Saturday, April 30, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons

Over the past four years, there have been any number of times when I have been fed up with this country and ready to hop on the first plane back home.  Someone sneering at my French, lousy customer service, and bad weather were just a few of the things that set me off.  But it's been a long time since I've had that feeling.  Is it because I know I'm already heading home so I'm willing to forgive the little things?  Or is that I've just become so acclimated to how things work that I just shrug and go on, knowing that getting frustrated serves no purpose?

Twice recently, someone cut in front of me in line, one time at the corner market, another time at the open air market and both times, I just let it go.  I have the French skills to make a fuss if I want to but I just couldn't summon the energy to do so.  And both times, the person standing behind me in line was insistent that I say something and prevent this grave injustice from occurring.  The first time, I actually said to the lady behind me that being American, I felt it more polite to rest neutral rather than call the offender out.  And believe it or not, she actually got a chuckle out of that.

All that being said, my skin is not made of steel.  Yesterday, I carefully assessed the lines for home delivery at the big supermarket.  Three registers were open and since you have to pay at least 100 euros to get delivery, most of the shoppers' carts were overflowing.  I contemplated and made my choice, only to have an overtanned lady, who had clearly had too much cosmetic surgery and probably spent more money on her hand bag than I spend on my entire wardrobe in a year, butt in front of me because she realized the line she was in only took cash.  I was all geared up to give it to her but she turned her head and studiously ignored me for the rest of the transaction.   And that's what pissed me off even more.  She knew she was in the wrong but her own self importance justified the action.

Okay, so this incident is not making me change my travel plans.   But it's a good reminder that life in Paris is not as candy coated as I may some day remember it to be.  And woe to the next person who tries to sneak ahead of me in line.  You can expect my cart on your heels and a good tongue lashing to boot.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Mistaken for a Memorial

I haven't been paying much attention to world news this week but I understand that the television networks are in their "All Royal Wedding All the Time" mode.  And what a great story just out of a fairy tale: handsome prince marries beautiful and accomplished commoner while the world looks on approvingly.  There is a stepmother (although I don't think I'd call her wicked) and a sad, sort of pitiful father who has been sitting around his whole life waiting to become king.

And then there's Princess Diana, never aging, perhaps even more glamorous in death than in life. (In fact, can you imagine her in a mother of the groom dress?) This monument, a replica of the flame on the Statue of Liberty's torch, was given to the city of Paris on the 100th anniversary of publication of the International Herald Tribune in 1989.  But since Princess Diana's 1997 death in a car crash in a tunnel beneath the site (at the intersection of the avenue de New York and the place de l'Alma in the 8th)  it's become an unofficial memorial to her.  When I passed by earlier this week, there were the usual  bouquets, messages of remembrance, and photos, the son the mirror of his mother.  Congratulations on your big day, William.  May you have a long and happy marriage.  And rest in peace Diana.  It seems that he turned out pretty well despite all the drama.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

War is Hell

The same day I visited the American Cemetery in Suresnes, I also stopped literally just around the corner at Mont Valérien, once a destination for religious pilgrims but more infamously during World War II, the site of numerous executions of French resisters by German forces.  There are several components of this site, not all of which were open the day of my visit.  The pictures below are from the principal monument, inaugurated in 1960, which honors those who died for France between 1939 and 1945.  Fifteen bodies were  placed in the crypt which was subsequently reopened to receive the ashes of some who died in Indochina and other victims of war.

The contrast with the lush green peace of the American site just down the hill is stark.  All stone and metal and no greenery to soften up the edges.  The best word to describe it is brutal.

What the above photo doesn't show very well are the 16 bronze reliefs by different sculptors depicting either specific battles or different aspects of the war.  Saumur (below) describes the fall of soldiers in that town in June 1940 under horrific conditions.  No romanticization of war here.

Sadly, despite this inscription, the eternal flame was not burning.

