Monday, March 30, 2009


I've been procastinating lately. It's taken me forever to get my hair cut, make an appointment with the eye doctor, get summer camps lined up for the kids. I have the French to handle these situations but still, it takes energy to think about the vocabulary I will need, imagine what I might hear and how to respond. Inevitably, it's never as difficult as I anticipate and even if I make a mistake, who really cares? But I guess I'm just not over that hump yet.

I remember reading in another expat's blog a while back that she never felt so alive as she did in Paris. At the time it didn't resonate with me at least in the exhilarated, thrilled sense of the phrase. I mean who can feel that way all the time? But then again, it's certainly true that living here takes a lot more energy than my old life ever did. And that's not to say I didn't enjoy my life in DC -- our neighborhood and friends, the kids' school, our family life, my job and colleagues. And I never did anything halfway. It's more that I really didn't have to stretch too much. It was more about the challenge of getting it all done and getting it done well than testing new experiences and going out of my comfort zone.

Even as certain aspects of Parisian life become more familiar, there's still a sense of newness for me, and as a result still an everpresent struggle to understand how things work and make things happen. Some days I'm completely up for it, others not so much.

There, now that that's off my chest, I best get off my butt and get to it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Water Water Everywhere

Water is a big seller here and maybe one of the biggest reasons for grocery delivery. Personally, I only buy water if I need it for a trip or a picnic, and then I save the bottle for refills. Moreover, in all but the fanciest restaurants, you don't have to worry about raising eyebrows if you order "une carafe d'eau." The tap water in Paris is full of minerals but it doesn't have a strong taste so I don't see the point in paying for what essentially comes out for free. Well maybe not completely free but bottled water is 47 times more expensive than water from the tap.

I saw an item in the paper that 5.2 billion liters of water were sold in France last year, 80 liters per person. That's a decline of 7.5 percent compared with 2007. Consumption of fizzy water like Badoit declined less -- only 1.8 percent. Is it the impact of the economic crisis, a change in taste, or both?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Cheese Stands Alone

Please nobody alert the U.S. Customs Service about this. (Although I guess if you want to be discreet, you don't put such a honking big sign in English on your store.) For Americans mindful of sniffing dogs who still have a hankering to take cheese home, this excellent cheese shop can be found in the 5th arrondissement, across the street from the Maubert-Mutualité métro stop.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Let's Go to the Movies

I love going to the movies. Regrettably my language skills are still too weak to really enjoy the experience of seeing a movie entirely in French. If I want to watch a show where I only understand about half of what's going on, I can turn on the television for free. What I really need is a French film with French subtitles. Occasionally one of the MK2 theaters puts on such showings for the hearing impaired but these always seem to be gone by the time I get around to making plans. Happily for me, you can see American films here in VO (version originale) which means in English with French subtitles. Of course, if the characters start talking in Spanish or some other language, you'd better be able to read along. (Luckily for me, those urchins in Slumdog Millionaire who spoke only in Hindi weren't using very sophisticated language so it was no problem with the subtitles.) I've also learned the hard way that you have to get to the kids' movies in VO quickly because within a week or two, the only showings are dubbed. And the cartoons don't come out in VO at all.

I'm also intrigued by the release strategy. A number of films now in theaters were released in the States last fall (for example, Doubt and Frost/Nixon). Others receive a simultaneous release like this week's Duplicity with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Paris also has an incredible number of repertory theaters that regularly play American classics such as Spellbound and Rebecca. Hmmm...I wonder what's showing tonight?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bundle Up

After a week of glorious springlike weather, the gray damp chill has returned. But you can't stay inside all the time. Like all proper Parisians, these ladies didn't leave the house without looking their best.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hard Times

It's not in my nature to kick someone while they're down nor for that matter to document their suffering. I only managed to snap this picture from the relative anonymity of my seat on the bus and did so only because the subject's face was obscured.

