Sunday, December 30, 2007

Replacing Matisse

Once upon a time, when we lived in a rambling 19th century New England clapboard house, we had the requisite suburban-family pets: a black lab and a tiger-striped cat.

Let me be more precise. We had Blackberry, an aging, winsome chow-hound whose life-list of Things I Have Eaten included an oil painting, a cord of firewood, and the contents of my son's sacks of Halloween candy, every year of elementary school. A paragon of good manners, however, she always discarded the Snickers and Twix wrappers, and anything with licorice, into a delicate pile. Blackberry's special skill was artfully worrying her eyebrows, with an anxious sideways glance at her bowl, to convince the next sucker arriving in the kitchen that she hadn't been fed dinner yet.

We had Cleo, the bulimic, bi-polar feral feline from Hell, whose goals in life were to pee on freshly folded stacks of laundry and to puke behind the sofa. Her only sliver of endearment in the bosom of our family was strictly for the theatrics. When evicted from the house for misbehavior, which was often, she slunk to the side yard. There she would play dead out on the lawn, waiting for the neighborhood mockingbirds to dive-bomb her lifeless body, whereupon she sprang up to maul them in a most unappetizing fashion. Cleo was pure Hitchcock and Hollywood. Blackberry was purebred Merchant Ivory, zapped by Comedy Central.

Blackberry and Cleo arrived in our household as puppy and kitten, within weeks of each other. Every day of her happy-go-lucky Labrador life, Blackberry, wagging and wiggling, would nuzzle hopefully toward Cleo with a friendly wet nose and a goofy doggy-smile. Every single day for 14 years, Cleo would sharpen her claws in anticipation of this ritual, then with electric fur arch her back and hiss and swat as if Blackberry were some unknown Pitbull looking for lunch.

After Blackberry's tail thumped its last sweet thump, we mourned tearfully. Cleo was subsequently outsourced to live in a barn where she could chase mice and pee at will. We were petless. Almost.

We had acquired, in the meantime, a fantail goldfish. He was christened "Matisse," as a nod to the artist's painting of "Les Poissons Rouges." When Blackberry and Cleo were still around, Matisse had served mostly as a decorative object. On the kitchen counter in a tall jar (to save him from angling kitty paws), he swam around a slender plant and didn't ask for much. An occasional sprinkle of food and change of the water were all the attention he needed. Or got.

Eventually, though, with the furry pets departed to their respective greener pastures, and the kids living away at school, before I knew it Matisse had taken on new importance in my solitary life. When I ambled downstairs in the morning in that big empty house, I had someone to talk to. Somehow we started a quirky little duet. I approached his jar, he swam to the glass and made kissy-faces at me until I got out the little red box of fish food. Seeing the famliar red, he would dart excitedly through the plant, then race to the surface to wait for his little flakes, smooching tiny air bubbles until he was fed.

Yeah, right. I know you don't believe me. None of my friends did either, until they saw it in person. This was a goldfish with Personality!

I started calling him by ridiculous little nicknames (which, of course, he couldn't even hear). Ti-ti, Teetles. "How's my little Teetlebaum today?" I would inquire. Egad, what was coming over me? I had never used cutesy love-names like that even for my own children, so why was I suddenly bestowing terms of endearment on a slimy 79-cent purchase from Petco? Thank God no one was within earshot. I embarrassed myself.

When the time came to leave that big old house and pack up a lifetime of memories, I was heartened to think of Matisse as my companion for the transition. Then, when the sudden decision came for a preliminary move to Paris, I became determined to take Matisse with me. Okay, obsessed is a better word.

I fretted about how to transport him, and the water he would need to travel in (this was before the 3-ounce carry-on fluid limits). After much searching, I found a gallon-sized neoprene jar with a handle to take on-board for the flight. I envisioned Matisse in coach class, under my seat, where I could open the lid and reassuringly feed him little nibbles.

Then I became worried whether a fish could physically sustain cabin pressure at cruising altitudes of 30,000 feet. I scoured Google. I called vets and pet shops for solutions. No one could answer my queries. Did I detect muffled snickering as they hung up the phone?

I wanted to find out about airline pet transport regulations. I swam through the maze of passenger service, cargo, and myriad customer service agents at Air France. They were polite and attentive, and said they'd look into my request. Finally, someone was listening! The agent got back on the phone after checking with his supervisor. "I am sorry, Madame, but we have no regulations concerning carrying a live fish on board Air France," he said with utmost civility. "You see, no one has ever asked to do so before." I felt sheepish, but somewhat of a pioneer.

Finally, pragmatics prevailed. I simply had too much luggage to allow me to bring Matisse to Paris. My wise friend Sheila, who had coached and aided me through the whirlwind packing-for-Paris ordeal, generously offered to care for Matisse until I could come back to fetch him. I knew he was in good hands.

When I returned to the States to touch base several months later, I had, I'm ashamed to admit, all but forgotten about Matisse. Paris had been so thrilling, such a cultural learning curve, that I'd had precious little time to think about a piscine pipsqueak in a tall jar in Massachusetts. Paris does tend to put elements of your life in perspective.

I called Sheila to catch up for lunch. "I have some bad news for you," she offered solemnly after a long silence. "Matisse died a month ago."

"Oh -- Matisse?" I said blithely. "Well, he was sweet, but after all, he was JUST a goldfish. I hope you said a 'praise be to Allah' before you flushed him down the loo!" Sheila, who had witnessed my Matisse obsession first hand, didn't know whether to be relieved or furious, I think.

