Sunday, August 30, 2009

La Rentrée

It's official. Summer is over. The traffic was murder over the weekend (or so I heard). People are back in their offices and the shops are all open for business. School starts Wednesday for the big kids, Thursday for the little ones. New notebooks, pencils, backpacks, school shoes, the works. The guys living on the sidewalk outside our place even have a new couch.

For me, the change has been dramatic. After spending most of August in a city where the streets and subways were virtually empty and friends were scattered to the four corners of the earth, some for good, some just for awhile, suddenly my dance card is full again. Meetings at school, social gatherings, new families with loads of questions. My language classes will start again soon. And there's a crispness in the air that's an invitation to walk and walk, something that was not so inviting in the dog days of summer. Forget April in Paris, September's the best.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Textures and Patterns

Never a dull moment here. Even the littlest things can speak to me when I'm in the mood to listen.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

And the Winner Is....

I don't know much about Têtu, only that it's a magazine targeted to the gay and lesbian community and I sometimes see the covers posted outside the news kiosk. But what really got my attention are the billboards now running that are a result of the magazine's efforts to promote use of condoms as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted disease. The magazine ran a contest for the best poster to match the tag line, "La capote protège du sida." (Condoms protect from AIDS.) There are actually three posters in this campaign that will run on 200 kiosks over the next several months but I liked these two best, especially the contrast between them. Odette, as you can see, has used nearly 14,000 condoms; Kevin just one (so far). Congrats to Loulou in Garches for these winning entries.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Kid in Town

Some time while all of France was en vacances, a moving truck pulled up at pretty nice place on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Mr. Sarkozy's new neighbor? Charles Rivkin, freshly confirmed as U.S. ambassador to France. An entertainment executive, whose stint as CEO of the Jim Henson Company generated some unfortunate comparisons between diplomacy and the Muppets, Mr. Rivkin fits the mold of many past U.S. ambassadors to high-profile posts: he raised $500,000 for Obama in California. But hey, he's young, good-looking, optimistic about the impact of Obama's election on U.S.-France relations, and a fluent French speaker. Interestingly, his family, in memory of his late father who was ambassador to Gambia, Senegal, and Luxembourg, gives an annual award to a middle level officer of the U.S. Foreign Service for constructive dissent. The French would have killed if the post had been given to Caroline Kennnedy, but after that debacle over the naming of Hillary Clinton's successor, no way was that going to happen. So, I'm hoping they'll give Mr. Rivkin the benefit of the doubt and that he'll do us Americans proud.

You can find Rivkin's bio on the U.S Embassy in Paris Web site here and an interesting story from the New York Times about his appointment here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I saw this sign posted on a tree along the river when we were in Reims last month. It says that it's okay to fish but only on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays, and holidays, clearly the only proper days for respectable people to be engaged in such pursuits. (Monday is a day off for those who work on Saturday.) So if you're out there fishing today, get back to work!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Going Gaga for Guimard

When it comes to tourist destinations, there's not much to see in the 16th arrondissement, just block after block of elegant Haussmanian apartment buildings, some lovely gardens, and plenty of high-end shops. And while there are a few sightseeing gems, like the Musee Marmottan and the Musee Guimet, for the most part, it's an area of town that the guidebooks all but forget. But take the 52 bus or metro line 9 down to the lower 16th, and there in the village of Auteuil are a number of Art Nouveau buildings well worth the price of the bus ticket. Pictured above is the gate at Castel Béranger, a complex of 36 apartments designed around 1890 by Hector Guimard, better known for his work on entrances to the Métro. (The two remaining Guimard designed shelters can be found at Abbesses and Porte Dauphine.) You'll find this sinuous gate at 14 rue la Fontaine; take a peek also at 60 rue de la Fontaine and 122 avenue Mozart.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 16

Earlier this month, I spotted these two over the top Lamborghinis parked on a side street next to the Hôtel de Crillon. So who drives one of these in Paris and leaves it on the street? Only someone who doesn't think twice about dropping 770 euros for a double room in low season or up to 8,220 for a suite at the pricier time of year. The continental breakfast alone will set you back 38 euros. The license plate confirmed my suspicions.

