Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Paris Past

In Paris, a walk around the block can take you back centuries. A chance encounter can make history come alive. This is especially true in the Marais, which is filled with magnificent hôtels particuliers built in the 16th and 17th centuries as private in-town mansions for the rich and famous.

Recently, I was photographing the beautiful Louis XV portal of the Hôtel D'Alméras when a man stopped and said: "Ah, Madame, you are so right to photograph those doors. They are a treasure and one that we French almost lost." An elderly man, he was dressed in a finely-tailored topcoat with a cashmere scarf round stylishly around his neck. We'll call him Monsieur D.

It was in 1682, about 70 years after the construction of the Hôtel d'Alméras, that the Marais began to lose its cachet when Louis XIV officially moved the Royal Court about 10 miles southwest of Paris to Versailles. Anyone who was anyone followed the Court, and the elegant Marais began its slow decline. Factories took over the once sumptuous mansions and, one by one, many of the magnificent hôtels were demolished.
In the 19th century, when Jews were granted the full rights of French citizenship after the Revolution, the Marais became a center of Jewish life. All that, however, came to a brutal end in 1941-42 when French Jews were deported to concentration camps. After the war, according to Monsieur D., the City of Paris wanted to raze the entire Marais and rebuilt it with modern high-rise structures.

"Aux barricades, les citoyens!" Members of historical groups, architects and ordinary citizens decided to protest and by 1962, the voice of the people prevailed. The Marais was declared the first "protected sector" under a new French law to safeguard a national heritage. Monsieur D. recounted all this as we walked along past several beautiful restored hôtels.

Monsieur D. lives in a hôtel particulier that he purchased and restored more than 35 years ago. "Now the City of Paris lauds the Marais as one of its national treasures," he said, "but when I was trying to buy my building, they made it very difficult for me. They just wanted to tear everything down." When he bought it, his hôtel was in ruins, but being an architect, he saw the potential. "Even my friends said I was out of my mind, but I knew it could be something beautiful. It is right up the street. Would you like to see it?"

Monsieur D. very courteously extended his arm and a moment later, we stood in front of two beautifully-carved wooden doors. He opened one of them to reveal an entryway leading to an interior courtyard. Behind a protected garden where primrose bloomed even in the cold of winter stood his beautiful classic French hôtel. Bird song filled the air and the sounds of the busy street seemed far away.

Standing in the garden, Monsieur D talked about today's Marais, a thriving area filled with fashionable stores, restaurants and bars. Little by little, however, he slipped back into the past - his children, his work, his father. A high-placed French government official during the Second World War, his father opposed the Nazis. As a result, he was imprisoned in France for three years and then handed over to the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. He survived and after the war, he returned to government service.

Monsieur D. now lives alone and like any courtier of times past, he would not think of inviting an unaccompanied woman into his house. Instead, taking my hand he said: "I will keep you no longer. It has been a pleasure, madame. I wish you a good evening.

The next day brought a visit to the Cognacq-Jay Museum. Like many of the Museums of the City of Paris, it has free entry to its permanent collections. If you come to Paris in high tourist season, these city museums can be a welcome respite from the crowds. The Cognacq-Jay is housed in one of the most magnificently-restored hôtels of the Marais - the Hôtel Donon and it seemed fitting to visit it after the encounter with Monsieur D. Built in 1575, the hôtel has been restored to its former glory by the City of Paris. Its purpose, its brochure states, is to "recreate the refinement prevailing in a Parisian mansion in the Age of Enlightenment." Although he is of a later century, it is easy to imagine Monsieur D. quite at home in its elegant and refined surroundings.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor
To view more photos, click here

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Prévert/Pré Verre

This week, I went with my friend Marcelle to two very different places with the same name or at least names that are pronounced the same. First at the Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall), I saw an exhibit on the poet Jacques Prévert. The second was a restaurant called the Pré Verre. I recommend them both.

