Thursday, December 31, 2009


It's New Year's Eve and time to pop a cork. And on both sides of the pond, champagne is de rigeur.

But here in France, the home of the real deal (anything else is just sparkling wine), champagne is actually an every day kind of drink. Well perhaps that's going too far. A drink so elegant could never be that. But even homebody that I am, I've had more champagne in two years in Paris than I'd had in the 25 years prior. Rather than reserve it for special occasions, a flute of the bubbly is almost always offered as an aperitif and you'd be hard pressed to find a party or reception where it's not being poured. In a restaurant at 16 euros or so for the coupe, you might think twice about it. But when offered in someone's home, I never refuse! Getting together with friends is reason enough to celebrate. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Slave to Technology

I had a minor panic attack on Monday afternoon when suddenly my laptop didn't want to connect to the Internet reliably, e-mail attachments wouldn't download, and iTunes was frozen. I hate to admit it but I've become a complete slave to technology. Yes, we have more than one computer for our family of four but still. Blogging, listening to music and podcasts, downloading photos, reading the Washington Post and my e-mail, even checking the current temperature -- I rely on my computer for all of them.

Fortunately, the freelance tech guy I've used on two occasions in the past came to my rescue, via e-mail from his vacation in the U.S. My hero! His fix was simple, his responsiveness superb. Honestly, it doesn't get much better than that. So if you're in Paris, in need of English-speaking tech support at reasonable fees, drop me a line to and I'll e-mail you his contact info.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When All is Said and Done

Technically, I suppose, the holiday season isn't over until after we ring in the New Year with plenty of oysters and champagne. And Paris is still bustling with holiday visitors, pushing and shoving in front of the windows at the grand magasins and jockeying to take pictures in front of the Arc de Triomphe, and the lights are still twinkling along the avenues. But they're already stocking galettes de roi for the feast of the Epiphany and this morning, I saw several examples of this:

Another one for the record books.

Monday, December 28, 2009


If you thought I was done telling you about our trip to Central Europe (and by the way, where does Central Europe end and Eastern Europe start?), you're wrong. Our travels sparked observations regarding two of my bizarre interests.

First, on the subject of potato chip flavors, the dominant theme in both places was paprika and sweet chili. In Prague, we also found pizza and kebab. But what about this?

Just what everyone needs: Kim Possible and High School Musical chips! If these characters mean nothing to you, you are clearly not part of Disney's target demographic.

Then there's the little matter of dog droppings. In the Stadtpark in Vienna, we came across this little sign:

The pup appears to be asking if those things are sausages. Ewww. I wonder if anyone ever gets slapped with the 36 euro fine. I didn't notice any offenses but then again pretty much everything was covered in snow.

Now in Prague, I did notice that the sidewalks were super clean -- free of poop, cigarette butts (which was nothing short of amazing because everyone seemed to be a smoker), and other trash. We took a walking tour with an engaging fellow close to 80,a retired singer for the state opera, who regaled us with tales of his life and the history of the Czech Republic. Without my even saying anything, he pointed out to me a box strapped to a light pole holding brown paper sacks for picking up after your pet, complete with a cardboard scoop on the inside. He offered to give me one as a souvenir and how could I refuse? Call me weird but it delighted me more than the prospect of buying crystal, garnets, or amber which were in plentiful supply in the tourist shops. This particular sack had an ad for Pedigree dog food.

If you want to know more, go to and click on the amusing but informative English translation of this entrepreneurial Czech effort to keep the streets clean. I particularly liked the opening sentence: "One of the criterions of the cultural level of the nation is whether sanitary and aesthetic rules are observed." You said it buddy.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holiday Travel

We headed out of Dodge at the end of last week, before the French hit the roads for the holiday, and somehow managed to avoid all the weather-related travel snafus that struck on both sides of the Atlantic, making our way without incident first to Vienna and then to Prague.

It was snowy and cold, dang cold, in Vienna (-8 C according to one sign we passed) but we kept moving from one venue to another, stopping for refills of coffee and hot chocolate to keep everyone in good spirits. The trams were decorated for the season and even Emperor Franz Joseph didn't seem to mind the dusting of snow.

There were Christmas markets around every corner. Some were nothing but schlock; others had stall after stall of hand-crafted items. Had I been in the market for Christmas decorations, I would have been in real trouble. Instead I just admired and took a big whiff of these cinnamon stick stars.

It was slightly warmer in Prague, perfect for wandering the streets and admiring the charming streets and squares which avoided serious damage during the last century's wars. Prague dazzled me with its awesome Art Nouveau architecture and design.

