Friday, July 31, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 13

My series about the vehicles of Paris really can't be complete without a picture of a Velib, one of the some 20,000 bicycles for hire that are stationed all over the city of Paris. It's been two years since the program launched and it's been a big success by all accounts with over 50 million uses recorded and the expansion of the network both in town and into close-in suburban communities, although regrettably, there's also been quite a bit of vandalism and too many thefts. Use of these bikes is free for the first 30 minutes and there are hundreds of stations all over town so going point-to-point is the way to go. They even have trucks that go around each night to redistribute the bikes so that are plenty of bikes on top of Montmartre (since no one really wants to ride a bike up that hill) and in other popular venues where the station often looks like this:

But can I tell you a secret? I've never, not once, used one of these bikes. American tourists are sometimes disappointed that they can't make the system work with their chip-free American credit cards. But, no, that's not my problem. I'll be blunt: riding a bike in Paris traffic scares the crap out of me. So pedal away brave souls. I'll wave to you from the sidewalk or the bus.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Qualities of Leadership

What's the most pressured moment for an American president? Sure, there's avoiding World War III, keeping us safe from terrorists, and wrangling with Congress over big issues like taxes and health care. But the real moment of truth is when he has to throw out the first pitch at a major league baseball game. I guess Barack Obama did okay when he took on the task at the All Star game a couple of weeks ago because all the press was about the cut of his jeans and nobody said anything about his throwing style. (But then again I don't watch Fox News so maybe someone did.)

While Americans really want their president to be a regular guy, the French, by contrast, want someone cultured, intellectual, and able to make astute references to history, philosophy, and art, and throw in the occasional quote from Moliere, Sartre, and other giants of France's glorious past. Although they elected Nicholas Sarkozy in 2007, a man with none of these qualities, Sarkozy's recent miserable poll numbers suggest that they're regretting that decision. With three long years until the next election, there may be time for Sarkozy to refashion himself as an intellectual. His Henry Higgins? None other than his wife, former fashion model and pop star, Carla Bruni. You can read all about it in an interesting article that appeared over the weekend in the International Herald Tribune .

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 12

I've seen these British moving trucks around town on more than one occasion and I always do a double take on what seems rather innocent to the English but not so to Americans. I will spare you a picture of one of the German tourist buses with big letters plastered on the sign, presumably the name of the company's owner whose name begins with F. I kid you not.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Champagne without the Bubbly

Call me crazy but I went to Champagne on Saturday and didn't drink any. In our last ditch effort to have grownup fun while the kids were at camp, my husband and I took a day trip to Reims, the heart of Champagne, but we had other things in mind. And to tell you the truth, while I like wine just fine, having visited vineyards in France and California, the whole tasting thing kinda leaves me cold. But even minus champagne, our day in Reims was really special. We enjoyed strolling around town, stopping for coffee and later lunch, and touring the cathedral, the basilica of St. Remi, and the Palais de Tau, home for many years to the region's archbishops. Reims is full on Gothic but gets a special place in history as being the site where Clovis, the first king of the Franks was baptized, and it subsequently became the official site for French coronations. Heavily damaged by fire and war throughout the centuries, the cathedral remains a work in progress. New windows were created after the Second World War, including a lovely set by Marc Chagall, and new technology is now permitting 21st century artisans to create perfect replicas of existing statuary so the authentic pieces can be brought inside, away from the degrading effects of weather and pollution.

How is it that a Russian Jew ended up making windows for a French Catholic church? Who cares? These windows are spectacular.

The contrast between the restored sections and those still in need of work was stark. Blame the missing body parts on the Germans, the French Revolution, and the passage of around 800 years

Reims is an easy 40 minutes from Gare de l'Est by TGV. If you want to visit the vineyards, a car makes more sense. There are half a dozen other sights to see in the area including a museum at the site where General Eisenhower accepted the surrender of the German forces in 1945 and another one devoted to vintage cars. You could easily make a weekend of it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Home Sweet Home

