Friday, January 30, 2009

Toulouse, Part II: ROCK the boat

Are you ready to ROCK...with bunnies?!?!

So, about that boat. Turns out it's really a permanent music venue.

While a canal boat (Cri de la Mouette) is certainly an unusual location for a rock show featuring four bands (plus DJs), Jefe didn't think too much of it. Canal boats used as houses, restaurants, and bars are not so uncommon in certain places (Amsterdam especially, but also Paris). And while the outside looked a little grungy, the name matched, and the gangplank was sporting the same poster we'd seen, so it must be the place. Another reassuring sign (depending on how you look at it): the canal seemed pretty stagnant and shallow, so it didn't look like the boat was going anywhere.

Armed with this news, we rendez-vous'ed at the Cinema Utopia for Idiots and Angels, an animated film by George Plympton. It was without dialogue or embellishment, and was very well done. The underlying question to the audience is "What if you didn't get to choose whether you or not you do good?"

be good, dammit

Post-film and craving some spicy food, we were off to Baan Siam, a Thai restaurant Rebecca found on the internet (the guidebook, and even local publications, are completely devoid of information about Asian and Indian restaurants). While it was nearly empty when we got there, the waiter wanted to make sure we would finish in an hour as they were fully reserved starting at 9pm. I guess that's a good sign. We asked for our dishes très très piquant (very, very spicy) and were a little more than surprised to actually receive them that way. Jefe was sweating and blowing his nose from the hot peppers (just the way he likes it). We finished with some coffee ice cream to soothe our deliciously tortured tongues.

Leaving the restaurant, we were a little worried about being late for the start of the show and that the tiny canal boat would already be at capacity. Upon arriving, we learned that we couldn't board because the show wouldn't start for another hour (although we had some suspicions that we were turned away on the grounds of not being sufficiently hip). So we walked down the street (to a more upscale establishment) for a drink while we waited for the cool kids to decide that the magic hour had arrived and we could give them our money and come aboard. After the waiting-drink, we checked back, and saw there were still people loitering outside the boat. Since the show apparently still hadn't started, and since we had perhaps already been deemed not cool enough to enter when it did, we headed to a more distant bar to bide our time until the doormen were too stoned to care who they let in.

At some point while we were killing time, we found (to some surprise) our mysterious aquatic venue listed in not one but both guidebooks. Perhaps this was a legitimate operation after all, and not merely some squat turned music venue that required a certain haircut for entry. Reenergized, we turned around and made it inside in time to catch the first act, The Pumplies. Needless to say we were surprised. Not only was the music good (most of it awesome even), there was alcohol and bathrooms (that the awesome musicians occasionally puked in). So we ended up staying for all the bands. There was only one dud in the bunch (perhaps because, unlike the other bands, they lacked a female member), Wild Women and the Savages, which reminded us of the SNL spoof show Sprockets. However, the (male) guitar player was wearing a button-down suede mini dress, no underwear (steep get the picture), and a lighted sign on his chest ("WW" for Wild Women), and the singer was wearing a Lucha Libre mask, so we tried to forgive them their musical shortcomings.

(Cristal Palace featuring singer reminiscent of 90's era Courtney Love and Ian Curtis)


All in all, a great couple of days in Toulouse dodging some pretty nasty weather. Thanks to a combination of a guidebook or two, the internet, and a little luck.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Toulouse, Part I: Evacuation Plan

Yes, the weather is terrible. "Violent wind, DANGER, risk of falling branches."

Our trip to Toulouse was another excellent illustration of the complexity of navigating a new place. You may recall a previous post, in which we discussed the pros and cons of relying on local publications versus established guidebooks. In that post, it's possible that we may have overemphasized the value of local guides. In fact, what we should have suggested is that reliance on a single form of travel guidance is not much better than using none at all.

