liberté, égalité, fraternité…oh, really?

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Here’s my local town hall, called la mairie or Hôtel de Ville in French. This is where you go for all your one-stop administrative needs. Registering births, deaths and marriages, etc. For about a year and a half now, there’s been a huge sign hanging from the façade of this town hall and town halls all across the country.  I remember when I saw it for the first time, I stopped in my tracks, stared at it for a long time, then shook my head in disbelief and walked on.  I took these photos today.  I’ve just noticed the number of flags attached to the building.  This is new.  In the past, France has always downplayed patriotism.

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“What does this mean?” you might be wondering. The translation is – Support to Christians from the Middle East.  Now, if this building were a (Christian) church, I could understand. But it’s not.  It’s a municipal, governmental Town Hall. And here’s the kicker. Do you see the words engraved in stone on the wall?  Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité.  The sign brazenly shares the same wall with those three words, France’s famous slogan.

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Where is the Equality and Fraternity in supporting (persecuted) Christians from the Middle East…but not persecuted Muslims who are in the majority?  Once again, and with blatant disregard for the feelings of certain people, the French practice selectivity and exclusion. And they wonder why there’s tension in this country. As it is, France is barely supporting persecuted Christians. Le Figaro newspaper reported that in January and February 2016, and despite the several hundred visa requests from desperate Iraqi Christians, only 84 visas were granted. As for Syrians, out of 5 million who fled their country, Turkey has taken in 2.7 million, Lebanon more than a million, Germany more than a million, and since 2011 France has granted refugee status to only 10,000.*  As for Sweden, it has taken in more refugees per capita than any country in Europe.

*statistics from OFPRA (l’Office français de protection des réfugiés et des apatrides)

Here’s an informative article about Sweden’s generous immigration policy entitled The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth –

The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth

 

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The Lemon Tree House

THE LEMON TREE HOUSE RESIDENCY FOR WRITERS AND ARTISTS

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I’ve been accepted!  I’ve never been accepted for anything like this before….it’s a new experience and I’m all excited!

I’m a writer now…or an artist, don’t know which…and I feel like laughing out loud.

It should be known that writing is a very solitary occupation.  I’ve spent years on my book project (writing only on weekends because I have a full-time job) and it can get lonely.  This is why it’s important to take part in a residency or a writing class or group of some kind.  So you can crawl out of your lair, blink in the sunlight, meet like-minded people, get feedback from your work, and swap stories and stuff.

This writing retreat, deep in the countryside on the border of southern Tuscany and Umbria, includes all meals, wine and cocktail hours, yoga, beautiful-looking private rooms, and day trips to Florence and Siena.  In total there will be fifteen writers, all of us working on our own projects.

So that’s what I’m going to do!  In October.  In Italy (my favourite country.)

Here’s the link…jeepers, the place looks gorgeous –

http://www.thelemontreehouse.org/

 

Ascension Day 4-day weekend in France

We are currently enjoying a 4-day weekend here (and the weather is glorious).  Why are we enjoying this long weekend?  Because yesterday (Thursday) was Ascension Day.  Next weekend will be a 3-day weekend because of Pentecost, otherwise known as Whitsun or Whit Monday.  I had to look up the meaning of this event.  Here’s what Wikipedia says – Pentecost Monday is a Christian holiday which commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament of the Bible.

Oh, and August 15th is another national holiday – The Feast of the Day of Assumption.

The Catholic Church adopted this date as a Holy Day of Obligation to commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a reference to the belief in a real, physical elevation of her sinless soul and incorrupt body into Heaven.

Sometimes I feel like I’m not living in France, but in the Vatican City.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up the dates of national holidays in Italy.  Italy does not recognize the first two above-mentioned holy days as cause for a national holiday. Neither do Spain or Portugal.  However, the day of August 15th is observed by all.

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Here is Jesus Christ ascending

And I’m wondering…..why would Ascension Day be cause for a national holiday?  I mean, I can imagine it being a holiday in a religious institution or a private Catholic school.  But for the entire country to shut down on a Thursday to commemorate Christ’s ascension into heaven?? 

That seems a bit rich, especially when no other country does the same.

