Restaurant Review: Septime, er, no, the Pause Cafe

This review of Septime the Pause Cafe is for lunch on 28 January 2015.

So, while this is not a review of Septime, it is a little story about it, as well as living in a foreign land. My friend Greg, who was the sommelier of one of Australia’s top restaurants and is always good for recommendations for food and grog, had highly recommended the restaurant Septime on Rue Charonne from when he was passing through on a champagne tour.

On our trip to the southwest of France in August 2014, we had a few days in Paris either side. But as they’re only open Monday to Friday evenings, our schedules didn’t quite coincide. I decided we’d head to their sister restaurant, next door, Clamato, which has gotten rave reviews. I carefully checked their website which said it was open on the weekends, non-stop, noon to 23h. I decided it would be our special meal in Paris to finish our holidays together. I thought an early dinner on Sunday might be less busy, so after finding our way to the 11th, and finding a place to park our vélibs, we stumbled into the restaurant which was… closing. Packing up, chairs on tables.

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This is the Pause Cafe, not Septime

Oh, we’re closing for the holidays, I was told. Non-stop? Very disappointed, I asked if they had any recommendations of other restaurants close by, and the waitress seemed exasperated at both the question and my poor French. We left, and being a Sunday in August, it wasn’t that easy to find a restaurant that evening.

Flash forward. Back in France, unexpectedly, and this time for four months. I meanwhile find out that Septime is the new hot restaurant, has great reviews and is hard to get into. I put it on my list of restaurants to try. Their website advises that you can make reservations online but every time I clicked, it was filled. I’d found the booking service, La Fourchette, easy to use and efficient for other restaurants. But it didn’t work in this case. I later read the fine print. Reservations only open for a three week period daily. I tried online a number of times, at the time it said reservations were open, but only once did a reservation come up, and it was for lunch, when I was working.

Still, it was in the back of my mind, and a pal at UNESCO said it was really interesting. Don’t do it online, just call up. And so I did. I figured surely I could get us in sometime during our last two weeks in Paris. But no, when I got through, dinners were all booked up. There were lunch bookings available. I hung up, disappointed and then thought: well, why not? I’ll take off half a day and go for lunch. So I called right back. When did I want the reservation? As late as possible, I said, thinking that it would still allow me to work in the morning. OK. How about treize heures? Pleased with myself, I hung up, put the reservation in my calendar for 3pm, and messaged my partner with the good news.

Flash forward. I arrange to take the afternoon off from work. I’m very pleased to create this treat and occasion for us, a special meal in our last week in Paris. They call the day before to confirm the booking. But the first call, I’m in a meeting with my boss and the second call, I don’t manage to answer before it goes right to message. The message says that I can call them back to confirm after 17h, or just send an email. I decide that an email is easier, and write that I’m looking forward to seeing them tomorrow at 15h.

In the back of my mind, I do know this is a strange time. But somehow I’ve convinced myself that they are so busy and popular, that they run a non-stop service between lunch and dinner. It’s a drizzly Wednesday but not too wet to ride our bikes. I leave work a little earlier than I expected, telling colleagues I’m off to a special lunch. I head home, pick up my partner and we ride to Rue de Charonne.

When we enter, I can see an empty table for two, the rest of the place is filled and buzzy. How nice. But the waiters, all gathered at the counter look up with some confusion and that particular Gallic air that says you’ve done something wrong. ‘We’re here for our reservation at 3pm’, I say with my best accent.

No, no, it’s not possible, the kitchen is closed now, and you were supposed to be here at 12h30.

I am confused. 12h30 doesn’t sound a thing like 3pm, and it hadn’t been a short conversation on the phone. But he checks his computer, and it was 13h we were supposed to be there, sorry sir, there’s nothing he can do about it. Neither is there any space tonight or anytime soon.

But I tried for weeks,’ I say feebly.

Next door is no reservations, they open at 19h30′, he says, and then for emphasis he says, ‘Not 17h30. Don’t get it mixed up.‘ The waiters all laugh.

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Duck parmentier and beef with winter vegetables

I am rather emotional to tell my partner I screwed up, and as we wander off in the direction home, it starts to rain, more heavily. ‘I tried so hard,’ I tell him. We pop into a cafe nearby before we get too wet, a lively and colourful cafe that we’d noticed back in August. It doesn’t take me that long to realize that the reservations guy had told me ‘treize heures‘, meaning 1pm, and I’d mistaken it for trois heures, 3pm.