We arrived in Toulouse on Thursday afternoon (Le Routard guide in hand). Once we got to the hotel, we also had the advantage of internet access (which we didn't have in Bordeaux). Et puis, it took Jefe only about four hours to find Let's Motiv, the local (free) toulousian guide, which became the third prong of our navigational apparatus.

third prong--100th edition of Let's Motiv

One of the first, and in many ways, best finds in Toulouse was thanks to Let's Motiv. El Chivito del Léo may look like a shack, but the Argentian tacos, sandwiches, empanadas, & cetera were so good that we went back two days later for more. And people who have been to Spain would appreciate the availability of San Miguel, which is, in Jefe's opinion, the best cheap beer in the world.

The next day, on the suggestion of Le Routarde, we went to the Marché Victor Hugo; the guide mentioned that the restaurants located on the upper level of the market were very good for lunch ("Get there early, or late, or prepare to wait," it said). What the guidebook didn't say was that in order to get to the restaurants, you have to go through a fire door, ride in an elevator of death (some graffiti on the inside warned that pushing on the door while in transit would cause it to spontaneously open) and walk down a spartan hallway. In fact, the only clue we were on the right track was this placard of the evacuation procedure noting the location of us and the nearby restaurants.

Vous êtes ici

Once we found them, everything went well. We walked through all the restaurants (since they lack separating walls, this is a little awkward, and the only way to tell them apart is their chosen color scheme) and finally chose Attila, which specializes in seafood. We had dorade carpaccio, shrimp risotto (unbelievably good, I think it may have had veal stock in it), and three small filets of different kinds of fish fresh from the market below. Don't forget the crème brûlée, mousse au chocolat, a little wine, and two p'tits cafes all for a reasonable price.

After lunch, Jefe went to Les Abbatoirs (the contemporary art museum, which had an exhibit by Antonio Saura, a series of paintings reinterpreting the Pinoccio story, and more abstract art),

Crucifixion by Antonio Saura

and Rebecca went in search of vintage clothing, books, and perhaps a small suitcase for our increasingly frequent train excursions. Just before separating, as we were walking off our wine, we noticed this unusual poster and took a picture (we'd recommend this to those of you who travel with a digital camera; it's often easier than writing stuff down, and you can avoid misspellings and incorrect times/dates).

It tooks us a few minutes to decode the alternating color typeface. The difficulty in telling where words begin and end (is that Cride la Mouette or Cri de la Mouette?) caused the ensuing internet search to take a little longer.

After the museum, Jefe looked up the address of the venue, Cri de la Mouette, on the internet. The address listed on Google was merely a street with no number (Allée de Barcelone), and so Jefe went to check it out to avoid prolonged wandering in the dark later. What he found was this:

is that...a boat?

to be continued...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bordeaux, Part II: Vélo F***ing Sutra

To enrich our wanderings in the center of Bordeaux beyond shopping the thousands of post-holiday sales, we went in search of some contemporary art. There were a few spaces showing this kind of art in the center of Bordeaux, most notably the Espace St. Remi. Formerly a church, it has been converted into a space for showing contemporary paintings and sculptures

Jefe found it accidently while he was looking for a place to lock his bike near the hotel one afternoon. We passed the church/art gallery and immediately found ourselves in a quiet square, deserted except for a few middle aged women, each separated by 30 or 40 feet, sitting on chairs on the sidewalks with thigh-high, white, high-heeled boots (these are apparently the newest component of the national prostitute uniform this year, which we noticed in Poitiers). The art inside was almost as strange as the scene outside.

Apart from the Espace St. Remi, the center of Bordeaux is too expensive for emerging artists and they are forced to stay in nearby Eysine or the industrial area of Bègles. These side trips wouldn't be so bad, if it weren't for the ever-present rain. Oh well. So Jefe biked among semi-trailers and warehouses of Bègles to La Morue Noire for an exhibit by Frédéric Lucas. This sculpture garden was outside:
Inside the building were the paintings. Lucas uses an interesting technique; up close it looks like layers of peeling paint, but from a distance various forms are discernible among the chaos.

Sort of the urban/street version of a Monet.

Since this blog is about bikes and art, among other things, I have to mention a series of comics by Cami that were exhibited at the Maison du Vélo, Bordeaux's headquarters for bike rentals (only to residents, unfortunately), maps, and information.

