Thursday, November 30, 2006


If you feel like getting in the holdiay spirit and belting out some fine music, now is your chance. Join the Paris Choral Society this Sunday, December 3 for its popular annual Handel's Messiah Sing-Along (Christmas portion + Hallelujah Chorus).

No auditions.
No experience.
No commitment.
Enthusiasm helpful.
Festive occasion assured!

Best to arrive early for good seats. Concert begins at 4 pm. 10/15 euros. American Cathedral, 23 av. George V

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Reading Balzac in Paris

Okay boys and girls, sharpen your pencils and pay attention. This is a multiple-choice test.

Please answer the following question. Why did Polly buy a copy of Le pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac last week?

( ) A. She analyzed the list of books in her blog post and was embarrassed by how vapid it seemed

( ) B. She is having lunch with her former 19th-century French literature professor next week and wanted to be au courant.

( ) C. Blessed with an aging memory, she can re-read it without remembering the plot.

( ) D. She was leaving on vacation and wanted a good read that looked vaguely intellectual while on public transportation.

( ) E. Everyone who moves to Paris must read this book.

( ) F. All of the above.

Of course the correct answer is F, you sillies. You knew that all along, so you get an A+.

Answer explanations.

A. The books weren't all vapid, but mostly lightweight. The most intellectual book in the List was Les Cent-Jours by Dominique de Villepin and I couldn't really make my way through all the footnotes (is he like that in real life, qualifying every statement with someone else's opinion?). In all honesty, I had only bought his book because I actually encountered the Premier Ministre walking home one day (he lives in my neighborhood), and hoo-boy, is he handsome! He even nodded "Bonjour" to me with a slight smile. So, I reasoned, if I ever saw him again I wanted to have something to mention other than French politics while my knees wobbled in appreciation. Such as gushing, "I loved your book." Otherwise I'm actually quite shy and don't know what to say to famous people. Or any people.

B. Ten years ago I got a Master's degree in French literature. One of my dear professors is in town right now, staying at her little pied-a-terre on rue du Bac. I remember 10 years ago in class listening enviously to references to her Paris flat and drooling just thinking how lucky she was. Now I'm living the dream, around the corner in the 7e, to boot. We're meeting next week, and our conversation is sure to be peppered with lofty literary references. So I don't want to blow it by sounding like a dunce and make her wish they'd never given me that full scholarship.

C. I've read Le pere Goriot several times over the past 30 years. Who said aging isn't fun? You can hear jokes, read entire novels, over and over, each time with virginal enthusiasm. No plot spoilers here! What could be better? I've just read the same page 3 times without realizing it until I'm half way through. The fog in Paris isn't only in the air.

D. Okay, c'mon everyone, admit it. You don't want to be seen everywhere reading Gala magazine all the time, do you? Right. So if I want to project the intello-feminine image, Le pere Goriot is fine, and so ...non-threatening. Plus, it fits easily into carry-on luggage. It isn't quite the calibre or heft of, say, War and Peace, but I also have a hard time wading my way through more contemporary authors like Yourcenar. And Proust is fabulous but definitely not airplane reading.

E. If you haven't read Le pere Goriot ever or even in the past 10 years, and you live in Paris or simply dream of living in Paris, you must read this novel. Why? Because in my book, it's as relevant today to the get-to-know-Paris learning curve as it was in 1835 when it was written.

F. So kiddos, stop reading this little blog post right now and go to your nearest bibliotheque or librairie or Brentano's or Smith's or the American Library in Paris and get a copy of Le pere Goriot in whatever language you read best. Here's just a taste:

"Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature."

Scram -- va-t'en! Start reading.

You can thank me when you've finished the last page and you decide to name your poodle Rastignac.

Noisy Neighbors, part I

A visitor from the States swung by my apartment the other day to help me load my suitcase into a waiting taxi. He lugged the luggage to the building courtyard while I closed up the apartment. When I got down to the front door I found him ambushed by my first-floor neighbor, an otherwise sweet but old-fashioned and very fussy octogenarian, who was berating him for making too much noise in the evenings. She mistakenly thought he was the new tenant in the apartment above her on the 2e etage.

My pal just kept smiling and nodding his head, having little understanding of what she was saying, and even less knowledge of what to reply. Here's what he heard: "monsieur...s'il vous plait... pantoufles .... bruit.... plafond.... porte ...dormir...." Most of the vocabulary and verbs sailed past him. Not that he had a chance to get a word in.

As we hopped into the cab the lady must have felt a huge sense of relief having gotten all that off her chest. And is expecting improved behavior.
It reminded me of this Far Side cartoon: What We Say to Dogs/What Dogs Hear.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I swear!

