My challenge in Paris was to find something unusual to mention. The main landmarks have been written about so often that it would barely be interesting to mention my visits, say, to the Musée d'Orsay or the Eiffel Tower. I needed to scope out the lesser-known neighborhoods and meet people most tourists don't get to meet.
Through a friend of my parents, who visited midway through our six-week stay, I met Reinhard von Nagel
, a world-renowned, well-spoken harpsichord maker who works out of a workshop near the Ménilmontant district in the 11th arrondissement. My parents and I arrived at his place, an dull high-rise apartment building on a side street.
"Everyone expects to see a more interesting building," Reinhard said as he greeted us - as if he could read our thoughts.
He took us upstairs to the two-room workshop. The front room contained several harpsichords: One was simply painted black, one had bright splotches of paint reminiscent of Chagall (there's actually a Chagall-painted von Nagel harpsichord in a museum somewhere), and one was elaborately painted with cherubic-looking angels.
What makes Reinhard's harpsichords special is that they are built according to the old tradition used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some instruments on view had one manual (keyboard), and some had two (each with its own set of strings); and some had a tiny "octave" switch that allowed you to play two notes an octave apart by striking just one key. These components allowed these harpsichords to produce some kind of dynamic variation. If you played one manual, you got just one string to sound; if you played the other, two resonated at the same pitch, for a louder sound; and then you could flip the octave switch and get an even grander sound. The force with which you strike a key doesn't affect the loudness on a harpsichord (as it does on a piano), since the strings are plucked instead of hit with a hammer.
So many variations means that Reinhard can tailor his harpsichords to be ideal for the music of different composers: you can get a Couperin-specific instrument, or a Bach-specific instrument, and so on, and they may have different specifications - and different tunings of the strings.
The instruments are made by hand in the back room of the workshop. Spruce is the most common wood, though Reinhard also uses beech, cypress, and other types. The trees are cut down right around the end of December, when the cold causes the wood to be at its densest. The harpsichord pieces are made from entire cuts of wood, never from slats joined together. It's largely because of the quality of the wood, and the fact that they are built by hand by Reinhard's small staff, that the most expensive ones hover around €100,000.
"How long is it from the forest to the finished product?" my father asked.
"You are the first person to ever ask that question intelligently," Reinhold responded. "Most people ask: How long does it take to make a harpsichord? And I answer: Two hundred years. First you have to plant a tree..." The actual time varies considerably, but after the wood is cut it generally takes four to six months in the workshop.
Paraphrasing Voltaire, Reinhard extolled the beauty and timelessness of the harpsichord and said that the piano had absolutely no future. Then it came up that in the Fosse
orchestra we play electronic keyboards. "Pornophones!" Reinhard condemned them, though at least we don't have to spend intermissions tuning our instruments, as the harpsichordists did in 17th-century operas.
To thank Reinhard for showing us around his workshop and entertaining us for an hour, my parents and I offered to treat him and his wife, Kari, to Fosse
tickets. They settled on a Friday, and I just barely secured seats for them - all of our shows nearly sold out in Paris. However, the box office couldn't find the tickets for him when he came to pick them up. He tried to call me on my mobile phone, but I didn't notice until a minute before showtime, when I looked at the phone to turn it off and noticed that I'd missed a call. It had been on, but no phone I've ever seen vibrates strongly enough or rings loudly enough for me to feel it or hear it when it's in my pants pocket and I'm walking around. Basically I need someone to make a phone that will play an ear-splitting fanfare and stab me in the leg whenever a call comes in.
I called Reinhard back at intermission. Ever eloquent and succinct, he said, "Don't worry, Seth. Someone fucked up." He wasn't angry. It turned out the tickets had been in the ordered-by-phone line instead of the friends-and-family line, and, as Reinhard said, "The gentleman who helped me was competent, but not over-motivated" - he hadn't thought to look in the other pile. So Reinhard and Kari had a nice dinner out, and the box-office manager was helpful and switched the tickets to another night. "Thank you for two wonderful nights out," Reinhard said after the show.
What a guy.
