Saturday, December 27, 2008

At the Sign of the Green Cross

We've had the good fortune in the health department lately. Save for the occasional cold and headache, no one has been sick and I'm especially pleased that we've avoided "le gastro" (the translation is obvious) that runs rampant each winter. I've forgotten a lot of the epidemiology that I learned in grad school but the part about hand washing definitely stuck and I credit frequent washing and strong native immune systems for the present state of affairs.

So I haven't spent a lot of time in a pharmacie, a distinctly French institution that bears little resemblance to a CVS or Walgreen's. You go to the pharmacist when you want prescriptions filled but also to consult the pharmacist for the appropriate over the counter medications for whatever ails you and these they dispense with abundance. Seriously, I have friends who go in looking for symptom relief for the garden variety winter cold and come out with five different products. There's not a whole lot else to buy there -- high end creams, soaps, and lotions and medical supplies, maybe -- but definitely no sodas, candy, school supplies, or magazines.

Pharmacies coordinate to make sure that there is always one in the neighborhood open on Sundays. (The writing "7 jours/7" on this sign indicates that it is open every day of the week). When the green lights are on, you know that the doors are open for business. The blue lights on this sign show that this particular pharmacie also stocks veterinary medicines.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

What better way to spend Christmas Day than a trip to Euro Disney?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gift Wrap

Sometimes the differences in French and American ways of doing things just seem to pop out of nowhere and bite you where it counts. I really was not prepared for the fact that it is virtually impossible to purchase an empty gift box anywhere in Paris. (I am hedging a bit here because although I am worn out from tromping all over town following false leads, I'm quite confident that some savvy reader is going to set me straight. Quite frankly, I hope they do. It won't help me at the moment but I'll take the tip for later.)

Why? Because when you buy anything in a nice shop in Paris, the clerk pretty much always asks if it is for a gift. If you say yes, he or she will then pull out the tissue, the special stickers, the gift bag, the ribbon, and that little something you just bought suddenly becomes a work of art. If you say no, you'd better not be thinking "I'll just wrap it myself," because gift wrapping supplies are either a) low quality, b) extremely expensive, c) boring or d) all of the above.

All this is just to say, if you get a present from me wrapped in a plastic bag from Monoprix, my apologies. Next time I'll know better.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Trimming the Tree

I noticed that a number of the other English speaking Paris bloggers have been gushing about Christmas decorations so I'll spare you the duplicate post. (If you're interested, take a look at some of the shots posted by Pearl and Eye Prefer Paris.) Everything's definitely all a-twinkle here with lots of trimming around shop doors and windows. And in most neighborhoods, lights in different decorative shapes and greetings span the thoroughfares. For the most part, the decorations are all quite low-key, noncommercial, and dominated by displays of greenery and other natural materials, ribbons, and glass balls.

If you're in the market for a tree here in Paris, you won't find any dedicated Christmas tree lots. Instead, your neighborhood florist shop is the place to go and there are usually half a dozen on the sidewalk, still in their netting, trunk pierced into a log, like the ones pictured below.

But there also seems to be a pretty big market for flocked trees, not just in white, but also blue, red, orange, and other crazy colors not found in nature. I even saw a black one the other day, trimmed with pink ribbons. (When I went back with my camera this afternoon, regrettably it was gone so you'll just have to take my word for it.) These must be considered chic because the high-end shops are thick with them. Personally, I don't know what it is about these trees that give me the creeps; I guess it's that the texture puts me in mind of the sofas you sometimes see sitting out at the curb, worn out from use and only getting worse from exposure to the elements.

The tree below, erected outside the fire station in the Marais, gets the prize for most excessive use of garlands. It kind of makes you wonder whether the pompiers had had a few before getting busy with the decorating.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

There's been some whining among journalists and bloggers lately about how tidy Paris is becoming, lamenting the loss of the old scruffiness that they found curiously endearing. Frankly, there's still plenty of scruffiness to go around here and anytime these folks would like to get reacquainted with the stench of urine, piles of litter marinating in heaven know's what, and cigarette butts ad nauseam, I know of several places in the nicer parts of town where they can get their fill.

I do understand that change is tough and appreciate that the things we treasure can get swept up in the name of progress. At the same time, some changes (like say, decent lighting in the Métro, one of the major perks of the multiyear capital improvement project now underway) actually do improve people's quality of life or at least the quality of the many hours Parisians must spend commuting on a daily basis. To insist that Paris never change is to ignore the fact that this is a living, breathing city where people are trying to make a decent living, raise their families, and grow old gracefully. It's not a picture postcard, a mirage about afternoons spent over cigarettes and cheap wine at Cafe Flor, or a theme park for tourists and others of us who are just passing through.

