Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cleaning House

Spring cleaning? Bah! La rentrée is the perfect time to get a fresh start. After all, where are you going to put those new school shoes and brand spanking clean cahiers if you don't do a bit of weeding out. Here's a few items that have been taking up space in my computer, none meriting a full post but just interesting enough to keep me from hitting the delete button.

These doors on rue de l'Université in the 7th are sheer crazy inspiration. But maybe whomever commissioned them should have told the artist that the doors needed a locking mechanism. Those yellow bicycle locks are kind of a buzzkill.

While Paris has nothing on most developing nations when it comes to creativity in hauling large items on bicycles, I was impressed that this guy had a ridiculously large suitcase strapped to the back of his somewhat puny bike. My children almost died with embarrassment on the spot when I snapped this photo. The fact that the cyclist had his back to me and therefore could not see that I was taking his picture meant nothing to them. More proof that when your children are a certain age, your views are pretty much irrelevant, boring, embarrassing or all of the above.

Aaah, the romance of Paris. Graceful bridges, idyllic street lamps, steps leading down to the Seine. All it needed was a pair of lovers...or a guy in a hazmat suit.

I swooned over this fantastic gazebo on offer at a brocante on the quai below the Pont de Tournelle back in June. But how would I ship it? Plus I'm fairly certain it would fill up most of our backyard back in DC. A girl can dream, right?

Monday, August 30, 2010


The simple definition of the word "bis" is "again" or maybe "encore." It's one more, an extra. When it comes to street addresses, "bis" can be a bit confusing. In the case above, there is a number 15 and then right next door 15bis. The explanations are not completely satisfactory. Perhaps there was once one building where there are now two (or at least where there are now two separate entrances). Or the numbering got ahead of the actual building. In any case, "bis" will always be next to and on the same side of the street as the number without the "bis." Got that?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Simply Gorgeous

I spotted this door knocker on a side street, just steps from a route I walk practically every day. I would have missed this amazing little architectural detail entirely had I not had to retrieve my apartment key from a friend who graciously watered my plants while I was away. I have been wowed by several door knockers in Paris but this one takes the cake, don't you think?

The other side of the double door must be a clue to the original owner's identity but it's just a tantalizing pendant today.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tête à Tête

Just what do you suppose these two were talking about? They seem to have escaped from the Mad Hatter's tea party.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Vehicles of Paris: Part 24

I've long stopped looking for vehicles to photograph but somehow they just keep popping up. This was the biggest truck mounted hydraulic access platform I've seen in Paris. (And aren't you impressed that I knew what to call it? Google is a wonderful thing!) At any rate, it was awfully darn big. And it was even more impressive because, since the truck was parked on a small incline, it had to be jacked up to keep the whole thing level.

I couldn't figure out what they were doing up on top of the roof or why someone didn't just scramble out of one of those top floor windows to do it. They did create quite a stir; for once, I wasn't the only one taking pictures! Whatever it was, it must have cost a pretty penny.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Is Paris Burning?

Today marks the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Paris. If you think that the credit goes to the Americans, who after invading Normandy, motored their way up to Paris, down the Champs Elysees, kissed a few girls, and called it a day, you have some reading to do.

And for that, I highly recommend Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The book was a best seller and then a hit movie in the 1960s, not surprising because it reads more like a novel than a history. There's the tension within the French resistance (the Communists versus de Gaulle's Free French), the battle of wills between the commanders of the Allied Forces and the French fighters, the heroism of ordinary citizens and soldiers, and the sad character of Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of German forces in France, who after laying waste to Rotterdam and Sebastopol, in the end, decided to surrender Paris rather than destroy it according to Hitler's orders. There are some dark stories here about the bravery and suffering of those who risked all for France and the shameful treatment of those considered collaborators after the Germans were gone. But there are also light hearted moments, tales of family reunions and marriages made from chance encounters.

Sixty six years is not such a very long time, particularly for a place like Paris. But imagine what it would have been like had the war gone the other way or even if the Nazis had lit the fuses on their way out of town. Happily, that didn't happen. Read this book and you'll discover a cast of thousands who deserve some of the thanks.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tour Montparnasse

There's an old joke that the best view of Paris is from the Tour Montparnasse because you can't actually see the building when you're standing atop it. It's true that the building is just a horrible wreck of a structure. Built in the early 1970s, it sticks out of the Paris skyline like the proverbial sore thumb. Dark and hulking, it's ugly enough that it resulted in a law being passed banning further skyscraper construction within city limits. The fact that the bulk of the building has been closed for the past three years for absestos removal only adds insult to injury.

