Friday, April 30, 2010

Under the Sea

I'm so glad that the owners of this incredible door knocker had the good sense to paint their door bright blue. Neptune looks right at home.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

More Smarts

It's been awhile since I've shared a gallery of Smart Cars and these pictures have been gathering dust in my computer. I love the convertible on the lower right designed by French couturier Jean Charles de Castelbajac. (You can click on the photo for a closer view.) Apparently Hermes also did a limited edition Smart (just 10 of them) but I've never seen one. But then again, if you paid 38,000 euros for one of those babies, I'm not sure you'd leave it parked on the street.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hommage to Balzac

Balzac is among the best loved and apparently most prolific French writers; some 95 works (novels, essays, and stories) make up his Comédie Humaine with a cast of thousands who have a habit of popping up in one work as a minor character while receiving a more full-fledged treatment in another. I did my duty by reading Le Père Goriot (admittedly in English rather than French) and after that I'd pretty much had my fill.

But you don't have to be a fan of his work to be intrigued by the story of how the city of Paris chose to pay hommage to him. Despite his literary success, Balzac was chronically in debt and died in 1850 at just 51 years old.

Forty years after his death, a literary society commissioned Auguste Rodin to create a sculpture of Balzac. Rodin did innumerable studies, finally producing after 8 years, the statue that now stands today on Boulevard Raspail near its intersection with Boulevard Montparnasse. It created a scandal (which you can read more about in a 1998 piece in the New York Times) because it depicted Balzac in his dressing gown, corpulent and undignified. The scandal was such that it was not placed publicly until 1939. (Another copy can be found in the gardens of the Musee Rodin.) The literary society found another sculptor to do its bidding and the resulting work was erected on avenue Friedland, just opposite the tiny rue Balzac, in 1902.

Of course, time has a way of blurring the edges of controversy. So which one do you prefer?

Rodin's interpretation?

Or the more traditional approach?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Morning

You've got your pocket dogs, your bread, your Journal du Dimanche. What more could you want?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

La France Vue Par....

My French teacher passed along this funny slideshow reminiscent of that iconic New Yorker cover depicting the New Yorker's view of the world. I wasted way too much time seeing if I could turn the .pdf file into a .jpg file, etc. I won't bore you with the details. Just enjoy.

Friday, April 23, 2010


The pastries of Paris. Sigh. What are you going to do them? I keep telling myself not to indulge. But with the kids on spring break and lots of errands still to be done, I found myself today bribing them to stick with me through all the comings and goings with the promise that we would go test the best chouquettes in Paris, as featured in last week's Figaroscope.

If you don't know what a chouquette is, let me explain. The short answer is that it's a little cream puff. But that description is really too pedestrian. It's a tiny, light as air, sphere of fresh pastry that's studded with thick sugar crystals.

At any rate, we took a detour in our errand running to Le Quartier du Pain on the rue St. Charles in the 15th arrondissement. I bought a little bagful and we bit into the first one right there in the street. Wow. Yum. OMG. Insert your favorite expression of rapture here. They were hot from the oven and the warm caramelized sugar on top of the rich pastry added an extra hint of luciousness.

Thank goodness, it's a bit of a shlep from my place to there. Although my 10 year old pronounced it worth the trip, there's little chance that I will get in the habit of swinging by Le Quartier du Pain on the spur of the moment. But if you happen to be in the neighborhood, don't miss it. And if you stay on the train for an extra few stops, even if you have to change lines to get there, your secret is safe with me.

You can find the addresses and ranking of the top 10 addresses for chouquettes in Paris here.

At the request of an anonymous commenter, here's some grade A footage of the baked goods in question:

Le palmarès des chouquettes - Le Figaro
Le test des meilleures chouquettes de Paris par la rédaction du Figaroscope

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spring Stroll

Warm spring weather seems to be here to stay and what a difference it makes in my energy. A long walk and then a bike ride in the Bois de Boulogne, some quality playground time, and yesterday, a hike through forests and fields in the Essonne, less than an hour from the center of Paris by the RER C.

The crops looked incredible under the blue blue sky, especially the rapeseed which will eventually become canola oil.