For those of you pining for the days when Paris really was Paris (1975 according to one of these complainers), I direct you to the words of A.J. Liebling:

When I returned to Paris in the fall of 1939, after an absence of 12 years, I noticed a decline in the serious quality of restaurants that could not be blamed on a war then one month old. The decline, I later learned, had been going on even in the twenties, when I made my first studies in eating, but I had had no standard of comparison then: what I taken for a Golden Age was in fact Late Silver.

Kinda puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Happy Birthday Ludwig!

Music lovers worldwide are celebrating Beethoven's birthday today. This tiny street in the 16th arrondissement is home to the International School of Paris and Astrance, one of Paris's best restaurants. Lunch with wine will set you back 100 euros; the chef selects the dishes based on what's available in the market. If you're a control freak, this might not be the place for you. If you like surprises and delicious food, just sit back and relax.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Perfect Product Placement

An ad for Subway taken in the subway. I always thought the bread at Subway was atrocious and I'm not spending my precious euros to figure out whether it's any better here. The claim here is "prepared before your eyes." No comment on the taste.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Koons

I feel compelled to write about the Jeff Koons exhibit at Versailles although I'm not exactly sure what to say. Koons, the American master of what is called neo pop art, both designed the works and curated the show of 17 works including a number done in vividly colored high chromium stainless steel. It's certainly been controversial. But the press hasn't been all bad; its run was recently extended from an original closing date of December 14 to the new one of January 4 to accommodate the crowds. (But then again, when is Versailles ever NOT crowded?)

One thing I know for sure: I'm really glad I went with a guide. Otherwise, I wouldn't have had a clue as to what Koons was really up to. That being said, while I'm not really sure I care for his work all that much, it was interesting to learn more about the thought process behind it and the choices he made in placing the different works throughout the interiors and exteriors of the chateau. There was the giant porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles, all gilt and cheezy excess, sitting smack in front of a portrait of Louis XIV, the master of excess in his day. His huge Hanging Heart was placed in the stairwell where Marie Antoinette and Cardinal Rohan had what must of been a pretty tense encounter during the time of the diamond necklace affair. Moon (Light Blue), looking like a mylar balloon on steroids, was positioned at one end of the magnificent Hall of Mirrors, catching a reflection of the entire gallery. Bottom line? Versailles is an interesting place under any circumstances (even on this, my third visit to the chateau itself)and the Koons work only reinforced the feeling of being at the center of something much larger and glitzier than life.

The Hall of Mirrors as seen reflected in one of Koons' works. Thanks to Cathy Taylor for this brilliant photo.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Metro Savvy

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of the public transportation system here in Paris and find myself hopping on and off subways, buses, and trains, often multiple times a day, with ease. I also regularly find myself on the RATP (short for Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens)Web site looking for the best way to get to there from here. And that, as they say, is when the real fun begins.

So take today, when I started plotting out what time I need to leave home to get to Versailles later this week for a guided tour. I put in the coordinates from my place on the western side of the city and got a route that included a ride on the metro, a transfer to the RER, another transfer to a SNCF operated suburban train, and a fourth transfer to a bus. Kind of like going to New York from DC by way of Cincinnati. I changed the requirements of my search to force it to take the route I already knew, just so I could get the right times for the departure, arrival, and one connection. Lesson learned: the system works as long as you know how to cheat it. I don't think I'll be sharing that one with my kids.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Field Trip to the Louvre

One of the great things for kids in Paris is that you get to take school field trips to the Louvre as opposed to the local Coca Cola bottling plant like when I was in elementary school. The downside is that first, the Louvre can be kind of a zoo, and second, you may end up with a guide like the one assigned to my child's group last week. Although guided visits are arranged in advance, the woman designated to take this group of 24 nine year olds through the Egyptian collection was absolutely unwilling to conduct the tour in English. Mind you, she could definitely speak English. I don't know whether she thought it was for the kids' own good that she speak in French or what. I can only tell you that she was absolutely resistant even when it was pointed out that a) English was the common language among this group of kids (who come from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Korea, Israel, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Africa,and the U.S.) and b) that some of the kids had only had 3 months of French instruction. Her solution (in the cacophonous galleries) was that she would speak in French and the teachers and parents would translate. So the whole thing took twice as long as it needed to; fortunately, the children were all very patient and well behaved.

