Aux Puces

There is a place, just outside the périphérique ring road, not far from where Line 4 of the Métro ends at Porte de Clignancourt. It’s an uncanny place where you can find treasures and trash in equal measure. It’s a place so large you need more than one day to explore it all. It’s a place that will tire you out and leave you besotted and a little confused, but also charmed and delighted.

It’s called Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, and it’s a must-go experience for anyone who’s seen the basic sights of Paris and is seeking an experience that’s a little different. To help give you a mental image, it’s there, in the Saint-Ouen Flea Market, that Owen Wilson’s character does some antique shopping in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris.

G. and I went there a few weeks ago for the first time, and we were immediately struck by the sheer size of the place. This is, after all, the world’s largest and busiest antiques market in the world. The market is organized around Rue de Rosiers, with a number of stalls and smaller shops along passages off this street, plus larger covered markets such as Marché Dauphine and Marché Biron. There are small, messy brocante-style shops, niche stores specializing in everything from buttons to naval lamps, traditional antique dealers offering art, furniture, and smaller items from every epoch imaginable, as well as art merchants selling works that look like they should probably go in museum collections.

One thing we quickly realized while ambling along the rows and rows and rows of stalls is that you need to have a pretty clear idea of what you’re looking for–simply going around at random will soon drive you mad. On our first visit, we were able to find a nice copper bougeoir, a cheap, sleek, not-at-all-antique cocktail shaker, and a dressing mirror for G. However, our real goal had been crystal glasses. On our second round aux puces, were focused on these and, by chatting with different dealers, were able to come away with a pair of vintage champagne glasses as well as a pair of beautiful cut-crystal long drink glasses, all for a reasonable price which I’d rather not reveal.

The only regrettable thing with the market is that the surrounding area has attracted cheap clothes vendors as well as a number of “vendeurs à la sauvette” offering stolen or counterfeit brands.

Moving to Paris: A Reading List

I love compiling lists of books. I have running lists of books I’ve read, books I want to read, books I want to buy, books I need to consult for research, and books about places I’ve been to or places I’m going to.

From the moment I knew we would be moving to Paris, I compiled a list of great books set in the city that I wanted to read or re-read. That list keeps growing and changing every week, but here it is at the moment (and in no particular order).

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel9780312426392

I’m an inveterate admirer of Mantel’s Cromwell books, so I’ve long wanted to read her brick-sized novel of the French revolution. It was the first book she wrote, although she had to wait a considerable number of years (and other books) before publishing it. I agree with critics that it could’ve done with less history, but you can definitely see in this carefully researched and intriguingly written novel the seeds of what Mantel would later do in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: take figures who were at the periphery of power during a time of momentous change, and explore the fissures and stress points in their inner lives. I learned a lot about the main players behind the revolution, who were living day by day and, for the most part, had really no idea what they were doing. Also: what a great title.

220px-MoveableFeastA Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

How could I not? Like many others I loved this book as a teenager, when I romanticized Paris in the 20s, the Left Bank cafés, the artists, etc, etc. I quite enjoyed this second read-through, although I have to say the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first–too much time spent trying to undermine Scott Fitzgerald. Still, the description Hemingway conjures of writing in steamy cafés, ordering white wine and oysters, remains magical and unforgettable. Following the Paris attacks in 2015, the book became a bestseller in France.

Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco

Memoirs-of-Montparnasse_1024x1024I haven’t re-read this book yet but brought it with me to Paris to do so. I remember it being even better than Hemingway’s memoir when I read it in my early twenties. Glassco was a Canadian poet who also escaped to Montparnasse between the wars when he was just seventeen, and wrote his memoir of that time when he was living out his middle age in the Eastern Townships, on long afternoons buoyed by gin. Glassco’s account is somewhat fictionalized, but it’s a great read with fantastic sweep, and lots of charming raunch.

Au Bon Roman, by Laurence Cossé (in English: A Novel Bookstore, translated by Alison Anderson).

