Monday, October 31, 2011

Bad-Mouthing Paris: Eight Things I Don't Like

For the last two months you’ve heard me go on (and on) about how beautiful and interesting and quirky Paris is.  Do I think I’ve died and gone to heaven?  Well, no.  There are at least eight things I don’t like about Paris, and that’s what this entry is about.

1)  Paris is expensive. It’s a challenge to spend less than 30 euros for lunch for two people, and 30 euros equals about $42.  We limited our restaurant meals to one per day, usually lunch.  We ate cereal and yogurt at our apartment for breakfast and usually had bread, cheese, and fruit in the evenings.  Sometimes we bought a rotisserie chicken and vegetables at a market and had that instead of a restaurant lunch.
Having said that, it’s very easy and reasonable to buy delicious bread in Paris.  And, if you don’t mind being without a car, transportation is reasonably priced.  Health care costs are also reasonable.  Our French teacher cut her finger while in the U.S., and had to have a few stitches.  She went to a clinic in Germany to have the stitches removed, and they charged her 16 euros (about $23).  Unfortunately, they overlooked one stitch, and it began to get infected.  When she returned to Paris, her mother’s doctor made a house call to remove the offending stitch, and charged her only 33 euros (about $47).  And these are the charges for a non-resident.  I’ve known people in the United States who removed their own stitches because they couldn’t afford to go to a doctor.

2)  Cobblestones Sure they’re beautiful and atmospheric, but they’re also a twisted ankle waiting to happen.  Cobblestones are treacherous for anyone on horseback, on a bicycle, or wearing fashionable shoes.  Plus they’re painful to walk on.  After a short period of time walking on cobblestones, your feet hurt and your legs and hips ache.  
Hey, Paris, have you ever considered asphalt?  I know it’s not beautiful, in fact, it’s downright ugly, but it’s safe and it’s forgiving to walk on.  Sometimes aesthetics are out-weighed by safety and comfort.

3)  Pigeons To re-punctuate Gertrude Stein, “Pigeons on the grass - Alas.”  Alas, indeed!  There are way too many pigeons in Paris.  They swarm in parks and around cafes.  I’ve even seen them walking inside cafes.  They swoop down toward you within inches of your face.  Once in a park I looked down to see bird shit on my shirt.  I can’t swear that a pigeon was responsible, but given the ratio of pigeons to other birds, it seems extremely likely. 
4)  The Métro is a great way to get around, but it can be crowded, hot, and smelly.  I realize this is true of any large city, but that doesn’t make it easier to tolerate when you’re tired after a long day of sightseeing.

5)  The streets are filthy by the end of the day.  There are plenty of trash receptacles, but a large number of people seem to ignore them.  Once, in a residential area, a rat ran across my path.  On the other hand, a large percentage of workers are civil servants, and apparently a large percentage of them work in public sanitation.  In the morning you wake up to clean streets, and city workers are washing down the gutters.  

6)  The city can be too crowded and noisy, especially tourist areas and central gathering points like  Place de la République or Place de la Bastille.  However, Paris has a huge number of parks and quiet courtyards and passages, so if the crowds and noise are beginning to bother you, it’s not difficult to find a quiet uncongested area nearby.
7)  The beggars in Paris seem to be more pathetic and desperate than panhandlers in American cities.  Many of them have babies or dogs.  This trip I saw one beggar with a rabbit and one with a chicken!  Once on the Métro I saw a woman, perhaps a gypsy, wearing a long dress.  One of her legs appeared to be at a right angle to the other.  She was walking the aisles of the train barefoot, asking for money.    American politicians are always talking disdainfully about France as a socialist country.  What happened to the social safety net?
Nevertheless, I didn’t notice as many beggars kneeling submissively on the sidewalks or Métro walkways as I had in past visits.
8)  And finally, the city seems to be designed only for the able-bodied.  I saw very few people in wheelchairs and the Métro would probably be impossible to navigate in a wheelchair.  I remember only a couple of restaurants whose restrooms were on the ground floor.  The typical restroom is either up or down a narrow, winding, poorly lit stairway without handrails.  
Having made these complaints, do I recommend Paris as a vacation destination?  Of course.  Just don’t expect everything to be exactly like it is in the U.S.  Expect to be annoyed occasionally, but also expect to be wonderstruck at the beauty, fascinated by the history, and amused by the quirkiness of the city.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Back Door of Balzac's House

We had two items of unfinished business for our last day in Paris.  First was to see the back door of Balzac's house.  Balzac was a prodigious writer, but apparently had some money management problems because he was besieged by creditors.  He rented his house (now the Balzac museum) under an alias and had a secret password for visitors.  The house is built into a hill, with the front door at the top of the hill and the back door at the bottom.  When creditors did manage to track Balzac down, he sneaked out the back door.  The back door faces Rue Berton, a charming cobblestoned street.  Today it is hemmed in by the Turkish embassy.