Well, actually, they weren't as well behaved as the guide would have liked. She berated one boy for yawning (who promptly burst out in tears) and rapped the heads of a couple of other kids who were talking instead of paying full attention (to the languge they don't fully understand). These kids had never seen anything like that...a stern talking to, yes, but a knock on the head, never. They were mightily impressed by the mummies, the sculptures, and the mastaba, but they'll never forget that guide.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Adventures in Customer Service

What's that Charles Dickens said, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times"? It's an apt description for my encounters this week. First the good news. A week before Thanksgiving, I bought a scarf cleverly wrapped in a cardboard tube. It was only on Monday that I opened up the tube and found that it was empty. I steeled myself for the encounter at the store, retrieving the receipt from the bag and brushing up on my vocabulary. The actual encounter was anti-climatic. The manager listened to my tale of woe and promptly got me a replacement. Case closed.

Then this afternoon, I stopped off at a boulangerie on the way home from another errand (not the one we usually patronize because that one is closed on Saturday afternoons) and then dropped in our corner store for a few odds and ends. When I got to the register, I found (gasp!) that I did not have my wallet. The cashier graciously set my items aside and I headed back to the boulangerie, my heart pounding. When I walked in, I greeted the lady at the counter. There was no flicker of recognition. My stomach was in knots. I asked her if I had left my wallet there. She looked at me sternly, pulled my wallet out from a drawer, and told me I was lucky. The message was clear: you are irresponsible and you are damn lucky that I was nice enough to keep this for you. I thanked her profusely and headed back to the market. It's a happy ending no doubt but it sure left a sour taste in my mouth.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Redemption of a Sort

Remember S&H green stamps or Top Value stamps? I'm probably dating myself but there was a time in the U.S. when grocery stores and gas stations gave out these stamps when you made a purchase. When I was little, I thought it was a lot of fun to lick the stamps and paste them in their little booklets which could then be redeemed at a special store for all kinds of gear from toys to household items to camping equipment.

Well, it's been years since I last saw one of those stamps back home; I suppose they've been replaced by frequent flier miles or those loyalty cards that give you cents off at the supermarket. The concept, however, is alive and well here in France although the points are electronic. It seems like many of the big chain stores and even the SNCF, the French railroad, are dispensing "S'miles" and they're constantly haranguing customers to earn more. My bank and France Telecom have their own points systems. I keep racking up the "S'miles" although the thought of figuring out how to consolidate those I've earned from various stores in one account or even to redeem them seems overwhelming. Just wait...I'll probably figure out how to trade in my points to get some cool 220 volt espresso maker right when it's time for us to return stateside.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Walking through the Place de la Concorde this afternoon, I was struck by the number of people standing on street corners examining their maps. Paris isn't built on a grid so a map is truly indispensable and as I mentioned a few posts ago, everyone here carries one. But the one thing that distinguishes the tourists from the locals (even if they're only locals temporarily) is that tourists are carrying the free maps with the Galleries Lafayette ads and the locals are invariably carrying a copy of Paris Par Arrondissement. This little book comes in a variety of colors and bindings but all provide a definitive map of every little street in town plus the all-important index. It can be maddening to use at first because you really need to have internalized the snail shell pattern of Paris's 20 arrondissements to make any sense of it. But once you've got that down, flipping through the pages becomes second nature, particularly when you're out of familiar terrority or further afield than the plan de quartier posted in every subway station. The only drawback I can find is that I often seem to be headed to destinations that are in the crack between pages. Ah well....I suppose that pretty soon we'll all be carrying a GPS and map reading skills will go the way of the dodo. Until then, I'm sticking by the book.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


We spent Thanksgiving in Stockholm, Sweden, a lovely city not known for turkey dinners, football, or parades with giant cartoon character balloons. As expected, it was cold and got dark early (around 3:30!) but the city had a warm spirit and candles set in many shop and apartment windows for the Christmas season gave it a special sparkle. Set on a bunch of islands between the Baltic Sea and a fresh water lake, the city is relatively compact with a handful of brick and copper-topped towers gracing the skyline. We toured the Royal Palace (modeled after Versailles) and the Vasa Museum, home to a fully reconstructed 17th century merchant ship which sunk in the city's harbor on its maiden voyage. At Skansen, an open air museum on Swedish life and folkways, we saw glass blowers, reindeer, and the world's largest cigar. We satisfied our need for Swedish meatballs but did not indulge in the French hot dog which seemed to be for sale everywhere.