But still, there had been a number of opportunities to avoid this, if I’d managed to answer the phone for first, or second time. If I hadn’t been too busy and called instead of emailed. If they’d read the email and thought it strange that I was confirming for 15h instead of 13h. If my partner (or anyone I’d mentioned it to) had spoken up to say: the French don’t serve lunch at 3pm. If I’d remembered that the French don’t serve lunch at 3pm. If, in all my years of travel, I’d gotten used to the 24 hour clock, so I would never have expected the reservations guy to say 3 in the afternoon, rather than a thirteen or fifteen.

Licking my wounds, I toast to my stupidity with a cup of champagne (I like that they call it a coupe instead of a glass, une verre), and at the Pause Cafe, my better half has a tasty sort of stewed beef on winter vegetables, and I have a rather excellent duck cottage pie (a parmentier).

It’s not like cultural confusion and language problems don’t happen all the time. In fact, last night, a colleague asked for a hot whiskey, a grog, and after a long wait was presented with a melted cheese sandwich, a croque monsieur. We both agreed that they sound nothing the same and that our French pronounciation isn’t THAT bad.

I don’t begrudge Septime for being so popular and hard to get into, and acknowledge my own mistake and their losing a table of two for lunch. But you know when you try and try and things just don’t work? Septime, I’m sorry, but we’re never ever going to be friends. As for the Pause Cafe: thanks for saving a distraught stranger in a strange land, with a rather imperfect comprehension of everyday French language (and evidently, culture).

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Coffee in Paris

A lovely coffee from Boot Cafe

A lovely coffee from Boot Cafe

It’s slowly getting out around the world that Australians are obsessed by coffee, and Australians make very good coffee. What’s slightly confounding, I think to all concerned, is that Australian coffee is so good because it’s Australian. The Australians created it… a version of coffee called a ‘flat white’ with the same principles used to make a ‘latte’ or ‘cappucino’. Wikipedia says it was invented in the 1970s but do we trust wikipedia?

In any case, the Sydney Moving Company has a very good explanation of how coffee is different in Australian than in the USA. If you haven’t tried one, go for it. Order a flat white or latte, both are similar. You don’t have to put on an Aussie accent to do it. Starbucks apparently has introduced an Aussie Flat White in the USA as of January 2015. If you’ve tried it, please tell us what it’s like in the comments!

Barista at the Boot

Barista at the Boot

Anyways, when Australians (or those of us who’ve adopted Australia as home) complain about not getting good coffee overseas, we’re not talking about espressos (which are just fine in Europe), nor really about black coffee. We’re saying we can’t find a latte or flat white like in Oz.

Caitlin, the daughter of a friend of my better half, told me about the Coffee(In)Touch Guides. As an app for the phone which comes in versions for London, NYC and Paris, it’s been a bit of a saviour over the last four months. Though admittedly, we’ve ended up at the chains Costa and Starbucks more times than I’d foreseen. Through the app, a few that we’ve discovered include: La Caféthèque on Rue de l’Hotel de Ville, near the Seine in the 4th. It runs coffee tasting and appreciation nights, has nice sweets, and a homey atmosphere in a maze of four interconnected rooms. We were directed to Café Craft on Rue des Vinaigriers in the 10th, right next to Canal St Martin, an interesting set-up where people can come and work on computers and treat it as a casual workspace or office. We were served delicious coffees by… an Australian.

IMG_2768Boot Café up in the 3rd, close to Boulevard du Temple is tiny and charming. The rather adorable American barista was signing along to hip Americana music while we all politely figured out how to sit and stand in the small space. The photos in this post are mostly from here.

Finally, the last is not only not the least, but my favourite. Coutume Café, half-owned by an Australian, was not far from where I stayed for a month in the 7th arrondissement and everytime I went, it made me happy. It’s fun, hip and modern, the most of all the ones I’ve mentioned here; the staff are great and I became friendly with them, and they serve delicious pastries in the morning; if you’re lucky, there’s a selection of three. They do a roaring trade in brunch on the weekends too, and have just set up a demonstration station in the back of the cafe with various coffee apparatuses and supplies. After I moved from the 7th to Beaubourg, I’ve only occasionally managed to stop off for a coffee on my way to work, savour the taste, and feel glad to not settle for the horrible coffee at work. I’ll miss them the most when I’m gone.

