Friday, August 31, 2007

A small request

Dear God,

I know that I make a lot of requests. I usually ask You for the big favors in private. But there are some elements in Your hierarchy of What is Right that I need your special help with today. I know that You care deeply about grammar and spelling in all the languages of Your world, and so I beg You to help me with mine, and to forgive my grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes when I make those terrible, awful, humiliating transgressions.

I know that You care about these matters, because someone must have told me so when I was little. Bad grammar = bad girl. Misspelling = deep personal flaw. I have secretly wondered what You thought of spell check and grammar check, but never mentioned it, because I knew You were watching me when I cheated and clicked on the abc icon on the toolbar of the computer screen.

And God only knows (oh, excuse me -- that's just an expression) that my French teachers instilled the same fear in me as well. Bad French grammar = F. Bad spelling = shame, shame, and more dictées, a form of purgatory in its own right. Good French grammar = A = Good Girl. Good French spelling = Très Bien = no more sleepless nights worrying about the next dictée, and the teacher smiled and told the other students to study hard, comme Polly. I was so embarrassed, God -- it was junior high -- but I gained the status of a Good Girl. And as You know, I didn't even attend a Catholic school.

But let's be fair, God. I was absent for a while when Madame Lambert was drilling the class on the mnemonic devices for remembering masculin and féminin of some basic words. You and I know which of these cruel French le/la vocab demons I have struggled with for the past 40 years: plage, garage, sable, age, crime, dictionnaire, and anniversaire, to name but a few. They are capricious little devils -- the harder I try to remember their gender, the more slippery they become, and I inevitably remember the wrong one. Is it le plage and la sable, or la plage and le sable? See what I mean, God?

And let's face it, God. The human brain can only retain so much. In my new life in Paris (I did remember to thank You for this, didn't I?) while I'm cleverly absorbing essential new French phrases -- such as péter les plombs and justificatif de domicile -- some of the other, older core knowledge from 8th grade just slips silently out the back of my rusting memory file-drawer.

Do You want me to be a Good Girl, God? I think You do. So, please could You just increase my personal memory capacity? Just a teensy bit? Oh, but maybe even You can't perform a miracle that miraculous at my advanced stage. So perhaps You might at least let me forget trivial stuff -- like that Rice Krispies jingle from the 60s or my first boyfriend's birthday -- so that there is more useful room in my brain for the proper use of French vocabulary that is so important in my current life.

Thank You. Merci.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bon Anniversaire

Well, it's a red-letter day. No, not because this blog has reached the 30,000-hits mark since I've been keeping stats in late April. That pales in comparison.

Today I am the proud mother of a 21-year old. Yikes!

Trying to celebrate a momentous birthday like this when you're on opposite sites of the pond is no easy feat.

So, in honor of Mademoiselle Bee, here is one of her masterpieces, artfully sketched 11 years ago when on a mother-daughter excursion to Paris.

Bon Anniversaire, ma cocotte!!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Linger in an online lingerie lounge

It's well known that lingerie sells in France. But how did you just mentally pronounce the word "lingerie"? lon-jer-ay? lan-jer-ee? ling-er-ee (horrors)? lahnzhjree? It's one of those pet peeves in my lexicon of unpronounceables, because one never knows if the French way is the same as the American way of pronouncing. Online dictionaries offer a little lesson.

Lingerie may be unpronounceable at times-- but, luckily, no longer "unmentionable." That's soo last century.

Oh, the lure, the lore of lingerie. Paris has no fewer than 246 lingerie boutiques -- specializing in "lingerie feminine, corseterie, et maillots de bain." Leafing through the Paris yellow pages (les pages jaunes) it's interesting to note the locations by arrondissement. The 1e, 16e and 17e arrondissements are tied for first place with a whopping 26 boutiques apiece. Next in line are the 8e (21), 6e (18), 15e (15), and 9e (14). Last place goes to the 3e arrondissement, which lists only one lonely, lovely lingerie boutique. Their wares range from luxury "sur mesure" silk lovelies to more lusty avant-garde fabrics and designs. Lots of lace, naturally.