Yes, that says Velo Sutra

Don't laugh too hard.  We did, until we actually saw some of these positions in action, at night, in the rain.  Pretty scary.

As anyone familiar with us should know, we visited all the local movie theaters. On the Place Camille Julian, there was Cinema Utopia, two screens and a cafe/bar in a converted church (a theme in Bordeaux?), where we saw Che: Part One. Also UGC Ciné Cité in the center of Bordeaux (where we saw Twilight and Slumdog Millionaire), and Cinema Festival in Bègles, kind of a hike, but worth it to see 20th Century Boys.

And while we like the combination of dinner and a movie more than the average couple, we have other interests too, notably live music. Champaign-Urbana has a very active music scene for a town its size (some of our favorite acts of recent years: The Beauty Shop, The Living Blue, Bellcaster, Animate Objects,  Headlights, Kate Hathaway, Darrin Drda's Theory of Everything, Triple Whip, and the list goes on). Needless to say, we jumped at the chance to see Calexico in Bordeaux at the Barbey Rock School. Apparently, so did a lot of other Bordelais, as the 700 seat venue was nearly full.

Pre-show, before most of the people finished their beers and coffees in the lobby.

Luckily, we got there early and were able to stand right near the stage.

They played for nearly two hours, and everyone (fans, band, us) was pretty exhausted by the end.  But Rebecca was sublimely happy.  She saw Calexico in a small outside venue in NYC a few years back, and this show brought back a lot of happy memories.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bordeaux, Part I: Finest Food in Finest Town (?)

follow the wet cobblestones

In this, only our second francophone foray from Poitiers, we headed south to Bordeaux and Toulouse. Since both are fairly large and populous, and because we had never visited either place before, we did get guides (in French) for the two cities.

Really, a guidebook is just a starting point, something that you can use for the first day or so (maybe even just the first 4-6 hours). We feel the need to stress this point. The guidebook should be a handhold to use only until you get your hands on some local publications that will give you the lowdown on the currently hot restaurants, music venus, movies, art exhibits, and which may even warn you of an upcoming manif (slang for manifestation nf. 1. a protest, sometimes in conjunction with a strike or grève; 2. the national sport of France; 3. something you should know about before traveling).

Finding local reviews of what's going on is probably the most underrated travel-related activity. Guidebooks are ok for finding all the 1000+ year-old churches, but they aren't going to know about the organic Thai restaurant that just opened (or the little old theatre that just shut down). And if the locals aren't that into spicy organic food (a good bet around here), it may well be closed by the time the next edition of Lonely Planet comes out. This means that you, the traveler, have a responsibility to venture outside the safe confines of the published guidebook, which you should consider out-of-date and out-of-touch even before you spotted it on the bookshelf.

There is a reason the local publications review art, restaurants, movies, and fashion--locals want to know about this stuff too! In larger cities, local publications (for instance, Pariscope in Paris, The Reader in Chicago, Spirit in Bordeaux, or Let's Motiv if you're in Toulouse) give those out-of-the-way, non-corporate, and newly-opened, but still solid establishments a fighting chance against the overpriced robo-bistrots in the tourist district.

Enough of our hipster politics. 

So anyway, after our apartment almost burned down, we hopped on the TGV in Poitiers and were in Bordeaux in two hours, a short tram ride later, we were at our hotel. We'll never get over the ease of transferring from one form of transport to another here (TGV to bus/metro, airplane to TGV/bus/metro).  You know that feeling you get when you have to walk the five blocks from Chicago's Union Station to the nearest El stop dragging two suitcases in the snow? Well, not here!

In the middle of a vast network of streets for pedestrians and bikes only, we were surrounded by restaurants and boutiques. We found a great breakfast/lunch spot, Karl Restaurant, around the corner from our hotel.  

Karl--"Finest food in finest town"

Located in the Place du Parlement, the interior is very airy and the sun shines in the windows in the afternoon (well, theoretically.  If the sun ever shines in Bordeaux). 

It was also a fun people-watching venue.  For instance, we watched this mother (picture to the left) tying her baby to a chair with her designer scarf.  It's hard to imagine a mother doing this in the US.  It might even be illegal.   It was very chic, but it didn't last long (baby was relocated to dad's arms, scarf returned to mother's shoulders).