Since then, I've been truly petless. I'd love to have a dog in Paris, but time and money budgets just don't allow it. And after 14 years of Cleo, I no longer fancy owning a cat.

Last Friday, after my kids had returned to the States, I knew it was time. First, I found a sack of marbles for €1 at the marché in Belleville. Then a large vase at Monceau Fleurs. A quick visit to Vilmorin Animalerie on quai de la Mégisserie, and I found her.

She was swimming, ballerina-style, unlike the hundred other clumsy poissons rouges in the tank. "Celui-là," I pointed her out to the attendant. He had a tough time catching her in his net, but I wasn't going to adopt just any goldfish.

Before I had left the store, I had instantly given her a name. "Louise," a nod to one of my favorite French authors, Louise de Vilmorin, whose ancestors started the Vilmorin seed and plant company.

Ah, you should meet my little Louisette. My Lou-Lou. Ma petite Lou-Lita-la-Belle. We already love our little morning chats, we two.

Talking About Books You Haven't Read

A runaway bestseller, controversial in literary circles, is the book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. I haven't read the book yet, but I wanted to talk about it a bit. I just heard an NPR interview with author Pierre Bayard, in English. Worth listening to.

Bayard, a professor of French literature at the Université de Paris 8, published Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? earlier this year, and its translation into English has made it a top-seller as well.

Here is a video clip (in French) of a literary discussion last February on France 2 television, "Is Literature in Danger?". Bonus: the only woman on the panel is none other than Carla Bruni. She likes to read!

So maybe if she becomes Première Dame de la République, French Culture won't be in as dire straits as some predict.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

This is Just to Say

This is just to say
I have eaten the
They call "food" at Hippopotamus
which I should have remembered
to avoid

Forgive me

It was near the bus stop
I was so late
And so hungry

And my memory
too poor.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Gnome Jail

I love browsing along the quai de la Mégisserie, with its animaleries (pet shops) and garden-supplies shops.
I'm not sure which of those two categories these imprisoned gnomes were intended for.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Paris Like Home

When the chillun' are chillin' in Paris for college break, we usually have a couple of modes for lodging. If it's just the two of them, they can camp out at my one-bedroom apartment, as I have two (count 'em!) sleep sofas in the living room. Granted, it gets a little dicey stepping over suitcases. And maneuvering in the one tiny bathroom (accessed via my bedroom) is another challenge: it is a salle de bains and a WC, a combination practically unheard of a decade a go in Paris, but increasingly common in apartment rehabs these days. But we're family; we can deal with close encounters and personal idiosyncrasies.

However, when the kids want to bring some friends for a visit, or plan to do a lot of Paris socializing, my apartment (and my middle-aged nerves) just can't absorb the tsunami of extra adolescent bodies and concomitant belongings. Last year I was fortunate to find a weekly rental apartment a few blocks away, overlooking the dome of Les Invalides. There they can hang out sleep until noon, have some independence, and still head home to my place for meals, laundry, and all the other creature comforts that a Mom provides. A great solution, and cheaper than renting more square meters than I need the other 340 days a year.

Jean-Patrick, the easygoing, affable owner of the apartment, showed me some of the other flats that he rents. I've been recommending them to my friends ever since. Now -- a boon to all travelers -- he has a website and an official name for his short-term apartment-rental business, "Paris Like Home."

In fact, I like the apartments so much I was torn over even writing about them, for fear that our favorite wouldn't be available next time the kids are here. But Jean-Patrick is such a great guy, so cheerful and accommodating (and speaks perfect English). So I just had to pass along the tip. But we get first dibs for next Christmas, I hope.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

It's a Snap

I found these antique snaps at a small mercerie -- a thread and button shop -- near the Marché St. Pierre in Montmartre.
What do I find so appealing in these simple snaps? Certainly the graphic design, also the slogan "The modern non-rusting button."

And of course, Veutenir means "wants to hold."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Lafayette goes International on CNN

The engaged and engaging American mayors have gone home to their Lafayettes, their Fayettes, and their Fayettevilles, but CNN just broadcast a nice piece on Christmas Eve about the splendid 250th celebration in Paris a week ago.

A 'Francais' Family Christmas

Five knuckleheads in a row. That's la petite Polly-Vous Français on the right.

Merry Christmas to my family. Guess what? Since Christmas arrives six hours earlier in France, I got to open my presents first!
La famille a few Christmases later. You can imagine how many more years I got to wear hand-me-down candystripes.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happiness, Peace, Health, and Prosperity

And for 2008, aussi.
Joyeux Noël!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Les Miserables

The Nespresso Boutique on rue du Bac has been mayhem lately. Every time I've swung by in the past two weeks, it's been packed tighter than the rush-hour métro, with lines about 20 clients deep at each cash register. I simply don't do lines like that -- not even for beloved Nespresso. So I haven't even set foot inside. As a result, I've been out of my precious Ristretto capsules for a week, and have been forced to revert to the antediluvian method of Melitta drip coffee. Sort of a caffeine version of methadone, if you're a Nespressoholic.

This evening we happened to be crossing rue du Bac as we headed home, and the Nespresso shop looked slightly less full, so I decided to give it a try. The slim young security guard opened the door to let us in. There were about 15 people inside, patiently waiting in a central line. It was moving blessedly swiftly as they completed their transactions. If you own a Nespresso machine, you understand my sense of mounting rapture as I approached the caisse to make my purchase. Ah! Good coffee at home again! I was feverish in anticipation.

