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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Paris Pastry Japanese-style

When I first arrived in Paris I had high expectations for the pastry. Everything is beautiful, and displayed like works of art. But I have to say, it became easy to say no thanks. Yes I know it is rated the finest in the world, but I just am not a fan generally of pretty food that is not high on the delicious flavour scale.. 

So when I heard about this Japanese patisserie, Ciel, I wondered - could it be any good?

Well in order to find out I had to walk past some pretty impressive works of art in their own right.

This photo is not only taken in poor light - it is also missing Janice who apparently lit it up with her presence in a previous photo shoot.

Yup also missing light but you will have to come and see it for yourself - it is fantastic.

I finally arrived at the patisserie called Ciel, at 3 rue Monge in the 5th.  Classy blue door.

But yuck - I hate rose flavoured anything. 

So I chose one chocolate and one vanilla.

And check out the little boxes they sent the cakes home in!

And when you open it up it is not a rose but still flower-like don't you agree?

Guess which was my favourite. A little spongy vanilla cake with chantilly. Perfect really. I meant to share it with Serge, but when I looked down it was all gone. I will save the chocolate one for him. Or maybe buy him another one tomorrow?

This patisserie is now on my list. Really delicious, and some very creative flavours.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Opera Garnier - built for royalty

On my first trip to Paris my breath was taken away by the Opera Garnier. I begged my new boss to drive around the city and return for a second look. Four and a half years later I finally made it inside.

The original opera house of Paris was a bit of a problem. It was set in an old part of the city with narrow winding streets, and was the site of an attempted assassination of Napoleon and Eugenie. Although neither was injured, Napoleon thought he should be able to go to the opera more safely, so he commissioned the Opera Garnier along with a proper boulevard without trees to improve the safety of the approach.

And this opera is all about making a grand entrance. The architect, Charles Garnier designed the whole building to make the women look good ascending the grand staircases. Never mind the actual auditorium - the main part of the building is also a theatre with balconies and boxes for seeing and being seen.

Of course you all know who haunted this opera house. His box was right beside the Emperor's salon, and also very close to a back staircase which must have been convenient for all of those mysterious entrances and exits.

But did you know that the famous scene with the chandelier is based on a true story? Indeed one evening a big counter weight crashed down and crushed a patron.  All fixed now though.

The auditorium ceiling was recently repainted by Chagall. There was not enough light to see it properly so I'm just including a painting of the original here.
Of course the opera was about much more than watching the opera. In fact anyone who was anyone showed up sometime between the second and third act. Otherwise people would think they were not well occupied. The boxes were all about visiting people - with a little light regard for what was on stage.

And the balls, receptions and other grand affairs are still all the rage. Although the opening of the Opera Garnier had a few oversights. By this time France was a republic, and the President was not supposed to grant favours.  Even high society had to pay. Even Charles Garnier, the architect, and it was kind of in his honor. But the setting was unbeatable. Modeled after the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, people claimed the was "too much gold". My opinion? Once you have passed a certain limit (which we certainly have here!) - what can it matter?

My advice - go see this national treasure and just roll around in the obvious excess. The money is already spent, and with sold out performances ranging from €45 to €195 on average  (no box seats at this price!) it seems quite likely to be around for quite some time.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


On a recent trip to Israel I finally managed to travel to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I would not call myself a religious person, but have always wanted to walk in these two cities to better understand the historic and religious importance.

Jerusalem was fascinating, divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim. As you walk from one area to another you may get the strange sensation of being in Hollywood, moving from one movie set to another. The attire is so very different among the quarters, and so in contrast to what we were wearing, I could not help but feel a certain sense of unreality.
The wall layers tell the age
of the building

Sometimes you discover a wall
beneath the existing street old enough
to be mentioned in the Bible

The Jewish quarter is almost completely rebuilt following the Jordanian occupation of 1948-1967. It is such a newly built city, but only on the surface - the roots run very deep.

Add caption

The Western wall, divided to spearate men from women, (because God can't listen to men and women together?) is crowded with those offering their prayers.

 I left one of my own!

Site of the crucifixion
believe it or not

The Christian quarter seems to have lots of churches and important sites including the site of the Crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is rather strange to have imagines the site on a hillside surrounded by olive tress, and then realise it is now within city walls and has a church built on top of it.
Tomb of Jesus
The Armenian quarter makes up about one-sixth of the total area of Jerusalem and was established 301 BC. It appeared the most private of the quarters, with everything happening behind closed gates and walls. I did not take any photos.

