Margaret Drabble at the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop

It’s Valentine’s Day here in Paris and the weather couldn’t be more dreary as high winds and rain slash at the windows.  I feel sorry for tourists who are seeking refuge from the rain while struggling to keep their umbrellas from turning inside out.  As for me, I’m comfortably ensconced in my warm, cozy flat listening to classical music, drinking café crème and eating a toasted English muffin topped with a generous dollop of cherry jam.

Last night was a treat.  I crossed town to the 5th arrondissement and went to the much-loved bookshop, Shakespeare and Co., to meet Margaret Drabble and listen to her read from her new book, The Pure Gold Baby.Image five

I spent my adolescent and early adult years reading Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch. Their novels were on my mother’s bookshelf, and I read what my mother read.  Margaret Drabble, like my mother, comes from Sheffield in the north of England.

Having a favourite, esteemed author sit just a few feet away from you is rather awe-inspiring. I stared at the delicate features of 74-year old Dame Drabble (she was awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2008) and felt admiration for the prolific literary works she has produced over her lifetime. For those who don’t know, her sister, A.S. Byatt, is also a famous author and a Dame too.  In 2008, The Times newspaper named her one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. I highly recommend Byatt’s novel, Possession, for which she won the Booker Prize.

Book-lovers should visit the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop. (photo above). It’s a snug, cozy place.

“Established in 1951 by George Whitman, this atmospheric book store is a must-see. Near Notre Dame cathedral and just across the Seine, this book store is the epic centre of Anglo-Saxon life in Paris. Packed on three floors you’ll find English books literally everywhere. Even the stove is supported by piles of old National Geographics. The whole place breathes the atmosphere of more than half a century of a legendary literary and cultural oasis of English language in the heart of Paris. The bookstore spreads on three levels and is crammed with books on almost any subject imaginable. The top floor still serves as a writers room and an open library to all visitors.”

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Ms. Drabble signed my newly-purchased book and I left the shop feeling dead chuffed which means very pleased in the north of England.

Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Pompidou Centre

“The photograph itself doesn’t interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson

«Photographier c’est mettre sur la même ligne de mire la tête, l’oeil et le coeur.» To photograph is to put the head, the eye and the heart in the same line of vision.cartier_bresson_03Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004), a French photographer considered to be the father of photojournalism. He was an early adopter of 35 mm format and the master of candid photography. He helped develop the street photography or life reportage style that has influenced generations of photographers who followed.

I’ve been admiring this black and white print of his, entitled En Brie, on my apartment wall for 16 years.  Just had it re-framed it last week.bressonOpening today, February 12, 2014, at the Pompidou Centre is a retrospective of his career. More than 350 photographs, films, documents and other archives will be on display until June 9, 2014.

Vivian Maier, photography exhibitions, and the Jeu de Paume

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Vivian Maier, an American street photographer, was born in New York City in 1926 but spent much of her childhood in France. After returning to the States, she moved to Chicago in 1956 where she lived until her death in 2009.  Her talent is comparable with that of the major figures of American street photography such as Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand.

Unfortunately, the current exhibition showcasing Maier’s work is not being shown in Paris, but in Tours (in the Loire region, but easily accessible on the high-speed train on a day trip.)  Take a look at the link below to see more of Maier’s photos, and also to see the upcoming agenda for the Jeu de Paume arts center located in the Tuileries Gardens. Opening on February 11th, 2014 is an exhibition dedicated to American photographer, Robert Adams.  He was born in Orange (New Jersey) in 1937.  He grew up first in Wisconsin and then Colorado where he lived for over three decades before moving to Oregon. Since the mid-1960s, Adams has been considered one of the most important and influential chroniclers of the American West.  Click on link below.

http://www.parisphoto.com/agenda/vivian-maier

Winter gray, the Breizh Café, the Marais

How many shades of gray are there?  When I look up to the winter sky in Paris I can think of many: pewter, pearl, slate, stone, dove.  You get the picture.  When I first moved here I was disheartened by the long, unbroken stretches of gray days that befall Parisians during the winter season.  This is, after all, northern Europe.  I missed (and still do) those invigoratingly cold but sunny days in Canada when temperatures drop below zero but the sky is magnificent, blue and cloudless.  Not so, here.  Just endless gray and fairly mild days.  No ice. No snow. Just gray.

