Wednesday, September 03, 2003

I couldn't remember my phone number back in TO to exchange with some of my classmates at the end of the August session last week. This is a sign I've either been in Paris too long or I've been here too long to go back. They may have to send me out of here kicking and screaming that I don't want to go back home!

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

The oddest thing happened while I was walking on the Champs-Elysee yesterday afternoon. I wasn’t paying much attention to the usual throng of tourists as I was focusing my efforts on finding the Air France ticket office. Seemingly out of nowhere a young man in his mid-twenties stopped me and asked if I spoke Mandarin. I told him I could speak a bit. Then he asked, “ni keyi gao wo bang mang, ma?” Bear in mind I haven’t used my Mandarin in awhile, but what I thought I had heard was, “would you bang me?” Then I quickly realized he was still speaking Mandarin and only asking if I could help him.

This stranger wanted me to buy him two Louis Vuitton wallets so I asked the next logical question which was why he couldn’t buy them himself. He explained he had already bought two so LV was now refusing to let him buy any more until next week. It figured that in France, the only democratic country with a communist party, one would find a luxury goods maker with a leftist sales policy. I’m not sure why I agreed to help this virtual stranger with something as inconsequential as this but the next thing I know he was handing me 700 euros. Of course, I discreetly checked that the bills were real as he explained the style and colour he wanted.

Forget about passing judgement on his poor taste for wanting a wallet emblazoned with that awful LV insignia, or for paying hundreds of euros for plasticized leather, but I couldn’t help think there was something wrong with this scenario. What he had given me was nearly half a month’s rent money in Paris, but regardless, it was a small sum of money. I would have expected it to be to a man from Guanxi, China too. When I last travelled in '98 to China on business our local agent was earning a salary of US 150-200 per month. Granted that was five years ago but how much could salaries have gone up since then?

It was quite an eye-opener inside the LV store. I've shopped the odd time in Prada but even during the height of Prada madness I don't remember line-ups like the ones before me. There were at least 12 people in the queue and the queue would be the only way to get to those wallets. As much as I would have liked to help my "friend" I had to get to the Air France office and then back home to my studies.

I went back out and explained I would not be able to help him at which time he told me I should have gone downstairs where there would be fewer people and no line-ups. He obviously caught me on a good day because like a fool I agreed to try again but now through a different entrance to the lower part of the boutique. He was right: there were fewer people but there were still half a dozen eager buyers in line! Even with this improvement I couldn't be his Good Samaritan. I went back out and returned his money along with my apologies.

I continued along my route toward the Arc de Triomphe. Just at the Arc some minutes later now well past the LV boutique another Chinese man stopped me asking if I spoke Mandarin. I was starting to think this was a tape that had been rewound. I answered as I did just minutes earlier on the other side of the boulevard. Then this young man asked a question to which I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry: was it the Champs-Elysee we were on? After the shock of his question wore off I responded holding back both laughter and tears. But even more jaw-dropping than this was his next question: would I help him buy a wallet at Louis Vuitton? I could not believe my ears! For it to happen once is a little out of the ordinary but twice in one day made me wonder did these two keen shoppers know something about LV that I didn’t? Should I go buy one for myself? But then I reminded myself I couldn’t stand LV. It’s a good thing as there are better things to do than hand over a small fortune for a wallet but then to have to stand in line for the privilege to do so.

Monday, September 01, 2003


It’s another weekend and an opportunity to explore another market. Last weekend I had missed the market at Place d’Aligre not far from the Marché Bastille where I had been.

Place d’Aligre isn’t for the claustophobic. By the time I had arrived in the late morning, the market was absolutely packed with people. Moving about was virtually impossible but that didn’t dissuade a man from wheeling his bicycle through the main thoroughfare. What amazed me was everyone’s tolerance at something I would have thought suicidal to attempt under such conditions.

The bulk of the market stalls, mostly produce, are on rue Crozatier with further stalls lining rue d’Aligre. This is a more “ethnic” market than the one at Bastille. “Exotic” produce which isn’t normally available at the supermarket may possibly be found here. All in all, the bantering and shouting out of prices by vendors made for a very lively setting. You can also find several stalls selling very cheap bric-brac but bear in mind cheap is only good if it’s also useful as I would later discover with my “big” nail clipper purchase of a couple of euros.

More interesting than the outdoor market was the covered indoor market, Marché Couvert Beauvau. Here I would receive a small lesson in olive oils at Sur Les Quais. I had told the vendor, a very nice woman, that I was interested in an olive oil for dressing salads. She led me to several oils, two Italian, one French, and two Spanish. Some of the oils had a quality she called “verte” which I understood to come from green olives giving an oil what I can only best describe as “punch, sometimes pepperiness, with a bit of a bite.” This is the characteristic in Tuscan oils which I like but I would end up discovering an oil “verte” which also lent a roundness in the mouth for an overall pleasing effect. This oil was Spanish, called Morisca which also happens to be the name of one of the three principal varieties of olives grown in the region north of Andalusia, l’Extrémadure (in English, Extremadura). The oil was very reasonably priced, 5 euros for a nice-looking 500 ml bottle. Sur Les Quai sells bulk olive oil- you choose the size of bottle and the vendor fills and labels it accordingly.

