Venice is Very Nice

Okay guys.  Venice. Venice, right?               So we had to take what I believe counts as every single type of ground transportation short of Segway (trademark) in order to reach the airport.  Having finances foremost in our minds we cancelled our cab (like 70 euros to the airport, uh say wha?) and instead got up at 4, dragged our bags on foot, onto the metro, onto a surface train, onto a bus, on to a moving walkway (thought I’d forget the moving walkway mode of ground transportation didn’t you!? HA!) and up a disappointing number of steps to get to the airport where we boarded a plane, taking one of the main modes of air travel available to humans, all the way to Venice, where we then deplaned, dragged our bags for twenty minutes to the Alilaguna Water Bus blue line, thereby completing the trifecta of travel, aka the sextuple-single-single. The water bus dropped us at its first stop in Venice and let’s face it, people call it pretty because of how damned pretty it is.  It’s like Labyrinth if there was more beautiful canals and less David Bowie crotch fantasia.  It is literally impossible to find your way from one place to another unless you happen upon a stream of people indicating that you are on your way hopefully to someplace important, and sometimes away from someplace important.  Luckily, no matter where you go Venice is still an enchanted maze of twisting, crumbling, shoulder width alleyways that cross marble and stone bridges over canals that wander off lazily in either direction. Our accommodation, recommended by trip advisor as 51st best B & B in Venice (nothing but the 51st best for my baby!), was the Hotel Vecellio, right across the street from the water bus stop and therefore looking straight out at the lagoon and at Murano, an island a short ferry hop away.  After a spirited chat with the owner Matteo we learned we’d be staying at the Annex to the Hotel Vecellio which was around the corner and down a teeny alley.  This was a perfect and for Venice incredibly spacious room with a huge for Venice bathroom.  Breakfast at 8-10, a lot of day and Venice to explore, so off we go. Here’s the thing about us.  The only time we’re not the shiny happy people you all know and love is when we’re hungry, and we hadn’t eaten yet, so we struck out at random, a small map in hand… actually let me just say, maps in Venice are useful only if you’re an Indian tracker in the old west.  There are no cars in Venice (imagine how hard it is to throw away the garbage, move furniture or restock your restaurant) and therefore no real streets.  They have a different word, and sometimes multiple different words, for alleys, alleys with an archway, alleys with shops, covered alleys, bridges, paths by the water, paths near a church, plazas near a church, alleys with courtyards, areas near a plaza.  So say your stupid little map indicates you should take Calle (street?) Madonna.  That path has that name for about twenty feet, then because you go under an archway, it changes, but not just the first part, the second too.  So now you’re at Sestiere Reggio, which is about to hit a plaza with a church in it, and now you understand that when there IS a name for what you’re walking on it, no guarantee in itself, it can sometimes have literally three different names in just one section of walking.  Couple this with the fact that three quarters of the alleyways aren’t listed on google maps or anything else, none go for more than 50 feet without a 90 degree turn, t-intersection where both directions lead into a canal, a gypsy woman just chuckin’ curses at passersby and a dead end where you have to answer a winged lion’s three questions in order to receive a fine locally made glass tchotchke.  This sounds like a terror nightmare but is actually sort of the point and only once did we get lost and have to answer that lion’s questions.  They were mostly sports so I did okay. Rather than a blow by blow account of each of the four days here I’ll just hit the highlights and discoveries. Venice is a tourist trap.  The whole city is built to get money from you, but with smart internet research (Celina) you can find amazing deals and even the few places locals hang out.  Being food tourists and secret snobs (hey Josh, it’s me, your wife. It’s only a secret to us, I think). we didn’t want to order off the menu turistica (a three course thing in most restaurants that always involves that hallmark of Italian cuisine, the French fry) of one of the countless traps lining the main thoroughfares.  We wanted to taste real Italian food.  In Venice, that’s seafood.  As far as we could tell the amount of green on the island is limited to a park in the south corner, everything but fish has to be brought in daily by boat, so with the goal of good Venetian bites we generally started each day’s journey. There are a few things to know about Italy.  The French café culture, where all the chairs on the patio face the sidewalk like you’re sitting in a theater and you just sit and drink teeny strong coffees for hours on end while looking at beautiful people, doesn’t exist here.  Instead, between noon and three there is a break, all the shops close and suddenly the countless little bars and trattorias are packed with locals first having a quick coffee, then a glass of wine and a sandwich.  Every single place you go into, sweet shops, restaurants, bakeries, has a bar and serves coffee and liquor.  And behind the counter are a myriad of different small sammies for cheap that you order, they fire in a Panini press, and you eat while standing.  But this isn’t typical bar food because it’s speck, or fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and olives, etc.  It’s something unique to here that is a cheap and delicious way to grab a bite.  Plus, there’s a two hour nap built in for me before things get started again!  Wine gets ya that early in the day man.