The kids are back, a bit dirty, sunburnt, and bug bitten. The washing machine is going and a big American breakfast will soon be underway. Everyone seemed to have had fun, made friends, and managed with their only passable French. I'm really proud of them, glad that they're so willing to go off on their own and glad to have them home, at least until the inevitable bickering starts again.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Even though I can look out my window and see Paris everyday for myself, I still enjoy the photos posted by Eric at Paris Daily Photo. Yesterday, he posted a picture of some trompe l'oeil windows near the Pompidou Centre and it reminded me of this shot, which I took a while back in Neuilly. You may have to zoom in on this photo to appreciate the contrast between the real windows on the facade and the faux ones on the side. The billboard is real; I suppose someone has to pay for that art work.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Translation Transmogrification

If you hate Harry Potter (as the French call him "Airy Pot-tair") or if you just don't get the whole wizardry thing, you should stop reading now. Frankly, I remember when I first heard someone wanting to rename the temporary annex to the kids' elementary school Hogwarts, I thought the whole thing was just nuts. Or when after the horror of September 11th, someone wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, saying that their kids were dealing fine with it all because the parents had explained that Al Qaeda was really just like Voldemort. Please.

But my kids got older and so we started reading the books to them and I got hooked too. And naturally last week, when the 6th movie had its global premiere, we had to rush out and see it too, in English with French subtitles. To be honest, it wasn't that great, more than anything a transitional story to set up the grand finale that we'll have to wait a year to see. But what was really interesting to me was following along with the French and seeing the small changes that had been made to make the story work for a Francophone audience. In the French version, the kids go to school at Poudlard, rather than Hogwarts, and the teacher there that Harry detests is not Snape but Rogue. Some of the changes are tiny: Draco Malfoy is known as Drago Malfoy and muggles are referred to as moldu. The one I found most interesting is that Tom Marvolo Riddle (an anagram of "I am Lord Voldemort") in French becomes Tom Elvis Jedusor (which is an anagram of "Je suis Voldemort").

There are probably a dozen other examples but since I didn't take a pen and pencil with me, you'll have to go see it for yourself. Don't worry; it's showing on 110 screens in the Paris region. And yes, Harry does kiss the girl.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 11

I've logged a lot of hours on buses here in Paris and I've got nothing but respect for the bus drivers who manage somehow to get these behemoths through incredibly tight quarters without so much as a scrape. Obviously that takes time and practice and presumably quite a few hours on the training bus pictured here. Sometime last year, a driver in training managed to get stuck while trying to make a left hand turn at the bottom of our street. (Perhaps there is a reason why the regular bus route avoids it?) At any rate, I watched for a while as he tried to make what seemed like a 37 point turn, getting no help from others on the road who were determined to get along with their day and pass him by any means available. And then there was the time when the bus driver of a route I often take forgot a crucial turn and made what must have been a two mile detour to get back on track. So the next time you get on a Paris bus, remember to say "bonjour" to the driver; he or she certainly deserves your respect.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Road Trip

Yesterday, I spent a lot of hours in the car with a friend who had family business to attend to in Brittany and desperately needed company for the four hour drive each way. Being footloose and fancy free this week with the kids away at camp, I was happy to make the trip, the reward being the time spent with her and a glance at holiday life in the seaside town of Dinard.

It was a grey day with alternately periods of drizzle and dry, but that didn't seem to deter the vacationgoers who seemed to be living by the motto that there's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate gear. Dinard swells in size over the summer months from 10,000 to 100,000 inhabitants and there's plenty to keep the holiday crowd busy: sailing, windsurfing, swimming, playing on the wide beaches, fishing, crabbing, plus a casino, horseback riding, playgrounds, and, of course, lots of places to get ice cream, coffee, and waffles piled high with whipped cream. A walking path, built for Third Empire era promenaders and now part of the GR (grande randonnée) system that covers France, skirts the coast for miles in either direction. Grand, 19th century mansions perch on rocky cliffs above the beaches with views to nearby St. Malo and perhaps as far as the Channel Islands Jersey and Guernsey.

The changes in the tides in Dinard are dramatic. When the tide is out, there's plenty of space for everyone to do their thing, including boule for the grownups and mucking about for the kids.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It's awfully darn quiet around here. Parisians have begun their annual flight to the beach and the mountains, and local businesses are posting signs indicating impending closures. Our neighborhood bakery has already suspended its Saturday hours. But the real reason it's so still is that yesterday, we packed up the kids and sent them off to a week of sleepaway camp.

