Monday, February 25, 2008

And the Winner Is.....

The Oscars were a big hit with the French as Marion Cotillard took best actress honors for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, the first time for a French actress since Simone Signoret took the prize 48 years ago. We watched the video just in time to appreciate her incredible acting and the amazing makeup (which also secured an Oscar). The film itself was a bit long and somewhat confusing with lots of flashbacks. In discussing the film with my French teacher, I learned this morning that the French word for "flashback" is "flashback."

Interestingly, the title of the film in French is La Môme, which translates as the kid or chick, part of Piaf's original stage name, La Môme Piaf or The Little Sparrow. No doubt Americans connect better to La Vie en Rose although her life was anything but! In another twist of titles, Atonement is known here as Reviens-Moi or Come Back to Me.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Paying with Plastic

Credit cards are rarely used in France. That being said, paying with plastic is very big but most everyone uses debit cards. Except for in the subway, where you can use your carte bancaire for purchases as little as a euro plus change, most places have a 15 euro minimum. (With prices being what they are, that's never much of a problem, though.) In restaurants, when you pull your card out to pay, the waiter brings over a wireless handheld terminal, inserts your card and then hands it back to you to punch in your PIN or as the French say "code secret". Out comes the receipt and you are on your way, no need for a signature and no need to add the tip because it is already included. (To be nice, you should leave a euro or two for the server, but no more.) Very cool.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Our Daily Bread

For most Americans, bread is something that keeps your sandwich from being a mess or maybe a nice little addition to a bacon and eggs breakfast. But in France, bread is much more than that; it's an integral part of the culture. I was lucky enough today to go on a tour of the Poilâne bakery, a family owned business dating back to the 1930s that is known in Paris and far flung places around the globe for its large round crusty loaves of dark sourdough bread. We watched as Felix, the sole bread baker on the premises in the shop on rue du Cherche-Midi, mixed the dough, put it into a large wooden cart to rise, apportioned it into linen lined wicker baskets to rise a second time, stoked up the wood burning oven, deftly cut a stylized P in the top of each loaf, and used a long wooden paddle to put 45 loaves into the brick oven. The heat was something else and the smell was heavenly.

You can order this bread online and have it shipped FedEx to the U.S. but be prepared to pay megabucks for the shipping. The family recently opened a shop in London though and you can also enjoy tartines, French open faced sandwiches, on Poilâne bread, at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and LA.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Where's the Beef (From)?

Reading about the huge amount of beef that's been recalled in the U.S. made me realize that I hadn't written about food labelling in France. From the perspective of nutrition, USDA food labelling is much better than what you get here. You rarely find a breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, and other nutrients, and when you do, the amount might be listed but without a context such as the share of a recommended daily allowance.

But if you want to know where your steak came from, the French win hands down. Every piece of meat is labeled with its country of origin and the slaughterhouse. Beef is further identified as being from a beef or dairy cow. Each egg is actually labelled to indicate where it came from as well. From a little Googling, I gather that concern about mad cow disease prompted these requirements and some are imposed by the European Union. Now if I could just figure out the various French cuts of beef! (What the heck is the difference between a faux filet, a bavette, and a surloigne?!)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Under the Big Top

This afternoon, some friends visiting from home gave us an excuse to take in the Cirque d'Hiver (winter circus). The building itself, built as the Cirque de Napoleon, in honor of Napoleon III in 1852, was worth the price of admission and oh so French -- lots of red velvet, crystal chandeliers, and gilt everything else. The theater seats only about 2,000, giving all attending a close up view of acrobats, jugglers, clowns, aerialists, and animal acts of all descriptions (including one with pigs and goats.) There was live music, a dancing troupe with at least seven costume changes, a lady shot out of a cannon, and the first solo synchronized swimming act I'd ever seen under the big top. With champagne served at intermission, what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon?

Thanks to Rachel for the picture below!

Friday, February 15, 2008


Our kids are getting a little too old for playgrounds but they still love to climb, spin, and hang on the monkey bars. Imagine our surprise then to find that the equipment at the American School, in the Bois de Boulogne, and on the Champs de Mars is exactly the same as that on the playground of our old school in DC. Paris itself has plenty of playgrounds; it seems that every little pocket park has a slide or a sandbox although most are designed for the under 4 set. The one thing you never find though is swings! Don't know whether this is a safety or maintenance issue or if French kids would just rather climb than sit.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Still Hard to Believe

We've been enjoying a long string of sunny springlike days. The temperatures have been reaching the low 50s in the afternoon and the days are noticeably longer than a month ago. Some trees are budding, and I even saw a few daffodils pushing up out of the ground.

