Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Harmony of Scents

Now that I’ve spent almost three weeks in Paris, I have gotten used to the smell of the smoke that lingers in the air when I walk along the streets or into my apartment. So when Ali and I stepped into the Fragonard Perfume Museum last week, the aromatic mixture of scents that filled the room could not have been more appreciated. The first floor of the museum was the store of the perfume company, which was lined with brilliant shiny gold bottles and elegantly decorated perfume boxes. The dozens of open bottles for sampling allowed the fragrances to disperse throughout the store. At the foot of the stairs that led up to the museum, there was a picture of several enormous copper vats and thousands of delicate bright pink petals covering the floor. There was another picture of the Fragonard Factory in Grasse, France, resembling a yellow house surrounded by blossoming trees and lush plants.

            Upon walking up the staircase, we were quickly offered a tour of the Fragonard Museum. There was a huge picture that was composed of different images showing the perfume making process, including clear beakers containing chemicals and the hands of a chemist gently adding chemicals using an eye dropper. We quickly learned that perfume making is an immensely difficult profession that is practiced by only 300 people in the world. It takes six years of training in order to gain a strong background in chemistry. They are not allowed to smoke, drink alcohol, or consume spicy foods so that their olfactory senses will be as clear as possible. They must develop an acute enough sense of smell to distinguish between over a thousand different substances, including different types of flowers within the same species. Beyond the objective requirements, the imagination that is involved in creating the fragrances is what truly makes perfume an art. Perfumers need the ability to think of new combinations of ingredients that will produce a pleasant odor when they react with each other. Each perfume that is accepted into the industry is composed with a harmonious mixture of notes and scales that has just the right concentration. Thus, perfume making is often compared to the composition of music. This analogy was demonstrated by a piece of furniture resembling a three-sided stadium that had rows of oils in bottles on each step. This instrument is actually known as an organ, the rows are called scales, and the oils themselves are the notes. The notes contain various flowers, fruit, spices, and animal products. The fragrances are formed in layers to create a progression of effects. The flower scents rest on the top layer and have a relatively short lasting effect, like musical quarter notes. The heart layer in the middle is comprised of the fruit and spices. These scents do not disperse until 10 minutes after the perfume is applied and last longer than the top layers, similar to half notes. The base layers of animal oils, or whole notes, accompany the other notes to complete the measures of the compositions.

We learned that there are three methods for extracting the scents to create the oils: extraction, distillation, and maceration. The most common method is distillation, which involves boiling the substances in water and capturing the oils that evaporate along with the steam. They are then condensed back into liquids. The tour guide showed us a copper vat with tubes for transporting the oils that lead to a bucket where the condensation occurs.

The next room of the museum contained displays of bottles from around the world that date back to the origin of perfume. I soon realized that perfume has always been a part of our culture, playing many different roles in society over time. Ancient Greek perfumes were kept in ceramic vases with painted designs. The Roman perfumes were stored in glass bottles and thin tubes. These civilizations used perfume to purify themselves and communicate with the gods. In Egypt, certain fragrances were saved for rituals, and others were used for seduction or healing purposes. Perfume was a type of medicine in Greece as well, and it was used for hygiene. In England, there were specific beauty spots where the perfume was placed to communicate various messages, such as whether you were single or in a relationship. Some of the English perfume bottles from the 18th century were shaped like figurines of people. Pomanders, transparent spheres reminiscent of snow globes, emitted scents to soothe headaches and protect their owners from infection. They could be worn around the neck on chains; therefore, they were effective in demonstrating wealth. During the Romantic period in France, people chose scents to obtain their own personalized fragrances. My favorite French perfume on display was in the shape of a dark red ring and had baby blue stones arranged in a circle on the top, where the perfume bottle was opened.

The industry of perfume was born in France in the 19th century, illustrated by elaborate new labels displayed on the walls of the museum. Many of them were decorated with flowers and curving vines to evoke the femininity and sensuality that is associated with the fragrances. The style of art was a reflection of the modern art movement, or L’Art Nouveau. The industry is centered in Paris and is home to some of the most skilled perfumers in the world.

            After the tour, we got to sample many different Fragonard perfumes. The company has exotic flowers and fruits from many countries: mandarine, pomplemousse, amber, coriander, jasmine, vanilla, and many others. I especially liked Belle de Nuit, strategically named Beauty of the Night, which contained mandarine and had a soft, sweet scent. Now that I have learned about the history of perfume and the process of perfume making, I have a much greater appreciation for my five or six colorful perfume bottles lined up on my dresser.


Paris Chocolates Revealed

When I walked into the chocolate store, referred to as a Chocolatier here in Paris, I was blown away. I looked into the case and saw twenty-eight varieties of chocolate truffles with, perhaps, thirty individual truffles of each variety. Before entering the chocolate store we had decided to try five truffles each which at the time, sounded about right, but when it came down to choosing only five truffles I realized it was going to be more difficult than I had originally imagined. The difficulty in selecting stemmed from several different factors: (1) the considerable variety of truffles; (2) limited information; and (3) the impatience pouring out of the Parisian server waiting for me to make a decision.

It’s quite clear how such a considerable variety of truffles could make my decision-making process difficult. Simply put, there were more possible decisions for me to make. It sounds quite daunting if you put it in mathematical terms: given that there were 28 different chocolates and I could choose only five, there were 11,793,600 different combinations of truffles one could make, assuming they didn’t more than one of the same kind. Of course, at the time I didn’t do this calculation (I probably would still be at the chocolate store if I had).

With such a large realm of decision possibilities, I knew I would have to find some sort of criteria in order to evaluate the chocolates. Which, led me to the next factor hampering my decision-making process: inadequate evaluative criteria. Most of the chocolates looked remarkably similar. With one exception they were small, glossy, black, and rectangular; the one exception was a short, brown, and cylindrical truffle. So, evaluation based on appearance was going to be difficult, Forest Gump's axiom, "Life is like a box of chocolates..." really rang true at that point. The only distinguishing factor between the small, glossy chocolates was a tag with the names of each truffle and the ingredients. The ingredients listing was probably the biggest consolation for me, because I could at least of some guess as to how the truffles tasted. Unfortunately, the names of the truffles I found were not as informative, for instance I didn't know what to make of the truffle titled "The Conquistador". Was I to assume that if I took this truffle to South America that it would spread Smallpox, was it going to somehow conquer my mouth, or was it just out for riches and fame?

Finally, I was having a particularly hard time thinking straight because the server kept staring at me while I was trying to make a decide which chocolates I wanted to try. I kept trying to think rationally about how to maximize my chocolate experience while being limited to five truffles, but with the stereotypical Parisian server giving me a look of annoyance and impatience I quickly decided to "je me depeche" as the French would say.

So in my haste, I quickly chose four truffles by choosing those that contained ingredients which I typically associate with chocolate, like orange and coffee. However, for the fith truffle I decided to see what "The Conquistador" really was all about. Once I finally had made a decision I was quite relieved, I had decided on one combination out of the possible 11,793,600 in less than ten minutes. Now it was time for the fun part, the evaluation.

In all I had four glossy, dark chocolate truffles and "The Conquistador", a dull brownish color. Aesthetically, I thought the glossy truffles were quite stunning. I was impressed by the sharply defined edges and symmetry on such small truffles. On the other hand, “The Conquistador” didn’t look like anything special, in fact I think it could have passed for something a ten-pound dog produces maybe two or three times a day. But, never one to judge a book entirely by its cover I proceeded to eat all the truffles.

