Saturday, February 28, 2009
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Yesterday, we climbed to 3,000 meters (9,750 ft). From that vantage point, our gaze skimmed easily over the few ranges separating us from Mont Blanc, or Monte Bianco, Western Europe’s highest peak at 4,810 m (15,781 ft) on the French-Italian border. Clouds hung, grey and full, down in the valleys below us, like a wild foamy sea. We were on top of the world!
That is, until the white-out blew in…
View of Val Thorens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Haute Savoie, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
We had the long, wide alpine runs all to ourselves, our very own giant slalom course.
On the third trip up back up to the ridge summit, however, hanging in an open chairlift exposed to the elements, a fierce wind moved against us and the clouds rolled in, literally. It was a white-out. We couldn’t see a thing.
From the summit, we had no choice but to make a short uphill climb on our skis, so as to descend back into Valtho in the Belleville valley. The wind whipped at our faces, making it impossible to move forward against gravity. At one point, it appeared to throw Lily backward into the snow. Our fingertips and toes turned instantly to icicles. The girls could not hear me shouting, even though they were mere feet from me. “Go!” I said, “Ski down as far as you have to until you’re protected from the wind.”
Fortunately it didn’t take long to get out of the wind, but we were enveloped in clouds thick with snow. We continued in tandem, each of us keeping at least one other in view, creating a singular rhythm while trusting the mountain to guide us. It was very Zen. From time to time another skier would appear in the periphery, then just as quickly disappear again. We could've been the only skiers in the whole of the Trois Vallées. We could've been the only people in the world.
When we reached the bottom, we were exhilarated. We’d made it safely down 700 meters through an alpine blizzard. We deserved a warm fire and some sustenance, a fine time to tuck into a hearty Savoyard Tartiflette and a glass of hot-mulled wine!
Trois Vallées chairlift above the clouds, Courtesy of Sarah B. Towle.
Tartiflette, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Down the hill from our apartment building, we crossed our neighborhood Parc St. Perrine and caught the 72 bus, whose route follows the Seine from the southern 16th arrondissement to the center of Paris. It offers perhaps the cheapest way to see the most stunning views of Paris as it passes the Eiffel Tower and Trocadero, Place de la Concorde and Tuileries Gardens, the Musée d’Orsay and Musée du Louvre, Ile de La Cité and the Conciergerie, before stopping directly in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ city hall, its final destination.
Needless to say, the 72 is our favorite route to town from our quiet corner of the city. But on this day we stopped about half-way, at the site of three other famous Paris monuments: the Alexandre III Bridge, Grand and Petit Palais, all three built for the 1900 World’s Fair.
The Grand Palais is one of Paris’ most exquisite buildings. Part Beaux-Arts, part Art Nouveau in style, it was built as an exhibition hall and remains one today. Its imposing neo-classical stone exterior gives way to an impressive webbed dome of glass and metal. On the inside, the Art Nouveau structure of sculpted iron sweeps delicately and dramatically toward the sky, making you the feel as if you could lift off and fly. It is the perfect place to view an art exhibition.
The exhibit we had come to see that day:
6 milliards d’Autres (in English: 6 billion Others). It is a must-see.
Conceived by famed French photographer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand in collaboration with GoodPlanet Association, 6 milliards d’Autres is a monumental attempt to foster common understandings amongst fellow human beings. Using 21st century technological tools, the project forges human connections across language, culture, frontier, and creed. It punctuates the universality of humankind through numerous beautifully edited video montages of interviews with 6,000 people from 65 cultures from the four corners of the world.
All the interviewees were asked the same questions concerning human issues, emotions, and values. What is happiness? What is the meaning of life? What is your greatest fear? The intimacy and honesty of their responses reveal not simply the commonality of human existence, but also the power of listening, of allowing someone to be heard. From the participants, we discover that, at base, people the world over feel and desire and believe in very similar things. The wisdom of the bushman, the fears of the refugee, and the joys of young mother of three, compel us to look inside ourselves and search for answers to the same questions. Through listening, spectators become participants as well, and like those interviewed, we are changed by the experience. We leave the exhibit seeing both self and other in a new light.
