Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

One of the first things the kids noticed when we got here was the number of people who smoke. There are smokers everywhere -- on the street, in the restaurants, in the shops. I even saw a lady smoking the other day at the hairdresser's. (The stylist actually gave her a light.) And for the record, Marlboros seem to be more popular than Gauloises. But things may be about to change; on January 1, a new law is set to go into effect that will ban smoking in bars, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, and cafés. Although some doubt whether it will actually be enforced, it will be a huge change. What is most interesting to me is the language of the opposition. In both the U.S. and France, those against smoking bans use economic arguments. But the primary argument in the States is about individual rights -- it's my right to smoke and the government shouldn't be telling me what to do. Here, the arguments are about the threat to a way of life. Take a look at these excerpts from an article that ran in the International Herald Tribune.

"People say that a café is the thermometer of a country," said Cécile Perez, 54, owner of La Fronde, a bar-tobacco store in the historic Marais district. "In a café, while we smoke, we meet new people, we exchange ideas, we learn, we listen, we talk about everything. If we stop that, what do we have left?"

"Smokers are more passionate," said Véronique Moran, 51, who has smoked for 40 years, and is a regular at Le Cyrano, a café in Paris's bustling Place de Clichy. "We're more sensitive, we think about things and talk about things deeply, we get carried away, we rebel against things."

But today these rebels find themselves more marginalized than romanticized. "The ban on smoking in cafés is the end of a type of person," Moran said. "Now, people think about working more to make more money, being competitive, staying in shape, being good-looking."

I don't know about that. Personally, I'm just looking forward to a little less smoke in my face, my hair, and my clothes.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

I've been having a bit of a cultural mind melt the past few days. Paris is definitely all abuzz for Christmas -- lots of lights (a million I'm told on the Champs Élysées alone), decorations, Christmas trees, and Parisians carrying shopping bags. The only odd thing is the persistent soundtrack of American Christmas songs including White Christmas, The Christmas Song, and of course, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. Craziest of all was hearing some country singer twang away about the holidays. That Tennessee accent just didn't seem the right soundtrack for buying a bûche de noël. Happy holidays to all ya'll mes amis.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Adventures in Cooking

A French diplomat once remarked to my husband that he found living in Washington, DC more difficult than living in Tokyo. How so? Well he knew that Tokyo would be completely different from France. He was not so well prepared for the many differences between the U.S. and France.

I felt his pain today as I cooked what should have been a simple dinner to share with two families: jambalaya for the main course and lime mousse for dessert. I've made both of these recipes many times but never in France. The sticking point for the jambalaya? The sausage. After a trip to the open-air market and the supermarché, I came home with three alternatives: a smoked sausage with no particular name, a thick slice of bacon (which is more like ham than the thin and crispy variety you find in the States), and a package of sausages marked "andouillette." The smoked sausage and the ham cooked fine. The andouillette fell completely apart in the pan and had a funny taste that did not say jambalaya. I put that one aside.

The lime mousse presented a different challenge: whipping cream. I knew that the French call it "Chantilly" but there was nothing on the shelves indicating which cream was for whipping. Asking the lady stocking the shelves did nothing to dispel the mystery. I asked a neighbor who has been here for awhile and she said to buy the "crème entière" with the red cap. Well that cream came out of the carton as thick and as sour as sour cream. I whipped it anyway and folded it into the mousse. Everything worked out fine in the end; the red wine and chocolates brought by our guests didn't hurt either.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

It's All in the Context

Turns out that the French word "avocat" can be used to mean both "lawyer" and "avocado." Just something to remember if you have ever legal trouble or feel like having some guacamole while you're in France.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What's in a Name?

Once again today, a French person (this time a shopkeeper) made a bit of friendly conversation with a comment about my last name. Because of my concerns about the security of the Internet I'm not going to mention it but if you have any business reading this blog, you know what it is. His comment? "That's not an American name." Of course, there are pages and pages of the phone book in most major American cities filled with folks who share my last name. So what do you suppose the French consider an American name? Smith? Jones? Hmmmm...wonder what they think of Obama, Giuliani, Leno, O'Brien, and other names on CNN's top U.S. stories tonight.

