Let’s Play Questions… Vol. 7: Small Pleasures

Source: Amazing Landscapes, Nature, Animals and Places Facebook page.

Source: Amazing Landscapes, Nature, Animals and Places Facebook page.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the small pleasures in life, and the new things that have caught my attention or made me happy. This summer was an extremely difficult time for me for a variety of reasons, and August was quite exhausting. These days, I am constantly behind schedule on all that I have to do, I’m frequently mentally wiped out, I will never get through my “To Do” list, and there doesn’t seem to be much joyous news in the world in general. Wherever I go, whether on social media sites or simply overhearing people talk in the post office queue, there seems to be a definite sense of grimness in the air. More than usual, I think. The headlines have been filled with an abundance of tragedies or conflicts, to the point where I’ve often had to look away from my Facebook feed, or seek mental or emotional refuge in simpler, happier things. Although one can’t live life as an ostrich sticking one’s head in the sand, there’s much to be said for trying to focus on the small joys in life.

In short, I thought it was time to bring back the Questions game, centered on the things that have brought all of you joy lately. A more leisurely post, en effet, a time to chat, as I work through my daily testing. Right now, I’m finally getting around to an Italian series which I had initially scheduled for some months ago. I will be focusing on different houses, especially some of the smaller, less widely explored ones, and will be making only a few occasional day-trips to other countries. I am working slower than usual these days, undoubtedly due to the aforementioned mental exhaustion, but I wanted to take a small break first to share some of the things that have brought me pleasure in the last few months, and then turn the floor over to hear from all of you.

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Art, Beauty & Perfumes: The Genius of Roberto Greco

Sometimes, you stumble upon art of such great beauty that you stop in your tracks with awe. Art can move you deeply, whether it is from the sensuality that you see portrayed, the boldness of colours, the inherent drama of juxtaposed images, or the sheer talent that is involved. Last week, I came across a photographer whose works transcended mere pictures and involved actual Art. It left me speechless. In an extremely hectic week, his photographs (if one can even call them that) felt almost like a port in the storm, a place where I could seek quiet refuge to soothe my frazzled soul.

Candice Swanepoel in "Strict" by Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine September 2011.

Candice Swanepoel in “Strict” by Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine September 2011.

I rarely talk about my love for photography, even to my friends, but I’ve had it since childhood. Other people’s photography, to be clear, as I have no talent of my own in this field whatsoever. I started by admiring the nature photography of Ansel Adams and the photojournalism of Robert Doisneau, then developed a particular interest in fashion and art photography. I have a huge passion for the works of the late, great Herb Ritts who is my absolute favorite, though I also really like Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton. These days, I can fall down the rabbit-hole for hours staring at the strong, sexy women of Mert & Marcus, a brilliant duo who may be aesthetic sons of both of those last legends combined and whose work I’ve used a number of time for the blog.

Last week, I was calmly minding my own business, going about my work, when I received a very lovely email. I often receive notes from perfume lovers who want to talk about some of their favorite fragrances or to occasionally ask me a question. This one was from a chap called Roberto Greco who wrote that he was a photographer and a perfume addict who really appreciated my reviews. He added that he thought he’d share a link to some small photographs that he’d taken a year ago for himself. The mention of photographs was nothing big; it was all understated, presented more like a little vanity project that he’d done privately out of his love of perfumery and that he merely wanted to share with another perfume lover.

Willem Kalf, (1619-1693)  "Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate." The Getty Museum. Source: Wikipedia.

Willem Kalf, (1619-1693) “Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate.” The Getty Museum. Source: Wikipedia.

I clicked on the link, and… GOOD GOD! In fact, those were close to the actual words that I said to myself, since I just about fell over in my chair at what I saw. The next words which blasted through my mind were “Vermeer,” “Rembrandt,” and “Dutch Old Masters.” I was captivated, and wrote back to Mr. Greco with my astonishment. He’s an incredibly sweet man with excessive modesty, if you ask me, as he seemed rather amazed at my response. He shyly shared a few more of his photos and his main website, where I discovered further treasures, both perfume-related and otherwise.

I decided that I wanted as many people to see his work as possible, and asked him if he would mind if I highlighted his photos in a post on the blog. He has generously given me permission, and let me pick the images that I wanted to use, including several that were commissioned for commercial use by perfume houses, fashion designers, magazines or the like. (I insisted that he put a watermark and his name on them, lest they get stolen. Mr. Greco has a much kinder view of human nature than I do, but he put in a tiny one so that it wouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of the images.)

I’m really so happy to be able to share his work with you, because I think the word “talented” doesn’t even begin to describe him. So, I’ll start with the very first, initial photographs that I saw and that impressed me so much with their evocation of the classical still life painting tradition.

Roberto Greco Coco

Roberto Greco Tom Ford Still Life 2Roberto Greco Coco Noir Still Life

Roberto Greco Diptyque Still LifeLook at his eye for details, from the giant beetle on the corner which matches the colour of the velvet in the next photo:Roberto Greco Tom Ford Still Life  1There is no doubt that Mr. Greco is influenced by the Old Masters and the baroque tradition of still-life paintings. Some of the commercial work on his website makes that abundantly clear. Each work has such depth, richness, and dark luxuriousness, but I also love the extremely bold, powerful imagery. It hits you right off the bat, from contrast of colours, the unexpected juxtapositions, and those tiny, minute details that you only pick up if you look closer upon a second or third viewing. Honestly, I think this is actual Art, with a capital letter, more than just a mere photograph:

"Budgie and Pomegranate."

