Saturday, July 20, 2013

I Should Have Seen This Coming

I've made a big decision: I'm leaving France!

BUT. Of course, France is really doing her best, now that my mind is made up, to woo me back. She's rolling out the right weather (my ideal, in fact: Hot, humid, and sunny), for starters, which encourages everyone to put on their fun hats again and start making merry. 'Tis, at long, long last, the season of open-window dinner parties, cool drinks at terrace cafes, and festive picnics with food, drink, and good company aplenty.

A lotus-and-guppy garden.

Today, the gorgeous Emily of Paris Paysanne hosted an afternoon picnic at her community garden, which happens to be the coolest thing going in all of northwest Paris. The jardin started more than a decade ago with one "squatter"--a renegade green thumb who saw a fine patch of unused city property beside some abandoned railway tracks and decided to grow stuff on it. Today, it's a legit operation funded by the City of Paris and run by an association called Les Amis des Jardins du Ruisseau.

Ten points if you can spot the kale in this photo.
For the price of a decent bottle of wine, you can become a member of the garden community and make use of this pleasant urban green space. Tables, chairs, chickens, and bees are among the many things you'll find here. You'll also see some colorful shared-garden plots (each is the "property" of six gardeners) brimming with edible and ornamental goodies. I'm going to join, even if I won't be here long enough to enjoy it year-round.

Today's gathering included a few bloggers like Emma from Burnt Cream, Kristen from The Kale Project, and my wonderful friend Terresa from La Cucina di Terresa. I'm going to miss these gatherings of smart, interesting, accomplished women (and men) when I'm gone. I think today's lesson, if there was one, is not to pine for losses yet to come, but to really make the most of all this city has to offer while I'm still here. I'm doing that, beginning today!

Emily''s an up-and-coming author who's specialty is Paris markets and organic cooking. I can't wait for her first book!

No one fully understood what the chicken story was, but I can tell you they are extremely cute and woolly, and really into personal hygiene.

One of my favorite Parisians, the lovely and talented Terresa of La Cucina di Terresa.

Shady tables, murals, greenery, and nice people=best community garden EVER.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bastille Day Bliss

Is it possible to enjoy a patriotic holiday when one holds a strident non-belief in the very idea of patriotism? I like France, a lot, but I've never been a fan of flag-waving festivities--probably due, in at least some part, to the fact that where I come from, Independence day is synonymous with loud drunken louts, reckless handling of fireworks, and dead animals charring on a grill. It's also an excuse to drag out that poor old dead horse, 9/11, and beat it just a little bit more. Generally.

So while I'm not a big fan of nationalism and all the attendant sentiments, slogans, and activities, I do love a party, and for years, my curiosity has been piqued about the Bal des Pompiers or "Firemen's Ball." The word "bal" has always thrown me off; I can't help but imagine all the neighborhood Cinderallas coming out in full fancy-drag regalia, waltzing around the fire pole with Prince Pierre in his pompier finery. It's not like that, as it turns out, except for the fact that the annual Bastille Day celebration takes place in the local firehouse. All that's required of attendees--men, women, and children, is that they show up (in jeans, if you want), dance, and have fun.

Is there anything better than a bright blue sky at 10 pm?

There's no escaping big-screen TVs, even in the firehouse.

The crowd started to amp up with the arrival of the spotlights.

Red, white, and bleu--an Independence Day color theme for the masses.

The band kicked off with that wedding reception favorite, "You're my everything" by the Temptations.

Followed by "Le Freak." Now the party's getting started.

This might have been a Black Eyed Peas cover, or maybe Michael Jackson. The band actually shredded.
I kept my expectations low, but the music was a combination of practically every genre I love: Disco, pop, hip-hop. Think Best Cruise-Ship Band Ever. It was like that. Polished, visually stimulating (go-go dancers who changed costume between sets), and fronted by singers who were well-versed in between-song banter. I'd definitely hire 'em for my next party.