One of France's most popular poets of the 20th century, Jacques Prévert was also a lyricist, a screen writer and later in life, a collage artist. Even if you have never heard Prevert's name, you probably know one of his most famous songs "Les Feuilles Mortes." In English, the song is known as "Autumn Leaves." Johnny Mercer wrote the English words and Nat King Cole sang it in a 1956 film of the same name. When I saw the movie many years later, I did not know of Jacques Prévert. And in my wildest dreams, I never ever imagined how important a role Paris would play in my own life. To hear the original French version sung by a very young and very handsome Yves Montand, click here.

If you can't attend this exhibit, you should still put the Hôtel de Ville on your Paris list. It's located across the river from Notre Dame on the Right Bank. Burned down in 1871 by the Paris Commune, the building was completely rebuilt between 1874 and 1882 in a grandiose Neo-Renaissance style. The architecture is a bit over the top, but the Hôtel de Ville always has wonderfully interesting exhibits, often with a Paris theme, and admission is free.

By coincidence, a few days later, Marcelle and I were looking for a nice, little restaurant for lunch. We were walking near the College de France in the Latin Quarter and came upon the Restaurant Pré Verre. The restaurant opened in 2003 and has been a great success ever since. Its name is a wonderful play on words since Pré Verre and Prévert are pronounced the same. In French "prendre un verre" is literally "to have a glass" or as we say in English, "to have a drink." So the restaurant's name not only evokes a cozy drink tête-à-tête before dinner, but is also an homage to Jacques Prévert, who grew up in a neighborhood not far from the restaurant.

Sure enough, when we descended to the downstairs dining room, there on the imaginatively painted-walls was a portrait of Jacques Prévert.

The decor is fun,but he real reason to go to Pré Verre is the food. The chef Philippe Delacourcelle is known for his originality and his innovative use of exotic spices. Go for lunch when the restaurant has a very good, very affordable 13,50 euro menu that includes a both a first and second course and glass of good wine and coffee.

We had "Soupe a la Betterave avec gingembre" (Cream of Beet Soup with ginger, pictured here) followed by a deliciously tender Pintade or Guinea Fowl in a sauce seasoned with cumin and served over noodles.

Pré Verre's English language web site is terrific. You'll find lots more information there on the restaurant as well as several recipes that you can try at home in case you can't get to Paris this year.

Bon appétit.

A bientot,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor
To see more photos, click here

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Paris, the Marais and Me

What's In a Name?

I've always been fascinated by the origin of names and I thought some of you might be too. How did the city of Paris get its name? Why is the neighborhood where we live in Paris called "the marsh" Why do some of you know me as "Gerry and some as "Geraldine"?

In Greek mythology, Prince Paris stole away Helen, the most beautiful woman on earth, from her husband, the Spartan king Menelaus As a result, the proverbial thousand ships were launched and the Trojan War began. But does Paris, which is known as the City of Love, owe its name to the Trojan Prince and his love for the beautiful Helen? Romance would dictate that the answer be yes.

In fact, the name Paris comes from a Gallic tribe called the Parisii. The Parisii may have lived on the Ile de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine River where Notre Dame now stands. Julius Caesar talks about the Parisii on this island in his Commentaries as early as 52bc, but it wasn't until the 4th century that the town became known as Paris. It is a nice logical explanation,but there has long been one problem with this account of history. Apart from their beautiful gold coins, like the one pictured here, and other sparse items, no significant remains of the Parisii have ever been found in archaeological digs on the Ile de la Cité. Recently the mystery seems to have been solved. Archaeologists working in Nanterre, a community several miles outside Paris, discovered the remains of a large, important urban Parisii settlement. So it appears that the Parisii lived not in Paris, but in the suburbs and that it is only through an error of history -- or of Caesar -- that Paris got its name.

