the Molitor, a Paris institution

Piscine d'Eté

Isn’t this a gorgeous photograph?  In the upper left background you can see the glittering Eiffel Tower.

And what is the Molitor, you might well ask.  Why, it’s the city’s most fashionable swimming pool, darling, and it has quite a history.  Constructed in 1929 in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, it was intended to resemble an ocean liner, with different levels, white railings and circular windows.  It’s a marvellous example of the Art Déco style of its time.

Future Tarzan actor, Johnny Weissmuller, was a lifeguard there.  He spent a season giving swimming lessons and rescuing damsel bathers in distress.

The Molitor is also remembered by Parisians for its transformation into a skating rink in winter.

“I remember a confined, very crowded place”,  reminisces Corinne, a Parisian schoolgirl in 1958.  “We used to turn endlessly, bothering each other.”

“It was a place where rich kids from the 16th arrondissement and Boulogne-Billancourt picked each other up.  All the girls wore crew neck cardigans buttoned on the back and Hermes scarves crossed in the front and tied up on their backs.”  Chic !

molitor skating rink

By 1989, though, the 60-year-old pool fell into ruin. The city of Paris didn’t have the funds to renovate, so it closed.  It became a venue for raves and a canvas for graffiti artists.

molitor graffitti

Oddly enough, 4 years later another famous swimming pool in Paris – the Deligny – which was a floating pool on the river Seine, would sink.  I used to go to the Deligny when I first arrived in Paris in the early 1990s.

But all’s well that ends well, my darlings.  Today the Molitor is swank – restored back to its former glory, but with a modern twist.  It’s part of a hotel.  A luxury hotel.  For many Parisians, though, it’s an unaffordable luxury. People can use the pool if they stay at the hotel (from 215 euros per night), join the Molitor club (3,000 euros per year) or pay for a one day membership (150-180 euros).

Here’s a beautifully-done video of the pool’s history and its sparkling new life today.  Click on the link below and scroll down a little bit.  Watch how the Molitor re-invents itself over the decades.  Chic !

http://www.mltr.fr/en

Cannes film festival, Leonard Cohen and Nanni Moretti

I was standing in my kitchen this afternoon making a mango-blueberry smoothie (with ginger root) when a haunting song came on the radio.  I stopped chopping and stood still, knife poised mid-air.  That’s the effect Leonard Cohen’s music-voice-poetry has on you.  He can sometimes put you in a trance.  Leonard Cohen.  Canada’s national treasure, born and raised in Montreal. (song below – Famous Blue Raincoat)

His song came on the radio because the program I was listening to was discussing the day’s films in competition at Cannes.

Undisputed master of autofiction, the Italian filmmaker bares all in Mia Madre (My Mother), an intimist feature film, nourished by the recent ordeals in his professional and family life.  Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” is the soundtrack to the film.

Moretti’s film features John Turturro who plays a blowhard movie star with glee and relish.

Mia-Madre-2

Mia Madre screened in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday.  It’s partly comedy, partly melodrama, partly a social satire and partly a sly takedown of the movie business. And Moretti’s touch is so deft that it all comes together nicely, turning his film into a light but deeply affecting ode to family and creativity.

food for thought (politics)

Sometimes I’ll come across something – an article, a video – that causes me to sit up and take notice.  Below is a Youtube interview that does exactly that. 

Politics is a national sport in France in which many of its citizens take a fervent interest.  The French are pretty well educated (and cynical) about present day politics.  And how can they not be?   There’s a lot to be cynical about, plus we’re inundated with the scrutiny and chatter of politics daily.  France has come a long way since the Mitterrand, Chirac, even Sarko days.  Fed up to their eyeballs with cronyism, corruption and the illicit dealings of their politicians (which still continues), the French electorate has become sans pitié (pitiless).