Firstly, I don’t see anyone around here going to church on Ascension Day.  Most people just seize the opportunity to take the Friday off as well and hightail it out of town. And secondly, FRANCE IS SUPPOSED TO BE A SECULAR COUNTRY.  So, again, why have these Christian holy days been decreed national holidays by the government?   

Here’s why – because by observing them, which, by the way, is a blatant transgression of the country’s secular laws, they serve as a reminder to one and all (in case we forgot) who rules around here.  Separation of church and state?   I don’t think so. 

(note – when I say ‘Christian’ I mean Catholic because Protestantism is only 2 per cent of this country’s population.) 

But who’s complaining?  No-one.  You do not see protest marches in the street with citizens clamoring “We want less paid holidays!  Down with religious holidays!” 

The word ‘secular’ in French is ‘laïcité’, derived from the word ‘laity’ which means non-clergy or layperson.  Dominique Moïsi, a French political scientist, said this – “Laïcité has become the first religion of the French Republic.”  Brilliant.

There’s a lot of hypocrisy and ambiguity surrounding the practice of this controversial word.  But that’s France.  Things are rarely straightforward here; much is cloaked in doublespeak, silence and subterfuge.

What’s important, though, is that in recent years the effectiveness of French-style secularism is being debated and criticized.  It is believed that French-style secularism masks a larger issue and this issue has a name.  Islam.  If you want to understand France today, and see how France’s new secular laws (the banning of the full-face veil, for example) are, in fact, linked to what is perceived by the French ruling class as an Islamist threat, read this informative article on the subject.

Is it Time for France to Abandon Laïcité?

A year after the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks, it would appear that France’s strict secularism has only exacerbated religious and racial tensions.

 

 

two pesto variations

My dream is to have an avocado orchard.  Like my cousin in Santa Barbara, California. And with the orchard I’d have an herb garden.  With rows and rows of fragrant basil, sage, coriander and mint.

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But my reality is a noisy Parisian flat with a small balcony that overlooks a dusty street. So (during the summer season) I buy large bunches of basil at my local market. And I make my own variation of pesto replacing pine nuts with walnuts and parmesan cheese with pecorino cheese.

Ingredients

5-6 ounces (2 healthy bunches or about 6 cups gently packed) basil leaves
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese
1-2 garlic cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4-1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Can’t get enough of this pink garlic from Provence.Neuilly August closed signs 2013 037Whiz all the ingredients in a food processor, toss with al dente pasta, and serve with a cooled, light red like this lovely Saumur from the Loire Valley.  It’s that easy.Neuilly August closed signs 2013 035

The second variation of pesto uses pistachios instead of walnuts or pine nuts –

  • Quickly roast (or toast) 100 grams of pistachios in a dry frypan or under the grill.
  • In a blender or food processor mix the pistachios with the leaves of one bouquet of fresh mint, the juice of one lemon, 10 cl olive oil, 50 g of grated parmesan, 3 garlic cloves and 3 tablespoons of water. If too thick, add a bit more water. Salt and pepper.
  • Toss with al dente pasta and top with grated parmesan and lemon zest.  

I’d be inclined to serve this with a fragrant white wine, like a Gewurztraminer that I sampled a few weeks ago; a sweetish, floral varietal grown in the Alsace region of France, near the German border. Alsatian wines are delightful; lately I’ve been giving them more attention.

Upcoming post – in so-called “secular” France, how come we have so many Christian-Catholic public holidays?

a New York bookstore

While in New York I stumbled across a bookstore that was so welcoming I returned to it several times throughout my 10-day stay. It’s called Book Culture, it’s independent, and the address is 450 Columbus Avenue between 81st St. and 82nd St.  On my way to the American Museum of Natural History (just across the road), a sudden downpour caused me to take refuge somewhere. And what a delightful place in which to shelter! Book Culture has two other Manhattan locations.  See their link below.  In addition to books, they also sell gift items, cards and stationery.

After browsing for an hour, I purchased two things: a knitted hat made by VERLOOP, a knitwear design studio based in New York, (link below) and a non-fiction book.