The only puzzling point: the Jewish museum and cemetery were closed for Christmas.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Joyeux Noël

You have to look carefully for the Christmas cheer in this photo, understated all the way. Back tomorrow with tales of our most recent travels.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


We discovered Speculoos, the delicious cinnamony Belgian cookies, all on our own and now thanks to one of my kids' best school chums who is Belgian, we've now been introduced to the spread which I can only liken to crack that's spreadable with a knife. Yes, I like peanut butter and no, I don't care much for Nutella, but this stuff is even more awesome. Admittedly, it's not as versatile as peanut butter (which, in addition to sandwiches, also makes appearances at our house on apples and in Asian inspired sauces for noodles and chicken) and it's certainly not remotely healthy, but it is sure is fine. After we finish the jar I just bought, I'm definitely thinking twice about buying it a second time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


When I'm scanning the books on my shelf, the French titles on the spines read from the bottom up while the American ones are read from the top down. And yet in both languages, you read from left to right. I guess life's just like that some times.

Monday, December 21, 2009


I have a friend back home in DC who really goes all out for Christmas, rearranging the furniture to make way for a huge tree and an impressive number of nutcrackers, smokers, and decorations of every kind imaginable, and for every room in the house too. It's an incredible amount of work but she and her family love Christmas so much, they wouldn't have it any other way.

And that's just who I was thinking of the other day when I went to Sceaux, just south of Paris, where a dozen or more vendors were selling santons, the terracotta figures native to Provence, that are special to the Christmas season. The essential santons are the actors in the nativity scene. But why stop with just Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, a cow, a donkey, and the three kings? While you're at it, you can have all the barnyard animals and an entire Provençal village, right down to the priest (which is kind of bizarre and anachronistic, if you stop and think about it). One of my French teachers goes all out, taking over the entire dining room table for her Christmas display, relegating her husband to a bridge table for his meals during the holiday season.

The figures pictured here are the work of Arterra, specialists in santons out of Marseille. You can also buy them unpainted but I'm pretty sure they won't turn out as amazing as these. And to my dear friend in Falls Church, I couldn't decide what to get for you. You'll just have to come for a visit and choose for yourself.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Art Dans La Rue

It's a long schlep for me to get to Tang Frères in the 13th, but I do it every now and then because it's the best place to find many of the ingredients you need for Asian cooking and the prices for meat really can't be beat. Seriously -- the butcher near me had chicken parts for sale the other day at more than 11 euros a kilo. At Tang Frères, it's just 3 and change.

I took a different route the other day, getting off the 83 bus at rue Baudricourt and came across this building. I didn't see an artist's signature and I can't find any other explanation. Just a nice unexpected lift to an otherwise dreary afternoon.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Burden of History

Last week I had the good fortune to have lunch at le Petit Hôtel Bourrienne, a private mansion named after Napoleon's private secretary who was once the building's owner. It was a window into a slice of French life that I hadn't encountered before because the building, while open for tours by appointment most of the year and at set hours during the summer, remains the home to the family that has owned it since the mid 19th century. The downstairs reception rooms are considered one of the best preserved examples in Paris of architecture and furnishings from the Directoire period, the period after the Revolution but before Napoleon became emperor. The family lives upstairs, the elderly mother on one floor and her daughter and husband, whose children have all left the nest, on the floor above.

This was actually my second visit there and it was eye opening on both occasions. First, there's the contrast between the house and the neighborhood. The quartier, in the 10th arrondissement, may once have been elegant, but now it's working class and a mix of cultures, from the Eastern European grocer to the Afro-Brazilian hairdressers. The streetscape is loud with garish signs and busy with people both going about their business and hanging out on the corner. And yet there behind that giant wooden door and a somewhat sterile courtyard are exquisitely painted period rooms and a lush private garden.

Second, both in the public rooms and in the private family quarters above, I couldn't help but be struck by what it must take to maintain it, in terms of both time and money. For each lovingly maintained detail, there was an equal amount of decay. My hostess, a gifted and animated storyteller, had wonderful tales to tell about keeping the ancient pipes in order, seeking authorizations for renovations, giving tours of the property to all manner of people including the prince and princess of Belgium. She had us all in tears with laughter. But she also sighed with sadness when she explained that her family will very likely have to sell the property soon because the costs for needed repairs and day to day upkeep simply outstrip the family's ability to pay. It's a poisoned heritage, she explained.

And with that, she cleared away the lunch plates and brought out the coffee and chocolates.

