Monday, March 31, 2008

Jean Nouvel Wins Top Award

Felicitations to Jean Nouvel, who yesterday was awarded the 2008 Pritzker Prize in Architecture, joining the ranks of I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry and Richard Rogers as the world's most acclaimed architects. He is only the second Frenchman to be honored with the prestigious award, considered to be the "Nobel Prize" in architecture.

Nouvel, best known in Paris for the Insitut du Monde Arabe, the Musee du Quai Branly (pictured) and the Fondation Cartier, has an impressive list of structures worldwide bearing his bold, eclectic design. His famous Atelier is in the 1e arrondissement.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Quelle pain in the nuque

Of all the dilemmas in France, I never anticipated this.

Yesterday afternoon, quite suddenly I got a really bad crick in my neck. Earlier, I had dashed out of the apartment to do an errand, with slightly damp hair pulled hastily into a pony tail. I guess the fashion & beauty gods couldn't figure out how to punish this mortal for such a Parisian coiffure transgression, so they dealt me a stiff neck as penance.

I suffered through a quiet evening at home, with a fuzzy muffler warming my aching neck and indulging in frequent ibuprofen therapy (both pills and the lovely nurophen topical gel from the pharmacienne). Sleep was tormented, but I was determined to make the most of my Sunday.

So I decided to buck up and head out for the day's activities. Busy agenda today. I hadn't been to the Cathedral in a while, and wanted to attend the Annual Art Show there sponsored by Les Arts George V. Lots of people to catch up with. Of course, by now I know the drill at Parisian receptions: bonjour, bonjour -- and bisous-bisous.

And that's where the pain-in-the-neck problem came in. After the first brief peck at a friend's right cheek, I yelped in pain: the required turning of my head quickly to the side for the air-kisses sent a knife-like jab into the nape of my neck. Repeat for the left-cheek kiss. Agony!

Here I was, supposedly delighted to be reunited with friends old and new, and each time I saw someone approach, an involuntary look of dread must have crossed my face as I anticipated the searing pain. Then my grimace after the first torturous bise, the face turning pale from pain after the second bise.

Repeat that scenario about twenty times. By the fifth air-kiss, the pain was streaking down my shoulder-blade. Help! In a crowded, noisy room, with people babbling in French and English, you can't exactly say "I can't give you a kiss because I have a stiff neck" when a cheek is offered. Besides, no one really wants to know about my minor ailments.

Normally it's not a big deal. I've had a sore neck before; and, I've been in France for a while -- but I never had both occur at the same time. I tried to muster every milligram of stoicism and acting skills in order to bob and weave through the crowd, and was doing a mighty poor job of it.

I survived to tell the tale, of course, but I wondered: what is the proper protocol when you are temporarily un-kissable in France?

Okay hair-style gods, I've spent a full day atoning for my sin. Enough already! And please, I don't ever want to hear the phrase "turn the other cheek" again.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

First Voice Recording

This is cool. Scientists have just discovered that the first recording of a human voice wasn't by Thomas Edison, but by Frenchman Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, about 17 years before Edison's famous recording.

Listen to the first line of "Au Clair de la Lune," recorded in 1860, here.
First Scott. Then Edison. Now iTunes.

Another Day, Another Dollar

A familiar figure in the Jardin des Tuileries.
The next question, of course, has to do with voluntary pecuniary remuneration. The sunglass-ed tourist lady handed her a 5€ bill!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Encore plus qu'en 68

At the bus stop across from St. Francois Xavier, I was about to sit while waiting for the #92 bus when I saw this graffiti on the bench."Encore plus qu'en 68 il va falloir se battre." [Even more than in '68, we'll need to fight.]

This spring is the 40th anniversary of "les évènements de mai 68."

These are part of the lyrics from a popular hip-hop song, C'est arrivé pres de chez toi.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Paris Changes Everything"

My daughter, 21, just called from the States. We were discussing bargain vintage-shopping at Goodwill, her work at a contemporary art center, the price of antiques, her Art History exam, what we've been up to since we last saw each other a few weeks ago. The usual mother-daughter transatlantic chit-chat, provided oh-so-cheaply, by Skype.