The last thing on our To-Do list was to see the apiary at Luxembourg Gardens.  It's connected with a school that teaches people how to manage apiaries.

Today's cheese:  None

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gustave Moreau Museum

Our first destination today was Passage Brady, a 2-block long passage filled with inexpensive Indian restaurants.  As you walked past, the restaurant employees gave you a sales pitch to get you to eat at their restaurants.  It actually convinced me that I didn't want to eat at an Indian restaurant today.

After lunch at a café, we went to the Gustave Moreau museum.  Moreau was a symbolist painter who created his own museum.  He lived on the first floor of the building in small rooms crowded with paintings and bric-a-brac.  The top two floors are large and well-lit to show off his dark paintings to their best advantage.  They are connected by a graceful spiral staircase.

Many of the Paris beggars have animals, usually dogs or cats, which presumably increase contributions.  Apparently not everybody approves of this (and I'm one of those who doesn't approve).  Near the Moreau Museum we saw this sign stenciled on the sidewalk.

"Animal Beggar - Animal Slave."

Today's Cheese:  Comté

Friday, October 28, 2011

Arago Plaques

The French seem to give more recognition to their scientists and intellectuals than Americans do.  François Arago was an astronomer and politician who worked on the project to complete the meridian arc.  His statue was re-smelted by the Germans when they occupied Paris, so in 1987 the City of Paris decided to create a new monument to Arago.  This monument took the form of 135 4.7 inch bronze medallions placed along the 12 kilometer north-south meridian (so-called Rose Line) of Paris.  Today we found five of them.  They all look exactly alike, so I'll show you only one.

Here's the kind of restaurant we don't go to.  The menu is from l'Arpege, reportedly the most expensive restaurant in Paris.  The autumn menu is 120 euros.

And last, La Pagode is a Japanese pagoda built in 1896 as a gift from the owner of Bon Marché department store to his wife.  It's completely out of character with the surrounding traditional Haussmann style buildings. It was saved from demolition in 1970 and is now used as a movie theater.  It's a tall building with a wall and lots of trees nearby and lots of restoration work going on in the roof area, so it's very difficult to take a photo that captures its character.  Here's a picture of the ornate exterior wall.

Today's cheese:  None

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fountain Project Completed

Today we finished up the project of seeing some of the most interesting Paris fountains.  We saw the Fountain of the Four Seasons on Rue de Grenelle.  It's huge and imposing.  I wasn't able to get them in the picture, but on the sides of the fountain are 4 very pretty sculptures of cherubs performing the work of each season.

The final fountain was Fontaine du Fellah, which depicts an Egyptian worker.  It's on Rue de Sevres and was built in 1806 to commemorate Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign.

Then it was on to Belleville where we saw the building where Edith Piaf was born.  As you can see, there's a historical marker above the door.

Because we'll be going home soon, we treated ourselves to another lunch at La Boulangerie, the Belleville restaurant we enjoyed so much a couple of weeks ago.  We were not disappointed.  I had roast veal with lentils and Bill had duck and pureed parsnips.

We recently realized that when we went to the Carnavalet Museum (the Museum of Paris) several weeks ago, we had neglected to see Marcel Proust's bedroom.  It looks to me like he should have replaced the mattress and had some of the furniture reupholstered.

We had also neglected to photograph the beautiful Art Nouveau jewelry shop of Georges Fouquet.

Today's cheeses:  Salers Tradition 2009, Brie de Melun, and Coeur Camembert Calvados

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Today was a great day for fountains.  First we found the dragon fountain near Gare d'Austerlitz.  It seems to rise out of and then descend back into the pavement of Place Augusta Holmes.  It's an artwork rather than a drinking fountain.

In Jardin de Reuilly there's a fountain that dispenses both chilled and sparkling waters.  Only in France!  It's built into a gardening shed.

And we found the two remaining types of Wallace fountains.    Sir Richard Wallace was a philanthropist who financed the construction of a large number of cast iron drinking fountains that have become a symbol of the city of Paris.  This happened in the 1870's when Paris was rebuilding after the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune episode.  He developed four models of the drinking fountains.  Today, 67 large model fountains, 9 small model fountains, 2 colonnaded fountains, and one applied model remain.  You'll remember that I've already showed you photos of the large model Wallace fountain and the applied model Wallace fountain.  On the Promenade Plantée we saw two of the small model Wallace fountains.

And in Place Pierre Demours, we saw one of the two remaining colonnaded Wallace fountains.

My lunch today was a duck breast salad with mushrooms and pears.  Very tasty!