I've been finding that I talk to myself a lot lately. Certainly something to do with age, with living alone.

The good news is that I'm muttering in French. "Ou est-ce que j'ai mis mes lunettes -- encore? " and "Je ne vois pas du TOUT ou est l'arret de l'autobus dans ce quartier." Things like that. (Don't worry about translations. It's just mumbling.)

And even when there is something that annoys me, like bumping into a protruding table leg or finding a hole in a sweater, I'll utter a little "aie!" or "merde!". So very French I am becoming, n'est-ce pas?

So, for example if I am skittering down to the subway to do some Paris exploring and just miss the subway car, I might puff out my cheeks and whoosh an "Ah, merde!" to myself. And wait for the next car.

On the other hand, if I am sitting in my pajamas in my apartment drinking cafe au lait and the phone rings at 9h45 and it's my French colleague saying "Where ARE you the meeting started 15 minutes ago" and I mistakenly thought her changement about the meeting was moving the time to 2 and it was moving the address to a 2 and I had been hoping to impress Mr. Big Businessman by being so Audrey-Hepburn-elegant and professional and so I lie and promise to be there in half an hour and I take the world's quickest shower and slap on Hermes body lotion and face brightener and guzzle mouthwash and verrrry carefully put on mascara and blush and throw on clothes that should have been ironed and rush out the door and stampede through the street and down the stairs of the metro station and accidentally stomp on the ankle of the kneeling woman with the "S.V.P. aidez moi" cardboard sign and toss out a "pardonnez-moi madame!" and then wonder if beggars are supposed to be addressed as Madame and dash down the smelly corridor as I hear the train's doors squealing as I run run run to the platform and the doors slam shut in my nose,

then I shout, "F*CK!!!"

Actually, since I have read Kirsten Lobe's delicious novel, "Paris Hangover," I now say, "f*ckityf*ckf*ck" which actually may sound a bit more ladylike and delicat. It sure feels better.

I don't think Audrey Hepburn ever said the f-word. Now that I'm living in Paris I'm trying SO hard -- really, I am -- to be more poised, more sophisticated, more civilized; and somehow, when I am speaking in French, I can do this. It's a different me, in a way. So, what language I speak makes a difference in who I am. In French I am more French, if that makes sense.

But it is so funny, how emotional peaks and valleys can elicit responses only in one's native tongue. Walking across the Pont de la Concorde one afternoon last week and seeing the western Paris sky at sunset, vermillion, salmon, rose, lavender, gold -- I unexpectedly belt out "Oh WOW!" and then catch myself and return to my adopted "refined" French comportement. There are, er, other times, too, when dialogue is flowing and engaged and in French, but in the heat of the moment suddenly arrives there just aren't words to automatically express that particular intense emotion en francais.

And last summer, wandering through BHV with my daughter, we hear the usual announcements over the department store public address system. Then we turn to see the hair-gelled, smiling man next to us crooning "Bonjour, mesdames et messieurs" into a cordless mike, and it is HE who is making the store announcements, live. I burst an American style (almost hyena) guffaw and screech, "Omigod look -- it's him!" Yes, customers on all 5 floors of BHV heard Polly's so un-French comment broadcast by that live mike.

In Paris, I try to channel Audrey Hepburn, but sometimes Lucille Ball unexpectedly puts in a suprise showing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Visitor from the Black Lagoon

I am learning (from my French and American friends in Paris) the perils of having all the people who were never nice to you in the US suddenly being your best friend when they think it means a free place to stay in Paris. Real estate is very expensive in this city, and people rent/own just what they can afford. Almost no one keeps an empty guest room - that's not only wasteful, but I’ve just learned that we all must pay a taxe d'habitation based on the square metres of space occupied divided by the number of people living there. So it’s no surprise that residences tend to be small.

Then of course there are your truly dear friends from “home” who would love to come to Paris (and whom you would GLADLY lodge on the sofa for months for the mere pleasure and delight of their company) who, because they are so thoughtful and sensitive, don't even ask to come because they wouldn't want to inconvenience you. What terrible irony! These are the ones you truly want and need.

Evidently everyone falls into this when they first move to Paris and then they learn.... about the evil houseguest. My learning saga:

First, I hardly know him. I'll call him "Sam". We had a couple of dates in New York before I moved to Paris, dates at his brownstone in Brooklyn that were okay but basically went nowhere. Highly opinionated, self absorbed yet thinks he's helpful in his critiques and observations, he can't understand why he has a hard time getting along with his children. I hadn't heard a word from him in a year. Or cared to. Then suddenly when I was back in New York last month I got an email from him saying that he’dl be in Paris in November and he'd "love to see me" -- he would be staying with old friends in the Marais.