Another stall in the covered market caught my interest- Marilou Ducoret which sells all kinds of terrines, pates, saucissons, and specializes in regional products from Auvergne and Bretagne. I only made a small purchase of saucisson from the Savoie but it would turn out to be a perfect accompaniment to some Brie and the best baguette in Paris at a bakery I would later happen upon on my way back to the apartment.

These items would become a picnic lunch in Bois de Boulogne later in afternoon with a French friend. This and conversations about Stendhal, Camus, Hugo, and I can’t remember who else. Could it possibly get any better than this? Yes, when the finale is a cocoa fix from La Maison du Chocolat.

Merchant Info at Marché Beauvau:
Sur Les Quais tel
Marilou Ducouret tel

Sunday, August 31, 2003

I've walked past this restaurant on rue Soufflot every day twice a day on my way to and from class in August and never once took notice of it. But there are hundreds of restaurants in Paris that look like Les Fontaines or are a close approximation of it so it's not surprising it never merited any attention. Besides, back in Toronto its' outdated decor would give one pause to think the food may be as equally uninspired.

The end of classes in August had spurred a round of farewell dinners. Earlier in the week I had attended another dinner with the anglophiles but it was a meal best forgotten; it was that bad. Later on I would go out with several of the Spanish-speaking students because they regard me Latin in personality (I think it must come from speaking with my hands and the fact I can't help but "sing" French the way they do). And I suppose being Asian gained me an invite with my Japanese classmates the night at Les Fontaines.

This place is the French equivalent of a greasy spoon diner but the food is arterial-cloggingly good. A couple of us started with the warm goat's cheese salad (salade de chevre chaud) which came nicely presented but was much too generous a serving with two rounds of goat's cheese. While we were settling on our dinner, we had noticed some beautiful slabs of beef filet in pastry headed to nearly every table around us so the choice as to main course seemed obvious. One of my classmates and I had decided to share the filet de boeuf en croute sauce foie gras avec pommes de terres so that we'd have room for the all important last course-- dessert. We ordered it sanglant (bloody) as suggested; the pastry was perfectly golden and crisp wrapped around meltingly tender beef. The slice of foie gras on top was pure decadence and sin as it melted into the sauce. We washed this down with a pichet of vin Bourgogne Ronommee which I've really no idea what it was. It's no Romanee-Conti but it was pleasant and I'm sure doing a good job at the same time of de-plaquing my arteries. One of my other classmates had ordered shrimp salad to start and escalope de saumon au confit l'echolote to follow. She enjoyed both courses but my advice to anyone dining here would be to stick with the meat.

I didn't really need dessert after this but I had the tarte tatin et la creme fraiche. It hit the right spot. Perfectly caramelized warm apples on top of a lovely crust. We skipped coffee because as much as I would have liked one it would have put me over.

When we had arrived for our 8PM reservation the restaurant was 1/3 to half full. By the time we were well into our meal the place was packed but three servers deftly managed this approximately 80-seat restaurant. What I loved about the experience was that apart from a table of English tourists we were surrounded by Parisians. You know you've happened upon the right place when that happens. This is not a place you go to for atmosphere but for extremely good old-fashioned food in lively surroundings. Dinner for three came to around 96 euros including a small additional gratuity of 10%.

Postnotes: I stopped by for coffee the following Monday. The same person who had worked at dinner on Saturday was now on the AM shift. I asked if he was the owner as his care and attention at the tables on Saturday left me with the impresson he could very well be but it turns out he's a manager and it's the chef who is owner. We started talking about the food which I told him had impressed upon me that night. He told me the chef shops not once but twice a day at the market and there is neither a microwave, freezer, nor vacuum-packaged food on the premises. That day's lunch menu which changes daily was already posted by the bar (some interesting dishes all about 10 euros each).

When another friend and I returned for dinner this past Saturday it was well past 10 PM by the time we realized we were hungry. I placed a quick call to the restaurant to confirm that the kitchen was still open. When we arrived at around 1030 there was a line-up by the bar and the dining room was absolutely packed. A different manager was on duty this evening but she showed the same care and attention to the dining room as her colleague from the previous evening. Against my better judgment I ordered fish-- St. Pierre aux 15 epices. It was perfectly cooked but the sauce with 15 spices which was somewhat curry in style didn't do much for me. Mostly, I prefer fish simply prepared with a bit of lemon and some very good butter or olive oil. Failing that, Chinese-style with hot oil and soy and slivers of green onions and ginger would do too.

9, rue Soufflot 75005, tel 01.4326.4280. Closed Sundays


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