Then she tossed out the following. "Have you ever heard of The Hills? It's a supposed reality TV show on MTV." [ed note: needless to say, I'm 100% ignorant in that TV-viewing arena] "The latest episode takes place in Paris. It was so lame! Of course, I'm embarrassed to admit that I was even watching it, because the show is so vapid. But this segment was called 'Paris Changes Everything,' so I had to check it out. This was incredible. The girls, who supposedly work for Teen Vogue, have a driver the whole time and don't even have jet-lag. It was so staged! They didn't do anything typically French: they're in Paris to cover a debutante ball at Le Crillon. You don't see much of Paris. What clichés they do show of the city are accurately portrayed, but it's so superficial."

This from a young woman who spent the summer she was 16 wandering the streets of Paris in a heat wave taking an impressive series of 35mm black-and-white photos with her Minolta. She's studied here and visited here. She's been filmed here for a documentary. She might be the first to agree that, indeed, Paris Changes Everything. But not anything like The Hills.

So of course I had to check out this Valley-Girl show on line. Fortunately I'd already eaten dinner so I didn't have to worry about losing my appetite. I clicked onto the web link for the latest episode and I admit that I sat through thirty painful minutes of this palaver. Has Paris really devolved to this, in contemporary American popular culture? Where the major drama for aspiring young Americans -- Lauren and Whitney -- in this fair city are

1) when will the Colette boutique open so I can pick up the shoes?

2) how can I get the stains out of my Alberta Ferretti dress?


3) triumph at the boutique -- Alberta Ferretti is replacing the dress!

As far as I can see, Paris Changes Nothing for these idiotic actress-girls, except that they keep chanting "Oh-My-God? It's Sooooo Pretty?" The episode was a tour de force of product placement and clichés. The Crillon debutante ball, though I know it does really exist, seemed to be populated with Hollywood's pseudo-version of what French debutantes are like. I will admit right here that in the past I loved the Paris scenes in Sex and the City and the Devil Wears Prada. But is this MTV extrapolation the nouveau trend -- now to relegate Paris to being merely a lightweight, frivolous bimbo destination in American eyes? Gawd, I hope not. Think of the consequences.

One of the final Parisian scenes in The Hills (and be forewarned if you actually dare to watch this -- it's interspersed with more vapidity from Colorado) is Lauren's final trek around the city in a ball gown, on a motorcycle, with a handsome young Frenchman who calls her "Darling," blows kisses and winks goodbye to her. Hmm. Reality TV?

Okay, well, I can call this evening my The Hills diet, because it sure made me lose my appetite for a while.

Something's Missing

I realize sometimes how much of a train-train quotidien routine I can get into. Lots of parts of Paris that I don't see for weeks on end unless I make a special effort.

An American friend is in town, and today we walked and walked and walked. And walked some more. From the place Victor Hugo in the 16e arrondissement to the place St. Georges in the 9e. Our route: Champs Elysées to the Louvre to the Palais Royal to the Grands Boulevards, past Notre Dame de la Lorette.

Spring seemed to officially arrive today, with lots of showers and sunshine, and the trees had leafed out overnight.

But wait! The real news (to me anyway) is this: part way through our journey, at the place de la Concorde, something was missing.

No more Ferris wheel!


The Obelisque hasn't turned into the leaning tower; it's just the fish eye lens effect.

The French

I've always been wary of sweeping generalizations -- unless I'm the one holding the broom, of course. When I hear (or read) the phrase "The French are ____" or "Les Americains sont _______" it raises not only hackles but red flags.

That said, I enjoy observing what others have to say, collecting anecdotes, sifting through it all.

I'm out and about town today, so I leave you with this article about "the French" from the Huffington Post, which includes departing New York Times Paris bureau chief Elaine Sciolino's much-debated and vigorously emailed "A Guide to the French: Handle with Care."

The comments to this HuffPost article are fascinating -- plenty of information, misinformation and a nice dollop here or there of insight.

Okay -- off to sweep though the city. I'll leave my broomstick at home.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Here are the answers to the rebuses from yesterday's post.

1. "La colère est mauvaise conseillère; attendez le calme pour prendre une décision."

Anger is a bad counsellor; wait to calm down before making a decision.

2. "Seules dans la vie comptent les bonnes actions -- efforcez vous toujours d'aider votre prochain."

Only good actions count in life-- always do all you can to help others.

And here's a view of the whole back page

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

One Man's Trash...

Walking down the rue du Cherche-Midi this morning, I crossed paths with a young bearded guy carrying a huge stack of leatherbound antique books under his arm. There are a few old-book shops on the street, so I figured he'd gone on a shopping spree.

