Friday, November 30, 2007

Bright Lights, Big City

Promoted by the City of Paris, the holiday lighting program "Paris Illumine Paris" has grown to encompass thirty different quartiers of the city, each with its own theme. From bubbles to stars, sparkling tears to organdy, there is enough variety of illumination to keep residents and tourists alike oohing and ahhing as they bustle from arrondissement to arrondissement.

Armchair travelers don't have to miss out -- numerous photo websites abound.

Get a Little Paris

To celebrate the new, shorter 2 hour and 15 minute Eurostar trip from London to Paris, Rail Europe has a playful new interactive website, "Get a Little Paris." Narrated in Franglais ("A little je ne sais Tallyho") to emphasize the closeness of the two cities, the site also allows you to fiddle around with French and British icons to create amusing "smash-ups." You can make the Eiffel Tower nuzzle a Palace Guard. Better than Saturday morning cartoons.
Check the website here.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like... Noel

Although it's not December yet, Paris is already dressing up for the holidays. As nighttime gets earlier each day, the glittering lights on the Champs Elysees make the mood on the street festive.

By day, there are some more old-fashioned Christmas displays to be seen. One of my favorites is the Boulangerie Julien, on rue St. Dominique. They completely resurface the exterior in log bark, with sleds and skis ornamenting the doorways and snow on the roof.

One yuletide fashion trend that escapes me, however, is the colored fake Christmas trees. Do I hear a chorus singing "O Faux Sapin"?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fly the Friendly Skies?

I don't want to sound la-di-dah, but I have to say that I have become more accustomed to a certain rhythm of the transatlantic trek since transplanting to Paris. I've got the routine pretty much down: I pack a separate kit of goodies for the US trip -- US cell phone and charger, dollars, wallet, adapters, keys, computer cord. If travel plans are finalized at the last minute, I can plop my trusty kit in a suitcase, add the requisite Paris souvenirs for family, and head out to Roissy/Charles de Gaulle. Try to cajole ticket agents into an upgrade to business class. (I normally fail, but pat myself on the back for trying.)

Usually when on board, the flights are jolly even if a bit of a long haul. No streamers and send-offs at the gate, mind you, but at least a sense of the tradition of the spirit of travel. Normally I take Delta/Air France (same flight) or American. The flight crew is always congenial and service-friendly. Fun-loving. Once when my coach-class seat was in the single-digits, within whisper distance of an almost empty business class section, the crew started plying me with champagne -- "well, someone has to finish the bottle," they laughed. That kind of congenial. Extra pillows or blankets. They smile, they chat, they tend to think of the 6- or 9-hour trip as a cramped gathering that we all have to endure together, so why not make it enjoyable? Of course there is the occasional sleep-challenged grumpy flight attendant, but usually they are the exception.

This trip I flew Paris to Washington on United Airlines. "Fly the friendly skies of United?" I think not. Time for a new corporate slogan! Judging from the staff's behavior, they apparently are under order not to smile or engage in any friendly conversation with the passengers. Lower class passengers, that is.

Here's my tally

1. During the safety demonstration, I was chatting softly with the amiable French woman next to me. The stewardess was demonstrating how to blow on the tubes to inflate the life vest in case of emergency landing on the frigid Atlantic. She stopped in mid-blow and glared at us, then scowled "Shhh!" like a cranky school teacher. Not because we were bothering anyone else, but, oh, I guess she was concerned that we wouldn't know how to tread water.

2. When the seat-belt sign was finally turned off (after a stern announcement to abide by the rules or else) I wandered down the aisle to stretch my legs and keep the circulation going. I stopped back in the galley and smiled at another attendant "Hmm! Smells good in here." She stared back suspiciously, without a reply.

3. Okay, so there were a couple of less than chummy attendants. I was in steerage; the lowest form of economy class. I guess they think of it as a cattle car, and we are no better than beasts. But, gee, most people are friendlier than this to their farm animals.