We thought of the thousands stranded around the world when we saw these jet trails criss crossing the sky. It reminded me of that Saturday after September 11, 2001 when the planes started flying again, although this time without the sense of fear and dread.

We almost missed this neolithic structure, nestled into a bit of wood by the edge of a field.

After all the little yappy Yorkies with their furs and fancy coats who rule the streets of Paris, it was nice to see some big dogs. This fellow clearly just wanted to come out and play.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Time Passes Like.....

My answer to the inevitable question of "how long have you been here" used to be counted in weeks, then in months. And now I can tell, with spring vacation upon us, the school year will soon go into warp speed and very soon, our third year in France will come to a close. Inevitably, just like when my children passed from babydom to toddlerhood to become bona fide big kids, we'll be counting our Paris sojourn in years.

But there's another way of looking at it. Our last summer vacation in the U.S., which ended just a week before we arrived in Paris back in 2007, was to our all-time favorite place in the very northern tip of Vermont. On the advice of friends already living in France, we came back to Washington with a huge jug of Grade A maple syrup. The movers dutifully wrapped it up and put it in a carton. About eight weeks later, it arrived on our Paris doorstep along with the rest of our household goods. It took us awhile, but this past weekend, we drained the last drops from that jug.

You can measure out your life in cups of coffee or bottles of wine or more traditional units of time. Me, I'm thinking that next time someone asks "how long have you been here," I'll just say, "long enough to consume a half gallon of maple syrup" and then they can do the math themselves.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gear Up

Forget about all those big names on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and those fab boutiques in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. If you want a real, one-of-a-kind Parisian shopping experience, then pay a visit to Au Vieux Campeur which stocks all the gear you'll need for any kind of outdoor experience. Camping, hiking, skiing, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, scuba diving, snowshoeing, whatever your needs, they've got it: great brands, lots of inventory, and priced at about what you'd expect. The only problem? Space being at a premium in central Paris, this department store of the outdoors is housed in 26 (count 'em) separate boutiques in a six block area in the Latin Quarter. Check the Web site before you go to locate the spots that match your shopping list; otherwise you'll be walking in circles around rue des Ecoles and rue Saint Jacques. Then again, maybe that's all part of the plan.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Face Lift

The scaffolding is going up at the Arc de Triomphe as work gets underway to clean the four huge groups of sculptures mounted on its walls. It'll take three months to do the job. To my way of thinking, it's not the worst looking public building around (go check out the Palais de Tokyo if you want to see a real candidate for renewal) but then again, we can't have Napoleon looking like this, can we?

But fear not tourists! The building is still open to visitors. I think it's kind of cool that they made the extra effort to cover the scaffolding with large panels depicting the work being cleaned underneath. (As you can see above, the panel is up on the right hand side but not yet on the left.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Nothin' But Blue Skies

Despite the mess that the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has created in the upper atmosphere, it's nothing but blue skies this afternoon in Paris. In fact, the sun's so bright that our neighbors across the way have drawn their shutters.

We are among the fortunate. We're not sitting at the airport, and we're not even watching our spring vacation plans go up in ashes. As the French say, "pas mal."

Practicing Sociology Without a License

Just who's more self obsessed? Parisians, New Yorkers, Angelenos? I don't think there are actually comparative statistics on this; my guess is that they'd all elbow each other out of the way in their fight to proclaim themselves most chic, most au courant, and generally best all around in everything. And Washingtonians? They'd surely be right in the running for self importance although definitely not best dressed.

This week's Figaroscope ponders the question of what Parisians think of themselves with the not so astonishing finding that: 34 percent of Parisians consider themselves elegant, 24 percent consider themselves cultivated, and 42 percent of their countrymen in the provinces find Parisians pretentious. Shocker.

This gal had all the gall of a typical Parisienne when I saw her in action this week. She stubbed out her cigarette and gave her partner bisous before hopping on the bus. When she hopped off, she immediately tried to cross the incredibly busy Boulevard Haussmann while teetering along in her stilettos and of course, lighting up once again. All that attitude formed some kind of protective shield (perhaps helped by the amount of hair spray in her 'do) as she made it across without a scratch.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Chateau de Vincennes

This painting, depicting the month of December, comes from the famous book of hours commissioned by Jean de Berry, brother of French king Charles V. It was painted by the Limbourg brothers around 1412. And okay while the attack of hunting dogs on a wild boar is probably not the most poetic subject matter, you've got to admit it's beautiful, especially the contrast between the oh so blue sky and those gleaming white towers.

