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Monday, February 16, 2009

Saturday Nite Loft

In August last year Max and I were asked to "loft sit" for a colleague. See The Other Side of the Tracks. We almost didn't but something told us to give it a go and we had a ball pretending that we lived like trendy well off people in the centre of Lille with a view of the town hall from our gorgeous terrace. Last Saturday evening, Valentine's Day, we were invited to the official housewarming and again, when the day dawned, we were in two minds as to whether we really wanted to go. Neither of us is a party animal and making conversation is difficult enough in English when you are struggling to make yourself heard, so doing the same in French with a partner who is not the most outgoing person, was going to be a challenge indeed.

We left the decision open and dealt with other pressing matters such as a discussion about having Valentine's presents sent half way round the world at additional FedEx cost and other associated topics. We had decided on a homemade housewarming present; what else do you give people whose income and lifestyle doesn't require our interpretation of the taste they should or do have? They had adored the loaf of bread Max left awaiting their return before so we repeated the gesture albeit adorned with ever essential tea-towel (Habitat) wrapped in transparent cellophane and tied with a bow. Good tea-towels, it seems, are not easy to find. Let me expand on that. Expensive tea-towels are to be found in obvious places such as the homewares floor at Printemps, where a piece of cloth bore the unlikely tag 9€! We came to the conclusion that the well to do probably do their tea-towel shopping on dedicated weekends away in Paris. We settled for a pack of three from Habitat for 12€.

Armed with baked loaf, and tea-towels at the ready, we felt almost obliged to show our faces so agreed that we didn't have to stay all evening but would make an effort. Well surprise, surprise! We actually quite enjoyed ourselves and I am only disappointed that I have no photos of the evening to share. Of course we were familiar with the layout of the accommodation, probably more so than most of the 100 or so guests. The English speaking teachers we had been promised had not materialised and so we were introduced to various others but soon found ourselves standing to one side wallflower like, clutching flutes of champagne. The party goers were probably in their forties on average though the hostess's mother, who was in charge of the excellent catering, was a magnificent and youthful 75!

It wasn't long before word of my exoticism had spread and we were comparing notes on a piece of modern art with a charming smiling man and his pleasant wife. Can't you see the elephant, he grinned? Then a man, Edric, whose parentage was half Belgian and half French who had spent much time in England and now teaches engineering at Lille university, struck up a conversation with us. When someone is as competent at another language one can only be awestruck and jealous in equal combination. My mother is a little like that, having lived in the UK for all of her adult life very few people know of her origins nor suspect that english is not her native tongue. That is apart from one or two expressions and pronunciations such as, inexplicably, the word ladder, that continue to evade her.

The music was suddenly turned up and almost instantaneously the piste de danse was filled with couples dancing joyously. But they weren't just doing the usual party jig a jig, the wedding reception shuffle nor Dad dancing: they were Ceroc-ing - of that I am totally convinced. I've never seen such rhythm and ability at any UK social gathering and was transfixed at the sight. My research tells me that the word Ceroc comes from the French "c'est rock". How very appropriate. Of course the inevitable downside was that us merer mortals were clinging to the walls at the very thought of being dragged onto the dancefloor! The fear soon dissipated as more improvised and standard wiggling took over. Good heavens! I even managed to persuade Max to dance! He of course "doesn't dance", "doesn't sing" and "doesn't cry"- all of which I adore to do. I assured him that he would look sillier just standing looking at the dancers rather than joining them. Photo courtesy of Ceroc London's gallery.

Was it really midnight already? A few people had departed but the party was still swinging though we had had the best of it and, as the fashionably late appeared with, no doubt, expensive gifts having had other engagements earlier in the evening, we gathered up our coats, thanked our hostess for a fab time, and let ourselves out into the chilly nocturnal Lille.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

94: An ecumenical weekend

With the rain lashing down outside and high winds blowing across the north of France, it is good to remember our recent long weekend in Paris, when, for the most part, the sun shone brightly, the sky was blue and the air was crisp. We did awake to maybe 1cm of snow on the Monday morning, but that was soon washed away by the rain which fell all afternoon.