The site is always open but you should probably check the Web site before you go if you want to see all aspects of the memorial, some of which are only open limited hours.  Like the American Cemetery, the site is accessible by the Transilien commuter train from La Defense and the T2 tramway.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


You have to look pretty hard to find color in the typical Parisian building but whenever I do, I feel like I've won the lottery.   Mosaics, ceramics, brickwork:  I love them all.  These details are hard to photograph from street level so my apologies for the wonky angles.  So just consider these pictures documentation, not works of art.  If you're heading out for your own treasure hunt, stick to the arrondissements with numbers in the double digits where 19th century architects and designers let their imaginations run wild.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dot Com or Point Com?

I use Yahoo for my e-mail and sometimes the navigation is in English, other times in French.  It's pretty much all the same to me.  After all, it could be in Greek or Russian or Swahili as long as the login box is in the same place. 

Someone mentioned to me the other day that the video which you can access from this start page  must have been taken in Paris, maybe because the dude's in a cafe and wearing a scarf.  But that table and coffee cup feel all wrong.  And then take a closer look at the scene out the window.  The sign on the shop clearly says "LOCKSMITH."  Euro inspired but definitely North American made.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Of Biking and Beaches

Even if it had rained all of last week, I'd still count myself as a lucky person. Happily that was not the case during the trip we had planned awhile back for the kids' spring vacation -- a week of bike riding along France's Atlantic Coast. The fleece and long sleeved shirts never left my duffle; even the windbreaker I was usually wearing as we set out each morning pretty quickly made its way into my saddle bag. Truly it was nothing but blue skies, fields of yellow rapeseed, canals and cows, wide expanses of sandy beach, miles of little travelled country roads and bike paths, the occasional 17th century fort, lots of ice cream for the younger set, and a good honest feeling of being physically tired when my head hit the pillow each night.

Among the several guidebooks to France that are on my shelf, this region gets relatively little play.  But a trip to the American Library yielded a Michelin green guide to Poitou Charentes which answered our questions about local history and lore.  We will remember La Rochelle for its three towers and amazing artisanal ice cream, Île de Ré for its picture postcard towns (although I can well imagine the crowds and traffic jams in July and August), and Rochefort for its funny Pont Transbordeur, a late 19th century cross between suspension bridge and ferry.  Most memorable was the lovely day we spent with a childhood friend and his family on the  Île d'Oleron, including a picnic in the forest, sipping the local aperitif, pineau des Charentes, on the dunes of Les Sables Vignier, and walking among the rocks and sealife in the ecluses they maintain, a centuries old technique for trapping fish at low tide.

My only regret is that my camera gave up the ghost our third day out, apparently a victim of the volcanic dust to which it was exposed a couple of weeks ago. So unfortunately, I have but a few snapshots to share.

When the tide goes out in this region, it goes way out, leaving behind boats resting on their keels and plenty of work for clammers and oystermen.

Île de Ré is cute as a button and well equipped for cyclists.   But I'm glad we were there in April, not during the summer when it becomes the 21st arrondissement.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Venus on the Half Shell

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know I have a soft spot for door knockers. Enough said.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Tale of Two Passages

At the tail end of the 18th century and into the mid 19th, builders in Paris were keen on creating a new kind of retail shopping experience -- the covered passage lined with shops and lit by skylights.  At one point, there were 150 of these galleries, primarily situated on the Right Bank in the area known as the Grand Boulevards.  Only a handful remain today, the most elegant of these being the Galerie Vivienne in the 1st arrondissement.  I don't imagine I could afford any of the gowns on offer here and cups of tea go for a pretty penny too.  It's the kind of place that cements the reputation of Paris as the center of elegance and style.

But, as is so often the case when it comes to Paris, the image doesn't exactly jib with the reality. While the Galerie Vivienne is all sophistication, the Passage du Caire (which actually predates Galerie Vivienne by some thirty years) is all business without the frills. Located in the Sentier, the city's garment district in the 2nd arrondissement, its central hallway is busy with workers carting boxes and pushing racks. 