“Budgie and Pomegranate.”

"Girl and Grapes."

“Girl and Grapes.”

Look at how the juices from the grape stain her thigh, in the photo above, and the luminescent light of her skin that speaks more to painting than photography. I think Vermeer and his Dutch brethren would be so impressed by Mr. Greco’s Girl with Grapes.

Yet, Mr. Greco doesn’t slavishly copy the classical Baroque tradition. He turns it upside down by inserting animals or unexpected details into his still-lifes.

Roberto Greco __Still life with rats

“Still life with rats.”

"Still life with Discus fish."

“Still life with Discus fish.”

Commercial work for others can sometimes require an artist to restrain himself or to edit his voice, but I think Mr. Greco’s work remains powerful and still demonstrates his overall aesthetic beautifully.

Commissioned by Les Echos magazine.

Commissioned by Les Echos magazine.

"Bloody Wood" for the perfume house, Les Liquides Imaginaires

“Bloody Wood” for the perfume house, Les Liquides Imaginaires

"Bello Rabelo" for Les Liquides Imaginaires.

“Bello Rabelo” for Les Liquides Imaginaires.

"Dom Rosa" for Les Liquides Imaginaires

“Dom Rosa” for Les Liquides Imaginaires

For fashion designer, Nunzio del Prete.

Photo commissioned by the fashion designer, Nunzio del Prete.

Commissioned by Les Restos d'Occase.

Commissioned by Les Restos d’Occase.

Photo commissioned by Oriza L. Legrand.

Photo commissioned by Oriza L. Legrand.

The funny thing about that last photo is that I actually saw it while I was in the Oriza L. Legrand boutique last fall in Paris. I distinctly remember the crown, and doing a double-take at it, thinking to myself, “What a fantastic picture. I wonder who took it?” The world is a very small, funny place at times.

Roberto Greco Cuir de RussieI asked Mr. Greco about himself. His website biography talks about the exhibitions that he’s had, or the galleries that have proudly shown his work, but it doesn’t say much about the man himself. It’s clear he was educated in Switzerland, and that he now spends his time between Paris and Geneva, but little else. So, I asked Mr. Greco to write a tiny bit about himself, how he came to love perfume so much, and his aesthetic approach. English is not his primary language, but I think he managed beautifully:

I think it all started when, as a kid, my mother sprayed her perfume on my pillow to help me wait a long holiday absence. This smell was a picture, her face.

I’m a south Italian, but I was born in Geneva, Switzerland. At 15, I made studies in horticulture, but art was never really far. Indeed, I studied in 2 different art schools in Switzerland, and nature has a prominent place in my artistic work from the beginning.

Whether plants or animals in my childhood, the smell they gave off always fascinated me. Just a look at the steam emanating of a pile of wet leaves when it’s cold outside, will make you able to capture the complexity of all these organic things that surround us. All these smells are images. I will keep forever in my mind, and now I try to transcribe them in my art.

Once, an art director told me that my way of creating was the same as a perfumer. Different intensities which punctuate the picture. Here a detail, another one there, and then the rhythm starts to give the tempo and make an harmony …much like top notes , heart notes and base notes of a fragrance.

Recently, I found interesting to add a scent during my last personal exhibition. All the space was immersed in an animal and sweat scent. I make it by mixing different scents, and hidden some manure everywhere.

Today I am often asked to photograph perfumes, and it is a joy for me to marry two passions. Interpret the world of a fragrance while playing with the codes of art is an exciting challenge!

"Eaux Sanguines" for Les Liquides Imaginaires.

“Eaux Sanguines” for Les Liquides Imaginaires.

Currently I am very attracted to odours that remind me of my past. For example, olibanum incense is quite an obsession, probably because all those years I came to the church (Bois d’Encens by Armani Privé, Wazamba by Parfum D’ EmpireOlibanum by Profumum and Sancti by Les Liquides Imaginaires ). Woods and plants are also very present (Chêne and Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens, Virgilio by Diptyque).

Recently, I bought a perfume because when I smelled it, it referred me immediately to my Italian grandmother. It was obvious : this blend of lilies, dusty incense, wet clothes drying in the sun… It was her ! At least her image, because she doesn’t wear any perfume, and this is exactly for this kind of situation that I love and need perfume. (It was Relique d’Amour by Oriza L. Legrand ).

Now I live and work in Paris, and for a perfume addict like me, what could I expect more? [Emphasis to names with bolding added by me.]

Like every artist with depth, there is more to Mr. Greco than just baroque images or still lifes. He doesn’t limit himself to one particular thing, because photography is, at its heart, all about self-expression, a way to reveal different sides of oneself. Some of his perfume photos demonstrate a meditative, almost mystical quality, like the Chanel Cuir de Russie above, or the Opium photo below. Perfume bottles hidden by smoke, or the mists of time, perhaps. Others reflect a very modern sensibility with sleek minimalism or an almost textural, liquid feel.

