Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Soundtrack for My Street

Ah summer. Break out the sandals, short skirts, popsicles, and salad for dinner. The windows are open, secured with metal hooks to keep the cross breeze from banging them shut. And suddenly there's a whole new level of sound in our third floor apartment, at all hours of day and night.

Motorcycles and scooters speeding by.

The sound of the pompiers leaving their station (about two blocks away), sirens blaring as they head off to a call.

The hum of traffic -- cars, buses, trucks -- coming from the busy avenue at the top of the block.

The scrape of the street sweepers' plastic brooms as they move the debris through the gutters.

A baby crying in the building across the street.

The beep beep beep of the garbage truck and the crashing sound as the glass recycling bin is emptied.

Whoops and horns honking in the distance as someone's favorite team advances in the World Cup.

Some crazed fool screaming at the top of his lungs.

Rap music with a heavy bass coming from someone's car radio.

Wine-fueled voices of revelry from the crowd on the terrace of the bar on the corner.

Snatches of conversation from folks walking by.

Kids playing soccer in the courtyard.

Oh yeah, it's charming all right. Now could all you people please pipe down so I can get some sleep?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sales Pitch

When you think of cheese, isn't a nooner really the next thing on your mind? Maybe only in France. But if this commercial is any indication, apparently sex sells cheese. And this one isn't half as racy as some of their earlier spots which involved suggestive undressing. But then who knows what happens when that lift gets to the top floor?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes

Saturday night, we decided to skip staying home on the couch to watch the U.S.-Ghana soccer match and instead headed out to Versailles to see the evening fountain spectacular. On Saturday nights during the summer, the gardens are not so much transformed as embellished with music, lights, fire features, and choreography, and it all ends with a lovely show of fireworks at just after 11 pm.

When we arrived, the skies were threatening, creating a spectacular contrast between the light of the setting sun on the chateau and the dark clouds. As luck would have it, the rain never materialized.

The place was mobbed but fortunately, Louis XIV's backyard is big enough to comfortably acccommodate almost any size of crowd and I must say that everyone was unbelievably well behaved. And of course, everyone stayed off the grass even though it sometimes took gentle reminders from the staff.

I'm not much of a videographer but here's a little clip to give you a sense of the show.

There's still plenty of Saturdays left this summer to see the show and you can buy your tickets on-line. Bring a blanket (because otherwise you'll be watching the fireworks with your rear end in the gravel) and a bottle of wine might be nice too. The last RER C train departs Versailles Rive Gauche at 11:50 pm giving you plenty of time to enjoy the fireworks.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

For your front door in Paris, would you prefer the fish?

Or the serpents?

No door knob on our front door and the brass handle that you push to open it looks like it was whacked 40 times with a crowbar.

Friday, June 25, 2010

On the Question of Schooling for Expats

Pretty much everyone assumes that after almost three years in Paris, all of us are fluent French speakers. And oh the disappointment when I tell them "no." And oh the clucking when I mention that we put the kids in international school where all their courses (except of course French!) are in English.

Let me blunt. You wouldn't question a couple's sleeping arrangements or how they handle their money, would you? So please, for the love of God, don't poke your nose into their choices about schools. It's just as personal. What works for your kid doesn't necessarily work for mine. In fact, what works for one of my own kids doesn't necessarily work for the other. As for the choices we made? I have zero regrets.

In the end, it all comes down to this: just what is the goal of an expat experience? Fluency in another language? Fluency in another culture? Integration in another culture? I suppose it's all possible, given enough time, the right set of circumstances, and some luck. But it's not a competition folks where you get extra points for mastery of the subjunctive or for the number of dinner invitations you receive. And frankly I've heard enough stories about American women who've married French men, spent the better part of their adult lives in France, raised French speaking children, and still feel somewhat out of place, to know it's mere delusion to think that I could do otherwise.

So yes okay, I admit I would love it if my kids were fluent in French, able to pop in and out of languages without missing a beat. I'd love it if I could do that too. But you know what? They know a lot more French than they would have had we stayed in DC and they do quite well, albeit quietly, in situations where there aren't other English speakers around. My bottom line: they are generally happy kids who've adjusted marvelously to unfamiliar situations. And if they speak a little bit of French, so much the better. What more could a mother want?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Caught Short

I wish I had had my camera this week on several occasions. If I had been better prepared, here's two scenes I might have shared:

a baguette posed on top of one of La Poste's yellow mailboxes.

