Thursday, August 20, 2009

How the Haute, and not-so Haute, Sleep

These are pics from a dreamy book called Lits. Beds.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dinner Trois

Right. My host mentions his hunting at LaBrouillet.

I reminisce about my own visits as a young woman. They were French Huguenots, the family. And the chatelain, a wild, white-haired, bird-like man would parade about empty 16th century salons, dressed in nothing but jodphurs, English riding boots and a brown leather apron. Like a Mongolian, the man was born on a horse. He hunted roebuck in the park from dawn to dusk. Then retired to the pantry where he skinned and gutted them. (Thus the leather apron). The deer were laid out on rusty, pock marked marble tables with runnels, troughs, along the edges that carried the blood to drains in the floor.

Somehow, it didn’t bother me then. It doesn’t bother now. Deer aren’t lions. And we ate them. Plus the tradition, the almost religious formality of the hunt which had been passed down directly from Kings, thrilled me. The military like line-up of groomed horses, the drink from the silver cup, the deep woods and the sound of that golden horn blown over the felled beast…It was magic.

But between the snagging of sea snails, sticky fingers, toying with bullets, and my efforts to keep the conversation rolling, I’m exhausted. Not even a bowl of fresh raspberries folded with meringue and thick Creme de Chantilly can revive me. Which is when my son steps into the void. He not only fills in the blank, he conquers the room. His charm, his questions, his facile dance between subjects like God (when in doubt, Jack always brings up God), theology, and the medieval stuns me. So does his ease.

After downing tiny cups of black expresso, we exchange the ritual two air kisses and descend towards reality. As the huge wooden doors close as quietly as a whisper behind us, I look up. There is nothing to see. Just walls. No sign whatsoever of the rarified, luxurious kingdom that lies hidden inside. Which is precisely how this kingdom continues to survive. Because it hides behind walls. All kinds of walls.

“What a fascinating night,” I say to Jack. “I loved it.”
“Me, too, ” he replies as we stride down a deserted, moonlit street on the Left Bank.

Despite the sea snails, dead lions and bullets, I loved it because it proved that the world is still a far from homogenous place; that the differences between cultures remains as wide and unbridgeable as the ocean. Maybe it’s my old age that also appreciates the fact so little seems to have changed in this very particular, bourgeois world. No, I’m not a fan of big game hunting. I loathe smugness. I believe in good manners but not in such exquisitely good manners that they stifle the heart or serve to only to repel the outsider. I mean, making or taking the nose of a cheese should hardly be grounds for social shunning; for being left, like an Inuoit, to die on some ice floe. But here’s the thing. If you don’t know about making and taking the nose of the cheese, you, probably, don’t about any of the other intricacies, the rules of etiquette and protocol, that keep this world intact.

You don’t know that doing nothing, nicely or stylishly, is still preferable to doing anything with “drive.” (Overt drive is vulgar and American.) You don’t know that even if money is never discussed, it matters. It matter a lot to the French. You don’t know how or when to use vous or tu. And you don’t know that “there is nothing more Jesuitical than desire.” (Balzac. And if you figure that one out, you win a brass bullet.)

And why the hell should you? Who cares, right. The bottom line is, I had next to nothing in common with this man who was my host. Nothing but a passion for language, for good food, for beautiful things; for history and for argument. All of which made for a pretty grand, memorable dinner party.Now, go ahead. Shoot me.

Posted by Brenda in 18:41:05 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The kitchen appears to have popped straight from the pages of Architectural Digest–immense and blisteringly clean with copper pots, industrial stove, marble sinks, and gingham upholstered walls. The table set into the wall with banquettes seats an easy twenty. We are only four. But le placement is still as carefully calculated as if we were forty. Or as if the fate of fucking Chechnya might depend on it. Please note. I happen to love this tradition of placing guests. I hate dinners where I have to grab a seat, not knowing who will next to me, always convinced they’ll hate me. Tonight, I am seated to the left of our host against the wall while my son sits opposite him and to the right of the exquisitely stunning lady of the house. There is nothing arbitrary, ever, about these decisions, believe me. One’s seat signals one’s standing in the eyes of the host. Just like in the old days when there was no greater privilege than sitting on a stool at the foot of the Queen’s chair.