To be honest, I was not impressed by any of the dark, glossy truffles. Biting each one I thought that they the ganache in the center was too smooth and flavorless. The ganache was very rich, but for all that richness lacked an intensity of flavor. Additionally, the hard chocolate shell I had marveled at earlier seemed more like a vehicle for the ganache to reach ones mouth than it seened like an integral component of the truffle, it contributed little to the flavor and was prone to crumbling off of the ganache.

Had I not gotten “The Conquistador” I think I would have been disappointed with the tasting component of my chocolate experience. However, The Conquistador’s in mouth appeal more than made up for what it I thought it lacked in aesthetic quality. It provided everything that I had been missing in the other truffles: a range of textures, a depth of creative flavors that didn’t seem out of place. Savoring it, I noticed the subtle crunch from the nuts, followed by a mellow sweetness, and a finishing taste of cinnamon that had been there all the while and meshed perfectly with the chocolate.

After my experience with “The Conquistador” I was very satisfied, but upon writing this review I had one lingering frustration: I don’t approve of the name “The Conquistador” for the truffle that gave me so much enjoyment. I think it should be renamed to “The Frog Prince”, “Shrek”, or “The Ugly Duckly”; implying it has copious amounts of inner beauty under that ugly skin. Admittedly, the name “Conquistador” might imply a higher value than any of my suggestions, but I still find the name mis-leading.

Hello, Jim Morrison

Yesterday I went to Pere Lachaise cemetery to visit someone I am very fond of - Jim Morrison - and did not find what I was looking for. Pere Lachaise is a very large cemetery in a less central area of Paris, but it’s still very crowded. I felt very disoriented by the commodification of grief in this place: large, elaborate sculptures, and pedestrian roads winding through pillars and columns. Grief seems to have become an art in itself in the Lachaise cemetery, where expression of “deuil” (as it’s called in French) is embodied in vastly different ways.

In the World War II history class that I’m taking, we discussed the memory of french soldiers through different styles of memorials. I was put in mind of this lesson as I stared at large statues of what I thought to be greek goddesses, versus simplistic graves of smooth stone. It seems that some families are interested in elaborate architecture, heavily engraved crosses, and religious (or other) symbolism while others prefer a simple boxy shape and family name. One consideration worth noting, however, (other than differences in taste, religious beliefs, or political views) is money.

Money seemed to have greatly influenced the artistry of tombs, which interestingly in turn affects memory. For instance, I noticed that one grave in the “corner” was made of cement, and was only marked with dates. Very little pedestrian traffic passed by this grave, and it appeared cast in shadow, though it was raining. Water was dripping off the sides, and the cement was roughly worn - the effect was sad. Though these may seem like mundane observations, it really hit home the fact that this man or woman was buried somewhere out of the way, with little or no indication of who they were. Admittedly, it is possible that this individual wanted to be remembered in this way, but I interpreted its situation and aesthetic as being an attempt to, at all costs, bury this loved one in a high profile graveyard.

These musings bring me to some important questions: Do graves closer to famous people also cost more? Would a family rather have a well-situated plot, or a more heavily embellished tomb? Why did I feel so happy standing beside Jim Morrison’s grave, listening to The Doors?

Dance Performance—Contes Rendus

I have no experience in the field of dance. This analysis may therefore be slightly superficial, but I will do my best to analyze the aspects of the performance that I can. The show, called Contes Rendus, was said to reflect the life of a dancer. I believe that the piece was meant to be semi-autobiographic, judging from the program, and the interpretation of the said autobiography is mostly what I will be writing about.

There was nothing too striking about the introduction, as far as I could tell. The show opened in Stomp style, with the soloist, Alexandre de la Caffinière, in a jumpsuit, pushing a broom. The following segment was a Fred Astaire-esque pas de deux with the broom, which seemed to be an indicator of the dancer’s reluctance to continue on his custodial path. From the uninstructed, undiscerning eye, the dancing was unimpressive. Heavy reliance on the prop and a lack of dramatic or physically impressive moves was, in a word, boring. The music, by the Gorillaz, was an accurate preview of the rest of the show’s soundtrack, which was for the most part relatively electronic and jarring. It created quite a mood with some of the arhythmic features (like traffic sounds and such), contributing to what I believed to be the malaise of the artist's story.

The second movement was much more interesting. It began with what I can only describe as a rebirth sequence, where de la Caffinière stripped himself of his jumpsuit behind a semi-translucent screen of clothing-bags and proceeded to extrude his naked limbs from behind the screen. We soon discovered he wasn’t actually naked, but instead wearing flesh-tone briefs. I can’t properly describe the techniques following, but they seemed to be accentuating the idea of infancy and the inability to walk, since the performer spent a lot of time on the ground.

After a brief pause of complete darkness, the stage was re-illuminated by a spotlight focused on a pair of red ballet flats. I would dub the next piece a discovery of dance—the artist spent a good deal of time looking at and circling the shoes before putting them on his hands and doing a kind of parody of ballet exercises with his hands. I can’t say that I know much about dance, but I think that this part was particularly well done and nothing short of beautiful. If I were to provide an example of what I’ve heard dancers call “line,” it would be from that segment. It was followed by the proper use of the shoes, in a style closer to what I identified as ballet (which was significantly less interesting than the hand-shoes).

The rest of the show went in a sequence of mini-segments I would recognize as experimentation (with a tutu), satisfaction (to the tune of a French rendition of Oh What A Night over Super Mario Bros. style background music), regret, and finally a bizarre conclusion involving a red satin boxer’s robe and what sounded like the main title theme of an American action movie with the protagonist commenting about how a person can define himself “not by how he starts something, but by how he finishes it,” or something along those lines.

I didn’t understand the performance, and therefore have no idea whether it was a good or bad performance. Despite this, I think that de la Caffinière did an excellent job relating the main points of his dance through his movements and choice of music. I wouldn’t exactly call his performance an emotional rollercoaster, but I definitely followed the dramatic progression. His cause was strongly aided by long periods of silence during which he would continue dancing (maybe with a tempo in mind, or maybe not); the silent periods were perhaps the most emotive of the show. Highlights included the introduction of the red shoes (which reminded me of The Wizard of Oz) and Oh What A Night, simply because the music was completely ridiculous and the accompanying dance reminded me of Footloose in tight, shiny silver pants.

Musée de la Mode: sous l'Empire des crinolines

French fashion is the top and Paris is the crowning jewel. Other countries have looked to Paris for hundreds of years for style inspiration and chic design. This remains true today, as France is home to such prestigious design houses as Chanel, Dior, Lanvin and YSL, to name a few. The Musée de la Mode exuded this rich legacy as I approached its semicircular courtyard surrounded by stately pillars.

Fashion as art is somewhat controversial given the fact that it is mostly meant to be worn and not to be displayed. I am not one of the skeptical ones, however, and there was never much doubt in my mind that fashion can be an expressive art to be displayed and admired. The Crinolines exhibit did an excellent job of showcasing the artistry involved in creating and wearing nineteenth century women’s fashions, from the lace stitched by hand to adorn a pair of gloves, to the acres of embroidered silk to drape over the crinolines.

The exhibit was split into three acts to mimic a play, intertwining simple display with a progression of technique and style. Although there was a clear effort to give the exhibit dynamism, it largely failed to achieve this. The three acts were not differentiated enough to strike me as development and instead the changes were subtle and hardly highlighted by the paragraph explanations found at the beginning of each act. Nonetheless, the impact of mechanization and dying techniques was detectable and sometimes well explained. For example, there was a glass case to the side that directly compared handmade lace with mechanically made lace by putting the two directly next to each other.

