Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jolly Old England

Travel planning can be a giant sinkhole for time. Between the number of potential destinations, the hotel and transport options, figuring out where to go, how to get there, and how long to stay can lead to hours on-line and one huge headache. So imagine the thrilling feeling months back when I proposed spending the kids' February "ski" break in London (in plenty of time to get the sacred 77 euro roundtrip Eurostar tickets) and everyone said yes.

The weather was crap for our trip (although probably no worse than staying in Paris) but that did not deter us. In fact, it was the perfect time to enjoy London's mostly free array of spectacular museums which for us included the British Museum, Science Museum, and the Tate Modern. We also took a day trip to Windsor, well worth the time and practically empty, and shared a lovely afternoon with our former tenants, recently relocated back to the London suburbs after five years in DC.

This being my fourth trip to London, there is something so easy about being there, not quite home but with so many familiar sights, sounds, and tastes. Spicy Indian and Thai food? Check. Big glasses of water given at every meal? Check. English spoken here? Check. Two and a quarter hours city center to city center? Check. Check. Check.

I did not take many pictures on this visit, partly because wearing gloves and carrying an umbrella are not exactly compatible with getting the quick snap. Nevertheless I found a few signs that I enjoyed very much.

And for those of you who have seen the movie Closer:

Friday, February 26, 2010


Everywhere you go in Paris, you'll see this sign. The bottom line: do not, I repeat, do not post anything on this wall. And yet, isn't it paradoxical that the only way to get the message across is to post it in GIGANTIC letters everywhere? Yes, of course, this admonition is certainly less unsightly than peeling posters, stacked one atop the other, as you sometimes see elsewhere.

If you'd like a complete social history on the 1881 law, head on over to the always interesting blog, Invisible Paris, for a thorough explanation in this August 2009 post.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

For Sale

Now how bad would it be to go to work every day if this were your office? Stop dreaming. If you've got 6.5 million euros lying around, it's all yours. Call today. Operators are standing by.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

History Come to Life

Remember my post about the Hôtel Bourrienne? A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a mini series about Napoleon on TV and there, to my surprise, was the building and its garden, playing the part of Josephine's residence in the days before she married Bonaparte and moved to Malmaison. This 2002 series features an all-star cast including Isabella Rossellini as Josephine, Gérard Depardieu as the corrupt inspector Fouché, John Malkovich as Talleyrand, and French actor Christian Clavier as Napoleon.

Well I suppose I should have posted this right away because the clip I found on Youtube has since been taken down. The best I can do now is to share this music video that offers a few glimpses of the interiors (the scenes where Napoleon is in his night shirt and Josephine is soaked to the skin, crying at his door) plus a glimpse of the scene in the garden around 1:30. There are other scenes from the series posted on Youtube and the good news is that if you are a glutton for this sort of thing, the series is available for purchase in both French and English versions.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In Praise of Not So Famous Men

In a town where there's a sameness to a lot of the buildings, it's perhaps surprising to see the signatures of the architects on their work. But let's give credit where credit is due. All hail these men (and I'm pretty much assuming they were all men given the time period) for their clearly lasting contributions to the Paris streetscape. It wouldn't be the same without you.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Much Ado about Marianne

I think there must be a joke in here somewhere. How about...

How many Frenchman does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Ten. One to do the work and nine to get all huffy about it.

But seriously folks. I won't condemn a whole nation for the actions of a few. After all pretty much the same thing could be said for we Americans. But since I'm sitting on this side of the pond these days, let me just share with you the scandal de jour. Late last week, this ad campaign was launched:

The gist of it? The government is explaining its spending on education, sustainable development, the digital economy, research, and economic development as investments in the country's future. The lady in her Phrygian cap, the headgear of the French revolution, is clearly Marianne, whom the rest of you may better know looking like this.