If you want to visit, make your plans now. The property is also available for rental for meetings and parties or as a film set.
Le Petit Hôtel Bourrienne
58, rue d'Hauteville
Metro: Bonne Nouvelle, Poissonnière

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Il Neige

I had no blogging inspiration today until Mother Nature served this up. Looks like a good day to stay in and make soup.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Picture That Wasn't

Several times over the past week, I've walked by this kiosque advertising the opening of the American movie, "Where the Wild Things Are," set for today. What caught my eye was that the poster shows Max, the main character in his gold crown, and there was also a gold crown circling the little cupola atop the kiosque. Regrettably, I never seemed to have my camera with me. So yesterday morning, I set out, camera in hand, with the specific goal of capturing the poster and crown so I could post it today.

And there's the thing. The moment I walked up, there's the JC Decaux dude changing the posters for some other lame looking movie that comes out next week. And the crown? Nowhere in sight. Dang it. He hadn't changed all three posters on the kiosque yet so you can still catch a glimpse of Max there on the left and imagine just what a clever touch that additional crown was. Incidentally, the title of the movie in France is "Max et les Maximonstres."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Carbon Footprint

For years, U.S. car manufacturers claimed that they could not sell cars based on their fuel economy. And then along comes a serious spike in gas prices and guess what? Everyone's scrambling for hybrids, anything that gets better gas mileage than a Ford F150 or a Cadillac Escalade. (Well, I guess everyone but Tiger Woods, but I digress.)

My point? Europeans are obviously far ahead of Americans in their willingness to buy smaller cars and Renault, Peugeot and Citroën are also now touting their performance in reducing emission of greenhouse gases in their billboards and magazine ads. Take that Detroit.

Helping people understand their own carbon footprint is not going to get us to the kinds of reductions that the world's heads of state are now discussing in Copenhagen. But it's a start. When you calculate your itinerary on Parisian mass transit (or transports en commun, as it's called in French) on the RATP Web site, the results page not only shows you what time to catch the bus and where to transfer but also the comparative carbon emissions versus the same trajectory by car. The leg I take to and from my French class two times a week, for example, results in 258 grams of CO₂ by bus and just 10 grams of CO₂ if I go by subway compared with 642 grams if I were going by car. (If you're a real geek and you can read French, you can learn more about the method of calculation on the RATP site here.) It's not going to keep a small Pacific island from sinking into oblivion but at least it's something.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mega Star

The French papers are full of headlines about Johnny Hallyday, a French pop star who has been hospitalized during a visit to Los Angeles. Johnny who? Yeah, I'm with you. I'd never heard of Johnny Hallyday before I came to France but believe me, he's big here, really big, a legend almost, kind of like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Barry Manilow all rolled into one.

Ironically, although he's virtually unknown in the U.S. (perhaps because he sings almost exclusively in French), he was clearly passionate as a young man about America -- especially rock and roll and the iconography of Route 66 -- to transform himself from Jean-Phillippe Smet to superstar Johnny Hallyday. At 66, he has a face ravaged by too much fast living and plastic surgery, a voice full of gravel, a nascent film career, and a gorgeous young wife Laeticia whose picture is constantly in the tabloids with him. His music is not my thing but see for yourself. Millions of French fans are following his current medical crisis closely, so much so that Le Parisien, one of the daily newspapers, has added "Johnny Hallyday" to the navigation on its Web site.

There's a lot of intro on this clip of Que Je T'aime from his 2009 so-called farewell tour. (I get the impression that it's kind of like one of those Barbra Streisand farewells that just go on and on and on.) You might want to skip ahead to 1:15 for the full Johnny effect.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Silver Lining

I had plans to meet up with a group of people at the Louvre on Thursday even though we knew it might be dicey. Workers at the Pompidou Centre went on strike at the end of November and last week, those at the Louvre, d'Orsay, Musee Rodin, Arc de Triomphe, and Versailles followed suit. But the strike has been spotty and most of the museums have not been completely shut down. We decided to chance it, arriving at the Carrousel du Louvre entrance at 10:30 only to find a line stretching almost all the way back to the subway entrance, a good 75 yards. And then we saw this:

Uh oh.

Only then the line started slowly moving, and within a matter of minutes completely dissipated as security allowed visitors into the museum. It turns out that union meetings are always held from 9 to 10:30, hence the delayed opening. Once we walked past the gift shops into the main area under the pyramid, we saw something else interesting:

Yes, the museum was mostly open (a few galleries were closed due to lack of staffing) and best yet, it was all free.

For some reason, I was almost as interested in this group of (I think) Japanese high school girls as the art itself.

