Monday, June 30, 2008

Hidden Gardens

The New York Times ran an article in yesterday's Travel section about the hidden gardens of Paris. But they missed one of my favorites: the gardens that lie along the western edge of the Palais de Tokyo. From busy Avenue President Wilson, you take a steep flight of steps down to the quiet rue de la Manutention.

There, in a space just a few meters deep, is a series of gardens running the length of the museum, each with its own personality and style, lovingly cultivated by amateur gardeners.

Monica's garden is all in yellow, the color of the sun and life. It's also the home of her little pretend yellow-eyed chicken Philiberte to whom she talks as if it were a dog.

Carole wishes her garden would grow year round because she wishes to enjoy it even in winter. So she has mixed herbs like coriander and lemongrass with roses.

Hao's sign reads, "A small corner of paradise against a corner of my garden."

Olivier's garden seeks to recreate in miniature a kitchen garden he cultivated with his father in the Auvergne region.

Not sure who this little guy belongs to, but for my money, he picked a primo spot to hang out.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Val de Loire

It was a bit of shock coming back to Paris last evening after a couple of days in the Loire Valley. Not only did we trade clear skies for gray, but we also left behind well tended fields and gardens for trash strewn streets. I don't know if there was a garbage strike while we were gone or what but things were certainly a mess. The trash trucks came down our street last night at midnight to take care of the overflowing bins and this morning the street sweepers were at work to clean up the rest of it.

But back to our trip. Twenty one years ago, my husband and I took a weeklong bicycling trip in the Loire Valley, making our way east from Angers to Orléans, followed by several days in Paris. It was a wonderful experience. This time around, our plans were more modest but no less satisfying. We rented a car and headed out on Wednesday morning. It's just two and a half hours to Chambord, where we picnicked in the forest where France's Renaissance king, François I, used to hunt. In 1987, we'd ridden by it in the driving rain. This time, the storms clouds gathered but the sun won out.

Over the next few days, we also visited Clos Lucé, the manor house in Amboise, where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life, the chateaus at Chenonceaux and Cheverny, and an evening spectacle on the grounds of the chateau at Amboise. The kids liked watching the feeding of the hounds at Cheverny, testing out models of Leonardo's inventions, and the maze and the gardens at Chenonceaux. Top marks went to the dinners we enjoyed at our hotel in Fleuray and the pool there.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

La Publicité

There are lots of billboards all over Paris, in the subway, on bus shelters and buildings, and like these, simply popping up in the median of a busy boulevard. Many of these freestanding billboards feature three different ads that scroll in succession, stopping for a few moments on each panel. The four boards here I was able to catch mid-scroll, changing in unison like a little ballet. (That blue band across the top is the bottom of one ad; the full ad in orange was not yet revealed.)

But wait there's more. A couple of months ago, I noticed that one of the billboards around the corner from us was Bluetooth enabled, complete with instructions on how to "telecharge" (that's French for download) more information. Since I don't have a Bluetooth device, I couldn't give it a go. Last week, I went back to take a picture but the technology upgrade was gone. Ah and advertising march on.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Our apartment has a new Parisian touch: window boxes full of geraniums acquired yesterday from some friends who are returning to the U.S. We must have been quite a sight, taking three trips around the corner, trooping past the beautiful people sitting in outside tables at the chic-est neighborhood restaurant, and up and down tiny elevators. We're sorry to see our friends leave but happy to have a daily reminder of their warmth and generosity.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sunrise, Sunset

I started on this post a few weeks back and then realized I should hang onto the thought until the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, which is today! The daylight hours here in Paris have become incredibly long: today the sun rises at 5:47 am and won't set until 9:58 pm. Compare this with back home in DC where the sun rises at roughly the same time but sinks below the horizon a full hour and a half earlier.

Don't get me wrong, I love having more daylight hours. I got bummed out in the winter when the sun didn't show its face until nearly nine and the day was almost over when the kids got off the school bus at four. There's just one downside. It's that I tend to take my cues from the light, not the clock. I'll be puttering around after dinner, thinking it's 7:30 or 8:00 and all of sudden, I realize that it's almost 11 and I still haven't accomplished half of what I need to get done before bedtime. We have to draw the curtains tight to get the kids to sleep at a reasonable hour and the Eiffel Tower doesn't start its nightly light show until 10. As of tomorrow, the days start getting shorter again. The other bit of good news: summer is officially here.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Parlez Vous

My French is up and down. Some days, I feel that I'm on top of the basics, not fluent by a long shot, but at least able to manage daily life. And then on others, I feel like I'm moving backwards.

I was on the upswing earlier this week. My French class went well. I conjugated the required verbs correctly in half a dozen tenses. I understood the article the teacher read from the paper and even managed to offer an opinion and made myself understood.