But what I learned this week is that it really does have the best view of Paris and the surrounding communities even without the punchline. It's not as elegant or romantic as the Eiffel Tower or as storied as the Pantheon or as awe inspiring as the Arc de Triomphe. But the vistas are spectacular, the location is central and best of all, there are no lines. Seriously, we waited all of 10 minutes to buy our ticket and be whisked to the top. And once we were up there, we stayed a good hour, looking for landmarks, using the touch screen screens to learn more about the building and the Paris skyline, and watching two short videos. Much of the time was spent inside; we walked up the extra flights to the bare rooftop terrace but rain and a stiff wind sent us back inside. Still it was worth a look; if nothing else to remember that scene in Paris Je T'Aime told from the perspective of an American tourist or the sad moment in the more recent movie Paris in which a grieving man has to fulfill his late ex-wife's wishes that her ashes be scattered from there.

All told I'm going to revise my advice to tourists: by all means go by the Eiffel Tower, once during the day to appreciate its grandeur and once at night to see the lights. But it's a view you want, then head for the Tour Montparnasse. You won't spend half your vacation in a line and you won't be disappointed when you get to the top.

Now there's a view you'll never see from the top of the Eiffel Tower!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Crackdown Raises Questions

So the big news here in France (during what is ordinarily a slow time of year for news) is the government's decision to clamp down on gypsies. It's a two-pronged approach focused on both illegal immigration by Romanians and Bulgarians and illegal campsites set up by both these individuals and gypsies who have legal status in France. It's a pretty complicated issue but I'll do my best to explain. That being said, I'm cringing in advance about the comments this might draw.

So who are all these people anyway? The broad brush is that many hundreds of years ago, a group of people emigrated from India into Europe. They never fully integrated into the countries where they landed, retaining their own culture and a nomadic lifestyle. Others thought they were from Egypt, hence the term "gypsy" but the preferred term is actually Roma. What's complicated in understanding the current situation in France is that the term "Roma" is often used to label both those who've arrived relatively recently (and often illegally) from Romania and Bulgaria. and those who hold French citizenship and legal permits to move freely around the country (known as gens du voyage.)

So you've got two problems: illegal immigration and growing numbers of illegal campsites, sometimes in open fields, but often in abandoned buildings. And then a match lights the tinder: in mid July, a 22 year old Roma was shot by police in central France and a riot erupts, resulting in destruction of a police station and other government property. President Sarkozy speaks out against the behavior, meets with his advisors, and then announces the crackdown, all in the name of law and order. He scores points with the slice of the public who are anti-immigrant but draws criticism from the UN and human rights group for being racist and xenophobic, and concerns from the rest of the EU about how one country's approach to a nomadic community will play out in a Europe with relatively porous borders. But the effort is moving forward. On Thursday, the first flights of the deported touched down in Bucharest. And Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has made it clear that he intends to eliminate half of the illegal campsites within three months.

There's a lot of tension here: unease with how to deal with a people who choose to live off the grid; a general assumption that most Roma are dishonest, acting as petty criminals individually or as part of larger organized crime syndicates. But there's also a concern that tarring all of these folks with one giant brush is just what the Germans did when they rounded up the Jews in 1942. (And of course, Roma communities suffered mightily under Nazi rule.) And if you round them up and send the illegals back to countries where there's no work, what's to keep them from coming right back? Not to mention lack of compliance by many municipalities with the French law requiring them to provide space and even electricity hookups for gens du voyage.

You do see these folks everywhere in Paris, often begging for money or less obviously, smoothly picking the pockets on the Métro and the Champs-Élysées. And it does bother me when I see children who ought to be in school out panhandling. But I don't know enough about the situation broadly to say whether the government's current crackdown is the answer. Yes for heaven's sake punish the criminals but I'm just hoping that there's real evidence of crime by specific individuals before meting out punishment on people who do nothing more than fail to live up to other people's expectations that a good life requires a steady job and a fixed place of residence.

And with that, let the commenting begin.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Paris Vu Du Ciel (Encore)

Paris vu du Ciel de Yann Arthus-Bertrand
envoyé par mairiedeparis.