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I fell pretty hard for this novel when I first read it back in 2010. It’s about two people who are somewhat disappointed by life, but they love reading good novels and open a bookstore together. The one thing that stayed with me the most from the book is that there’s a little trick with the narrator: you start thinking out that it’s in the third person, but then realize that it’s actually narrated from one of the characters. Upon re-reading it this summer I found some of the emotional impact somewhat lessened, but I was still taken with the beautifully created characters and the melancholy atmosphere. I love this novel because it is an unabashed celebration of the power of good literature.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

220px-Tales_serialI’d long meant to read this Dickens, for the most part because it’s among his shorter novels. As I was reading it this summer I did wonder where he was going with the crazy plot for most of the book, but by the end all of the pieces he had set up in the first part did come together and the story clicked into gear towards a satisfying ending. Dickens doesn’t really take the time describe Paris very well, but his vicious take on both the corrupted aristocracy and the blood-thirty crowds of revolutionaries is fun. He spares no one–as long as they’re French! I’m growing a bit tired of Dickens’ female characters, however, who are always based on the same sweet passive model.

The Ambassadors, by Henry James

9780141441320This is one of James’ late, great masterpieces, and is the ultimate arriving-in-Paris read, so much so that I’ve been slowly savouring it since we arrived. James himself said that the best way to enjoy his books was to read about five pages a day, but to keep at it “without losing the thread.” In The Ambassadors, a wealthy American woman sends her middle-aged suitor, Strether, to Paris to convince her son, who may or may not be having an affair with a rich countess, to return to America. But then, against all odds, Strether begins to fall in love with Paris–the food, the artwork, the architecture, the atmosphere. As the novel progresses, it’s unclear who is corrupting whom. The pleasure of the novel is in witnessing Strether’s slow transformation, which sometimes looks more like self-delusion. The dialogues are also wonderfully witty.

Paris Trance, Geoff Dyer

9781466869875Geoff Dyer is one of those writers that I’m still not sure what to make of. I read his books and I can’t say I enjoy them, exactly, but they  make me think, and I do keep coming back to his work. I picked this novel up by chance when I saw it at Blackwell’s in Oxford this summer. What a treat: compulsive, self-aware, elegantly written, sexy, melancholy. It’s about a group of expat friends living from party to party in Paris in the 1990s, and the inevitable moment when the parties have to end. Dyer is better known for his non-fiction, but this novel proves he can do fiction just as well.

La Septième Fonction du Langage, by Laurent Binet (in English: The Seventh Function of Language, translated by Sam Taylor)

imageA follow-up to Binet’s sometimes frustrating but nonetheless compelling HHhH, his second novel is a crazy romp through the world of  French philosophers in the early 80s. It begins with a simple but intriguing premise: the influential literary critic Roland Barthes died in 1980, struck by a van–what if he was actually murdered? The story is fast-paced and, in the end, becomes a little too heavy handed in its pastiche of Dan Brown-esque conspiracy thrillers, but the early scenes set in the houses and university offices of the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Kristeva are a delight. My favourite cameo is by Umberto Eco, who is, of course, the smartest of them all.

*All images taken from the publishers’ websites, or Wikipedia.

European Heritage Days: Visiting the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris

Last weekend marked the 35th annual European Heritage Days, or Journées européennes du patrimoine, which consists of a whole weekend of culture-related events. In France, many public institutions open their doors to visitors during those two days, and this includes places that are almost never open, like say the Palais de l’Élysée, the official residence of the French President. In fact, we had initially thought of going there ourselves, until we realized that we would have to wait for five to eight hours.

In the end, we decided to make our way to the World Heritage Centre, which is UNESCO’s headquarters, located in the 7th arrondissement in Paris, just behind the École militaire and so not too far from the Eiffel Tower. The building is usually closed to visits from the public, although they do host a series of events like film screenings and art exhibits during the year.

I found the building itself, as well as its gardens, quite beautiful in that 50s public architecture style, with lots of glass and concrete. In fact, G. commented that one of the interior spaces reminded her of a Québec public school cafeteria, which is a little unfortunate. Still, there were some cool details, such as that spiralling staircase going up the exterior of the building. I fell in love with the exquisitely peaceful Japanese garden and it was interesting to see some of the  artworks created specially for the building by the likes of Picasso, Miro, Henry Moore, Giacometti, and Vassilakis Takis.