Roberto Greco OpiumRoberto Greco FahrenheitRoberto Greco Calvin Klein CK One

"Blue Armani."

“Blue Armani.”

Then, there is the joyous mood of his hyper-saturated, pastel photos. The candied simplicity of their pop cultural, Andy Warhol-like brightness is brilliantly intercut with the unexpectedness of hair — hair twisted to grow like living bushes or sculptured into sleek, architectural waves:

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Valentino. Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Valentino. Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

These are only a fraction of the multi-faceted things that Mr. Greco has done. You can see more of his artistic and exhibition work on his current website, but also on his earlier one that is devoted to some of his other projects, whether his personal perfume pictures, his fashion photography, videos, or the like.

One of my favorite things about blogging is the people who I meet, and the passions that they share with me. When I opened up that first email from Mr. Greco and diffidently clicked on the link enclosed, I had no expectations of anything. Humble, little photographs is essentially how he conveyed himself to me. I certainly didn’t expect to be blown away by Art, with a capital A. But that is what it is. Mr. Greco paints with his lens: textures, layers, moods, richness, and passion.

There is enormous depth and sensuality underlying his images, but a naughty, mischievous sense of humour, too, with the unexpected touches like the white mice in one of the still-life tableaux. (The piece is entitled “Still life with rats,” but they are cute little mice, not ugly rats, so I’m ignoring the official title.) Mr. Greco also throws in little “Easter egg” elements that reward the careful viewer who takes a second or third look, like the gigantic cicada (I thought it was a moth) hovering at the corner of the bowl of strawberries in his hanging Fish and Vegetable still-life for Les Restos d’Occase. I can look at his photos again and again, always finding new meaning or symbolism. A pink rose that drips like wax downwards, in contrast to the rigid, still, vertical legs going up of the dead bird in the corner. Or, the meatiness of the cherries that lie symbolically stabbed and bloodied by shards of glass in the photo, “Bloody Wood” for Les Liquides Imaginaires. So damn clever!

Many artists are temperamental creatures driven by ego or moods, and photographers are not necessarily an exception. I should know, as I have one in the family; a former fashion photographer who was even the legendary Helmut Newton’s assistant at one point. (If you want to talk about utterly crazy, egomaniacal geniuses, the late Helmut Newton might have topped the list.)

Yet, Mr. Greco seems to be quite a different sort of artist. Granted, I’ve only had email communication with him, but his modesty and consistently humble nature are striking. He is totally lacking in pretentious artifice or arrogance. All he sought to do in contacting me was to privately share his passion for perfumery. I’m the one who insisted on featuring him on the blog, because I thought that many of you would be as impressed as I was. And I really hope you have been. I also hope that you will share in the comments anything that struck you, moved you, or was a favorite, as well as the reasons why. If you have a message for Mr. Greco, please feel free to leave that, too. All artists love to hear feedback, or to learn about the emotional response that their creations evoke.

The great Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” In the case of Roberto Greco, you can add perfumes to that list as well.

Disclosure: All photos used by permission. Full rights are reserved to Mr. Greco, and nothing may be used without his express authorization. Please don’t steal and not give credit!

Holiday Travelogue – Part III: Paris Food, Cheese & Chocolate Delights

Alexandre III bridge, Paris. Source: wallpaperscraft.com

Alexandre III bridge, Paris. Source: wallpaperscraft.com

For all that the French are respected for their perfumes, they are perhaps even more known for their food. It is something that is an inherent part of their way of life, beyond just the rarefied, perhaps more sophisticated confines of Paris. Food permeates every part of the French life and cultural psyche, be it a truck driver in Normandie or a wealthy housewife in Cannes. It’s no different in Paris, though the breadth, nature and diversity of the offerings may be slightly greater.

As someone whose primary passion in life is food and gastronomy instead of perfume, Paris was a visual bonanza, as much as any actual one. From the beauty of the windows at the competing, rival houses of Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, to the bounty of an extremely small, ordinary food market, to elaborate haute cuisine menus from the “Chef of the Century, Joel Robuchon, or simple oyster displays at a local restaurant, Paris is truly “a moveable feast” for the eyes.

Luckily, I got to actually eat a few things, too, particularly my beloved French cheese. As regular readers of the blog will know, I have an incredible passion — nay, an obsession, in fact — with that particular French speciality. And I was utterly spoiled in Paris — a situation which was sharply borne home to me upon my return to America. A recent attempt to get 10 favorite French cheeses at a very high-end store here resulted in my being told that 8 of them were illegal in this country, and could not be imported in due to FDA rules. (My feelings on that subject are as bitter as my feelings on IFRA/EU restrictions.)

Ladurée via Wikicommons.

Ladurée. Photo via Wikicommons.

You know that famous, old saying, “We’ll always have Paris”? Well, I’ll always have my photos. So, without further ado, let’s have some food porn. (For non-Americans, the term refers to a visual feast of photos highlighting deliciously tempting food.) First up, chocolates. As some of you know, the two big rival houses are the very old, established Ladurée which dates back to 1862, and the newer star of the macaron scene, Pierre Hermé. Macarons (which are not the same as macaroons) consist of a double-decker of two thin, pastry (or cookie) shells which are stuffed in-between with a creamy ganache filling. According to Wikipedia‘s entry for the company, Ladurée is the one who first invented this structure in the 1930s.