I explored neighborhoods largely by walking randomly and taking the metro to stations that sounded interesting. South of Place d'Italie in the southern part of the city was a huge Chinatown, and Rue Marcadet, in the north, was a large West African neighborhood - I'd never seen restaurants advertising cuisine from Cameroon or the Ivory Coast. I tried one of the latter, called La Perle, for lunch - it was a small, festive place, with people drinking huge 1664 beers and eating large platters of stewy chicken and fish using their right hands only (the left, I presumed, is used for toilet ablutions, as in Asia). Erica and I tried a similar place for dinner one night, and we felt rather conspicuous - we were two of only four white people in the place.
In the Bois de Boulogne, I was greeted by peacocks in the lovely Parc de Bagatelle, and by transvestite prostitutes along the main roads; and near the Château de Vincennes I spent a lovely afternoon in the Parc Floral, a large botanical garden. Not much of the color was there yet - it was February, after all, and things hadn't begun to bloom - but there were some splendid cacti kept inside, and it had a wonderful communal children's playground. At the top of a huge pyramidal rope ladder of sorts was a little girl of about eight years, looking down on everything. Goodness knows how she got up there - the final two rungs were as big as she was, and the structure was high enough to have given me vertigo.
Once I made the mistake of walking all the way out to La Défense, which had something called the Grande Arche. I assumed it was some big historic military monument like the Arc de Triomphe, but in fact La Défense is simply a huge financial business district. Some of the shiny, sleek buildings are architecturally interesting, but the Grande Arche is pretty much just a silver square tower built in the 1980s - a bit of a disappointment when you think of the splendor of the Arc de Triomphe, and a bit of a letdown after I'd walked the five or six miles there from our hotel. Still, it's pretty neat that the Louvre pyramid, the Tuileries gardens, the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Grande Arche are all nicely lined up over a stretch of several miles, so when you're standing at any of them you can see the others. And when you think of it, it's nice that central Paris has been spared a big business district. The exception seems to be the huge, ugly, black Tour Montparnasse, which I didn't bother to visit, but the Tour Montparnasse must have spectacular views from the top if only because from there you can't see the Tour Montparnasse. (They say the same thing about the Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem.)
One day Erica and I took a train for an hour from Montparnasse Station out to the cathedral at Chartres. Built around 1200, it's probably the finest cathedral I'd ever been to. It's got all the splendor of Notre Dame, both inside and out, but there was something extra-special about being inside. Maybe it was the absence of tourists: When we went, on a blustery Wednesday, we seemed to be the only ones there. We weren't even sure whether the place was actually open or whether we'd sneaked in through a side entrance. There was no electric light, at least not near the area where we entered; it was sunlight that enabled us to barely make out the incredible carvings around the altar grill. Candles illuminated the chapels. With every step we took, all the magnificent Gothic arches seemed to be perfectly aligned to highlight a particular episode depicted on stained glass. And then of course there's the magnificent labyrinth on the ground, and the splendid rose window.
Chartres teaches us that wonderful ancient buildings, unless there's a history of continual development, should be left alone. Two items were nauseatingly out of place at Chartres. One was a group of cylindrical tubes that housed what I can only describe as Jell-O cubes. What was their purpose? The other was a heinous diorama of the Nativity, seemingly made out of the finest cheap plastic that Le Grand Magasin Wal-Mart has to offer. There was a similar diorama at Notre Dame - this one mawkishly illuminated by flashing lights - in which, as my mother pointed out, all the donkeys and goats and lambs were twice as big as the people. Who comes up with this stuff?
Almost as impressive as the Chartres cathedral, in its own modern way, was the new people mover linking lines 4 and 12 of the metro with the rest of Montparnasse Station. There's the normal people mover, signposted "3 km/h - Très confortable." But we got to try out the new one, just opened for testing: "9 km/h - Très rapide." There are special acceleration and deceleration rollers to get you on and off, sort of like those metal rollers that your hand luggage is spewed onto after it goes through the X-ray machines at the airport - and it's a good thing, because stepping off a conveyor at nine kilometers an hour is not unlike jumping off a moving bus. And you can walk on the conveyor as it gently bounces you along, so you really do make wonderful progress. And the French metro system needs such devices, too - there are plenty of stations where it's a 10-minute walking connection between lines.
