Saturday, October 31, 2009

Early morning on the Pont des Arts

There was a time - and it doesn't seem that long ago - when I would be one hundred times more likely to see sunrise over the Seine at the end of a big night painting the town rouge. This morning, I experienced dawn's crack on the arm of my 18-month-old son, as we scarpered from the apartment to give his long suffering mum a precious extra hour's sleep.
It was cold, the Pantheon was shrouded in early morning mist and the normally buzzing streets were deserted. My little man and I stood on the Pont des Arts for as long as the cold allowed, watching the occasional boat sluice its way up the river. The Seine was as still as the proverbial mill pond. The city was shaking itself out of its slumber and preparing for itself for another crisp, late autumn day. And I thought about the time in my life when sunrises were only ever the backdrop to a scurry home after a big night out. And as fond as those memories are, I found myself relieved those days are (mostly) behind me. They were a pleasure to experience and I don't regret a second, but neither do I need to relive them. And while initially the prospect of dragging myself and the little fella out of the warmth of the apartment and into the cold filled me with dread, I soon discovered early morning Paris offers up a world of delights.
Does it mean I'm getting older? Probably. Does it mean I have matured? I hope not. At least not too much...
And just because I like the photo, see below a snap I took the other night from my other favourite Parisian bridge, the Pont Alexandre III. You've got to hand it to the old dame Paris, she sure does scrub up well.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Public Service Announcement: Tourists to Paris! Beware the gold ring scam

So I was walking through the Tuileries this morning, on my daily consitutional stroll, when I saw a couple of tourists looking quizzically at a woman who had just handed them a gold ring.
What I knew, and they clearly didn't, was that they were about to be ripped off. They were about to be taken for a ride, scammed, cheated out of money. And so, donning my good samaritan hat (because I hate to see tourists in Paris being taken advantage of), I intervened and informed them they were about to fall victim to one of the most popular tourist scams currently infecting Paris.
And so it occurred to me to blog about it, in the event it saves any tourists currently in the City of Light - or any planning a vacation here soon - from being ripped off.
The scam goes something like this.
You will be walking along the street/through the gardens, engrossed in the beauty of your Parisian surroundings, when out of the corner of your eye, you spy a person bend down and pick something up. That person will make a loud exclamation, indicating how "surprised" they are. They will then approach you, holding up a gold ring, and ask if it belongs to you. You will say no and they will continue to feign surprise before insisting you take the ring. They will then ask for a sum of money - presumably in return for the gold ring they found, but have magnanimously handed over to you. A gold ring which, coincidentally, is a piece of polished plastic.
Now, I don't really understand how or why this scam would work. Why would people take a ring that wasn't theirs and then hand money over to the stranger that found it? It doesn't make sense. But given the number of times I have seen it unfolding on the Paris streets (especially in high-traffic tourist areas) it's a scam that obviously does work.
Tell your family, tell your friends. Tell anyone planning a trip to Paris to beware the gold ring scam...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Writers At The Residence - a night at the British Embassy