After doing a few errands I was on my way back home on the opposite sidewalk. Blocking half the path, in front of a shuttered store, was a motley collection of cardboard boxes overflowing with old posters, books, antique postcards, and maps, almost all pre-1950, some a century old.

I didn't hesitate for a moment, and started trash-picking with glee. This is my kind of rubbish. Most of the remaining books were without their bindings, but there were also old magazines, leather book bindings, poster tubes. Before long a party had assembled. A half-dozen or so of us were rummaging through the hip-deep depths of those wonders. The camaraderie was perfect: civilized and jovial. Everyone helping each other find what was of most interest, and cracking up over the stuff we didn't want. One man uncovered La Geographie du Monde by Jules Verne, unbound, with fabulous illustrations. The lady next to him fancied a poster-sized photograph of Jesus. A treasure trove. Clearly the young bearded guy I had seen earlier had hand-picked the best of the lot, but we sure weren't complaining. One man teetered off on his bike, balancing the books on the handlebars.

Back home, sorting through my trouvailles, I began reading one: "L'Almanach du Petit Echo de la Mode" from 1932. There certainly will be more forthcoming about this 128-page gem.

In the magazine I found these two rebuses. As a lifelong fan of all word games, I thought I'd tempt any French linguists to see if they can solve them. Now let me see if I can find page 128...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Les Fleurs

While many Parisians headed to the countryside for the long Easter weekend, we urban stay-behinds had to get our taste of nature in the pockets of small Parisian squares, places, and larger parks that are decked out for spring.

The Square Boucicaut is a neighborhood favorite of mine. As in all the Paris parks, the gardeners are horticultural wizards -- true artists. This yellow patch of posies makes it seem as though the sun is shining. (It wasn't.) Even on a grey wintry day like today, it is an oasis of cheerfulness.

And I mean oasis! It even has palm trees.

Located above the Sevres-Babylone metro stop, Boucicaut is also a perfect rendezvous spot when catching up with friends: "Let's meet at the statue at 1 pm." You can read on a bench (or pretend to) -- or dash around and snap photos of flowers! -- while you wait.

The amazing part to me is that Boucicaut isn't exceptional at all -- it is representative gardens in almost 500 small neighborhood places in Paris, gussied up for Easter with beds of primrose, hyacinth and jonquils, or riotous masses of blooming shrubs.

Now, when will springtime weather arrive?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Book Love

Sometimes when I have other stuff I should be accomplishing, I daydream instead. After writing the to-do list, I write the wish list. The old "What would I do if I won the lottery?" is a favored game.

Trying to narrow that wide-open what-if? field (it concerns way too much real estate and travel), today I mused instead about which recent and upcoming France-related books I would snap up if I had a coupla hundred euros to spend only in that category.

Here's my list du jour of books I'd like to have on my nightstand or coffee table (or in my Easter basket!):

The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan

Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors

My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme

Parisiennes text by Carole Bouquet, Madeleine Chapsal et al

Graffiti Paris by Fabienne Grevy

Americans and the Making of the Riviera by Michael Nelson

French War Brides in America by Hilary Kaiser

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bye-Bye Bidet

I apologize. I couldn't resist snapping the photo. This cast-off bidet was sitting on the curb on rue Mayet this afternoon, waiting to get hauled away.

It made me wonder: are more French homeowners ditching their bidets? Are bidets becoming passé?

More pondering: is there some research organization that tracks the bathing habits of the French (and other nations, for that matter)? I suspect that with more and more apartments featuring showers, the bidet is going bye-bye. So sad. It was invented here about 300 years ago.

At the hotel where I used to stay often in Paris, the world's teensiest bathroom (in my room under the stairs) was for years equipped with the requisite bidet -- an endearing 18-inch rollaway number that tucked under the minuscule sink. The last time I stayed there three years ago, the quaint rolling bidet had vanished.

A rejected bidet waiting for the garbage truck. Me? I braved the "is-she-nuts?" stares of the more dignified passersby as I deftly chronicled this moment in time. Some day they'll thank me.

And they all lived happily ever after

Ah, Easter in New York. It's sure to be a lovely, romantic time for them. Reminds me of the old song, "The Easter Parade."

On the avenue
Fifth Avenue
The photographers will snap us
And you'll find that you're on the rotogravure....

Oui. The former Première Dame de la République and her beau are tying the knot in the Big Apple tomorrow.

