Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Rue Descartes

photo: copyright Hazel Smith 2010

Photo copyright Hazel Smith 2010

Photo: copyright Hazel Smith 2010

The gist of this poem by Yves Bonnefoy is that although we pass a dirty city tree and look right through it, this is might be enough to remind us that it's still a part of nature, along with the sky, the birds and the wind. The poet asks the philosopher if he has looked at this tree on his street, if he did his thoughts will be freer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Le Temps Passe Vite

I can't believe it's been a more than a year. Before winter falls, here are some more pictures of Giverny.

I didn't see him until now. I'll just pretend he's a ghost.

There are worse jobs.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Midnight in Paris

"Talk about a fulfilling movie. That's the kind of movie I could sit through again immediately" That's the sort of remarkable thing my husband sometimes says and what he said to my son and me as we exited our local rep cinema after watching Woody Allen's latest foray, Midnight in Paris. Our west-end Toronto street-scape is more like the Wild West than the cobbled, curvy streets of Paris but we sauntered home, with romance in our eyes, expounding on the virtues of this great film.

We're on a bit of a Woody Allen bender at the moment; seeing Annie Hall on Friday and Manhattan on Saturday. My two men were expecting another witty, urbane rom-com and they got it. What they weren't expecting was a little time travel thrown in.

In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays a Hollywood screenwriter working on his first novel. He's totally besotted with Paris; its beauty and its foibles. Disenchanted with his life, he longs for the days of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. His fiance, exhibiting the worst xenophobic American traits, and his soon-to-be-in-laws are in tow, soaking up the best Paris has to offer but putting the city and the French down at the drop of a chapeau.

Wilson's character, Gil Pender, distances himself from his betrothed, her family and their new know-it-all friends. At the stroke of midnight he magically finds the portal that takes him to his favourite time period: Paris in the 20s.

He's startled  to be hobnobbing with Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda, and Cole Porter. No explanations are given for the time warp and Gil doesn't seem to want any. He just wants to go back again, and soon.

Actor Corey Stoll plays an excellent Hemingway; "Who wants to fight?". Marion Cotillard is Gil's 1920s lovely love interest. In another hiccup in time, Adriana (Cotillard) and Gil find themselves face to face with Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Gauguin.

Rachel McAdams plays Inez, Gil's fiance. Michael Sheen (whom I saw arm-in arm with McAdams on Toronto's Bloor Street, yay!)  plays their pendantic friend. France's First Lady Carla Bruni has a cameo as a guide at the Rodin Museum.

When I saw Kathy Bates' name in the opening credits, I thought who could she be but Gertrude Stein. Check mark! The Surrealists had no problem at all with Gil's time travel. Adrien Brody's turn as Dali (Rhinoceros!) was so perfect I had to see it again. I told my husband I wanted to rent the film as soon as it came out.  "Rent it," he said, "I want to buy it." Could there be a better endorsement?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Paris Piquant by Philippa Campsie

Le Comptoir Colonial.   photo: copyright Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball

So many flavours, so little time...

Philippa Campsie, professor at the University of Toronto and a blogger about things Parisian at Parisian Fields, has been writing about the more piquant side of Paris. Yes, there is more to Paris than the ubiquitous macaron. Here's a link to her article at Bonjour Paris.

Insider's Guide to Paris - Articles | Travel + Leisure

Auberge Ravoux, photo Hazel Smith

Despite the fact that I found ordering and eating out alone in Paris the most daunting of tasks, I did manage to have the requisite crepe, Berthillon ice cream, macaron, and onion soup and chocolat chaud on my trip to Paris in 2010.

There are many reasons to love Paris - food is only one of them. When my husband and I were younger and on a shoestring budget we were downright afraid to enter Parisian restaurants. Especially after he ordered a andouille sausage and the pungent chitlins and tripe slid over his plate after the initial cut. One day I ate nothing but chestnut crepes from a hole-in-the-wall window and Mentos for the train trip to Amsterdam. We found a dozen other things to do in Paris besides concentrating on food.

I like good, innovative food but, akin to drinking good wine, after the third glass it all tastes the same to me. For me, it's the surroundings, and the ambience - the way that the waitress had to cross the street and fill up her canvas bag with bread from the bakers so I could have a Croque Monsieur - or that I could sit and people watch at the end of the school day as little girls, Madeleine-like, with their swinging coats and satchels hurried home with their Papas. Some people care about their food a lot. Here's an article from Travel and Leisure. The first 12 pages detail cool and classic foodie destinations in Paris.
Insider's Guide to Paris - Articles | Travel + Leisure

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Vertical Gardens of Patrick Blanc

Patrick Blanc has has the wonderful vision to grow gardens vertically. How beneficial this  must be for air we breathe by cycling and recycling air in usually-stagnant public buildings and offices.