Last summer I saw the film Paris vu du ciel at the Musee Marmottan and I was absolutely transfixed, even though much of the scenery was just steps from where I was sitting. Yann Arthus-Bertrand is a genius as far as I'm concerned; the light and the patterns are all spectacular. Who wouldn't love the glowing gold dome of Les Invalides or the graceful Tour Eiffel or the streets radiating out from l'Etoile? My personal favorites though are the squares on the parvis at Trocadero, the boats in the Bois de Boulogne, and the steps at the Grande Arche in La Defense. I get a little verklempt every time I watch.

This little video runs for 15 minutes. So get up from the computer, get a fresh cup of coffee or a glass of wine (depending upon what time it is when you are reading this) and then enjoy.

And don't forget that the book, a hefty tome for your coffee table, is available from booksellers in France including amazon.fr. The photos in the video appear in the 2009 edition.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Time for another round of curious translations of American movie titles into French. Interestingly, some of these movies are being released contemporaneously; others were released in the U.S. back in January and are only now showing in France.

And my personal favorite (although I have to confess that I wouldn't pay any amount of money to see this film):

By contrast, the titles of Inception, Night and Day, Salt, Twelve, and Toy Story 3 are exactly the same in France as in the original.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Breakfast of Champions

For a country that has such fabulous bread, delicious, abundant, and relatively inexpensive, how is it that a product like this has such a following? These dried toasts dominate the "petit dejeuner" aisle in the supermarket; I counted no fewer than a dozen varieties on my last visit. Granted the French are not big breakfast eaters. No Denny's Grand Slams for them. A croissant or tartine spread with butter and jam (or Nutella if you are a kid), a glass of orange juice, and a big bowl of coffee au lait is the classic offering.

But dried toasts out of a box? I'm game to try anything once but having done so, I can honestly say I won't do it twice -- give me yesterday's baguette anyday!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Quiet in August? Yes and No

This sign is one of those cliches based in truth. The French are serious about their time off and many of the smaller businesses in our neighborhood have closed up shop for a few weeks. (The chain stores stay open, presumably because of their ability to rotate staff leave.) Traffic is light. And there actually seemed to be more tourists than residents at our neighborhood open air market last Saturday.

But not everyone is on vacation. Far from it. When the retail business shuts down for the month, the painters, plasterers, and fixer uppers move in. From what I can tell, August appears to be a busy time for renovation and remodeling. One of our neighborhood boulangeries has been completely gutted, right down to the studs. Since there was a steady stream of business there and often lines out the door, my guess is that they will be back at the rentrée with fresh walls, cases, counters, flooring, and windows. Time off for the working man come September? The only thing I know for sure is that the first general strike of the season is the 7th. Sounds like a good day to go fishing to me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Either Way, Put on the Brakes

Quick. Don't think. What is this?

If you answered "a French stop sign," you are so wrong. Well okay you are right if you meant "French" as in "French language." But if you meant "a stop sign in France," you lose. This is a stop sign I saw in Québec when we were there last month. A stop sign in France has the the same shape and the same color scheme but the letters read "STOP." Yes, for real.

I attempted to document this, setting out with my camera in my bag as I did my usual errands, knowing full well that I have seen many such signs during our sojourn here in France. Only it turns out, there aren't any stop signs in Paris or at least in my neck of the woods. There are traffic lights galore and white markings on the road indicating that cars must "arrêt à l'intersection dans les conditions définies à l'article R.415-6 du code de la routiere." (This information courtesy of the Ministère de l’Écologie, de l’Énergie, du Développement durable et de la Mer -- how's that for a mouthful?) But no red signs with the word "STOP." Which perhaps explains something about traffic in Paris and why I'm just as happy to be on foot.


Monday, August 16, 2010

While I Had You Otherwise Occupied

Okay, so some of you liked the pieces I ran from Adam Gopnik's anthology, Americans in Paris, and for the rest of you, it was apparently a crashing bore. But it's done, over. If you liked it, you can go back and re-read those passages at your leisure. If not, breathe a sigh of relief and rest assured that I will be returning to a more typical mix of odd pictures and my musings about life in Paris.

