Monday, December 26, 2005

European Escape Part II: SerendiParis 

I arrived in Paris on Thursday to find that the Ambassador Opera, the hotel I'd booked on Expedia, had “no room at the inn”. Apparently, they had a tour group extend their stay and were all booked up.

As skeptical as I was at this excuse, they told me they were sending me to a sister property that was two tiers up in quality. I wasn'’t much in a mood to complain when I found myself at the Hotel Lutetia in the heart of the ritzy St. Germain-du-Pré district.

I called K. to let her know that her end destination had changed. She, Koert, Kecia and baby Chiara were coming in on the train from Amsterdam.

After everyone had gotten their various acts together, we headed to Chez Omar for dinner. The Moroccan staff was completely smitten with Chiara. Every single waiter had to make a pilgrimage to our table, ask how old she was, make faces at her and grab her little hands. It was cute. After gorging ourselves on couscous, we sent the Amsterdam crew back to their hotel to put the baby to bed and K. and I set out on one of our many city walks.

We love walking about foreign cities, learning the local transport and rarely take taxis. In fact, when we're on vacation, we generally lose weight because we love to see cities on foot. Perhaps it is because we're New Yorkers. (According to Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, the average American walks less than 2 miles a day. New Yorkers walk a lot more than that. Heck, K. beats that just walking to work.)

In any case, we set off down the Boulevard Sebastapol for a two to three mile jaunt back to the Lutetia. Being that it was about 10pm, most things were closed. So it was hard to miss the fact that as we approached the Rue de Cygne there was light flooding out from the windows of a corner storefront on our right. It was an art gallery and its door was standing wide open. We peered in and saw what at first glance seemed to be something like a show devoted to either outsider art, primitivism or both.

Primitivism is not normally something that I have much interest in and outsider art is something I have little experience with; but I think both K. and I felt a potential adventure coming on and so we took an extra long look in the window. As we scanned the room, both of our gazes alighted upon one corner where there were works hanging on the wall that appeared to be some sort of mosaic or collage. They also had a metallic gleam that might have been the result of using metal or possibly glass.

We decided to take a closer look and so we entered the gallery and began to scan the walls and as we approached, the pieces were quite odd and also alluring. I could see that while his work was totally original, I felt underlying it were traces of Giotto's geometry, a sense of Munch'’s figures, the movement of Van Gogh'’s landscapes, and a sui generis cosmology akin to that of Blake.

Now that'’s a lot to lay on someone, but the point is I could sense in the work that this was someone who was doing his own thing, but with a strong knowledge of the masters who had come before.

As we spent time with each piece, we both ended up gravitating back to a particular piece: a tree of life simply titled "arbre"’, which sat on a lovely midnight blue background.

I found the artist's name, Thierry Martin, on the wall and a price list nearby, but I couldn’t figure out which price matched the work in question. It was clear that the works on the wall were no longer in the order in which they had originally been hung, presumably as the result of some recent sales.

As I cast about to figure out how to sort out our quandary, I noticed that the back section of the gallery contained a table and a group of men, women and children socializing. Pistachios were being eaten, beers opened and it felt as though I had chanced into the "family meal" amongst the staff of a French restaurants after service has ended.

I approached a woman and asked if she could tell me anything about Thierry Martin and his work. She looked at one of the men at the table, smiled and said, "You can ask him. He's Thierry Martin!"

An elfin man of about 50 stood up to greet us. He had cropped graying hair, a stubbly beard and smiling eyes. Since K. speaks French and I do not, we moved fluidly back and forth between English and French. Thierry spoke French which Kat translated for me I responded in English - which he understands perfectly - and then Thierry would respond in French again.

Our first question was what was the material from which he was fashioning the pieces? Having seen them up close, we had settled on their being collages, apparently from metal. In response, Thierry grabbed a backpack and pulled out a work in progress. It was indeed metal scraps that he was alternately gluing and nailing to the wooden surface on which he works. Then he reached into his bag for the real surprise. He pulled out an aluminum can of Bavaria beer which from which he had cut the top and bottom and flattened it into a rectangle. "This is what I use,"” he explained. "This is what the tree is made from."