In the end, what surprised both of us was that instead of showcasing specific UNESCO heritage projects, the organizers of the event chose to hand the floor over to startups and tech companies that operate in the fields of education, the arts, and heritage. We met the Québecois creators of an app that allows you to see virtual models of ancient buildings with your phone in real time, a company that specializes in creating 3D models of endangered sites and buildings, a virtual art museum, a company that creates VR tours of ancient world sites, and many others. The day’s highlight was speaking to these enthusiastic presenters and learning about their projects.

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Maybe next year we’ll have the courage to prepare a picnic and queue up to tour the Palais de l’Élysée

Village Saint-Martin

A new (school) year, a new adventure!

Back at the start of the summer, G. and I left Egypt behind, and after a couple of months spent gallivanting around Quebec (and a short trip to England for a friend’s wedding), here we are in Paris, a city we’ve each been to a few times as tourists but never had the chance to live in… until now.

I’m sure that our time here will abound in many culinary, cultural, and literary adventures as we get settled in and start exploring. In the meantime, here’s a short introduction to our new neighbourhood near the Canal Saint-Martin, in the 10e arrondissement.

In fact we came upon this neighbourhood entirely by chance–we had never visited it before. Within a few minutes of arriving, however, we knew that it was a perfect place for us. It’s a very young, vibrant neighbourhood with lots of shops, boutiques, grocery stores, cafés, and restaurants. Our street features a school, a lively terrace, and an amazing bakery. The entire street often smells of freshly baked brioche.

We’ve already fallen in love with the Parisian lifestyle–enjoying a drink on a sunny terrace, stopping at multiple shops and markets to buy our groceries–and we’re working hard to adapt our North American eating schedule to that of France, where diner isn’t served before 8pm, and often much later, and shops close for the afternoon.

Many people have told us that the 10e hasn’t always been as charming as it is now; twenty or thirty years ago, it was a lot less attractive. As with gentrification in so many other Western cities, the advent of “bobos” has brought with it third wave coffee shops, coworking spaces, and ridiculously niche boutiques, but it’s also pushed out diversity. However the neighbourhood still feels scruffy around the edges, and it’s a joy to see so many young people crowding along the canal to share some charcuterie, bread, and a bottle of wine at any time of day or night.

One thing that immediately made us fall in love with the tenth’s communal spirit is a local newspaper called Le Journal du Village Saint-Martin, which is published every season and has charming articles about local residents and businesses. For example, the most recent issue for the summer had an article about Chez Prune, one of the neighbourhood’s emblematic bistro’s, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer.

The team behind the journal also publishes a yearly Village Saint-Marting guidebook, which is beautifully illustrated by local artists and available for purchase in local shops. This handy little guide has already supplied us with many great addresses, and is a perfect starting point to begin exploring the neighbourhood and, eventually, make it really feel like home.

 

Al Sorat Farm

When I was doing research online on Adam Henein, the Egyptian sculptor who has a workshop and museum in Giza, I came across the blog of a Canadian woman who owns a farm south of Cairo, near the village of Abu Sir. I emailed her asking if we could visit the farm, and the next weekend we spent a Saturday at her place out in the country.

Maryanne Gabanni moved to Egypt with her Canadian/Egyptian husband and their two children in the 1980s. After her husband passed away, Gabanni bought the farm where she now lives. She employs local men to help her manage the farm, which has goats, horses, donkeys, a friendly water buffalo, and lots of fresh produce. It’s an amazing place, and it really feels like you’re out in the middle of nowhere even though it’s less than an hour’s drive south of downtown Cairo—we even took an Uber to get there.

One of the awesome things that Maryanne Gabbani does is organize weekly veterinary clinics in the surrounding villages. She brings in her team and some of her friends to offer treatment to animals, diagnose medical problems, give donkeys mosquito nets, provide shots and worming medicine, conduct some basic farrying, and more. I encourage you to check out her work on the Facebook page of her Rural Wellness Initiative. To my mind she’s a local hero.

We had a wonderful time on the farm, petting animals, playing with her numerous dogs, riding horses, and talking to Maryanne and her friends, who are passionate about animals and about Egypt. We even had a late, Egyptian-style lunch there, and it was definitely one of the best meals we’ve ever had in Egypt: fresh, tasty, local produce, beautifully prepared.