The accessory displays were well done and captured the spirit of the times better than the crinolines. The luxurious materials used and the truly intricate detailing found on the combs, hats, shoes, gloves, fans, and parasols seems unnecessary to a modern eye, but were clearly of utmost importance to the aristocratic women who used them. Their delicacy seemed impossible to my large hands and athletic feet, representing how much expectations of female fragility and daintiness have changed since the nineteenth century. The shoes were impossibly small and narrow, as were the ornate corsets. Their proportions were alien yet still beautiful.

In spite of the apparent differences in modern female expectations, I was shocked by the lack of explicit social commentary in the exhibit. The corsets and absurdly full skirts were not presented as cumbersome and restrictive manifestations of society’s attitude toward women; instead, they were simply displayed in the glass cases as handsome art of the past. Perhaps the commentary was implicit, but I would have preferred to read a bit about the reactions of the women who wore the crinolines and how it may have tempered attitudes toward the oppression of women.

I must admit that the lack of political motive in the exhibit supported the notion of fashion as a pure art form. The fashion of the nineteenth century is beautiful and meaningful unto itself—it doesn’t need political context to be important. I learned a lot from the exhibit, both about the clothing and les toilettes, and about myself and my perceptions of fashion as art.

Contes rendus

Clip from beginning of dance

Alexandre de la Caffinière performed “Contes rendus” yesterday night. However, the simplicity of the name of the piece belies the complex emotions, stories, and actions that this dance piece offers.

The first word of the piece means “tale” or “story.” Quite simply, de la Caffinière’s piece is an autobiography of his life, told through the medium of dance. But the real complexity and intrigue lies in the second word of the title. “Rendus” is the past participle of the verb “rendre,” which can take on many different meanings. According to wordreference.com, “rendre” can mean: “to give back,” “to return,” “to repay,” “to pay back,” “to yield,” “to hand in,” “to pronounce,” etc. An interesting idiom is “rendre l’âme” or “rendre l’esprit” which means “to pass away.” The verb is inextricably linked to action and emotion.

De la Caffinière’s efforts do its title justice. He takes us through an expressive journey of action and emotion for a full fifty minutes. This impressive, exhaustive, and emotional feat makes the audience feel at once tired and exhilarated, happy, and sad. He begins his piece dressed as a janitor in a gray future-age jumpsuit, pushing around a rectangular mop which a large, long handle. It seems as if he has not begun dancing. But suddenly de la Caffinière begins to make subtle movements that develop into larger movements that could be identified as ballet or hip-hop inspired gestures. He uses the mop to reenact playing a guitar, dancing hip-hop, and being shot. But he silently returns to sweeping the floor. Angular, loud music emanates from behind him. It sounds like the music that Professor Applebaum would make from one of his sound sculptures. I can sense that this beginning part of the piece is actually the end part of his biography, and that the sense of time has been turned on its head. The dancer is reflective on his past life, and is constrained by his current job of janitorial work.

De la Caffinière continues to the next stage of the piece by escaping behind a row of white cloth suit bags. Behind the prop, he quickly strips down and initially appears nude. He uses the suit rack that holds the bags upright as a new prop to tease the audience with his body by sticking out body parts in a seductive manner. The nakedness of his body and the purity of color of the suit bags suggest that he has returned to a natal state.

At this point, I take a minute to appreciate the solidity and rawness of the dancer’s body. De la Caffinière has every muscle under control (he studied with the Paris ballet). I make a connection to the 19th French Art class that I am taking; I understand how Jacques-Louis David came to idolize the lines and figures of the human body. In my opinion, dance is an interesting medium that most people can relate to because in the end, we are all human. We all have (to varying degrees) similar arms, legs, faces, hair, toes, fingers, wrists, elbows, stomachs, etc.

De la Caffinière then takes us through his tormented journey of deciding whether or not to become a ballet dancer. He first begins with red ballet shoes. Twisting towards the shoes, the away, he creates an emotional and physical tension between his body and the object in front of him. The great inner conflict that de la Caffinière undergoes continues with a white tutu dress. Again we witness the emotional longing the dancer has for dance, but also his physical aversion. In the end, he pulls the tutu on impulsively, and I can feel a relaxation in tension from the audience and the dancer as well.

De la Caffinière brings us back full circle to his opening act with the mop, but not after going through several ballet stages, an acid trip, and a bout of depression. By the end, the audience is visibly exhausted because of the emotional magnitude of the piece. Interestingly, right before the piece ends, a vocal track from a movie appears amongst the music, in which a man proclaims the importance of the decision making process to create action, rather than the action itself. The decision to take a certain path in life is more important than the path itself. De la Caffinière’s piece definitely emphasizes the decision rather than the action resulting from the decision. At this moment, the sadness and regret that the audience feels for the janitor melts away, for the audience senses that the decision was agonizing but good, and that the dancer has experienced a full life.

Click on "Programme," then 26/27 January Alexandre de la Cafinière to read more abou the piece. In French.

Père Lachaise

« C’est mon rêve, aller aux Etats-Unis. Vous savez pourquoi ? »

« Le nouveau président ? »

« No, je m’en fous. Pour Elvis. Je veux aller au Memphis pour voir Elvis. »

This employee at Père Lachaise began by letting us know that the cemetery was about to close. When he found out we were American, however, he asked us all about life in Elvis’s country.

« Je suis de Californie. »

« Ah bon ? C’est près de Memphis? »

A strange preoccupation for someone who spends every day at a cemetery where most of the world’s significant non-Elvis figures are buried, but that afternoon we came to realize that the popular conception of the afterlife does not tolerate the meddling of rational thought.

The most popular memorial style in Père Lachaise is the most ornate. Houses sized down to a third their usual size, perhaps with the kind of proportions you’d see in Disney’s Toontown, these gorgeous constructions make of death a stately affair.

Their grandeur called to my mind vanitas paintings, a Northern European genre popular in the 17th century for allegorically portraying inevitable mortality and the ephemerality of worldly possessions. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

Père Lachaise is not the place for these austere philosophical musings. Any regret of worldly fixations becomes hushed in the face of these edifices. In effect they recreate what must have been the lavish homes these people enjoyed during their lives; simple mortality cannot deprive them of the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

However, the passing centuries add another layer to these three-dimensional portraits. Kai mentioned the Doornik memorials, which have assumed a meaning that their architect and inhabitants surely did not intend. If one had an immature mind and watched too much television, one might remember them this way:

That would not be the first imposition of juvenile humor onto Père Lachaise. One intrepid Jim Morrison fan etched the following into the side of an unrelated house-shaped grave:

Death is a philosophically contentious matter, and cemeteries tend to become battlegrounds for different ideologies. Père Lachaise is no exception. The grand dignity of the graves themselves sets them in opposition to more severe views of death, provokes a contrary irreverence in some, creates a peaceful, not at all sad environment for others, and generally clashes with the matter-of-fact steps of tourists. A trip to the cemetery, therefore, is not only a rich aesthetic experience, but also an opportunity to observe one’s own thought in action.


When we are young, we dance freely, spinning in circles with our eyes closed to soundtracks our parents have put on—most likely something upbeat and happy—like The Beatles. Our hands held to our bodies only by centrifugal motion as our upper extremities flail about, floating by the wind beneath them. As we age, our bodies are molded into codified forms structured by societal standards of proper ways to walk, run, sit, stand, leap (or not leap), skip (or not skip), and please, no spinning. Our movements, whether proprioceptive or well thought out, are self-monitored by the movements of those we see around us. Furthermore, movement is refined to be gender specific so that even the slightest cues become indicative of a particular gender group. But, what would happen if we couldn’t judge our movements based on those we see around us? What if—like the old blues song “No mirrors in my Nana’s house”—we couldn’t see (and censor) ourselves and thus our movements were generated and dictated only by feeling and touch and sensation? What if we closed our eyes and spun—on a stage for everyone to see?

