Sunday, July 28, 2019

Premiere Class

After 24 hours of blighted air travel punctuated by a cancelled flight from Paris to Newark and a three- hour ground delay in Minneapolis we are back in Taos worse for wear but ready for our next adventure. That’s 24 hours of no sleep followed by a three hour snooze in Pueblo and the short jaunt home Tuesday morning. We celebrated our survival with dinner at Common Fire after which I fell into a deep sleep on my back on a propped-up pillow. You know I was cooked since I’ve never been able to sleep on my back. Never Ever.

The flights back to the US of A were Air France from De Gaulle to Minneapolis and United from the Twin Cities to Denver. It was a study in contrasts. While the 2-1/2 hour UA flight was functional the 8-1/2-hour Paris to Minneapolis flight was almost elegant. Even in the 48th row, the last one next to the latrine. We were served two hot meals and complementary wine and beer by a stylish French flight attendant who was the epitome of warmth and grace. How, we wondered, could the Gallic air carrier achieve such a level of excellence, a whole different standard of service than its American counterparts? Part of it, I suggest, is understanding what excellence is and not settling for mere functionality. I further submit that the pursuit of excellence of this magnitude starts at the top and has to permeate the corporate culture. I knew that the airline was nationalized after World War Two and that the French government had set out to make the operation a symbol of French style and class. It said as much in a short film I watched during the flight that connected the emergence of Air France with the golden age of cinema from the 1945 into the mid-sixties. At first, I surmised that Air France was still owned or subsidized by the government and was not held to the profitmaking standard of an American airline. After the war the French government remade the rustic, moribund pre-war carrier into a flying demonstration of French savoir faire. But that rationale was dashed when I found that Air France is owned by a Franco-Dutch holding company which has to make its numbers like any other for-profit endeavor. So, I have to chalk Air France’s lofty performance to having higher service standards and a total commitment achieving them.

Which brings to mind the amazing Pullman Hotel at Charles de Gaulle where we spent our last night. First, we were met by a delightful host, much more than a desk clerk, who removed us from a crush of United Arab Emirates flight crews checking in and took us to a freestanding podium with three terminals. She quickly found our reservation and after checking us in told us about the hotel’s amenities and gave us a walking tour to the bar, the restaurant, the elevator to fitness center and elevator to our fifth-floor room. We had to consciously disengage with Celeste or I think she would have led us upstairs and unpacked our bags. I’m a card-carrying service guy, a product of forty years and fifty new restaurants in my career, and I was dumbstruck by the level of attention we received in mid-priced chain hotel. I might have expected this standard of service at the Four Seasons, but this was a 150-euro hotel next to an airport. All this for the price of a Hampton Inn in Fresno.

Dinner was a fine dining affair and after a sketchy few minutes trying to get served, we settled down for a fine meal well that included my smoky Octopus entrée and Peggy's rare Ahi Tuna sautéed in olive oil. I’ve eaten a lot of squid, I do love it grilled, but this was my first octopus. It was surprisingly meaty and sweet. At my age I don’t get say “my first” of anything. So, it that was a treat on all kinds of levels.

But the coup de grace at the Pullman was the breakfast buffet the next morning. The spread was epic and compared favorably to a $60 a person Sunday buffet in Manhattan. And, by the way, it was included in the 150 Euro price. There was fresh squeezed OJ and mango juice and you could squeeze your own from selection of other fruits. There was a breathtaking array of meats and cheese, so very French, half a dozen hot entrees, the usual bouquet of scrumptious pastries and a cook to order egg station. I know I’m forgetting half of the Pullman’s earthly delights, but you get the idea. The breakfast was monumental.

As we checked out, we received a text message that our flight to Newark was cancelled and that we needed to go to the United Airlines counter in terminal 2E to reschedule. I told the woman who checked us out at the Pullman, half joking and half hoping, that we might be back for another night. It was that good and certainly the best $200 stay we’ve ever had.

Next week after I’ve reviewed the 3,000 images I have from Brittany and Normandie I’ll pony up a travelogue from our two weeks in Northern France. I am seriously hooked.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

On Brittany time

Silver Sands

Because we’re on the road and, in fact, driving from Brittany to Normandy today, meaning Friday, I’m going to be short on words and rely on images to tell this story. The net of it all is that we have loved Brittany and will miss it way too much. It’s hard to leave this beautiful part of France and the new friends we’ve made in Pierre Yann Guidetti’s home nestled in the pines a scant half mile from Keremma’s six-mile beach. Most times you’re more than ready to head home and this time I was sorry to leave.