Despite the rather robust social services offered by the French government, you can still find folks looking for a handout on the streets of Paris. Sometimes it's an older woman on crutches bent nearly in half, other times a gypsy lady with a couple of kids in tow. Then there are the men who come on to the subway cars and make a little speech about their situation. What has struck me lately is that practially all the men who are panhandling have puppies. I assume it ups the sympathy factor but I also read that it provides protection against arrest since the police don't want to deal with homeless pets in addition to homeless people. I don't have confirmation on that. I also heard that there is a swift rental business for the puppies. Sad stories all that make me grateful for having a roof over my head.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Going for the Brass Ring

A couple of people have told me that my blog reminds them of Adam Gopnik's lovely memoir, Paris to the Moon. It's an incredible compliment although it probably has to do more with the common subject matter than my writing skills. At any rate, one of the scenes that stands out in my mind from that book was his description of his young son riding the carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens. At first, the little boy is too small to wield a baton to catch the brass rings on each pass. And then at the close, when it's time to return to the U.S. and the father is already nostalgic for his Paris days, he finds that his son has grown; he catches the rings almost without effort. It's a sweet vignette, both wistful and proud.

My kids are much too old for the carousel, too bad because there are plenty of them here in Paris, lovely affairs with elaborately painted animals and panoramas from another era. The other day, we saw this group riding the horses at the Jardin de Ranelagh. The carousel there is sufficiently small that it goes round without a motor. The man who runs it just gives it a good push every now and then, and otherwise helps the little ones hold the batons so they can feel as important as the big kids. If only life were so simple.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Trash Talk

Yet another social marketing campaign was launched this month by the city of Paris in what seems like yet another valiant-but-likely-to-be-ineffective effort to get Parisians to literally clean up their act. The campaign seeks to instill in the city's residents the notion that clean streets are a collective responsibility and that littering hurts the environment.

It's a nice message but I have my doubts. After the RATP's recent campaign in a similar vein, not much seems to have changed. In fact, when I got on the métro the other evening around 9:30, the car was strewn with newspapers, cookie boxes, and all manner of detritus of the urban environment, including a discarded sweatshirt. And then there were the two fellows I followed out of the grocery store earlier this week. They had just bought a box of ice cream cones and by the time I got out to the sidewalk, they'd left a trail of paper behind them like Hansel and Gretel. (I told my French teacher this and she said, "didn't you say something?" I was thinking, "are you kidding?!")

To be fair, the city's new campaign is explicit about the steep fines for littering or failure to pick up after a dog: 183 euros. And yet, I've neither seen nor heard of anyone getting such a fine. So thanks a lot to the boys down at the Hôtel de Ville. I'll keep my fingers crossed but I'm certainly not holding my breath.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Buzz Off

Parisians are nothing if not private. This panel of buzzers from a large apartment building certainly doesn't tell you much about the residents. I love that one of those folks living here is simply identified as "V". If you have to ask, I'm sure you have no business knowing and surely that gardienne would tell you the same.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Banking Crisis

This was one for the record books. The other day, I stopped at the ATM to get some money and dang it, if it didn't give me 50 euro bills. As I've probably noted before, it's not hard to spend 50 euros in Paris but there's no way you can use a 50 to buy a baguette, a newspaper, or any other purchase under 20 euros. So I went on into the bank and asked the teller if she could give me smaller bills. Her response? We don't have change. I hope I didn't roll my eyes but that's what I felt like doing. Instead I just said thanks and left.

A little while later, I passed by another branch of my bank and thought I'd give it another go. This time the teller didn't give me an automatic no. Instead, he said he'd have to ask his colleague who happened to be busy with another client. Okay fair enough. So we waited and waited. Finally the colleague wrapped up the business with the other client and she told the teller who was "serving" me, yes fine. He made me fill out a form and took a photocopy of my ID. Then he opened up his drawer. Guess what? No change. He rooted around in another drawer for an additional set of keys and told me that he'd have to go downstairs to the safe. His colleague came along. After a bit, she came back up, searching for more keys, saying there was a problem with the safe. Finally, some 15 minutes after this whole ordeal started, my own teller re-emerged and handed over the three bills in change: 2 twenties and a ten.

I'd heard that banks were tight with credit these days but change?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Strike Two for 2009

Now that my "25 Things" series is done, I can finally get to a bunch of other ideas that have been piling up. But first things, first. I turned on the radio this morning and instead of the usual news from the team at France Culture, it was all music. Had I jostled the tuner? No, how could I forget? It's another day of general strikes here in France and even the newscasters are en grève.

