Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Now That's a Paris Sky

It's been super dry in Paris of late.  The farmers are none too happy but the rest of us are getting spoiled by a very long string of sunny days with highs in the mid 70s Fahrenheit.  (Of course, wouldn't you know it -- when I got up this morning, it was raining.)

The day I snapped this photo the skies darkened several times, creating dramatic light and cloud effects.  The anticipated rain never materialized.  Perhaps it's some kind of cosmic reward for the long dreary winter which now is barely there in my memory.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Coming Soon to a Venue Near You

I'm guessing these gals are singers but honestly, I have no idea.

I really don't think I'd pay to see Ben L'Oncle Soul live.  (And by the way, do you suppose this artist is aware that the term Uncle Ben is considered  perjorative to black Americans?)

Paris seems like the wrong place for a John Mellencamp concert.  Do you think they sing along "ain't that America"?

Wow, Cyndi Lauper's still rocking?  But who the heck is Raphael Saadiq?  I'm pathetically old and out of touch.  On the other hand, my kids don't know who he is either.

In fact, it's been years since I've been to a big concert.  So it's not like I can feel cheated because these events take place after I leave Paris.  But I'm kind of wistful all the same. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Twenties

Back by popular demand.

Shall I continue?  Because I can but only if you like.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

For the Unrepentant Smoker

You can try to shame a smoker but it usually doesn't work. The fellow in the tabac (and for the record, I was in there buying a pen) looked at me kind of oddly when I asked if I could take a picture of these plastic sleeves for cigarettes. But he said okay anyway.

By the way, these cases look like the work of  Benjamin Vautier (whose products for the stationery company Quo Vadis are among my favorites) but they're not.  If your life is incomplete without one, you can purchase them from Latitude Sud.

Translation:  (left) I know, I know.  (right) I do what I want.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Forgive Me But

One quandary for expats lucky enough to snag a Paris assignment is how best to communicate with the folks back home. When things are going great, you're not sure whether you should report on this. Doing so makes you feel like a show off. And if things are going badly, well that's not any easier. So you had a bad day. You're in Paris. And that kind of makes you feel like a spoiled brat.

So having said all that, I hope you'll forgive me for the following. I'm not trying to show off. I'm just trying to revel in the memory of where I had lunch yesterday. To be honest, the food was only average. But the company was great and the setting in the picture postcard village of Saint Jean aux Bois, some 80 kilometers north of Paris, was magical.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Acclaim by Association

If I told you that I have an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school, a doctorate from another top American university, and once worked on Capitol Hill, would that make you interested in reading my blog?  I don't think so.  (And yes, those really are my credentials.)

And yet this week, I received an e-mail from a French fellow eager for me to post a review of his new book of poetry.  He didn't offer to send me the book; he didn't even share a few of his poems.  No, instead he told me that he was a professor at HEC (one of France's grand ecoles), a graduate of Sciences Po (another grand ecole), and he had formerly worked for a government minister.

Wow.  He sure picked the wrong audience.  While his school ties and membership in France's ultimate old boy network might have worked on the natives, it only impressed me by its irrelevance.  So chalk up one more difference in the cultural divide between the U.S. and France, now being exposed daily in press coverage of the Dominic Strauss Kahn affair.  Americans may think the fellow who graduated from Harvard is smart or they may hold him in contempt for being a useless egghead.  But buy a book of poetry on the strength of that association?  I don't think so.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Compact Car

A car this size gives a whole new meaning to the word "compact."  Perhaps it's more comfortable to drive if you take out the front seat and drive from the back? 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Bucket List Revisited

Back in September, I wrote about my Paris bucket list, the things I wanted to be sure to get done before leaving Paris.  And as we enter the home stretch, I figured it was time to take a look back and see just how I'm doing. 

It starts well enough:

Explore the neighborhood around the Canal St. Martin.

Go to the Musee Delacroix.

Go see a play at the Comédie-Française, but read it (in French) ahead of time.

Check out the hype about Spring. Technically, this shouldn't be crossed off but I have reservations for the 15th, so let's just consider it done.

Invest in one or two classic accessories or items of clothing that, while hopefully not screaming "Paris!", will be something I will cherish wearing for a long long time. I've got a chocolate brown suede jacket from Monoprix and a Hermes bangle (a going away present from friends) that I'm going to enjoy for many years. And what a combo!

Visit (and take non flash photos) of a favorite turn of the century lithograph at the Musee d'Orsay. I've been to the Musee d'Orsay twice this year. At the moment, the place is under massive renovation with many galleries closed and works of art rearranged. And the one piece I was most interested in? It's in storage until the end of July.