In contrast, in North America there’s not enough analytical political discourse in  prime time and mainstream media.  For a nation as large and powerful as the USA (and whose policies have such wide-reaching consequences), there seems to be a scarcity of serious TV and radio talk shows in which politicians and their policies are discussed in-depth, challenged and debated.  Is that scarcity deliberate?  Keeping the masses dumb and uninformed to better manipulate them could be one reason for this.  Deliberately avoiding the limelight (politicians) while dodging accountability for their crimes and misdeeds could be another reason.  Here’s another reason –

Ownership of American news media is concentrated in the hands of six incredibly powerful media corporations.  These corporate behemoths control most of what we watch, hear and read every single day.  They own television networks, cable channels, movie studios, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and music labels. The six corporations that collectively control U.S. media today are Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., CBS Corporation and NBC Universal.  Together, the “big six” absolutely dominate news and entertainment in the United States.

Most North Americans don’t stop to think about who is feeding them the endless hours of news and entertainment that they constantly ingest.  Most North Americans don’t seem to care who owns the media.  They should.  Many are deeply influenced by the messages that are constantly being pounded into their heads by the mainstream media.  An example of manipulative propagandizing is Rupert Murdoch’s FOX “News” with it’s shallow, blatantly right-wing and racist agenda.

Anyway, I listened to this American Pulitzer prize-winning author on YouTube and wanted to share it with you because what he says is edifying.  You’ll never hear this in the mainstream media.

Hedges is a journalist, activist, author, Presbyterian minister and humanitarian.

“We don’t live in a free market society.  We live in a society where corporations at will loot the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve and are bailed out by the taxpayer.”

“We don’t understand the pathology of the rich.  People of immense wealth are presented as leaders, oracles, even – we don’t grasp internally how morally bankrupt they are.  We need to shatter this delusion that if we work hard enough and study hard enough, we can be one of them.”

“The fact is the people who created the economic mess that we’re in, were the best educated people in the country. The issue is not education, the issue is greed.”

“They (the power elite) have sophisticated mechanisms of public relations and well-publicized acts of philanthropy to hide their private faces.”  I guess he’s referring to people like Bill Clinton and Bill Gates.

Why America is in decline.  Listen to what Hedges says about Obama and Obamacare.

department stores in Paris, Chinese shoppers, and searching for a frying pan

I used to love department stores.  Growing up in North America, I spent a lot of time in shopping malls where a large department store was flanked at either end.  And all throughout high school I worked in a department store called Woolco.  Two evenings a week from 6 to 10 p.m. and four Saturdays a month from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.  I mention this to emphasize that department stores are a familiar habitat to me.

Throughout the 1990s, I used to love shopping at the major department stores of Paris:  Au Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, BHV and La Samaritaine with its rickety wooden escalators.  Back then, those department stores were not only homey and affordable, they were also familiar and welcoming.  Some of the areas were a little run-down (usually the upper floors) – in need of fresh paint or re-tiling – but that was OK.  On the upper floors, Au Printemps also had an old wooden escalator, straight out of the 1940s, and just wide enough for one person.  I found that quaint and charming.  Many of the saleswomen were also quaint and charming.  What was most important, though, was that you knew where everything was.  Hosiery, shoes, lingerie, bed linens, kitchenware or haberdashery (is that word even used today?)….you knew exactly what floor they were on and nothing had changed for years.  The familiarity, not to mention the affordability, was comforting.

That’s all gone now.  These days I walk around those same department stores like an amnesia victim.  Nothing is where it used to be; nothing looks like it used to be.  First off, just to get through the door of a department store you have to open your handbag to security guards and submit to a wand scan (France is on high security alert since the Charlie Hebdo disaster).  And secondly, since year 2000, all department stores the world over (it seems) have undergone a complete transformation.  Here’s what I came up with after googling “department store makeover luxury” –

  • Macy’s is pouring $400 million into a makeover of its flagship Herald Square store…..
  • Oxford Street Selfridges has announced a £300 million makeover of its central London store, which will see its luxury handbag department double in size to cover 50,000 sq ft….
  • The owners of Printemps are turning the Paris landmark on Boulevard Haussmann into a luxury department store to … store chains, plans a luxury makeover for its….
  • La Samaritaine, the historic Paris department store complex that LVMH shuttered eight years ago over safety concerns, is undergoing a major makeover….

