Friday, February 29, 2008

American (Airlines) in Paris

For anyone who hasn't seen enough reasons to come to Paris, here's one more: American Airlines' "Milestones" online guide to Paris for frequent fliers. Complete with requisite tourist accordion music, it is homespun-funny, and has some good pointers for getting along as an "American in Paris."

Among my favorite lines in the video:

"Noter Dame? Football team. Notre Dame? Our Lady of Paris."


"The Louvre. Home to the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, and those dogs playing poker..."

There are opportunities for photo sharing and on-line questions. They've done an engaging job of making Paris real and human, deftly balancing cliché with practical tips.
Maybe I'll send them one or two of my gazillion photos.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tingle to the Touch

"Tingle to the touch... of Jean Naté," the ads used to say. In the 1970s, Jean Naté Friction Pour le Bain was In. If you, too, were In, you splashed it on after a shower, you knew how to pronounce every syllable in French, you privately snickered at the girls who pronounced it Jeen Nate. For an adolescent female it was the ultimate in cheap glamour. It made me feel so French! So worldly! Slap on a navy blue beret and a little Jean Naté, and I was raring to go.

Of course, no one really paid attention to the fact that the company that produced Jean Naté was 100% American: Revlon. Sounded a bit French. Who cared?

Eventually most femme fatale-wannabes matured and moved on from the citrus-y, zingy carefree scent of Jean Naté, to find our own more sophisticated grown-up fragrance. I was peeved to discover recently that Revlon had changed the descriptor for Jean Naté. It is now "After-Bath Body Splash." B-O-R-I-N-G! What happened to the French? Friction sounds so ...suggestive, so je ne sais quoi.

At least the original friction pour le corps that Jean Naté was probably modeled on is still available in France. Le Friction de Foucaud. It's touted as an energizing tonic for men and women, with a new marketing strategy for active, sporty types. Still produced in Paris, for over 60 years, in the 14e arrondissement. I have a bottle that I bought at the pharmacie. And I certainly splash some on after every daily 3-hour cardio-abdo-pilates-yoga-powerplate work out. Every single time. I tingle to the touch.

But the search for a personal "signature" fragrance beyond Jean Naté has been a winding path. In my twenties and thirties, in my endless quest to be more French and thus more alluring, I spent years wearing Chanel No. 5. I continued for a long time, even after Candice Bergen's wildly popular Saturday Night Live parody of the classic Catherine Deneuve Chanel commercial.

Eventually I moved beyond the cliché that Chanel No. 5 had become, though I still revere its iconic place in French lore. About a decade ago, on advice from a French friend in the states, I spent a year trying a new eau de toilette each day or whatever fragrance du jour the department store cosmetics ladies were spritzing on unsuspecting passersby. I had to find the subtle one that suited me just so.

I'm no fragrance expert -- offhand, I still couldn't tell you the difference between eau de toilette and eau de cologne, for example. But I know that you have to wear what suits your body chemistry. First off, any perfume that precedes you when you enter a room: big no-no. Or one that makes you smell like your grandmother's hope chest. You have to see how it lingers on you, and never buy it at first scratch-n-sniff. Go for the alchemy, the magic, the mystery. Not the marketing. Finally, after revisiting my top five favorite eau de whatever, I settled happily on 24 Faubourg by Hermès, named for the address of the flagship store in Paris.

My little shopping secret: one of the side benefits to wearing 24 Faubourg is that it's about the least expensive item in the Hermès shop. I get treated just as royally as the next customer, even though I'm not waiting in line for a Birkin or a Kelly bag, or even a silk scarf. I exit the boutique toting my own little orange Hermès shopping bag.

The brief annual shopping-bag moment alone is worth it. Makes me feel tingly, that feminine frankly-I'm-worth-it feeling. A definite improvement over the old days, swinging a plastic CVS bag containing pseudo-French after-bath body splash.

Sometimes it's nice to be a grown-up, isn't it?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bouquinistes, quai de la Tournelle

© Polly-Vous Francais

The bouquinistes on the quai de la Tournelle are the subject of many photographs and paintings There is the quintessentially picturesque Paris view of the book stalls themselves, plus Notre Dame looming in the background.

I bought this painting (for chump change!) at a brocante in Boulogne about a year ago. For some reason I was instantly drawn to its dream-like quality. Oil paint on wood, unsigned, about 18" X 24", somewhat unfinished. It's a little dirty and getting dried out. But it intrigues me daily.

The more I look at it the more I see. The tall somnolent men gazing placidly at the books. The silvery blue shadows shining on the low wall. The lush, verdant trees. The a languid, serene atmosphere. Judging from the fashions, I think it is from the 1940s or 50s.

Les trottinettes

When I had been in Paris for about a month, I was having dinner with my Parisian friend Ariane. "Tell me, how is Paris different from home, so far? What big differences have you noticed here?" she asked in true journalistic fashion.

Of course there were myriad cultural differences, but the first thing I blurted out was, "Everyone rides scooters!"

