Saturday, July 27, 2013

We'll always have Paris...

As previously noted in my blog, I was visited by a special guest over the weekend, one Lina Fina.  Carolina arrived on Friday, and I gave her directions to take the train in to the RER stop near my place.  I had spent the days leading up, and that morning finding the accouterments of a proper romantic weekend in a proper romantic city.  Champagne, check. Dark chocolate, check. I got a lovely bouquet for the visiting Swede that morning at a belle flowershop with a kind Portuguese woman who helped this poor colorblind fool get some belle flowers.  I set-up shop waiting for Lina Fina at Cafe Flandrin, the posh cafe at the corner.

Over a cafe and with Hemingway as my companion, I passed the time.  I waited, and I waited.  Time was passing slowly, and I began to worry a bit that Lina had gotten lost.  A nice couple sat next to me from Scotland, and we chatted.  He was an architect; she was a trapeze artists who was worried that she would not be in shape for such acrobatics after a rich vacation in Paris.  They had been dying in the Paris summer heat, and I just laughed and told them of the Iraqi summer.  They departed and I continued to wait for my Scandinavian Godot.

As the third hour hit, I got an apertif to calm my worries.  A Ricard, the green pastis of anis flair.  I picked at brine olives and salty peanuts as my nerves waxed and waned.

Finally Lina arrived.  What I did not know when giving directions was that the RER train was under repair between Gare Austerlitz and Invalides.  She got a bit lost in the transfer.

After a cheerful reunion and a coffee, we departed the cafe to my apartment for some champagne to cool off in the hot afternoon.  We grabbed a chilled bottle of white wine, and some pesto and made our way to the markets to get the trappings of a picnic.

We stopped at the boulangerie for a fresh baguette, pain au chocolate and pain au rasin, and the store for some stinky cheeses (a semi-soft, semi-sharp chevre, a stinktastic blue roquefort and the delicious subtle, banned mimoulete), a tomato and some delicious salads consisting of the delicious grated carrottes râpées and purple garlic beets.

With picnic products secured, we made our way down to Trocodero to the square overlooking Le Tour Eiffel, stopping for a cliche pic.  We descended down the hill and over to Monsieur Eiffel's tower.  We headed over to the grassy knoll on the eastern side of the tower and sat on the grassy shade.  The picnic was perfect.  The pesto combined perfectly with the chevre; the mimolette and garlic purple beets were fanstastic; the rich roquefort tempered by the ripe tomato.  We sipped arbor gold and caught up under the tower's shade.  The afternoon slip-slided away.  I think we say the Tour de France pass by.

At some point I needed to use the bathroom.  I walked over to the toilet, but they were closing it for cleaning.  But I still saw people on line.  As I was walking away I noticed a handicapped elevator.  I furtively hopped the descender down to the bathroom but the security guard caught me.  He was about to send me away again, but I heard him mumble something in Arabic, so I launched into North African Arabic greetings.  He laughed, pointed to the bathroom and said yalla.  When I came out, we chatted and he laughed that an American could speak his lourgha.

After the picnic we made our way down to the Seine and then back to my apartment for an afternoon nap.

In the evening, we headed over to Quartier Latin to find some dinner.  We had a hankering for Lebanese cuisine, but were unable to find any Lebanese restaurants.  There were kebab shops, and Moroccan restaurants, but nothing of the Levant.  We kept wandering, sure we would find something.  I asked a few kebab shops in Arabic where there was a Lebanese restaurant.  Everyone kept pointing us in the same direction, so we shouldered on- hungry but determined to find some mezze.

Find it we, we finally did.  After a long search, we came upon Restaurant Loubnane.  Serendib, indeedWe sat outside in the cool night's breeze that sent the white table cloth's corners off in the wind like sails on a corsair.  I chatted with the waiter in Arabic, and ordered us a mezze and some rich Kasra Lebanese red wine.  The mini plates began arriving, and our search was rewarded.  Creamy humus with chickpeas on top; suave, garlicky baba ghanouj; the refreshing taboule; delicious fried kibbe (ground beef and mint in a cracked bulgar wheat shell); garlic, rosemary chicken wings covered in lemon; a grilled chicken pastilla; little spinach and meat pies.  We noshed and drank the red wine until the place closed its doors. On the way back, we found schools of young French fishies hanging on the banks of the Seine, singing and drinking.  We stopped to listen to the revelry, and sang along with the crowds.  We caught the last train back on a grand first day.

On Saturday we took a stroll down to the beautiful Petit Palais, which doubles as the Musee de Beaux Artes.