Now to be fair, at the moment I had some other romantic prospects here in Paris, and so I naively thought it would at least be good to parade around some American "competition" to get the message delivered, testosterone jump-started, etc. I don't usually do this, but it was all to bolster my self-esteem, which was flagging at the moment. I thus forgave myself for any extent to which I may have been shamelessly exploiting Sam's interest in me.

So I accepted to see Sam when he was in Paris-- he very specifically asked me to block out Saturday evening and Sunday. Sounds like a date to me, with a D majuscule.

Said Saturday rolls around and he is no where to be seen at the appointed hour-- I had given him digicode, interphone, etc., all the instructions for getting to my place. As agreed, once he is 15 minutes late, I will go down to the street to look for him, in case he has digicode difficulties, a known phenomenon in Paris. Every 10 minutes I head down to the street -- no Sam. Finally after 40 minutes have elapsed I go back to the street and see him walking down the street away from my building -- he thought my address was a different number, and hadn't brought it with him.

Is it me, or have I gotten impatient with people who don't understand about the importance of planning ahead, keeping all the info that you have told them is VERY important to keep? Visiting Americans who think they know better than you in Paris are exhausting.

Exasperated, Sam complains that it was impossible to find any subway entrances in the 4th arrondissement, so had to walk 45 minutes across the Seine etc,. to get here, got lost, very very VERY sweaty and so asks immediately if he could remove his shirt (strip down to sweaty yellow mildewed Tshirt - ugh) because he had thought he should bring a wool jacket and a rain jacket, and wore them both while speed-walking the wrong way through Paris.

OK so already things are not going so well.

He looks at my apartment and laughs and says, "You're living in a college student's apartment" and laughs at about everything else I'm doing. I graciously chalk it up to nervousness on his part. Then after drinking a few of my beers he says, wherever you'd like to go for dinner is fine with me. So I obligingly take him to my favorite neighborhood resto, Au Pied de Fouet, where I am known and almost ready to be a neighborhood habituee. Very cheap and boisterous and good food. Very tiny, Parisian and old fashioned. A delightful gem.

At the end of the remarkably inexpensive meal, he leans in toward me and semi-seductively says, "Polly, it would be my great honor if you'd let me pay for this meal." Like it was f*cking Taillevent or something and he was putting down a purple velvet cape for me to walk in the door. Puhleeeez.

But I'm too nice. So I thank him profusely, we go for a spin on foot around the neighborhood and wind up back at my apartment door. I’m ready to call it a night and bid him goodbye. Then-- he asks that I accompany him to the subway station, three blocks away, so he won't get lost again.

Okay, I guess I've become too Parisian in my sensibilities, but that was such an un-macho move. Gross. A real turn-off.

So let's do the addition. Sweat, bad manners, correcting me (did I mention that?) about my knowledge of French, being conveniently feminist/new-age when it comes to paying for meals, complaining about Paris, bashing my computer, more sweat, ridiculing my lifestyle, being a sissy about going to the Metro. Oh and I forgot to mention stray nose hair and how he totally befouled the bathroom, right after stripping down to his T shirt, moments after arriving. The spray can of Air Wick lavande is there for a reason, Mister. Ditto the ventilator fan.

Why oh why did I even agree to meet him the next day? I guess from boredom, and because I had said I would, and we have friends in common in the US, he's intelligent enough and likes French literature and we can have decent conversations. And I think it's sometimes more fun to be out and about in Paris with a member of the opposite sex, when there is the opportunity. And he’s not ugly or even plain.

So Sunday we meet -- of course I couldn't get him to even try to travel to any place new to meet, since now all he knows is my apartment. So I head back across the Seine from church, in the 8th, to meet him at my apartment in the 7th, then we head back to the 8th to the Parc Monceau. A colossal waste of time, all that back and forth We have a so-so lunch in a gorgeous setting; my fault for picking that restaurant? At the end of which Sam says, "Let's just split it 50/50." I am definitely not accustomed to this from a 60-year-old man. Then he gives me 20€ for his half of a 46€ bill and figures that's even. I am in shock.

I spend the afternoon showing him all the great lesser-known sites of the 8e and 7e arrondissements. Then, walking back to my apartment along the esplanade of the Invalides he pops the question. "This is awkward, I don't know how to ask this..." Finally getting around to some sob story that he has to leave his hosts' place Monday but doesn't have to be in London until Tuesday, so maybe -- well who knows how things will evolve, he says, but could he sleep at my place Monday night? "I'm happy to be chaste," he says.