But rather than making everyone feel all warm and fuzzy, it appears that the ad campaign has pretty much pissed off everyone. The left is outraged by the expense of the campaign and its timing, claiming that it's propaganda for the UMP (Sarkozy's party) on the eve of regional elections.

Their response?

The placard refers to a very ill-mannered remark made by Sarkozy in 2008 to someone reaching out to grab his hand at a public event. The whole thing was captured on a cell phone video and keeps getting trotted out to show Sarkozy's contempt for real people.

The feminists see it as a thinly veiled message that women should put up and shut up and just keep pushing out the babies. And they have a point, she's barefoot and pregnant, even though that white is awfully virginal.

Translation: Be a mother and keep quiet.

I'm not taking sides in this debate but I sure am enjoying the show.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Maison Louis Carré

I have strong opinions about many things but when it comes to exploring Paris and its environs, I have no standards at all. Wherever you're going, whatever you're doing, I'm pretty much game. So when I had the opportunity to visit a private home designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in Bazoches-sur-Guyonnes, about 40 kilometers southwest of town, I said, "sign me up."

Aalto designed the home for Parisian art dealer Louis Carré who moved there in 1959. From the exterior, it's not much to look at but the feeling completely changes once you walk in the front door. It's built like a wave into the side of a hill with commanding views of the surrounding countryside in every direction. Aalto designed it all (with help from a few collaborators) including the furniture, carpets, lighting, and the two most amazing walk in closets I've ever seen.

Carré picked the site because it's just across the road from where his friend, Jean Monnet, one of the architects of the European Union, lived. You can visit Monnet's house too, an interesting contrast since it's a typical French country house complete with thatched roof and fussy furniture. Frankly, either one would suit me just fine.

Both sites are open to visitors but at odd hours depending upon the season. Check the Web sites before you go:

Maison Louis Carré

Maison de Jean Monnet

There's lots more to see in this neck of the woods if you have a car and the time. I had lunch in the picture perfect village of Les Mesnuls before heading back into town but had no time to explore the church or the town's own chateau.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Jeux Olympiques d'Hiver

I'm not really a sports fan. I don't follow any teams and frankly I can't even remember at the moment who just won the Super Bowl. And having been raised in the south, I don't have much personal experience with winter sports. But still, I have a special affinity for the Olympics, perhaps learned from a childhood of afternoons spent watching The Wide World of Sports and seeing that poor ski jumper crash to smithereens each week, synchronized perfectly with the announcer saying, "the agony of defeat."

I've been trying to follow the Winter Games on French TV and it's been a bit of a stretch. First of all, the coverage each evening flips back and forth between France 2 and France 3; the dude at the desk tells you to switch the channel and when you do, there he is again, picking up the commentary right where he left off. And second, naturally, the French coverage follows France's best hopes for medals. So the other night, we watched the women's 10K biathalon, you know the event where they cross country ski and shoot at targets. Americans don't do well in that event so I'm not sure I've ever even seen it. But the French had a crack competitor so we watched the live coverage (en direct as they say in French). The French gal came in third and we saw her crossing the finish line, tears of joy in her eyes. Now in that circumstance, what would the American networks do? Why go straight to an interview, another event, game over, story done. But not so here. We got to watch all 56 competitors slog their way to the end; I think there was even an American back in the pack there around number 46.

Apparently, there's more coverage on Eurosport but our basic cable package doesn't include it. And while I tried to watch some of the American highlights on the NBC Web site, they correctly detect my French IP address which makes much of the content unavailable to me.

So I'll keep following the French, doing my best to learn who the competitors are and to understand the commentators who insist on talking over each other. The French are having a great Olympics so far, with the exception of Brian Joubert, who expected to medal in men's figure skating, ended up in 18th place after the short program, and Marion Rolland, who blew out her knee on the top of the mountain in the women's downhill. Heartbreaking for both of them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Paris Glam

It's hard to imagine anything more depressing than being in the fashion capital of the world and seeing this sorry dress for sale in a Métro station, much less a station under renovation with all the attendant mess. Okay, back up. Sure, I can think of lots things that are more depressing, like the whole miserable situation in Haiti, the mess that is U.S. congressional politics at the moment, or the fact that Jean- Marie Le Pen's daughter is raising a ruckus because a fast food restaurant in Marseille is choosing to serve only halal burgers. (Because if you eat beef, the terrorists win.) But honestly, between the sad, sad mannequin and that cheesy dress, there's not much to recommend here.