Félicitations to the happy couple.

And now we can return to regular programming.

Friday, March 21, 2008

James in Paris

A decade or so ago, I was an elementary-school teacher. One of the highlights for me, believe it or not, was sit-down lunch each day, like Miss Clavel, at the head of a table of twelve 7-to-14-year old girls who sported prim navy-blue private-school uniforms. You can imagine the conversations, the table manners, the food rejection.

One day, to get the lunchtime discussion in gear with my young charges, I offered an ice-breaker. "Did anyone watch some of the Patriots' football game last night?'"

A number of girls nodded and mumbled; but the sweet second-grade pixie next to me bounced in her seat and piped up proudly. "My brother James was at the Patriots game," she cooed.

"Oh, that's nice. How lucky for him," I replied in my matronly best, secretly wondering what on earth a young boy was doing at a late-night football game on a school night. "How old is James?" I ventured.

"Umm, " she paused, glanced at the ceiling, wrinkled her brow briefly, then replied earnestly, "Fif-ty-twoooo."

Oh. That James! I understood immediately (via the faculty grapevine) who she was. Her famous brother hadn't merely attended the game, he had sung at half time: James Taylor was her half-brother.

At that point I had already been a James Taylor devotee for over two decades. Fortunately I mustered the cool discretion not to ask her prying questions at the lunch table. She had already given me his age (which may have been off by a few years); I didn't need to probe for more info.

Several years later, my then-16-year-old daughter convinced me to take her and a few teen friends to a James Taylor concert in a huge stadium outside Boston. A mammoth event, far different from the intimate JT campus concerts of my college days. This one was not an experience that I would want to repeat, spending two fuming hours just to exit the parking lot after the concert. Nevertheless, I was pleased that James Taylor's music appeal spanned at least two generations.

So, I was surprised and delighted the other day to pass by the poster at the Cafe/Tabac across the street announcing a James Taylor concert on Sunday, April 6 at the famed music hall l'Olympia in Paris. If tickets are still available, you know where to find me that night.

A Cute French Chick

"Never Underestimate the Cleaning Power of a 94 Year-Old Chick With a French Name."

That was the slogan from the advertising campaign of Bon Ami cleanser in the 1980s. Incurable Francophile that I was (and am), I liked Bon Ami simply because of its French name. When I was growing up, there was always a can of Bon Ami under the kitchen sink. When this advertising campaign emerged two decades ago, I re-discovered it on the supermarket shelf and starting using Bon Ami as a grown-up domestic diva. Anything vaguely French-sounding was okay by me. And it worked well on all the items that couldn't be scoured with abrasives.

I seem to remember another slogan, "95 years old, and this French Chick hasn't Scratched Yet." I also liked the fact that the old-fashioned company had a good sense of humor.

Of course I don't think many people refer to women as "chicks" any more. But I recently found out that Bon Ami is still produced. What's more, it turns out that it is environmentally friendly. (It stands to reason, I guess, since the non-toxic formula was concocted more than a century ago.)

I contacted the marketing department, who very kindly gave me one-time rights to use their wonderful copyrighted images. So I'm including a few of them as a gift of Springtime or Easter or whatever else you might want to be celebrating this weekend.

I am a Good Friend, n'est-ce pas?

This image can be saved as wallpaper. Adorable!

All images copyright 2008 Faultless Starch/Bon Ami Company

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Parisians during the Occupation

Tonight I attended the opening of a new exhibit, "Les Parisiens sous l'Occupation," color photographs by André Zucca, at the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. A fascinating, stunning collection: an exhibit not to be missed.

Zucca (1897 - 1973) was the only Frenchman to take color photos of Paris during the Occupation. During that time, all photographing in Paris was strictly controlled by the Nazis. Zucca, who had worked for Paris Soir and L'Illustration, was "requisitioned" by the Germans in 1941 to be a staff photographer for the propaganda magazine Signal, a Life lookalike. And the photos in this exhibit are somewhat of a 'life' lookalike as well. It is a dreamlike Paris as the Nazis wanted it portrayed, with workers and vendors, smiling couples in cafés, and chic young women riding bikes. But read between the lines and the other reality of Paris in the Occupation is there.

Much of Zucca's black and white photography was published in Signal during the War, but this collection of 200 rare color photographs, recently restored, has never been published. Organized by quartier, the photos take you on a tour of another side of daily life in Paris from 1941-1944.