a 40ish fellow on the metro one evening, dressed in a suit. He's flushed and sweating and his shirt collar is too tight. He turns his head and I can see that his forehead is a maze of surgical tape, blood oozing out from the edges. I start to make up half a dozen stories about what happened. And then the crowd parts a bit and I can see his gym bag at his feet with his boxing gloves peeking out.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Vehicles of Paris: Part 21

I've shown you the fabulous and the cute. Now for a dose of reality. There are plenty of cars worse for the wear being driven around in Paris and some of them even belong to people with impressive addresses, wardrobes, and family backgrounds. But this is taking shabby chic to a whole new level. And in fact, the owner of this little car didn't even spring for duct tape; this is plastic strapping tape, the kind you'd use to wrap a package for the post. The back end was in just as bad shape and similarly taped together. But I thought it was the better part of valor not to humiliate the owner by putting a photo of his license plate on the Internet.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Half Empty or Half Full

We're screaming up on the end of the school year here and in between the request for baked goods, teacher gifts, exams, concerts, and celebrations, I can't help but reflect on the passage of time. And yes, how can one not say "hooray it's summer!" On the plus side: no more homework (and all the attendant nagging) and no more rousting kids out of bed before 7:00 a.m. We can settle into a more relaxed schedule with time for exploring Paris and reading (a big pursuit in our family), plus some traveling. There will be hikes, picnics, rainy days at the movies, sunny days at the pool, and (if I play my cards right with my kids), some museum adventures too. Plus there'll be a week alone with my husband when the kids head to the Alps and Brittany for their own adventures.

And yet, good friends are leaving. Will we see them again or not? E-mail, Facebook, and VOIP phone can help sustain these friendships but I know they won't all survive. Plus our own time in Paris is ticking down. Next year it will be me in the frenzy of packing out and sobbing as our days here come to a close. I'm not ready for that. And I'm not sure whether I will be then either.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Never Forget

Seventy years ago this month, the Germans rolled into Paris where they stayed until August 1944. The German tanks arrived on the 14th and even today, the pictures of those swastika emblazoned vehicles and the goosestepping troops marching down Avenue Foch can give you a chill. Charles de Gaulle, then a brigadier general in the French army, escaped to England after the disastrous Battle of France. And it was from there, on June 18, 1940, that he made his historic call to the French people over the BBC. De Gaulle's message was one of hope and determination, its power such that, although he made numerous radio addresses over the course of the occupation, it is this one that has become iconic.

On Friday night, there was a sound and light show at Les Invalides to commemorate the famous address with military music and stunning projections onto the building of photographic stills and moving images. My pictures didn't come out very well (check out the one posted by Eric Tenin at Paris Daily Photo) but what I can share with you is this miniature version of the address (complete with context setting introduction and references) that was being handed out to the crowd.

It even has the author and title on the binding so when I shelve it with my other teeny tiny books, I won't have any trouble finding it in case I want to relive those stirring sentiments. It's nice to have my own copy. Now I just need a stronger pair of glasses.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Despite genuine World Cup fever here in Paris, I've been following it only half heartedly. I check the scores and watch the highlights but somehow I haven't managed to get myself in front of a TV set to watch anything from start to finish.

And don't get me wrong, it's not soccer that's the problem. I actually played the game from the age of 10 straight through my junior year in college. I was a youth soccer referee and played on club teams that went to the Southeastern regional championships several years running.

It's just that, well, it's kind of hard to have skin in the game if your team doesn't have a prayer. And that seems to be the case for both the U.S. and France. And what could be more symbolic of France's recent drubbing by Mexico? My eagle-eyed friend Carol (the one whose early morning walks were responsible for this post) passed along this photo snapped with her cell phone late on Thursday evening.

Not sure what that might be? Take a closer look.

Oh French fans. Fickle or just forgetful?

Friday, June 18, 2010


Do you suppose this kid or his parents have any idea what his shirt says?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

62 is the New 60

It's done. After months of high stakes political drama, the minister of labor, Eric Woerth, yesterday announced the plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, to be accomplished in stages between now and 2018. The package includes a ton of other reforms, some quite technical, to help pacify those resistant to the change and to help make up the deficit which was the reason for the whole debate in the first place. Like every other industrialized nation in the world, changes in demographics have upset the apple cart of retirement finance. There are simply too few employees paying in given the number of retirees ready to dip into their benefits. Sound familiar to you Americans out there?