Officially, we live in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, but most people simply say "the Marais." How this neighborhood got it name seems pretty straightforward. Most guide books tell you that marais means marsh. It is true that back when the Parisii were not living on the Ile de la Cité, today's stylish Marais was low-lying ground between the river and a now-vanished tributary. It is more probable, however, that our neighborhood takes its name from the word maraichers, which is the name for the vegetable gardens that were planted on the drained marshland.

These gardens belonged to large abbeys that lay outside the town walls built by Phillippe II Auguste in the 12th century. The wall and gardens still can be seen in the photo above of a 1615 map of Paris. Phillipe, by the way, is the French king who conspired with Bad Prince John of England against good King Richard in Sir Walter Scott's novel "Ivanhoe," and in all those Robin Hood movies. (Pictured here is a remnant of the wall that is near our apartment.)

Lastly, we come to my name - Gerry/Geraldine. Friends from my adult life have always known me as Geraldine, but my family and very old friends all call me Gerry. Back then, only my mother, when she was angry, called me Geraldine. When and why did the change come about? It happened in Paris many years ago. Jeffrey and I were invited to a dinner party. Since I spoke no French at the time, our hosts put me next to a Frenchman who spoke very good English - a very handsome Frenchman named Serge with a very charming French accent. "And what eez your name," he asked. "Gerry," I said."Geree," he said with a puzzled look, "and what kind of name eez zat?" "Short for Geraldine," I said. "Ah, Ger-al-deene," he said with a dreamy smile, "now zat eez a beautifull name." From then on, I became Geraldine.

I'm not the only woman whose name has been changed by a Paris experience. The lovely lady pictured above started out her life as Daisie Decazes, but by the time this portrait was made in 1914, she was the Princess Jean de Broglie. Oh, what a little time in Paris can do for you! If you want to see the painting by Jacques-Emile Blanche, it hangs in the Musée Carnavalet, right up the street from our apartment.

A bientot,

To view enlarged photos online, click here

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor
Photo of Parisii coin - Clio20, Musée Carnavelet

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Window Shopping in Paris

Wednesday was the day Parisian bargain hunters were waiting for - the beginning of the winter sales. Sales in France are state-regulated and are held twice a year in summer and winter. In these bad economic times, French merchants are campaigning for more freedom to decide for themselves when to discount their merchandise.  For now, however, the regulated sales remain a tradition. Clothing is the big seller with 13 percent of all the clothing sales made during the winter sale period, more than during the period before Christmas.  

Since most of you can't be here for the sales, I decided to do some after dark window shopping and photographing so that all of you could take part in les soldes de Paris. Hope you enjoy them.


To view enlarged photos online, click here

Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sunday at the Louvre

What to do on a cold day in January? When we're in Paris, we go to a museum. There are 77 of them in Paris, but there is none greater than the Louvre. It is, in fact, the world's most visited museum and it's big. Its 35,000 works of art are displayed in a magnificent palace that covers 652,300 square feet so you can't expect to see it all in one visit. We've been there dozens of times and with each visit, we discover something new and beautiful.

Last Sunday there was an added incentive to go to the Louvre. That's because on the first Sunday of every month the Louvre, along with many other Paris museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Orsay Museum, has free admission.

So after a breakfast of coffee and croissants, we set out on foot hoping to arrive before the crowds. We walked along the Quai de la Seine, which I would put high on my list of the World's Most Beautiful Walks. The quai is several miles long and lined up along it are many of the most famous monuments of Paris, including Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.  From Monday to Saturday, the Quai, a street which runs right along the river, is filled with traffic. On Sunday, however, the cars, buses and trucks are banished and from 9 a.m to 5 p.m., it's pedestrians only.                                                                                      
Our 20-minute walk from the Isle St. Louis to the Louvre took us past Notre Dame and the Pont au Change and the Conciergerie, which are pictured here. 

The line to get in went quickly, but the museum was already crowded.  Dozens of languages could be heard, but Italian seemed to predominate.  Either there are a lot of Italians in Paris at the moment or Italians really know how to have a good time.  

