Saturday, October 30, 2010

Passage de la Reine de Hongrie

This photo isn't my best work but that's not the point.  This door marks one of the many covered passages that can be found in the city of Paris, some all tricked out with fancy shops, others literally just passages from one street to another, in this case between the rue Montmartre and rue Montorgeuil in the 2nd arrondissement.  (This entrance is at 17 rue Montorgeuil.)  It's a cautionary tale about Julie Bécheur, a shopkeeper at the nearby Les Halles market, who lived in the passageway.  One day, she took a petition to the queen of France on behalf of the other women of the district.  The nature of her grievance or request is lost to time but not the remark made by Queen Marie Antoinette that Mme. Bécheur reminded her of the queen of Hungary who just happened to be the queen's mother, the all powerful Maria Theresa.  Apparently, this flattered Mme Becheur enough to repeat it to all the neighborhood.  In time, there was hardly a soul who hadn't heard about the queen's remark and somewhat as a joke, someone changed the name of the passage to reflect the importance of one of its residents.

But then a little thing called the French Revolution happened and we all know how that turned out for Marie Antoinette.  And you don't have to know much about the Revolution to know that it didn't turn out well for pretty much anyone connected to the royals, in this case, an insignificant shopkeeper with aspirations above her station who too lost her head.

The moral of the story?  Believing a flatterer may secure you a place in history but it's probably not very good for your physical well being.

Special thanks to Jacques for sharing this historical tidbit.

Friday, October 29, 2010


 My kids, who won't realize completely until we are back in the States just how lucky they are now, looked at the map and picked Portugal for the Toussaint break. Another country to add to the collection that they are assembling on the knickknack shelf of their lives. And because I'd be travelling solo with the kids due to my husband's work commitments, I said no to beaches and little villages and instead said okay to Lisbon and Sintra -- two places I could handle without a rental car.

Lisbon delighted us with its sunny skies, bright palette, amazing tiles, delicious pastries, and people warm enough to deal with our non existent Portugese. It's a bit of a ramshackle place with lots of graffiti, falling apart facades, and ever present laundry hung out to dry. But we found bits of beauty everywhere, ate filling meals at dirt cheap prices, and between Rick Steves and the Lonely Planet guides' suggestions, we kept plenty busy and entertained. (Say what you will about Rick Steves but I appreciate a man who has the good sense to tell you the location of the bus stop and the number of the bus that will take you to the tile museum.)

It's a funny thing spending a few days in a city like Lisbon, especially knowing that we are likely never to be back. We quickly mastered the maze of streets in the neighborhood surrounding our little apartment, figured out which codfish dishes we liked best, and ticked most of the major tourist sites off our list. But given what it's taken to acclimate ourselves to life in Paris, it's absurd to think that we could ever claim to know Lisbon at all. What can I say Lisbon? I hardly knew ye but thanks for the memories all the same.

I can never resist a group of street musicians, especially one as spirited as this lot.

These custard tarts were beyond delicious.  A little bit of heaven, piping hot at just 90 centimes a pop.

A small country with some pretty big names from the Age of Discovery

Believe it or not but the Marc Jacobs store was just around the corner from this mess.
Unbelievable views of the Pena Palace and the countryside surrounding Sintra


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ça Veut Dire Quoi?

Shopping tip:

If you are looking for one of these in Paris:

Don't ask for a teddy. 
Because if you do, you will likely be shown one of these:

For some reason, these American style letter jackets called teddies are all the rage among young Parisiennes at the moment.  The other day, one of my kids pointed out a lady wearing one with the letters "BS" on it and asked, "Mom, do you think she knows what BS means?" 

Anyway if you've got an old letter jacket in the back of your closet (or that of your boyfriend, husband, or brother), time to pull it out again.  And another thing, do jocks still wear letter jackets these days?  They did when I went to high school but then it's been awhile.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Works of Art

Art is everywhere in Paris, even if you never step foot inside a museum.    Just walking down the street offers a feast for the eyes.  Here are a few items that caught my eye recently.

