Friday, July 25, 2008

Theatre du Funambule and Paul Maz

Paris' performing arts scene is a candy shop for children.

Take any given week in the year and you'll find no less than thirty theatre shows or musicals for the younger set, a dozen guignol puppet shows and if you're lucky, festivals or fairs. Now that my girls were old enough (3 and 5) to enjoy some of them, I was determined to make the most of it.

The Theatre du Funambule is a hole-in-the-wall theatre in the 18th arrondissement, right behind Montmartre and its crowded streets.

Actresses Marie-Laure Malric and Marie Simon adapt Alice in Wonderland on stage with a French flavor.

When the White Rabbit misbehaves with Alice, she threatens to bring him to her mother who loves to eat rabbit in a mustard sauce! Another scene features an old duchess stirring a pepper soup with too much pepper.

Part shadow theatre, part musical, part theatre, part puppet act, the show was a delight to my girls who helped Alice solve the mysteries of the story.

Despite minimal sets, the story unfolds very neatly thanks to the energy, Italian face masks and various costumes of the characters. A very nice treat for ages 3 and above.

Our second endeavor led us to the Theatre Astral at the Parc Floral east of Paris for the delightful mazician show of Paul Maz, Le Magicien de Papier.

Paul Maz is a former journalist reborn as a surrealist magician, a word lover mixing Federico Garcia Lorca and Paul Desnos' lines with live music, magic and paper cuttings in "The Paper Magician". The thread of the story is simple.

The Pere Quenot lives on top of the hill Montmartre and collects old newspapers to recycle them as paper cuttings that take on a new life. In doing so, he also creates magic for children using the magic words "Pere Quenot, Perqueni, Perquena."

As the Pere Quenot juggles playing his concertina and creating paper figure garlands and stars, he invites two children on stage to perform paper magic with him.

The first one was an eight-year-old girl named Louise who got to create knots on a magic rope hiding in a paper bag.

The second one was a four-year-old boy named Leo who made a "magic paper tree" with Paul Maz to the "oohs" and "aaahs" of the audience.

Six or seven short scenes played out on stage, each involving a wonderful and poetic resolution.

For this show, we were joined by my two-year-old niece and she was as amazed by the performance as my little girls.

I couldn't recommend Paul Maz highly enough for anybody who wishes to see a different kind of magic. I'm ready for seconds anytime.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Gruissan: Skyline to the Sea

Gruissan is one of many coastal towns invaded by sun-seeking bathers during summertime. Expect scantily-clad topless females of all sizes and freesbee tornaments on the beach.

However if you manage to go south just a few miles, you get to the marshes on the saltwater lagoons of Ayrolle and its snow-white mountains of salt.

At the very end of a dirt road we parked our cars and set out on foot to discover the trail called Les Goules. The Aude Region has dramatically increased its hiking trails and this one has spanking new signs which make it very easy to follow.

Winds were blowing hard that day and we took shelter below pine trees to have our picnic before the hike.

In the child department, we had a three-month old, a three-year old and a five-year old in tow. For them, Les Goules was perfect because of its relative flatness. The trail is divided roughly in three parts: beach, coastal hill, valley vineyards. Each of those had its reward for us hikers.

On the beach, my girls collected shiny seashells and rocks. Climbing up the hill, I gathered wild thyme, wild lavender and wild rosemary in my hat (always carry gardening scissors when hiking if you know your local flora).

The views up on the ridge were splendid and we showed the train zooming by at lagoon level in the distance to the girls.

Walking between acres of vineyards, we finally enjoyed the sun, being sheltered from the wind.

The end of the trail borders the Domaine Bel Eveque, a winery belonging to famous French comic actor Pierre Richard, one of many actor-transplants turned winemakers in the south of France.

As we were close to Gruissan-plage, we couldn't resist a short drive by the Plage des Chalets (cabana beach), a house-on-stilts beach resort that hit the French Hall of Fame as setting for the award-winning cult movie 37 degres 2 Le Matin (Betty Blue in English).

Alas, today's developments lack the wacky romance of the movie and from the Café du Soleil where we sipped a Perrier on ice, the Plage des Chalets wasn't more appealling than an upscale trailer park.

The place is probably nice at sundown if you're lucky to hit a beach-view cabana, but if your only views are restricted to your neighbors' dinner leftovers on their terrace, no thanks.