The experience reminds us, too, that we are not alone on the earth, and that to solve the great ills of our time - climate change, poverty, war, AIDS - we must all work as one. In the words of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, “There are over six billion of us on this earth and there is no chance of any kind of sustainable development if we can’t manage to live together.”
The exhibition has now left Paris to travel the world. You may not get to see it in the Grand Palais as I did, but I urge you to buy a multiple-entry ticket the minute you hear that 6 billion Others is coming to your town. You won’t regret taking part in this example of living history.
Exterior of the Grand Palais and the Pont Alexandre III courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Interior of the Grand Palais courtesy of Sarah B. Towle, 2009.
Monday, February 16, 2009
We maneuver the bikes onto the RER-C and hop off at Versailles Rive-Gauche. We turn right out of the station and follow the road to the top of the hill and the double-wide Ave de Paris, which dates back to the reign of Louis XIV. Turning left, you immediately see the sprawling Chateau de Versailles before you; as you get closer, you see as well the rows of tour buses and crowds of tourists queuing up to buy Chateau tickets. But we know better.
We follow the road to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, down a hill, and turn right at the light, all the time circumnavigating the Chateau edifice. We pass between the Orangerie and the Swiss pool; we ride the length of the bosquéts (groves) installed by Le Notre in the late 17th century. When we reach the first grand wrought-iron-and-gilt gate that is open to the public, we cross into the 2,000-acre Versailles Park that extends beyond the splendid palace of the Sun King and his successors.
From here one can ride and ride, looping around the four arms of the Grand Canal to the Grand Trianon to the Petit Trianon and back toward the Chateau again without having to stop at a traffic light or travel the same route twice. At the base of the formal gardens, we lock up our bikes. From here, we choose an area of Le Notre’s creation to explore, preferably one we’ve never seen before: yesterday we wandered the avenues and groves of the south Garden.
From the Apollo Fountain, we cut diagonally through the Colonnade Grove and followed the Bacchus and Saturn Avenues with their whimsical fountain sculptures until we reached the Queen’s Grove. There, we learned from a plaque that this grove was not constructed by Le Notre at all, but had been replanted in 1775-76, replacing a “famous Labyrinth depicting 39 Aesop’s fables following an idea by Charles Perrault, the author of Mother Goose stories”.
Did you know Mother Goose was a Frenchman? I didn’t. But it’s true!
In 1697, Charles Perrault published Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralitiés: Les contes de ma mère l'oie (Stories or Tales from Time Past, with Morals: The Stories of my Mother the Goose). He did not invent the stories. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Puss-in-Boots – these had a long oral tradition, passing from generation to generation among the French common folk. What Perrault did was to elevate his characters from the cottage to the Palace and dress them in fine clothes to give them a new audience, the Versailles Court, while letting the simplicity of the morals speak for themselves. In so doing, he laid down the foundations for a new type of literary genre, one that continues to endure the world over today: it's called, the Fairy Tale.
Perrault, Charles. The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. With Sally Holmes, Neil Philip, and Nicoletta Simborowski. New York, Clarion Books: 1993.
Map of Versailles in 1789 from William R Shepherd's Historical Atlas.
Illustration from Perrault’s Mother Goose Stories by Gustave Doré (1832-1883), French artist, engraver, illustrator and sculptor.
Charles Perrault, by Philippe Lallemand (1636–1716), French portrait painter.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
The Parisii built their huts and grew their crops and tended their livestock on their river islands. They fished from the river whose banks defended them against intruders; the river was their moat. For two centuries, from the 3rd century to 52 BC, the Parisii thrived on their island home. The Sicauna, which is argued to mean "sacred river", provided for their every need.
Then one day, a warrior came upon the quiet community. He was traveling from Rome to the place we now call England, conquering the Gauls along the way. He sent Roman citizens to colonize the settlement. His name was Julius Caesar and he called this colony Lutetia, meaning “mid-water dwelling”; the river's name was latinized to Sequana and would eventually come to be called the Seine.