The meal is challenge. And part of me suspects it’s on purpose. A perverse test to see if we Americans have any manners. Tiny sea snails curled so deeply inside the shell, a small stick of dynamite would, definitely, help extract them. We use, instead, midget sized, two pronged forks. Then comes the langoustines. (Fingers, not forks) Eating them entails ripping off itsy bitsy heads, tentacles and tails. All for a piece of meat the size of a penny. The finger bowl would come in handy, of course. In fact, mid way through, I’d like to plunge my entire hand, up to wrist in the bowl and scrub it with lemon. Like Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City. Alas! Our hosts ignore them. So we surrupticiously wipe our hands on the napkins in our laps. (I have been to extremely fancy French and English dinners where there are no napkins, at all. I use to think this was because everyone was so anally tidy. Now I know it’s to save money on laundering.) In the meantime, there is some desultory conversation about our host’s career as a lawyer, his pilot license test on Friday, and plans to travel to Spain.

Then comes  an enormous… fish. No idea what kind of fish.
“It’s delivered in sea water,” says our host, “To help keep it fresh.”
“How clever,” I reply, already nervous about choking on invisible bones.
And then, finally, the conversation takes off. Oh boy, does it ever…
There’s some passing reference to safaris and Africa. I light up. Not a cigarette. Though I am delighted everyone here still smokes and drinks.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Africa,” I say, innocently. “Where exactly did you go?”
“Tanzania,” our host replies, plucking out the entire exoskeleton of the fish. “It was a shooting safari.”
I clutch my fork. “Shooting what?”
“Lions,” he says, casually, chewing his fish. “Not the young ones, don’t worry. Only the old ones.”
Christ. All I can see is poor little Simba, orphaned and pining away for his dead father. I mean, I am so far from politically correct, it’s a joke. But I draw the line at killing lions. Pigeons in the living room, fine. But lions in Africa, no way.
“That’s horrendous,” I blurt out. “They’re endangered, for God’s sake.”
Our host grins. Delighted to see he’s lit my fuse. “If hunting were legal,” he replies, “there wouldn’t be poachers. Are you aware of that? Even your President, Teddy Roosevelt, hunted. And he was a great conservationist.”
I’m floundering around like a fish out of water here. “What kind of gun?” I, finally, ask.
“A big one,” he chuckles while extricating himself from his seat. “An American Winchester. I’ll show you.”
Two minutes later, he’s back not with a gun but a bullet. The biggest fucking bullet I’ve ever seen on a kitchen table.
“I tracked him for ten days with a white hunter. A Frenchmen. Been in Africa for years. Just when I was about to give up, we found him. I got him right between the eyes. It was instant, the death.”

Death. One of my favorite subjects, I think to myself while gingerly toying with the bullet, with the twisted brass prongs that blew apart inside the head of a lion. But there are times in life when you have to surrender; when you understand that there is nowhere to go with an argument except to hell in a handbasket. And I’ve been there. So I change the subject.
“Have you ever been to Labrouillet?” I ask. (Not the real name of the chateau.) Do you know the so and so’s?”
“Ah!” he says, lounging back against the wall. “My God, yes! I use to hunt there on weekends….”

Shit. Back to shooting and hunting…
Tomorrow, dessert.

Posted by Brenda in 20:18:01 | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The (in) discreet charms of the bourgeoisie

A preface

The rules of French etiquette remain “as rigid as a dead man.” (That’s Nancy Mitford in her classic bio of Mme Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV.) When I first arrived in France shortly after her death, I was in my twenties and knew nothing of such etiquette. Sure, I could use a knife and fork (I say, a, not three knives and forks.) I had a nice strong handshake. And I could, occasionally, tell the difference between a wine and a water glass. When a friend’s father, kindly or not so kindly, informed me “You do not ever make or take the nose, dear.” I giggled. The fact wine had a nose was weird enough. But cheese?

Anyway, like monkeys, I learned by mimicking, by aping,my “betters.” But I would still call my knowledge, basic at best. What one quickly understands in France, however, is that breaches in etiquette are considered far more shocking than poverty, politics, or the discovery of a couple of corpses in the bedroom closet. (A couple of corpses in the closet, after all, are the stuff of delicious gossip, which the French have always eaten up at table.) I’m not speaking here of all the French, of course. I’m speaking of the haute, the very haute, bourgeoisie. Who like me and monkeys also learned by mimicking their betters. By mimicking what went on in the royal courts at Versailles and the Louvre, four or five hundred years ago. That’s right. Four or five hundred years ago. But because this particular group were not welcome at court (they were mere merchants not nobles), I believe they continue to hold a grudge. (And there ain’t nobody as good at holding grudges as the French. Except maybe the Brits.) All of which makes them a hell of a lot more pitiless and intolerant in terms of their judgements and dismissal of those who fall short of the rules of etiquette than the aristos they still envy.