Thanks Coutume Cafe. You gave many mornings a good start.

Thanks Coutume Cafe. You gave many mornings a good start.

 

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Restaurant Review: Chateaubriand, Paris

new doc 2_1 For the 2014 World’s Best Restaurants, Chateaubriand is ranked #27. I ate here about four years ago, after reading a story in the New York Times about how French style was turning to upscale bistros rather than the traditional formal dining. Basque chef Inaki Aizpitarte’s restaurant was highly recommended (here’s my review from then, the price for the menu has gone up from 50 to 70 euros), I was happy to return here in January 2015. There is something brusque and confusing about arrival, I remember it from last time. This time, even with reservations, another couple barged in front of us, and I had to signal to a waiter that I wanted something. No one seemed to care. Then there was a bit of a wait, as I suspect they want to time everyone’s multi-course meal to flow smoothly from the kitchen.

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To start with, served with a tasty Chenin blanc, were a series of starters. A few tasty cheese chou pastry puffs. Then, as above, a small piece of dorado ceviche in a startling sour broth. I loved it. I missed taking a photo of another broth, as it was so plain to look at. But the combination of anchovy, fennel and coffee was delicious. I think it hit the umami spot. IMG_2790

Some tiny prawns deep-fried and with raspberry powder. Yum.IMG_2791

A salad, unusual, with some tiny barely cooked (or raw?) clams hidden underneath the leaves.IMG_2793

Served with a light pinot noir, the first ‘main’ was crab, tofu and treviso (the bitter red lettuce). Someone spent a lot of time in the kitchen extracting that sweet crab perfectly. The tofu was light and delicate, with an orange sauce that I thought was tomato based. I don’t associate fine dining with tofu and was impressed. A very interesting balance of flavours.IMG_2794

Here’s an interesting pairing for the next dish: champagne. The cod was all about the texture, soft and slightly bland. Then ribbons of radish, crunchy deep-fried sage leaves and  a sunflower oil dressing. Cédrat seems to be a large thick lemon with a thick rind. Maybe that’s what I thought was the radish. Hmm, curious. IMG_2795I think calves’ thymus or pancreas (ris de veau) is not necessarily for the faint of heart. Soft and rich, it needed the hazelnuts and walnuts to add texture, the individual leaves of the brussels sprouts were perfect, as were the pomelo tears.

Lucky us, being a pair, I opted for the cheese plate (three pieces of delicious cheese which I didn’t record) and my better half had two little desserts. The mont blanc was astonishing. It had raw mushroom in it (and tasted great!). The tostino del cielo was a crunchy meringue with a tiny raw egg yolk on top. By this time, the wine and food, I was happily giddy and didn’t manage to take photos of the last dishes.

What makes food interesting is that everyone has different tastes. My partner liked the food, but he said he liked as much watching me enjoy it. The sour flavours, the unique combinations and unusual ingredients didn’t blow him away. But I was blown away: I liked how different it was from other French restaurants, I thought the combinations were really interesting, slightly Asian but not quite: it felt new and original to me, even on a second visit, four years after the first.

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Restaurant Review: L’Alsacien, Paris

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So, I tell my better half that I want to try this Alsatian bar that I pass by to get to my most frequent parking station for my Vélib (that’s free French bike for those not in the know). It’s never open in the mornings but I’ve seen it as it opens up, looking bright but with cosy decoration, both modern and homey, as if you’re hanging around in a friend’s kitchen, but one that is new and stylish. I tell him it’s a pizza restaurant, based on an image I saw on the web.

But I’m completely wrong. L’Alsacien specialises in flammekueche, a specialty of the Alsace region, also known as a Tarte flambée. It does have a passing resemblance to a pizza, but is a bread dough rolled out very thinly, and then covered not with a tomato base but with crème fraiche and other toppings. Wikipedia tells me the dish was only made at home until the 1960s when pizzas became popular, and it moved into restaurants (there seem to be a few in Paris from Alsace) and now L’Alsacien says they are the first flammekueche bar.

I thought it was absolutely sensational. Crisp, hot, savoury and delicious. I love discovering new dishes! The service, by the way, was nice as can be.