"Oh, you mean les trottinettes? Well, yeah, I guess," was more or less her reply, though I'm sure she was infinitely more articulate than that.

But it's true. In my first weeks here, I was flabbergasted to see Parisians of all ages paddling down the sidewalks on their trottinettes. Now I'm accustomed to seeing them everywhere, part of the fabric of everyday life.

In Paris, they are ridden not so much to gain lightning speed, but just as another means of urban transport. Some tiny tots learn to maneuver a trottinette almost as soon as they can walk, so that they can keep up with maman and papa on family walks in the neighborhood. They squiggle along the sidewalk in a special trottinette rhythm, scooping occasionally at the pavement with one hovering foot, able to stop on a centime (usually!) when they reach a corner or encounter a tottering vieille dame.

Plenty of adults use trottinettes, too. Not to the same extent that kids do, but I certainly don't blink an eye when I see a businessman in a suit or an elegantly dressed Parisienne gliding along on a shiny scooter. It's just a matter of practicality.

Walking past a lycée the other day, I saw dozens of trottinettes chained to the deux roues hitching posts just as bikes would be.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oui, c'est ca, Paris

Some days are just like this. Dim. Gray. Gray. Gray. Damp. Ugly. Everyone is tired. Listless. No one seems grumpy, just blah. The city looks like a moldy black-and-white postcard. There's dirty water in street gutters. To avoid the blowing rain at the bus stop I decide to take the nearest métro instead. I duck into the smelly, grimy Chatelet station, which on a good day would depress Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Gray. Blah. Fatigue. Spleen de Paris.

February, quoi.

So I indulged in a little afternoon cinematherapy at La Pagode and went to see Paris for the second time this week. I'll certainly go a third time. A fourth. Not that it's an uplifting movie, and there is no award-winning plot. But for me, a movie to watch again and again: it captures the heart and soul of Paris. In some ways in the spirit of Balzac's La Comédie humaine, it's a kaleidoscope of images and lives, both hopeful and wistful, criss-crossing in Paris. At the end of the film, as the Satie theme music plays, Romain Duris gazes longingly out the window of the taxi as it winds through the city. "Oui, c'est ça, Paris," he says. "No one is ever happy. Everyone complains. They don't know how lucky they are, to walk, to eat, to be, to be alive -- just like that. In Paris."

Monday, February 25, 2008

My Night at the Oscars

For reasons that I won't go into, I found myself awake at 4 am today. I figured as long as I was up and semi-alert, I'd check to see what was happening at the Academy Awards. Even in the States, I don't watch the Oscars every year, but this year I was rooting for Marion Cotillard, who will now be the French Ambassadress to Hollywood with her Best Actress win.

I couldn't watch the ceremony on French TV (Canal+ is available for free only at certain hours) and had to glean the news of winners drip by drip from the Oscars web site. Torture! So forgive me if I'm being picky, but I had too much time on my hands in between announcements. I was going nuts staring at the same typo over and over on the screen.

What with the writer's strike just ending, there must have been a shortage of proofreaders to double-check the information on the site. 5:01 a.m. "Best Foriegn Language film was The Counterfeiters." Wait, wait -- or should that be The Counterfieters?

Madame Polly-Vous Fussbudget sent them a quick email from Paris saying "It's 'Foreign', not 'Foriegn.'"

Lo and behold, they fixed it within an hour.

A few thoughts.

1) It's highly possible that other viewers informed them of the misspelled word; but most other people were busy watching the show, right?

2) I know that I make typos all the time. But I don't have a Hollywood budget. Just a Pollywood budget.

Mustaches are Back!

The men's five-day beard-stubble look is getting so passé, so ubiquitous, n'est-ce pas? Sure it looks rugged and macho, but any male can stop shaving and take on a variation (tailored or grubby) to the stubby Look.

Finally a new men's style tendance is happening in facial hair. I've been noticing around Paris more men with smoothly-shaved chins and in-cred-ible mustaches, the kind not seen since Edwardian days.

On the métro Friday afternoon, two très handsome, très hip Frenchmen, one with a burly, well-waxed handlebar, one with a distinctive, well-clipped walrus/chevron style like French Soccer League president Frédéric Thiriez. Maybe it was Thiriez. His famous mustache has been called "pure Offenbach." Love it!

It turns out there is an on-line club for current/future mustachioed Parisians. My vote: let's go for the new moustaches look, messieurs. So dashing! So bold! So debonair!

One small request: please, no Fu Manchus.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Marion Cotillard Wins Oscar

Marion Cotillard has just won the Academy Award for Best Actress in La Môme/LaVie en Rose.


Paris Sunday

Sunday. High Noon at the Jardin des Plantes. Lots families on peaceful Sunday strolls, a scattering of spandex-clad runners. Everyone soaking up the sun. Couples reclining on south-facing benches.

But this allée was quiet.

Bright lacy shadows.

I can't decide which I'm more enamored of -- the yellow folly or the almost-blooming buds.

Heading home on the boulevard St. Germain, I spy another harbinger of spring outside Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet.

