Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Moving Day: The Mers Apartment

Moving day is finally coming around: we start on Friday and who knows when we will end.

We have "stuff" in two different storage spaces: a small one in Paris and a big one in Dieppe in Normandy. Thus, we will have to rent a van for the Paris stuff and a moving truck for the Dieppe stuff. Jacky's original plan was to rent a moving truck, pick up the stuff in Paris and then swing by Dieppe and pick up the stuff there. That idea was quashed when he discovered that the kilometers for a big moving truck (not to mention the gas) were more expensive than for a van. So Friday he will take the stuff from Paris to Mers and on Saturday he will take the stuff from Dieppe to Mers.

Saturday also, Colman will be available to help with the moving...something I cannot do while walking on crutches. But he doesn't want to drive in to Paris from Pont-Sainte-Maxence so the rendez vous point is going to be Beauvais.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's official!

Last Friday I received the official verdict: I indeed have a stress fracture of the third metatarsal (not the fifth, as the doctor originally thought). Sunday August 9th, on the third day of power walking in the Buttes Chaumont, I developed excruciating pain in the foot whenenver I put my weight on it. Spend the rest of the day in bed with the foot elevated and ice packs on it. Monday I still could not walk so I hobbled to the doctor who told me to stay home from work for a week, massage the foot with anti-inflammatory gel, wrap it in an elastic bandage and use crutches to get around...no weight bearing.

A week later the rest had done some good, the pain was still there but no longer excruciating. The x-rays did not show anything but then, stress fractures are not often visible on regular x-rays. Monday August 17th I returned to the doctor and said that I was going back to work, on crutched, if necessary. He prescribed a bone scintigraphy (scan) which is more effective in revealing stress fractures. All last week I went to the office with crutches. Friday morning August 21st Jacky accompanied me to the Lariboisière hospital next to the Gare du Nord, an elegant mid-19th century structure fitted out with all the latest modern equipment.

After initial x-rays I received an injection of some kind of radioactive product and was told to return in two and a half, three hours, so I went for coffee, read, visited the hospital gardens and spent some time in the hospital chapel, an elegant 19th interpretation of the Baroque. Upon my return, scans were taken and I almost fell asleep listening to the hum of the scanner. Finally the doctor came out and showed me the scans: positive for stress fracture of the third metatarsal. The results will be sent to my treating physician. However, I called right away to find out if there is anything I should do other than what I am already doing and he said no. So now I'm stuck on crutches for another month or so.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Butte Bergèyre

The apartment buildings along the avenue Simon Bolivar and the rue Manin encircle and conceal the the houses atop the Butte Bergèyre in the manner of walls around a medieval enclave. Only one street gives vehicles acces to the top the Butte. Otherwise, three steep stairways niched between the buildings provide acces to pedestrians. One of these, the one at the end of the rue Barrelet de Ricou, was immortalized by Willy Ronis in 1950.

The hillyness of this neigborhood is illustrated by the stairway that continues going down on the other side of the avenue Simon Bolivar. Sixty years later the traffic light is still there but speeding cars and motor scooters have replaced horse drawn wagons.

On a more mundane note, this is the same crosswalk where a run-away scooter hit me in a freak accident on a rainy day: the driver tried to stop, lost control and the scooter kept going...right into me. The recent photo of the stairs on the right emphasizes its length and steepness. Visible under the apartment window are the louvers of the "garde-manger".

The website of the residents' association of the Butte Bergèyre features a photo of Josephine Baker, whose infamous dance wearing little more than a skirt of bananas had made her a star of the Folies Bergère, at the ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the inauguration of the housing develoment.

Like the apartments buildings around it, the smaller constructions on the Butte were built in the late 1920's and the 1930's in the latest architectural styles. Many are single family townhouses with garages and small gardens.

One house, the "Maison Zilvelli", unlike the larger and better known Villa Noailles, is a small, little-known jewel of the Modernist architectural mouvement in France.

The house was designed in 1934 by Jean Welz, an Austrian architect who came to Paris for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. Welz stayed in France to collaborate briefly with Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens and Adolphe Loos before working on a more regular basis with Raymond Fischer from 1927 to 1935. Beginning in 1933, he worked on some individual projects, only two of which are known to have been built. The Maison Zilvelli on the Butte Bergèyre is one of them.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The "Garde-Manger"

For years I have been fascinated by the day-to-day living conditions of Jacky's childhood in the working class neighborhood of Belleville in the 20th arrondissement of Paris or what I call his Le Ballon Rouge childhood (aka "The Red Balloon", the 1956 children's film classic by Albert Lamorisse). This is more than simply a fortuitous reference as the film was shot on location in Ménilmontant which is a part of Belleville and in 1956 Jacky was 7 years old, about the age of the film's protagonist. For me, it seems a childhood out of a totally different era and much more exotic than my pre Castro Cuban and post Castro American one...

