Thursday, July 30, 2009

Polly's Summer Vacation

Alors, it's almost August 1, and you know what that means. Time for a petit break in the action. Not that I'm departing to loll around the Riviera reading Gala and Paris Match. Vacation is a relative term.

I'll be back in the saddle posting again in a week or so. But so that no one goes into Polly-Vous Francais withdrawal (how I delude myself!) here are a few oldies from the past year that you might enjoy re-reading. Or not.

1. Why did the chicken cross the road?

2. Have you ever eaten anything so disgusting-looking but delicious?

4. Because it really did change my life.

5. Getting my teeth cleaned in Paris. No sedation necessary!

6. The shrieks from my apartment were innocent... really.

7. Classic French footwear: espadrilles!

9. An incredible place to stay on the Loire Valley... and the most incredible coincidence of my life, so far.

10. Fun times at the Marche aux Puces. My stats tell me that there's a, um, um, community out there that really digs these gals. Who knew?

11. We're still working on the book. Sorta.

12. I am kind about all other varieties of birds. Not pigeons.

14. Do you remember Fractured French?

15. Will anyone ever stop speculating about bidets?

16. I'm still hoping for French movies subtitled in English in Paris.

17. As you read this blog you're reading the results of what I did with my French major.

18. And despite the French major and an M.A., I still goof up, royally.

19. I think that's enough, don't you? If you haven't yet, you can read the "best of" from 2006-2007.

20. Or simply look at views of Paris.

Bonnes vacances!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Skip the Louvre, My Darlin'

Don't get me wrong.

I love the Louvre. When I was in Paris, I joined Les Amis du Louvre, which is a must for anyone who spends time in the great city. And such a bargain, because for a 60-euro annual membership, it gives you unlimited access to the museum (through the Richelieu entrance away from the tourist entrance at the Pyramide) , regular bulletins, other discounts. And that opens the door for so much more.

But, horror of horrors -- how did I use it most? Well, when the weather was bad and I wanted to get my morning constitutional in, I simply slipped into the hallowed halls and walked for an hour. Boy, I caught a lot of grief from art lovers when I told them this. Mall-walking in the Louvre? How crass! But I still contend that it's a lot better than mall-walking in a mall. Hey, I got cultural edification. I was always fashionably attired, and didn't power-walk or elbow unsuspecting camera-toting tourists out of the way or anything. Just cruised through as many galleries as I could, absorbing the magnificence of it all, got 100% lost every time, eventually found my way out. Good old Yankee efficiency. Heck, lots of my U.S. pals pound the treadmill while watching CNN for their exercise, and I challenge any of them to say they are better off than I was scrambling along the echoing halls of the Louvre.

Besides (okay, this is really my little secret) if you have unlimited admission to the Louvre and you happened to be in the neighborhood and need a leetle pipibreak, well, you breeze right on in and use the facilities. Not many other places in the quartier where you have such nice powder rooms. So if you are an Ami of the Louvre, it's like having your own private club to pop in to.

Call me a cultural heretic -- go ahead -- but I paid my dues. For three years. I encourage all to do the same.


On the other hand, when I had friends visiting me in Paris who had only 4-5 days to see as much of the city as possible, I beggggged them to not spend it at the Louvre. Others agree with me.

Why? Well, there is so much of Paris to see, and we all know what those hours-long snaking lines are like to enter into the Louvre. And shuffling through to see La Joconde, the Plymouth Rock of Paree. No, when I had company in Paris I let them stop outside for exterior photo ops of the Louvre, then we breezed on our way for a fabulous walking tour of the rest of the city.

The Louvre is too brilliant a place to be reduced to a cultural sound-bite if you're in Paris for only a short stay. If you have really deep pockets you can join the American Friends of the Louvre and get invited to some extravagant behind-the-scenes visits. Or join Les Amis du Louvre and have the museum be your home away from home. But no point in doing the Six-Minute Louvre when you have limited time in the most beautiful city in the world.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Julia Child and the Purple Coat

Many of us mere mortals have a story to tell about meeting Julia Child. No doubt the much-anticipated August release of the film Julie & Julia is prompting even more reminiscences. The memory of my Julia moment, however, was sparked last month when I unearthed a purple coat. Here's why.