Weena enjoys a quick espresso with hideous old Italian ladies!

Another delightful sneaky snack for the pennily pinched is happy hour.  Some bars have a buffet they set out and for around ten bucks each you get a drink (the common after work one here is a Spritz, Campari and soda or an orange colored slightly sweeter Campari cousin and soda) and as many trips to the snack table as you want.  It’s mostly different types of bruschetta, little bread bits with various smears on there.  Anchovy, or fresh ricotta, or the traditional tomato, garlic, basil.  Plus one heaping, steaming bowl of fresh pasta with veggies, or a risotto with some seafood in there.  So at 5:30 you pile in, grab a seat and a very strong drink and start shoveling food.  Then, when you’re done your drink, off to someplace else for more spritz’s or wine and a dazed but warm and romantic wobble through the alleys hopefully towards home.  Everything shuts down at 8 except restaurants and bars, they shut down at 10 or midnight, especially in the off season where we are, so they even have early bedtimes!  It’s like Josh heaven! We were lucky enough to be here on a Saturday, market day, and we crossed the Rialto bridge, one of two that goes from the outer ring of Venice (where St. Mark’s Cathedral and square are) to the inner island where, like, that market I was talking about is.  It’s an open air farmer’s/fisher’s market and people crowd down to get the freshest catches from the Adriatic sea.  On the cheap eats tip we found a place called Muro’s which was a hopping bar and snack place inside that, on this day and this day alone,  has an outdoor patio where for 7 euro you get a glass of fizzy chardonnay and a huge bowl of steaming, lightly battered and fried whatever looked good at the fishmongers an hour ago.  We sat in this beautiful plaza waiting for them to haul out the steaming platter of squid, shrimp, sardines and scallops and hopped in line.   Did you guys know squid doesn’t have to be chewy?  It can be as tender as the perfectly al dente pasta.  The light but salty breading on everything was all the seasoning you needed, no sauces or anything.  Plus, for whatever reason I’ve recently become addicted to Sardines (they’re really good for you) because eating them, bones and all, makes me feel like a man.  A man who may be concerned about his omega-3 fatty acid intake but a man nonetheless.  This giant serving of perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked seafood that tasted of the sea but had no fishy smell at all, with the crisp white cutting through the little bit of oil, while sitting outside with thirty people all talking with their hands in the cold clear day… it was exactly what we’d hoped for.

(note how my part fits seamlessly into Venetian architecture)

I ate squid ink pasta.  It’s a local and very popular dish.  It came out and they weren’t kidding.  That shit is black yo.  It’s like spaghetti after an oil tanker crashed on it.  The squid ink is the sauce and is salty and oceany, again not fishy, and is actually amazing and delicious.  The fresh pasta is so wonderful here, cooked in super salty water so even on its own it’s a delicious thing.  Old news but your pasta water should taste like the sea before you add your pasta.  Also, add a little of the pasta water to your sauce after, the starch thickens the sauce naturally.  Here’s my concern though.  I’ve eaten beets and I’ve eaten asparagus.  I know how quickly those can become the boss of your guts.  They’ll take over the place and boss all your smells and fluids around and suddenly you’re positive you caught an STD from the toilet seat the night before (an impossibility here given that often its literally just a tiled hole in the floor.)  So um, after ingesting a pound of what is literally ink… everything came out normal.  Where did that ink go guys?  Where? Venice was the most powerful city and culture in the world for a bunch of centuries (research guys, I do it for you).  They’re major claim to fame in the tourist attraction line nowadays is St. Mark’s Cathedral and Square.  It attracts people from all over the world who, according to every sign, website and guidebook, are all pick pockets.  It is breathtaking though.  The square itself is a giant open rectangular courtyard, which considering every other inch of the place is jam packed with teetering buildings is all the more breathtaking, flanked on three sides by long wings covered in beautiful arches and pillars.  Added in three stages (the last by Napolean, that total dick), they show you three styles of architecture in one eyeful.  I think they are baroque (insert if it ain’t baroque don’t ba-fix it joke here), renaissance and neo-classical.  Does that mean anything to you?  Not to me either, but at the time, looking at them, I got it in a magical way.  At the other end stands a giant bell tower (that fell over once, ha!) the world’s first digital clock with two dudes hammering a bell at the top, flaps that show every ten minutes and an ornate clock face with the 24 hr clock on it.  Then, finally, the cathedral itself.