4. Earlier, at the airport, I had bumped into a dear friend who was on the same flight. She and her husband were in Business Class, and we had agreed to catch up in flight. I popped up front to say a quick hello -- and the Business Class vulture stewardess swooped in and reprimanded, "You'll have to leave."

"But Polly's my daughter," joked my friend Patty. Business class seats have enough room between rows so that I was able to crouch in front of Patty while we toasted Paris and Thanksgiving in the US (I brought my own glass of wine from coach). But no, Vulture woman sneered to me, "She can visit you at your seat but you can't visit her in Business Class." Vulture lady pulled at my elbow to make me leave.

5. The attendants serving our drinks or meals would not smile. Were they all alums of the same United Droid School? They were handsome, neat, efficient, sleek, but stone-faced, vaguely like automatons. They were obsessed with keeping the plane litter free, which, I grant you, is a nice touch. Their altitude attitude wasn't arrogant or rude, just emotionless and cold.

I'd prefer a bit of humanity. Nine hours is a long time for togetherness. Today is my return flight to Paris on the (un)friendly skies and this time I'm taking real notes.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How to Explain Thanksgiving to the French

This classic Thanksgiving column by the great Art Buchwald has been published for decades, each year with a new introduction by Buchwald, in the International Herald Tribune and the Washington Post. Art Buchwald died earlier this year; time will tell which introduction will become part of the tradition.

Have a dinde-y Thanksgiving!

ONE of the most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.

Le Jour de Merci Donnant
was started by a group of pilgrims (Pèlerins) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content. They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Americaine) in a wooden sailing ship named the Mayflower, or Fleur de Mai, in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pèlerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them.

The only way the Peaux- Rouges helped the Pèlerins was when they taught them how to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by the Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on le Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilomètres Deboutish) and a shy young lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth named Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant:

"Go to the damsel Priscilla (Allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth (la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart — the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you understand, but this, in short, is my meaning.

"I am a maker of war (Je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (Vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best suited to win the heart of the maiden."

Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballé), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse).
At length she exclaimed, breaking the ominous silence, "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" (Ou est-il, le vieux Kilomètres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance?)

Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for such things. He staggered on, telling her what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally, Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" (Chacun à son gout.)

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête, and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Kennedys in Paris

President Sarkozy's triumphant visit to the US last two weeks ago got me thinking about presidential visits between leaders of our two nations over the past two centuries. I wondered how many American presidents have visited France while in office, and what effect it has had on diplomatic relations.

I've always been fascinated with the to Kennedys' visit Paris in 1961. From the Centre de l'Audiovisuel, some French TV footage of the time when Jackie wowed President de Gaulle -- and the French people -- with her charm and perfect French; and JFK famously quipped, "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tintin en Amerique

Moi aussi!
I anticipate friendlier reception on American shores. But who knows?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My Night at the Moulin Rouge

I just love it when the phone rings and it's Mary Blake. I never know what to expect. One minute she's telling me about appearing on TV while being thanked by the Mayor of the 18th arrondissement (complete with bisous!). The next minute she's unwittingly solving my technological crisis. Lately it's been pretty mild -- downright cute and wholesome -- all about the antics of her adorable puppies (well, their mom is actually the blonde chien-par-excellence Nina.).

So last week when Mary called and asked me right off the bat, "What are you doing Thursday night?" I replied that, um, if I was still in town, I had no plans. "You have to come with me to the Moulin Rouge," she stated. Simple as that. "I have tickets for the 11 o'clock show."

Whoa, the infamous Moulin Rouge! Who am I to turn down an invitation for a night at a world-renowned Paris tourist mecca? An icon! Mary has already painted a number of tableaux of the Moulin's exterior, like the one above, and in anticipation of doing a series of paintings of the dancers -- yet to be confirmed -- she was comped two tickets for the show. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

Mary and I conferred a lot by phone on Thursday afternoon about what to wear, how to accessorize. "Don't kill me for saying this, Polly, but you shouldn't dress like you're going to a church social."