What killed me though was the poster at the mannequin's feet which I give you in close up here:

Now I know exactly where to go when I need some new rags for clubbing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fact or Fiction?

I had a hilarious interaction with one of my French teachers yesterday. I can't even remember where the conversation started but somehow I got on the subject of going on a Harry Potter walking tour with my kids in London last spring.


"Harry Potter," I said. And I said it straight because if there is one thing I can't stand, it's Anglophones pronouncing proper English words with a fakey French accent.


It went round and round for a bit. I looked at my Canadian and Japanese classmates who knew exactly what I was saying. I also knew that while my teacher must be in her mid to late 70s, her grandchildren certainly have read Harry Potter. What kid hasn't these days? And then the light bulb went off.

"Ahh...." she said. "Airee Pote-air." Big grins all around.

Not two hours later, I found myself face to face with evidence that a character from Harry Potter had actually lived in Paris.

Yes, Nicholas Flamel, alchemist, writer, bookseller, and central figure in the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or the Philosopher's Stone if you read the original, British version) was a real person. His house at 51 rue de Montmorency in the 3rd arrondissement is still standing, perhaps the oldest building in the city today. At a later date, the city named these two streets, about a quarter mile's distance away, for Flamel and his beloved wife Pernelle.

Did Flamel actually discover the secret of everlasting life? His death was recorded as the street sign indicates in 1418, but his tomb is empty and he was sighted at the opera as late as in the 17th century. He's been keeping a low profile ever since.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lady Liberty

France and the U.S. sometimes seem like an old married couple or maybe two girlfriends who've known each other since grade school. We've stuck together through much of the past 250 years but we still can't seem to stop pick, pick, picking at each other. Still under the surface of cultural clashes and misunderstandings, we still have an abiding love for each other, or at least, our ideal of the other.

In my previous post about the American landmarks in Paris, I left out a big one: the replica of the Statue of Liberty which, of course, the French gifted to the U.S. back in 1886. Actually, there's more than one in Paris, but the biggest and most dramatically placed is the one standing at the western tip of the Île des Cygnes, looking west up the Seine towards New York Harbor. On one of the rare sunny Sundays in recent memory, I caught a few pictures to share. If you can believe Wikipedia, it turns out that this one was actually put in place (although originally in the Place des États-Unis in the 16th arrondissement) before the inauguration of the one in New York. It was moved to its current spot in 1889 and restored with support of the Florence Gould Foundation in 1988.

To visit the statue, you can approach from the north via the Pont de Bir Hakeim (Metro: Passy or Bir Hakeim) or from the south via the Pont de Grenelle (RER: Avenue du President Kennedy).

Views of contemporary apartment buildings in the 15th and the skinny strip of land that makes a beeline path to the statue.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ethnic Eats

I've got a stack of Paris guidebooks on the shelf, some acquired in the giddy months between the news that my husband had actually landed the job in Paris and our arrival, others left to us by departing expats, and still others that I've picked up or been gifted along the way. But none has been as much my faithful companion in the exploration of Paris as this cookbook. Written for North American cooks (using cups and teaspoons for measurement), it's divided into sections for each of regions that has large immigrant groups living in Paris: the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), southeast Asia, west Africa and the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Plus there's a section on Japan, not so much because of the huge number of Japanese immigrants here but due to the mutual France-Japan lovefest.