After graduating from college in the 1970s, I lived and worked in Harvard Square. It was urban enough, hip, and had sufficient international flair to placate a French major like me with no foreign place to go (Paris was out of the question, financially).

One wintry day at lunch break I was combing the aisles of Sage's, the local gourmet store. In the corner of my eye I spotted an apparition -- a 3/4 length grape-purple mohair coat with elbow-length sleeves, seeming to float in midair. I squinted and looked again. There She was. Familiar and unmistakable. A tall, imposing woman tilting her head over the Camemberts and Saint Andrés. I was in awe. It was ... Julia.

Rapt (and shy), I simply stared, mouth agape. I knew Julia lived in Cambridge, and even knew people who knew her. But here stood the real Julia, larger than life, ogling the Tome de Savoie.

Julia Child! Her name to me was like the name of a goddess who represented everything a francophile like me could love about France and the French: joie de vivre, good cuisine and happiness at table, a hearty "Bon appétit!" She understood the French from the inside out.

I wanted to say something, utter a sliver of a phrase to express my ardent admiration and shared francophile life. But no. I remained mute, slyly trailing her sideways as she maneuvered among the leeks and shallots and filet mignons. I kept enough of a distance to not be too obvious -- but close enough, I hoped, for osmosis.

I savored that moment, and rued it too, wishing I'd had the courage to spout a clever bon mot. In retrospect I justified my silence by convincing myself that surely the hallowed Julia needed to be able to venture on home turf without being approached by French Chef groupies every day. Ah, I felt noble in protecting her from intrusion of fans like me. And if she noticed my semi-stalking, she never let on.

Besides, how cool was she? A purple coat? I absorbed her brilliant inspiration: if you're a nationally famous 6'2" redheaded woman, there's no point trying to disguise yourself in a somber brown cloak when in public. So why not do it with purple panache? Ah, a Julia moment.

A few years later I was working in the public affairs office of the Quebec Government's New England office. One spring, our project was to promote lobsters from the Magdalen Islands, purported to be the tastiest crustaceans in North America because of the extreme cold of the water where they grew. "Why not take some to Julia Child?" I ventured at a brainstorming session. "Who better to appreciate the quality of excellent lobster than America's favorite French Chef?"

Pourqoui pas? With a few phone calls, I had arranged to deliver two dozen lobsters to Julia and her staff, who were taping a video at her home in Cambridge. At 10 a.m. on the appointed day I pulled up to her rambling house in my dilapidated Mercedes.

Toting two large cases of wriggling lobsters, I crossed the wide porch and elbowed the doorbell. I was greeted by one of multiple public TV assistants buzzing around the ground floor. Cables snaked all over the floors, taped in place. Lights beamed in the kitchen and big black control boxes hid in the shadows. I was ushered in the foyer to meet Julia, to hold up my cold blue live offerings to the high priestess of Food and France. She approached with a smile and a hearty greeting, and I felt as though I'd just stopped by to visit Aunt Ruthie, not a celebrity. Not a hint of diva-persona: just genuine warmth and charm. Hundred percent grande dame with zero percent attitude. And that lilting voice. "Thank you so much. Isn't this super? We'll cook them for lunch! I'm sure we'll eat them with gusto."

I would have lingered forever, but I backed discreetly out the door with an I'll-never-wash that-hand-again glow. A few days later her assistant called to pronounce the lobsters indeed tasty and to thank us for the gift. Lesson from Julia moment number 2: always be yourself while being generous with kindness, no matter what your VIP status.

After these Julia moments, I often wondered how I might pattern my life after hers. From watching her on The French Chef and glimpsing her twice, I knew this much. She recognized her life's passion and pursued it with unbridled enthusiasm. And she won the hearts of millions by just being herself. I never dreamed of winning the hearts of millions, but I knew that her approach to life was one I hoped to mirror.

A decade later, woe was me: I had hit the big Four-Oh. As I pondered about Life on that miserable January birthday I still wasn't sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. Agony & angst, ready for a pity-party. Shopping therapy was definitely in order. At the dreaded mall, I stumbled into a store that catered to the WASPy mother's crowd. "Finest ladies' togs," was their motto. I was doomed anyway; at 40, my now-matronly fate was sealed, I figured, so I might as well start dressing the part, right? I cringed and entered. There on the sale rack was a floating apparition. A periwinkle-purple full-length mohair coat. I knew at once this was a harbinger, a sign. What Would Julia Do?