Sea grass framing Brignanon

As a consequence a trip back to Brittany next year is already in the planning stages. A fella gets a little anxious when he joins 11 strangers in a house with 2-1/2 bathrooms. That happily proved to be of no consequence.

WWll German bunker above the beach in Keremma

As you know we don’t travel without a private chef. So, we imported Chef Nico from Paris. Where else? Nico’s eclectic menus surprised us every lunch and dinner and before dinner each night he described the recipe and its origins in poetic detail. I could get used to it.

It’s a special experience when you’re thrown together with eleven strangers and find that you like every single one. When all become friends it's a treasure.

Among our social set Brittany is unknown and that’s a pity. Each village we visited was more beautiful than the last and the people were smiling and open everywhere we went. I liked Brittany every bit as much as Provence. The architecture, some of it medieval, was so consistent that it felt like a movie set that transported you to another time and place.

I have much more to say but am bleary with fatigue as I finalize this post from the gracious Pullman Rouissy Hotel at Charles de Gaulle. A capacious room and a well-served dinner were just the thing for a couple of aging road warriors in need of respite.

Tractors till the fields and tow boats to the water.

I was asked for the highlight of eight days in Brittany and, to tell the truth, there were many. But the best times were running alone along the silver strand from Keremma to Brignanon. Almost all of these were taken in running shoes, shorts, a tee shirt and a bottle holster. A pocket camera completed my assemble.

Since I saw myself as the official photographer for the Class of 2019 I took several thousand record shots that have yet to be processed. They will be serviceable I’m but these black and whites made shortly after dawn or after the sun set at 10:00 pm are the ones I’ll treasure.

More to come.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Paris when it sizzles

Modes of transport along the Seine

I know lots of Francophiles, folks who rent apartments in the outer arrondisements of Paris, practice their French and try to become locals. As if. One couple has toyed with moving to the City of Light but decided to move to California’s Central Coast instead. They are perpetual grass is greeners who have lived on Saint Croix, owned a small vineyard in Napa and have spent the last dozen years in Santa Fe. Their new wine country spread between San Luis Obisbo and Paso Robles will suit them fine but they’ll always yearn for the Paris of their minds.

Belle Epoque on Rue de Rennes

We are frequent travelers to the south of La Belle France but have spent little time in Paris. We have fond memories of our long ago stay near the Sorbonne and just off Boulevard Saint Germain. This time we found the Saint Germain neighborhood cloyingly touristy and infested by brasseries with trite, overpriced menus served by disinterested lifers. And while our postage stamp hotel room was a real downer, we had to leave our room to change our minds, we came to prefer Montparnasse’s mixed population to the giant tourist trap by the Seine. And crowds, don’t get me started. Now I know why my intrepid friends visit Paris in the off season. July is a fashion faux pas of the lowest order. It won't happen thrice. Then again July is sales month in Paris and just about every store from high fashion to the Gap had a giant Soldes sign in the window. So, there is a silver lining to Paris when it sizzles.

We were so jet lagged from our flights from Denver to Frankfurt and on to Paris that we were a low functioning old people the whole stay. We were resolutely unwilling to reserve tickets at the Louvre, for example, so when we arrived at the museum in early afternoon they weren’t selling any more tickets and we settled for a wander through the Tuileries and a three circuits on the Ferris wheel that looms above the gardens. For Peggy it was frightening. I took a nap.

Meanwhile back at the Musee D’Orsay we were operating on the same no plan plan, arriving when the museum was an hour from closing. That’s not exactly the set-up for the full tour. You could say it was more of an obligatory visit than one born of real desire to be trapped with 10,000 of our closest friends. It was a steamy 85 degrees as we joined the queue. I must have looked like a heat stroke victim in the making. About five minutes into our wait, a line Nazi pointed at me and said, “Monsieur, venez par ici.” She waved us toward a short line with a hefty woman pushing a stroller and using a cane. I’m all about cutting line but I’ll cheat on my own terms, thank you very much. Peggy tried to tell me that it was because the official thought I was somebody special, but I knew it was because I had special needs. It was the episode that proved I’m not the youthful rake that I see in my mind’s eye. That’s a revelation that could have waited till never.

Montparnasse was a study in cultures, the obviously French with Gallic noses, hijab wearing women and tall North Africans striding along the Rue de Rennes. Over dinner we pondered the mix of races and how it seemed that all were equals and cultural and class divisions were not apparent. The divisions may, indeed, have been there but we didn’t feel it as we do in our homeland. It made me think about the jazz musicians of the forties who left our shores to find acceptance and freedom. Parisiennes are tall, by the way. There were more elegant six-foot tall women than I’ve ever seen in one place. And it seemed like all the North African men were 6’-7”.