Without a doubt, the highlight of our trip was the day we spent with Christer and Cecilia, a Swedish couple who made a special trek to Stockholm to see us. Over 25 years ago, Christer was an exchange student and spent the school year at my in-laws' house and his picture is still hanging on the wall there. The two of them had a whole afternoon of activities mapped out for us complete with snacks -- thermoses of glögg (hot mulled wine) and a tin of pepparkakor, a gingery Christmas cookie which we enjoyed on a short ferry ride. They took us to dinner at a medieval pub featuring still more glögg and a true groaning board of Swedish specialties which we chased down with beer and snaps (aquavit). Each toast with snaps was accompanied by a song and a great cry of "skål!" It was a day well worth giving up turkey and the trimmings.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Reading (in French!)

I just finished reading the book pictured here for my French class and I'd have to give it four stars. It's a sweet novel, full of love for the French language specifically, but with reverence for words and writers that goes beyond borders. The story concerns a little girl, Jeanne, and her brother, Thomas, who are shipwrecked on a tropical island where things are a bit fantastic in all senses of the word. It reminded me a bit of The Phantom Tollbooth by Jules Feifer in that there is a story simple enough for children but lots of nuances for adults, particularly those who are literary minded. The vocabulary was a bit tough going for me (more far-reaching than the newspaper, for example) but the rest was well within my grasp.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Food for Thought

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

ee cummings

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends, family, and other readers.

Note: ee cummings visited Paris for the first time in 1917, just before heading off to the Western Front with the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps. He lived in Paris for most of the period between 1921 and 1923 and made several return visits in the '20s and '30s.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An Afternoon at Le Cordon Bleu

Just for a moment yesterday, I imagined myself as a student at Le Cordon Bleu. Then I saw the otherwise jovial chef almost lose it when one of his assistants inadvertently threw out the jus for the roast chicken he'd been working on for the two hours previous. In that moment, I decided that I was just where I needed to be: sitting comfortably in a desk watching a demonstration of incredible cooking with no illusions that I would ever be able to pull off such a meal.

The Cordon Bleu cooking school certainly knows where the money is: putting on cooking demonstrations for well-heeled tourists and expatriates eager to get an inside glimpse of the métier of a French chef. For two hours, my friends and I scribbled notes as the chef prepared a holiday meal. The first course was a terrine of vegetables and foie gras, served with a delicate salad of herbs and vinaigrette. For the main course, it was a roasted chicken with boudin blanc (white sausage) and a chestnut garnish. And the dessert was a buche, the traditional Yule log, but rather than chocolate, this one was flavored with mango and raspberry. He kept half a dozen pans going at once, tossing off saucepans and utensils to an assistant to wash, and used a blender, mixer, and food processor with abandon. The instructions were enigmatic: the dacquoise for the buche was done when it was soft but hard, the amount of boudin blanc to incorporate depends upon what else you have on the menu, add enough water to rinse out the pan. But the results were delicious.

Pressé de foie gras aux légumes fondants

Poulet de Bresse rôti, petits boudin blancs et marrons au jus

Bûche à la mangue et à la framboise

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The View from Here

What do you think of when you think of life in Paris? The Eiffel Tower? A sidewalk café? Strolling along the banks of the Seine? The decidely un-picture postcard-worthy photo above tells the real story. I spent more than eight hours over the past three days on subways and trains in order to drop off and pick up children from various activities. Tomorrow, I'm staying put.

Friday, November 21, 2008

10 Things Never to Do in Paris

Run out to the corner store for milk between noon and 2 pm. It's a sure bet that there will be 20 people in line with their lunch.

Say "yes" to the ladies in long skirts by the Eiffel Tower when they ask "do you speak English".

Do errands on the way home from the gym. Sorry, you have to go home, shower and change before you hit the bank, the dry cleaner, and elsewhere.

Fail to say "s'il vous plait" or "bonjour."

Plan to go shopping (for anything) on a Sunday afternoon. Unless it's right before Christmas, you're out of luck. Food shops are open in the morning but those doors slam shut around 2 pm. Or worse yet, go shopping at one of the few stores that has an exceptional Sunday opening. You'll find everyone else in Paris there.

Get off the bus by the front door.

Leave home without a city map. (Yes, even the locals carry them.)

Exit the supermarket when you've decided not to make a purchase through any lane except the one explicitly designated for this purpose.

Take a photo of anyone hawking Eiffel Tower trinkets. (It's pretty clear that they don't have vendor permits and my guess is that most of them are not in France legally to start with.)

Speak above a whisper while dining.

On the other hand, do feel free to: jump the turnstile in the subway, ride a Velib bike on the sidewalk, park your car in front of a garage entrance, push your way to the front of the line, and cast disapproving looks at people who bump into you without begging your pardon.

