Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you. It’s a magnificent episode. So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words. Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!
The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.
Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff. Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd. Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. Continue reading →
Are you a foodie? Do you believe that fine dining is an art form? Are some of your most treasured memories of being in a certain place at a certain time with your favorite people having that special meal? Well, I would answer a resounding yes to all three questions, and here I share with you some of my most memorable dining experiences eating my way through cities abroad and my own backyard of Philadelphia.
The Best Italian Restaurants…Where You Least Expect Them:
Il Piccolino – Paris, France (8th arrondissment). Ah, Paris, it truly is a movable feast. But who knew, on our last night in the city (in September of 2015) the month before our wedding (we honeymooned before, because that’s how we roll), desperate for something other than the overload of French food we had been eating, and upon the recommendation from the concierge at our hotel (who secured a last minute reservation), we would stumble into the best Italian restaurant we ever experienced? There were probably about ten tables inside (all reserved) and a kitchen in full view (that looked like a kitchen in somebody’s house). From the little old man who provided colorful service, to the fresh veggies they walked across the street to the market to procure as you ordered them, to the hand-made sage ravioli with truffle oil drizzle, to the cutesy-translated deserts “in their honey shirts” – this was quite possibly the best dining experience of our lives.
Zeppoli’s – Collingswood, New Jersey, USA. Less than a mile from our new house is this gem of “a hole in the wall” we indulged in just last week after a multitude of rave reviews from friends and coworkers. There’s maybe a dozen tables inside. Reservations must be made weeks in advance. Upon entering it’s all a bit gentrified-rustic-hipster-is-this-a-dump-or-is-this-chic and unassuming. But WOW! The food (which is Sicilian and far removed from the typical Italian fare you find In NJ-PA-NY) was out of this world and full of flavors my taste buds didn’t know existed. The service was both casual and spot-on where the highly competent wait staff tag-teams the tables and walks around as if they are serving family at their house – never missing a beat or a half-filled water-glass. The chef offers up complimentary after dinner drinks (while the place is otherwise BYOB).
Trattoria Toto da Lucia – Amsterdam, Netherlands (near Vondel Park). Was the food here really that good? I don’t know. It was my last night in the city (in October of 2013), this was right around the corner from my friend’s flat off the Overtoom. The atmosphere was comforting. The wine was flowing. The conversation was bountiful. The food was fresh and made from scratch. I think I had a risotto? It’s a place where I’ll never forget the feeling…of being happy where I was in life at that moment…wrapping up my first trip to Europe, sharing my experiences and my hopes for a travel-filled future with a good friend, and feeling like the world was now my oyster.
Ou est elle la mort toujours future ou passée Apeine est elle presente que deja elle n’est plus – one of the many thought provoking and haunting quotes found deep in Les Catacombes.
One of the most romantic things about Paris is that it will make of anything art – even death. The underground Catacombs (possibly the most creative urban space repurposing in history – former quarry caves turned into a massive human remains dump/art installation project) are unlike anything you’ve ever seen and boast millions of lost stories and souls (over six million to be kinda exact – in skeleton form and stacked and designed like hell’s Legos!) while the cemeteries still above ground revel in their gorgeous, macabre monumental splendor.
What else is there to say? Let the ghosts behind the photos whisper their secrets and history to you.
Paris was a museum displaying exactly itself. – Jeffrey Eugenidies
Is there a city with more museums and monuments per square-foot than Paris?
I don’t know, but if you find yourself in Paris, you can’t help but stumble into a museum or monument (both historical and religious) while walking her beautiful streets, and the super-savvy Museum Pass will help you stumble into as many as possible in as little time for as few Euros as possible (just be sure to make time for a leisurely lunch with some wine at a street café/brasserie in between).
As Eugenidies states, the entire city is a museum. And as lovers of art, my fiancée and I couldn’t help but devour as much of Paris as we could.