Monday, December 17, 2007

You-Are-There Reading

One of my favorite books is Ex Libris, a slim volume of essays by Anne Fadiman about the connection between readers and books. One of these essays talks about the thrill of what she calls "You-Are-There Reading." "The consummate You-Are-There experience requires us," she writes, "to see exactly what the author described, so that all we need to do to cross the eidetic threshold is to squint a little." (Eidetic? Okay, I had to look that one up too. It means "vivid" or "persistant.")

Well, I've been doing quite a bit of You-Are-There-Reading lately, actually beginning in the weeks before we arrived with Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. After we got here, I moved back in time to The Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo and then forward again to Abundance, Sena Jeter Naslund's novel about Marie Antoinette,and further ahead to Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party which imagines the story behind the creation of Renoir's famous painting. I've just finished the second novel in Sandra Gulland's three-part fictionalized narrative of the life of Josephine, Napoleon's first wife.

Just so you know what a geek I am, I'll admit that I've taken to using a Paris map as a bookmark so I can check out just where all the action is taking place. And then of course, when I'm out and about by myself, I'm often tempted to tell some complete stranger, "Hey, do you know where we are? This is where D'Artagnan waited for Constance or where Renoir found his model." (Of course, I would have to stop and think how to say this in French which pretty much keeps me from making a complete fool of myself.) The other problem is that I'm never quite sure what is truth and what is fiction. Guess my next read should be something from a slightly different genre, maybe "Someone (But Not You)Really Was Here."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Check Writing 101

Seeing how it's getting to be the end of the year, I sat down this morning to write out some checks to charities back home. I always do this once a year in December because it's the only way I can keep track of to whom I've given. Suddenly I found myself confused because the last dozen checks I've written have been on our French account, and like so many other things, the French checks are just a bit different. How so? Well, you start on the first line with the amount in text, giving you a chance to practice your numbers. The second line is for the payee. On the date line, you must of course remember to write the date with the day first and then the month and then fill in the all important "à" (not to be confused with the "à" who is the payee) showing where you wrote the check. (Why? I have no clue.) Then comes the tricky part....the signature. Naturally this is the most important part of the check but there is no line for signing! So just slap that John Hancock somewhere in the lower right hand corner and you're done. Now I just have to remember not to write "le 14 decembre" on my Chevy Chase Bank checks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Three-Star Lunch

Okay, so I think I've done a pretty good job of disabusing you of the notion that life in Paris is all high fashion, haute cuisine, and luxe everything else. As a matter of fact, lunch yesterday was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk. Today was another story as we cashed in on the bon voyage present given to me by my colleagues in DC: a three-course lunch at the three-star Taillevent. Three courses was really an understatement, however, since before the first course, we were greeted with gougères, little bits of puff pastry with cheese, followed by an amuse-bouche of cream soup flavored with chestnuts. Then between the main course and the dessert, there was a small cheese course. And then coffee (which always comes after, not with, your dessert) came with its own little plate of pastries.

All in all, it was a lovely experience. From the umpteen people who greeted us on our arrival (doorman, coat check lady, maitre de, waiter, bus boy....did I miss someone? so many wishes of "bonjour madame" I couldn't keep track) straight through to the offer of an additional cup of coffee, it was one big treat. The dessert itself was a beautiful little work of art. It'll be back to the ordinary tomorrow; for now, I'll just savor the after glow of paté, Vouvray,and chocolat.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pizza Anyone Part II

Ads for this delish special Christmas pizza with salmon from Pizza Hut are plastered all over the métro. (You really need to click on the photo above to get the full effect.) The print ads have fine print that reads "cheese = spėcialitė du fromage" for the unsuspecting. Nothing says Christmas like "double cheezy."