It's days like these that make me want to get out and walk, even when I don't have a destination in mind. And it's also a time to be struck anew by the fact that we're actually living in Paris. Crazy but true. Maddening sometimes but mostly amazing.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Holy Grail for Shoppers

In a twist on You-Are-There-Reading, we did some You-Are-There-Viewing over the weekend with the DVD of The Da Vinci Code. I read the book awhile back on a beach vacation, long after all the sensation had died out, and honestly, I did not get too engrossed in the details. Watching the movie was fun, though, with so many scenes shot in Paris, including those eerie night scenes in the Louvre and in St. Sulpice. (If you go to St. Sulpice, you'll find disclaimers from the Catholic Church explaining all the things in the movie that are so wrong from the point of view of church doctrine.) I had to laugh out loud at the end, however, when Tom Hanks realizes that the final resting place of the Holy Grail is the inverted pyramid designed by I.M. Pei. This pyramid is not in the museum itself but in the shopping mall next door, directly in front of the Virgin Megastore. Coincidence? (I think not!)

Friday, February 8, 2008

Sticker Shock

Six months into our stay, I'm pretty adept with the euro and can even give a cashier exact change without too much trouble. Getting used to the high price of living in Paris is another thing. To give you a sense of what I mean by "high", here's a list of some of the things you might buy while in Paris, whether as a tourist or resident, and the typical prices in our well-to-do neighborhood(assuming the euro is about $1.46):

  • two liter bottle of milk(just a bit more than a half gallon): $3.73
  • Starbucks tall coffee (actually, here the smallest size is called "moyen" or medium): $3.77
  • cup of coffee in a local café: $3.51
  • cup of coffee on the Champs Elysées: $6.58
  • sandwich at your local bakery: from about $5.40 to about $8.00
  • chicken: $1.96 per pound for the whole chicken and up to $5.14 per pound for split breasts; roasted whole chicken from the butcher's rotisserie: about $12
  • baguette fresh from the oven: a steal at $1.31
  • bottle of wine from the corner market: from $2.07 (which looked questionable) to about $15; many bottles can be had in the $4-$6 range.
  • the least you can probably pay for dinner in Paris in a non fast food restaurant (for two courses, not including wine or coffee but including tax and tip): $36.57
  • two Snickers bars out of a vending machine: $2.92
The good news: walks through the city and most museums are free for those under 18 and free for all the first Sunday of every month.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Encore la Grève

Strike time again! Somehow we missed last week's grocery cashier strike. Today, it's the taxi drivers who are in fit of pique. They are protesting proposed deregulation that would, among other things, get more taxis on the road by making licenses (akin to the medallions they have in New York City) free. Not a good thing if you saved up and took out a loan to buy one the old-fashioned way. So today, "operation escargot" is in effect with slowdowns on the freeways and on major roads coming into Paris; as of noon, there were 68 kilometers of traffic jams (bouchons) throughout Ile de France (the greater Paris area). We rarely take taxis since public transport is so good but today's mess is wreaking havoc with the school bus schedule. Both kids go to school in the suburbs (one closer in and one farther out) and judging from the number of calls and e-mails from both schools, it's a mess out there.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday

It's Mardi Gras today but Obama and Clinton have top billing.

Monday, February 4, 2008

French (The Language, That Is)

I guess I should have figured that this would come back to haunt me. I took four years of French in high school (écoutez et répétez!), chose a college with no foreign language requirement, and squeaked out of graduate school with my Ph.D. just as they lifted the language requirement. The result, duh, is that my foreign language skills are pretty much nil. Oh sure, I've done some foreign travel but for a week or two, you can pretty much fake it. Even if you feel embarrassed, you realize that there's no way you're going to learn French (Italian, Dutch, Chinese, pick your destination) by the time the trip is up and you just soldier on, smile wanly, and hope people take pity on you.

But if you're living in a foreign country, it's pretty hard to justify faking it past the first couple of weeks. I'm taking four hours of French a week, dredging up that stuff Madame de Jaham tried to pound into my head in the 1970s, and doing my best.

Digression: How does this stuff stick in your brain? Why can I remember this dialogue I learned over 30 years ago in its entirety and yet still find myself walking into the kitchen and have no memory why I was headed there in the first place?

Michel, Anne, vous travaillez?
Euh, non, nous regardons la television. Pourquoi?
Les Duponts arrivent dans une heure.
S'il te plait Maman, encore cinq minutes.
Pas de question, il y a beaucoup à faire.
Mais nous manquons toujours la fin.

Returning from trip down memory lane: Some days, I manage okay. Hooray, I used a pronoun and actually got the gender of the noun right! Whoopee, I actually managed to put together a coherent sentence in the future tense. Other days, I get completely kicked to the curb, confusing which verbs are followed by à and which are followed by de, mixing up être and avoir in the passé composé, and totally forgetting which verbs are reflexive. Truth be told, my vocabulary is increasing and my comprehension too. Suppose I should take to heart those words I see while I wait for the ATM to spit out some cash: veuillez patienter. (Please be patient.)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Just Married

This just in: President Sarkozy and Carla Bruni tied the knot today, finally ending the coy game of cat-and-mouse the two have been playing with the media. Whether or not it will improve his plummeting poll numbers remains to be seen. Mrs. Sarkozy #3 looks eerily like Mrs. Sarkozy #2 (whom he divorced in October). No clue what the first wife looked like.


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