We started talking about this back in the spring and there was a lot of enthusiasm as we perused the offerings. Canoeing! Kayaking! Swimming! Camp fires! Even so I let the idea lie for awhile, concerned that there might be second thoughts about spending a week all in French with not a soul either of them knows. But when there wasn't any grousing, I went ahead and filled in the forms and signed them up. As the day grew closer, I expected to hear some complaints or fears. But there weren't any. Honestly, yesterday, when I watched them climb aboard those buses, one bound for the Midi-Pyrenees and the other for the Alps, it was my heart that was pounding.

Although I sent them both off with stationery and self-addressed stamp envelopes, I don't expect I'll hear a thing until I pick them up next Sunday, sunburned, dog-tired, with bags full of dirty laundry. In the meantime, I'm hoping to enjoy time with my husband, hours alone together that we haven't had in years, and in Paris to boot. Hey come to think of it, that silence really is golden.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 10

Okay, so I've already posted a ton of pictures of Smart cars so I will spare you more, at least for now. But there are lots of other small cars roaming the streets of Paris. The latest is the Axiam which is even smaller than the Smart (and apparently it's in the same class as scooters so you don't even need a proper license to drive it) but I don't have the pictures to prove it. More importantly, there are not that many big cars. When you do see an SUV or even the occasional Hummer, it just makes your eyes bug out of your head. Put them together and you've got the bully and the 98 pound weakling.

These little trucks remind of the Playmobil toys my kids used to play with when they were younger. I'm assuming that the drivers, unlike the Playmobil guys, bend in more places than just at the waist.

And finally another teeny tiny car and I believe made by Fiat. It reminds me of the clown car in the circus. The motorcycle next to it should give you a sense of the scale.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lost Soles

Awhile back, I started working on a post about the stray things I've seen on the sidewalk in Paris -- a chair that looked like it had been used in a bar fight, a dozen smashed eggs, three abandoned TVs -- but it just fizzled out and went nowhere.

And then the other day, I saw this:

And then this:

Who knew that old shoes could possess such poetry?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 9, Bastille Day Edition

With a guest in town, there was no way we could miss the show of military might on the Champs-Élysées this morning. I failed to get a picture of President Sarkozy as he rolled down the avenue ahead of the troops, on his way to the viewing stand on Place de la Concorde. And I have no footage of the aerialists. But there were plenty of rolling vehicles on hand as well as chiseled young men in uniform. The sky was bright blue and we made it home on time to watch, on television, the landing of the parachutists. Bonne fête à tous!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Paris by the Numbers

The folks over at Mercer Worldwide have published their annual survey of the world's most expensive cities for expatriates and Paris has dropped from number 12 to number 13, cheaper than New York but more expensive than London. Interestingly, they've also rated the cost of a fast food hamburger meal in these same spots and the numbers are completely different. In that ranking, Dublin is the most expensive and Tokyo (which took top honors overall) drops to eighth. Paris tied for fourth place with Brussels. (Chalk it up to the ubiquity of McDonald's worldwide that they even have the data for such analysis.)

And for those with a jones for statistics, here are a number of other facts you may find interesting:

The population of Paris is 2.1 million.

The population of Ile de France (Paris plus its surrounding suburban communities) is 10.5 million.

The Louvre is host to 5 million visitors annually.

The number of trips taken on the subway annually is a whopping 1.365 billion.

There are 37 bridges crossing the Seine in Paris alone.

There are 1,200 museums in France.

The French spend 15 percent of their income on food; American spend only about 10 percent on food.

Only 18 percent of Americans are smokers compared with 27 percent of the French.

The average annual rainfall in Paris is 25 inches, which is actually way less than DC (39.3 inches). I tried in vain to find comparative international statistics on days of sunshine which I thought might be more illuminating.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What's Not to Love?