A couple of hours later, I was walking down the street when two ladies stopped me. One spoke quickly and I stood there staring at her, my self confidence crumbling, thinking, "My god, I don't understand a word she's saying."

"Je suis désolé. Je ne comprends pas," I mumbled.

She paused for a moment and then said, "Vous n'êtes pas portugaise?"

No wonder.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

All Roads Lead to Rome

I went to Rome today. No, not that Rome. The Rome that can be found on line 2 of the Paris métro. If my purpose had been otherwise, I could also have stopped off at Europe or Stalingrad. But Rome it was, since the mission was getting new piano books for my kids. You see, rue de Rome is lined with shops selling sheet music and all manner of instruments, many of them handcrafted. Other pedestrians clearly shared a similar purpose as I saw several folks toting guitar, violin, and cello cases.

Concentration of similar enterprises in a neighborhood is one of the endearing and yet sometimes frustrating parts of Parisian life. You want seeds for your window boxes? They're pretty much impossible to find until you go down to Pont Neuf and there concentrated on the Right Bank is one gardening shop after another. Looking for fabric? Go to Montmartre. Wholesale handbags, scarves, and accessories? Check out the streets just north of the Hôtel de Ville. Once you know where to look, it's a cinch.

The piano books cost a pretty penny so I won't be going back to Rome anytime soon. For my next destination, perhaps I'll try something a little less worldly or somewhat more prosaic like Gaîté (gaity) or Plaisance (boating), both on line 13.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Crime Blotter

Years ago, when my husband and I were avid cyclists, I became fascinated by lawn ornaments -- mirrored balls, lawn jockeys, frogs fishing, little Dutch children holding hands, cartoon characters, and yes, the cutout of the lady's backside, bloomers showing, bending down to weed her garden. The more modest the dwelling, the more elaborate the display. We haven't spent a lot of time in the countryside here, so I can't comment personally on the state of French lawn garnish. Thanks to my alert husband, this little item (appearing below in its entirety) cropped up on the Web site of the German media outlet, Der Spiegel:

French Police Arrest Serial Garden Gnome Thief

Police in Bretagne have arrested a 53-year-old man suspected of the thefts of 170 garden gnomes. However, it is proving difficult to return the gnomes to their real owners -- the thief painted them different colors, making identification tricky.

When garden gnomes go missing in France, most are tempted to blame the shadowy Garden Gnome Liberation Front. The group has been linked to the disappearance of dozens of miniature garden residents over the years.

Not this time, however. Some 170 gnomes and other ornaments have been stolen in the north-western region of Bretagne recently. And it appears to be the work of a serial garden gnome thief acting on his own.

Police in the town of Mauron announced Tuesday that they had arrested a 53-year-old man on suspicion of stealing the gnomes. Investigators found around 170 stolen garden gnomes, deer figurines and other figures on the man's property. The entire hoard was exhibited in the suspect's garden, a mere 20 square meters (215 square feet) in size. Police described it as "a real mise en scène on green-painted stones."

After the case was reported in the local press, police were inundated by telephone calls from dozens of local residents hoping to get back missing gnomes which they presumed had been stolen. However, local gendarmes admitted it was proving hard to return the abducted gnomes to their true owners -- the purported gnome-snatcher had apparently re-painted some of the gnomes, making identification difficult.

The suspected thief could face a prison sentence for the mass gnome theft. "The case is almost laughable, but it is theft," local police officer Eric Le Roch told the news agency AFP.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bush Says Farewell to Europe

As you probably know, President Bush is in Europe this week on a boondoggle, excuse me, farewell tour to the powers that be in France, Germany, Italy, England, and Slovenia. (If only this could have happened four or eight years ago!) In a moment of great diplomacy, Bush reportedly told the Pope Friday, "Your eminence, you're looking good."

Demonstrations are planned for his stay here in Paris this weekend although the visit is generating more of a yawn than any serious agitation. (The exception being complaints about the terrible traffic and inconvenience due to closures of roads and certain subway entrances.) All of Europe is far more interested in soccer this week with the European Cup underway. For us Americans, it is a blessing to be ignored rather than embarrassed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pan Asian in Paris

So back to my obsession with grocery shopping and all things culinary. Today's adventure was a long subway ride across town to Tang Frères, the giant Asian supermarket. This store has lots of satellites throughout the 13th arrondissement but I made a beeline for the mother ship on Avenue d'Ivry. I walked past the smelly durians, the huge bags of rice, and the endless shelves of blue crockery, choosing instead to fill my grocery caddy with well-priced chicken and shrimp, soy and chicken tikka sauces (priced at about one quarter of what they cost in my neighborhood), and some old familiar favorites not easily found in Paris: iceberg lettuce and thin scallions. I threw in some dried seaweed packets that one of my kids enjoys for snack but couldn't find room in my cart for rice stick noodles, sambal oelek, champagne mangos, asian pears, or Thai basil. I did manage to find space for a lunch of bánh mì, perhaps the most delicious legacy of French colonialism: a Vietnamese sandwich of Asian treats (pickled vegetables, spicy peppers and sliced meat) stuffed inside a crusty baguette.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