That said, Gruissan is a great daytrip for families because of the shallow waters by the white sandy beach and the calm seas beyond, making it a safe spot to wade with children.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Béziers' Farmers Market

Beziers is a medieval town in crisis. Its heydays unfolded hundreds of years ago when men in arms enrolled for crusades and thousands of heretic cathars were burned alive in churches after the Abbot of Citeaux said the famous sentence "Kill them all, let God sort them out."

The city is much more peaceful now but its narrow streets, eagle-sitting Saint-Nazaire cathedral and fortress-like Madeleine church are daily remainders of its warrior past.

Fortunately, none of that at the farmers market called Les Halles where every food lover's dream comes true. Just take a look at the olive store.

It's been there for as long as I can remember and the guy with a beard always likes you to taste his cured olives, capers, cornichons, pickled peppers, sundried tomatoes, tapenade and more.

He also sells anchovies, salted cod, dried fruits, candied fruits (including the delicious hand-of-Buddha fruit called cédrat in French and kumquats), and olive oil.

Now, the olive oil is troublesome. The guy sells two varieties, none of which come from the region where's an olive mill in Puisserguier ten miles away and another one in Bize-Minervois 25 miles away. His come all the way from Aniane close to Montpellier and Italy. Honestly, whatever happened to local products?

I had a similar experience shopping for prosciutto (which we call raw ham or jambon cru in French). There are two butchers/deli at Les Halles. One sold Parma ham coming from Italy, the other jambon cru from Lacaune, a small mountain village in the Black Mountains one hour north-west of Beziers.

Needless to say, I headed straight to the guy who sold ham from Lacaune and it was one of the best prosciuttos I've ever tasted.

When buying cheese, I again concentrated on local cheeses which are mostly sheep and goat, like the pungy farmer's Pyrénées cheese, the Saint-Agur creamy blue cheese or hard and sweet sheep milk cheese. The cheese lady also sells brousse de brebis, a sheep milk cottage cheese delicacy much lighter than cottage cheese and very smooth.

After we stocked up on tomatoes, melons, red leaf lettuces and more produce, Marine pointed to a sign I hadn't seen. It said "Escargots vivants prêts à cuisiner" or "Live snails ready to cook".

Now, that's France. You may not be aware of this crucial culinary fact, but you can't just pick up snails and eat them right away. You got to make them "sweat out" all their insides during a month before eating them. No judgments please, it's just a fact. So these snails had done their share of sweating all right.

When I told my father there were snails at Les Halles, he smiled and told me of fond memories of cargolade, a local snail-based barbecue. As my 3-year-old would say: Yummy yummy in my soupy tummy! Or not?

Building a Tree House: The Mulberry Tree House

What child hasn't dreamed of a tree house to watch the stars and gaze at the world up high?

At our house in Beziers there was a tree on my mind, a tree that would be just perfect for the job: neither too high nor too low, wide space in the center and virtually overlooking our house so that the children could watch and be watched at the same time.

As soon as I shared my ambitions with my father, he blurted out "No way! It's too complicated." That's the only encouragement I needed.

Fortunately my sister-in-law Marine is more a Bob-the-Builder type and with a Yes-we-can attitude, both of us got in the starting blocks.

I went up the ladder with a small saw to remove unwanted branches, Marine grabbed a pencil and measuring tape.

Seeing we were undeterred and his tree was losing feathers, my father reluctantly joined in. The tree house was on the go.

In our shed, old wooden boards and posts were sitting idly waiting for a new life. Soon, my father was sweating over a bigger saw, Marine was tying sailing knots around the posts and I was in the tree adjusting the elements.

The idea was basically to build a platform, anchor it to the tree with nails and ropes, level everything, then cut boards to the right size, hammer them in, nail some more, then build surrounding guards.

I insisted on installing a pulley to lift up a basket and that happened to become the main attraction for my girls.

Next, preventing a fall was essential but tricky as the platform was roughly 10 feet above ground. Initially we planned to nail small sticks to make a terrace but the post guards were way thick and we ran short of nails.

Marine's sailing experience then inspired me. How about a good security net, the kind used at playgrounds that can hold up to ten screaming children? The next day I drove to Sete with my father-in-law Patrick and we found an old fisherman's shed by the port.

