When you’re relocating to a new area, finding a place that is familiar is a comforting treat. We’re moving to a suburb of Washington DC to be closer to our daughter who lives near Logan Circle. Literally right around the corner from her is Le Diplomate (luh deep-lo-mat), a French-inspired Stephen Starr restaurant. It’s a twin to Parc in Philadelphia, which was a favorite when we lived near there. From the terrific assortment of breads to the bistro décor, it was like déjà vu. I was even able to order my favorite Warm Shrimp Salad. The only slight complaint I have is that when we asked for a table in the shade, the hostess took us to one where three of four chairs were in full sun. Vraiment? But we were quickly shown to a table that suited us better. I suggest that you make a reservation, as « The Dip » is always hopping.
I’ve read a few books lately that I haven’t liked very much at all – even one by a Big-Name French author that left me utterly indifferent. By contrast, when I read Oscar et la dame rose, by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, I thought it was simply beautiful, both for its story and the poetry of the language.
The story is a series of letters from Oscar, a little boy with leukemia, to God. Oscar is not religious, but a hospital volunteer, whom Oscar calls la dame rose, urges him to write to God when it’s clear that he only has a couple of weeks to live. In that short time, Oscar, guided by his wise friend, finds love and friendship and makes peace with his parents. It was a sweet, rich story that I won’t soon forget.
The book is available in English as Oscar and the Lady in Pink. The French version would be achievable by an intermediate reader. Since the story is told from Oscar’s point of view, there is quite a bit of informal vocabulary that you may need to look up here and there. Once I was into it, I realized this this was part of a group of eight novels called le Cycle de l’invisible that deal with the theme of spirituality, each from the point of view of a different religion. I had read the most famous one years ago, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, which was also made into a movie. I’ll certainly looking for more books by this author. Lucky for me, he seems to publish at least one book a year, so I’ve got a deep back-stock to enjoy.
When I saw the fabulous Dior exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs a few years ago, one of my favorite parts was the display of miniature couture models. During World War II, Dior sent scaled-down, perfect copies of couture gowns abroad to solicit orders. They were like the ultimate doll collection. This year, the Coronavirus meant that haute couture shows could not take place as usual. The brilliant folks at Dior went back to this idea and created scale models of their haute couture collection. This delightful video takes you into the workrooms to meet the petits mains (literally “little hands,” referring to the skilled men and women who create couture) as they show off their miniature creations as well as into the archives. It’s in French, but subtitled in English.
Christian Dior (affiliate link)
We in the midst of moving to a new state, so I’m going to keep it short and simple this week. Here’s a lovely short video about the history of the Cartier jewelry brand. It’s narrated by the curator of their own historical collection of iconic pieces. That’s job I could get inspired by! Which piece is your favorite?
For the last decade, I’ve had a summer job in the heart of Paris. This year, of course, is different. I miss Paris as I would an old friend. Reading The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, by Elaine Sciolino, helped me feel like I was there.
Sciolino is the former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times. She’s lived in Paris for nearly twenty years, first in the elegant 7th Arrondissement and now in the much more working-class 9th. When I start my summer job, I try to arrive a few days early to get over my jet lag before plunging right in. Twice, I stayed in Sciolino’s neighborhood to spend time in a different part of the city before I was basically tethered to the area around the Luxembourg Gardens. But I don’t think I spent much time on the Rue des Martyrs. I’ll remedy that on my next visit. In fact, I feel like I already know the street and its colorful residents, thanks to this book.
Sciolino figuratively walks the reader up the street, and I followed along, checking out each address on Google’s Street View. Yes, indeed, there is her cheese shop, and here’s where she likes to go for coffee. Yes, the vintage advertising murals really are there. Here is the fabulous designer second-hand boutique where she shopped for bargains with Arianna Huffington. We finish our journey at the restaurant where Sciolino threw a party to celebrate the people and street that she loves.
Part memoir, part history book, part travelogue, part human-interest, and part comedy, Sciolino conveys deep respect for those in her neighborhood. It’s no wonder that they took her into their hearts and loved her right back. If you, too, have a Paris-shaped itch, this book will help to scratch it.
Two decades ago, I fell under the charm of Thad Carhart’s memoir The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, the story of the complexities and subtleties of an ex-pat family living in Paris. When I saw that Carhart had written another memoir, I added it to my booklist. This one is entitled Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France.
In the 1950s, Carhart’s large family moved to Fontainebleau, a small city not far from Paris dominated by a royal château that spans about nine hundred years of French history. (Coincidentally, the branch of the American company that my husband works for is located there, so he occasionally gets to travel to Fontainebleau on business.) Carhart’s father, a NATO officer, actually had his office in a wing of the castle. The family of seven rented a large home that shared a back wall with the extensive château gardens, so it was an integral part of their lives. Carhart intersperses family anecdotes with the history of the castle. He also had extraordinary access to the château’s restoration when he moved back to France as an adult, being allowed to tag along with the chief architect.
I learned things I had never heard of before, such as the ill-fated program to required all school children to drink milk. My husband is from a large family who experienced several international postings in the 50s through the early 80s. I kept envisioning the stories as though they were happening to the Gilberts. The Carhart family’s fairly disastrous first camping expedition reminded me of some of my own family’s stories involving tents and prodigious amounts of rain. The book delighted me from beginning to end, and I highly recommend it to you.