The shops' names run the gamut as well. The famous haut-de-gamme boutiques such as Chantal Thomass and Cadolle certainly don't need my introduction. And there are well-known chains such as La Perla, Eres, Princesse Tam-Tam, Laurence Tavernier, and Etam.

Most of the small boutiques carry the name of a woman, presumably the owner/designer. Evocative, lilting, très feminin. Here are a few other enticing names which caught my eye on pages 1004-1005 of the pages jaunes. I am instantly smitten:

Amours Delices Orgues
Bas et Haut
Cent Dessous Dessous
Paris Montmartre Investissements
De Jour Comme de Nuit
Boobs Glamour
A Toutes les Filles
La Dame de Coeur
Les Nuits Bleues
Merry Dreams
New Girls
Oh et Bas
Up Style
Pour Nous les Femmes
Ultra Femme
Les Dessous d'Eve
Secret et Mystère de Femme
Soie Sauvage

Oh, you bet I'm pulling your leg about the Paris-Montmartre Investissements, right? Pas du tout! Just think about it.

(As I assemble this list I am reminded of my long-held love for quaint names of small-town hair salons in the US, such as Shear Heaven and The Last Tangle. Or my other favorite, spotted in London, called It Grows Back Anyway. But that's for another day.)

If all these ladies' seduction selections are overwhelming for you, there is another solution: Petite Coquette. Not to be confused with Petite Anglaise, La Coquette or Petite Brigitte, some of my favorite fellow Parisian bloggers, Petite Coquette is a French blogger, based in the UK, who writes about the luxe lingerie industry. If you lasses are still trying to learn the difference between a bustier, a guepière and a porte-jarretelles, log on to Petite Coquette. Not only is her website in both English and French, but she also tells news of the latest lingerie collections, sales, where to buy online or in boutiques in both in Europe and the US, with helpful sizing information, and lots more. Makes you want to slip into something slinky.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Tale of Two Pretties

La rentrée scolaire is upon us, and with this momentous annual event are the concomitant articles in the French press about the price tag of back-to-school shopping and the state of affairs of l'Education nationale. I've been here only a year and a half, so my knowledge of the politics and history of the French education system is tenuous at best, though gaining some ground. I know I have often privately lamented the apparent dumbing down of the American public, and have always -- from anecdotal evidence at least -- believed that French citizens on the whole emerge from their schooling far more knowledgeable, articulate, and intellectually curious than the majority of their American counterparts. And that includes me.

So, just for fun, I couldn't resist comparing two stories. (Sure, sure, all comparisons are odious, but I just blog what I observe: blogger's license?) Gives pause for thought.

1. This summer a fellow houseguest on Ile de Ré was a sweet and engaging 5 year-old petite parisienne. At a tender age where she still brandishes a doudou and draws stick figures with crayons, she is able to expound upon her tastes in classical music ("C'est complètement débile," she said of Wagner), and the names of the French presidential candidates, whose campaign posters she had seen outside her école maternelle last spring. So just to test, I asked her, "Peux-tu me dire -- qui est Nicolas Sarkozy?" She looked at me incredulously, and answered, "Mais, c'est le président de la République!" As if I were complètement débile for asking such an inane question.

2. Yesterday I received a link to this mind-boggling video clip at the Presurfer (thanks to Pam at FrogBlog). Even giving this American teen beauty queen the benefit of the doubt, it represents a marked contrast from my experience with French-educated adolescents. Perhaps this Goldilocks was nervous, perhaps the question was too hard? Perhaps it is just the nature of the pool of beauty pageant contestants?

Oy. Complètement débile!

Rugby Fever

Excitement is building as France gears up for the Rugby World Cup, which will start in Paris on September 7. This will be a thrilling few weeks, no doubt.

However, you could say that everything I know about the game of rugby could fit inside a Nespresso capsule. It used to be that my sum knowledge of the sport was from a bumper sticker I spotted occasionally in Massachusetts:

Ha-ha, very funny, but hardly a fair summary of the game. My prior rugby-viewing experience has consisted of a few sidelong glances at games on television, and I just couldn't make sense of what was going on. To the uninitiated like me, it all seemed like random fumbling around. Sooo, in order to be au courant, I decided to educate myself about the game, and les regles du jeu. I'll be studying hard, so when le Tout Paris is tossing about phrases such as une mêlée, un ruck, un maul or un hors-jeu, I'll sound vaguely knowledgeable. You can too, by checking out these sites, one in English, one in French.