While some swear that Ladurée makes the best macarons (and chocolates) in the world, others vehemently insist that it is really Pierre Hermé, who Vogue once called “the Picasso of pastry.” Wikipedia explains his significance and background much more succinctly than I could manage:

Pierre Hermé macarons are airy cookies of egg-white and almond chair, sandwiching a cream filling. Perhaps his most famous is the Ispahan, made with rose, lychee, and raspberry; he likened it as their “Chanel suit” — the one they sell the most.[1] [¶] Hermé’s chocolates are also renowned. His chocolate cake made it on The Observer‘s “50 best things to eat in the world” list in 2009.[2]

His cooking philosophy: He prefers discreet pastry decors and “uses sugar like salt, in other words, as a seasoning to heighten other shades of flavor.”[3] He often makes daring use of savory ingredients in his desserts: traces of balsamic vinegar, Parmesan or olives in his cakes and layered dessert creams; he has even used grilled corn in a cake. […]

Pierre Hermé began his career at the age of 14 as an apprentice in Paris with the acclaimed pâtissier Gaston Lenôtre, who Hermé says is his greatest influence. At age 24, he became the pastry chef at the fine food merchant Fauchon, where he remained for 11 years. […] Pierre Hermé was the youngest person ever to be named France’s Pastry Chef of the Year, and is also the only pastry chef to have been decorated as a Chevalier of Arts and Letters.

I went to both Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, at various different locations, and my vote goes to the latter. Pierre Hermé’s macaron shells were truly like air, while Ladurée’s were thick, chewy, and incredibly dense. The ganache filling inside also was more intensely flavourful at Pierre Hermé, though only by a hair. However, Ladurée wins hands down for the chic-est shops, all across Paris, inside and out, and with the best displays. The Pierre Hermé location near the l’Opera was dark like a cave, and I didn’t think much of the latticed tea boxes in the window. It was better at the St. Gérmain location where the window had cocoa beans presented as lollipops, but it still couldn’t quite compare to the elegance of the Ladurée displays. Speaking of that cocoa bean display, I got to stare at it quite a bit, as I had to consistently stand in long queues streaming out the door and onto the sidewalk merely in order to get into the store which is tiny, narrow, and smaller than some walk-in closets. Still, it was worth it for the sheer delight of his macarons! A photo comparison of the two brands:


The window of the Ladurée store near the Place Vendome.

The window of the Ladurée store near the Place Vendome.

More of the full window.

More of the full window.

Ladurée chocolate cake.

Ladurée chocolate cake.

Inside the store.

Inside the store.

Some of the Ladurée macarons, with the green ones being pistachio if I remember properly and the light ones to the left having a passion fruit center.

Some of the Ladurée macarons, with the green ones being pistachio if I remember properly and the light ones to the left having a passion fruit center.

A Ladurée macaron cake.

A Ladurée macaron cake.

Ladurée chocolate boxes.

Ladurée chocolate boxes.

Now for Pierre Hermé:

Pierre Hermé window in St. Gérmain.

Pierre Hermé window in St. Gérmain.

Pierre H's Opera store window with teas, for which he is quite well-known.

Pierre H’s Opera store window with teas, for which he is quite well-known.

Inside Pierre Hermé's Opera location.

Inside Pierre Hermé’s Opera location.

Caramels and nougats in boxes and lightly chilled in a refridgerated section.

Caramels and nougats in boxes and lightly chilled in a refrigerated section.

Pierre Hermé chocolates at the St. Germain location.

Pierre Hermé chocolates at the St. Germain location.

While both stores feature plenty of “eye candy,” there were numerous shop windows or restaurant displays that also caught my eye. From street sweets on a cart near the Pompidou center, to a shop filled with things like violet candies, to the gorgeous sea food and the oyster menu of one restaurant which offered the high-end Gillardeau Especiales oysters that Neela Vermeire once mentioned in her interview as being her absolute favorite. My eye was also caught by the menu on the exterior wall of one bistro which featured quite a few of my favorite things, from rognons de veau (veal kidneys that are usually done in a red wine sauce) to tarte tatin (a thick, twice baked, hot, caramelized apple pie that is cooked upside down). Then, there was the adorable Jewish deli and bakery in Le Marais, the old Jewish quarter of Paris that is also home to a lot of Russians and Poles. Some of the photos in small thumbnails that you can click on to expand:

As some of you may remember from another holiday post, I spent most of my time in Paris staying with a friend from high school. She is one of my oldest friends, knows me and my tastes extremely well, and was an incredible host who practically greeted me with a large platter of cheese. It is hyperbole, but not all that far off the mark.

In addition to replenishing the cheese stock each and every day, she also made what was the single most delicious quiche I’ve ever had in my life. And that part is not hyperbole at all. As we stood talking in her kitchen, she casually whipped up — from scratch and with nary a look at a recipe — a cheese and ham quiche that was something so glistening, so huge, so bursting with flavour, and with such an enormously high, buttery, golden crust, that I’m actually swallowing my saliva as I write.