An excellent book published by Gallimard accompanies the exhibit.

Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris
Salle d'exposition
22, rue Malher
75004 Paris

01 44 59 29 60
Metro: St. Paul

March 20 - July 1, 2008
Tuesday - Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m
4€ entrance fee/2€ reduced rate

Le Grand Vefour

Oh my. Oh my. Ohmyohmyohmyohmy. I've fallen in love with a French Guy whom I've never even met. It's been well over a month and I'm still spellbound. Thanks to his deft artistic talents, I spent a magical evening swooning, in total rapture. Mm-moaning in exquisite bliss. I can honestly pronounce that this was a life-altering experience.

Who is this fellow who had me seeing stars? The new Guy of my dreams is is none other than Guy Martin, the chef of Le Grand Véfour.

All this because a kind and deep-pocketed American pal visiting Paris last month snagged a coveted table for two at the centuries-old landmark restaurant. What can I say? The entire evening was sublime. Unforgettable. Pardon me for a moment while I gush like a smitten schoolgirl.

Let me admit right off that, although in another life I might have enjoyed being a true epicure, normal budget constraints unfortunately prevent me from being much of a connoisseur of the finer Paris restaurants. (You know the scenario: champagne taste, beer budget.) Usually when I dine out, I dine well in local spots with great French food. I do appreciate good cuisine. But I haven't spent much time poring over my trusty Michelin Guide researching multi-starred restaurants to pick should I win the Loto. So -- an invitation for dinner, coupled with a last-minute cancellation at Le Grand Véfour, happened upon me as if Glinda-the-Good-Witch-of-the-North had waved her magic wand.

I was mostly unprepared for what awaited me. Of course, I had passed by the elegant restaurant many times before as I wandered through the Palais Royal, itself one of the most enchanting spots in Paris. Usually I peeked timidly in the windows of Le Grand Véfour to gape at the splendid decor. So quintessentially Parisian! Then a few months ago, one bold day I poked my head in the door, naive Paris neophyte that I am, and asked about reservations. The very diplomatic maitre d' had chuckled benignly and told me to anticipate about two or three months for an advance reservation. Right-o. Got that.

So last month when we got word that we were IN for dinner, I still knew little about the place, but expected that it would merely be a more upscale version of those well-preserved classic French bistros that I've heard much about. It wasn't at all stuffy-seeming, just infinitely classic in appearance, so I had No Idea. No Idea!

Well, let me tell you. From the moment I sat down I was speechless. (You may realize that "speechless" is not a normal trait for me.) From the first bite of caviar accompanied by Taittinger champagne to the palombe à la bécasse with a bottle of Lynch-Bages, to the chocolate mousse encased in a thin chocolate shell, I was transported to an unnamed planet. I have had many good meals in my life, French or otherwise. But never, never have I had a gastronomical awakening like this. Each bite was an explosion of stars, an ineffable bite of nirvana. This was heaven. Words fail me. Guy Martin, whose name seems as commonplace as "John Smith", is no commonplace chef.

The flurry of tuxedoed waiters didn't even concern me. This was not a haughty place. It was simply the best food ever to pass my lips. If I were a food critic or an excellent cook I might have better descriptors to use. All I can say is: trust me. If you have a big wad of dough to spend on a dinner in Paris and you want to go some place infinitely special, please do yourself a favor. Go to Le Grand Véfour. No fuss. No pretension. Two hundred years of history. And mind-blowing French cuisine the way you expect it to be.

Just thinking about it, I may never eat again. It was too perfect. All I could do was purchase a dish made from a mold of George Sand's hands as a memento of an unforgettable evening.

Supposed big news is that Le Grand Véfour has just been downgraded to two stars from three. Harrumph. As far as I'm concerned, the magic is there: I'm still seeing lots of stars.
Glinda, come back! Wave that magic wand, just once more. For me.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


The Air France jet touches down on the runway at Charles de Gaulle. It is noon. Cold grey clouds hang ominously overhead. The plane creeps slowly to its parking spot, then we wait. And wait. The father and two girls in the seats behind me are excited about their first trip to Paris, and he is giving them utterly clueless information about what they'll do next.

"First we have to take a half-hour bus ride to the terminal," I crack snidely.

He looks startled. "Half an hour?"