This inhibited sense of self is what dancer/choreographer Sophie Lamarche Damoure achieved in her piece titled Paupière (“eyelid” in French). The dance is part of an independent contemporary dance festival titled “Faits d’hiver” taking place throughout the month of January in multiple local theaters around Paris. What initially drew me to this particular performance was that it was advertised as being inspired by the idea of aveugle, blindness. This intrigued me because as other students in the program have mentioned, Paris seems to have a large sum of blind inhabitants who receive plenty of aid from their sighted neighbors but who mostly navigate the complicated intersections and metro system with only a guide dog or stick. It is hard to imagine what constitutes a sense of space for a blind person. As someone interested in art therapy as a form of rehabilitation, the idea of putting a “sick” or “atypical” body on stage was both intriguing and upsetting. I went in to the performance assuming that the dancer/choreographer was blind; I reasoned that the performance could either be extremely exploitative or incredibly ingenious. I was relieved to find that it was closer to the latter.

At the beginning of the piece, the dancer laid face down on the floor beneath a structure of red felt wire that traversed the stage diagonally from upstage left to downstage right. The set resembled the blood vessels that obstruct one’s vision even though the brain renders them invisible to the natural eye. She was dressed in a floor-length red canvas dress that clung tight to her torso and swayed below her hips. Stark spotlights bestowed luminance like beacons in select locations on stage. The rest was dark. The dancer started by barely moving her heel, then her finger, in small twitching motions. Then the music began: fast, tension-filled, balzato strokes recorded by Henryk Gorecki of the Kronos Quartet. As the music crescendo-ed, so did her movements. Her fingers, wrists, then arms articulately glided on the floor away from her body and quickly retracted back to a crouching position. Her fingertips surveyed the stage below her. She swayed her center of gravity back and forth as if a tiger staying agile on its paws before pouncing. A student of Kabuki and Noh theatre, the dancer was grounded in her actions despite her quick tempo. Her gestures were punctuated; phrases of quick staccato movement alternated with pauses of stillness except for her breathing. The overall sense was one that mirrors that of eye movements or “saccades.” Our eyeballs jet back and forth across a scene, scanning quickly for important information and lingering over confounding elements. I was captivated.

It was so refreshing to see movement that was removed from the classical paradigm of ballet—movements that seemed to have truly visceral origins free from Balanchine ideals of a perfect turnout. The dancer’s body was skewed and inverted, not open and presentational. The audience watched somewhat voyeuristically as the dance was not performed for us, but rather as an exploration of the space. Each movement was centered in the self and stemmed outward, only briefly, before returning back to an introspective state. There was no narrative. But for forty minutes, I watched as this dancer found herself and contextualized herself within the space. . As the piece continued, the music switched between fast agitated dissonant strokes to lyrically bowed notes that were suspended in the theater. The dancer progressively moved from a low position lying on the floor, to a crouched fearful pose, to finally a liberated vertical stance. One of the most striking images was when the dancer placed both of her hands below her breasts on her ribs and plunged them downward toward one another creating a V-like pattern on her abdomen. The movement was accosting simply because for the first time in the dance there was a movement to which I instinctually assigned meaning. I interpreted it as a movement that possessed an inherent sexual reference even though it was merely a tactile exploration of her body. The dance became less about exploring the space and more about exploring the self; in particular, there were movements that gestured explicitly to the eyes.

Suddenly, the lights went out but the music continued. It was ambiguous whether or not the movement continued too. One had to strain to detect even outlines of the dancer’s body in the dark space. It was almost as if the audience was forced into the perspective of someone blind. This is why the dance was effective. It did not tell a story about a blind person’s struggle—instead, through the agitated, punctuated, quick gestures and the uninhibited exploration of space and self, the audience was confronted with the same emotions that an unsighted person might experience. There is an anxiety about one’s surroundings and yet an abandon of expectations.

As the dancer bowed, it was unclear whether or not she was actually blind. While her biography says that she studied ballet, and thus is probably sighted, she danced most of the piece with her eyes closed or her eyelids barely open. I realized that my appreciation of the piece was affected by the dancer’s physiological state—however, perhaps it is not a physical blindness that should be investigated but rather a more philosophical blindness to our surroundings and to ourselves that should be questioned.

Photo courtesy of Ouest-France.fr

Sous l'Empire des Crinolines

Though by no means a meticulous student of fashion, I have been known to occasionally flick through a copy of Vogue or visit style.com. So having seen a massive billboard on the métro advertising an exhibit on French fashions during the mid-19th century, it was an easy decision choosing to spend Thursday afternoon at the Palais Galliera with Midori. The exhibition, «Sous l'Empire des Crinolines», follows the sartorial trends of Paris under the Empress Eugénie during the Second Empire from dressmaking, to hairstyles, to accessories, to makeup through a beautiful display of dresses, prints and photographs.

The Palais Galliera itself is a beautiful building, one of the only
museums in Paris to have been built explicitly for the purpose of housing a collection of art. Impressive colonnade columns envelope the Renaissance palace, befitting a home for such a regal collection. The fashion itself was phenomenal ; the incredible attention to detail and exuberance on even the most ordinary day dresses from the period can today only be found in haute couture pieces. In the opening gallery, designed to imitate a ballroom scene, there was an absolutely incredible barrel muff made entirely of peacock feathers on display, which perfectly illustrated the lavish style of the era. The exotic pattern and the vivid colors juxtaposed on the soft feathers created an extravagant and intensely striking piece. Fans were hand painted on silk taffeta with a carved ivory handle. Handkerchiefs were monogrammed on delicate ecru linen. The elaborate beading and embroidery on the ball gowns were exquisite. Above all, I fell head over heels in love with the absolutely beautiful hand-made Chantilly lace, which was used extensively in the period both as an embellishment on dresses and on its own as a shawl.

The menswear complemented and contrasted the delicate dresses, with strong shoulders and straight lines. Usually with military overtones, the jackets were impeccably tailored but still elaborately detailed.
The sheer size and complexity of the ball gowns had me wondering on more than one occasion about the colossal trade off between practicality and aesthetics. Between the tightly-laced corsets and the skirts which span well over a standard door frame, I can only imagine how trying even the most simple actions such as sitting down must have been, much less the complicated practice of answering nature's call. Despite the immense scale of the skirts, it was also incredible to note how petite all the clothing and accessories were, especially the tiny little shoes.

What stood out most to me about this exhibition was its ability to track the incredible developments in Paris during the time period using the unexpected medium of immaculate day dresses, elaborate ball gowns, impeccable accessories and exquisite jewelry pieces. A
dvances in technology and the increased use of steel made it possible to perfect the crinoline, taking it from being a small petticoat made from horsehair to a steel hooped structure which could support the weight of the heavy fabrics which were so « à la mode ». The industrial
revolution introduced the use of machines in textiles and needlework, allowing vast quantities of elegant Chantilly lace to be produced faster and cheaper than ever before. The modernization of transportation inspired ranges of accessories for leisure travel, reflecting on the increasing wealth and prosperity of society. Changes in market forces founded the commercial fashion industry with the introduction of the grands magasins and haute couture, firmly establishing Paris as the fashion capital of the world in time for the World’s Fairs of 1855 and 1867. The aesthetically and visually stimulating representation made for a unique and refreshing crash course of Paris' transition into modernity.

The influence of the crinoline-era fashions can still be seen on the runways
today, though reinvented to give it a modern feel. It seems incredible to me that the same styles and constructions can be updated over and over again such that the details on the buttons of my jacket may have been inspired by the clasp on a 19th century bolero. As beautiful as the exhibition was, I left the Palais feeling a little melancholic about the meager attention to detail and informality of prêt-à-porter retail fashion today. But then again, I guess I should just be grateful I don't have to wear a crinoline of up to six feet in diameter and an 18" corset on a daily basis...