Not a bad comparison to what I saw yesterday (captured during the fleeting hours when the sky was actually a marvelous shade of blue):

It's the keep, the most impressive part of what remains of the Chateau de Vincennes, clearly identifiable as the middle structure in the illuminated manuscript.

Anyone who's spent any time in Paris knows the name of the chateau; it is, after all, the end of line 1, the most traveled line of the Paris métro. But my guess is that only a fraction of those folks have actually visited it. There's not a ton to see; Napoleon tore down eight of the towers that once crowned the fortifications and the Germans did their bit in damaging what had long been a military base. But the keep and the royal chapel remain, both impressively restored after works that lasted some 12 years. Particularly cool is the use of special technology (kind of like a Game Boy console) that allows you to stand in Charles V's study and see how it looked back in the day, lavishly painted ceilings, intricately carved wooden cabinetry, and roaring fire in the fireplace.

Hint: The chateau is one of the sites open for free the first Sunday of the month and the lines are much shorter than those at the Louvre or the Musee d'Orsay.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Just Another Parisienne in America

When you travel, you notice the stuff that's different from home and you spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand the routines and rituals of new places. Do I order first and then pay? Do I get my food at the counter or do they bring it to me? Do I need to leave a tip? How much is the right amount? You know what I mean.

From time to time, I've scanned travel guides for French visitors to the U.S., and I've even spent some time lurking in a few on-line travel forums where the French pose their pressing questions about U.S. travel. I thought there might be a post in it but, since most of the questions appear to be about how best to structure a three week RV vacation in the great American West, something I've never done or even contemplated, I pretty much dropped the idea. I mean, I'd like to see the Grand Canyon sometime (although preferably not from the window of a Winnebago) but I'll leave that to another time and place.

Enter the request from the University of Illinois Press to review their latest, a new translation by Vanderbilt professor Mary Beth Raycraft of a turn of the century Parisienne's travelogue about her visit to the U.S. A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World's Columbian Exposition is not going to make any best seller lists or get picked up by Oprah for her book club, but it is a pleasant dip into cross cultural exploration. Madame Leon Grandin spent about a year in the U.S., most of it in Chicago, where her sculptor husband had work for the great universal exposition in 1892 that marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage. During her stay, she visited the fair multiple times but she also made her way into schools and factories, museums and the Chicago stockyards, and even took a train trip to witness a great fire underway in Milwaukee.

Much of what she saw delighted her: the manners of school children and their love of learning, the independence of American women and the loyalty and support they enjoyed from their husbands, and the can-do spirit that we still today think of as particularly American. And then there were the things that saddened her (treatment of Native Americans), frustrated her (no wine with dinner!), and yes, even grossed her out (public spitting and nose picking, which she mentions more than once). At the end of her journey, she is looking forward to returning home to France but full of regret at leaving a place she has learned to love.

Recommended for: those interested in social history, Chicago natives, anyone obsessed with the differences between French and American societies. It's available for purchase at Amazon and perhaps by special order from your favorite independent bookseller.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Not Found in Nature

I see some of the most amazing sights in Paris just walking down the street. I mean, they're walking down the street. I'm talking about young girls in crazy get ups, older men in ascots, and grande dames with their furs and artfully arranged French twists. And it's almost impossible for me to get out my camera, adjust the settings, and get the shot before they cross the street or just walk by in the other direction, off into the sunset, lost forever.