The Mairie de Paris is encouraging the rugby buzz, promoting our fair city as Paris, La Reine du Rugby. In addition to the current exhibit on Rugby at the Hotel de Ville, the City of Paris will be offering viewing of the matches on giant screens in several location, including outside the Hotel de Ville, at Trocadero, and at Charlety in the 13e.

If you want to watch the matches in more intimate settings with some rugby aficionados, there are alternatives to the massive outdoor crowds. Of course Paris has no shortage of lively cafés and sports bars with TVs. Additionally, I have discovered a few that are authentic rugby hang-outs.

My favorite is Café Le Recrutement in the 7e arrondissement.

This is a rugby fan's café. Rugby memorabilia on walls and ceilings, ties, balls, and pinneys from winning teams, photos and more. Congenial atmosphere.

Le Recrutement Café
36 boulevard de la Tour Maubourg
75007 Paris
Metro: La Tour Maubourg or Invalides

Another spot is Café Le Rugby, 2 rue Roquépine in the 8e arrondissement. Metro: St. Augustin.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

From the "What Next" Department

Summer's not over yet, so there is still ample time for Wet-T-shirt Contests. And if you want a little boost au balcon, Wonderbra is introducing just the latest in its miracle-inducing push up shapers: Wonderbra Nipples. That's right. According to an article in Libération, Wonderbra has created a bra that will simulate the stimulated look.

Okay, well, whatever. I don't usually pay attention to all the fancy foam-rubber accessories of life. I hail from New England, remember?

No, what surprised me more than anything (I had presumed that such a product already existed in worldwide girlie markets) is that the North Carolina-based Wonderbra company is marketing this ooh-la-la item only in France.

The reason for that marketing strategy is not clear, but one can only imagine the board room decision-making discussion. In an effort to be responsible I searched the corporate website for Wonderbra and bust my buttons laughing. Wonderbra is owned by Sara Lee Corporation. Right. They sell cheesecake.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Yet Another... Eiffel Tower

Yesterday's edition of Le Figaro had an article on a new Eiffel Tower being constructed in China, yet another in a long list of replicas around the world.
So add another dot to the Eiffel Tower map.

I already knew about Las Vegas, pictured above. But Paris,Tennessee, was news to me.

The new Eiffel Tower in China, 108 meters tall, is being built in the middle of a re-created 7th arrondissement, complete with Parisian-style immeubles haussmaniens. Chinese real estate development firm Guangsha, which has created this new community in the outskirts of Hangzhou (about 200 kilometers from Shanghai), already has a Champs Elysées in place, too. Next addition: vineyards.

Fini, les vacances

There is a tingle of anticipation when you wheel your suitcase to the quai of the Gare Montparnasse to head off for vacation. I adore Paris in August, but who am I to resist enticing invitations to head south?

On the one hand I find it so hard to leave this city. There is a sense of connection, of feeling the pulse of what is happening -- even in August.

Especially in August, I should say. At the drop of a hat I wax poetic about the joys of Paris in August, when the streets are empty. Paris the beauty, the magnificent sculptured jewel of a city, which is so much easier to experience first-hand when the daily commotion subsides. Like rediscovering your beloved when the kids are all packed off to summer camp. Ah -- alone at last! You and me, Paris.

And yet. And yet. The rest of France beckons.

Departing from Paris 12 short days ago, on the TGV heading south, the fields whirring past as I watch from my backwards-facing seat, I find that the need to feel Paris in my veins -- the daily fix -- slowly disappears during the three-hour ride. Then motoring south from La Rochelle through the countryside of the Poitou-Charentes, purposely avoiding the grandes autoroutes and traveling the backroads -- the routes départementales -- which take you through one little village after another. It doubled the travel time but more than tripled the enjoyment. Soaking up la belle France. Why not?