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Art Nouveau Run Amok

Just had to share this image of an apartment building door on Avenue Rapp in the 7th arrondissement, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. What you can't see are the two giant oxen heads holding up the third floor loggia. If you look closely, you'll see that the door handle is a salamander. This 1901 building was designed by Jules Lavirotte. I go by it every other week or so and always have to stop and gawk.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Bet You Can't Eat Just One

I guess I thought potato chips were a quintessentially American food but it appears that they are the canvas for the expression of cultural tastes. If you are wondering what the heck I am talking about, let's discuss chips saveur poulet rôti. Yes, roasted chicken flavored chips. I've been intrigued with these since we got here and this week, I finally broke down and bought a small bag. Well, guess what. They taste exactly like the skin of the chickens roasting in the window of every boucherie in town. Frankly, I'll stick with the chicken. But again, maybe it's not that weird when you consider that some Americans like to snack on fried pork rinds. Other chip flavors readily available here are mustard (but of course!) and bolognaise. The Belgians go for spicier fare; when we were in Bruges last month, the flavors on the shelf included Heinz ketchup, paprika, pickles, and Thai sweet chili. Stay tuned and I'll be checking out the contents of the chip aisle in other locales.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Métro Serenades

The subway system here is full of musicians of every type. You've got your guitars, accordions, violins, saxophones, you name it. And it can be quite nice sometimes when you've got a long way to walk between trains to hear some folk music or a few strains of Mozart. Of course, there's also the guy with the electric piano who's always at the Charles de Gaulle — Étoile stop singing "Feelings" or Elton John's "Sacrifice." (Or maybe it's "Candle in the Wind.") And then there are those times when a whole combo boards your train. Last weekend it was a trio with euphonium, trumpet, and clarinet, plus their accompaniment on a boombox, that jammed for three stops until they switched cars. Actually, my favorite musical moment so far was not on the subway but in the Place des Vosges where an entire string ensemble set up on the sidewalk and serenaded those of us in the park with Pachelbel's Canon, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and other classical chestnuts. Now that was a time when it was worth digging out the spare change!

Friday, November 30, 2007


It was a transportation comedy of errors this morning as I made my way across town to the Musee du Luxembourg for an exhibit of the work of Arcimboldo, a relatively obscure Renaissance artist whose work was pretty much lost to time until the Surrealists found him again. Traffic was murder so I jumped off the bus and hopped on the métro, made a quick change of trains, only to find that I had changed onto the wrong line, requiring yet another change of trains and a dash through the gardens where my friend was waiting for me. The exhibit was mobbed even though it was a weekday morning in what I wouldn't call tourist season.

Here is a sampling of what I saw.

Summer. Probably the most famous of the lot.

Earth. You can definitely look at this one for a long time.

The Lawyer. Not quite sure why he has a chicken on his face.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Small is Beautiful

Signs of cultural adjustment: Even though I knew from prior trips that Europeans drive small cars, my perceptions of size have shifted. American-style minivans now look massive, the occasional Range Rover ridiculous, and the mini Cooper, which I once thought was so adorably cute, no longer strikes me as particularly small.

My new favorite is the Smart car, apparently a joint venture between Daimler Chrysler and the folks who designed the Swatch watch. You see a ton of these two seaters in Paris (though not so many in the provinces) and they're often painted to advertise the latest movie or product available on-line. Creative and perhaps desperate Parisians sometimes park them perpendicular to the curb rather than parallel, and they scarcely stick out into traffic, even at that angle. I read that these cars will be available for purchase in the U.S. in 2008 but I'd think twice about having to share the road with a Ford Expedition. That being said, I'd think twice about driving in Paris in any size car.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Grocery Shopping

A couple of people have asked me whether I'm getting at all bored doing the stay-at-home mom thing. The real answer being: who has time to get bored? Well, it's not the museums, appointments with the couturier, or afternoons reading Proust at Café Flor that are occupying my days. It's the seemingly endless rounds of grocery shopping! A couple of realities about shopping for food in the City of Lights.

1. Milk comes in one-liter bottles. With a couple of cereal eaters in the house, that doesn't last long.
2. Even if milk came in bigger bottles, I couldn't lug the two gallons I used to buy each week at home down the block and up to our 3rd floor apartment. True, I have one of those shopping caddies on wheels but it holds only about half the contents of your typical American-sized grocery cart. There's a home delivery option at most of the markets but I haven't braved that yet; it was enough work figuring out how to ask for a frequent shopper card.
3. You bought it, you bag it. The job of the clerk is to run the cash register. Period. Well occasionally, a clerk takes pity on me for my inability to bag and pay at the same time. If you're paying cash, exact change is appreciated. Oh yes, and don't forget to weigh your fruits and veggies before you get to the register! Put your produce on the scale, push the pictograph, and the machine spits out the price tag.
4. The shopping list says yogurt but what to buy? Seriously, the dairy aisle, even in the tiniest market, has at least 15 different varieties. Which is which?!
5. Seek and ye shall find. and eventually you may find. The eggs are on the shelf, not in the refrigerator case. Black beans? Forget it. Brown sugar? Maybe. Wine and pig parts? No problem.

