Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paris Puppet Show

A visit to the puppet show in the Luxembourg Gardens seemed perfect for an upcoming birthday. Guignol, the sassy irreverent main character of the show, just turned 200 so he makes me feel like a spring chicken. 

The original Guignol was created in Lyon, France but his fame soon spread far and wide. The theater in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris opened in 1933. Its creator was Robert Desarthis, whose own father was a toymaker specializing in Guignols. Desarthis died in 1993 and his son Françis-Claude is now the master puppeteer-in-charge.

Guignol is the French everyman, but he has no boundaries. He moves easily from country to country and from century to century depending on the play. His fellow characters are chosen from among the theater's 2,500 puppets, all made in the theater's workshop. It takes years of training to become a good puppeteer and requires not only imagination and dexterity, but also strength since each puppet weighs between six and eleven pounds. 

As show time draws near, the kids, parents and grandparents await the traditional ringing of the bell that signals the opening of the doors of the theater. Next to me in line is five-year-old Celine and her grandmother Marie-Claire, who as a child came to the theater with her grandmother. Marie-Claire seems just as enthused as Celine at the prospect of seeing Guignol triumph once again over evil foes. Today's show is La Chat Botté or Puss in Boots. 

Kids sit in front, parents in back. Guignol appears. The kids yell out to him and can hardly contain their glee. It goes on like this for 60 minutes, a pandemonium of shouting, squealing and general happiness. In the end, of course, Guignol triumphs and everyone is happy, including me. (Click here to see a short video of Guignol. It's in French, but you'll get it whether you speak French or not.) 

                  Children at Puppet Theatre, Paris, France, 1963 by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time, Inc.     

At five years old, my own son took one look at the photos of Guignol outside the theater and refused to go in. Turns out it's all the fault of a Mexican Guignol-like puppet that I gave him when he was three. Many years later, he recounted: "I worried every night when I was little that that creepy puppet would get out of the closet where I put him and come after me." 

Of course, that's all in the past --- except that recently he went with friends to a highly-recommended Mexican restaurant, took one look at the walls covered with puppets resembling the evil nemesis of his childhood and said: "I can't eat here." 

The next time he's in Paris I'm going to invite him to see the happy, funny French Guignol. I think it will be good therapy. 

A bientôt,

Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Monday, February 16, 2009

Utrillo's Montmartre

An upcoming art exhibit featuring the paintings of Maurice Utrillo and his mother Suzanne Valadon at the Pinacothèque de Paris inspired a visit to Montmartre, one of Paris' most visited neighborhoods.

Utrillo is pictured here in a portrait by his mother. Born in Montmartre in 1883, he lived there much of his life and is buried in the neighborhood Cimetière Saint-Vincent. The illegitimate son of Valadon, Utrillo led a troubled existence and was in and out of mental institutions all of his life. A friend, André Utter, described Utrillo as a "tragicomic Hamlet...a gaunt figure who went about gesturing and yelling." Nonetheless, Utrillo continued to paint the long stairways, secret gardens, dance halls, restaurants and ordinary street scenes of Montmartre. His bohemian Montmartre has largely disappeared, but if you step just a bit off the beaten path, the Montmartre of Maurice Utrillo still exists.

To find it, come to Montmartre by the back door. From downtown Paris, take the metro to the Abbesses station where the beautiful Hector Guimard Art Nouveau entranceway is your introduction to old Montmartre. Then wander up the hill, letting your curiosity lead the way.

If you see secluded byways, take them. They will lead you to romantic Utrillo scenes come to life, such as La Mason Rose (the pink house), the rue des Saules (Weeping Willow Street), l'Allee des Brouillards (Fog Alley), le cabaret au Lapin Agile (agile rabbit) and the charming Montmartre Museum, where Utrillo and his mother once lived.

Montmartre's best-known site is Sacre-Coeur, a huge church which crowns the hill of Montmatre like a big wedding cake. The interior is disappointing, but on a clear day, there can be a wonderful view of Paris from its famous steps. To see the original neighborhood church, head for the 12th-century Saint-Pierre de Montmartre. One of the oldest churches in Paris and the only remaining vestige of the huge Benedictine monastery of Montmartre, it's an oasis of peace just off the Place du Tertre. Teeming with artists (two per square meter), the square is a must-see, but if you want a hint of Utrillo's Place du Tertre, try to go in the early morning before the crowds arrive.

When you're ready to take a break, head down the stairs in front of Sacre-Coeur to La halle Saint-Pierre on the rue Ronsard. One of the old market halls of Paris, it is a superb example of 19th-century metal architecture. On the ground floor, there's a cafe, whose large windows provide a bucolic garden view.

Just around the corner from the cafe is the Marché Saint-Pierre, a huge six-story building filled from top to bottom with cloth of every hue and texture. Almost as visited as Sacre-Coeur, you'll see all of Paris there - from fashion designers to furniture makers to home seamstresses looking for just the right material at just the right price.