Did I leave anything out?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not All Change is Good

Life in the Euro zone means handling a lot of change. You got your 1 and 2 euro coins. And then there's the small change: 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, and 1 centimes. On September 1st, a new 5 euro coin came out. There must not be that many in circulation, because I never saw one until today when I received one after a transaction at the post office. As you can see, it's shiny and silver and looks a little bit like a carnival token.

Who knew though that trying to get rid of that sucker would nearly cause an international incident? The cashier at our corner market took one look at it and asked me what it was. I tried to reassure her that it was real French money and even got the backing of the fellow behind me in the line. But she was spooked and went off to consult the manager. And of course, the line at the register started growing and the grumbling from the other customers started. After what seemed like ages, she came back smiling and rang up my one purchase, a two-liter bottle of milk. And of course, she made absolutely sure I knew that it wasn't her fault. (Trust me, that's a classic.) For the amount of trouble it caused, I'll stick with the 5 euro bills.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name?

More contradictions from the land where they're rife. Like many women of my generation, I didn't take my husband's name when we got married. It wasn't a big issue or a moment for me to take a political stand. He said that names are personal so do what you want and I was comfortable just keeping the name I had had for almost thirty years. Despite my very traditional and proper grandmother's concerns about the confusion this would create for our children, that never came to pass. In fact, it seemed that at least half of the kids at school had parents with different last names. I made it a policy never to get testy when teachers called me by my kids' last name but always introduced myself to them and corresponded with them using my own name.

Fast forward to our arrival in France, a country that seems at first glance decidely less traditional about such matters. Almost half (48 percent) of all births are to women who are not married to their partners. And even Ségolène Royal, who ran for president in the last go round, was never married to the father of her four children. (Imagine that happening in the U.S.!)

But apparently, my name on my passport doesn't carry much weight. Because my legal status in France is tied to my husband's employment, my carte de sejour (the official document that allows me to be here) was issued in his name (my first name, his last name). To add insult to injury, two other organizations we've joined have also been at a loss of how to deal with a couple with two last names. Our accounts there are now under a hyphenated name. (To make matters worse, I think the hyphenation is his name first for one of them, my name first for the other.) But what are you gonna do? I still have that other little issue of everyone thinking I'm either Spanish or Portugese to deal with as well but that's a story for another day.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Making a List, Checking It Twice

Yes, I know it's not even Thanksgiving yet but we're heading back to the States in December for a visit and I'm trying to get organized now so I won't feel too crazy later. I've been on the lookout for small gifts to take to friends and family back home. Plus I'm also thinking about what I should buy there that's quintessentially American to bring back for hostess and teacher gifts for folks here in France. Suggestions from either camp? What's the perfect gift from Paris? And what are the French and expats living in France dying to have from the U.S.? We're talking reasonable here, no cases of champagne or couture, folks. Let's hear what you think.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sleek Goes to Paris

Sleek is a stuffed dog from Connecticut who recently arrived in Paris for a short stay as part of an elementary school project to learn more about people and places beyond the Nutmeg State. He went on a whirlwind sightseeing trip last weekend and curiously saw no major tourist attractions. But he did get a good helping of la vie Parisienne.

Getting ready to take a spin on a Velib. This was the only available bike that we could find after checking three different stands.

Marketing. No, they don't grow pineapples or bananas in France but let's not get technical.

Taking a break for some chocolat chaud.

A bench with two sides. You can wait for a ride or watch the action on the sidewalk.

There are something like 2.5 million motorcycles in France and only about twice that number in the U.S.

Staying current with world events.

Oh la la! That was some big dog.

Next stop: La Poste. His next port of call will be Hong Kong.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Being a Tourist in Modern Times

I go by the Eiffel Tower about once a week, sometimes more, and there are two things I always see.

These guys.

And these guys.

I feel safe in Paris. Safer certainly than I did in DC in those couple months after September 11th when we had the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon to deal with, plus anthrax on Capitol Hill and in our neighborhood post office, and then later on, a sniper who terrorized the DC metro area for weeks. But I still get a little freaked out when I see these soldiers with their weaponry. You rarely see them anywhere else except the Eiffel Tower and the intercity train stations.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Black and White and Shades of Gray

So my last couple of posts have been a bit on the fluffy side. Today's is a lot more serious, something I've been chewing on since before the presidential election and now current events have propelled the discussion even further along. The political pundits worldwide have been musing on the significance of Obama's win and specifically what does it mean for how Americans specifically (and Western nations in general) think about and deal with the thorny issue of race. Is this truly the end of an era, the final step of business left unfinished since the Civil War? On the one hand, the image captured on TV of Jesse Jackson with tears running down his face as he listened to Obama's acceptance speech signals that yes, this really was a big deal. On the other hand, it's going to take a lot more than having a black president to undo ingrained racist attitudes and practices that have led to disparities in education, employment, and opportunity for so many people of color.

