The one hundred and twenty-three euro bottle of wine

I was prowling around in a wine shop in Paris in October, looking at the pretty liqueur bottles, when I heard the proprietor say, “That’ll be 123 euros.”

I was curious to see what cost 123 euros, so I came around, and saw –

A single bottle of wine.

The buyers were an older couple, probably around my age. I’d heard them a few minutes before, asking the proprietor advice on what to buy.

Evidently the proprietor had conned them into buying this gold-plated bottle of nectar. “So,” he said. “This is for dinner tonight, you said? What time?”

“Around seven,” the husband said, a little nervously. “Maybe seven-thirty.”

“It makes a difference,” the proprietor said huffily. “Are you going to drink the whole bottle tonight? You should. It won’t be good tomorrow, if you open it tonight.”

“No, of course not,” the husband said, and he and his wife both giggled nervously, and glanced at me, as if to say: Isn’t this fun?

“All right,” the proprietor said. “I’ll open it right now. You come back in ten or fifteen minutes, and I’ll recork it. If you serve it at seven – or even seven-fifteen – it’ll be just right. No later than that, mind you. All right?”

“All right,” the couple said meekly.

And they paid their one-hundred-and-twenty-three euro, and they left.

I noticed that the proprietor was in no hurry to decant their wine after they left. He turned and waited on me, and we chatted for a while. (He told me that it was too much trouble, too much micmac, to ship things to the USA, what with the duty fees and the paperwork.)

And, as I left, I glanced back and saw the one hundred and twenty-three euro bottle of wine sitting on the counter, glowing with promise.

I hope it was worth the money. I hope it changed the lives of the people who drank it.

Or at least that it wasn’t as sour as hell.


One of my favorite composers, Erik Satie, was born in Honfleur, a little seaside town in Basse-Normandie. Normans love their seafood, and their apples. From the apples, they make a liqueur called Calvados. Here is some information on Calvados:

In Normandy, locals rely on apple brandy as a digestive. Le trou Normand, or the Norman break, is a fiery shot of Calvados right in the middle of the meal. It hits hard and fast, yet is inexplicably effective as a palate-cleanser and appetite stimulant. It’s yet to be determined whether it has as successful an astringent property on one’s palate as it has on one’s wits – but either way, it works.





We saw bottles of shockingly expensive Calvados everywhere we went in Normandy. Finally I bought a nice bottle in the duty-free shop at De Gaulle Airport, just as we were leaving the country, for a maidenly sixteen euro.

At a recent gathering of Partner’s family, we opened the bottle and shared the experience.

A few loved it. Partner’s sister Pearl took a tiny sip and poured the rest of her shot into my glass. Partner’s three nephews appeared to enjoy it very much.

As did I.

It’s fiery, but smooth.  It’s not the same as grappa (the Italian apple liqueur) at all. Grappa is thick and hot. Calvados is fierce, but sophisticated.

And, if you close your eyes as you drink it, you can see the apple orchards of Normandy.

Look for it in your local liquor store.

Disneyland Paris: the happiest place in northern Europe

While in France, we spent an afternoon in Disneyland Paris.

In a word: it’s lovely. The castle in the middle of the park is a sweet delicate French castle with slender turrets, Sleeping Beauty’s castle, “le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant”:


We were there in early October, and the park was decorated for Halloween. Europeans don’t quite understand the American concept of Halloween yet; they understand ghosts and pumpkins and such, but aren’t quite what they have to do with anything. Disneyland Paris was calling it “Helloween,” which would be a little spicy for an American Disneyland. But there were pumpkins everywhere!

Disneyland Paris has the Haunted Mansion, and the Tower of Terror, and the Thunder Mountain Railroad. The lines (in October, anyway) were very short; we never had more than a five-minute wait for any ride. We were surrounded with mostly Spanish and German tourists, and a few Brits; not many French, really. (A colleague of mine, who actually studied the business model of EuroDisney, told me that the Disney folk at first expected the local French population to flock there, and were sorely disappointed to find out that this wasn’t the case. Now they market to the rest of Europe, and they’re doing just fine.)