St. Mark's Cathedral and the Bell Tower

The Venetians, when they were the bosses of everything, went on a bunch of crusades and stole everybody else’s best stuff so this is like a greatest hits of the Byzantine era.  Steal a bunch of marble pillars?  Jam em on there.  Enslave some Bysantines?  Get em to gold leaf up the place.  Got four beautifully sculpted giant bronze horses?  Yoink!  They’re ours now bitches!  You’d think it’d look hodgepodge but instead it’s like one of those few antiques stores where everything fits. An interesting note on the religion of the time.  Europeans, particularly western ones, celebrate Jesus’ life, he’s an inspiration because he showed us by example how to be awesome.  Us new worlders seem hell bent on only celebrating his death.  He died for your sins so you better be good.  It’s a leading by example rather than by guilt thing that I hadn’t considered before.  As a result, churches here are a lot less about crucifixes or weeping folks at the foot of a dead guy and are instead about him doing the fun magic tricks with the wine and fishes.  St. Mark’s floor plan is the greek cross, just a plus sign symbolizing perfection, not the traditional cross we know which is another reminder that some guy did this thing we didn’t ask him to and now it’s on us to be nice or he’ll come get us if we say his name three times in a mirror (I’m getting my bible stories mixed up.) The coolest thing about St. Marks, and the reason it’s so important, is that one of the many things the Venetians stole was literally the corpse of St. Mark.  The guy who wrote a bunch of the bible.  A couple dudes stole his bones, brought them here and buried them under the church making Venice an instantly recognized religious center and increasing it’s power tenfold.  So we walked on top of one of the guys that wrote the bible’s bones.  That’s cooler than the time I met the drummer from Gowan’s band!  In the treasure room of the church, which completely non-ironically costs extra to enter, they’ve got crystal chalices from before Christ came on the scene, they’ve got ornate jeweled swords, AND they’ve got just a ton of bones of important people.  You know the guy at the gates of heaven?  I’ve seen his shin bone.  I’ve seen St. Mark’s femur.  The way they display them is they forge a golden or metal arm or leg with a window in there, then they put the bone in the window where it would be in that newly cast leg.  For sure those things are all coming together to form some ancient android super saint who’ll kick a bad guy’s ass (Captain America 2!  Coming this Christmas).  That’s cool stuff right?  Bones of bibilically famous guys.  Also, the church itself was real pretty.  No pics inside though… unless you a ninja!

Ninja Pic! That dome is the story of Adam and Eve!

We didn’t do the gondoliers.  It’s that thing where you say you like something about someone and then they kind of automatically don’t do that thing ever again, or they  consciously do it from then on ruining the fun?  Venice is like that.  TEAM DEAN: Oh Venice, we love those guys with the hats that sing while punting around the canals!  VENICE: Oh yeah?  In that case here’s billions of them.  And you said you liked glittery masks right?  Have we got a surprise for you! On the advice of my mom we did just take the aquabus which runs the whole grand canal, then out into the sea to another small island, then back, for like no dough whatsoever.  PLUS, on the way back we went by a gondolier where the guy was singing some opera, so it was like a twofer. There are dogs everywhere here and since it’s pretty chilly, the stones of the city just emanate cold, they all have clothes on.   It’s funny.  Another funny thing was that we saw a lady sneak up behind a guy and jump out and scare him and he literally yelled “Mama Mia!”  They actually say that! Our last night we had to change hotels, the one we were in was closing for some holidays.  We moved to a bed and breakfast in the same neighborhood but this one was actually just a lovely old couple’s home.  As chance would have it we had noted them the night before as we had a nightcap nearby because they were feeding a dog chips.  They were kind and they’re home was lovely and clean and spacious.  It did feel like a grandparents house, there were even hard candies in a dish, so we couldn’t get too overwhelmed by the romance of the city cuz ew, who wants to wake nana and gramps?  Sadly, the sweet old man that ran the place had MS so he was pretty herky jerky.  This was only mildly disconcerting until he brought us our boiling hot pot of freshly brewed coffee in the morning.  It was like a slow motion nightmare, his kindly, smiley face stuttering towards us with an old school espresso pot still red hot from the stove, lave hot blips of coffee popping out here and there.  We escaped unscathed, unscalded really, said good day to their spry 14 year old cat Dada and had one last jaunt. We found a teeny pizzeria completely unmarked down a teensy tiny alleyway which was so awesome and cheap and awesome.  Super deep dish pizza with a little mozzarella and dried salami on it.  While we were there they kept pulling giant beautiful loaves of bread out of the pizza oven and as though by intuition each time one came out another local would pop in, get a fresh warm loaf and a slice.  Then we sashayed into one of the bakeries.  It being around one o’clock it was packed with people standing around drinking either wine or coffee, we sidled up and ordered a couple cappucino’s, in Europe everything is cheaper if you order it at the bar, sitting automatically doubles the costs, and saw these fresh doughnuts they were just setting out.  We ordered a couple and listen people… holy kablam.  Picture the lightest fluffiest airiest beignet, make the outside a little crispier, roll it in cinnamon and sugar, then fill it with custard or sabayonne.  Then eat that warm.  Then change your pants. All in all, Venice was more than we could have hoped.  It’s a mystical place that you can’t describe.  You walk with no idea where you’re going, find a stunning church every thirty steps, cross bridges, turn randomly, and somehow find yourself in an even more beautiful part of town than the already beautiful part of town you were in.  It’s like a cartoon of itself in a lot of ways, a decaying, crumbling, sinking ancient city filled with either shiny gore-tex clad tourists or old, crumbling locals shuffling about with their dogs.  There are so many places trying to look like it, Disneyland or Vegas, that we’re almost used to the idea of it, but to actually walk those echoing narrow alleyways and pause on a bridge over a canal to kiss in the chilly air is an experience that can’t be duplicated in any city anywhere in the world.