Patrick Blanc was born in June of '53 in the fittingly-named Clinique des Fleurs in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Blanc had his first tropical aquarium in 1960. In the early 70s he visited Malaysia and Thailand and was no doubt inspired by the rain-forest conditions encountered there. During the 80s and 90s Blanc was an award-winning botanist.

Patrick Blanc created his first famous vertical green wall at Paris' Pershing Hall Hotel. He's responsible for the living, breathing exterior at the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris.

Here's a link to his site. He definitely has a vision. I even found a picture of him with green hair.

Patrick's work reminded me of my own ivy (actually Virginia Creeper) covered house above. The bees love it mid-July. The whole wall just buzzes. Sparrows make it home too.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Misia - Another Red-headed Muse, Part Three

Photo of Misia by Vuillard, 1897
Misia by Renoir 1904

In 1907 Misia’s marriage to Alfred Edwards was in tatters. Misia was extremely jealous of her husband's mistress Genevieve Lantelme, and said in her memoirs "I had contrived to get a photograph of Lantelme; it adorned my dressing-table, and I made desperate efforts to look like her, dress my hair in the same way, wear the same clothes."

Genevieve Lantelme

Genevieve Lantelme and Edwards married but in 1911 Lantelme drowned after falling off Edwards’ yactht.

Around 1909 Misia began an affair with the lusty Spanish Painter José Maria Sert; she married him in 1920. Sert’s murals achieved international recognition. His work adorns the assembly hall of the League of Nations, the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and his mural at the Rockefeller Center replaced the one painted by Diego Rivera which was dismantled after Rockefeller objected to its subject matter.

José Maria Sert
Sert had been working at the Ballets Russes painting sets and creating the dancer's costumes. He was a colourful, fiery man with enough money to keep Misia in the style to which she had been accustomed. They decorated their apartment on the Rue de Rivoli in an unorthodox but staggeringly grand way. Massive pieces of rock crystal were placed in front of the fire to refract light. Tables were made of tortoiseshell or the semi-precious malachite.

Mural by Sert, Rockefeller Center

In the meantime thanks to Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, Misia’s drawing-room on the Rue de Rivoli became home away from home for the Russians. She opened her door to him while he broadened her horizons. When Igor Stravinsky first played the score of Le Sacre du Printemps to Diaghilev, the event inevitably took place in Misia’s apartment.

Serge Diaghilev

Misia loved José Sert, saying she was the only man who truly “satisfied” her. But Misia had a way of attracting younger, prettier women into her circle who threatened to steal her man. This time Roussy Mdivani was the thief.

Roussy managed to crawl into the Sert’s bedroom the last time José made love to Misia. Misia didn't hold a grudge, "The poor girl was not responsible for the feeling she had for you." she wrote Sert. "I found it very natural that she should adore you."

Misia was weirdly fond and protective of Roussy Mdivani, inviting her everywhere and tending to her health. All three were taking drugs; Sert had always used cocaine, Misia was finding release in morphine, Roussy was willing to try anything. The triangle lasted for as long as Misia’s pride allowed. They divorced in 1927.

In Misia’s circle between the wars, fashion steadily got the edge on art. In 1916 Misia met Coco Chanel who was to become her closest female friend. Apparently Misia, although morphine-addicted, created bonsai-like table-top trees out of rock-crystal and semi-precious stones. It’s uncertain if she made the trees herself but she certainly designed them. She designed dresses for a New York City fashion house around the same time.

When Sert finally cut ties with Misia, she consoled herself with the company of Coco Chanel, who was to now assume the dominant role in Misia’s life. Jean Cocteau dramatized their friendship in Les Monstres Sacrés but apparently he really never understood their relationship.

After Roussy’s early death, José Sert moved back in with Misia. During World War II Misia did her best to save artist Max Jacob’s life, She tried to pull every string to save him from the Nazis.
At her post-war soirées she invited collaborators and résistants on different days, but if they happened to bump into each other by chance she left them to sort it out. Her close friend Coco was arrested for a short time, suspected of being a Nazi collaborator.

Misia lived until 1950. She survives only in the works of others.

photo of Lantelme found at
top photo of Misia by Vuillard found at the great website

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Misia - Another Red-headed Muse, Part Two

Pierre Bonnard
Pierre Bonnard
Edouard Vuillard

In 1900 Misia was a voluptous 28 years old. The Paris Exposition was on. Misia was about to lose her good friend Toulouse-Lautrec. Her husband, Thadée Natanson, began taking more of an interest in politics. He found le Revue Blanche boring and entered into new and not-so-lucrative ventures. And the newspaper magnate Alfred Edwards fanatically pursued Misia like Pépé le Pew pursued the little black and white cat.

