Monday, January 31, 2011

From the Other America

We can finally stop pretending we're Canadian.For some reason I cannot pinpoint, I'm constantly being mistaken for Spanish, Portuguese, even Brazilian.  The other day, the guess was Italian.  If I could figure out what I'm doing, I'd bottle it and sell it to  those American tourists desperately trying to hide their Americanness, lest that anyone associate them with their loud talking, French bashing, ill-mannered, and underdressed countrymen.

When I told the gentleman that I was American, his next question was, "From which city?  New York or Los Angeles?"  Too bad for the approximately 275 million other residents of the U.S. who, for this Frenchman, apparently do not count.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Eggs, Milk, Laundry Detergent, Champagne

I don't know about where you live but there sure as shooting ain't no champagne in my neighborhood grocery store in DC.  Well to be fair, the liquor laws don't allow sales in the supermarket.  Even if they did, I don't think they'd have a big honking display of Veuve Cliquot right there next to the bacon and the packaged salads.  For the record, I did not stock up.  Yet I somehow was able to spend 60 euros and I still don't have anything in the cupboard for dinner tonight.

Friday, January 28, 2011


What's the difference between being a tourist and a resident, albeit a temporary one?  When you're a tourist and you're riding a city bus and it gets stuck behind a garbage truck, you might not even notice.  The ride is an adventure itself -- there are people whose outfits, behavior, and potential back stories you can analyze in your head, and there's always something of interest out the window.  But when you're a resident, it's that sinking feeling of "here we go again" while mentally recalibrating your route to your destination (bail at the next possible metro stop or keep going hoping things will improve?) and thinking about the excuses you'll have to make about your tardy arrival.   This happens more often than I'd care to admit, a product of the city's already narrow streets and the tendency of delivery vans to double park.  The RATP's bus drivers can move their vehicles through some pretty tight spots but some times there's nothing to do but wait. 

Yesterday, being stuck behind a garbage truck added a good 7 minutes to my ride, meaning that when I got to my transfer point, the only thing I could see of my next bus was its tail lights.  And as bad luck would have it, I was in a veritable public transportation no man's land, a fifteen minute walk to the nearest metro with only fifteen minutes left until my meeting.  Six euros and a taxi later, I was just a hair late.  Trust me, next time I'm taking the metro, even if I had to change trains twice.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Do you get the impression that the folks who live or work here have just had it?   For the unsuspecting person who ended up at the wrong address, it could be worse.  Google says it's just 800 meters and 11 minutes on foot to the correct destination.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Study in Silver

If this were a brooch or one of a set of earrings, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. Too bad for me because that's not the case.  This fabulous Art Deco ornament is actually a door knob to the front door of an otherwise relatively nondescript Parisian apartment building.  I love it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shhhh! Artist at Work

T.S. Eliot said that April was the cruelest month, but in Paris, January wins it hands down.  But if you're searching for a silver lining, here's a tip.  January is the one month out of the year when really no one is in the Louvre.  Well maybe over by the Mona Lisa, there's probably a group of Japanese tourists with cameras at the ready.  But elsewhere, the entrance lines are short, the crowds are thin, and the galleries are quiet.

When I visited last week, I happened upon this gentleman, beret, scarf, and all, hard at work in the Galerie de Marie de Médicis in the Richelieu wing.  The gallery displays 24 paintings by Rubens, executed at the command of Marie de Médicis for her residence, the Palais du Luxembourg.  It's an over the top tribute to the dowager queen, widow of Henri IV and regent for her son, Louis XIII.   Everything about it is in technicolor and screams, "Me!  I was the greatest queen that France has ever known."  You have to see it to believe it.

As interested as I was in Rubens' paintings, I kept circling back around the gallery to see what this fellow was up to.  And for once, he wasn't studiously copying what was before him.  Instead his painting (and perhaps you can click on the image above to enlarge it) depicted the entire cycle with many of the painted figures exiting from their frames to interact with museum visitors.  An illustration for a children's book, perhaps.  Fanciful, of course.  Charming, definitely. 

Ah January.  Perhaps you're okay after all.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ciel Bleu

When I was a sophomore in college in Rhode Island, I had a roommate from Hawaii.  Despite having already spent a year in New England and thus presumably experienced in how to deal with cold weather, she could somehow never shake her childhood assumption that blue skies meant a perfect day for the beach.   On a January day, when the temperatures were frigid and a stiff wind was blowing out of the north, she would look out the window, see a crystal clear blue sky, and put on her flip flops.