Emmanuelle's Cheese & Ham Quiche.

Emmanuelle’s Cheese & Ham Quiche.

I have decided that her savory delight was so remarkable that I have officially christened it as Emmanuelle’s Quiche, or Emma’s Ultimate Quiche. The photos do its magnificence no justice at all. The airy, smooth, fluffiness of the creamy egg mixture was infused with the somewhat sweet, incredibly nutty, aromatic, lightly salted flavours of Comté cheese. It’s a bit like really aged Emmenthal or Gruyère cheese, only stronger, nuttier, a bit sharper, and more distinctive. Mixed in were bits of salty, smoky ham from off the bone, and even more cream — all of which was then poured onto a flaky crust that was I suspect was laden with butter.

Emma's Ultimate Quiche.

Emma’s Ultimate Quiche.

That’s it. Nothing more. Incredibly simple, uncomplicated, and yet so bursting with flavour that I barely controlled myself from eating the entire, enormous pie. I tasted a lot of really good food on this trip, but Emma’s Ultimate Quiche remains one of my favorite dishes. It’s all about the quality of the ingredients, and while that is a clichéd mantra that every chef says, it’s very true. You also can’t beat the sheer intensity of genuine French cheeses, made and served in France itself. Their hardcore, heavy, intensely flavourful characteristics somehow get completely lost in translation, because I’m telling you, I had Port Salut cheese in Paris, and Port Salut last night for dinner here — and my version was like bland cardboard in comparison. Whatever they’re feeding those cows, goats, or sheep in France, I only wish they would do it here!

Joel R AtelierAt the other end of the culinary spectrum is Joel Robuchon, one of the most influential chefs in the 20th-century, and a god of High Gastronomy. He has 28 Michelin stars, the most of any chef in the world, and has mentored other famous culinary talents like Eric Ripert of the Michelin three-star Le Bernadin in New York, Gordon Ramsey (also three stars), and many others. His influence is enormous, his name legendary, and his chic Atelier de Joel Robuchon restaurants all around the world reflect an obsessive perfectionism over the smallest detail.

So, when I accidentally passed his Paris Atelier one afternoon, I stopped dead in my tracks. I certainly couldn’t just pop in for a bite to eat, not because it was 3:30 in the afternoon, but because one needs to make a reservation far in advance and, more significantly, a rather large wallet. So, I contented myself with photos of his menus, including his tasting menu. The €175 (or $250) price for the latter actually wasn’t bad at all (on the wonky relative scale of luxury restaurants), but my eyes did pop a little at a $100+ dish! Thumbnails below:

Though I didn’t manage to eat at Joel Robuchon, I did have haute Lebanese food one day. Neela Vermeire of Neela Vermeire Créations learnt that I would be in town, and kindly invited me to lunch at Rimal in the 17th arrondissement. From hummus, whipped into the airiest fluff and served with bits of schwarma meat, to livers cooked in a deliciously tangy, sweet, garlicky sauce, eggplant baba ghanooj, and more, it was enormously tasty. The thing is, the very stylish Ms. Vermeire is such incredibly fun, engaging, witty company, it was hard to really care much about the food.

She is not only as passionate, exuberant, outgoing, intense, and direct as she seems in person, she is actually a thousand time more so! I found myself laughing enormously at her refreshingly blunt opinions on various things, while also learning a lot from her astute insights into more serious matters as the state of affairs in France today, the political situation, and the people’s mood. She also had great sensitivity towards the current difficulties faced by people on all sides of the socio-economic equation, and I was genuinely impressed by her depth. What struck me, though, was that Ms. Vermeire seems to be the sort of person who would treat a street-sweeper and a king in precisely the same warm, forthright, candid, and genuinely sincere, interested manner. It’s a gift that not many people possess. But this is a post about food, and not about one of the coolest people in the perfume world, so here’s a little of the mezze-style delights that we had. Please excuse the impact of the shadows and sunlight hitting the plates through the restaurant window, as well as the occasional blurriness:

On a purely visual level, my favorite thing — hands down — was a tiny food market that I stumbled upon in Le Marais. From an artisanal producer of ciders, jams, and nutty treats, to bright glowing jewels of fresh fruit and berries, to a bounty of seasonal vegetables, and the slightly slimy denizens of the sea at the fishmonger — it was unbelievable fun! And that was before I got to the cheese stall! I’m afraid it deserves its own spotlight, without the limitations of expandable thumbnails, because…. Good God above! You really can’t imagine the range of offerings at this one, completely ordinary, market stall.

Paris Market Cheese and Cremerie

Paris Market Cheeses 1 Paris Market Cheeses 2 Paris Market Cheeses 3 Paris Market Cheeses 4 Paris Market Cheeses 5 Paris Market Cheese 2 Paris Market Cheese 3 Paris Market Cheese 4

Visual delights abounded at other stalls, too. At one stall, crimson groseilles or red currants gleamed in the light like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. At another, an incredibly tempting line-up of artisanal jams, alongside fresh nuts. Some expandable thumbnail photos below:

The fishmonger’s stall was much less appetizing to look at, though definitely eye-catching with his platters of octopus tentacles, slimy squid, expensive turbot fish, and the like.