Greetings Bloggettes.
Firstly, apologies for the infrequent nature of these postings. I am working feverishly to complete the manuscript of book two, am working to meet a fast-approaching deadline, and hence haven't had time to blog. My humblest apologies.
I tend to go into a bit of a tunnel when I am in writing mode. I put the blinkers on, turn off the phone, disconnect the internet, desist from looking at email or Twitter - and just try to focus.
I did surface briefly last night, however, to participate in a charity fundraiser at the British Embassy here in Paris. It was such a good night and for such a good cause, that I have even broken my self-imposed blog embargo to share a little bit of it with y'all.
I was part of a panel of Paris-based authors for an event at the UK Embassy called Writers At The Residence. Organised by UK Ambassadress, Lady Westmacott, to raise funds for the excellent local charity organisation, SOS Helpline, the event also featured fellow scribblers Heather Stimmler-Hall (Naughty Paris Guide), Alex Lobrano (Hungry for Paris), Stephen Clarke (A Year In The Merde), Charles Timoney (A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi) and Michael Sadler (An Englishman Amoreux).
Before an attentive, generous audience of some 200 British, American and Australian expats in Paris (plus a handful of indulgent French) - and in a room of the Embassy that re-defined the meaning of the word "sumptuous" - the panel members (yours truly included) yammered on for an hour or so about French stereotypes, the worldwide fascination with France and the state of the French food industry.
From Heather we learned the French reputation as excellent lovers was not always deserved (she tactfully declined to reveal how she knew this), from Alex we gleaned that France is still the world capital of inventive, innovative cuisine, from Charles we learned how his French colleagues gather at his office door at 5pm every day in anticipation of him "taking tea" (as all good Englishmen should), from Stephen we heard how proud his mother was that the French word for "pooh" had become his trademark and from Michael we were treated to the spectacle of an old-school raconteur in full flight.
A rollicking good time appeared to be had by all (at least from where I was sitting), plenty of money was raised for the SOS Helpline and no-one got hurt (except, perhaps, for the collective dignity and pride of the French nation, so insistent were the parries and thrusts from those of us who make a buck poking fun at or otherwise highlighting the apparent absurdity of some of their quirkier habits).
Heather was moved to remark after the event that the six of us ought to take our show on the road. So there it is people: we're available for hire. Weddings, parties, bat mitzvahs..

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Samson & Delilah - a cinematic tour de force

As an Australian in Paris, I'm about as far removed from my sunburnt homeland as it is geographically possible to be. But that doesn't mean the heart-strings don't occasionally twang for the wide brown land. Bouts of nostalgia for Australia come in regular waves (more regular, in fact, the longer I live here in Paris) - and there's often nothing I like better than to take a break from all this European refinement and haute culture and lose myself in the raw, unwieldy, unchecked majesty of my sprawling country of birth.
One such bout of nostalgia sent me off to a cinema on the Left Bank last week to see a press screening of the Australian film, Samson & Delilah. And while it would be difficult to describe the experience as uplifting, I challenge anyone to go and watch this excellent film and not come away having been moved by it.
It's a simple, yet powerful tale, masterfully told. First time writer/director, Warwick Thornton follows the film's two protagonists, a pair of Aboriginal kids living in a run-down community in Central Australia. Against a backdrop of neglect, a most unlikely love story plays out - one that speaks as much to the resilience of Australia's Aborigines as it does to the casual cruelty with which they are forced to live everyday.
The portrait painted of modern Australia and its relationship (or, rather lack thereof) with its indigenous people is shocking. You feel the sense of hopelessness with which these kids confront their futures - lives stunted even before they have had a chance to begin. And yet, and yet - Thornton doesn't let the credits roll without offering up a glimmer of hope.
The performances are inspired - especially that turned in by Delilah (Marissa Gibson). You can count the lines of dialogue on one hand. In this film, the power lies very definitely in what is not said. And the cinematography is sumptious, making it a well-deserved recipient of the Camera d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
The film's designer, Daran Fulham (of Syriana and Blood Diamond fame) deserves a special shout out for creating an on-screen ambience you can practically smell and feel. The grit practically falls off the silver screen.
It will be interesting to see how this film plays to French audiences. Paris movie-goers are famous cinephiles, so there's little doubt it will be lapped up for its many cinematic virtues. The French are also unusually interested in the plight of Australia's Aborigines. Many is the time I have been quizzed by locals interested in the Aboriginal story. If the French media dedicate any air time or column space at all to Australia, it is more often than not to explore the Aboriginal predicament. Samson & Delilah will doubtless go some way to feeding that fascination.
You can always tell you've been to a good film if it haunts you for days afterwards. Samson & Delilah has enormous haunt potential. And while it may not be the kind of film to make an ex-pat Aussie like me hanker for the homeland, it is a vital story, expertly told - and a movie to make this Australian proud of the talented folk his country has a happy habit of producing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Top tips for a budget pig out in Paris

