Sceaux What

from Sunday, September14th of the year2008.

I am trying to keep my spirits up: as I write this, I am on an express train from central Paris to the Airport; I got here Thursday and now, Sunday, I’m heading back to New York for what could be three days and what could be forever. I decadently made the choice to rent an apartment here before I knew exactly what my schedule was going to be, and so now, I have this gorgeous vacant place filled with the groceries that I ambitiously purchased at the food halls at the Galleries Lafayette. We’re talking major chestnut purée, half bottles of dessert wine, yogurt.

I spent the summer between high school and college in Paris, studying counterpoint and score-reading. I managed to extend my stage so that I was in Paris right up until I had to move to school, staying with my mother’s old friend, a Lacanian analyst. I busied myself with knowing the intimate workings of Paris’s underground transit system, which consists of the famous rubber-wheeled subways, and more powerful, long-distance regional rail trains called the RER. I caught myself just writing “powerful” there, and I realized that it comes from these amazing PSA campaigns that the transit authority put out about these trains: “Il est puissant, il va vite, il est silencieux.” He is strong, he goes fast, he is silent: so get off the tracks.

One of my favorite games was to look at the name of some distant station, make a plan, and just go there, and figure out what-all there was to do. Mind, this was before the Internet really happened, or at least, before you’d be able to check on your phone if “Bures-sur-Yvette” is a charming village or, you know, an anonymous shithole to the south of the city. Usually, the answer was somewhere in between, although sometimes the yield would be some unspeakably quaint wizened lady selling baked goods and other times, six 18-year old Cameroonian men holding plaid nylon tote bags, silently smoking WInstons and glaring at me.

One of my favorite things I accidentally discovered, though, when I was 18, was the Parc de Sceaux, located just off the Sceaux stop on the RER B line, subdivision 2. Roughly pronounced “So,” I thought, great, that’s a pretty high ratio of silent letters to pronounced letters; there’s gotta be something awesome there. As it turns out, this park was designed by Le Nôtre, of Versailles fame, and it’s a gorgeously sculpted park, inhabited mainly by bourgeois 57 year-old women walking their dogs over the blond gravel walkways. Rome has a park like this too, the Villa Doria Pamphilj, exciting both orthographically and culturally. I think every city needs its second park, where you can safely take a jog and pick up dogpù without risking being part of a complicated Japanese photo shoot. I would love to know, just out of curiosity, how many times an average Parisian (or, for that matter, New Yorker)’s image appears in Japan in the background of family photos. Just yesterday alone, as I walked from the front of the opera house to the back, I was the inadvertent subject of at least seven photographs. Will these people think anything of me, with my red pencil behind my ear, three huge scores, shoving an obscene sandwich (pâté de campagne, butter, and mustard) into my pie-hole? Will they invent a crazy nickname for me? One time, I was taking a picture of my roommate in Savannah, GA, and behind me, serendipitously captured this woman, whose FUPA was so epic, so mammoth, that the camera auto-focussed on it rather than my roommate’s visage. Good call, camera! For decency’s sake, I’m not going to post that image here, so quit asking.

There should be a special word for the kind of interaction that takes longer to have than to solve the problem that is the subject of the interaction. The woman whose job it is to synchronize the playback of the ballet’s pre-recorded element (which is a dulcimer in combination with a processed piano) kept on getting flustered when we asked her to start in the middle of a phrase. So, we kept on having circular conversations that went like this here:

US: Can we start at the two boys dancing?
HER: You know, it’s very difficult to start in the middle like that.
US: Okay, great, let’s just start from the beginning of the section.
HER: Yeah, because, you know, it’s hard to find the points in the middle of the phrases.
US: Rock on, okay, cool, let’s just start from the beginning and we’ll catch up when we know where we are.
HER: Yeah, I think that we should really figure out a way to start in the middle of the phrase, because it’s too bad to not be able to start.
US: Cool, yeah, during the break, but right now can you just press play?
HER: So you want to start in the middle?
US: No, at the beginning.
HER: Good, because it’s hard to start in the middle.
US: Great, press play.
HER: Okay, yeah, I think we should speak with Rémy about getting…

Meanwhile, the dancers are shaking out their limbs, making eager puppy noises, and the slow crescendo of techie chaos is beginning in the wings. It was something unbelievable; it’s moments like that where my instinct to become a complete gorgon needs to get checked; it’s that intersection of inefficiency and backwards logic that starts melting my brain from the insides. Maybe this was a special combination of jetlag, repetitive music, and the Napoleonic Code (as opposed to the Bush Doctrine)…It should be said: it is hard to start in the middle of a phrase, which is why it’s better to either get it 100% exact, or start from the beginning, where at least you know you’ll get it right, even if it takes twenty seconds more.