Friday, August 21, 2009


We have a huge map of Europe taped up in the hall outside the kids' bedrooms where we've kept track of all our trips. It's studded with colored dots: red for my husband's business travel, purple for family adventures, green for a few jaunts I've taken solo and yellow and blue for each of the kids. It's hard not to be mesmerized by it and we find ourselves looking at it all the time -- reliving journeys already taken and plotting out those to come.

Although my husband's work has taken him to Bonn, Berlin, and Munich, the rest of us hadn't stepped foot in that direction, reason enough to ditch Paris for a week in Germany and Austria. It was a trip packed with castles, gardens, Baroque churches, train rides, and lots of 1 euro ice cream cones, about half what they cost in Paris. Our travels ranged from the cheesy but fun Sound of Music tour in Salzburg to the depths of existential questioning on our visit to Dachau. We wandered medieval streets and forest footpaths, drove past Alpine meadows and lakes, and ate more than our fill of beer and sausages. Plus we got to spend a day with German friends Hans and Ulrike in their unexpectedly lovely home town, Landshut, about an hour on the train northeast of Munich. We resisted the potato chip aisle (where the modal flavors were paprika and sweet chili) but gave in to the pastries with plenty of schlag. And while it's good to be back home where there are plenty of vegetables, we'll relish the memories of craggy mountains, geraniums spilling from window boxes, eating meals in umbrella shaded cafes, the madness that inspired King Ludwig of Bavaria to build Neuschwanstein and Linderhof, iron shop signs, dirndls and lederhosen, glockenspiels and church bells.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another Notch in the Belt

Today marks the second anniversary of our family's arrival in Paris. We've gone from feeling like Bambi in the headlights to being viewed as old experienced hands by expats who've just arrived. No, I'll never be considered a true Parisian but at least I've gotten the grocery shopping down to a science, am often on autopilot in the metro, and can carry on entire conversations, even on the phone, in French. And the last time I got my haircut, the hairdresser, who doesn't speak a word of English and whose French I sometimes barely understand, wouldn't let me leave the shop until we exchanged kisses on each cheek. But I still am scratching my head about other stuff, like the vagaries of French politics or why the TV will only turn on when I push "1" but it turns off when I push "power" and why "pain" (bread) is masculine and "baguette" is feminine. The good news is that there's still plenty of time to find out. Our three-year tour just got extended so instead of having just one more year left to explore Paris, we now have two. The clock's ticking...better get out there and discover.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fermeture Annuelle

I'm taking a few days off from posting while on vacation. Somebody else please keep my chair warm for me while I'm gone.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More Recommended Reading

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. This book sat on my night stand for months before I finally decided to pick it up. And then there was no stopping me; I read it in one sitting finishing after midnight and much too keyed up to go to bed. de Rosnay presents two intertwined stories, one of Sarah, a young girl among the thousands of Jews who were rounded up by the French police on July 16, 1942, and the other, an American journalist in Paris assigned to write a story about the fateful day at the Velodrome d'Hiver and its aftermath. Some may find the intersplicing irritating. I appreciated it, if for no other reason that it kept the horrible story of what happened to France's Jews during World War II from crashing down on me all at once. But de Rosnay spares nothing in her demand that the French deal forthrightly with the atrocities carried out by their countrymen during that dark time, suggesting that remembrance, rather than time, will heal all wounds. Make sure you have plenty of Kleenex on hand before you plunge in.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Potty Parity

In the ongoing war for potty parity, the men win again. Use of the urinals in this French train station is free; use of the individual toilets costs 30 centimes. So men have a choice and women must pay. Where's the fairness? Lucky for me, the machine dispensing tokens was out of order so the toilets were free anyway.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

France in the News

A couple of interesting links from the New York Times:

A small town in the southwest of France hosts an annual festival devoted to American country music. This isn't the first time I've heard about the strong grip that the myth of the Old West has on the French psyche.

An American couple, now living in Dubai, takes wretched excess to new heights in their rehab of a Parisian apartment. The renovation itself looks quite tasteful; it's just that the money involved makes my head spin.

Happy reading!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 15

The fellows who keep Paris's streets clean have all manner of vehicles. (And yes, despite that objectionable stuff on the sidewalk, they really are a hardworking bunch.) I've been trying to get one of their street sweepers, either the large tanker truck or the mini brush, but I never seem to have my camera with me at the right moment. But success was mine yesterday when I snapped this guy, out doing his duty on a Sunday in August of all days. Now if I could just interest him in a certain sofa sitting on the sidewalk down the block.....

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Street Scene

"J'en ai marre" is one of those great little expressions, hard to translate word for word and completely baffling to Google Translate. It means "I'm fed up" and that's exactly how I feel about a little situation that's developed on our corner. Since there's a small supermarket there, there's often someone hanging out, bumming a cigarette or change. But for the most part, these guys have come and gone, rarely spending more than a day or two before disappearing. Then a couple of weeks ago, two new faces showed up and within a matter of days, had installed themselves on the sidewalk. I say "installed" because they have a special talent for accumulating furniture -- a couch, an office chair, a huge mirror, a rug, a mattress -- enough to get them by until the next bulk trash collection and then they start all over again. They're noisy, rude, and mostly drunk. And while the police have been by, unless these dudes become more aggressive or overtly criminal, there's not much that can be done. I'm just hoping that when September rolls around and there are more people around to raise a stink, that they'll pack up and move along.

Charming, huh? I don't think the tourist bureau would want you to see this slice of Parisian life. Me neither.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Oh La La!

Frontal nudity is no big deal here, at least in print. But I'm sure that Sharon Stone's cover for Paris Match still made a few heads turn.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 14

What could be more clear? Yes, it's a police car. You see these guys cruising around town and at the occasional accident scene. The national police used to be known as le Sûreté which may ring a bell if you ever saw an Inspector Clouseau movie.

The more I try to learn about the police, though, the more I understand why Clouseau was so confused. Although the police are organized and adminstered at the national level, they are also responsible for enforcing the law in municipalities. And don't mistake them for the gendarmes who are technically part of the military but also have law enforcement responsibilities. Frankly, I've read enough about it to make my head swim and things aren't getting any clearer. But then again, as long as I keep my nose clean, I suppose I really don't need to know who has jurisdiction when and where.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Recommended Reading

I'm making a few changes to my site and have decided to remove the Books for Francophiles feature from the right hand side column. But I don't want to lose the content so I'm offering it up here in this post. Be on the lookout for future posts with more recommended reading.

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. I read this collection of essays, originally published in The New Yorker, before coming to France and, in due course, I plan to read it again. Gopnik writes warmly about Paris, and shares his experiences bridging the cultural divide and becoming a new father.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I've never been a huge Hemingway fan but I truly enjoyed this book, a series of vignettes about life of a young writer in Paris between the two world wars. I especially enjoyed the chapters about Gertrude Stein whose book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, left me cold. Hemingway's famous quote from which the title is taken does not actually appear in the book although the sentiments are there through and through.

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling. Another collection of essays by a correspondent for The New Yorker but from another era. Liebling visited Paris frequently from the 1920s through the early 1960s and seems to have spent most of his time eating and drinking. The tone is somewhat elegaic, making me feel that I arrived in Paris at least 60 years too late.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Great swashbuckling fun with lots of over-the-top plot devices, mistaken identities, and all-too-convenient coincidences.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovksy. An incredibly powerful novel of the German occupation of France in 1941-42 written contemporaneously by a Russian Jewish emigre to Paris who lost first her husband and then her own life at the hands of the Nazis.

Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. Fraser doesn't hide her affection for Marie Antoinette in this biography, sketching a portrait of a young girl ill-prepared for her role and ill-served by those surrounding her.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. A rather silly novel (I suppose you would call it a romp) chronicling the adventures of a young American in Paris during the 1950s. What's fun is that many of her haunts are still in business.

My Life in France by Julia Child. I didn't realize it but Julia Child knew nothing about cooking until she followed her husband to Paris in the postwar years. She immediately fell in love with France and dedicated herself to learning how to cook. There are no recipes in this book; it simply glows with her warm memories of Paris, Marseille, and la cuisine française. Thanks to my college pal Deb for this recommendation.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. You only have to read a few pages of this book to understand why it was a runaway bestseller. It's an easy read and paints a picture of a magical region with colorful characters and food to die for. And yet because of it, tourism in Provence has spiked, so much so that Mayle himself has decamped to somewhere in Italy.

Napoleon's Women by Christopher Hibbert. This biography focuses of course on Napoleon's two wives, Josephine and Marie Louise, and his many mistresses but also chronicles Bonaparte's own rise to power and eventual fall. At first, Hibbert can scarcely contain his contempt for Josephine, pretty much calling her a slut and a spendthrift, but later softens. It's a good way to learn about the Napoleonic era without having to spend too much time on the battlefield.

The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston. Once I started this novel, I had a hard time putting it down. The central characters wrestle with damaging memories of World War II and the potentially restorative power of love. As the story unfolds in Paris in the 1950s, it's set against the backdrop of the French war in Algeria which has powerful parallels to the current American war in Iraq.

Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas by John Baxter. Fluffy but I mean that in a good way. Aussie John Baxter tells the story of cooking Christmas dinner for his French wife's family and ends up spilling the beans on cross cultural misunderstandings, French cuisine, and holiday traditions.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Honey, This Ain't Safeway

Somehow I don't think that the union for grocery workers in the U.S. or even the grocery industry association has a headquarters like this one. The stonework was just too delicious to resist.

Monday, August 3, 2009

TV Time

I'm coming clean. One of the things I miss about home -- along with my garden and having a regular paycheck -- is television. I've never been a huge TV watcher and in fact, TV was strictly rationed when I was growing up and we were absolutely forbidden to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings. But every now and then, especially when I'm tired, it's kind of nice to turn on the TV and just enjoy a smartly written comedy or a good thriller.

People keep telling me that watching TV is a good way to improve your language skills so I've tried on and off to get in the habit of watching. But I don't know, I guess I just haven't been willing to make the commitment. Until recently that is, when I noticed that one of the kids had been fiddling with the TV and magically turned on the closed captioning for the hearing impaired. And while my French isn't good enough to understand mumbling cops who use nothing but slang, it is plenty good enough to read the French subtitles. Plus, it turns out that there's a lot of recycled American fare dubbed in French: ER (Les Urgences), CSI (Les Experts), Without a Trace (FBI Portes Disparus) to name a few. Knowing a bit about the characters and the context does help after all. So if you're thinking if I'm spending my evenings sipping fine wines and discussing existentialism, think again. It's more likely than I'm flopped on the couch watching three-year old reruns of David Caruso squinting into the Miami sun. His acting is just bad even with the French voice over but at least I can pretend it's time well spent.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Weekend Noir

Yep, it's officially August. Although the pace of city life has been winding down for the past two weeks, the big flight for the hills, the beaches, anywhere but here, started yesterday. The authorities issued an alert for the weekend with traffic expected to be at its worst (code noir) today, meaning long lines at airports and train stations, and many miles of traffic backups on the highways. As for me, we're staying put for the moment. And the good news for those staying in town, parking is free at 90 percent of meters throughout the month of August. The trick: make sure the meter specifically says "gratuit mois d'août." The catch: you still have to find an empty space.
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