Photo of Misia and Thadée by Edouard Vuillard

Misia was offended and a little afraid of the extremely boorish, powerful Edwards. Misia’s husband found her attitude childish and urged her to use her charm to secure financial backing from him.

His plan backfired. Alfred Edwards did in fact help ease Thadée Natanson's financial woes, but Edwards was so obsessed with Misia that having her as a mistress was not enough. He wanted her as his wife. The fact that he already had a wife didn’t seem to matter.

Alfred Edwards

Once again Thadée had bungled his affairs. He resigned himself to the situation between Edwards and his wife and cabled Misia to “arrange everything.” Misia now saw Thadée as a tarnished knight - Edwards as the dragon. Perhaps by marrying the dragon she would no longer need protection. Misia began to feel “the agitation which strongly resembles love”. She began living with Alfred Edwards in 1903 and married him a few years later.

Misia acquired new friends in the Parisian musical and artistic circles. She was a confidante of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau and an early and devoted patron of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. She was an inspiration to Proust and Apollinaire.

Maurice Ravel dedicated "Le Cygne" to her. When Ravel failed for the third time to win the Prix de Rome, Misia used her new husband’s clout to make the director of the Conservatoire resign. Gabriel Fauré, Misia’s childhood piano teacher took over the postion.

Misia played the piano for Caruso while he sang Neapolitan songs, and told him to pipe down when she’s had enough.

Misia was a close friend of designer Coco Chanel. Coco said "Misia never read a book"; however, she was always surrounded by people who were pure culture.”

Many of her friends from the old days stayed close and at least one grew even closer. Renoir didn’t pick sides. He was a deeply moral man and approved of Misia’s gift for bringing life alive.

Renoir longed to paint Misia’s famous breasts naked, but she would never bare them, probably because Edwards was lurking jealously despite the fact that Renoir was badly crippled with arthritis. Misia once rewarded Renoir for a portrait by giving him a blank cheque. He filled it out with the going rate. Apparently Renoir wrote love letters to her, but on the advice of her literary agent, deeming them as “too silly”, Misia destroyed them before her death.

Misia by Renoir

Misia lost Edwards to the gorgeous actress Genevieve Lantelme. As the break-up took a long time Misia was able to continue enjoying a large income. In the early stages of the breakup she headed for the coast to get away from it all. Marcel Proust was on hand to observe that Misia had ended up sharing a stretch of beach with her husband and his new mistress and her ex-husband Thadée.

More to come. (including a third husband)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Misia - Another Red-headed Muse, Part One

Portrait of Misia - Henri-Toulouse Lautrec

I had never heard of Misia until G-Pup bought me the book Misia, The Life of Misia Sert, by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, second hand.

It turns out that Misia is one of the most inspirational muses and patrons of the Parisian avant-garde. Artists, musicians, writers and dancers at the turn of the (last) century were beguiled by her. A beauty in her time, Misia was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, by Bonnard and Vuillard, and according to her memoirs, 7 or 8 times by Renoir.

She’s another in my series of red-headed muses and this gingersnap of a woman seemed to have her finger in all pies.

Misia Godebska, was born in 1872 in Russia. Her mother died in childbirth. Her father, the sculptor Cyprien Godebska, was engaged in the reconstruction of the Tsar’s palace. Remarried, he sent her off to live with family. She had a few idyllic years living with her grandmother in Belgium where she was found be a gifted pianist, only to be reunited with her distant father and step-mother in Paris. There Misia grew up in amongst the upper crust of French society, but she was shunted off to a succession of boarding schools and family members.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

She married early, at the age of 16, to Thadée Natanson, a Polish ex-pat politician and journalist. Later he became the editor of the Paris arts magazine la Revue Blanche, focusing on the circle of the Paris avant-garde.

La Revue Blanche was published from 1891 to 1902. One had to know Misia before being published in the magazine and in turn, Misia only wanted to know those who were gifted. She knew almost everyone who mattered in Paris’s artistic circles. Her taste was original and discerning. Probably a true bohemian, she was unwilling to desert her money and her class.

The painters (Vuillard, Bonnard, Lautrec and Renoir) painted her and the composers debuted their masterpieces at her piano. Ravel and Debussy were frequent guests. Vuillard adored her. Stéphane Mallarmé wrote poetry for her.

Photo by Édouard Vuillard

Although I don’t find her particularly striking, the painters thought her looks miraculous, with a legendary pair of legs and a dreamy bosom. Colette revolved around this group too, sporting a waistline almost as small as Misia’s.

At a party of 300, thrown by Misia’s brother-in-law to celebrate the completion of nine large panels painted by Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec was the barman.

