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My trip is unexpectedly extended until March, so return comments on this site or comments to your blog may be delayed.

Ms Aplomb

If I’m away from home, I go to dinner by myself a lot. In a city for two weeks, you can’t expect long-suffering local colleagues to come out for dinner each night. So my dinner companion is frequently my iPad.

I wanted a slim bag (so it wouldn’t be a problem in the suitcase) large enough to hold an iPad, wallet and few other items (so I don’t have to carry the iPad and another bag, in constant fear of dropping it. My work bag is enormous so that wouldn’t do.

The Longchamp Gatsby clutch bag is available for $395 or €260. It’s made of crocodile- print lambskin with a silver magnetic fastener and blue leopard-print fabric lining. It’s just the right size for an iPad and some other bits and pieces. It’s a trim, neat bag, also available in blue, natural and orange. No shoulder or wrist strap – this is strictly a clutch.

Longchamp Gatsby clutch

I like this image from the Longchamp website. The video features Coco Rocha grooving during the security patdown.

Longchamp campaign

If money was no object I would probably have opted for a Balenciaga bag like this envelope clutch with the “giant” studs. At $1045 or €725 it’s more than double the Longchamp bag. Since it’s available in a bunch of colours, maybe I’ll buy one in the future if I’m feeling flush. For now I’m very happy with my more modestly priced Longchamp.

Balenciaga envelope bag

death: a self-portrait

February 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

Dial back time a few weeks… it is a Sunday morning. I have been in London less than 24 hours and I am trudging along the Euston Road to the Wellcome Collection gallery. Generally, I’m not invulnerable to jet lag, but the effects are confined to difficulty getting to sleep and the unpleasant shock of having to wake up. This trip, for some reason, I feel like I have been beaten about the head and shoulders with a stick. I have resisted the temptation to lie in my hotel room watching TV and reading the newspapers on my iPad. I am going to the exhibition “Death: a self-portrait“. I do not know that within less than two weeks one of my closest friends will suddenly die. I will be face to face with death much sooner than I suspect.

Henry WellcomeThe Wellcome Collection is a free visitor center funded by a trust established by Sir Henry Wellcome’s will following his death in 1936. Sir Henry was born in Wisconsin, became a pharma salesman in London, and founded the pharma business that still bears his name. He grew a splendid moustache, and amassed a tremendous collection of books, art and medical artifacts: some bought at auction, some collected during his travels around the world.

The Wellcome Collection explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future. There is a permanent exhibition of art and objects, and a changing special exhibition with themes connected to humanity, life and its processes. The special exhibition “Death: a self portrait” contains objects collected by Richard Harris and assembled into an exploration of the iconography of death and our complex and contradictory attitudes towards it.

An exhibition about the portrayal of death in art is inevitably dominated by skeletons and skulls. One of the less conventional pieces is by Mondongo Collective: Calavera; eighth in a series of of twelve skulls. Mondongo is the name for an Argentinian tripe stew. The work is plasticine on board, and what is not immediately obvious in pictures is that it’s about six feet high (approx two metres). The background evokes the modern technical world; the upper skull is modelled with European and American architecture. The cheekbones are covered with miniatures of Western fiction and the figure for 2 billion separates the upper from  the lower jaw, where the poverty of the favela is shown in contrast to the elaborate architecture above. 

Image copyright Mondongo Collective

Image copyright Mondongo Collective

The density of the modelling reminds me of temples in southern India.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The images that most effectively evoke the presence of death are by Ivo Saliger. Saliger was an Austrian artist, and created these etchings after experiencing the illness and death of his sister. The surgeon holds the naked woman with one arm and fends the death-skeleton off with the other hand. His face betrays no horror, simply resignation and resolve. The skeleton tilts his head and paws at the woman with macabre lust.

Ivo Saliger etching

Ivo Saliger etching

The curators asked visitors to the exhibition and its website to nominate objects that they associate with death. Medical swabs, birthday cards, a bathtub, a pair of boots… What would I nominate, after sitting next to my friend’s inert body for hours before he was whisked away? The cheap boxes of tissues in the hospital? The supermarket tulips clutched by the dismayed colleagues; the professional floral arrangements from the employers; the rows of sympathy cards with their motifs of lilies, irises, freesias? The common denominator of the long wait at the hospital, the raw first hours of the following morning, the visits of the shocked friends and neighbours… the kettle, the teapot, the mugs, the dozens of cups of tea, as if we could thaw our hearts with hot water, sugar and milk.

alimentation générale

February 13, 2013 — 1 Comment

How can one eat in Paris, with no time for dinner, no time for shopping in the day, and a hankering for a big bag of cherries?

I eat a lot of raw vegetables and fresh fruit. Most days, I munch through at least half a pound, 250g, of raw baby carrots. I’ll eat a yellow or red pepper like it was an apple. I’ll eat cherry tomatoes like they were grapes. I eat raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, pluots, plums, peaches, pears. Once I asked a crêpe vendor to sell me a banana without the crêpe. He was completely unable to calculate the value of a solo banana and finally insisted that I take it for nothing.

This can be difficult to maintain away from home. In the USA, often lunch is brought to the room. There’s generally a leafy salad, but it’s hardly the variety or volume that I crave. There’ll be muffins and cookies during the day, but not hide nor hair of a huckleberry. The cafeteria in Paris generally has apples, pears and clementines, but they aren’t always good. In the evening, many French restaurants don’t even feature a salad or a list of side dishes. There may be a courgette in the kitchen, but it is to appear as a few jewel-like slices beneath your protein. No peas, no beans, no greens. A larger Paris hotel may have a bowl of apples at breakfast – but I generally don’t do hotel breakfast. I’m not really in the mood to eat first thing, and I object to paying €14 (US$20) when all I can manage is a yogurt and a pain au chocolat. I shouldn’t be eating a pain au chocolat every day anyway.

In the USA I generally have a rental car, and supermarkets routinely stay open until nine or ten at night. I can usually find time to get some produce and stash it in my bag. In London finding a store you can walk to is simple. If you search on Google Maps for Tesco Express, Sainsbury, Waitrose, M&S Simply Food, chances are you’re not far away from a small supermarket that is open late and may even be open twenty-four hours a day. These chains may be a social evil that drove locally-owned grocers out of business, but they do the job if you want to buy a pound of grapes at 8 pm.

In Paris this is not the case. There are wonderful street vendors for fruit and veg, and of course Carrefour and Auchan must be somewhere in the city. Unfortunately, if you have to leave your hotel at 7 am to get to the office, and get back to your room at 7.30 in the evening or later, these options either are closed or just aren’t nearby. If you arrive on a Sunday, merde, everything is closed.

alimentation left

What you need is an alimentation générale.

An alimentation générale is a small convenience store that opens late. They are typically run by immigrant families or first and second generation French-born citizens. I have always found the shopkeepers friendly, easily amused, chatty if you have a bit of language in common. The store usually has surprisingly good fruit, some vegetables, a chiller cabinet with dairy products, general groceries, wine and spirits.

alimentation right

Google will not help you find it. When you know the magic words, you might, if you are lucky, find one by asking the hotel staff – if they own and live in the hotel. Employees of a hotel, most likely, will not be of help. The wrong magic words will net you nothing – if you ask at the reception where you can find a supermarket, a supermarché, a small supermarket, a convenience store… probably you will get a blank look, and even if by chance they know of one, you will probably get misinformation about whether they are open or closed. You will need to go and look for it. There are four alimentation générale stores that I use in and around Paris (of course there are hundreds, these are just the ones that are on the routes I take). Hotel staff could not help me find even one of them.

A few months ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I went and asked the receptionist if there was somewhere I could go and buy fruit. “No, no, not on a Sunday.” I was pretty sure I had been to a local shop on a previous trip, and ten minutes later I was paying for apples. Children were playing on the pavement outside, parents were arriving and greeting each other with hugs. When I got back to the hotel with my two grocery bags, I expected the receptionist to pointedly ignore me. Foreigners aren’t supposed to prove you wrong. But she had the good grace to look surprised and said “Oh, was it open!?” Not “I’m so sorry I told you the wrong thing.” That would be expecting too much.

An alimentation générale near your hotel is a treasure.

If your hotel doesn’t have room service and you need to go and work, and you have no time for dinner but you need to eat too, you can grab a cheese and some crispbreads and you can survive until morning.

If you abstained from dessert at the restaurant but want something sweet to finish the night, you can buy a punnet of raspberries or a bag of cherries and eat them on the way back to your hotel.

If you, like my husband, are convinced that every cold water tank in every hotel has a couple of dead rats floating in it, you can buy a big bottle of Evian for your room.