Erica had been to Paris before, and fortunately she saved her copy of Patricia Wells's The Food Lover's Guide to Paris
. It's an incredible work that reads like an erotic novel of every splendid culinary element Paris has to offer, including descriptions of the bread-making, cheese-aging, and truffle-hunting processes; guides to the outdoor markets; recipes; history; and, of course, restaurants. I never knew, for instance, that cheese is often aged on straw, paper, or plastic right there in the cellar of the shop; that much French cheese is banned from the USA because it's unpasteurized and aged for under two months; or that truffles are so expensive because they can't be cultivated - they grow only in the wild, underground, and are sniffed out by pigs. And there's a terrific dictionary in the back. For the jambon
entry, for instance, instead of just saying "ham," it adds, "also refers to the leg, usually of pork, but also of poultry," and then it gives descriptions of 18 different ham varieties.
Based on this, and what I saw around me, I joined the throngs of people at the outdoor markets. I kept a mental map of where and when they occurred nearby - the Belleville market was Tuesday and Friday, the Place des Fêtes market was Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, and the one under the elevated number 2 metro line up by La Chapelle was Tuesday and Saturday. The one at Mairie des Lilas (Wednesday and Sunday) had one vendor with splendid mangoes and avocados at four to a euro, but it was a schlep to get out there. They were all morning markets and closed up by lunchtime. My favorite was Belleville, which spanned three metro stops and seemed to be the cheapest of the three, with the largest selection. I'd usually walk the whole length of the market, checking out prices and figuring out what I needed, before heading back through the narrow, crowded lane and snatching up produce.
One of my favorite places in Paris was Rue Poncelet, a little street way up in the 17th arrondissement. It had a couple of good fruit-and-vegetable shops, some enticing restaurants, great French and German bakeries - and Alléosse, which Patricia Wells calls "the best cheese shop in Paris." It's also one of the friendliest. After I inspected the cheeses for about 15 minutes, one of the staff let me try a few, explaining which brebis
was richer or creamier than the others, or which Cantal was stronger or lighter. I selected one of each, and he cut them carefully with a piece of wire. He wrapped them in paper, writing on one, in a bold, elegant cursive, Abbaye de Belloc - "Brebis" Pyrénées Atlantiques
. And on the other: Vieux Jalers, +6 mois d'affinage, Cantal "Vache"
. The brebis (sheep's-milk cheese) had a moderately strong, rich, slightly creamy flavor, and it really did melt in my mouth. The Cantal (cow's milk) was sturdier and just as flavorful. Neither had a strong smell. That prize went to the Camembert, which you could detect a block or two away. You always knew when you were about to pass a cheese shop.
My other favorite place, culinarily speaking, was the Place de la Madeleine, because of its gourmet shops. Walk around the place
and you come to Fauchon, which specializes in foie gras and other goodies; Boutique Maille, where you can buy fresh mustard from the tap; Caviar Kaspia; Hédiard, with its glass-enclosed room of expensive wines; and the Maison de la Truffe, which tantalized me every time I was nearby with its lumpy black truffles.
I must say that, because of all this, my entire food-shopping attitude has changed for life. I don't think I can ever go back to generic supermarket-bought prepackaged bread, and I have little enthusiasm left for the provolone and munster at my deli on Ninth Avenue in New York. I've been spoiled by fresh baguettes and wonderfully rich round loaves, and by pungent, firm cheeses.
Almost every meal in Paris was terrific. Notable places included Bofinger, with its wonderful shellfish platter including oysters, lobster, crab, and those little gray shrimp that are two small to shell so you eat them whole. There was Julien, with its splendid Art Nouveau decor and goose casserole. We made Le Nouvô Cosmos, directly above the Jourdain metro station, a regular hangout on the way home - it had a three-course changing menu for €15 that was always interesting. (It must be said that Jourdain is certainly the best-smelling metro station in Paris. Whereas the others smell mostly of canine excrement, Jourdain is blessed with having an incense seller at the top of the escalator.) A little Vietnamese restaurant in the Belleville Chinatown provided several cheap, filling pho
meals, and Da Lat, nearby, had a simple pork-and-rice dish that just hit the spot on late nights. A few people got hooked on injera at the Restaurant Ethiopia. There was 404, a small, festive North African place in the Marais, where we celebrated Erica's birthday with an excellent chicken-and-pear tajine, and there was Chez Marianne, also in the Marais, with its fabulous Israeli spreads. The restaurant at the Paris mosque serves up a terrific couscous and interesting pastries. When traditional French food started to get tedious (and it only barely started to, and not for long), my college friend Elliot introduced Erica and me to Le Dos de la Baleine, also in the Marais, which serves modern French food - consider my meal of risotto and St. Jacques scallops followed by dorade
stuffed with olive tapenade. Nearby were the festive Au Petit Fer à Cheval, which we only got to try once before it closed for renovations, and Les Philosophes, which we liked before we heard Elliot's story. He'd gone there with friends, and one of them had suggested that since they were out of the daily special, they should substitute something else at the same price. When they refused, she made a comment about it being not very elegant. "You want elegant? I'll show you elegant!" the staff said, throwing all their dishes into the trash.