School's (almost) Out

While the French schools are in session until the end of the month, the international schools in Paris are wrapping it up for the year -- exams and caps and gowns for the big kids, sprinklers and ice cream parties for the little ones, and lots of concerts and special presentations for everyone in between. Today at one of these events, I found myself saying so long for the summer to some families and good-bye for good to others who will be returning home or moving on to different posts in the next few weeks. Even though I can still feel like a fish out of water here, it hit me that next year, when the new families arrive, I'll be one of the vets, dispensing advice and offering reassurances. Boy, that went fast!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Plugged In

Since moving to France, my television time has dropped precipitously and I don't listen to the radio very much anymore either. But lately, I've been enjoying downloading podcasts from two programs on public radio in the States, Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me and This American Life. Wait Wait was a staple while driving around doing Saturday morning errands back in DC and we even went to a taping when we were in Chicago last year for a family vacation. I knew of This American Life but rarely took the time to tune in and listen to it in its entirety. Now they keep me company as I walk to and from the gym several times a week.

It's a very odd incongruous experience to be walking down a Parisian street listening to the news, jokes, and stories from the world on the other side of the pond. I'll pass by a cafe where two men sit smoking and sipping their espressos while hearing about a lost child in turn of the century Louisiana. The man at the raw bar is getting ready for the day, slicing lemons and arranging oysters, while someone in Kansas tries to win National Public Radio newscaster Carl Kasell's voice on their home answering machine.

In 10 minutes, I'm at my destination. The earbuds come out, the iPod goes back in its case, and the audio and video of my life in Paris resynch.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Day at the Park

The Jardin d'Acclimatation may be my kids' favorite place in Paris. It's a little bit of heaven for the younger set with enough attractions to keep a family busy for the entire day. The skies were threatening this morning but the rain held off while our kids and their cousins enjoyed the hall of funny mirrors; the big playground with climbing structures, slides, and zip swings; a few carnival rides; and a picnic lunch. There's an old-fashioned Guignol puppet theater there too with shows each afternoon; today we hit the jackpot with puppet shows set up throughout the park to celebrate the 200th anniversary of this French art form. The name Guignol comes from the title character, a sweet goof who for some reason sports a Chinese pigtail. In the end he always outwits the thief and gets a kiss of gratitude from his sweetheart, Madelon. If you take your kids there, you'll be an instant hero too and maybe even get a thank you and a kiss.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Comfort Food

My sister, who is visiting from Minnesota with her family, brought bagels in her suitcase. We used to fight a lot when we were kids but she really knows how to make my day.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

News Roundup

I imagine the front pages today in the U.S. are all Obama, all the time so here for contrast are some of the images from the news this morning in Paris.

Truck and taxi drivers are conducting "operation escargot," slowing down traffic on major roads across France, to protest the high price of gas (which is about twice the price in the U.S.). Fishermen and farmers have also been protesting for weeks.

Gaël Monfils is the last French tennis player still in contention for the title at Roland Garros.

Carla Bruni talks about her marriage and her future in a new book.

The Socialists and the UMP (Sarkozy's party) are calling each other names. The latest controversy is over an action by Rachida Dati, the minister of justice, who initially affirmed, and then later agreed to appeal, a decision by a court in Lille annulling the marriage of a Muslim couple because the wife was apparently not a virgin, as claimed.

Truth be told, Obama's win is above the fold in all the major papers. More to come.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fighting Fat

The news from the U.S. that rates of childhood obesity is good news indeed. The French have been struggling with the beginning of their own epidemic although it's not nearly so bad. Only about one-third of the French are overweight compared with two-thirds of American adults.

There's a raging debate about the French paradox, that is how a nation devoted to butter, cheese, and foie gras can do so well in the weight department. Since this has gotten so much press elsewhere, I'll spare you the details. Personally, I've been struck by the incongruity between the heavy presence of fast food advertising and the required health messages. France was actually the first national government to require health messages for food advertising on TV and radio. Failure to comply can mean a fine of 1.5 percent of the firm's advertising budget. So that ad of a giant pizza oozing cheese, for example, includes a tag line at the bottom advising regular physical activity. Other messages advise eating at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day, avoiding snacking between meals, and trying not to eat too much salt, sugar, and fat.

Of course, as is the case for big institutions everywhere, consistency is difficult to achieve. With the rising cost of living and dwindling purchasing power, another agency is distributing a colorful little pamphlet on how to eat well without spending too much. Its advice is heavy on potatoes, pasta, crème fraîche, and cheese, mentioning fruits and vegetables only in passing. There's the French paradox in a nutshell.
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