Don't plan on making any purchases here, that is unless you own your own shop.  It's purely wholesale.  But even so, it's worth the trip.  What the interior lacks in charm, the exterior, built at the time of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, more than compensates.  

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jumping to Conclusions

I will be the first to admit that this is a truly horrible photograph.  But that's what you get when you try to quick get a photo in a crowded poorly lit Metro station.  I saw these three women with their fancy footwear, took a look at my own brown loafers, and thought, "those French ladies really know how to dress."

But the joke's on me.  As we clamored onto the car, I caught some snatches of their conversation.  One was a Brit, the other from New Zealand, and the third American.  But they sure know their shoes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Victor Hugo

As an American, I knew Victor Hugo as the author of Les Miserables, hard to escape if you ever turned on public television during the 1990s.  And though this epic, set during the revolution of 1832, along with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is probably his best known work even in France, to the French, he is much much more.  Poet, politician, human rights activist, visual artist, and force behind the restoration of Notre Dame, he was honored in his lifetime and also in death with a parade of 2 million accompanying his body to its resting place in the Pantheon.

You can visit his home in the Place des Vosges, now a free museum operated by the city of Paris.  Or get off the Metro at the stop bearing his name and walk down the avenue which also bears his name and you will find this sculpture above the doorway of no. 124, the site of a now gone building where he once lived.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Parisian Style

Even with the Internet, television, newspapers, and magazines, I've lived in Paris too long to know what passes for fashion among American teenagers.  For all I know, 14 year olds in Washington and New York dress exactly like this group spotted in the 16th arrondissement recently.  Short with boots, shorts with sandals, straps showing, tatters, too many rings and bracelets, I've seen it a million times.  Give them a couple of years and they'll have fake tans and cigarettes to complete the look.

Monday, April 18, 2011


If you're sick of seeing this book jacket under the "What I'm Reading" heading on the right hand side of the page, you don't know the half of it.  Trust me, no one is more sick of the sight than me.  It took me a year and a half to read this damn book, all 650 plus pages of it, not because it was so difficult but because I kept getting distracted by other books, books that didn't require me to periodically sit down with a dictionary to look up lots of stray adjectives.  But I was determined to finish mostly because I couldn't face the French friend who gave it to me if I didn't give it my best.

In case you were wondering, On N'a Pas Toujours du Caviar is a thriller set during World War II and into the 1950s. The principal character is a suave, impeccably dressed German banker Thomas Lieven who has a talent for languages and cooking.  He gets called into action as a secret agent, then a double agent, and triple agent, all the while scheming to figure out how he can just be left alone in peace.  Lieven moves at all levels of society and his adventures bring him into contact with all sorts of people including Josephine Baker and Jacques Cousteau.  And while a lot of the action takes place in Paris, Lieven's assignments take him to Marseille, Lisbon, Germany and beyond.

Would I recommend it?  Probably not.   Will I re-read it?  Absolutely not.  Do I regret the time spent?  Not a bit.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Having done way too much copy editing, it kills me to see typos in printed material or signage.  But in a non-English speaking country, I find these mistakes charming.

On the other hand, hasn't the SNCF heard of Google Translate or Babelfish?

For more examples of creative use of English in France, check out Ann Mah's hilarious post Signs of the Times.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Last Fill in the Blank

I hate it that even though we won't be leaving Paris until the beginning of July, the "lasts" are already coming fast furious -- the last time at my gym (because I'm too cheap to pay the exorbitant short term membership rate now that my normal subscription has expired), my last trip with the French ladies to their favorite chateaux, my last French lesson.  Some of these are not so definitive.  Was that the last shopping trip to Tang Freres?  The last time I'll stroll past Notre Dame?  Either way, each one of these experiences feels like a chink in my protective Paris armor.

