel good to be home again.

Spending one month in one place meant we were able to get to know our neighbourhood. Out of those 30 days, we had our morning coffee at Le Brio, down the street from our apartment, on at least 28 of those mornings. Sometimes we had lunch there, or an evening meal, and often, after walking home from a night out, we stopped there for a cognac before turning in. We got to know, a wee bit, a number of people at Le Brio, including Fabien, Lilou, Lily, Anne and a wonderfully caring young bartender-server who just celebrated his 17th birthday (one of the best bottles of red we had in Paris was on his recommendation!).

On our last day in Paris we stopped in for coffee in the morning, as usual, and were treated royally by Fabien and Lily, with warmth and best wishes for our return home.  At night, after a long day, we dropped in again for one final digestif  before bed. Again, when our hosts heard we were leaving the next morning, there were hugs and kisses, handshakes and high-fives all round, and additional, and generous, digestifs before leaving. It was an emotional end to a wonderful final day in Paris, and to our sojourn in Paris.

Travelling isn't just about seeing the sights, buildings and monuments. It's also about making connections with people, trying to converse in a different language and sharing those moments with smiles, laughter and understanding. Le Brio was that kind of place for us.

Merci. Salut! À bientôt, j'espère.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

What is going on here? The quenelle and something else entirely...

During our sojourn in Paris, we saw people, mainly at the Louvre, having their pictures taken, while they performed a strange sort of salute, usually with their right arm. Well, that's what it looked like to Jeem.

Often the arm would be outstretched or partially bent, and the fingers on the hand would be coming together as if holding a string.

Sometimes the hand would be flat as if patting, or even worse, giving a salute that hasn't been appropriate for over 60 years.

"What is going on?" we wondered. Well, maybe Jeem wondered more than the others in his party.

Could this be a variation on the terrible quenelle salute that created much controversy over the past two years?

The quenelle gesture involves touching or gripping your shoulder with one hand while holding the palm of your other hand outstretched and pointing to the ground. The BBC reported it is a combination of the bras d'honneur, which means up yours, and a reverse form of the Nazi salute. French politicians and Jewish leaders, both secular and religious, called it anti-Semitic.

The gesture was first made by the popular French comedian known as Diudeonne. He is a strange character in the story, once being part of an national anti-racism campaign, he is now firmly aligned with the far right. Almost to the point of being one of those crazy people who blame Jews for everything, including the attacks on 9/11. That's him on the right.

While he says the gesture he first made is an anti-establishment symbol, his comedy routine features jokes about the Holocaust and Jews in general. The gesture went viral after several French football stars performed it after scoring goals in France and the UK.

Well, if it isn’t anti-Jewish, why are its adherents performing it outside Jewish shops and museums, in front of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, outside Jewish schools, in front of posters of Anne Frank and, should there still be any doubt, on the railway track leading to Auschwitz? The pictures, thousands, appear on social media sites on the Internet.

Thankfully, what is going on here, at the Louvre, is not the quenelle. Not even close. It took Jeem a bit of time to figure it out, but these nice tourist-types are positioning their fingers so when the photos is taken it looks as though they are touching, or lifting, or holding in some way, the Eiffel Tower, or one of the pyramids at the Louvre, or some other iconic symbol of Paris. Kind of a cute I suppose.

In our time wandering around Paris, we never saw anyone performing the quenelle salute. Perhaps the quenelle has died out, though I'm guessing not. There is a large segment of French society that feels shut out of full citizenship, be it in education, employment or political life. Frustration, despair and inequality feed extremism, and we ignore those root causes at our own peril.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.
Except for those featuring the quenelle - lifted from various places on the Internet, without permission,  from people who obviously aren't ashamed of what they are doing.

23 May 2015

Second-hand smoking in Paris ~ I have to break this habit

You can't help but notice, smoking is a big thing in Paris. At times it seems everyone around you is smoking; young, old, women, men, it doesn't seem to matter. During the past month in Paris I feel I've had at least a pack a day simply through second-hand smoke. I've never been a smoker, so this is a new experience for me.