Then something happened. A small, well-heeled group began gathering outside the entrance, and the guard wouldn't let them in. He was under strict orders: the boutique had to close its doors at 6 pm, so no more customers were allowed in after 5:45. Indignant, they began arguing their case. It started with pleading. "Mais nous avons téléphoné -- but we called, you said you were open until 6 pm." The guard stood fast. No way was he letting them in the door. More customers arrived. The mob was getting outraged, and I honestly expected a brawl to begin. These folks were PISSED. They wanted their Nespresso capsules, and they wanted them NOW.

Well. You know that feeling of smugness when you're on the inside and others want to be there, but they're not? (Kinda like snagging the last Cabbage-Patch Doll , Tickle-Me Elmo or iPhone.) Okay, I admit it -- I was smug in spades. God forgive me. We stood demurely in line, analyzing George Clooney's seductive pose on the store poster, trying to pretend that we didn't notice the frantic antics outside. I wasn't proud of this feeling. I felt their pain.

The kind clerk at the cash register was so courteous and solicitous. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" she asked multiple times, as if we had hours to select more Nespresso products.

By the time we finished our transaction one lady in the clamoring crowd outside was shrieking at the guard, "Alors, if I order on line, are you going to deliver them to me and pay for the shipping?" It looked as though they were going to use brute force to stampede through the doors.

We sauntered out, proud shopping-bag of capsule boxes daintily in hand as we squeezed our way through the fracas. (In hindsight, if I'd been really scheming and evil, I could have bought hundreds of boxes and scalped them right on the spot. Damn.)

Oh well. Let them drink drip.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

After-Christmas Sales

Les soldes, the big semi-annual store-wide sales in France, don't begin until January. But according to Le Figaro, the real bargains begin Christmas Eve at midnight as French people in droves -- a whopping 36% -- hit the cyber-marché to re-sell their just-opened Christmas presents on the web. We're not talking re-gifting, but outright selling the item, fresh in its packaging, on eBay or PriceMinister.

It's a growing trend, says the PriceMinister marketing guy, up 6% last year and expected to increase steadily. Most folks are doing the re-sell on the sly, as only 14% admit telling the gift-giver that the cadeau missed the mark.

The biggest turnover in presents?

Gifts from in-laws and parents.


Yesterday in the park at Versailles, the crowds were staring at a nearby hill in the east, gaping at what appeared to be a large building complex on fire.

It was actually just the reflection of the winter-solstice sun setting in the west.

Friday, December 21, 2007

We Won the Loto!

The chateau is ours!
Okay, well it's nice to dream.
Harry and his pal Matt goofing at Versailles today. That boy sure likes to fly.

Let it Snow

The weather in Paris has been cold. Yesterday for the first time, I saw frost on the grass as I crossed place Vauban. Frost caking the windshields. I've noticed more Parisian women wearing hats, finally. I was wondering about that.

In Paris it seems that the cold penetrates more, with all the stone in the built environment. Am I imagining it, or does the stone just pull the heat right out of you?

We were spoiled by a mild winter last year, so this is new for me. Anyway, it seems that most Parisians are heading out of town for the countryside or the mountains for les vacances de Noel. We're staying put here. I don't need to dream of a white Christmas. I've got my Christmas dream already -- aged 19 and 21, respectively, still sleeping as I write.

I gather that back in New England the weather has been, well, wintry. Snow, sleet, ice, with below freezing temperatures and treacherous traveling. So I can't complain. I honestly don't miss snow a bit. I don't miss shovelling through it, trudging through it, taking those clumps of snow out of the heel of my boots. Not that I don't like snow. I love to visit snow.

Lacking snow at Christmastime in Paris, I thought it would be fun to at least have some virtual snow. And my all-time favorite is the collection of photographs by Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley. The first person to photograph individual snowflakes, in 1885, Bentley ultimately produced 5000 images of snowflakes, none of which are exactly alike, of course. His own words:

"Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."

There are more modern photos of snowflakes, but Bentley's images are pure poetry. His photographic oeuvre is worthy of exhibiting at a Paris gallery.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Have Yourself a Hair-Free Little Christmas

Paris has an abundance of instituts de beauté, beauty salons specializing in one form or another of spiffing up your body parts for everyday or for special events. Nails, soins de visage (facials), drainage lymphatique, gommage -- the gamut. All in the quest of the Holy Grail of more perfect beauty.

This windshield flier for laser hair removal caught my eye. First, a fifty-percent-off introductory price sounds good for starters. Second, no toe-curling wax strips to make you scream. Why, gee, this new technology laser hair-removal place sounds not bad at all! If you feel the urge, that is. And razors (in France at least) are sooo last century.

Then I started to do the math. Women seeking silky private and public parts have multiple price structures to fret over. And for the truly hirsute male, you could find yourself semi-permanently smoother than a Mexican hairless for a mere 2475 €. That's about $3725 at today's depressing exchange rate -- not including tip. Oops! There goes the holiday budget.


(Of course you remember that ou means "or" and et means "and.")

Lèvre supérieure - upper lip
Menton - chin
Bande de ventre - abdomen
Sillon fessier - er, buttocks crack
Aisselle - underarm
Maillot - bikini
Maillot brésilien - yup, a brazilian
Maillot intégral - the whole bit
Bras entier - whole arm
Avant-bras - forearm
Demi jambes - calves
Cuisses - thighs
Jambes entières -- entire legs

Cou - neck
Main - hand
Doigts - fingers
Torse - upper body
Ventre -- belly
Epaule - shoulder

Hmm. A gift certificate could be the perfect stocking-stuffer for the favorite warm-and-fuzzy Teddy-Bear on your Christmas list.