When winter skies are blue in Paris, I'm never tempted to wear sandals.  Still, it is such a rare occurence that one really must take notice.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Pont des Arts is for Lovers

The Pont des Arts, a foot bridge that crosses the Seine between the Quai de Conti on the Left Bank and the Quai de Mitterand on the Right, is unquestionably romantic.  But when did the tradition start of couples placing a lock on the railing and then throwing the key into the river?  All I can say is that the city of Paris, which has no use for these mementos, is fighting a losing battle to keep the locks at bay.  City workers keep cutting them off but the locks just keep on coming.

There's quite an assortment, in every shape, size, color, and even a few combination locks which, to my mind, kind of defeats the poetry of the idea.  Whatever.  It's still sweet.

For puppy love,

 special anniversaries,

in every shape, color, and size

Some people obviously come prepared. 

From near and far
And even a little humor.
And if you're wondering whether there's a lock on that bridge for myself and my husband, the answer is no.  Neither of us goes in for grand romantic gestures.  Although honestly, what could be more romantic than getting to spend four years together in Paris?  Plus, that's something the city of Paris can never take away from us.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mad for Monet

The Monet exhibit at the Grand Palais has been the hot ticket for art lovers this season -- perhaps too pedestrian for the serious art critics but dearly beloved by the rest of us.  But if you've put off going until now, you might think twice.  The show closes on Sunday and my guess is that all the advance tickets are sold.  When I finally got my act together to go earlier this week, the wait for walk up visitors was 7 hours.  The crowd was such that even those of us with the season pass (which normally allows you to waltz right in) had to wait a good 40 minutes to get through the front door. 

Once inside, the first two or three rooms were no picnic -- simply wall to wall people with lots of jockeying and a little bit of shoving for a better view.  But the crowds thinned as I moved through the exhibit and by the time I got to the series of haystacks, the cathedral in Rouen, and the houses of the British Parliament at different times of day, there was plenty of space to breathe and admire.   While I had seen many of the pieces before -- at the Musee d'Orsay and the National Gallery in Washington (which donated a considerable number of works to this show) -- there was something about seeing them after having visited Giverny, Vetheuil, Chatou, and other Monet favorites that made it extra special.

If you're in town and lost out on the show, there's another one at the Musee Rodin through the 30th and at Musee Marmottan through mid February.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reality Check

Life in Paris is not all champagne and chocolates.  If you don't speak French, the one word I will translate for you from the above is poux:  lice.  With that, you should be able to figure out the rest.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Café de Flore

I finally got myself to Café de Flore yesterday.  In the heart of chic St. Germain des Prés , it's one of those must visit places, an essential for literary types and those wishing to see and be seen, as well as for tourists who won't cringe at the even high for Paris prices.  And yet after living in Paris for three plus years, not to mention several earlier visits, it never rose to the top of my list.  To be honest, it never made the list at all.

But when someone invites you for lunch, you'd better have a pretty good excuse not to go, even if it's explicit that you will be paying your own way.  Et pourquoi pas? Do I really want to return to DC and say I could have gone but I didn't? The short and obvious answer is: no.

I wouldn't recommend the place for the food, although I had a perfectly nice quiche and salad.  And the physical ambience is really nothing special.  But still it was fun to be there.  Our waiter was a hoot and extremely solicitous, not something I can say for all Paris waiters who wear the traditional black and white.  My only regret is that we had no idea who was dining around us, even though there were a couple of folks who were clearly somebody.  The three Parisiennes who were with me were no help at all, and you can't exactly Google, "older gentlemen, around 70ish, beige blazer, looks like he's had plastic surgery sitting with similarly surgically enhanced lady with frosted hair in black."  Can I get help anyone?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pocket Dogs

Quintessence of Paris:  madame, elegantly but casually dressed in heels, skinny jeans, and Louis Vuitton bag, with her two little pocket dogs.  Regrettably, you can not see that both of these little guys were wearing sequined coats.  But thankfully, it's not a video so you don't have to watch them leaving little presents all the way up the block.  Trust me, she did not have a plastic bag.  Well, that's Paris for you.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy Birthday Ben!

Today's Ben Franklin's birthday.  Or rather it would be if he were still alive at 305.  So let's just say it's the anniversary of his birth, a date momentous both for Americans and for the French.  Franklin did the leg work to get the French behind the ragtag Continental Army in its fight against the mighty British.  It didn't turn out so well in the end for the French (being tremendously expensive and distracting Louis XVI from other things that he might better have spent his time attending to) but by all accounts, French support of American independence was an absolutely essential ingredient to the American victory in our Revolutionary War. 

