Monday, November 29, 2010

A Recipe for Transcendence

Food has always been a metaphorical ambassador of indulgence. We eat to nourish ourselves. We also eat to pleasure ourselves. It’s no wonder that fasting has long been a symbolic action of purity and sacrifice, for what could be more selfless than the personal depravation of something so physically fulfilling?

Such is the conviction of sisters Philippa (Bodil Jjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), two women living in a quaint, if barren, hamlet in 19th century costal Denmark in the Danish film, “Babette’s Feast”. Their father was the leader of a tiny but strictly pious Christian sect, a position which his daughters resumed after his death. During their salad days, the sisters were the belles of the county, but were unable to pursue youthful desires because of their rigid upbringing. Now, they and their snowy-haired parishioners meet regularly in the sisters’ chilly, grey cottage and eat chilly, grey food. But after many long years of devotion, the crotchetiness that comes with time and boredom begins to set in and the group can be felt pulling apart.

Queue the arrival of a mysterious French refugee named Babette (Stephane Audran) whom the sisters take in as a housekeeper. When Babette wins ten thousand francs in the French lottery, she wishes to repay Philippa and Martine for their kindness by cooking the small congregation a lavish French meal. Unable to refuse Babette’s generosity yet unwilling to take part in such a decadent affair, the religious group opts to eat- but not enjoy- the feast.

And it is in this quiet revelry of sorts that the feasters begin to question the virtue of self-depravation. It is because of devout selflessness that the sisters once betrayed their chance at love, a decision that appeared to be healthy for their spirituality and bitter for their humanity. But somewhere between the buckwheat cakes with caviar and the velvety turtle soup do they find that the greatest revival of spirituality can only be achieved by embracing our humanity and sharing the pleasures of life with others; for tucked within the simple joy of a meal is a universe of gratification that transcends body and soul. Just what the doctor ordered for the austere worshipers.

It is an exquisite little story that melts slowly away like the layers of a buttery croissant to reveal a meeting of spirituality and mortality. The feast its self takes up a deliciously significant portion of the movie and is executed with very little dialogue; yet, as if by magic, we can see the straight-laced gathering begin to soften, the colors on screen become more vibrant, we can almost taste the wine and smell the quail for this is the feast to end all feasts. This is the transmission of delight from human to human, from food to eater, from movie to audience.

“Babette’s Feast” is an utterly fulfilling banquet of a film. Witty, delicate, and charming, it gratifies in the same way that the feast does. Like a secret ingredient that pulls a dish together, the discretion and grace of “Babette’s Feast” leave you with a warm aftertaste. It is by all means a feel-good movie but then again, that’s the point.

*For all you die-hard "Babette's Feast" fans out there, I apologize for the murky picture quality and feel that I must clarify; "Babette" is spelled with only one "B".

Monday, November 15, 2010

La Vie En Rose

A Parisian Gentleman

After steeping for twenty four centuries in a marinade of beauty, blood, and Bordeaux, the city of lights was finally ready to take on The Militant Working Boy and friends.

It seemed, at first, as if the fates were hell-bent on keeping me and my traveling companions and close friends of the family, Norm and Louise, from heading across the big puddle. Between the terrorist threats on European public transport, the revolting Parisians and their pension reform bill, and an out-of-the-blue sinus infection, presenting me with excessive post nasal drainage and a flaming thunderstorm of a sore throat three days before our departure, the nine months of planning for Paris seemed to be floating away on a cloud of mucus and tear gas.

It was with a stomach full of vitamin C, antibiotics, and Mom’s good ole’ chicken soup that I boarded the plane that drizzly October evening. After eating our way through Louise’s bag of junk food and watching seven hours of Community reruns, we landed at the Charles De Gaulle Airport. From whence we were taken to the Mercure Montmartre hotel, situated at the foot of Montmartre, and not a swallow’s flight away from the spellbinding glow of the Moulin Rouge’s windmill, casting a rosy radiance over Paris’s red light district.

The Man From Montmartre

Within the first twenty minutes we had decided that the tour company we were traveling with was altogether inept at doing anything efficiently so we hit the cobblestones on our own, slipping into the droves of locals milling around on the hill of Montmartre. We followed our noses into fromageries, boulangeries, patisseries, and chocolateries, each more divinely scrumptious than the last. We elbowed past our fellow tourists and street-artists in the alleyways leading up to Sacre Coeur and finally found ourselves at the top of the hill, breathless from our trek and the stunning view that awaited us. Emerging from the early morning mist was Paris as far as the eye could see. Gone were the droves of people pushing to get a better view; in a dreamy moment, it was us alone with the city.

We stopped for a crepe on our way down the hill. Full of the French spirit from our dazzling first encounter with Paris, I dove into the paper thin pancake, oozing with rich chocolate filling. Thirty seconds later and I couldn’t eat another bite. In a garbage bin outside a junky tourist store, I bid adieu to nearly half of my first Parisian crepe.

As day two dawned, we reconnected with the group for a sightseeing bus tour through the city. We were deposited at the Louvre and immediately swept into a churning sea of international tourists. Like Moses, our feisty French tour guide, Veronique, guided us through the crowds, pausing at Winged Victory, The Coronation of Napoleon, Venus Di Milo, and finally The Mona Lisa. As we rounded the wall on which she hung, I prepared myself for a unique spiritual connection with one of the most famous women in the world. Instead, I was met with more people than I have ever seen in one place at the same time.