I bought it. Haven't looked back.

It's Sum-sum-summertime!

Ah, summertime.

One news item we can always depend on in late July: where French politicians will be spending their 3-week vacations. Here it is, complete with a map.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Man's Best Friend

In la Capitale, a new publicity campaign to prevent the spread of AIDS is under way. Indeed it's important political action to take. And of course emphasizing the use of condoms as "man's best friend" and "woman's best friend" is a smart slogan.

AIDS prevention is a serious matter. But I dunno. Somehow the leash and collar give it a certain je ne sais quoi.

"New Life" for La Samaritaine

Landmark Paris department store La Samaritaine, which closed abruptly in 2005, will rise from the ashes. But,alas, not as a department store.

The famous Art Deco building overlooking the Seine will be reborn as a 100-room luxury hotel. In a compromise with the City of Paris department of urban planning and the owners, Moet-Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the building will also house a conference center, commercial space including offices and daycare, and some residences.

No specifics were available about the future of Le Toupary, the restaurant on the top floor with unrivalled views of the Seine. (The name, of course is a variant on le tout Paris, a wink at the real or anticipated clientele of the hot-spot.)

photo via Wikipedia

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

It's still a source of happy amazement to me how much the US celebrates Bastille Day. And though le quatorze juillet is over in France, the Bastille Day celebrations continue all week here. I'm attending my local Alliance Française event on Saturday July 18 at a nearby vineyard.

But today our Cercle Français had our own fete, a pot-luck luncheon. Er, a little admission: I get cuisine anxiety when cooking for French people, even if they're dear friends. Today was no exception. But after a morning fraught with missteps and not-so-silent oaths to kitchen gods and Julia Child, I managed to pull together a respectable Salade Niçoise. So who cares if the vinaigrette landed in the bottom of the plastic grocery bag? I poured it on anyway. Here's the final result.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

43. I can deal with that.


Break out the (cheap) champagne -- méthode champenoise. I just found out that Polly-Vous Francais? ranks #43 in all France-related blogs worldwide. I'm in some pretty esteemed company. See the list here, and discover some great blogs that you might not already know.

Yeah, yeah, I'm promoting the competition, but when we're writing about France, it's all friendly competition, right?

Bonne lecture!

Merci to Art Goldhammer at French Politics for the tip.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

"Vive" (not "Viva") la France!

Le quatorze juillet is approaching. Many towns in America really go all-out for Bastille Day, which is heartwarming. Lately I've seen many ads touting some all-French event, with a heartfelt "Viva la France!" tacked at the end.

Folks, please humor me; I applaud your francophilia! But please -- s'il vous plait -- if you're celebrating France, the proper phrase is "Vive la France," not "Viva la France." Viva is a brand of paper towels. (Maybe it's also Italian or Spanish. Not my bailiwick.)

Don't worry. I understand the confusion. It's pronounced veev-uh, almost. But it's the subjunctive ("Long live France!"); and, apparently no one understands the subjunctive in any language any more except a handful of us die-hards. Happily, I am not going to bore you with a lengthy French verb conjugaison lesson right now. So unless you're a grammar junkie you'll just have to believe me.

It's Vive la France!


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

"Tell her not to talk to any French boys"

Summertime. I'm lounging poolside, reading a book. A quartet of ladies is bobbing in the shallow end, chatting. One remarks, "My 16-year-old niece is going to Paris tomorrow -- she's flying by herself." Evidently the girl in question was going to stay with some friends of the family.

"Oh My God," booms one bouncing voice. "Tell her not to talk to any French boys! Have you seen that movie, Taken?" She continues, explaining the plot in terrifying detail, about a 17-year-old who goes to Paris one summer and ends up getting kidnapped into white slavery. (Plot synopsis here.)

I don't budge, but I do twitch for a moment. I am torn. I really want to go cannonball them and say, "Come on, ladies, that's just a contrived thriller plot, total fiction," and enlighten them (har!) with my monologue about how it's so safe in France, how I just lived in Paris for three years, yadda yadda yadda.

But instead I laze there like a lizard in the sun, wondering how much damage that movie has done.
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