If you make it to Karl's, don't forget to visit Cousin et Compagnie, the caviste across the street (their motto is: The importance of a wine shop? That it stays open! --W.C. Fields), where we got this excellent and very wine/cheese/bread-appropriate wine...

Other good food finds were Bar-Cave de la Monnaie (classic-cosy french) and Occitane Cafe on the Place du Palais, classic french, but cheap, and more lunch-appropriate.

While in Bordeaux, don't forget to get a glass of Lillet in between meals, while shopping, or in between art exhibits.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Recent Story in Local Paper May Interest ARAD Readers

The Meter Explodes: Smoke Fills the Boutique!

Just yesterday, a washing machine almost put the Patrice Bréal boutique on a diet. During the height of the post-Christmas sales season, the clothing shop in Poitiers was hit by a small catastrophe.

It was 2:50pm when the fire department was alerted. The fire started in the closet situated at the back of the store. A few seconds later, the electric meter exploded, spreading fire and panic throughout the shop.

As the smoke spread, the two sales assistants were forced to evacuate the store. The apartments above the shop, as well as neighboring stores, were also evacuated. The firemen, after putting out the fire, checked the nearby apartments for smoke damage and carbon monoxide levels. Using a thermal camera, they were able to ensure that no hot spots remained. A few hours later, the mayor stopped by the scene.
translated from La Nouvelle Republique page 4 article, published Samedi 17, Janvier 2009

Okay, now here's how it happened from our perspective.

Jefe had gone out for a long bike ride. Rebecca was a home, writing. She heard the doorbell ring, but since this happens by accident every once in a while (drunk people, kids, confused delivery men), she didn't take it very seriously. A few minutes later, the bell rang again, more insistently. She opened the French windows to look down to the street, to see who was bothering her. No delivery man, no drunks, no kids. But something did seem amiss... Usually, when we look out our window, we feel a bit like voyeurs. People walk past on the pedestrian street below, not noticing us and not looking up. This time, people were looking up.

Rebecca mused over this as she shut the windows and sat down again at the computer. A moment later, the electricity in the apartment went out all at once. She slipped on her shoes, pushed open the door to the stairwell, and was greeted with a lot of smoke and the smell of burning plastic, which grew thicker as she ran down the stairs. At the base of the stairs it was very hot, and she looked down to see the door of the utility closet glowing orange. When she made it out of the ground level door and into the street, women in the adjacent shoe store were vigorously motioning to her. She walked up to them, confused, and they turned her around and pointed to the fire.

She spent a nervous hour waiting for the fire department to arrive, put out the fire, and rid the apartment building of smoke. Thankfully, there was no permanent damage to the apartment or its residents (aside from a little smoke damage to the level below us)!

In the mean time, don't worry about us.  We're on vacation.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Where to get it (Part I)

So we'll assume you want to avoid Géant.  We've done a lot of exploring in the center of Poitiers, and after a little help from the yellow pages, and lots of walking and biking, we've got a pretty good handle on where to get what you need in our neighborhood. We offer you this guide for those in search of spicy food, a good tailor, a wind-resistant umbrella, and the perfect croissant.

You've probably noticed that we like to cook many different kinds of food, some of which are not available at the regular grocery store.  We have given up on some of these things for the time being (for instance, real, gluten-free corn tortillas are nowhere to be found, WTF?). Nonetheless, this Asian/African Grocery store is a great place to get spicy peppers (Scotch Bonnets), various kinds of lentils (we like red lentils), corn flour of varying coarseness (so you could, in theory, make your own tortillas from scratch), and a few "exotic" vegetables (ripe plantains and okra).  

Asian, African, and Middle Eastern Grocery

More importantly, it is open 7 days a week (gasp!) til 10 p.m. (impossible!!). This means that you can also get yogurt, cereal, and a few other "everyday" things on the weekend if you're desperate. We're guessing that their biggest money maker is alcohol as they are the only shop open on Sunday (not counting bars, tabacs, and restaurants) where you can get beer and wine.
Had friends over and drank up your weekend allotment of wine on Saturday night?  Now you need a bottle to go with your Sunday roast chicken?? Come on over!

