Saturday, February 28, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #16

16. The 63 bus

If you're a tourist in Paris, buying a two-day ticket on a hop on, hop off bus for 24 euros will orient you to the city's geography plus give you a front row seat on all its great sights. For much much less, you can ride the 63 bus from Gare de Lyon to Porte de la Muette and see a lot of the same stuff. Of course, there's no commentary in 27 different languages but the view: as the natives say, "oh la la!"

On its route west from Gare de Lyon, the 63 passes by Jardins des Plantes and the stunning modern Institut du Monde Arabe, winds its way through the Latin Quarter, into the heart of Saint Germain with the imposing Saint Sulpice, by Le Bon Marche in the 7th arrondissement, and then along the quai of the Seine from the Assemble Nationale (with views across the river to Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries) to the Pont de l'Alma. Traversing the Seine, the bus goes by the memorial to journalists above the spot where Princess Diana was killed and up Avenue President Wilson to Trocadero with its splendid views of the Eiffel Tower. Then it's down Avenue Georges Mandel and Henri Martin through the stately elegance of the 16th arrondissement, ending up at the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne.

For art lovers, the route takes you past multiple museums -- the Cluny, site of former Roman baths and home to an impressive collection of medieval art and artifacts, the city of Paris's Musee d'Art Moderne, Asian treasures at the Musee Guimet, and multiple venues at Palais de Chaillot including the recently renovated Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine and Musee de la Marine.

Buses can be intimidating for first-timers since the stops and routes aren't as obvious as metro stations. But they take the same tickets as the subway and transfers within an hour and a half are free. So buy a carnet (10 pack) of tickets and hop on and off with abandon. Or ride from one end of the line to the other. For 1.60 euro for a single ticket, it's a steal.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #15

15. Window shopping

I'm not a big shopper. In fact, I can proudly say that I bought nothing during the recent semi-annual sales (les soldes). I've got plenty of clothes to get me through, an apartment with more than enough furniture and artwork, and pots and pans and kitchen things galore. And my nightstand is already overflowing with the books I haven't found time to read.

But window shopping, that's another story. Because one can always admire, both the merchandise and how it's displayed. And if not, one can cluck with disapproval or sheer amazement. The French even have a special term for window shopping "faire du lèche-vitrines" which literally means to lick the windows. On a recent cold, gray typical Paris winter afternoon, these folks found plenty of good stuff to drool over.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You Can Check Out But You Can Never Leave

Not sure this place on rue des Ecoles in the 5th arrondissement is what the Eagles had in mind.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Raclette Burgers?

Should McDonald's get credit for trying to appeal to the varied tastes of its international clientele or blame for corrupting traditional cuisine? Discuss.

Friday, February 20, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #14

14. Our apartment

I don't like to brag but....We're lucky enough to be living in Paris even if it were in a refrigerator box and doubly so because of the beautiful apartment my husband's employer found for us. To start with, it's bigger (in terms of area) than our house in DC. The apartment is light and airy and has high ceilings, huge windows that open from ceiling to floor, intricate moldings in the main living areas, and hardwood floors. Plus we have two marble fireplaces topped by mirrors trimmed in gold that extend from the mantle to the ceiling. They're not working fireplaces but who really cares? Amazingly, our very American furniture looks right at home in this turn of the century French environment.

I miss our yard with its flower and vegetable gardens, plus having a private outdoor space but I don't much miss raking leaves or trimming ivy. Nor do I think back fondly on trudging up and down from 2nd floor to the basement to do laundry. And remarkably, unlike apartments I lived in on DC's Capitol Hill and Baltimore, we get relatively little noise from the upstairs and downstairs neighbors. Best yet, unlike many Parisian apartments that come equipped with only a water hookup in the kitchen (no appliances, no cupboards, no nothing) and wires where light fixtures should be, ours was a turnkey operation. It's got a few little quirks (like the fact that you can't open one of the bottom refrigerator drawers the whole way because of the radiator blocking the door) but I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Minkeys, Reuums, and Other Funny Stuff

The day we arrived in Paris was spent mostly in a jet lag induced daze. The kids wanted nothing more than to go to bed (there's a first for everything, isn't there?) but we knew better than to let that happen. So we headed off on a somewhat aimless walk, mostly to just keep the blood flowing. Although my husband and I were both dazzled by the reality that we were in Paris for three whole years, the kids were having none of it. That is, until we wandered by the Petit Palais and saw a film in the making. And who did we spy but Steve Martin dressed as Inspector Clouseau! For the under 18 set, that scored more points than the Eiffel Tower.