It's been just about two months since the last major strike and all I can say is, "here we go again." Service on subways and buses is supposed to be "quasi normal" today. Service on two of the suburban lines, the RER A and RER B, is expected to be in pretty bad shape. Tough luck for those who live in the suburbs and work in town. For those who live in town, it's a beautiful day for a walk if other means of transport fail.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

25 Things I Find Somewhat Annoying About Paris

Enough of Pollyanna. I've got a few bones to pick.

1. Dog droppings on the sidewalk
2. Too many smokers
3. Lack of customer service
4. Gray skies, day after day after day
5. The layout in the supermarket
6. People who respond to my lame French with blank stares
7. Impatient drivers
8. Crazy motorcyclists
9. People who ride their Velibs on the sidewalk
10. The fact that you have to actually go to the bank (and only the branch where you opened your account) to order more checks
11. Clerks who ask for exact change
12. Bagging your own groceries
13. The fact that my home phone only rings for 10 seconds before sending the call to voice mail
14. High prices
15. No canned black beans, dental floss or decent salsa
16. Litter
17. Lack of understanding of how to form and stand in a queue
18. The SNCF web site
19. Stores not open on Sundays and sometimes Mondays
20. The plus que parfait and futur anterieur
21. Panhandlers on the subway
22. Getting "that depends" (and nothing more) as an answer to a question
23. Dogs in the grocery store
24. Restaurants that serve three course meals with no fruits or vegetables
25. Skinny women

End of rant.

Monday, March 16, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #25

25. Making family memories.

It would be an understatement to say that my kids didn't want to move to France. The evening we laid the news on them, our eldest left the dinner table in tears. But two years is a lifetime when you're young and now they will honestly tell you that, while there are things back home they miss, particularly friends and food, they really do like living in Paris. The friends they stay in touch with via Internet phone and e-mail and the food...well let's just say there are fewer things they're pining for now than when we had just arrived.

All told, three years in Paris is, without a doubt, the biggest gift my husband and I have ever given our kids and ourselves. Our kids may forget how to solve simultaneous equations and the ins and outs of photosynthesis but they won't forget going to the boulangerie after school, riding their bikes in the Bois de Boulogne, free museum Sundays or admiring the Christmas lights on the Champs Elysees. And we won't forget watching them discover a whole new world, both in Paris and beyond, our youngest correcting our French pronunciation and our oldest learning to navigate the subway solo, or both of them having the good manners not to refuse snails and foie gras when offered.

Paris will always be a part of us and our intertwined lives, no matter where we find ourselves. Of the 25 things we all love about Paris, we love them most because we have experienced them together.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #24

24. The friends I've made here.

Being an expat in Paris reminds me a little bit of being a freshman in college, only the food is better. Suddenly you're in a new environment, bottom of the heap, and all those lifelines and support systems from your past are gone.

But just like in college, when I thought I'd never find friends like those I had in high school, it didn't take much time to forge new connections. Thrown together with others who also felt a bit like fish out of water, we started trading tips on this and that. And with the passage of time, I've made some true friends. We explore different neighborhoods, go to museums, swap restaurant and travel recommendations, get advice on doctors and dentists, exercise and cook together, provide back up child care, while away the time over cups of coffee, hand down kids' clothes, and borrow books from one another. And just like those college friends who are still so dear, I've got a feeling that these folks will be with me far beyond my Paris years.

Friday, March 13, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #23

23. Exploring the different neighborhoods

One of the true joys of living in Paris is having the time to explore the different quartiers at a leisurely pace. Some times a museum visit takes me to a neighborhood I've never visited before; other times, it's a search for a shop selling something that's not readily available near me. I've taken tours, both with professional guides or just with a trusted travel book in hand, and enjoyed them all. Whether it's the wide boulevards in the busy 9th arrondissement or the quiet alleyways of Belleville or Butte aux Cailles, there's always something to see and learn. Maybe it's a shop window, a historical marker, an unusual building facade, or just someone in a crazy getup.