And then things go a bit south:

Eat lunch at Frenchie. Frenchie has become so successful that they don't even serve lunch anymore. As for getting a dinner reservation at this point, I can just forget it. Do I care? Not really. I've eaten quite enough recently!

Attend a ballet at the Palais Garnier. FAIL. It's next to impossible to get ballet tickets. I should have tried to get tickets for May back in September. At least I've been inside the Opera House and seen that lovely Chagall ceiling.

Take the candlelight tour of Vaux le Vicomte. This one requires a car and with the number of weekends left until we depart, I don't think it's going to happen. But how many chateaux have I visited in four years? I can't even begin to count them all.

Go to a concert at Sainte Chapelle. This could theoretically still happen. What's more, this is the perfect time of year since the concerts are held in the evening and it's still light now until almost 10 o'clock and one could appreciate the light coming through those amazing stained glass windows while appreciating the music.

And the bottom line?

Although I only managed to check off six out of ten items on this list, what strikes me is not what's left undone but a sense that the list itself is irrelevant.  First of all, completing the list wouldn't make it any easier to cut the cord with Paris.  If I had done them all, could I honestly say, " I did it.  My Paris experience is complete."  That question gets a big fat "no" for an answer.  And secondly, it's not as if I didn't get around to doing these things because I was sitting on the couch watching TV.  I feel good about how I've used my time and the experiences I've had.

Am I rationalizing?  Probably.  Does it matter? Not a bit.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Only in the 16th

What do you suppose the odds are that this lost diamond bracelet will be reunited with its owner?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Teens

Now that I know you can count to ten, want to see if you can make it to twenty?

All together now:

Shall I continue?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Luncheon in the Palais Royal

With all the end of year festivities, going away parties, and general panic about trying to experience the best of Paris before my count down timer runs out, I've been way overindulging. Because I can always diet when we get back home, right? And because when it's 98 degrees Farenheit with 98 percent humidity in Washington, I won't feel like eating anyway. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself.

This week's episode in gastronomic excess was lunch with the French ladies at Le Grand Vefour, a restaurant that's been operating in the Palais Royal since the 18th century. (Okay so it was closed during the first part of the 20th century but there's no reason to get technical.)   Guy Martin is the chef and while it was a huge scandal when the restaurant went down from 3 Michelin stars to 2, it's certainly not lacking in character and showmanship.  And for my money, the main dining room is among the prettiest you will find in Paris. 

The place was quietly buzzing with a crew of black and white attired waiters and sommeliers, and every time you turn your head, someone's there offering you something more to eat. The cheese tray was half the size of my dining room table, and the dessert I ordered as part of the luncheon menu morphed into three with the addition of the mignardises (little bites that normally accompany your coffee) and a special cake from M. Martin's native Savoie.  And if it wasn't the most transcendent meal I've had, it certainly was attractive, each course being its own mini work of art.

My dessert was a concoction of strawberries and rhubarb (and vanilla ice cream) inside a hard candy tube and topped with cotton candy.
The only problem with going out to lunch with the ladies is that my family still needs to eat come dinner time even if the cook has already had quite enough.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Last weekend, we went to see Woody Allen's new movie, Midnight in Paris.  And how could we not?  Even if the reviews had been truly execrable, I could not have resisted the chance to see how Allen might pay tribute to the City of Light.  And with a special promotion by the UGC chain of 3.50 euros for every film, every showing, there certainly wasn't much to lose.

And?  Well, I'd call it cute and completely forgettable, except perhaps for the loveliness of Marion Cotillard as everyone's love interest and the outrageousness of Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali.   The best performance by far was by Paris herself; the images of the city were picture postcard perfect and I really had to resist saying, "I've been there!  And there! And there!"  And so while the script, even with its flights of fancy, is predictable, I'm guessing that you'll still leave with a smile on your face.  If you're not in Paris, you might be figuring out how to get here at any cost.  And for those of us who are?  Well, it was a good reminder to go out and take a midnight stroll through the city, something that beats the price of admission even when it's on special.

Midnight in Paris releases in New York and Los Angeles today, with other U.S. cities to follow.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Yoo Hoo!

Abercrombie & Fitch finally opened its much awaited Paris store this week.  Although to judge from the number of kids already wearing Abercrombie t-shirts and sweatshirts, you might have thought they'd had a Paris base for eons.  Clearly they know their market.