France has a reputation for being the cigarette-chimney of Europe. A casual check of tourist websites and you will find that smoking always figures highly in those unexpected-things-I-learned-about-Paris or the-ten-things-I-dislike-about-Paris polls. Smoking is always either number one or two.

The truth is more complicated.

For one thing, while there is a ban on smoking indoors, including all restaurants and public buildings, there isn't a ban on smoking on patios and the sidewalks. So, bistros and cafes expanded their seating outside, and the disgusting smokers migrated there out of necessity. On most nice spring days in Paris, everyone wants to sit outside, including non-smokers and tourists, and that's where we get the impression that this city is a chimney.

In reality, smoking has declined in France by 60% over the past 50 years. In line with most EU states, France is much less likely to light up than it once was, and rates slightly under the the official European average of 28% of the population smoking. Indeed, the anti-smoking group Droits des Non Fumeurs claims that only 47 billion cigarettes were consumed last year, compared to 84 billion in 2001.

Young smokers buck the trend slightly, and alarmingly, France has a much higher rate of youth and young adult smokers than most of its European neighbours: 29% of students smoke in France compared to only 20% in the UK. Women here also smoke at a higher rate than in Canada or the rest of Europe.

Overall, France is not especially a nation of smokers and it isn't all that far removed from Canada in that regard. Sitting outside at a bistro however, the impression is quite the opposite. Sidewalks and gutters are littered with butts. If you absolutely can't deal with second-hand smoke, you will have to sit inside until the laws about smoking outdoors are reviewed. And they will be. Someday.

As for my new craving, I'm sure it will disappear once I return to the clean air of Vancouver. In the meantime though... where can I find a Parisian patio filled with smokers?

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015. Black and white photo from AFP.

22 May 2015

Selling knock-off trinkets is a problem of exploitation

Today, in a rare occurrence, the Eiffel Tower was closed to the public for seven hours because workers went on strike to complain about the scourge of pickpocket-gangs at the site. Normally the tower is open every day of the year, except in cases where police receive information about potential threats.

Our experience at the Eiffel Tower, and at other major attractions in Paris, does not offer much; we were wary of the potential of pickpockets, but never saw anything to concern us beyond taking precautions that would apply in any city.

What we did see at various sites, including the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur, were tens and tens of men selling trinkets, baubles and beads. That they might be involved as pickpockets is unknown to me; that they are part of a larger problem of exploitation and criminal activity is much clearer.

According to a Reuters report, Chinese gangs import trinkets from China and then sell them to other groups who control the sellers. The sellers are usually migrants from India and parts of Africa and they work without proper licenses and certainly without proper pay, selling knock-off merchandise that undercuts legitimate business operators who sell licensed merchandise, pay taxes and wages.

According to Reuters, up to 400 black-market sellers hawk their wares around the Eiffel Tower during the height of the summer season. Hundreds more operate at the Louvre and Sacré-Cœur. In the past the police would show up and the sellers would scatter; now it seems as though they are allowed to stay as long as they don't become overly zealous in selling their knock-off trinkets. Police have been hindered by the inability of over-stretched courts to prosecute the wave of illegal sellers. When sellers are caught, their goods are confiscated but they are usually released because most are unable to pay their fine (which could be as much as 3750 euros). Even fewer are sent back to their home country.

These men are victims of others higher up. There is money to be made selling this merchandise for the gangs that control the sellers, yet it is the sellers who take the greatest risk. There is something wrong with this picture. France and the EU have dragged their heels on dealing with the issue of economic migrants. Nearly always exploited along the way, they face a difficult time transitioning into Europe without being further exploited and discriminated against once they land in an EU state. 

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

The Marais

Le Marais is one of the trendiest areas in Paris and it holds a number of buildings of historic and architectural importance, plus lots of galleries and shops.

I tend to think that the Marais starts at a Mexican resto-bar called
La Perla. We stayed a few doors down from La Perla on our last visit and discovered their Happy Hour to be one of the best values in the city.

Your walk in the  Marais could start with La Perla, or it could start elsewhere too as it spreads through much of the 3e and 4e arrondissements, from the Seine to Place de la République, and from Place de la Bastille to the Centre Georges Pompidou. It is a wonderfully diverse community.