The party ended at 4 a.m. on July 14, Bastille Day. We didn't last that long. Around the time Cinderalla's coach would have morphed into a pumpkin, we were walking through the hushed Batignolles streets, taking in our neighborhood's beautiful architecture.

One of the prettiest windows I've seen yet in Paris.

We'd been promising the dog for weeks that we'd take her to the park to get her nature fix, and this Sunday we kept our word. After a lunch of Indian food and chilled rose, we cycled out to the Bois de Vincennes where it was hot and teeming with families and couples out picnicking. We rode to our "secret spot," through a forest of tall trees and across a field of waist-high grass, where we spread out our blanket and soaked up the sun.

On the way back into the city, we sought out and eventually found the local velodrome, built in 1896, and one of Hemingway's many cycling-centric haunts when he lived in Paris in the '20s. From here, we pedaled off back toward the converted railway line bike path. Somewhere in the 20e arrondissement, we heard live music and saw a crowd gathered outside a cafe. We stopped, locked up the bikes, and went in to scope out the live entertainment and indulge in a refreshing boisson.

The singer, who sometimes strummed a guitar, was accompanied by a pianist. Each tune they played seemed to focus on French quotidien life (I heard the words "boulangerie," "pain" and "vin" more than a few times), and harken back to the pre-war period. Most of the audience sang along. Even if I couldn't make out all the lyrics, I liked the music, and on this particular day, I didn't really mind if the songs were patriotic or nationalistic. If it can make a group of Frenchies smile, it can't be that bad.

This was a local crowd. Everyone seemed to know each other.
Manu, singing an old-timey number about St. Lazare. 

I couldn't understand all the lyrics, but everyone else did and sang along accordingly.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Second Chances: The MOB Edition

A Hip Hop Vernissage at Wanderlust

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from hyper-talented media maven-mom-vegan-living diva Chloe Jo Davis, letting me and a few other Paris-based people know that her friend, the photographer Mike Schreiber, would be kicking off his latest exhibit at trendy venue Wanderlust. The theme? New York hip-hop. Yes, I totally want to go! Not just to experience some art, but to check out the new MOB, which recently moved from its original rue Charlot location to a new space on Quai Austerlitz overlooking the Seine.

That's MOB's owner with the beard and hat.

I love this portrait of musician/actor/activist Mos Def.

I wanted to give MOB a second chance to make me love it, since my first experience left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't think I'd ever come back for seconds, but part of me felt I should give them another try. After all, they're supporting the vegan movement merely by existing, and plenty of people actually rave about the food. Maybe I hit 'em on an off day.

After a couple of whirls around the art-show floor and a few plastic cups-full of box wine, we walked the twenty paces out the door and over to MOB.

How convenient! MOB is right next door to the exhibit.

The menu, printed in English and towering above the cash register, is simple: Burgers, fries, "corn soup," Nutella cheesecake, and a few other items. Prices range between €4 and €9. We ordered our burger-and-fries combos, then found a table and sat soaking up the funky ambiance.

Communal tables, blonde-wood chairs, wall treatments in primary colors, and floor-to-ceiling curtains depicting Last-Supper scenes (with Amy Winehouse and other pop-culture figures in attendance) were all calling out for attention. It was a lot to take in.

I didn't try one of these chocolate-chip cookies but I'd sure like one right now.

MOB's designer was in the house. Here he is showing me how he worked himself into MOB's curtain fabric.

Ten minutes later, our order was up. My initial reaction was "way better!" Visually, these burgers were far more tantalizing than the unadorned beige-on-brown numbers they served up the last time. Taste-wise, they were the real (veggie) deal, with sauce and veggies and, most importantly, FLAVOR. Right on, MOB!

Even my lettuce-wrapped burger (I was cutting back on carbs in anticipation of a beach vacation the following week) dazzled my persnickety palate. The fries were scrumptious, too: Thickly cut, hot out of the fryer, and salty. Too bad there weren't more of them! On my next visit--and I predict there will be many next visits to come--I'll definitely order a large.

