Feb 16, 2016

Raindrops Keep Fallin': Colombelle


While London has the reputation of being gray and foggy, somehow Paris -- which has virtually the same weather -- has the reputation of being romantic in the rain. Lucky I live in Paris then. My theory on why Paris in the rain is such a popular image is that the city already starts off moody and gray(architecturally speaking) even at the best of times.

Add to that a gray sky, and it's like living in a dramatic black and white, old French film.

The Eiffel Tower's not the only monument that becomes more evocative in the rain.

It doesn't have to be a famous spot to be romantic in the rain.


It doesn't have to be a special occasion, either. There's something about Paris in the rain that works, even while those of us living in Paris are all getting thoroughly sick of dreary days and don't want to admit it. A rainy day here just doesn't look that different than it would in black and white. To prove my point, here is this scene both ways, so that it's easy to see why walking around Paris in the rain makes you feel like you're in a moody Robert Doisneau photograph.

But one of the fun things about a rainy day in Paris is that while the majority of umbrellas in Paris are -- like the winter clothing palette -- black, some people see the umbrella as a fashion accessory, a way to dress up a dreary day.

I love that this store in the 5th arrondissement has been selling lovely, high quality (expensive!) umbrellas since ladies were wearing hoop skirts and bustles and walking around with little caniches (poodles) and using umbrellas not for the rain but to shade their skin from the sun. I also love that it comes from an era when, since not everybody was assumed to be literate, the signs advertised what the stores sold. If it were real truth in advertising, they would've showed a gray, rainy sky since the main offering here, according to their name, is parapluies (literally: "for the rain") and not parasols (literally: "for the sun").

One good thing about all the rain we have in Paris for so much of the winter (besides the snow falling in the Alps, as a result), is that where there is rain, there is -- occasionally -- a rainbow. Finally, after a few years living in Paris, I happen by Notre Dame at exactly the right moment, with my camera.

It's a welcome splash of color over any part of the city, not just the famous monuments.

Rain also means great puddles and, therefore, reflections. It's fun looking down for great architecture for a change.

Here's a typical rainy day scene in my neighborhood and my painting based on the photo. It's all about the reflections.

Another moment that makes me feel like painting: that just-before and just-after-the-rain lighting, here in the Jardin des Plantes. It feels almost religious.


I am, of course, not the first (nor the last) to notice how romantic Paris can be in the rain. The movie Midnight in Paris is practically an homage to this idea.
Another show that really honors Paris is An American in Paris; the new Broadway version debuted here last year, at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Given how special the Châtelet is to us (since Gigi performed there in the King & I), we wouldn't have missed this for the world. It was an absolutely gorgeous production, and we didn't know if we should be more blown away by the choreography or the set and staging, which made Paris come to life inside the theater. The funny thing for us, of course, was that it was exactly the Paris that was just outside the theater.
photo from Le Figaro 
The architecture and mood of post World War II Paris in the show was gray, yet it was a joyous production. There was something surreal and special about being an American in Paris at an American American in Paris in Paris. That sentence does make sense, but you might have to read it a few times.
photo from 59 Productions

It must have been a real treat for the Americans of An American in Paris to do An American in Paris in Paris, too. They could hardly complain about dancing for their promotional shots all around the city, with the real backdrops behind them.

photos from Theatre du Chatelet (c)

Which brings us to another Chatelet musical comedy and full-circle for today's subject: Singin' in the Rain. If you know the show, one of the funniest bits is that there's a movie within the play that takes place in pre-revolutionary France. Given that it's a French production, they had access to the best possible setting for the movie-within-the-play and filmed the entire sequence at Versailles, including at the Hall of Mirrors.