It's also an area filled with old buildings, narrow streets and alley ways that remind us of a time long ago. The building below was originally built in 1508 and restored in the 1960s.

Previously an area for the wealthy class in Paris, the nobility left for better digs at the end of the 19th century. From then and through the first third of the 20th century the Marais became a vibrant collection of Jewish neighbourhoods as East European Jews flocked to Paris. That changed of course with the occupation of Paris by the Nazis and with the complicity of the French government and people of the time.

Since the 1990s there has been a resurgence of Jewish life in the Marais. That growth has faltered with recent attacks on Jews in Paris and throughout France. An alarming statistic that came up in an article by Jeffrey Goldberg for the April issue of The Atlantic, refers to France's 475,000 Jews, amounting to less than one percent of the nation's population, yet, according to the Interior Ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks targeted Jews.

The Jewish neighbourhood in the Marais revolves around rue des Rosiers, and it is a wonderful area in which to wander. Bagels can be found, bookstores, Kosher food stores and restaurants, and assorted other shops and services with obvious connections to the faithful.

A synagogue built over 100 years ago is near rue des Rosiers, and the Mémorial de la Shoah , its library and bookstore are nearby as well.

The area is heavily policed, and the sight of camouflaged military men and women strolling the streets while carrying machine guns, and appearing to be ready to use them at any moment, can startle if you aren't prepared (and we were never prepared).

In recent years the Marais has become popular with artists, designers and shopkeepers. Upscale fashion houses have set up shop along side local artisans. Tourists come to the Marais in large numbers for the shopping, the galleries and the scene, but people live here too. Since the 1990s the Marais has become a centre for the LGBT community, as both a place to live and to do business, as evidenced by many gay cafés, nightclubs, cabarets and shops.

It's a wonderful mix of old and new, faith and pride, art and rampant commerce that makes the Marais a great place to visit. And you can always end your walk back at La Perla for the best margaritas in Europe.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

21 May 2015

Le Coq Rico, La Dégustation & Jeanne B ~ new French cuisine in Montmartre

It's difficult to dine in Montmartre. Within the shadow of the Islamic-inspired dome of Sacré-Cœur, most restaurants are committed to full-on fish and chips and burgers, or providing some weirdness of what they perceive the normal tourist expects in French dining: onion soup, escargot, etc. Which is true of course, but it doesn't seem to exist anymore except in a twisted tourist version. It, the French version of what they think we want, fails horribly sometimes and expensively, and in Montmartre's tourist districts that can be disappointing indeed.

New things are happening in French restaurants of course, and three examples are found along the long and winding rue Lepic in Montmartre. One is exceptionally busy with locals and tourists alike, though I can't imagine why.

It's called Le Coq Rico and it serves chicken. And that's about it. Oh, there are a few other dishes thrown in to confuse matters, like guinea fowl and pigeon, but it's basically chicken and mainly roasted chicken at that. Good, maybe even really good, but we grew up with roast chicken on Sundays made by Mom, and we don't need to pay an arm and a leg for it here in Paris. Do we? Well apparently we did and that's why I'm warning you.

Another new-style resto-bistro-bar, or whatever they might want to call it, is La Dégustation, and it shows great promise. A variety of open wines and champagnes are offered by the glass, offering an easy way to try different wines with different dishes. The food dishes are prepared simply in an open kitchen in view of diners with fresh ingredients and all that stuff. Again, a great concept: French cuisine re-invented for a new generation.

However, when we dined one night, service was distant and confused. For a place that promotes a great selection of wines, our two servers were unsure of what to suggest with the different dishes and more concerned with pouring only the absolute maximum of 20 cL into each glass. The potential for fun and interaction between server and customer was lost entirely. The food was nicely prepared and presented, but not particularly exciting. Bland comes to mind, and La Dégustation wasn't fun, though it's modern-bistro layout would suggest some sort of revelry.

Our third candidate along rue Lepic is a place called  Jeanne B. Similar to La Dégustation with a nice selection of wines, an open kitchen concept, fresh and in-season ingredients and a menu that changes from day-to-day depending on what is available. Jeanne B succeeds. In fact, it succeeds impressively with friendly and competent servers and an impressive kitchen crew.

