Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Traces of a bygone America -- in Paris

If you live in Paris and don't recognize this photo, you are either wearing sunglasses too much, or are a hermit, or were away on a sunny vacation all winter. But did you know the photo was snapped by an American in Chicago 56 years ago? Art Shay's most infamous photo of the naked fesses of Simone de Beauvoir created a stir in Paris when published on the cover of Le Nouvel Observateur, and every newsstand's promotional billboards, in January. But his photographic oeuvre work goes well beyond the so-called "scandalous" photo. (Unfazed, Beauvoir had apparently turned around and said "You're a bad boy!" when she heard the young Shay snap the picture, but she didn't shut the door of her lover's bathroom.)

A retrospective of Art Shay's photographs, "Traces of a bygone America," opened at the Galerie Albert Loeb in mid-April. I am brokenhearted to have missed the opening and especially sorry not to have met the talented Mr. Shay, 86, who was in town for a week for the event. But those who are in Paris between now and May 24 still have a chance to see his work. The photos in this show are remarkable. Poignant, gritty, witty, sublime, all in Chicago from the 1940s to the 1980s. A mix of celebrities (including Brando, Hemingway, Hefner, Mahalia Jackson, and Marcel Marceau, just to give a sample) and anonymous subjects, they express tenderness, humor, and daily urban life. The images are never complacent or banal: he captures the beauty of humanity in every shot.

Somehow Paris -- home of Ronis, Zucca, Doisneau, Brassai, Boubat et al -- is the perfect setting and juxtaposition for this exhibit.

Do yourself a favor and go see this show.

Galerie Albert Loeb is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm and from 2 pm to 7 pm. It is located at 12, rues des Beaux-Arts in the 6e arrondissement.

Telephone 01 46 33 06 87

There is also a blog dedicated to Art Shay's work written and maintained by his family in the U.S.

Sundays with Richard and Polly

1. Prologue

A new Paris tradition has been born. Hard to tell what the baby is going to look like at this early stage, but consider this the birth announcement: Sundays with Richard and Polly is off and running.

If the blog-gods are willing and the crick don't rise, one Sunday per month Richard of Eye Prefer Paris and I will head to a destination in Paris, then without consulting each other will each describe our own version of the afternoon. And we'll post it at a synchronized hour a few days later. Which, in this case, is now.

When planning our Sunday folly, Richard mentioned that his boyfriend Vincent might videotape our outings. "Wow," I mused to Richard. "You know, maybe we can be like Shana Alexander and Jim Kilpatrick in Point/Counterpoint-- or the Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin version."

"Oh, that Saturday Night Live skit when he says 'Jane, you ignorant slut'?" asked Richard. "I loved that!"

"Fine," I said. "Just don't call me ignorant."

2. The outing.

This time Richard chose the cultural venue: the Pierre Paulin exhibit "Le Design au pouvoir" at the Galerie des Gobelins, which recently re-opened after being closed for thirty years. First, I was glad to get out of my usual trajectory and spend the afternoon in relatively unfamiliar Parisian territory. The 13e arrondissement has some great sights, plus wide-open boulevards and broad sidewalks for strolling. Second, I'm far too young to have seen Les Gobelins thirty years ago. Right?

Without going into a long history, this quartier is where France's official furniture was made, tapestries for chateaux were woven -- and where subsequent ruling heads of state have stored the furniture when it didn't suit their needs of state -- or taste. The nearby Mobilier National warehouse, a rather barren-looking fortress, is where all the out-of-vogue or unneeded state furniture is stored.

Entering the Gobelins Galerie, however, is like stepping back in time, until you reach the ultra-modern decor inside the massive stone edifice. And if you ignore the parked cars in the ancient and aristocratic courtyard. That's a statue of Colbert in the center.

Having left my reading specs at home, I was unable to read the signage for any of the displays. But I didn't mind; I simply meandered around the exhibit hall. The light patterns, shapes, shadows and reflections were mesmerizing.

Sunshine streaming through traces of history.

In the main gallery space the mirrored ceilings and display areas gave an out-of-body experience when looking down at the floor. I could see the top of Vincent's head (he was standing next to me) when I peered over the reflecting floor of one exhibit and gazed down at what appeared to be a display on the floor below. "Have you ever seen the movie Ghosts?" I whispered to him. It was that much out of body.

The furniture on exhibit was mostly exquisite chairs and cleverly designed furniture; including a desk that had belonged to François Mitterand, and other enticing designs created for the Republique française.

