Sunday, August 31, 2008


Time for a profound question. Why is it in an era of globalization, when so many of the things that used to distinguish one country from another have gone the way of the dodo, that you can still tell the differences between Americans and Europeans by their sneakers? After all, the teenage girls in Paris seem to be shopping at the same places as teenagers on the East Coast -- Gap, Esprit, Zara, H&M to name a few. And even that hideous accessories store, Claire's, has a major presence here. Skinny jeans, baby doll tops, layers of camisoles all looks the same to me. Ballet flats look pretty similar everywhere but when it comes to sneakers, all bets are off.

The American tourist in gleaming white tennis shoes is a cliche, right up there with the Hawaiian shirt and ball cap. What's crazy is that many of the French actually own those exact same shoes. It's just that they save them for exercising, switching to canvas tennies or black Pumas for leisure wear, shoes that, in the U.S., would probably peg the wearer as profoundly dorky. But even the tough guys are wearing them so I guess they're hip by Parisian standards. I find the whole thing a little odd, particularly since I assume that most of these shoes (European and American) are made in Asia. Can it really be that sneakers are among the last vestiges of cultural identity?

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Great Outdoors, Parisian Style

Paris has many beautiful parks, ranging from huge and grand to tiny pocket parks snuggled in beside churches and apartment buildings. You can stroll or picnic or simply people watch. For little ones, there are plenty of slides and sandboxes (although as I have mentioned before precious few swings) And if you're willing to shell out some dough, there are also merry go rounds, cafés, puppet shows, and pony rides. (Plus cotton candy, ice cream, and balloons.)

In the Luxembourg Gardens, kids can rent a sailboat that they can push with a stick in the large central fountain, and on the Champ de Mars, the preschool set can take 7 turns in a pedal car around a makeshift racing oval for the grand sum of 2 euros.

If you want to be prepared, bring your own paddles and balls for a rousing game of ping pong or a round of foosball.

And if you really can't drag yourself away from the Web, bring your laptop like this fellow. Since 2007, the city of Paris has been offering free WiFi in some 260 places around town. Personally, I'd rather leave the computer at home but hey, to each his own.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Here's the Poop

One of my first posts on this blog was about the failure of Parisians to pick up after their dogs. After a year, I still have a hard time with the amount of crap (I mean, let's call a spade a spade) on the sidewalk. Just this morning, I saw two young women walking down my block barefoot and it nearly took my breath away. Trust me, you don't want to do this in Paris.

Now I also have my doubts about the effectiveness of social marketing via billboard changing anyone's behavior. (See here and here. If you really want your fill on this topic, read this.) But still, I think this poster has a certain charm. Here we find Medor (sort of like Rover or Spot for the French) caught red-headed for leaving 80 kilos of you know what on the sidewalks over the course of the year. The tag line translates as "keep our town clean." No word on whether Medor was sentenced to community service or hard time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

La Rentrée

These guys went back to school this morning and now it's just me alone at the computer. We had a great summer with lots of adventures and plenty of time for sleeping late and reading. But enough is enough. While neither was too happy about the impending onslaught of homework, truth be told, they were looking forward to seeing friends (many of whom had decamped Paris over the summer) and being back in a kidcentric place.

I've always thought of September as a time for resolutions, change, and fresh starts, in a way that seems more natural than January 1. So the French enthusiasm for la rentrée, the season of reentry to routine, back to school and back to work for everyone after les vacances, resonates with me. One snag: as my French teacher pointed out, the verb, rentrer, applies only to re-entering your own country. Americans can retournent (return) or reviennent (come back) to Paris but they don't get to rentrent. It's all about the nuances.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

La Cuisine Française

I was making dinner tonight when I realized that I'd never blogged about the cooking class I took last spring. The three teachers were French, self taught cooks who did their best to expose a group of expatriates (Russian, Japanese, Colombian, Vietnamese and me, the lone American) to what the French cook for themselves or their close friends. They did so with gusto, talking rapid fire in French (although occasionally checking to see that we were following along) and laughing when a couple of the dishes fell flat. There was one particular oops! moment when they found out that one of the Japanese ladies was a graduate of the Cordon Bleu, and here they had been carrying on like experts when in truth, they were just a friendly bunch of home cooks. The Japanese gal did her best to set them at ease, modestly explaining that you can't cook Cordon Bleu style for every day.