All the towns seem to have names that end in -ac. Segonzac, Cognac, Blanzac, Biberac, Bergerac, Issigeac. I privately wonder if there are also a Maniac, Cardiac, Cadillac. I am correct on the latter guess. Summer is time for celebrating everywhere in la France profonde. Each village celebrates with fetes, foires, concerts. I want to linger, but push onward.

And then after traveling a the more flat expanse of the Périgord, crossing the river and quietly experiencing the undulating hills of the Dordogne. Breathtaking is too forceful a word -- it is instantly pacifying. The tranquility is palpable. I drink in the peacefulness like a plant in need of watering.

I realize that when at home in my apartment in Paris, visually I am surrounded by a still-life tableau of furniture, molded ceilings, paintings and tall, curtained windows; but there is an overlay of noise from beyond-- the cranking of neighbors' shutters, footsteps in the apartment upstairs, incessant cooing of lovelorn pigeons, the hum of machines, the swishing of water through plumbing, bottles being deposited in the bin in the courtyard.

In the Dordogne countryside, it is the exact opposite. Outdoors, there is endless activity, but so much seems to happen in utter silence. The small white butterflies dancing low among the dry blades of grass and the foundation of the house. The green lizards darting on the ancient stone wall. Tides of ants on the wrought iron table under the walnut tree. A chestnut brown horse herding the cows as they munch, nodding, in the nearby pasture. Their tails swish, their ears twitch, but I hear nothing. Up the hill, across the road, a farmer is walking along the serrated edge of his fields to the opening in his barn. A hawk is tracing huge arcs under the puffs of clouds. A dragonfly stops to inspect my knee. This cotton-like silence is punctuated occasionally by the chirp of a gold finch or the cry of a distant field hawk. An errant fly drones past in doppler-effect. Paris seems a distant memory.

Then, wham! A switch from the Dordogne to the "in" summer resort of Ile de Ré is otherwordly. Instant immersion in the froth of La France en vacances. Parisians in summer homes or Parisians who have finally caved in to its charms and moved to the island year-round. A different social humming, of laid-back dinners starting at 9 or 9:30 and pots d'amis, dining outdoors, the cognescenti old-timers sporting about in their Citroen Meharis. Picture Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket drenched in French and you have a vision of Ile de Ré. Busy, buzz, bustle, bisous!

Quaint narrow streets lined with faded white stuccoed houses, stone walls, roses tremières. Fabulous beaches, lots of history and culture for the rainy days. Charming packed harbors with boutiques and outdoor dining. Donkeys, salt marshes, oyster farms. Campers, boaters, summer residents and jet-set cohabiting on a small slip of land. This island, hip enough for Le People, has plenty of new construction with whitewashed walls and red tile roofs, yet there is a neighboring rooster who lets us know that local farming is still key. There is simply nothing not to love about l'Ile de Ré, except for the August traffic clogging the main road. It's no wonder that the easiest way to get around the island is by bicycle.

Oh, and did I mention le Boucquingamp? That's where I discovered that although I can muster the energy to have fun finale at a boite de nuit until 3 a.m., my weary bones then need to take a vacation to recover from vacation.

On the return trip to Paris, the TGV ride seems to evaporate. Suddenly the announcement, "Mesdames et messieurs, we are arriving at the Gare Paris Montparnasse." How did it all go so swiftly? Was I really away for 12 days?

The cab driver, looking mournfully at the ever-present rain as he lugs my suitcase, asks the question du jour in Paris.

"Alors, fini, les vacances?"

Friday, August 10, 2007

13 details

I picked up a free copy of Marie France magazine the other day at the coiffeur. In this month's issue is a three-page Cosmo-like guide listing the female attributes that drive French men wild. "Les 13 détails qui les affolent". Written by Danièle Laufer with expert input from French psychiatrist Marc Adrien, and Philippe Brenot, author of Sexe et l'Amour. You can read the details in the magazine.

So ladies, read up. Here's the list. You men can go polish your golf clubs for a moment.

1. Curves. Les Rondeurs.

Stop obsessing about the scale. Really? Even in Paris?

2. Bedhead. Les cheveux en bataille.

It seems that men love hair that looks as if you've just gotten out of bed. So why was I at the coiffeur? Damn.