Paris nightlife was a bit hit-and-miss. Our Paris producers sponsored a night at Les Bains Douches, once a municipal bath and now a trendy, lushly decorated nightclub. Comfortable it was, but it was one of the few clubs I've been to that actually had too few people, beers were €9, and the DJ wouldn't take any of Erica's requests. There was the Buddha Bar, a pretentious, overpriced place that ought to be burned down by the next group of revolutionaries. On the good side, there was the cosy China Club, with large black couches and, all things considered, reasonable prices - Erica said the upstairs reminded her of the parlor car of a train in the 1920s. You could do a lot worse.
I went to a bunch of museums, but I didn't overdo it. There was the lovely Rodin Museum, with its sculpture-filled gardens, which start right off with his most famous masterpiece, La Porte d'Enfer
. Erica and I got up early the first Sunday in February (when many museums are free) so we could get to the Impressionist works at the Musée d'Orsay early. It had a temporary exhibit called At the Origins of Abstraction
, which showed, among other things, the influence of music on painting and vice versa - I was most taken by Frantisek Kupka's "Les Touches de piano - Le Lac" and the Lithuanian Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis's three-part "Sonate no 5, sonate de la mer, Allegro, Andante, Finale," which showes an ocean in animated, tranquil, and stormy conditions, reminiscent of the three movements of a sonata.
Part of the reason I go to an art museum, rather than look at copies of paintings in a book, is to get up close to the paintings and see their three-dimensionality - whether the paint is smooth or lumpy - and nowhere is this more evident than in the works of the Impressionists. I spent a good bit of time looking at Renoir's 1892 Jeunes filles au piano
. The two girls, one playing, one standing over her, were painted with fine, flat strokes, but above them was a bulky plant, painted with thick, three-dimensional strokes, as if to draw undue attention to it. Up in that square by the Sacré-Coeur, where the artists set up their easels outside, someone had done a copy of this painting - and left out the plant entirely.
The Musée Carnavalet tells the history of Paris mostly by using paintings of the cities from different time periods. I'd hoped it would contain more artifacts than depictions, but it's probably the case that artifacts are not readily available. The museum did, however, contain one of the most fascinating paintings I saw in all of Paris. It was a small painting, by an unknown author, rather hidden in the corner of one of the rooms, and it depicted a late-17th-century playing-card factory at Place Dauphine. In the foreground were 20 people in the factory, few of them interacting, some stamping the cards (one table was all spades, one hearts, and so on), some assembling them and packaging them. Long strips of scrap paper littered the floor. Two little white dogs watched the workers. Behind the factory was the Seine, in all its glory. Fascinating - I mean, it never occurred to me that in 1680 you could walk on over to Place Dauphine and put in an order to furnish a new casino.
The museum also contained a great exhibit, including some actual artifacts, on the French Revolution. There were keys from the Bastille, a collection of ceramics (one pre-1789 dish simply had a picture of a bird, while one from 1792 read "Vive la Nation"), and a 1795 clock that used the 10-hour, 100-minute revolutionary time system.