Maryanne Gabbani has it all figured out: she is living her best life out on that farm in the Egyptian countryside. Long may she enjoy it!

Adam Henein

It was a Zamalek gallery and carpet shop owner who first put us on the track of an Egyptian sculptor called Adam Henein. We stopped by the gallery shop in question and the owner invited us to sit down with him and have some tea and chocolates. He was a sweet, cultured man; he talked to us about a bunch of contemporary Egyptian artists.

“But Henein is incredible,” he said. “You have to visit his museum in Giza. It’s where his house and his workshop is, and now there’s a museum with his work. He sold a large boat sculpture in Qatar a few years ago for hundreds of thousands of dollars and he used the money to build this museum. He’s very old, in his 90s, now he just sits in his garden, contemplating his life and his work. You have to visit this museum.”

And so we went to the Adam Henein Museum, which in fact is just down the road from the Wissa Wassef Centre, a place we’d been to before. This stretch of road, next to a trash-filled canal and behind a fresh slab of concrete and red-brick apartment blocks, is apparently turning into Giza’s artistic hub!

We fell in love with Henein’s work from our first moments inside his museum. The first thing we realized is that he’s an artist in the true sense, comfortable in almost every medium. Although his sculptures (in bronze, wood, stone, and clay) dominate the museum, also shown are his paintings, charcoal drawings, drawings on papyrus, and even weaving.

But it’s Henein’s sculptures that I find especially moving, because they almost always reinterpret motifs from ancient Egyptian statuary—birds, standing or seated figures, crowns, obelisks—although Henein gives them contemporary twist with pure forms and neat lines. His human figures, with their straight backs, blank faces, softened features, and long robes unfurling like sails, are extremely moving.

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Outside there’s also a beautiful, grassy courtyard, dominated by a large granite boat, which recalls the gigantic wooden solar barge found buried near the pyramid of Khufu. Many of Henein’s works, especially animals such as donkeys and cats, huddle around it.

We came to this museum a few times, but the first time we visited we got to see the artist himself, who was being interviewed in the garden for a documentary. G. introduced herself and was lucky enough to shake his hand. He’s a monument of Egyptian art, and he deserves to be better known.

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My Favourite Restaurant in Egypt

You rarely see Egyptians eat. They have small breakfasts on the go, traditionally a ful medames (stewed beans) or falafel with some bread. Their biggest meal tends to be late in the afternoon, where they have salads, dips, bread, pickles, and some kind of saucy meat or vegetables. They’ll eat whatever is left over for dinner.

Egypt is not really a renowned culinary destination, but for truly exceptional meals the best is to stick with local food. I’ve read in a few places that the best place to eat in Egypt is in someone’s home, and short of that, the best meals I’ve had in Egypt are in a restaurant called Toutankhamon, on the west bank of Luxor in Upper Egypt.

It was an Egyptologist friend of ours who recommended this restaurant, and at first we were a bit put off by the touristy name and the décor: you eat on an empty terrace on the roof of the building. The only atmosphere is provided by the whirling fans overhead. At least there’s a nice view of the Nile.

Things get better when the owner comes to take your order: he’s exceptionally kind and welcoming. There’s no menu: you choose from whatever his wife made that day. This is an unfussy family business. The fresh lemon juice is delicious and not too sweet, exactly what you need after a hot dusty trundle down the Valley of the Kings.

Then the food arrives: salad, dips, fresh bread. Always a couple of vegetable dishes, such as spinach with chickpeas, or potatoes with tomato sauce, or ratatouille. G., who doesn’t eat meat, is always happy. The main is usually some kind of stewed meat, expertly spiced. I’ve tried duck à l’orange, a beef and vegetable stew, curried chicken with bananas and coconut, meatballs in tomato sauce. Everything is outstanding. It’s a joy to dip your bread in the flavoursome sauces and even the rice, served in a large earthenware dish and speckled with vermicelli, is tastier than expected. Desert—usually a piece of fruit or a bit of pastry—and coffee or tea are included.

We’ve been to Toutankhamon four times now and have never been disappointed. We always leave happy and bloated. Definitely one of our Egyptian highlights, and a “must” for any trip to Luxor.