I thought it was going to be another one of those lost opportunities the other day. I was waiting for the Métro with one of my kids and this lady, with the orangiest orange hair I have ever seen, sauntered down the platform, in her leather pants and leather gloves, and her jaunty multicolored scarf with the same unbelievable orange tones in it. It was my good luck that she sat solo across the aisle from me when we boarded the train and I was able to take pictures of my kid with orange hair lady in the "background." I cropped my kid out (plenty of those photos at home) and I'm pleased as punch to share this photo, in part as an offering for all those other missed moments.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Paying Tribute

The scene early yesterday morning at one of the entrances to the Polish embassy. The gate was to open about an hour later for those wishing to sign the book of condolences. It's almost unimaginable that a country could lose so much of its political and intellectual leadership in the blink of an eye, compounding a hundredfold the tragedy they had set out to commemorate.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Facing the Critics

If you can't enough of blogs about France, head on over to A Taste of Garlic where Keith Eckstein, a Brit now living in Brittany, is keeping tabs on all of us. He's got a list of links a mile long and suggestions for books to read that will keep you busy from here on out.

Yesterday, Keith posted a review of Just Another American in Paris and apparently I have completely failed in my duty as a Paris blogger to raise the subject of lingerie. Plus I'm a lot more obsessed with dog poop than I realized.

Seriously, thanks for the exposure, Keith, and I'll look into what I might say about French lingerie that hasn't already been said a thousand times before.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Logic of French Banking

Ages ago I ranted about my inability to break a 50 euro bill at a French bank, a bank at which I am a paying client. (Yes, there's really no such thing as free banking in France. But maybe that's the way things are going all over.) Since then, I've heard other expats with the same beef, boiling over with frustration at ATMs that dispense 50 euro bills like candy, bills that if presented at your local boulangerie, news kiosk, or grocery will be met with raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and request for a smaller bill.

But then this week, I heard another story that got to me to thinking. An acquaintance, who is the treasurer for a local volunteer organization, was explaining that her bank will not allow her to deposit cash. Actually she used to be able to make deposits but during a recent renovation, the branch lost its facilities for securing large sums of cash. So "checks only" is now the order of the day; if she must deposit cash, she has to go to the one location near the Opera (one of the most touristy areas of Paris and one where pickpockets are hard at work) to do so. Yes, that's right. A bank that doesn't accept cash because apparently it doesn't have a real safe.

Aha! It was a light bulb moment. They can't give you cash because they haven't got any. Makes sense right?

Perhaps only in some alternate universe that we will just call "France."

On further reflection, it was one of the moments when I realized that while I am slowly beginning to understand how this country works, I still don't get it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Taking it to the Streets

If you want a little bit of Paris to take home with you, there's always the option of a refrigerator magnet or even your own little plaque, a miniaturized version of the blue metal signs that identify street names. Back in January, Figaroscope, my favorite source of information on all things Parisian, ran a short article detailing the process by which street names are assigned. Suggestions from local officials are evaluated by a special commission created in 1985 and then passed along for an opinion by the arrondissement and then by the Conseil de Paris (something akin to a city council).

The blue signs first appeared in 1728 and now grace some 6,289 public streets in the city. Some street names have disappeared over time (notably many changes were made after the French revolution) so the total number of Parisian street names historically is around 8,600.

Figaroscope's unscientific poll asked about individuals meriting streets of their own. Top votes went to recently deceased anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss followed by Serge Gainsbourg, Yves Saint Laurent, and Françoise Sagan. If it were up to you, who'd you pick? (And no need to stick with these four.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dining at Altitude

A meal at Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse's fancy restaurant high atop the Eiffel Tower, has been on my list of Paris must-dos for some time and yesterday, it finally happened. When I made the reservations months ago, I had fully planned to do so for dinner, but when I saw the price differential between lunch and dinner, I got cold feet. Instead, my husband and I opted for a leisurely lunch together in honor of an otherwise insignificant wedding anniversary, the actual date of which is later this month. Details, details. There's no particular reason to celebrate those round numbered anniversaries and who knows how many more opportunities we will have to mark our years together in such style. As the French say, la vie est courte, profitez-en.

I don't know where our lunch rates among the great culinary adventures we've had in Paris. That is to say, I didn't go into rapture with each bite, but it was certainly a meal I'll never forget. Between the watercress soup, the poulet de Bresse, the citrus tart, the wine pairings, the exceptional views of Paris (in the sunshine no less), and my most favorite person in the world for company, I was pretty much in heaven.