The package still must be approved in a legislative process, meaning that Sarkozy's opposition (the Socialist Party and the unions) still have plenty of time to make their case. In fact, Martine Aubry has already called it irresponsible. Ah well, that's how democracy works. And my guess is, given that it's already mid-June, nothing is going to get done before all of France shuts down around Bastille Day. So that means a wait until summer ends and most likely, a lot of strikes in the fall. Aux armes citoyens!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I've been taking a lot of photos of wrought iron lately, intrigued by the variation even within the relatively strict confines of Haussmanian design. I guess the differences keep the Parisian look from crossing the line from unity into utter monotony.

Once I started snapping photos, I started noticing even more little details. Even so, in the staid, elegant, and oh-so proper 16th arrondissement, I did not expect to see this:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Attention those of you who have a problem with American tourists in white tennis shoes! Can you honestly tell me that this is any better? I don't know what nationality she is but she sure wasn't Parisian. I'm secretly hoping those boots gave her blisters.

Monday, June 14, 2010

All Clean!

The scaffolding has come down at the Arc de Triomphe and after two months of work, everything is look pretty spiff, in plenty of time for the celebration of Bastille Day next month. So here's the before and after for the sculptures on the east side of the monument. Even though the camera angles weren't exactly the same between my before and after shots, I think you will agree with me that the results are impressive.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Official Visit

Vladimir Putin (or Poutine as the French spell it -- yes the same spelling as for the French Canadian favorite of fries, cheese curds, and gravy) was in town yesterday to open up a huge special exhibition at the Grand Palais. And while I didn't get a personalized invitation to his meeting with Sarkozy at the Elysée, I did happen to be on the 52 bus at just the moment that his motorcade was pulling out. There was scarcely anyone on the bus and I was able (along with an Australian tourist) to stand right by the driver and snap these photos out the front window. Had I been a real journalist with press credentials, I would have seen this.

I have to say, after living in DC for many years, working on both Capitol Hill and just steps from the White House, the security here by comparison seems pretty lax. But then you really never know what's going on behind the scenes. And honestly, I'm glad someone else is taking care of that.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sweeping Clean

For the most part, Parisians don't get going early in the morning. But when they do, this is a sight they are sure to see: a city water pipe opened by a street sweeper and aided by a piece of carpet, directed to run down the gutter. The street sweeper follows behind with his broom, dustpan, and trash bin, scooping up the flotsam and jetsam of cigarette butts, food wrappers, and worse. It's a big job too; every day these guys (and they are mostly guys) sweep 2,400 kilometers of sidewalks. They wash 1,500 kilometers of roadway at least once a week.

I understand that the water used for this purpose comes from a separate system of pipes than that for consumer use. This non-potable source of water is also used for watering gardens and in city fountains (not the drinking kind). Apparently, it's a closed system too, meaning that the water is recaptured and used again although I'm not exactly certain how that works. What is clear? The streets after they're done. Thanks guys.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wise Beyond One's Years

My kids have been exposed to many things in France that they might have not encountered so young back home: snails for dinner, a taste for unpasteurized cheese, the freedom to roam the city without parents, and travel journals filled with stories of their adventures across Europe.

But for all these pluses, they've also been exposed pretty regularly to things that are not so nice such as public urination and daily encounters with street alcoholics. They can even point out the prostitutes whose cars line certain lanes in the Bois de Boulogne. On the one hand, it's probably not such a bad idea for them to understand that things aren't as cushy for everyone as they are for us. Life is messy and unfair; it's the seamier side of living in a society where education, opportunity, ambition, and good sense are not evenly afforded and where people are free to make choices about their lives. On the other hand, there's an in-your-face quality to dodging a drunk rambling down the sidewalk that is not as instructive as the times we worked side by side packing groceries for the hungery, organizing the shelves at a clothing bank, and painting and cleaning a facility for sick children. I'm not particularly happy about the crew of panhandlers encamped on our street, a daily obstacle of requests for small change and cigarettes between our place and the corner store. This is the same group who were around last summer; they disappeared over the winter and reappeared in the spring. In the meantime, they seem to have lost their talent for acquiring used furniture. Instead, they now have a rabbit on a leash.

I don't blame Paris; Washington certainly has its share of homeless folks and prostitutes. But they were not quite so much a part of our daily lives as they are here. Is it too much too soon? I'm not sure.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

It's Nice to Have Friends With Houses in the Country Part 2

A beautiful morning in Brittany, perfect for a hike, especially with a wonderful group of friends. (Click on the picture to get a larger view.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Future of the Proletariat

How is it that an elegant Haussmanian apartment building like this one on avenue de Suffren, bordering the upscale 7th and 15th arrondissements, belongs to an organization called the Future of the Proletariat? With a little digging, I found out that the organization was created at the end of the 19th century by one Ferdinand Drink, a man concerned about the plight of old and sick factory workers. His solution: create a pension fund to which workers would contribute annually for a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 50 years. Invest their contributions in the booming Paris real estate market and create financial security for 150,000 working Parisians.