It seemed that every one of the thousands of visitors made a beeline for the room containing daVinci's portrait of  Mona Lisa. We headed for my favorite painting in the Louvre: Raphael's portrait of  his friend Baldassare Castiglione. If I could choose one work of art from the Louvre for my own, it would be this one.

Castiglione, a diplomat and a poet, is most famous for his book, The Courtier, published in 1528.  A 16th-century guide on how to be the perfect courtly aristocrat, Castiglione's book has been translated into many languages and still makes for interesting reading.  

The first time I saw the portrait many years ago, I had no idea who Castiglione was.  I was just struck by the intensity of his gaze and the gentleness of his expression.  He has always seemed like someone I would like to know.  I visit him every time I go to the Louvre.  And who could not like a man who in 1528 said that women are the equal of men and capable of doing anything men can do.  If you want to see him for yourself, he's in the Grand Gallery not far from the room that houses the Mona Lisa.  

Some art historians say that the portrait of Castiglione is an homage to daVinci's Mona Lisa.  I tried to make the comparison, but I couldn't get any closer than this.  If you look carefully, you will see the Mona Lisa in the glass case at the back of the photo. The crowds are always large, but on a day of free admission, it's particularly difficult to get anywhere near the painting. Nonetheless you can't go to the Louvre for the first time and not see the Mona Lisa.  It is a beautiful painting, but it's not the one I would take home with me if I could.  

As the day wore on, the crowds got bigger and bigger. Remember, though, that the Louvre has 35,000 works of art so you can always find a quiet corner with incredible things to see.  We headed way across the museum where there is a fascinating collection of art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Then, like our beautiful friend pictured here, we thumbed our ears at the crowds and enjoyed the quiet and solitude of a nearly empty gallery.

     A bientot, 


To view enlarged photos online, click here
Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Friday, January 2, 2009

Plus Ca Change, Plus c'est la meme chose

Parisians, including us, woke up this morning to find the streets of Paris covered with a light dusting of snow. When we left Ann Arbor, we expected a change in the weather, but instead we found the same snow (less of it) and cold temperatures.  

By midmorning, the snow was gone and the sun was shining on our geraniums, which are still in full bloom in the flower boxes outside our windows.  Either it was much warmer before we got here or our heat is leaking out the beautiful, but drafty French windows of our apartment.

Everyone in town is bundled up against the cold - in chic black, of course.  Long elegant scarves are wound tightly around their necks, but almost no one except us wears a hat, probably because it would muss up their beautifully coifed hair.  If I start having my hair done at Vidal Sassoon, I might go hatless too.
We spent our first full day in Paris shopping, mostly for  food. There were the basics, but since you can't live on bread alone, we also got wine, pastries and chocolate.  In a later post, I'll tell you about some of my favorite chocolate stores in Paris.  

People were out in force and everyone seemed to be in a good mood.  Since many Americans have told me that they've heard that Parisians are nasty, I'll tell you two short stories that I hope will help disprove that notion.  

At the airport in Philadelphia just before we boarded our U.S. Air flight, we talked briefly with a French couple.  On landing in Paris, we met them again in the baggage area.  While we waited for our luggage to arrive, we talked again. By the time we left the airport, they had invited us to get together with them.  We exchanged telephone numbers and we expect to see them soon.  

My next nice French person was the ticket vendor at the Metro station.  When I was buying subway tickets this morning, I left my gloves on the counter.  The guy who sold me the tickets ran down two flights of steps to return them to me.  "It's cold outside," he said.  "You'll need these."

So if you haven't been to Paris, don't believe all those stories you hear about the haughty French.  Their culture is a bit more formal than ours, but just like everywhere else, a smile goes a long way.  And, believe me,  there's a lot to smile about in Paris.

A bientot,

To view enlarged photos online, click here
 Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor