Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: The Book

After hearing about the film (see previous post), I thought it only proper to visit the inspiration behind the film, and I headed to the bookstore to pick up a copy of Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I finished the short, 131-page paperback translated from French to English in a little over an hour, dog-earing pages where Bauby's eloquent insightfulness moved me.

While Bauby's dismal situation would cause one to expect a tear-jerker, and tears did well up from time to time, I cried a lot less than I thought I would. Bauby does not spend a lot of time pitying himself or his situation. Instead, the book is a compilation of all that is going on in his mind throughout the course of his time at the hospital. As to be expected, there is a lot of reflection on the past, memories, his thoughts on the people at the hospital, what he sees, feels, thinks, what he misses the most, his interactions with his children, and sometimes insightful and humorous reflections on his condition.

When his son asks him to play hangman, Bauby aches to tell him that "I have enough on my plate playing quadriplegic. But my communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it, letter by letter. So the rule is to avoid impulsive sallies. It deprives conversation of its sparkle, all those gems you bat back and forth like a ball-and I count this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of my condition."

Although his body was trapped in the diving bell, his eloquent memoir shows that his mind was indeed as active as a glorious butterfly.

Paris: Some Basic Tips

Just thought I'd throw out some tips that I learned prior to and after my trip that proved useful to me:

U.S. Passports:
A not so known rule, your passport must be good three months past the last day of your trip, so if you passport expires a week or so after your trip, you're not within this rule and should get it renewed as soon as possible.

Paris Museum Card/Pass:

Best thing ever if you plan on hitting all the sites over the course of two or three consecutive days. At most sites, in addition to gaining you entry, it will allow you to bypass the long lines at the entrances for buying tickets or getting in. Never wait in line without checking first to see whether or not your card will gain you automatic entry (it will not at Saint Chapelle and Notre Dame--you will have to wait in line). Museum Cards can be purchased through your hotel.

Opening/Closing Days and Hours
It is good to know when certain sites are closed and when the major holidays are; i.e., the Louvre, l'Orangerie and certain other national museums are closed on Tuesdays, and the Musee d'Orsay and Versailles on Mondays (fountains only run on the weekends, and even then it's not all-day long but a sporadic event), and plan your itinerary accordingly. This information is subject to change so it's best to reconfirm before your trip.

Credit Cards and ATM cards:
Give your banks and credit card companies a call before your trip and let them know what dates you will be at your destination. You'd hate to have to call them from overseas in the midst of a shopping spree wondering why your card won't work.


I loved the Lonely Planet's French phrasebook as well as the iTunes download for Rapid French by Earworms Learning which has a lot of repetition set to pleasant and mild electronica. In short, making a serious attempt and being well-mannered (saying your hellos, pleases, and thank yous) will get you far. Everyone we met was extremely helpful and gracious despite my severe butchering of the language.

Knowing how to ask for the check (l'addition) is a must; unlike in the States where your check is practically served with your meal, it is considered very rude to bring the check before you are ready.

Sortie=Exit; very helpful when exiting the metro stations

Le Menu vs. La Carte: asking for le menu would be asking for the fixed price daily specials whereas you really want to ask for la carte (the menu as we know it in the States).

Chaud and Froid: Hot and Cold. Keep this in mind when in your hotel bathroom; "C" does NOT stand for cold, but rather "chaud" which is hot. I learned this the hard way by automatically turning the "C" tap for cold.


Le Metro:
The only thing that really enabled me to figure out the Metro was my Pocket Pilot Map of Paris which had all the stops, and most importantly, the corresponding numbers. Everyday, I'd write on a piece of paper where I needed to change trains depending on where we were going; it made it so much easier once I got to the station, and I just had to figure out which platform to stand on depending on the direction we had to go. While we purchased the packet (carnet) of ten individual tickets since it was unknown to us whether or not I could figure out how to use the Metro early on, the more economical way of doing things if you plan on using the Metro is to purchase the Carte Orange (really for the locals but supposedly can be sold to tourists with passport presentation) or

Paris Visite (meant for tourists only):

this card allows you to get around Paris over the course of 1, 2, 3, 5 days. The packets of tickets and the cards can be purchased at any major Metro station.

If you wind up purchasing individual tickets, hold onto them until you exit the system and arrive at your destination at which point you can discard them. Used tickets will be stamped on the back by the turnstile machine as you insert them.

Visit for information and fares.

The Taxi:
The conventional way of getting a cab in Paris is to find a taxi stand (small shelters) and wait there, not standing in the middle of the road and hailing one with your arm unless you have an early death wish. If you call for one at your hotel, be prepared to find the meter already running by the time it arrives as they charge you from wherever they are when they are called. It is cheaper to find your own or to take the Metro obviously. It is also handy to keep a copy of your hotel address with you and learn the address number in French.

Next: Useful Guides

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: The Movie

Before I continue wrapping up my Parisian adventures, I thought I'd deviate a little and talk about Cannes. Every year, I follow the Cannes film festival with great interest and make a few mental notes of what to watch out for in the coming months. This year, artist Julian Schnabel's adaptation of a beloved French memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death , has generated quite a bit of buzz. The memoir of Jean-Domnique Bauby, a former editor at Elle, recounts the author's remarkable tale of what it was like for him to live with "locked-in syndrome" caused by a rare stroke to the brain stem. As he was unable to speak or move, he could only communicate by blinking his left eye; using an alphabet system corresponding to blinks, the book was painfully transcribed by a very patient publisher's assistant. Unfortunately, Bauby passed away shortly after the book was published.

The film has opened at Cannes with favorable response and has been sold to ten markets already.

For more details, refer to this article by one of my favorite movie critics, the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan: LA Times, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Paris: Galeries Lafayette

To describe Galeries Lafayette as a department store would really be an inept moniker as it is really everything you could possibly want in one place. A wide variety of designer labels from the luxury end to the moderately-priced are housed under one roof. There were a few brands like Antik Batik that I found to be slightly less expensive than in the States, and then there were some other brands I didn't even recognize. If you plan on doing some serious shopping here, give yourself plenty of time and pace yourself. In general, I skipped the clothing and handbags (and the general sense of chaos in the multi-level crowded store) and made my way to my favorite part of Galeries Lafayette, its gourmet food market, Lafayette Gourmet. There is an Eric Kayser counter in there, cured meats, cheeses, wines, chocolates, produce, Asian foods, among a variety of other items. We wound up buying some macaroons, croissants and the most delicious pineapple, cleaned and cored right in front of us. I'd definitely hit this place or Fauchon if you're looking to have an impromptu picnic along the Seine as there is a vast array of food items from which to choose from.

If you do decide to shop for clothing and the like at GL, be sure to pick up the 10% off card for visitors at the desk or your hotel.

40 boulevard Haussmann

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Scenes from Versailles

The photo above is a detail from a very familiar painting, an exact copy made for Versailles of his original hanging in the Louvre, Jacques Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon. Everything in this copy is identical to the original except for this one interesting detail; whereas in the original, all five (number five is cut off in my photo) women are wearing white, this woman, Napoleon's sister, Pauline, with whom David was in love, is highlighted in this copy at Versailles by having her dress painted a peach color.

The grand trees at Versailles, every one of which has been catalogued carefully as to its origins and age.

I did a double take when I walked by this one, Laocoön and His Sons is one of my favorite sculptures, but it resides in the Vatican. I took a closer look at the placard and realized that it was one of the many copies of the original which had been unearthed in Rome in the early 1500s. This particular copy at Versailles was done in 1696 by Jean-Baptiste Tuby, Philibert Vigier, and Jean Rousselet.

Here's the original along with some interesting facts (note the difference in positioning of the right arm in both works):

From Wikipedia: "When the statue was discovered, Laocoön's right arm was missing, along with the hand of one child and the right arm of the other. Artists and connoisseurs debated how the missing parts should be interpreted. Michelangelo suggested that the missing right arms were originally bent back over the shoulder. Others, however, believed it was more appropriate to show the right arms extended outwards in a heroic gesture. The Pope held an informal contest among sculptors to make replacement right arms, which was judged by Raphael. The winner, in the outstretched position, was attached to the statue.

In 1957, however, the original right arm of Laocoön himself was found in a builder's yard in Rome, and was in the position which had been suggested by Michelangelo. The arm has now been rejoined to the statue. There are many copies of the statue, including a well-known one in the Grand Palace of the Knights of St. John in Rhodes. Many still show the arm in the outstretched position. The copy in Rhodes has been corrected." Clearly, the copy at Versailles has not.

The young and ill-fated Marie Antoinette

The fountains at Versailles which only run on the weekends and during the high-season. Because approximately 80% of the original pumping system is still in use, they are not on continuously but only for short durations.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Paris: The Shopping-Part II


One of the stores I was most excited about visiting for the first time was the flagship store on 24, rue Faubourg-St. Honore. The museum upstairs has been re-opened to the public by appointment only. Unfortunately, I had not thought ahead, otherwise it would have been spectacular to view the vintage items up there. All the staff at Hermes were unfailingly polite and helpful. I had the good fortune of working with a knowledgeable SA who had been there for quite some time. One thing I noticed about the locals who carried their Hermes Kellys on the streets was that they wore them quite casually, with the straps dangling and the flap on the turnkey alone. They were always in black or brown and looked as if they had been well-loved and worn. Definitely a case of the owner wearing the bag and not the other way around.

We also visited the store at George V which had a delightful storefront and the largest collection of Hermes hats I'd ever seen in an Hermes store.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Scenes from Giverny

Before I conclude the shopping section, I thought I'd take a break and write about one of the highlights of our trip. Monet's home in Giverny is about an hour away from the heart of Paris and is worth the journey, especially with the wonderful weather we were experiencing. We took a tour through a company whereby a mini-van picked us up at our hotel, drove us there and had our tickets ready. Definitely nice to have it all taken care of as I wasn't too clear on how far the train station was from the house. Some unexpected gems at Giverny include the Museum of American Art just down the road from Monet's home which houses an impressive collection of American impressionist work (and many modern conveniences like A/C!), the homemade ice cream cart near the entrance, and Monet's large collection of Japanese woodblock prints decorating an entire room in the house.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Paris: The Shopping-Part I

Even though I love to shop, I had only one major store I wanted to go to in Paris, and that was the Hermes flagship store at 24, rue Faubourg-St. Honore. Before we get to Hermes however, there were a few other places we hit that I enjoyed and stocked up at:

10 place Vendome

This store is another Parisian institution having been around for over 100 years. They are renowned for their ready to wear or made to measure shirts for men and women and have attired royalty and various heads of state; perhaps their most famous client was the Duke of Windsor. It is a must to own one of their dress shirts; better yet, to have them made to measure specifically for you. There are a total of seven floors at Charvet. We only made it to three. Definitely check out their mens' shirts and womens' floor. They are also well known for their pajamas and robes.

Petit Bateau
Yes, there are a few stores scattered here and there in the U.S. but the prices are a bit high for the cotton clothing, although they are of wonderful quality. It is less expensive in France, and it was at the Champs Elyssees location that I scored a major find, a lovely button-down terry robe for my daughter. DH had been obsessed with finding her one after realizing that she was outgrowing her hooded towel. Every store we went to in the mall, he would ask if they had robes for toddlers. Not surprisingly, the answer was always no. So when I saw a simple yet adorable robe with buttons instead of a sash, I was elated. I also went a bit crazy on the adorable bateau necked tops, camisoles, pajamas, and basic tee shirts. The aesthetic is so much more appealing than the bright pink, mini-Paris Hilton outfits one finds in the States.

Louis Vuitton
Okay, this place (the flagship on the Champs) was a zoo. Full of tourists elbowing their way to the front of the counter and vying for the attention of a team of staff that are severely outnumbered; it is also peppered with a team of security at the doors and throughout the store. We headed there in search of a few gifts. A very nice SA greeted us and as we pointed to bags behind the counter to try on, other customers watched the modeling session carefully. I think my mom must have sold at least three bags just by modeling her bag in front of a mirror. I watched a few tourists point to her bag when talking with their SAs. It was really amusing to watch. After we made our selections, our SA pulled them out for our inspection and we gave them a cursory lookover and said they looked fine. He looked relieved and when I asked him about it, he stated that some customers were really particular and really went over their bags with a fine-toothed comb. If anything, it is fun just to go in there and watch it all go down.