We ventured into the French capital on the day of the "general" strike. Foolhardy maybe, and Max's auto negative was in full twitch describing scenarios, which, though possible, were unlikely. In the event our train was indeed cancelled but the tickets were valid for any train that day and we found seats easily enough on the scheduled service just 30 minutes later than planned. Ironic then that this very train broke down just 500m outside Lille Flandres! After a short delay it moved again albeit slowly before coming to rest a hop and a skip away from the end of our road. I busied myself with the free newspapers and hoped the problem would go away and within 20 minutes, even on strike day, the engineers had sorted out the problem and off we went. On arrival in Paris our lengthiest delay was in the queue for Métro tickets, otherwise both our trains arrived just as we did on the platform. It is still well worth buying a carnet for getting around in Paris. Individually tickets cost around 1,60€ but in tens they are about 1,10€ each. There is also a daily ticket called a Mobilis which costs 5,80€ for zones 1-2 ie good enough for seeing the whole of Paris intramuros.

Our first chore as ever was a trip to Carrefour Auteuil where we stocked up on provisions though bizarrely there were no standard baguettes available. Call the pain police! It's an interesting branch of this international chain, just a short walk along Boulevard Exelmans and a cut through towards Le Parc Des Princes and there it lies disguised beneath a covering of green and pressed hard against the périphérique.

Thursday night - yay!!!! Well more like - nay!!! We are not big on going out but instead enjoyed a whimsical movie on DVD starring the currently ubiquitous Kate Winslett and a very enjoyable performance from Cameron Diaz. "The Holiday" worth taking a gentle and entertaining peek.

We were up and out relatively early on Friday. The capital was glorious just as it always is. Our route took us through Auteuil, past Radio France, along the Seine and across Place de La Concorde then through La Madeleine. We found a great little sandwich place for lunch, Planetalis in rue Godot de Mauroy. I discovered afterwards that it is part of a small chain but it gave the impression of being a one-off and the veggie sandwich with aubergine I had was delicious.

Being the end of the sales we just had to check out Galeries Lafayette and Printemps if only to see what was on offer for Max's work gear. Bit disappointing really and nothing like the bargains available in the UK. We did come away with a good work shirt though. We still hadn't taken any public transport and had walked for kms but we were a little early for our appointment with Tatie who was treating us to dinner so, we kept on walking!

Goodness 30th January already and we hadn't presented our voeux properly so it was just as well that we had time to find some flowers and a bottle of champagne. All was well! Dinner at the Royal Péreire was a simple affair with my salmon filet with rice being exactly that, fish with rice, not a drop of sauce and nary a garnish to be seen let alone a side order of lemon! Still it was beautifully cooked. We took the bus to the Gare du Nord to meet Rachel who was arriving on Eurostar for her very first visit to the City of Light. What a privilege to be able to show a rookie around Paree with every confidence that she would absolutely adore it!

Saturday morning we checked out the market in Auteuil - a tradition for Rachel to take photos of food markets when abroad - then an antiques/bric a brac fair before retracing our steps along the Seine showing Rachel the sights or rather taking her to them, or past them. A closer look at the Tour Eiffel, magically isible from the flat, then to Place Vendôme but our new favourite sandwich place was closed so, having admired the fabulous stained glass dome at Galeries Lafayette we ate lunch in their café with a view over Opéra Garnier. It was excellent value given the quality of the food and the location. Well worth considering making the effort to go up one more floor for great free views over the rooftops.

We decided against doing the tour of the Opera House as it was 8€ and we were all on an economy drive, but, thanks to Rachel's research, we did enjoy a couple of the original shopping arcades at Galerie Vivienne and then Passage du Grand Cerf. Then we walked around the Centre Pompidou-Beaubourg before arriving at Notre Dame where we mingled with the crowds, avoided a slide show but lit candle. It's an iconic location and although a little touristy, is still worth a visit. Less well known was our next port of call: the simple but deeply moving memorial that is hidden away at the end of the Ile de la Cité - a memorial to the 200,000 people deported from Vichy France to the Nazi concentration camps, the Mémorial de la Déportation.

We deserved our ice cream and hot chocolate served at Berthillon on Ile St Louis. We all swooned over the Carmel au beurre salé and my Agenaise was delightful too, a combination of prunes and Armagnac. I have to confess though that the Tarte au Citron à la Coriandre was either too subtle for my tastebuds or perhaps the coriander was just not sufficiently in evidence!

We had time for a visit to view the facade of the Institut du Monde Arabe admiring the intricacies of the glass facade and a quick razz around the bookshop where we found some great cards, before finally conceding defeat and blistered feet and Métroing back to the flat for dinner and a DVD viewing of "La Mome Piaf" - where else could it be more appropriately viewed? We had walked for kms.