This advertisement would normally have been an entry in my sidecar blog, Pare-Brise du Jour, but it was just too tendance to pass up.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

French Divorce Lawyers on Strike

French lawyers nationwide are going on strike. Their goal is to protest the government plan to allow all divorcing couples to use a notaire, instead of going in front of a judge, in cases of divorce by mutual consent.

This is serious business, with political, legal and professional ramifications.

So please excuse me, but it just tickled my funny bone. Can you imagine seeing a headline "American Divorce Lawyers on Strike"? Go ahead, make my day.

Yahoo Mail

I awoke to find this morning missive on my computer screen, café au lait by my side, ready to jump-start the day.
I hope this is truly a temporary "snag." I entrust the contents of my pitiful brain and my inconsequential life to Yahoo Mail: communication, calendar, address book.
Reveille-toi, Yahoo.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A new Madame Sarkozy?

Very reliable sources inform me that President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to marry top-model-turned-singer Carla Bruni.

The two have been spotted in tête-à-têtes over the past month, and made a first public splash at EuroDisney over the weekend. Ms. Bruni bears an uncanny resemblance to the recent Madame Sarkozy. And I don't mean his mother.
No word yet on when he plans to officially pop the question, if he hasn't done so already. Perhaps this Sunday, her 40th birthday?
Look for all the details at the Paris newsstands tomorrow.
Updates are here and here.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Remember watching on black-and white TV the crowds of screaming girls, bouncing in their seat, tears streaming down their cheeks, during the Beatles' concert on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, or Shea Stadium in 1965? (Or at least have you seen video clips of it on You Tube?) Those girls were shrieking so loud you could see their tonsils. That wasn't just show, it was sheer idolatry, whipped up to a frothy frenzy.

Remember the throngs of fans, the police barricades keeping the crowds from crushing their heroes? How the Fab Four greeted their well-wishers, signed autographs. Sometimes a too-ardent fan might try to snip a lock of hair, or would give anything to have a piece of their idol's personal property? If an admirer was close enough to touch a sleeve or, the ultimate -- shake a hand -- they sighed in sweet agony, "I'll never wash that hand again."

Remember how Beatles souvenirs were everywhere? If you had even a tattered ticket stub to a concert, that was gold. Failing that, younger members of the groupie generation got Beatles lunchboxes or other widely available memorabilia.

Many got Beatles haircuts. The Beatles were simply all the rage. There was nothing they could do, nowhere they could go, that wasn't of highest interest and utmost fancy and fantasy. We were a nation on the verge of a new order, and the Beatles, the heroes from the other side of the pond, symbolized everything in that new way of thinking of ourselves as a nation.

Well, in 1824-1825, the Marquis de Lafayette, the last living general of the Revolutionary War, toured the young United States and created that socio-cultural phenomenon. Perhaps he was the first "American Idol" on a road tour.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Coming to Paris

Here's my Sunday schedule for tomorrow:

6h30 -- Harry arrives at CDG; meet him at Arc de Triomphe Air France stop at 8h00; travel back to apartment.
10h -- Bee arrives at CDG; meet her at Arc de Triomphe Air France car stop at noonish while Harry naps.
12h00 -- Harry's college pals arrive at CDG. Have them take a taxi to the apartment.
I check the flight status here.
I'm so thrilled to have my kids and their friends in Paris for Christmas break. Although we just saw each other in the US for Thanksgiving, it's fun to have them here soaking up the delights of Paris for a spell.

We've been visiting France for a long time en famille. This is what Miss Bee wrote (love that list-making!) when she and I planned our mother/daughter trip to Paris eleven years ago.
I wonder if her list will change in 2007.
Oh, yeah -- bed time.

Dear Washington, I hope that papa will come back

Even if , like me, you are not a military history buff, there is much to appreciate about the life of Lafayette. At the Palais du Luxembourg yesterday Laurent Ferri of Cornell University presented a "Portrait of Lafayette," and projected this letter on the screen.

click on image to enlarge

Lafayette's six-year old daughter, Anastasie, penned this sweet note to George Washington in 1784, when Lafayette was in the United States for the third time.

The current Cornell exhibit on Lafayette has much to offer, including "Lafayette and Abolition" "Lafayette and Women" and more.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Shop in Paris and Win €10,000!!!

When I checked tomorrow's weather on Yahoo weather, this ad awaited me. Sounds so enticing. I can shop in Paris and win €10,000. Sounds like a no-brainer to me!

"Pay for all your purchases in Paris with your MasterCard from 8 November 2007 to 5 January 2008 and you could win €10,000 to cover the cost of your holiday and the chance to come back and do it all again on us! So what are you waiting for ?

Indulge in your favourite French cuisine and go back for more. Visit the brand new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay then relive the enchantment of the Eiffel Tower when you come back. Get your Christmas shopping wrapped up on the Rue de Rivoli then hit the January sales for some bargains.

It’s easy. Simply spend on your MasterCard to win the chance to come back again, on us."

So I checked the details. You have to shop certain places and fill out this form:

Now I'm confused.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ben Franklin returns to Paris

Paying tribute to his pal the Marquis de Lafayette at a formal dinner at the Chateau de Vincennes last night was none other than Benjamin Franklin. The glow behind him is part of the superb light show, though it could have been some sort of divine aura, I suppose.Rumor has it that Ben might pay a nostalgic visit to his old haunt, Le Procope, on Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lafayette, We are Here!

Mayors and county and town representatives from Lafayette places in the US arrive at the Hotel Concorde Lafayette for a press conference today.