Bonne Annee!

Celina here, playing catch up! With so much fun to be had, it’s been hard to find the time to jot everything down. So I’m gonna blow through the next couple days up until now and give you some highlights rather than the details. New Years Eve Day. Croissant, coffee, then on our way to see Notre Dame. It’s beautiful and haunting and I see where Victor Hugo got inspiration from. We toured through and saw relics from past popes and supposed pieces of the cross… it’s not the kinda place I’d go to seek comfort necessarily, but it’s terrifyingly impressive. There sure is a lot of gold and money within those walls. Whatever your thought are on religion, there’s no disputing the fact that it’s a masterpiece. We walked to the Eiffel tower (guys, it’s way taller and also wider at the bottom than I expected) but decided to come back a later date to see it from the top at night. A meander home, a nap, and then it was time to get dolled up to ring in the New Year at THE MOULIN FLIPPIN’ ROUGE. WHAT?!?!?!?! Yup and yup. Now, when we told Le Hipsters from the restaurant the night before  (Josh wrote about them last blog) where we were going to be, they kinda laughed at us, then admitted that they’d never been there. Which seems to be the case with most locals. They scoff at it, and then say they haven’t been there. So here’s the thing- they don’t know what they’re missing. The evening was a fantastic blur to tell you the truth, thanks to bottles and bottles and bottles of champagne (Champagne, oysters and Foie Gras being must haves for all Parisians on New Years, this was proven right by glances in the shopping bags of pedestrians throughout the day) and red wine. Though some of the details are hazy, I’ll tell you this- it looks more classic and elegant than I imagined it would, and just as I’d hoped. Everything was red, each table was lit with tiny lamps and from our balcony, we were perfectly poised over the table for the big show. We arrived at 9, were promptly escorted to our seats and poured glasses of 2004 Rose Crystal, just the best start to an evening. On stage was a band and two crooners, a sort of Corsican Tom Jones and a Patti Stiles look alike. They sang in French and English, and handsome and mismatched couples alike took to the dance floor between their dinner courses. We had the best seats in the house to observe (incidentally I recognized the perspective of our seat in a Toulouse Lautrec painting at the Louvre… once upon a time he sat exactly where we were. Radical.) and finally, once we made it through our first bottle of bubbles (part of the entry was a bottle of Crystal for each guest, it was sponsored by them, if they also sponsored vomitoriums they’d have gotten us both ways), we headed down to join the swaying throng. Amazing! Just like the ballroom scenes in the Muppet Show! It was the kind of thing I’ve dreamed of doing but didn’t really think existed anymore. Dancing and drinking and dining, oh my! We were served a set menu- a coddled egg amuse bouche, fois gras and toast, a scallop and lobster, tender veal with vegetables and a giant meringue with chocolate mousse and macarons for dessert. Solid, lovely, food and (too much) red wine to accompany it. A photographer came around and took photos of all of the couples in the room, and then our server for the night presented us with gift bags- and heck, I like gifts! And then! And then! And then confetti cannons were shot- it was midnight and we all clinked glasses and smooched and laughed. AND THEN the show started. That’s right, a midnight start time for a two hour, what I can only refer to as SPECTACULAR. Think Eurovision and that’ll get you to the right sort of mental place. Girls, all 5”8 came out in sparkly spandex costumes, and hair pulled back into tight buns- like the Rockettes, but topless. Yup! It’s the Moulin Rouge after all. Though I must admit, I expected the girls in cancan skirts without nickers doing high kicks, you know, like the movie and the olden days, but nope, it was a more modern show. There was an amazing male and female balancing act, a terrible ventriloquist act, and then the dance floor where we’d all been swirling about hours earlier disappeared to reveal a giant tank filled with water and SNAKES. I know what you’re thinking: and yes, a pretty naked lady did in fact get in and swim around with them. Hurp. The show was awesome and truly very similar to the Rockette’s . There were male dancers in the show too, but they were fully clothed so whatever and who needs’em? The show ended and the pretty French photographer came back with our prom photos and four matchbooks with our faces on them? Did we order them? Were they a gift? We’ll never know, but if anyone needs a light, we’ve got four. AND THEN? And then a DJ started playing fun dance music and all the servers came around with boxes of Eyes Wide Shut masks, sparkly hats, feathered crowns and so we grabbed stuff and headed down to dance our way into 2012. Josh and I are not traditionally into tearing it up, especially on New Year’s Eve, and I think we may have officially made up for years past, and yet to come. Good lord, what an amazing night. Except for the part where the taxi we had ordered never came, so we wandered through the Paris streets for an hour to drunkenly barely find our way back to the hotel.ImageBut the streets were filled with people shouting “Bonne Annee!”, empty bottles and streamers everywhere, and so, if that’s the worst thing to come out of the evening, I think it indeed will be a very Bon Anne! New Years Day? Well, sleep was necessary as was laundry, followed by a lovely roast duck at the nearby brasserie- a good way to cure a champagne hangover. Another solution? More champagne! Yup, we got a bottle from the corner store and went back up to the hotel room to drink more bubbles and watch/fall asleep to Cowboy’s vs Aliens. 2012! The Year of BUBBLES! Over the next four days in Paris we covered a lot of ground and even some of the sky- we got to the top of the Eiffel tower at night,