3. Short hair. Les cheveux courts.

As in short hair that men can run their fingers through. I remember something in Hemingway about this, too. Is Marie France trying to put coiffeurs out of business, I wonder?

4. A round derrière. La chute de reins bien cambrée.

This got me to thinking about phrases, actually. I wonder briefly why I never hear anyone in France refer to their posterior as their derrière; ironically, that term is mostly used in English. Also, "chute de reins" threw me for a loop. I'm finally figuring out that "les reins," in addition to meaning kidneys, also means "lower back". As in the brilliant movie Le Diner de cons where Thierry Lhermitte, who has thrown his back out, says he has a "tour de reins".

5. Pouty lips. La bouche pulpeuse.

Don't worry, if you don't want to pay for pricey injections for the Angelina Jolie bee-stung-lips look, the shrinks claim that a bit of gloss and keeping your mouth slightly open will have the same effect.

6. Hairy underarms. Les aisselles non epilées.

Evidently it's an aphrodisiac/hormonal effect that drives men bonkers. So no need to go to the centre d'epilation and get your armpits waxed, which is usually so de rigueur these days. I'm still so American; I wince whenever I even think of that painful option.

7. A small, well proportioned chest. Une petite poitrine parfaitement assumée.


8. A copiously endowed chest. Une poitrine généreuse.

I think it's safe to assume that men like numbers 7 and 8, and let's hope that the mid-sized model is okay too. Marie France does say that leaving a bit of mystery is the key here. Just show a little decolletage, enough to get a man's mind wandering and wondering. A note to August vacationers: MF says men are more attracted to boobs covered in a bathing suit than to the naked knobs sunny side up on the beach.

9. A thong. Le string.

Now is the time to get this nomenclature all settled. In the US, pleeez, let's use only the word flip-flops for those sandals we wear. Thong is now the term to use for the undergarment that divides and conquers. In France, un string is the undergarment. Les tongs are this summer's uber-tendance foot wear. Hear those tongs as they flip-flop all over town and resorts.

10. Old fashioned cotton briefs. La culotte un peu grand.

Reverts to childhood fantasies, apparently. As long as it's Petit Bateau.

11. Great gams. Les jambes fuselées.

Makes the eye go up. And up.

12. Garter belts. Le porte-jarretelles.

Need we say more?

13. Spike heels. Les talons aiguilles.

Not sure I buy the idea that it makes women as tall as their men for subliminally easier approach. What if you're already tall? But I agree it does give an appealing curve to the calf. And keeps the podiatrists happy and well-paid.

Well, I'm exhausted from the possibilities. Time to head south on the TGV for some R&R.
Bonnes vacances!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

On the way to Le Bon Marché

Realizing that I had excluded my favorite exterior signage in my post on Le Bon Marché, I ambled down the block to snap this shot.

Out of nowhere, a dainty blonde on a Vélib came whooshing down the sidewalk. I was tempted to harrumph at her about reckless riding and the rules of the road for bicycles. She pedaled furiously in her leggings and ballerina flats, her pale ponytail fluttering. Encountering a knot of pedestrians, she skittered to a hasty stop, hopped off her bicycle, and still grasping the handlebars, dashed ahead on foot. "Oh, les jeunes," I grumbled inwardly, shaking my head.

Ten meters farther, she veered to the right, threw down her bike, and flung herself into the arms of a tall young guy waiting for her. Tears streaming down their cheeks, they began kissing frantically.

"Oh, les jeunes," I murmured, a lump rising in my throat.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Les bittes de trottoir

Those odd waist-high posts along the sidewalk. They seem to proliferate like bamboo in on every Paris curb. For over a year now, I've been wondering what they were called. Thanks to dipping into the first few pages of David Downie's book, Paris, Paris, I just discovered the answer: les bittes de trottoir. Mind you, the word bitte has two meanings: docking post (as on a wharf) or slang for penis. Reflecting on the chicken-or-egg etymology, I'm not sure which term is the original. Certainly the resemblance is not serendipitous.

