Eugene Atget was a late 19th and early 20th century photographer in Paris. He’s interesting to me because he captured scenes of the old city (winding cobblestone streets, small tradesmen, basic daily living) at a time when it was slowly being demolished and replaced with something new (grand boulevards, colossal department stores and the like). For all the reading I’ve done about that time period, these pictures bring the City of Light to life for me in an entirely different way, giving it a slower, sweeter pace than I’d find in an account of Haussmann’s reconstruction, a tale of the bloody Commune, or a glitzy recap about opening night at the Palais Garnier.
Atget’s technique was interesting to artists such as Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, all of whom championed his work. He took his pictures with a long exposure, which gave his snapshots an unusual depth. So in the shop window pictured above, you not only get the suits and the mannequins, but the reflection from the trees and buildings outside and a feel for the big new avenues that sliced through the city. The old was still there, if you looked for it. Atget looked for it, and preserved what he could. And as a nostalgia dork, I can appreciate that he tried to capture as much of the city’s vintage charms before they faded away.
I’ve never been a recreational shopper. I’d call myself more of a kamikaze shopper. I go in with a purpose, strike, then get out. When I was in France earlier this year conducting master’s thesis research, I arrived just in time for seasonal sales. So I was willing to relax my usual mercenary technique to engage in a little bit of what the French call “faire du leche-vitrines,” or window shopping. The French term translates literally as “window licking,” which I think is kind of cute in all its Gallic weirdness.
So imagine that you are licking windows and tempted to buy something you see, but your budget is limited. If a shop window says “soldes,” then walk in and poke around. But say “Bonjour” to the shopkeeper before you get down to business. Otherwise, you’re just being rude and, well, American.
“Soldes” means “sales” and they are a girl’s best friend, especially in a gorgeous boutique like Sandro (pictured above).
But here are three other variations on “soldes” that are worth noting. There are…1. Super Soldes and Soldes Massifs — This is the one-two punch of soldesmanship. It says the sale you are about to witness is above and beyond the scope of sales you’ve seen today. It is superheroic. It is epic. You should walk through the door, say “Bonjour” and partake. You won’t be sorry.
2. Destockage Massif — The “everything must go” of France, with prices so low, you can afford that extra bottle of Sancerre! ‘Tis a pity that Jacques Genin didn’t offer a “destockage massif” of its renowned caramels…
See these? These are macaron cookies from Laduree in Paris. Laduree was founded 150 years ago during a massive economic boom that transformed the city. It became known as a tea room where ladies could visit with each other (sans male companions) without being considered, as Edith Piaf once put it in the song “Milord,” ombres de la rue (translated: shadows of the street, or prostitutes). The folks at Laduree didn’t make macarons in those days, but by the twentieth century they had this bright idea that maybe they could take light-as-air cookies that had been around for centuries and sandwich them together with a thin layer of ganache.
It was a good idea and it became the way to make macarons. Just ask any fashionista who has been in Paris for Fashion Week, or any Franco-geek like me who has attempted to recreate them Stateside after having religious experiences with boxes like the one pictured above. The cookies are delicate, not overly sweet, and a bit of a scientific marvel, if you ask me. On the face of it, macarons should be easy to make. They have few ingredients and their recipes are fairly straightforward. How hard can it be? Well, even he admits it’s not so simple, that making picture-perfect macarons is more about technique than it is following a recipe. After reading his The Sweet Life in Paris and staring at the very technical Les Petits Macarons, I decided to venture into this pastel land of no return, hoping that something edible might result from my efforts. The method to my madness: Use Lebovitz’s chocolate macaron recipe (because who hates chocolate?) and refer to Les Petits Macarons in case of trouble (which was sure to come).
Here’s what happened:
I had coffee with my academic advisor yesterday. He told me I looked composed and (believe it or not) relaxed. He also told me this post was “weird” because no one was trying to “get” me, or drag me back for a PhD against my will. I told him it was an ill-conceived joke, just me making fun of my inability to read anything off-topic. And then I told him that I surprised myself when I rewrote the bio for this web site. In an effort to keep myself honest, focused and real in my writing pursuits, I discovered that nothing looks the same, or feels the same, at least bio-wise. He said I needed more time. I told him I don’t wait well.
By the time we had finished our wide-ranging conversation, three hours had elapsed.
And three days after I went through the exercise of “rebranding” myself (or so to speak), I still haven’t posted my effort here. What gives?
A few weeks ago, I finished reading A Wrinkle in Time with my daughter. I didn’t really understand Wrinkle when I read it as a child and certainly wouldn’t have recommended it to any of my friends because fantasy was so not my cup of tea. As an adult, I found myself on the verge of
Two weeks removed from graduate school, it is clear to me how they lure you back for things like PhDs. I’ve grumbled in prior posts like this one about all the things I hope to read once I can make my own reading choices. But the thing is: I’m still mostly reading about France, even though various social media connections equipped me with a lengthy list of books to try once I emerged from my tricolor hangover.
There are worse problems to have. After all, I really do like France, perhaps even more than before. So right now, I think I’ll start using this oft-neglected space to talk about some of the books I’m reading, my limitless Francophilia and whatever else seems to make sense.
Here goes nothing.
The first book I read after successfully defending my master’s thesis was David Lebovitz‘s The Sweet Life in Paris. Lebovitz, a cookbook author and former pastry chef at the famed restaurant Chez Panisse, moved to Paris after his partner’s death. Sweet Life is, in part, his memoir of starting over, but also a hilariously funny account of life the City of Light. Whether he’s grappling with French painters, dressing up to take out the trash or mastering the Gallic art of cutting in line, Lebovitz shows readers that his days don’t begin with a croissant and a copy of Le Monde and don’t end in a heated discussion about Sartre in the Latin Quarter. If anything, Lebovitz finds that life in Paris involves illogical rules, apathetic shopkeepers, unfathomable rudeness and maddening bureaucracy at almost every turn. His anecdote about returning a cell phone charger to Darty, the French equivalent of Best Buy, is one of the best in the book (in part because I experienced something similar in quite possibly the same exact store this past January). And, his various observations about strikes, waiting in line, opening bank accounts and getting help from the locals are laugh out loud funny, in large part because they are not at all mean-spirited. Lebovitz loves and accepts his adopted city, warts and all, and manages to see it through rose-colored glasses:
If you’ve ever walked through Paris at night, you can’t help noticing that its beauty is magnified in the darkness; lights glow softly everywhere and frame the centuries-old buildings and monuments in spectacular ways. I remember that evening breathing in the damp air rising off the Seine, watching the Bateaux Parisiens gliding on the river, loaded with awestruck tourists, and illuminating the monuments in their wake, their dramatic light hitting a building for just a few moments before moving on to the next.
My one incredibly small (teensy, almost invisible, and totally nerdy) quibble with this book is
Taken at the Palais Garnier in January 2012.