But as if the brand itself isn't magnet enough, the marketeers have posted models in the doorways and models on the roof, hollering all day long for passers by to come in and shop.  And this is just the followup to the biggest publicity stunt of all:  101 shirtless men out for a stroll on the Champs Élysées.  The Huffington Post has the video, if you must.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Losing My Velib Virginity

If there is one thing I have been bound and determined to do before leaving Paris, it is to finally go out on a Velib.  Yes, shockingly, after four years here and my arrival almost perfectly coinciding with the advent of Paris's wildly successful bike for hire program, I had never taken out one of the city's bikes for a spin until now.  Actually, I thought about it once during the long transit strike of 2007, but when I went to the closest Velib station, I found out that everyone else had had the same idea.  There wasn't a bike to be seen.  And since then, the need never recurred.  I do love biking.  It's the thought of biking in Paris traffic that has given me pause.  Well, that and my Navigo Integrale pass that makes it oh so easy to hop on and off buses and subways. 

But enough is enough.  Earlier this week, I met up with a friend at a metro stop in the 17th where we snagged the last two bikes at the adjacent Velib station and were on our way.  Everything was going great until we realized that the half hour was almost up and we had no idea where we were going.  We pulled over, took a quick look at the map, and at my friend's Velib app which pointed us to the nearest station, just half a block away.  The plan was to dock the bikes, allow the system to register them, and then take them out again.  No problem except ....the kiosk was busted.  We couldn't liberate the bikes.  The iPhone was showing two more bikes just a block away.  But when we got there, we found that one had a flat tire and the other had a broken seat.  We continued walking, through long stretches of the 10th, 18th, and 17th and found not one Velib station with two available bikes. 

 It was much later that afternoon, long after I had parted ways with my friend, that I saw this:

And where was my 24 hour Velib ticket when I needed it?  Sitting on the chest in my front hall.  Curses, foiled again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

La Conquête

Dominique Strauss Kahn, current head of the International Monetary Fund and long thought to be the Socialist Party's best bet to unseat President Sarkozy in next year's election, appears to have self destructed over the weekend.  He was hauled off an Air France flight just before it left New York and charged with sexual assault by a maid at the hotel where he'd been staying.  Whether DSK is actually guilty or not, my guess is that his chances for becoming France's next president are now next to nil.  And for President Sarkozy, whose public opinion numbers are already in the toilet, this probably couldn't be better news.  And the timing is exquisite.  La Conquête, a controversial and apparently highly unflattering film about Sarkozy's bid for the presidency in 2007,  is set to release Wednesday and all the world is abuzz.

Posters for the film (which depict the diminutive Sarkozy perched on a stool, legs dangling) went up last week and everyone I've seen has been on one of these boards attached to a flagpole.  (There's even one just across the street from the Elysee.)  I haven't seen one in the subway, on a bus shelter, or on a Morris column.  Coincidence?

I'd really like to see the film but I know already from having seen the trailer that it's going to be a tough row given my French skills.  Maybe one of you fluent speakers out there would like to go with me and help me through the parts I don't get?

Update (Tuesday at 10:00 am):  Oh la la la la!  The news is moving fast.  In an interview with a German magazine, Sarkozy's father finally confirmed the rumors that have been circulating for weeks -- Mme. Sarkozy is indeed pregnant.  Now how will that play at the polls?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

There's always something going on around the Arc de Triomphe.  And with all the traffic that whizzes around there day in and day out, no lane markings and the rule of priority to those entering the circle, it's always has a kind of crazy and kinetic feel that is a strange contrast to the majesty and sheer size of the monument.

When I happened by on May 4, there was a larger than typical ceremony underway so I stopped for a bit to take it all in.  (The flame that marks the tomb of the unknown soldier is usually rekindled each night at 6:30; what was going on mid-day on this date, I can't tell you.)   The mass of police and plain clothes security men made it clear that someone important was expected.  And sure enough, the traffic stopped for a few moments to let a limo and security detail to pass through and who should emerge but the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë.  The band played, speeches were made, and I moved along.

Security guys look the same the world over.  But how about that general on the right -- channeling De Gaulle!