On our first visit to Montmartre many years ago, we went to the Marché Saint-Pierre and bought wonderfully absorbent French cotton dish towels as gifts for friends. You can still buy them along with sturdy plain linen aprons, just like the cooks in Utrillo's time used to wear.

A bientôt,

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

Monday, February 9, 2009

Oysters in Paris

Imagine this. You're standing looking out of sunny classical French windows overlooking a park in the apartment of good friends. A table, (come to the table) say your friends. You turn and see plates of beautiful fresh oysters topped with lemon wedges. A bottle of crisp Entre Deux-Mers wine waits to be opened.  It's a perfect Sunday in Paris.

In France more than 143,000 tons of oysters are produced and eaten every year. It may take only about three seconds to swallow an oyster, but it takes three to four years to raise one.  Like wine, oysters have different flavors depending on the region where they are raised. Oysters are rich in iron and low in calories and are purported to have strong aphrodisiac effects. The Greeks, who ate their oysters dipped in honey, tell how Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty who gave birth to Eros,  emerged from the ocean on the shell of an oyster.  The Romans knew her as Venus and she is depicted here in Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

About 98 percent of all oysters consumed in France are a variety known as creuses. The native oyster is the l'huître plate including the Belon, probably the best known variety. The native oyster fell victim to a more robust Portuguese creuses that made its way into France in the late 1880s. In the 1970s these Portuguese oysters succumbed to a virus and were replaced by a Japanese variety. Today most of the stock in France is a Japanese variety imported from Canada. The legendary Belon oyster of Brittany still exists, but they are fewer in number.  

Many years ago, we took a trip to Brittany.  It was the beginning of November and most hotels were about to close for the season.  For that reason, rooms were available in a charming hotel named Chez Melanie in the town of Riec-sur-Belon. 

At the time, I was reading a great book by John McPhee called A Roomful of Hovings.  The title story is about Thomas Hoving, the then director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  According to McPhee, Hoving used to come to Paris on buying trips for the museum.  To keep his mission a secret, the director would stay in a cheap hotel on the Boul'Mich, but every night he would eat Belon oysters washed down with champaigne.  

Could Belon oysters have any connection to Riec-sur-Belon  The next day I asked the hotel owner: "Do you have oysters around here?"  (Asking that is like going to the Champaigne region and asking if they have champaigne.) "Mais oui," came the incredulous reply. Needless to say, we dined that night on quantities of Belon oysters!  We couldn't afford the champagne.


A bientôt,


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

Monday, February 2, 2009

Black Thursday in France

On a cold sunny January day, the hourly workers of France took to the streets to voice their discontent with worsening social conditions, economic woes and the policies of President Nicolas Sarkozy. The strike, in accordance with French law, was announced well in advance and closed down parts of public transportation, schools, hospitals, the post office and private industry.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a French rendition of U.S. President George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" faux pas, once said : "From now on when there is a strike in France, no one will even notice." (Click here to see how one group of strike organizers used the president's words to bring out the demonstrators.) Walking the streets of Paris, it was difficult not to notice the estimated 300,000 people who marched from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de l'Opéra. Estimates for the total number of demonstrators in France varied from 1.6 million to 2.5 million depending on whether government or union figures were used.

Even though the cause is a serious one, protesters in France know how to have a good time. Bands play, balloons fly and people sing. Amid the chants, the Obama mantra of "Yes We Can," pronounced with just a slight French accent, blasted through loudspeakers while people cheered. Strikes are economically costly (some estimates say as high as 300-400 million euros per day), but from my vantage point, it certainly looked good for the local economy of the vendors, cafes and restaurants lining the route of the march.

In France, to go on strike or "faire la grève" has a long and illustrious history. The expression comes from the grève of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, which was a gravel beach where ships discharged their cargo. Although originally applied to out of work laborers who gathered on the grève hoping to find work, the expression eventually morphed into one meaning an intentional work stoppage. The right to strike was taken away from French workers during the Second World War by the Vichy government. It was restored in 1946 and since then, the French have made good use of their right.

The January 29 strike disrupted transport for a day, but in 1995 a general strike ground France to a standstill for almost a month. There was no public transport at all so central Paris was deserted at night. If you were willing to walk, it was a good time to go to the theater since cancellations were numerous and even previously sold-out shows had seats available. With tickets in hand, we trudged across Paris and arrived at the theater just before curtain time. The lobby was empty except for the theater manager who greeted us by name. What service, but how could he possibly know us? The answer was clear a moment later when he ushered us into the salle: only one other person was in the audience. We took our places in the front row next to our fellow theater goer and in that time-honored rule of the theater, the show went on.

Vive la grève!

A bientôt,

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