The Art of Scent Seduction

A fancy gold sign with cursive letters and advertisements featuring skinny, stunning models dressed in seductive clothes draw you towards Les Galeries Lafayette. You stroll into the store and immediately are greeted by the Gucci, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton haute couture. Bright lights, Gothic-style balconies and railings, ruby red velvet curtains, and a gold walls surround you. Above you is a large skylight dome covered in rich, carefully constructed stained glass designs. Excited to begin this special shopping experience, you smile and take in a breath of fresh air and smell… diesel fuel.

This event is very unlikely to take place in the famous store, and I bet it is hard to even imagine. However, this scenario makes me contemplate the fact that I take the smell of various places and things for granted, and I do not even think about the effort that goes into creating a specific smell so that I feel at ease with whatever I encounter. Many smells—whether it is smell of a specific store, a smell of a manufactured food, a smell of household chemicals, or a smell of a perfume—are carefully constructed. Going to the Musée du Parfum above the Fragonard perfume store, where Ashley and I were received a private tour about the history and process of making perfume, made me appreciate the art and beauty involved in making perfume. The smell of places like Les Galeries Lafayette, as I learned at the museum, is specific, takes a lot of effort, and consists of many layers and notes that together produce a harmonious scent.

The process of perfume making is complex. A perfumer needs to know how to obtain the substances that give off smell through synthesizing and purifying in order to get essential oils. He must dilute perfume oils with a solvent in order to be able to apply the perfume directly to the skin. The maker, thus, must understand chemistry, as made clear by the pictures in the museum of perfumers in lab coats and working with beakers and syringes. Without diluting the oils properly, allergic reactions and skin injuries are much more common. He then adds the diluted odorant to ethyl alcohol and water and lets the mixture rest for a while before bottling it. Perfumers have mastered the skill of understanding when a substance is ready to be bottled, and the amount of time for the substance to rest with the water mixture depends on the flower. One can make perfume using one of three different, very specific methods. One method involves maceration, another involves a cold maturation, and a third involves distillation. The instruments used in each method look like pieces of artwork themselves, carefully constructed by talented engineers and wood carvers.

A perfume artist has many artistic decisions to make each time he creates a scent. He must decide how concentrated he wants to make it: each de toilette is less concentrated than eau de parfum, which is less concentrated than perfume. Most importantly, he must choose his mixture of aroma solvents and essential oils. This is difficult because there are so many scent sources from which to choose: flower sources such as rose centifol, fleurs d’oranger, jasmine, minosa, violet, genet tubereue (all from very specific parts of the world), plant sources such as vetiver roots, birch, pine, coriander seeds, tomato leavaes, and animal sources such as honeycomb, seaweed, ambergris (fat made by a whale), and thousands more.

One describes the process of making perfume as though the perfumer is creating a song. There is a perfume organ, a “3-sided piece of furniture with precision, scale, and a large number of bottles used by perfumer…to create perfumes. Called an organ because perfumes are composed like music” (plaque in the museum). Each bottle, or each scent, is thus called a note, and there are over 1000 notes in some perfumers’ workshops. Various notes belong to different families—the floral, woody, oriental, or fresh family. Some of the notes are like whole notes, and others are like quarter notes, and the notes create harmonic layers. For example, one can smell the top notes, the fruity scents, immediately after application, but then the particles evaporate after 10 minutes. They are like quarter notes, and they are important for selling the perfume. Once the fruity scents go away, the middle notes, the flowery smells, which are like half notes, start to emerge. Finally, once the middle notes dissolve, the base notes, all of the other types of smells (such as the animal smells) become apparent. The base notes are like whole notes because they are more long-lasting. They do not even appear in the scent (or the harmony) until around 30 minutes after application, and they interact with the other layers of scents to create a specific musical-like score.

To make a scent, a perfume artist needs a lot of material. 3000 kilos of roses from Bulgarie makes 1 liter of perfume. This is one reason why the final scent is treated like an elegant and expensive work of art. The perfumer needs to decide how to store it, either in glass, which keeps the perfume fresh for up to three years, or in aluminum, which keeps the perfume fresh for six years because it protects it from the harmful effects of heat and light.

The perfume label is another artistic endeavor. It must seduce the consumer. In the museum, for example, we saw a French Rimmel label that was inspired by the Paris metro station and art nouveau of the early 20th century in order to attract the local population, which was amazed by the metro system at the time.

Thus, everything about perfume is carefully constructed, and a good perfumer is a master of the art of seduction. He must study for six years at a college, he must not smoke, drink alcohol or eat spicy foods, so that his nose stays sensitive to all smells, and his nose must be extraordinary and able to differentiate between thousands of smells. Because the art is so difficult to master, there are only 300 perfumers in the world! The formulas of perfumes are always secret, but even if the formulas were published, a normal person would not be able to create what perfumers create. The perfumers must be creative to decide what notes to combine to create a harmonic scent, and knowledgeable perfumers have an artistic vision that stretches beyond what is simply in the bottle. They need to consider the atmosphere of the store for which they are trying to create, the taste that one will have with a certain food smell they design, or the presentation of the bottle. Like talented artists, they have the ability to shape emotions and create memories. From now on, after this spectacular learning experience at the museum, I will always appreciate the art involved in crafting the perfumes around me.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Heaven in Paris - Our Tour de Chocolat

Parisians are world-renowned for their richness in taste. Bread, cheese, wine, chocolate, these are all items found in abundance. Despite the fact that “boulangeries”, “fromageries” and “chocolateries” are frequently seen on street corners, there is no sacrifice on quality. As my host mother said, “we don’t eat a lot of food, or food in big portions, but the food that we do eat is very rich”.

I’ve learned that it is not possible to resist the call of my sweet-tooth, and after reading a New York Times article by Amy Thomas on a self-guided Tour de Chocolat, I succumbed to the temptation! Tammy, Michael and I, chose three chocolate shops recommended in the article, all in the Montparnasse area, and all a close walk from one another.

The first, called Christian Constant, was visible from a distance with its white marble façade and black lettering. When we entered inside, the aroma of chocolate filled my nostrils as I saw a glass display case (similar to those in most bakeries here) filled with rows of chocolate. Bottles of wine lined the walls on one end, while white canisters of tea blended into the walls on the other; the décor was simple, but classy.

The selection of chocolate was quite extensive compared to that in North America. Apart from the typical nut and caramel flavors, truffles, and fruit filled interiors, there was also a selection of tea flavors, flower essences and selections inspired by international spices.

The third store we went to (I will leave the second for last), Jean-Charles Rochoux, was similar to the first in terms of selection. Chocolate figurines lined the store windows. The clutter in the glass displays and on the countertops led to a tackier and less refined store appearance. In this particular boutique, we weren’t allowed to touch anything, including the pre-wrapped boxes. This measure seemed a little counterintuitive, especially given the lack of free counter space. We were encouraged to ask questions, and when I inquired about a chocolate containing an infusion of different peppers, the notion of nuance in taste was very much a common thread.

The second “chocolaterie”, Pierre Marcolini, was in a class of its own. Its appearance reminded me more of an exclusive art gallery than a chocolate store. The display in the window consisted of five sculpture stands, all equidistant, and containing a selection of one to five chocolates enclosed in a glass case. My first instinct was to lower my voice upon entering the boutique, and unlike in Jean-Charles Rochaux, I had no desire to touch anything before me. Rather than the baker and patisserie-type display casing seen in the other chocolate shops, this particular store showcased the chocolate in a counter similar to those in most jewelry stores. We had to walk up to the counter in order to be able to see what was contained underneath the glass.

