I am a material girl

IMG_1595Hola! Yes, the delay in posts has been due to me staying at home for an entire week all in the name of baguette research… Not really. That would be madness, wouldn’t it….?

I have been out and about though, nose along the floor, trying to find the best simple pleasures Paris can muster. One of the places that I always make a beeline for when I’ve got thumbs to twiddle and a spring in my step is the Marché Saint Pierre up in the 18th (so a mere stone’s throw from Granny Flat HQ), usually with the ‘project!’ beacon sounding almost annoyingly loudly in my head.???????????????????????????????

Now markets in Paris normally peddle a fine array of fruit and veg, but the Marché Saint Pierre is quite unique in that the only apples you will find are on the swathes of fabric it specialises in. And we’re not really talking about a collection of stalls here, rather a concentration of fabric shops over a few streets at the foot of Sacre Coeur.

Whatever sewing project you’ve recently dreamed up, there is no point whatsoever in heading anywhere in Paris than here. Not only will you find a massive selection of fabric in all colours and textures, but buttons, cotton, lace, zips, and any type of table or bed linen that your own little corner of Paris might require. In short, if it isn’t here, then the sewing gods haven’t invented it yet.

IMG_1594For the adventurous and/or skilled, a trip to the Paris’ fabric HQ will satisfy all of those creative urges to create a brand new wardrobe or a revamp the upholstery in your apartment. I certainly have high designs on the former (though sadly not much skill), instilled in me from a young age as I galavanted through my formative years dressed in a variety of unique and colourful outfits handmade by my supremely talented mother. Though this was the 80s mind you, remember the matching mother and daughter double-breasted gold lamé party shirts, Mum????????????????????????????????

If you fancy yourself as a modern-day Coco Chanel, bored of wearing the same-off-the-peg fashions as all of the rest of ’em, then all the inspiration you could need is here. If the ideas bank is running low, a trip to Reine, one of the main shops in the quarter, is essential – they make complete outfits for their doll models scattered around the store which may get the inspiration flowing.

If you’re like me, and full of good intentions but lacking in the execution part, then some new cushions for the click clack is a manageable project. Just step away from the gold lamé though, that’s all mine…

101 ways with a baguette #3: The classic Parisian

???????????????????????????????If you’re intending on spending an extended stretch in Paris, then any temporary Parisian worth their salt will have made it a point to get in bed (so to speak) with the local boulanger very early on. You’ve scouted your quartier, shovelled a few sub-standard bread sticks into your mouth in the name of research (that big wedge of cheese sure helped hide the disappointment), and settled on a lucky candidate who’s snaking queue out the door gets the prize of being graced every day with your lovely fesse.

Congratulations. You get to regularly experience one of Paris’ most underrated and simplest pleasures – the ritual of the daily baguette. Even if you’re in Paris for a couple of days, it should be right at the top of your list of essential experiences to search out in the city. Crikey, if you didn’t think the baguette was important enough, they started revolutions over the darn things. It’s right up there in things that make the French get up every morning. Run a ten second montage of Paris through your head. There’s a baguette in every shot right? As steadfastly present in the background as Wally of Where’s…? fame.

Your task is simple. Go the your local boulangerie. Select a baguette. The tradition is the most popular, but you can choose the classic baguette, or even a really skinny one called ficelle (meaning ‘string’) if you reached your daily croissant quota way too early. Exchange pleasantries with the baker, pay your euro (or thereabouts) and begin salivating when you are handed a still warm baguette.

Exit the boulangerie. Walk down the road ripping chunks off the baguette, stuffing them into your mouth. Stick it in your bike basket or skip down the road whilst replaying La Marseillaise in your head. However you choose to travel, I promise you will never feel more French than with a warm baguette in your arms. Or get more enjoyment out of anything so simple. Every time you do it. Whatever you do, just try and make sure there’s enough left for everyone else by the time you get home. Now that’s the real trick.

 

Let’s get ready to rummage!

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There are a few things I miss about life back in old Blighty. A fluffy loaf of sliced bread. Readily available kale. Customer service… But one of the things I most lament is the complete absence of charity shops in Paris, probably a controversial opinion if you’re a reader from the UK, sick of seeing them popping up on your high streets like an unfortunate disease.

Now I can’t profess to knowing an awful lot about fashion. My clothes fit, I reckon I’ve got the classic look down, but I’m in absolutely in no danger at all of being bothered by one of those ‘style on the streets’ journalists, scouring the pavements for the city’s best dressed. My cupboards are full of many items of clothing that are not, and will never be friends.

I hope that explains my love of charity shops. Who cares if you make bad choices? For a few euros it doesn’t matter if you pick up a couple of what were you thinking?! items, never to be worn again. Plus I’ve fallen out of love with many of the high street shops dotted around the city, who either seem to be luring us in to some kind of elaborate fashion joke, or relying on clothes made by people with their eyes closed.

