May 20th, 2011

travel

Paris, Paris, Paris, France, France, France

On my bathroom door in Somerville, I had a poster of Eloise in Paris, (of Plaza Hotel fame), sail-bellied and sassy.  Which is just how I feel right now.  We're in Belleville, on the Avenue Menilmontant, with a Friday market right outside, well-supplied with bright-eyed fish, tomatoes the size of a small dog, rhubarb, strawberries and cherries like rubies and garnets, three completely different kinds of artichokes (I bought the purple ones, because . . . purple artichokes!) and tome de brebis, which I can never find in NYC, and love beyond all reason.  We brought it home and ate it up, yum, yum.  And then we fell over, because the jet-lag isn't easy either way, even when I've had plenty of sleep, which I had.  And then, we met up with a friend at a place called Le cent-quatre (104), near the Canal St. Martin, in the 18eme.

It's a truly remarkable part of Paris, one I haven't spent much time in before.  Traditionally, it is working-class and immigrant, which now means mostly African and Arab.  There's also a large Sephardic Jewish population, as well as 20-somethings and artists hanging on by their fingernails in a city where the rents (when you can even find something to rent) are (as in every other big city on earth) getting more expensive by the day.  Le cent-quartre is a community and art center occupying what used to be a state funeral home, built in the 19th century on the theory that even the poor should be able to have proper pompes funebres.  It's huge, all red brick and white limestone and interconnected courtyards, and it houses (among other things) a community education center and classes in everything from hip-hop to literature.  Currently, it's playing host to a carousel, which is one of the coolest things ever I've seen.  It's like nothing else on earth, except the Elephant in the Ile de Nantes, which makes sense, seeing as it was made from the same workshop.

Unlike most carousels, this one is square, and steampunky as all get out, with mechanical bison and elephants and frogs and anatomically-correct bugs to ride on.  And not only can you ride on them, you can move their wings/trunks/legs/mouthparts with levers.   Unhappily, it's only open weekends and Wednesdays, so we did not ride on it or see it working.  But we did get to ogle the animals, unimpeded by small children and gawkers.  And we can come back on Sunday for the Full Experience, so that's all right.

The weather, which had been all cotton-woolly and lowering, cleared into a beautiful spring evening.  We sat with our friend in a peniche (a house-boat, only this one was a bar) called Antipode and watched some young and old guys playing boules together and caught up on our various lives, then went to Tables, a wonderful restaurant in the 104, where the chef was ambitious, the decor was industrial, and the food was ambrosial.  The most remarkable dish was foie gras shaved into very thin slices and sprinkled with vinegar and olive oil, but my fish was excellent, too.  Ellen and I shared dessert--green tea mousse, sour cherry compote, and a bit of cake soaked in coffee at the bottom.  Yum.

Now we're back in our friend's apartment, typing away to the hum of conversation and the clink of cutlery from the restaurant downstairs, which probably won't be as charming when we're ready to go to bed, but that won't be for some time yet.  Because, hey, it's only 6pm at home, and we're not even vaguely acclimated yet.  I don't mind--I spent the part of last night when I couldn't sleep working out the plot of a Dickensian/Trollopean Victorian short story with wizards and political intrigue, and am anxious to get it started. 

I'm very glad to be here.