Fast forward to the mid 1970s when the French tax authorities discovered that the fund was neither a proper pension fund nor a proper real estate investment company according to the rules of the day. Choices were made, feelings were hurt, and the original mission was abandoned. Today, the company still exists in its mutated form. The real legacy: some 40 buildings bearing its name and testimony to its noble original mission.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Paris is for Tourists

Paris is once again thick with tourists, in line at the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, standing on street corners with their maps, strolling the picturesque neighborhoods and stumbling into the others, and squinting at menus posted outside restaurants.

Believe me, I know it because since May 6th, we've had 18 nights of guests at our house. This weekend, the last crew headed back over the Atlantic and it'll be just our family of four again until sometime in mid-August. Much as I enjoyed having family and friends visit, I have to admit I breathed a sigh of relief as I finished that last load of sheets and towels.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Paris by Mouth

I don't know exactly how it happened but a number of the Paris food bloggers have pooled their resources into one mega Web site that should meet most, if not all, your gourmand needs. Paris by Mouth is packed with info: restaurant reviews (in a searchable database no less!), news about upcoming events, and photographs that will have you drooling on your computer screen. (Don't say I didn't warn you.) There are voices here that are probably well known to many of you and a few others you might not yet have discovered. Kudos to Meg Zimbeck for doing most of the leg work and allowing me to peek at another side of Parisian life at the launch party.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Army Boys

The French Army has turned in its camouflage vehicles for these new, sleeker gray-green Land Rovers. I've never quite been sure what exactly their mission might be as they ply the streets of Paris. I can say they're now doing it in style.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


One of the transitions I've had to make with our move to Paris is the shift from working to being a stay-at-home mom. I had been working full-time for nearly ten years before the kids came along. And I worked all kinds of schedules for another decade after that -- three days a week, four days a week, five short days -- and often ended up at the kitchen table with papers to edit or conference calls to conduct while the kids did their homework. But except for three months' maternity leave for each one, I never stopped working all together.

Those first months in Paris I was so busy trying to keep my head above water that I didn't really miss the rhythm of work, just the paycheck. And when I took on a short-term technical editing assignment, I did enjoy making my own money again, although I couldn't quite shake the feeling that all that work was cutting into my free time.

And now? The reality is that our time here in France is limited and since we're not strapped for cash and it is oh so much easier only having to deal with one work schedule when it comes to long vacations and days off, not having a regular job feels like the right thing to do. And I can't say that there's anything in particular that I'm pining to do careerwise. My professional reputation is well-established back home and I'm not at all concerned about having to justify a gap in my resume when the time comes to return. And I stay plenty busy and don't have a lot of time for eating bon bons.

The only thing that really bugs is how to answer the question: "what do you do?" Actually a young man who recently stayed with us asked, "do you just walk around all day?" To which of course the obvious answer is "No, I ride the metro and the bus." The real problem is that there is no term that seems right. The word "housewife" sounds too much like Donna Reed; even the French femme de foyer seems to suggest that I'm spending my time getting manicures and whipping up dinner parties for my husband's business contacts. Blogger sounds ridiculous, writer presumptuous, and domestic engineer, well, let's just say whomever dreamed that up didn't have me in mind.

I don't know that there's an easy answer here, but do me a favor. The next time you're at a cocktail party and you ask someone "what do you do?" and you're confronted with a long pause, figure out how to shift the conversation. Better yet, find another opening gambit. This blogger-trailing spouse-mother-expatriate-observer of all things Parisian will thank you.

Now if you'll excuse me, my hiking group is waiting for me at Gare du Nord.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Poulet Rôti

'Tis the season for visitors and that means we're eating a lot of poulet rôti at our house. As I noted way back when, it's both delicious and deliciously simple when you have extra folks around the table and to my mind, also a quintessential part of our Paris experience.

There was a long long queue at the butcher's the other day when I went to fetch my two chickens for dinner, giving me enough time to summon up my courage to ask the cheerful monsieur if I could take his picture. He knows me well enough now that the soft sell worked just fine, and I'm glad to have this souvenir of the many chickens we've had from his establishment. And for the record, the chicken was yummy. Roasted potatoes, a simple salad, and a bottle of wine was all that was needed to make me look like a hero of a hostess.
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