enjoyed hot chocolate and macarons at Laduree, went to the museums L’Orangerie (built to house the GIANT water lilies painted by Monet. My goodness, for me a more spiritual experience than Notre Dame)  and the Louvre,

to the cemetery to see the graves of Zola, Ionesco, Baudelaire, and others, dined at L’Entrecote for the best (too much) steak frites (you sit down and they simply ask you how you like your steak cooked, then bring it out with amazing sauce and fries- there are no other dining options here), and on our last night with Martin, enjoyed one more “night of bites” with oysters, cheese, and wines, all from different fun joints, and finally a dinner at la Poule au Pot. The place is lined with bronze plaques touting names of a million random celebrities from the Carpenters to Kanye, and of course, the food was delicious and the service well, hilarious. The evening ended there with us singing some French song with our waiter that involved a lot of train sounds and swaying. We said goodbye to our dear pal Martin that night- he’s now back in Canada making television (watch for the LA Complex on Much Music and this summer on the CW- CONGRATS Y’ALL!!!!).  We thank him for being INCREDIBLE, miss him terribly, but we must carry on- it’s what Martin would want. RIght buddy? We moved hotel locations to hang out in Mont Martre and ended up staying right behind the Moulin Rouge. The area is so fantastic- yes, it’s touristy (we’re in Paris so, where isn’t it touristy?) but the history is thrilling. We’re walking the same streets as Picasso and Modigliani and yes, even that pixie Amelie. Wind mills and Sacre Coeur and the Lapin Agile- now I really like French cabaret and yup, was really delighted to hear some Edith Piaf songs during our last dinner with Martin, but I wanted too to see what the current cabaret scene is like in Paris. We found out at a place called le Limonaire- somehow got two of the last four seats in the tiniest place where we ate lentils and sausage, drank wine and at ten, witnessed some crazy. The little place jammed full with even more folks standing at the back, and the front window was a collage of ears and eyes pressed to it to see what was going on inside. We randomly happened across one of the single weirdest nights of entertainment that I’ve experienced- a duo of dudes performing a mix of beat (?) poetry and songs. The head of the duo, rocking a bit of a Dali look really managed to confuse the folks who even spoke the same language as him, and as best as we could tell he transitioned from performing rousing, totally improvised speeches in either French or Italian to some of the craziest slap double bass I think ever existed. The other guy had a small mic he would attach to anything to instantly transform it into an incredible percussion instrument.  Throughout the night he played a squeaky wooden chair, a rubber band, an enormous oktoberfest beer snifter, the lead singer (as the guy gave one of his cuckoo speeches he grabbed him in the heimlich and forced a beat into his speech by squeezing him every once in a while), people’s tables, glasses, a chain on a high hat, a rusty dented old crash symbol pressed into the other guys bass strings, and then just sometimes the little drum kit.  It was AWESOME. And weird. And awesome.

Our last day in Paris took us to Versailles to see the Palace- whoa. Just whoa. It’s even grander than I imagined. The womp womp part is that due to bad weather, the grounds were closed, but that just means that we get to go back some day, right? Greedy greedy.

Our last night in Paris- well, to be honest, we almost quit. You know how you think you have a certain amount in the bank and suddenly when you look you have less than that by, oh, about all of it?  We almost came home instead of carrying on to the next leg of the journey. I mean, the time we’ve had? Amazing! And even subsidized trips aren’t free. We did the math and decided, since canceling would cost as much as carrying on, we ought to carry on after all. To Italy. Paris was, in a word, enchanting. In a bunch more, it was everything that I’ve waited for and I think like many people, it inspired me: to be better, smarter, a more rounded (and better dressed) human. What I’ve taken away: the point of work is to live well. I want to work and live, well.