On the walk, we came upon a lovely open air market in the center of Ave du President Wilson.  We strolled through the sun-lit market, which was a collage of colors and flavors. Red cherries, green peppers, yellow squash. A sea of flowers. The brackish smell of the fishmongers fare- the faces of the fish with their glassy eyes looking over glaciers of ice.  Schools of gamboas et langostinos.  The pungent whiff of rich cheeses floating on the wind.  The comforting smells of the Lebanese bakery.  Strings of white lights to line the stalls.  White dishes of green and black olives swimming in a sea of oil.  The soft banter of French punctuating the quiet morning.

Dulicilina's enduring, endearing memories of the market was the rosy red tomatoes, the yellow scene of the honey merchant who wanted a picture with the belle Swede and the lil yellow zucchini fingers. She spoke of the perfect hint of lavande on the wind and the smell of burnt cheese grilling in paninis.

I was taken by the lil samples: the subtle richness of the foie gras; the sweet watermelon- something we both loved.

We continued our meandering to an op-en air cafe Le Grande Corona for a coffee and a taste of cherries

We continued our meandering over to the Petit Palais, which was refreshingly free.  And the collection was terrific.

The beaux palace was built for the Paris Expo, and I remain consistently amazed by the public diplomacy imprint left on fair Paris from that cultural diplomacy exposition.

The museum itself had a phenomenal collection that began in antiquity, passing through the Middle Ages and onto the Romantic era.   There were phenomenal impressionist paintings from Courebet and the other masters.  My favorite piece was this statue:

Two Francs for whoever can name her fair profession.  Hint: it isn't with the circus....

After an exhausting romp through belle arte, we stopped for a cafe in the lovely gardens.

From the museum, we headed on to Invalides for a perfect picnic.  The picnic under the golden glow of the resplendent dome was perfect.  A fresh baguette and some nice red wine.  The trifecta of mimoulette, chevre and roquefort.  The leftover beet and carrot salads.  A boiled oeuf.  The remaining cherries from the morning market.

Lina and I chatted over the delicious fare.  Alas, it does not appear that the soft power persuasion of the Chief Rabbi of Lesotho, Tajikistan and La Mancha could convince those of the Nordic persuasion to join the tribe.  The desert sands are just too hot for the Scandinavians.  Perhaps in a next life.  If our karma is good, perhaps in our next lives when we are cows in India.  Moo, mu.

As we were chatting, she mentioned her Monday return.  Monday? I had in my head that she was leaving Sunday.  Suddenly I was gifted with another day with Lina.  I beamed.

After the long lunch, we headed on to the Rodin Museum.  Ever a world of thinkers.  As I previously mentioned, I furtively snuck a touch of the Hand of God.

Afterwards, we headed back to my apartment to nap and freshen up before dinner.  Dinner was my coup d'grace of the weekend, at a fantastic place called Bel Canto.  Bel Canto is not just some ordinary fancy restaurant, but the surprise is that all the waiters and waitresses are opera singers.  After the garcon put down his tray, and began to belt operatic, I smiled and said: surprise.  My surprise was indeed well-received; Lina whispered: I love opera.

We sipped champagne and ate flaky butter crusts with salty egg creme broulee. The appetizers that came with the prefixe meal were excellent.  I had a Bavarois d’asperges vertes, saumon fumé d'Ecosse sur biscuit de tomates marinées (Asparagus “bavarois” with smoked Scottish salmon marinated tomato tart) that was absolutely delicious.  The smoked salmon worked perfectly and delicately with the tomato tart.  Lina had Verrine de melon en gelée agar agar  e pommes vertes, toasts de jambon "Serrano" affiné, kind-of a frozen melon and apple dish with serrano ham.  She offered me a taste, and for the first time in over a decade, I tried ham on purpose.  Not gonna lie, it was delicious.  And I haven't been struck down yet.  But not getting off the kosher wagon.  But why grandma warned about the shiksas...

For dinner I had Carré d’agneau rôti, artichauts poivrades sur lit d’épinard, jus de cuisson- a succulent medium rare roasted rack of lamb, with artichokes hearts and little potatoes on fresh spinach in au jus.  Lina had a delicious Filet de turbot & tian de légumes de saison sauce safranée-turbot fish & vegetables in a light saffron sauce.  We ate slowly, sipping a delicate petit chablis as the singers filled the room with arias.  As Lina pointed out, when you normally see an opera show, they are on the stage and you are looking on; this was different, the opera was literally up close and personal, coming at you at your table.

We spoke of family, of my father's birthday (and that of Hemingway) the next day.  I told her of the Rockower Brothers empire, of the famous Groucho letter (you bet your life...).  I was speaking of my Grandfather Harry- the patriarch, and his love of opera.  As I was telling her of him, I realized this: it was his yahrtzeit-  the anniversary of his death some thirty three years ago.  Suddenly, I got this warm feeling, as if his presence was with me.  He loved opera, and would have loved such an evening, and I could feel it.