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OUR KIDS – The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert D. Putnam.book Our Kids

“No one can finish this book and feel complacent about equal opportunity” (The New York Times Book Review).  An examination of the growing inequality gap in the USA and why fewer Americans today have the opportunity for upward mobility.

“Central to the very idea of America is the principle that we are a nation of opportunity. But over the last quarter century we have seen a disturbing “opportunity gap” emerge. In Our Kids, Robert Putnam offers a personal and authoritative look at this new American crisis, beginning with the example of his high school class of 1959 in Port Clinton, Ohio. The vast majority of those students went on to lives better than those of their parents. But their children and grandchildren have faced diminishing prospects. Putnam tells the tale of lessening opportunity through poignant life stories of rich, middle class, and poor kids from cities and suburbs across the country, brilliantly blended with the latest social-science research.”

I highly recommend this book that I purchased in Paris –

the publisher is JONGLEZ PUBLISHING (link below)

LOCAL GUIDES BY LOCAL PEOPLE

A supperclub on a helipad, dinner in a dumpster, a hidden heavy metal bar in Brooklyn, a dim-sum restaurant that turns into a nightclub, New York’s “most legitimate speakeasy”, a club “not open since 2009”, a Swiss ski chalet accessed through a kitchen, a referral-only Japanese restaurant, a grungy underground sake bar, an open-to-the-public dining room in the United Nations, gourmet donuts inside a car wash, restaurants inside freight entrances …

A hundred places with amazing decor, eccentric owners, bizarre food, old-time survivors and more that will please and astonish underground and post-industrial design buffs, refined gourmets and cocktail drinkers, world food lovers and anyone curious enough to discover the infinite possibilities to have fun in New York.

Latest releases are ‘Abandoned America‘, ‘Secret Washington D.C.‘, ‘Secret London – Unusual Bars and Restaurants‘, and lots of other cities.

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Here is one excerpt out of many –

Campbell Apartment

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One of the most unique and distinctive spaces in all of New York is hidden in the basement of Grand Central Terminal, yet few of the 750,000 people who pass through the station every day know it exists. Originally the office of tycoon John W. Campbell (a friend of Commodore Vanderbilt, who constructed the station), the Campbell Apartment was restored to its Gilded Age glory in 2007, complete with Oriental rugs, antique Italian furniture, porcelain vases, and a massive stone fireplace.

http://www.bookculture.com/

http://www.verloopknits.com/

http://www.jonglezpublishing.com/en/

New York food

Lori and I attended a taping of The Late Show and it was a lot of fun.  After standing for a long time in the rain in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater, we were finally let in to watch The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. After years of watching Letterman on TV, it was thrilling to find myself inside the hallowed halls of the Ed Sullivan Theater.  As audience members, we were encouraged to hoot and holler, clap and dance, and it was a fun, silly evening. Guests were Matthew Perry and Nick Offerman.  Afterwards we returned to the Upper West Side (where our hotel was) and had an excellent dinner at the Candle Café West on Broadway, a warm and welcoming organic, vegan/vegetarian restaurant.  We sat at the long wooden bar, ordered red wine, and the food that came was fresh, delicious and inventive.  In fact, it was so good we returned the next evening for more. 

“Who needs meat?” I said, stuffing a forkful of paprika hummus and quinoa tabouli into my mouth.  Lori had the grilled portobello sandwich.

Speaking of meat, I did crave a burger later in the week and tried several times to buy one at three different Shake Shacks.  But the lines were so long, I never did get to taste a Shake Shack burger.  I hear they’re very good.

And then we discovered EATALY.  Walking into this huge emporium dedicated entirely to food and drink, I thought I had died and gone to Italian heaven.  Here’s a brief write-up from Business Insider –

When you step into Mario Batali’s massive 50,000-sq-ft Mecca of Italian food, Eataly, you are immediately faced with countless choices of tasty-looking food.

The marketplace, located near the Flatiron building in Manhattan and owned by a partnership including Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich, is a unique combination of sandwich stands, market-style stalls and full-fledged restaurants.

One of the more interesting aspects of Eataly is that many products made on the premises are both for sale to the public and used to supply the restaurants on site. This gives the visitors a rare look at the food being prepared right in front of them, before they taste it in one of the seven eateries in the sprawling market.