As a pedestrian, I have a love/hate relationship with these bittes. On the one had, they do keep cars from parking on the sidewalk: hooray, more room for the rest of us. I had imagined that they might keep moving cars from navigating up and over the sidewalk, and therefore keep my life insurance policy renewable. Alas, two months ago I witnessed an accident on rue de Babylone where a wayward Twingo simply flattened a bitte in five seconds. The car was in rough shape, to be sure, but had there been a pieton on the sidewalk at that moment, she would've been flatter than a crepe. So much for a false sense of security.

The posts do provide a minor deterrent for all those impatient motorcyclists who don't want to wait in a bouchon (traffic jam) on a narrow street. Or a slalom challenge, depending on who's driving.

And, in their defense, the bittes do have a humanitarian function. I have observed them being used quite practically by tiny elderly ladies on their way to Sunday mass at St. Francois Xavier. Waiting at the cross walk, these powder-thin grandmères cling to the bittes with both hands lest they get swept in a powerful updraft when the winter wind whips down the boulevard.

But they can be annoying. When encountering another person on a narrow sidewalk, you have to step into the street to avoid the bitte, especially if you are carrying plastic sacks of groceries. Don't bash your precious bottles against those metal posts! They're not tall enough to be a useful hitching post to lock your bike on. But they're tall enough to really, really hurt when they impale you. Engrossed in conversation while strolling down a broad sidewalk, with a moment's lapse of forward-gazing attention you can suddenly find one of these charmers poking into your belly. Ouch.

Visually they are jarring. They do mar the streetscape, but not enough that their presence really drives me to distraction. I can live with it. Not so one exasperated Parisian, who is up in arms and for the past year has spearheaded an anti-bittes crusade. Benlem2's blog, takes photos (as the one above) of offensive clusters of the sidewalk posts and photoshop-erases them for "before" pictures.

As Marianne magazine cautioned, take a look at Benlem2's website; but know that you'll never view the sidewalks of Paris in the same way again.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Le Bon Marché

The department store Le Bon Marché is a Left-Bank landmark and a point de repere when giving directions. It has a fascinating history. In some ways, you can see the story of its growth and change in the typeface used on its signage. Not in chronological order, but here's a little walking tour of the different lettering found on the exterior of the building.

This marquee-like sign atop the building shows the name in lights at night.

Some signage is more in the Art Deco style.

Many people refer to the store as Au Bon Marché, but it is my understanding that the correct store name is Le Bon Marché.

Hence the appellation "the stores of Le Bon Marché" becomes les Magasins du Bon Marché. End of grammar lesson for today.

Of course I heard one American wag brag, "Yeah, I hang out at The Bon a lot, " pronouncing it like bonne. Never heard that one before (or since).

In its heyday, the store branched out to a building across the street, which is now inhabited by Conran's.

And of course, today it has a chic, sleek look.

I'm just glad that they haven't eradicated the older signage. It's so evocative. This doorway mosaic says Toile (cloth) and Rideaux (curtains), with the date 1876 at the bottom.

There are laws that protect building signage in Paris. I wish someone would protect the mosaics on this gorgeous sign. Many have been picked off or fallen.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

It's Not Easy Being Green

Two nights ago, while I was in the midst of writing -- I'm sure it was a terribly witty and engaging piece -- an alien space ship hovered over my apartment and zapped my brain, simple as that.

In a flash I could feel all thought draining from my head, all energy sapped from my body. I crawled across the floor and slithered onto my bed.

Delirious Drama Queen lay on top of the covers, limply moaning for hours, realizing that it's August in Paris. Not only are my neighbors and the gardienne gone, but also any good Samaritan pals who could normally help revive me were, in fact, sunning on some distant shore. Anyway, I couldn't have reached the phone if I tried.

And by the time the cleaning guy would arrive next week, he would stumble upon my unrecognizable, dessicated corpse and sweep it into la poubelle.

Shivering, feverish, I spent the night planning my wretched funeral. Should the notices be posted on the blog? Who would inform my kids? Pine or fancy box?

Miraculously, I awoke in the morning. Several times. I was going to survive. But the aliens did run over me with a steam roller while I slept, just for good measure. My toes don't ache, though.