Hah! Was I going to surprise her! I wasn't even insulted.

We each got tastefully dolled up and arrived at the Moulin Rouge just as the crowd from the 9 o'clock show was exiting. The line waiting to get in stretched down the block. Inside the theatre it was bustling. A well-oiled machine. Escorted to our tables by men in tuxedos, we quickly soaked up the scenery. I pulled out my camera and instantly got tsk-tsked by a polite waiter -- no cameras allowed. "Okay, Mary, if I can't take any photos, you better start drawing and I better start writing pronto, before the lights go down," I insisted. Twice I couldn't resist the urge to sneak my camera out to attempt a quick photo on the sly. "Please, don't," said virtuous Mary both times. "We're guests." So I scribbled notes while Mary quickly sketched the lamp on our table.

Looks a bit like a topless dancer in a flouncy dress, don't you think?

The huge terrace-stepped dining room is a sea of damask-topped tables for six, each with one of these lamps casting a deep pink glow through the shade's soft fabric. A faded red-and-white awning is tented along the ceiling, held up by columns resembling Parisian tree trunks, complete with the wrought-iron fences. To add to the exotic flavor are rows and rows of Chinese lanterns dangling from the awning. The air was cool and clear -- no smoking at all.

Lights down, music up, the show began! It's really pitch black in the audience; the waiters scurry about with mini-hi-beam flashlights in their mouths so they can see where to deliver and pour champagne.

"But the show -- the naked women -- what was it like?" you're begging me. I know. You think I'm trying to keep you in suspense. Not at all. Stop drooling. Here's what it was like.

It was surprisingly fun, lively, entertaining. Amazingly tamer than what I had imagined. Lots of beautiful women, and plenty of flesh, to be sure. After one or two numbers, you don't really even notice the bare breasts any more. I think I expected more feathers and can-cans and girly-girly come-hither numbers. There were certainly those. There were also many more male dancers in the show than I anticipated. But the overall impression was one of energetic dancing, some incredible acrobatics numbers, some comedy scenes reminiscent of Red Skelton. I don't want to disappoint, but there was nothing steamy or suggestive or even that erotic. (Oh, except for the woman writhing with huge snakes in the aquarium.) The show was mostly a lot of impressive physical talent, sequins, glimmer and upbeat music. More glossy glitz than glamour. Very toned bodies. Gravity-defying naked boobs? Sure, lots of them. But this is France, after all. We don't blink an eye.

If you go to the Moulin Rouge by day, it's closed, but there is a handy Moulin Rouge boutique around the corner on rue Lepic where you can view Mary's paintings, and buy all sorts of Moulin Rouge souvenirs.

Bal du Moulin Rouge
82 boulevard de Clichy
75018 Paris
Metro: Blanche
Phone : +33 (0) 153.098.282

Books on Americans in Paris

"Prepare for the next literary trend," says today's Associated Press article. "Books on Americans in Paris."

But we knew that already.

Now Pulitzer-prize winning author David McCullough is writing a book on Americans in Paris, from Jefferson to Hemingway.

Guess where he'll be doing the research?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Vitrine en cours

We can't go on like this. Three hundred thirty-nine posts. None were labeled. Who knew about labeling posts? Pas moi.

Not a pretty state of affairs.

So please pardon (especially if you have an RSS feed) while Polly-Vous Francais goes through a bit of blog housekeeping and republishing trois-cent trente neuf billets, sorting, categorizing, labeling.

I kind of liked having it all be random. C'est la vie.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chez les Rougier

I spent my junior year of college at a US program in Aix-en-Provence. Since it was a requirement that all students live with a host family who spoke French, the college was glad to find Monsieur and Madame Rougier.

And so were we. Frankly, I had heard tales of woe from fellow French majors on their years abroad in Paris. They lived in underheated garret rooms of strict, stingy Parisian widows, who served the same nightly meal of pale broth and stale bread with a tough cut of meat simmered beyond recognition. Old cranks who screamed at breakfast if if the student had tiptoed up the stairs after midnight. Constantly criticized their French, their clothes, and their manners. A dying breed, straight out of the Old World of Balzac's Pension Vauquer.