Vive le dimanche!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

La Vie en Rose

No one was surprised -- and everyone was thrilled -- for la belle Marion Cotillard's Best Actress award at last night's Césars. Is there any award she hasn't won for this role?

Fans of La Môme/La Vie en Rose around the planet have their fingers crossed for another win for Cotillard at tomorrow night's Academy Awards. The Oscars will be on when I'm in dreamland, Paris time, so I'll have to check Google News bright and early Monday morning to see the results.

But here's what I found interesting. I just watched a report on "50minutes inside" on TF1 about the creation of La Môme. Behind-the-scenes stories are endlessly fascinating. The report showed Marion getting her eyebrows and forehead shaved, and the four-hour make-up sessions (during which she sometimes slept, falling asleep as Marion Cotillard, waking up both physically and spiritually Edith Piaf).

Then came the technical and financial story of the making of La Môme. Apparently in the early stages of the film, Walt Disney Studios had agreed to finance the production. But they insisted on either an American actress or, at least, a French actress with international fame such as Vanessa Paradis, for maximum box-office draw. Director Olivier Dahan refused to compromise, saying he had known before starting the film that Marion Cotillard was THE actress for the role. So Disney withdrew their offer to invest. Next TF1 stepped in with €20M backing. Kudos to Dahan for artistic integrity.

Wow. Disney execs must be kicking themselves in the derrière on that decision.

I doubt anyone at Disney is singing "Je ne regrette rien" these days.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I Was a Teen-Age French Major

It was my Senior year in college. I was to graduate in June, with a handy B.A. in French Literature. The college, well-intentioned, sent me off to the Career-Counseling office for the requisite pep-talk about making gainful employment once I moved beyond the ivied walls of my alma mater. Only small ivy, not Big Ivy.

I waited nervously outside the cluttered office of Mr. Your Future Life, wondering what reprimands and ominous tales of doom he would have for me as he perused my pitiful résumé. "Ardent perma-francophile" was all it read: French major, French table, French dorm, French teaching assistant, French runner-up prize. A stint as a newscaster at the college radio station and waitressing in the faculty dining hall were my only transferable skills.

Finally he escorted me into his inner sanctum and patronizingly had me sit in a low-slung chair. Tossing my folder aside, he returned to the barkalounger behind his desk. He leaned waaay back, propped his feet up high, hands clasped behind his head of thinning gray hair, and asked, "Guess what my major was in college?"

OK, well, I was a little stumped at this point because I thought he was supposed to be telling me how to earn rent money a few months hence.

"Umm, I don't know," I ventured.

"I was -- a Frrench major!" he announced, with a smirk and a wink.

I have never in my life had concomitant urges of vomiting and manslaughter. What the HELL was that supposed to mean? That I should become a guidance counselor? Why should I be reading a thousand pages of French fiction per week, writing a thesis and cramming for oral comprehensive exams four months in advance if my future was as a paper-slave in human resources?

Granted, I had macheted my own fate earlier that year when I applied for a Fulbright and made it to the finals. The results were looking promising until I adamantly informed the interviewers -- professors all -- that language instructors should teach only in their native tongue. Funny, I never heard from them again.

The rest of the chat with Mr. Future was a blur, basically him telling me that unless I wanted to go to translation school, I should try to land "any job" that might have an international department and wing it from there.

Perhaps I was so traumatized by the encounter that I've been spending the rest of my life trying to prove him wrong. Perhaps he was handing me a dish of his own sour grapes. I knew intuitively that there were many paths to take with a freshly-minted degree in French literature. I just wanted help from someone who had forged the way.

Ugh. Spring semester of Senior Year. All my parents' friends and my friends' parents asked, "So, what are you going to do with a degree in French Lit? Teach French?"

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved and admired all of my French teachers from seventh grade on -- blessed, brilliant saints, every one -- but I simply didn't want to become one. It was a quirky personal issue: to me there was something surreal about the concept. Studying French to become a teacher to to teach students to study French so they could become teachers to to teach students to study French... well you get my drift. I knew that French was relevant! I knew French was useful! I just didn't know where to start, and Mr. Sour Grapes really skimped on the practical advice.

Alas, at the time, there was no internet, thus no fabulous website to turn to, as there is now, called "Why Study French?" with excellent resources and reasons for studying French and using it in the Real World.

Now a few decades beyond college, my French-major pals have taken various career paths: publishing, wine industry, photography, teaching, non-profit administration, international real estate, parenting, banking, marketing, interior design.

And ...blogging in Paris.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cough, cough

On a chilly, clear afternoon this week, I strolled along the cours Albert 1er, then crossed over toward the Seine. Rising up from under the pont de l'Alma was a billowing cloud of blue smoke. I wasn't the only pedestrian who was alarmed and scurried over to the edge of the bridge to see what was on fire.

No fire. Just the Bateaux-Mouches idling, then revving their engines before chugging upstream.
Time for a tune-up and an emissions-control check, captain?

Metrostop Paris

"An Englishman, travelling around Paris on the metro, stumbles on the most extraordinary stories, all true but most of them unknown to the public."