The recipes are interspersed with cute illustrations and plenty of sidebars with both the stories of immigrants who've made their careers in the food business and recommendations for ethnic groceries and restaurants. Want to make that lamb with ras el hanout? Better check out the list of spice shops on p. 49. Got a hankering for bahn mi? Head to Thieng Heng on avenue d'Ivry in the 13th.

It's colorful, inviting, and needless to say delicious. Vietnamese bo bun is now one of my kids' all-time favorite meals and the carrot salad with orange flower water has become one of my staples. Realizing these recipes demands that I leave the confines of my comfortable quartier and head off to the unknown. And you know what? Just like how food cooked outdoors when you're camping always tastes better than if you had prepared it at home, the dishes I've cooked from Ethnic Paris resonate with the sights and smells of my forays around town.

A thousand thanks to my dear friend Lauren who gave me the book as a hostess gift when she visited back in early 2008. Time for another visit!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

English Sells

This ad campaign for Diesel has already come and gone. But I'm posting it here since it's a vivid example of the requirement in France that all foreign language advertising (and to be blunt, this is mostly a campaign against the encroachment of English) include a translation into French. Down there in the lower left corner of the panel, you can just make out the translation "soyez stupides." (If you can't see it clearly, just click on the picture to make it bigger.)

And here's another one:

The French are fighting an uphill battle here but so be it. Obviously, the marketers think that English sells although to my mind, the translations can be a bit comical. Take this offering from McDonald's:

One of my kids noted, "I guess they know what 'ranch' means." Or perhaps it's just impossible to translate.

Friday, February 12, 2010

One Euro, One Euro

The fellows who sell Eiffel Tower trinkets are almost iconic as the tower itself. They are everywhere at the base of the tower, down the Champs de Mars, along the Pont d'Iena, and up the hill to the Palais de Chaillot. And they will not stop haranguing you with their cries of "one euro, one euro" even if you avert your eyes and keep walking. It's not clear to me whether they are illegal immigrants or illegal vendors or both but when the police come, they run and run fast.

Over a year ago, I tried to snap a photo of one vendor and he yelled at me something fierce, demanding that I delete the picture of him. I was too freaked out to quibble. But the other day, I was able to catch this photo from my seat on the bus where no one was paying attention to what I was doing. I'd rather have this for a souvenir than one of those ticky tacky towers anyway. And never fear, I don't think the authorities are monitoring my blog for evidence of miscreants.

I also once tried to engage one of these vendors as to how many keychains he sold on a good day. But either his French or mine was creating a problem and I never could make myself understood. One thing's for sure: that's one tough way to make a living.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snow but No -Mageddon

It's been a big snow year for Paris although not clearly nothing on par with the heaps and piles of the white stuff that has been slamming the Mid-Atlantic. We all had a bit of snow envy last weekend after seeing pics sent by friends back home of silent streets, sledding parties, and snowball fights. Of course, at this point, after all the shoveling, power outages, and cancellations, I'm sure they're all ready to be done with it.

People from colder climes who live in the DC area always complain about lack of preparedness both on the part of the authorities and the citizens. But let me tell you folks: compared with Parisians, Washingtonians look like hearty Midwesterners. There's so little snow here on an average year that folks have no idea of what to do when the first flake appears. They're out in the streets in stilettos and canvas sneakers, washing their windowshields with bottled water (not so great an idea when the temps are hovering around freezing), and few think to take out even a broom to clear the sidewalk.

Some love the novelty, others less so. I overheard one older lady grumbling that snow was fine out in the country but definitely not "en ville." Lucky for her, it may snow here but it sure doesn't stick around.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Kingdom for Something Green

Regrettably I don't have a picture on hand of the bounty that is the open air market in Paris although I'm sure I've shown a few of them to you in the past. So imagine if you will, stall after stall of luscious salad greens, crispy peppers, carrots in every color, crunchy broccoli, and that's just in the dead of winter. Got that in your head? Good.