L’Alsacien
Paris 75004
www.alsacien.com

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Do you vélib in life after love? My favourite pastime in Paris.

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While getting lost, people-watching, and wandering are among my preferred activities in Paris, my singular favourite thing to do has been riding around on the amazing free bikes, the vélibs (vélo = bike and libre = free).

It’s an amazing city for cycling, with many bike paths, and other areas with big lanes for bikes, buses and taxis. This would seem dangerous, particularly in Sydney, but the buses (and cars and taxis) give cyclists a wide berth here.IMG_2744
There are people of all ages, sizes and occupations on the bikes. It’s part of the culture and pace: in warmer weather you might see someone with a baguette in the convenient baskets above the front tire, while they are smoking or talking on a mobile phone with their free hand. It’s even easy to ride at night; the vélibs have bright lights, powered by the cycling, and it’s all very easy.

Most people wear neither helmets nor fluoro safety vests, a sign to me of cycling’s relative safety – as is the fact that people cycle in all weather. The rain is never very heavy and usually stops but I’ve still been surprised how many people ride when it’s raining. It seems the sturdy fenders prevent one from getting splattered. Now, in the cold, people are still riding, just wearing heavier versions of their stylish scarves.

There is a certain technique for choosing one’s bike. I notice that the native Parisians kick at the tires to see if they’re flat or not. But they must have more sensitive toes than my own can’t tell the difference between tires that are fully pumped and a little deflated – I give them a squeeze with my thumb and forefinger. One also should give the pedals a quick spin to see that they move smoothly, that the seat can be adjusted but stays tight (so that going over a bump, the seat does not suddenly drop six inches), and that the rubber grips aren’t missing (in colder weather, the bare metal is rather uncomfortable).IMG_2746
There is a sort of organised chaos. Most cyclists pay attention to road rules, but some do not. Most pedestrians don’t. At many pedestrian crossings, the cars don’t seem obliged to stop, just to not run over anyone. I’ve seen cars go through red lights, and the drivers give the Gallic shrug, ‘Oops’.

This all adds up to a safer feeling rather than less so, as the majority of people seem laissez-faire about sharing the road or pavement, cycling, or getting somewhere in a hurry (though of course, if someone is blocking your way, you ring your cycle bell or drivers honk).

There are many things I love about my adopted country of Australia, but attitudes to cyclists are perhaps what I love the least. Conservative politicians, colluding with Murdoch-controlled media, have somehow made cycling not a form of exercise or transportation, not a healthy ecological measure or an activity that most people do, but instead a mark of political philosophy and belief. Cyclists are wealthy, annoying, left-wing, lycra-wearing rule-breaking radicals. They must be stopped. It’s so bizarre. I’ve never witnessed another country so rapidly anti-bicycle.

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Here in Paris, a yearly membership for a vélib costs only 30 Euros, I sprung for a special card for 40 that gets me a 45 minute free ride at a time, rather than 30 minutes. My handy phone app tells me where to get or leave my bike from, but I also sometimes use it to figure out which way I’m headed! Very occasionally, I’m in a neighbourhood that is super short on bikes, or conversely the stations are too filled to park at. But I’ve found the system incredibly convenient overall.

So, I ride around, energized by the beautiful lines of sight, buildings and views, often singing stupid songs out loud: Do you vélib in life after love? (If Cher vélibed) I’m a véliber (If the Monkeys vélibed). I often get lost, and there are some tricky one-way streets (although there are a surprising number of streets that are one-way but marked clearly that cyclists can go the other way!). But I like getting lost in Paris. I’m not in a hurry and there’s always something wonderful around the corner.

The greatest gift of Paris has been to be here with my partner, and to experience its great joys together. But partners should have time apart too. S. has explored far more of the city than I while I’ve been at work, and knows it better than I do – plus he prefers the slower joys of walking, being a flâneur (as described by Edmund White). The dozens of moments I’ve experienced on a vélib, feeling the wind on my face, caught up in joy and wonder at the city’s beauty and energy, these are the moments I’ve secreted away, the little part of Paris I call my own.

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Restaurant Review: Pavillon Henri IV, St-Germain-en-Laye

We had the special lunch on new year’s day, and what a view, a sunny clear day. It couldn’t have been better. The formula was 67 euros without drinks. The entree was a foie gras escalopine and a fleurettes of celery-truffles. We thought it was delicious. Foamy, savoury, delightful and delicious.