When we were living in Urbana, we had two sewing machines (one each, which we got before we met each other). We used them for major projects like curtains, as well as lots of little jobs like hemming pants, adding velcro to things, reinforcing Jefe's pants for biking, and making hats. Not long after arriving in Poitiers (sans Singers), we required the services of a tailor. We found a few in the yellow pages and Jefe rode by to check them out. We settled on Arsène Couture, as the other nearby tailor seemed overtaxed (they advertised sewing-related jobs on everything from clothes and curtains to beads and accessories). However, when he dropped off the sweater with Arsene, he ended up in a political discussion with the owner that ended with her grumbling about her daughter getting pregnant by a Jew in New York (sheesh). Needless to say, the next piece that required tailoring went to Rapid Couture, scatterbrained as they might be. We were hoping that "Rapid" meant "No politics." They did a great job, hemming three pairs of pants in two days, which is pretty fast for all the tailors we've visited.

Since Poitiers doesn't get much snow, the winter precipitation comes down as rain, so you want an umbrella that can stand up to constant use and serious wind. Luckily, there is the nearby François Frères, an umbrella shop. They make and repair all sorts of umbrellas, with a few ingenious versions that I'd never even thought of. There are square umbrellas, children's umbrellas, compact umbrellas, and umbrellas with flexible ribs that don't break when the wind catches and turns it inside out. They also have a vast array of styles, sizes, and prints, so you will be sure to find an umbrella to match your outfit and your personality.

Who doesn't love that the French word for umbrella is "parapluie" (pair-uh-ploo-ey)?

Speaking of umbrellas, you can't swing one without hitting a bakery around here. The real difficulty is finding the "best" one. The trick is to look for a line that stretches out the door during weekday lunches and most of Saturday. Testing the croissants is another way to gauge a bakery. When eaten plain, this simple pastry can tell you a lot about the quality of ingredients and the amount of care taken in their baking operation. 

La Grange à Pain (The Bread Barn) satisfies both criteria. Their croissants are unbelievably delicious, with just the right amount of creamy butter flavor; their chausson aux pommes (apple turnovers) are filled with something similar to apple pie filling while many competitors merely use an applesauce-like paste. Their baguettes are good enough that people buy them by the armload, and their array of savory sandwiches and mini quiches are what make that interminable line out the door during lunch.

mmm, gluten

In other news, Rebecca's students will be taking their first semester final exams next week, but since there is no final exam in English, we are off to Bordeaux and Toulouse.  We'll be back in a week and a half.  See you then.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

La Haine...Snark, Part 1

Or...Things that sometimes make us want to poop on the sidewalk

We recently decided (after much debate and pouting) to include a little more snark (parents: that's what we kids call a snide remark) in the blog. While we will still be rhapsodizing new discoveries and the delights of France, there are a few things we feel the need to address. Such as, for instance, certain things so poorly designed that we continue to hate them, even after trying really hard to find their redeeming qualities. Note: this is not mere homesickness for a certain brand of cookie or the lack of a specific type of beer, these are things that anyone--even the French--should be complaining about.

So without further ado,

Snark, Part 1: Géant Casino

For starters, it's called "Giant Casino". Just the name makes me think of an onslaught of light, noise and irritation. Sometime I wonder if France is playing a cruel joke on us. The Americans create things like Walmart, McDonalds, and blockbuster movies (which I don't like, in case you didn't know), and the French see these things and morph them into something even more outrageous. For example, the French word for "corporation" is "exploitation". It's as if they are taking the aspects I dislike the most and shoving them back in my face in the form of monstrous stores, food that makes my skin crawl, and movies that make me cringe just thinking about them. Perhaps they are doing this in an elaborate attempt at cultural critique?

Géant is a large commercial center located near the University of Poitiers. Similar to a Super Walmart, it houses a huge grocery store along with lots of other smaller shops. In addition, all under the same roof, there is a bowling alley, three restaurants, many clothing stores (such as H&M, Zara, Jules, Bershka, Esprit, Stradivarius), several shoes stores, three banks, a Sephora, a hair salon, a pharmacy, a gas station, and a car wash.