Although his family was solidly middle class (after all his father was an engineer and made a good living), his stingy housewife mother of Auvergnat descent refused to move to a nicer, (i.e., more expensive) neighborhood. He fondly recalls the narrow cobblestone streets, the steep stairs, the dilapidated buildings, the neighborhood cinemas, cafés and shops and most of all, the hilly, weed covered vacant lot where the film's climax takes place: it was his playground as well as that of the gamins shown in the film.

He recalls less fondly his mother's centime pinching ways: the tiny family apartment of 31 square meters (or 333.68 square feet) for a family of four. His mother's adamant refusal to buy a television set, his father who designed vehicles but would not drive a car, the fold-out bed in a corner of the living-dining room on which he slept until he left for the army at age 19 and having to bathe either in a zinc tub in the family kitchen or at the public bain-douches.

In 1989 when we were in Paris for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Jacky's niggardly mother would not allow us to stay in their apartment (even though she and his sister were out of town). The best she could do for us was to allow us to stay in a vacant apartment in the building to which she held the keys. The apartment was, indeed, completely vacant, so we slept on inflatable mattresses on the floor and only ate take out food with plastic utensils, having no means to cook. But we had hot water, electricity, a roof over our heads and no Paris hotel expenses.

It was in that apartment that I discovered what Jacky referred to as the "frigo parisien" (aka "garde-manger") in the kitchen cum bathroom (i.e., a shower stall set up in one corner of the kitchen, the toilet was in a separate closet-like room by the entry).

A common feature of parisian apartments starting the end of the 19th century, the "garde-manger" (aka pantry) or "frigo parisien" is commonly found under the kitchen windows. It is a cabinet with louvers and screening used to store food. When we first visited the Paris apartment we bought, one of the first items that caught my attention was the under the window kitchen pantry. It was, in my mind, a definite exotic plus.

But this cabinet's interior had been panelled, the screening and louvers blocked, the doors and locks covered with layers and layers of paint. I knew I had my work cut out for me. As soon as we bought the apartment, one of the first things I did was to strip the paint from the doors and the locks.

Then, I tore out all of the panelling and the rusty screening and replaced it with new, clean plastic screening, stapled into place.

Eh, voila, my finished "frigo parisien"!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Our Paris Apartment

Our apartment in Paris is located in a group of buildings that were built starting in the late 1920's, early 1930's along the avenue Simon Bolivar and the rue Manin near the Buttes Chaumont. Unfortunately, unlike many buildings in Paris that have the date on which they were built and the name of the architect on the facade, these buildings do not. So far my research on the internet has yet to turn up either an exact date or the name of an architect (or architects).

The buildings encircle a small butte known as the Butte Bergèyre, one of the least known (and, in my opinion, one of the most charming) in Paris. In the plan above, the Butte Bergèyre is indicated in yellow and the Buttes Chaumont park in green. The avenue Simon Bolivar is the curve at the bottom of the yellow triangle and the rue Manin is the curve between the yellow triangle and the green of the Buttes Chaumont.

The Buttes Chaumont was built in the 1860's on a wasteland of former stone and lime quarries in what was then the outskirts of Paris. The Butte Bergèyre was not incorporated into the park but was the site of an amusent park known as "Les Folles Buttes". In 1918, just after World War I, a soccer and rugby stadium with a capacity of 15,000 spectators was built there. In 1920 it hosted the finale of the soccer world cup and in 1924 several olympic soccer matches took place in the stadium.

This did not prevent the stadium from being demolished in 1926 to make way for a housing development. The growing population of Paris needed housing and the stadium and the lots around it were sold to real estate developpers Charles Pelissier and Emile Stern in order to build the "Lotissement du Stade des Buttes Chaumont" (aka "Buttes Chaumont Stadium Housing Project").

This housing project consisted of a series of Art Deco apartment buildings located at 50, 54, 56, 58, 60 and 62 avenue Simon Bolivar

and 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 21 rue Manin.

The buildings along the rue Manin have a view of the park. Some of these also feature carved bas-reliefs of stylized flowers in the Art Deco style. The buildings along the avenue Simon Bolivar are plainer in design.

A document dated 1st December 1950 gives some interesting details about the origin of the property and how the various lots were acquired by Pelissier and Stern in order to build the apartment buildings. One of the more interesting details in the document is that the developers received permission from the city of Paris to build the inner courtyards of their apartment buildings smaller than was normally allowed because the apartment buildings, being built against the slope of the Butte Bergèyre, would have courtyards open to the top of the butte on the side of the slope, allowing for more light and air than a totally enclosed courtyard. The document gives in great detail the measurement of each building's courtyard.

