Monthly Archives: July 2012

Macaron Obsession

Yes, soon after arriving in Paris, we became obsessed with macarons. Pretty much like anyone else who’s ever tasted these round, lighthearted colorful and flavorful cookies.

There is a pet peeve of mine that I must get off my chest before I continue here: not sure why, but most non-French speaking people who are into macarons pronounce this dessert as if it’s spelled macaroon. People, there is no double-o in macaron! Please learn how to pronounce it properly. Otherwise you lose all credibility when discussing which brand is the best.

Back to the story about our discovery: we first visited Pierre Herme store on Rue De La Opera in the Grand Boulevards district. When you enter the store, you immediately notice that the center-stage is taken by a whole bunch of beautifully colored macarons:

Mind-blowing display of the incredible variety of macarons!

We could see right away that these are quite popular, because they’ve obviously been selling fast:

Not only do Pierre Herme macarons come in variety of colors, they also come in variety of sizes

We bought a few choice macarons a emporter (to go), and tried them at home:

First we tried the pistachio:

Pistachio

Then, the citron:

Lemon

Then, the chocolate:

Chocolate

The flavors were explosive, very intense. These little round cookies pack quite a punch for their size!

Of course, we saved some for lunch:

Chocolate and raspberry flavored macarons

The next day, we tried Pierre Herme’s biggest competitor, Laduree:

Laduree

We didn’t photograph Laduree macarons because the staff at the store were adamant that there be absolutely no photography in the store:

Monsieur, no photo s’il vous plaît!

To be honest, we liked Laduree macarons much better than Pierre Herme’s. The texture of Laduree macarons is superior to that of Pierre Herme’s, and the flavors are more subtle, less loaded and less bombastic.

Just to be sure we have completed our round of testing, we also went out and bought less famous brands of macarons. These are usually much less expensive than the top shelf products. We were curious whether we could taste the difference:

A box of ‘generic’, no-name macarons purchased in some boulangerie

I’ll be lying if I said that these were close to Laduree or Pierre Herme’s macarons. In reality, they weren’t even close. They tasted bland, the texture was dry, and the savings were not worth it. We couldn’t even bring ourselves to finish the box:

Half-finished box of ‘generic’ macarons

In conclusion, Paris is the mecca of macarons, which taste divine, but you have to be prepared to pay the premium price for the full experience.

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Sunday Morning Au Paris

People will warn you that everything closes down in Paris on Sunday. Waking up on our first Sunday morning in Paris, and walking down from the 8th arrondissement toward le Grand Boulevards, the empty streets really matched the warning we’ve received. Oh my god, where are we going to find food now?

Empty streets on Sunday morning in Paris

OK, there are some people milling about, but still no encouraging signs of food stores being open.

The city feels deserted after a few days of being packed with crowds

But hey, just make one turn, and voila! The streets all of a sudden become chock full of all kinds of delicious food.

Empty streets suddenly became crowded again!

Veggies

Condiments

All kinds of fish!

Fruits

More stalls

Dips and salads

Giant Paella

Ratatouille

Fresh meat

More food

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Nostalgia For Greatness

Citizens of Paris had in general (and quite often) been accused of being aloof, cold, unfriendly, detached, even arrogant, and sometimes they’ve been almost reviled as being rude. Not only are such accusations wrong on the account of painting the picture with a very broad brush, they tend to quickly dissipate as soon as one spends some time living in this city. Still, there are people who like to fantasize how Parisians are most of the time on the defensive, pushing against the Americanization of their culture, and so on. I recently ran into an interesting study, published by a fellow Canadian, where such accusations seemingly get supported by a few allegedly ‘revealing’ anecdotes. This rather short sighted study is titled FACTS & ARGUMENTS: Behind the hostile demeanor of your typical French waiter is nostalgia for greatness, which doesn’t make his behaviour any more appealing to this expatriate.

Carrie Mandel, the author of this short essay, bases her thesis on the imaginary fact that the so-called American Cultural Invasion is inevitable in its ever-powerful presence. According to her, Paris is undergoing a strong identity crisis and its citizens are taking it out on Americans. This dubious ‘diagnosis’ becomes a bit more understandable once we realize that the above essay was written 18 years ago. Many things have changed in the past 18 years, least of which is the ever present dwindling and downward spiralling of the American Cultural Inovation. Almost 20 years ago, America was a different country, with a completely different image. Today, any imaginary or fact based fears that America might take over in a sweeping cultural hegemony are mostly laughable to anyone who lives in France, especially in Paris. As the world is its witness, American squeaky clean, previously very desirable image, is taking a serious nose dive. No one in their right mind would envy that image today. And things appear very bleak as far as its future is concerned.

“I have a theory.” Carrie explains. She continues: “Unlike most Americans, Parisians identify themselves not by what they do, but by who they are. Strong cultural and family identification explains both why the French appear to place less importance on job performance than Americans do, and why, in the event of a crumbling culture, the workplace might serve as an outlet for negative energy and malaise.” So here we have it, an artificial construction of imaginary antagonism between Parisians on one end, and Americans on the other. The above theory reads like wishful thinking, as it’s been introduced to support another theory, the one where, in the words of the author, the service sector philosophy is based on the premise that “the customer is king”. What she seems to confuse in the above equation is that the starting premise that “the customer is king” is based on the expectations that the customer (i.e. the king) is going to get the best possible quality product for their money. It’s primarily the product that matters, and the maner in which that product is delivered to the customer is always of secondary importance.