Department stores have taken the route of luxury condominiums.  They have, in my opinion, become sumptuous, soulless emporiums – antiseptizied, luxurized and, in terms of pricing, astronomized.  As a result, ordinary shoppers like myself feel squeezed out.  Luxury brands are the new gold rush (jewellery, watches, handbags, accessories, not to mention duty-free services, interpreters and personal shoppers.)

But what if you want just a simple frying pan?

Last week I went to BHV in search of one.  The BHV (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville) used to have the best kitchenware department in the city – tiny whisks, ramekins, non-stick madeleine pans, porcelein asparagus dishes and truffle slicers – it was all there on the 4th floor.  Stepping off the escalator, I automatically headed to the pots and pans section, but it had evaporated into thin air.  In its place was a bank of self-serve automated checkouts.  During the January sales I went to Galeries Lafayette in search of a pair of boots.  After wandering in vain all over the 4th floor, I was told that the shoe department is now in the basement.  I went down but the pounding music, dim lights and low ceiling utterly disoriented me.  I fled empty-handed.

The real winners of department store shopping these days, it seems, are Asian tourists.  Here’s what The Guardian newspaper had to say on the subject –

Paris is beating London in charm offensive to lure wealthy Chinese shoppers

Photos by Zhang Jie

Photos by Zhang Jie

Paris is reaping the reward of an official drive to make the city the destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of increasingly affluent Chinese tourists.

“Let’s be perfectly clear, this is a competition with London, this is a battle between cities. Our goal is that Chinese visitors come to Paris, stay for longer and spend more money,” says François Navarro, spokesperson for the Ile-de-France regional tourist authority.

“Of course, we prefer that Chinese tourists come to spend their money in Galeries Lafayette and not in Harrods.”  In addition to maps and signs in Chinese, Galeries Lafayette also welcomes Chinese shoppers with Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking sales staff and VIP services.

French authorities have gone even further by establishing a visa office in Beijing to help Chinese visitors obtain travel documents quickly and easily.

china two

The Chinese, whom Navarro describes as “the kings of shopping”, want “luxury shopping above all” and “have an idealized and romantic vision of Paris”.  Paris claims to attract more international visitors – around 17 million – than any other city in the world, including one million Chinese tourists annually, compared with an estimated 110,000 Chinese visitors to London.

china three

In 2013, Galeries Lafayette opened its first Chinese store in Beijing. Beijing Galeries Lafayette department store is only second to its flagship store in Paris by size. Galeries Lafayette currently has 64 outlets and five of them are outside France. These five stores are located in Jakarta, Berlin, Casablanca, Dubai and Beijing.

Now, back to my frying pan which is what set off this whole story.  I ended up buying one in Lille – a white ceramic one for 15 euros while shopping at Carrefour.

 

Good Night and God Bless

As a female traveller who often travels solo, it’s imperative that I stay not only in a safe environment, but also in a welcoming one. 

It’s important that you choose your accommodations (and neighbourhood) carefully.

On that note, have you ever considered staying in a convent or a monastery?  The Good Night and God Bless guide lists a number of lodgings around the world that are categorized as Open Houses, meaning open to tourists looking for simple but good quality accommodations at a lower cost. There are also Spiritual Retreats.

Here are a few excerpts from the guide –

New York City

House-of-the-RedeemerThe House of the Redeemer is situated in the Upper East Side of New York City and is run by the Episcopal Church, which offers hospitality to people of all faiths and nationalities. The building is a designated New York City Landmark of cultural, architectural and historical interest. Single and double rooms are available, some with air-conditioning and ensuite bathrooms. Musical and other cultural events are held here throughout the year.