Of course there's nothing to do about it but keep on keeping on.  As much as I'm trying to cram in the expos, pastry shops, dinners out, and time with friends, I'm also trying my best to soak in the intangibles that are Paris, the little sights, sounds, and smells in the landscape that can't be bottled or pasted in my memory book.  Although truthfully with all the logistics of moving house and family, it's hard to stay completely in the present.   It's hard not to wonder about where I'll be emotionally and what I'll be doing next year at this time -- will Paris seem fuzzy and far away as if it never happened?  My kids have their own questions and fears about the future which I'm doing my best to allay without having any clear idea myself of what it will be like to be back.  I know we've all changed, them probably more than me given the share of their young lives that have passed in Paris.  But just how?  It's impossible to know now.

I have to keep reminding myself that we are already living on borrowed time -- this additional year was not anticipated when we made the leap across the pond in 2007.  In fact, had you asked me in 2005 whether we'd be living in Paris, I would have been surprised at the whole idea.  We are lucky to have the "lasts" because we had the "firsts," a whole boatload of experiences that we never dreamed of having.  Fortunately, there's still time left to make more memories before the last time I close our apartment door.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Something kooky was going on in Paris this week.  First, when it came to telling the time on line 7, the signage had nothing but question marks.  As an aside, I have to say that I can never quite get over the fact that one of the terminus points is basically "Jewville."

And if there's a good explanation for why this woman in a Plains Indian headdress is clinging to a light pole on the Pont Marie, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Yet More Americans in Paris

If you've been thinking about heading out to Normandy to visit the American cemetery near the landing beaches, by all means do so.  It's an incredibly moving experience that you really shouldn't miss.  On the other hand, if time is in short supply, you can always get off the Transilien commuter train or the line 2 tramway in Suresnes just south of La Defense and head up the hill a short distance to the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial.  In stark contrast to French cemeteries which, in my experience are pretty much solid stone, this resting ground is resolutely American:  lush green lawns with crisp white markers.  In fact, if anything, the white Greek temple like chapel on the top of the hill reminded me of the Custis-Lee Mansion that overlooks Arlington National Cemetery just across the river from Washington, DC.  And when you look down from the hill in Suresnes, you don't see the Lincoln Memorial but there is an impressive view of the Seine and the city of Paris before you.

Why an American cemetery in the suburbs of Paris?  Most of the 1,500 some headstones mark the graves of personnel who served in World War I, many of them victims of the Spanish flu who died in a nearby military hospital.  Others served in various capacities in World War II and for various reasons were never repatriated.  Thanks to the generosity of the French state, the land was given to the U.S. for its perpetual use, free of charge or taxation.

The day I happened in for a visit, my friends and I were greeted by the cemetery's superintendent who shared both his devotion to maintaining the memory of these fallen soldiers and his gratitude to France and her people for their longstanding support of the U.S. from its very origins.   He also mentioned that he would like nothing better than for visitors and residents alike to come out to the site. 

The Suresnes site is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission which operates 24 American cemeteries and 25 memorials, monuments, and markers in 15 countries.  It is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm with the exception of New Year's Day and Christmas.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Guessing Game

What do you think?  Modern art?  Giant Shell no pest strips? 

Actually neither.  These hanging objects are intended as housing for sparrows, part of a project by the city of Paris to protect the little birds.  Their numbers have gone down by about 20 percent in recent years (not as bad as London and Amsterdam where they've all but disappeared) but still enough to take measures.  I took this photo less than a month ago when the trees had not yet leafed out.  Time flies like a....sparrow!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Climbing Volcanos and Other Pursuits

A couple months ago, I'd never heard of the Aeolian Islands off the northeast coast of Sicily.  It's a bit of a schlep from Paris -- a flight to Milan, another to Catania, overland to Milazza, and then hydrofoil to the main island of Lipari and more boats if you wish to press on to the others.  But having made the trip last Monday and back again on Friday with three days of hiking wedged between, it's a destination that I'm not going to forget anytime soon. 