Pastries for sale

Mosaics on the exterior walls of Prunier

A florist sets up shop

Stone work

Beautifully crafted doorways

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sushi à La Française

Instructions for French cooks on how to make sushi with correct proportions (readers beware:  I read this tip in a fashion magazine so take it with a grain of salt):  the amount of rice should be about the size of a cork for a wine bottle; the amount of fish should be roughly equivalent in size to a metro ticket.
I've been thinking about the advice for American cooks but haven't come up with any suitable, culturally appropriate ideas.  Suggestions?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

St. Eustache

St. Eustache is a huge church in the center of Paris.  But it's not in any of the guide books and in fact, if you're in the neighborhood, you might not even see it until you're right on top of it.  Or maybe you've noticed it from the top floor of the Pompidou Center and scratched your head as to what it might be.  The dismantling of Paris's central market, Les Halles, in the 1970s opened up the vista you see above; otherwise it's cheek by jowl with the other buildings that surround it.  And it's "just" a parish church, not a cathedral (which by the way, only means that it is the seat of the bishop and has nothing to do with its decoration or size).  Still some interesting events happened here.  It's where Molière, Richelieu, and Madame Pompadour were baptized and it also served as the setting for the funeral of Mozart's mother and Louis XIV's first communion. 

Like many churches in Europe, St. Eustache reflects the changing artistic tastes over the many years of its construction.  Although construction on the building stopped before it was fully completed (witness the never completed towers), changes to the interior continue.  Particularly striking is an altarpiece by Keith Haring in one of the side chapels which is dedicated to the memory of people who died from AIDS.

St. Eustache's other claim to fame is its massive organ.  With 8,000 pipes, it's bigger than the ones in Notre Dame and St. Sulpice.  You can catch a sample every Sunday afternoon at 5:30 when there's always a free concert and my guess is, a lot of empty chairs.

Friday, October 22, 2010

In Search Of

Pity the quiet desperation of those in search of the perfect (or perhaps any?) apartment in Paris.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Enough doom and gloom.  There's still no gas at the pump at one-quarter of French gas stations and no clear understanding of how the politics will play out but the metro and buses were running fine yesterday morning and the ticket writers and garbagemen were hard at work.  Plus those gray clouds (not just the figurative ones) rolled back, leading to a brilliant display of sunshine on the buildings in my quartier.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Politics as Usual?

A dark sense of gloom has spread over France.  The ongoing protests against proposed changes in the retirement system seemed to have morphed into something much bigger, potentially unmanageable.   Transport is disrupted, long lines are forming at service stations amidst concerns about what might happen if oil and gas refineries stay shuttered, truckers have engaged in work slowdowns, and high school students have taken to the streets.   There have been a few isolated reports of violence raising the specter of the type of unrest that raged in the banlieue of Paris back in 2005. 

The response from the Elysee has been stalwart, guarded.   Not much is being said only that the final vote on retirement reforms has been postponed until Thursday at the earliest.  But my question is this:  even if the retirement reforms are blocked, will people go home satisfied?  Or has something much deeper -- widespread anxiety about the future --taken hold of hearts and minds?  And what's the answer to the mathematical problem plaguing the retirement system -- too few current workers chasing too many retirees -- other than more taxes on the rich?

Add to that the vaguely worded warnings about an imminent terrorist attack, and no wonder everyone's feeling on edge and out of sorts.  And the big black storm clouds that have been lingering in Parisian skies for days certainly haven't helped.

To those from home who've inquired how we're holding up and queried just what to think of all this, all I can say is we're doing fine and just as confused about the politics as you are.  Does the right to strike trump all?  Will public opinion shift if services are still at a standstill when the school holidays begin Saturday?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I never really noticed the number of French men wearing fishing vests until I read David Lebovitz's commentary on this and of course, after that, I saw them everywhere. (Although don't go looking for them now; it's strictly a warm weather thing.) Similarly, I'd never heard of the street artist Above and now I'm seeing his little arrows with celebrity smiles every place I go. I don't really get what he's trying to accomplish. I did learn that he's pretty much saturated Los Angeles too but somehow that makes more sense. (If you want to know more, you can watch the video.)