Equality is a powerful word in both French and American societies, a value we both hold strongly. Yet as an American in Paris, I'm learning that the discussion of race plays out very differently here. As I understand it, the French value is that everyone should be treated the same. Integration into French society is the goal. Becoming a citizen requires command of the French language, for example. And with this focus on equality, France has rejected affirmative action and other policies that would rectify disparities. The country doesn't even collect data on race in its census.

Of course the reality is that the French haven't resolved what should be done about the considerable inequality that exists among the races. The riots in Paris's northern suburbs last year and the year before are just one expression of the simmering resentment.

There were some very interesting polling data in the French press before the election. With over 80 percent of the French hoping for an Obama victory, the pollsters asked people if they, personally, would one day vote in a presidential election for a black candidate, a candidate of Asian origin, or a candidate whose background was North African. Fully 80 percent said yes that they would vote for a black candidate but the numbers were smaller for other minorities (72 percent for Asian and 58 percent for North African). On the issue of whether they thought such candidates had a chance of winning, the numbers were still smaller. (If you want to look at the article I'm referencing, it ran in Le Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, November 2nd.)

Fast forward a week. This past Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche published a manifesto on bringing about equality among the races in France. Authored by Yazid Sabeg, a successful industrialist and son of Algerian immigrants, and inspired by the American elections, the title of the manifesto is "Oui, nous pouvons!" (Yes, we can!) It calls for specific actions to make the promise of equality real, including term limits as means of increasing representation of minorities in elected office and other public policies to combat the social consequences of discrimination. Signatories of the manifesto include political figures on the left and right; Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has also added her support for the effort.

It's too early to tell where this will go. It's surprising enough that French attitudes about the U.S. have sufficiently reversed to now make us a model for their consideration. Who could have imagined that just a few short months ago? I'm not naive enough to think that the U.S. has moved onto being a postracial society. But while we've got a lot of work to do in our own house, it's good to know that we're inspiring others to roll up their sleeves and get to work too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Exercises in Listening Comprehension

My French skills are still up and down. I'm doing better with managing the small conversations of daily life and reading the newspaper but I still have a really hard time with the TV and the telephone where the pace is faster than my ability to process what I'm hearing. But I keep trying. Most mornings, I turn on the radio when I'm getting dressed to see if I can follow the news. One item last week caught my attention. Did I really just hear the newscaster say that rescue workers had to come to the aid of a man on the TGV (the high speed train) who got his hand stuck in the toilet? No way. That can't be right. They must be using some colloquialism that's beyond me. (Although what kind of saying would that be?)

But yes, it turns out that I understood that perfectly. This dude accidentally dropped his cell phone into the toilet and when he reached in after it, the powerful flushing action sucked in his whole arm. The train stopped for two hours while rescue workers extricated him. Well sort of. According to this report from the BBC, "'He came out on a stretcher, with his hand still jammed in the toilet bowl, which they had to saw clean off,' said Benoit Gigou, a witness to the man's plight." I may conquer the French language yet.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On the Trail of the Insanely Delicious

David Lebovitz once worked as a pastry chef at Alice Water's famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, and now lives in Paris where, among many other things, he writes a blog that's both hysterical and informative: Living the Sweet Life in Paris. He has lots of culinary and gustatory advice on where to shop and eat in this beautiful city. Because face it, Paris is a big place and while there's tons of great food to be had here, there's also tons of just ordinary stuff as well and at Parisian prices, who wants to settle for that? So I've been taking his advice to heart, especially his post: Ten Insanely Delicious Things You Shouldn't Miss in Paris. So far, I've only managed to check four items off the list. But after my latest experience, I'm psyched to keep going.

So let us discuss number 5 on his list: Henri Le Roux's CBS Caramels, for sale at L'Etoile d'Or on the rue Fontaine, not far from the Pigalle metro. I need to disclaim first that I'm really not a chocolate person. I mean it's fine and all that but given the choice between a chocolate cake and a lemon tart, I always go with the tart. Chocolate or caramel? No contest. So when I happened into Denise Acabo's shop last week with a friend who was busy buying the dark stuff, I was wracking my brains for what I should purchase so I didn't look like a complete ingrate. Fortunately, when I saw the bagged caramels, I remembered David Lebovitz's list.