Left to right: Michael W. Krajovic, Fayette County PA; Chris Berry, Lafayette CO; Joe Morton, Fayetteville GA; Dan Coody, Fayetteville AR; Carol Federighi, Lafayette CA; Lafayette actor; Joey Durel, Lafayette LA; Mike Small, Fayetteville Village NY; Jim Newberry, LaFayette-Lexington KY; Jan Mills, West Lafayette IN; and Mike Olson, Fayetteville Village, NY.

photo ©

Lafayette USA

Good morning, Fayette, Lafayette, Fayetteville or Fayette City USA!

Here's a map of towns, cities and counties in the US named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette. (click on image to enlarge)

Apologies to Lafayette Counties of Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Wisconsin, which were inadvertently omitted, as well as a number of other places. I'm calling the press office that supplied me with the map right now so they can update it. But a nice start.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"Excusez-moi, madame..."

This has now happened to me three times in the past year. I'm striding down the sidewalk, high-heel boots clicking confidently as I bob and weave through the pedestrians, thinking about my next destination -- métro, bus stop, café, or wherever. Then, from nowhere, a sweet quavering voice calls out, "Excusez-moi, madame." I turn to see a diminutive dame d'un certain age, wool coat buttoned against the cold, silk scarf neatly knotted, gripping the knob of her cane as she inches in baby steps toward the curb. "Est-ce que je pourrais vous demander de me rendre un service et de m'accompagner à traverser la rue?" she asks.

Oh my. It's a proverbial little old lady who wants help crossing the street, but Paris-style.

I positively melt. MELT! I'm not quite sure why. First off, I'm honored that from a quick glance she has deemed me trustworthy enough to ferry her across a treacherous passage. The curbs, you know, and the cobblestones are so uneven and the traffic so aggressive. I'm also pleased that she addresses me in French. And finally, of course, I do sincerely like to help, and this has never happened to me in the States.

I offer my elbow, and we begin five minutes of exchanging pleasantries. "Oui, oui," I nod, "it's not so easy crossing the streets these days. Oui, je comprends, non non, madame, cela ne me dérange pas du tout -- it's my pleasure." We wait for the walk light to change, as she clutches the crook of my arm, and we cross slowly while she looks up at me, chatting in genteel appreciation. As we reach the safety of the next curb, she offers her most winning smile and heartfelt “merci”. Then our mutual "au revoir et bonne journée,” and we part company. I pick up the pace and continue on my route, this time with a bit more of a spring in my step.

Each time this scenario happens, I get a lump in my throat. Why? Perhaps because I have an 84-year-old mother. Perhaps because I recognize my own future, and I hope that some day thirty-plus years from now I'll be tottering down the streets of Paris, coat buttoned against the winter winds, approaching a curb and eyeing the passersby to find a younger woman whom I can approach and ask, "Excusez moi, madame, est-ce que je pourrais vous demander de me rendre un service?"

Saturday, December 08, 2007

News: Dollar Exchange-Rate Refund

My daughter just called from the States, with the breathless news that she had received a letter in the mail informing her that she could be eligible for a huge refund, via a class action lawsuit, if she had used a credit card to withdraw funds in Europe between 1996 and 2006. Hmm, not an impossible notion for our family.

My initial cynical reaction was to say that it was probably a scam. I checked out the website, and wasn't 100% convinced yet, just because I'm skeptical. But due diligence prevailed, and I found out that this is probably a bona fide class-action lawsuit. It certainly seems worth bringing to the attention of anyone who has been travelling or living abroad in the past decade, and getting US Dollars exchanged in the process. Check out the article in USA Today, which in my book is trustworthy enough.


I think I've discovered the French phrase for "Super-Size that." Is American portion-size expansion starting in France?

Friday, December 07, 2007

WON-derful! MAR-velous!

Whether you are soprano, alto, tenor, or bass (or even if you're not quite sure), it's never too soon -- or too late -- to get into the fa-la-la Christmas mood in Paris. Singing out loud en anglais can do wonders for the soul.

So, Paris residents and visitors alike are thus encouraged mightily to join the Paris Choral Society this Sunday, December 9 at 4 pm. for the traditional Handel's Messiah Sing-Along (Christmas portion + Hallelujah Chorus).

Bring your own score if you have one, or buy a copy at the door.

No auditions, no experience, no talent, no commitment necessary. What could be easier? Members of the PCS will be mixed in with the audience to help all sections to sing exuberantly. (The proper lyrics, of course, are "Wonderful! Counsellor!")

Only enthusiasm is needed; and a rousing, festive is occasion assured. Then you can spend the rest of the evening humming Handel refrains while touring the city to marvel at the Holiday Lights.

Sounds like a plan to me.

Best to arrive early for good seats. Concert begins at 4 pm sharp. 15 euros, 10 for students.

American Cathedral in Paris
23 avenue George V
8e arrondissement
Metro: George V or Alma-Marceau

French Commercials in one click

Aficionados of French advertising spots have a new website to browse. is dedicated to television commercials from around the world; it has a selection of over 230 French favorites, in easily clickable format. More ads will be added on a regular basis.
The spots are grouped by theme, decade, country and so forth, for easy navigating. No more hours of searching through YouTube!
Another great way to practice listening to spoken French, and usually sprinkled with a liberal dose of humor à la française.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Yes, Virginia, there is French culture

We take great pleasure in answering at once, and we hope prominently, the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is among the cyberfriends of Polly-Vous Francais.