Today's cheese:  None

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Parc Montsouris and Rue Mouffetard Neighborhoods

Today we saw another very charming Paris neighborhood, this one near Parc Montsouris in the southern part of the city.  Every time I see one of these neighborhoods I change my mind about where I would live if I could afford to live anywhere in Paris.

Next on the list was Cité Fleurie, a development of about 30 studios and living quarters for artists.  Some very famous artists have lived and worked here, including Gauguin and Modigliani.

From Cité Fleurie, we went to Rue Mouffetard, a very popular market street.  One of the fromageries is in a beautiful building.

St-Medard is the church for the Rue Mouffetard neighborhood.  In 1727 a Jansenist deacon with a saintly reputation died and was buried in the St-Medard cemetery.  This attracted sick Jansenists to flock to the area with claims of miraculous cures and led to scenes of massive hysteria.  In 1732 Louis XV decreed an end to the demonstrations and a sign was installed which said:  " By order of the King, let God perform no miracles in this place."

Today's cheeses:  Beaufort d'Alpage, Cantal Entre-Deux, and Roquefort Coulet, 14 months

Monday, October 24, 2011

Beginning of the Last Week in Paris

We return home a week from today, so are trying to finish up the things on our "To Do" list.  I had seen lots of the grafitti by Invader, but hadn't yet photographed it.  He's been installing tile pictures of characters from "Space Invaders" and other 70's video games in Paris and many other cities throughout the world since the mid 1990's.  He was featured in the movie "Exit Through the Gift Shop."  We came across 2 of his works today.  This one was near the Alésia Métro stop.

We haven't eaten any onion soup yet, so today was the day for that.  We've read that onion soup is targeted toward tourists rather than regular French people, and it's true that it seems to be found in restaurants which offer an English translation of their menus. Nevertheless, we had some for lunch.  It was good, but not as good as the version my daughter-in-law makes.

Yesterday we saw a large model version of a Wallace fountain, so today we looked for an "applied" model.  We found the only remaining one near the Jardin des Plantes.  These fountains formerly had attached cups, but in the 1950's the cups were removed for hygienic reasons.

We've noticed the almond shaped candies below in candy shops, and decided to try them today.  They're from Aix-en-Provence and they're called calissons.  They're a paste of candied fruit (especially melons and oranges) and almonds, topped with a thin layer of royal icing.  They're said to protect you from the plague, so I guess they can be considered preventive medicine.  They're okay, but not addictive.

Today's cheese:  None.


Butte-aux-Cailles, in southeastern Paris, is a traditionally left-leaning neighborhood that has a bit of a village feel.  Mixed in with modern apartment buildings are small houses that look like they could be in a village miles away from Paris.

There's lots of grafitti art in the neighborhood, particularly by the artist Miss-Tic.

We saw a Wallace fountain in the neighborhood.  These drinking fountains were installed in the late 1800's and provided potable water to the poor.  They still do that, being an important resource for the homeless.  They are also appreciated by thirsty tourists.

Today's cheeses:  Comté, Tomme fermiére, Tomme de chevre, Mont d'Or

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Provins is a town about 50 miles southeast of Paris which, due to the vagaries of history, has managed to maintain much of its medieval architecture.  In fact, it's a UNESCO heritage site.  We took the train there today.

A large part of the 13th century rampart is still standing.  It has narrow slits out of which you can shoot arrows without exposing yourself to the enemy.

They also have half-timbered houses.

Caesar's Tower, built in the twelfth century, has been used as a prison, watch tower, and bell tower.

It has extremely narrow steep steps and picturesquely thatched roofed turrets.

Even the more modern part of town is picturesque.

Today's cheese:  None because by the time we got back to Paris the fromageries were closed.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nissim Camondo Museum

Moïse de Camondo was a wealthy banker who lived from 1860 to 1935, but had a fondness for 18th century buildings, art, and furnishing.  He amassed an impressive collection of 18th century furniture and art, and built a large 18th century style house on Rue Monceau to house these treasures.  He had enough sense to forgo an 18th century style bathroom and kitchen.  Those rooms have the early 20th century amenities.

His life contained a series of tragedies.  His marriage failed when his wife ran off with the horse trainer.  His beloved son Nissim, a pilot, died in combat in World War I.  Because his daughter Beatrice had little interest in his collection, he bequeathed it and the house to France as a memorial to Nissim.  Although the family was Jewish, Beatrice thought her French citizenship would protect her and her family from the Nazis and remained in France after the German invasion.  Less than 10 years after Moïse's death, Beatrice, her husband, and her two children were deported to Auschwitz where they died.

Today's Cheeses:  Coulommiers, Maroilles fermier, and Vieux Berger Roquefort