-- jacket blurb for Metrostop Paris

A talk by author Gregor Dallas Tuesday has me itching to head to the bookstore today, the official release date for Metrostop Paris. Not having read the book yet, of course I can't review it. But I can tell you about his talk.

When I headed to the luncheon where he spoke, I was assuming I'd hear an author talk about a the history of the Paris metro system.

Nothing could be further from the truth; it's Paris seen as you emerge from the metro, with rich layers of history normally unseen by the casual traveller. Mr. Dallas was witty, his talk was brillliant, and the book promises to be highly readable, informative, and entertaining. Fascinated as he is with local history, he has gathered stories from 2000 years of Paris history. Using the theme of "birth and rebirth that runs through all of Paris art," he uses the imagery of emerging from the metro stop as a starting point for his tales.

Certainly it will be a must-read for any literate folk contemplating a trip to Paris, who strive to look beyond the cliché version of tourist Paris. And a rich source for Paris dwellers to re-experience their city with new eyes. I daresay you will never exit the metro at Denfert Rochereau without thinking of Mr. Dallas' explanation of the source of the place name -- the "Barrière d'enfer" -- Hell's Gate -- and the anecdote about the origin of the danse macabre.

Or the Porte de la Villette, "...the site of the city's abattoirs in the nineteenth century -- from which is born the story of a true Parisian cowboy, the Marquis de Mores, who built a wooden chateau in the Badlands of Dakota and died in a gun battle in the Tuareg, of southern Algeria, in 1898."

The official launch will be Thursday March 13 at 7:30 pm at W. H. Smith, for a book reading and signing for the UK edition of Metrostop Paris. The US edition, which Mr. Dallas says is "quite different" from the UK edition, will be available through Walker & Company May 13.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bloggers Unite

A jovial tribe from the Paris blogger world gathered for a formal blogger's tea party in the Marais last Saturday night, hosted by Richard of Eye Prefer Paris.

Well, okay. There wasn't actually any Earl Grey tea. Nor was it formal. Just heaps of jolly fun and a good way to connect and re-connect with kindred blogging spirits.

I honestly don't think that in real life I look so matinale as I appear in Richard's blog post about the festive soirée. But after all, who could hope to look halfway decent when standing next to the sublime Amy, the Advice Goddess?

I was happy to see Pascal of Paris-Marais again. My first thought was, "Whoa, THERE'S a tattoo for ya."

Then, just before Pascal skipped off to another event, he confessed, "I bought the tattoo at a boutique in Paris -- it's removable."

And then he demonstrated exactly how removable it is. It slips on your forearm like a nylon stocking.

I was so awed by the faux-tattoo moment that I have forgotten whose silver sneakers those were. But I loved them, too. Like Dorothy's Ruby Slippers.

Americans Say the Darndest Things

All I can say is it's a damned good thing that I have a sense of humor.

Here are some of the French language bloopers I've made, loud and proud, as I boldly go where I've never gone before en français.

"She's forty years old and dust."

"I'd love to see the performance of the Nutbreaker at the Opera Garnier this Christmas."

"It's an apartment with beautiful old exposed whores."

"He was so mad, he farted the maps."

"She was a lesbian for the government during the war."

"Sarkozy is one of the only French politicians who isn't a hoax, right?"

"In order to get a job, you have to have a race track, I think, especially for Americans."

And these are just the ones I'm admitting to.

April in Paris

It may not be April in Paris yet, but we do have Doris Day, Every Day, on French television.

A clip of her singing "Let's Keep Smilin'" is the oft-repeated theme song for Orange Livebox commercials, and has millions of viewers snapping and singing along with "ho, ho, ho, ho -- HA!" Whether they want to or not.

Doris Day immortalized Paris of course, not only in the film and song versions of April in Paris, but also "I Love Paris."

Curiously, April in Paris was filmed entirely on the Warner Brother's set in beautiful downtown Burbank. And since Doris Day admits that she is afraid of flying, I wonder if she's ever been here in person at all. Oh well. We still love Paris, too. Even in February.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


It happened again. This afternoon. In a café on avenue Bosquet, when paying the waiter for my coffee.

In this case, there was a funny misunderstanding about the change he was giving me, and I was trying to explain my confusion about it, in a jovial but somewhat flustered French. The waiter realized that I was not French, although I was speaking to him fluently en français. He then counted out my change and said, "Muchas gracias....Sankyoovarymoch, ahve eh nice deh," and plunked the remaining euros on the table.


The last time this happened, it made my blood boil. I was waiting for a friend in a café on the place de la Madeleine. I ordered, "un Coca Light, s'il vous plaît." That's all I said. When I asked for "l'addition, s'il vous plaît" about 20 minutes later, the waiter said in in fifth-grade English, "Fi-eeve euhros, pleess," with a smug grin and all five fingers up, just in case I didn't understand. I was infuriated. I was fuming. I had spoken to him in very intelligible French. Who cares if he could tell from looking at me (in my French apparel, no less) that I wasn't a native? I had sat there, reading a French book, not being an 'ugly American' in the slightest. But somehow he decided that it was his prerogative to assume that I was an American and thus needed to be addressed in English.