Then it was off to the Eiffel Tower where we found yet another stunning view of Paris. As if looking down wasn’t dizzying enough, looking up at the clouds chugging past the tip of the spine produced the sensation that the tower was moving.

Joining the group again for dinner at the hotel that night, we were presented with our second culinary misadventure: a nonpliable, microwaved substance advertised as beef but, as a couple from our tour group put it, “We have been around once or twice and we know horse when we taste it.”

Nabbing a cab, we zoomed to the Latin Quarter on the left bank of the Seine River to catch a Saturday-night showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show. No sooner had we opened the door than a French Brad, in full Scottish wedding regalia, threw us out because we hadn’t booked tickets. Finding ourselves on the streets of Paris at night (me in fishnets and heels), I thanked heavens that I had forgone dressing as Rocky. As it turned out, the night was even better than expected, catching a glimpse of a night-lit and tourist-free Notre Dame and countless Gyro vendors and fondue eateries. We ended our nocturnal excursion over a basket of pommes frites and a round of Guinness at a smoky Irish bar near our hotel.

Due to our escapade the night before, we all slept in and missed mass at Notre Dame. Stuffing the hotel’s crumbly croissants into our mouths, we dashed out in search of a metro stop. Having never experienced the Paris underground before, we were nearly bowled over by the aroma of pee wafting up the stairs beneath the Art Nouveau signs; judging by the nonchalant local attitudes, this was nothing peculiar. After twenty minutes of staring at what turned out to be the bus map, we found the metro routes to where we were going.

Stopping for smoked salmon, toast points and cappuccino, we eventually made it to Notre Dame just in time to hear the eleven o’clock toll of the bells.

Evening found us noshing on snails, cheese, and bread at an outdoor café, basking in the afterglow of the neon signs on the sex shops illuminating the Boulevard de Clichy. Bounding across the street, we caught a glittery, early (nine o’clock) show at the Moulin Rouge.

It only took us a few days to solve the paradox of how the French stay slender while maintaining a passionate relationship with their buttery cuisine. By the time we reached the Musee D’Orsay, our calves had turned into cows.

The museum provided the aesthetic fulfillment that, at the Louvre, had been saturated with throngs of sightseers. Though, to Louise’s disappointment, most of the Cezanne paintings were on vacation, we reveled in meandering past mysterious wood carvings, vibrantly melancholic Van Gogh portraits, voluptuous naked women relaxed in stone, massive, muscular torsos, haunting Rodin sculptures, and equally evocative pieces by Camille Claudel. We wound up at my new favorite place on earth, the comfortably old-fashioned Shakespeare and Company bookstore where the shelves reach the sky and are overflowing with every book imaginable.

Louise in Shakespeare and Company

At night, we caught a concert at the Opera Garnier. The pianist was Gyorgy Kurtag, an ancient man who neither Norm, nor Louise nor I had ever heard of and wouldn’t care to hear again. He was followed by a choir of poignant Gregorian chanters and a curious orchestra involving a soprano, a saxophone, an air raid siren, and four 2x4s.

On our final day, we caught the train to Versailles and managed to get completely lost in the famous palace. No sooner had we set foot in the dining hall than Louise declared that the room smelled like the subway. Assuming it was something lingering in those three hundred year old walls, I briefly glanced around but lo and behold there was an average Joe tourist with his Nikon D700 slung over his shoulder and Northface sweater zipped up to his chin, peeing in a cardboard box in the corner. He zipped up, picked up the box, and went on his merry way. I am sure this experience was allegorical in some way.

Statue Outside Versailles

For our last supper, we climbed to the top of Montmartre once again and positioned ourselves at a sidewalk café, sliding off the hill in the shadow of Sacre Coeur. We inhaled the aroma of Paris, of fresh baguette and stale cigarettes as the buttery scallops, delicate mushroom pasta, comforting Boeuf Bourginon, and crisp Sauvignon Blanc melted slowly in our mouths.

Sacre Coeur as Seen Through a Piece of Baguette

The hustle and bustle of our return trip didn’t leave much time for nostalgia. After five days back home, I eventually got around to unpacking my suitcase, exchanging my leftover euros, and realizing that I had left my $25 box of artisanal chocolate truffles in the hotel room. It wasn’t until the next day when I was making myself a ridiculous number of lemon crepes for breakfast that I began to long for the view of a gyro stand from my bedroom window, the convenience of a croissant at every corner, even the malodorous metro began to pull at my heartstrings.

They say that the grass is always greener on the other side and though I am sure Paris is not all butter and art, my fleeting visit, like a rendezvous with the person of your dreams, will gratify me with bragging rights and wonderful memories forever.


Edith Piaf in Charcoal

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Jet Lag Post

A view of the Tour Eiffel from the tour bus

No, I have not become a fringe monk, devoting my life entirely to the movies, never leaving the theater for fear of soiling my purely cinematic experience. In fact, the call of Paris has left me movie-celibate for ten days and jet lag has kept me bed ridden for longer. It won't be long now before I dig into my pile of airport chocolate, frame all my posters of Jane Avril and the Mona Lisa, and post a brilliantly thrilling update on my travels. A bientot!