Eataly is a place to grab a quick sandwich for lunch or buy some handmade pasta for dinner, a fun combination that can almost make you dizzy with options of how to spend your time and money there. The market’s organized chaos is run by over 700 employees.

The original Eataly market opened in Turin, Italy in 2007, its first American store launched in New York in 2010, and there’s another location in Chicago.

This place is a total class act.  Their hot chocolate is divine and there are several espresso bars as well as a gelati counter. I returned several times to buy take-out focaccia, a hunk of pecorino, olives and prosciutto.  Everything is imported from Italy. There’s a sit-down pizzeria at the back (as well as other restaurants), a panini stand, and overall the place has a relaxed and friendly vibe.  It’s located at 200 Fifth Avenue. Oh, and right beside Eataly is my favourite Finnish fashion and design boutique, Marimekko.

When Lori went to see the play, Blackbird, at the Belasco Theater, she said she’d probably need a cocktail afterwards. (The subject matter of the play is reported to be harrowing.) “OK,” I said, “Let’s meet in Lantern’s Keep, a cozy bar located in The Iroquois Hotel at 49 West 44th Street.”

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I had an expensive rum-coconut cocktail and Lori had an expensive whisky concoction that she said was delicious. To be honest, I find cocktails unsatisying for this reason – I usually gulp them down in two or three swallows and then I’m stuck staring into an empty glass with a melting ice cube and a citrus twist in it.  At these prices, I didn’t dare order a second one.  But it didn’t matter because we were on our way to a secret Japanese restaurant that serves over 200 varieties of sake.

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Sakagura is located in the basement of a nondescript midtown office building.  You walk past the security desk and through a white marble lobby. Then you go down a flight of stairs and suddenly you feel as if you’ve entered a Japanese village. Wood and bamboo is everywhere and although the architecture is not an exercise in purist Japanese form, the place has a homey feel despite its subterranean location.  Actually, I felt like I was in the basement rec room of our house in the 1970s.

Cuisine wise, it’s one of the finest for Japanese in New York City at affordable prices. The clientèle, we noticed, is principally Japanese and that’s always a good sign.  This is not a sushi place, although I think I saw sashimi on the menu.

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The food was delicious, the sake dry, chilled and light, and the service swift and efficient. But the most extraordinary and unexpected experience took place in the loo. For those of you who have never experienced a Japanese toilet before, you’ll be surprised.  Firstly, the two loos are located in two separate wooden structures that are supposed to resemble giant sake barrels.  OK.  To your surprise and delight you discover that the toilet seat is heated. mmm…nice. Then there are buttons to press for different rinsing options that involve jets of warm water that spray upwards. This, I suppose, is the Japanese equivalent of a French bidet.  After a few carafes of sake, I could imagine having fun inside of that giant sake barrel.

Take note that this restaurant is hugely popular, especially amongst the Japanese community, so you need to either reserve in advance or show up really early, like we did, and take a seat at the bar.

Sakagura – 211 East 43rd Street, (212) 953-7253

the Brooklyn bridge and Lower Manhattan

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is a truly exhilarating experience.  On Sunday the weather was glorious – cold with brilliant sunshine.  I left my hotel at 10 am and returned, tired but happy, at 6 pm.  I had literally walked for 8 hours straight (with only one sit-down for coffee).  Days before I had purchased a super-comfortable pair of REEBOKS at a discount shoe store called DSW. They were so comfortable that I bought a second pair in a different colour.  I am truly grateful for having sturdy legs and feet that carry me across towns and cities.  I say this because in the past I had had a few quibbles with occasional knee pain, but am happy to say that on this trip I did not experience this.

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Once I got to the other side, I made my way to Pierrepont Street to visit the Brooklyn Historical Society (a museum, library and educational center), but once there decided to stay outdoors and enjoy the weather.  The Historical Society, though, is worth visiting for insight into the social and political events that shaped the large and incredibly diverse borough of Brooklyn (here it is below).

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After exploring and stopping for a muffin-coffee break, I caught the subway back to Manhattan, got off at Spring Street and strolled eastwards.