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The main was medallions of monkfish wrapped in bacon with winter vegetables and more truffles. I love the dense texture of monkfish, and thought it was lovely. My partner thinks you should never wrap bacon around fish!IMG_2634
It was a treat to be introduced to the ooey-gooey Mont d’Or cheese, we were given a big spoonful and a little salad.

IMG_2635And finally, I was not expecting much from the dull description ‘exotic fruit variations’ but the dessert, with multiple components, tasted exotic and tropical and delicious.

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We were most impressed with the service, young, efficient and adorable, and it is a beautiful space… and Louis XIV, the sun king, was born there after all. And look, here’s the view (well, actually from our hotel room, but this is pretty much the view…)

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Restaurant Review: Le Pourquois Pas, Paris

IMG_2763Paris’s outer arrondisements can seem a little far away, but they’re really not. To get them can also depend on train or bike route. To get home from Bagnolet in the 20th, my Vélib cycle is an easy 20 minutes, but getting there is a bit more difficult with one-way streets.

IMG_2760In any case, this is where a number of 5 rhythms dance classes are held, and as Marc
Silvestre’s Friday class finishes at 9:30pm, I thought I’d treat myself to a meal.

Hidden among Asian traiteurs (delis/caterers/take-out/trattoria) and Middle Eastern restaurants on Rue de Bagnolet is an unassuming cozy restaurant, as seen above, that had a small number of great reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. I’ll add to that positive acclaim.

IMG_2759I had a simple dish of pig’s cheek with a potato mash. I know I’ve had beef cheek before, and remember it being particularly tender. The pork was very tender but also had a nice bit of texture. It was very delicious. I had this with a quarter of Cote du Rhones and then, because the main was so delicious, decided to have a Moelleux de Chocolate, that was not exactly molten but nicely soft and melting in the centre.

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I felt extravagant and decided to finish with a lovely armagnac. As you can tell, I was very pleased with myself, for finding a great restaurant, and having a perfect humble French bistro meal.

Even surpassing the food was the service. I really love the slightly formal but gracious service of some of the French bistros; it felt like the gentleman was the owner or manager. A relatively simple and quick meal but I felt like I was treated like a king.


Le Pourquoi Pas
17 rue de Bagnolet, 75020 Paris
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Restaurant Review: China (Paris)

IMG_2770Ah, you get what you pay for… Let me say first of all that while my better half refused to come to this restaurant with me, I thought: hmm, those dumplings in the window look good. See, I’m addicted to Chinese dumplings and I knew that an all-you-can-eat buffet is never a good idea, and the price of the restaurant seemed suspiciously low, 10 euros for dinner.

But hey, I thought I’d give it a whirl. It was a combination of hankering for Chinese food (being Chinese) and thinking a change from the regular French bistro food would be good. It’s always busy too!

So, I went in last night, and was seated kind of in a strange position, near the cash register, which I then learned was quite a good position for reasons I’ll explain. I ordered a very cheap and acceptable pichet of red wine for 4 Euros (and it was huge) and then went to get my first serving. I had a book with me, so I figured I’d just relax and stretch out this eating experience.IMG_2771
Then I noticed the microwave ovens, three stacked on top of each other. ‘Do you have to eat up everything?’ I asked, and one of the two nice women behind the cash register replied, ‘Yes.’ Hmm… I’ve never seen this before, ever. It’s not only then got the atmosphere of a buffet, but of a student or work cafeteria where people have brought their own lunch and have to wait for it to heat up. There’s a constant line where you’re trying to decide whether to get into the small buffet area, or wait around near the door and the microwave ovens. People couldn’t necessarily figure them out either, so there was an air of confusion.

There was an interesting mix of tourists here, a number speaking Spanish, a nice older American couple, some younger folks, couples and single diners. I was amused to hear a conversation in French where a man called over the waitress to complain about a hair
… either in his food or on his plate. Without missing a beat, she said in a tone direct but not defensive, ‘I’m sorry that it’s there, but it’s a blonde hair. We don’t have blonde hair.’ You can’t argue with that.