Love these giant posters in the metro with their elegant frames. Love watching these fellows put them up. Love the fact that the name of this movie is "The Reader" (and the fine print says "d'après le best-seller 'Le Liseur'"). Love that it's finally coming out in France, some seven months after it debuted in the U.S.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Those White Athletic Shoes

It's the height of tourist season and Paris is thick with visitors -- long lines at the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, confused people on the subway, and land office business for the souvenir sellers. France is after all the world's number one tourist destination. The global financial crisis may have put a dent in Americans' travel plans but air fares these days are looking pretty good. And with Bush no longer in the White House, it's a particularly good time to be an American in Paris.

A lot of the folks who dish out advice to American tourists keep coming back to the same old admonition: leave the white athletic shoes at home; they're a dead give away that you're American.

Frankly, I don't get it. While it's true that you won't find the French (or the Germans or Italians for that matter) seeing the sights in white sneakers, I'm not really sure what difference it makes. First of all, for standard sightseeing, comfortable shoes are absolutely essential and if you already have the white tennies, there's no need to go out and buy a different pair for your trip. And second, and more importantly, Parisians will know you're American without even looking at your shoes. You can dress in black, wrap a scarf around your neck, and not say a word and they still know. My husband, who is over 6 feet, towers above most Frenchmen. No wonder people never think he's one of them.

Honestly, being taken for a native may be a compliment but it shouldn't be the goal of your vacation. In fact, the best advice for American tourists is simply to remember that you are a guest here and to respect the golden rule. And that means that you should:

Be polite: Learn to say "bonjour, madame," "bonjour, monsieur," "s'il vous plait," "merci," and "parlez vous anglais?" Treat waiters, bus drivers, ticket sellers, hotel clerks, and shop owners with respect.

Don't call attention to yourself: Keep your voice down in public spaces, including the bus and the metro. Leave your team jerseys and ball caps at home although trust me, you will see the French in shirts from the Gap, Abercrombie, and even occasionally an NBA jersey.

Be aware of your surroundings and your personal property: Keep your money in your pocket (preferably your front pocket) and your camera and other valuables tucked out of sight. And fanny packs? Yeah, they look dorky but the real reason you shouldn't wear one is that they are easy pickings for pickpockets. A shoulder bag with a strap that crosses your body or a backpack held securely under your arm when in crowded places is far more secure.

Carrying a water bottle, opening up a map, and wearing jeans are not crimes. Wearing shorts when it's hot outside is fine; just be sure to change into a pair of slacks or a skirt for dinner or the theater.

And finally, don't assume that just because you don't hear people speaking English a lot that no one can understand your "private" conversations or complaints. Many Europeans speak English and who knows? You may find yourself sitting on the metro next to a quiet expat, like me.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 8

I knew my "Vehicles of Paris" series would not be complete without a fire truck but did not count on getting a shot right outside my front door. Sorry girls, no pictures of the pompiers (firemen) who were busy tending to the maintenance man for our building who was hit by a car and apparently broke his leg. He seemed in good enough spirits and fortunately the man responsible for the injury stayed on the scene and was cooperating with the police.

You'll note from the graphic on the side of the truck that the French equivalent of "911" is "18." Dialing "15" will summon SAMU, the more sophisticated medical response team. I'm told that SAMU and the pompiers are well coordinated however so it's always best to dial "18" first.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Can I Call 'Em or What?

Last week (Thursday to be exact), I wrote: I wouldn't be surprised if it's gray, wet and 65 degrees next week. Better not put those sweaters too far out of reach.

Here it is just Tuesday and the weather this afternoon? Gray, wet, and at 4:30 in the afternoon, 63 degrees. For the record, I did not wear a sweater but I did pull my short leather boots out of the back of the closet.

Vehicles of Paris: Part 7

Why is it that when I'm on the lookout for something generic, it always seems as if my eye gets drawn to the out of the ordinary? While these two vehicles are by no means typical, I still found them interesting.

A pink limo cruising the streets of the upscale 16th arrondissement.

Art or transportation? You be the judge.

And a closer look at the hood ornament.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Metro Ticket Origami

Back when I was in scouts, we learned how to make a sit upon, tie a bow hitch, and make a campfire. The scouts in Paris are focused on urban survival skills such as how to fold a Metro ticket into a jumping frog. With the help of a guest blogger, we provide instructions on this all-important bit of city know-how.