But rather than get angry at him, which would have been pointless, I decided to make up a little script of French snappy comeback lines for waiters the next time this happened. Because it does happen. Ooh, revenge in the imagination is sweet. My lines, in French, were coolly-sprouted phrases such as, "Excuse me. Am I dreaming, or did I order in French?" and, "Oh, since you are speaking to me in American, shall I pay you in dollars?" heh-heh.

I'd been practicing a number of these lines in the privacy of my own appartement, to save in the handy repertoire, au cas où. Fortunately I have not needed to deploy them with café waiters since that episode months ago at la Madeleine. Until today.

Damn. Timing wasn't right for using my perfected Polly-Vous-Français zingers on the café server today, and I was frustrated to feel that that he could have the upper hand in the transaction. All sorts of "why torture the Americans?" thoughts were racing through my mind.

But, then I heard him serving a French couple a few tables away from me. The older woman wanted to pay for the bill for herself and the thirty-something guy with her. Monsieur 30Something said, "Non, non, let me pay," but his female friend persisted. "Non, non, j'insiste." The woman paid.

"Gigolo!" snorted the waiter to the guy.

I cracked up, inwardly and quietly, bien sûr. Hmm. All things considered, I guess I prefer "Sankyoovarymoch," and will henceforth probably keep my trap ...shut. Maybe.

Or, who knows? On the other hand, I may return to that café, where I otherwise soaked up the cool ambiance, and try to out-do the waiter by speaking to him in well-rehearsed French. He's either a jerk or really funny, and I'll never know unless I go back.

This is Paris. I can't explain it. Ultimately, something about that half hour in the cold sun on avenue Bosquet made me adore Paris even more.

All dressed up and no place to go

Today I spotted dozens of pedestrian walk lights that have been outfitted with a specially-designed sequin top, courtesy of an unknown designer.
This is fashion-conscious Paris, after all.

YSL Spruces Up for Spring

So often while walking along the sidewalk in Paris, I see the gardiennes of apartment buildings polishing the brass door handles and kick plates of the entries, to keep the exterior shiny.

The Yves St. Laurent boutique on avenue George V is sprucing up its doorway, too, and I stopped to talk with the workers to find out exactly what they were crafting.

I was surprised at first to find out that the lettering for the signage was plastic. It looks so solid and sculptured.

On reflection, I figured that plastic is a smart, practical choice. No one would want a customer entering the store to get beamed inadvertantly by a falling brass letter, should one ever become loose. Better to use lightweight faux brass.

And it's fascinating how they do it. Basically shiny gold-tone contact paper is carefully applied on the front of the letters, and the sides of the letters are covered in strips of the same color paper. See how it has thousands of tiny holes?

That's for the lights that shine from behind the sign at night, for an aura of sophistication and elegance. If I have time I'll go back some evening and take a shot of the final result.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Long before there were cell phones and text messages, there was artist William Steig. And his "children's" book, CDB.

When CDB was published in 1987, it was a big hit with the adults. We thought his creative use of letters as words was hi-larious. I still do. But let's give him credit -- it really was the precursor to text messaging.

But today, in Steig-speak, I have to say "I F-N N-E N-R-G." None. My bones ache and my eyeballs are burning in my skull. Don't worry, I'll be just fine. Please, don't worry about me, no, no, not a bit. I was planning to go to the avant premiere of Paris, but instead will stay at home drinking weak tea and nibbling dry toast. If this post gets a bit on the delirious side, someone can call SOS Medecins for me. French doctors make house calls.

Oh, sorry, back to text messaging. Of course in France, the letters of the alphabet are pronounced differently. Phrases and their abbreviations are different. So texting is different. Anyway, since I'm only good for babbling incoherently right now, here is a short guide to French SMS language, via the Language Log. SMS. Textos. Text messaging. Whatever.

Au Clair de la Lune

Anyone in Paris lucky enough (or unlucky enough?) to be awake in the wee hours this Thursday morning will be able to see a total lunar eclipse. Assuming the skies are clear, the eclipse will be viewable between 2am and 6 am, with the total eclipse at 4:01 am

Make it a party and stay up all night Wednesday!

Or set your alarm clock for a look-see.

Or else wait seven years for the next one.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

2CV Stories

Many thanks to all who provided me with personal anecdotes about rides in a Deux Chevaux. Here are a few. One reader had a somewhat X-rated story which she declined to send to me in print.

In any case, I hope these jostle your memories and encourage more stories! I've just included author's first names, for editorial consistency.

Mac, below, also noted that "...until, I think it was 1975, each French family would receive a free 2CV from the government on the safe arrival of their fifth child! It was part of a re-population programme which aimed at replacing the devastating losses across rural France from the two world wars."

Cynthia's 2CV story
I was driving our 2CV where we should not have been driving. Up an unplowed, thickly snow-covered route in a vain attempt to reach a ski resort above the town of Delphi, Greece, which was no doubt closed because not even the road was plowed. Nor were there any tracks to ease our journey. We did our best, we two with a friendly hitchhiker in the rear seat. At some point, much farther than was sensible, we gave up. We were stuck facing uphill. But what to do?