The other thing to bear in mind….Back in the glory days of the French court when everybody who was somebody lived in captivity at Versailles, the King had one main enemy. It wasn’t the British or Spanish or Austrians. It wasn’t smallpox or the devious machinations of ministers like Richelieu (who once said:” Give me twelve lines written by an honest man, I will find something in them to hang him.”)  It was boredom. So the King appointed this guy, his Gentleman of the Bedchamber, to be in charge of palace amusements: of official entertainments like love, gambling, hunting, etiquette and dining.

Although I did not have the pleasure of meeting The Gentleman of the Bedchamber at a recent Paris dinner party, I noticed that nothing much seems to have changed in the centuries since the people probably stuck his head on a pike after chopping it off at the guillotine. Boredom, etiquette, hunting, dining…Like Jacques Brel, it’s alive and well….And so off to dinner we go…..


The dinner is in an 18th century mansion, a hotel particulier, on the Left Bank. After stumbling through the 20 ft. fortress-like wooden doors on the street and across a cobbled courtyard, we (my son and I) squeeze into the tiny metal coffin known as an elevator and ascend towards the first floor. Wrestling open its accordion doors, we then step into a sand stone tiled foyer. Our host, a smallish, bearded man in red velvet slippers, khakis, and pink pin-striped shirt, stands at an open window with what looks to me like an  automatic rifle.
Pfft! Pfft! goes the rifle. “Fuck, fuck!” I think to myself as our host turns towards us, ever so genially, and gently places his gun on a spindly 18th century gilded chair. (This has always been one of my biggest fears in France. Not necessarily getting shot before dinner but being asked to sit on one of these silly excuses for a chair.)
“Bonsoir, Madame,” says our host, lightly brushing the air above my right hand with his lips. (A ritual reserved only for married women.)
“So what were you shooting?” I ask. A perfectly normal opening question at a party on the Left Bank, right? “Your neighbors?”
Nothing. No smile. Rien. “Pigeons,” he replies. “I detest them. But please, come and take a look.”

Jack and I walk across a baby fawn colored Persian carpet towards the most stupendous view I have ever seen from a Parisian house: the private park, a stretch of golf course green grass surrounded by ivy covered walls as long as a city block, the poured gold dome of Les Invalides, the Pantheon, the sparkly lights of the Tour Eiffel. Not bad, I think. All of Paris, winking and blinking at my feet. And no dead or limping pigeon. He, obviously, missed.

Our host then patters off into the darkness to mix me an American cocktail. Translation: Something guaranteed to knock me straight on my ass. I sip it, slowly, as we tiptoe through small talk. My eyes, occasionally, shifting off to the gun on the chair. The proverbial elephant in the room. I even apologize for bringing flowers. (Flowers are always delivered the morning after not the night of. An eminently practical rule of politesse/etiquette as the hostess is not obliged to rootle around in the pantry (like ours is right now) in search of a vase.)
“What lovely paintings,” I say, pointing to a few water scenes propped against the wall.
“Two of my father’s most amusing mistakes,” our host chuckles. “Faux Turners. I still enjoy them.”
“Probably because they were your father’s mistakes,” I mutter to myself as dinner is announced….

Click in tomorrow for more guns and no, no roses….

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Go fucking figure…

A bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne in New York? $44.00
A bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne in France? 44 Euros/$62.00

How insane is that, huh? 

A French dinner party on Monday…

Posted by Brenda in 16:05:28 | Permalink | Comments (1) »

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Not A Nun’s Story

These sure as hell were my kind of nuns. Their habits (not the cigarettes, the wimples and veils,  remind me of the heated debate going on right now in France. (There’s always a heated debate going on in France, of course.) This one involves the proposed ban on the wearing of burkas and other Muslim attire in public. (Head scarves have already been banned in schools.)
“Is it compatible with the principles of our French Republic,” asks one lonely man on a TV panel which also featured a number of somewhat intimidating non-Muslim, radical French feminists. (As if there were any other kind of French feminists.)
“Absolument hors de question!”
“Bien sur que non!”
No fucking way, in short.

And they’re right. In a sense. Burkas are not compatible with the principles of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality. Far from it. They’re symbols of female submissiveness;of male tyranny.  But then so are the clothing requirements for orthodox Jewish women. (The reform movement never really caught on in France. So most of the population is orthodox.) I mean, wigs to hide one’s hair? Sleeves that cover the elbows?Dresses that must fall below the knees? Or how bout the forced separation of males and females during worship services. Or the truly bizarre and demeaning use of a sheet with a hole in it for making love. Who the hell came up with that one, anyway? Surely not, g?