What can I say? These caramels are a revelation. They melt in your mouth with buttery sweetness that's unlike anything I've ever tasted. The bag I bought had several different flavors, including chocolate and pomme tatin, but the original was the hands down winner. And that little shop is apparently the only place in Paris where they're sold. I'll be back.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Warm and Cozy

What was that? Any stray thought can pass for a post? This falls in that category. Nothing monumental or particularly thoughtful...just a little slice of my Parisian life.

When I was a kid, the best seat in the house was on top of the radiator in the kitchen. The radiator was about 2 feet high and it had a metal cover so it made a perfect bench. Plus it was positioned right in the center of the action, just under the telephone. The only trick was to get there first before anybody else called dibs. (Not that my siblings and I fought over the phone; to do so, we would have had to wrestle it away from our mom.)

Our apartment here in Paris is heated by radiators and now that autumn has arrived, the heat is on in the building and I'm getting that cozy feeling again. Only, you can't sit on these French radiators since for the most part, they are skinny and mounted flat against the wall. They come in many sizes; the one in the lobby is easily eight feet high. The smaller ones though are hard to beat. The one in the kitchen is perfectly positioned to give you a toasty back and the ones in the bathroom...well, let's just say, there's no better finale to a good shower than a preheated towel. It makes getting up on a dark morning a little bit easier.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Surviving Parisian Traffic

I don't drive in Paris. In fact, I haven't driven a car at all since we left the States nearly 15 months ago. We don't own a car here and whenever we rent one, my husband takes the wheel and I ride shotgun with the map. Call us old school; we never pay extra for a GPS.

All this is to say, I can only write about surviving Parisian traffic as a pedestrian. Remember when your mother told you to look both ways before you cross the street or count to 10 after the light turns green? It's sound advice here too because you never know who's going to come barrelling around the corner at top speed with their horn blaring. Even so, Parisian pedestrians are accomplished jaywalkers. They are well matched by Parisian drivers who feel no compunction cursing, gesturing, and honking at people who find themselves in the crosswalk against the light. Most of these angry drivers are elderly women, apparently denied the opportunity to get to their next bridge game or their country house stat. Maybe they left the kettle on? All I know is that they're seriously pissed.

Traffic circles are another story entirely and one of the reasons that I'd be scared to ever get behind the wheel in Paris. Having spent many years at driving in DC, I'm pretty good at negotiating roundabouts; you just have to remember to yield to the traffic in the circle. But here, the priority is always to the driver on the right, even if they're the one entering the circle. Traffic in circular places often comes to a complete halt to yield to drivers barrelling in from the right. As a pedestrian, you can ignore most of this (and just pray that your bus or cab driver knows what he's doing) but it took me awhile to get used to the pattern of cars leaving circles and entering the radiating arms. Hang on because I have to draw a mental picture to explain.

Okay, so imagine a circle with four radiating streets and each street has a crosswalk. In DC, either pedestrians just brave it or there are traffic lights that stop cars in the circle so walkers have a few seconds to safely get across the street. But here, the traffic stops after it exits the circle, just in front of the crosswalk. I'm still not always confident that oncoming traffic is going to stop, those cars and buses with their tail ends still in the circle. Add to that the fact that no one slows down gradually; they all seem to go full speed and jam on the brakes at the light.

And then there are the traffic patterns you only learn over time. Motorcycles and bicycles aren't supposed to use the sidewalks but sometimes they do. Delivery trucks routinely block narrow streets. Buses sometimes get stuck trying to negotiate a tight turn. And imagine my shock when I saw a car coming the wrong way down our one-way street one day. What I didn't realize is that the last 50 yards are actually two-way, in order to provide access to another little one-way one-block street. Appearances can be deceptive too; at night, our quiet little street becomes a drag racing strip for people leaving the bistro at the top of the block.

Guess I'll stick to the metro.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Where Did the Time Go?

Hard to believe but it's been a year and nearly 190 posts since I started this blog. Initially I just thought it would be an efficient way to keep folks back home posted on our adventures. But when the password protected feature on Blogger turned out to be a heap of trouble, I opened it up to anyone who cared to read it and come they have, from places around the globe! It's been a ton of fun for me too. I've always enjoyed the challenge of finding just the right turn of phrase and it's great to have an outlet for the sheer pleasure of writing. What I didn't expect a year ago, however, was that the constant search for content (what on earth am I going to write about today??!!) has been rewarding as well. It's given me a chance to reflect and the impetus to be a more active and engaged observer of Paris as I experience it.