Not Monsieur and Madame Rougier in Aix. They were in their late 70s, but were quite entrepreneurial and had rehabbed the barn behind their house into a dormitory with ten double bedrooms. Having no interest in cooking daily for twenty, the Rougiers had installed a large communal kitchen where we girls could assemble to cook our own meals. Their house, off-bounds to us except in emergencies, was in the front of the courtyard by the iron gate -- we were out back in the old chicken yard. They got around the university's French-speaking requirement for students' home stays by making sure that least four of the girls living in the residence were French, studying at the fac. All things considered, we were thrilled with the freedom to come and go as we pleased, though I think our supposed discovery of French home life took a hit. But, boy, did we have wild fun hanging out with the gaggle of students and drinking cheap wine in the kitchen preparing our terrible student-budget meals -- nightly variations on pasta and eggs. We taught the French girls some Bob Dylan songs, and they mostly laughed at our pitiful attempts at colloquial French. Fair exchange. We all began speaking terrible Franglais, a special Rougier patois understood only by the denizens of the dortoire.

In the afternoons while my American cohorts were off in the language lab, I would relax outside on the wide sill of the ground-floor window to catch up on reading or to write in my journal as I pined for my boyfriend. Some days, Monsieur Rougier would hobble up the courtyard and plunk down next to me to bask in the last rays of the waning autumn sun.

He was a "typical" Frenchman in the old-fashioned sense: he wore a beret and those baggy trousers that we associate with la France profonde. He also had a wooden leg, having lost his lower limb in World War I.

I treasured those afternoons in the angled sun sharing the seat with Monsieur Rougier, when he would tell me in his resounding Provencal French about fighting in the trenches in la Grande Guerre. He was delighted to have an appreciative audience, Madame Rougier having already heard the war stories a thousand times over. I was too ignorant about military history to grasp many of the details of battles and heroes and strategies. But I still remember his stories of the mud in the trenches; how miserably wet and cold they were. "But we were miserable together," he said with a chuckle, cocking his head toward me as he remembered an oft-told joke or a buddy's grin. He had learned a little English in the trenches, he said. In order to facilitate smooth communication down the line, he explained, the soldiers were alternated French, British, Belgian, Canadian, miles on end, so that there was never a cluster of Francophones or Anglophones that could slow or impede the flow of pass-it-along information. Much of the English he had learned was not something he would share with a nice young lady like me. He smiled again, deep in his reminiscences.

Parisian Personals Ads

I don't know when I imagined that the trend of personals ads started, but I had no clue that it went back as far as World War I.

click on image to enlarge

It's November 11, so in honor of those poilus and their demoiselles, here's a bit of the section from La Vie Parisienne dated 1916.

Who knows if they all made it to their rendezvous.

Hmm, c'est onctueux

Good French TV commercials are among the most creative in the world. J'adore! Some are better than the actual programming. Subtle wit, full of irony. Or exquisite visuals and music. I find it helpful that they are lumped all together and that the ensemble of the advertisements is heralded with the announcement: Publicité. Time to sit up and pay attention. No interrupting the show. No infomercials. Here comes the fun!

Some food commercials, though, are less than inspired. A mom swooning over a bite of a milk chocolate with a caramel center. Or kids at the dinner table crowing unconvincingly about a microwaveable pocket sandwich harboring melted cheese. The catch phrase most often used in these is "Mmm, c'est onctueux," which in French means "smooth and creamy." But to my Anglophone ears the word onctueux is... unctuous. Gooey. Unappealing and annoying. Just hearing it repeatedly deters me from any unhealthy cravings I might have been thinking of. Which is not a bad thing!