So what are the French to do? Force everyone to wear the signature scarf around the neck and the oh so casually knotted sweater over the shoulders? Once the forbidding begins, where does it stop? And what about the burka I saw floating through the Ritz? Is the General Manager actually going to inform a guest paying $14,000 a night that his maid must strip down and don couture attire? I don’t think so. I really don’t.  Then, there’s the question of French nuns…Their voluminous robes, the stiff, starched wimples, and heavy veils? How is such hideously uncomfortable attire compatible with the principles of the Republic, I wonder?

It all comes down to power,  I suppose. To sex. To men keeping women in their place. (And the unspoken fear that burkas will give birth to baby suicide bombers.) But here’s a strange conclusion to my post. Last night, I overheard a group of tired Sex in the City women in their fifties, chatting about their lives. I was dining solo at a nearby Japanese restaurant. The Kim Cattral, who ran the group, was played by an Amazon- like Irish “artist” who paints bodies. There was a Gilda Radner look-a-like seated next to her. Except she was border-line anorexic. She was talking about her Eating Disorders Clinic over on the Lower East Side.
“It’s never been so profitable,” she said. “We’re a full house. A few bulemics but mostly ano’s. (Anos?)

As I ate my Dragon Roll, I thought, “Hey! Maybe it’s related, this American disease, anorexia, to the whole burka, habit, orthodox thing.” Not because it is forced on women by their religions; by men.  But because it’s about stripping the self of sexuality and power. It’s a physical manifestation of a desperate longing to simply disappear, to vanish.  The frightening difference is the fact women perceive it as a means of asserting “control.” Control over what? To me, it’s just another form of total submissiveness, a terror made visible. Enuf.

Posted by Brenda in 15:34:41 | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Travelling not so light

I shudder to think what Open Skies might do to this particular piece of luggage. Thankfully, it sits safely in a glass vitrine at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. A spectacular 18th century suitcase complete with sterling silver chocolate service, cups, spoons, gold toothpicks, a small chamberpot,and other “necessaries.” Ain’t it grand..
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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I Wish I Were…

Back in Paris

It’s spooky, standing in the exact same spot at the Paris Ritz service entrance where Diana, the Princess of Wales, stood on that August night and waited for the car that would drive her to her death. Peering up into the eye of the camera, I keep seeing that short loop of footage as she and Dodi walked through the door. Footage than ran over and over again, as incessantly as the Towers falling in New York. I wonder what the 600 employees who use this entrance on Rue Cambon might have thought in the frenzied days after the accident. I also imagine Dodi’s father, the inconsolable Al Fayed, owner of the Ritz, returning to this same spot; to the last place his son was seen alive and how that loss, suddenly, transformed this magnificent trophy, his toy and pride and joy, into a source of relentless grief. Then I remember the words scribbled in chalk on a blackboard down in the Ritz boulangerie, the bakery. “N’oubliez pas le pain de Princesse,” they said. Don’t forget the Princess’s bread.

The reminder was meant for a different Princess, obviously. For one of the legions from the Mideast who currently set up camp in the Imperial Suite upstairs. A suite that rents for a mere 9,200 Euros a night. (Roughly $14,000 US.) As I stumble off into the heat stoked streets, past a group of gypsies towards Place Vendome, my knees wobble from climbing up and down so many flights of stairs. And my head reels with splintered visions of my tumble down the Ritz rabbit hole. Our warning shouts of “Service” as we unlocked doors to the hotel’s grandest (and hopefully, empty) suites: The Windsor, the Imperial, and the Coco Chanel (temporarily closed and under renovation. With all but the couturier’s Coromandel screens shrouded beneath white canvas covers.)  The tiny Samsung refrigerators in huge marble bathrooms, made specifically to store a woman’s make-up, the signature bell pulls for Valet and Maid near the gargantuan tubs, and bouncing on the super-size silk swathed bed beneath a portrait of Louis XIV. A bed everyone but he (that is, Louis) and George Washington seems to have either slept and/or cavorted in: Dustin Hoffman (such a small man in such a big bed, I think to myself), Clinton, Mubarek, Lindsay Lohan and Sam (huh?), queens and a king or two. Talk about incongruous bedmates. Then, there’s the Arabian nights tale of yet another Princess who requested a wall of 30 television screens in here simply so that she didn’t have to deal with mastering the remote control. (And man! Can I relate to that one!) 