Wide eyed, we walked with him over to the work we had been admiring and he showed us which parts of the Bavaria beer can he had used to make each section. A red dot had become abstract fruit. Sheaves of wheat around the logo had been made to resemble leaves. A motif of alternating silver and gold lines had become, artfully torn and placed, variegated tree branches.

K. and I looked at each other and found ourselves giving each other “the nod”. For those of you who have been in long relationships (we are pushing 14 years), you know what the nod is. For those of you who have not, it works like this. You have decided something. You look to your partner to see if they are at that very moment looking at you to determine if you've reached the same decision. If your glances meet at exactly the same moment, you exchange the glance that you've established which means, "Yes". In our case, especially when it comes to art acquisition, this is a time honored practice.

Thierry, sweet man that he clearly is, began to well up. He had his daughter photograph us together (the children scooting about the gallery turned out to be his) and then gave us a photocopied book of some of his recent works that also included an image of him in his studio. "I only have this one copy,"” he said. "But I want you to have it. I will make another."” He said he was proud to have his work traveling to New York City and we told him we were delighted to be offering it a home there.

With many handshakes, smiles, goodbyes and waves we completed our transaction and sauntered out into the cool evening Parisian air with our new purchase wrapped up in bubble wrap and firmly tucked under my arm.

We sauntered home, admiring various buildings and glowing from our happy, chance encounter with the nice people at the gallery. When we were a few blocks from the Lutetia, we hit a point where I was forced to take out the map and navigate. We seemed to have two equally good paths to the hotel and I couldn'’t easily reckon which was preferable.

It was at this point that a night denizen of the city spotted us. "Where are you trying to go?"” he asked in a friendly way. I looked him over with a New Yorker's suspicious eye and pegged him as a gay hustler. I was certain he was looking for a few bucks (or francs, or I guess Euros, really) and that there was some sort of a scam about to issue for from his mouth. He was fashionably dressed and looked like he’d just popped out of a nearby club.

I did no’t want to answer, but K. said, "Rue Raspail."

"Where on the Rue Raspail? It'’s just over there, but you could go either way." I was feeling frustrated because I COULD SEE THAT ON THE MAP and was feeling unusually proud of my navigating skills and his input seemed both unnecessary, unwanted and maybe cheating to be told the answer to the problem I was on the VERGE OF FIGURING OUT FOR MYSELF.

"Hotel Lutetia,"” K. told him. He proceeded to explain that we could, in fact, use either route; and that it was roughly the same distance, regardless. I KNEW IT, I thought to myself. He bid us a loose and cheery goodnight, having done his good deed without requesting any money. I was thinking all of a sudden that I had misjudged him when he turned around and said very loudly, "WAIT!"

We turned and he zipped back to us excitedly and said, "“If you go take the left here and go on the Cherche Midi you will pass the best boulangerie in all of Paris!" K. and I looked at each other in shock. We asked him what it was called. He stood there for a moment racking his brain. "“Oh, what is it called? It's this place. The prime minister used to buy his bread there. It's very famous. It'’s… It's… POILANE!" He looked at us victoriously, wished us a good stay in Paris and set off again on his way with a proud stride.

I had horribly misjudged this man. He was clearly an avatar of the boozy Patron Saint of Foodies. While we don't know this saint's name, we'’ve met her prophets before. Once in our neighborhood on the Upper West Side, a drunken woman overheard us discussing hamburgers and marched up to us -– as much as one can march when one's feet are arguing with each other over which direction is straight ahead - to declare that the best burger in The City was hidden in the Parker Meridien on 57th Street. "“It's haaaard to fiiiiind,"” she slurred. "It'’s hidden behind the front desk. You pretend you're going to walk by the desk and then you look left and you;ll see a dark passage with a neon sign at the end. Best burgers in New York. The Best. Abso-fuckinlutely. Ya."” And then she stumbled off. We were skeptical that Burger Joint existed. But it does. And indeed, as the prophet foretold, it rocks.