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The food: what can I say? It was cheap Chinese food, and I haven’t had so much MSG for ages. I was so thirsty the next morning (my usual effect from MSG, though it might have been an excess of salt too). The dumplings weren’t terrible but weren’t good. The soups, thick with corn starch, were kind of good. Various other dishes: meatballs, meat skewers, deep fried chicken – they tasted like cheap Chinese food, which I don’t mind terribly though the thick gooey sauces weren’t so nice. The problem with microwaves though is that they don’t do justice to anything that’s been fried; it takes away the crispness and makes it a little soggy. What could have been a lovely Vietnamese spring roll, a nem, had that microwaved fried texture. Same with the dumplings, which would have been great steamed, but tasted rewarmed, like leftovers. So, the food ranged from tasty (deep fried chicken drumsticks) to terrible (a crab claw dumpling, I think made of seafood filler).

Served me right. If you don’t mind mediocre, rewarmed Chinese food, and you’re happy for a bargain, then you’ll find this passable. For its truthfulness, I will give it two stars, I can’t give it one because it’s not trying to be anything other than it is, but I certainly can’t call this good food.

China
70, rue de la Verrerie
75004 Paris
Cost: 10 euros for all-you-can-eat dinner &
4 euros for a generous half carafe of red wine.

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Aftermath: Charlie Hebdo

IMG_2704It’s a day after the massive solidarity rally after the Charlie Hebdo killings. Apparently over a million people gathered, with attention given particularly to the world leaders that showed up. The metro was free, to encourage people to come, and the Parisian friend I went with explained that marches in Paris have a symbolic meaning: this one, from Republique to Nation, reflected a vow to both Republic and the Nation. It would pass by Bastille, the symbol of revolution, but if it was more about human rights, it would probably have headed towards the Palais de Justice. The rally was due to start at 3pm, and we arrived around that time, meaning that we could get nowhere close to the Republic, but instead wandered around the side streets looking at the crowds. As Brice told me, ‘my grandmother always says, the best place to watch these things is on TV’.

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I thought that the mood of the crowd was… peaceful. Considering all the people, crowded up against each other, I thought that it could be tense, but there were people of all shapes and sizes, and families, and what I’d never seen at a protest before: many people had made individual signs: ‘Je suis Charlie’ on an A4 paper and taped it to their clothes. Or had written it in facepaint or marker on their faces. Perhaps a smaller piece of paper jutting from a hat. Most protests I’ve seen gather people together in groups, according to association and work, with larger banners, and while there were a handful of banners, most people marched as individuals. I found it quite charming the number of children who had drawn their own signs. I also found something quite heartwarming in the many expressions of solidarity: I am a police officer, I am Jewish, I am Muslim, I am the woman killed, we are all in this together. There are waves of applause, but I could never see why. Much later, going home, police vans drive through the crowds and are applauded, so I think perhaps the applause may have been for the police. Occasionally someone tries to lead a chant: ‘Charlie!’ Clap clap clap. ‘Charlie!’ Clap clap clap. I find it completely strange that the Charlie they speak of was originally the comic Charlie Brown who I grew up with, a symbol of America, but now changed to represent something French, and in a much different context.

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I was glad I was with a Parisian to ask about signs I didn’t understand. He didn’t understand either. ‘Charlie Abdo’ said one sign: Charlie abdominal. Another said, in reference to the French tradition on epiphany of hiding a porcelain toy (or bean) in a pastry called ‘Galette de Roi’, ‘I haven’t got the bean’. What? Brice had no idea either. The truth is that in the middle of the crowds, I never once had a good view of it; all I had was a sense of huge crowds all around. The closest experiences I’ve had to it, funnily enough, are gay pride parades. Except that people had much more clothes on. In fact, I had to comment that while it was a demonstration, they were the nicest dressed demonstrators I’d ever seen. Parisians are extremely well dressed.

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A number of friends have asked what the mood of the city is, but really, I can’t tell. I don’t have a lot of contact with people here, I ride by them on my bicycle, I pass by them in the busy street outside our apartment. But how could I tell how they feel? There are many signs in the windows. At UNESCO where I’m working, there are numerous ‘Je suis Charlie’ posters, as well as official statements about UNESCO supporting freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

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Tonight, I felt the urge to write something down, as well as put up some of the photos I took at the rally. It’s not all baguettes and fromage here in Paris; and this incident is a jolt of reality, considering most of my blog posts and facebook pictures are of the Eiffel Tower, pastries and meals at restaurants.