To lift my spirits, I took the metro to the Marais district and had an early lunch at probably one of the best creperies in town located at 109 rue Vieille du Temple.  The Breizh Cafe is a snug place full of Breton music and patrons sitting at wooden tables happily tucking into crepes and drinking cider.  As I shed my damp coat and joined the fray, I felt a surge of exultation just thinking about what was to follow. The name Breizh, incidentally, means Brittany in Breton, the indigenous Celtic language.

You must know that there are two different kinds of crepe: sweet and savoury.  The savoury ones aren’t called crepes, they’re called galettes and they’re made from buckwheat flour called sarrasin.  The classic galette is ham, cheese and egg; the cheese being grated gruyere or emmenthal.  It came to my table hot off the griddle, thin and tasty as all get-out.  The exterior slightly crunchy, the inside oozy with melted cheese and quality ham.  It’s the simplicity and sheer deliciousness of certain foods that makes France a great destination for foodies.  A crusty baguette with butter, ham and mustard, for example, can be a memorable experience if the ingredients are quality.  Or a simple green salad (just lettuce and nothing else) with a well-done vinaigrette.  In the case of the Breizh, the secret of its success is the authenticity of their products.  All products, including the butter, are shipped in from the French region of Brittany, the home of galettes and crepes, cider, sea-salt caramels and a dozen other delectable delights.

Seeking to quench my thirst, I ordered cider.  The waiter uncorked a large bottle of apple cider and filled up a small earthenware bowl. The cider sparkled and swirled and the taste of it was clean, dry and very flavourful.   After my second bowl of cider, I asked to see the dessert menu.  I don’t think anyone has left the Breizh Cafe without ordering a sweet crepe which is made from a different kind of flour called froment.  The simplest you can get is garnished with lemon juice and sugar; I chose the strawberry jam.  The sweet crepes have that slight rubbery texture that the galettes do not; it was as hot and delicious as my first course.

Next door is a small shop attached to the restaurant where you can buy the cider, the butter, the sea-salt caramels, and all the other delicious products transported from Brittany in north-western France.  I love visiting Brittany.  A few summers ago I took the train to the Morbihan coastal town of Lorient and then a boat to a small island called l’ile de Groix (to my dismay the place was crawling with Parisians because it was August.)  I think it’s time to make a return trip, not to the Morbihan but probably back to Saint-Malo, a walled port city, and the charming town of Dinard nearby. There are some lovely coastal walks in that region and the sea air is cold and fabulously briny.  Saint-Malo is the birthplace of explorer Jacques Cartier who set off from that seaport in 1534 to discover Canada. But I’m digressing.

Back outside, I walked north, purposefully avoiding the trendy, touristy part of the lower Marais because I prefer to stroll off the beaten track in order to see the authentic Marais, the part that hasn’t been gentrified, Gap-ified and Starbucks-ified.  So walk north, fellow travellers, and admire the historic buildings, the shops and lived-in squares and courtyards that the locals, not the tourists, inhabit.

Sunday February 2nd, 2014

After weeks of dank, dismal weather, Parisians awoke this morning to brilliant sunshine and a cobalt-blue sky.  I went for a brisk walk around my neighbourhood.  I’ve been gazing at cakes lately through the windows of my local pastry shops.  I think the best word to describe them is…ethereal.  Perfect with a glass of champagne.Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 003Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 002

Here’s the perfect place to take children: the Jardin d’Acclimatation located on the fringes of the Bois de Boulogne.  The 49-acre zoo and amusement park includes an archery range, house of mirrors, miniature-golf course, a miniature train, pony rides, a puppet theater, shooting galleries, a petting zoo and a science museum called the Exploradome.  Grown-ups also enjoy this place.  I go often during the summer months, with or without my godchildren.

Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 004Entire families were actually lined up to get inside, which surprised me for a cold albeit sunny February Sunday.Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 006

I then headed over to the Frank Gehry building that has been under construction since 2006.  Called the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, it is intended to be an art museum and cultural center when it finally opens.  But when will it open?  The $143 million museum was expected to open in 2014, but there have been legal problems.  It’s incongruously tucked behind the horse stables on a patch of land.  The stable is located beside the Jardin d’Acclimatation.

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Incidentally, I recommend this fish restaurant.  There’s a chain of them throughout France and several in Paris.  The fish is fresh, prices are reasonable and service is efficient.Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 025