One of the great joys of living in Paris is the seemingly inexhaustive supply of amazing places to eat. I’ve been here ten years, and until yesterday, thought I had a relatively good handle on the gastronomic pleasures to be sampled and supped in this fair city. But then the most recent edition of Olive magazine arrived in the mail. Olive is food and wine magazine published in the UK by the BBC. The good folk at Olive had asked me to contribute to an feature they were preparing for this month’s issue on navigating your way around “Bargain Paris” - the best places to eat and drink on a budget. Why they assumed an author and journalist would know how to live cheaply in the City of Light, I cannot begin to imagine. I managed to deflect the slight that I am a cheapskate long enough to churn out 800 words of sterling copy on the subject of cheap eats in Paris – almost every one of which is now appearing in an Olive mag near you.
What I discovered this morning as I read through the article, was how little I knew about the broad range of amazing eateries that hide out in this city. The article also features eating-on-a-shoestring tips from fellow Parisian foodies/bloggers/dwellers, Meg Zimbeck, Adrian Moore and Olivier Magny.
Between the three of them, they know a treasure trove of great little cafes, boulangeries, bistros and brasseries where your euro will stretch that little bit further. From Meg’s contribution, I almost had to change shirts after reading about the white chocolate pain au chocolat in the boulangerie Blé Sucré in the 12th. Adrian’s enthusiastic appraisal of Frenchie, the hip new resto off rue Montorgueil had me reaching for the phone to make a reservation, and Olivier (the only French man among us and whose company 'O Chateau' does excellent “Discover French Wine” courses) shared a couple of secrets from his leeetle black book, including restaurants Le Reminet and La Biche Au Bois.
Which goes to show it doesn’t matter how long you have lived here in Paris, or how well you think you know the eating scene, new and interesting places are always coming across your radar. So while my waistline may not thank you – Meg, Adrian and Olivier – my stomach definitely does. Merci.
Oh – and in the interests of fairness to the Olive folk, I will hold off until the end of the month before letting you all in on my top tips for budget eating in Paris ..

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

McDonalds' at the Louvre? It's a tempete in a teacup

So McDonald's have announced plans to open an outlet in the Caroussel du Louvre, the shopping mall underneath the world's most famous temple of art and culture. Quelle horreur!
If the world's press is to be believed, the French are up in arms at the prospect of le Big Mac fighting for floor space with Caravaggio and Da Vinci. According to reports in newspapers all over the world today, les francais are set to take to the streets to stop this most heinous development from taking place.
Which strikes me as rather odd.
France is the second biggest market for McDonald's outside the grand ol' US of A. According to the CEO of Maccas in France, "les restos McDo" (as they are affectionately known here in France) open at a faster rate in la belle France than in any other country in Europe, and the McDonald's store on the Champs Elysées is the most profitable outlet of the hamburger and fry empire in the entire world.
Now, I'm no great fan of the Golden Arches. I find their food frankly hideous and would rather eat cow dung than feat on a McValue Meal (unless of course I have a hideous hangover, in which case, all bets are off). But I can't help but think this apparent mass-outrage on the part of the French - as represented in the international media - is a little exaggerated.
When it comes to fast-food, the French are voting with their hip-pockets. Dominos Pizza sells more than 12 million pizzas in France every year. France is the second biggest market for take away pizza after the US.
As Mike Steinberger, author of the recently published "Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine And The End Of France" points out, the reality of French eating habits sits at odds with the perception of a nation obssessed with food and one that only sups on the finest produce, lovingly prepared according to time-honoured traditions.
I can only speak from experience. Yes, the French eat exceedingly well. Yes, the French are obsessed with food in a way few other nations are (which is undoubtedly one of the great delights of living here) and yes, on balance, the French - collectively - have a much better diet and much healthier eating habits than people in most other Western countries (a combination of readily available, excellent fresh produce, a disinclination to eat processed foods and a healthy lifestyle marked by three meals a day with no snacking in between). But to believe that France and the French are immune to the fast food scourge that is sweeping the world would be simply naive. That's the funny thing about globalization - it has a nasty habit of being, well, global.
As for McDonald's at the Caroussel du Louvre, it's perhaps worth pointing out that the Maccas in question will take its place next to a raft of other fast-food outlets which have been operating under the Mona Lisa for years. Pizza, pasta, salad bars, doner kebabs compete for the tastebuds and wallets of the thousands of tourists who pass through there every year - there's even an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. The Caroussel du Louvre itself is a hopped-up shopping mall - about as tacky a place in central Paris as it is possible for there to be, stuffed to its gills with Swatch stores, Tie Racks and souvenir stalls. If Maccas is going to be situated anywhere near the Louvre, it really couldn't be in better company.
(Cartoon credit: Cathy Wilcox - via the Brisbane Times)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: Quai Quai -- I say oui, oui