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Photographers notice that the light is harsher and brighter in North America than in Europe. I couldn’t resist taking this photo below because it’s exactly what I was doing. Juju s’amuse à New York!  Translation – Juju (that’s me) is having fun in New York!  And it’s true.  This is when I’m at my happiest; free to roam, camera in hand and pack on my back.

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Located at 560 Broadway is the fabulous Dean & Deluca gourmet food store. They have great take-out food and a stand-up eating area at the back. I bought some brown rice sushi, fresh fruit, and a can of soda and stood at the back while eating it.

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Strolling along Prince, Greene and Mercer Streets, one cannot help but notice the proliferation of luxury brand stores – Prada, Ralph Lauren, Stella McCartney, Chanel, etc., lined on either side.  At one point I literally stopped in my tracks and said aloud – How frigging boring!

The mere existence of these high-end boutiques not only compromises the integrity of this neighbourhood, but has driven real estate prices sky-high.  What happened to the hip, bohemian and edgy Soho?  These bland, sanitized stores for the wealthy have, in my opinion, completely ruined the essence and social fabric of this community.  For some unknown reason I thought of Patti Smith and wondered what she would think (maybe she shops at these boutiques, who knows?) I have read her marvelous memoir ‘Just Kids’ which is a salute to Manhattan when she and Mapplethorpe lived in Chelsea during the late 60s and 70s. (It’s true that during this era some of those districts were full of tenements and rats, but at least Smith didn’t glamorize.)  

Speaking of former rock stars, I had the address of David Bowie.  Out of curiosity, I made my way over to 285 Lafayette Street which was his residence.  Here’s the building here. I’m still affected by his death in January of this year.  I hope he’s looking down at us and laughing.

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Hoping to find a more authentic district and eager to get away from those soul-less luxury clothing stores, I continued walking east.  The area around Mulberry and Mott Streets is pleasant.  There’s a lot written about gentrification and it’s true that there are pros and cons.  For example, NYC throughout the 1970s and early 80s was not only very dirty and in a state of urban decay, but a very dangerous place to be.  The city teetered on bankruptcy, there were substantial cuts in law enforcement, rapes and burglaries tripled, car thefts and felony assaults doubled, and murders jumped from 681 to 1690 a year. Graffiti covered subways, buses and just about everything and subway muggings were rife.  Arson was also a big problem which resulted in abandoned blocks and depopulation. So yeah, gentrification turns things around (albeit 30 years later). Buildings and parks are renovated. Jobs arrive, new retail and service businesses appear and crime rates decline. After reading up on the subject, I see that gentrification provides more benefits than disadvantages to the local residents.  What I hate is the sanitized look.

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Walking towards the Bowery, Manhattan’s oldest thoroughfare, the aesthetic changes quite dramatically and you find yourself in a grittier setting. But there’s a lot of construction going on and you can see that this once-squalid area in the Lower East Side is and has been undergoing gentrification.  I was searching for Rivington Street.

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Spying these leather handbags displayed on the wall, I went into this boutique at number 157 Rivington (above) and made a delightful discovery in the name of Szeki Chan, founder and designer of the store called 7115.  Born in Hong Kong, she came to the States at age 12 and later graduated with a BFA in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design. She has a second store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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I said that I loved the original designs of the handbags and the quality of the supple leather. She said that her mother makes them and buys the leather from Italy. I purchased one at a very affordable price. And y’know what? I’m much happier shopping in young independent designer shops than in those sterile, high-end designer chain stores. 

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Leaving the store, I headed north towards Houston Street and came across this legendary deli. Remember that famous scene from the movie “When Harry Met Sally” with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal?  It was filmed here.

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Further along at 179 East Houston is another reputable deli (take-out only) called Russ & Daughters. Known for its high-quality smoked fish, this Lower East Side institution has been operating since 1914.

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Had my dear mother been alive, I would have brought her a portion of gefilte fish like I used to do when we lived in Toronto and I went to Yitz’s deli. She liked gefilte fish (a poached mixture of ground deboned fish, such as carp, whitefish or pike).  Just seeing it on the shelves made me feel kind of sad.

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Stay tuned for next blog post.