I have quite a few more photos — of food I cooked myself, to dessert tartlets that made my mouth water — but I fear I’ve quite outstayed my welcome on this subject, and don’t want to bore you further. Thank you for all your patience with this exhaustive photo essay, and with the detour away from perfumery with the travelogue series as a whole. Lastly, if anything caught your eye, made you drool, or piqued your curiosity, do let me know. Food is always best when shared!

Holiday Travelogue – Part II: For the Love of Paris

Life is better when one’s joys are shared with friends. I firmly believe that. I simply enjoy things more when I feel as though friends are exploring, tasting, seeing, or feeling things with me. For that reason, I fear this post is going to be a very long one, visually, because I have a lot of photos of Paris. A lot!

You all know Paris is a magical city, but I love its quirky side just as much as its majestic one. There is so much that I hope you can enjoy along with me, even if none of it is particularly significant on a grand level: bridge railings covered with locks given as a declaration of love; Golden Retrievers hanging out at the gardens of the Louvre; the statue of St. Antoine in the St. Germain church where people write message or prayers on his actual figure; people chilling at the Tuileries before interesting sculptures; a media frenzy near the Palais Royal (that temporarily blocked me from going to Serge Lutens) because of some important meeting with government and/or cabinet ministers; exuberant street performers or quirky shops in Le Marais, the old Jewish quarter; the glitz of jewels at Le Place Vendome; the strangely eye-catching, ugly beauty of the modernistic Pompidou Museum; those sitting by the Seine in quiet contemplation one cloudy afternoon; the feel of a variety of cafés throughout the city; and so much more.

Let’s start with the river Seine. I love walking along side it, peeking into the street stalls with their colourful, touristy postcards and posters. Sometimes, one can find some treasures in the occasional stall dealing with rare books, or offering old vinyl LPs. Usually though, my eye is always caught by the early 20th century or art deco art that is immortalized on the postcards. I adore the Toulouse-Lautrec posters that are usually featured, or the gaiety of old Josephine Baker cards. So here are some photos taken on the Right Bank, along with some images of people simply sitting by the Seine and enjoying the view. (You can click on the thumbnail to expand it.)

I’d been walking by the river when I looked up and saw the closest bridge had tons of shiny, golden objects on the railings. I can’t recall now which bridge it was (and I don’t think it was the Pont Neuf), but I decided to explore. It turns out that every inch of railing was festooned with locks. Even parts of the bronze lamps on the bridge were covered in them! In the back of my mind, I had a vague memory of my high school years and how some of the students would hang locks on gates with their initials and those of a loved one. It’s basically a declaration of love and commitment, that your love will stand steadfast and firm like a lock. Much like a squirrel drawn to shiny things, I became obsessed with taking photos of these things — and the street musician who was playing before one of them didn’t seem to mind being included in the picture.

I’m not generally one who will go into raptures about gardens, but the Jardin des Tuileries is a whole other story. I’m a sucker for beautifully manicured, formal gardens, done on the vastest scale imaginable. As a little bit of context for why the Tuileries are special, I thought I’d quote some of its history and features from an informational website:

The Tuileries Gardens get their name from the tile factories which previously stood on the site where Queen Catherine de Medici built the Palais des Tuileries in 1564. The famous gardener of King Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre, re-landscaped the gardens in 1664 to give them their current French formal garden style. The gardens, which separate the Louvre from the Place de la Concorde, are a cultural walking place for Parisians and tourists where Maillol statues stand alongside those of Rodin or Giacometti. The gardens’ two ponds are perfect for relaxation. The Musée de l’Orangerie, where visitors can admire the works of Monet, is located south-west of Tuileries.

Sadly, none of my photos do the Tuileries any justice whatsoever. Absolutely none. (Stupid, tiny camera! Stupid, stupid thing!) What I loved the most were the acres of people just chilling, many lounging on a chair with their feet up on another, and reading a book or chatting with a friend. Others spent time people-watching, while children played at a big fountain with large toy sailboats that you could rent. One fountain was lovely in the late afternoon, with eye-catching light shining through the dark clouds. It was odd, though, to see three policemen questioning a man seated in one of the many chairs before it. There was a vast trail of water all around him, and leading in a path to the fountain. His clothes didn’t look sopping wet, but that water seemed to tell a very different tale. And I would swear from the conversation that I partially overheard that the policemen were threatening to take him in because this was the third time that he’d gone into the fountain!

The Tuileries are a stones throw away from the Louvre, and one thing that caught my eye were the dog owners hanging out with their furry children. Now, my particular canine obsession involves German shepherds, but who can resist a fuzzy face?! These boys get their own individual slot and close-up!