We got out, picked up the car (1 female, 2 males), turned it around and gently set it down on our own tracks facing downhill. Off we went then, back to the local village, for lamb on the spit and delicious local wine to satisfy our disappointment in not reaching our destination.

I loved that car.....

Mac's 2CV story
In the seventies, whilst hitching through the Auvergne, I almost became engaged to a sheep in the back of the corrugated van version of the 2CV. I spent three months (well, six hours actually but it felt like I'd been born there ) in an intimate embrace with a ewe, rocking in her soiled straw, whilst my 'chauffeur' negotiated passes which would have given goats vertigo. When I was finally deposited I couldn't get a room or hostel anywhere, I was as high as a Roquefort boiled in tripe!

Geoff's 2CV story
Last year, a party of friends and I [all baby boomers!] who were having a convivial drink and watching the passing show outside a cafe in Bellac (near Limoges), and who had their three 2CVs parked on the pavement. We were amazed to see a white 2CV zip past with no less than FOUR nuns inside!

Jay's 2CV story
I have little education in conversational French -- two years in high school (you can imagine what that was worth), a half-year in college. So the first time I was in France, I was badly at a loss, though apparently that didn't stop me from hitchhiking. I don't remember how I got to Provence -- train probably -- but I was hitchhiking there, out on a not-much-travelled road in the countryside. A 2CV pulled up -- the first one I'd ever been that close to. The driver opened the passenger door. I got in, and he asked something that sounded like "Ooshka tuva?" I had no idea what he'd said. I repeated it in my head a couple of times, asked him to repeat it. I guess he realized how hopeless I was, because he finally repeated it slowly, syllable by syllable: "Ou est-ce que tu va?" I don't remember where I was going or where he let me off. The only other thing I remember from that ride is that he shifted gears by reaching into what should have been the glove compartment.

Anna's 2CV story
My now husband bought a 2CV in the mid-1980s. It was white and grey and fabulous and we travelled all over England in it. And my sister-in-law bought one too (red). We never ever knew that they would be going out of production --and we sold ours! And so did my sister-in-law. If we'd known we'd have bought several more! Such fun to drive. And capable of quite a high speed, too. I loved the gear stick that came out of the dashboard. And the floppy windows and the rain coming in through the poorly sealed windows and windscreen. Great on petrol consumption too. Why did they stop making them?

Autolycus's 2CV story
In 1965 I had an extended stay in France, which included staying with a family that had both a 2CV and a DS. To go from the experience of being asked to operate the windscreen wipers manually (with a little handle on the inside) to finding oneself slowly elevated to grandeur as the DS's suspension set itself in motion.....

I felt rather as though I was Fernandel turning into Le Grand Charles himself.


For the French/American "celebrities separated at birth?" files...

François Cluzet and Dustin Hoffman.

Thierry Lhermitte and John Philip Law

Julie Ferrier and Bonnie Raitt

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I don't usually eavesdrop on other people's conversations.

Wait, did I just actually say that? What a lie. Rewind, start again.

In Paris, I love to eavesdrop on other people's conversations while I'm reading or writing at a café. It's my version of auditing Parisian Life 101.

Midweek, lunchtime on the terrace of a bistro in the 6e arrondissement. An artsy-intellectual older woman chain-smoking unfiltered Gauloises, with a picher of red wine in front of her. (It was almost too perfect a cliché.) Presently her colleague, about 30 years her junior, arrived at the table. Younger woman wearing a jaunty hat, looking intelligent and hip, but not over the top. Here are slices of their conversation I captured, in between bites of my poulet fermier.

OW, smiling and giving bisous: Oh, ma chère, how sublime you look! Here, have a seat. Would you like some wine?
YW: Just a glass, to warm me up.
. . . . .

OW: You know, when it's cold, I like to wear thick socks. They keep my feet warm. It's true, les chaussettes are not très sexy, mais... after all, long nude legs emerging from fuzzy socks: ça a de l'allure!
YW: Or maybe wearing woolen stockings with a garter.
. . . . .

Lunchtime conversation about books. Then,

Waiter clearing their plates asks if lunch was all right: "Ça y était?"

OW (not at all unpleasantly, just matter-of-fact): Non, pas du tout.
Waiter: What was wrong?
OW: Oh, I don't know... It wasn't warm enough; the potatoes were too greasy.
Waiter: You should have told me; I could have heated it up or changed it.
OW: Don't worry, monsieur, I'll come back here anyway, I assure you.

Waiter leaves and returns showing her a plate of tarte tatin:

Waiter: When it's time for dessert, we'll offer both of you this. It's home-made.

Waiter leaves.

OW, pleased: You see? It's important to express yourself in the right way. Honesty is clarity, when presented well.

Conversation shifts to expressing oneself in the editorial world. I didn't record full bios, but OW is a retired editor, YW is a current editor.

