Arcachon and the Atlantic coast of France

Before we say au revoir to summer, I’m putting up this post from August 2013.  Arcachon, just south of Bordeaux, is a favourite seaside destination of mine.  Next summer I hope to travel further south along the same coast to Biarritz and Bayonne in Basque country, just north of the Spanish border.

Here’s a two-minute video of the jetty which stretches out over Arcachon Bay.  Just beyond is Cap Ferret.  I can smell that fresh, ocean air and hear the gulls wheeling overhead right now.

Below is a post with photos of Arcachon and Cap Ferret, as well as a good hotel recommendation.

Terror on the Paris express

No, that’s not the title of an Agatha Christie novel, but rather a description of chilling events that occurred yesterday on a train and came to a dramatic halt in the north of France.

The August lassitude of my last post was brutally shaken upon hearing that a gunman, armed with a Kalashnikov and other weapons, had opened fire on the high-speed train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris and carrying more than 550 passengers.  Televisions and radios blared – and are still blaring today, here in France – with news and analysis.

I take those high-speed trains all the time.  And only last December was I on that same Amsterdam-Paris run. 

How is it possible that a passenger, armed to the teeth, can freely climb aboard a train undetected?

Thank goodness for the presence and alacrity of those two U.S. soldiers who had the physical strength, not to mention courage, to tackle the gunman to the ground.

It all sounds like an action film.  But it’s not.  It’s real.

We live in dangerous times, folks. 

The dead of August

IMG_4958Paris, Friday August 2, 2013 058

You know it’s August when you find yourself walking down a deserted street in your normally bustling neighbourhood.  Shops, offices and apartments are shuttered tight.  You know it’s August when you walk a quarter of a mile in search of a boulangerie that’s open.  And when you swear that you’re the only person in your entire apartment building.  There is an upside to this – it’s quiet.

Example – I’ve been trying to mail a letter for a week now. The café-tabac on my corner, where I usually buy stamps, is closed for the entire month and my local post office has reduced its hours to “August hours” which are completely incompatible with my work schedule.  So yesterday I walked to the post office at La Défense where there were no tellers but 4 long queues at the automated machines.  I joined a queue only to find that the machine doesn’t accept a 10 euro note, so I had to walk away, stampless.

Neuilly August closed signs 2013 011Every shop, restaurant, café, kiosk is closed.IMG_4960Where do people go???IMG_4968

Well, let’s see. My concièrge is in Morocco and my neighbour is in Dinard, Brittany. My Lille friends are in Jordan and other friends are touring the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily.  Another friend is also in Brittany (a wonderful summer destination). An office colleague was in France’s Basque country (Biarritz, Bayonne). One of my bosses is in Spain, the other in Holland.  And I’m here because I took a week’s vacation in July (London) and will be taking another 10 days starting this weekend.  Like every year, I’ll be attending the annual giant flea market (La Grande Braderie) in Lille. 

Neuilly August closed signs 2013 016Here’s a local boulangerie last Sunday morning, the only one open in the entire ‘hood.IMG_4969IMG_4970

Benedict Cumberbatch, Hamlet, lifeblogging and smartphones

I was sitting at my office desk yesterday reading the big boss’s Financial Times (he’s away on vacation).  And in it was an interesting article written in the wake of Cumberbatch’s plea for fans to stop photographing and recording videos during his Hamlet performance at the Barbican Theater. 

I might add that I viewed Cumberbatch’s backstage request on YouTube and thought that his exquisite politeness alone should be enough for future theatre-goers to pay heed and stop hassling him with their phones.  Talk about killing the public with kindness, not to mention courtesy; this man is a total Class Act.   Honestly, he makes Donald Trump look like an orangutan.


Anyway, back to the FT article written by Gautam Malkani.  It spoke to me because Malkani addressed the phenomenon of lifeblogging, which, I suppose, is what I do as I buy fruit and fish at my local Sunday market and then, somewhat self-consciously, post photos of them onto my blog.  Does this smack of cyber narcissism or a certain smug self-satisfaction?  I’ll reply to my own question by saying that I like to think of myself as a chronicler, as much for my own benefit as for others.  Since childhood I’ve been keeping a diary and since adolescence I’ve been taking photos, so I guess a personal blog is a natural extension of those activities.