The guy had been fishing sardines and mackerels all his life. Now he repaired and traded nets of all shapes and sizes. The piece I ended up buying was part of a 300-feet piece ordered to wrap a fisherman's house as a memorial to his father and brother lost at sea. The distraught fisherman never showed up and I got a share of his net.

In the meantime my brother Lionel had arrived from Paris and together we went up on the platform and busied ourselves tying the net as tight as we could, careful not to leave gaps for adventurous little feet throughout.

The last item on the agenda was getting the girls up there. We could have bought a wooden ladder just the right height but I didn't want my 3-year-old to climb and be stuck in the middle.

To make things too challenging for her until she'd have the skills, I just hung a rope ladder. My almost 5-year-old can barely manage it but with a little practice, she now uses it like a monkey.

That day at noon while we were sipping aperitifs under the trees came the reward. As both girls were safely sitting in their tree house, we used the basket to make salami slices and fresh goat cheese travel up the tree.

The tree house is now officially open and all it needs is a wooden sign with a name. La Maison du Murier sounds just right. Mulberry tree means murier in French.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bize-Minervois and Combebelles Goat Farm

For the innocent hiker, the village of Bize-Minervois has a nice surprise in store. Like many back country villages of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, its green hills are peppered with historic remnants of the High Middle Ages and earlier.

Bize-Minervois happens to host the tower of Boussecos, a late Roman watchtower invaded by the Wisigoths, destroyed by the Arabs and used until the end of the Crusades to guard the valley. In other words, it hasn't been used for more than four hundred years. Surprinsingly, a few walls still stand and from the trail we were on, the tower could clearly be identified.

After a rich lunch and a late start, we got to Bize-Minervois under a pouring rain around 4pm. Roughly 1,5 mile out of the village, as we drove on the gravel road, we couldn't help cursing the bad July weather. We could have called it a day but preferred to stick it out.

Fortunately, the clouds cleared and we all went for it: my sister-in-law Marine and her 4-month old, my father Marc, my cousin Xavier and my two girls. The initial climb through pine trees and green oaks was treacherously steep but as we quickly reached a wide limestone wall, the trail levened out and the hike turned from kick-ass to easy.

As usual when hiking, my little girls got a reward as Nestle sweetened condensed milk. It's a staple food of French children and mine are crazy for it. It's squeezable sin in tubes. It's on the way down that we discovered the tower of Boussecos and marvelled at its sturdy foundations.

As we neared the end of our hike, we glanced at our watches. 5.30pm already. Quick we got into the car and drove towards St Chinian, to catch the tail end of the goat milking at the Chevrerie de Combebelles, twenty minutes away.

The Chevrerie de Combebelles is a traditional farm that raises goats both for cheese and meat, but cheese is king without a doubt. One of their cheeses even won a national gold medal at the Salon de l'Agriculture (a hugely popular national farmers show held yearly in southern Paris).

Left and right we watched twenty goats (or doelings, nannies and dams as the right terms are) being vacuum milked by black rubber pumps as the goat herdess moaned about the weather and other moaning topics. My girls were even more fascinated when the three-feet high canisters were emptied out in seal-proof jugs, showing gallons of fresh goat milk.

Next door in the barn we got to see a young kid but as the herdess pointed out, "this one is for meat." Us city people gulped but the woman went about her business as usual.

Inside the farm is a temperature-controlled room for the cheese-making part. Anne-Francoise, the "chevriere" or goat farmer, welcomed us with a big smile and explained how her folks farmed goats too thirty years before.

Then we got to the tasting part and I couldn't believe how mild and melting the fresh cheeses were. Made with milk pumped four days earlier, they were creamy white and called for seconds. Next we proceeded to the "cindered" cheese, the aged cheese, the triangular cheese, the cork-shaped snacking cheeses and the camembert-style cheese.

As we were loving every bite, we even took home some strained curdled goat milk and milk fresh out of the goats an hour prior.

Now I thank the cheese lady from Beziers' farmers market from the bottom of my heart. Had it not been for her, I would never have known this goat farm existed and could be visited. The Beziers farmers market is a whole other story but I'll get into that later.

We took a last look at the breezy pastures around the farm and got back into the car, taking a bag full of goat milk products with us.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Getting Married at a Castle with a Bollywood Twist

As the rumor goes, all French people live in a chateau and have an old butler with a moustache sorting out wine botles in the century-old cellar. Oops, hold your horses. Wasn't there a revolution too?

