Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Bonsai at the Jardin d'Acclimation
I've always loved that English term, "make-believe." I love its directness and its hope, maybe even its innocence. I don't know if there's an equivalent term in French ("prétendre" doesn't count, "faire croire" is a phrase like any other, it doesn't mean "make-believe"). These past two days, we've walked in the Paris of make-believe: Paris presenting itself as the backdrop for one fantasy, one world of make-believe, after another. It's not that the city shimmers away, it's that in becoming the backdrop it blurs the line between itself and the fantasy it frames. Within the 850+ acres of the Bois de Boulogne lies the Jardin d'Acclimation. For years, I had thought it was a series of greenhouses (acclimated garden!), but it turns out to be a magical wonderland for children. There are goats and peacocks and carousels and ropes courses and crêpes and deer and bunnies and roller coasters and swings and boats and you name it. There is even a Cedar of Lebanon (I had to come to Paris to see my first live Cedar of Lebanon - I now see that heralding that your lover has "legs like the cedars of Lebanon" is indeed a compliment, oh Song of Songs). There is also a pretty astounding outdoor bonsai garden and...

House of Kiso (and Oliver)
... a Japanese country house brought to France wood panel by wood panel in the early 19th century as a gift to a renowned anthropologist. Imagine that!!! It had been reassembled in the Jardin des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement in Paris and then in the 1990s it had been moved to the Jardin d'Acclimation. Oliver and Mac were fascinated by the wooden joints (no nails were used at all), and we noted the stones weighing the roof down as being exactly the same technique used in Swiss alpine houses. The Jardin des Plantes and the Jardin d'Acclimation share this strange heritage of putting other cultures on display: making their reality a wondrous (but dangerous) make-believe. We read a tucked away sign that stated that the last human exhibits at the Jardin des Plantes were in 1931 (!) featuring peoples from an island in the South Seas. Hard to read, hard to see in this place. Children may always delight, but they have been given very different things to delight in in the past one hundred years.

Dauberton and the aviary
It was Napoleon III who decided to make this part of the Bois de Boulogne an enormous children's park with a farm, an aviary, and (among many other things), a "pedagogical beehive" (la ruche pédagogique!). So we have his imperial vision, and love of the thriving bourgeoisie, to thank for this park. He gets mention in a plaque or two, but it's a scientist who gets a statue. I'd always known about the Censier-Dauberton metro station, but now, to see Dauberton himself stand before me: absolutely grand! He is framed by an exquisite garden and a huge stretch of the aviary which holds 200 birds. Peacocks and roosters prevail and we lingered a good while (pretty much all of us have a thing for roosters), but most kids run on to feed the bunnies. Because bunnies. In the midst of all this (and there is no French word for fun, children - to be discussed later), Dauberton's happy form, with an animal at his side, made sense. One can only hope that it comes alive at night once the visitors are all gone.

Because Bretons are always funny?
The last place we went to was an ersatz Breton seaside, complete with beach lawn chairs, water everywhere, and this delightful cut-out. Eleanor was so totally insulted at this display of Brittany that pictures with her in it are boring or full of scowls. Gotta stand by your principles, little one. This one with Mac fits the bill of vacation, and I must say that Oliver and Iris definitely rose to the occasion. Iris is super happy with the fact that she is making a crêpe and Oliver would love to play the bagpipe someday (truly). I know that we'll go back to Bois de Boulogne (that old hunting forest that is now an enormous park for the common people); definitely the Bois itself that stretches all around the Jardin. But the Jardin, too, because the make-believe here is very, very verdant and complex.

Le mec Mac

For those of you missing Mac le mec (Mac the dude), here is a picture of him right outside the Institut du Monde Arabe, that most glorious architecture, that statement of knowledge of research, that architecture that put an end to Orientalism. Except maybe not. The reason that Mac is standing with the Institut du Monde Arabe to his back is that the show "Orient Express," which invites visitors to walk through several luxury cars of the famous train, is so massively sold out that we could only get tickets for Friday. This apparently has been the best selling show of the Institut, and its love of velvet and crystal, wood paneling and embroidered pillows makes you wonder if this isn't make-believe. But one (certain ones) really did travel like this. One lucky make-believe person was even murdered in Agatha Christie's book, so we decided we needed to buy Murder on the Orient Express as soon as possible.

Le fun!
This decision led to a lovely long bus ride on the 67 for a stop at the Librarie Gourmande (all. cookbooks. all. the. time) (!!!) and then a somewhat lovely (got crowded) walk down through Place des Victoires to Rue de Rivoli for the English bookshop W.H. Smith (which, by the way, is a treasure-house: very comfy English setting, and then hundreds of books, multiple copies, a dream! and an answer to the anxiety about keeping our children in books while we're here). We walked through the gardens of the Palais Royal, and then through the permanent exhibition put up by Daniel Buren in the 1980s, which totally invites le Fun of kids, while adults walk rapidly through.

 Right before we got to W.H. Smith, we walked through the square where this glorious statue of Joan of Arc strides bravely forth. It played a major role in the opening scene of the 2010 film Adèle Blanc-Sec which made for a fantastic surprise for Oliver, who loves the movie. Paris can do that: it can pop out of what you thought was only make-believe and show you that it was all true all along. It takes these places and monuments and holds them up to a different light (midnight, not a soul in sight, a protagonist approaches), and then when you see them in the light of day, surrounded by dozens of people, somehow it becomes all the more magical for being recognized, for being real after all in movie you never wanted to leave, in a book you wanted to never end. W.H. Smith finished out our make-believe time, and the kids came out laden with books to take them yet other places. They read all the way home on the metro, and all the way through dinner, they'd still be reading now. There is a French phrase "la réalité dépasse la fiction" (reality overtaking fiction). We might have a more complicated loop here of reality overtaking fiction but taking on hues and shades of fiction in doing so. Whatever the dynamic, it was all worth it to see the expression on Oliver's face.

I don't know where sauces fall on the reality/fantasy spectrum. They're so good in France that I would have to lean towards make-believe, some fantasy world. In that we'll be eating in a lot (which is a joy in this home with a full kitchen) and in that we'll have rice quite often, I've decided to get to know sauces. I browsed, I researched, we went to the Librairie Gourmande in the 2nd and am now the proud of owner of Michel Roux (if that can possibly be his real name!!!)'s book on sauces. Glorious, complex, brilliant, almost always with a touch of butter at the very end to make them glow. I'm leaving tomorrow for a 5-day hiatus back in the States. It's every kind of weird and every kind of wonderful. I leave Mac and the kids with their feet planted firmly on French soil and multiple projects (and food!). I go with all my clothes now smelling of French laundry detergent, of my head full of what I'm eager to do here in terms of work (and play, le fun, discovery), my heart full of the friends I'll see when I'm home, and quite possibly, a book of sauces to read up on.

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