Now fast forward to the menu in a typical Parisian restaurant. First course choices: pâté de quelque chose, oysters, coquilles St. Jacques, smoked salmon, potato soup. Main course: a steak, a fish, rack of lamb, or some duck or rabbit, any of them accompanied by three tiny little green beans and potatoes in some form. Notice something? Yeah, what happened to all those vegetables?

I don't eat out a lot but when I do, I've been noticing this same pattern. Maybe there's a salad at lunch (although often it's heaped with meat) but otherwise, the veggies must all be in the witness protection program. Today, the highly rated restaurant where I met a group of ladies offered a complicated set of menu options but the bottom line was this: if you wanted to have the pasta for which the joint is known at a reasonable price, the only thing you could get to go with it was lobster soup or chocolate cake. No joke.

That salad I had for dinner with veggie pizza tasted awfully good.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Game Over

Today's the last day of the winter sales and I imagine those racks are pretty well picked over. I don't really know since I didn't even bother. Actually I did buy a gorgeous tablecloth by Le Jacquard Français with a set of matching napkins at 50 percent off. As usual, my table is better dressed than me. As for the rest of it? As my mother would have said, half off ridiculous is still way too much.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Fruits de Mer

I walk by several restaurants with raw bars on my way to the gym but only this gentleman is kind enough to always smile at the American lady in her ratty exercise attire. Finally last week, I decided it was time to stop and engage him in a little conversation. I put my camera in my gym bag only to pass by several times and find someone else at work, cracking open the crates of oysters and cutting up lemons.

But Friday, I hit the jackpot and made a new friend. Monsieur Alex (or maybe it's Alice or Alyce?) was all smiles and happy to pose proudly at his post. And he was able to speak with authority about a question that's been bugging me for some time. That is, when you order a seafood platter in an elegant restaurant like the one where he works, how do you eat the shrimp? Can you use your fingers or do you have to use a knife and fork? Those of you who have seen the film, Mr. Bean's Holiday, in which the hapless Mr. Bean confronts this issue at Le Train Bleu in Gare de Lyon, know what I'm talking about. (The rest of you can look it up on YouTube.)

He assured me that fingers are the way to go and that warm water with lemon would be provided afterwards to wash up. Frankly he seemed kind of amused by the whole thing and a little puzzled that I didn't want to have my picture taken with him. I'm not really sure he understood that I'm in deep cover on this blog. Oh those Americans. You know, we are just so comical with our funny accents and odd ways.

Anyway, now I can order one of those platters without fear of committing social suicide. Even better, I made a friend.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

This and That

A few photos from the vault to share today.

This one's for Belle de Ville who inquired whether people in Paris were really wearing Uggs. Okay, so maybe mama's moved on but not junior (who by the way is a boy.)

Honestly, I think that dressing your kid like this is reason enough to call child protective services.

The French put a high premium on politeness but do you suppose any of those motorcycle dudes changed their behavior in response to this sign?

Translation: We thank you kindly not to park your motorcycles in front of the shop window.

Multitasking Parisian style

Someone's got some 'splaining to do.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Keep It Down

No, I'm not going to talk about French politics. I snapped this picture of the latest issue of Le Nouvel Observateur because it captures M. le Président doing something that seems to me typically French: having a very private conversation on the phone by cupping his hand over the receiver. You see people doing this all the time in public places, especially on the subway.

The French value their privacy, almost as much as their liberté, égalité, and fraternité. What they have to say to others, whether it's on the phone or in person, is really none of your business. (Curiously to me, aggressive public displays of affection do not seem to fall within this privacy zone. Or maybe they just assume that everyone else will just look the other way.) At any rate, they are champions at speaking (and making themselves understood) when they speak quietly. Go into a restaurant where the noise would be deafening were it filled with Americans and all you hear is a quiet little buzz of dozens of conversations.

