Almost a Tourist


As tourists do, I went to the Louvre today. Americans think it’s the size of their mother’s garage in Des Moines, so it comes as something of a shock to them when they realise that it is somewhat larger. Considerably, mind-bogglingly larger, as it happens. Someone said that if you looked at every exhibit for a little under three seconds, it would take decades to see everything. They seem to like you to walk everywhere also. No convenient elevators, except in the entrance pyramid which Parisians are still polarised about. I’m not quite sure how an image of the Arch in La Defense found its way into the collage, but, never mind..
The photographs are from the Etruscan section and the seventeenth century French paintings which for no discernible reason appear to share gallery space, only because I was so ticked at having to queue for nearly an hour to get in, I walked along the most convenient and nearest corridor. And no, I didn’t go and see the Mona Lisa because it would have taken me two and a half hours to get there and Japanese tourists en masse bring me out in hives.

Scary Movies

The Disappearance of Alice Creed”, directed by  first-timer J Blakeson is a thriller about a meticulously planned kidnapping,  and is the type of constricted genre piece Brits are traditionally good at. Throw three actors on a single set, in this case a bolt-fitted, soundproofed apartment, and watch the lightning. The tension is crackling and nobody can get away with a flawed performance since Philipp Blaubach’s cinematography relies heavily on a powerful command of space, gloom and close-ups. Tension is visually sustained so well one can almost sweat with both the victim and the perpetrators. In a taut power-play of greed, ruthless efficiency, duplicity and survival we discover that sometimes even disappearances can be deceptive. Snarling and heavy, with dark sadomasochistic innuendo, it sits uncomfortably enough before bedtime. Yes, it is Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Prince of Persia:The Sands of Time). Rated sixth at Toronto last year. Eight out of ten.

Cars in the Fields

Just to tick off almost everyone I know, the Avenue des Champs-Elysées at night is, in fact, everything it’s cracked up to be. Steak tartare with Aubrac beef for dinner at an out-of-the-way place around the corner, mercifully liberated from tourists. Popping into the iconic Virgin building, yes, it’s huge and virtually everything an audiophile or bibliophile could ever ask, need or want is to be found, hence unearthing an album I’ve been after for months, well, years actually.
By way of a change, a picture of a concept car – there’s a Renault garage almost next door. I had to barge my way past toothy Japanese tourists carrying cameras the sizes of their smiles. Not something one sees every day.

Glandular Fever

English is a curious language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats is an old English word for what the Americans like to call ‘candy’ while sweetbreads are neither sweet, nor do they contain bread. The thymus of a calf, or  sweetbreads, is highly prized, I gather. Having thought of myself as a quite sophisticated foodie, I have recently begun to realise that what I really know about food could comfortably be inscribed on the back of a relatively modest shirt cuff. Differences between  ‘traditionnel’  and ‘nouveau’ have effortlessly passed me by. Eliciting gales of laughter, having disingenuously informed people here that I had never tried sweetbreads resulted in an ‘OK, let’s educate the boy’ approach. Within five minutes, fried sweetbreads a la crème, flambé in Cognac with puffy pommes dauphines was placed in front of me.

Oh, what a fool I felt. It was, of course, screamingly, meltingly, outrageously good. I almost licked the plate clean. OK. I lied. I did. Feverishly.

Glorious Food

I admit it. I suck at barbecuing. I know people, usually men, who don an apron with some ridiculous motif on it like a woman in bra and knickers, brandish the barbecue implements like ceremonial samurai swords and banish the women to the kitchen to make salad. People like me stand and watch, feeling wimpish.
It is educational therefore to watch a French peasant woman at work, first manhandling a 30kg hernia-sized cast iron barbecue into the right position then tearing up cardboard, woodchips and other flammable material by hand and setting fire to it. I was surprised she didn’t rub two sticks together. Supremely confident that the charcoal and wood mix was going to catch, she set about dismembering poussin with industrial sized secateurs, throwing  together a marinade of fresh lemon juice and whatever was to hand in the garden, sage, fennel, oregano and lemongrass, then padded off to put together everything else, including dessert. Dinner in fifteen minutes. Or, it would be, were I wearing a watch.