Personally, I find that exploring always stimulates the appetite. What better excuse to try a restaurant like Lao Lane Xang II, serving up delicious Thai-Vietnamese fare on Avenue d'Ivry in the 13th or Le Josselin near Montparnasse for some authentic Breton crepes? Just remember to wear comfortable shoes, and to pack your map and your umbrella. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll be ready for whatever Paris throws your way.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ham and Antiques

It was a beautiful spring day here yesterday and I spent a good part of it on the island of Chatou, just west of Paris, where there's a well known antiques fair each spring and fall. For some reason, this event is known as the Foire aux Jambons. How ham got involved I'll never know, but it made for some delicious smells. Believe it or not, you can actually work up an appetite going stall to stall examining silver, ceramics, furniture, tools, signs, and gimracks of every description. Had I been in the market, I could have bought klieg lights, an antique gasoline pump, commodes and light fixtures encrusted in gold, or enough silver cutlery to serve the entire court at Versailles. In fact, I just came home with a hand painted platter and even bargained for a pretty good price. The highlight of the day: the warm sunshine, spending time with my friends, and the best ham sandwich I've ever eaten.

Just a sampling of the wares for those with a chateau to furnish.

Or treat yourself to some rusted toys?

The choices? Ham on a plate or as a sandwich, with or without vegetables.

Roasted pig with endives, onions, tomatoes, carrots, and zucchini.

I didn't see anyone order the pig's head but I'm sure it didn't go to waste.

And yes, you could even buy the kitchen sink.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What Popped Up on My Computer Today

Internet advertising is something else. I imagine that you have just as much chance of getting a green card this way as getting rich by investing in one of those Nigerian bank deals.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #22

22. The profusion of florists.

Paris has a very different retail mix than Washington, DC. There are lots more shops dedicated to certain types of food (fruits and vegetables, bread and pastry, cheese, and chocolate) and there also seem to be lots more shops selling children's apparel, shoe repair guys, and ladies who will alter your clothes. I can't figure out what exactly there is less of in Paris than in my neighborhood in DC except for maybe mattress stores. There are certainly fewer Starbucks and CVS drug stores although there are plenty of small brasseries and pharmacies that serve essentially the same purpose.

At any rate, I certainly enjoy the numerous flower shops, all of which have displays spilling out onto the sidewalk. I love having fresh flowers in the house and often regret the amount I spent on flowers for my wedding. If only I had spent that same sum on bouquets here and there! Fortunately, admiring these beautiful displays costs nothing but the time it takes to walk around the block.

Monday, March 9, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #21

21. Glimpses of secret worlds. Parisian apartments and houses rarely share their inner selves with the rest of us. Ground floor windows are shuttered. Doors bar entrance to courtyards and high fences keep nosy onlookers from peeking into gardens and terraces.

But occasionally, the shutters go up, the doors open to admit visitors and the voyeurs among us get a glimpse into the secret inner life of others. There may be flowers and greenery, cobblestoned courts, remnants of stables or workshops. You can let your imagination run wild or just keep on walking.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #20

#20 Signage.

I'm a sucker for signs under any circumstances but those here in Paris have a special place in my heart. What better to see when you think you're hopelessly lost than that iconic Guimard designed sign indicating an entrance to the subway? Or when you hop off the train and look left and right searching for the way out? And it's similarly reassuring to find the street name, reliably posted on the side of the building when you want to be sure you're in the right place.

Go to the Musee Carnavelet if you're looking for hand painted signs made by folk artists from the past indicating a shoemaker, an oculist, or a tobacconist. On the streets of Paris in 2009, they're likely to be rendered in neon but the meaning is no less clear.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Obama Lovefest Continues

Now for sale at your local neighborhood news stand: refrigerator magnets featuring Parisian icons: Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, Le Chat Noir and Barack Obama.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #19

19. The light.

I've done my fair share of complaining about the gray skies in Paris and I now realize that those scientists who study seasonal depression are really onto something. And yet, when the sun does break through the gray, the light is truly a wonder to behold. Often the sky is dark in one direction and bright blue in the opposite. The stone buildings can be at once in the shadows and creating a gleam so brilliant that you have to shield your eyes. One minute, the Seine is steel gray, the next a clear blue.

In the summer, the gray gives way. The midday sun can be intense. In the evenings the sun lingers in the sky until ten, bathing the town in a soft golden light. No wonder artists flock here.