Well, gotta go. We're out of milk again. The good news is that the corner market is open from 8:30 to 8:30 (except on Sundays, of course.)

NOTE: If you've tried to post a comment and been discouraged, try again. I changed the default settings.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Just back from two days in Brugge, Belgium, a very sweet medieval town that is just an hour by train from Brussels. It's the season for the Christmas market so it was quite festive with twinkling lights, stalls selling hot wine, and an ice skating rink set up in the market square. We did nothing of redeeming social importance (i.e., no churches, historical monuments, or art museums) but did manage a visit to the chocolate museum. Otherwise, we spent our time wandering the streets and canals and eating a prodigious amount of street food, the main themes being pork, potatoes, and fat. We did not eat any waffles although there were plenty to be had.

A few updates:

The transit strike is over. It's not clear who really won. Le Figaro, the conservative newspaper, gives the credit to Sarkozy for standing tough. Yet there's still no resolution to the underlying issues. There may be more strikes in our future.

I've learned that the orange tans sported by the older set comes from taking carotene. It's the younger ladies who frequent the tanning salons.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

The fourth Thursday in November is just another day here in France but the Americans are all cooking. The essentials are not hard to come by if you are willing to pay a pretty penny (or centime, that is). I've even seen canned jellied cranberry sauce on the shelves in one or two places.

One of my family's Turkey Day traditions is to read a portion of the 1936 Thanksgiving Day proclamation of Wilbur Cross who was governor of Connecticut at the time. I'm not sure why this became a tradition since no one was living in Connecticut then. My guess is that my grandmother liked it because it has a nice ecumenical ring.

Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver who has brought us by a way we did not know to the end of another year.

We have much to be thankful for this year, and send warm Thanksgiving wishes to all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Toujours en Grève (Always on Strike)

Not much to love about Paris today. It's rainy and cold, and the transit strike continues unabated. Public opinion towards the strikers remains cool. Now the public sector employees have gone on strike as well although I'm not sure for how long. They aren't striking in solidarity, just to protest their own grievances including job cuts and stalled wages. So no school for the French kids, no mail, no garbage pickup. I read also that some tobacco shop owners have closed their doors to protest new restrictions on smoking set to take place January 1. For now, I'm curled up with a cup of tea and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Healthy Glow?

On a gray gloomy day like we're having in Paris today, it's not hard to spot the fake tan in the crowd, the only surprise being that there are so many of them. In fact, there are at least three tanning salons within a 5 minute walk of our apartment. What I find particularly odd about these well-coiffed, polished, shod, and turned out women is that their tans have a strange orange-y cast to them, kind of like those you got with QT. (Only my bet is that these don't come with a QT price!) The prize winner this afternoon was an older woman (I would say pushing 80)wearing a fur coat, boots with kitten heels, lots of jewelry, and a terrific orange tan. She was walking down the sidewalk at a snail's pace with crutches and her 80ish equally infirm husband for support. But the tan was fab.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


The transit strike is now lingering in its 4th day. Some metro lines are still completely shut down. Fortunately, we live close to those that are operating, albeit on limited service. Rides are free from some stations (but not on the bus). The logic is not apparent to me, like that that I encountered yesterday at the Cluny Museum where I was scheduled to go on a guided visit with some other expats. When I went to purchase my ticket, I was told that it would be free. Sounds pretty good...there are free days now and then and lucky for us this seemed to be one of them. The museum was definitely open for business with several guards checking bags and a coat check lady ready to be of assistance.

A few minutes later, the guide arrived and informed us that regrettably we would all have to pay the entry fee because the cashier had finally arrived. Wonder what happens when she's sick?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Transit Strike

Day two here of the latest transit strike, the second in the three months that we have been here. At issue are the special pensions offered to bus, train, and subway workers which offer them the chance to retire at 50 after relatively short periods of service. Sarkozy is bound and determined to align these pensions with the less generous ones made available to other public employees.