Lacking a linguistic aversion to the word, French viewers of onctueux advertising (and ads for all products that might be remotely considered junk food), get a different deterrent. There are obligatory warnings at the end of these commercials, at the bottom of the screen: "Eat healthy fruits and vegetables and get regular exercise daily. "

Friday, November 09, 2007

Go Directly to Montcuq

I guess we all know that Monopoly is a family game. Its parent company, Hasbro, has to keep a respectable image. So I guess I understand their decision to bar Montcuq from their new French edition of the board game.

Montcuq? Qu'est-ce que c'est? It's a a real village of 1400 inhabitants in the Lot region of France which has been making headlines this week. First, understand that you don't pronounce the t or the q in Montcuq. Ergo the pronunciation sounds like the French phrase "mon cul," a not-so-proper word for lower regions of the anatomy, with lots of nyuk-nyuk variations on the theme.

Last month when Hasbro France launched a contest to rename Monopoly Paris with new names for a Monopoly France version (the equivalent of changing Park Place to Palm Beach and Ventnor Avenue to Peoria), a little French mischief started afoot in the cybercommunity. Starting with a French blogger, word spread rapid-fire to vote for naming the prime Monopoly real estate spot "Montcuq".

Although Montcuq beat the pants off second-place Dunkerque 53,000 to 30,000 votes, Hasbro politely declined to include the charming hamlet's name in its upcoming version of Monopoly, saying "we're a family game". However, they do promise to feature "Montcuq" in a future edition: Humorous Monopoly.

Learn to be a City Cyclist

If you haven't tried the fun of bike-riding in Paris yet because you're not confident about cycling in the city, don't worry, you are not alone. Or maybe you've made the happy plunge -- either on your own velo or on Velib --but want to make sure you're obeying the rules of the road (and avoid those costly moving violations!).

The City of Paris, in conjunction with three bicycle associations, is offering workshops on theory and practice of bike-riding in Paris. The courses, which will take place from now until December 15 on selected Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, are open to everyone over 14 who already knows how to ride a bike. They are offered in French, and are available by pre-registration only.

You can take just the theory lessons, which are free. About 25 people per class.

To take a practice session, you must have already taken one of the theory classes first. Practice sessions feature hands-on, real-life riding and last about 2 hours. Cost is 2€50 (to cover insurance). Space is limited to 10 - 12 participants, so it would be best to sign up early.

You can bring your own bike for the practice sessions; and if you're not a bike owner, you can have free use of a Velib for the course.

Theory classes only:
Call MDB (Mieux se déplacer à bicyclette) to register at 01 43 20 26 02
Held in the 1e arrondissement.

Theory and practice:
Right Bank: call Cyclo-Pouce at 01 42 41 76 98 to register
Left Bank: call Voiture & Co at 06 59 55 62 99 to register.

Check here for full schedule and details.

Happy pedalling!

Thursday, November 08, 2007


It may come as no surprise that I am sometimes taken by flights of fancy. Noble, idealistic causes, to be sure. I'll get a sudden brainstorm, a passion for a plan that Ought to Be, and I simply can't let go of it at least until I've made an effort. Just call me Donna Quixote. Madame Quichotte en français. It's bigger than I am, this tilting at windmills. I specialize in dreaming the improbable dream.

One year ago today I proposed my wild idea of a human chain spelling "Merci, Art!" as a tribute to Art Buchwald at Thanksgiving. Sadly, time ran out before it could get organized. Of course, if we tried again this year, Art could look down from his big writing desk in the sky and chuckle.

My latest crazy notion has to do with cemeteries. Parisian cemeteries. The idea first began to germinate 18 months ago when visiting Père Lachaise with my son. Of course we made the requisite trip to pay homage to Jim Morrison's tomb. Much to my surprise, and to my son's dismay, there were two guards keeping eager tourists away from the grave. I wondered if there were, therefore, a full-time salary or two that comes out of the City of Paris coffers just to keep American fans from stealing more chunks of the stone. That didn't seem right.

