12 July 2009

Gobelins and Ghouls

When we first arrived in Paris, I often made a point of doing my chores in far-flung parts of town as an excuse to explore and walk the various neighborhoods. With time, though, one finds one's preferred shops and shopkeepers, and with more of my days being spent on the bike (before the knee problems) and in the kitchen, efficiency had become more important than exploring. So much so, in fact, that I'd gotten into something of a rut.

Thank goodness, then, that I ran out of chestnut honey a few weeks ago. I'd seen that there's a shop specializing in all things honeybee in the 13e, a short walk from the Manufacture des Gobelins, which I've been meaning to visit for awhile. Including stops at BHV for some odds and ends, a boulangerie I'd heard good things about, and a source for mustard on tap (can't live in France without mustard in your refrigerator), I had a 5-h walk through 6 arrondissements on a beautiful Spring afternoon.

Sweet spot: Les Abeilles in the 13e.

When a French colleague at work asked where we'd be living, he pulled a disapproving face at the response, saying those neighborhoods are very bourgeoise, where people go to have children. It turns out that it suits our needs just fine: it's a nice neighborhood, with good access to La Défense so Karen doesn't have a long commute, good access to Bois de Boulogne so we can get our early morning rides in quickly, and good access to high quality markets and food shops. That said, we'd certainly look at other options if were to stay in Paris indefinitely, mostly because there are a lot of really neat places to live here. Neighborhoods range from staid monumental places to chaotic and energetic places full of recent immigrants, to quiet but charming and intimate locations.

The neighborhood where the bee place is, Butte aux Cailles, definitely falls into the last category. Mostly full of 2 and 3 story buildings, lined with small cafes and shops, it feels a little like the Fitler's square area of Philadelphia. Very homey and unpretentious.

Houses like this aren't common everywhere in Paris.

Like jams and preservers, honey is a popular condiment in France. Supermarkets carry varieties produced by bees that preferentially visit a number of flowering plants. So it's not really for lack of options that I needed to visit Les Abeilles, but it offered even more. Eucalyptus, pine, lemon, thyme, acacia, chestnut, and many more. Bee buzz soundtrack playing quietly in the background, a gentle older man helped me, giving me tastes of several honeys. I bought mild acacia for cooking and pungent dark pine for eating. While paying, I realized that the buzzing was live, not Memorex-- there was a bucket of bees on a shelf near the rear of the shop. One of them searched my hair for pollen for a few seconds but thankfully found none and moved on.

Yes, these are both really honey.

And so did I. Honey secured, I stopped in at the nearby Manufacture des Gobelins workshops to watch them make their famous tapestries. Established in the 1600s, and named for a family of dyers who produced a particularly pleasing red color, they eventually became the workshops for the King. Three different techniques are used to make tapestries there, all requiring what seems like infinite patience: a tapestry often takes several years for 2 or 3 workers to complete. Subject matter can be ancient (repair and reproduction of ancient tapestries is performed) or modern (there is a jury that chooses artwork to be interpreted in tapestry), but either way you can't buy them. Tapestries are produced only for the State, which hangs them in its embassies or uses them as diplomatic gifts. The workshops seem to be maintained mostly to keep the art of this type of tapestry making alive, which is kinda neat.

Even the drunks in in the 5e have nice places to hang out.

St Nicolas du Gewürztraminer... er... Chardonnet in the 5e

Vienna had its gold-painted Mozart performers, this busker had a Kurt Cobain marionette that was "performing" blaring Nirvana on Pont l'Archevèche.

The rump of Notre Dame is at least as impressive as her face.

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation on Île St Louis

I then walked from Manufacture des Gobelins over to the right bank, past the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation on Île St Louis (closed for the day; will have to go back later), to get mustard from the tap at Maille on Place de la Madeleine, and then bread in the 2e. By then, I'd gotten tired and decided to take the metro back home. Distracted while thinking about the other chores I needed to take care of before dinner, I got on the train going the wrong direction. Realizing my mistake the minute the doors closed, I got off at the next stop to change directions and on the stairs down to the connector was met by RATP control, checking metro tickets and passes. No problem. Unlike the hordes of people I see every day jumping the turnstiles in plain view of the ticket vendors, or pushing through behind paying customers, I buy a monthly pass. I handed the pass to the control, a humorless woman probably in her 50s, and she ran it in her hand-held machine, which said it was valid. Great-- can I go now? But we weren't done. She pulled me out of the line of other controllers and said there was a problem: my pass didn't have my picture on it.

Well, yeah, there is that. I'd been meaning to put one on there, but the extra pictures I have from the dozens needed for visa and other purposes are a little too big, and I just couldn't swallow paying even more money for pictures for documents. Besides, this is a subway pass-- how big a deal can it be?

The Arts et Metiers metro station. It used to be my favorite...

A 25-euro fine, that's how big. On a 52-euro-a-month pass. I told her I was really sorry, that I didn't realize it was obligatory, and that I'd get one that afternoon, hoping she'd show the slightest bit of flexibility, but she wanted her 25 euros right there. I understand I'd not completely followed the rules, but I've gone out of my way to make sure I'm paying for my tickets on the metro and on the RER (where, depending on the stations you go between, validating your ticket is on the honor system). 5 euros, OK, but 25? I bet riding without a ticket is less than that. I was steamed. It's a good thing I don't know any vulgar French, because I would have used it, for sure. But since I didn't, I'll also avoid vulgarity in English and just say, the ghoul. Oh well, it's France. So I paid her, and she gave me a receipt good until the next morning, in case I was controlled a 2nd time that day.

That night I cut down one of my document photos and stuck it in there. I thought of using this one,

but I figured that would be a 100-euro fine: 50 for an invalid picture, and another 50 for being a smart-alec.


  1. ...but the picture would be "oh so Rolf." Love it.

    I envy your shopping for French honey. In the early '90's I returned from a trip to France with about 3 jars of Provencian (is that a word?) honey. I s'pose it was naive (and illegal) to bring it to the States, but I didn't know any better, and waltzed right through customs in Newark.

  2. Yeah, it's amazing how something you think you're already familiar with can be so novel. Our first exposure to interesting honey was at an apiary we passed while riding in Italy. I think we brought home rosemary, eucalyptus, and chestnut. Not sure we ever managed to actually eat all of that honey, which is why I bought the little jars this time-- so I can keep trying new things.

    And you probably didn't break any laws bringing your honey home. The US Customs and Border Protection website gives the general low-down on what is and isn't permissible to bring into the country as a traveler. Honey is listed with the condiments that are "generally" OK.