It's hard to know what I get more excited about these days. The actual event of sitting down and eating at a restaurant or the fact that I am out at all.
With an 18-month-old doing a convincing job of otherwise filling my every waking hour, plus a book deadline looming (note to my editor: I'm working on it Vanessa - really I am .. even as I type this blog entry, I am forming winning sentences for the book..) it's usually all I can do at night to collapse in front of the telly with a plate of re-heated leftovers from a meal we cooked three nights previously.
Which is why Saturday's visit to Quai Quai - the dead-groovy restaurant perched conveniently on the Pont Neuf - was such a delight.
The Missus and I broke bread with a fellow Aussie couple, and our consta-companion Julien - a Parisian of exceedingly good taste who has been my gastronomic guide to the City of Light for as long as I have been here.
The decor chez Quai Quai depends where you are seated. The restaurant straddles a block, meaning it has two entrances and two distinct dining rooms. One is all romantic-intimatey with muted lighting and cushioned bench seats and a tasteful brown and lime-green interior design motif. The other is more canteen-esque, with simple, mismatched furniture, distressed wooden doors and more muted lighting. We were seated in the rambunctious part of the restaurant (even before we had opened our mouths..) and settled in for a three-course adventure.
The menu is, by bistro standards, both extensive and eminently affordable. Entrées start at around 7 euros and peak at 15. Mains run the back-pocket gamut from 17 euros to 35. A dessert will set you back anywhere from 7 to 12 euros.
The trio who recently opened this eatery are also responsible for Cinq Mars, the equally hip little eatery behind the Musée d'Orsay. They've created menu that is at once traditional and modern. Contemporary twists on ye olde French bistro favourites.
I kicked off proceedings with sardines marinées - which were delicious. The Missus opted for ricotta de grand-mere avec tomates confites, which was presented in a glass pot that could have been style-over-substance were it not for the fact the ricotta was creamy and the tomatoes were plump and juicy. Un demi canard avec sauce champignons was next on my eating agenda, and what a delight it was. After ten years in Paris, I've eaten my fair share of canard, but this dish was prepared and presented in an inventive, attractive way. The Missus went with the lamb, which was okay, without being remarkable. For dessert, I couldn't go past the millefeuille aux framboises, a tasty confection of pastry, raspberries and fresh creme anglaise. Mmmmmmm. The Missus allowed herself to be tempted by the pain perdu - which while tasty, was perhaps a little heavy going for an end of meal option.
It was all washed down by several bottles of a very good red wine - the name of which I will post once I have consulted with Julien.
The service was attentive and friendly, the restaurant was packed with groovy young things (ourselves not included) and the bill was reasonable. Perhaps the best part of the meal though is stepping out the door, onto the Pont Neuf, and taking a post-prandial stroll as you stare up river and drink in one of the most beautiful views in the world.