When I was a pre-teen, I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables and her quest for kindred spirits. When I read Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train, by Ina Caro, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit – someone who loves France as much as me, adores all the spicy tales of intrigue, and loves a good meal at the end of a satisfying day of touring châteaux.
Caro’s premise is that a better way to understand the sweep of French history is by visiting key monuments that represent each era chronologically. This makes it easier to see the changes in architecture as a reflection of what was going on in the country. Using Paris as a hub and taking the train and subway to make day trips throughout history, Caro guides readers from the 12th to the 19th centuries.
Each chapter begins by explaining which train station to start from (Paris has several, each serving a different part of the country), the length of the journey and any particular potential pitfalls to avoid. Then she explains the human drama behind each castle, cathedral, or even a crumbling wall. And she never forgets to share a recommendation for where to enjoy a memorable meal.
I usually pass books on once I have read them, but this is a keeper. I even want to go back to places I have visited before, Caro’s book in hand, and look for the details that I didn’t take in before. And maybe I’ll find my kindred spirit in the seat opposite me. All aboard!
Madeleine Vionnet was born on June 22, 1876. She trained with London dressmaker Kate Reily, and French designers Jacques Doucet, and Callot Sœurs before opening her own fashion house in 1912. She was forced to close her business only two years later, due to the outbreak of war, and did not re-open until 1923. At this point, she took over new premises on the Avenue Montaigne and opened her salon, which would become affectionately known as the Temple of Fashion.
Vionnet became one of the most influential and respected designers of the interwar period and is still cited today by many designers as one of the most significant couturiers in history. Favoring a clear house vision over the latest fashion, Vionnet became known in her early years for her clean, curving lines inspired by Grecian costume, and in the 1920s, as the “queen of the bias cut.” Her designs eschewed corsetry, padding, stiffening, and tailoring that distorted the female body. Instead, she used draping and bias cutting to enhance a woman’s shape.
Modern dance influenced her soft, flowing Grecian-style dresses. In particular, Vionnet was impressed by the avant-garde ballerina Isadora Duncan, whose dance costumes floated freely around her body and were worn – rather scandalously – without a corset. Vionnet greatly admired Duncan’s experimental performance style. While at Doucet, she made models show off the house’s designs barefoot, just as Duncan performed – although this was still considered too avant-garde by both Doucet and his customers.
Upon re-opening her own house in 1923, Vionnet could fully express her vision of femininity, and she found immediate fame and success. By 1925, she opened on Fifth Avenue in New York, where she sold ready-made creations that she adapted to the customer. Her unique vision combined with her exquisite and meticulous cut earned her the accolade of “The architect among dressmakers.” Her deceptively simple styles involved a lengthy process of cutting, draping and pinning — a process Vionnet executed on miniature dolls so that she was able to perfect the fall of the fabric.
Her preferred materials were chiffon, crêpe, gabardine, satin, and silk. The last two are particularly well suited to bias cutting and draped perfectly to match a woman’s natural curves and the fluidity of the body in motion. While she was not the first to use bias cutting — indeed, she spoke highly of her time with Callot Sœurs, who used the technique for coats and skirts, as instrumental in shaping her as a designer — she was the first to apply it to full-body dresses. It was these clinging gowns that secured her place among the couture elite, perfectly combining elegance, simplicity, comfort, sensuality, and luxury. Vionnet closed her salon in 1939. She died in Paris on March 2, 1975.
The summer brings so many occasions for which one needs a little present – graduations, hostess gifts, and there are always birthdays. I have a recommendation for the francophile on your list, the charming book The Little Pleasures of Paris, written by Leslie Jonath and illustrated by Lizzy Stewart. Divided by the seasons, the book features the gentle little delights of Paris accompanied by detailed watercolors. It’s as though someone shared their travel diary with you. Some of our mutual loves are the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle, cassis ice cream, mint tea at the Grand Mosqué, and hot chocolate at Angelina. Leafing through the pretty pages just made me smile. And if you need to armchair travel until you get to Paris again for real, you could gift it to yourself. Pourquoi pas?
As I’m writing this, it’s June, the time for graduations and yearbooks. Graduation was held via Zoom at the school where I teach French, and yearbooks were released online and “signed” virtually. In my own high school graduation yearbook, I remember that I rather pretentiously chose as my motto Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (ploo sa shanj ploo seh lah mem shows), or “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” At eighteen, what did I know about either change or remaining the same? I just liked the sound of it. And it was French.
I just finished A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, by David Downie. The theme is the incredibly interconnected lives and loves of the writers, artists, and musicians of the Romantic era, such as Chopin, Baudelaire, and Nadar. At first, I found the book hard to get into. The prose seemed choppy and more about Downie than the purported subjects of the book, but I found myself getting drawn into it.
Maybe it was the passages that talked about the comings and going around the neighborhoods adjacent to the Luxembourg Gardens. In a normal year, this is my summertime neighborhood. Maybe it was the tidbits of bizarre info, like the fact that Victor Hugo was knocked into the open grave by the hearse after giving Balzac eulogy.
Maybe it was the insights into the lives of women at the time. I had always thought that it was unusual that Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen-name George Sand, preferred men’s clothes. But Downie revealed that this was not unusual for women of her social class as it was so difficult for well-born ladies to move freely about the city by themselves. Dressed as men, they had liberty. Or maybe it was the fact that he kept weaving in my yearbook motto, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
In the end, I found it to be an engrossing read. I’m looking forward to visiting some of the places Downie highlighted when I can get back to Paris. What will have changed? Probably not much.