Some good images:

Chicken and potatoes roasting in chicken drippings in the market:

A really interesting combination of letters: l’iPhone:

My crottin from the Brasserie Lipp, served with a pat of obscenely creamy butter. One of my dining companions helpfully added, “c’est pour les Bretons, ça” (“that shit’s for Brittany people“):

I managed “” once I knew that I had to leave here way earlier than expected ““ to eat everything in this entire city. Last night, B”” and I went to this place Le Baratin in Belleville, where I consumed a fresh foie gras, quickly sautéed, served on blond lentils. The goose fat + the lentils + the little carrots, okay shh. Across from me, I”” had ordered this unspeakably good raw salmon, with a citrusy sauce and a little pile of raw, flash-marinated zucchini slivers. Then, I ate veal cheeks, in sauce made out of lemon confit with two perfectly turned potatoes, oh my god. What I love so much about this kind of classic bistro stuff is the unpretentious presentation, but the serious depth ““ the fond to the sauces; you can tell that veal bones were roasted, then boiled, then strained, etc., it makes the flavors have a whole backstory that you just can’t get at home. The way to think about a sauce is like backstory: the chef is hinting at an entire narrative vis-à-vis the animal before you eat it, and like a great book, you don’t necessarily need to know what-all happened to our heroine before we met her, but you like knowing that there is a motivation, a collection of secrets, a life. This applies to great big overstuffed novels, like Rushdie, but also to present-tense minimalist severity like Coetzee. You see it in a sentence like, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” or “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” You also see it in the first two chords of Beethoven 1, or the first nine seconds of The Magic Flute, where the reality of the present situation (I am sitting here in a concert hall or opera house) is shaded by the composer indicating to us that there was a whole world of activity before we entered the room, before we got up, before we were born.

My primary issue with vegetarians is, of course, their inability to cook a vegetable (to paraphrase Anthony Bourdain). If you go to a restaurant like Gobo (food 4 tha 5 senses), or Zen Palate, and God help you if you do, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Everything is two-dimensional, awkward, a highschooler’s attempt at writing a novel. Everything is some kind of facacta walnut-cilantro pesto without the carnivorous chef’s understanding of the relationship between greens (basil) and fat (parmesan). Alain Passard, on the other hand ““ he’s the chef of L’Arpège in Paris who announced that he was basically only going to cook vegetables ““ is genius. Everybody needs to watch this video, called le solfège du légume, and call me.


  • In 19th-century French political history, the various gardes des sceaux figure prominently.

  • V7 of IV…

  • It’s good to hear you’ve got a pied-a-terre in Paris. It makes it that much more likely I’ll get to hear you in a soirée musicale. I love the Parc de Sceaux, the centenarian trees alongside the canal give great shade. dogpù is a lovely word. My mates and I (“la meute”) have our own word for that– kinder, derived from the much beloved snack Kinder Surprise, because when we left our dog alone at home, he used to prepare such surprises for us to discover on our return. (Now whenever one of us comes back from walking the dog, the other asks, “a-t-il fait kinder?”)

  • harriet jerusha korim
    September 14th, 2008 at 11:23 am

    hey nico
    1000 mercis 4 solfege flic
    makes me want to go out and kiss –and bite– my sorrel (aka shav.)

    happy trails, fond greetings
    and blogratitude.


    ps do we get to see the dancers?

  • there is a very peculiar recipe you need to learn from Arpege..egg yolks cooked in the shell with a whipped cream ,sherry vinegar and MAPLE SYRUP dressing.
    what an amuse bouche!
    You might need extremely fresh eggs to pull this off but the sight of eggshells bobbing around as they poach their yolks and then that decadent sauce is probably worth the trouble.
    Wanna try it together?

  • Saw U in TO with FF. Had a blast. U are one smart puppy.

  • So do the French kids say: “Lye-Pod” which seems trying to the Gallic ear…or do they “corrupt” it to “Lee-Pod”? When it comes to L’iPod, I mean, of course.

  • It’s probably for Breton people if it’s *salt* butter. The Bretons and salt butter go together as the Dutch and raw herring, so to speak.

  • Ouch, nico! I absolutely love Gobo and think the food i wonderful.
    Although, I am a vegan (to also paraphrase bourdain, the “hezbollah-like faction of vegetarians”). I have been able to eat delightfully while in Paris nonetheless. (Brasserie Lipp, however, was a catastrophe for me – the only thing I could eat there were the haricots vertes with a little bit of sea salt…). I suggest eating in La Salle Dali at the Meurice if you haven’t already done so. A fabulous experience.

  • Thanks for the video- I’ve been trying to explain to my husband how serious the french are about food- I think I’ll just show him this!
    Loved the description of the unknown parts of Paris- those check tote bags from Tati, those Cameroonians… it brings it all back. I used to visit a friend in Gif-sur Yvette. Is it only in Paris that the word ‘banlieue’ causes a frisson?

  • L’i-grecquePod

  • So what is your suggestion for the as-of-yet-unknown word discussed here: “a special word for the kind of interaction that takes longer to have than to solve the problem that is the subject of the interaction.” ?

  • Dear Nico Muhly:
    I really like your blog and your music, but there is one problem I have. Absolutely 100% of the time, when I go to type your name, I accidentally type “Nico Mugly” before correcting myself. Is there anything you can do to help with this issue?
    Thanks in advance.