I won’t ramble about the obvious (the Louvre, the D’orsay, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, etc…) where pictures have always spoken for themselves but I will gush about a fabulous “off the beaten track” museum dedicated to a single artist who I will now claim as one of my favorites. The intimate and astounding Gustave Moreau Museum at 14 Rue de la Rochefoucauld in a quiet residential neighborhood, housed in the beautiful townhouse he and his mother once called home, is possibly the best example of an artist’s home/studio turned into a museum. As you ponder his personal artifacts and fascinating works, its impossible not to be swept up into his vision. But I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking here as well.
A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life. – Thomas Jefferson
Paris is a moveable feast – Ernest Hemingway
I don’t believe I could’ve picked a more perfect period in my life to experience Paris for the first time after having experienced other European capitals (the infinitely more laid-back Amsterdam and Dublin) to ease me into the overwhelming moveable feast that is Paris. It helped that my fiancée had been to Paris twice before, as while together we came to it with the wide-eyes of outsiders (it’s easy to see why so many ex-pats holed up in Paris for a spell have written some of the kindest words about the city of lights), her tourist knowledge kept us from going mad while wandering the streets and the metro. Paris is best experienced by walking, and this first post in an epic five piece series capturing our French adventure through pictures will focus on the maddeningly beautiful, confusing streets and the resplendent parks and gardens of Paris the burst with life, secrets and the profound.
A troubled young girl is always looking at the past over her shoulder.
Asghar Farhadi’s simmering and subtle The Past opens under brilliantly conceived layers bathed in quiet – a hallmark of his searing talkies. An Iranian man we later learned is named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is looking for his luggage on one side of the glass at the Paris airport while a French woman we later learned is named Marie (Bernice Bejo) is trying to get his attention from her side of the glass. It’s a silent film moment, all the more clever on Farhadi’s part as he must assume the international audience knows Bejo best from her role in the silent film, The Artist, a trifling flick that won Oscars in the same year as his substantive masterpiece, A Separation. It turns out Ahmad is there to finalize his divorce with Marie, nearly four years after he left her. Marie awkwardly brings him to her home (the home they presumably once shared) where Ahmad is happy to see Marie’s two daughters while shocked to find her new lover Samir (Tahir Rahim) living there with his young son (Elyes Aguis). Marie is hoping, apart from the signing of the divorce papers, that Ahmad will speak with her increasingly distant teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and hopefully divine what’s troubling her. What’s uncovered is best left unwritten by this reviewer, as to dive any deeper into Farhadi’s tumultuous seas would be a disservice to those viewers who should want to go into the film knowing as little as possible in order to derive the greatest pleasure.
The Past is a subtle powder-keg of a film built moment by moment, character by character, slowly blooming into grand melodrama hung on secrets, lies and repressed emotions. It’s a film about men longing to be wise and wanted and over-staying their welcome in dying relationships. It’s a film about women acting on spite and overflowing with curious emotions that could destroy the world they’ve created. It’s a film about children navigating the minefields of life and misinterpreting the complexities of adult emotions while succumbing to their own feelings of guilt and fear. Continue reading →
What choice did little Sarah have in a world gone mad?
It’s tempting to look at old pictures and imagine the history and stories of the people in them. It’s a way to reach into the past. It’s a way to invoke nostalgia. It’s a way to uncover secrets. It’s become a growing trend amongst Holocaust scholars to move away from the almost unfathomable statistics and instead focus on the faces…the pictures…the singular stories…the individuals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Manhattan’s equally magnificent and somber Museum of Jewish Heritage, where an entire wing is dedicated to the display of thousands of family photographs that give the horrors of war a back story and a face.