Seen anybody else above?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fall Light

No matter what the temperature, you can certainly tell it's fall by the light.  The sun is lower in the sky, doesn't show its face before 8:00 am and goes to bed early too.  In a week when daylight savings time ends, it will shift even further.

Saturday was one of those typically crazy days weatherwise in Paris.  Sun one minute, dark clouds the next, a rain shower and then a clearing.  I took this picture on the footbridge over the Seine near the Musee Quai Branly.  I loved the look of the clouds but the sun was so blinding, I couldn't tell whether the shot would work or not.  And since it did, dear reader, it's all yours.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Honestly, do you think they could fit any more signs on the corner of this building?  I find the two "defense d'afficher" signs particularly amusing: a) because there's already a lot of stuff affiché there and b) who'd be posting advertising at that level (the top of the first floor) anyway?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Check That One Off

Photo from Le Figaro:  Read the full review here (in French):
Monday night I had the opportunity to check an item off my "things to do in Paris before I leave" list:  attending a play at the Comédie-Française.  The show was L'Avare (The Miser) by Molière.  I had every intention of reading it in its entirety in French ahead of time.  Unfortunately, I ran out of time and only made it about halfway through in the original; I finished up by skimming the English language version.

The setting in the Salle Richelieu was pretty spectacular; it's not a huge theater and I'm betting that there isn't a bad seat in the house.  I can't tell you for sure though because my seat couldn't have been better:  2nd row in the center of the first balcony.  And it did give me kind of a chill realizing that Molière wrote the piece and performed the lead role himself with the same group of players; the building itself is a bit younger, dating from just after the French Revolution. 

My French still isn't up to snuff for the theater but I was able to follow along with the sense of things even if I didn't get all the jokes.  Some actors were certainly easier to understand than others! But even when I was losing track of the dialogue, I could still enjoy the marvelous set design, the costumes, and of course, lots of mugging by the actors.  It is after all a comedy.

If you are in Paris, the production continues into January although many of the performances are already sold out.

Buy tickets for L'Avare

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Going to the Chapel?

It's not unusual to see folks (particularly Asians) decked in their wedding best at various spots around town -- the Eiffel Tower for example, or the Tuileries or even the Pont des Arts.  But this is the first time I've seen a bride on the metro.  Or was she really a bride at all?  What I can tell you is that she was with a photographer and another lady (dressed in street clothes) and there was no groom in sight.  Plus that cardigan was pretty ratty and she was also wearing black slacks underneath.  (Stop that.  I didn't have to peek to see those.  When she sat down a while after I took the shot, she gathered her skirt around her so it wouldn't get dirty.)  Well if she shows up in some Asian wedding magazine, you can say that you saw her here first.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What Passes for Real

Some of you may remember this ad campaign from several years back by Dove, maker of soaps, shampoos and creams.  Although manufacturers of beauty products have long focused on women's aspirations rather than their realities, Dove boldly sought to acknowledge women as they are.  And apparently by all accounts, this campaign, featuring women considered far too fat, flat chested, lumpy, and misproportioned by the typical advertiser, was a big success.

Fast forward five years.  This week, the billboards of Paris have been saturated by a new ad campaign by Levi's introducing Curve ID, three different cuts of skinny jeans.  (For the record, the cuts are bold curve, demi curve, and slight curve.)  Although I applaud their acknowledgement that not all women are built alike, I'm having a hard time going any further in that.   The notion that these three rail thin leggy models exemplify the range of womankind  is at best laughable, at worst truly insulting.   As I'm far too old, short, and stumpy to even consider skinny jeans for myself,  I'm trying not to take it personally.  But as for the young women of Paris?  My best advice is to avert your eyes and celebrate yourself no matter whether you can fit into a pair of these or not.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Oy.  Another week, another strike.  The fight against reform of the French retirement system continues even though the bill itself is working its way steadily through the legislative process.  Public transport is once again predicted to be a mess today, and 30 to 50 percent of flights from CDG and Orly are cancelled.  Moreover, the unions are calling for a renewable strike, one that can be extended each evening for the next day, depending upon their judgment about how effective their tactics are being in changing public opinion and ultimately the action of the government.  Large numbers of the French people (almost 70 percent) say that they are in favor of the actions of the strikers although the numbers are expected to weaken if a strike endures.