It was great to get out of the city, better yet to enjoy blue skies and crystal clear seas with a circle of Parisian friends, an old college pal, and an extended network of other women who flew in from London, the U.S., Norway, and Kazahkstan.  Our hikes in Lipari afforded ocean views and craggy vistas.  The morning in Vulcano (above) took us up a steep trail to the lip of a volcano dormant since the end of the 19th century although still venting sulfuruous steam.  In between, there was pasta, gelato, prosciutto, melon, and good red wine; fields of wildflowers and hillsides of prickly pear, musings about why we passed so many houses adorned with small statues of Snow White and the seven dwarfs, and lots of laughs. 

And then there was the trek up Stromboli, seemingly straight up a sheer rock cliff for three hours to the edge of an active crater, arriving just as the sun set.  Bracing ourselves against 80 km/hour winds, we looked down as the volcano shot off clouds of sand and hot red rocks and then descended the mountain in darkness, following our guide Carmello across a field of lava dust by the light of flashlights and headlamps.

Late that night, eating trail mix on the boat headed back to Lipari, splashed by sea water and still gritty from the mountain, we asked each other just what we'd been thinking.  Not much it seems.  But do the math.  Ticket for the boat ride, guide's fee, and helmet rental: 70 euros.  Sharing the experience with friends:  priceless.


And if you'd like another perspective on the hike up Stromboli, take a look at what one of the other women on the trip had to say about it: 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Friday, April 8, 2011

Computer Snafu à la Française

Some days are just like that.

Special thanks to Dana, a great friend and loyal reader who will be leaving Paris soon, for sending this along to me. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011


This New York hot dog stand is parked outside the oh so chic Publicis Drugstore on the Champs Élysées.  I have to admit that a merguez in a baguette is no substitute for a good street dog.  But I still think I'll pass.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Calling Card

If you spend much time commuting by train in these parts, you're bound to encounter all manner of folks with outstretched hands.  There are musicians (of varying talent) with their change cups duct taped to their amplifiers, well groomed but shabby gentleman begging your pardon as they hawk their  tourist guides to Paris, and then there are the dudes with the cards like the one above.  These guys go through the train, leaving cards on empty seats, and then make the reverse trip to retrieve them and hopefully a bit of pocket change as well. 

You can see a scam in this if you like.  The cards always look the same -- same language, same typeface.  (Do all of these folks really have two children?)  I'm just grateful it's not me with the stack of cards.  That's one hell of a tough way to try to make a living.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Matter of Interpretation

Is this a commentary on the dark times we live in or the fact that it's painted in the middle of the street?

Translation:  Fear is closing in on us.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Can't Get Enough of Guimard

For all the downsides of having house guests (the laundry, the cooking, the extra people in your space), I do enjoy sharing with visitors, even those who have been to Paris many times, some of the lesser known but nonetheless interesting sites. And while there's truth to the old saying that guests, like fish, stink after three days, I was truly saddened recently that I couldn't share some of the Guimard buildings in the lower 16th with an architect friend whose family stay went by in a blink of an eye.   So to my friends in New Haven, consider this an extension of your visit!

First, you need to go back in time to August 2009 when I visited the Castel Beranger in my post Going Gaga for Guimard.  This week, I returned to that neck of the woods to get a closer look at another Guimard apartment building at 10, rue Agar.  Now I know that agar is that stuff you put in petri dishes to grow cultures, but it also turns out that Agar was an actor who lived in the quartier some 30 years before Guimard designed the building in 1911.  (Actually Agar was the stage name of Marie Léonide Charvin.  It's the French version of Hagar, which you may recognize from the Old Testament as Abraham's second wife.

In some respects, this building is less extravagant than you might have imagined.  It conforms in many ways to the more traditional Haussmanian structures around it.

But it's the little details that give it away.  The swooping lines above the doors:

The graceful ironwork:

And of course, like all great works of art, the master's signature.

If you want to take a look, take line 9 to Michel Ange Auteuil or the 52 bus to Leopold II.
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