These photos, taken from the street along the back of the buildings atop the Butte Bergèyre show the rather successful results, in particular because none of the buildings on top of the butte itself block the light since none are more than two or three stories tall. The unstable nature of the soil of the butte, a by-product of the quarrying activities that took place on the site, does not allow for taller buildings.

The 1950 document gives the dates of the documents signed between the city and the developpers for this project and these are between late December 1928 and early January 1929. Since construction probably did not start until spring this provides a fairly reliable terminus post quem for the group of buildings. The terminus ante quem is a little more difficult to determine but the first condominium regulations for the property date from 1938, however, it is not clear whether the apartments were originally rentals or condominiums from the start.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Apartment Hunting on the Picardie Coast (Part II)

After lunch, we returned to Mers-les-Bains and our afternoon appointments at the real estate agency. As we drove to Mers, we passed Le Château des Cycles and I said "I really like this building", as I've always said to Jacky every time we pass it for some time now.

The real estate agent wanted to show us an apartment but she did not have the keys. She called her colleague but there was no answer. In the meantime, she said, she could show us a house for rent.

The rather small house, towards the center of town, was on three levels. A living-dining-kitchen area on the ground level with window onto the street and a small storage area behind. On the second floor, a bedroom and bathroom, rather light and on the third floor, under the eaves, a second small bedroom with skylight windows.

The house had recently been renovated. The windows were new, the walls painted white. But the living room was dark and too close to the street to comfortably have the window open and the tiny corner kitchen did not inspire me to be able to cook with confidence. We were not impressed.

The real estate agent suggested that we see the apartment and again tried calling her colleague. Again, there was no answer. She suggested we come back in an hour or so.

In the meantime, we went to the other real estate agency next door (literally next door) because I had spotted an interesting item in their window: it looked exactly like a house we had seen three years ago and I had really liked. When we went in to ask about it we were told that it was, in fact, the twin of the townhouse we had seen three years ago

But it was the smaller, uglier twin that we saw that Saturday. The ceramic tile of the kitchen floor was cracked and buckling, the rooms badly laid out and the price was much too high.

We returned to the agency and she still did not have the keys...so we went back to the other agency, to visit yet another house for sale at Le Tréport this time. This house, high above Le Tréport, was built out of local stone and had a view of the sea from its terrace, two bedrooms, a garage, and an attic for storage.

Had we been really looking for a house to buy rather than an apartment to rent, it would be a possibility as the parquet floors were decent. However, as is the case with too houses and apartments in France, the walls were covered with really ugly wallpaper. Ugly wallpaper is the bane of my existence in France.

We thanked the agent politely and returned to the first agency where she happily told us that she had managed to get hold of the owner of the apartment and that she had brought her the keys. We got into her car and drove towards the Mers-Le Tréport train station. She pulled up just beyond Le Château des Cycles and walked across the street to the Villa Parisienne.

She entered the building and greeted the gardien who was putting up wood panelling in the entry. We walked up the stairs to the second floor (aka first floor in France) and she opened the door...

Halte à Hyères

The following morning we left Bandol after breakfast and returned inland, in the direction of Aubagne, birthplace of Marcel Pagnol and headquarters of the French Foreign Legion. However, our destination was in the hills behind Aubagne, past the medieval town of Roquevaire, to the provençal village of Lascours, all in hills and narrow streets, where the inhabitants did not have running water in their houses until 1955 and, as the town's web site states: "The arrival of automobiles in 1960 revolutionized the lives of the inhabitants of Lascours." On the other hand, the streets did not adapt whatsover to the arrival of the automobile so navigating around the village was a challenge to say the least. As we sat in the shade of the town square, the chant of the cicadas provided an appropriate musical backdrop.

After Lascours, we returned towards the coast and Hyères, originally known as Hyères-les-Palmiers. In 1867 Hyères with its micro climate was the palm tree capital of Europe and at the height of the palm tree vogue in the 1920's over 1,250,000 palm trees were grown in Hyères to be shipped to Belgium, Germany and the rest of Europe (since northern Europe is not known for its palm trees, I wonder how these fared in cooler climes).

Archaeological excavations have revealed that four centuries before the present era, Greek sailors from Massalia (Marseilles) set up a trading post in the area. Although the medieval portions of Hyères date primarily to the late 15th, early 16th centuries, Hyères was the site where in 1254 Saint Louis and his retinue landed on their return from one of the crusades.

The vestiges of the chateau visible today high on the hills above the town date from the 13th to the 15th centuries. These vestiges share the landscape with one of the most important constructions of the Modernist architectural mouvement in France: Villa Noailles.

In February 1923, Charles vicomte de Noailles maries Marie-Laure Bischoffsheim, a wealthy banking heiress. In December of that year they begin consulting with architects in order to build "a little house, interesting to live in, to take advantage of the sun" in the hills above Hyères. They consult such architects as Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier and finally settle on Robert Mallet-Stevens, architect and designer, who was up to then primarily known for his film decors and furniture designs.