Then, looking around, I began to think: what if there were a "Friends of Père Lachaise" organization that had an adopt-a-tomb program? Individuals from all over the world could make donations to a specific tomb in order to support its maintenance. Some of the tombs are looking a little shabby, and many have no one to care for them any more and have an uncertain fate.

Okay, she's certifiable, you're thinking. Get the white-coat guys, pronto.

But really, I'm not. It's a wee bit pie-in-the-sky, I admit, but not totally harebrained.

You see, my professional background -- in addition to improbable dreams and witty, entertaining writing -- is actually in fund-raising, especially for American organizations relating to France. You have to have a lot imagination and lot of faith that dreams can be realized if you want to raise money from donors. Somehow I can often sniff out opportunities for the Next Cool Thing that can be done. It's just an intuitive thing. But first you have to galvanize support. Lots of it.

But usually this happens: I'll wax rhapsodic about my lofty scheme. Listeners nod encouragingly, show enthusiasm; then when they think it will have to involve their effort, they begin to glance at their shoes, they start shuffling their papers, and then say "Um... I think I have to get back to my cubicle."

Invariably, three years later, one of them comes up with a brilliant idea at a staff or committee meeting -- MY idea! -- and gets fame and glory and a year-end bonus for being so clever. This is my fate in life.

This time I'm at least publishing my idea first.

Granted, there are a few pesky little speed-bumps to smooth out in the Adopt-a-Tomb program. First, would the City of Paris even want the rest of the world to adopt these tombs financially? I'll have to ask. But imagine the thrill of being able to be part of a team that pays for the maintenance of Sartre's or Piaf's tomb, for example, or any of the many notables buried in Paris cemeteries. (Or if you are Mr. & Mrs. Gottrocks Gigabucks Jr., you could underwrite a whole tomb with a grant from your family foundation. Whee!) You could come to visit "your" tomb when you're in Paris.

There are other political and practical considerations to address, but none are insurmountable. There are other important French cultural institutions that are supported in part by "American Friends of" groups. Why not cemeteries?

So there it is. If I have to get back to my cubicle and can't take on this Paris windmill, I hope that some other Don Quixote will.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Double-Barrel Views

There are some spots in Paris where the views are remarkable. One place is literally a place -- la place de Breteuil. On the border of the 7e and 15 arrondissements, it offers a unique duo of vistas.

Look due north, up the splendid avenue de Breteuil, and you have a clear view of les Invalides.

Walk about 8 paces to the left and look northwest up avenue de Saxe, and you get this view of the Eiffel Tower, with the Ecole Militaire in the middle ground.

In the center of the roundabout at the place de Breteuil is a statue of famous French scientist Louis Pasteur. Besides figuring out how to make milk safe to drink (pasteurization, bien sur), he accomplished much to save humans and beasts from untimely deaths with his discoveries in the field of bacteria and germs. The world-renowned Institut Pasteur is nearby in the 15e.

His accomplishments are immortalized (or mortalized?) at the base of the statue. You might say that Pasteur's work made the Grim Reaper cower.

Hence, a week too late, one of the best Halloween shots of Paris.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Plus ca change...

This news article from the Paris bureau of the New York Times:

"It is a long day since people began to worry and speculate about the needed change in the cab system... The [drivers] in a recent meeting complained most bitterly of the cycle mania. They are fast losing half their morning errand business... Every man owns a cycle and every society woman follows suit.

"All the high life take [a] spin every day. It is the intention of the social dictators to do their morning errands, shopping, etc., with the cycle.

"The costume... they find perfectly decent, respectable and comfortable, and fashion wills that a dress revolution shall now be the outcome of the exercise..."

Published: June 3, 1894

Monday, November 05, 2007

Star Gazing

As I headed out to the movies tonight, I glanced briefly at my digital camera on the table. "Nah, I don't need to take that. It's dark out. Whatever would I take a photo of?" I left it on the table. Just so you know, I NEVER leave home without my camera. This was a first.

Do you smell a story coming on?