Now you can survive in Paris, even on a Sunday night in the boondocks.

iris dress

February 12, 2013 — 2 Comments

If you liked this dress, from this post

KM dress

then you might like this iris-print dress, currently available from Karen Millen for GBP160, approx US$280. It’s not yet available on the US website. Karen Millen runs small, and I recommend you order up one size – unless you are going to take full advantage of the stretch fabric and wear it super-tight!

Karen Millen iris dress

le hide

February 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

I don’t know many restaurants in Paris, mostly because I come here to work. So usually once I get back to my hotel I want to eat, finish my email, and sleep. Plus, if you are looking for a salad with goat’s cheese, a steak frites, a steak tartare, a pizza… there are so many places that are competent it is hardly worth favouring one or another.

But on the north side of the Arc de Triomphe there are four restaurants that I like that are worth mentioning. The best one is at the end.

L'Ecluse

lecluse

L’Ecluse is at the bottom of the hill of avenue Carnot. It is really a wine bar and worse than that – a chain – but if you are in a mood for simple food it is reliable and comforting. A salad of lambs lettuce with a beautiful crottin, a simple steak, pasta with a few pieces of pate de foie gras (if you still eat foie gras) – comfort food, and great if the rest of the week has been a bit heavy at the table. Also, they have perles du Japon for dessert – also known as tapioca pudding – with a spoonful of sorbet. Tapioca is not everyone’s thing, which is probably why I have not seen it on any other menu in years, but I try to come here once per trip for a simple dinner and tapioca for afters. It’s worth trying with an open mind if you never had any!

Either side of the square at the bottom of avenue Carnot are two restaurants where I will never go back. At one they had to ask me the ingredients of a kir Royale (in Paris!). I guess the regular bartender was not there and someone was trying to cover for him or her, but really, this is like being unable to make a martini in New York or a gin and tonic in London. This was compounded when I was served a tiramisu made of marshmallow. Another day, the other restaurant across the street took so long to produce a dinner that I nearly left without paying. I shared a lot of sympathetic eye contact with the family of tourists with children who arrived 15 minutes later than I did, and were practically in tears by the time my food came. Possibly both these cases were exceptions – but I don’t feel inclined to spend an evening to find out.

Beyond L’Ecluse moving away from the Arc further down Avenue Carnot there is Caius – it’s a bit pricy for my expense account but the food is excellent. You will almost certainly need a reservation. I succeeded once with a very early walk-in, but never managed it again.

Caius

Closer to the Arc, down the side street of rue General Lanzerac, is La Cave Lanzerac. Very good food, decent price, very French. Here I once ate kidneys, which were excellent, but it satisfied my craving for offal for many months since.

La Cave Lanzerac

But the real gem of the area is further down the General’s rue, past the Hotel Balmoral: le Hide.

Le Hide signage

le hide front

le hide cornerI’ve been coming here three or four times a year, sometimes more, for over ten years. The restaurant is named after chef Hide Kobayashi, and maybe also on the word to hide, as in to conceal. The restaurant is light, white, simple – and very small, maybe 30 – 40 seats. You will be elbow to elbow with your neighbours at the next table; they will have to pull out your table for one of you to get to the far side of it. Do not come here if you do not want your conversation to be overheard. Do not come with a lot of shopping bags!

When I first began coming here, you could walk in and get a table. Now, it’s more or less essential to have a reservation. I recommend you avoid the table to the upper right of the restaurant – it’s too close to the door to the toilets. Try to get a table to the left of the bar, or one along the window.

The food is French but lighter, more interesting, creative without being pretentious. There is good bread, as there should always be in France: crisp crust, large chewy bubble within the crumb, slightly sour. There is a small bowl of green olives and slices of salami while you wait for your first course.

Le Hide table

If it is on the menu, the best appetiser is the open ravioli of crayfish in lemon butter sauce. This is not a ravioli with a stuffing forced into mean little parcels. The crayfish are slightly smaller than my little finger and there is no shortage of them, certainly over forty. The pasta is one smoothly yielding continuous sheet, draped over, around and under the shellfish like satin in a jewel box. The sauce is buttery and rich, balanced by scattered salt crystals and a few julienne strips of sun-dried tomato: in the summer, tiny fresh cherry tomatoes provide the acidity to complement the butter.

Le Hide first

After that you can eat what you want: I don’t care. It is all wonderful. This was pan-fried cod in a white wine sauce with creamed potatoes. The fish was cooked to perfection and separated into beautiful thick flakes.