Well we've waited and waited, and finally today, Le Panthere Rose 2 is opening in Paris. The reviews have all been pretty lukewarm but you can bet that we're going. I'm not sure how well these films play in France because half the fun is Clouseau's ridiculous accent in English. Then again, I have a feeling that slapstick crosses the cultural divide.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #13

13. History

Paris is young by European standards. Much of the city dates from the 19th century and there are large areas developed more recently than that. But Napoleon III's plan for urban renewal left plenty standing for the 21st century history buff -- the medieval Louvre, the 17th century Place des Vosges built by Henri IV, the vestiges of a Roman amphitheater, and remnants of the city's walls erected by Philippe-Auguste as he headed off for the third Crusade at the end of the 12th century, just to name a few.

But what's particularly intriguing to me is seeing how these periods layer on top of each other. Sometimes it's quite physical as in the photos below, of the Hôtel de de Sens, one of just three medieval buildings erected as private residences that are still standing in Paris. Located in the Marais, between rue Saint-Antoine and the Seine, it dates from the earliest years of the 16th century and was the Parisian residence of a provincial archbishop.

Now look again below in this closeup of the area circled in red up top, you'll see a black dot and the date: 28 juillet (July) 1830. That's not just any black's a cannonball, shot during one of several revolutions of the 19th century, and immortalized forever.

There are countless other examples of the physical layering. Just go down into the archealogical crypt in front of Notre Dame, for example, and you can see the basements and roads of Roman, medieval, and later eras piled atop one another. And sometimes the layering is just the sense of history that hangs on your shoulders as you walk the streets -- plaques commemorating fallen victims of the Resistance, carved notices citing a 1881 law not to post notices on public buildings, church facades desecrated by revolutionaries, cobblestones peeking out from under asphalt. It's not hidden away in a museum; it's just a part of life, present connected to the past.

American history? Practically current events. French history? Current events informed by a deep sense of happenings, ideas, and forces several thousand years in the making.

Monday, February 16, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #12

12. Pain au chocolat

I'll be brief. Hands down the best breakfast in Paris -- flaky, buttery pastry with a chocolate inside that's just this side of melted. Now available for about a euro (perhaps a bit more) at your neighborhood boulangerie. Get them fresh and warm or skip them altogether. The one you buy after 11 a.m. is certainly not worth the calories. In the morning with strong coffee, simply a revelation.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris #11

11. People watching

People watching is a sport of Olympic dimensions here in Paris, with dozens of venues for seeing people at their best, worst, and everything in between. You can certainly sit in a cafe and let the world go by (the high price for that little cup of coffee is really the rent for the chair), take it all in when on the bus and subway, and get an eyeful simply walking around town. Regrettably, I'm never quick enough or sufficiently brazen with my camera to have an archive to share here on my blog. So I'll do my best to paint a picture in prose of some of the archetypes:

  • teenage boys sporting black puffy ski jackets and droopy jeans with keffiyehs wrapped around their necks and easily a tubeful of hair gel
  • their too-tanned girlfriends with long long hair, their skinny jeans tucked in boots, gigantic bags, smoking cigarettes
  • elderly ladies in stockings and sensible pumps, meticulous updos with tasteful gold earrings, woolen coats and silk scarves and pocket dogs on a leash
  • trim fashion plates in four inch heels, knife pressed blue jeans, fur vests, designer sunglasses, and armfuls of couture shopping bags
  • twenty something men in black duffel coats and cool eyeglasses
  • thirty something business women, dressed in chic suits and high heels, riding scooters with lap blankets
  • a group of six year olds lined up by twos for a class outing, girls in pink smocks and boys in blue
  • Orthodox Jews in black hats and long black coats
  • West African ladies wearing incredible headwraps lugging shopping bags from the discount store Tati that have been used again and again and again
  • North African men in long robes
  • a horde of Asian tourists snapping pictures at the Eiffel Tower, crowded around the Mona Lisa, and piling into a local restaurant reserved for their tour group's meal
  • a gaggle of American junior year abroad girls, talking way too loud on the metro and desperately trying to look French

Anybody you'd care to add to the list?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #10

10. Roasted chicken straight from the butcher.

If you're planning on visiting me here in Paris, I'll tell you right now what's for dinner: poulet rôti. It's my go-to meal for visitors from home because it's delicious and sure to please even the least adventurous palate. The roasted chickens fresh from the boucherie are like none other: tender meat, crispy skin, an aroma that will knock you out, and of course, some chicken fat dribbling down your chin. Served with roasted potatoes and salad, it's a meal that's hard to beat both in terms of taste and ease of preparation.