So maybe it wasn't aliens, but that other sinister invader, the summer stomach bug. Or "something I ate." Both Americanisms that aren't bandied about much in France when discussing digestion ailments.

On a need-to-know basis, not much you need to know. Suffice it to say that my grocery bill has plummeted, and my friends who have just paid to trot off for a week at a fancy "fasting spa" should have just stopped by chez moi and let me breathe on them instead. Not highly recommended, but a cheaper way to lose a dress size.

I'm delaying the decision to hobble over to the pharmacie at the corner, where I know they'll try to convince me oh-so-kindly that it's a crise de foie. But I know of other people who have this thing, and last I heard, a crise de foie wasn't contagious, nor does it last for three days.

Besides, I'm not venturing too far from home. I'm just glad I wasn't supposed to be flying to some glamorous vacation spot. Like Wolfeboro.

Friday, August 03, 2007

From the department of insignificant details

One of life's trivial details that I hadn't noticed until finally getting my tottering stacks of books organized this afternoon.

Titles on the spines of American books are printed from top to bottom.

For the most part, French books are the opposite, with titles reading from bottom to top.

So this means that in a French book store, you get neck-crick on your left side from examining the selection of titles on the shelves. In an English-language bookstore, stiff neck will be on the right. Mixing them up on the bookshelf at home is a sure-fire way to get dizzy.

The Language of Dying

A thought-provoking post by une nouvelle vie de boheme yesterday about the perils of translation in Camus brought back memories. Aching personal memories of describing death in two languages.

My oldest brother, J, was my idol. I hero-worshiped him. Tall, angularly handsome, he was brilliant, artistic, and funny -- full of mischief -- well, everything you could want in an older brother. He took me for rides in his red Triumph Spitfire when I was a pre-teen. He surprised me one Christmas when he said he couldn't come home for the holidays, then he sprang through the front door on Christmas Eve singing "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!" That kind of a big brother.

When J was in his thirties he developed a serious medical condition that put him through a torturous hospital time, keeping him alive on machines until there weren't enough machines to function for his body. When I visited him in the ICU with all the charts and beeps and wires and tubes, he couldn't speak. But he repeatedly traced the letters D-I-E in the palm of my hand. He wanted to go, to exit the nightmare. "No, no, you'll get better," I reassured him. But I wasn't reassured myself.

Weeks later, one evening I was at home having dinner with friends. The phone rang. It was my sister. "J died," she told me, along with the details which I didn't really hear as my thoughts blurred. I let out a soft sigh of relief -- he was out of his terrible misery. "Died," a verb, to me indicating that he moved on, as he had wanted. He was freed from the mechanical torture of articificial life. I was numbed, but I didn't even cry. Instead, I felt an unusual serenity knowing that all those tubes, that terrified look on his face, would no longer be there.

The next morning I got up and, trance-like, went to work, at a French organization in Boston. I had to inform my boss that my brother died and I'd be leaving town to go to the funeral. "Mon frère est mort," I announced, using the passé composé of mourir.

Suddenly grief exploded from me like a bomb. I had just said, for the first time, the permanent words "My brother is dead."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

La Marche Funèbre d'une Marionette

Rain is splattering on the windowsills. I sit in the twilight grey of late evening in my apartment, trying in vain to write. Radio Classique is my companion tonight.

New strains of music begin, a strangely familiar melody. Instantly it summons the image of that dark silhouette, the unmistakable profile and paunch sliding into place. I am transported to childhood. I am 9 or 10 years old; the TV room is dark and my older siblings are trying to spook me. I expect the frisson and to hear his ghostly British voice, "Goood Eeeevning."

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Source of endless can't-miss creepy moments and fretful bedtimes. Brilliant series; but I knew only the introductory music to the popular show. Tonight Radio Classique plays the entire piece.

Apparently in France this tune -- immediately recognizable to a generation of Americans as the famous Hitchcock theme song -- is merely known here as "La Marche funèbre d'une marionette" by Charles Gounod. No references made or connotations alluded to popular culture. Just a famous 19th century French composer.