Our waiter, we visited twice and he served us both times, always had great recommendations for wine, and after allowing us to taste the wine before pouring, he sloshed it into the glass, offering a smile and his reasons for loving that particular grape. Customer service isn't all that difficult when people enjoy what they are doing and have some fun doing it.

The food at Jeanne B is wonderful. Some might consider it expensive for the portion size, but when considering the ingredients and the wonderful range of flavours hitting your mouth, it's a bargain! There is almost always a veloute de jour, a cold puree that's light and creamy, and highly recommended. The menu is brief and always includes a vegetarian option as well as some twists on meat, seafood and poultry. No onion soup here. Jeanne B has its act together; it doesn't pretend to be something it isn't, and it appreciates its customers. There are some tables outside and it's great to sit along the cobblestone street and watch the people go by. Jeanne B is not fine dining with white table cloths. It is adorable, charming and unpretentious. After wandering around Sacré-Cœur, it's an oasis of simple pleasure for une parisienne like Sherry.

Photos of Jeanne B by Jim Murray, others courtesy the restaurants' websites. Copyright 2015.

Kosak Glacier ~ an ice cream shop

It was a joy to find, as the temperature hit 27 degrees and we were on an extended walk up and down the stairs of Montmartre. What we found on busy rue Caulaincourt in the 18e was Kosak.

Kosak Glacier is an ice cream and sweet shop serving some of the best artisanal ice creams and sorbets we've tasted.  In business for only 7 months, this small shop is coming into its first summer season with some fantastic flavours, including two of our favourites: mango and salted caramel. All the ice creams are artisan-produced, with natural ingredients, and filled with goodness.

Friendly and attentive, the shopkeepers also have a passion for chocolate. Passion is probably too mild a term in this case as on a second visit to Kosak, on a cold and wet day, they were insistent on providing us with samples of some of the best chocolate bars in the world. These are not your average Mars bars either. I would recommend Akesson's single plantation milk chocolate with fleur de sel and coconut blossom sugar but some will find favour with the heavenly dark chocolates from makers the world over.

As a bonus, Kosak is near a great little brasserie called le Cépage Montmartrois, which serves a great coupe de champagne on a lovely sidewalk patio overlooking the busy street traffic. Service can vary from friendly and personable to the more traditional and detached style that we love about Paris restaurants. The champagne at le Cépage is better than most other places of this kind, and more reasonably priced too.

Ice cream. Champagne. Fun for the whole family.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

20 May 2015

Guy Môquet

Many stations on the Paris Métro are designed in a way to reflect the places they represent. The Louvre station obviously comes to mind as a special kind of subway station.

Our nearest métro station is Guy Môquet, a station on line 13. It is situated on the border of the 17e and 18e arrondissements and it is down the street from our apartment on rue Marcadet.

At first, Guy Môquet was just the name of a station to me. Yet another name that didn't mean much; something important to somebody sometime, but not necessarily to me. One day I read the mural in the station tunnel and I realized there was something special about this very real person named Guy Môquet.

Guy Môquet was a member of the French Resistance and he was killed, partly because he was a member of the Resistance, and partly because of his political beliefs.

During the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, Guy Môquet was taken hostage and later executed by firing squad in retaliation for attacks on the German military by the Resistance.

He was born on 26 April 1924 in the 18e arrondissement of Paris, somewhere near our apartment. He was a member of the Communist Youth Movement, and was denounced by the French government of the day, collaborators with the Nazis. Communist youth and party members were key members of the Resistance even when many others acquiesced.