The Muslim quarter is bustling apparently much as it was when Jesus carried his cross through the same streets on his way to die. But today it feels like many other market areas with typical tourist goods, beautiful leather crafts, and sometimes questionable silver and gold items. On the Saturday we visited this was of course the most lively part of the city.

Having just returned from Jordan, Jerusalem was clearly another very important chapter in the history book for me to study.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jordan travels

I don't know what to write about a recent trip to Jordan. it was a moving and educational step back into ancient history, organised into three chapters.

The first stop was Amman and the north. It was cold and rainy and even snowed one morning. Organizing a simple taxi ride took persistence and required me to stare down a tour operator who insisted on being served ahead of me.

Organizing sightseeing depended on our ability to be clear and strong on our wishes and also negotiate better prices.

After paying for a city tour on Friday we discovered  that we should not be in the downtown area after noon on a Friday as the post-mosque big crowds apparently get quite rowdy.
Amman perfumery
Amman visit to spice (spicy) shop.
No problem. A quick visit to a perfumery, where the perfume makers shared his secrets of roses and gardenias, and a spice shop where they sell everything including virginity soap. Would love to know how that works.

 Amman: Roman amphitheater circa 161 AD.

Amman: The Citadel inhabited
continuously for the past 10,000 years

From Amman north: Ajlun Castle circa 1184,
built on the remains of a monastery

From Amman north: Ancient city of Jerash established by Alexander the great.
Reminded me of Pompei. Do not miss this when you come.
A 3km walk and you could happily spend a half day.

A highlight was visiting
the lowest spot on earth.

Chapter 2, left Amman for Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea.  It was finally warm and sunny, so after lounging by the pool we jumped into the sea. The feeling is impossible to describe. The salt concentration is 10x that of the Mediterranean, so floating is easy. What is hard is doing anything else, like walking or swimming. And no we could not walk on water.

Dead Sea Marriot Jordan Valley
Lap of luxury

One full day followed of sun, spa and sea. 
Such a beautiful resort 
and every moment of this day 
felt well spent.

Chapter 3: Petra, Aqaba and The Red Sea: Our next location, Aqaba, was more than 4 hours by car. We decided to break up the trip with a much anticipated visit to Petra, established 312 BC, rediscovered in 1812. Technological innovations included control of water allowed the Nabataeans to thrive in this desert area, and the mix of Greek, Egyptian and Syrian elements show its desirability to all. Of course the Roams came and built over top of all that, so once again the main street strongly resembles Jerash and Pompeii and likely a hundred other ancient cities.

What is most remarkable about seeing Petra for the first time is the carvings into the massive walls of stone. Tombs for commoners are everywhere, but of course it is the royal tombs that impress.

 And of course a trip tp Jordan would not be complete without visiting Aqaba and the Red Sea. Well we actually did not visit Aqaba at all, staying at a resort 15 km outside of the city. Although it was very windy during our visit, the colors, sun and warm friendly people made it well worth the trip. Most of the hotel employees at the resort come from the Philippines. They are young men and woman who get a work visa for 19 months and basically work the whole time they are in Jordan. We were pleased with the level of professional service combined with a very warm welcome.

The view from the lobby of The Movenpick hinted
at the overall beautity of the resort.

Nice beach, but very windy
Just one of our many pools at the reort.
If you are going to Jordan, here is my advice:
  1. Go in April or May to have reliably warm weather but not a heatwave
  2. Do not miss Jerash.
  3. Do not miss Petra
  4. Spend enough time in the north to see the incredible history and most of your time in the south to really relax and enjoy the natural surroundings.

Friday, March 28, 2014

I shall die in Paris

I shall die in Paris by Cesar Vallejo

shall die in Paris, in a rainstorm, 
On a day I already remember. 
I shall die in Paris-- it does not bother me-- 
Doubtless on a Thursday, like today, in autumn. 

Today is the second time this poem by has come my way.
The first time I was moved by it, shared it with a friend, and then kind of forgot about it.

The poem continues, but this is the verse that struck a chord again today when it arrived on my doorstep. I got to thinking about how life brings us gifts. Four years ago I was given the opportunity to live in Paris. Although I had never been, somehow I thought I would like it. I quit my job in big pharma, accepted a new, less secure future and moved to Paris. You might think that was risky. But come on, it's Paris. How bad could it be?

And for those of you who don't know me, I loved it. Love it. Even now when I can see a bit beneath its knickers Paris continues to enchant.

