Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Standing next to me in an overcrowded metro recently was a  young boy eating his after-school snack. As the train lurched to a stop, he bumped into me and in the process transferred some of the chocolate that covered his face on to my new Parisian coat. With a sheepish grin, the young gamin stuffed the last big morsel of crepe into his already full mouth, then tried to say: "Excusez-moi, Madame." His intent was clear, but the phrase was lost in a mouthful of French delight. It was difficult to be angry in the face of such pleasure and besides, chocolate accidents  are to be expected in France in February. It is, after all, crepe month -  le mois des crêpes.

The origins of the modern-day festivities are linked to the Christian observance of Candlemas, celebrated on February 2. Tradition has it that in 492 A.D. the Pope offered the Italian version of crepes (crespelle) to the faithful who had come to Rome to celebrate the holiday. The origin of crepes is lost in antiquity, but archaeologists have discovered perfectly-preserved Stone Age pancakes, and third-century Greek writer Athenaeus in The Deipnosophists gives a recipe for crepes very similar to modern versions.

Crepes, in various forms, can be found in almost all countries under many different names. In France, crepes are a speciality of the region of Brittany, where hearty dark buckwheat crepes - also known as galettes - are traditionally filled with ham and cheese, topped by an egg and accompanied by Breton cider. From the Paris region comes one of the country's most well-known desserts: Crêpes Suzette - very thin, light pancakes served flaming in a mixture of liqueurs, usually orange flavored. Crêpes Suzette are so famous, in fact, that their name needs no English translation - a Crêpe Suzette is a Crepe Suzette. (Click here to see British comedian Kenneth Williams sing the very funny Ma Crêpe Suzette - an English song composed entirely of French words.) 

Creperies in Paris first appeared in the streets surrounding the Gare Montparnasse - the station where the trains from Brittany arrive. It was there that I tasted my first crepe - not a flaming Crêpe Suzette, but rather a simple, jam-filled crepe, topped with sugar. Anatole France, the French author and poet, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921, could have been describing my first crepes (yes, I had more than one) when he wrote: 

"...sprinkled with sugar and eaten hot, they form an exquisite dish.  They have a golden hue and are tempting to eat. Thin and transparent like muslin, their edges are trimmed to resemble fine lace."  

Crepes make quick, inexpensive snacks that can be purchased from street vendors all over Paris. Their speciality seems to be crepes filled with Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread that European kids and adults love - in the same way that Americans love peanut butter.  Nutella is probably what the young man in the metro smeared on my coat.

For a more authentic and less messy lunch or dinner, here are three of my favorite creperies. They are all in or near our neighborhood in the Marais, but that will just give you another reason to visit this great part of Paris. At each restaurant, I had a crêpe complête - a buckwheat crepe filled with ham and gruyere cheese, topped with a sunny-side-up egg. In the interest of good journalism, I also sampled (okay ate entirely and then licked my fingers afterward) a simple lemon and sugar crepe, a butter and honey crepe, and a chocolate crepe with pears and vanilla ice cream.  Crepes are best accompanied by Breton cider so I had that too - but only one bowl at each place.

Crêperie Bretonne, near the Place de la Bastille, has great crepes.  Walk through the blue doors and you'll feel like you're in Brittany. If you have a good imagination, the sound of passing cars becomes the murmur of ocean waves. The decor is authentic Breton and so are the crepes - rich and flavorful and earthy. Prices are very reasonable and there is a good selection of ciders. The dessert crepes are so good that you'll have a hard time choosing, but chances are you'll love whatever you pick.

Breizh Cafe sits on a sunny corner in the heart of the Marais. The decor is simple, the staff is friendly and the crepes are authentically Breton. (The original Brezh Cafe is located by the sea in Cancale.) At Breizh Cafe, the crepe itself takes center stage with buckwheat crepes that are dark and strong tasting. The ingredients are very fresh and there is a good variety of ciders that you can buy by the bowl or in larger pitchers. Their dessert crepes, made from a lighter wheat flour, range from the traditional jam and sugar crepes to the delicious chocolate, pear and ice cream crepe, which I shared with a friend (honestly).