I'm somewhat timid though about taking pictures of people so I snapped before focusing. But I'm glad to have the memory preserved, even with the blur.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

This Cheese Does Not Stand Alone

If you're stumped about what to get for Christmas for your favorite gourmand, never fear. An association focused on promoting French cheeses and protecting the tradition of making them with raw milk has just what you're looking for: a pinup calendar featuring 12 scantily clad ladies posing with their favorite fromage. Because honestly, what could be, well, cheesier?

You can order the calendar online for 15 euros (plus shipping and handling) or go in person on the 12th and 13th of December to 117 rue St. Denis in Paris.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Deck the Halls

Things are looking pretty Christmasy around here, despite the fact that the weather's been on the mild side. Parisians don't have front yards to decorate but the shopkeepers and restauranteurs really go all out.

Flocked Christmas trees for sale at the florist. Several of these white trees were already marked "vendu."

Go traditional or modern with your wreath.

This may look like a jewelry shop but it's actually a chocolatier. Chocolate is serious business.

No such thing as too many bows.

This is my favorite..classic, festive, nothing crazy or overdone.

The city of Paris goes all out on the Champs-Élysées. I don't care much for the banners that let you know the whole deal is brought to you by MasterCard but I dig these colored balls in the water around the Rond Point.

The menu at one of the stalls in the marché along the Champs-Élysées. No one said that Christmas was a good time to eat healthy. Add a few sausages, tartiflette, and some churros and you've got yourself a meal or a massive stomachache. Street food is street food.

Even the dudes who live on the street are getting into the spirit.

If you want to see what the windows look like at Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, head over to Eye Prefer Paris or Peter's Paris. Between the crowds and the reflection on the glass, my own pictures were less than satisfactory. Frankly though, I think there's something profoundly unsettling about the little gingerbread men scampering among the mannequins in their underwear. It makes me wonder what would have happened if the principal character of "Can't Catch Me, I'm the Gingerbread Man," had a chance encounter with Kurt Weill. But maybe it's just the Puritanical American in me talking.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Word to the Wise

I'm assuming that all you readers out there in Internetland are scrupulously honest and would never jump a turnstile or push in behind someone on the Paris métro. But those darn little white tickets do have a way of getting lost once you get in the system.

For the most part, you don't need the ticket to get out but hang onto those suckers until you exit. Because you never know when you'll turn the corner and there will be half a dozen green blazered RATP agents ready to make sure you're completely legit. There's a hefty fine if you don't have a ticket and they'll make you pay on the spot too. They always work in teams so there's no escaping, unless you turn around and head back the way you came from. (And believe me, I've seen people doing that.)

Controls on suburban trains (whether RER or the SNCF's Transilien) seem less frequent and my guess there are plenty of freeloaders since many of these trains can be boarded without going through a turnstile first. The same goes for the so-called Grand Lignes (intercity rail service); on our late October trip to the southwest, we were four hours into a five hour ride before anyone checked our tickets. I'm sure there are folks who get a thrill from beating the man; personally I'd rather ride the rails with a clear conscience.

A contrôleuse checking tickets for passengers leaving Gare St. Lazare headed to La Defense and points west.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Christmas Card Conundrum

I started working on my Christmas cards over the weekend. Since I hate getting cards with no news (and worse yet, getting preprinted cards with no signature), I try to write a personal note on every one. It's a big task and as the years go by, it just seems to be getting bigger. The first year we were here, the holiday season came just three months after we arrived on French soil, so it was a snap to give folks an update on how we were adjusting. The second year, I could report on feeling much more at home and our impending visit back to the States. But this year? There's nothing particularly new to report and it just seems the height of arrogance to recount all the various trips we've taken. Biking in Holland, kayaking in Greece, whiling away the year in Paris, seriously what kind of spoiled brats are we? It brings to mind my father's reaction upon receiving a holiday card from an old friend who sent a picture of his family's new ski condo. Fully capable of owning a second home if he so desired, my dad railed that he would take a picture of our backyard shed with a crescent moon carved in the door for the next season's card. Of course, he didn't follow through but he did lead his life always insisting that it was the better part of valor not to brag, whether about possessions, experiences, or children's accomplishments.

So if you're on my Christmas card list, really I tried. Plus if you've been reading along, you pretty much know what I've been up to. In short, life is good and we're busy with the usual assortment of kids' activities, work, school, visits from family and friends, vacations, and such. We miss seeing you, particularly at this time of year, and look forward to hearing some real news about life in your neck of the woods.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lost in Translation

This made me laugh. The French have adopted the English term, "brunch" but as far as I know, there's no meal called "slunch." Actually my favorite creative use of English by the French is "relooking" which means remodeling when applied to a building or makeover when applied to a person. Say that with your best Inspector Clouseau accent and I defy you not to laugh too.