House of the Redeemer
7 East 95th Street
New York, NY 10128

New York City

alma-matthewsAlma Mathews House is situated in a quiet tree-lined street in Greenwich Village West. Managed by the United Methodist Women’s organization the complex is close to Christopher St–Sheridan Square train station as well as cafes, parks and shops. Comfortable, inexpensive accommodation is offered to any person or groups of people who are involved in some way with a non-profit group or agency. Most guestrooms share a bathroom but other guestrooms have ensuite facilities. Wheelchair access.

Alma Mathews House
273-275 West 11th Street
(Between West 4th and Bleecker Streets)
New York, NY 10014

Boston

Society-of-St-John-01The Society of St John the Evangelist is an Anglican religious order governed in the USA by the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. The monastery is located on a tree lined avenue which follows the curves of the Charles River in the midst of the campuses of Harvard University. The hospitable monks who live here run a monastery guesthouse with a number of single and double guestrooms available for those who might like to combine a visit to Boston with a religious retreat. Guestrooms are fitted with a washbasin and offered on a share bathroom basis. Meals can be taken with the brothers in the monastery refectory. Guests are welcome from Tuesday to Friday and depart on or before the following Sunday. Parking at the monastery is limited to those with accessibility needs, however there are parking garages within a block of the Monastery.

Society of St John the Evangelist
980 Memorial Drive
Cambridge MA 02138

Tuscany – Florence

Sanctuary-B-and-B-FirenzeThe Sanctuary B & B is in the heart of Florence (near the Duomo) and is run by an order of Catholic nuns, the Suore Oblate dell’Assunzione. The location is ideal for exploring the tourist sites of Florence on foot.

The convent building is a former 15th century palazzo and recently the ‘hotel’ has undergone a substantial facelift and the facilites for guests have been upgraded. Rooms with ensuite bathroom are available and cheaper rooms are offered on a share bathroom basis. The spotlessly clean guestrooms are roomy and well furnished and noise is not a problem as the street has recently undergone traffic restrictions. Guests will be pleasantly surprised by the large private garden to the rear of the building. Breakfast is served daily and facilities include elevator, internet kiosk and air conditioning in all rooms. Shops and restaurants are close by. Like many similar establishments religion isn’t spruiked here. However, guests are welcome to join the sisters in daily Mass if they so wish. The Sanctuary B & B is a comfortable, inexpensive base in Florence and with a brand new website up and running, bookings can be made online.

Sanctuary B&B Firenze
Suore Oblate dell’Assunzione
Borgo Pinti 15
50125 – FIRENZE

In Rome there’s a lively and well-known convent near the Vatican called Orsa Maggiore for Women Only (not in the guide).  I haven’t yet stayed in St. Katharine’s below, but an office colleague of mine raves about the place.  The earlier you book at St. Katharine’s, the cheaper the rates.  Personally, I find their rates a bit steep, which is why I stay at The Penn Club.  St. Katharine’s is in East London.  The Penn Club is in the heart of Bloomsbury and a 15-min. walk from St. Pancras train station.

London

St Katherine's - Guest RoomSituated in central London it is hard to imagine a more peaceful urban setting for a short stay in London, a holiday from abroad or a retreat. St Katharine’s has a rich history of hospitality and we look forward to welcoming you whether you wish to come for a day or to stay overnight. We have the rare privilege of being a few minutes walk from the river Thames in the East of London but still just moments from Limehouse DLR station. A wonderful chance to step out of the city but not to leave it.

In keeping with the peaceful environment, there are no televisions in the bedrooms, however complimentary high speed WiFi is available throughout St Katharine’s. Guestrooms are ensuite and our spacious lounge, conservatory, garden and library are all a wonderful settings to spend time relaxing or working during your stay. Continental breakfast buffet is served from 7.30-10am, offering a selection of freshly baked breads and croissants, cold meats, cheese, eggs, cereals, yoghurts, fresh fruit, toast, tea & coffee. On-site car parking is available. Our garden is home to undisturbed wildlife also finding sanctuary at St Katharine’s. You can often see blackbirds, wood pigeons, squirrels in the sheltered space of our garden. You may also be interested to go across into the rose garden, where you can find the rose bush planted by our patron Queen Elizabeth II during her last visit.