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But in Paris, charity shops are likely to be viewed as the antithesis of modern fashion. The awkward 90s teenager dressed in gravity-defying jeans and a tie-die t-shirt versus Audrey Hepburn. Sure there are plenty of ‘vintage’ shops to be found, but to me that’s just a word that justifies whacking another 20 euros on a second-hand piece of clothing. I want to work for my spoils, and get change from a 10 euro note for the privilege.

Imagine my delight when I came across Guerrisol the day I moved into my new quarter, a second-hand wonderland of clothes, shoes, bags and bric-a-brac. Now a charity shop it isn’t, it’s a commercial operation, but the prices are spirit-buoyantly low. It’s possible to rummage around, and walk off with a complete outfit, including shoes, for just over a tenner.

Now, just as in charity shops back home, there is an awful lot of tat, and whilst there are some clothes arranged on rails, there are a few tables piled high with second-hand goodies that demand some quite serious rifling. But it’s always possible to find some gems if you have the patience, like I did this morning when I walked off with a cream, fine knit merino jumper from Banana Republic for 3 paltry euros.

Maybe rummaging through piles of clothes smelling of decades past just isn’t your thing. But I personally love the challenge, and the knowledge that I won’t be walking down the street dressed like everyone else head to toe in H+M, Zara and Mango’s latest seasonal offerings (although you will find old lines from all three here). Plus there’s something quite virtuous and save-the-planet-y about recycling someone’s cast-offs rather than buying new.

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You’d better be quick if you’re interested though, there are plenty of Parisian fashionistas catching on to this trend and scouring through the rails, so you just might have a fight on your hands… But handily there are eight shops in total in the city (mostly based up and around the 18th, catering for women, men and kids, so in theory there should be plenty to go round.

Check out http://www.guerrisol.fr

It’s all in the details… pharmacy signs

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The massive erection that dominates Paris (the Eiffel Tower… what were you thinking?), the uncomprehensibly large sprawl of the Louvre, the glittering mass of the Grand Palais… Paris may not be famed for its skyline, but there’s plenty of architectural heavyweights jostling for space nevertheless.

But as impressive as the big daddies of the cityscape are, I prefer furrowing around the city looking at all the small stuff that everyone else misses. The real nuts and bolts of a city, those tiny details that aren’t deemed attractive or exciting enough to celebrate. You can take your sparkling Eiffel Tower rudely cutting into the night sky; if we’re talking about a real light show you need to look no further than the guy that illuminates the city via a sophisticated network of blinking green lights dotted around every corner.

The pharmacy sign guy. That awesome guy. Forget Gustave Eiffel. Let me tell you his story.

One hazy day 50 years ago, the pharmacists of Paris were lounging round in their tablet shaped house (let’s say they were in the red end, the white end is of course the sleeping quarters), sipping cups of coffee, and moaning collectively about how trade was flagging. One bright spark piped up and pointed the finger at the choice of signage; the old crayon-drawn ‘farmacee’ sign was starting to look a bit tatty. They scribbled down a few ideas for a new sign but to no avail, being pseudo-scientists of course, and therefore incapable of anything remotely artistic.

“We are useless (excluding our talents for making love, cooking and counting tablets and putting them into boxes, and pretty much everything else except sign making)” said one to the rest. “Oui,” said another, followed by a further handful of ‘oui’s’ from the others that put the little pig and his journey home quite to shame. So they all went off secretly to have clandestine affairs and reconvened a couple of hours later and decided that they’d employ a person to do it for them and would pay him a handsome wage. In asprin.

They went on to http://www.pharmacysignwriters.net and found Pierre, a failed artist who needed a challenge, and lots of asprin. “We plan to take over the country one pharmacy at a time so help us God so we need you to come up with a sign that not only says ‘Pharmacy’ but also hypnotises potential customers into entering our doors and buying lots of medication that they don’t need,” the pharmacists said. “D’accord” Pierre said, between cigarettes. “I will make you a sign that is the most beautiful sign you have ever seen, vive la France.” So they built him a little workshop in the syringe shaped garden, and he set to work.

Being a typical artist, Pierre decided to ignore the first objective of the brief, but by God, went crazy with the second. After a couple of days, the pharmacists put down their boxes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle band-aids that they’d been throwing at each other and went to the garden to visit Pierre in his shed to check on progress. Just beyond the prescription pad-embossed patio doors, Pierre had installed his young apprentice cousin, Yves, to distribute darkened goggles to the passing pharmacists.

