Friday, August 10, 2007

I left my heart in Paris

Most good travel stories begin and end with a train ride.

Mine started in Paris and ended with an unexpected connection with a stranger. It is a romantic end to a story about Paris – a place where I left my heart, only to rediscover it on the Eurostar.

Paris is the city that everyone wants to come to.
This lou lou of the continent is by reputation flirty, difficult and even distant. Yet, once in her presence we only want more and she in turn feeds our imaginations. Think of Baudelaire’s image of the roaming flaneur. Of Collette and Gigi. Perhaps Frank Sinatra said it best - I love Paris in the winter and the summer. I love Paris, anytime of the year...
Like all devotees, I came to her with a list of must-dos and a cramped itinerary. Some days I played tourist and marvelled at her spectacle. Other days, I played truant and escaped to the Latin quarter and Marais to the markets.

With a preoccupation with style at the best of times, I confess that I indulged at Printemps and Galleries des La Fayettes. This is no better way to experience French style than in its department stores. From the simplest of counter displays to the buildings themselves, everything is an art form. Such beauty is intoxicating. It takes you to soaring heights, only to leave you dizzy and breathless. The boulevards lure your eye and the architecture bares all the flourishes of a skilled calligrapher.

To fall in love with Paris is to fall in love with the look of Paris. At some point in her history, did she decide that she would not be anything less than dazzling beautiful?

A trip to Versailles confirms that she has only known the most decadent and risque of pleasures. In the grounds of this once regal palace, all paths lead to a chance encounter. Everything is about seduction. Visitors take to the grounds to promenade to recover from the blinding opulence of the hall of mirrors. There are boats to be taken and walks to be had. Only these pleasure rides are on tourist boats rather than gondolas imported from Venice and the lovers walks now house a thriving café but we love her nonetheless.

The only competitor for her attention is that spectacle of all spectacles, the Mona Lisa.
From behind her gilded cage, this Italian donna sits listless, bored and benevolent. With tourists lining up to see her, what does she think, this silent one? The desire to collect is the desire to conquer. So what do we desire in our encounter with her. In a room filled with art treasures, our eyes only seek hers. Each gaze wants to uncover her secret – the woman who has remained silent despite centuries of showgirl celebrity.

People move from spectacle to spectacle both here and in the Musee d’Orsay, where the extraordinary sights of a Redon go unnoticed. The shimmering textures that self-illuminate in the colours of gold and peacock can’t compare with the names of Monet and Renoir.

In Paris, the food stores are as glamorous as a haute couture label. Fauchon is devoted to the art of epicurean pleasure. The ground floor competes with the best of the catwalks with its sleek surfaces, artistic displays of Escargot de Bourgogne at €120 a kilo and designer wrapping of hot pink, black and gold. Shopping at Fauchon is the equivalent of shopping at Chanel.

This is the place to seek the perfect Madeleine – there are fourteenth styles including truffle, Roquefort, citron, orange, miel. Upstairs is devoted to arts of the table – chocolate, coffee, teas, preserves. wine. All I can afford is the Confiture d’Amour – Fauchon’s own love preserve made from strawberry, passion fruit juice and rose petals.

But I want more and am bored by the glamour; so I seek refugee in the Latin Quarter. I am looking for the French table beyond fashion labels and discover it in a small street off the Rue Seine. Here within two hundred metres, I find six food stores and cafes: Fromage 31, Traiter Italien, Bistro Perres et Filles, Marquise de Sevigne, da Rosa and further along Cacao et Chocolat.
At Fromage 31, I discover a world of regional cheese, in particular varieties that I have never heard of. This is French patriotism at its best.
At Cacao et Chocolat, I am initiated into the world of the macaroon. I try Earl Grey with my café.

At da Rosa, I follow a winding staircase down to the basement to find not a wine cellar but a room of Spanish jamon.

And on I walk, finding olive oils (lemon, green leaf of lemon, lemon and mandarin, basil, chiili pepper, mint, bergamot and mandarin), as well as tapanades – black olives with coffee, green olives and pistachio, black olives and capers.

For dinner, we go to Marais. First to Le Temps au Temps, but the restaurant is so busy that we need to return the following night. So instead, at the nearby Mansouria, I dine on La Kurama - poulet with preserved tomato jam, rose petal and honey sauce. In the early evening, soft light peers into this converted French bistro across the terracotta stained walls and frescos of henna-stained arabesques. The dish is dangerously good, aromatic and heady.

Served on a bed of steamed couscous laced with almond and cinnamon, it is almost inedible in its richness. A vegetarian dish proves simpler fare, though no less interesting; in particular the sweet smells of harissa and the side dish of white raisins and chickpeas. Dinner concludes with thè a la menthe – a sweet Moroccan mint and coffee perfumed with orange water and cinnamon.

The following night, it is Le Temps au Temps. We sit at the bar as it is the only place available but happily do so to experience cuisine recreative. This is a meal like no other.

We begin with a salmon cooked with smoked tea – the favouring delicate and unpretentious served with hertiage tomatoes.

It is a relatively unadorned dish that speaks for itself. It is followed by salmon with dill and concludes with apricot tart with goat’s cheese sorbet and a meringue of green tea.

The evening ends perfectly with the notes of Libertango played by a busker in the metro.

But what about the boy? The train ride.
As my dear friend Jane says ‘there are experiences you want always to remember and then there are those that are worth wandering down the track for more’.
I remain ambiguous. At a lost, about what is choice and what is necessity.

There is something very alluring about the idea of fate. I nearly missed my train. He was sitting in my seat. The train was busy.
Sometimes things are just too complicated. Or maybe they are just destined to only ever be experiences.
It was a conversation that began with an apology and an invitation to share sushi and ended with both people standing at Waterloo station not knowing what to do, except say thank-you. Art, tango and Bach, an invitation to Paris, humanness and thinking machines were all discussed.

For me, it was a conversation where everything came together; for him, 'I so loved the way we connected, and I would definitely love to see you again somewhere soon'.

So to HT, thank-you and au revoir
To Lani, thanks for being such a fabulous travelling companion.

A perfect day

To my beautiful friend Jane and her husband, Edwin, thank you for my invitation to your wedding. It was a perfect day.

To Jane, I felt such happiness to see you with Edwin. We have travelled far together and your wedding was the most beautiful that I have been to. It was so heartfelt, so warm.

I feel so priviledged to be there and celebrate the beginning of your lives together.