YW: Sometimes it's important to have a giant eraser. And hard to know how to deal with a difficult author.
OW: Of course, there is a time in the publishing process when the author has to hate the editor and the editor has to hate the author.
YW: I was working on a manuscript that I abhorred. It was completely awful, a flop. But in the process of editing it and re-working it, I ended up loving the text.
OW: When you have to fix a work that is really lamentable, that's when an editor shows her stripes.
YW: Yes, this one had to be almost completely overhauled. But the directrice de l'éditorial felt that deep down there was something there. And the author had a connection somewhere.

Shared laughter.

Page 123

I've just been tagged by My Inner French Girl.

Believe it or not, normally I've got a blogging editorial roster backlog that I can't wiggle with too much (I still do!) but this was so random and enticing, I couldn't resist.

The mandate: pick up a book on the top of your book stack, turn to page 123, read the first five sentences, then post the next three sentences.

What really appealed to me was that this meme doesn't require a lot of time, thought process, or decision-making, which are definitely on this week's "need-to-address-this-issue" list.

So here goes.

The book is Lust in Translation by Pamela Druckerman. I met Pamela last spring at the American Library in Paris. She's fun and witty! Her book has received more attention this week again when she wrote a column for the Washington Post, which you can read here.

Anyway, here are the requisite lines from page 123 of Lust in Translation:

"About a year after beginning the affair with Danielle, he finally left the therapist he'd been seeing for six years. 'I solved the problems,' he explains. 'The problems were marriage and sex.'"

Just for fun, though, I peeked at another book on my nightstand table, The Essence of Style by Joan DeJean.

page one-two-three:

"As continues to be the case in all French restaurants that aspire to the standards of haute cuisine, they were also dealing in atmosphere. Their conviction that the way in which the plate and the food were displayed was as important as what was on the plate paid off handsomely, and traiteurs were soon doing a brisk business all over the city.

By the early 1690s, Nicolas de Belgny's guide to the French capital's best addresses listed thiry-four traiteurs whom he recommended when people wanted 'to treat themselves to a fine meal': the niche that the Michelin Guide was created to fill in 1900 had been invented."

Now I'm tagging Quoide9Cecile, Blue Vicar, and The Late Bloomer.

Tag, you're it.

P.S. This road sign is pretty random, too. I made it the other day while procrastinating. Just wanted to keep the random theme going.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Night at the Movies

Unlike some of my friends, I actually like going early to the movies to watch all the previews. I get an idea of what I want to see next. Also, at 9,90€ per ticket, I'd rather be early and get a choice seat and squeeze the most out of my money.

Recently in the cinema previews there has been a Coca Zero advertisement that makes my stomach turn. I couldn't find a French copy, but if you want to watch a version in Portugese here, do so at your own peril. It has animated pink flappy tongues (with legs) in conversation with an eyeball (also with legs). Totally grossed out, I have to duck under the seat and hide my face whenever this comes on the big screen. By the way, the French version ends with the eye saying "mon oeil."

Will this commercial ever play in Peoria? I doubt it. But why?

I wonder about cultural differences and why walking, talking body parts are apparently not a big deal here, like those Société Générale TV commercials where an anthropomorphized thumb (also with its own legs) accompanies happy bank customers around town. The phrase donner un coup de pouce is equivalent to lending a hand, so I can see the symbolism -- but not the attraction.

I saw the tongues-and-eyeball spot again last night at the Gaumont Champs Elysées. Fortunately, it was followed by a light-hearted French romantic comedy, so I was able to get the image out of my mind.

Ah, but the movies. Sometimes the entertainment isn't always the film. About half an hour before our movie ended, the screen went blank. No one seemed alarmed or too concerned; I guess this happens from time to time. Finally the lights went up and an employee arrived to announce technical difficulties, and asked us to be patient for about cinq minutes. Gaumont offered a free movie pass (une invitation) to compensate for the inconvenience. Nice.

We all resumed our conversations while waiting to see the finale of the film, conjecturing about the outcome. "Would she marry him or not? If so, how?" Five minutes passed. With a sheepish grin, the guy returned and told the audience, "Nous sommes desolés, but the film can't be shown. We're sorry for your troubles. Thanks for your understanding."

As people began reaching for their coats, I turned around and spoke up, ever-so sweetly, "Monsieur, don't you think we should all get another free pass -- to come see this movie again so we can see how it ends?" He saw my logic, and distributed a second pass to all as we exited the salle. I guess my French negotiating skills are improving.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

With Love from Paris

Artist Mary Blake offers you this Paris Valentine.

She gives the right to copy (but not sell) this image to anyone who believes in true love.

Atelier Mary Blake

The Marquis Valentine's Day Diet

Miam-miam, as we say in Paris. Where to begin?

I don't even know how to say eeny-meeny-miney-mo in French, so I'll just start from the middle and work my way to the edge. I think I'd better straighten my brooch first!
Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Best Baguette in Paris

The Mairie de Paris has just announced the winner of the Grand Prix de la Baguette 2008. This year's champion boulanger is Anis Bouabsa of Le Duc de la Chapelle in Montmartre. Bouabsa, who came in third in last year's baguette competition, wins not only honor and glory, but a prize of 4000€.