Franklin arrived in France in 1776 at the age of 70 and by all accounts, he charmed the pants off the French.  Some say his French was atrocious, some say he was an outrageous flirt, some say he played the part of the country bumpkin (coonskin cap and all) to the hilt.   Let the historians sort it all out. What's indisputable is that he stayed almost 10 years, leaving finally in 1785, having been party to the Treaty of Paris, and leaving the ambassadorship to Thomas Jefferson.

The house where Franklin stayed in Passy (on the corner of rue Raynouard and rue Singer) is no longer standing but in addition to the usual historical marker, the current building sports a rather large stone monument in his honor.  There's a statue of him just inside the grounds of the U.S. embassy, off the Place de la Concorde, although they don't let you take a picture of that.  For the rest of us, there's a thoroughly satisfying homage just to the south of Trocadero, on the street that bears his name.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


It's midwinter at the marché.  Although you can still find strawberries, grapes, and figs, it's certainly not the season for them.  You'll pay a pretty penny plus have the guilty conscience of knowing that they've had to be shipped and trucked long distances, using plenty of fossil fuels, to get to you.  If you're trying to eat locally, then your shopping list will likely have a lot of root vegetables, including topinambours, otherwise known as Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes.

Jerusalem artichokes are native to the Americas, brought to France in the 17th century by the great explorer Samuel Champlain.  I'm told that the older generation stays as far away from these as possible.  During the war years, when food was scarce and people were hungry, root vegetables were a staple, day after day.  Worse, the occupying Germans took all the potatoes.  Once the privations finally came to an end and the variety of fruits and vegetables available diversified, some of these folks decided that they had had quite enough topinambours, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas for one lifetime.  These vegetables are only now becoming popular again.

As for me, I had my first taste of topinambours this week in three variations, one boiled and then fried up with bacon and onions, tossed with leafy greens, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar; the second being raw, sliced paper thin and paired with arugula and a citrus dressing.   The third dish was served up for dessert at a chi chi neo bistro in the 2nd, covered with a cloud of whipped cream and dusted with chocolate and hazelnuts.  Thumbs up for the salads.  Nice try but no cigar for the dessert.

Points for creativity and presentation; regrettably none for taste

Friday, January 14, 2011

Follow the Yellow and Red Striped Road

If you've ever noticed these bands of yellow and red tape on poles holding up Parisian street lights and street signs,and wondered what they might signify, I have the answer.  The stripes indicate that you, the pedestrian, are on the path of the Grande Randonnée du Pays (GRduP),  part of a larger system of hiking trails that pretty much covers France and connects with similar systems in Germany, Spain, and the Benelux countries.  The system is maintained by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre which in total is responsible for some 115,000 kilometers of trails throughout the country.  The organization's Paris chapter has three suggested itineraries for those wishing to cross the city in one fell swoop. At approximately 20 kilometers each, these represent a full day of walking without a lot of time for coffee or wine sipping, museum going, or window shopping.

So lace up those walking shoes, make sure you have plenty of water and snacks, and perhaps a Metro ticket in case your aspirations exceed your abilities, and get out there.  And if you see these markings on the back of a stop sign, do not worry.  The black helicopters are not coming.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Corner Store

I have a love-hate relationship with our corner store.  I absolutely love the convenience of having a mini supermarket just two steps from our front door.  When I'm lacking a lemon or onion mid-recipe, it's no problem to turn off the stove, and run down there, or better yet, send one of my kids with a few euros.  And when we're running low on eggs or butter, or I realize that someone ate up all the leftovers that I was planning on serving for dinner, I can swing by on my way home from wherever and be in and out of there in two seconds flat.   When it comes to about 80 percent of my every day needs -- pasta, rice, milk, orange juice, broccoli, coffee, jam, bananas and apples, cereal, canned tomatoes, laundry detergent, toilet paper, to name a few -- I can pretty much always rely on finding it there.  Plus since the one super grouchy cashier seems to have left, the folks who work there are generally helpful and the new ones don't have the obsession with correct change I encounter elsewhere.