The Cité de la Musique contained an excellent music museum, in which they gave you radio-controlled headphones; when you neared certain displays of instruments, you'd hear explanations and pieces of music featuring those instruments. And some of those instruments were truly extraordinary - just when I think I've seen every possible variety of string or brass shape, I go to a museum like this and see hundreds of new specimens. There was a hookah-shaped 17th-century bass flute; a stout sort of bassoon that looked (as Eric put it) like a coffee grinder; 19th-century finger stretchers to help pianists; an "irregular violin" that looked like a horizontally stretched version of a normal violin; a viola arpa
from 1872, which looked like it had a tumor growing out of it; an instrument made of two violins joined back to back; and a two-story-high bass. And there was an exhibit on the layout of orchestras in various modern pieces. Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen
is for three orchestras, each led by its own conductor; Pierre Boulez's Répous
has the audience amidst the orchestra, with the percussion instruments on the periphery; and Luigi Nono's opera Prometeo
, when it was performed in 1984 at the San Lorenzo Church in Venice, had the instruments, scenery, and audience on four levels.
Our Paris producers sponsored a day-long tour of Paris, including a trip to the Eiffel Tower. I wouldn't have bothered to go up on my own, but they got us tickets to the first level, after which Stephen and I climed up the 14 stories or so to the second level. I must say, this was rather nerve-racking - the stairs are enclosed only by a sort of open metal gate, and it was windy ("Just pretend you're on the stairs of an open tower," Stephen said, wryly helping me through it). But that was easy compared with the elevator ride to the top. It's about the size of a shower stall, it's all open glass, and it swayed - only by a couple of millimeters or so, but a noticeable amount - as it rose. It's the first time in years that I wasn't sure I'd make it. But it was well worth it for the view from the top - it was clear (we were blessed with a balmy week early in February) and we could probably see as far as Chartres; it was fun to have an aerial view of Paris and see all the places we'd been.
As for our apartment-hotel, well, it did become a home of sorts, even if the furnishings were bland. We cooked once in a while using ingredients persnicketily picked from the Belleville market. We got used to the incense seller at the Jourdain station and the homeless guy on the stairs to the platform. We made repeated trips to the wonderful Au 140 bakery. We grew accustomed to being awakened precisely at 10:00 on weekday mornings by the screaming kids at the school across the street, who began recess at that hour. (It sounded like thousands of kids, but whenever we looked into the playground we could see only a dozen or so.) We tried to remember the five-digit codes needed to enter the hotel and get up the elevator; they changed every couple of weeks, but, coincidentally or not, they always made some sort of memorable pattern (89632 - a counterclockwise loop on the keypad - or 30852 - going straight up the middle column, for instance). We enjoyed walking through the pretty Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, behind our hotel, and enjoying its manmade waterfall and lake and the view from the little chapel-like pavilion on the upper hill. And we watched a lot of German MTV, the only channel (besides CNN) that we could barely understand. It played a lot of American hits, and also a lot of German ones; one favorite was "Augen Auf," which had characters eerily reminiscent of the emcee in Cabaret
and that brutish girl in Schindler's List
who tells all the Jews to go away. As far as the American hits were concerned, Erica remarked that all the performers were ethnic - that was a necessity for making your song popular. Well, I'm going to create a Jewish-inspired music video. The song will be called "Break the Middle Matzoh."
Audra McDonald, who starred in Ragtime
on Broadway, came to Paris to do a joint concert of musical-theatre songs with Rodney Gilfry, and we were all given complimentary tickets to attend. The concert started off with a rousing, well-played rendition of Bernstein's Candide
overture, but after that the orchestra just couldn't get off the ground. Gilfry opened the singing with "Luck Be a Lady," which forced the conductor into what I call "oil-derrick" conducting - the art of bowing and gesticulating violently with arms and torso in a futile attempt to get the orchestra to play faster. The program featured several songs that make no sense when lifted from their normal show setting, including "In Praise of Women" from A Little Night Music
(what papers is he talking about?). It ended with "Wheels of a Dream," from Ragtime
; both McDonald and Gilfry were stunning in this number, but Gilfry is the whitest white boy around and it just didn't seem right that he should be singing of the USA as being "a country that lets a man like me own a car." But it didn't matter. Audra McDonald could sing the phone book and I'd be entertained.