"Dear Polly-Vous Francais,

Some of my magazine-reading friends texted me to say that French culture is dead. My MySpace friends say 'Did you read that in Polly-Vous Francais? If you see it in Polly-Vous Francais, it's so.' So, tell me the truth,
s’il vous plait: does French culture still exist?

-- Virginia

And here is our response.


Your magazine-reading friends are wrong. They don't believe except what they see in headlines or hear in sound bites. They don't look beyond Time's cruel cover-page headline to see the essence of a fine, thoughtful article by Don Morrison, who so aptly lamented the decline of popularity of current French culture beyond the Hexagon. Magazines, Virginia, must write provocative articles and even more provocative headlines because they need to sell millions of copies to pay large staffs and to humor their owners and investors. Impoverished bloggers can give straight-up answers because no-one will fire us. No advertiser-pressured editors can put constraints on the truths and patently one-sided opinions that we lowly blogsters are so free to spout. We answer only to ego-gratifying daily stats.

Yes, Virginia, there is French culture. It exists as surely as the Louvre or le Mois de la Photo, Le Grand Corps Malade or Aznavour and the nostalgic sosngs of the troubadours of the 60s -- or of the middle ages. And you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no French culture. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias, no Polly-Vous Francais. There would be no Margaux-drinking, no haute couture, no Michelin stars, no Connaissance des Arts, no Prix Goncourt or Prévert poetry or, heaven forbid, no French romance to make tolerable this existence. We would have no refined enjoyment in sense and sight. The eternal light with which French culture, past and present, fills the world cannot be overestimated.

Not believe that French culture is alive! You might as well not believe in Babar or brie! The Big Guys might get their pollsters to analyze all the French culture being ignored in the world, but even if millions have not yet experienced French culture first-hand, what would that prove? The rest of the world may witness less French culture, but that is no sign that there is none. There are Alliances Françaises all over the United States, Virginia, whose hardworking, underpaid staffs and volunteers work their fingers to the bone, unsubsidized, in order to spread French culture to Americans just like you. But it's hard, Virginia. Silly Americans study French less nowadays. (Alas, too many otherwise intelligent students believe the unfounded urban myth that Spanish, albeit a lovely language, is much easier and more practical.) And French culture doesn’t mean just literature, museums, and music! There are excellent French films which the rest of the world (even non-French-speakers in France) never see because they get no subtitles. Even so, Virginia, the most beautiful things in the world are those that people who no longer study French can nevertheless see. Did you ever see a painting or even a poster of Monet's Water Lilies? A photo of the mur végétal at the new Musée Branly?

French culture is not to be measured by the same yardstick as American culture. Here in France, we have Brittany, not Britney; Paris, not Miss Hilton; our Madonnas are in stained glass or marble. So, even if you've never visited Paris or France and all the culture this country has to offer, that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are yet to be experienced in France.

Publications may look at statistics and judge French culture by numbers, but there is a strong contemporary cultural brewing in every quartier, every département, building on a rich cultural past. Others abroad might miss it because the language veil hides it from their view. But curiosity, creative thinking, poetry, love, French language, and romance (lots and lots of romance) can push aside that curtain and allow all to view and picture the supernal beauty and glory that is France. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia – or may I call you Virginie? -- in all this world there is nothing else so real and abiding. And so very pleasing and satisfying.

No French culture! Thank God! It lives, and it lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten thousand years from now, it will continue to make glad the hearts, minds, and souls of enlightened people the world over, if they will only study their passé composé and their subjonctif, and keep open their eyes and ears.


Last weekend I was in a shop on the bustling rue d'Alésia which was well-stocked with clothes, toys, and accessories for all ages. In front of me in line, a happy papa and his two young boys were waiting patiently. The father remarked to his older son, about 4 or 5 years old, "Philippe, regarde!" pointing to a tote-bag on display by the cashier. The design was a black-and white silk screen image of Charlie Chaplin.

"Ah! CHARLOT!!" squealed the little kid in delight.

I think I know what Père Noel will be leaving for that youngster on Christmas morning. But I wondered how many American preschoolers might have the same appreciation for Charlie Chaplin? Not a cartoon version, either.

Incredible to believe, but it was 30 years ago this Christmas that Chaplin, then aged 88, died in his home in Switzerland. The Larousse Chronique du 20e siècle said of his death, "Il reste Charlot, éternel gentilhomme de la misère, poète, farceur, et qui, poursuivi de la mesquinerie et le malentendu, s'enfuit au bout de la route..."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Pantheon -- or Off?

It seems that everyone in Paris has been so busy ogling the saucy new porn exhibit in town that the cultural guerillas' story went almost as unnoticed as they did. Their latest news is that they're off the hook.

I think that surreptitiously fixing a clock for a year, under cover of darkness, without being discovered in the Panthéon is pretty sexy too, don't you?

Hmm. Not to be disrespectful, but maybe if we changed the name to Pantie-Off it would grab more attention. Lingerie (or lack thereof) sells news!

Thanks to Jay for the link.

Hermes Honors Lafayette with New Scarf

Hermès certainly needs no intro. It is, of course the ne plus ultra of French scarf design. This month Hermès is showing its transatlantic patriotic colors: red, white, and blue --and bleu, blanc rouge. It has produced a new Hermès scarf in honor of the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de Lafayette.

Designed by American artist Kermit Oliver, who has created more than a dozen Hermès works, the scarf features images from Lafayette's life and many American historic figures. Currently available only through Lafayette College, the commemorative silk scarf is printed with a red border and is a collector's item. It is a limited edition (less than 100 still available) and can be purchased for $325 (through Dec. 31; $345 after Jan. 1.). Later a version with a blue border will be available at most Hermès boutiques.