Disneyland Paris is small, compared to Orlando. One advantage to being smaller, by the way, is that kids don’t get as tired, and parents don’t get as worn out. Is there a lesson here for American theme parks? Too late. They’re already too big.

There are Disneylands everywhere now. Japan and China have their own versions. And Orlando keeps evolving: there’s a New Fantasyland now, with a Beast’s Castle / restaurant, and a Little Mermaid ride, and (forthcoming) a Seven Dwarves ride.

And there’s that little old park in Anaheim too, I suppose.

Whatever it’s called.

I forget.


Travel tips from yours truly


Don’t you hate people who try to give you travel advice? I know I do.

Here’s some travel advice:

–          Make sure your electricals are in good order before you leave. I was startled to discover that my iPad was perfectly happy with French-style 220-volt current. I still, however, needed a plug adapter, since every country in the friggin’ world uses a differently-shaped plug. A company called Walkabout provides a very nice transformer / plug kit for a reasonable price.

–          Use the Internet. We did everything online: hotels, dinner reservations, the works. Once there, I discovered that everyone has either a website or – better yet – an app. (The Paris Metro system, for example, sells an adorable app on iTunes for ninety-nine cents; it shows you the whole system, finds you on GPS, and helps you get to the station of your choice.)

–          Look for bargains. Partner found a five-day Paris Visite card, which saved us lots of money; there’s also a Paris Museum Pass (the museums aren’t terribly expensive, but if you go to more than two or three, those admission prices start to mount up).

–          Take the train as much as you can. I always marvel at the European train system; it’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and it’s comfortable.

–          Make sure you set aside some time to relax. We didn’t relax enough, and ended up exhausted much of the time. Plan a down day here and there.

–          Don’t get trapped into eating tourist food. If (like us) you stay in a touristy neighborhood, you can be sure you’re paying a premium for your steak and frites. Explore the side streets instead. Bakeries sell nice sandwiches and pastry; little groceries are everywhere, once you know where to look. We were paying an average of $2 for a small bottle of water at first; then I discovered that I could buy a two-liter bottle in a grocery for $1 or less.

–          Use Skype. Before leaving, I purchased a real phone number from Skype (three months for thirty bucks); it even had a Rhode Island area code. We were able to call back and forth from France to the USA for approximately two cents a minute, using my iPad. And it even had voice mail! (No camera necessary, by the way; Skype works just fine with audio only.)

And now you know everything you need to know.

All together now:

For Sunday: “archy at the tomb of napoleon,” by Don Marquis

The first time I went to Paris was in March 1984. I was hopping from the USA to Morocco and had only about six hours to waste, so I raced into the city from the airport, had a cup of coffee and a brioche, and visited the Hotel des Invalides, which houses the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Why? Because Archy the Cockroach went there back in the 1920s and wrote a whopping good poem about it.

Partner and I visited the Invalides again in October. Napoleon is still there, in his gigantic stone tomb that looks like a cross between an overstuffed sofa and an enormous old-fashioned radio. And, like Archy, we left feeling “solemn but likewise uplifted.”

Herewith: “archy at the tomb of napoleon,” by Don Marquis.