Friends also ask whether I was near to the event. Paris is so concentrated, it was a bit of a shock to think how small the location was that everything happened in. The Charlie Hebdo offices are about a 15 minute bicycle ride from our apartment. A day or two later, I went to an event in the 20th arrondisement, which is not so far away from the incident at the Kosher grocery store. I did feel during those days a bit of terror. When it happened, I thought right away to the incident in Martin Place in Sydney, less than a month ago. Two people were killed in that incident, and it brought the city to grief and flowers. Here, so many people more were killed and the killers were still on the loose. What would happen to this city?

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I’m not sure really. But I have been following the news closely the whole time, the whole array of comments from around the world, everyone weighing in, pundits and journalists, and Facebook friends forwarding the articles or hashtags that touched them the most. It’s a strange world; it feels unsafe from terrorists in a way, and also unsafe from expressing one’s opinion, a maestrom of debate and tension and opposition. Living in Paris for this period made me feel it was appropriate to say… something. But I thought it easier instead to adjudicate the articles I found most useful.IMG_2723

This was my post to Facebook:

‘Paris is sad and on edge. There is a rally planned for Sunday. Our workplace held a minute of silence at noon yesterday.

I found these commentaries about the Charlie Hebdo killings the most enlightening. I think all of them have a common thread: let’s not jump into judgements, theories and rhetoric but seek to understand, the basis I hope for action.

When the rallies are over, killers are caught and the next tragedy takes over the news cycles, what I’d hope to see are real ways forward, government leadership matched with community expertise and knowledge to find specific national and local solutions, not universal slogans or fear. 

Omid Safi hopes the French response will be, ‘a renewed commitment to a robust and pluralistic democracy, one which encompasses marginalized communities’.

The piece by Juan Cole says to me that countering anti-muslim sentiment is the more important gesture than defending free speech which feels both like a no-brainer and also a distraction. Could the terrorists, rather than attacking the right to expression, be trying to create anti-Muslim sentiment to recruit more members? If so, the Australian response to the Martin Place killings, ‪#‎ridewithme‬, seems even more amazing.

Lastly, Australian Chad Parkhill’s piece in Junkee questions the hashtag ‪#‎JeSuisCharlie‬ and asks us to ‘respect the dead by trying to understand where they were coming from, and resisting the urge to make Charlie Hebdo stand for something it never has.’

Food for thought.’

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To these I’d add a few more articles (through their coverage, I was reminded what a good newspaper UK’s the Independent is):

Robert Fisk’s commentary taught me about the atrocities in Algeria of the French government. I’ve found myself wanting to say after the incident that this was a result of madmen and lunatics, and I’ve heard others describe it as so. But that puts the reasons for it in the realm of mental health rather than the socio-political. I was familiar with the American involvement in propping up dictatorships such as in Chile, Guatemala and Nicaragua, involving the killings of thousands of innocents but wasn’t familiar with the French equivalent. It’s not an excuse of the killings, but as political commentators point out: we need to look at the political context for what happened, not ‘security problems’.

Patrick Cockburn is one of these voices, and I’m unsettled to read his article, pointing out that in 2001 al-Qaeda had a few hundred activists confined to a few camps and towns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now after a ‘war on terror’, ‘al-Qaeda-type movements control large areas of Iraq and Syria and dominate the Sunni Arab armed opposition in both countries’ and are linked to terrorist attacks like Paris has just experienced.

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The newspapers tell me that somewhere around  2,000 young French citizens have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with the militants. The issue of ‘security’ and controlling these citizens seems short-sighted. What are the larger causes of discontent? How can people like these be engaged in society, and government start to address socio-economic inequality and disenfranchisement? My years of working in the HIV sector tell me that community-based solutions require working with those affected by an issue or problem. I fear that a march of a million peace-abiding citizens, expressing solidarity and support for freedom of the press, won’t have a long-term benefit. After all, isn’t that what the terrorists wanted? A reaction? While it is a reasonable and honourable sentiment to say that love will conquer hate, I don’t think the suicide bombers and violents Islamists really care.

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There is of course the other issue arising just today and yesterday, the massacre of 2000 people in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and how it throws into sharp relief the difference in attention by the world to Western lives compared to others. What’s with that? the Independent writes.

