Wednesday, February 24, 2010

So much food!

I'm becoming embarrassed by the amount of food appearing on this blog. To mitigate my embarrassment I need to tell you that (a) I'm walking kilometers and kilometers each day and (b) breakfast and an evening meal are very minimal. Still, all this public eating is very self-indulgent.

I've long had a desire to have a meal at Bofinger - a very well-known brasserie that's located quite close to where we're staying. It was established in 1864 and developed its present Belle Epoche decor - a dome of stained glass, brass light fittings, wood panelling - in the early twentieth century.

Bofinger 2

[These are really bad photos - at the limits of both my camera's and my own photographic capacity. Maybe the website can give you a better idea of the restaurant's grandeur].

Over time Bofinger's come to feature in every guidebook on Paris, and I feared I might have missed my opportunity to catch it at its best...or even at its good. There have been recent bad reviews, particularly claiming disdainful treatment of tourists by the waiters, so when we decided to lunch there today I wasn't sure what we would find.

But everything was fine. Possibly this is the advantage of being a tourist in the depths of winter. The other diners around us seemed to be locals, and despite our lack of French, we were extremely well-looked-after. It's the kind of place where the waiters anticipate your needs and where food is presented with old-fashioned flourishes. As well as delivering the food the waiters performed such tasks as filetting fish before presenting it to the diners and mixing minced (raw) steak with egg and sauces for steak tartare. I started with 6 Brittany oysters, and they were served with great ceremony on a bed of ice on a raised stand. The main course was a rich carbonnade of beef with simple boiled potatoes and parsley, and the dessert was the French nursery food favourite of ile flottante - a lightly cooked cloud of meringue floating on a bed of custard and scattered with caramelised almonds.

To compensate for all the rich food we revisited the nearby Viaduc des Arts and walked the whole length (maybe a couple of kilometers?) of the promenade plantee - the spectacularly planted walkway that's been created on top of the disused nineteenth century railway viaduct. This is a wonderful notion that's subsequently been copied in other cities. It's such an escape from the bustle at street level, and for us has the added advantage of being local to where we're staying. The promenade looks beautiful in its stark winter state, but the trees were beginning to bud, there were clusters of bulbs (daffodils?) preparing to bloom, and hundreds of rosebushes had just been pruned in preparation for their next blooming.

promenade plantee

You also get some interesting views of the surrounding neighbourhood, not least of which is this astonishing sight of the rooftop flourishes of a local police station!

police station

I'm off to Cologne for the next few days to visit friends. I'm not taking my lap-top, so there'll be a blogging break for a while. Maybe some interesting Franco-German comparisons on my return?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pottering around

I've been pottering around a bit. Most of it not so pleasantly in railway stations trying to organise our trip to Cologne tomorrow. But along the way there have been pleasures.

So, for those of my readers wanting more food descriptions:

Le passage interior

We've had lunch again at the restaurant in the passage outside our front door. It's irresistible. On only our second visit we were recognised by the patronne and ushered to 'our' table. The restaurant is very homey - it holds about twenty people, most of them choosing the formule midi. There's a limited choice of entrees - my friend had a soup of chunky winter vegetables and I had braised endives with anchovies - garnished with a few pomegranate seeds and a little mint. It sound bizarre, but it was wonderful. The earthiness of the endive was set off by the salt of the anchovies and the freshness of the mint and pomegranate. Definitely the star turn. There's no choice of main. It was pork chops, tender and perfectly cooked, on a bed of lightly glazed sliced turnips - yes, turnips - accompanied by broccoli. We finished with small slices of pear tart. Very simple - just sliced pears on very light mille feuille pastry. A very winter menu, beautifully cooked.

And for the knitters:

La droguerie

I managed to visit La Droguerie. Forgive the not-so-good photo, complete with Parisian rubbish. [Paris, by the way, is much cleaner than I remember from previous visits, but is still more littered, particularly with cigarette butts and dog poo, than its beauty deserves].

La Droguerie is two narrow but deep shopfronts that have been joined together - rather like two deep caves filled with treasure. As you enter, the shop is lined with hanks of La Droguerie yarns. What strikes you immediately is the richness of the colours and then, when you look a bit further, the subtlety of the textures. There wasn't much wool - but I particularly noticed beautiful, fine alpaca in a rainbow of colours, an 80% bamboo / 20% linen mix, and pure linen in zingy colours. They have garments made from La Droguerie yarns hanging around the shop - many of them notable for the finishing - quirky buttons or beautiful braids and trimmings. I'm increasingly puzzled by where you actually buy knitting needles in Paris - when I visited Le Bon Marche I was surprised by their limited supply, but La Droguerie has even fewer.