Canines at the Tuileries

Canines at the Tuileries 2

Goldie Closeup

Once you get to the Louvre itself, it’s really hard to know where to look. While the grandeur of the baroque architecture speaks for itself, the enormity of it all is utterly overwhelming and screams out, “I am FRANCE! Bow down before my majesty!” I’ve not only been to Paris before, I used to live there on four different occasions, and it still takes my breath away. It always will. The simple fact is that things like this cannot be done without the wealth and resources created by an extremely feudal system. And all one can do is to thank God that even the Nazis were so overwhelmed by Paris, that they left its beauty intact. Legend has it that one of the German generals, General Dietrich von Choltitz, refused Hitler’s direct orders to bomb Paris on the eve of the Liberation. I won’t get into the historical debate on the veracity of that legend, but let’s just be glad Paris’ splendours remain intact. So, here is a glimpse at the Louvre in the late afternoon near closing time, including a peek inside and down the main pyramid:

At the complete other end of the aesthetic and architectural spectrum is the Pompidou Museum. Frankly, I’ve always thought it unbelievably hideous! Yet, if you really look at it, it’s an oddly entrancing symphony of hideousness. Or perhaps you simply can’t stop looking at its revolting…. well, I’m not sure what term would really suit it best. Still, you cannot deny that this epitome of ’70s modernity is one of a kind. (I rather think that’s a good thing.). Officially entitled Le Centre George Pompidou, it is France’s national modern art museum, and enormously significant. As one Paris tourist site, The Paris Pass, explains:

The Centre Pompidou is Europe’s most important museum of modern art and one of the worlds most significant art galleries.

Some of the art movements represented within the Pompidou Center are Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. It has 50,000 works of art (including paintings, sculpture, drawings, and photography), of which 1,500 to 2,000 are on display to the visitors of this National Museum of Modern Art.

The building’s design is somewhat contentious but undeniably unique, distinctive, and increasingly appreciated by all who see it.  […]

The fourth and fifth floors of the Centre Pompidou are home to the Musée National d’Art Moderne, one of the major international collections of modern art located in Paris. It includes works by artists such as Kandinsky, Matisse, Miró, and Picasso.

You can read up on its design history at Wikipedia if you’re interested, but I’ll just quote their description of people’s reaction to the museum when it first debuted:

National Geographic described the reaction to the design as “love at second sight.”[3] An article in Le Figaro declared “Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Loch Ness.” But two decades later, while reporting on Rogers’ winning the Pritzker Prize in 2007, The New York Times noted that the design of the Centre “turned the architecture world upside down” and that “Mr. Rogers earned a reputation as a high-tech iconoclast with the completion of the 1977 Pompidou Centre, with its exposed skeleton of brightly coloured tubes for mechanical systems. The Pritzker jury said the Pompidou “revolutionized museums, transforming what had once been elite monuments into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city.”.[4] […]

Initially, all of the functional structural elements of the building were colour-coded: green pipes are plumbing, blue ducts are for climate control, electrical wires are encased in yellow, and circulation elements and devices for safety (e.g., fire extinguishers) are red.[1]

That Loch Ness line is my favorite! What often interests me about the Pompidou Center is the life outside it. A long, slightly upwardly slope of stony ground is before it, and people just sit to chat or, in some cases, as you will see in one photo below, to kiss. The area around the museum is called Beaubourg, and it’s full of life, from cafés to cinemas, to busy cyclists on one of the many rental bikes you can get across the city. I walked around one early evening near sunset and took photos:

Going all around Paris is pretty easy to do with the metro, though it takes a little bit of time to adjust to the system. Once you do, however, it’s rather straight forward, and buying a “carnet” (or book) of 10 tickets (at a discounted rate) encourages you to really explore. Thanks to the metro, I went all over. One day, it was the chic St. Germain district on the Left Bank, where you come out of the metro very close to the church that I used to go to quite a bit as a child. L’Eglise St. Germain is the oldest church in Paris, with parts that date back to the 6th century, and I always loved its darkened comfort as a child. For some reason that I can no longer remember, I’d always been rather fascinated with St. Antoine, or St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things (or lost causes). The established ritual in that church was that you would write your wishes on his statue — and I was incredibly happy to see that the tradition still continued to this day.

Across the street from the church is its spiritual polar opposite: a Louis Vuitton store before which, on the day I visited, was parked a Bentley with Monegasque (or Monaco) license plates. Next to the Louis Vuitton is another example of elitist luxury that St. Antoine would probably have frowned heavily upon: the exclusive, trendy Hotel Costes’-owned restaurant called La Societé. Diagonally across from the Church and to the left of the block is the Les Deux Magots (pronounced as Mah-Goh) café and its bitter rival, the Café Flore. These two adjacent cafés are very famous, and have quite a rich history:

Both Café de Flore and Café Les Deux Magots first opened in the late 19th century.  It is said that Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir discussed existentialism at Café de Flore, while Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso preferred Les Deux Magots.

Café de Flore  sits on the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Rue St. Benoit. The art deco interior, with red leather banquettes and polished mahogany, has changed little over the years.  During the Occupation of World War II, it is said that the Germans preferred Deux Magots, so many of the writers moved to Flore, where they were kept warm in winter by the large stove that still sits in the middle of the room.

Equally relevant for historical reasons is another literary haunt on the opposite side of the St. Germain boulevard: the famous Brasserie Lipp. With its original 1926 Art Deco decor and its Alsace comfort food, “Le Lipp” had once been the home away from home of artists, writers, intellectuals and politicians alike. Like Les Deux Magots and Café Flore, it’s not always to get a table. As one site explains:

There’s no use phoning for a table at the Brasserie Lipp – they won’t reserve one, unless you are the Prime Minister of France. Like everyone else, you will have to stand around and wait: it’s part of the Lipp ritual. […] If it is any consolation, it is even more difficult to become a waiter at the Brasserie Lipp – you have to be proposed.