The French verb to whisper is chuchoter. With the soft ch sound, it sounds just like its meaning. Shhhhhhhhhhh!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Yet Another Walk in the Woods

I didn't expect to get any sympathy yesterday and I sure didn't get any. But I had a great walk in the woods from St. Nom La Breteche to St. Germain en Laye with wonderful company. The trains were scarcely running but the turnstiles were open and the ride was free. Although the trail was quite muddy, the weather gods conspired to give us a day considerably less chilly than Tuesday. The rain was fleeting and we found a nice sheltered spot for lunch; under the tree, the pine needles were scarcely damp.

The highlight of the walk came at the end and began with short steep uphill to this amazing circle of trees.

We turned to the right and there was a long promenade poised on the edge of a cliff looking to the east. The promenade stretched over a kilometer, from the forest to the chateau and the town.

What once were farms with orchards, pastures, and vineyards to feed the court when they were ensconsed at the chateau is now a mix of fields, housing, highways, railways, and all manner of urban civilization. We had a grand view of La Défense with the bonus of the ever present Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse in the distance.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Meteorological Rant

It's not good form to complain about living in Paris. BUT.

I have had it up to frickin' here with this lousy weather: gray, cold, damp, windy, spatters of sleet in your face, ominous clouds, the hint of a clearing which always disappears the instant you take note of it. Super cold days with dazzling blue skies? No such thing. I have no doubt that yesterday's prediction by Punxsutawney Phil that there will be six more weeks of winter, while technically not applicable to the European continent, is dead on correct.

And by the way, you never realize how foolish the whole groundhog thing is until you try to explain it in someone from Bulgaria. But I digress.

Had I the opportunity to curl up in my PJs and read books, watch videos, listen to my Ipod, and surf the Internet for the next however long, I would be sorely tempted to do so. However, having children in the house who must be out the door each morning, dressed and fed, before it's even light, it's regrettably not an option. Such is the plight of the mom.

So what am I doing today to combat the weariness and dreariness that is all around me? In a classic case of you can't beat 'em, join 'em or perhaps a show of up yours old man winter, I'm going for a 20 kilometer walk in the countryside. The temperature is not supposed to get much out of the 30s and precipitation is predicted. Oh yes, and the SNCF, which I have to take to get to the starting point west of town, is on strike.

Living in Paris can do some crazy things to your head.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Who can argue with crêpes? Dress 'em up, dress 'em down, sweet or savory, there's surely a crepe for everyone. My younger child is partial to the lemon flavored variety, hot off the griddle from the fellow on the street, or anything with an oeuf miroir (sunny side up) in the middle. My older has to have something with chocolate. And me? I like the savory ones, particularly when they are good and crisp, oozing with any kind of cheese.

So if you're pondering what to have for dinner tonight, think no further. February 2nd is the French holiday of Chandeleur and crêpes are the order of the day. The origins are pagan but like many pagan festivals, it was eventually pre-empted by the Christians who designated it as the time to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of baby Jesus. But the religious part seems to have fallen by the wayside in modern day France where churchgoing Catholics are few and far between. The woman who was my French teacher the year we arrived shrugged when I asked her about the origins and put it this way: "it was the day my grandfather always used to make crêpes." Can't argue with that.

Monday, February 1, 2010


When it comes to popular culture, I think I'm losing my grip on the difference between what's hot in Paris and what's just the new thing all over. It's been 13 months since I last stepped on American soil and it will be another 6 before I get back there for a visit. So forgive me if the streets of New York, Washington, and Chicago are full of these jackets.


Seinfeld had the puffy shirt but Paris has the puffy coat. These shiny black jackets with the fur trimmed hoods are very popular here with both men and women. They pair best with holey jeans, boots, sunglasses, and lots of hair gel for the guys or long stringy hair for the gals. You can pay anywhere from 100 to 800 euros (that's $1,200!) for one depending upon the brand. I guess they are warm but I find them incredibly ugly. For those who've got the dough and like the look, there's still plenty of winter left to get puffy.
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