One of the last furniture pieces in the exhibit was my favorite: a curvy lounging chair, similar to the one pictured below in yellow, though the exhibited chair was a luscious beige.. The shape and texture were so -- inviting.

I wanted to run my hand along it -- but of course this exhibit 100% no-touching-allowed. Stifling a fit of giggles, I realized why it seemed so familiar. It looked just like the Tantra Chair I had just seen and read about in a very witty issue of Apartment Therapy. Hmm... was this tantric design created for some government official, I wondered?

Enough about recliners. As we left the gallery, I spied a tapestry that I coveted. I usually play the "what would I want in my house?" game with any art exhibit. The greens in this tapestry won that prize. It simply moved me, and made me all the more anxious for discovering our next stop, the very green Parc René le Gall around the corner.

Wedged into a mish-mash of modern and old residential architecture, the park was an unexpected delight that kept unfurling beyond each bend in the path. At the end, I was taken aback by the sheer lushness of the vegetation.

All this, in a densely populated arrondissement of Paris. It made me realize how much more there is to discover. Every day.

3. Next stop, next month

Who knows? In Sundays with Richard and Polly we'll aim for uncharted territory -- or maybe territory so familiar that you think you know it well. The goal, in my view, is to show that everyone's view of Paris is a deeply personal revelation. You can wander the streets of Paris a thousand days and still not see the same thing. Enjoy the trip -- avec Richard et Polly! Now I can't wait to go read Richard's post !

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Le Premier Mai

Thursday is May First -- le premier mai -- which is a national holiday in France (essentially the equivalent of Labor Day in the U.S., to make a long story short). It's also traditionally when you offer a bunch -- or even just of stem-- of lilies-of-the-valley (les muguets) to those you are fond of. It's supposed to bring happiness and good luck. And the French government is said to allow (tolérer) individuals and organizations to sell muguets on May 1 without a permit or having to pay sales tax, which I guess is why you see the vendors on the streets of Paris.

But the florists do a brisk business, too -- and so elegantly. This display is in the vitrine of Baptiste, one of the greatest fleuristes in the 7e arrondissement. I took the photo at night as I passed by. Not too bright a picture, but it brightened my evening!

Life being what it is, websites have sprouted, as fast as springtime bulbs, that allow you to send a virtual muguet -- en français. Not the same scent. Not the same effort.

Not the same, period.

Paris Stories

"In his experience, love affairs and marriages perished between seven and eight o'clock, the hour of rain and no taxis. All over Paris couples must be parting forever, leaving like debris along the curbs the shreds of canceled restaurant dates, useless ballet tickets, hopeless explanations, and scraps of pride; and toward each of these disasters a taxi was pulling in, the only taxi for miles, the light on its roof already dimmed in anticipation to the twin dots that in Paris mean 'occupied.' But occupied by whom?"

--- Mavis Gallant, "Speck's Idea," in Paris Stories.

Monday, April 28, 2008

John Malkovich wins Moliere Award

Tonight is a good night for being John Malkovich. His has won Emmy Awards and has been nominated for Oscars for his acting, and is an accomplished director, writer, and producer.

But tonight he won the coveted Molière Award, France's equivalent of the Tony Award, for best director for the play Good Canary. Quite an accomplishment for an American in the glorious world of French Theatre.

And his acceptance speech was in charmingly imperfect French.

Fluctuat nec mergitur

I saw this coat of arms of the city of Paris over a school doorway in the 14e arrondissement.

Fluctuat nec mergitur. Ye motto of ye city of Paris. The tall-masted ship made me wonder when and how the motto came about -- obviously from the maritime trade that reached Paris via the Seine. But how would a boat with masts make it past all the bridges of Paris?

A few light bulbs glimmer in the attic. Duh. When the blason was adopted, there weren't all the bridges. I'm pretty sure I learned about this a decade ago when I read Mort Rosenblum's irresistible The Secret Life of the Seine.

Fluctuat nec mergitur -- or FLVCTVAT NEC MERGITVR when chiseled in stone -- means "She is tossed by the waves yet does not sink."

More modern translation: think of the Timex watch commercials "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking!"

China's Eiffel Tower, Part 2

Random thought for the day...

With the current political tensions between France and China, I wonder what's happening with that new Eiffel Tower in Hangzhou. The luxurious Champs Elysées real estate, the French vineyards. View more pictures of it here.

Photo by

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Parisians Under the Occupation, Part 2

I never imagined the night I attended the opening of Les Parisiens sous l'Occupation that there would be such a brouhaha about the exhibit. (Oh, pardon me. It is now called "Des Parisiens Sous l'Occupation." Some of the Parisians, not just Parisians. )

It was abundantly clear to me, an average American, that the backdrop of the photos was Occupied France. That's the title, no? I had long wondered what daily life was like for the non-heros who survived four years of Nazi-controlled Paris.