1. Start with a used Metro ticket.

2. Make a diagonal fold by folding the top right hand corner flush with the left side. Crease and unfold.

3. Make a similar diagonal fold by folding the top left hand corner flush with the right side. Crease and unfold.

4. Using the crease lines you've just made, pinch in the sides and press down the top, creating a triangle.

5. Fold up the bottom right of the triangle to meet the top.

6. Repeat fold on opposite side.

7. Fold in the side so it meets the magnetic strip along the length of the ticket.

8. Repeat on other side.

9. Fold the ticket in half longways.

10. Fold back the top so it doubles back on itself.

11. Voila! You have a frog.

12. Make your frog jump by pushing down on its backside.

We used to have about a hundred of these frogs in our apartment until I convinced said scout that they should go in the recycling bin.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 6

Perhaps a Vespa to match your new summer bag? In addition to pink, these babies come in all sorts of colors: red, yellow, orange, green, navy, and cream to name a few.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Chocolate, Chocolate, and More Chocolate

Paris is the epicenter of dark chocolate and sometimes I am embarrassed to admit that while I like the stuff, let's just say it's not a passion. But this week's experience may change all that. After months of trying and failing due to scheduling problems, the kids, our house guests, and I finally went on Paris Walk's Chocolate Tour. And let me tell you, it was a hit.

Our guide Iris was full of spark and wisdom not only about the best chocolatiers in the 1st arrondissement where we spent our time but also about how chocolate is made and the many connections between chocolate and great moments in French history. We hit four different shops and tasted two different chocolate pastries and an array of bon bons. I could tell you the names of the shops but that would be poaching on Iris' intellectual property; instead, I'll just assure you that she picked some serious high-end spots that delight both the palate and the eye. My only advice: don't eat a lot of breakfast and bring plenty of water. A package of wet naps if the weather is hot and sticky like it's been this week is not a bad idea either. And don't make reservations for lunch; after this tour, you won't be interested in eating again until dinner, maybe.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Summer heat has descended on Paris. The highs have been creeping up from the low to high 80s over the past several days; it's intense in the sun, better but not particularly refreshing in the shade despite a light breeze. After weathering many summers in Washington, DC where hazy, hot and humid is the rule, I've been trying to figure out what makes the Parisian heat feel so much more like a thick oppressive blanket. We're lucky enough to have many windows in our apartment and relatively little direct sunlight (except in the late afternoon), so there's a cross breeze going most of the time and inside, it's really not bad at all. (Although tell that to my house guests!)

But out there on the streets, it's a different story. Most stores aren't air conditioned. Neither is the subway and the climatisation on the buses is rather touch and go. Add to that the French norms about personal space in public spaces (i.e., none) and the wafts of cigarette smoke coming off the cafe terraces, and the belch of diesel from cars, buses, and motorcycles, and you've got a recipe for discomfort. But this too will pass; I wouldn't be surprised if it's gray, wet and 65 degrees next week. Better not put those sweaters too far out of reach.

It's not just me. The city of Paris is using its billboards to warn people about the heat. Here the advice is for the elderly: stay in the shade and drink often.

For kids, the advice is to dress lightly, play in the water or less strenuous games, and stay in the shade.

And what the heck? Get an ice cream.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

To Burqa or Not to Burqa

There you go again, Niko. Thanks a lot, Mr. President, for declaring that the burqa is not welcome in France and suggesting that it may possibly violate a slew of French laws related to the wearing of religious symbols and women's rights. Now Al Qaeda has gone and issued a threat against France, "by every means and wherever we can reach them." Yeah, I've been through this before. I was just five blocks from the White House on September 11th, there was anthrax in my neighborhood post office later that fall, and my community was terrorized by a deranged sniper for weeks in 2002. By comparison, living in Paris seemed pretty safe.

France banned wearing of religous symbols in schools back in 2004. But it didn't limit religious expression in daily life and you still see folks on the street in yamulkes, turbans, head scarves, and yes, the occasional burqa.

I didn't bring any plastic sheeting and duct tape with me to Paris but there's still time to assemble my emergency survival kit. A panel has been convened of lawmakers from various parties to look into weather the burqa poses a threat to the secular nature of the French constitution. Recommendations are due in six months.
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