So realizing what had just befallen us, we followed the angel's directions to Poilane and noted its exact location so as to return with Koert and Kecia. Oh, the wonders of Poilane! Rustic apple tarts that completely exploded my prior definition of the item in question. Pain au chocolat that was just unfair to its American relatives of the same name. It was wondrous.

Our Paris weekend included other adventures: trips to the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay (one of my all time favorites); crepes and hot chocolate hither and thither; a late night screening of the disappointing Corpse Bride that was chockablock with American students; and lots of great conversation and visiting with Kecia & Koert. But these are the gems of serendipity that I most treasure in my travels.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

European Escape, Part I - Basel, CH 

Last July, my friends at NextD asked me if I would be interested in teaching in Switzerland in the fall. NextD is an organization devoted to teaching designers leadership skills and I teach the platform courses there not because it pays, but because I love the opportunity to teach. I used to teach this work when I had my own consulting practice, but since I sold myself into one of my client organizations, I’ve been doing very different work.

Normally I teach for NextD here in the City and it doesn’t require me to take time off work because we do the majority of our workshops on the weekends. But NextD has been getting more and more attention from the international design community and so increasingly the requests for our attention come from overseas.

Given that I’d have burned through my vacation time before November I knew I would need to take the time unpaid. Additionally, late October/early November looked like it might be a tricky time at work.

But the fact is that I love to teach, I feel that the NextD mission is important, and it’s rarely a “good time” from your employer’s perspective for you to take a vacation, paid or unpaid. So I said yes to my friends at NextD.

Between the day in July when I agreed to do the gig and the day I finally got on the plane, the trip was alternately not a problem at all, potentially a problem, no problem and finally a significant problem again from the perspective of my day job. But I’d committed and things were nutty enough at work that I was very much looking forward getting away and figured the work issues would sort themselves out one way or another.

For years now, I’ve had a lot more vacation time than K. but all of a sudden things flipped around this year and she’s got more time than I do. So she was psyched to take the time and figured she’d occupy herself with friends and family while I was in Basel.

So Elizabeth (from NextD), K .and I hopped on a plane on a Friday headed to Zurich. When we landed there, K. hopped a plane north for Amsterdam and Elizabeth and I were chauffeured off by Sandra, NextD’s liaison at the Hyperwerk School in Basel.

I had no idea of what to expect from Basel. I’ve spent time in Lucerne and Geneva, but never Basel and I’d had no time nor given any thought to researching Basel. It’s a lovely city and Sandra and her boyfriend Simon turned out to be fantastic hosts. On Sunday, we had a partial day to see Basel before we began our preparations for three intensive days of teaching. Simon and Sandra lent us their bicycles and Elizabeth and I hied off to the Foundation Beyeler.

Basel turns out to be a great bicycling city. Unlike my beloved Amsterdam, an American can actually use a bicycle in Basel without getting killed. We followed the Rhine and then took a right and followed the Wiese River up around the city through a lovely park. It was unbelievably gorgeous weather, sunny and in the high 60’s.

We arrived at the museum after a gentle forty-five minute ride. It’s the first Renzo Piano structure I’ve been in. I can’t say that the structure lived up to Piano’s hype, but the collection is terrific and there was a great Magritte exhibit on. I have only seen one prior exhibit of which took an entirely different angle on his work. Whereas the SF exhibit ignored Magritte’s relationship to Surrealism, the Beyeler show focused entirely on his relationship to Surrealism. Strangely, both shows entirely ignored the fact that the man was a mystic and that his work is riddled with mystic Christian symbolism. The curation for his tremendously personal manifesto The Magician actually wondered in print why Magritte might have chosen to paint himself eating bread and drinking wine. Honestly. The mind boggles.