Throughout the centuries of Roman rule, Lutetia grew. Bursting her island banks, she spilled across the south side of the river. A town emerged with a population of 8,000, served by an aqueduct, thermal baths, a Forum, an amphitheatre, and a gladiator arena. The largest of the five islands became home to a Roman Palace. A wide road, straight as an arrow, bisected the island, cutting a line from England to Rome to join the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. A portion of the road still exists today as the rue St. Jacques in Paris' Latin Quarter.
Four hundred years later, in the 4th century AD, Roman Emperor Julian visited Lutetia and it pleased him. He found winter there pleasantly mild and the water of the Siene sweet to drink. He stayed in Lutetia for three years. Shortly thereafter, the Roman Empire fell. The Franks, a Germanic people from Francia north of the Rhine, captured and Christianized Roman Lutetia. In 360 AD, the Franks renamed their new city Paris, in honor of the original inhabitants.
From a small Gallic settlement to a regional Roman town to the multicultural capital of a modern European state, Paris is today one the world's most visited cities and the city I now call “home”.
Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris: Portrain of a City. London: Pan Books, 2003.
Jones, Colin. Paris: Biography of a City. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
Paris Coat of Arms, is usually accompanyied by the motto: Fluctuat nec mergitur, which means in Latin, "She is tossed by the waves, but is not sunk". Both originate with the river Seine boatsman's corporation, a powerful guild that ruled the city's trade and commerce as early as the Roman era.
Bust of Julius Caesar. Remastered from Alfred von Domaszewski Geschichte der Romischen Kaiser Verlag von Quelle & Meyer in Leipzig 1914.
Section of a map of Roman Paris, after Crypte Archéologique 2005, Paris; MacKendrick 1972.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
February, 1547: Belon left the mission to explore the plant life of the Greek Islands. He obtained there the first of his many discoveries: a sticky, brown resin used to make perfumes. The Greeks collected the resin by driving goats into the forests overgrown with labdanum bushes. Then, they scraped the resin from the beasts' coats, using a special wooden comb with long, straight teeth. It was difficult work done only in summer, under the murderous heat of the Mediterranean sun. This made the resin rare and, unbeknownst to Belon, quite valuable.
One evening in 1564, while out walking his land – perhaps laying out his fruit orchards and medicinal herb groves in his mind – Belon was attacked a final time. Run through by the blade of an unknown assailant, Belon was dispatched. Some said it was thieves, others called it a tragic accident; but friends believed that Belon was silenced…deliberately.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Don’t believe it. It’s a mis-attribution, if it was ever uttered at all.
Some historians attribute this phrase to Maria Teresa, the Spanish Infanta who married Louis XIV more than 100 years before. Others say it was never spoken, but written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in book six of his 12-volume autobiographical work, Confessions. He writes:
At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat pastry!’
Of course, Rousseau may have been thinking of Maria Teresa, he didn't say. But since Marie-Antoinette arrived at the Palace of Versailles in 1770, three years after Rousseau had published the above passage, whoever the "great princess" was that he recollected, it was certainly not Marie-Antoinette.
History has always seen its share of spin-doctoring. Either this phrase was falsely attributed to Marie-Antoinette during the French Revolution expressly to make her look bad. Or it made her look bad after-the-fact in its English translation. Let me explain:
The French phrase was: "qu'ils mangent de la brioche”, and could just as well have meant, “Then let them buy brioche for the same price as bread.” This would have allowed the poor to enjoy what would otherwise have been unaffordable. A sensible solution during a bread shortage, Non?
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. London: Phoenix Paperbacks, 2001.
Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (16 April 1755 - 30 March 1842) is recognized as the most famous woman painter of the 18th century. She was a personal favorite of Marie-Antoinette and painted many images of the Queen.
Monday, February 2, 2009
First, it was the Roman celebration of Pan (or Faunus), the Greek god of shepherds and flocks, (the one often pictured playing a flute whose hindquarters, legs, and horns resemble those of a goat). The Romans recognized Pan as the protector of fields, groves, and wooded, mountain glens and connected him to the coming of spring and a healthy harvest. Romans danced throughout the night in his honor, careful to keep their torches alight to welcome Pan back from the slumber of winter.