The chocolate selection not only included that of the other stores, but also consisted of some unique additions, such as Violette, “a pure square chocolate infused with violet”. Each chocolate had a memorable appearance. Four metallic colors dissected the upper layer of Quatre Epices, while the tea flavored chocolates had their name inscribed in dainty gold lettering on the surface. When we proceeded to pay for our selections at this store, we were ushered to the cash register in a private nook in the boutique. The royal blue carpet, dark walls, and minimalist décor, accentuated the chic appearance and contributed to a sense of exclusivity.

I waited until going home to taste the chocolates from each location. Those from Christian Constant and Jean-Charles Rochaux were of similar quality and taste, but perhaps my taste-buds are not refined enough to notice the difference! The ganaches that I tried were dark and rich, a hard shell enveloping a smooth and creamy filling. Upon first bite, a powerful cocoa flavor burst into my mouth, leaving as its only remnant, a bitter sensation on my tongue. The Earl Grey flavor would have been difficult to recognize had I not been expecting it. The same can be said for the Calvaro flavor, in which I was not able to taste anything other than the dark chocolate (but was supposed to be able to detect an assortment of spices). Subtlety only acts as a powerful agent when the fusion of flavors within can be distinguished from those of the base ingredient.

Unlike the other stores, each chocolate that I tasted from Pierre Marcolini paid tribute to the flavor that it highlighted, and I hope that the stunning décor at this boutique did not impact my ability to be a judge of taste! The coffee ganache, round in shape, was half covered on the surface with a thin layer of cocoa bean shavings. In addition to defining the appearance of the chocolate itself, it also provided a change in texture, a crunch permeating the creamy coffee interior.

The Earl Gray and Citron Tea flavors were clearly distinguishable but did not clash with the cocoa itself. The violet flavor was subtle upon first bite, providing a hint of something foreign but not out of place. The proportions of each ingredient within the Pierre Marcolini chocolates seemed to me, to be well thought out and correctly determined.

Although I am no connoisseur, my first taste of Parisian chocolate provided satisfaction to my sweet tooth, at least until I look into the next patisserie window! We only had an opportunity to sample three chocolateries, but before I leave Paris, I hope to see if I am able to find one that beats Pierre Marcolini.
Today, Christina and I went to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris and one of the most famous cemeteries in the world. It was quite a sight to take in. We didn’t make it all the way around or through the cemetery since we only had about an hour and we wanted to focus on something specific. From an architectural standpoint, the cemetery is a marvel. From the small fraction of the whole to which I was privy today, I was able to distinguish three main architectural choices for the graves. There are the basic stone rectangles that I call sarcophagi. One step up from that, there are the sarcophagi with headstones or statues or ironwork. And then there are the house-sized memorials, ranging from a simple structure with room for one person to stand, to buildings that resemble small churches and sometimes reach two stories or higher up to the sky.

While the gravestone mansions can be absolutely beautiful with ornate stonework and pillared terraces, and the detailed sarcophagi are some of the oldest and most careworn gravestones, my favorites are the simple grave-houses with room for just one person to contemplate the departed. They consist of three walls, a door facing the pathway, and a steepled roof. People walk past most of these markers without a second thought – they are the most common, and to the passer-by, contain nothing of great interest since the outside design is simple. The inside of these structures is dark, hidden by intricate iron-wrought doors or dusty glass panes that protect the sanctity of the interior and dissuade rather than beckon to the casual observer. However, during our class trip to Passy Cemetery, I chanced upon one of these graves without a door, and stepped inside to have a better look. It was then that I discovered the treasure hidden within these comparatively nondescript markers.

Each small grave-house has, just above the top of the door-frame on the opposite wall, a window. These windows range in size and shape, from simple openings to the elements to beautiful creations of glass and color that dazzle the eyes. The trick is to look in at the proper angle, which is achieved by getting as close as you can to the grave-house. This is accomplished either by going inside, or bowing over outside the door and looking up through the curling iron patterns…almost as if you first need to show respect for the deceased before appreciating their masonry memory.

While Christina and I were walking, we found a particularly interesting pair of grave-houses. They were the final resting places of “D. de Schutte et Doornik” and “Schoen et Doornik,” respectively. If they two had been twins, the former would have most definitely been the good twin. We first noticed them because they are tilted away from each other. Logically speaking, this is because there is a rather large tree growing right between and slightly in front of them, and I’m sure the root growth interfered with the foundations of the buildings. However, if one were to abandon the logical perspective and take into account the overall appearance of the twin structures, they lean away from each other because they are opposites, ying and yang of the Doornik clan.

D. de Schutte and Doornik’s grave-house is white, built in the traditional steepled structure of the simpler grave-houses, crowned by a cross and with a six-petaled window above the door looking out to the street. The inner window is yellow stained glass, which gives a golden glow to the inside of the chamber, and the doorstep is framed by two pink and red potted plants. Schoen and Doornik’s final resting place is a horse of a different color (to quote one of the best movies ever). First of all, it is completely blackened, either with age or an unfortunate flammable occurrence…it’s difficult to say. If there was ever a cross on top of its pointed roof, it has since fallen off and indeed there is a chunk of stone missing from the very top, marring the architect’s effort to draw the eyes skyward. Instead one looks up until they reach the jagged edge and stop there, wondering what happened. If there was once a stained glass window on the inside wall, it no longer exists, and the naked opening instead barely illuminates the interior with a cold gray light. Needless to say, there are no potted plants. Due to the tree growing directly between them, the picture I took is divided in half, and the stark differences between the two grave-houses are enough to make it appear as though, if the picture were actually cut in half, the photos were taken on two different days.

It’s fascinating to me how two structures with the exact same architectural principles can appear so differently. The lines of both houses are the same, the windows, the pillars, even the lettering of the deceased’s names. And yet they are polar opposites. The former is clean, wholesome, glowing with an inner light and truly does draw the eye and mind to the heavens. The latter has an air of foreboding, feels slightly sinister and instead pulls your thoughts below, to less pleasant theories about the afterlife.

I also took a picture from the rear side of the twin structures, and it is easy to tell that Schoen and Doornik must have passed away long before D. de Schutte and Doornik were laid in their final resting place. The stones on the back of Schoen and Doornik’s grave are cracked and partly separated, although some effort has been made to patch the damage. It is also leaning more severely to one side, showing the stronger and more long-term influence of the tree’s encroachment. It was from this angle that I realized perhaps Schoen and Doornik’s grave-house was not the evil twin, just the less fortunate of the two. Through the naked window you can look towards the front and through the six-petaled opening to the sky. It was truly beautiful, and was just another gentle reminder that sometimes good and bad, ugly and pure, are only a matter of perspective.

An Orgasmic Tour du Chocolat

A few weeks before I came to Paris, a friend sent me a link to a NY Times article titled "Le Tour du Chocolat". She made sure to stipulate, "MON DIEU, am i jealous!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! dude, you better do this to the t." As a forthright chocoholic and a shameless dessert connoisseur, of course I am. But how could anyone not, when the article begins as follows: "The French have elevated many things to high art: fashion, flirting, foie gras. Chocolate is no exception. With boutiques that display truffles as rapturously as diamonds, the experience of visiting a Parisian chocolatier can be sublime."

Aleema, Michael and I decided to visit three such renowned chocolatiers: Christian Constant, Jean-Charles Rochoux, and Pierre Marcolini. All three shared some similarities. First off, each featured variations of ganache, mousse de marron (chestnut), noisette (hazelnut), café, and Earl Grey Tea. Second, all three used slim metal prongs to gently pick up each chocolate from its respective dish and gracefully slip it into slim clear plastic "sachets". Third, each sachet was sealed with an elegant little sticker bearing the store name, whether gold, silver, or a minimalistic black and white. Fourth, each sachet came with a beautiful legend containing pictures, names, and ingredients of each chocolate.