In case you were wondering, one of the reasons for the series (in addition to my genuine enthusiasm for the anthology) is that it allowed me to step away from blogging for a full month while our family took a historic trip back home. Historic because we've never taken a trip that long before (10 days is usually our limit) and because it was only our second trip back home since arriving in France, the first being in December 2008. We had a lot of balls in the air, hopping from DC out to Missouri and then on to Canada and Vermont. Daily blogging was not something I wanted to add to the chaos.

I got on that plane in mid July with mixed feelings. Of course, I was looking forward to seeing family, friends, and familiar places but I was also unsure how I would react to being back. Happily, it all worked out, logistically and emotionally, and if anything, the trip confirmed two things. First, although Washington, DC is the city that Americans love to hate or at least to badmouth as frequently as possible, it is unequivocally my hometown. I wasn't born or raised there but it's the place I've lived longest, the spot where I feel absolutely comfortable and connected. Despite near 100 degrees temperatures and crazy high humidity, for me, the city resonated with beauty and friendliness. Crepe myrtles and day lilies were in bloom everywhere, geraniums cascading from front porch pots, and the greenery was lush. When I stopped in our neighborhood supermarket for a few items, Ted, one of the checkers who's been working there for forever, wanted to know where I'd been. And of course it was great seeing our friends and the kids' friends, sharing meals, catching up on news, and seeing how much all the kids have grown. I liked having the Washington Post with my morning coffee, the convenience of great and affordable shopping, and even driving around with the radio cranked up.

And second, as much as I feel good knowing that we will land in DC once again, the trip confirmed that I'm really not done with Paris yet. It was easy to revel in blueberries and bagels, homegrown tomatoes and sweet corn, when I knew that warm baguettes and wonderful cheeses would be waiting for us on our return. I could enjoy dipping my kayak paddle into the waters of Lake Champlain and engaging in some retail therapy at Target given that there's still time for strolling in Parisian gardens and window shopping in the Marais. For the moment, I felt I had the best of both worlds.

So now we're back in Paris where the temperatures are blissfully cool and the streets quiet. Trust me; I'm counting my blessings.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Americans in Paris: Adam Gopnik

I loved pretty much everything about Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, which I read before we arrived here, from his cross cultural observations to his wonder at his growing son. When I see that carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens about which he wrote so lovingly, I always think of his book and regret, just a little bit, that my kids were too big, even when we arrived, to ride it. Gopnik scored again with the introduction to Americans in Paris. There were so many incredible passages that there's no way I could pick just one. Here are few that resonated with me.

An American in Paris is, as they say, a story in itself: one need merely posit it to have the idea of a narrative spring up, even if there is no narrative to tell.


This book is a history of the worlds Americans have made in the city where they have gone to be happy. It is in part, therefore, the history of an illusion. Every world American thinks up is a world we think we've discovered (It's India! cries Columbus, setting the tone), and the line between illusion and reality is even finer in Paris than it is elsewhere. Paris is our happy place because, against the logic of history and horror, we have insisted that it be so.


...French society, high and low, is open at the surface, closed at its core...the fruits of social life, talk and food, are instantly, or almost instantly, offered (if not at home, then at a restaurant, that matchless French invention for semiprivate life) to a visiting American, the roots of social life, the sense of cohort and belonging, remain almost impossible for an American to put down in Paris.


We are happy, above all, when we are absorbed, and we are absorbed when we are serious, and the secret of Paris, in the end, is that the idea of happiness it presents, is always mingled, I do not always know how, with a feeling of seriousness.

From "Introduction," Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Adam Gopnik, editor (New York: The Library of America, 2004).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Americans in Paris: A.J. Liebling

If, as I was saying before I digressed, the first requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite, the second is to put in your apprenticeship as a feeder when you have enough money to pay for the check but not enough to produce indifference to the size of the total...The clear headed voracious man learns because he tries to compose his meals to obtain an appreciable quantity of pleasure from each. It is from this weighing of delights against their cost that the student eater (particularly if he is a student at the University of Paris) erects the scale of values that will serve him until he dies or has to reside in the Middle West for a long period. The scale is different for each eater, as it is for each writer.

From Between Meals, in Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Adam Gopnik, editor (New York: The Library of America, 2004), p. 540.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Americans in Paris: Irwin Shaw

Paris is not a city of heights. Its architects, out of respect for man, have made certain that man is not dwarfed by his works here. It is a city built to human scale, so that no man should feel pygmied here. Parisians are devoted to their sky and have passed a set of complicated laws designed to keep the height of buildings at a modest level, so that the sky, soft, streaked, gentle, beloved to painters, can be a constant intimate presence above the rooftops and treetops.