Some of the biggest laughs from the mostly-French audience are in places that are probably unexpected to the American actors on opening night. The audience appreciates the humor in seeing a kitschy American version of Paris and French history. For example, the audience absolutely roars at the name of the character Gaspard de la Nuit ("Gaspard of the Night"). De la Nuit isn't a real last name, makes fun of noble French names that begin with "de", and is also the title of a little-known 19th century book of poems (and a Parisian restaurant named after it). Most of the French people in the audience, however, have probably never heard of the book it's so obscure, and so don't even understand that layer of the joke. I only got it now, doing this research. In fact, after publishing this post, I get a comment from a reader better-versed in classical music than I that Gaspard de la Nuit is also a series of piano suites by Ravel, based on the same book of poems. Gaspard de la Nuit is like an onion, whose layers peel off one by one. I wonder what other references we'll find? No matter what Gaspard de la Nuit means to each of us, we all crack up when the name comes up in the show.

The famous scene from the movie where Gene Kelly dances (and sings, of course) in the rain, and the showstopper finale, are particularly fun because they have the dancers performing in actual rain.

photos from (c) Théâtre du Châtelet – Marie-Noëlle Robert

Well, it's fake rain, of course, spurting down from pipes in the rafters, but it's real water, raining down on stage making puddles and splashes. It's great choreography and such fun to watch. Gigi -- along with most of the audience -- goes crazy gasping and clapping throughout these two numbers. It's wonderful to see that sort of enthusiasm for some rain on stage, but perhaps we're well-trained and well-versed in appreciation for rain, after having lived in Paris, the city of romantic rain.

Having said that, as much as I can appreciate the beauty of the rain in Paris, after a long, wet, gray winter, I'm also really looking forward to some warm sunshine and blue skies.

THE CHEESE: Colombelle

Colombelle is a strangely conical -- that's conical with an N, not "comical" -- looking cheese with squared off corners. Basically, it looks like a math teacher's ultimate challenge for figuring out the surface area and volume of a figure. Luckily, the only volume I care about is how much it will cost me to buy a wedge. It's exactly the kind of cheese that calls to me: goaty, and with an unusual shape and name.

Colombelle is best known as a kind of white wine. And Colombelles is the name of a town, located in the department of Calvados in the region of Normandy. A "colombelle" is also a term in typography describing the vertical space separating two columns.

However, this cheese, made only at one farm, in Sail-les-Bains in the department of the Loire in the Rhône-Alpes region (central France), by husband and wife team M. et Mme. Chaize, is not named after any of those. Rather, it's a take off on the name of the farm, La Ferme du Colombier ("Farm of the Dovecote"), so it comes closest to another meaning for the word "colombelle", which is "little pigeon" or "little dove" both literally and also as a term of endearment.

Certainly I find this cheesy little dove endearing. It's a raw goats' milk cheese made in the Loire with a thick crust. It would need a thick crust to stand this tall and firm, frankly. The interior is an even texture and hard to enough to cut and crumble, but creamy once in the mouth.

Colombelle is delicious, with hints of the farm. It's the kind of cheese you work around in your mouth, melting it, to get it soft, and at the same time it releases all sorts of flavors: black pepper, bell peppers, grass, and something that tastes a little like sunshine. There's only one farm that makes this cheese, La Ferme du Colombier, and the only place I've ever seen it on sale in Paris is at Beillevaire. If you're lucky enough to come across it, get some while you can!


Colombelle is the perfect cheese for an American in Paris enjoying An American in Paris and also enjoying being an American in Paris, rain or shine. It's a visual thing: when whole, this gorgeous and unusually-shaped cheese looks pretty much like an umbrella.


  1. To me, at least, Gaspard de la Nuit is most familiar as the name of a suite of four piano pieces by Maurice Ravel. Perhaps your French audience was also familiar with this?

    1. Several very educated French people I asked had absolutely never heard of Gaspard de la Nuit, but my guess is that if you know about the Ravel suites, then there had to have been at least some members of the audience (it is a musical crowd, after all) that also got that reference. Thanks for telling me about it (and I will go back and edit the post, accordingly). Clearly, I'm not a big classical music buff, and I didn't get that level of the joke. I'm glad you got it and passed it on.

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