The Men of August

August is officially here, and already Paris has a different look. Not just fewer cars. It looks like there are about 50% fewer women. Men seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Traditionally and anecdotally, a majority of the wives disappear to the provinces with the kids, and the husbands stay behind, working and ... apparently roaming the streets in their spare time.

Is it my imagination, or do men in Paris change their demeanor in August? They seem more open, more friendly, more je ne sais quoi. Available? Depends on how you define the word. Yours truly had a few dinners with "separated" rascals last August. I soon learned to ask "separated for how long?"

I mention this singular observation to my friend Isabelle who lives in Brittany. "Oh, oui, it's a known phenomenon," she fills in immediately. "We locals call the summer train that arrives on Friday night from Paris le train des cocus (the train of the cuckolds). The women are here with the kids, their husbands have to stay in Paris for work. According to legend, spouses on both ends of the TGV are going about their merry way in private."

The train des cocus terminus isn't limited to Brittany. Apparently it journeys to just about any summer resort that separates husband and wife during vacation periods. Not restricted to married couples, either.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ratatouille est ici!

Rémy has finally arrived home.

Ratatouille opened today in cinemas in Paris -- what a classic. I tried to be as critical as possible but couldn't do anything but love that film. I gasped when I saw that an animation version of Maison Aurouze was actually in the film. I had no idea!

I can't wait to go see it again. So many double entendres, such great views of Paris. So much to simply adore about this movie. What a feast!

You have to pick a pocket or two

Yesterday's post about pickpocketing has generated a flurry of reactions. So I thought I might add a few thoughts and my one-sided ounce-of-prevention ideas for possibly reducing chances of getting your wallet pinched in this fair city.

1. I never take the RER in from Charles de Gaulle. Never. I don't allow anyone I like to take the RER in from Charles de Gaulle. That RER is where the rookie pocket-pickers attend on-the-job training. Such easy prey: sleep-deprived, luggage-toting newcomers fresh from the airport ATM.

My answer is spelled R-O-I-S-S-Y-B-U-S.

2. The metro. I am fortunate enough that I don't have to ride the metro during rush hour. If you don't have to commute, I recommend not doing it either. One summer when I was 19 I wedged into a packed metro car at 18h00, and nothing got taken, but thanks to a frotteur ... oh never mind. Never again. I just don't do crowded metro cars unless under duress and I'm wearing plated armor. Or I'll wait until the next car comes along, usually emptier. This is Paris; it's okay to be a bit late.

I avoid the Chatelet metro station at all costs. Even if it's raining rats and frogs outside, I prefer to walk from the next stop (whichever line) than to troll my sorry behind through Chatelet. It gives me the creeps.

My answer: learn the bus routes.

3. I try to dress the part. These are the streets, after all. I try not to have my outfit scream "American!" But not like I emerged from a relooking shopping spree on avenue Montaigne, either. If you're going someplace that requires you to wear expensive designer clothes and carry a Gucci bag, best to take a taxi. If you're going to these places it means you can afford to take a taxi, right?

4. This is the toughest part to admit. In Paris I have learned to walk outdoors stone-faced, purposeful, and unhelpful, especially when in heavily-traveled tourist areas. I'm still having tons o' fun as I breeze through the streets -- I just don't show it. Why? The pickpockets are clever, cheeky tricksters who can read a softy at 100 meters. That's why usually I don't dawdle anywhere with a camera or map in hand, either. I am hopelessly lost anywhere, be it village or city, until I know a place by heart, so here I stash a small Plan de Paris book. When possible, I usually back up to a friendly-looking store doorway or window to consult it, along with a trusty midget compass I keep on hand. (Like I said, I am really, really directionally challenged). Unwitting visitors who block the middle of the sidewalk as they plaster thin air with a huge unfolded map are easy targets. They may as well be posting a "help wanted: pickpocketers" notice. Especially when conferring with each other at decibels above the rest of the crowd.

Of course adopting a cool and unapproachable demeanor can catch up with you. One day I was doing my Easter-Island-face don't-mess-with-me routine as I paced down rue St. Antoine; then a guy from my singing group crossed my path with chirpy "bonjour!" Not recognizing him out of context, I ignored him until he jumped up and down, insisting, "It's me! Victor! I'm a tenor!"

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