Anyway, moving on from the fact that the curation was poor, the show was tremendous and the Beyeler’s holdings are fantastic. It reminded a lot of the great Kroller-Muller in the countryside outside of Amsterdam. Both collections are like an art history survey course, with at least a few great paintings from every master in the periods collected by the patrons.

As it turned out, we were in Basel during an annual fall festival. So we also wandered the streets and peered into the stalls. It was an odd pastiche of things you’d see at a street fair here in The City and things peculiar to Switzerland. For instance, you know the guy wearing a microphone headset who hawks his AMAZING cleaning products by getting a piece of carpet dirty and then scrubbing it with his miracle cleaner? They had that too, only he was doing his pitch in Switzerdeutsch.

Basel’s old city is fantastic to walk around in. Situated on the banks of the Rhine, it’s full of old cobblestone streets and fabulous window shopping. The fall festival added a certain element of tacky surreality, however. It was odd to enter into a quaint plaza to find the four story buildings dwarfed by a 10-story Ferris wheel or to encounter a huge mechanical slide sitting alongside an ancient church.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I spent teaching the design students of the Hyperwerk School. Despite some linguistic challenges (to which I’m somewhat accustomed as I’ve taught this work around the world in the last 5 years), we had three energizing days together. The Hyperwerkers were eager to learn and apply the tools and techniques Elizabeth and I brought and it was so much fun to be teaching the work intensively again. It’s been a while since I’ve done three solid days of workshops and it was great! For those of you who are curious for some visuals, there’s a Quicktime movie slideshow here.

Thursday morning Elizabeth and I set out for France, she to visit friends and I to meet up with K. and our friends Koert and Kecia from Amsterdam who elected to join us for a long weekend in Paris. Some of you may remember that K. and I met Kecia on the plane coming home from Sundance 2004 and promptly adopted her. Since then, we’ve spent time with her and Koert in Amsterdam and The City, so we were looking forward to doing a new locale and to seeing how their daughter Chiara was getting along at six months.

I’ll save Paris for the next post. That tale includes a terrific encounter with a talented artist, a movie theatre full of expat Americans, and the best bread in Paris.
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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Little Giant Serves Deviled Eggs 

Film Festival Sherpa Dan took us to Little Giant at Orchard & Broome last Saturday night. This joint is an advertisement for the Lower East Side. A shabby chic interior, it almost felt like the set of the current production of Sweeney Todd. A vaulted exposed brick ceiling hovers over a handful of tables. Behind the bar, a set of open shelves is filled both with bottles in the work zone and bric-a-brac beyond it. An open kitchen off to the side warms the room up, an absolute necessity in winter given the volume of air breezing through the leaky street front windows. Somehow all of this seems to balance things just right.

A quick spin of guy-in-the-street reviews on the web reveals that Little Giant got off to a rough start last year and seems to have pissed a number of folks off with its inconsistent service. As of this writing, the service was fine. While not speedy by any means, we were there to spend time with friends and had no issues with the timing of our entrees’ arrival.

We over-ordered....as we tend to do when trying a place with an interesting menu. Plus, Dan was equipped with many suggestions. We began with some delightful deviled eggs. “Who serves deviled eggs in a restaurant?” I wondered beforehand. They were scrumptious. At Dan’s behest we also ordered the chicken liver mousse, served with an onion compote and toast. Fabulous!

Having earned several prescriptions for Lipitor between us during our appetizers, we continued our cholesterol festival with a wonderfully spiced pulled pork dish (the “Swine of the Week”), a cavatelli with a pumpkin pesto, an arugula, goat cheese and bacon “flatbread” (read: “pizza”), and I threw in an herb salad for some semblance of reason. With the exception of the cavatelli, which was nice but not brilliant, everything was terrifically tasty. We felt obliged to share a chocolate cherry bread pudding as K. makes a mean bread pudding and needed to check out the competition. Little Giant’s was so good that K. is contemplating adding cherries to her recipe.

I highly recommend giving Little Giant a try. It’s worth a trek to the L.E.S.
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