Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fall Colors

I'm not one for following fashion trends but it's hard to resist the shop windows when that first nip of fall is in the air and I've had it up to here with the clothes I've been wearing all summer. So what's new this season? Well, acccording to the experts at the Pantone Color Institute (the high priests of all things color-related), the trendy colors for fall include American Beauty ("a wonderfully balanced, true red"), Rapture Rose, Honey Yellow, Majolica Blue, Warm Olive, and Burnt Sienna. Sounds good to me.

But when I look around on the streets of Paris, I see nothing but a sea of black, gray, and beige, muted tones of lavender and dusty blue, and the very occasional pop of pink. It may be hip and happening and it may be just the ticket for setting off the last gasps of those Côte d'Azur acquired tans, but to me, it's blah blah blah. (That is, except for those ladies with the dyed maroon hair. I so do not understand that.) Anyway, I'm thumbing my nose at the experts and sticking with my lightweight quilted pink jacket for the next few weeks and my bright red woolen coat when the temperatures drop. Yes, just another American ingrate in Paris.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Is it just me or does this building seem to be winking? We've had a string of amazingly beautiful days, plenty of sun and dazzling blue skies, and what I wouldn't have given to have had a balcony like this one. As it was, I enjoyed them at ground level outside. But yesterday may have been the end of Indian summer; the forecast for the next couple of days is not particularly promising.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Luxembourg is a tiny little postage stamp of a country sandwiched in the middle of Europe, between France, Belgium, and Germany. You could almost miss it driving by, except that is, if you are driving all the way from Paris, in which case it takes so long to get there that when you finally arrive, you might want to kiss that lady whose voice keeps coming out of the Tom Tom saying "you have arrived at your destination."

But seriously folks. No really, Luxembourg is a very pretty little country, at least what we saw of it over last weekend, when the weather was just about perfect: all green fields and pastel colored houses, sun-kissed vineyards and sparkling waterways. And if you're wondering why bother going, at least for us, the reason was clear. My mother-in-law's parents were Luxembourgers and we're still in touch with cousins whose forebears never left the old country. We spent time with them in the medieval town of Echternach and in their own smaller village nearby, and also enjoyed strolling with them along the banks of the Moselle which separates the Luxembourgers from their German neighbors. The country's language sounds German to me but there are lots of French words thrown in and they all say "merci", not "danke." So "merci" to the cousins -- for the lovely dinner and local wine, the travel commentary, the insight on family and national history, and even for arranging for our youngest child to pat a newborn calf, a side benefit of a trip to the village dairy for fresh milk. You sure can't do that in Paris.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Recommended Reading

Once upon a time, when the country of France as we know it today did not yet exist, there lived four beautiful princesses in a magical kingdom known as Provence. Not one of them pricked her finger on a spindle, kissed a frog, or was locked up in a forgotten tower. Actually the true story of their lives, chronicled by Nancy Goldstone in her book,The Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters who Ruled Europe, turns out to be more fascinating than pretty much any fairy tale. Marguerite, Eleanor, Beatrice, and Sanchia found themselves at the center of all the political and religious intrigue of the 13th century, eventually becoming queens of France, England, Sicily, and Germany. I wouldn't say they all lived happily ever after but there's plenty of juicy stuff here: trips to exotic lands, ransoms, wars, contracts made and broken, scheming mothers and uncles, family feuds, and heaps of treasure. If you thought the Middle Ages were dull, think again. Goldstone paints a vivid picture that has pretty much any fairy tale beat.

Friday, September 25, 2009

High Holy Days

Jews worldwide are currently observing the 10 days of awe that come between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The history of the Jewish people in France is as long and as checkered as it is everywhere else in western Europe. A synagogue was in existence on Ile de la Cité as early as the 6th century; the years since have been marked by periods of expulsion, exclusion, return, and integration. Fully one quarter of France's Jews died during the Holocaust. Since then, the numbers have rebounded somewhat, particularly given the influx of Jews from North Africa.

Today, there are more than 600,000 Jews in France, of whom 375,000 live in Paris. This puts France in a distant third position (behind the U.S. and Israel) in the number of Jewish residents. I often see older men of the Orthodox sect, wearing black suits and brimmed hats, as they go about their business in the Marais quartier. But I've never been bold enough to take a picture. I caught this group, somewhat less traditionally attired, from quite a distance. Maybe they realized I was snapping them but maybe not. In any case, a sweet new year to all.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 17

It's been awhile since I've posted about vehicles but I've got a few more coming. Most visitors to Paris are aware of the bateaux mouche, the tour boats you can take up and down the Seine. But the Seine is not just a sightseeing destination; it's a real working river with lots of cargo going to and fro. Not sure whether this boat is carrying coal, asphalt or something else. One thing I know for sure: it does not have a commentary in several languages.

Note: The bridge in the background of this photo, Pont Bir Hakeim, is one of my favorites, not because it's so pretty or historic but because Metro line 6 comes above ground to traverse the river there and gives you a terrific view of the Eiffel Tower.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Connected 24/7

The calendar says fall but it was a beautiful summery day here yesterday. Too bad all these folks who managed to get out of the office into the environs of the Palais Royal couldn't quite escape business.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Punch and Judy au Metro

There's street theater and then there's this. I don't know what you would actually call it other than annoying. It starts with the fellow who hops on to your subway car and puts up this black cloth between the poles.

The boom box goes on and then the whole show is these lame puppets dancing to loud music. There's no story, no gags, not even one puppet whacking another one over the head. I got off the train before the puppeteer passed the hat. No way I would have even dropped a centime in his cup. Some things simply should not be encouraged.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

This past weekend marked les Journées du Patrimoine, the one time each year when some of the most amazing buildings in Paris (and actually throughout France and the rest of Europe) are open to the public. We went whole hog our first year here, standing in line for close to four hours to get a glimpse of the Palais de l'Elysée. Call me jaded, spoiled or just plain overprogrammed but it was the best I could do this year to roll out the door mid morning Sunday to see the Grand Hôtel d'Estrées, the residence of the Russian ambassador to Paris.

The building, constructed in the early 18th century, passed from one French noble to another before being sold to the government of Russia in the 1860s. And it's typical of many of the grand houses of Paris. From the rue de Grenelle, there's nothing to see but a big wooden door. You step through and enter in a cobblestone courtyard, grand but austere. It's not hard to imagine a carriage turning in from the street, the clip clop of horses' hooves, and a flock of liveried servants emerging to greet any visitors.

But it's only when you get inside when you start to appreciate how lavish life must have been: a grand staircase, marble floors, expansive carpets, and enough gold woodwork, crystal chandeliers, and Louis XV encrusted everything to make your head spin. Personally, I was most enchanted by the work of contemporary French artist Paul Flickinger, displayed throughout the residence and in the garden. Hats off to the Russian Federation for preserving this gem of French culture and for so skillfully marrying the treasures of the past with those of the present.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sunny Day

Today started out misty and damp but now the sun is shining and the sky is blue and it just reminds me again how lucky I am to be in Paris. I took this photo months ago (as you can tell from the leafless branch)and never really knew what to say about it. Its cheer somehow just seemed the right match for today.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Morning at the Movies

Several weeks ago, a couple of my friends and I hatched a great plan -- we would go see Julie and Julia together on Wednesday, September 16th, the day it opened in France, and benefit from the last day of La Rentrée du Cinéma when tickets would only be 4 euros.

It sounded like sheer genius, that is until a few days before when I started trying to track down show times and theaters. Then I learned something that I still find astonishing. While Wednesday is the day when new movies come out (as opposed to Friday as is the case in the U.S.), you cannot find out until Wednesday about show times for the week ahead.

Are you with me? Here's the deal. So say I know on Monday that I want to go to the movies on Wednesday or even Thursday or Friday. I have to wait until Wednesday morning to find out when and where I can actually see the film. Now, don't tell me to check the theater chains' Web sites or even sites like Cinofil or Allocine that have information for most of the theaters in Paris. Been there, done that, and no dice. And you can't call the theater because there is no phone number posted for the theater (of course, this is no different from back home). Tuesday evening, I finally went on the site for Le Figaro, crossing my fingers that Wednesday's Figaroscope would already be posted. And bingo (finally), there were the showtimes for Julie and Julia. In the end, as so often is the case, all's well that ends well. We enjoyed the movie at the bargain price, had a few good laughs and shed a few tears, and now we know better than to try to go to the movies on Wednesdays in the future.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Measuring Up

I spent entirely too much time on Facebook the other day, having a heated discussion with a friend of a friend about health care reform in the U.S. Me: yes! now! Her: no way! The conversation was making me crazy mostly because she was busy spouting statistics that made no sense and I got myself all in a tizzy, scouring the Internet for better information on comparative health indicators, health spending, tax burden, etc. She could have cared less; it was all "socialism" to her.