Friday, December 4, 2009


There are no telephone poles to speak of in Paris but drain pipes and lamp posts serve the same purpose, often plastered with ads and remnants of ads for painters, plumbers, carpenters, tutors, nannies, masseurs, and home IT experts.

But yesterday I saw a notice that made me sit up and take notice.

Seeking high class apartment (minimum 200 square meters) with view of the Eiffel Tower, available to be rented for the first film of Sylvie Testud beginning of 2010.

My first thought? I wonder what you get for renting out an apartment like that for a film shoot. My second? I wonder what it would be like to have an apartment like that in the first place.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bearing Fruit

I have seen many interesting things in the Bois de Boulogne: peacocks, demonic cyclists, rowboats, campers, skateboarders, horseback riders, picnickers, and naturally, more than a few prostitutes. But yesterday, I found something completely unexpected: a persimmon tree. With no foliage to speak of, it was a bit of an odd sight, almost as if the bare branches had been strung with hundreds of tiny paper lanterns. The groundskeepers who were raking nearby told us that these persimmons would not be ready to eat until after a hard frost.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The American Expat Psyche

I'm sure I'm going to get flak for this but what the heck. I've worked on this post on and off for a couple of weeks and at the moment, I've got nothing else to say. So here goes:

American expats are a odd bunch, much more diverse than I might have expected. Although come to think of it, I don't believe I gave a moment's thought to what the American expatriate community in Paris might be like before we got here. Too many other things were on my mind.

But, I suppose if you'd have asked me, I might have guessed that there would be wannabe Hemingways working on never to be published novels in chilly garrets, fashion afficianados worshipping at the source, and junior year abroad girls who found their Frenchmen and never went back home. In fact, I haven't met those folks. Most of the stories are far more ordinary, far less romantic.

Perhaps shocking to those of you out there pining for your time in Paris, not everyone is happy to be here. Some come kicking and screaming, dragged overseas by a spouse's job and the only way they cope is to try to re-create the most loved aspects of their former life and to take as many trips back home as possible. Paris for them is one endless sea of headaches and aggravations, an uphill battle that can only be licked by running away. They can complain (and loudly too) although sometimes they just suffer in silence.

Others have lived overseas in so many different spots that they kind of glide across the surface. A lifetime of foreign postings has taught them to cope by sampling, rather than submerging. They find the things they need to make life meaningful and no need to venture any further. And if your last post was Seoul, and your next one is Dusseldorf, I can imagine that the motivation to be on full absorb mode is pretty low. Why learn French anyway if you're going to be here and gone in a blink of an eye? Americans get lucky because they can get by in English here in Paris. (Although tell that to the Dutch expats. Every one of them I've met is fluent in four or five languages.)

There are the retirees, the undecided (still spending half their time here and half there), the cobbling-together-a-living-however-I-can sorts, and every now and then, the folks who have made their fortunes early and have arrived in Paris, still trying to figure just what they're doing with the rest of their lives.

And then are the self-loathers. Yes, they're happy to be here, blissfully happy in fact. Good for them. They think Paris is divine not just in its own right but in comparison to what they left behind. It's superior in every way to the U.S. where, as they're more than happy to tell you, the food is crap, the people obnoxious, and there's too much focus on commercialism, among other things. Somehow they don't seem to notice that many of those those things can actually be found in abundance in France too -- processed food, cranky people, and a whole lot of shopping at a whole lot of chain stores (many of them French owned and operated). Yes, this is the France of today. Not the France of some fairy tale.

And me? Well, let's just say it was a surprise to find myself overseas and since I know that I'm not in it for the long haul, I'm doing my best to enjoy what's here, endure what's tough, and unravel what I don't understand. No dreams of glory, no pretensions of ever being able to assimilate. Put a name on that if you can.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Paris Vu Du Ciel

Some months back, I caught the latest series of aerial photographs of Paris by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, perhaps best known for his epic work, Home, at the Musee Marmottan. I was awestruck and would have bought the book on the spot had it been available. Now just in time for the holidays, the book is out, at least in France and also I noticed on Amazon's Canadian site. Fair warning: this coffee table book is pretty much the size of a small coffee table and it's pretty pricey too. But the photos are absolutely incredible, making it the perfect gift for your favorite Francophile. Look for the cover image you see here. There is also a 2002 version with a picture of Notre Dame on the cover; I'm sure the photos are just as delectable but I can't vouch for it.
Related Posts with Thumbnails