Sorry about the quality of the photo; I caught this shot on the back of an electricity panel and apparently the glue made the poster wrinkle.

Monday, October 11, 2010


This weekend was the Fête des Vendanges in Montmartre, a slightly over the top celebration given that the remaining vineyard there is only 1500 square meters, not much bigger than a football field. Nonetheless, wine is serious business in France and even if the variety made here is widely acknowledged to be utter crap, that doesn't keep the locals from pulling out all the stops. I decided to skip the tastings and the art installations and instead opted to go up the butte for the grand parade on Saturday.

We arrived at the Lamarck Calaincourt metro stop well ahead of time, and watching the crowds gather was entertainment itself. For some reason, the few police present hadn't bothered to completely block off the parade route to traffic and there was a continuing drama as cars and motorcycles came east on the rue Calaincourt only to be told to back up and turn around. A fellow with a large camera hopped out of a small car to plead with the policeman. No dice. Despite the nattily dressed groom and fully decked out bride in the front seat, they too had to reverse tracks. The crowd started building and simply could not be contained on the sidewalk. The paraders pushed their way through even though the route was precariously narrow at many points.

I wasn't sure what to expect from a French parade. The only other parade I've attended is the show of military might on Bastille Day. But this one did not disappoint. There were representatives of the different wine growing regions of France in their traditional garb (many pouring wine for the crowd), marching bands, colorful papier mache characters, and lots of good cheer. The batteries on my camera died before it was all over but I did manage to squeeze out a few shots to share.

These kids were at the head of the parade; they were the unhappiest bunch of musicians I've seen in a long time.

This little boy was so excited to have a dolphin balloon.

Representatives from Champagne

And yes, there was even a beauty queen with her court.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Indian Summer

We had glorious weather yesterday and more is on tap for today.  And when this happens, the only thing to do is to drop all else and get out there and enjoy it.   I was fortunate enough to have time and to be in the right location in my errand running to take a little respite at this lovely park  belonging to the Hotel Salomon de Rothschild just off Avenue Friedland in the 8th.  Many thanks for Eric Tenin at Paris Daily Photo  for clueing me into this hidden gem.  (The gate is just off the avenue on rue Berryer.)   Amazingly, one is permitted to sit on the grass there!  I didn't take the opportunity; I suspect I half thought some cop was going to come out of the shrubbery and yell at me.

Apartment living Parisians, most of whom do not have private gardens, terraces or even balconies, take advantage of parks on days such as this for all manner of tasks.  There were the usual 20 somethings with their iPods, the 30 somethings with their lunches, and then there were these retirees.

Madame had her knitting.

And this couple had his and hers magazines.  I snapped the picture so fast and then skedaddled before realizing that I'd caught Monsieur with his hand covering his face.  Oh well, you get the drift.  Now if you'll excuse me, the sun is shining and I'd rather be outside than sitting in front of my computer.

Friday, October 8, 2010

In the Round

Little did I know but you're not supposed to take pictures inside La Bourse de Commerce.  Fortunately for me, no one insisted that I delete this shot.  Although the building  is open to the public, it's not really a tourist site.  That being said, if you're in the neighborhood (due north from the rue de Rivoli on the rue du Louvre in the 1st arrondissement), go inside and take a peek.  The ceiling is covered with a spectacular 19th century fresco depicting global commerce; the images are just so classically European centric that it's kind of a hoot even though it was clearly meant to be monumental and serious.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fall Palette

On a day that was otherwise rather gloomy and gray, Paris and her surroundings saw fit to share with me some of her beautiful colors.  At breakfast, the skies in our quartier were striped with pink.  And that old sailor's adage, "red sky in morning, sailors take warning" was not far off the mark.

And then midday in the forest of Rambouillet, I saw this graceful counterplay of orange and green.

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