Winter sky

Summer sun caught through the windows of the Grand Palais

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #18

18. Gardens and parks

There's nothing green on my block...just a wall of stone on each side of the street, trimmed in black wrought iron. There's not even a tree box between the sidewalk and the curb.

Luckily, Paris is far from an asphalt jungle because there are parks and gardens aplenty, ranging in size from the huge (the bookends east and west of the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne) to simply large (like the Tuileries, Buttes aux Chaumont, and the lovely Luxembourg Gardens) to the hundreds of pocket parks that dot the neighborhoods.

Right now, the crocuses are pushing up through the lawns and the forsythia is about to pop, and on a sunny weekend afternoon, all the world is out picnicking, playing ball, taking a stroll, or simply sunning themselves. But even when it's gray, that doesn't seem to deter the park enthusiasts. There are formal gardens, statuary, Victorian follys built into craggy hillsides, lush lawns, playgrounds, spots for a game of boule, cafes where you can sip an espresso, and lawn chairs for those wishing to read, chat, or contemplate.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Girls with Brass

I admit it. I was a band girl in high school. A freak in white nurse shoes, a red blazer with black braid, and black trousers with a red stripe down the side like some kind of demented steak house waiter. Definitely a third class citizen compared with the girls on the drill team who wore sparkly outfits and white boots with pom poms.

But those high steppers had nothing on this group of band girls, spotted last weekend entertaining the crowds waiting in line at the Eiffel Tower, and giving it everything they got. What they lacked in musical ability, they well than made up for with attitude. You go girls.

Monday, March 2, 2009

25 Things I Love About Paris: #17

17. Figaroscope

If you want to know what's going on in Paris, make sure you buy the Wednesday edition of Le Figaro and double check to be certain that you have the magazine insert, Figaroscope. Sure, Pariscope comes out on Wednesday too and it costs only 40 centimes. But Figaroscope has all the same listings for art, theater, music, and the movies plus a whole lot more. Who else is going to tell you where to find the best baguette or the best crepes in Paris, rating them by price, taste, sense of welcome, and size? Best old school bistro? Best bobo hangout? Figaroscope can tell you. And where else can you find restaurant reviews that are both genuinely enthusiastic and bitingly snarky? (Woe to those who get the dreaded black broken heart. One such restaurant that I know of went out of business within a few months of being panned by Le Figaro.) Two big red hearts to this always enjoyable guide to what's new, what's happening, and what's worth doing in Paris.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ski Break

After weeks of mostly gray skies, it was an incredible treat to head south last week to the French Pyrenees for the kids' ski break. I made the plans with some trepidation; my last experience downhill skiing was a dreary day almost 30 years ago when I went with some college friends to Hunter Mountain, New York. Experienced skiiers all except me, they left me on the bunny slope where I spent a lonely day, falling down, getting cold and wet, and generally having no fun. My kids wanted to give it a go though, and just the thought of them ending up like me, a pathetic nonskiier in a world full of skiiers, was enough to get me into planning mode.

As it turned out, we really couldn't have done better. We booked 5 nights at Chez Passet, a bed and breakfast outside Lourdes, where our hosts, transplanted Brits Vicky and Andrew, carted us to and from the slopes, recommending the best spots for beginners, plying us with delicious food and drink, and sharing with us the beautiful valley where they live.

The tiny village of Lezignan, west of Lourdes, where we stayed.

The weather was spectacular, sunny skies and warm temperatures even at high altitude. My husband was a patient teacher and the kids enjoyed the triumph of making it down the mountain without a tumble. We never got off the green runs (except for the time when we made a serious wrong turn and there was no way down but on the blue trail) but it was still great fun.

On the last day, our train back to Paris left midafternoon so we took some time to visit the sights of Lourdes, the second most visited spot in France after Paris. This town of 15,000 is host to some 6 million visitors annually, mostly pilgrims seeking solace at the site where a young French girl, Bernadette Soubirous, saw the Virgin Mary 18 times in 1858. Although quite a bit of the town was shuttered with the main onslaught of visitors not expected until Easter, we still managed to take in the cathedral, the grotto, and the vast number of souvenir shops. If you're in the area, it's worth a stop even if you're not a believer.

If you forget to bring your own bottle to draw the healing waters, not to worry. Bottles of varying sizes and forms are available for purchase.

Nothing more need be said.
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