But La Droguerie is not primarily about the yarn. Again, it is a mercerie. It has jars and drawers of buttons beyond belief, rack after rack of braids and ribbons and trims (I particularly liked the bias binding from Liberty lawn fabrics), feathers of all shapes and sizes, felt in innumerable shades, individually stunning beads, or beads by the kilo. I felt unable to take photos inside - maybe I'll be braver on a return visit - but Pia Jane Bijkerk's recently published book, 'Paris: Made by Hand' has pictures that perfectly capture the Aladdin's Cave quality of the shop.

And for those of you who are generally interested in the grandeur that is Paris:

Just outside La Droguerie is the St Eustache square with this surprising street sculpture:


and a hop, skip and a jump away is the wonder of the Palais-Royal. Another seventeenth century square, but much grander than the Place des Vosges. It's presently under renovation, with builders' hoardings cutting the square in two so you don't really get to appreciate its scale and grandeur. But the 1980's Daniel Buren installation of striped columns and underground streams and 'fountain' still amuse or horrify (depending on your perception) visitors

Palais Royale

and the rather crumbling colonnades are still filled with intriguing one-of-a-kind shops, including Didier Ludot where you go to buy your vintage couture if you are super-rich, or shops selling military medals from every war there has ever been.

Palais Royale colonnade

Another hop, skip and jump across the Rue de Rivoli and you are in the courtyard of the Louvre with IM Pei's controversial 1980s glass Pyramid.


I visited Paris in 1989 just when the Pyramid was installed. In fact, I was unable to visit the Louvre because it was closed for the building works. I remember the discussion and the controversy about whether or not the ultra-modern pyramid desecrated the beauty and significance of the Louvre. Now it seems impossible to imagine the courtyard without the Pyramid. It is absolutely at home.

Monday, February 22, 2010


There's a change of pace in Paris on Sundays. Many of the shops, and even some of the restaurants are closed. In the morning the streets are deserted, but by lunchtime and in the afternoon they're filled with people walking, chatting and enjoying themselves. The pace is less frenetic than the busy weekdays.

So, from my viewpoint, what can people do in Paris on Sundays?

They can window-shop along le Viaduc des Arts where the arches beneath the no-longer-used viaduct have been glassed in to provide light-filled shops and ateliers for (very upmarket) craftspeople
Viaduc des artes

If they're fortunate, as we were, they can lunch in a trendy restaurant created under the Viaduc arches (my friend had suckling pig; I had a tarte tatin of confit of chicken with mashed potatoes)

They can stroll along the elevated walkway that's been created on top of the Viaduc
Viaduc walkway

and listen to a group of musicians playing in the metro.

They can ride on the carousel

or skate on the ice rink that's been erected in front of the grand Paris Hotel de Ville (Town Hall)

or just meet up with friends in the park.

They can buy waffles or donuts or crepes from a stall in the square (we easily resisted this - still full from lunch, despite the long walk, and anyway having so many other more wonderful food temptations)

or they can sit in a cafe and watch the world pass by.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Whose history?

As we know from the tribulations of the Museum of Australia in Canberra, establishing a museum can be tricky. Whoever gets to choose what to display, and how it should be displayed, creates a part of our history.

The Musee du quai Branly (MQB), whose sub-title is 'where cultures meet in dialogue', was opened in Paris in 2006. It features indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas and brings together collections from the now-closed Musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie and the ethnographic department of the Musée de l'Homme. Its opening received quite a lot of publicity in Australia as not only does the museum have collections of bark and modern canvas works by Australian Aboriginal artists, but the ceilings of the administrative building were painted by Ningura Napurrula

Quai Branly ceilings

[you can't enter the administrative wing, so this photo is taken from outside the building, through the windows]

The bookshop ceiling also features an Indigenous Australian design

Quai Branly Library

It's a very beautiful museum. And very grand. The design is by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel and initially the building featured 'growing walls' - vertically planted gardens that covered sections of the exterior and were meant to symbolise the organic and 'natural' cultures (very controversial notions) that are contained in the museum. Sadly, the growing walls have proved unsustainable, but the surrounding garden of 'wild' grasses survives most atmospherically.