Many thanks to Mme. Josiane Flodrops, a French tourist from Brittany with whom I chatted, and who was kind enough to e-mail these photos to me since my own camera was in the shop.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Fashionista or frump, there are probably very few women in Paris who do not own a pair of black ballerina flats. And there are also very few whose shoes don't often look like this:

If you stick to the sidewalks, you may be able to avoid this fate.  But step one foot into the Tuileries, the Champs de Mars, in fact any Parisian garden and even the broad paths that line the lower part of the Champs-Élysées, and you'd better have a damp rag at hand when you get home.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

WTF (Encore)

I think it was star blogger David Lebovitz who pointed out to all of us that "WTF" can stand either for ...well, you know what, or "welcome to France."  And even though we're six weeks and counting from saying good-bye, France is still willing to dish it out.  On Thursday, I had a minor heart attack when our Internet went out for the afternoon.  No amount of rebooting and unplugging seemed to do any good.  And finding the Orange customer service line in case I really did need a professional to come out?  Well, it's certainly not written down anywhere because (theoretically) you can always find it online.

Then when everything was back in working order, I braved a call to Orange to cancel my cell phone.  I told the lady that I needed service until the end of June.  She cheerily told me that my service would end May 23.  I gulped, told her that I had not expressed myself properly (knowing full well that I needed to accept the blame for any misunderstanding).  No problem.  Hold the line.  She returned and told me that she had taken care of it and my phone would be working until the end of July.  Rather than try to get a third ending date, I said thank you, hung up, and now I'm hoping that I can call back later and try again.  Because you see, I have to close my bank account before we go and I can only imagine the kind of hell that will rain down on me if Orange tries to tap my closed bank account.

I'm told I will need to brace myself for the shenanigans from Verizon at the other end.  But until then, thank you Orange for reminding me why living in France, while not always easy, is certainly a growth experience.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Two Days in Burgundy

As I am in the mode of taking advantage of every remaining bit of the time left in France, when the opportunity came up to take a two-day trip to Beaune, center of the wine trade in Burgundy, I jumped at the chance.  It's a region of France that I had not yet explored and frankly one that's pretty low on my kids' list of sightseeing priorities.  But it was a great little get away, allowing me to speak French and drink wine almost continuously for 40 hours straight. (I'm not kidding. When I hit the sack after the first very long day -- which started at Gare de Lyon at 6:30 am -- I counted up the wines we had tasted  and came to the shocking realization that the number was 14.)

But it wasn't all oenological excess.  The group also visited one of the remaining artisanal mustard operations in the area, several chateaux, and took a tour of the Hospices de Beaune, best known today for its annual charity wine auction but once a thriving poor house and hospital.  And we were quite sober when we visited the caves of Bouchard Pere et Fils where some 2 million bottles, none too few dating back to the 19th century, line the walls in dusty stacks.  Spending an hour in the cellars of Anne Parent, who along with her sister, runs a family wine business in Pommard that goes back 12 generations was a special treat.  (You can read about her ancestors' interesting connection with Thomas Jefferson in Paris-based writer Ann Mah's piece in the New York Times travel section.)

I figured I'd be on detox once I got back to Paris but to be honest, that's a hard act to pull off anywhere in France.  And yet, one thing the trip reinforced for me is that while I certainly enjoy a nice glass of wine, it's simply not in me to keep all the jargon straight or spend 80 euros on a bottle.  Pass me a nice bottle in the 7 to 15 euros range and I'll be just fine.  In fact, go ahead and pour me another glass.

The magnificent tiled and half timbered Hospices de Beaune

I don't think there's any chance that these wines from Bouchard Pere et Fils will be served before their time.

The caves at the Domaine Parent.

The recent spate of dry warm weather is making the region's vintners nervous but it sure has been great for the irises, roses, and peonies.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Truth about Parisian Markets

The open air market is one of the fixtures of Parisian life.  Everyone has their favorite market (even if it's not the one in their quartier) and everyone also has their favorite vendors.  And even if you don't do all or even half your food shopping there, it's hard not to love them for their visual wow.  The fruit!  The flowers!  The fish!  The veggies!   I take all my visitors to the market and truly, it never fails to impress.

But here's the deal folks.  With all the talk about reducing our carbon footprint, eating locally, and eating what it's in season, it's important to recognize that Parisian markets are not necessarily models for this type of behavior.  Most importantly, most Parisian markets are NOT farmers' markets.  Take a look at the country of origin (a required label) here:

What's on offer at the market may often be better than what's available at the supermarket.  But that's not because the vendor raised it himself.  He may just have good connections at Rungis, the vast wholesale food market on the outskirts of Paris.   So, if you want to buy local produce, you need to look for a vendor marked "producteur."

Paris food writer Phyllis Flick has written a long and thoughtful post on how to eat locally in Paris and if that's your goal, I suggest you take the time to read what she has to say.   Personally I'm not quite ready to go completely local (what, no more mangos unless I move to the tropics?!) but at least I'm doing my buying with my eyes wide open.
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