Sunday, wasting no time in getting out and about again, we gave in to our aching limbs and bought a Mobilis ticket. We were soon admiring the stunning Place des Vosges, which, at some 400 years old, is the oldest square in Paris! Rachel was keen to see some of the Jewish quarter in the Marais and the shops in rue des Rosiers didn't disappoint. Next time we will stop for falafel or coffee and cakes. Then we queued in the bitterly cold wind to get through the heavy security at the memorial to the Holocaust, Le Mémorial de la Shoah in rue Geoffroy L'Asnier. Once through we found ourselves dwarfed by the Wall of Names: the names of 76,000 jews deported from France as part of the Nazi plan to annihilate Jews in Europe are engraved on several immense stone blocks. Only about 2,500 survived the camps. A small sign advised visitors to allow at least an hour for their visit. I imagined that the collection might still be quite small since the memorial was only opened four years ago. We emerged an hour or so later knowing that it would have easy to have spent the entire day, but that an hour was about as long as anyone could bear.

It was the 1st February and the first Sunday of the month, so many monuments and museums were FREE! We took advantage of the date and introduced Rachel to La Sainte-Chapelle , built for Louis IX in the 13th century, with its superb stained glass windows. Then, via the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf to the Louvre, (also free) entering via the pyramid and making straight for La Giocanda, Monna Lisa or the Mona Lisa. Take your pick. I doubt that Leonardo Da Vinci imagined for a moment five hundred years ago that there would be so many people straining with their digital cameras to capture the image of this small painting! We gave the Louvre café a miss and found a more reasonably priced establishment with more choice at - Aux Pains Perdu - on the rue Royale.

We had fancied the Musee D'Orsay a museum which saw a previous life as a railway station well before Tate Modern was conceived and another freebie to boot! Sadly for us, the biting wind hadn't put off the hardy crowds who waited patiently in line to get in to the Manet/Picasso exhibition. Changing our plans quickly, we hopped onto the RER part way to Place Charles de Gaulle/Etoile but soon realised we were going the wrong way! Soon rectified we emerged at Champ de Mars/Eiffel Tower which intersects with Métro station Bir-Hakeim. That prompts me to look up Bir-Hakeim, which turns out to be a battle in Libya during WW2. We must have been more exhausted than we realised because we promptly found ourselves going in the wrong direction once again, this time on the Métro! Emerging eventually from the labyrinth which is the exit from the Métro station at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe (another freebie), we just had to climb the 284 steps to the top... did we? Well, yes we did because although Max has been to the top before it was when he was a child so he didn't really remember but neither Rachel nor I had seen the view from the top. I say climbed pointedly because halfway up I felt barely able to stand! Yes, it was tough getting to the summit, and blimmin' cold, painfully cold in fact, but worth it. The view down the Avenue des Champs Elysées and the eleven - count 'em - other grand boulevards that radiate from its base was worth every painful step!

Thought just a walk away we were determined to make full use of our all day Mobilis cards and so took the bus to Tatie's where we would introduce Rachel and enjoy un apéro together. Were we finished for the day? No siree bob! We still had the Pigalle and Montmartre to taken in. Thank goodness for the funicular railway and Mobilis again! Montmartre was quiet and cold, far from the bustling tourist magnet it becomes when the weather is warmer and the restaurants spill noisily out into the Place du Tertre and the quick sketch or silhouettes artists plying their trade are a reminder of earlier residents and their cold garret studios. We couldn't not "do" the Sacre Coeur, so despised for so long after it was built to dominate the Parisian skyline, nor the terrace from which the city of lights is best viewed after dark as it spreads out beneath you and twinkles enticingly.

We took in the Champs Elysees on the way back to the flat and wondered how anyone could ever compare that thoroughfare with Oxford Street?!

Rachel left early on Monday morning insisting that she would be able to find Gare du Nord herself. We equally insisted that Max would go with her to be sure! We pressed an omelette sandwich on her - thankfully as the Eurostar was 3 hours late: snow in Northern France and SE England. It was La Chandleur or Candlemas, when the French traditionally eat pancakes, but our shop bought crêpes were dry and unappetising. We were rather fortunate as our next door neighbour back in Lille rang us to say she had made some and we were to promise to call by when we arrived home.

In the meantime Max and I only added a visit to FNAC to our list of achievements for the weekend and then enjoyed the bottle of champagne that Rachel had kindly arranged for Tatie and Henri. A fitting end to our exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable economical/ecumenical weekend.