So I exited the metro right at the Gaumont Marignan on the Champs Elysees. Next door to the cinema there was a lot of hubbub -- search lights, a big crowd, movie cameras and a light-reflecting device that looked like a miniature zeppelin. A white limo pulled up. I craned my neck to see the action and the subject. No one was getting out yet.

My friend arrived and we went in to see the movies. We asked what was going on outside. "C'est un tournage" is all the cashier replied; they were shooting a movie.

Then two hours of George Clooney in Michael Clayton. He's soo easy to look at -- all those close-ups, especially during the final credits where the camera is zoomed in on just his face. When I see an American movie in Paris, I get disoriented and for a while forget what country I'm in. By the time we left the movie theatre, I had forgotten about the crowd and the lights next door.

But there was even more of a buzz in the crowd as we walked by on the sidewalk. There were extras for the film plus regular passersby, who started cheering on cue. Their cameras were flashing. This time I had a great view of the star as she strolled down the red carpet, looking gorgeous.

Catherine Deneuve.

No camera. I tried to take a shot with my cell phone, but didn't save it properly. Oh well, you'll just have to believe me.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Pare-Brise du Jour

Bienvenue to a new member of the Polly-Vous Francais family.

It's a totally random blog called Pare-Brise du Jour. Check it out here.

The Antidote to IKEA

Sometimes indoor life in Paris is so full of IKEA furnishings and intense halogen lights. Such practical, cool design and functionality. Bright cheery colors, forceful in a way. I didn't actually recognize that I needed an antidote to IKEA-itis until I stumbled upon Fanette.

First, the shop window. Paris vitrines are famously beautiful, often glossy and dramatic. Trendy. Most times I slow down to give them a good once-over as I stride by.

But any vitrine that makes me go from a brisk clipped pace to a standstill in two seconds indicates to me that there is talent or mystery waiting inside.

I am not disappointed. Entering this shop there is an inviting ambiance of warmth, humanity, connection. Not stuffy or frou-frou, but connection among real people and nature. The modern industrial world and its shiny, sleek machine-made conveniences seem on another planet. From the soft glow of the lighting to the the warm tones of the furniture, there is a chaleur d'esprit, with cross-stitched 19th century samplers, linens, hand carved bowls.

I feel as though I have not entered a place of business, but rather a living room piled with the objects that she loves.

Fanette has been in this same location in the 15th arrondissement for 35 years, just steps from the Gare Montparnasse. The owner is welcoming and helpful. I ask the price of an antique console with natural wood legs made from grapevine (sarment de vigne). She doesn't know and calls her daughter. "Allo ma chérie... oui oui d'accord. Merci je t'embrasse. A plus tard ma chérie." While she is chatting on the phone, I wander around, feeling as though the objets are tutoyer-ing me as well, that I am their chérie, too. There is an intimacy which urges me to stay and look, to bring something home.

1 rue d'Alençon
75015 Paris
01 42 22 21 73
Open Monday through Saturday, 1 pm to 7 pm

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Une Française à New York

All I can say is, it's about time.

All my life I've been reading books about American expatriate life in France, written over the centuries. You know the list.

Attempts to find the French literary counterpart to Buchwald or Flanner or Wharton or Sedaris -- i.e., a French expat writing from the US -- always came up emptyhanded. There were informative scholarly tomes analyzing America from a Frenchman's point of view. From Tocqueville to Andre Kaspi to Pascal Baudry, all engrossing social commentary. So.. Cartesian. So..intellectual. So... French! But nothing that I would call sheer entertainment.

Until now. I just finished reading Une Française à New York, by Laurence Haïm. A personal narrative of a young French woman's adaptation to life in the Big Apple, it is witty and fast-paced. Book critics might call it an "entertaining romp." Though it is published in French, it deserves to be translated.

It's sure to be a big hit in France. So why should Americans be interested in reading this book? For one, the old Candid Camera song comes to mind. "It's fun to look at yourself as other people do." Also, by hearing a French person's funny laments about la vie "Made in America," Americans in turn can better understand French culture if they are willing to seek the nuance. Here's the idea: the French read Paris to the Moon and Americans read Une Française à New York -- a little mutual x-ray screening of each other's cultural baggage.