Paris! Les premières journées!

Joshua Christian Dean stepping in for the sweetest wonder girl Celina.  See, she’s been doing most of the typing while I’ve been doing most of the napping.  Five nights in a row of either gigantic red meat meals or creamy buttery red meat meals means that I have not been sleeping, just trying to find a position in which my stomach stops nagging my brain about the abuse I’ve been handing out to it.

So now it’s my turn!  When we last left off we were eating ridiculously and on a train.  Here’s what happened next…

That bullet train brought us in to the center of Paris some danged place.  Not the main train station but some kinda creepy one.  We dragged our stuff to the curb, found a cab and took what was likely the most scenic (and therefore the slowest) route the cab driver could think of to our hotel.  A simple cab ride turned into an expensive but absolutely beautiful tour along the Seine, meaning we passed by everything from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower to the Hotel D’Invalides (a war museum where Napolean’s teensy tiny body is entombed.)  For Celina I can only imagine what this experience was so I’m gonna leave some space here for her to scat and bebop on the subject, but for me it was truly like seeing everything for the first time.  The size, the grandeur, the beauty of every single freaking building.  It’s not possible to take it in all at once.  I suppose that’s why people recommend just taking it slow and wandering where your feet take you.  It lets the city slip past your brain and into your body, because trying to process it mentally is just about impossible.

After a short detour that took us to the wrong hotel (not the cabbie’s fault so don’t worry) we took another cab across the Seine and back some of the way we’d come to Les Halles, an area of Paris which was formerly called “The Belly of Paris” because it was one giant centralized fresh market for the entirety of the city.  Imagine if New York decided to just have every restaurant, butcher, food provisioner, grocer etc just get all their product from one insane giant market in the times square.  That’s what it would have been like.  They’ve since moved the market quite a while back but the area remains and many of the cool restaurants the workers at Les Halles frequented are still there.  Like Le Pied Au Cochon, foot of the pig, which specializes in pigs trotters, or did.  We stopped by for a bite and found it to be extremely touristy at this stage.  I think one of the worst for us/best for them things that can happen to a restaurant is for it to be mentioned in a guide book.

This is proving to be an ongoing issue.  We want to eat real food in real Parisienne restaurants, not wind up unwittingly in a tourist trap or the Paris equivalent of TGIFriday’s or the Olive Garden (though I know soup salad and breadsticks has its value).  But how to do that?  We’ve pieced some hints together.  First, if they serve food all day and night, they are not for people from here who eat a huge lunch at like 1 and then dinner at 8 and all the restaurants close in between.  We also noticed that while most places have a Zagat sticker, only a select few had “best of 2006” or something like it from the local weekly paper stickers.  Like Vue’s best of Edmonton.  That means those places are where the locals go.  Side bar!  Boring!  Moving on!

After checking into our hotel by Les Halles we were hungry so we headed out into the streets and looked for some eats.  First thing to catch our eye was a roast chicken stand.  Super cheap, insanely salty and greasy (cooked rotisserie style with the fat dripping from the top chickens down onto the bottom ones) and delicious!  Deciding we’d want to sample as much as we could we declared this “The Night of Bites!” and moved on to our next stop.  Apparently a popular new year’s eve and winter time fave is the Oysters and Champagne.  What are we, not gonna do that?  So we found a suitable looking bistro and had a sit, a sip and a slurp.  Yum!  We needed a main course though and we happened upon Chez Denise, which I’d seen on Anthony Bourdain’s no reservations show.  It had looked awesome so we went in.  It was empty and we thought, uh-oh, warning sign, but when we decided to try anyway the waiter was like, what?  For dinner?  It’s 5:30.  We open at 7:30.  Aaaaahhhhh.  So, determined to eat there we went for drinks for a while to kill time and returned to find there was no space, we should have made a reso.  Boo.  Tomorrow then!  Instead we walked across the street to a brasserie that had caught our attention because it seemed to be called the Restaurant of Meat and there was a giant rotisserie with… 15 giant legs of lamb spinning on the top row, a ton of chickens spinning on the second, and an entire pig spinning on the bottom.

This being France we ordered Escargots (look, anything in garlic butter is going to be awesome, let’s just agree), some head cheese (my first try at it, looks like gross, tastes like yum, I still prefer a pate de campagne or something less aspic-y), a bottle of wine and the hugest portions of meat ever.  I don’t know how but I stumbled into the Fogo De Chao of France.  Martin – Cote de Boeuf.  Celina – Steak Tartare.  Josh – the rotisserie sampler.  So much meat!  What’d we have on the side?  Every dish was just the meat, then a plate of fries, a plate of mashed potatoes, and some roast potatoes, you know, for variety.  It was good not great, expensive but not ridiculous, and all kinds of fun.  We finished up with a drink in the empty hotel bar while making fun of the DJ because he too was having a drink at the hotel bar while his “turntables” did everything for him.  The only time it sounded off was when he was touching them.