I’ve always dreamed of living in a hotel. I have a friend, well, not a friend, more like a literary acquaintance who is far from rich. But he’s managed to spend most of his adult life in a series of New York hotels. And I envy him–that illusion of transience, of impermanence. Because hotels are never meant to be or feel like home. Which is why there is something both baroque and vulgar, almost tawdry, about all this over-the-top extravagance that appeals to me. The exaggerated size of everything; the miles of miles of plush Persian carpets, the silks, the glitter of crystal chandeliers, and the gold. God! So much gilt and gold. It’s nothing like home. And I feel sorry for the weary rich who can afford to take the Ritz for granted; whose futile battle against boredom too often assumes the form of complaints.”Our guests are more demanding than ever,” says my secret guide as we begin the descent into the cavernous labyrinth beneath the gilt and gold. ”Once upon a time, we didn’t have any competition, you see? And now, we do.” 

Wheezing as I struggle to keep up, we race down miles of blue tiled hallways where the hushed silence upstairs, the sense of langourous ease and purposelessness gives way to the clatter of pots and pans, the chatter of blue-uniformed maids, the dissonant image of undressed men. That is, men who have shed their tailor-made black suit jackets and rolled up their sleeves for lunch in the hotel cafeteria. There is the fragrance of fresh-baked breads, bagels, croissants, pretzels and whatever ever other floury flights of fancy might strike a capricious guest. A brief stop in the patisserie where the female chef employs twelve assistants to help create private fantasies like a hatbox garnished with five kilos of bonbons. The kitchens–as organized as any  military operation before an invasion with its army of commis chefs, line chefs, sous chefs, sauciers, head chef, and caller. And the chocolate shop (yes, the Ritz also makes its own chocolates.) I glimpse the florist shop (ten assistants, 500 bunches a month, 40,000 stems) and my favorite: The polishing chambre where thousands of pounds of hotel silver is cleaned, buffed, and gently rinsed with white wine vinegar to remove last stubborn traces of fingerprints and tarnish. The laundry rooms consume an entire four block long sous sol and the swimming pool and spa, created when Fayed bought the hotel from the Ritz family in 1979, is so immense, the space to accomodate it had to be excavated–like the ruins of Pompeii and Heraculeum, straight from the bowels of the Paris earth. 

This world downstairs is like the engine room of a superliner. Without the efforts and talents of the hundreds who commute so stealthily between it and the opulent upstairs world, the Ritz would grind to a dead halt. Flowers would wilt, food would rot, guests howl in misery. There are employees who have worked here, happily, for over forty years. And then, there are others, more disgruntled,who until recently when cameras were installed, made a point of venturing to the only stretch of corridor left in the hotel that was not under surveillance, to deface and scratch the walls, to make some silent protest against the arbitrary rule of its sole proprietor.

This, to me, of course, is one of the hotel’s greatest assets. The fact that it is the only truly grand hotel in the world that remains in the hands not of some faceless, too tasteful corporation, but of one somewhat eccentic, unimaginably wealthy man. There are many who feel that a massive renovation is long overdue at the Ritz. “The Royal Monceau, the George V, the Meurice… All of them have been freshened up. We are the only one that is still untouched,” says my tireless, exuberant guide. (Don’t even ask what I think about the decision to hire Philippe Starck and his minions of modernisn to ruin versus renovate the Meurice.) And changes are being made. Small changes like new scones in the Vendome Bar, fresh coats of paint in the restaurant, new carpets, and two remodelled modern suites in quieter, less “royal” yet no less expensive fabrics with giant television screens hidden within mirrored walls. 

But for me, and for me, there is always this BUT, I feel that she is entitled to her wrinkles, to the occasional water spot on silk upholstered walls, the dints and scrapes, the faded drapes. They are signs of her experience, of her history. Too dramatic an overhaul might endanger this sense of history, not to mention obliterate the memories, that have created this legend, this mythically extravagant refuge, known as the Paris Ritz.

For those of us who cherish our own memories of even a single visit here (mine was lunch with the mother of a friend back when I was twenty and Paris had not yet become the landmark of my youth), there is good news. The Hemingway Bar will remain exactly as it is or was back in the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, politically incorrect days of great white hunters like Papa H. (With the exception of the phone booth. This archaic romantic symbol of a time, not so long ago, when people actually preferred to conduct their conversations in private is about to be removed.) The next time you’re in town, drop in for a drink. The entrance is on Rue Cambon. 

Posted by Brenda in 16:58:39 | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Life is a Carousel

Fuck! First time, I check a bag in twenty years. Flying Open Skies, the all business airline. I figure, Hey, what can happen? Go ahead, B. Check it. And this is what happens…

at Nine hours later, I’m at the carousel. Round and round it goes. No freakin’ bag. It missed the flight, they tell me. Right. Next day, here’s what arrives. With a tag attached. Perfect Delivery, it says. 
Fabulous trip, otherwise. Will start filling you in tomorrow. 

Posted by Brenda in 14:29:57 | Permalink | Comments (7)