It was in Montparnasse near the junction of Boulevard Montparnasse and Rue de Renne that we ate at our first Boullion, the 90 year old Bouillon Chartier. I had read about these old school restaurants in the NY Times several months ago and found the idea of throwback establishments serving traditional French fare at reasonable prices appealing. We dragged ourselves to the art deco Chartier at 9:00pm after 36 sleepless hours. It was not the perfect bouillion but enough for us to recognize the potential of the form. The restaurant filled as soon as we were seated and our harried waiter, Jean Paul, attended to our needs with quintessential French brusqueness. It was not really rudeness though it can seem that way but a by-product of one waiter serving eight tables in a cramped dining room. That's what we called, "In the weeds." in my gone but not forgotten restaurant days. The food, mine a butt steak according the menu was serviceable but shy of good. I had to ask for steak knife to cut the thing. A chain saw would have been better. The steak scored high on the flavor scale and very low on tenderness. We fell into a conversation with two young men at the adjoining table and the discussion turned to bouillons. They, one an aspiring journalist from Lyon and the other a high-tech entrepreneur from a Paris suburb, did not appreciate the perfunctory service and advised us to dine at the highly rated Bouillon Pigalle. But since that was a long cab ride away we demurred and found an alternative of a very different kind nearby.

Anima on Rue Cherche Midi, Montparnasse

Beautifully blistered Margarita pizza at Anima

By this time and just two days into our stay we were tapped out on tourist trap brasseries and brown salad greens. Peggy told me, “I’ll eat anywhere but a tourist dump.” I concurred so we employed the age- old technique of finding a good restaurant. You choose it by the way it looks. It’s worked for me for fifty years and almost always strikes gold. We had also concluded that in Paris the best local restaurants are a block or so off the main drag. With those parameters in mind we walked two blocks south on Rue de Rennes, turned left and strolled another two blocks to the promising corner of Rue Cherche Midi. We looked in both directions till we saw a modern looking pizzeria with a young crowd. We made a beeline for Anima and scored the last two seats at the counter overlooking the street. The service was strained but willing. Once we were seated, I had to ask for menus and to have or our orders taken. The overwhelmed but apologetic waiter took our order for a burrata and tomato salad and a Capriciotta pizza which arrived almost instantly. That was one hot hearth. The pizza was beautifully blistered from the 1000 degree woodfired oven. The thin crust was still chewy despite the heat and wonderfully flavorful due to the high gluten flour and olive oil dough. You can add Anima’s pizza to the pantheon of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. I might be the best. Till I find one better.

The next post will be from the sunlit shores of Brittany, Bretagne or Breton.Take your pick.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

The warm fuzzies

One week I’m short on words another I’m light on images. This week is of the former persuasion and follows up on the manipulated iphone images I featured a couple of weeks back. All were taken with an iphone 7 and processed the handy-dandy Snapseed app. This is, admittedly, a lazy man’s approach but the merit of art need not be its degree of difficulty. I hope. Today I am either unapologetically lazy or overwhelmed by the weight of life’s minutiae.

As all of you know, I’m primarily a black and white shooter albeit one how favors warm tones. Renowned photographer, editor and teacher George Schaub asked about my process this week. His query stemmed from images he saw on Instagram or Facebook. Probably Instagram since that’s where photographers share their stuff.

I told George that I processed my smart phone images in Snapseed, first as color photographs and, then, after producing a color photo that made me giddy I convert it to black and white and, finally, to the toned version you see on Instagram. With images shot with my Canon 5D Mark 3 the workflow is almost the same. I fully process the color file in Photoshop then convert to toned black and white using the Hue and Saturation tool. In Photoshop the photograph remains a “color” file but a muted monochromatic version of the original full color iteration. In Snapseed I convert the color file to black and white and warm it up using White Balance. It’s a season to taste operation where I raise the color temperature 10 points. It’s pleasantly warm but shy of brown. In Photoshop my recipe is a Hue of 31 and Saturation of 8. I don’t know if the degree of warmth achieved with Photoshop and Snapseed are the same but I'll have to compare a few photographs to see. I bet they’re really close.

And, yes, I am continuing to apply a modicum of blur for that oh so appealing alternative process look. Note how the building in image three seems to recede into the background because of thr blurry softness.