The upshot is that I came away with a fistful of recipes that have quickly fallen into the rotation of family favorites. The kids' favorite is what one of the teachers called "le TGV de quiche," a quick quiche that can be made in a moment's notice, that is as long as your refrigerator is stocked with French staples including crème fraîche, frozen pâte brisée, little sticks of bacon called allumettes de lardon, plus eggs and any old cheese that happens to be lying around. There's a delightful informality to the recipe since it calls for two soup spoons of crème fraîche (the only other measure is a coffee spoon) and a "bon morceau" (literally a good piece, but perhaps better translated as a healthy portion) of cheese. Of course, this recipe is going to do me no good when we get back to the states since frozen pastry there leaves a lot to be desired. (Trust me, the frozen stuff here ain't Pet Ritz.) But for the moment, we'll enjoy it, as directed, with "une bonne salade verte et du pain."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Set in Stone

There's lots of stone carving to be found on the buildings in Paris, garlands of flowers, chubby cherubs, cornucopias of fruit, and faces atop doors and windows. The latter usually bring to mind Greek and Roman gods and goddeses, like Zeus or Diana of the hunt. I spotted these two aviators side by side atop the windows on a building on Boulevard Delessert, just a stone's throw from the Trocadero gardens. At first, I thought it was the same person with goggles up and down until I noticed the mustache on the one on the right.

Their origins remain obscure despite my best efforts at sleuthing. I did stumble upon some information about a 1919 assassination attempt on French president George Clemenceau (during the Versailles peace talks) that took place not too far from there. This particular memoir mentions an officer from the nearby "Aviation Headquarters" on Boulevard Delessert who sprang into action on the scene. But perhaps it's just a coincidence. In any case, I like the style of these early aviators; the enigma of their origin only adds to their interest.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Year in the Life

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?

One year ago today, we stepped off the airplane at Charles de Gaulle and into the rainy mist of cool Paris morning. In some ways, it's gone by in a flash. In others, our old life in DC seems forever away in the rear view mirror.

I've worn out several pairs of shoes and used up one eyeliner pencil, half a bottle of Windex, three jars of Trader Joe's black bean dip, and the battery on our laptop computer. My 14 year old child is now two inches taller than me. I've read 47 books, visited at least 30 different art exhibitions, and my guess is that the family has eaten some 200 baguettes. In addition to getting to know France, we've been to Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and Spain. Business has also taken my husband to England, Germany, Greece, and Norway. Our kids went on their own school trips to Normandy, Portugal, and England. My facility in French has improved as has my efficiency in grocery shopping. I've learned that you can get a bad meal in Paris and even bad bread. But we've also enjoyed delicious food from street vendors and two of Paris' top tables.

There's so much more ahead of us. I still haven't been to the Pompidou Centre, the Musee Quai Branly, and half a dozen other notable sites in Paris. I have yet to get an authentic plate of couscous or eat in a West African restaurant. My reading skills are better suited to the tabloidish Le Parisien than the more serious Le Monde, and I can't begin to understand an entire movie in French. Many regions of the country still beckon.

It's been a great ride. I'm buckling up to take on the next.

*"Seasons of Love" from the musical Rent by Jonathan Larson.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Knock Knock

Here's one of those little details that can take your breath away while wandering around in Paris. I spotted this door knocker just a few blocks away from our place and couldn't resist taking a snapshot.

Our front door is not quite so welcoming; we don't even have a knocker. Actually, right now, there's a nasty note on the door of the ground floor apartment telling people to stop knocking on their door. Perhaps if you come to visit them, they can just intuit your presence.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday in Giverny

It's sometimes hard to know the right balance between taking advantage of every moment and just having time to chill out. There's the temptation to be on the go all the time. Who wants to have regrets about the shouldas and couldas when it's time to leave Paris to go back home? But a constant schedule of researching destinations, packing up, and touring can take its toll.

After 10 days in Denmark (with 7 different hotels and a new place for dinner every night), we all badly needed time to do nothing. But this morning it was time to get up off the couch. A train from Paris's St. Lazare station took us in 40 minutes to Vernon, a sleepy town in Upper Normandy. From there we took a shuttle bus 5 kilometers to the even tinier town of Giverny.

There are two reasons to go to Giverny. One is to see Claude Monet's home and garden, including his pond, the site of his many paintings of water lilies and his Japanese bridge. The other is a smallish art museum dedicated to the work of American artists who flocked to Giverny in the late 19th century to paint en plein air with Monet and other impressionists. Monet's gardens were gorgeous, messy and full of color and more English than French. His home is colorful as well although only reproductions of his works can be found there. The Musée d'Art Américain had its own lovely modern gardens (including a meadow full of haystacks) and a small collection of oils and lithographs, plus an interesting special exhibit on the use of works of art in American films. (Did you remember that Grant Wood's American Gothic is prominently displayed in The Rocky Horror Picture Show during the opening bars of "The Time Warp"?)

Our otherwise lovely afternoon took a bad turn when we missed the shuttle back to Vernon with only 25 minutes until our train departed for Paris. What to do?! Well, don't let anyone tell you the French aren't friendly or generous. The fellow at tourist information bundled us all into his own car and quickly drove us to Vernon so we got to the station with a few moments to spare. Saying merci didn't seem nearly enough.