Critics and detractors try to claim that it gives a glamorous view of a decidedly non-glamorous time in this city.

Yes, it does. That is precisely the poetic, chilling impact of the exhibit. I'm not a historian. But if you have an iota of historic background about the Occupation, you understand immediately -- and the signage accompanying the exhibit attests to it -- that these were photos taken for a Nazi propaganda magazine. (And it was crowded on opening night, so I actually viewed the exhibit in reverse, a neat trick I learned from the couple ahead of me in line. I still got the impact of the series of propaganda photos.)

The public (pardon me -- some of the public ) has apparently gotten its knickers in a twist because each photo doesn't have a caption underneath explicitly telling the horrors of the millions of people you don't see in the photo.

That's the point. The literature and signage accompanying the exhibit state that of course since Zucca worked for Signal, the Nazi propaganda magazine, there are no people wearing Yellow Stars, no images of deportees and work camps. That is precisely the haunting effect of the exhibit. I was so profoundly moved by it that the next day I went to the Musée Jean Moulin, the Museum of the Liberation of Paris.

The Mayor of Paris has taken steps to calm the tempest. An upcoming series of debates and symposia have been organized, such as "What is a photograph?" "Is the photograph a good witness to history?" "How to exhibit photography."

In my opinion the only fair criticism to launch at the curators of this exhibit, in light of all this ado: they aimed too high in assuming the intelligence of the viewers. They neglected to place warning signs at the entrance saying "Caution: do not view this exhibit if you're going to believe what you see." Or perhaps bold labels under each photo: "P-R-O-P-A-G-A-N-D-A. " Or how about, "Do not view if you have left your brain at home."

And that is more or less what has been done. New explanatory entrance signs, simplified introductory text. The good news is that the information has been translated into English, German, Italian, and Spanish, in light of the increased attention to the exhibit.

There, is that better?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hollywood on France, Part 2

Welcome to "Chapter Two Week," my week of part-two follow ups to recent posts.

Ladies and gentlemen, warm up your DVD players, pop the popcorn, and settle down to a year's worth of films filmed in France.

France Today of course recently offered an excellent editor's top picks of Hollywood film versions of France. Then I discovered the mother lode: the U.S. Embassy in France website provides a list spanning a hundred years of American movies filmed in whole or in part in France. The films run the gamut from black-and-white silent films to most recent Tinseltown releases. Me? I'd like to get started with the thirty classic movies from the 1950s.

The Embassy web site also encourages cinephiles to submit any additional titles not yet found on the list.

Naturally the film version of A Tale of Two Cities is on the list. The most-recycled title in the English language, I think. But FYI, Dickens' novel has now been turned into a Les Miz-type musical, which will open on Broadway in the fall.

Friday, April 25, 2008

My French Horoscope

I'm devoted to the daily news. The hard news, the real stuff. I try to read a round-robin of different French viewpoints, Le Figaro, Le Monde, le Parisien, le Canard Enchainé. But ... whenever I have the free time and a few spare euros(both rare commodities these days), I indulge in a French women's magazine: Elle, Marie-Claire, Madame Figaro, Marie-Claire Idées. I devour them cover to cover. Not so much that I take the advice as gospel; but the editorial perspective seems to help me understand French culture better, from a female expat point of view. Beauty advice, how to manage your vie de couple, fashion bargains, insider's tips (les astuces), décor and cuisine ideas, and finally, my favorite part, always at the end, the horoscope and numérologie.

I'm not a daily-horoscope junkie, but from time to time I like to check in and see if the astral powers-that-be have got my life nailed correctly. I'm not sure why, but I've always assumed that horoscopes ought to be slightly different depending on your time zone, so I figured I should check mine in France.

My first prize for French mass-media horoscope reporting goes to Elle Magazine, just because it somehow seems less hokey than others. The on-line version is interactive and as exhaustive as you could want, if your French language skills are up to the task. I found one section where you enter your first name (prénom) and it gives your personality profile. Yeah, right, I thought. Gimme a break. How could one's name possibly influence one's character? But just for fun, of course, I entered my name. (I assumed it wouldn't be on the list since it's an Anglophone name.) It was there. Ulp, it was spot-on. Uncle!