For purchasing information, contact Diane Windham Shaw, Special Collections Librarian/Archivist, Lafayette College, 610-330-5401 or

(Watch this news report for a local angle from Lafayette PA.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

French Kissing

Most of the French kissing that happens on a daily basis is the cheek-to-cheek variety. The perennial dilemma: is one enough? are three too many?

This map will help you solve the quandary.
Merci to wonderful Topinambours for the inspiration.

Monday, December 03, 2007

France and the Founding Fathers

This year marks the 250th Anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de LaFayette, "The Hero of Two Worlds." LaFayette, by the way, has always remained a revered figure in thoughtful Franco-American alliances. More recently his name was considerably ping-ponged about by our two presidents in after-you-my-dear-Alphonse toasts and tributes during Sarkozy's expedition to Washington. Hurrah for the increased press coverage!

A number of events will be taking place in Paris over the next few weeks to celebrate the two and a half centuries of French/American friendship symbolized by this notable Frenchman.

On Wednesday December 5, authors (and Paris residents) James R. Gaines and Michael Oreskes will talk about "France and the Founding Fathers" at the American Library in Paris. Even though it is not focusing strictly on LaFayette, this discussion is a must for any Americans in Paris who have even the slightest interest in the founding of our nation. I trust that means everyone.

Mike Oreskes, Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune, is co-author of The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country--and Why it Can Again.

James R. Gaines, a former editor of Time, People and Life magazines, is the author of For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and their Revolutions.

France and the Founding Fathers
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
7:30 p.m.
Free and open to the public

American Library in Paris
10, rue du Général Camou
75007 Paris
Métro: Ecole Militaire, Alma Marceau

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A Life-long Love Affair

Sometimes the cherished things, those that are closest to your heart (or your stomach) are the last to get mentioned. How can I have been writing about Paris for over a year, and not have divulged my rampant love affair?

With mustard.

This is a long-standing passion. Not the kind of I-joined-the-mustard-bandwagon-in-the-90s story. I have been defined as "the weird person who likes mustard with everything" since the Pleistocene era.

When I was wee demoiselle americaine, all I knew was French's mustard. In our family, it dwelled in a fat glass pump-jar on the middle shelf of the fridge. I was regularly ridiculed by my older siblings for making mustard sandwiches. So what? I happened to enjoy tracing squiggly designs on the slice of white bread before folding it in half to devour. But god, did I ever love that thrilling pump jar -- and that yellow, yellow, yellow mustard. Sometimes I indulged in just a little dollop on my fingertip between meals. Fortunately for my evolving palate, my French's-mustard era came to an end when, at eighteen, I spent a summer in France.

That magic summer I discovered Moutarde de Meaux and Dijon mustard. An awakening, an epiphany, a spiritual rebirth! My French host family used mustard daily as a condiment for lamb, sausages, steak, virtually any red meat. It was the basis of all manner of sauces. Looking back, I think this culinary discovery weighed heavily in my becoming such an ardent Francophile. Any country that truly understood and adored mustard the way I did simply had to have a permanent and central place in my life. And finally I understood that "French's mustard" had nothing to do with French. It was just the company owner's last name, for cripes sake.

I entered college two days after leaving France that monumental summer. As an undergrad I hoarded jars of Grey Poupon and one beloved wax-topped earthenware crock of Meaux in my dorm room, to sneak it into the dining hall to make the institutional food palatable. Since the cafeteria lacked carottes rappées with a perfect mustard-based vinaigrette, back in my dorm room I invented the art form of crunching on whole carrots dunked unceremoniously in an open jar of Dijon mustard. In that post-hippie era of seeking whatever head-rushes one could get, there was no better rush than the sinus-burning thrill of a good hit of Dijon. Even my skeptical roommates began indulging in the occasional mustard-and-carrot habit, though I think it was just to humor me. Or maybe it was that knock-your-boots-off sinus kick.

By the time I graduated from college Dijon mustard was finally showing its face in more public venues in major cities in the US. Whenever possible I dined only at restaurants (at best, upscale burger joints) that served Dijon mustard. When after two years I was departing from my first post-grad job at big Boston corporate firm, a colleague lampooned me in a goodbye toast:

There was a proofreader named Polly
So talented, charming and jolly!
When asked how could she
Stomach this company,
She said, "Not without mustard, by golly!"

I dreamed of opening a small mustard shop in Harvard Square. I wrote fan letters to the Heublein Company, owners of Grey Poupon. Friends and family pooh-poohed my entrepreneurial idea as sheer folly. "Who on earth would go to a place just to buy mustard?" they laughed. "You're the only one who could love mustard so much."

So instead I became a mere moutarde aficionado. A dijon dilettante. Subsequent trips to France, whenever I could scrape together funds and vacation time, found me bringing home three cheap basics -- espadrilles, classic market paniers and a dozen or so glasses of Amora mustard. The kind decorated with cartoons. I amassed a sizable collection of "Lucky Luke" Amora drinking glasses. This practice continued until one fateful return trip, when a half-liter mega-jar of mustard shattered in transit and oozed into every pore of the contents of my suitcase. It was the only time in my existence that for a full 24 hours I never wanted to see mustard ever, ever again.

