Monday, June 16, 2008

An old school friend in Paris, 2008

Our room was at the top of a hotel (6th floor and the lift broke down), in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter. It was much beamed (real, and half-timbered, too), decorated in plum-coloured wallpaper depicting bucolic 18th century scenes, spacious, quiet, with a small internal balcony with semicircular steps leading to it, and with a modern bathroom adorned with lovely light brick-coloured marble with thin white lines running through it.

We settled in, and had an aperitif at Conti, in the Place Buci, where crowds of the monde and demi-monde passed by. And then we ate at the Orestias, two doors from our hotel, for the princely sum of £28 (three courses and a bottle of Greek wine). Here the waiter could only speak at a shout, and had probably done so ever since I first ate there soon after the Second World War.

That is a way of Paris, and that is the way of this unchanging small part of the 6th Arrondissement where the rue de Seine, rue de Buci, Mazarine, St André des Arts, Dauphine, Ancienne Comédie and Grégoire de Tours more or less converge. All are artistically and boutiquely inviting streets, holding many a bar and interesting restaurant.

The occupants of this quarter, shop at the market stalls, flower shop and supermarket, and rest from their exertions by taking a glass or cup of something while gaping at the goings-on in front of and around them.

A glamorous film star lady, with long legs and short skirt, was being followed by a director, 4 cameramen, 2 soundmen and other hangers-on. She wandered, entered cafés, and generally acted the part of a famous and much-fêted star.

Her lady companion was plainer by far.

Above a café opposite, the outside of which being much photographed, was a banner saying “Entrée des Joueurs”. She and her companion entered for a while. We imagined that she could have been the first prize, but not her companion.

The objectives of these film people was clearly to paint a background picture of Latin Quarter life for, later, we saw one of the photographers directing his lens at a local, characterful worthy. This ancient and bebobble-capped gentleman was bent over his pastis in contemplation, perhaps, of the current ideas of some French, left-wing philosopher.

There was an objective to our Paris visit. An American Taft School friend, from my early war years in that country before I was old enough to return to England to become an RAF pilot, was to be in Paris with his French wife of 60 years. We were to meet at last after several times of trying, and failing to co-ordinate a rendezvous in France. This was one reason why we had chosen to stay in the Latin Quarter (at the Grand Hotel de l’Univers, no less), an area frequented and enjoyed by both of us in the past.

One of the windows in our room overlooked an almost cubist depiction of roofs, chimneys and balconies – all zinc and cream surfaces.

As I was doing one of my postcard drawings of the scene (Paris is not as crumbly as it used to be), an animated little scene took place on an exposed and distant roof terrace. And who should the participants be but the girl and film crew seen from our seats in the café. And what were they doing on this exposed terrace?

Well, the cameramen and soundmen were now directing all of their attention to the prettier girl. Several times she rehearsed a scene where she had to prance (dance?) around, take off all of her clothes, and throw them to the floor in either anger or disgust. Between takes she wrapped herself in a white towel to keep warm, as the springtime Parisian late afternoon air was decidedly chilly.

We then dined at the Polidor restaurant, a favourite of old in the rue Monsieur le Prince, before walking off the effects of it and getting lost in an area that I should have known better. But we did pass a nice looking little eating place in the rue Jacob, where one of the first courses, written on the menu in English and displayed in the window, was - six nails.

My old school friend of 67 years ago, Ted Mason, and his wife, Ginny, take a small apartment each year near to the Eiffel Tower. We went to see them there, opening first, as so many people have to in Paris, those huge and formidable doors that lead from the street to accommodation beyond. Behind them was a quiet courtyard, in this case with the focal point of a large, potted olive tree, pruned to look like a Bonsai.

Our instructions were then to ring a certain doorbell, admitting us into a hallway from which we entered the smallest lift imaginable. Inside it there was room for two – just – or an adult and a dog.

On the 5th floor, the third barrier door to unwanted entry (one thinks of the French Revolution) was their apartment door.

Once inside the apartment, decorated as if frozen in time, we were able to meet my old pal (being absolutely in demeanour the intelligence, policy-making Lieutenant Colonel he had become in the army) and his charming French wife, whose accent had retained a very strong affinity to her roots. It was a great occasion.

We lunched well at a local brasserie, and parted as the good friends he and I had once been, and now with them both as a devoted pair.

It is almost obligatory when visiting Paris to enter the Galleries Lafayette for, if nothing else, to marvel at the ornate interior of its enormous Belle Epoque dome of plaster, gilt, bronze and stained glass. And the shopping to be done on its seven floors around the dome is many a woman’s dream.

Not far, along Boulevard Haussman, by the Grands Boulevards Metro Station, is a street to the left, called rue du Faubourg Montmartre. Here, shortly on the left-hand side, at the far end of a small courtyard, is Chartier.

Here one eats in a vast, Victorian, working man’s restaurant. The menu can hardly have changed since the restaurant’s inception, and the food is served sometimes by waiters almost as old as the place itself.

Created in 1896 to serve traditional bouillon to customers at marble tables, hats (bowler or top) and coats are accommodated on brass racks and hooks above where you sit. You are put to share tables with strangers. The restaurant still retains numbered drawers for customers’ napkins.