But the similarities end there. Visiting each chocolatier was fun, interesting and delicious in it's own way. In the end though, I only considered one of them a truly "sublime" experience.

We started off at Christian Constant. The store was an infusion between an Asian teashop and a pristine apothecary's. Rows of teas in white jars lined white walls. Because Asian teas and Far Eastern flavors seemed to be Constant's specialty, I decided get a smatteringof tea flavored chocolate ganaches. Most of them tasted very subtle, so subtle that you have to hold your breath in a quiet room to really taste the tea over the chocolate. Too subtle, I decided. Only one chocolate filled my head with flavor: the Jasmin du Yemen et thé vert. The others (thé earl grey, vanille de Tahiti, fleurs d'oranger, and roses et raisins de Corinthe) were decidedly underwhelming.

Next, we went to Jean-Charles Rochoux. The store had the appearance of a kitschy antique shop because chocolate figurines garishlydecorated every square inch of surface area. It was all too yellow, too bright, and too cluttered. I also found the names unnecessarily pretentious. There, I got a Loja (a rose truffle), a Tumacos (a vanilla truffle), and Gianduja (a chocolate hazelnut paste). I was not a fan of either the rose or the vanilla. Both were subtle to the point of ambiguity, and finished with a sour aftertaste. However, I was impressed with the chocolate hazelnut: if it were a Cabernet, Nutella would instantly be relegated to a Pinot Noir. And Nutella is usually pretty damn good.

Finally, we went to Pierre Marcolini. Now, THIS was a work of art. My heartbeat quickened perceptibly as soon as I walked through the tall glass doors. My eyes feasted on the colors that jumped out from white table, glass case, and black wall -- the presentation was impeccable. I felt like I was in the Hall of Jewels at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Of all three chocolatiers, only Marcolini really fashions and displays his chocolates as rapturously as diamonds. No, scratch that- not just diamonds, but rubies, amethysts, topaz, and opals. As a visual artist who loves concentrated sensuous colors, Marcolini already won me over by presentation alone.

Like a king facing his harem, I chose the most beautiful chocolates. I usually hate fruit flavored chocolates, and am also not a huge fan of white chocolate. However, the Coeur Framboise seduced me with its luminous red surface and its feminine curves. It was the firstchocolate I chose. Next, I chose a Violette, a violet-flavored dark chocolate ganache sprinkled with grainy purple sugar the texture of igneous rock. Then, I chose a Quatre Épices, and small square of chocolate covered caramel glazed with asymmetrical rectangles that resemble the patterns of Piet Mondrian. Of course, even the color of each rectangle was appropriately matched to the flavor of the caramel: a dark chocolate brown, a milk chocolate brown, a burnt umber brown, and a lemongrass yellow-brown. The rest of the chocolates were not quite as physically attractive so I decided to finish off simply with a standard Earl Grey Tea and a Java café.

The taste did not disappoint. The Java kicked like the crunch of a coffee bean. The Earl Grey Tea filled my mouth with aroma which lingered on my tongue long afterwards like a good wine. The Quatre Épices was buttery and chewy but not cloyingly so as most caramels are. The Violet evoked raspberries and flowers. I usually hate people who describe wine as "nutty" or "fruity"- I hate them even more when they get really specific, like "sandalwood" and "apricots". But Pierre Marcolini's fine art has bedded me and left me ravished; now I'm talking like one of those people. Did I mention that I detest fruit flavored chocolates and don't like white chocolate? The Coeur Framboise was by far my favorite chocolate of the day. No other words come to mind when I try to describe it, save "miraculous".

I was enraptured with everything except for the fact that I got yelled at as soon as I took my camera out to take pictures. Despite this marked snootiness, I have to admit that that Pierre Marcolini is now my favorite chocolatier in Paris. But, whatever. As my boyfriend joked with me on Skype, you know you're a real snob when you go around to the best chocolate stores in Paris and still find ground to critique taste, ambiance, presentation and overall artistry. So perhaps Pierre Marcolini is kind of my place after all ;)

Link: http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/travel/14journeys.html

Thursday, January 22, 2009

French cooking class

French cooking class

From the Moon to la Cuisine Française

“Mom, this isn’t the right red sauce. It has weird things in it.”     “The market was out of the other spaghetti sauce. This one has little mushrooms,” my mom replies to my brother Andrew.                                 “I hate mushrooms!”                    “Son, have you ever tried them?” asks my dad.                             “No, but I wouldn’t like them. I’ll just have spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese.”      My mom sighs and gets up to bring him some butter from the counter, where she sees my sister Allison opening a box of plain Cheerios. For some reason, she doesn’t like spaghetti but loves every other type of pasta.     “Did anybody eat the dinner?” my mom asks in a rare tone of frustration.         “I did!” exclaims my youngest brother Alexander, who is pouring a huge mound of Hershey’s chocolate syrup into his bowl of coffee ice cream.           “Alexander, that looks like way too much! There won’t be any for me!” Allison exclaims.    “Don’t worry, we still have two more bottles.”         Meanwhile, Stephanie’s plate gets knocked to the floor when she leans over to help Kimberly with her homework.     “Luckily its plastic!” Stephanie exclaims, as our dog runs over and starts licking the sauce off of the plate.

            This scene describing a typical dinner with my real family in the U.S. helps illustrate the significant contrast between the setting to which I have become accustomed at home and my culinary experiences thus far in Paris. Simplicity, familiarity, and quantity are critical elements of meals at my house, whereas the Parisians value flavor, creativity, and presentation. Not only have I discovered this by eating with my host family, I also gained a deeper understanding of French cooking this weekend in during a class that I took with my roommate and several family friends who live in Paris.

            We took the class at a restaurant called La Carte Blanche that our family friends have been to several times and enjoyed. The chef of La Carte Blanche, Jean-François Renard, met us inside the restaurant. As we put on aprons and waited for everyone to arrive, I began to notice the artistic qualities in the main room of the restaurant. There were both vertical and diagonal panels of dark brown wood on one of the side walls and a stone pattern on the other, giving the room a natural and tranquil atmosphere. The green, red, and orange tightly woven placemats on the tables matched the pillows that rested on long, cushioned booths along the walls.  

The chef led us into the kitchen and told us to each go to one of the cutting boards that he had laid out, where we started to prepare vegetables for the menu that Jean-François had planned. For our class, we were going to make Thai themed dishes. First, he showed us how to cut vegetables into very thin pieces, moving his hands and knife so quickly that I was almost too scared to watch. Ali and I were in charge of cutting the peppers using a special technique. We were instructed to move the knife away from ourselves with the base of the knife in the air before moving it back in and chopping down onto the cutting board. When I tried to emulate this method on y own I was reminded of how an artist can make a very difficult skill look easy. I was cutting so slowly and gently that the chef came over to give me advice. “You have to feel the knife moving back and forth and hear it hit the board cleanly in order to cut all the way through,” he explained in French. From then on, I focused on making a smother motion and listened for the satisfying sound of the blade making contact with the cutting board.

            Jean-François showed us a different technique for preparing the peppers- how to remove the skin with a peeler. He peeled each of them in about five swift movements. I, on the other hand, was only able to peel a small portion of the skin at a time despite using his trick of putting my thumb underneath the pepper.