Misia ate up her husband Thadée’s money; as a patron she required plenty of material items. With the help of Thadée and his money she was able to entertain at their homes in the country as well. At one of these country parties, Misia caught the eye of the vulgar newspaper baron Alfred Edwards, editor of Le Matin.

Thadée Natanson was facing bankruptcy. Edwards bailed him out, on condition that he surrender his wife. Thadée and la Revue Blanche were saved and Misia was the price...

More to follow.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Muse That Blew The Fuse

Back in the 80s when I used to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario, one of my favourite paintings to see was the Marchesa Casati; a fiery red head with a smoldering gaze. Painted by Augustus John, the Marchesa was largely a mystery to me. This was in the pre-internet days.

Fast forward to the early 90s and the day when I took my love to see my favourite painting. It was gone. I was momentarily deflated but the intelligent people at the AGO had launched a retrospective on the Marchesa Casati that very week and just a few feet away was all the information I could absorb about the naughty lady in her negligee.

The Marchesa was born into a rich Italian family in 1881. The early deaths of her parents made Luisa and her elder sister the wealthiest heiresses in Italy and then she into married an equally rich family. She was a women born ahead of her time who probably never should have married. Predictably, when the shackles of marriage had begun to frustrate her, Luisa began an affair - with poet and dramatist Gabriele D’Annunzio as her subject.

She began to live an extravagant and eccentric lifestyle, living separately from her husband and throwing the most elaborate parties money could buy. This society girl of the early 1900s became the most notorious celebrity of her circle. She was as free and bohemian as a 21st Century party girl; except she was very rich. Gilded nude servants waited at her table. She wore live snakes as jewelry and walked through Paris with cheetahs on diamond studded leashes.

She became the muse of many painters and photographers, leaving many lovers in her wake. Augustus John, painter of the portrait I was so enamoured with, was one of them. He is credited with saying, “Luisa Casati should be shot, stuffed and displayed in a glass case."

Besides Augustus John, Luisa Casati was painted by Giovanni Boldini, Kees Van Dongen, Romaine Brooks; sculpted by Giacomo Balla, and Jacob Epstein; and photographed by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton. More than 130 images of her would be completed before she became destitute.

She had an amazing rose-coloured marble palazzo that lay just outside Paris featuring a a private art gallery where she herself was the star attraction. At the her Villa San Michele on the Isle of Capri, she partied with the likes of Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, and the Art Deco painter, Tamara de Lempicka.

At one of her later and more extravagant parties she wore a costume covered with electric lights. She blew the fuses.

Though the masquerades and the commissions seemed endless, Luisa's fortunes were not. Little by little her money ran out. By 1930, Casati had amassed a debt of twenty-five million U.S. dollars. She ended her days in London where she was rumoured to be seen rummaging in bins searching for feathers to decorate her hair She died in 1957 in her London bed-sit.

Several years ago, Augustus John's 1919 painting of Casati was voted the most popular work in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. My husband found a poster of the beloved picture in a bin for $2.00. $200 worth of framing later the picture hangs in my hall.

I bought the book Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa, by by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino when it first came out in 1999. If I’ve piqued your interest, the book is well worth getting your hands on. Ryersson and Yaccarino also have an incredibly lush and detailed website dedicated to their favourite subject.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Alice B. Toklas Moves In

I never liked Gertrude Stein. I think her poems are wretched and that she was a domineering, manipulating person. I don’t know what Alice B. Toklas saw in her (maybe it was her Tender Buttons) but over a 100 years ago, in September of 1910, Alice B. Toklas became the lifetime house mate of Stein.

Gertrude who had been sharing a house with her brother Leo for many years, met Toklas in 1907. Leo and Gertrude were the children of a railroad executive who made prudent investments in San Francisco’s cable car lines, therefore making his offspring wealthy and able to travel and live without really working.

Alice would later write that when she met Gertrude Stein: "She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair." I’d like to know who her optometrist was.

Alice was a chain smoker with a slight moustache. She had a penchant for great hats and cool earrings. Every morning for an hour she manicured, buffed and painted her finger nails. In 1908 Alice used those tidy fingers to type manuscripts for Gertrude Stein.

1909 found Alice staying with Gertrude and Leo in Paris. On September 9, 1910, she moved in to 27, rue de Fleurus permanently. Toklas took the reigns of Stein's household. Leo packed his trunk in 1914.

The two women turned their Parisian home into an important artistic and literary salon, where they entertained Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and many others. Alice was an excellent cook and fond of art, decorating, tapestry and flowers. She was left to entertain the wives of many of the painters Gertrude held court with.

In 1933 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was written by Gertrude Stein and is basically Stein’s memoirs. I enjoyed reading it, as I love reading about that time period in Paris but Ernest Hemingway called it a 'damned pitiful book'; Henri Matisse was offended by the descriptions of his wife; Georges Braque thought Stein had misconstrued Cubism; and Leo Stein deemed it to be a “farrago of lies”.

