116 Avenue Ledru-Rollin

It’s safe to say I’m obsessed with this building. It looks like just another Parisian building from the front (albeit somewhat unique with the red brick), but then you turn the corner and it’s like someone cut it right down the middle with a steak knife. Of course, a giant mural graces the back wall and on the side, the building’s very own space invader. I imagine a corner bedroom in such a structure might be rather uncomfortable, but Parisian apartments are all about challenging your level of comfort. Like so much else in Paris, it’s both beautiful and perplexing.

Small towns, slow food

Because I clearly needed a vacation from my already vacation-like life, I took a train to Italy last month to visit Maria, an old friend from Oakland and Berkeley who is currently studying gastronomy in Pollenzo (the birthplace of the “Slow Food” movement).

Maria and most of her other culinarily-inclined friends live in a nearby town called Bra. I’ve visited the large urban tourist destinations in the rest of Italy (e.g. Rome, Venice, Florence) but I was looking forward to spending time in a more anonymous small town. I was not disappointed—the uniqueness of its location (in the Northern Italian region of Piemonte) was evident from the start. I arrived at the surprisingly run-down station of Torino Porta Susa, which included hole-in-the-floor “restrooms,” and somehow figured out how to purchase a second train ticket to Bra from a machine that was yelling at me in heavily-accented English while a gypsy asked me for money. I didn’t know you had to punch your ticket before getting on the train (what is this, the 1950s??) and there was no sign telling me to do so, but luckily I was never asked for my ticket on this particular ride. The train itself was nice, but where was the detailed map indicating the route of the train and all the serviced stops? Clearly, I was not in Paris anymore. Luckily Bra was the terminus of the train, otherwise I would never have known where to get off—almost none of the deserted-looking stations we passed had any signs on them whatsoever. But after about 45 minutes of staring at the regal, awe-inspiring Alps in the distance with only a vague uneasiness as to where on Earth I was, I arrived at my destination. And it was well worth the effort. Bra is beautiful, quiet, charming…adorned with gorgeous buildings, cobblestone streets, and a few central stylish cafés.


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La Défense

It’s not in the news, barely even in French news, but there is an Occupy encampment here in Paris. It’s just not at Hôtel de Ville. It’s at La Défense, Paris’ main financial district on the Western edge of the city that emerged in the 70s and 80s and is now the largest purpose-built business district in Europe. The district completes the Westernmost end of the Axe historique, which is a straight line leading from the Louvre through the Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe and ending at La Grande Arche, the iconic modern monument of La Défense. Originally, the axe historique allowed the King a grand vista from the Louvre (his palace) straight to the Western end of the city.

It was there that I went last weekend to attend the general assembly of Occupons La Défense. I had never been to La Défense before, always being vaguely curious about its famous architecture, so as I first stepped off the metro I was immediately struck by the enormity of La Grande Arche, and the glitz of the surrounding financial buildings. Considering Paris is one of the most well-preserved European cities, with countless buildings and cathedrals hundreds of years old and only one skyscraper, this modern outpost could be Paris’ polar opposite. According to Wikipedia, construction of La Grande Arche began in 1985 after Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel won a design competition initiated by then-French president François Mitterand. Apparently, they intended the monument to serve as a 20th-century version of the Arc de Triomphe, honoring humanity and humanitarian ideals rather than military victories. Of course, the building was inaugurated with grand military parades at the bicentennial of the French Revolution. And looking at it today, the stark grey and silver angles of the structure remind me of anything but “humanitarian ideals.”

The Grande Arche would not fit in my viewfinder

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