Yes, that's where the story stops. Since the 1789 Revolution and very sadly, NOT all French people live in a castle. Not to worry though. French chateaux haven't all been destroyed nor are they sitting idly surrounded by deep moats. As big chunks of real estates, castles have become a common recreational rental opportunity.

Hey, big formal rooms, ample kitchens, possibly tons of bedrooms (big on the noble second floor, small for servants under the roof) and if you're lucky, a nice view. What's not to like if you're organizing a wedding or family reunion?

The Chateau de La Gressiere where my friend Albane got married was privately owned and occupied until 1972. It still shows somehow.

The way the ballrooms have interconnected electrical wires (can't switch off ceiling chandelier in first ballroom without switching off second ballroom and bar area), the way each room is decorated with haphazard furniture, the way breakfast will be served at a big oval table family-style in the morning.

Perhaps it's what makes the charm of the place. Albane is one of my oldest friends and I would not have missed her wedding for an empire. So after shrimps and oysters, we all headed to La Bernerie en Retz, where the chateau is located. While the foundations date back to the late 1000s, the current construction dates back to 1879.

In a way, it's a French Victorian castle in Italianate style. Happy hour was served on the terrace overlooking cedar trees and green lawns, followed by dinner under a white tent, a typical mainstay of weddings nowadays since weather forecast four months in advance can't be relied upon.

Since the coast is on the windy side, everybody welcomed the shelter of the tent. As the first stars appeared and champagne still flowed in glasses, I realized I had forgotten to check the view on the ocean barely a mile away. Never mind the sea.

There was something more bubbling happening in the tent. Together with all the bridemaids and three professional dancers, I danced on Mahii Ve the title song of a super-famous Bollywood movie, the song's choregraphy being organized by Dolsy of Dansez Masala in Paris. Wow! Now, that's highly unusual for a French wedding but it's the best skit I've ever been part of.

Shrimp Netting and Oyster Plucking in Vendee

If you've read the 1913 French comic Becassine, you'll know what shrimp netting in western France means. Otherwise, it's pretty self-explanatory and a good sunny day activity out on the beach.

Grab a big net on a pole (at local markets in Vendee), find a beach at low tide and don't be afraid to wet your feet! When we got down to the beach at La Fontaine aux Bretons, there was an old man sitting on a rock, watching a plastic bucket. I peeked inside and saw pounds of fresh oysters.

"Yes I've collected them all," he said proudly, adding that they were everywhere in the tidepools. "Watch your hands though!" he said, showing me his still-bleeding forearms and hands. As we were chatting, a group of shrimp netters walked by us. "They're going to catch 'les grises'," the man said.

"Grises" are tiny curled-up inch-size shrimps that are widely available on this coast. It was too late for us to get a net but my brother Jean went out to "uproot" a few oysters for my little girls with his bare hands, while my little girls frantically set out to collect shells.

Sure enough, twenty minutes later Jean brought me back a fresh oyster sitting in a weeping carnation pool in his hands. While I politely declined eating the bloody oyster on the spot, I offered him to go take it to his girlfriend.

Which he did. And she was happy to hold the dear red treasure in a handkerchief until it was time for us to get dressed for Albane's wedding, our day's big adventure.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Pornic and La Fontaine aux Bretons

Underneath the Loire estuary lies a quiet little fishing town named Pornic. The center of town is by the port and the real stuff of life happens in yellow waterproof coveralls when the low tides leave boats stranded on the sandy bottom of the Loire.

When we visited Pornic looking for a sweater yesterday, it started raining and there were four fishermen scrubbing the keel of their boat. It was drizzling more than raining actually, drizzling being not uncommon in Bretagne regardless of seasons.

Fields are green and global warming does not translate in severe droughts.

This coast resembles the Northern Californian coast with cliffs and steep drops in the ocean but instead of deep green waters, the seas are murky and yellow. The local sea salt industry is exemplified by the city of Guerande roughly half hour up the coast above Saint Nazaire.

Here is a place of fairies and dolmens, ancient burial grounds of the people thousands of years before Europe started shaping up.

The dolmen on the picture is the dolmen of Predaire, easily accessible through a coastal trail from La Fontaine aux Bretons, a small village where we stayed at the great Auberge de la Fontaine aux Bretons.