Laurence Haïm leapfrogs over the clichéed myth that all French people think Americans are burger-chomping cowboys. With a sharp journalist's eye and a raconteur's good timing, she tackles with verve and panache the bewildering American customs of dating, cubicle life, real estate agents, workaholics, gym workouts, American "vacations", and, of course, meals.

Hmm -- hey, here's an idea! Une Française à New York sounds like a perfect companion to the witty yet-to-be-published memoir, Polly-Vous Francais: Une Americaine in Paris.
Know any good agents?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Burger TV

Oh, I get it.

Because, let's see, there clearly isn't any decent food or art in France, American expats need this?

Thanks to Roy for the info.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Colette Arrives at Shakespeare & Co.

It is noon. The phone rings. My friend Mary Blake is phoning from Montmartre. "Today's the day," she says quietly. Do I detect a forced cheerfulness in her voice? "I'm taking Colette to George and Sylvia today. Do you want to come up to my place and ride down in the taxi with me at 3 for the adoption?"

Damn, damn, double-damn! This is November 1, a holiday in France, perhaps, but a business day in the US, and I have too much real work to get done, emails to send, deadlines to meet. Aargh! There is nothing that I would love more than to drop everything and be the assistant fairy godmother (fairy dogmother?) helping Mary to transport Colette, one of Nina's three puppies, to its new home with the owner of Shakespeare & Co. "I figured that Nina would understand better if you were here for the separation," she urges.

I have to beg off. This pains me no end. "I'll call you back if I can break free," I promise.

Mary and Nina
It is 10:00 pm. I call Mary. "How did it go?" I ask, wondering if she is feeling emptier-nest syndrome.

Mary has known George Whitman for a long, long time -- since well before his daughter Sylvia was born, I think. "George had prepared a lamb chop for Colette," she says. "He was so sweet. And he bought a comfy red dog bed for her."

Charming little Colette will mostly be hanging out upstairs with her new papa, George, for a while, since she's only 8 weeks old. Then soon enough she'll be downstairs at the front desk at Shakespeare & Co., and everyone can meet (and admire) her.

She's SO cute! A new literary mascot for a Paris literary landmark.

La Toussaint; Chrysanthemums; Cemeteries

November 1 is la Toussaint -- All Saints' Day -- a holiday for remembering the dead in France. I guess you could say it's the counterpart to Memorial Day in the US. Like Memorial Day, it is not only a day for the dearly departed but also a day for the happily departing: the two-week school vacation began last Friday, and those who didn't leave then are making a long weekend of it now. Finally the frenzy of September-through-October Paris buzz takes its first break of the season...

The florists have all variety of chrysanthemums on display. In France, chrysanthemums are for remembering the souls of the dead. Unlike the US in the fall, here you will find no "cheerful" pots of mums adorning doorsteps. (And thus in France you would also never bring mums to a dinner hostess!) They're strictly an autumn flower for cemeteries or memorial plaques.

To illustrate: a mum is such an understood symbol for commemorating the dead that this week's Le Canard Enchainé had the following headline

figuratively meaning that the CNE (the controversial employment policy), is dead in the water.

Back to real mums. I loved the rows of chrysanthemums in Montparnasse Cemetery.

There are other flowers, to be sure. Some exquisitely decorated tombs.

The Cimitière de Montparnasse in the 14e arrondissement is perhaps not as famous as Père Lachaise, but it's a peaceful place to stroll.

There are plenty of celebrities' tombs to visit here, but I mostly poke around and always find eyecatching angles or eloquent, poignant vignettes.

Some folks are spooked by cemeteries; I've never been on that wavelength, either in the US or in France. Solemn, yes, but not at all creepy.

Mostly they are serene, poetic places, full of architectural, historic and social significance.
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