"No," I reassure him. "It isn't really half an hour, it just seems like it." Already I'm muttering to myself, weary from travel, wishing that the incoming flights could use normal gangplanks. We stand in the stuffy aisles and wait 15 minutes to deplane. "Why did I come back to Paris so soon?" I'm grumbling. "Just more stuff to deal with, more quirky inefficiencies." These stupid buses. The flight itself had been pleasant, the crew friendly and apologetic for delays.

Then I step onto French soil, and the gods want to welcome me back. There is zero line at passport control; I breeze through. My suitcase arrives pronto on the conveyor belt; it's weighed down with half a dozen books, and a French guy offers to help me load it on my smartcarte. I dig in my heels and try try try to wallow in my tired grumpiness: to no avail. There is no one in front of me at the taxi stand (the luxury of a taxi being de rigueur this trip, with the excess weight of my luggage).

Chipper and smiling, the taxi driver lugs my suitcase to the coffre of his car, and he laughs when I comment about having shopped too much in the US. I slump back in the seat, not wanting to cope. "You missed a beautiful morning, madame," he offers. "Such sunlight! It was really springtime in Paris earlier today."

I smile wanly and nod off a bit as we zoom down the A1. The familiar return-trip sights pop up along the way. Novotel, Sofitel, IKEA, L'Oreal, other corporate headquarters. Then entire suburban walls covered in graffiti. I perk up somewhat as I spot my touchstone "I'm-in-France-now" building in the midst of the sleek modern corporate headquarters: an ancient three-storey tile-roofed edifice, with gables and shutters. Paris is near.

The traffic moves seamlessly from the A1 to the boulevard periphérique. It dawns on me that I haven't spoken or heard a word of French in two weeks. I hear my voice speaking in French to the driver as if in a dream. Shortly we exit the highway and cross to the place de Wagram. A rush of Haussmannian architecture. Paris!

An involuntary smile begins creeping across my face. We glide past lunchtime diners in cafés, and instantly, I crave a real meal, a plat du jour. The dome of St. Augustin has never looked so crimson and majestic. On boulevard Malesherbes students on lunch break are grouped outside the entrance to the lycée, smoking and joking. Paris!

I'm wide awake now, alert to each passing detail. Some trees have leafed out, others soon to follow. The guards at place Beauvau are directing traffic away from the Elysée. The familiar expanse of vine-clad wall on the avenue de Marigny. Then the sight of the Grand Palais makes my heart jump. Paris!

By the time we cross the Pont Alexandre III, and I see the Invalides gleaming ahead, a broad grin has plastered itself on my face. I am Dorothy who has tapped her ruby slippers and awakes to recognize Auntie Em, Hunk, and Zeke and the others surrounding her. "It's you! And you. And YOU!"


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

News From France

I have long been a subscriber to and admirer of News From France, published by the press office of the French Embassy in Washington DC. So imagine how thrilled I was to discover that they had featured the humble "Polly-Vous Francais?" in their latest issue!

For a lifelong francophile like me, there is no better yardstick of acceptance. I confess that I tried to be very sophisticated and nonchalant about it but in fact was dancing a little jig around the apartment when I saw this clip.

If you're interested and haven't done so already, you can subscribe to News From France for free on their website. Needless to say, they aren't paying me to say this; I'm just so flattered they wrote about me!

Mercredi Beaucoup

I keep doing this. Often in Paris, on Tuesday I think it's Wednesday. I go to the journaliste to pick up the latest l'Officiel des Spectacles, and when I try to purchase it the owner very kindly won't let me. "The new one is out tomorrow, madame," he reminds me.

"Oh, quel jour sommes-nous?" I ask sheepishly. Sometimes the brain is not in gear, but I do remember that the new guide comes out on Wednesdays.

In the US, Wednesday is nothing special, really. At best it's known as "hump day," or in the past "Prince Spaghetti Day, and that's about it, right?

In France, mercredi is very different from the rest of the week. It's when new movies open, new plays open; when the events guides such as Pariscope or l'Officiel des Spectacles, and many weeklies appear on the newsstand. Time for my weekly dose of Le Canard Enchaîné.

On Wednesdays in France, many school children have only half a day of school, some have none at all.

Oh, and if some time you hear the sirens wailing in the middle of the day, don't worry about emergencies until you check your calendar. If it's the first Wednesday of the month, and it's noon, you can relax. That's when the fire alarms are tested.

I used to joke in pidgin French with my French cohorts: in lieu of saying "thank-you," I'd quip, "Mercredi beaucoup!"