Here’s an excerpt from Malkani’s article –

“In fairness, the soliloquy was impromptu. After a tough night playing Hamlet at London’s Barbican theatre, Benedict Cumberbatch emerged from the stage door and begged his fans to use their smartphones to spread the word that he would rather his fans stopped using their smartphones.”

“The reason for his mini freak-out? His performance had been made harder by members of the audience recording it, and he wanted his fans (the culprits) to relay this. “I don’t use social media,” he told them as they continued filming him with said smartphones, “but I’d really appreciate it if you did tweet, blog, hashtag the sh*t out of this one for me.””

“However, the actor also raised a question that has dogged the digerati ever since all these devices gave rise to what we now call “lifeblogging” or “self-documenting“: if we are constantly recording, uploading and sharing whatever we are experiencing, are we really experiencing it?”

“Mr. Cumberbatch said he wanted to give a life performance that his fans would remember “in your minds and brains” rather than on their phones. The protagonist of David Lynch’s film, Lost Highway, perhaps put it best when he said “I like to remember things my own way…not necessarily the way they happened.””

“Self-documenting is now so normal that our online self and our offline self can both feel equally real – two personas who go out each day and gather material to bolster one another. If you fail to Facebook or Instagram your evening out, you might as well have stayed in. Sure, we are acting like narcissistic stars of our own big-screen biopics, but if we did not digitally document our offline life, a very real part of our “self” might cease to exist.”

“The more rarefied the experience, the greater our need to document it.  To ban recording devices altogether is akin to banning spectacles – our phones have evolved into extensions of our minds.  If that causes Mr. Cumberbatch to freak out on stage, so be it.  At least, after centuries of debate, we now have a new reason why Hamlet cannot just get his act together and waste his uncle.””

food trucks


For years I had been (enviously) reading about the success of food trucks in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and Sydney while lamenting the fact that none existed in Paris.  And then a taco truck called The Cantine California rolled into town in 2012, right on the heels of a burger truck called Le Camion Qui Fume, owned by a California native.  And, as to be expected, these mobile kitchens were eyed with haughty sniffs of suspicion and disapproval by the natives here.  After all, France is a world leader in la gastronomie française.  Buy lunch from a truck and eat on the street with one’s hands??  Que le ciel nous en préserve !  (Heaven forbid!)

Let’s face it, the French are snobs, especially in terms of food.  But the good news is there’s a faction who are less snobbish because they’ve lived in London, New York, Montreal, Sydney and other cities.  This experience has made them far more receptive to new and different ideas.

These photos were taken yesterday during my lunch hour at La Défense, Europe’s largest business district on Paris’s west side.  The Esplanade de la Défense, the long walkway lined on either side by trees, apartments, restaurants and skyscrapers, is dedicated entirely to pedestrians which is why I like to go there.


Walking from my office at the Pont de Neuilly on this beautiful hot breezy day to the far end of La Défense, it was a pleasure to stop at the many shaded squares along the way and watch office colleagues playing boules (pétanque) on their lunch hour.  As if they were in a provençal village rather than this important business district that houses the headquarters of multinational giants such as TOTAL, EDF, Areva, Axa, GDF Suez and Société Générale, to name a few.

IMG_4914IMG_4916IMG_4918IMG_4919The further you walk towards La Grande Arche at the end of the Esplanade, the thicker and higher the buildings. But there’s still lots of open space.  And lots going on.IMG_4930


Many Europeans disparage La Défense and call it stark and soulless.  As a North American I’m used to shopping malls and skyscrapers, so I sort of feel at home here.

Here’s what I wrote in my 2013 blog post on the same topic – some people loathe La Défense because of its concrete slabs and dehumanizing uniformity. They say the place is devoid of charm or soul.  I happen to disagree.  I find a poetic expression in the design of the urban space here. I think the planners have done an excellent job in humanizing the concrete landscape with the presence of outdoor art installations, grassy squares and benches, fountains (one which vigorously splashes up and down in tune with classical music played loudly on speakers), whimsical sculptures, seasonal markets, a summer jazz festival, etc.

How to get there – take the central number 1 metro line to Esplanade de la Défense stop.  There are restaurants, shopping galore in the CNIT building or in the huge shopping mall called Les Quatre Temps complete with multiplex movie theater called the UGC Ciné Cité with 16 screens.  You can also take an elevator to the roof of La Grande Arche, the Danish-designed white cube, and look out at the stunning view.

Word of caution – I would avoid walking around this area after nightfall.