I enjoy comments from readers, both those whom I know personally and those whom I've only encountered here. And if you've been lurking (yes, you!), make yourself known. Keep 'em coming and I'll do the same.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amen Brother

Yes we can (finally exhale). Now the heavy lifting begans.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Enough Already

After the longest presidential election season in living memory, I'm exhausted. Granted, I haven't had to endure the relentless commercials that folks in Florida, Ohio and other swing states have probably been experiencing and I haven't worked get out the vote like many of my friends back home but I've been obsessing enough as it is. The French newspapers called it for Obama a long time ago but they continue to cover the race with unbelievable intensity; Libération is even planning a special commemorative issue for Wednesday. And yet, although I've had my fill of sound bites, conflicting polls, and moments of sheer eye rolling stupidity from campaign mouthpieces and ordinary citizens alike, I'm still nervous about the outcome. I'm simply not ready to wake up and find out that the guy I didn't vote for is going to be leading the free world for the next four years.

After cursing and shaking my head at French bureaucracy over the past 14 months, I got a reminder this week about the often bumbling bureaucracy I left behind: the government of the District of Columbia. I applied for my absentee ballot months ago and actually received and voted in DC's September primary for local offices. Even so the general election ballots did not arrive until last week when we were out of town. Fortunately, DC law requires only that ballots be postmarked (as opposed to received) by Election Day. So last night I opened up the envelope, took out my No. 2 pencil, and marked my choices. Since DC will probably go 90 percent for Obama, it probably doesn't make a bit of difference in the outcome of the presidential election that I voted one way or the other. But it still feels good to have exercised my civic duty. Now if I can just make it through the next 36 hours. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

South by Southwest

You gotta hand it to the French. They really know how to take time off. This week (and some of next week), the French schools are all closed to celebrate Toussaint. You're supposed to go out and spruce up your ancestors' graves on November 1. And judging from the chrysanthemum plants for sale everywhere, some people do take this seriously. But for everyone else, it's just another excuse to get out of town.

Although my kids go to an international school, they get similar breaks so we headed southwest to the regions of Dordogne, Limousin, and Lot. The weather didn't exactly cooperate (it actually snowed on Thursday morning), but we still managed to make the best of it. The Dordogne region is quite beautiful, lots of small farms, manors with turrets in tawny colored stone, and rivers cutting curves into sheer rock cliffs. The regional specialty is foie gras and everyone and their brother seems to be selling it.

We visited the caves of Lascaux to see the famous wall paintings made by cavemen some 35,000 years ago. (Did you know that the name "Cro Magnon" comes from the French village of the same name?) Actually, you have to visit a faux cave because too many visitors were wreaking havoc on the real thing. But I have to say they did an amazing job of recreating the feeling of a cavern and the artist who reproduced the drawings apparently did so using the same techniques as the original artists. I expected a few drawings on the wall; instead you find hundreds of vividly colored animals painted on the walls and ceilings in various poses and the renderings are remarkable.

The other highlight of our trip was a visit to Oradour sur Glane, a small village close to Limoges that was wiped out by the Nazis on a June day in 1944. There was no particular reason to do so but the SS was determined to demonstrate what they would do to anyone helping the resistance. Over 600 residents, about half of them women and children, were rounded up and massacred, and the village torched. After the war, a decision was made not to rebuild and to leave the shell of the town standing as a reminder to future generations. It was a sobering sight.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

With Love from the City of Paris

Ah of romance. But wait a minute, that's not the setting sun, streaking the sky with rays of gold. Just a gentle reminder from the city of Paris that protection is for lovers. (Supplies now available for purchase at your local pharmacy or subway station.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Disney Succeeds in Quest for World Domination

If you're lucky, you may have missed the entire Disney High School Musical phenomenon. But not me. With kids smack in their target population, there's been no avoiding it. Yes, we own the first movie and the soundtracks from the first and the second. So there was no getting around going to see the third movie, the first in the series made for the big screen, and get this, released in Europe several days in advance of its U.S. premiere.

What I learned today is that the French have fallen for this hokey, romanticized view of high school life in America and done so hook, line, and sinker. Since the kids are all off for the Toussaint break, we went to the movies in the afternoon and let me tell you, it was packed. I don't think there was an empty seat in the house and the crowd was all ages, guys and girls alike. They awwed at the mushy parts and clapped when the villainess got her due, and gave a big round of applause at the end. You gotta hand it to Disney; they know how to create a following and how to keep on delivering. Now I'm just waiting for the next installment as the gang heads off to college, Gabriella gains the freshman 15, Troy dons beer goggles, and Sharpay goes all out to pledge the right sorority.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Seen in the Hood Redux

This one took me aback at first because the French just don't do bumper stickers. Only then did I pay attention to the message.
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