"Spell that, please, " I retort.

So at a weak moment I agree -- I had no plans for Monday evening, so what the hell. Someone to take me to dinner, how bad could that be?

Then he departs to his hosts' house to go to a dinner party being held in his honor. Oh, really? So I'm so irrelevant in his Paris visit that he couldn't even lightly suggest to his hosts that they invite me, for example? Not that I really wanted to go, but at this point I'm feeling mightily used. Only relevant enough to be tour guide and lodging provider. (Serve 'em up, Polly.) Bon appetit, Sam. Have a great party.

The next day he rings the bell at my apartment at 6:01 pm, suitcase in tow. Immediately asks for a beer (before I could even offer one). Relaxes with his feet up on my beige couch, shoes ON. I am busy finishing some correspondence on my computer. Then he asks if he could check his email when I'm through. No prob. I'll be glad for him to get his shoes off my sofa.

Sam then proceeds to write many lengthy, lengthy emails to lord knows who using the "I am an angry cub reporter typing on a Corona manual typewriter" approach on my slim new laptop. He is heaving big sighs, wiping his dripping brow with the back of his hand, and smashing the keys with mach force. From the other room I can hear the keyboard being furiously bashed. I am cringeing. This delicate keyboard already has some issues. "What kind of computer do you have at home?" I venture. "Does it have an old, sticky keyboard? Is that why you crunch the keys so ...adamantly?" Clueless, self-absorbed, he doesn't answer.

"You know, this keyboard of mine is SOO incredible," I offer, "All you have to do is lightly tap the keys and it goes even faster. Very sensitive to the touch."

"Naw," he starts complaining, "I just can't deal with this -- this PC. I have a Mac at home. Much better configuration."

Then after "checking " his email by brutalizing my laptop for another 45 minutes, he mercifully stops what he's doing, stands up and says, "OK, I'm ready for dinner," as if he expects me to have been Domestic Diva whipping up a five-course meal while he was waiting.

"There's a nice little restaurant down the street, a little more upscale, if that meets your budget," I offer. So we head down to rue de Sevres to delightful Le Petit Lutece, and things seem a little better. Sam at least has enough savoir faire to order some interesting menu items like civet de singlier, and I order the brandade de morue. Musing over what wine to choose, Sam puffs up and "gallantly" says, "Polly, you can choose the more expensive wine (24 euros!) -- I'll pay for the wine and we can split the rest of the bill."

Oh man, he's just killing me with the chivalry -- not only as a guy but as a guest! How much would a hotel room have cost him? Jesus, if he thinks he's going to get free bed AND get lucky tonight, NFW. He's just slapped a soaking-wet duvet on any faint sparks that might have been lurking around.

Then the wine comes and the waiter pours a little into Sam's glass, and instead of tasting it he just SMELLS the wine and nods that it's fine. Excellent wine, that Chateau de Cretin. I wonder if he would have nibbled the cork. The excellent dinner arrives and he insists that we share tastes and proceeds to jab at food on my plate with his fork. Good thing none of the food falls in his lap, because his napkin is still very nicely folded next to his plate. I'm starting to lose my appetite, and desperately hope that the waiters aren't smirking too much.

I am at a loss for words to dissuade him from any of these behaviors. I simply talk more about my new business project I’m working on with my friend Marie: a course to help American women learn French etiquette, fashion, and comportment. Tonight this gives me a venue to discuss charming anecdotes of good and bad manners from both cultures. I guess I have become too Frenchified -- or else too stunned -- to outright criticize what he is doing, as he is neither a stranger nor a member of the family. Some story I mention must finally resonate. He eventually catches on a bit, and says, "I am probably a transgressor in many of those areas."

"Don't worry, you can learn," I suggest.

Then, joy of joys, time to come home and make up the guest bed in the pull-out sofa. Yes indeedy. It would have been the biggest leap from zero to supersonic speed, dating-wise, to have any other sleeping arrangements. Trust me.

Whew. I'm home-free, I think. But no, the final coup. Sam announces, as if this were already a given and no problemo, "Well, I guess it is best to head to bed now, as I have to be at Gare du Nord at 6:30 tomorrow morning. Don't worry, I don't expect you to take me to the station."

Excuse me??? So I have to get up at 5:45 to make sure he's actually gone in time? And I'm supposed to be happy to be relieved of dropping him at the station? I don't even own a car.