This sloppy, delicious mess came with eggplant and lots of sauce.

I blew my own mind by ordering the bun-less burger. Hardly missed the carbs at all.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Israel for Beginners

Postcard from the Bauhaus Center in  Tel Aviv
"Oh, god, no. I would NEVER blow up an airplane. I'm afraid of bombs. I swear!"

For what was supposed to be the start of a relaxing vacation, the interrogation process at the airport wasn't boding so well. After my interrogators--AKA the airline staff--grilled me, they had me empty out my bag before swabbing it with a damp tissue-type thing clamped to the end of a long wand. After a full-throttle shake-down that rattled my nerves, they gave me the OK to board the flight to Tel Aviv.

My in-flight vegan meal. I'd never have thought to put potatoes in a sandwich, but it was actually pretty good!

This authentic Israeli falafel, however, is a little more my speed.

Israel hadn't been on my must-visit list for long; it was someplace that always seemed intriguing--in ways that battlefields and musty old churches are--but the promise of hot weather and a sandy swath of Mediterranean coastline was a primary motivator.

It's been winter in Paris for approximately 2 years. And, like someone who has been deprived of food for a long time, the longing to gorge on sunshine has been an overwhelming preoccupation for the better part of the last 24 months. If I wanted to stretch the limits of my furnace-like vacation ideal, there would also be a beach with soft sand and gentle waves, interesting museums, and good food. Israel, on paper, promised all of that.

The light-filled dining room at Taste of Life

A simple salad accompanied my burger-and-rice plate.

My plane landed at 5:45 am, and the sun was already showing its face and gently ascending in the clear blue sky. Taking the train into the city was straightforward; tickets were around 3 bucks for the 15-minute ride, and the station is accessible directly from the airport terminal. Once I arrived at Arlozorov station, I walked down busy Arlozorov street directly to my AirBnB digs, perfectly positioned three blocks from the sea.

I spent Day 1 in a red-eye daze, wandering the palm-tree lined streets, checking out the vegan dining scene, bumping into flea markets, stopping at juice bars, and finally making my way to the beach, where I shamelessly feasted on a succulent buffet of UVA and UVB rays. At lunchtime, I sought out Taam Hachaim/A Taste of Life, a vegan place run by the black Hebrew Israelite community.

Getting my juice on at Taste of Life

My server spoke with an unmistakable American accent; he credited his parents--Americans from the midwest--and the fact that he grew up watching a lot of American TV shows on Israeli TV for his Yankee drawl. The food was simple and tasty, and the fresh carrot-spinach juice was divine.

My favorite view.

One of my local juice places.

The Juice du Jour, extra large, costs the equivalent of about $4.50.

Every morning I'd awake and gingerly peel back the curtains expecting the worst, weather-wise, only to reveal yet another bright blue sky exploding with sunshine. After endless weeks and months of gray Parisian skies skies, I felt ecstatic at the continued onslaught of glorious weather. Leaving the apartment early, I'd walk a block up to Dizingoff street, a tree-lined, boutique-filled paradise teeming with juice bars. First, I'd knock back a wheat grass juice, then mosey several blocks further for a green juice at my new "local" spot, Shakes'pri. I usually went for whatever was fresh that day, but the usual melange was something like lemon-spinach-kale-fennel-beet-cucumber-celery.

Mixed-use space on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Another accidental find: Birenbaum--a friendly, inviting, and delicious veg cafe.

The lunch buffet, all you can eat for 50 shekels!

One of about a dozen plates I scarfed.
After each morning's liquid pick-me-up, I'd explore Tel Aviv on foot, discovering  colorful markets, vintage shops, restaurants, squares and parks. I'm only slightly ashamed to admit I didn't visit a single museum during the entire weeklong trip. There were simply too many distractions outside (and way too much sun) to consider spending anything more than the bare minimum indoors.

The view out the window of my AirBnB digs.

The Dizingoff flea market takes place every Tuesday and Friday. Lucky me: I got to go twice!
Beloved beach, how I've longed for you!