I have the The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in my collection. Used, it smells strongly of smoke and I can pretend it was actually Alice’s.

For those who are curious, the "B" in Alice B. Toklas’s name stands for Babette.

image: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and their poodle Basket. France, 1944.Photograph by Carl Mydans.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Kiki de Montparnasse

The liberated Kiki was a French artists' model, and a sometime nightclub singer, actress and painter. Mainly, she was a party-girl who was found in the right place at the right time.

Kiki was born Alice Prin in 1901. Her chosen name was simply Kiki, but was also referred to as Kiki de Montparnasse.

Kiki helped shape the social scene of 1920s Paris. Known by everyone in the circle of artists and writers that flourished in Montparnasse in the '20s, she was the muse and lover of several artists including Man Ray and posed for dozens of other artists.

I have a couple of books about her including her memoirs, but notably Kiki, Artists and Lovers, 1900-1930 by Billy Kluver and Julie Martin. It's one of my Desert Island Books.

I've saved this picture (below) for a couple of years. It's from The Style Scout; a street fashion blog out of London. I thought the young subject did an admirable job of recreating Kiki's look, whether intentional or not. (I think she knew)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Crème de Menthe Trifle

I may attest that Paris is not a big pink macaron, but maybe it would enjoy this Crème de Menthe Trifle. It's  a stop-them-in-their tracks recipe I found originally in Canadian House and Home magazine. It was then called Icebox Grasshopper Cake. That sounded a little bit lowbrow and willfully old fashioned. so I redubbed it Crème de Menthe Trifle. Sorry for the bad picture - it’s my wrinkled and well-thumbed clipping.

This dessert should be made at least 4 hours prior, or even the day before – to allow the cookies to soften into cakey goodness.
Here are the ingredients:

500 mL (1 pint) carton whipping cream

500 g (16 oz) tub mascarpone cheese (or ricotta)

¾ cup sifted icing sugar

1 tsp peppermint extract

½ tsp green food colouring

1/3 cup each Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao liqueurs (or 2/3 cup chocolate milk)

4 dozen digestive biscuits.  Digestives might not be available everywhere so I've included the wiki link so you can figure out suitable alternatives.

¾ cup thick chocolate sundae syrup

1 square grated semi-sweet chocolate.

And here's what you do with the ingredients:

1. In a deep bowl, whip cream until fluffy. Reserve and refrigerate 1½ cups for the topping

2. In a large bowl, beat together the mascarpone, icing sugar, peppermint extract and food colouring. Stir in half of the remaining whipped cream, then gently fold in the rest of the whipped cream. NOT the reserved topping in the fridge.

3. In a shallow bowl combine the liqueurs (if using). Then immerse digestive biscuits one at a time into the liqueur mixture or chocolate milk; arrange biscuits in a single layer to cover the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish or trifle bowl, breaking the cookies to fit.

4. Brush the first layer of biscuits generously with the 1/3 of the chocolate topping. Layer with one third of the mascarpone mixture. Repeat with the remaining cookies, chocolate topping and mascarpone mixture to make more layers.

5. Spread the reserved whipped cream on top; Sprinkle with grated chocolate. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Makes about 15 servings.

I’ve made this recipe 3 times and it’s always well-received. It’s messy to make and you might be left with extra biscuits. I’ve only ever made it with the chocolate milk.

The silliest mistake I made was topping it with chocolate sprinkles which melted into a maroon-coloured mess that I had to hide under lashings of real grated chocolate.

I think it looks best in a glass bowl and the number of layers is really up to you. Whatever fits. I would imagine you could make a similar dish with strawberries or caramel. Maybe Cassis. or lemon curd. Hmmm.

It’s really rich and filling so one generous serving spoonful would suffice.

I hope you try it

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Mysterious Case of the Broom in the Night or The France and Belgium Caper

Names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

After dashing from platform to platform following the much-anticipated clack-clack-clack of the Gare du Nord's electronic timetable, George and I found ourselves sitting in a first-class compartment facing the overnight trip to Holland with a couple named Fred and Lucy.

Fred and Lucy were from Australia. He was a hearty-looking retired fireman. She - waspish and somewhat sinister. He talked incessantly. She said nothing. They had just arrived on the continent from the Firefighter's Olympics in California. Why they were on the train headed from Paris to Amsterdam, I don't remember.

Just before the train departed we were joined by a plain, squat, 19-year old girl named France. Fred commented on the appropriateness of her name. We agreed.