The Return of the Native

No, not the novel by Thomas Hardy. There are still men in the South who carry  an iconic Laguiole pocket knife. It is a brand rooted in French culture and copied shamelessly in the Far East. Men used to cut up their food at the table, graft trees in the field and use the ‘poinçon’ or piercer to punch holes in leather bridles or relieve the colic pains of a sheep by puncturing its stomach. Mine is the one at the top, probably older than I am, with a carbon steel blade and a hand-carved ivory handle. The handles can be made from local Aubrac cattle bone, various exotic woods or even from Siberian mammoth tusk. The more expensive ones even have a rippling Damascus blade. Models with a corkscrew have a design shaped like a woman’s leg where the lower bolster represents her shoe or boot. The handle is made out of two brass plates that support the material of the handle, joined at either end by brass bolsters which adds style and also gives strength to the blade. The handle is attached with brass rivets – positioned on one side to show a cross, the so-called “Shepherd’s rosary”.  The patented locking mechanism is in the shape of a bee and has become the symbol of the Laguiole knife. Early ones like mine have a more primitive bee symbol, sometimes confused with a horsefly.Local legend has it that the bee was Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial seal, granted to the town of Laguiole in token of his gratitude for the  courage of local men during the battles of the Peninsular War. The one at the bottom is modern, less than ten years old. I think I know a man who would kill for one of these…

Long Way from the Desert

Three hundred kilometres from Paris lie the lush farmlands of Burgundy. Culturally and agriculturally rich, the land was fought over by a succession of royal houses who left behind landscapes of incomparable beauty, tiny unspoiled villages and a culinary tradition to die for. But, more of this anon. The sense of sheer bounty overlain with the thread of history is overwhelming.  Pilgrims travelled through these places en route to St Jacques de Compostela, Armies were raised for the Crusades and evidence of the Templars is everywhere. The basilica at Vézelay allegedly contains relics of Mary Magdalene and the monastic tradition is carried by the Brothers and Sisters of Jerusalem, a contemplative order with a musical tradition reminiscent of Taizé. Sung Mass was awesome. It’s a long way from the desert and not a Starbucks to be found.

Born in Tacoma

Sleaze, delicious, short-lived and tempting appropriately sums up Place Pigalle – the French make sexe a vendre an art form. Behind it, however is the rue de Douai, where every wannabe picker, slapper and axeman finds whatever his heart desires and wallet permits. It’s all here. Antique guitars ( I was particularly taken with a very chirpy 1971 Gibson Blue Ridge) to the finest modern instruments the USA can provide. It’s a while since I saw an Eric Clapton D45 surrounded by almost all of its family. This is not a place for the ingénu or even the arriviste. In every store, those sampling the merchandise were serious players.
Qualified or not, I joined them, listening for the one with my name on it – a little number born in Tacoma, Washington.
We found each other.

Le Chemin de l’Artiste

HandyMan has a knack of saying almost nothing yet leaves burrs on one’s emotional pullover that simply will not come off.  He has mentioned this three times to me. Once, I can ignore, but the second or third time means I am supposed to sit up and pay attention. The Artist’s Way is a workbook ( Ah. Instantly defensive…) for anyone who is creative, feels blocked in their creativity or wishes that they were more creative. The book begins with the statement that everyone is creative and has an artist within them, and the point of this course (is there an exam to pass and will I get an  A grade?)  is to recover that inner artist.

I sometimes wonder if this might be me. The cold, scientific pragmatist in me scorns such airy-fairy nonsense, but the deeper, gentler wavelets which occasionally surface into the light speak a different language…
The main assignments it would appear are deceptively simple, but require a willingness to see them through.( Commitment. H’m) The first daily assignment is the morning pages. These are three pages of longhand (longhand? Are you insane? ) free association writing.( this has always seemed grossly self-indulgent, like eating too much chocolate) It doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you fill those pages. As simple as that may sound, it’s tougher than it seems.( I bet it is…)
The main weekly assignment seems to be the “artist date”. One is supposed to spend two hours each week doing something for oneself – alone. The book tells me that this is tougher than it appears. It’s easy to let the dishes, the laundry, everything else get in the way of this weekly date, but it is very important. Just as anyone would woo a reluctant lover, so must one woo the inner artist, coax it out to play with fun and games.I’ve begun to speculate about what this really might mean, in reality – can I afford the time/do I have the emotional energy to play guitar or listen to some music or actually choose to behave selfishly?
I am informed that each chapter is a week, devoted to a particular aspect of recovering the inner artist. Each chapter discusses some of the pitfalls and problems and gives a choice of exercises designed to stimulate my creativity and sense of self. (Ah. Now we’re getting to it) These include listing imaginary professions, (why?) cataloguing things that I enjoy doing but have not done in a long time, describing myself at 80 (dead?), and listing my forbidden joys. (Ouch. Do I really have to?)

Just reading this all back to myself gives me a sense of chaos and ambivalence. Perhaps I should take up Tai Chi instead, which is beneficial for older persons.