I am either too gracious a hostess or too much of a sucker, and so the next morning I actually arise and fix breakfast to send him on his way.

As he's wheeling his suitcase toward the door, he says, "You know, Polly, if you weren't living in Paris I would really want to pursue a relationship with you. You are a fascinating creature."

I smile generously as I nudge him into the elevator cage, "Oh, I'm sure you would. But I AM living in Paris. So – well, c'est la vie. Bon voyage, Sam."

Watching that elevator descend out of sight I dance a little jig.

And dash to my computer to write a blog post.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Paris Choral Society

Saturday, November 11, 2006

November 11

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

According to wikipedia, in World War I there were
1,375,800 French military casualties and
40,000 civilians, for a total of

1,415,800 French lives lost between 1914-1918

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

An American Manif?

I woke up this morning with a crazy idea (this happens) and said "I just have to do this. For Art!"

And I mean Art Buchwald.

After seeing that CNN interview and writing the post for the blog yesterday, I knew I had to do something else. This will probably be his last Thanksgiving.

So my wild idea was to gather a huge crowd (hundreds -- thousands?) of humans - expats, French, whatever --to spell out

"merci, Art!"

in some obvious Parisian place and have it photographed or videoed and sent to or broadcast for him for Thanksgiving.

He has done so much to help Americans think of the French at Thanksgiving, with his tale of Le Jour de Merci Donnant and his many years in Paris with the International Herald Tribune, the "only newspaper he ever loved."

So mostly I need to find someone who has done large-space spelling so that we could do this and have people line up to spell the phrase, plus some coordinators for crowd & artistic management. I think that with blog power and other (lots of expat orgnaizations) we could gather a huge crowd -- for example on Sunday afternoon.

And someone to help deal with the tangle of Prefecture de Police regulations, which could be the biggest wet blanket of all unless someone has a piston. OK, in my really wildest dreams maybe Yann Arthur-Bertrand (Paris Vu du Ciel) would photograph it! I've cold-contacted a few sources, so we'll have to see what pans out, if anything.

I hope this can move forward; it'll be too late next year (unless Art pulls a great stunt!). Any thoughts and ideas and contacts are welcome.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Art Buchwald

Art Buchwald, the U.S. journalist and humorist, gave the world the classic column entitled "How to Explain Thanksgiving to the French", which has been a staple at our family Thanksgivings for years. His memoir of Paris, "Don't Forget to Write," has been comic inspiration for many Francophiles, including moi.

Now , at age 80, battling a host of illnesses, Art is flunking hospice by outliving his doctor's estimate of "three weeks to live" 8 months ago.

So this November, as a tribute to Art Buchwald, I hope that we will all read aloud his tale of Kilometres Deboutish and toast this great friend of France and expats in France.

Kyra Phillips of CNN just interviewed Art. The piece is linked below.

(Cut and paste this into your web browser):

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Tree Grows in Paris

Eight months ago, March 3, I arrived in Paris to "turn the page," as the French would say, on a new life. In order to mark the passage of my time in Paris, I started to grow an avocado pit during my first week in my gorgeous furnished flat on the place de la Madeleine.

Stubbornly, that pit sat impaled by three toohpicks in a glass of water for months and didn't budge. Then finally, the pit cracked and and sprouted roots and leaves, and I duly planted it in some potting soil purchased at BHV. (I won't read too much into the "stubborn pit" part, but it just might correspond to my initial HUGE learning curve in Paris, despite being relatively fluent in French-Literature French; B.A. and M.A. degrees just don't teach about RIBs, releves and all other manner of French day-to-day lessons.)

Here is a photo of my avocado tree -- perhaps a symbol of my life in Paris. Who knows?

It could just be a tree. But as long as it thrives, it will be a monthly feature, a reminder of how to grow and prosper in this city of light. This photo was taken three weeks ago. It, and I, have grown even more ("not sideways, I hope!" to paraphrase Lewis Carroll.)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

How many Expats does it Take to screw in a French Light Bulb?

One to go back to BHV to get the right kind of bulb.
One to call EDF.
One to fax the justificatif de domicile, passport, college diplomas, tax returns and two photos to EDF to get the account working again.
One to call the proprietaire to complain.
One to call the gardienne and ask her very very sweetly if she by any chance knows why there's no light, and leave her a tip and a bouquet of roses for answering the question.
One to go back to BHV again to get the right kind of rallonge.
One to go to the bank for cash to pay for .345 euro-per minute phone calls to EDF because the first one is still on hold.
One to track down the first-born child because evidently that's part of the payment plan.
And 85 bloggers to write about it!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Trying to Deal with France Telecom

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