Crêperie Suzette has a lighter buckwheat batter than the other two, but the edges are nice and crispy; the fillings are fresh; and egg is perfectly cooked, meaning a yolk that runs deliciously over the ham and cheese with a white that is firm and moist. There is a lunchtime menu of 11 euros that includes a main dish crepe, a dessert crepe and coffee. It's a small, convivial place and is usually crowded, but there's an upstairs room with a little more elbow room.

If you want to try your hand at crepes at home, they are easy to make. For a good basic explanation and recipes, click here. Bon appetit!

For more photos, click here.            

(Travel Oyster and I were featured in a Paris newsletter last week.  Click here to read about us in Parler Paris Nouvellettre.)

                                           A bientôt,                                                                

Crêperie Bretonne                         
67, rue de Charonne (11th)
Tél: 01 43 55 62 29

Briezh Cafe
109, rue Vieille du Temple (3rd)
Tél: 01 42 72 13 77                                 

Crêperie Suzette
4 Rue des Francs Bourgeois (4th)Tél: 01 42 72 46 16

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Paris is full of old buildings and art of centuries past. Sometimes amid all that history and tradition, the modern can get overlooked. Recently, however, it took center stage when I attended a private viewing of  the Monumenta 2010 exhibit of Christian Boltanski's Personnes at the Grand Palais. Boltanski, born in France in 1944, is considered one of the leading artists on the contemporary scene although he, himself, views his art as being very traditional and classic.  

In Personnes, visitors are invited to become part of the installation. In French the word personne means both somebody and nobody. The exhibit, according to Boltanski, is about the transition between "being" and "no longer being," between somebody and nobody.  That statement alone is enough to evoke the powerful sense of oppression that Boltanski seeks, along with "an episode of spectacular motion and sensations exploring the nature and meaning of human existence." 

About 50 personnes - some of whom certainly looked like somebodies - all of us experiencing a sensation of extreme cold, waited for the enormous doors of the Grand Palais to open. When they did, what we saw was a tall wall of numbered metal boxes, completely blocking the view of the acres-long nave of the Grand Palais. Inside perhaps are  ashes -  or memories  - or nothing. 

The next thing you notice is that it is just as cold inside as out and that there is a deafening noise. It comes from a huge crane poised over a five ton, 100-foot high mountain of clothes. The red jaws descend, randomly pick up some clothes, lift them up to the ceiling and drop them back onto the pile.  Again and again and again. The hand of God? The randomness of fate? The individuality of each human existence? The guides, bundled up in down coats, were giving explanations, but it was difficult to hear them over another sound - that of 69 heartbeats being broadcast from speakers mounted on metal poles. The poles surround  69 cemetery-like rectangles laid out on the vast floor of the Grand Palais. Discarded clothes, starkly illuminated by lamps strung from the metal poles, are neatly spread out in each rectangle.  If you place your hand on any of the poles, you can feel the vibration of an individual heartbeat, previously indistinguishable among the masses.

In a separate project entitled Archives du coeur, Boltanski has collected the sounds of 40,000 heartbeats of people from around the world. Visitors to Personnes can have their own heartbeat added to the collection and about 10,000 people, including me, have done so. In that way, says Boltanski, the sound of a beating heart becomes a symbol of life to oppose time's passage to oblivion. The recordings will be protected from the ravages of time on the privately-owned island of Teshima in the Inland Seto Sea in Japan. So long after I'm gone, descendants not yet born can go to Teshima and ask for me by name. I'll be there ticking away in a kind of techno immortality.
Immersing myself in the installation, I walked back and forth contemplating the profound questions wordlessly posed by this monumental exhibit. I must admit, however, that every now and then, my attention was grabbed by a particularly attractive coat or sweater. Could I just take one? They belong, after all, to everyone and, at the same time, to nobody. 

Afterwards I learned that the clothes, in fact, belong to a recycling company and will be returned when the exhibit closes at the end of February. The 400 metal poles and the lamps also will be recycled.  "There must be nothing left of the exhibition," says Boltanski 

Personnes has attracted a lot of attention in Paris and everyone has an opinion on its meaning and worth. As I was leaving, however, I overheard somebody make what may well be the definitive comment on the exhibit:  
"Le néant, c'est tres à la mode à ce moment." 
"Nothingness is very fashionable right now!"

To see more photos, click here.
To find modern art in Paris, click here.


                                                            A bientôt,


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor