Monday, November 30, 2009

Les Pompiers

This is one of the sights of Paris you won't find noted in Fodor, Frommer, or The Lonely Planet: the local squad of firemen out for their morning training run. Just because I've been happily attached for almost 25 years doesn't mean that I can't appreciate the view. My husband looks pretty good in tights himself.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dressed for Success

I think everyone has that image of how Parisians dress -- always just so, heels and lipstick for ladies, crisply ironed shirts for men. And while there are plenty of folks who dress to the nines, come rain or shine, it's probably more accurate to say not that everyone's dressed up but that no one's ever dressed down. You just don't see people doing their errands in their gym clothes and come summer, you really don't see much of anyone in town (except the tourists) in shorts. Well, unless you're 22 and you like to wear really short shorts with tights underneath.

All this is a long way of saying, I've totally bought in. Yesterday, I spent most of the day at home, cooking and prepping for the belated Thanksgiving dinner we're having tonight with French friends. (And some of you will probably be relieved to know that there will not be any marshmallows on my sweet potatoes.) Midway through chopping, stirring, and washing dishes, I needed to go out to pick up a few last minute things. So what did I do? I changed out of my sweat pants and sneakers into cords and loafers, knotted a big scarf around my neck to hide my somewhat questionable top, brushed my hair and yes, even put on earrings. I'm hoping the florist and the vegetable guy appreciated the effort.

But you have to draw the line somewhere: I still don't change to take out the garbage, even daring to go down with my apron on and glasses perched on top of my head. But then, at least one gentlemen in my building thinks I'm my kids' nanny and if that means I don't have to reapply lipstick, so much the better.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Red Sky in Morning, Sailor Take Warning

Or so the saying goes. To be followed by yet another day of gray Parisian skies, plus plenty of wind and rain. Well, it was gorgeous while it lasted.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

The French word for cranberries is "canneberges" but you're just as likely to see the English term. These dried berries, the perfect addition to a salad or oatmeal, are available in our corner store as well as in bulk at some of the open air markets. The fresh version is much harder to find and sold only in teeny tiny cardboard boxes ("barquettes") for an astounding price. I must thank Polly and Katie for supplying me with the fresh cranberries that will grace our table this Thanksgiving, although our feast will be on Saturday instead of today.

I'm also giving thanks today for my husband who was brave enough to apply for a job which was a bit out of his comfort zone and who is a wonderful partner in everything from making major life decisions to cleaning the bathtub. I am grateful for my two kids who are so very different from each other; for my siblings who, among other things, keep me connected to my parents, now gone; for my brothers and sisters-in-law who take such good care of their mom, and for my many good friends. We're in good health, financially secure, and living in Paris. Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Just Say No

I've walked past this shop before and never had any problem resisting those bagels, particularly since they cost almost three bucks in American terms. But yesterday I had a sick kid on my hands and I thought a toasted bagel, a little bit of warm chewy goodness, might just be the ticket.

Nuff said. The two folks working in the store were quite nice but it was just bagel shaped bread and not even very good bread at that. Sad to say that, although Americans love French food and the French, though deny it they will, love American treats, we don't do a very good job in implementing each other's cuisine.

And yet sick child was happy and perhaps that's enough for any mom. The rest of you: stick with the boulangerie.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Flood of 1910

There was a horrible flood in Paris in 1910, so bad that the Seine overflowed its banks, bringing the city to a near standstill. At its peak, the Seine was some 20 feet above its normal level. The Zouave who stands below the Pont de l'Alma was literally up to his neck in water. Some 20,000 buildings housing 200,000 people were affected.

Today the Seine sits so low relative to the banks that it's hard to imagine that it ever approached the level of the quais. But there are still reminders of this natural disaster. Last week, I noticed this mark on a building on rue de Bellechasse, just a block or so from the Musee d'Orsay in the 7th arrondissement. During the flood, the Orsay (then a train station) was completely flooded, its tracks under water.

Despite a hundred years of technological progress, the authorities say that it could happen again. Better have your boots ready.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On Ice

We've been eating a bit bizarrely over the past couple of days as I try to clean out the odds and ends to make space in our refrigerator for Thanksgiving goodies. We actually have a refrigerator that's rather large by Parisian standards unlike my neighbor across the street who was forced to do this, a not uncommon sight here:

Most kitchens in the older Haussmanian buildings also have a little cupboard under the window that is ventilated to the outside, the perfect place to store root vegetables and other things that don't mind the cold. The one in our place was boarded up long ago when the kitchen was moved from the back to a more central location but this one is just across our courtyard.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Evening with the Author

For those of you living in Paris and for those of you who just might be visiting over Thanksgiving, please mark your calendar for a reading at The Red Wheelbarrow by Chicago author Lowell Komie from his new novel, The American Bookstore of Paris. (No, it's not about The Red Wheelbarrow, although the shop, along with several of the other English language bookstores in town, does get a brief mention.)

The reading will be held on Friday, November 27 at 7:00 p.m. Komie is the recipient of the prestigious Carl Sandburg Fiction Award for The Lawyer’s Chambers and the Small Press Fiction Award for The Last Jewish Shortstop in America. Come out and support an American writer and a really nice little establishment serving Anglophones in Paris. And who knows? You might get to meet me too!

The Red Wheelbarrow
22 rue Saint Paul
Metro: Saint Paul

Friday, November 20, 2009

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrivé

Sometime in the postwar years, some commercial genius sitting behind a desk in Lyon came up with a brilliant plan. Take the gamay grapes harvested at the end of the summer, and rather than letting the wine mature according to the traditional methods, bottle it up and sell it quick. No, better than that, call it Beaujolais Nouveau and make the rush to get the first bottles to market on the third Thursday in November a badge of honor.

Give that man a gold star. Beaujolais Nouveau doesn't win a lot of prizes from the serious wine afficianados but it generates quite a media buzz plus a lot of export business. Of the 40 million bottles sold in 2008, 15.5 million were shipped abroad. The Japanese go gaga for it, accounting for about 40 percent of foreign consumption, and in the U.S., it's promoted as the perfect accompaniment to your Thanksgiving turkey.

The marketers have pronounced this year's vintage exceptional, crediting nearly optimal weather conditions in areas where the gamay grapes are cultivated. I enjoyed a glass with a plate of Lyonnais sausages for lunch yesterday and can only comment that it went down just fine.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getta Hair Cut!

I received an e-mail today from Sarah, a New Yorker in Paris for an extended stay. For some reason, Sarah thought that I might have a line on someone who could give her a hair cut. She assumed correctly that I've reached a certain age that is euphemistically called "mature" but incorrectly that I actually have a decent hair cut myself. Let's just put it this way. My hair cut at the moment looks like crap. I try to wrangle it into submission every morning but before long, I'm going to have to find someone new to cut my hair, someone with whom I can communicate, who will actually do what I want (which is give me a low maintenance but non-frumpy looking hair cut), and who will not keep insisting that I color my hair. (It's not gray, not even close, but my current hair guy just wants to play.)

So since I was a total washout for Sarah, let me turn it over to the blogosphere. Anyone out there know of a decent stylist in Paris who can make those of us over 40 look reasonably put together? Price is less of a concern than the quality of the cut. English language skills are not a prerequisite.

Fire it up people.

Dawn at the Boulangerie

While I'm still just rolling out of bed and into the shower at 7:15 a.m., my good friend Carol is out walking her dog, experiencing a slice of Parisian life that is hidden to the rest of us. Yesterday, she was witness to something truly cool: the delivery of flour to her neighborhood boulangerie. What's more, she was clever enough to whip out her iPhone and nice enough to pass along the photos for all to see.

Yes, the "ammo" that sustains Paris is bread.

Now, you might expect the driver to hop off the truck, get out his dolly, and wheel those sacks of bleached goodness into the store. But no! The truck is equipped with a hose that goes directly into the building for the super efficient filling of the boulangerie stocks.

I can't even begin to imagine the quantity of flour used daily in Paris. I can imagine, however, that those truck drivers are much happier to be hooking up the hose than toting those sacks.

Thanks a million, Carol. Could viewing Paris through the eyes of a blogger be catching?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fall Foliage: A Mea Culpa

Forgive me father for I have sinned. Or rather forgive me father for I have complained unjustly. About a month ago, I mouthed off about the drabness of autumn in Paris. And while I stand by my earlier comments that a Paris fall is no match for the vibrancy you find in the hills of Virginia or the byways of New England, I have since found some fall colors to brighten my mood. So in interest of full disclosure, here they are for all to view.

Misty morning in the Bois de Boulogne

Patterns on the water; these leaves in the basin of a fountain were swirling in a circle, almost hypnotically

Hydrangeas in the garden of the Musee de la Vie Romantique

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grocery List

No dryer sheets or lemon yogurt in Franprix. No type 55 flour or printer/copier paper in Casino, thus requiring a trip to Monoprix, also the only place in the neighborhood that stocks the Poilâne rye with raisins. No Rice Krispies anywhere except Auchan, 25 minutes on the metro and a hike through a huge shopping mall away. No vacuum cleaner bags without a separate visit to the droguerie. And I still have to get bread, go to Picard, and find a replacement bulb for the chandelier in the dining room.

Grocery shopping used to be so easy. One trip to Safeway once a week and I was done. Pick up the dry cleaning, you say? Maybe I'll have time tomorrow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Ghost of Rue Jacob

I should have posted this item for Halloween but regrettably I didn't listen to it until this week. At any rate, it's a ghost story set in Paris and told by former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck for the storytelling program, The Moth. It may have you thinking twice about whether you really want that too-die-for 17th century apartment on the Left Bank.

And can someone please tell me why Americans who spend too much time in Europe start to sound vaguely British?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chateau de Monte-Cristo

It's not really a chateau, it's not even really French either, and for that matter, there is no Monte Cristo in France (just a volcanic island off the coast of Italy) and no count either. But who cares? Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and dozens of other over-the-top novels and plays, pulled himself up by his bootstraps and built a place to call his own. He borrowed details from the Renaissance, the Gothic, the Moorish, and half a dozen other styles in a great mess of house where he could entertain. He did his writing in a separate building perched atop a hill facing the main house, nicknaming it the Chateau d'If, after the prison in the harbor in Marseille where his count was unjustly imprisoned for so many years. Dumas lived large, producing an incredible body of work, and enjoying a reputation as a gourmand, a generous friend, and completely inept when it came to money. He lost the house just two and half years after he built it.

While this was once in the countryside, just two steps from the Seine, today suburbia has encroached upon Le Port Marly and two busy highways and a train track separate the house from the river. Happily, it's only a half hour's drive west from Paris and definitely worth the trip, that is if you have wheels or someone else to drive you. (I can't imagine there's any easy way to get there via public transportation.) Call ahead though because it's only open at odd hours in the winter months.

Chateau de Monte-Cristo

Friday, November 13, 2009

Here's the Skinny

After all the hype, it seems that French women really do get fat after all. Almost one third (32 percent) of French adults are now overweight and 14.5 percent are considered obese, an astonishing jump from just 8.5 percent in 1997. Every age category is affected, women more than men, and the poor more than the rich. The press on the latest report from ObEpi, which conducted the national survey, had little to say about the causes, only noting that social marketing campaigns are not enough to change the trend. The good news: France is still well behind the U.S. where adult obesity rates now stand at a whopping 34 percent.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Carte du Vin

The juice box packaging on this serving of cabernet cracks me up. When I saw it in the corner market, I just couldn't resist putting it in my caddie. Plus it was only 1.20 euros, about the same price as the cheapest bottles which are the lunchtime choice of painters, plasterers, plumbers, and other workers in the neighborhood. Not sure I'm brave enough to drink it though. Of course, I could say the same for that box of fruit juice on the left.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Grey Skies Are (Not) Going to Clear Up

Two o'clock in the afternoon on a November day. The sun is there, but just. No sign of rain although the air is damp and chill. I admit that it's pretty in its way but winter in Paris can still get me down.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Watch Your Step

In the continuing battle against the, shall we say, "presents" our canine friends leave on the sidewalk, I came across this sign over the weekend on a little side street near the Courcelles métro stop. It was posted on a metal pole stuck into a concrete base, kind of like the signs you might see when there's road work underway. Someone's clearly had it up to here in this corner of the 17th arrondissement; the sign points out that everyone must pick up after their dogs, even if the little fellows are doing it in the gutter. Still haven't seen anyone writing tickets for those in violation of the law, though.

Monday, November 9, 2009

On Point

Last year my French teacher gave us a little exercise: write about something in Paris that you have found particularly striking. One of my classmates, a Ukrainian gal, wrote that she had never lived anywhere where the men are better dressed and coiffed than the women. And while French women are certainly no slouches, it's true that there's a certain type of Parisian dude who pays very careful attention to his appearance.

In addition to the hair gel and cool eyeglasses, one of the trends for men at the moment is super pointy shoes, the kind that extend well beyond the end of your foot. These aren't the pointiest I've seen, simply the best I could do with my point and shoot camera. I'm sure they come in handy for killing bugs in corners. I can't imagine though that they're too comfortable. But then why should only women be slaves to fashion?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Table Manners

What is the line between behavior that might be considered offensive in another culture and that which is just different? I started thinking about this question with respect to table manners. Americans are taught to always keep their fork in their right hand at the table (if you are right handed, that is) except when using a knife, and then the fork gets transferred to the left hand. When you're done cutting, you put down the knife and transfer the fork back to your right hand to eat.

Now the French (and for that matter most Europeans), when dealing with a dish that requires a knife, just keep the knife in the left and the fork in the right, and eat in a two handed style, piling up food on the back side of the fork. They even set the table with the fork and spoon facing down; often silverware is imprinted on what we Americans would consider the back side. And there's almost nothing that they'll eat with their hands, except, as my husband pointed out to me, asparagus.

So here's my question. I'm fine with using a fork and knife for things I might have eaten with my hands back home, pizza, for example. I can see how that might gross out someone who's not used to seeing that. But is the whole changing hands thing going to make my French dinner companion recoil? If a French person came to my house and put their bread on the table instead of on a plate, should that bother me?

I'm not sure and I certainly don't want to offend. Where do you draw the line between the truly rude and the quaintly other? Help me out here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Happy Blogiversary

I don't know what put me in mind to write a blog, other than say being a stranger in a strange land, and having some 3,000 miles of ocean between me and lots of family and friends. I say that because I'm not really sure that I ever read a blog before I started my own.

But now that's all ancient history. It was two years ago today that I started on this enterprise. But rather than toast myself, today I'm raising a glass to my readers. Google Analytics tells me a few things about you, stuff like how many of you visit each day, where you live, whether you come directly or through a link, and how many of you keeping coming back for more. A handful of you have been willing to reveal more about yourselves in the comments you leave. (And incidentally, most of the people who leave comments are folks whom I've never met in the flesh.) And every now and then, someone sends me an e-mail sharing more. Each hit, each comment, each electronic interaction gives me encouragement as a writer. So to all of you, my grateful thanks. Here's to many more.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Moon Over My Courtyard

It started raining Sunday and it was supposed to rain all week. But yesterday we got a bit of a respite, perfect for my first Wednesday of the month hike in the countryside. We had some sun, some brief light showers, some wind, and even one magnificant rainbow. Regrettably my photos didn't begin to do it justice. But this is what I saw when I looked out the bathroom window around 7:15 am. The moon here looks like I photo-shopped it. I promise I did not.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Top Ten

I've got two different Yahoo e-mail addresses: one which gives me a U.S. interface and another one which is convinced I'm French. So what? I can manage. But just for your edification, here are the top ten popular searches listed yesterday on each site:


1. Mel Gibson
2. 21 Gun Salute
3. Alex Rodriguez
4. Pulmonary Embolism
5. Turducken
6. Robert Pattinson
7. E. Coli
8. Leo Frank
9. Flu Prevention
10. Tower of London Beefeaters

If you don't know what a turducken is, I suggest you listen to NPR's Morning Edition on Thanksgiving Day (available on-line for those not in the U.S.) as they traditionally run a segment on this culinary novelty.


1. Kylie Minogue
2. Identité Nationale
3. Plan cancer 2009-2013
4. Mel Gibson
5. Yannick Noah
6. Elton John
7. Perm-36
8. Sidney Govou
9. Nadine Morano
10. Louis Nicollin

I had to do a bit of sleuthing to learn that: Perm-36 is a former Soviet gulag; a writer for the Le Monde is doing a series on it. Sidney Govou is a French footballer (soccer player to my fellow Yanks). Nadine Morano is one of President Sarkozy's ministers. Louis Nicollin is a businessman and president of the Montpellier soccer team.

Personally I'm just thrilled to know that interest in Mel Gibson may be the one thing to keep 200 plus years of Franco-American friendship going.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

From the Mouths of Babes

People are always asking about how my kids' French is coming along. Since they're not in an immersion situation in school, it's coming but slowly.

Or so I thought. One night a while back, we were coming home from a school event and we passed a couple of dudes having a drunken argument at a bus stop. We were on the other side of the street so there was no danger of us getting caught up in it. And honestly, I had no idea what they were talking about, just that it was loud and adamant.

I turned to my 10 year old and said, "At least we don't know what they're saying."

"Well Mom, I heard 'ta gueule' a couple of times."

Blank stare from me. They don't teach that expression in my French class.

"Which means?"

"Shut the f*&k up."

Guess the French really is kicking in.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Price of Progress

Things were a bit of a mess on line 1 of the Paris metro this weekend with service completely suspended between the Charles de Gaulle-Étoile stop and the western terminus in La Defense. To the RATP's credit, there was plenty of advance notice and plenty of signage plus a replacement shuttle bus, but people being people....well, you can imagine.

Actually, it's been somewhat messy along that stretch of line 1 for a few months as preparations are made to fully automate it by March 2012. It's the most used line in the system, carrying some 725,000 passengers each day, tourists and locals like, as it crosses the city stopping at 25 stations including several points along the Champs-Élysées, the Tuileries, the Louvre, Châtelet (the stop from hell I mentioned in an earlier post), the Marais, Bastille, and points east. Right now, only line 14 is automated and it's the only one that's fully functional during a transit strike. Automation of line 1 thus will save a lot of headaches for everyone, except I suppose the folks who drive the trains.* But more importantly, the automatic trains will move faster than the human-operated variety, with just 85 seconds anticipated between trains during rush hours.

At the moment, there's one automated stop on line 1 and gates have been erected along the platforms at several other stops. Although I may not be here long enough to reap all the rewards, I'd say it's definitely worth the hassle.

*Lest you worry about the drivers losing their posts, rest assured that it's all been worked out with the unions to reassign them once they're no longer needed on line 1.
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