The reply, of course, was, "Jeudi pas grand chose."

Construction Workers

Since I've been back in the US, I feel as though my cross-cultural radar is hyper-sensitized. This Arby's commercial blew me away. Talk about ads you would never see in France!

The beefy construction workers. Men preferring a sandwich to a beautiful woman. The hubba-hubba ogling. What planet were they from?

When I first moved to Paris, an American friend asked if French men really were "wolves" and how they flirt or connect with women on the street. "Do construction workers whistle at women walking down the street?" he asked.

I laughed out loud.

So far, the only Frenchman's comment to me remotely resembling "ogling" was from an unseen male as I whizzed down avenue Bosquet on my bike.
The wind was flapping my skirt, and a solo voice called out from the sidewalk, "jolies cuisses!" (Nice thighs!)

Heck, I was flattered by the admiration; but I was cruising too fast to turn around and smile in appreciation.

All I can say is, don't ever pass me over for a sandwich, please.

But I don't think I'll have to worry about that once I'm back in Paris.

Monday, March 10, 2008


It is 7 o'clock and my mother's house is still, as always, this morning. I step softly down the white wall-to-wall carpeting, past her beloved antiques and books that shaped my life. Ernest Hemingway: a Life Story. Of Diamonds and Diplomats. The Best and the Brightest. Friendly Adventurers. Our Hearts were Young and Gay. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Their Finest Hour.

Before I tiptoe out the door, I leave a scribbled note for my mother on the breakfast table, so she won't worry.

"Good morning Mom! I'm at Starbucks checking my email. I'll be back by 9:30"

I steer the car automatically down the lane, at the required snail's pace, past the white mail boxes and carefully trimmed juniper and saw palms on each lawn.

Out to the main highway, I accelerate to a whopping 35 mph to speed to the local Starbucks. I settle at the corner table with my mug of latte, log on to the Wifi and tackle the electronic onslaught. 99 unread emails in one account. 52 emails in the other account. This must be a joke! 90 percent of them relate to life in Paris. Racing to process is all. To retain some of it.

Two and a half hours. Starbucks is buzzing, the regulars gathering in the velvet armchairs, catching up with each other's news of the past 24 hours. In between attempts at focused responses to emails and calendar updates, I manage a sliver of new thought. I wonder if Hemingway's life in Paris was like this at La Closerie des Lilas? I wonder how writers ever write or wrote at cafés. The Starbucks crowd here is a back-slapping fun-loving bunch. Buddy Holly is blaring from the sound system. The barista stops by with free samples of coffeecake. So much distraction.

Nevertheless, at Starbucks I have the ability to check out Actualités, and to find out what has been happening in France. I realize how tethered one is to the internet for access to foreign news. Starbucks is my haven for connection to the world outside this suburban island. News from France, emails from business and friends in Paris. How ironic that I never grace the doors of Starbucks in Paris. Here in my mother's town, Starbucks is Life.

Time's up. Mom will get anxious if I'm not back at the appointed hour. I whisk back down the highway, wave to the guard at the gate with her shining face, slow to a crawl as I drive past the turtles sunning on the mulched banks of the pond.

I sidle into my mother's house, hoping she's not up yet. She arrives in the kitchen in her plaid LLBean nightgown. "Where were you?" she questions hazily.

"At Starbucks." I reply cheerfully, as I have every morning. "Checking my email. Did you see my note?"

She wanders off to get dressed before breakfast.

Then, "What would you like for breakfast?" she asks, as always, carefully setting the table.

"Oh, I'm fine, thanks. I had breakfast at Starbucks," I reply.

"Mmmh." She looks perplexed, almost peeved, quizzical.

"Polly," she insists in her husky dulcet voice as she gazes at me. "What ARE star-bucks?"

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


My nine-hour plane trip brought me to my mother's house.

1. My mother's house is in a land of palms and pines, live oaks and Spanish moss. Chirping cardinals and nuthatches at the bird feeder.

It is also a land of beige houses, manicured lawns, and signs that say "Speed Limit 17-1/2 MPH."

And leaf blowers.

I'd forgotten about leaf blowers. Paris now has a few automatic street sweepers, but mostly the streets are still swept by the "green men" who run the water in the gutters and sweep them clean with their green booms. Not much sound there.

My hero James Thurber once wrote in a short story about men with chainsaws cutting down trees to build insane asylums for people driven crazy by the sound of chainsaws cutting down trees.