Musee Quai Branly

I got into conversation with one of the young people who have been employed most helpfully to explain the exhibits if you wish. In a wonderfully open way she mentioned that the museum had been very controversial and that some people believed it was wrong to display objects that had been...(she searched for an English word, I suggested 'stolen' and she proceeded)...from other cultures. I don't think the Australian exhibits are at all controversial in this way. The bark paintings and the more modern Yuendumu and Papunya canvasses exhibited are all readily available in Australia - if you can afford them. What is most wonderful about the exhibits I saw, and most troubling, is the extensive and very beautiful collection of Melanesian art and artifacts. French colonisation of the Pacific, as well as exploration, study and trading in Papua New Guinea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has resulted in an extraordinarily beautiful collection of objects that are no longer available.

The whole concept of the museum has also been challenged. Though the building is modern and the display superb, it is within a dated tradition of museums that sees different cultures, particularly indigenous cultures, as exotic and 'the other'. It's a beautiful display, rather than a 'meeting' of cultures. So, my visit - which I greatly enjoyed - was a rather guilty pleasure.

Eiffel Tower

ps This was the view as we made our way to the metro station in the late afternoon. Paris is like are doing something else and all of a sudden a famous landmark appears.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Look at me!

Today you have a straight-forward travelogue because we spent yesterday being straight-forward tourists. We caught the train to Chartres - only a bit over an hour from Paris - to visit Chartres Cathedral. Chartres was and is a pilgrimage cathedral, and its steeples and hilltop location ensure its domination of the surrounding landscape. The little guide to Chartres has a slightly different version - it says the Cathedral 'capture(s) our attention from the plain and continue(s) to guide pilgrims today'.

Chartres - old town and Cathedral

[By the way, I love travelling by train. Apart from the fact that I can knit on a train without feeling sick - something I can't manage with cars - I'm happy spending endless hours just watching the landscape pass by].

Majestic Gothic cathedrals are the very antithesis of the architecture of the Place des Vosges I wrote about yesterday. They shout at you 'Look at me! Look at how beautiful and imposing and powerful and dominant I am. Don't think about the everyday, but about eternity. Realise just how small and powerless humankind is!'

Chartres North Porch
Chartres interior

But you can't resist them - well, at least I can't. I do marvel. I do wonder, but in my case the wonder is usually at the skill and craft and persistence of the workers who built most of the present-day Cathedral more than eight centuries ago. Chartres Cathedral is undoubtedly very beautiful; some claim the most beautiful of the grand Gothic cathedrals. Sorry for the lack of photos of the stained glass that adds such warmth to the interior - my poor little point and click camera just can't do it justice.

I'm always astonished at how such buildings can give such an impression of symmetry, but are often accretions of differences over time. The two cathedral steeples were built around three centuries apart in time - one rather plain, the later one very flamboyant - and yet they look perfect together.

Chartres Cathedral

The Cathedral also has some very humanising characteristics. Thousands of exquisitely carved figures of saints and sinners, fauna and flora, and generally devilish creatures embellish both the inside and outside of the building

Saints South Porch

and the Cathedral has a human-scale labyrinth in the centre of the nave. It was constructed around 1200 and is still in its original state. Flagstones of black and white marble create a path you can trace while meditating and praying - a symbolic pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Chartres Labyrinth

We also explored the old town that clusters around the Eure River and has mills and houses dating from the sixteenth century. Even towards the end of a cheerless winter, the town has great charm.

Chartres Eure River
Chartres - timbered house

We're falling into a pattern of having our main meal at lunch-time and very little to eat in the evenings. This suits both of us, and also allows us to take advantage of the lunch-time fixed menus offered by so many restaurants. Yesterday in Chartres we lunched in a charming, very bourgeois restaurant with groups of people giving the impression that this was their 'local'. The star of the lunch was the entree of oeufs en meurette - eggs poached in a rich soup of red wine, onions and lardons of bacon and served with croutons in its own little pot. Yum, but,in normal circumstances, enough for a meal by itself.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Two of the best

I often wonder why we find some things beautiful,and disregard others. I'm sure that learned tomes have been written about this, but I rather enjoy my wondering and half-formed theories. I think the Place des Vosges in the Marais would be on my list of the five most beautiful places I've ever seen.