On the closest market street, there are two competing butchers selling roasted chicken. We've tried both but haven't come to a household consensus on which is better. On one thing, we're definitely agreed: more poulet rôti please!

Friday, February 13, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #9

9. Architectural details.

My Paris experience has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster, lots of ups and downs, although in the past six months, the dips are more like the kiddie ride than the main attraction. One thing that never fails to perk me up is a bus ride across town which gives me a front row view of all the little architectural details that make Paris such a feast for the eyes. (I actually think the view from the bus is better than that on foot because you're raised up so high.)

I love the stone faces that can be found atop doors and on the corners of buildings, door knockers and buzzers, wrought iron balconies, imposing wooden doors, and of course, the incredible statuary to be found in parks, gardens, and squares. There are half timbered buildings in the Marais, Roman ruins in the Latin Quarter, a handful of stunning Art Nouveau buildings in the village of Auteuil, and a few modern successes, including most notably the Musee Quai Branly with its walls covered in vegetation. Click on the picture above to get a bigger and closer look.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

And Now for a Break from Our Regular Programming

We interrupt the 25 Things I Love About Paris stream for a few updates:

1. Since my post about American novels generated so much interest, here's the deal. I ended up picking Little House on the Prairie because a) there's a copy in the house and b) I wouldn't have to re-read it to write the report. I made my presentation on Tuesday; my fellow students had no comment. My somewhat kooky French teacher, a very proper Parisian of a certain age, first informed me that there was a series on French television of the same name (oh really?) plus she was extremely interested in the whole concept of homesteading.

2. I found out that another one of my French teachers is a comtesse. She's got an apartment full of incredible antiques and a 13 bedroom "country home" so maybe that should have been a giveaway. She's a lovely person though, full of interesting stories and a warm personality, so I'm glad to be on a first name basis with her.

3. Talks have begun between the French government and the new crowd in Washington over the Roquefort taxation issue. The new tariffs are not set to go into effect until March 23rd so I guess there's time to clear up the stink, so to speak.

4. Finally, would someone please explain these shoes (both the price, about $850 at today's exchange rate) and their appeal. My younger child, who was with me when I took the photo, was puzzled about how they should be worn and suggested that they come with a users' guide. (I'll give you a hint what won't be on my top 25 list.)

We now return to our usual program.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #8

8. Smart Cars

I can't help it. They're just so darn cute, especially the ones with the advertising. Of the four here, my favorite is the one promoting the SNCF's travel services because the women in her bikini is perfectly proportioned and positioned to be driving that car. (Okay, so she's lost her head...details, details.) Someone told me that you can get one of these ad-enrobed cars for virtually nothing although you have to agree to drive it a certain number of kilometers per week. I don't know if that's true or not.

There are plenty of plain vanilla Smart Cars on the streets here as well although they're not so photogenic. Since parallel parking seems to be a full contact sport here (bam in the front, back up, smack in the back, sound of glass shattering), Smart Cars also seem eminently practical. Lined up perpendicular to the curb, three of them can park in the same space as one traditionally sized truck. More confirmation that good things come in small packages.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #7

7. Picard.

Picard, the frozen food store, was the subject of one of my first blog posts and I'm still a die hard fan. I don't have a huge freezer but what space there is, is stuffed with chopped onions, salmon steaks, oven fries, pizza, green beans, spinach, and ice cream -- all from Picard. There are a few sour notes in their inventory (for example, stay away from the pretty but soggy hors d'oeuvres) but all in all, it's a winner in my book.

Americans in Paris tend to wonder why there's no Picard in the U.S. I heard one rumor that they took the concept to New York but no one got the idea of going anyplace but the supermarket for frozen foods. I've also heard the story, more than once, about French women married to men who say they hate Picard products. Little do they know that they've been eating them all along and their wives are smart enough to ditch the cartons before their husbands come home for dinner.

Monday, February 9, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #6

6. Art.

One of the things I've most enjoyed about my time in Paris is visiting art museums and special exhibitions. Washington, DC has its share of wonderful galleries, including the two buildings of the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, Renwick, and Hirschorn, but I rarely took the time to visit either the permanent collections or the shows on tour.