No, I can't actually get my caddie through that space. 
Use the next aisle, you say? 
That would be the one that was completely blocked.
BUT (and you knew there was one of those coming), there are certain things that are inexplicably lacking -- lemon yogurt, red onions, mozzarella you can put on a pizza, brown sugar, type 65 flour.  It's this inability to finish off my shopping list for what I consider pretty normal, everyday items that absolutely drives me to distraction.  We're not talking fresh bread or vegetables straight from the farm.  I mean staples, people. And while I appreciate the industriousness of the store's employees in their efforts to keep the shelves continually stocked, sometimes the restocking makes it impossible to actually shop. 

Love or hate, I have to admit it always keeps me entertained.  When I popped in one day last week, there was a pigeon loose in the store and a somewhat agitated woman in her 60s with a giant goose egg of a bruise over her left eye being interrogated by our friendly neighborhood pompiers.  The week before, I was amused by an elderly lady in a fur coat who asked for free delivery even though she had only about 20 euros worth of merchandise.  When the checker very calmly and respectfully explained that free delivery was only available for those spending 100 euros, she snapped at him, "well I always give a good tip to the boy who brings it up."

And love or hate, you can pretty much bank on my being there at least once a day, or if I'm lucky, just five times a week.  And darn it, I just realized there's not enough milk for breakfast.  Better grab my coat and head on down.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Knock on Wood

I can't help it.  I'm a sucker for door knockers, even the one on our front door in Washington that is engraved with the names of people who owned that house long before we did.   (And why didn't we change that?  Well we know we live there and if other people don't, perhaps they don't have any business knocking.)

But I digress.  I'm always on the lookout and beyond thrilled when I find a beauty like these two:

But check out these ones that I spotted on our pre-Christmas jaunt to Italy.

Surely the psychoanalysts among you have something to say about that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Meilleurs Voeux

Is this so French or what?!  The RATP is sending its best wishes for the new year to its riders.  From now through the 22nd of January, extracts from French poems will decorate the platforms and corridors of the Métro as well as appearing on buses, the RER and tramway 3.   Honestly, I could not imagine a similar campaign in the U.S. -- word play for sure, but no poetry, no way.

And by the way, RATP,  pleine de poesie?  Surely, a sweet wish for the new year, but let's hope also that it's also not pleine de grèves.

Note: If you can't read the text here, it says, "J'ai réinventé le passé pour voir la beauté de l'avenir." This line from Le Fou d'Elsa by Louis Aragon translates as "I reinvented the past to see the beauty of the future."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Galette Harley Davidson

In the category of things I just don't understand comes this:  the Galette Harley Davidson, on sale now at any locations of the celebrated Parisian bakery and traiteur Lenôtre.  Oh sure, why not have a special cake for the Epiphany, something more exciting than the usual old combination of puff pastry and almond frangipane filling.  But Harley Davidson?  What does that have to do with this pastry, a gussied up baba au rhum with whipped cream and vanilla pastry cream?  That sounds like sissy food to me.  Although come to think of it, it does sound better than a Budweiser chased by shots and stale biker bar pretzels.

For the hard core collectors among you, if buying the cake for 53 euros and change isn't enough, you can also buy the set of collectible Harley Davidson feves (you know the little trinkets that go inside the galette de roi).  If you want either, you'd better hurry.   They'll only be around until the 15th of January. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Study in Contrasts

Ah Paris:  at once beautiful and grimy, luxurious and down at the heels.  And truly, when you've got a little Chanel No. 5 behind your ears,  you should have the confidence not to care that your sweater is stained and your stockings are nothing but ladders. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Sad Truth about a Gifted Writer

Back in the summer of 2007, just a week or so before we moved to France, I was on vacation, sitting by the pool reading a copy of Irène Némirovsky's now famous novel, Suite Française.   Written in 1942,  the book had only recently been published, having languished for years as a dusty manuscript in a suitcase owned by the author's daugher Denise Epstein.  Having lost both her parents in the Holocaust, saved herself only after being hidden from the Nazis by her governess, Ms. Epstein held onto that suitcase for many years without realizing that it contained a fully realized novel about the darkest years of her family's life.

So I'm sitting there by the pool, and the guy next to me says, "You know.  That story about the manuscript being found.  I heard it's not really true.  Just a publicity stunt."  Had he been a Holocaust denier, I would have jumped down his throat right then.  But not knowing the details (or having yet read the book's afterword), I simply shrugged and turned back to my book.