With one major exception, our performances at the Châtelet went off without a hitch. The exception started when the drums suddenly stopped being heard in the house (and onstage) midway through the first act. Ross had Greg stop playing, and the tinny drum tracks were turned on. When we got to "Crunchy Granola Suite," all the pre-recorded accompaniment stopped entirely midway through the song. Everyone else stopped playing; I figured I'd better give the actors something to work with, so I improvised an accompaniment - my general feeling at times like that is that anything goes; just keep the show going. Eventually Greg came back in and gave us a beat to work with, and slowly the other players joined in. Unfortunately, the tracks for "Crunchy" also came back in, but at the beginning of the song. The problem had to do with something called the "pre-amp," which I thought was that document that begins "We the People" but is actually a device that gets the sound to the sound mixer before it's brought to the house. There was a 45-minute delay, during which Ben Vereen got onstage and entertained the audience with Sammy Davis Jr. tunes. He started a cappella, but eventually Stephen and Greg started playing along, and Phillip came out and improvised a tap dance. The audience certainly got their money's worth.
But a worse problem plagued our company later on. One cast member discovered that €200 had gone missing during a performance, and when she suggested that security cameras might catch the thief, he decided to "help" her look and "found" it in her jacket pocket. She was livid. The problem was escalated to company management, and eventually a company meeting was called. I wasn't there - I'd had prior dinner arrangements with a cousin - but I learned the rest of the story. The culprit made an apology, which was openly, and rightly, scorned by the victim - how can you apologize for something that deliberately malicious? Most people were hoping for him to resign or be fired, but Ben Vereen said we needed to find a way to forgive the thief and not bring hatred into our "church." "Two thousand years ago, a man died on the cross for forgiveness," he said. I'm glad I missed the meeting - my eyes would have fallen out of their sockets from all the rolling they'd have been doing.
The thief is still with the company, but as far as I can tell he's been pretty much ostracized, so if he's not fired soon, maybe we can drive him out. In a business where people are in such tight quarters, such as together on a bus all day, I don't want to feel I have to lock my bag every time I depart the bus for a pit stop. We just don't have room for that kind of thing - and it has transpired that this was probably not an isolated incident.
Besides, there are easier ways to make €200. One night, for instance, three of our crew members paid me that very amount to eat a box of old, moldy, gray-pink, fuzzy mushrooms one of them had been storing in his refrigerator for far too long.
As our time in Paris drew to a close, I felt pretty content with what I'd seen, and I was almost ready to move on: It was clear I'd need to commit to learning more French if I wanted to enjoy the city any further. But I knew, of course, that this was a place I would heartily miss. I found myself standing outside City Hall one night, looking at all those magnificent carvings embedded into the facade, and mourning the fact that soon I would be back in the United States and unable to find French cheese. Behind City Hall was a small, personable outdoor market - just one vegetable seller, just one cheese stand, one butcher, etc., and, oddly, two people selling paella. I regretted not having tried this little market, or many of the others around town. And I realized that Paris is a sort of paradox. The city may be comfortably visited in six days: You take in a half-dozen museums, have some great meals, and walk around. But while six days may be sufficient, six weeks is not enough, because then you try to take in everything, and you become immersed in all that the city has to offer, and once you leave you realize the Paris attitude is still in your system but incongruent with what you see in front of you.
Culinarily speaking, I lived it up my last day in Paris. For lunch I had truffles at the Maison de la Truffe. They sell them whole for €2600 per kilogram, but for a mere €28 you can have a salad made with them. They came in two forms: tiny crumbles and thin shavings. They tasted, if this makes any sense, the way mushrooms smell: sort of earthy, leafy, and peppery. They went down with a soothing, subtle flavoring - a sensation that lasted just a few seconds with each bite, and then, as I tried to grasp and remember it, it was gone.
I had my last Parisian dinner at Le Procope. Founded in 1686, it's the oldest cafe in Paris, and it claims to be the oldest in the world. It's got white tablecloths and elegant candelabra and pictures of goodness-knows-whom looking down on you. I had fabulous escargot smothered in a garlic-butter-pesto sauce, followed by rare veal kidneys with artichokes and potatoes in a Calvados sauce. Perfect.
We left Paris for Dayton; our flight departed early enough in the morning that we had to leave the hotel before dawn. I had just enough time to run past the Place des Fêtes outdoor market - just setting up shop - to Au 140, which opens at 5:30 on Sunday mornings for reasons such as this, for one final croissant aux amandes
, tarte aux pommes
, pain au chocolat
, and escargot au chocolat
. A fitting ending to a splendid six weeks.
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