Now here comes President Sarkozy with another idea that's going to make Americans like her completely flip out: stop measuring the nation's well-being with the single measure of gross domestic product (income) and start measuring it with more complex indicators that also account for quality of life or as the French say "joie de vivre" including vacation time, health care, and family relationships. I'm sure this will spark a huge debate on how to measure and weight these factors, all of which merit careful discussion. What I like is the acknowledgement that while money itself counts (and counts a lot), it shouldn't be the only measure of societal success. You can read more about the news in the Wall Street Journal.

A tip of the hat to my friend Fernando back in DC for sharing this link.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fresh Fall Fruit

Tis the season for plums: green, yellow, and purple. They're just delicious, the little ones perfect for popping in your mouth whole, the bigger ones just the right size for a snack at any time of day.

But what may I ask is the right price to pay for these beauties? There seems to be no consensus at the market and no way for me to determine the best relationship between quality and price. Chicken that I am, I took the middle price point and wasn't sorry.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Going, Going....

For those of you who are already in Paris, run, don't walk, to the Musee Marmottan by Wednesday, September 20th. That's the final day of a dual photography exhibit featuring the work of Lucien Clergue and Yann Arthus-Bertrand. While their work has been on display for months, it was only this past weekend that I happened in and only because I had guests in town. Clerque's most stunning works are nudes photographed in the surf, shimmering with light and shadow. Bertrand has captured Paris from the sky, zooming in on patterns in plazas, gardens, and monuments. The 25 minute film, Paris Vu du Ciel, featured some of the most incredible shots I have ever seen of what must be the world's most photographed city. A new book of Bertrand's work is slated for publication this month and I can assure you that I will be standing in line at the bookshop the day that it goes on sale.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Going Green

It was either one helluva party or it's been way too long since the truck came by to empty this curbside glass recycling bin.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cafe Society

I don't spend a lot of time in cafés but I do love this script font. And the rattan chairs. And the plush velvet banquettes. And the fact that you can sit in that chair for hours and you may actually have to work to get the server's attention to pay the bill. (That is, unless your café crème starts to run into the lunch service.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Vocabulary Builder

Had I seen this picture back in 1987, I might not have learned the hard way that knowing a little bit of a language can be a dangerous thing. It was that summer when my husband (still just my boyfriend) and I took what turned out to be a glorious vacation, cycling in the Loire Valley. I was conjuring up my high school French, even then a distant memory, and he was relying on me to do the talking. And actually, I wasn't doing half bad. We figured out how to get our bikes from Orly to Paris and then on to Angers by train, found acceptable hotel rooms in one town after another, and enjoyed the chateaus and sunflowers along the route.

One night in Orléans, tired after a day of riding, I spotted "cervelle d'agneau" on the menu.

"Great!" I thought. "Agneau is lamb and I love lamb!"

But when my meal arrived, it wasn't a lamb chop. It wasn't even a slice of mutton. It was unmistakably a lamb's brain, albeit swimming in butter. So I did what any hungry cyclist would do. I ate it. And I've never forgotten the word "cervelle." (And I've never ordered it again either.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


For a city that is one of the world's top tourist destinations, Paris has surprisingly few buskers -- those magicians, jugglers, unicycle riders, jacks of all trades -- who delight crowds for the price of a few coins dropped in their hat. London has Convent Garden, Barcelona has Las Ramblas, hell even Halifax has an international festival of street entertainers and what do you find in Paris? A few guys at Trocadero who think they can break dance (trust me, they can't), one lonely clown on the bridge between Ile de la Cite and Ile St. Louis, and a handful of performers holding court in front of the Pompidou Centre. That's where we caught the act of this good natured slack rope walker last weekend. It's actually the second time we've seen him -- no over the top stunts but he's got his patter down and knows exactly whom to pick out of the audience to help him out. There were also a few Mongolian musicians in traditional dress plus a magician who took over after the slack rope walker had done his bit. What gives? Are there laws preventing street entertainers? Or are Paris's audiences too stingy to make it worth their while? I'd really like to know.

Young Sasha was the perfect foil for this entertainer's antics.

Monday, September 7, 2009

B as in Boy or More on the Subject of Spelling

Talk about getting caught with your foot in your mouth. French education minister Luc Chatel issued a press release for the first day of school last week and whaddaya know? It was full of spelling errors and grammatical faults. Spoon fed this, the press had a field day. If your French is better than mine, see if you can correct the errors in these passages published on-line by Le Point:

- "La rèforme de l'enseignement primaire, qui est entré en application à la rentrée 2008, s'appuie sur des horaires et des Les programmes, redéfinis par arrêtés du 9 juin 2008 qui s'articulent avec les sept grandes compétences du socle commun."

- "En 2009 se sont 214.289 élèves qui ont suivi... "

- "Ces formations concerneront prioritairement les enseignants qui exercent pour la première fois en école maternelles ."

A corrected press release was promptly reissued.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I'm thrilled, touched, and a bit embarrassed. Meg Zimbeck, a longtime expat Paris blogger and freelance writer, recently posted her list of Top 10 Paris Expat Blogs on the Budget Travel magazine Web site and guess who made the list? I've got great company and I also learned about a few blogs for the first time. Check out her article and visit Meg's blog as well. She was modest enough not to add her own name to the list.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When There's Smoke

That heap of charred furniture is what remains from the basement storage area of one of our neighbors. Over the past couple days, there have been some workers down in the cave (pronounced "cahhv") messing with the plumbing. Just what they were doing I don't know except for the notice that there would be no hot water from Wednesday morning through Thursday evening. But then sometime yesterday afternoon, they somehow ignited a electrical fire down there. The fire must have been smoldering for awhile because when I came home after being out for several hours, I smelled something burnt but it dissipated by the time I reached our floor. A short while later, when I was heading out with one of my kids to do an errand, we encountered some ladies down in the courtyard calling the fire department about smoke billowing out of the cave vents. The gardienne came running from her apartment several doors down and I figured there was no reason to hang around.

About a half hour later, heading back home, my cellphone rang. It was a neighbor across the street.

"Are you okay?" she asked.


"Well there are fire trucks blocking the street on both ends and smoke everywhere."

We made our way back to our place where we found a hook and ladder, a smaller fire truck, a police car, the electric company and the gas company, and lots and lots of firefighters. A crowd of residents and rubberneckers gathered on the sidewalk although interestingly, they did not evacuate the building. Twenty minutes later, they gave the all clear for those of us who had left to return and that's when we saw the smoldering pile of the third floor resident's family heirlooms and bric a brac, hauled up from the cave and doused in the courtyard. Poor fellow. The rest of us just have to deal with the lingering scent of smoke, a cold dinner (the gas wasn't turned back on until late), and no hot water for the second night in a row. I'm hoping those workers come back today and finish what they long as it doesn't involve combustion.

Les pompiers (firefighters) brought an impressive amount of hoses with them. Fortunately, they didn't have to unwind these ones too.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Face Lift

There's a Parisian law requiring buildings to be cleaned every 10 years, thus the inordinate number of structures masked by scaffolding. I've seen a lot of sand blasters at work but I've never seen anything quite like this -- a sandblasting unit on a crane, requiring nothing more than a canopy over the sidewalk to protect passersby from dropping bits of debris. How much nicer for the residents than having the view out the windows obstructed for weeks on end? When I spotted this machine yesterday afternoon, it was clear that work was done for the day; the crane was lowering the unit onto a flat bed truck. Although it's not obvious from these photos, the building behind was a grimey brown with soot colored streaks on one side, a creamy beige with glints of mica on the other.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Music to my Ears

My apologies for the quality of the photograph but you go ahead and try to take a picture in a crowded corridor in the metro on a busy weekday afternoon. Not possible. At any rate, this is a portion of my favorite metro musical group; I wasn't able to get a couple of their bandmates in the picture. (And if you're wondering, yes, I did put a nice donation in their basket.) I've seen them most frequently at Concorde but also at the Franklin Roosevelt station. They come from somewhere in eastern Europe and sing with wonderful harmonies that make me think of the Russian army chorus. Compared to some of the hapless singers with boomboxes who ride the number 6 line, it's heaven on earth.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A as in Apple

If you ask Americans about what they consider national passions, they might say NASCAR, baseball, backyard barbecues, or even complaining about whichever party is in control of Congress. Ask them about the subject of spelling, and you might hear reminiscences about an elementary school spelling bee. No way would they put national passion and spelling in the same ballpark, much less the same sentence. But this week, the cover story of the weekly magazine Le Point is all about the French obsession with correct spelling. Much of it is devoted to excerpts from the new book, Zéro Faute, in which writer and TV producer François de Closets comes clean on his own miserable performance in spelling and that purely French exercise, la dictée. Closets argues for reform of the rigid system of spelling, explaining that spelling and pedagogical methods must evolve with the language and also that talent in spelling is predictive of nothing more than well, talent in spelling. Heresy? Perhaps. But my guess is that only an icon like Closets has half a chance with the educational establishment and the guardians of the French language. And since my spelling in French is the pits, I'm with him all the way.
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