Now I've got nothing but time and there's lots of art to fill it up. When we arrived in Paris, I dithered about whether to buy a yearlong pass for the Louvre. I finally gave in and found that it gives me the luxury of both circumventing the long line at the entrance and being able to savor the museum at odd hours and one room at a time. The Jeu de Paume, Musee d'Orsay, Musee Marmottan, Musee du Luxembourg plus the blockbuster shows at the Grand Palais are but a few of the places I've enjoyed time and again. There are still quite a number of smaller venues I've yet to experience. My one pet peeve? People who take pictures (particularly with their cell phone cameras) and pretend not to understand when the guards says, "sans flash." Buy a postcard, willya?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #5

5. Le pain

Yet another Parisian stereotype but for good reason. Bread is serious business here and it's seriously good. We've not quite gotten down the routine of picking up bread every single day but we're getting close. The bakery on our corner serves it up fresh and hot; it can be hard to get home without breaking off the top (quignon) for a little snack. After months of buying the plain old "baguette", I've since decided that "le tradition" is the best -- a bit crunchier on the outside and chewier on the inside. Toasted with salted butter and fig jam in the morning, it's hard to beat.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #4

4. Le Métro

What's not to love? Okay, it isn't very pretty and it can be stifling and stinky in the summer but it always gets me where I need to go, often faster than if I went by taxi. I never have to worry about parking, car insurance, or the price of gas, and with my Navigo pass, I can hop on and off with impunity.

Friday, February 6, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #3

3. Le plat du jour.

There's no getting around it. Eating out in Paris is expensive. The hole in the wall joint around the corner from my apartment stuffed all the mailboxes with a flyer for their special -- hamburger, soft drink, and coffee -- all for 16 euros. Even with the improved value lately of the dollar against the euro, that still ain't cheap.

So skip the burger and you'll never go wrong ordering the plat du jour off the blackboard. It's what's fresh and good plus it's usually a relative bargain. What's more, you might even end up learning that you like something that you would have otherwise never ordered.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #2

2. Street art that's more than grafitti.

This wall is on rue Mouffetard near the Pantheon. The painting is by Pierre Alechinsky, the poem is by Yves Bonnefoy. I've looked around for a translation but finding none, I'm not going to even try. Suffice it to say, that it's about a tree and how it affects people.

Lots more great wall art can be found in Belleville and the Buttes aux Cailles neighborhoods, among others.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #1

Laurie, who takes care of business over at The Paris Blog, recently posted a photo album of the things she loves about Paris and challenged others to do the same. I accept!

So here goes...the first in a series of posts.

1. Tour Eiffel. It's corny yes but iconic all the same. It's the essence of Paris. I caught this shot while the stars of the European Union were still up. Now that Sarkozy's term as EU President is over, it's back to its original unadorned state.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Great American Novel

Calling all readers! I've been given the assignment for my French class to make a short presentation about an American novel. Although I'm a big reader, I figured I could use some input. Plus I'd like to pick something a little less obvious than, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Red Badge of Courage. Ideally, it should be a real slice of Americana but simple in its language (for those who are not English speakers who would like to read it in the original version) and perhaps translated broadly (for those who are not English speakers). For the record, my classmates are from Brazil, Chile, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, and Zimbabwe. The two teachers are naturally French. Your suggestions, please.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bonaparte in Egypt

There's an exhibit at the Institute du Monde Arabe about Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and its aftermath and I went over the weekend for the second time. Since my first visit was an hour and a half guided tour in French, I focused my full powers of concentration on what the guide was saying and as a result, I felt like I hadn't spent nearly enough time looking at the exhibited objects. As luck would have it, I'd bought my husband a copy of British author Paul Strathern's readable Napoleon and Egypt for his birthday and was able to snag it off his nightstand while he was busy reading about the history of money. Two weeks and several hundred pages later, I was better equipped to enjoy it and to act as interpreter for my nine year old who's been studying ancient Egypt in school.

Napoleon's sojourn in Egypt was pretty much a debacle -- his entire fleet was sunk in Aboukir Bay by the British, both cutting off his supply lines and stranding him in the Middle East; he lost soldiers by the thousands to massacres, the plague, and other privations; and he was unable to hold onto any of the military victories he had there. He even lost the Rosetta Stone, deciphered by a Frenchman, to the British Museum. But the man was a genius when it came to public relations. He came back to a France hungry for a military hero and its people, worn out by revolution, corruption, and war, pretty much ended up handing him the empire. His adventures there became legend and the fascination with all things "oriental" defined styles in furniture and fashion. And his decision to bring along a team of savants, experts in science, mathematics, and the arts, meant that there was a lasting legacy of new knowledge about a world long mysterious to Europeans. The exhibit closes at the end of March.
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