So thanks to whoever realised that I was still unsure about our future - Paris and mine., and sent me the poem again. Apparently I am meant to stay. And live. And die. Maybe in a rainstorm.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Paris Letters - this just might change your life!

When you read this book, you will laugh, you will cry and you will dream. I bet you will also make a change. 

There is no way to predict what you will change. 

Some people clean out their underwear drawer. Some decide to pursue their dream. Still others have begun to notice more beauty in their lives.

Last week during a spectacular vacation in Jordan, I was possessed by insomnia. Sometimes when this happens, I become increasingly frustrated, trying ever harder to fall asleep, a surefire way to chase away any hope of rest.

Not this time.  I opened my email and realised how heavy those 2000 emails in my yahoo account had become. And I had nothing better to do.

I started to go through them all. All of those junk mails. Gone.  
Emails I just didn't know if I might need some day. Gone.

And, wait for it, emails from ex-boyfriends. Yup gone. The ones that felt good at the time and those that never felt good. What on earth was I doing with any of them?

And under all of that stuff, I found a little treasure. A sweet photograph of my sister and mother before Mom was brought down by her disease. I love the smiles on their faces.

I also found a  collection of poems I had thought were lost forever. 

So thanks Janice for reminding us to dream big, do the necessary, and make room for the important stuff.

P.S. the book is getting so much attention Amazon is offering it up on it super value deal of the day! 
Paris Letters deal on Amazon

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Jordan: where desert dogs roam

This rocky barren land
With nothing for miles
No water or grass or trees
The sheep must settle for the few small shrubs.

Who chose this land, this foreign planet?
All those years ago
What fills the souls of the people
When nothing
Is pleasing
Or startling?

On the radio
A man sings of his endless wandering
Always searching for love
Nothing changes
While the sheepdogs guard

The desert dogs roam

Saturday, March 8, 2014

You can't always protect the vulnerable

We all work hard to protect what is vulnerable. In my case it was always my heart.

And after 30 years of what was quite likely an average dose of heartbreak, I finally learned something profound about my heart.

I woke up from a period of unconsciousness. Literally this time. Okay maybe spiritually too. On my living room floor, wondering why I would have chosen to sleep there. My last memory was of reaching for the thermostat. Did it somehow electrocute me? No that couldn't be right.

A couple of days later during a visit to the doctor for a raging headache the pieces started to come together. Had I fallen recently?

Well there was that time a few days ago I woke up on the living room floor...

A CT scan revealed a concussion. I guess I fell pretty hard.  A "routine" cardio check revealed an electrical issue in my heart known as complete AV block. My heart was stopping completely for 25 or 30 times each day.

I think back to being 10 and 20 and 30 and complaining of severe dizzy spells. All of those doctors for all of those years  thought it was normal for a girl/woman to be dizzy sometimes. But I had finally found someone who was more curious, more caring.

 Because I lived in relatively affluent Connecticut, just next door to Yale, I had only to wait three days for a brand new piece of equipment, a pacemaker, to keep my heart beating in a regular rhythm. A week after that my colleagues at work were asking if there was a remote control they could use to turn down my energy. Who knew I had been operating on empty batteries for most of my life?

The wonder of technology, medicine and one very good doctor brought me a new lease on life. Thanks to all of you.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Danger lives everywhere

We all have stories about how bad a certain situation could have been. In most cases we tell the stories where we narrowly escape catastrophe. Tonight I was reminded of one such example.

When I first moved to Paris I liked to try out a different restaurant almost every night. One evening I found myself at Leon de Bruxelles, a franchise offering consistently good mussels and fries. I was seated on a banquette with my back to the wall (ladies always get the seat facing out in Paris) looking up a broad, beautiful curved staircase. Customers sat on either side of me.

As I was gazing into my dreams in the general area of the stairs, a waiter dropped a water goblet. The glass struck a stair and exploded.

As I watched in mesmerized immobility, the thousands of pieces of glass were carried through the air toward me, completely covering me with tiny shards. To my right and left, the customers were fine. I was the only one affected.

In shock I stood up, shook myself to get rid of the glass, and proceeded to make my way out of the restaurant. The waiters were asking me if I was okay, if they could do anything, where was I going; I didn't know the answer to any of those questions, so I just kept walking.

Once outside of the restaurant I did a brief inventory and was relieved to see I did not have a single scratch on me.

The deeper meaning of my close call? I have no idea. But for sure next time someone tells me I am crazy to do such dangerous things as zip-lining or skydiving, I will remind them that danger lives everywhere. I think our job is to make sure we are living well and fully when it catches up with us.

