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.
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