Note: My kids never read Linnea in Monet's Garden when they were little. But I was glad to have checked Charlotte in Giverny by Joan MacPhail Knight out of the library a couple of weeks ago. It made a huge difference for my younger child.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere

I probably should have written this post several weeks ago when it was hot and sticky. But I suppose even with cooler temperatures, it's still important to stay hydrated. The thing is that American style water fountains, or bubblers as they call them in New England, are nowhere to be found in Paris. (Disclaimer: You can find water fountains in the American Library, the American Embassy, and Marymount International School, although these are not exactly easy to find when you are out and about.) That being said, if you have a bottle, there's plenty of drinking water out there. Although the French tend to buy a lot of bottled water, water from the tap is perfectly safe and to my tastes, just fine for quenching one's thirst. So save your nickels for wine or coffee, and fill up on the free stuff.

Wallace fountains, named after the English industrialist who financed their original design and construction in the late 19th century, are elegant cast-iron structures that have a continuous stream of water running in the space behind those lovely ladies holding up the canopy. Apparently, these originally had a metal cup on a chain for passersby to catch a drink but for hygiene reasons, these are long gone. There's no way to stick your head in but plenty of room for your water bottle. There are over 60 of these fountains spread around Paris and they are turned on from March through November.

You can also find drinking water in many public spaces, dispensed from short, squat pumps. They aren't very pretty but they do the trick. With these, you have to push the button hard to fill your bottle. The button is spring loaded so it turns itself off.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

As you've probably figured out by now, I've got a thing about signs but somehow I missed this one until my younger child pointed it out. No clue who Silly was; my Internet searching turned up several other Sillys in France and Belgium. I also learned that this spot, today home to a regional hospital, was the site of a hospice in Marie Antoinette's day. Nothing silly about that.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


We're just back from 10 days in Denmark, a place that is special to me since my family spent a month there the summer I turned 13 and another month the summer I turned 16. It's a place I wanted to share with my own kids, and I wanted to do it while old family friends would still be around to visit. In many ways, the country seemed the same as it ever was -- ever so tidy with beautiful flowers everywhere, friendly people, and half timbered cottages with thatched roofs by the dozen. We watched the changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace and enjoyed the pantomime show at Tivoli Gardens, ate smørrebrød (open faced sandwiches on dense rye bread) and wienerbrød (what we Americans call Danish pastry), and visited Hans Christen Anderson's home in Odense. Plus we spent a lovely day catching up with friends.

The best part of the trip was the four days we spent biking on the island of Funen. My husband and I used to be avid bikers and it was great to once again experience the landscape that way. Plus the Danes have built the infrastructure to support biking both as a pastime and as transportation including dedicated lanes in the cities and trails in the countryside.

Although we'd done our best to get the kids ready for the trip, I had some trepidation about what we were in for. But they were troupers and hung in for three days at 50 kilometers each and one lighter day on the island of Ærø in the Baltic Sea. Denmark being a maritime climate, there was always the threat of rain and wind. But we actually had quite a bit of sunshine and only rode through one heavy downpour, never getting completely soaked.

Thus completes the travel portion of our summer; school starts in two weeks anyway. But it looks like we can look forward to more biking adventures in Europe.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Who is Horace Wells?

Paris is chock full of markers and statues, and I find that I rarely walk down the street without coming across a plaque on a building commemorating the fact that a historic man of letters lived there or marking the spot where a hero of the resistance died. Or something like that. Although I've taken to carrying a pad and pen with me everywhere, I don't always take the time to note these bits of history to look up later.

But this week, I passed a statue in a park in the 16th arrondissement that made me scratch my head. Horace Wells? The lettering below the bust reads (in translation) "American dentist and innovater of surgical anesthesia". What the heck was he doing here? I still don't know the answer to that question but I did learn a bit about him while I tried to figure it out. It turns out that while old Horace was a pioneer in the use of nitrous oxide, his career took a few bad turns including being boohed by students at Mass General when he demonstrated the technique there, a couple of years as a traveling salesman that somehow took him to Paris in 1846, and finally an addiction to chloroform. One day (or so says Wikipedia), while in a deranged state wandering around the streets of New York, he threw sulfuric acid on two prostitutes. When the chloroform wore off, he realized what a horrible thing he'd done and committed suicide. The Paris Medical Society and the American Medical Association both much later recognized his achievements. Too little too late for him, I guess.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Rolling Up the Sidewalks

It's officially August and Paris is rolling up the sidewalks for the annual flight to the countryside. Actually, the closing down process started after Bastille Day and will be in full swing by the weekend. All the mom and pop businesses will be shuttered tight and it's best to call ahead if you have a specific destination in mind for dinner. The streets are already a bit quieter and the subway's not quite so crazy during rush hour. The tourists are here in force, however, and the lines at the Eiffel Tower and at the Louvre are fierce. But the heat wave broke last night and this morning the air is crisp and clear. Not a bad day for anything that Paris might dish up.
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