The first strike back in October was quite orderly, beginning at 8 pm on a Wednesday and ending promptly at 8 pm on Thursday, just as announced. The response from the government: nothing. This latest strike is renewable after each 24 hour period, thus the spectre of a strike lingering on day after day. That means a one-hour walking commute each way for my husband. Taxis are working but the traffic is apparently pretty bad. I wouldn't know since I didn't venture out of the neighborhood yesterday.

Today is another story. I can't miss my French class so it's wait for the bus? wait for the metro? or just hoof it? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Eternal Question: What's For Dinner?

I don't know about you but my kids start asking what's for dinner the minute I pick them up from school. You might think that since I'm not working anymore, I would have the time to prepare amazing well-balanced dinners every night. Reality check: there's an incredible chain of frozen food stores here in Paris that allows you to create this illusion. Yes, that's right...I am in France, with open air markets, a bakery on every corner, and I'm preparing frozen dinners?! Well I love Picard and it turns out that everyone else I meet does too. There's one in every arrondissement and while the atmosphere is somewhat cold and clinical (think freezer cases and clerks in lab coats), the packaging is enticing, the prices are hard to beat, and the food is...well....delicious! Even the pain au chocolat (delicious warm from your neighborhood boulangerie) is pretty darn good.

Some savvy business person should consider translating this concept to the U.S. Trader Joe's doesn't do badly with the frozen foods but their marketing department is Mother Jones to Picard's Conde Nast.

So for dinner tonight...hmmmm. Chicken tikka? Salmon? Minestrone soup? Crepes? I think I'll just put my feet up and wait to decide until after 6.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Parisians and Their Dogs

Dogs are everywhere here in the Paris. Despite the fact that most people live in apartments, it seems that everyone has a dog and they are out and about with them everywhere, including stores and restaurants. But apparently it's not part of the culture to pick up after them. So when you come to Paris, although you may be tempted to walk down the street looking up at the beautiful architectural details or the windswept skies, keep your eyes down and watch your step.

I have seen this street sign in several places; the rough translation is " I love my neighborhood. I pick up." But apparently, no one really gives a crap about the crap on the sidewalk. Fortunately, the street sweepers are at work 7 days a week.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Pizza Anyone?

I came home from French class today to find a mailer in our box from Speed Rabbit Pizza offering La Pizza Montana. And what, you might ask, would that be? Tomato sauce, mozzarella, cheddar, bacon, onions, potatoes, and double reblochon. That last word sent me to the dictionary where I found that reblochon is a cheese native to the Savoie region. Just like in Montana! If you don't like that combination, try the Indiana (tomato sauce, mozzarella, cheddar, curry sauce, minced chicken, and a parsley dressing) or the New York (tomato sauce, mozzarella, cheddar, onions, hamburger and cornichons). Looking for something lighter? Try the Salade Cap Code (their spelling) topped with smoked salmon and black olives or the Salade Denver with both chevre and bleu cheese. On second thought, I'll just have French fries or French toast!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Mont St. Michel

The kids had some time off from school last week so we headed out to Normandy for a few days. Tops on my list was Mont St. Michel and it met all expectations, arising out of the marshy plain a little bit like Oz. You enter the town through a huge portcullis and then walk up a steep cobblestoned street lined with souvenir shops and places to eat. Apparently, this is not a new development. Mont St. Michel has always been a tourist site, only now the tourists are buying magnets and spoons when those of the 12th century were buying relics. The kids said it reminded them of Diagon Alley, only there weren't any wand shops or joke shops.

The sun didn't shine much during our four day trip. When it does come out, I think the photographers must come out in droves.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Getting Started

Okay, I said I would do it so here first Paris blog post. While I've always prided myself on handwriting all my holiday cards and thank yous, it's a bit daunting to figure out how to stay in touch with so many friends. So I'm giving it a go. A former colleague once told me, "any stray thought is worth a journal article." Surely then any random musing is worth a post.

We arrived in Paris in late August and though now the kids are in school, our furniture is in place, and even pictures are on the wall (well, okay...not all of them), we're still a long way from being firmly settled. Every day brings a new lesson, some of them learned the hard way.
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