Royal Foundation of St Katherine
2 Butcher Row
London E14 8DS

http://www.goodnightandgodbless.com/

the Paris High Line

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It’s not really called the Paris High Line, it’s called la Promenade plantée or la Coulée verte, but New York City’s High Line project was inspired by the Parisian Promenade plantée (tree-lined walkway), completed in 1993.

We are currently enjoying exceptional weather in Paris.  Today couldn’t be more perfect – cobalt-blue sky, light wind to blow the pollution away, and a cool 17°C.  A perfect day to head over to Bastille and the 12th arrondissement to walk the High Line.

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Contrary to the NYC promenade which is 1.45 miles long (2.33 km), the Paris promenade is 3 miles long (4.8-kilometer). The diversity of plants as well as architectural styles, mostly dwellings, that you pass by is interesting. A slice of Paris.  The photo below is a bamboo grove.

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I can’t tell you how relaxing and enjoyable it was to stroll along at your own pace, feeling the sun on your face and hearing the birds chirping. No cars, no noisy scooters…just joggers, pedestrians, space and nature. Because I went fairly early this morning, there weren’t many people.  But I hear it gets quite crowded on Sunday afternoons.  Too bad I live on the other side of the city, otherwise I’d be here all the time.

IMG_4434Picknicking Parisians and below that, a happy walker. See, this is what I couldn’t do in Naples….walk around freely with all my stuff strapped on me (camera, backpack, purse).IMG_4436IMG_4438When you reach the end, you turn right at some point and come out onto the avenue Daumesnil. Here’s the original “Viaduc de Bastille” constructed in 1859 and which carried the railways of the Paris-Bastille-Vincennes train line. Now they are design shops and artist workshops. The promenade runs along the top of the viaduc.IMG_4440This self-catering apartment-hotel, steps from the High Line and 10 minutes south of place de la Bastille, looks like a good place to stay if you’re visiting Paris. The longer you stay, the cheaper it costs.IMG_4446IMG_4447

Here’s how to get to the starting point. Take the metro to Bastille and take exit number 4 (rue de Lyon). Walk south along the rue de Lyon (past the new Paris Bastille opera house) about 10 minutes until you get to the beginning of the viaduc at numbers 44-46 rue de Lyon. Take stairs up to entrance.  Bonne promenade !IMG_4439

why do we travel?

I had an existential moment as I stood for 3 hours on the train from Naples to Rome.  Why do we travel?, I asked myself.  The train was packed, but for only 12 euros I could buy a ticket that allowed me to stand with others in the standing area.  The 3 hours passed a lot faster than I thought they would.  I chatted with a nice man from Atlanta and his wife.  I self-consciously ate two slices of pizza while eight pairs of eyes stared at me.  I witnessed an angry exchange between two Italian women and didn’t have a clue what it was about.  I stared out the window and watched the changing landscape. And I watched as two policemen boarded the train and accosted two black men.  It turned out they were African boat migrants who, no doubt, had paid a smuggler to break into Fortress Europe.  At the next station they were escorted off the train.  What awaited them?, I wondered.  A detention camp, no doubt, and probable deportation.  I felt sorry for them.

And I guess that’s one of the reasons why we travel – to see the world, in all its splendor and misery. To see how other people live. To step out of our lives – for some people, their ivory towers – and observe the diversity and destiny and danger of our fellow humans, even if that view is voyeuristic or from a privileged perch.

Other reasons to travel – to unstick oneself from routine (I hate routine).  It’s good to change our daily habits and shake things up.  Or, as the French say, “changer les idées”.

To step out of our comfort zone, to test and challenge ourselves, to not stand still, to feel inspired.  To connect with humanity.  To see great art and taste gorgeous foods that we wouldn’t see or eat at home.  To extend our boundaries and stretch our minds.  To unplug from our computers.  To feel the sea wind in our face and hear a foreign, lyrical language in our ears.

I like what Jonah Lehrer, a British journalist, wrote –

We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity.  When we get home, home is still the same.  But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.