As Christianity swept through Europe, religious leaders renamed and repurposed the pagan holidays. In 472, Pope Gelase I renamed the festival Candlemas, proclaiming it the day of the presentation of the baby Jesus, forty days after birth. (It was customary in ancient times for new mothers and their babies to remain sequestered for 40 days.)
As the festival to Pan gave way to Candlemas, so too did torches give way to candles. Tall, tapered candles, les chandelles in French, took on the symbolism of Jesus as the bringer of light. Candlelit processions were organized from churches at sunset on February 2nd. Each person carried home his or her own candle, keeping it lit along the way. The family would then feast on crêpes, their round shape evoking the return of the sun after the dark of winter, another co-opted pagan symbol. The peasants believed that if they did not eat crêpes on la Chandeleur, their harvests would not be plentiful in the coming year.
Over the years, money entered the symbolism: some wrapped a gold coin in the first crêpe and left it on the top of an armoire until the following Candlemas when they gave the coin to the poor. Today, many people make their crêpes one-handed, flipping the crêpe pan while holding a coin in the other hand. If the cook manages to catch the crêpe, the family is assured prosperity throughout the year.
But most of us just see la Chandeleur as a nice opportunity to eat a lot of crêpes with family and friends. We start with crêpes stuffed with meat and grilled vegetables or cheese, and finish with crêpes made with nutella and banana, or sugar and lemon, or fruit confiture (jam), all topped with lots and lots of chantilly (whipped cream). The more you eat, they say, the more prosperous your year will be!
There are many French proverbs associated with la Chandeleur. This one is reminiscent of Groundhog Day in the US and Canada (could there be a connection?):
A la Chandeleur, l’hiver cesse ou reprend vigueur,
A la Chandeleur, le jour croit de deux heures.
Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte,
Rosée a la Chandeleur, hiver a sa dernière heure.
On Candlemas, winter ends or strengthens,
On Candlemas, the day grows by two hours.
Candlemas covered in snow, forty days lost,
Dew on Candlemas, winter is at its final hour.
Le Petit Journal, cover page, February 1911. Le Petit Journal was a Parisian daily published from 1863 to 1944.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
The bean, called cacao, had been used by the Mayan and Aztec people of the Americas for centuries. With it, they made xocoatl (cho-co-at-l), meaning bitter (xoco) water (atl): a sacred drink used for ritual and ceremonial purposes. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived on the South American continent in the 1500’s, they quickly became addicted to xocoatl. It was said to provide them with a heightened sense of energy. They brought the cacao bean to Europe in the holds of their Galleons, alongside their treasures of silver and gold – that’s how highly they valued their discovery. In Spain, the drink was transformed into a sweeter confection, more suitable to European tastes. Its name was transformed as well into “chocolate”.
The 22-year old Spanish princess loved her daily hot chocolate so much that she also brought to Paris a servant to prepare it. La Molina, or the whisk, was renowned for her ability to whip hot chocolate into a light froth. Soon, the drink became all the rage with the ladies of the French Court. La Molina was tasked with instructing others in its preparation.
One day, a clever young apprentice thought to serve the whipped chocolate cooled and molded into pretty bite-sized morsels. These were so delicious that the Court ladies dubbed them not merely bon, meaning ‘good’, but bonbon, meaning ‘doubly good’. This is the origin of the moniker “bonbon” to refer to a sweet treat.
Thus, a new artisanal profession was born at the Court of Louis XIV: the Chocolatier. In no time the Ladies of the Louvre Palace were enjoying their chocolate bonbons served and stored in decorative boxes. They offered their bonbons to others as a sign of courtesy and a gesture of distinction and good taste. One knew if they had fallen out of favor with the King, however, if they were not treated to bonbon by a Lady.
Museu de la Xocolata, Barcelona
The Chocolate Girl, Jean-Étienne Liotard, Swiss-French painter (1702 – 1789).