The dolmen of Predaire is a series of limestone rocks arranged in the shape of a chamber above the sea, a beautiful site for all sorts of black and white magic. Nearby are several small creeks where we walked down to look for shells and build sand castles.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

La Mere de Famille and Passages de Paris

What better place to browse through jars of shiny sugar candy than Paris' oldest confectioner, La Mere de Famille? Founded in 1761, this is serious Old World business.

Imagine a wood and brass cash register, uniformed employees neatly stacking rows of roasted apricot jam jars and shelves of home-made twisted marshmallow - or guimauve, the French version - pear, rose or violet-flavored. As we stepped inside, my girls' eyes literally popped out of their heads.

They were allowed a lollipop and one candy each. As they started scouting the store, devouring the counters with their greedy eyes, I could tell I'd never be able to keep my promise.

I too started shopping for myself and friends: here some fruit-flavored calissons d'Aix, an old marzipan and melon-based confectionary, there some dark chocolate and hazelnut brittle, there too frou-frous, a tiny square version of berlingots, twisted sugar ribbons from Provence.

After our sugar fix, we turned round the corner and entered the magical world of Paris' passageways or Passages, pedestrians streets covered by stained glass domes in the nineteeth century.

They host a variety of quirky old shops like rare books shops, art galleries, traditional French tea shops or my personal favourite, a wonderful toy store called Pain d'Epices.

You'll find everything there from high quality puppets to wooden furniture for children or hand-painted doll houses with all the accessories to light them up, cover the walls or decorate them.

In the Passage Verdeau, I stopped at the Atelier 29 and purchased a tiny cherry still life by Nelly Trumel for my mother's birthday, an exquisite little oil painting.

I could have stopped at the Musee Grevin, Paris' wax museum but the day was drawing to its end and we went home via the Maison du Chocolat, one of my favorite chocoholic refill places.


Montmartre is the PR neighborhood of Paris for the world, perhaps more so than the Eiffel Tower since the movie Amelie. And yet Parisians don't really go to Montmartre because it's full of tourists and guess what, there's "nothing to do, eat or see" there.

Because of that, I didn't know Montmartre very well and could have stopped at the Sacre Coeur basilica and the Place du Tertre with its minute-painters and cobblestones.

So I kind of got lucky when my good friend Antoine Techenet, Parisian native and living on the other side of Montmartre hill, took me around with my girls.

With an MBA from Louisiana, Antoine is a highly qualified professional who occasionally guides Americans in Paris, offering tongue-in-cheek and witty Paris tours with a Parisian. A treat for the secret-Paris savvy.

First things first, we picknicked at the Parc de la Turlure behind the Sacre Coeur basilica and off we went.

Standing in front of the dozens of easels of the Place du Tertre as if on the set of An American in Paris, I learned that a poor guy was beheaded right where we stood. Thrill. But wait! He wasn't just beheaded. He bent over, picked up his head and walked three miles before laying down on his burial site, location of the present day St Denis basilica where all kings and queens of France are burried. We're talking about the legend of Saint Denis of course. My girls didn't like the idea of someone losing his head right there but were very impressed by the carrying-the-head part.

We then proceeded to one of Paris' great examples of Austrian Secession architecture at the corner of Rue du Calvaire and Place du Calvaire.

Further down is the Moulin de la Galette, immortalized in 1876 par Auguste Renoir as a drinking establishment. As Antoine explained, this is how flour mills were converted after people stopped bringing their grains to be milled.

At the time, Montmartre was still a farmer's hamlet outside of the walls of Paris and the working class walked up the hill for cheap wine, one night stands and waltzes.

As we stopped in front of a fenced-in garden, Antoine lifted his eyebrows and whispered "this is where Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis live." My heart missed a beat. But then, Antoine promised never to reveal where they truly live so who knows?

Further was Marcel Ayme's Passe-Muraille, the sculpture of a peculiar bronze man stuck between two walls courtesy of French sculptor and surrealism icon Jean Marais, also a major actor and Jean Cocteau's lover. As my girls were getting tired of the walking, Antoine took us to a nice shaded playground at the Square Buisson next to the avenue Junot, a grand avenue lined with million-euro artist "pads".

At that point, my girls were ready for their sugar fix so we parted with Antoine and headed to Paris' oldest candy shop...