Full speed ahead!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bel Canto

We go to an opera and hear that one perfect note or phrase or even song. We are at a movie and there is a moment when we do not want to be anywhere but in that place. Or we are reading a book and realize that as much as we want to turn the page we do not want to come to the last page ever. So describes my journey into Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

I am astonished by the  beauty of her phrases:

"Sleep was a country for which he could not obtain a visa"

"Suddenly I am hungry and the only thing that will feed me is sunlight"

"Scattered among them were a handful of soldiers sprawled on their backs as if sleep was a car that had hit them dead on"

Perfection, each one. She says exactly what we are thinking, except that we have no words for the thought. Like new language learners we understand the idea before we have words to express it. Like Gen in her story, a true master of language who only understands the absence of love once he has it. Or Cesar who understands the meaning of each word in the songs he sings without knowing any of the words at all.

Each character, like all of us, knows so much beyond the words, more deeply than the language used to express them.

And how she embraces the melodrama. Life as opera, celebrated to the max in its terror, splendour, and moments of just-rightness.

Oh  to be able to sit in each moment, appreciate its perfection, and be okay with arriving, even at the final page.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Marrakech and life's contradictions

Who could ever describe Marrakech.

Historic: Once a fortified city The Medina (the old city) has surrounding walls dating back to the 12th century with thousands of holes which look like places to poke a rifle. In fact the holes are left by the scaffolding used during construction. Beautiful at any time of day, we found that both sunset and evening are quite spectacular with the light and shadow play.

Frantic: The absolute chaos of the Souk deserves its own chapter. Known as the busiest square in Africa, it is both beautiful and abrupt. We saw a true variety: from sellers of tires to scarves to ceramics. Men who pull teeth,  painlessly they say, without anesthetic or any particular disinfectant. The tannery, so huge it apparently requires a guide. Snake charmers who along with their snake held loosely in hand may brush up against you as you pass. Guys placing monkeys on your back. Literally. Like I need another monkey on my back.  Spices and nuts and dried fruit with tantalizing scents. Nearly toothless sellers of beautiful pashminas, (maybe they visited the tooth pullers?) willing to bargain with a smile. Everything seems to be negotiable.

Confused: Our visit did not start well, with a taxi driver who took us to the Souk and dropped us at the automotive supplies area for some strange reason. He then reappeared and drove us in the exact opposite direction. Then dropped us back at the automotive section when my friend threatened or perhaps attempted to leave the moving vehicle.

Calm: Our crazy visit to the Souk was followed by the utter peace of the hotel Mammounia. A palace. A casino. An oasis.

Average: Dinner Saturday was at Le grand Café de la Poste. Very cool atmosphere. Good service. The mostly French food looked very good, but our tagine was barely average; pretty sure it was never actually baked, just some fish and shrimp stirred into some tomatoes. I have to say the very good local Sauvignon was the best part of the meal.

Over the top beautiful: Les Jardins de Majorelle: oh my! Beautiful warm colors all the way to vibrant blues (oh the blues) yellows and reds.
More fun when shared

In what feels like a jungle
the beautiful cacti

Insulting the cactus
who refuses to be wounded

Inspiration for Yves Saint Laurent
Fascinating: Sunday after our visit to Les Jardins de Majorelle we re-entered The Medina, first passing a very poor cluster of dwellings each with a satellite dish, then walked a long way though the neighborhoods in all their diversity. Our second experience with the Souk was much more successful, and we wondered if it was actually different or if only we had changed. A very special walk around the Medina walls in the cold ended briefly at The Red House, a beautiful hotel and restaurant, worth seeing but not in line with our wants for the finale. We went back to The Hotel Mammounia for a delicious cocktail in a beautiful setting surrounded by beautiful people and warm smiles.

Unpredictable: All set against a backdrop of surprising weather: 20 and sunny on Saturday, and actually sunburn inducing. Cool and rainy on Sunday, requiring us to bundle up. Didn't see that coming.

Maddening: Just a mention that a step back in time may sound charming in a brochure but may not feel so good in reality. Skinny old donkeys hauling heavy loads. Men who would as soon walk over top of you as step aside. Men on motorcycles and women walking. And of course you know about the attire for women, no matter the weather.

Incomprehensible: A man taking a photo of his wife in full burqa. I wonder if either of them will recognize her in the picture. Perhaps he is delighted by her beauty as long as no other man looks upon her.