At a crucial moment in the new French film, Sarah’s Key, our privileged protagonist comes across the photographs of two small children during the course of an investigation. Up until that point, she was merely crafting a story – but now there were faces to that story. It was real. One can’t help but think this notion weighed heavily on the mind of novelist Tatiana De Rosnay as she penned her shrewd Holocaust tale. Sarah’s Key is part of the complimentary literary/film movement to this Holocaust scholarship where faces replace stats. Like Sophie’s Choice, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is an adaptation of a novel thick with moral complexities where the audience is asked not “Why did this happen?” but instead “What would you have done?” In these elaborate historical fictions inspired by decades of staring at old photographs, we are asked to step into the shoes of those who did anything to survive and those whose lives were threatened leading to complicit acts that made them explicit accomplices or blindly apathetic to the crimes against humanity. Continue reading →
In present day Paris, a hack Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson) finds himself on an extended vacation with his spoiled dolt of a fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her hateful parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy – both spot on). Gil hopes to uncover some literary inspiration in the City of Lights so he can finally finish that novel he’s been working on. Soon he finds himself on the streets at midnight and transported back to his favorite time-period – the 1920’s. There he discovers himself in the midst of artistic geniuses and idols such as Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, the Fitzgeralds and Pablo Picasso. While putting up with the inanity of his stifling present situation during the day, his dreams are fueled at night by his time-tripping walks where Gertrude Stein gives him manuscript critiques and he falls in love with one of Picasso’s mistresses, Adriana (Marion Cotillard).
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris follows the trend of his latter-day persona where a change in venue invigorates his imagination. Continue reading →
I walked into Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds expecting non-stop Basterd-style Nazi killing, over the top violence and borderline kitsch. Sure, there’s some of that, and an anachronistic use of a David Bowie song among other minor albeit forgivable annoyances, but what struck me most was that this was not just a story of Basterd scalping maniacs. This was also a story of a young Jewish woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) hiding out in Paris under the guise of a cinema operator and her elaborate revenge plot against the bastard SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who murdered her family. This is a story of a ballsy double agent parading as a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who risks everything for an operation to assassinate Hitler. And most memorably, and cyclically, this is the story of that ruthless SS Colonel Hans Landa and his inevitable comeuppance after he arrogantly and erroneously plays everyone as if he were the smartest man in the room. In fact, the whole movie hangs on his story arc. From the moment at the end of the opening prologue where Shosanna barely escapes from his overreaching grasp, we wait…ever so patiently…to see…in that final scene…Hanz receive his comeuppance. And Tarantino, in his signature chapter-stop style weaves in all of these stories and others and uses the Basterds (essentially as a McGuffin) as the comic relief.
And now producer/writer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel present the comedy event of the year!
Here’s the pitch: Two spoiled obnoxious teenage girls from California go to France and get kidnapped by a group of Albanians trafficking dumb tourists into sex slavery to the highest bidders–and you guessed it, one of those high bidders is a Middle Eastern sheik. But oh yeah, did I mention one of those girl’s fathers just happens to be a retired Jack Bauer-style super-spy who’s about reign down a sh*t-storm on the streets of Paris in order to rescue his idiot daughter? And guess what–it’s Liam Neeson!
Yes, there is a bit of a novelty factor in watching the guy who played Oskar Schindler go against type and get crazy on these moronic dirt-bags. And gosh darn it, Liam does his best with the role. I can’t remember the last time a film was sold to the American public entirely on the sound of one man’s voice reading dialog. He alone makes the otherwise unbearable film watchable. However, let’s be honest. As much fun as it is to watch Liam Neeson outrun a speeding car or electrocute some guy or kill a dude with a broken bottle, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino was a far better and more refined example of grizzled old guy “badassery”, and it was a hell of a lot funnier, and fancy that, had a moral.
What we have here in Taken is tone deaf French filmmakers sticking their nose up at Americans and spreading xenophobia abroad. I’m pretty sure they thought there were making a slick black comedy that no American would see through. Had they manifested this with a harder edge or more overtly satirical tone, they might’ve been on to something. Instead we get a second-rate episode of “24” watered down by a PG-13 rating that takes away any possibility of entertainment on even an exploitative level.
Bottom line: Don’t be fooled by Liam Neeson’s voice. He commanded our attention in the teaser trailers, but this should be film not taken.