As they neared the shed, nestled deep down in the needle part of the lawn, a strange green light licked their white lab coats from bottom to top, as Pierre threw open the doors. An earnestly flashing, giant green cross greeted their eyes, and provoked such excitement among the crowd that Yves had to be dispatched back to the tablet house to fetch a few rounds of ibuprofen. Hypnotised by the sheer power of his creation, within a week every pharmacy in France was adorned with a blinking green appendage, attracting saucer-eyed customers to each premises like rust to a dirty, old bicycle.

The pharmacists enjoyed the fruits of their successful scheme for many years, adding gold fringing and sequinned lapels to their lab coats, making sure Pierre had enough boxes of asprin to build a small fort. The artist has tried to recreate the original success by adding spinning characters, rolling text streams and weather data to selected signs in Paris (probably the aspirin rather than raw talent), but nothing beats that hallowed original. It almost makes you wish for a headache, just to be lured in by that emerald green light…

Lou Messugo

Oh quai. Books it is.

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More than any city in the world than I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting (and jeez, I’ve been around), Paris is the one that lends itself the most to walking. Given its small size and my talent for pounding the pavements, we really are a match made in heaven. Though as much as I like walking, I’m actually not very good at it in a leisure sense, one of my friends remarking that he’s never seen anyone who walks as fast as I do. And I’m just a shade over five feet.

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But books are another of my loves, and it is them, and only them, that have the power to slow me down. And where literature is concerned, Paris sure knows how to put on a good show. Enter the city’s bouquinistes, those riverside second-hand book vendors keeping my footfall speed to an absolute minimum.

Being a river city, with the famous Seine snaking from one side of the capital to the other, Paris is made for strolling. You’ll see many of the famous sights as you meander along the connecting quais, which is quite lovely of course, but I much prefer to keep my nose trailing past the goods on display in the little green pop up shops where the bouquinistes earn their crusts.

If old books are your thing, then this is second-hand book utopia. Although… for the large part they are written in French, so you’ll either have to brush up on your language skills, or choose one full of pictures. But if you’re anything like me, just being in the company of an army of resting books makes me feel quite calm and content, without the need for any money to change hands whatsoever.

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If smelly used books don’t make your fingers tingle, then you can content yourself with flicking through the array of old maps, newspaper clippings, adverts and postcards that are on offer, taking you back into the past via an alternative portal. Or if tourist tat is the only thing that gets your engines burning, then you’ll be quite at home choosing a set of Paris coasters, as opposed to a weighty tome for your coffee table. Whatever you’re after, the booksellers can’t be relied upon to be there every day rain or shine, but you’ll usually find a few along the route braving the weather.

Existing since the 16th century, the bouquiniste trade may be one of the humbler parts of Paris history, but the vendors have lived through almost as much drama as contained between the pages of the books they sell, from revolutions to devastating city floods. And they are much celebrated too, a popular subject of artists trying the capture the city’s soul, the quaint green book huts are also included on the UNESCO world heritage list as part of the wider area of the banks of the Seine. Which is probably where that Kindle of yours belongs, no?

In season: April

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The 1st April may be ‘officially’ a day concerned with fish (it’s called the poisson d’Avril over here, and the aim is to try and attach a paper fish to someone’s back without them noticing), but today it’s fruit and vegetables that are really stealing the headlines.

According to a new study, eating the hallowed five portions of fruit and vegetables a day just doesn’t quite cut it anymore – we’re now supposed to try and fit seven portions, up to ten if possible, into our bellies each and every day. This isn’t just some vegan punishment you understand, the health benefits are apparently quite considerable.

So… this being the new order of things, the time is er, ripe to hit Parisian markets to fill as many shopping bags as you can carry filled with nature’s candy. Given that eating ten portions of fruit and veg a day isn’t the cheapest undertaking in the world, eating seasonably becomes even more important, meaning eating well doesn’t have to smash a watermelon-shaped hole in your bank account.

Here are the best seasonal fruit and veg April has to offer:

Beetroot – betterave
Broccoli – broccoli
Cabbage – chou
Carrot – carrotte
Cauliflower – chou-fleur
Celeriac – céleri rave
Leeks – poireau
Lettuce – laitue
Potatoes – pomme de terre
Radishes – radis
Rhubarb – rhubarb
Spinach – épinards
Spring onion – oignons frais
Watercress – cresson

Now that it’s warm enough to eat salad, here’s a recipe for a traditional French vinaigrette, that no bowl of lush green leaves should be without.

3 tbs olive oil
1 tbs red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp good quality mustard
1 chopped shallot
salt and pepper

Keep a small jar handy in your kitchen – an empty caper jar for example – to shake the ingredients in. As long as you get the ratio of oil and acid right, you can play around with the additions as you fancy. Add some herbs, honey, anchovies – whatever you have handy in the cupboard (though not together… anchovies and honey anyone?). Any extra can be kept in the fridge. Simple sophistication that only the French can be responsible for…