The jury for the popular annual contest was a panel of professional bakers, members of the press, and experts in gastronomy. They performed a blind tasting of 100 baguettes, and cast their votes based on appearance, texture, aroma and taste.

Félicitations to Monsieur Bouabsa!

Le Duc de la Chapelle
32 rue Tristan Tzara
75018 Paris
Metro: Porte de la Chapelle

All Roads Lead to Paris

In today's mail was a large manila envelope. Inside, my handwritten final take-home exam, dated 1997, from Isabelle, a former professor of mine. When I had contacted her last month while researching the name of an illustration, she kindly offered to send me some old papers she'd found that I'd written for her 19th Century French Novel course.

Below is what I wrote about Paris in an answer to one of six "short-answer" questions. At first reading, I think, "Hmm, this is not bad, not bad at all," recalling the frantic panic of finals while being a full-time mother of two school-age kids. Then I re-read and criticize, "Ew, how embarrassing; it's too superficial; any French lycéen writing like this would flunk." Both points hold some truth.

Of course, in any exam there is a fine balance to find between explaining in depth and painting with a broad stroke -- strutting your stuff for the prof so she at least knows that you've actually read and digested the works. We had 24 hours for the take-home; we could use our books and a dictionary; we had to write one long essay and the six shorter answers. Surprisingly, this is my shortest of the shorts!

Memory is a curious, capricious faculty. I had largely forgotten the plots and characters of many of these novels. But by re-reading the decade-old essays, I time-traveled back to some inner part of my brain, to a time when I was living in a swirl of deep literary analysis, with intense ideas I was too often inept at articulating. By revisiting my thought process (rather than the works themselves), the characters and actions awoke for me.

P.S. I got a very generous A- for a course grade, so I can't complain. Merci, Isabelle!

P.P.S. A prize to anyone who can guess which work I read in the abridged version.

Finally, I'm posting this mostly for the perspective on Paris. Has Paris changed from the 19th to the 21st century? Time to reflect on that one...

Quel rôle joue Paris dans les romans que nous avons lus?

Paris joue le rôle d'un centre aimanté où règnent l'argent et le pouvoir dans certains romans. Chez Balzac, Paris est le carrefour -- une ville pleine d'activité, permettant des rencontres (et, donc, l'action) de tous ses personnages. C'est une ville passionnante et corrompue, avec son propre système social qu'il faut conquérir.

Dans L'Education sentimentale, par contre, Flaubert décrit un Paris ou il y a de nombreuses rencontres, mais l'un de ses rôles majeurs est d'être le lieu ou l'on trouve beaucoup d'objets, y compris Madame Arnoux. Paris est un lieu ou il y a des évènements, donc une impression de temps qui passe.

Il me semble que Paris est la maîtresse de Victor Hugo. Il adore chaque pierre, il la connaît par coeur. Paris, comme ville, donne une unité de lieu à l'action des Misérables.

Chez Sand, Paris représente un milieu hermétique et étouffant. C'est un lieu de richesse et d'oisiveté. Marcelle, tout au début, veut quitter Paris et le genre de vie à laquelle elle était astreinte. C'est en quittant Paris qu'elle peut trouver le parfum des arbres, l'eau, et la liberté.

Dans Germinal, Paris est le siège des dieux invisibles. On ne voit jamais la ville, mais les pouvoirs émanent d'elle. A Paris il y a le propriétaire de la Régie, le siège de l'Empire, et -- force opposée -- il y a Pluchart. Etienne reconnaît le source du pouvoir, et quitte Montsou pour Paris à la fin du roman.

You all got this, right? Just in case you missed a leetle word or two, now I translate for you...

What role does Paris play in the novels we have read?

In certain novels, Paris plays the role of a magnetic space ruled by power and money. For Balzac, Paris is a crossroads: a city full of criss-crossing activity, giving way to encounters (and hence, to the action) of all his characters. Paris is an enthralling and corrupt city, with its own social system which everyone must conquer.

By comparison, in Sentimental Education Flaubert describes a Paris where there are numerous encounters; but one of the major purposes of Paris is as a place where one finds many objects, including [the protagonist's object of desire] Madame Arnoux. Paris is a place where one event succeeds another, thus giving an impression of the passage of time.

Paris seems to be Victor Hugo's mistress. He adores each stone; he knows her by heart. Paris, as a city, provides the spatial unity to the action in Les Miserables.

For George Sand, Paris is a suffocating, hermetically closed environment. It is a place of idle wealth. From the begininng Marcelle wants to flee from Paris and the restrained life she experienced there. It is only by leaving Paris that she can revel in the fragrance of trees, flowing water, and freedom.

In Germinal, Paris is a center of invisible gods. We never see Paris, but power emanates from the city. Paris is where the company owner lives, the seat of the Empire and -- an opposing force -- there is Pluchart [a union organizer]. Etienne recognizes the source of power, and leaves his town of Montsou for Paris in the end.
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