Lina spoke of her own grandfather.  She spoke of his death, and how she as a graphic designer had designed the program for his memorial.  In the program, she had designed the image of a koltrast (un merle, a European black bird) that he had so loved.  She told me that during his memorial service, she looked out the window at a tree outside the church.  On the branches were scores of the koltrast, quietly looking in on the service.

The music and courses continued.  To compliment the arias, we had a dessert of a plate of cheese (soft chevre, mild brie and strong blue cheese)  and a mi cuit au chocolat noir Guayaquil & crème praliné- a warm chocolate cake with a center of black chocolateness.  We mixed the chocolate cake and custard creme with the various cheeses to see which accentuated the best.  The chocolate cake and the chevre worked well, and the neutral brie highlighted the chocolate.  The rich chocolate and rich blue cheese were too strong for each other, but the blue cheese dipped in praline cream highlighted the blue cheese's strength.  She sipped espresso, and I cleared the palate with the clear warmth of grappa.   As predicted, we were the last to leave the Bel Canto.  As we left, we chatted with an old man who had been hosting a whole slew of his family for his brother's birthday.  He spoke a little Spanish, and wished us well: Hasta La Vista, baby!

We slid out into the night and carried out a constitutional down to the quiet Louvre.  We sat out on the marble steps, staring at the glass pyramid and the beacon light of Le Tour Eiffel.  One of the more perfect days in my many days on this earth.

On Sunday, Lina and I headed to the market to get the trappings of shakshouka and I made a delicious brunch of the Israeli-Algerian egg dish that we scooped with a fresh baguette.  After brunch, we went to the Palais de Tokyo for some modern and contemporary art.  Some was interesting, some was weird.  As modern art is not always my taste, some of it missed me.  But there were some interesting exhibits,  like a robotic arm twirling a light baton.  My favorite piece was a sea of silver balloons, both hanging from the ceiling and attached from the floor.  You were able to walk through the sea of balloons, it felt like being caught in a pachinko machine.  It reminded me a bit of the clouds of the Warhol museum.  After the museum, we sat out on the hot day in the museum's terrace sipping coffee and trying to beat the heat.

After the musuem, we headed over to Montmartre and wandered through the alleyways before heading up to the white-merringued neo-Byzantine domes of Sacre Coeur basilica.  We sat silently in the sanctuary for a while, trying to digest both the sacred and profane nature of a church and tourist landmark.

Afterwards, we ascended the 300 winding steps to the dome of the basilica to take in Paris from the highest part of the city.  The view from on high of Paris was beautiful, and the evening winds made the dome delightful.  We rounded and rounded the dome, taking pictures and enjoying the view.

After we descended back down, we wandered back through the alleys and over to Cafe de Deux Moulins, of Amelie fame. Le fabuleux destin d'Paul Rockower.  We had dinner at the quaint cafe, and soaked in the Amelie ambience.  I had a delicious poulet roti (grilled chicken) with a side of purée (mashed potatoes), while Lina had a cesar salad with all the necessary trappings.

On our way back, we stumbled upon the Tour de France.  Oui, really.  The race (sans Lance) was nearing its conclusion at the Arc d' Triomphe, and we caught the cyclists passing by on Rue de Rivoli.  Those guys are fast.  After the passing storm of cyclists, we sat out in a cafe to rehydrate as the night's breeze cooled us down. 

Monday came, and we continued the picnic feasts.  We took some jus d' pamplemouse (grapefruit), the remaining troika of cheeses, a jar of moutarde and a fresh poppy-covered baguette from the boulangerie.  We meandered through the jardin de Raneleagh and I took her over to the Bois de Boulogne- the large park just minutes from my apartment.  We hiked by the riverside and I led her over to the nice waterfall that I love.  Just as we were arriving to the waterfall, the black-winged koltrast appeared in our path.  I think we both got chills.  It gave its meliflious caw and then flew away.  We sat on the large rock over the falls, and picnicked to the sound of the rushing water and the soft winds.  Lina found another waterfall hidden in the forest that I had not previously seen.  After a while, we headed back down from the falls, and fed the ducks and black, white-billed coots some of the leftover bread.

Lina packed up her stuff, and we took the bus down to Sant Michel to catch the RER.  Before she headed out, we had one last Paris goodie: a delicious nutella and banana crepe that punctuated the end of a perfect weekend.  As Lina left...cue the Bogart, I said: we'll always have Paris. She smiled and said, we'll always have Paris and Panama.

Au revoir, Dulcilina this Quixote misses your warm spirit and gentle smile.  Oui, we'll always have Paris and Panama.

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