On 22 October 1941, he and 26 other prisoners, all Communists, were executed. It was a statement by the Nazi regime, and by the French Government too. Guy Môquet was the youngest at only seventeen years. Before being shot he wrote a letter to his parents which has become famous throughout France, especially when taken in the context of his political beliefs.
Ma petite maman chérie,
mon tout petit frère adoré,
mon petit papa aimé,
Je vais mourir!
Ce que je vous demande, toi, en particulier ma petite maman, c'est d'être courageuse. Je le suis et je veux l'être autant que ceux qui sont passés avant moi. Certes, j'aurais voulu vivre. Mais ce que je souhaite de tout mon coeur, c'est que ma mort serve à quelque chose. Je n'ai pas eu le temps d'embrasser Jean. J'ai embrassé mes deux frères Roger et Rino.
Quant au véritable je ne peux le faire hélas ! J'éspère que toutes mes affaires te seront renvoyées, elles pourront servir à Serge, qui je l'escompte sera fier de les porter un jour.
A toi, petit Papa, si je t'ai fait, ainsi qu'à petite Maman, bien des peines, je te salue une dernière fois. Sache que j'ai fait de mon mieux pour suivre la voie que tu m'as tracée.
Un dernier adieu à tous mes amis et à mon frère que j'aime beaucoup. Qu'il étudie bien pour être plus tard un homme.
17 ans et demi! Ma vie a été courte! Je n'ai aucun regret, si ce n'est de vous quitter tous.
Je vais mourir avec Tintin, Michels.
Maman, ce que je te demande, ce que je veux que tu me promettes, c'est d'être courageuse et de surmonter ta peine. Je ne peux pas en mettre davantage.
Je vous quitte tous, toutes, toi Maman, Serge, Papa, je vous embrasse de tout mon cœur d'enfant.
Votre Guy qui vous aime.
Dernières pensées: "Vous tous qui restez, soyez dignes de nous, les 27 qui allons mourir!"

My darling little Mummy,
my adored little brother,
my much loved Daddy.
I am going to die!
What I ask of you, especially you Mummy, is to be brave. I am, and I want to be, as brave as all those who have gone before me.Of course, I would have preferred to live. But what I wish with all my heart is that my death serves a purpose. I didn't have time to embrace Jean. I embraced my two brothers Roger and Rino.
As for my real brother, I cannot embrace him, alas! I hope all my clothes will be sent back to you, they might be of use to Serge, I trust he will be proud to wear them one day.
To you, my Daddy to whom I have given many worries, as well as to my Mummy, I say goodbye for the last time. Know that I did my best to follow the path that you paved for me.
A last farewell to all my friends, to my brother whom I love very much. May he study hard to become a man later on.
Seventeen and a half years! My life has been short. I have no regrets, if only that of leaving you all. I am going to die with Tintin, Michels.
Mummy, what I ask you, what I want you to promise me, is to be brave and to overcome your sorrow. I cannot write any more.
I am leaving you all, Mummy, Serge, Daddy, I embrace you with all my child's heart.
Your Guy who loves you.
 A last thought : "All of you who remain, be proud of us, the 27 who will die!"
Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

19 May 2015

Odette ~ coffee and choux à la crème

In the Latin Quarter, around the corner from the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and in view of Notre Dame, is a wonderful little coffee shop called Odette.

Odette is more than just a coffee shop. The coffee is great mind you, sweet and served perfectly. The real reason for coming to Odette is the choux à la crème.  They are irresistible.

The view from Odette.

Simple, elegant little cream puff creations in a variety of wonderful flavours, including pistachio, caramel, lavender, chocolate and even champagne. These things are delightful.

Odette is not to be missed.
Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

18 May 2015

Random signs of Paris

Signs, posters and plaques that caught my eye in Paris....

 Not so common in Paris: Australian and Canadian flags.

On the right, from the mild-mannered and polite Communist Party, which garnered 12 percent of the votes in the last election for President: Housing is a right.

Below, a clever play on words, also about housing.

On the left, more of the je suis thing; this time for a film.

Again on the right, and again with je suis, the fresh new image of the Parti Communiste Français.

This poster caused no end of trouble for Jeem. He probably should have joined the PCF. Still, this group is called NPA... how bad could they be?

Another brilliant play on words.

Above are examples of signs placed throughout Paris, usually on old school buildings, or sometimes on existing schools. The one on the left was seen in The Marais, and the other in Montmartre, but the signs exist throughout the city. Each plaque remembers the children of that school who were deported and killed by the Nazi regime, in collaboration with the government of the day in France. Any of the signs I have seen have only been placed since 2000, which might tell us something about something. I'm not sure.

Ne les oublions jamais. We can only hope.
Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.