I feel the same about leaf blowers. Can't we just rake?

2. I'd forgotten how easily strangers strike up conversations here in the US. In Paris when I'm by myself I'm accustomed to standing silently in line or on the metro and making my observations but not sharing them with anyone.

When I got off the plane in Atlanta and was waiting for luggage, when I was on the monorail in between terminals, when I was in line to rent a car, random PEOPLE WERE TALKING TO ME! It almost knocked me off my feet at first. Just lighthearted banter, but also sharing all the details of what they were planning for their vacation, where they worked. Just chit chat.

It's not better or worse; just very, very different.

3. I love being in the comfort zone of having temperature in Fahrenheit. I'm still working on feeling Celsius in my bones.

4. Stay tuned for updates on "bumper stickers you won't see in France, part 2."

5. Starbucks Wifi access is my new best friend. Please be patient as I try to keep up with comments and posts.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Prononcez "djikiou"

My nine-hour plane ride is a fait accompli, and gave me ample time to read GQ France.

I noted with delight the history of Gentlemen's Quarterly on page 42, entitled "Prononcez 'djikiou.'"

But why do they care how GQ is pronounced? I wondered. Normally in France American names take on their own version.

Oh. The letters G Q in French, would be pronounced "j'ai cul". Perhaps not the image the publication is going for. On the other hand...

And just so you know, for any skeptics who are silly enough not to believe me, GQ France concurs with my men's style trend observation, declaring 2008 "L'Annee de la Moustache."

Sunday, March 02, 2008

GQ: Masculin, Beau, et Intelligent

The magazine that speaks to men in another tone.
I couldn't resist buying it. Just 1€ for the inaugural issue of GQ France; plus, I'll find out what they're saying to all those men!

Something to read on the 9-hour plane ride.


On the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, near the passage de l'Industrie, an ancient tobacconist's sign uncovered during a building renovation. I know there are some laws that protect old building signage. I hope they save this one.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

You've got a lot, my Marianne

Marianne, the symbol for France, has had many faces, including Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, and Laetitia Casta. In sculpture, painting, and other forms, she represents la République. This Delacroix painting is probably one of the best-known images.

With each new presidency comes a new image for the Marianne French stamp. La Poste has just made public the image of the new stamp, designed by artist Yves Beaujard, which will be available for sale on July 1, 2008.
Hmmm. I wonder. Are the stars encircling her head referring to Dom Perignon? Or perhaps cozier Franco-American friendship?
I love stamps, so I thought I share the earlier Mariannes with you, too.

Meanwhile, the cost for sending letters within France has gone up from 54 centimes to 55 centimes, effective today. Time to go to your neighborhood Banque Postale and buy some one-centime add-ons!

Subtitles ... Sous-titres

If you want to find French movies with English subtitles in Paris, you're pretty much out of luck.

It's a pity for the millions of Anglophone visitors who pass through Paris annually but are unable to experience France's world-renowned 7e Art; and equally a shame for hundreds of thousands of non-francophone Paris residents whose language skills en francais don't yet allow them to follow 100% of the dialogue in French movies.

However, if your French is not-too-bad, but you normally find it difficult to understand two hours of all-French dialogue, there is one option in Paris that will let you experience at least some French films on their native soil! MK2 Quai de Seine, in the 19e arrondissement, shows certain French films subtitled in French for the hearing-impaired. So you can hear and see the words. Not a bad way to ramp up your French, either.

Currently, Cedric Klapisch's Paris is being shown at MK2 with French subtitles, every day at 11:10 a.m., and 1:50, 4:30, 7:10 and 9:50 p.m.
Best to check the website to confirm dates and times.

MK2 Quai de Seine
14, quai de la Seine
75019 Paris
métro : Stalingrad

Meanwhile, if you are fortunate enough to be in New York City this week, you can see many recent French movies -- including the just-released Paris -- all subtitled in English, at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, which began yesterday. (Also, other annual French film festivals abound worldwide.)

I'm still yearning to have someone explain to me why in Paris there are so many idiotic Hollywood films with French subtitles but none of the excellent French films with English subtitles. Seems kind of ironic for English-speakers in Paris to be excluded from seeing Paris. Is it one of those c'est interdit laws (or political hot-button issues) that no one talks about but everyone knows tacitly?

HT to Carrie and Ariane for the film festival info.
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