Fast forward through the twentysomething years. As a young bride, I knew before taking the doctor's rabbit test that I was pregnant: one day, the taste of mustard suddenly repelled me. I spent nine forlorn months of gagging at the mere smell -- it couldn't even be sneaked into a sauce. I cried, I wept, I longed for mustard, but had to wait until celebrating my daughter's birth before I could down a dab of my beloved Dijon. Later, when my kids were toddlers, I regularly offered them good Dijon mustard (by now much more readily available) to improve the gastronomic quality of their favorites, mini-hotdogs or chicken nuggets. Though I tried not to take it personally, my darling son always preferred smothering Ranch dressing on every dish except breakfast and dessert. If I hadn't given birth to him personally I would wonder if he were really a child of mine.

Of course, I would NEVER favor one child over the other, but I do admit that my daughter probably gets many, many more presents than my son at Christmas because she exhibits extreme maternally-inherited moutarde-love. (Heh-heh, just kidding, Harry!)

As Grey Poupon gained popularity in the states, Moutarde de Maille also started making its way to the grocery store shelves. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, mustard in every form imaginable started sprouting up. Unrecognizable mustard. Honey mustard, horseradish mustard, grainy mustard, Jack Daniel's mustard, fruit-flavored mustards. Mustard, mustard everywhere. Ugh. Suddenly it seemed that yellow French's-style mustard was creeping back into popularity, only surreptitiously disguised. There was so much quasi-variety that it was hard to find the genuine, unadulterated article.

Fast forward to now. Me. In Paris. Moutarde heaven. Every cafe, every bistro, has a basic condiment set that they place on your table: salt, pepper and Dijon mustard. No self-respecting steak-frites would feel properly dressed without it.

Oh, and that mustard boutique I dreamed of opening? Folly, indeed. Check out the thriving Maille boutique and mustard museum on the place de la Madeleine, one of the most expensive addresses in Paris. Not only do they have Dijon mustard in all of its best and most ancient recipes, in all sizes of beautiful ceramic crocks, but they also sell it fresh. On tap. Bring your own jar or buy one there and fill 'er up.

Now that's what I call a rush.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

French Men Talk about Lingerie

In anticipation of holiday gift-giving, this week's Madame Figaro is dedicated almost entirely to jewels: gems, gold, pearls, rings, necklaces, watches, you name it. Then, in the middle of the issue there is a one-page editorial break from the stream of bauble promotion. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the bra, the Madame Figaro staff polled six of France's most famed séducteurs -- ladies' men -- to scout out their preferences in lingerie on the bodies of the women they adore. Clearly when it comes to lingerie, one size doesn't fit all French male libidos.

As Madame Figaro advises, "Ladies, take notes!" (Men, too, I might add.) PG-13.

1. Pascal Elbé, Actor
"Even though I'm among men who love lingerie, I am more of a fan of Calvin Klein bikini bottoms than the lace-and-French-cancan mode. On the other hand, however, I do have one unforgettable memory of a science professor I once had who wore a garter belt; I can tell you that I switched my class seat immediately from the balcony to the front row. Unfortunately, I didn't make strides in the subject matter. But I had a perfect attendance record in class all year."

2. Samuel Etienne, Journalist
"At 15 years old, I liked lingerie that exposed as much as possible, since I was young and curious about the female body. At 20, I preferred lingerie that covered as much as possible, giving me the desire to remove it -- quick quick quick. At 25, lace scared me; it was too evocative of the mysteries of a woman. I preferred women in cotton, which was more reassuring. Since hitting my 30s, I don't have preferences anymore. I listen, to to hear what this or that lingerie is saying to me about the woman who is wearing it. But, well, sometimes my ears don't hear anything, so I let my eyes roam over the curves of her body. Promises of heaven in a world of hell."

3. Pascal Bruckner, Writer
"The only shops that make me stop in my tracks are the lingerie boutiques. Inside, everything is set up to put the female body to its best advantage. Sexuality is transformed into eroticism. I like La Perla, Sabbia Rosa, and even Princesse Tam-Tam. I often give lingerie as a gift -- of course, it is above all a present to oneself. I like the bordello antechamber style, old-fashioned prostitute: lots of lace, bustiers that lace up -- even if they're complicated to untie -- silk, satin... everything that gives to the act of lovemaking the refinement that it otherwise lacks. Lingerie defines and isolates certain parts of the body, just as desire does. For me, that immediately stirs up fantasy."

4. Pierre Arditi, Actor
"No lingerie means no eroticism -- or at least very little. A naked female body, as beautiful as it may be, is not very erotic. One must create the fantasy, inspire desire, and thus not show everything all at once. I remember as an adolescent the way my whole body heated up when my then-girlfriends let a bit of their garter be seen... Magnifique. For me, there's is nothing uglier than pantyhose. Same goes for thongs: I'm not swayed by them. I remain an ardent admirer of little underpants."

5. Frederic Taddei, Journalist and television commentator
"To me, lingerie is a piece of clothing like anything else. I have neither a taboo nor a fetish about it. When a woman wears fancy lingerie, that seems normal to me; when she doesn't, that doesn't seem like a big deal either. What excites me is the woman herself. The way she works with what she's got. I'm not turned off by any one thing. On the woman in my life, I like everything."

6. André, Artist, owner of the Hotel Amour and the Baron.
"Lingerie is like putting a matte around a painting: it frames the subject. I like garter belts, couture stockings, the nostalgic side of lingerie -- classic and timeless -- a bit like Betty Page. It has to stay light. In fact, I prefer when there isn't any underwear at all. It gives a feeling of freedom."

Okay, ladies, the Gods have spoken. Get out those Christmas wish lists. Are you sure you really want a diamond under the tree this year?

Madame Figaro article compiled by Peggy Frey, Morgane Miel, and Astrid Taupin.

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"?
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