Gaspard de la Butte
near the Abbesses Metro stop

We found this store by accident. We were walking through Montmartre when we spied this tiny store as being open, a rarity on Labor Day in Paris. I am so glad we went in. The clothing was well-made and absolutely adorable for both women and children. It was like Marc Jacobs, Marni, and Liberty all rolled into one. Some floral cotton tops with patchwork, a mod 60s mercerized cotton coat, cropped jackets for toddlers, all just gorgeously crafted.

Paris: Other Food

A few other great places we hit:

26 place de la Madeleine

Another legendary patisserie located dangerously close to our hotel; they had a huge variety of delicious madelines available, from pistachio to chestnut. Great place to stop off to get some fresh juice and a pastry after a long day out.

Au Coin des Gourmets
5 rue Dante (Latin Quarter)

This is a tiny gem of a restaurant tucked away from the tourist crowds on the main streets. A friend of mine recommended this place owned by the Ta family. The restaurant specializes in Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine. If you want a nice break from richer foods, this is the place to go. The food is light, fresh, and clean. And did I mention tasty? As usual, my stomach overrode my brain and I neglected to photograph the food, but everything was delicious, not to mention new to me. Definitely worth a visit.

Le Grand Colbert
2 rue Vivienne

Yes it's the restaurant that had a cameo in Something's Gotta Give,and no, I am not biased because the handsome maitre'd thought I spoke French well (if he only spoke with the cab driver who laughed heartily after he finally understood my pronounciation of the number "twenty four" ). As usual, we over ordered. Onion soup, salad, frog legs, steak, and roast chicken (in honor of Diane Keaton's character). Salad was passable, a little overburdened with ingredients (see photo; yes, there is some lettuce buried underneath all that) and not a conventional Caesar salad. Everything else was tasty, but the real star of the show was the frog legs.

Okay, the last time I had frog legs was when I was ten, and my dad had prepared some and told me it was chicken. I ate the tasty things until it dawned on me that my dad does not eat chicken (loss of a childhood pet to the butcher's knife apparently). I was a bit traumatized and hadn't touched them since then until I had them again at LGC. They were drenched in butter, oil, garlic, and parsley. They needed a bit of salt, but with a splash of balsamic vinegar, they were incredible! My dining companion's chicken was very tasty and fresh. You will not find the chicken of the Costco rotisserie variety here. We're used to chicken breasts that can feed three people here, but in France the chickens are not of the super growth hormone variety due to the country's ban on such hormones (hellloooo U.S.). The chicken is a lot smaller and a lot more savory; the cuisine relies on the freshness of the poultry versus dousing the poor bugger with a ton of seasoning. Instead, they douse the poultry with cooking wine. All in all a great meal.

Fauchon photo: from

Coming up: Paris--Shopping

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Scenes from Paris

View from the Eiffel Tower at night

The Eiffel Tower at dusk

Muguet de Bois; sold all over the streets on Labor Day (May Day); apparently the only day street sellers can sell without being assessed by the government

A march on Labour Day

Madame Royal's defaced picture in the midst of presidential elections

One of the older Metro stations at Abbesses; to come up from it, one needs to climb a tiring number of stairs in a circular formation. There is an elevator available: word to the wise-use it.

One of my favorite memories: a mother duck herding her ten ducklings down the steps near the Jardins Tulieres. She created quite a scene as everyone stopped to watch their progress.

Sacré-Coeur at Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris.

Paris: Pierre Gagnaire-Food as Art

I've saved the best for last. If you remember in a previous post, I had the most difficulty orchestrating reservations at PG via E-mail, but it was definitely worth it. Pierre Gagnaire is located in the Hotel Balzac, not too far from the Arc de Triomphe. The dining room is intimate and cozy accented by blond woods and white cloths covering the tables. Here, as at La Tour d'Argent, I was brought a little stool to set my handbag on. Any place that takes care of my handbag as well as me gets brownie points upfront.