One day, I walked 2+ kilometers south along the seafront promenade to the ancient port town of Jaffa. My AirBnB hosts, Shifrit and Hadar, suggested I check it out; there's a flea market there, they said, and a vibrant cafe culture. They were so right! I loved everything about this little town center, which felt like a scaled down version of Paris' Marche aux Puces St. Ouen. For roughly 5 square blocks, it's nothing but adorable clothing and housewares boutiques, vintage clothing stalls, cafes full of hipsters, and a fabulously junk-filled flea market. My superscore of the day happened when I wandered into a shop with a tempting window display featuring beautiful, candy-colored shoes.

Jaffa in the distance.

The welcoming doorway at Roni Kantor.

Reworked vintage dresses and new designs too. Lots of swooning happening here.

Jaffa graffiti

"Everything in the store is vegan-friendly," said Maya Johanna, the lovely woman (and, as it turns out, national celebrity) working the floor, as I turned a pair over to examine the sole for telltale signs of leather. No way!

Vegan shoes+dresses+purses=YES

These might be my new shoes!

The owner, Roni Kantor, was in the shop that day, and we had a nice conversation about her stores' (there's a second location on Rothschild in Tel Aviv) history and philosophy. I hope to see her fabulous footwear and dresses in Paris and San Francisco one of these days!

Inside Puua, a vegan-friendly cafe in old Jaffa.

Pumpkin dumplings in coconut curry sauce. Served with rice and a delish coupe of sparkling wine.

Jaffa storefront.

It's a 50-minute bus ride to Jerusalem from the Arlozorov terminal, and on my first trip I spent the day getting lost in the warren of disorienting passageways that wiggle and zag throughout the old city center, which resembles a giant bazaar of the kind you might find in Marrakesh or Istanbul.

Hello, old Jerusalem!

"Yes! Take my picture, and post it on Facebook! Please!" He really said!

In the Christian quarter.

Humus with foul at Lina, in the old city.

In the Muslim quarter.

Salad with tahina at Lina.

At this point, my skin is beginning to resemble those dried dates at the back.

Discovered another vegetarian restaurant on my way out of town. Had to try the lemon cheesecake. Miam.

At the Wailing Wall, I slipped over to the women's side and observed. Then I decided to do like the locals. I wrote a little prayer(ish) note on a piece of paper, walked toward the wall, stuffed the note inside a small crevice, then placed my hands on the wall and meditated for about two second before the tears came. Weird. I'm not religious and was not expecting a wave of emotion to sweep over me, but there it was. I stood a moment longer, then did like everyone else and walked backward out of the worship zone.

The women's side of the Wailing Wall.

Dried fruit at the market.

A Jerusalem cityscape.

A carb-lover's paradise.

Why yes, I'd love a free sample of your halva. Todah rabah! (Thank you!)

What could be better than plain ol' carbs? Carbs with nuts, that's what!

Spices galore at the market.
A few days later, I was on another bus from Tel Aviv to the central bus station in Jerusalem, where I hopped yet another bus for the hourlong trip to the Dead Sea. The landscape on this side of Jerusalem looks a lot like the old American West--Utah or Colorado, maybe, with a dry, hot, desert climate. By mid-afternoon, I was sitting on a beach chair at Mineral Beach, basking in a relaxed, post-massage glow (my masseuse was excellent, and the prices were really reasonable). Stepping into the sea, I didn't know what to expect, but just went with it. The highly mineralized water feels like baby oil on the skin, and the second you lift your feet you're immediately bobbing on your back, floating without any effort, like a blissful fetus in a womb. I sat there, beneath the sun, staring across the sea to Jordan, and began planning my next trip to Israel.

Destination: Dead Sea.

The hot, rocky shoreline at Mineral Beach.

My cozy massage room. My masseuse had great hands and really dug into my aching muscles.

Beware of mud-covered beasts.

C'est jolie, n'est ce pas?

Look closely through the salty haze and you can see the west coast of Jordan.