Le Hide second profile

Three courses, a glass of Sancerre, a cup of mint tea: €44. At the price this is the best cooking in Paris.

a fabulous feather cap

February 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

I took advantage of being in London to have this hat by Three Floor shipped to my hotel. I love feathers and iridescence and hats so this is a perfect storm of millinery.

three floor hat

Today I’ve been wearing it out and about in Paris.

three floor hat profile

Three Floor has a highly coloured aesthetic and mix a lot of textures, which at first sight made me very happy indeed. Unfortunately a closer look revealed that they also go in for a lot or peplums and cutouts, which don’t do it for me. It’ll be interesting to see what comes in the next collection. The Crown Jewel hat is available for GBP108, approx US$190. Found via Kingdom of Style.

crown jewel hat

room with a view

February 9, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’m in Paris for the next few days, for work. Often when I’m here I stay near the Arc de Triomphe, also called the Étoile. The office I work at is just outside the west side of Paris, and the Étoile is convenient for the RER commuter rail line to work in the morning. There are also plenty of decent midprice hotels and restaurants, the Metro to rest of Paris, and a short walk to the Champs Élysées. If you stay at the next stop on the RER to the west, you are in La Défense. I never met anyone who likes to stay in La Défense. You can stay further out, in the small towns, but places to eat are more limited so as long as you are not having a whole week of very early starts and late finishes, it’s more pleasant to stay in Paris.

The three star hotel

Usually for reasons of budget, I stay in a three star hotel. A midprice hotel in Paris has a typical formula. There is a small lobby with the reception desk, and usually a small room for breakfast in the morning. This will consist of croissants or pain au chocolat, Bonne Maman preserves in a tiny jar, usually yogurts, slices of ham and a slab of soft cheese.

There is a tiny elevator, more or less coffin-sized. You squeeze in with your suitcase and hope that today is not the day for it to break down. The lights in the corridors are controlled by a timer, so the corridor is dark when you first step into it from the lift. You find the switch or wave your arms to alert the motion sensor, but even when lit, it is dim, with a thick carpet down the center. It’s narrow – you can pass another person if you turn sideways – and depending on how the building was divided, it may twist strangely on the way to your room.

You may have a keycard, but more likely a key, attached to a huge tassel or a big wooden or metal tag. This is the ploy of la direction, the management, to inconvenience you so that you will not take the key outside the hotel and lose it, and oblige them to order replacements.

The room is small – maybe a foot or 30 cm of space between the bed, walls and any other furniture. Depending on the division of the building, it may be oddly shaped, with a diagonal wall. There is densely patterned wallpaper, a mismatched armoire, writing desk, bed and nightstand in dark wood. A few lonely coathangers lurk in the armoire. Your bathroom is small, just enough room for you to stand in front of the sink, normally with a shower and no bath. There is no kettle, nor minibar, no ice machine or vending in the hall. You have two tall windows that open, either to the noises of the street, or the quiet lightwell in the center of the building.

You check the mattress for bedbugs, put your bag in the room and return to the tiny elevator, in search of a cocktail and dinner.

The four star hotel

Occasionally (like this weekend) we score a corporate rate at the Hotel Concorde la Fayette. This has the advantages of a four-star hotel: more space in the room, a larger and more modern bathroom, room service in case you need to work on a file, a restaurant in the lobby in case you want to get out of the room but don’t want to go out of the hotel.

The disadvantage is that the la Fayette is at Porte Maillot, which means that for me to get to my office, I have to take the Metro to La Defense and change to the RER.

This is the view from my room. This is not so usual in Paris, because as you can see from the surroundings, there are restrictions on constructing tall buildings in most of the city. Not too bad, although Guy de Maupassant would not have approved. Guy, a prolific French writer of short stories, is famed for frequently eating at the tower, because when he was at its restaurant, he did not have to look at it.

room with a view resized

The breakfast at the Concorde la Fayette is another affair entirely. As the hotel has hundreds of rooms, breakfast is served in a ballroom and the quantities of food are tremendous. As well as the mounds of pastries, cold cuts and cheese, you get scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, sausages – typical American breakfast fare. The hotel is also popular with Asian tourists, so you find some things at breakfast that you don’t see so often in Europe or the States – boiled rice, miso soup, a salad bar with cherry tomatoes and lettuces.

pastries resized

breakfast resized

I have a horrible cold, so tonight I stayed in my room. Room service pizza and tarte à la crème de pistache et aux framboises… pretty good.

room service resized