In 1924 construction on the villa began under the supervision of local architect Léon David. The same year, Mallet-Stevens designed the avant-garde sets of "L'Inhumaine" by Marcel L'Herbier. Marie-Laure de Noailles and her husband Charles were important patrons of the arts and, in particular, of the Surrealists. Beneficiaires of her patronage included Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Balthus and Luis Buñuel.

Following the influential Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1925, Mallet-Stevens carefully chose the decorators for the interiors of the villa. Georges Djo-Bourgeois designed the furniture for the dining room, some of which was incorporated into the architecture... and to think that the inhabitants of Lascours had to wait until 1955 to have running water in their houses!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Blitz to Bandol

This morning at 2:30 am we hit the road to the south France for a flash two day trip. There was not much traffic since (1) the "juilletistes" have gone home and the "aoûtiens" have reached their vacation destination...plus (2) it's Tuesday, in France, everyone tends to leave on vacation on the same day, i.e. Saturday.

Our first stop (not counting the awful breakfast on the autoroute) was for lunch at Chez Thomé at Le Tholonet, just outside of Aix-en-Provence. Chez Thomé was at Le Tholonet when MFK Fisher lived there with her daughters in the 1950's. It was there about 12 years ago when we first visited and had lunch there and it's still there today.

The whole family is welcome at Chez Thomé and my grilled daurade with fennel was fresh and excellent.

After lunch we continued our drive to the coast and Bandol.

We checked into our hotel facing the municipal beach, right across from the Casino. Since no dogs are allowed on the sand part of the beach, we set up on the grassy part, under the trees, and enjoyed the shade, only venturing out for a dip in the Mediterrenean.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Apartment Hunting on the Picardie Coast (part I)

Last July 11th, a windy Saturday, Jacky and I left our apartment on the avenue Simon Bolivar at at dawn to head out to Mers-les-Bains to visit apartments and houses. The first appointment was for 10:00 am so Jacky (who has a pathological dread of being late) insisted that we leave no later than 6:00 am, even though the drive normally takes no more than two and a half-hours. By 6:20 we were on the road and thanks to the autoroute arrived at Le Tréport about 9:00 am even though we got off the autoroute too soon and had to drive through Abbeville. We had practically an hour to kill before our first appointment. Jacky proposed that we walk along the beach but it was chilly, windy and not very pleasant. We managed to find an open café overlooking the port and the fishmarket and sat down to wait over a warm cup of coffee.

The first appointment was at a real estate agency just around the corner in Le Tréport. At 10:00 am we headed to the agency. The real estate agent's name is "Gallet" a name which Jacky always found rather appropriate considering Le Tréport's pebble ("galet") beaches. We waited a few minutes in the storefront agency, long enough to check out the "For Sale" offerings and decided that while we were there, if there was anything interesting for sale we would also take a look at it.

The first apartment we visited was less than a block from the agency, located in a complex built in the 1960's. As we walked in, I saw Jacky wince. It was sunny, bright, boxy and had no soul but very ugly wallpaper and carpeting. Scratch that one.

The second apartment we visited was towards the center of town, a 5th floor walkup, under the eaves and practically all of the walls sloped down, significantly reducing the livable space. Plus, the owner, a crotchety old woman, took one look at our dogs and expressed her distaste. That's ok, we don't want your stupid apartment anyway.

We then decided to visit a house for sale, or should I say, a ruin for sale (the price was right). A 19th century fisherman's house on three levels which had been owned for twenty years by a couple who tried to convert it into three vacation rental dumps. The location was good, the construction was sound but we would have had to spend practically as much as it cost to put in new wiring, plumbing, bathroom, kitchen, perhaps change the windows and take down all of the really, really ugly wallpaper, different in each of the eight rooms. We did consider it in a wild moment but then came to our senses over a lunch of mussels, petite friture, sole and entre-deux-mers at Mon P'tit Bar before heading out to Mers-les-Bains and the afternoon appointments.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Twin Villas

Villa Parisienne and Villa Française do not face the Channel but are located a block away from the sea-front esplanade which is visible at the top of the street next to Villa Parisienne.

These villas are good examples of the Art Nouveau style popular at the turn of the 20th century in resort towns along the Normandy and Picardie coast and the brick construction popular in the north of France.

Although both were designed by architect Edouard-Jean Niermans in the first decade of the 20th century, at present the color schemes of the ornamental woodwork diametrically differ. Whereas Villa Française's woodwork is painted in earth browns and reds which blend into the brick of the façade, Villa Parisienne's carved balconies, window trim and shutters are in deep forest green with leaf green detailing stand out from the red brick façade.