Her father was there to settle her in. France shyly told us how she was starting a new job in Brussels and was moving into her first apartment. We cooed our congratulations and wished her all the best. For a flat-warming present, her dad had given her a new broom, which she placed on the rack above her seat. An odd and clumsy present to travel with, I thought. But as France had a new place to clean, suitable nonetheless.

After a few pleasantries and some peppermints that Fred supplied, George and I extended our seat bottoms, tucked our money pouches around our necks and slept with our feet around each other. Fred and Lucy did the same. France slept upright with her chin lolling on her chest.

Usually a light sleeper, my night's rest was punctuated only by the sound of France's departure as she slid out into the dark corridor and the dawn of her new Belgian life and by the occasional volley of farts coming from Fred's direction.

As the train moved slowly and steadily through the dismal lowlands, we woke to find the back half of the train was gone. So were 900 of Lucy's American dollars. After winning it in Vegas she had wrapped the cash in tissue (why?...)and placed it in her camera bag; the camera bag that was found lying violated in the empty compartment behind us.

After a futile search for Lucy's cash and much satisfied patting of our own secure money pouches, I turned my mind to solving the mystery. The crime baffled me. A dozen potboiler scenarios ran through my head. Sherlock Holmes was famous for asserting, "When we have eliminated everything else, whatever remains, no matter how incredible, must be the truth" I hadn't taken it. Neither had George. Lucy and Fred wouldn't steal from each other. Or would they....? Had someone else entered the compartment?

Lucy looked over at me and said peevishly "We'll never see that money again, WILL WE?"

"It doesn't look that way, does it?" I replied. And with that it occurred to me that Lucy thought we had stolen it. Now nervous, I tacitly feared that Fred and Lucy were trying to frame us for the job and wanted us to either 'fess up or ante up.

Although we had agreed to help Fred and Lucy place a report with the Dutch police upon arrival, I felt virtually dragged by the ear like a naughty child throughout the station's concourse.

The four of us hurried through Centraal Station as best we could with our unsuitable suitcases. George was the only sensible packer among us. Fred's solid-sided Samsonite couldn’t be raised more that an inch off the floor. In his rush,he dropped his murderously heavy case down the full length of the escalator. If it had popped open and a half a dozen bowling balls and nine hundred dollars had popped out I wouldn't have been surprised.

At the "politie bureau" the cops asked us why we were there as well. They gave us the once-over and much to Fred's chagrin they dismissed us. Upon our departure, Fred asked for our phone number and address. Swiftly, George offered his work address. Back in Sydney, Fred and Lucy think we live at the corner of Queen and Bay.

A few minutes later while breathing somewhat easier in the queue at the tourist office, an ironic and frequent announcement warned us to "keep our belongings near as pickpockets abound".

Back home it took me a while to solve the case; embarrassing for an avid Sherlock Holmes buff. Apple-cheeked France, young and full of promise was a crook, a phoney. A scheming, pre-meditative thief. When we were lulled by the rhythm of the rails, she had taken the tool of her trade, her broom, and used it to lever Lucy's camera bag down.

Quietly and quickly she identified the bag with the cash. Confident that none of us would wake, France had ransacked Lucy's camera bag, and disappeared along with the money, her broom and the back half of the train. She made a clean sweep.

Cherchez la femme with the broom.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The French Connection - Photographs of World War 1

I am a rabid genealogist. When I'm researching my family tree online I’m like a dog with a bone. I can search for hours. Thanks to and the Latter Day Saints, I’ve been able to trace my family back to the medieval swamps of Kent circa 1500.

So you can imagine how excited I was to become the owner of photographs of French soldiers taken during World War 1.

We regularly attended an
antique auction that featured pieces that had been shipped from France and sold in Oakville, about 30 minutes west of of where we live in Toronto.

Andrew Zegers was the collector, gathering all manner of antiques from the French countryside. Jon Medley was his capable auctioneer. Over the years, before the secret of this great sale got around, we managed enough courage to put up our hands to buy a plate, our dining room chairs and a carpet that the cat had a strange affection for. One sale Andrew held was basically for “seconds”; items he didn’t know what to do with.

It was there where we bought the contents of a drawer for about $40. We found silver knives, spoons and forks. About 200 “prayers” from the 1850s to the 1950s, a collection of postcards and about 8 photographs of World War 1 soldiers.

The photos had a main subject; a roly-poly mustachioed little guy of about 35. He looked 50, but they all looked older back then. There’s a picture of him on his horse; a picture of him and a Dr. Gaucherand in a trench; a picture of him at a dinner party; and a couple of photos of him larking about with his compatriots.

In the photo included above my hero has been dressed up as a German prisoner; a Boches, complete with the pointy Kaiser-style helmet. It's a pretty convincing tableau and it took me a while to figure it out.