Do not omit to finish your meal with a Mont Blanc (cream on top of a purée of chestnuts) – even if it is not on the menu.

To give an idea of this restaurant’s success, they serve over 1,200 meals a day. And excellent they are – reasonable, too.

So well will you have eaten that it is quite possible to leave and forget to take with you the bags of Lafayette shopping that you have placed on the racks above.

There was a Vlaminck exhibition on at the Musée du Luxembourg. Although one of my favourite artists, as with any large show of someone’s work, one tends to make comparisons, to see repetition, derivation and influences, whereas, just one single work (almost any in this case), if seen alone, would be quite enough to astound and please the senses.

We ended our stay in France’s capital city with a stroll on the gravelly sand of the Luxembourg Gardens. In sunshine, and in shade beneath trees, we passed many chess players, hunched over the park’s chess boards, either in solitary combat or beneath the admiring gaze of a ring of spectators.

Around the pond behind the Palace, crowds of people were relaxing in the Saturday afternoon sunshine, picnicking, herding happy or fractious children, or running around the pond with sticks to re-direct their hired model sailing boats. And of course, being Paris, there were lovers, staring vacantly into each other’s eyes as lovers do.

It was a Seurat scene, one we had to leave, but will keep in the memory.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Another Dutch Wedding 2008

Simon J. Sluis is an 87 year old Dutchman about to marry a younger (72 years old) Lidy Klees (my wife’s cousin). We were invited to their wedding in Laren, a small and select township to the east of Amsterdam.
Simon (pronounced Seemon) is all that a prosperous Dutchman should be – with a name translated as sluice (plenty in Holland), of patrician stature, a plant and seedsman of world renown, and congenial.
He and I had spoken of plants several times before. I remember him telling me that most modern climbing French beans have Blue Lake in their ancestry. So I continue to plant Blue Lake in England, and with confidence (not buying his seeds – though perhaps so initially – but saving my own, as it is not an F1 Hybrid).
It has been our custom to either go by air or car to Holland. This time, we did not intend to return laden with foreign goodies, and chose to travel by rail – Eurostar from London to Brussels and then Thalys train on to Amsterdam.
The Singel Hotel, on a canal and fairly near to Amsterdam’s Central Station, has at times been a convenient base for us when visiting that magical city – one where only to turn one’s head never fails to reveal yet further architectural gems. But the hotel’s rooms have been a bit on the seedy side. Learning that these had now been refurbished, we chose to book in once more.
The contrasts on our rail trip to Amsterdam were considerable.
At Eurostar, St Pancras, we were funnelled into a large and light basement where we refreshed ourselves, sitting on comfortable chairs, surrounded by a plethora of Victorian cast iron columns that still continue to hold up the railway platforms above.
So clean and tidy was it that the hot chocolate that I bought to help while away the time was whisked from a table top by an over-enthusiastic cleaner when my back was turned.
With sunshine outside we made our way to the Eurostar platform above, where the fine span of the old St Pancras iron-arched covering was gleaming in its fresh coat of paint and cleaned glass.
To change trains in a rather dreary and rainy station in Brussels was not as easy to master. A café snack there took such an age to acquire that it was a close run thing to board the Thalys train to Amsterdam on time.
From the dirty carriage windows the flat and rainy landscape of Belgium led inexorably to the flat and wet landscape of Holland. The train, designed for speed but going at a normal train’s pace, passed through small townships and over countless level crossings. At least the seating, though shabby, gave us more legroom than Eurostar, and had the edge over the latter by having a water supply for basins and lavatories – which is more than could be said for Eurostar. For luggage space, Eurostar was the better.
The strange part about going to Holland is that although our two countries have much in common and with many historical ties, it is a very foreign place. Even Margreet, who had not lived there for some 40 years, finds it so each time she returns.
You can walk along a most respectable canal street in Amsterdam and suddenly see an almost naked lady sitting in a floodlit window hoping for custom.
There are plenty of cannabis shops, selling a selection of seeds and all the accoutrements necessary for ingesting the several parts of that plant. The perfume of pot pervades the pavement air.
One wonders at the speed of cyclists on their designated paths who ride like the clappers and never collide with pedestrians, or one another.
And then you might pass Coffeeshops to see youths, drugged up to the eyebrows, reclining languidly in the windows.
As for the food on offer, the Dutch grub is, by tradition, substantial, filling, warming and, let’s be plain about it – plain.
So, to provide sophisticated cuisine to the now sophisticated Dutch, the cuisine from foreign parts is used and adapted to the Dutch idea of food (satay, for instance is made with lumps of meat, and schnitzels are thick).
At a “Dutch” restaurant recommended to us, we were offered an Italian type first course and a Thai style one for the main course.
And then, in a café afterwards, we ate a brownie and ice cream, the brownie bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the kind invented by the Americans, but was semi-toffee-liquid, with walnuts and a smidgen of normal brownie mix. It was delicious, yet one wouldn’t want to eat it again too often. (“Brownies”, incidentally, are also eaten – not to assuage hunger - in coffeeshops.)