Of course, it's different closer to the center of Poitiers, where there are a lot of quirky shops (a custom umbrella shop, communist bookstore, etc.), but there are certain items, like socks, that you can only find at the hypermarché.

We've been to Géant a few times, mostly because it is near Rebecca's office at ESIP. At first it seems really convenient. The bus, which typically comes by every 15 minutes, drops you off just down the street. But then you start to walk toward the building from the bus stop, and the sidewalk abruptly disappears. You end up in a pavement purgatory, walking through a narrow entrance (the western one just off Avenue JFK) to the parking lot with limited visibility, jostled by other pedestrians as well as cars, bikes, mopeds, and volatile middle school students. Oh yeah, and once you get to the entrance, you are greeted with exactly no places for bike parking.

It is hard to see how this complex could have been designed so poorly. Perhaps if it had been built 20 or 30 years ago when there weren't many bike riders in Poitiers, I could understand. But it's only 10 years old. Besides, with the university so close, how could they completely fail to anticipate the possibility of pedestrians?

OK. Supposing you finally make it inside, you get your 5 kilometers of exercise while shopping in this giant store and you're happy because almost everything is super cheap. You then have 40 checkout lanes to choose from: the traditional sort with a real person there to scan your items. Oops, only 3 of those are open.

Should you go through the self-checkout? Not unless you want to wait for the newbie to figure out that they have to set the item down on the counter after scanning it.

How about the self-checkout plus? You get to carry around a cool handheld scanner and zap all the stuff you want, then just dock the scanner and swipe your card. Nice idea, but it requires advanced registration and your first born child.

Maybe the credit card checkout? They scan all your items and give you a barcoded receipt, then you proceed to a separate machine to pay. This works on the theory that paying is the part of checking out that slows things down. Interesting hypothesis, but it doesn't stand up to testing. You still have to wait in line to get all of your items scanned. And paying is still a hassle, especially with American style credit cards that require a signature. This option is a last resort.

Oh wait--there's an opening in one of the traditional check-out lanes *sigh of relief*. The checkout person is scanning all your items and everything is great. Oh crap, where's that little sticker that was on your red pepper?

"Oh no, please don't tell me that your red pepper doesn't have a little sticker on it. Here at Géant, we don't keep a list of all those exotic vegetables at the checkout counter, so I'm sorry but you'll just have to walk back 300 yards to find a new little sticker and bring it back. No, I'm sorry, we can't just call someone and ask them what the code is. This is Géant, we don't do that here. Do you want to go get the sticker or just forget the red pepper?"

So, dear reader, unless you enjoy torturing yourself (as many people seem to here, given the popularity of Géant), or you like to bowl while your significant other does the shopping, I would try to avoid this hypermarché hell.

Side note: This post is conspicuously devoid of pictures. The last time I went there with my camera, I left too frustrated to think about taking pictures. In any case, pictures rarely achieve the same snarkiness as a well-placed barb.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Historic Poitiers

Poitiers is really old, at least that's what the Wikipedia entry says. But sometimes it's hard to wrap your mind around what 'old' really means; dates and numbers, rather than elucidating this, sometimes just make your vision blur.  For many of us, tangible things are easier to appreciate.

Take for instance the electrical wiring in our apartment, which seems a little sketchy, or the fact that rainwater drains inside our building.  That means the place was built before people worried about things like electromagnetic pollution and toxic death mold.  So that's a pretty tangible marker of age, but then again, the same kinds of weaknesses were present in the poorly-maintained 80-year-old house we rented in Illinois.  

What we're trying to get at is that to US "old" is nothing compared to European "old".  Lately, we have been noticing the patchwork nature of the construction here. There are, for example, university buildings less than 20 years old sharing a common wall with a 500-year-old half-timber house.

One side of the house...

...and the other.

And with so many layers of renovation and new construction, I can't even begin to imagine the headaches faced by all the engineers and architects involved in these projects over the last few hundred years.