Place des Vosges

Place des Vosges is a square - my guidebook says it is the first example of residential town-planning in Europe, and became the model for other such developments in France and elsewhere. Commissioned by Henry IV in 1604 and completed in 1612 it was originally known as Place Royale, and seems to have been an early example of spec building, with various residential lots sold off as concessions for court officials and nobles.

Place des Vosges

The buildings around the square are its great beauty. They're constructed of stone and a softly glowing rosy brick. They have slate grey mansard roofs with dormer windows. For me, the beauty of the square lies in its human scale and its regularity - with the added delight of gradually realising that what initially seems uniform actually has subtle variations of design. It seems an eminently livable place (if you have pots and pots of money) rather than an imposing and grandiose construction.

Place des Vosges

Nowadays, the colonnade that surrounds the square is mainly populated by art galleries, restaurants and tourists, but I noted with pleasure that it still has a kindergarten tucked within a corner, and some rather dingy municipal offices occupying part of one colonnade. The square also houses the Victor Hugo Museum in the apartment in which he lived from 1833 to 1848 (presently closed for renovation. So much of my tourism is characterised by places closed for renovation!).

Place des Vosges colonnade

To add to the pleasures of this area, just along from the Place des Vosges is the charming mercerie, Entree des Fournisseurs. The shop is tucked away in a courtyard behind the oh-so-quirkily-fashionable shopfronts of the Rue des Francs Bourgeois.

Entree des fournisseurs

The shop has braids, fabrics, embroidery fabrics and threads, buttons of exquisite design and a range of Fonty knitting yarn. I was allowed only one photo of the interior, as a great concession, and I wasn't allowed to photograph the braids and passementerie for which the shop has a grand reputation. I was told by the shop's owner that they have to be careful that the exclusive designs they stock are not stolen and copied in China! So I nervously photographed the old button drawers, each with a differently coloured and shaped glass handle.

Entree des fournisseurs

I was too distracted by the shop and its pleasures to actually buy anything, though I was attracted by a Fonty linen and cotton blend yarn called Majorque. Like Le Bon Marche, this shop warrants at least a second visit.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

To market, to market...

About ten minutes walk from 'our' apartment there's a great market - Marche de Place d'Aligre (I'm going to have to find French accents in Blogger!). We needed some fruit and salad vegetables, so ventured there yesterday. In the centre of a small square there's a traditional covered market housing the butchers, chicken and other feathery things sellers, the cheese-monger (so beautiful - all the cheeses of various shapes and sizes displayed like jewels), the fish-monger and the charcutier, The covered market still has its central fountain-like water supply to sluice the tiled floors.

covered market

Spreading out from the central covered market, fruit, vegetable and flower stalls set up in the surrounding streets, which are lined by small shops supplying oil, coffee, dry groceries and other household necessities.


Everything was so enticing. The fruit and vegetables were pristinely fresh - a miracle of modern marketing when you read the labels so helpfully telling you where they had come from. Blueberries from Chile, mangoes from Peru, mandarins from Spain, many things from Morocco. Africa and South America as sources of your food supply - all of a sudden the geography of your food world is turned on its head.

As well as the freshness, the diversity was amazing. Things I knew but didn't usually see at a market; things I could guess at; and things I'd never seen before.

coquilles st jacques

I have a tendency to take photos that make the world look unpopulated. In this case we were at the market so early there really were very few people around. Coping with jet lag leads to all sorts of opportunities - and of course provides a excuse for another coffee.

cafe au lait

I loved the Moroccan colours of the cafe where we had our cafe au lait. Love how the tables match the window frames.

I've also made my first foray into the French knitting world. My friend with whom I'm travelling wants a knitted hat so yesterday, on the advice of a colleague at my work who frequently visits France and is a knitter, I went to Le Bon Marche. This is a wonderful old department store - very spacious, elegant, and it has an excellent mercerie - ribbons, buttons (to die for), braids, fabrics for quilting, Liberty prints, and knitting yarn. It also has a small branch of La Droguerie within the mercerie. My friend chose some Rowan Cocoon in a colour called bilberry, which is a lovely slatey purple. I can feel another visit to Le Bon Marche coming on - next time with photos and without jet lag.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A passage

So, I'm in Paris for three weeks. The apartment for which I've house-swapped is in the romantically-named Passage de la Bonne Graine, one of the numerous little passages crossing the Faubourg Saint Antoine. These passages used to give access to the factories and workshops behind the grander facades of the main street.