Our hotel room was also uniquely Dutch. It was situated at the very top of a typical 17th century canal-side house, and approached via the hotel’s lift and an outside alleyway between a wall and tiled roof. Situated directly beneath a roof of dark tiles, the room’s inside consisted of a plethora of angles and planes that twisted and rose and fell in all directions. It was a bit like being inside a small diamond on which a cack-handed Amsterdam apprentice diamond-cutter had been having instruction. A small window at the side allowed a bit of light and air to enter, but a dormer window on one side would have offered a fine view of the Singel canal. I imagine that stringent building regulations prevented it – and probably rightly so.
So “Dutch” was this room that one felt very much as Amsterdam people must have felt for over three or four hundred years in a city where space in their prosperous community has always been at a premium.
The Dutch Reformed church for the wedding in Laren was unadorned and without an alter.
We arrived in the nick of time as the café waitresses nearby, where we had ordered drinks three times and they had failed to produce the goods, forced us to cancel. Being only just in time at the church, and with all pews seemingly packed tight, we were directed to the few seats in the very front of the congregation – when we would rather have been at the back.
The service was a long one, with the “vicar” having a great deal to say, taking relish in both his voice and the words he used. Understanding nothing (a position with which I am accustomed in Holland) I tried to look interested throughout (a tiring business).
The order of service had the music to hymns printed with the text.
The elderly groom and his bride were obviously in love, holding hands when they were able, kneeling centre stage toward a raised pulpit (unused during the service but surrounded by a very local choir).
Then came the reception at the nearby Ateliercafé Mauve, named after a famous artist from Laren (where all this took place).
We drank (well, I did) copiously, and ate bitterballen, one of the most delicious of Dutch snack/delicacies, consisting of crisp and crunchy balls containing a palate-burning mixture of creamy meat (horse, thought to be one of the best, but veal the most common) and eaten dipped in mustard.
As we were waiting for dinner, we continued to drink whatever we chose from waiters’ trays, under the efficient command of Yvette, the bride’s daughter-in-law.
It was during this dormant period of drinks between the reception and dinner that something delightful (to me) took place.
On our table, beneath the trees outside on a balmy late afternoon, was a round, blue vase containing campanula plants. I noticed a honeybee taking nectar from its blue flowers. Never before had I seen honeybees enjoying flowers in a vase. Word clearly got back to the hive that the nectar from our campanulas was tasty. So the bee’s fellow workers joined in to take advantage of what was on offer.
It was almost as if this was a gesture of celebration on the part of the hive, as our groom had made his fortune in horticulture, where bees had been the vital instruments for his pollinations.
Besides the charm of an elderly bride and groom, and the stylishness of their many guests, the red wine at the dinner was a Château Rocher Calon, merlot, from Montagne Saint-Emillion, the very same hamlet in the Bordeaux region where we had so recently enjoyed another lovely wedding.
That a single grape variety should be produced in Saint-Emillion was quite new to me, and very successful it was.
Kind relations, Dick and Reina, escorted us to the Hilversum railway station where a train soon transported us back to Amsterdam Central Station, where we made our way by foot to the nearby Singel Hotel.
If you are of the opinion that the Dutch railways are always highly efficient, think again.
On the following day we needed once more to return to Amsterdam Central from Hilversum, the station and surrounds of which were in a state of reconstruction.
To obtain a ticket it was necessary to use a machine – needing a credit card and a local’s considerable computer expertise.
We knew that the train would leave from platform 5, needing a double descent of stairs and one to climb – difficult for Margreet with one foot in a temporary surgical boot.
Having descended, we found that our intended platform had been taped off, in the way that a murder scene is taped off. Margreet, by now, was quite willing to commit some violence that might well have warranted a taping-off.
As there had been no indication whatsoever, in a notice or official’s guidance, that trains would not be leaving for Amsterdam from Hilversum at that time, we had to retrace our steps. We then learned that passengers for Amsterdam would have to take a local, stopping bus to Weesp, a station nearer to our destination. We were obliged to take it.
So, a normal 20 minute journey took over an hour, and we had had to descend and climb countless stairs pointlessly in the course of it.
It had been a most upsetting experience for Margreet, with a stress fracture in her foot.
On the advice of Tobias at the Dutch Embassy in London, we made our way to the rear of the Central Station in Amsterdam to the de Ruijterkade where (free) ferries leave for the far side of the very wide IJ (pronounced eye) river.
The one to take is for the destination IJ plein. This name will be marked up on an electronic signboard and on the back of the ferry.
From the ferry dock at IJ plein, you turn right to walk along the IJ riverbank to the Wilhelmina-Dok (sic), which is also called Caffé Tazza d’Oro. Here, on a sunny day or warm evening, you can sit (almost on the river) to drink and eat.
It is a lovely experience there to watch the commercial and private shipping pass by from a table in the open or under giant orange umbrellas – umbrellas that stand out so clearly, from both sides of the river, amid a setting of fairly drab utilitarian buildings.
On our final day in Amsterdam, we bought three kinds of cheese (brokkel oud, young white goat cheese from a cartwheel, and komijne), all unique to Holland, and headed back to England with our food gifts and having enjoyed such a pleasant and interesting visit.