The most gallant gentleman wonderfully translated each and every single item on the detailed menu and its ingredients for us. We opted not to go for the multi-course prix fixe meal as we had been warned beforehand that with all the amuse-bouches (see fifth photo) that faced us, we would get full quickly. It is a shame that I can't recall what we had and didn't ask for a copy of the menu that evening so you will have to bear with my rudimentary descriptions of the remarkable dining experience we had, which really don't do the meal justice. In essence, my dining companion selected a crab-themed display of various courses while I selected one that had langoustines. The overall theme of the evening was a marriage of unexpected ingredients. I'll let the photos do most of the talking, athough I was so in awe of the vanilla souffle I had for dessert that I completely forgot to take a picture of it; it was the most amazing souffle I have had in my life.

Mid-way through our meal, Gagnaire himself appeared in the dining room with that glorious mane of white hair. It's funny, but I felt as if I was meeting George Clooney when he stopped by to talk with us and ask us where we were from. When I told my husband about his great hair, his response was, "Well, I hope he had some sort of hair net or hat back there." Nice eh?

Regardless, Pierre Gagnaire was a fantastic experience and one that should be had by everyone at least once in their lifetime. Special thanks to Suzie & Winston for the great recommendation!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Paris: Taillevent

It is a sad day when a gal with a palate like mine has to go to Paris. Why? I don't drink wine, I can't stand strong cheeses, and I don't eat lamb and don't like to order duck. Sadly, all of which seemed to be quite prevalent everywhere we went.

Taillevent is another long-standing Parisian institution having opened in 1946. It has held a three star Michelin rating for 34 years until February 2007 when it fell to two stars. I only found out about the demotion after I came back and researched Taillevent's origins, but it confirmed my own opinions, especially after dining at Pierre Gagnaire. I would have chosen to go for dinner, but by the time I thought about it, reservations were already booked for dinner, but lunch was available for my desired date.

We arrived at Taillevent after a long day of shopping; its location is within walking distance from George V and the Champs Elysees. With reservations at 12:30 p.m. we arrived a few minutes early and were the first ones seated. The service at Taillevent is impeccable. It seemed as if we had a team of at least six different people watching over our table. When I needed to rise to use the washroom, a gentleman immediately appeared out of nowhere at my side to escort me to my destination as soon as I pushed my chair back.

Wine is a big deal at Taillevent with what many consider to be the best wine list in Paris. There were two gentlemen at a neighboring table; locals in business suits who were enjoying different wines with every course. Our gracious host promised not to tell the chef that we were enjoying our meal with water and orange juice.

We opted to select the Menu Saveurs et Decouvertes which was comprised of seven courses:

Royale d'asperges de Provence
Langoustine royale poelee
Coquilles Saint-Jacquess dorees
Canard de Challans roti
Roquefort glace au pruneau
Mille-feuille aux framboises
Craquant au chocolate et aux feves de Tonka

I of course, requested a substituion for the Roquefort glace and the Canard immediately. Everything was fine until I received my langoustine. After many years of eating live seafood in Monterey Park, CA, I know the difference between fresh/live seafood, and not-so-fresh seafood. One bite, and I froze. I told myself, this is Taillevent, perhaps it is just extraordinarily tender. But the second powdery bite confirmed my suspicions that this langoustine was not so fresh. My dining companion's langoustine was just fine, so I think I just landed a bad one. The third course of scallops redeemed my langoustine experience as they were fresh and delicious. I substituted beef for the duck which was good, but the real piece de resistance was the incredible mille-feuille with raspberries. One of my favorite desserts thus far; delicate, melt-in-your mouth layers of the finest pastry (hence the name, mille-feuille), with a few fresh raspberries in between. Absolutely heavenly.

I would still like to give Taillevent another try for dinner as I loved the staff and the warm environment. Lunch at 190 Euros per person was actually a bargain compared to Gagnaire and some other restaurants, and aside from the langoustines, it was a lovely experience.

Next: Pierre Gagnaire