It’s no use experiencing friendly, cheery and chirpy delivery of the product, if that product is terribly crappy. And that’s where the Parisian and the American vision of customer service are at odds. Americans expect to be titillated while paying for the product they’ve ordered, Parisians expect to first and foremost receive a stellar product. Crappy cheese burgers that most Americans gobble up in McDonalds restaurants are somehow acceptable to them because they get prompt service and are entitled to complain to no end. Meanwhile, Parisian customers would never put up with such terrible product quality, and would rather go to a place where staff knows how to make quality product; the delivery of that quality product is an afterthought, and no one dwells on it.

Seeing how things really play out vis-a-vis Parisians and their alleged nostalgia for greatness, we see that it’s a completely fabricated issue. Parisians do not have that nostalgia for greatness, because they already have that greatness at their disposal, available every day on every street of their magnificent city. They do have the best quality products one can buy, and are happy to continue living that way.

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Grand Palais

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Paris is the grandest city in the world. And even in the grandest of cities, the grandiosity of the Grand Palais tends to overwhelm its visitors.

Built 112 years ago, this monumental edifice was officially inaugurated on May 1, 1900. It appears mind-numbingly impressive both from the outside, and once you get inside.

Here is the south-side entrance to the palace:

Across the street is situated Petit Palais (the Small Palace), which also looks very grand:

The east entrance to the Grand Palais makes you feel two feet tall:

Another view of the enormous columns:

Of course, such stupendous space gets put to good use by combining regular grandiose art projects with the enormous space inside the palace. The most recent monumental installation hosted in the palace was Daniel Buren’s Monumenta 2012. Here is how visitors would enter the show from the street:

Behold the other-worldly beauty inside the palace:

The round horizontal mirrors in the middle of the palace enhance the magic show of light and colors. Stepping on those mirrors gives you such an exhilarating sense of floating in an infinite space, not being sure which way is up and which way is down:

Inside the Grand Palais book store:

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Institut Du Monde Arabe

Of all the places I’ve ever seen, Paris is certainly the one that is most packed with art, including various cultural artifacts and objects of interest.  It almost feels as if there are more cultural artifacts within the city of Paris than there are in the rest of the world put together.

One visit to the amazing Institute Du Monde Arabe will suffice to convince you that Paris is indeed the planet’s cultural hub.

This amazing museum opened 25 years ago, and has since been receiving constant upgrades. Situated on the left bank (Rive Gauche), at the foot of the Pont de Sully, and at the end of the Boulevard Saint-Germain in the 5th arrondissement, this stylistically stunning building is an eye-catching attraction on the very bank of the river Seine.

View form the west side of the building

From the south side of the building we see a flat glassy sufrace that may at a first glance look bland and uninteresting.

View from the south side

However, if you pay closer attention, you’ll see that the glassy front is divided into 240 windows, each equipped with high tech photo-sensitive aperture mechanisms that open and close depending on the outside light conditions.

Photo sensitive aperture mechanisms viewed from inside of the building

This design gives the building a unique, magical capability to self-regulate the lighting conditions inside.

The entrance to the museum is from the south side. A vast empty plateau leads visitors to the museum doors.

South side plateau leading to the entrance

Before we enter, we are faced with an elegant architectural/sculptural pair of monoliths.

Pair of monoliths leading to the entrance

Here is the view from the side of the two monoliths.

Beautiful Arabic arabesque on one of the monoliths.

Arabesque

View from the museum’s rooftop.

Western view of Paris from the museum’s rooftop

Another view from the Institut Du Monde Arabe.

Another view of Paris from the museum’s rooftop

Panoramic view.

Panoramic view of Paris from the museum’s rooftop

Inside the museum.

Inside the museum

Once you enter this magical museum, you’ll be faced with an incredible collection of cultural artifacts that will guide you through a journey of Western civilization. The oldest object on display is moere than 25,000 years old, and many cultures and religions are included.

Incredible selection of stunning old manuscripts

Interesting mysterious objects.

I’m not sure what this is, but it looks stunning!

Manuscripts and scrolls

The dawning of Western science

More scientific instruments from the olden times

Ancient musical instrument — oud

Mysterious passageways inside the museum…

Even some contemporary Middle Eastern art

In conclusion, visiting this museum should be on everyone’s list when spending some time in Paris. Especially for those who have been brought up in the Western civilization, the story this museum has on offer is incredibly educational, as it cannot fail but open your eyes. Once you see the Torah, Bible and Qur’an, that were made by hand during the Middle Ages, displayed next to each other, you will notice how all three books are of the exact same size. Furthermore, all three books were made using the exact same material, with a very similar aesthetics. Perhaps the glaring differences between all these religions are more imagined than they are for real?

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Drinking Water

People who come from Vancouver, Canada (such as me and my wife) are spoiled by the clean air and the cold, clear tap water that’s at their disposal at all times. The first thing we’ve noticed upon arriving in Paris was that the local tap water is, for all intents and purposes, undrinkable. It tastes oddly soapy, with a hint of very unsettling sweetness to it.

So we immediately headed to the nearest grocery store for some bottled water. But much to our chagrin, the bottled Evian water didn’t taste much different than the tap water!

OK, there’s no two ways about it, we must switch to drinking mineral water then. First we bought the familiar Perrier, however our next attempt resulted in a much better tasting (and for some reason, slightly cheaper) brand — Badoit. If you shop at the local Monoprix supermarket, you can get this mineral water for around 80 cents per litre.  That’s way better than the price we’re paying for Perrier in Canada, which is about $2.00 per 750 millilitres! Almost three times cheaper — not a bad deal.

Badoit — the best tasting mineral water in Paris

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Architecture, Industriousness

Things that were very important to Parisians a hundred years ago… and are still important.

Architecture, Industriousness

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