In one of the light-hearted photos he is standing with 3 of his friends in the village of Chuignolles, apparently after lunch, laughing and pointing at one another. All the names are included but the handwriting is bad and I can’t tell if my man is Duvoy or Duroy.

 Thanks to the French Ministère de la Defénse and the website, I was able to track down a couple of the soldiers listed, and unfortunately, their dates of death and where they are buried. But Duvoy or Duroy, I can't find him in the records. He might have made it through the War.

The novel by
Sebastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement, relates how a young woman is unable to believe that her fiancé died during World War 1 and how she jumps through hoops to find him. Japrisot’s story has been turned into a movie of the same name. There's such a similarity between the images in this movie and the images I own as photographs that every time I watch the movie, I’m am further inspired to dig just a little deeper into the soldiers on my postcards. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Don't Speak to the Man at the Wheel" - A party with Toulouse-Lautrec!!

Out of all of the “Artists Table” books, i.e. Monet’s Table, Renoir’s Table, I get the impression that it was Toulouse-Lautrec who really liked to cook. He would gather friends together for sumptuous meals. Sometimes he would arrange to cook at someone else’s house.
“ A letter dated November 11, 1899 to Jacques Bizet , son of the composer,informs “ Dear Master, here is the list of fish to be obtained, Eels, (one pound), 2 gurnards, 1 hake, 1 sole, I small lobster. Seasonings: garlic, cayenne pepper, olive oil. Have all this at 5 o’clock Sunday. We will be there at 6.15 o’clock, Viaud and I. Our humble respects to Madame Bizet and to you. H.T. Lautrec. ”

I’ve read recounts of trips to summer homes in which the guests and participants wait in anticipation for Lautrec to whip out a frying pan and treat them all to an omelet or a similar fry-up. He was keen to publish a book of his own recipes, which he might have done if he hadn’t died at the age of 36. After his death, his art dealer, Maurice Joyant, found the recipes among Toulouse’s papers and had them published. Now known as 'The Art of Cuisine' by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), I have them on order as of today from Amazon. More to come!!
“In the winter of 1895 Alexandre Natanson asked Lautrec to organize the private view of the nine decorative panels ordered from Vuillard for their house at 60,avenue du Bois Boulogne. As master of ceremonies, Lautrec took care of every last detail, from the illustrated invitation promising “American and other drinks” to the creation of temporary rest rooms. The large drawing room was emptied of its valuable furniture and turned into the “Bar des Alexandre.”

“In front of a long mahogany counter were a few high stools on which drinkers could comfortably perch. A notice between two liqueur advertisements warned “Don’t speak to the man at the wheel,” in other words, the barman. Impassive, silent and virtually unrecognizable, with head and beard shaved,apart from two comical tiny patches, Lautrec was dressed in a white jacket and a waistcoat made out of the American flag. His assistant was, in an amusing juxtaposition, Maxime Dehomas, a colossus, nearly 6 ½ feet tall, dressed similarly in white”

“Some three hundred guests, the cream of Paris society, watched the manoeuvers of these two astonishing waiters, juggling their flasks and their shakers. A complete list of the drinks on offer would defy belief: champagne, port, aperitif wines….syrups, eaux-de vie, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, whisky, gin…Everything Lautrec could think of was to be found there. Nor did he omit the customary cocktail snacks, hot sauces, spices, without which everything tasted bland, Worcester sauce, cloves, nutmegs, paprika, red pepper, not to mention bitters, extracted from the bark of the shrub called the angostura”

Here’s a fairly simple and innocuous recipe for Port Wine Cobbler:

½ tbsp sugar
1 liqueur glass of redcurrant syrup
2 sherry glasses of red port

Tip the sugar into a shaker. Add the syrup and the port. Fill the shaker with ice; close and shake hard. Pour into glasses and serve with long straws and fresh fruit, cherries, etc.

À votre santé!

Quotations from Toulouse-Lautrec’s Table, Genvieve Diego-Dortignac, Jean-Bernard Naudin and Andre Daugin., Random House, New York 1993

Monday, April 4, 2011

Under Caillebotte's Umbrella

Gustave Caillebotte was a French painter and a generous patron of the Impressionists. I would hazard a guess and say most people know his work from the fitting image seen on many umbrellas available in today’s gift shops, Paris Street; Rainy Day.

Caillebotte was born August 19, 1848 into a wealthy family who had made their money in textiles and real estate during the redevelopment of Paris in the 1860s.

Multi-faceted Caillebotte had a law degree but he was also an engineer. He also attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After inheriting his father’s fortune in 1874 he befriended the Impressionists Degas, Monet, and Renoir. Caillebotte helped them to organize and fund their first major group exhibition in Paris. As the only one with any serious financial means, Caillebotte would become the main patron and supporter of the group.