Fortunately for the curious-minded, Poitiers reveres its history, and has marked out three historical walking routes (red, blue, and yellow; so far partially translated by Jefe) that people can take to see various interesting houses, churches, and city buildings. While taking these self-guided walking tours and translating all the associated information on posted plaques, he began to notice how few of the buildings stick to one style of architecture (e.g Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, Flamboyant Gothic, Renaissance).

The closer you look, the quirkier things become. For example, most of the windows have actual working shutters (instead of the decorative shutters we have in the US), which people actually use daily. Built into the exteriors of the walls near those shutters are small iron latches that keep them from swinging freely when open. There are numerous designs for these tiny shutter latches, but the one below was surprisingly common:

I haven't figured out who, if anyone specific, this is supposed to represent, but I'll be asking around (or please let us know if you have any guesses).

The other minor detail that people have preserved over the last few hundred years are the doors. Since so many periods of construction coexist, it seems like no two doors (even in their dimensions) are the same. Short rounded medieval doors stand next to giant entryways for carriages, which neighbor stubby blocked-off doors that must have been deemed too low for human use and decommissioned. But at least these still seem to work...

Antique (or just really old) door knockers

After walking around on foot and dodging all the dog poop on the sidewalks, you may wonder where all the parks are. Besides Parc de Blossac, most of the grassy spaces are hidden within courtyards and gardens behind the walls of formerly aristocratic homes (which have since been converted to apartments). However, occasionally you think you are walking into a parking area behind a building and you end up here...

The truth is that it is easier to find the parks using Google's satellite view than by walking around. Some parks are right in your face, but with entrances that are locked. This park looks great on Google. Unfortunately, it is completely private. Maybe they didn't want to deal with the dog poop (yes, that's the same link as before.  It's just really funny).

Friday, January 2, 2009

La Cocotte Gets a Makeover

You may remember the story of how we acquired this indispensable piece of cookware, which we have used virtually every day since. We have two cast iron pieces at home in the States: one is a vintage country-style cast iron pan from Jefe's family. As our good friend Eric has impressed upon us, nothing will ever come close to this vintage pan (one word: cornbread); if you find a cast iron pan in good condition, treasure it and it will last forever. Even a pan in bad condition can often be restored.

Our other cast iron piece is a 9inch Le Creuset iron-handle skillet. The Le Creuset skillet (which we bought after trying out Trevor's) is another excellent piece of cookware; it's enamelling is silky smooth and remarkably easy to clean. And this is why we were so enthusiastic over finding a new Le Creuset piece for so cheap (a new one would have been prohibitively expensive).

It might seem like we are making a big deal out of nothing, but the Le Creuset brand has a rich history and is a highly respected brand amongst foodies and chefs (and it's a must-have for many traditional French meals--the cassoulet, for instance). The cocotte was the very first product offered when the company started back in 1925. Our pot, which we picked up at a used furniture store, is one of the smallest and lightest versions, the 27cm (or ~4 litre) size (which is good because our oven and stove are quite small). The color is "flame" (one of the first, introduced in 1934).

The cocotte, an enamalled cast iron "french oven" (aka dutch oven) with a lid, is great both for stovetop and oven use. It produces wonderful frittatas and casseroles and risottos. We even use it for vin chaud. Some readers may remember that the first time we put it into the oven, we melted/incinerated the plastic handle, and had to replace it with a bolt from the hardware store. The bolt worked fairly well; we got used to placing a kitchen towel between our hands and the bolt in order to pick up the lid. One downside is that we couldn't put the lid upside down on the counter top. Another is that the bolt didn't really go with the whole Le Creuset aesthetic.

Well today, thanks to Jefe's brother and fellow foodie, Josh, the cocotte got a makeover...

before, and after

Now our little cocotte is perfect, both aesthetically and functionally (thanks Josh!). Originally, when we moved to France, the plan was to accumulate as little stuff as possible, and to assume that anything we did accumulate was going to stay in France when we went back to the US.

Yesterday, we both agreed that the cocotte is coming with us when we leave.

yes, that's a brand-name handle. don't hate.