So let me tell you this.  That guy -- dead wrong.  The story -- all of it from the family's escape from Russia when Irène was a teen, her rise to fame as an author in France during the 1920s, her conversion from Judaism to Catholicism in the 1930s, her fruitless attempts to become a naturalized French citizen, her husband's desperate attempts to locate her after her arrest, their subsequent deaths in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis, and their daughters' remarkable survival --- is true.  And if you want to know the details, get yourself to the Mémorial de la Shoah in the Marais between now and March 8 for the free exhibition:  Irène Némirovsky: Il me semble parfois que je suis étrangère.  The exhibit includes photos, letters, press clippings, videos, as well as the suitcase which Denise Epstein guarded all those years.  It's a tragic story on many levels -- personal and societal -- but well worth your time.   And if you're not in Paris, and you haven't yet read any of her works, get thee to a bookstore or a library.  In addition to Suite Française,  I can also recommend Le Bal, a slim volume set in turn of the century Paris.  The novel that was most famous in her lifetime and also made into a major motion picture, David Golder, is next on my list.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In Which The Thing Speaks for Itself (Almost)

I can scarcely forgive myself for missing this show last night.  (Hope you detected the subtle tone of sarcasm.)  On the one hand, this really deserves no further comment.  Except there's that asterisk after the word, "pimp."  Usually an asterisk means there is a translation somewhere else on the page.  There's one here but it's far too small to see with an image this size so let me inform you.  The translation of "pimp" is "relooke."  Discuss.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What's for Dinner

If you're in Paris and your dinner arrives via scooter, then it's a good bet that it's either pizza or sushi.  This fleet of scooters belongs to Pizza Hut.  And the pizza du moment?

La Nordique with crème fraîche , mozzarella, and smoked salmon.  Oh, that's okay.  I think I'll just do my own cooking tonight.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Under Construction

I didn't make any New Year's resolutions this year for no particular reason other than I already have enough things on my "to do" list.  But I'm proud to say that I did backup two year's worth of photos that have been sitting on my computer.  And in the process, I found a few images that have been gathering dust that I can share with you.

Sometime back in September, we got a letter from our landlord informing us that construction would begin in October on our building's roof and thus a scaffolding would be put up that would stay in place for a number of months.  True to form, construction on the scaffolding didn't begin until early December and finished up just before Christmas.   And a result, our courtyard now looks like this:

Erecting this monster was a truly noisy business, something I can appreciate as I'm often home during the day.  Now we're waiting for the real work to begin and I can only imagine what that's going to entail.

Monday, January 3, 2011

El Nopal

Paris has a serious problem when it comes to spicy ethnic food, in that, there isn't any.  Or rather there isn't much that's any good.   It's no problem finding a good Vietnamese or Moroccan place but heat? Forget it.  It's not in their blood.  So for the most part when it comes to spicy ethnic treats, the best bet is to eat it elsewhere -- Indian food in London, Thai food in Sweden, we've done that and more.  And almost without exception it's been better (and cheaper) than what we could have found in Paris.

So when my husband mentioned that he'd read about a good Mexican place near Gare de l'Est, let's just say I was a bit skeptical.  But the review was by American foodie Barbra Austin and our dance card was pretty much empty so I figured why not?

Austin wasn't kidding when she said that El Nopal was just a hole in the wall.  There are two stools there but if they're occupied, there's scarcely room for anyone else to breathe, let alone order.  So I let my husband do the talking, while I stood out on the sidewalk with the kids, stamping our feet to stay warm and making up corny jokes, each one worse than the last.

By the time we got our food, got back on the metro, made a few changes and walked back up the stairs to our apartment, the whole ordeal had taken a good hour and a half.  But fortunately, we were not disappointed.  Still warm, the burritos, quesadillas, and tacos were a hit all around.  I don't know where they find the ingredients (especially the cactus that was in my quesadilla) but they certainly shine.

We'll be back, but maybe next time, we'll wait until the weather's warmer and we can just take our goodies out to the Canal St. Martin for a little Tex Mex picnic.  El Nopal is a keeper, even if you're not hip enough to live in the neighborhood.

And to those who question why eat Mexican food in Paris, I can only say, live here for awhile and then ask that question again.  If you're here as a tourist, it's a different matter altogether.

Read Barbra Austin's review here.

El Nopal
3 rue Eugène Varlin
Paris 75010
Metro:  Chateau Landon or Colonel Fabien

Open: Mon-Fri: 11:30 am -3:00 pm; 6: 00 pm - 10:00pm (Fri.until 11: 00pm)
Sat: 6-11 pm
Sun: 11h30-9pm non stop

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year

With warm holiday wishes to all my family, friends, and readers, near and far.  May your glass always be half full this year.
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