In 1875, wishing to make own his public artistic debut, he submitted a painting, The Floor Scrapers, to the Paris Salon, whose jury promptly rejected it. Caillebotte then decided to exhibit the painting in a more accepting environment, and showed it at the second Impressionist group exhibition of 1876.

Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day, considered his masterpiece, was shown at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1877. It shared the spotlight with Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Ball at the Moulin de la Galette. Its massive size, almost 7 feet by 10 feet, drew a great deal of attention and dominated the 1877 exhibition which was largely organized by Caillebotte himself

The wealthy and generous, Caillebotte often underwrote the costs incurred for the exhibitions of his friend’s work. He financially supported his colleagues by constantly purchasing their paintings at inflated prices.

He himself participated in later public exhibitions and painted some 500 works although in a more realistic style than that of his friends.

Caillebotte died of pulmonary congestion in 1894. On his death, his superb collection of Impressionist paintings was left to the French government who accepted it with considerable reluctance. At the time of his death, the Impressionists were shunned and condemned by the art establishment in France. Well aware of this, Caillebotte stipulated in his will that the paintings in his collection must not end up in attics or provincial museums.

Caillebotte's collection consisted of a staggering sixty-eight paintings by various artists: nineteen by Pissarro, fourteen by Monet, ten by Renoir, 9 by Sisley, 7 by Degas, 5 by Cézanne, and 4 by Manet.

In 1897, a room named in Gustave Caillebotte’s honour opened in Paris’s Luxembourg Palace and displayed the first ever exhibition of Impressionist paintings in a French museum. It contained only 38 of the paintings that Caillebotte had left to the state. The other twenty-nine paintings (one went to Renoir as payment for executing his will) were offered to the French government in 1904, and again in 1908, and both times the government refused to take them. A change of heart in 1928 encouraged the French government to claim the paintings but they were refused. Most of the remaining works were bought by Albert C. Barnes, and are now held by the Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia.

Forty of Caillebotte's works are now housed at the Musée d'Orsay.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Luncheon of the Boating Party

Yesterday Renoir’s Table arrived on my porch. It’s a truly beautiful book. Although it contains sixty recipes, I bought it for its inspiring photographs. Amid a well-written biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s life the books collaborators Jean Bernard Naudin, Jean-Michel Charbonnier and Jacqueline Saulnier, have painstakingly recreated some of the settings of Renoir’s most famous paintings. The only things missing are the people. The setting for the Luncheon of the Boating Party is there with all its details, but it’s as if the painting’s subjects have gone down to the dock to meet the canotiers.

Renoir’s Table flawlessly melds gastronomic details with a biographical sketch of Renoir’s life. The recipes created by Jacqueline Saulnier are well-researched dishes that Renoir might have enjoyed at the time. Because recipes found in this and Saulnier’s other books contain ingredients like goose fat, blanched calves-trotters, and boar’s heads; and amounts like 14 ounces of this and 1lb. 10 ounces of that, I end up never actually following the recipes, but instead being inspired by them. Though I have to say that the Empress Rice Pudding with candied fruit looks fairly tempting and easy…

I have the honour to possess other books compiled by various combinations of these talented collaborators. Toulouse-Lautrec’s Table and Monet’s Table are equally beautiful books and because Toulouse-Lautrec really liked to cook and the recipes found in Monet’s Table are from his personal cook’s recipe book, the recipes ring a little more true.

A work of historical fiction, The Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Susan Vreeland, published by Penguin was a Christmas present. Susan Vreeland's novel centres on famous French Impressionists and their work but specifically, Renoir’s the Luncheon of the Boating Party painted in 1881. I’m not very far into the book, but the research Vreeland has done retracing Renoir's steps while creating this painting and the research into the details of French café society sound like she probably had a lot of fun. This kind of avocation is right up my alley and I envy Vreeland. Despite her dedication I find the narrative sophomoric and strained.

A few years ago I read Renoir, My Father written by Jean Renoir, his movie-producing son. I devoured that book and at that time found out a lot about the Luncheon of the Boating Party, known in French as the Le Déjeuner des Canotiers. One fact being that the seated man in the singlet is famous Impressionist promoter and painter Gustave Caillebotte.

Inquisitive by nature, while at the Toronto Reference Library, I happened upon a Paris City Directory for 1912. I found Renoir’s address on Boulevard de Rochechouart and phone number. How cool is that! I also found Colette and Picasso, but that is for another time.

While The Luncheon of the Boating Party is a very famous painting and I seem to have known it all my life, it was the Glass Man in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie that whimsically brought it into my circle of consciousness again. The Glass Man meticulously recreates the picture every year, but cannot seem to capture the essence of the one drinking girl until Amelie comes into his life.

The Luncheon of the Boating Party captures the essence of what my own private Paris is.