But it’s obvious, of course. We relate to, and grieve, about what we can understand and imagine, and here in Paris where some cartoonists have died, and police officers, and those in a kosher grocery shop, I can picture them, just as I can see the two who died in Sydney last month, and I am sad for their families and loved ones, their cities, and this strange, terrible world we find ourselves in.

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Christmas and New Year’s in Paris

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Christmas lights up on Rue de Sèvres

I haven’t spent a full winter in a cold climate for 15 years. The weather is crisp and clear, and sometimes below freezing, but not particularly cold. Still, it took a long time to remember how to dress in layers easily, and how to keep track of all the winter gear need, the gloves, the scarves and hats.

A small milestone has passed, the Christmas and New Year’s period. Even months before, it was something that friends would ask about. And now it’s passed.

I stretched it out! Christmas lights went up in the streets: not too showy, quite elegant, we thought. My morning cycle to work became colder and brisk. All December, I rode while sing Christmas Carols, loudly, along the Seine, under the Eiffel Tower’s watch, or past the Christmas displays in the windows of the Bon Marché, where even the lights from cars and traffic signals converged with the holiday glow. Chestnuts roasting over open fires! Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! Hark the herald angels sing. It never felt right to me singing cold weather Christmas carols in Sydney’s 30 degree heat, so this year, I indulged.

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The snow dome of Christmas trees under the Eiffel Tower.

We went to a performance at Théâtre Chaillot by the Batsheva Dance Company, from Israel on Christmas Eve: ‘Decadance’, a selection of ten of their works: beautiful and unexpected movement.

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View during dinner at the Théâtre Chaillot

Afterwards, we had a late dinner in the foyer of this vast and grand building with one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The lights sparkled every hour for five minutes; we were there for the 10pm and 11pm light show while served a most excellent three course meal, but for midnight were riding our bikes down the Champs-Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe: lots of people wandering around. I guess that’s what tourists do in Paris for Christmas.

On Christmas Day, we had a quiet morning, spoke to family by Skype, went to an incredible special lunch at Atelier de Joël Robuchon Etoile (see the blog post for photos), and spent the rest of the day recovering.

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Pavillon Henri IV is behind the trees and to the right.

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Les Parterres, the park right next to the chateau.

 

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Les Parterres

On 31 December, we took a train just 40 minutes to the outskirts of Paris, Saint Germain-en-Laye. The lovely old hotel, Pavillon Henri IV, recommended by a colleague, turned out to be part of the chateau where Louis XIV was born. They’re very proud of that.

There is a magnificent park next to the chateau, with miles of perfect rows of trees and sculpted bushes and pathways, running along a historic wall with a view of Paris, La Défense closer by and the Eiffel Tower far in the distance. We went for a lovely stroll through it on New Year’s Day.

The town itself was rather charming and old, and there we bought baguettes to go with the foie gras we’d brought, and a Gallete de Rois, a traditional pastry for the 2nd of January (we thought we’d start early). Layers of crisp puff pastry stuffed with frangipane, sweet almond paste: delicious.

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The cake of kings…

We skipped the expensive party the hotel was hosting, drank a special bottle of champagne, as recommended by a sommelier pal (Jerome Prevost’s La Closerie), ate foie gras and brie de meaux, watched Downton Abbey on a laptop, and managed to stay up past midnight, somewhat of a struggle these days.

As the sky darkened, the lights of the city became in comparison more bright.

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Paris, New Year’s Eve, 2014.

Through our hotel window, Paris stretched out wide in front of us and into the distance. I’m not sure I’ve been in a similar geography before, feeling like we were up on the edge of a wide pan, rather flatter than around where I grew up in Vancouver. We didn’t think there would be fireworks, but there were some quite close by, on the nearest banks of the Seine, and we saw others in the distance (with a brief flare from the Arc de Triomphe at midnight).

IMG_3101Far in the distance to the right: the strobelights of the Eiffel Tower at midnight, sparkling as we’d seen them on Christmas eve, though the rotating beacon continued on and on after that (as it does all night).

In the morning, the whole city slowly glowed pink and red and then became progressively lighter, welcoming the new year.

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The morning is coming, 1 Jan 2015

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Morning, 1 January 2015

 

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