When you do get in, however, you stand a good chance of eating next to the many celebrities who frequent Brasserie Lipp. Marcel Proust used to send for jugs of the Alsatian beer from across town, Hemingway wrote his pre-war dispatches from here, and in the Fifties Chagall, Camus, Jean Genet, Balthus, Michèle Morgan, Françoise Sagan, Charles Trenet and Simone Signoret with Yves Montand were all regular habitués of this famous establishment. Late President François Mitterand was one of Lipp’s inner circle as well as Harrison Ford, Gérard Depardieu, Gregory Peck and President Jacques Chirac when he was Mayor of Paris.

Below are some photos from the Left Bank (in thumbnail form that you can expand), including a few photos from the Place St. Sulpice whose fountain has four statues surrounded by lions. Each statue is of a famous, 17th century French bishop who was renowned for his eloquence:

There were different destinations on other days. Once, it was the Place Vendome where I peered at the windows of various jewellery stores (and got one shot of one extravagantly expensive, bejewelled necklace that was from Dior, I think). Another time, it was a church on the Rue St. Honoré that I revisited for nostalgic reasons. Then, there was a walk past l’Opera with its spectacular facade. One night, I had dinner with friends near one of the canals in Paris, le Canal St. Martin, near the Place de la Republique. Once, I even ended up at the far end of Paris, at La Defense, where I took photos of the interesting buildings and two colourful sculptures. On another occasion, it was the turn of Le Marais, the old Jewish quarter that is now filled with art galleries. There, I walked part the National Archives to an adorable square filled with cafés where I saw street performers doing acrobatics. At the Marais’ local, “quartier” version of “city hall” (at least, I think it was that), I saw a large photo of Nelson Mandela posted on the top of the building, and suddenly had the terrible fear that he may have died. I think they had posted it in support of his ill health, and in hopes that he improve.  

Then, there was my attempt to go back to the Serge Lutens mothership after I had finally made up my mind on which bell jar (or two) to get. (It’s still a secret, until I post about it.) At Les Palais Royal, my every attempt to get to Serge Lutens was foiled by massive security and a frenzy of media. I’m still not quite sure precisely what was going on, but it was apparently some important meeting on a legislative matter and attended by government officials and cabinet ministers. All I know is that the French media can be quite rabid to get their stories, and that there were a lot of formally garbed individuals in uniform or sporting a medallion necklace of their office. Finally, all the fuss died down, the police became less sternly grumpy, and I was permitted to go through to get my “Precioussssssss” (™ Hajusuuri).

On another occasion, I spent an afternoon at a café on the Ile St. Louis, near Notre Dame, with two friends. I was supposed to meet one of them first at Notre Dame, specifically in the middle of one of its bridges, but we had a rather amusing game of miscommunication because Notre Dame has several! As I waited, I took photos of the magnificent structure which, in 2012, began a year-long celebration of its 850th birthday!

While there is just so much to the city that is spectacular or that worms its way into your heart, Paris has changed a lot since my times there — and not always for the better. For example, I find the Champs-Élysées to be one of the most depressing places in the whole city with its Las Vegas-style displays; the tacky bling of its enormous high-end shops contrasted with the cheapness or gaudiness of the large stores at the other extreme; and the complete loss of all its intimate, personal, charming individuality. I actually did my best to avoid the area entirely if possible; I remembered all too well how a visit a few years before had left me nearly in tears at the of the drastic, sharp changes. Another area of Paris, near Port Maillot where people get the Air France buses to Charles de Gaulle, had utterly horrified me with its grime, street litter, and dirtiness. Even the beautiful white or cream stone buildings that I remember in some upper-class neighborhoods looked dark with grime. The dog poo on the streets was much less than it used to be — though one Parisienne I know strongly disagrees — but the city could do with a good scrubbing in some parts.

Money, however, is very tight, and the new government is raising taxes to quite a degree. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the taxes. From taxi drivers, to shop keepers, to strangers conversing on the metro, to wealthy friends of mine, there was incredible frustration, bitterness, or a feeling of “enough is enough” in the air. I may be getting the exact percentages somewhat wrong by a point or two, but I recall one person who is a professional mentioning a tax rate of 48%, while a corporate entrepreneur said his company was taxed at 63%. Whatever the precise figures, they are high, and left me just blinking. (I do not want to discuss politics on the blog, as it never — ever — ends well and only will cause a fight, so please let’s not go in that direction.) I bring up the issue only to try to explain why Paris may not have the money to do what it needs to on an aesthetic basis. On a happier note, as I hope this series has demonstrated, there is still enormous loveliness to be found, in both the tourist spots and in small little corners.

I’m sure I’ve thoroughly exhausted you with all these photos, and for that I apologise. But, it’s Paris, dammit, and this is only the tip of the its beautiful iceberg! Joking aside, if you’re exhausted, why don’t you pull up a chair at one of Paris’ many cafés, and enjoy a glass of wine. It will be a good aperitif for all the food porn photos (and cheese!) that will await you in Part III. That post, with its singular focus on Paris food, chocolates, street markets, and more, should be up in a day or two.