The next morning Martin was staying in so we headed out to grab a coffee and do some sightseeing.  We did the Parisian style breakfast.  You go into the cafe, lean on the bar, order deux cafe or deux espress, un pain au chocolat, and eat and drink while leaning.  Its much cheaper this way and is the perfect quick jumpstart.  Then a bunch of amazing stuff happened but I want a nap now so maybe Celina will take over… honey?

It’s me! Celina Dean! We walked forever and ever and saw so much, I was shocked. I guess I didn’t expect everything to be as close together as it all seems to be, or perhaps we’re just well situated, but basically we rounded the corner from the cafe to see the Louvre. I knew it was gonna be big, buy I wasn’t prepared for it. If you had a week, it might be enough time to get through the whole thing? We toured the garden outside, which took more than an hour. Statuary from the 1500’s standing amidst bare branched trees… it’s enough to take your breath away.

I’m back and get this, I wrote like three hundred paragraphs and they were all deleted by the internet fairy (he’s this guy in jean shorts that deletes blog entries.)  So here’s the broken spirited rehash of what happened since now we’re a billion days behind.

We had our cafe’s and pain au chocolat leaning at the bar of a random cafe, then proceeded to wander wonder at the L’Ouvre, the Seine, the gardens and grounds of the L’Ouvre, the Obelisk, le Musee l’Orangerie, the Musee D’Orsay, the Palais, Le petit Palais, un Universite of some kind or other, le Champs D’Elysee (sucks, it’s just like West Ed Mall spread out which was so disappointing), L’hotel D’Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, and that only took a few hours.  Plus we were walking slow as heck!  They sure know how to bring the thunder here.  Since these sites have been described by millions already we’ll skip em and just say WHOA MOMMA!

Hungry and wanting to avoid the crush on the way back to Les Halles we took an adjacent street.  Turns out we stumbled on to the fanciest shopping street in all of Paris, St. Honore. This must be the REAL Champs D’Elysee.  Maybe everyone knows about it, we didn’t see it in our research as shopping generally requires the exchange of cash for goods and services and we have at best one of those three elements, services, and they probably aren’t worth much.  Couture dress shops with the impossibly chic designer outside smoking and receiving compliments from the lady who just bought his six thousand euro coat.  A clock store selling ONLY timepieces from the 15th century, cuz you need a store for that.  A book shop specializing in first editions, their ancient fabric or leather covers perfectly maintained.  It was remarkable and it went on for miles.  Literally miles.  It was also not the place for a couple ne’er-do-wells to grab a quick lunch.  The cafe’s and brasseries we peeked into all had the same things as in our neighborhood, they were just a lot more expensive.  So we ducked off St. Honore down a side street, then we took another side street, and another, and finally wandered past a shop window, covered in steam from inside, with little stickers all over the door.  There was an awning but I couldn’t find a name on it.  It was not the most welcoming of places but we’d been told to truly enjoy Paris you have to go through some uninviting doors and so we did…

Inside was a long skinny room, a bar running the length of one side, a communal picnic table down the left, and every seat was filled with happy smiling Parisienne’s chowing down on roast chickens, pots of stew, plates of pate and fois gras, and everywhere you looked there were simple casse croute sandwiches being shoved down gullets.  Two seats at the bar were vacated right in front of us and we tentatively sat in them not sure if they’d been spoken for, if their owners were just stepping out to smoke, or what.  No one yelled at us incomprehensibly so we took off our jackets and settled down to figuring out what the hell to order.  My french has come back fairly well but even at it’s absolute best it’s the french of a 14 year old Canadian.  I couldn’t make heads nor tails of any of the chalkboard menus hanging around the room, and there were lots.  I mean, I would recognize some words but they didn’t seem to belong in the order I was seeing them in, and those surrounding words were giving me the impression that what I thought I knew I did not know.  I should mention, a bar in Paris is not the traditional North American bar that you sit at to have pints.  You can do that, but it’s actually a multi-functional part of things here.  In the morning you can lean on it to have a quick coffee and croissant (cheaper than if you sit), they’ll display the various fresh cheeses and dried meats of the day (just out on a shelf, illegal in North America for food safety I guess?) on the bar, you can of course order drinks and such or eat a full meal.  Obscuring us from the Annie Lennox look alike waitress busily preparing sandwiches and pouring wine behind the bar were five giant cured sides of meat and salamis and a stack of about twenty million little baguettes.  I tried to find her between the various delicious treats and yelled what might not even have been words over the din.  She asked what we spoke (in French).  I answered “English” (inexplicably in French).  She looked around, turned to the guy sitting beside us, a grumpy middle aged man mowing through his second sandwich and fourth glass of wine, and said “Jacob, translate.”  He turned to us and instead  of sneering just asked what we wanted.  What’s good?  Everything’s good.  What do you order?  Sandwich.  What kind?  Camembert.  Their ham is very good too.  We’ll have two sandwiches then.  Anything to drink?  Wine?  What kind?  What’s good?  It’s all good.  Just the house wine.  White or red?  White.  And he rattled off to the waitress who instantly sprang into action shouting “Merci Jacob” over her shoulder like it happened every day.  We sat and chatted with him, he lives next door and eats most meals here.  We ate delicious butter, ham and sharp cheese sandwiches with dollops of spicy dijon mustard on a baguette that was crunchy, crispy and chewy all at the same time, and we talked with him over our lunch.  Politics (the Italians, Greeks and Spanish are “peegs”), food and wine, travel around the world, how France is heading for a fall since they pay for everything and anything their citizens want.  It was amazing.  We’d stumbled into that perfect Paris experience, the one you hope to find but don’t quite imagine doing so.  In the days since I’ve tried to figure out where that was but it’s like a mirage, I have no idea.