Not so the Italian couple next to us who ordered strangely colored cocktails, refused to order any food, and were asked to leave. "This is not a cocktail lounge," the man in charge told them. They picked up their things, drinks untouched, and vacated the premises. Fair warning. If you want to have a drink and enjoy the view, head to the Panoramic Bar at Hotel Concorde-Lafayette. For the Eiffel Tower, come ready to eat.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Older Than the Hills?

A visit to the Panthéon is a bit of a mini-course in French history. There are incredible mural style paintings of great moments like the crowning of Clovis, the first Christian king of France, and the saving of Paris from starvation by St. Genevieve in the 5th century; lots of monuments to French military heros; and a crypt full of great men (and yes they're mostly men) like Rousseau, Voltaire, Dumas, Zola, and Louis Braille.

There's even a re-creation of Foucault's pendulum which proves that the earth actually turns. You may have seen such a pendulum elsewhere (as I did in the Smithsonian in Washington) but you should know that this is the site where M. Foucault actually did the experiment in the first place.

All very interesting but the only thing that motivated me to pull out my camera was this:

Fossilized remains of sea creatures from a long ago France, immortalized on the front steps.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Vision in Spring Colors

I saw this chick riding the subway recently and of course I wanted more than anything to take her photo. But the car was jammed and there was no way I could get an unobstructed snapshot. Instead I just took mental notes and clucked like the old biddy that I am. Opening one of the throwaway newspapers last week, I found this picture and her name: Nafrayou. She is a model or maybe a model wannabe; I'm not sure who would pay her to hawk what but then again, it takes all kinds. So I guess it's a good thing I couldn't get that shot; she probably would have demanded payment.

For the record, her outfit and hair extensions were more in the turquoise neighborhood; otherwise, same get up, same vibe. More photos on her Web site:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Of Bells and Bunnies

Forgive me for two YouTube repostings in a row. I had this one ready for this weekend and then I found the perfume one and one thing led to another. But trust me. This one's pretty good.

Many of you have probably read David Sedaris's hilarious book Me Talk Pretty One Day which, among other things, recounts his adventures trying to learn French. This clip's just in time for Easter. Take 10 minutes and listen.

Thanks to Sherry for sharing this clip.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Photo Shoot Followup

Remember the photo shoot on my block back in January? If not, catch up here.

Well, the wait is over. The ad is done, mystery solved. The product is a new perfume, Trésor in Love. And you can watch the ad here. I'm just so proud that those three seconds at the beginning were shot right outside my front door. My Paris. Preserved for eternity. Or at least until the next ad campaign.

And here's the full scoop as described at, "the fragrance community Web site":

20 years after Trésor, Lancôme proposes a fresh and fruity flanker for its successful fragrance. The heroine of Trésor in Love is a luminous and cheerful young woman, free to fall in love uncompromisingly. She is both elegant and mischievous. Her perfume celebrates love spontaneously and with a modern style. The ad campaign’s visuals feature Elettra Wiedemann (daughter of Isabella Rossellini, the face of Trésor in 1990) in the arms of her lover in a Parisian apartment, after the two of them have ‘escaped from a chic party’.

Trésor’s composition has been reinterpreted, rid of its oriental facets, for a fresher and fruitier outcome. The rose is softened, ‘as fresh as morning dew’. Bergamot, peach, pear and nectarine contribute their fruity waves of scent to a to a bouquet resonant with the floral notes of jasmine and violet. Cedar and musks close the fragrance.

Flanker? That's not a typo. Perhaps it's just a weird translation? The perfume is not yet available in the U.S. and all of the company's promotional material is in French.

But anyway, it's kind of funny because while I only own two bottles of scent, one of them is the original Trésor. Maybe I'm due for a new installment, at least as a souvenir? I even have a wedding anniversary coming up. Hint hint honey.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


The weather has been completely unpredictable of late: cool, warm, sunny, gray, rainy, and dry, sometimes all in the space of an hour. Yesterday, I emerged from the subway at Place de la Concorde and confronted this insane sky. It was clear blue and absolutely sunny to the west, dark and ominous to the east. Completely wack. Perhaps even biblical.
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