            Eventually the peppers were ready, so I swept them into a container and brought them to the vegetables that the others had prepared. I instantly noticed the vibrant palate of all our ingredients. Ruby red jalepeños, pumpkin colored paste, bright green bok choy, light orange, silvery-grey shrimp, blinding white rice, light orange mangoes, maroon beef and pork, lemongrass with purple rings, and lime green Asian lemons, along with others. It was such a pure and aesthetic image that I rushed to capture it on my camera. I had never even seen some of the ingredients before, and I had definitely never cooked with them.

            I learned that there are secrets for cooking the ingredients in the pot as well. We graded the lemon, orange peels, and ginger into the pot of crabs, coriander, peanut oil, and shrimp while stirring. We also kept the ingredients in the pot for 15 minutes before adding water to keep more of the flavors.

            Just as an artist cares about how his work is displayed, Jean-François presented our meal exquisitely. There were brown soup bowls painted deep red on the inside that we used with spoons in the shape of teaspoons. We ate the entrées on partly transparent brown glass plates and used pastel colored, purposely dented cups for our tea. We used the outside of the pineapple as a serving bowl. The chef removed the pineapple’s flesh and put the rind in the oven to make it dry, enabling us to fill it with the rice dish without making the rice wet. To preserve the form of the rice even further, he had cooked it the night before and left it in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

            As we sat down to taste our lunch, we asked Jean-François in what way he thought cooking relates to art. His first response was that it depends of the chef. He said that it takes research, creativity, and risks. Based on these criteria, the cooking at my house would hardly ever qualify as art. However, I discovered throughout or lesson that Jean-François cooking is certainly a sensational art. He researches by traveling to Shanghai, Tokyo and other places in Asia in search of new flavors. As a result, most of the items on the menu of La Carte Blanche have an exotic twist. Every dish had so many novel flavors that I was constantly looking forward to discovering them. The lemongrass, coriander and Asian lemons are just a few examples of ingredients that revealed his originality as an artist. He could tell from our delighted faces and exclamations as we ate that he had indeed helped us make one of his masterpieces. When we asked him how he creates the various meals, he replied that he usually tries different combinations without writing down the steps to see what works the best. He compared it to painting without thinking, because he often doesn’t know exactly how his works of art come together.

            At the end of our class, the chef told us that he taught a group of ten Americans two years ago. He said they were continually so surprised and exuberant during the lesson that it was like they were from the moon. He told me that I reminded him of those Americans since it seemed like I was doing everything for the first time, and I smiled, knowing he was right.


Paris Métro Graffiti

For me, the fluidity of graffiti as an art form is very much highlighted by its ability to use almost medium as its canvas. The Paris métro system, like most other underground train systems around the world, has been ornately decorated by artists. It can be found everywhere: scrawled across the walls of the station, sprayed onto the stairs leading down to the trains, etched on the métro car doors, lining the tunnels between stops. I've noticed how the pieces vary significantly depending on their medium, ranging from small pieces carved beneath the métro door handles to the more elabolate multicolored "wildstyle" block letters representing the artists' name, a "tag", from sociopolitical commentaries to seemingly random scribbles.

The graffiti pieces on the walls of the métro stations and on the métro cars tend to be smaller, less elaborate, likely due to the RATP's recent crackdown on graffiti artists. The more complex and colorful pieces tend to be found covering posterboards or sometimes even lining the stairwell. It is often on these pieces that the artists' "tag" is clearly visible to observers, though the words within the graffiti piece itself may be more obscure and sometimes undecipherable to non-artists. Whenever legible, the piece often represents a political sentiment, most noticeable where the large "roller" graffiti pieces deface entire advertisements with anti-globalization sentiments. Commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also been evident, from random scribbles and thoughts on the war, to the simple yet effective "PAIX" which covers the beginning of the tunnel linking République and Strasbourg St Denis on ligne 9. In contrast, where artists have succeeded in leaving their mark on the walls of the métro station without their pieces being washed off, the grafitti is usually more obscure or cryptic, often stylized representations of Parisian slang.

Remarkably, the style of the graffiti on the walls of the tunnels that connect the métro from station to station contrasts drastically from the works within the stations themselves. For one thing, the tunnel walls are often covered from top to bottom, from side to side, especially in the tunnels where there are two tracks running parallel to each other. This is interesting given the speed at which the trains rush through the tunnels, and the limited lighting lining its way. Perhaps as a resulte of the area over which the métro authorities have focused their anti-graffiti campaign, there is a pay-off between being able to create designs that are unlikely to be quickly washed off, and the visbility of the work, since as mentioned previously, it is extremely difficult to clearly view the works in the tunnels. Consequently, almost all the graffiti in the tunnels take on a much simpler style and color scheme in an effort to promote its visibility and legibility. With few exceptions, all the pieces consist of blocked letters created with white spray paint and very little further ornamentation or design. It seems as though the artists who utilize the walls in the tunnels are prioritizing the effectiveness and visibility of their pieces over aesthetics. In spite of the efforts, however, it is still rare for the pieces to be represented in a large enough scale and a clear enough manner for riders of the métro to be able to decipher and interpret the representations. Yet this has not hindered Parisian graffiti artists from continuing to decorate the métro tunnels, covering the walls in a consistent style. This questions the purpose and intentions of the artists. It alludes to the possibility that the fact that graffiti art is present in the métro suffices; the design and aesthetic of the work itself is almost irrelevant.

Espace Dalí Montmartre

I am not particularly well-versed in visual art, but I can begin to understand those of my friends who are hopelessly smitten with Dalí. The subtleties of technique are often lost on me, but Dalí provides plenty to consider even when one is visually stunted. I admire the humor of his work, his witty overhaul of artistic tradition, and the articulation of a coherent set of themes and symbols. It is all too easy to rely on centuries-old associations, but Dalí created new ones, such as ants and mortality, while playing with the old, like an egg as a symbol of regeneration.

His influences range from classical art (his Venus sculptures), an English storybook (illustrations of Alice in Wonderland), to the great Spanish novel (illustrations of Don Quixote), to the Bible, to an American film star (Mae West’s Face); his media of choice include painting, sculpture, and new technology such as the hologram. A collection of his art gives the impression of a mind busily at work, transforming its surroundings and turning them out again as pieces of an artistic philosophy unexpected yet coherent. The curator weakly attempts to impose the theme of “Les illusions optiques” onto the exhibit as a whole, but where this theme breaks down, those inherent in Dalí’s preoccupations and techniques prevail.

Dalí was Spanish by birth, but while he lived in Montmartre Paris became an added influence on his mental syntheses. Most notably, Montmartre’s windmills reminded him of the futile battle of Don Quixote, and he began a series of illustrations based on Cervantes’ idealist. Paris’s power to awaken nascent images in his mind illustrates how fully he assimilated his environment in France and how seamlessly he connected his disparate influences.

Unfortunately, his much-vaunted daring did not extend far enough. Women for Dalí function as monolithic symbols rather than as individuals. Granted, the female form has more artistic tradition behind it for him to subvert, as he does in his refigurings of the Venus de Milo. However, Dalí missed the opportunity to create a new vocabulary of symbolism around something both omnipresent and underanalyzed: the male body. A distressingly predictable, narrow view of women comes into focus in one curator’s card that explains Venus à tiroirs as an assertion that “a woman’s most interesting quality is her mystery.” It is difficult to tell whether this is the artist or the curator speaking, or where one leaves off and the other begins, but its sentiment is all too consistent with the limitations of Dalí’s art.

Despite this significant shortcoming, Dalí succeed not only in bringing new ideas to 20th-century art, but also in creating a cult of personality around himself. He plays on his status most effectively in a series of photographs, unfortunately displayed in a frame without a title or any further identifying information, with question-and-answer captions in the style of a celebrity magazine. Its spirit lives on, with the exception of a rather conventional gallery of pieces for sale, in a small red museum at the top of several hundred stairs in Montmartre.