We made it home eventually, a long walk, and started getting our fancies on.  Tonight, as a belated birthday gift from Martin, we were going to the ballet at the actual Palais Garnier (known as the Opera to most.)  We hopped a quick cab and emerged into the rainy night, the giant, Beaux-Arts style cathedral to the arts complete with glowing golden statues and gigantic columns in front of us.  The amazing thing about this experience was getting to actually use this building, a landmark on par with the L’Ouvre or the Arc de Triomphe (in fact, the most expensive of all of those buildings) for its real purpose.  Not just getting to look at the outside, not just getting to go inside to the stunning elaborate marbled friezes, staircases and statuary, not just getting to then go into the auditorium itself, with its five stories of balconies, its lush red and golden decor, its every surface covered in gilt and statue, its original Marc Chagall ceiling and the grand chandelier (yes the one from Phantom, this is where that story is based), but to actually see a show there!  Like they would have done in the mid 1800’s!  In those seats!  On that stage!  Amazing!

I’d not seen a ballet before and I was mostly thinking of that scene from Top Secret, and yes when the first male ballerina (ballerine?) stepped out he truly did have a ginormous cod piece, but it was one of the most exciting (not for that reason) live shows I’ve ever experienced.  The show was “Oneguine,” based on a novel by Pushkin, and it was stunning.  It helped that it was a very traditionally dramatic production, full costume and sets, where I could follow the story rather than being some modern abstract piece with folks flailing around, but parts made me genuinely sigh, or exclaim, or gasp.  And with each act only being around a half hour or less, it flew by!  My favorite part was when all the guys lined up and the girls ran cross their junk.

After having our minds blown we were hungry so we went to a place I’d seen recommended by Anthony Bourdain.  Chez Denise was half a block from our hotel (handy after an awful lot of champagne during the ballet) and having stopped in and made reservations before we were assured of a seat.  We walked into a homey, dark and warm space where they have to pull the tables out in order to seat you.  You are cheek by jowl (which is probably even a menu item) with your neighbors and it’s as though you’ve been thrust back in time to the French countryside.  A fire crackling, bottles of the house wine being refilled out of a giant keg on the bar, little bursts of laughter from different tables.  Our waiter took one look at us and walked us in English through the whole menu, written as so many are here on a chalkboard since the menu changes daily according to what’s looking good in the market.  It’s traditional, and realizing I’d accidentally ordered Veal livers (not that I would’ve minded, but I was feeling more hungry than adventurous just now) I switched my order to the mutton and white bean stew.  Celina ordered the rabbit in mustard sauce (not too mustardy, its cut with heavy cream and butter), Martin had the world’s largest filet of Cod, smoked and covered in a brown butter sauce.  On to our second bottle before the food arrived we started becoming chummy with our neighbors and for the second time in one day we were warmly received by strangers, happily chatting in pigeon french and pigeon english to a pair of Hipsters to our left (from Paris, this is their favorite restaurant) and two older couples to our right (visiting from the south east of France).  The food was incredible.  Humungous portions (the sizes of the portions are completely counterintuitive to the diminutive size of the people’s waistlines in France.) Rich, decadent recipes that hadn’t changed in a hundred years.  The rabbit was the winner but I would have eaten my mutton stew, the meat falling off the bone, forever.  The older group next to us had brains and a tripe stew.  These brains were not in any way disguised.  It was like from the Dark Crystal or Indiana Jones, just a plate of five plum sized brains, all brainy looking.  Averting our eyes we ordered dessert, chocolate mousse and baba au rhum, a sponge cake soaked in rum until it can’t take anymore with custard on top, served with whipped cream and literally the whole bottle of rum, so you can pour more on as you go.  Stuffed, drunk, happy, our souls and stomachs full, we bid goodnight to our new friends and stumbled back to the hotel.