From Remembrance of Things Past in Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Adam Gopnik, editor (New York: The Library of America, 2004), p. 486.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Polite Notice

Years ago, my father took a picture of a sign in England that began with the header "Polite Notice" and then proceeded to lay out exactly what would not be tolerated in the vicinity. I have no idea of what happened to that photo. But this very polite notice was a sweet reminder of both the moment and my dad.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Americans in Paris: Ludwig Bemelmans

"I hope you attach no importance to numbers," said Georges. "The house is Number Thirteen, Rue St. Augustin, and there will be thirteen at the table. You may, however, if this upsets you, stop trembling, because we are invited to this little family celebration by Mademoiselle Geneviève and her patron saint, Ste. Geneviève, is, as you perhaps know, the protector of Paris."

After a very short ride from the Hotel de France et Choiseul, the taxi stopped, not in an obscure and somber alley or in a hypocritically genteel location, but in the center of a busy thoroughfare lined by respectable shops and businesses, all located in solid houses. There was no hidden entrance: the door of Number Thirteen with the number boldly lettered on it, was heavy and oaken, carved, and had immense polished brass knobs for handles. It was still light, and the street was filled with people. Part of Number Thirteen was occupied by a firm that sold filing equipment, and the brunette young woman in black who stood there waiting for customers looked at us without any kind of expression on their faces other than that with which people look out into a street in which nothing of particular interest happens. While we waited for the bell to be answered, there were also women who came out of a grocery store, and children who seemed to belong in the street. While it is a curious feeling to stand and wait outside an establishment of the reputation of Numero Treize and wait a long while to be let in, it seemed to bother nobody. We were not even taken notice of.

From No. 13 Rue St. Augustin in Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Adam Gopnik, editor (New York: The Library of America, 2004), p. 441.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Americans in Paris: John Dos Passos

Running up the grimy steps of the metro at the Place de Clichy, it was hard not to feel in my ears the different ring the name had had other times, ten years back, twenty years back, the longago Paris-on-leave ring of barroom chatter, funny stories, comic prostitutes, all the sidewalk cafe Saturdaynight jingle that went with the gone mythological sound of Montmartre. But twenty years from war to war have somewhat eroded the venereal mount of martyrs of bidet and makeupbox, and taken the glitter out of the last lingering tinsel of nineteenth century whoopee.

From A Spring Month in Paris in Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Adam Gopnik, editor (New York: The Library of America, 2004), p. 405.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Americans in Paris: Henry Miller

Up the Rue Caulaincourt, over the bridge of tombs. A soft spring rain falling. Below me the little white chapels where the dead lie buried. A splash of broken shadows from the heavy lattice work of the bridge. The grass is pushing up through the sod, greener now than by day -- an electric grass that gleams with horsepower carats.

From Walking Up and Down in China in Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Adam Gopnik, editor (New York: The Library of America, 2004), p.396.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Get a load of this penthouse garden on Place d'Iena. Terrace, garden, barbecue pit, backyard playhouse and what do you bet they have a jacuzzi too? And a view of the Eiffel Tower (which can't be seen in this photo but is just across the river and to the right)to boot. Yet more proof that the rich are not like you and me.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Americans in Paris: Gertrude Stein

We none of us lived in old parts of Paris then. We lived in the rue de Fleurus just a hundred year old quarter, a great many of us lived around there and on the boulevard Raspail which was not even cut through then and when it was cut through all rats and animals came underneath our house and we had to have on one of the vermin catchers of Paris come and clean us out, I wonder if they exist any more now, they have disappeared along with the horses and enormous wagons that used to clean out the sewers under the houses that were not in the new sewerage system, now even the oldest houses are in the new system. It is nice in France they adapt themselves to everything slowly they change completely but all the time they know that they are as they were.

From Paris France in Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Adam Gopnik, editor (New York: The Library of America, 2004), p.380.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Americans in Paris: Ernest Hemingway

I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood. At the head of Ile de la Cite below the Pont Neuf where there was the statue of Henri Quatre, the island ended in a point like the sharp bow of a ship and there was a small park at the water's edge with fine chestnut trees, huge and spreading....

From A Moveable Feast in Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Adam Gopnik, editor (New York: The Library of America, 2004), p. 332.
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