paris france

i went over to

the hotel des invalides

today and gazed on

the sarcophagus of the

great napoleon

and the thought came

to me as i looked

down indeed it

is true napoleon

that the best goods

come in the smallest

packages here are

you napoleon with

your glorious course

run and here is

archy just in the

prime of his career

with his greatest

triumphs still before

him neither one of us

had a happy youth

neither one of us

was welcomed socially at

the beginning of his

career neither one of

us was considered much

to look at

and in ten thousand years from

now perhaps what you said and did

napoleon will be

confused with what

archy said and did

and perhaps the burial

place of neither will be

known napoleon looking

down upon you

I wish to ask you now

frankly as one famous

person to another

has it been worth

all the energy

that we expended all the

toil and trouble and

turmoil that it cost us

if you had your life

to live over

again bonaparte would

you pursue the star

of ambition

i tell you frankly

bonaparte that i myself

would choose the

humbler part

i would put the temptation

of greatness aside

and remain an ordinary

cockroach simple

and obscure but alas

there is a destiny that

pushes one forward

no matter how hard

one may try to resist it

i do not need to

tell you about that

bonaparte you know as

much about it as i do

yes looking at it in

the broader way neither

one of us has been to blame

for what he has done

neither for his great

successes nor his great mistakes

both of us napoleon

were impelled by some

mighty force external to

ourselves we are both to

be judged as great forces of

nature as tools in the

hand of fate rather than as

individuals who willed to

do what we have done

we must be forgiven


you and i

when we have been

different from the common

run of creatures

i forgive you as i know

that you would forgive

me could you speak to me

and if you and i

napoleon forgive and

understand each other

what matters it if all

the world else find

things in both of us that

they find it hard

to forgive and understand

we have been

what we have been

napoleon and let them laugh that off

well after an hour or so of

meditation there i left

actually feeling that i

had been in communion

with that great spirit and

that for once in my

life i had understood and been


and i went away feeling

solemn but likewise

uplifted mehitabel the

cat is missing


The Moulin Rouge

Before we left for Paris, Partner got us tickets for the Moulin Rouge. The tickets were hard to get; the show sells out very quickly.

And now I know why.

First of all, the neighborhood is exactly what you want it to be: it’s a slightly less grubby version of the old Times Square in Manhattan, or Boston’s late lamented Combat Zone. We arrived early and had a drink in a sidewalk café, and watched a pretty young prostitute pick up a nice young man at the next table. Romance!

The show was old-fashioned burlesque: big costumes, big musical numbers, and a little dash of Cirque du Soleil. The theme was “Feerie”: Fairyland.  There were two jugglers, one serious, one very funny. There was a big “exotic” musical number that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be Indian, or Chinese, or Japanese. There were little ballads. There was, of course, the Can-can. (We were seated at a table with two very serious Frenchwomen, who only applauded the Can-can.)

Then there were the breasts.

They were everywhere, and they gave me quite a turn. I think I must have seen seventy or eighty of them. They were (mostly) very pert. (There were lots of bare behinds too, but they made less of an impression on me, for some reason.)

There was very little beefcake. There was one very nice number with two handsome acrobatic male dancers, one shirtless and the other in a t-shirt, who did elaborate handstands and carries. I could have done with a little more of that.

Upon leaving the club, I realized I’d left my American cap behind. To hell with it! I thought. I went to a street vendor and bought a very rakish hipster hat for seven euro.

So now I take a piece of the Moulin Rouge wherever I go, and my little American cap is floating around Montmartre somewhere.

Who knows? Maybe that prostitute has it.

Vive l’amour!

Caffeine nation

I have not been drinking much coffee for the last ten months, because of my kidney stones. (I read something online about “dark beverages” making them worse, and – although no one can really quite agree about what causes kidney stones – I decided to make the great sacrifice.)

It hasn’t been that bad. I have a cup or two of coffee in the morning, just to wake up; then, at work, I switch over to a mug of ice water. I like the sound of the ice tinkling in the cup; it reminds me of summer evenings on the veranda.

But, while in France recently, I decided to drink coffee again. Why not? They brew coffee the way I really like it: brutally strong and dark. Even the instant Nescafe in the hotel was delicious. I had three or four cups every morning, and usually a cup or two more after lunch or dinner. It was invigorating. (Most days I took a Xanax too, just to keep from vibrating myself to death.)

The French love their coffee. There’s a café / bistro every few yards; I saw very few people eating, but everyone was having a cup of coffee. We watched a French TV game show one evening – one of those stupid panel things where comedians try to top one another – and they were jumping around and screaming so much, you’d have sworn they were all on meth.  Aha! I thought. Caffeine!

My kidney stones hardly bothered me at all during the trip. Okay, I thought. So much for “dark beverages.” So, upon my return to the office, I went back to my cup-of-coffee-every-fifteen-minutes routine.

I became a different person.

I was snappish and irritable. I popped off at people. I became anxious about stupid things. (Also, my kidney stones began gnawing at me again. Go figure.)

It’s just not worth it.

I’m back on ice water, and I’m a lovely sweet calm person again.

(For what it’s worth.)

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