Passage de la Bonne Graine

The apartment has been squeezed into a renovation of an old building and is accessed by one of the minuscule lifts that are common modern additions to old buildings in France. The lift is so tiny that two people can't stand shoulder to shoulder within it. You have to decide on entering whether you want the intimacy of standing face-to-face, or the apparent rebuff of turning your back on your companion.

Overwhelmed by the drugged feeling that's induced by travelling (economy class) from Australia to Europe, we've done little but explore our immediate neighbourhood. Most importantly, we've already discovered our local restaurant, a few metres along our passage, also named Le Passage.

Le Passage restaurant

We lunched there - enjoying the French offering of the formule midi - three courses for 15 euros. We went with tradition: pate with caramelised onions to begin; slow-cooked veal shoulder on a bed of perfectly-cooked cabbage to follow. I finished with cheese, and my friend with what she said was the best combination of just-set pannacotta with orange she could imagine. Such an unpretentious first French meal. The perfect way to begin a French holiday.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mentoring & knitting

I like it when the different bits of my world collide and the ideas I'm dealing with in one part of my life help me to think about things that are happening in other parts.

If you live in NSW and are interested in knitting, it's highly likely you will have been caught up, however marginally, in the brouhaha around the NSW Knitters' Guild and its current elections. A number of people have written about what's happening, from various points of view. I'm marginal to the central issues and have little of worth to add to the specific issue under debate, but I have been thinking more generally about craft guilds and what they might achieve.

On Monday at work I attended a presentation from someone I admire who has been doing research on what constitutes good mentoring. I was struck by the similarities between the objectives of the Knitters' Guild and the reasons organisations use mentoring programs. Notions such as 'encourage and promote the craft of hand knitting, crochet and associated crafts', 'provide a forum for the exchange and and provision of information' and 'provide an opportunity for education in the craft'* could, with some changes of object, be the goals of most mentoring programs.

The presentation outlined a number of models of mentoring. Mostly, mentoring is rather instrumental and is characterised by a transfer of information, techniques and skills from someone considered more expert to someone who is less expert. It's a useful model if you are absolutely sure of the information, if the mentors don't want to learn and change, and if the context in which the transmission of knowledge occurs is static and unchanging. In short, it reinforces the values and practices of an unchanging organisation and produces clones of the mentors.

What most organisations strive for with mentoring is a more developmental model. This takes account of the differences among the people to be mentored and tries to build upon their skills and abilities. In acknowledging this range of diverse abilities the mentors often have to be flexible and empathic, and the learning becomes a mutual experience. Most participants - both mentors and those who are mentored, are more satisfied with this experience and say they learn from it.

But the person giving the presentation commented that even this developmental model often was geared to reproducing the current dominant values and practices of the organisation. She argued that if the organisation was wishing to change, or to adapt itself to new ways of working (eg new technologies; a more diverse group of participants) then it had to build further on the developmental model of mentoring. She argued the need for 'tempered radicals' - people who are expert, experienced, dedicated and resilient, but also have enough critical distance from their organisation to identify the need for change.

So that's what I want in my ideal world - not only for my workplace but for the NSW Knitters' Guild. I want people who are 'tempered radicals'. People who are wise, aware of the need to change and open to it, able to withstand challenge, and ultimately dedicated to the long-term good of the organisation.

* Objects from the Constitution of the Knitters Guild NSW Inc

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Quincy 1

I've become a bit obsessed by hat patterns since making my de Beauvoir style turban. I particularly like the Quincy hat by Jared Flood with its slightly daggy echoes of a nineteen-twenties cloche. But it's made from 12 ply (chunky) yarn and I had none in my stash so I pushed the attraction to the back of my mental knitting queue.

But then I saw MissFee's Bendigo Rustic yarn in Graphite that was part of her haul from her Victorian trip. Instant desire. So, I ordered a skein from Bendigo Woollen Mills and received not only the satisfyingly hefty 200gm ball of deep grey wool, but also their shade cards. What excellent customer service. I had never shopped with them before, and I bought only a single ball of wool, but they had the nouse to see me as a potential customer and tempt me to further purchases.

I didn't really mean to start knitting the hat. I have other projects I should be finishing. But... garter stitch...grey tweedy yarn...integrated i-cord could I resist?

Quincy 2

I've come to a stop because I don't have the large sized dpns needed to finish the hat. But the impetus is there. One more evening's knitting and the hat will be finished. It's such a quick and satisfying knit.