In order to check other astrology signs I had to learn the names:

Capricorn = le Capricorne
Aquarius = le Verseau
Pisces = les Poissons
Aries = le Bélier
Taurus = le Taureau
Gemini = les Gémeaux
Cancer = le Cancer
Leo = le Lion
Virgo = la Vierge
Libra = la Balance
Scorpio = le Scorpion
Sagittarius = le Sagittaire

Astrology information is pretty ubiquitous in France, and horoscopes in print and on-line are readily available. I have also found a site called Astrofred; there are many more.

But the jury is still out on the numerology. Somehow, for me, it doesn't add up.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Guess who is gonna be dessert?

Isn't it the height of nonchalance
Furnishing a bed in restaurants?

Well, a little dinner never hurt.
But guess who is gonna be dessert?

I haven't seen the musical comedy Funny Girl in years. But I can still sing along with the lyrics as if it were yesterday. The naive Fanny Brice and the oh-so-suave Nicky Arnstein singing "You are Woman, I am Man." Not exactly A Man and a Woman, but the passion potential is still so very French.

I thought of Funny Girl as I passed by the famed restaurant Lapérouse today, knowing of its reputation for offering romantic private dining rooms complete with chaise longue and discreet wait staff.

I wonder if Laperouse could have been the inspiration for the restaurant in that fabulous seduction scene with Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif.

--A bit of paté?

-- I drink it all day...

Restaurant Lapérouse
51 quai des Grands Augustins
75006 Paris
01 43 26 68 04

L'Air du Printemps

Ah, the air in Paris this morning.

I dawdled on my return trip home from an early business meeting near the pont St. Michel, because I just couldn't help it. I simply had to be outside. Heavenly.

A soft breeze was blowing, and the air everywhere was scented with flowers. Lightly fragrant, almost imperciptible, but it was there. Even on the broad boulevards buzzing with traffic, the perfume of springtime blossoms swirled around.

Aha!-- I found one source, at least. The flowering trees in the Square Gabriel Pierné. If only I had brought a book to read on these charming book-benches, strewn with petals like confetti.

Or if I only had the time to relax on them and gaze up at the gold-leafed cupola of the Institut de France.

The aromatherapy of the spring air was working its magic: the woman begging outside the gate very kindly moved out of the way so I could take a photo of the park sign.

Freak Show

The current exhibit in the grands salons of the Monnaie de Paris is a contemporary exposition entitled "The Freak Show." Inspired by the freak shows of American carnivals and circuses of the early twentieth century, the exhibit apparently features everyday objects transformed in grotesque or odd ways.

Apparently. Yes, this is bait-and-switch time! I didn't see the exhibit. Although I did actually poke my head in the door as the ticket-taker looked for some press info, I didn't have the time to tour the whole show.

But I don't mind. Even if you don't have time or inclination to see a Freak Show, it's worth the trip anyway. The grand and elegant interior of the Hôtel de la Monnaie is exquisite. To reach it, turn right just after entering the portals of the Monnaie building.

Climb the escalier d'honneur.

Admire the busts of Condorcet and friends in the hallway, and look out the windows at the Seine.

Imagine that you're attending a swish soirée in the salle de reception.

And while you're at it, look up at the fresco on the ceiling.

Then you arrive at the ticket desk outside the exhibit where you have to fork over your 6€ to get into the Freak Show. Up to that checkpoint the view is free. One of this month's better bargains in Paris.

The Monnaie de Paris is of course the Mint, where coins and medals are made. The grands salons are open to the public only when they are being rented for a special exhibit.

There is the Musée de la Monnaie, a favorite of mine and of all numismatists, at the end of the courtyard.

Freak Show
Through May 25
Monnaie de Paris
Quai de Conti
Tuesday through Sunday 11 am to 6 pm

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

French Poodles and Friends

Clomping along the sidewalk on boulevard Montparnasse, I happened upon this little TouTou standing guard at the shop door. Seeing it made me pause for thought. I realized that I rarely see French poodles here.

Paris is a dog-lovers city, no doubt, but in my experience the iconic poodle isn't that much in evidence. Apparently in all of France, poodles still top the list of most-popular purebreds at 9%, but that hardly qualifies them as being predominant as a stereotype.

But I do see lots of Jack Russells, a fair share of arthritic Labradors, plenty of frisky bouledogues, and many, many endearing mutts. But rarely a frou-frou Fifi of poodle-skirt fame.

I love watching dogs almost as much as I love watching people in Paris. Put them together, and it's a blast.

A while back, I witnessed an entertaining Parisian doggie interlude. A man was walking his Great Dane on a quiet street in the St. Paul area, and had taken the well-mannered dog off the leash, as dog-owners often do -- illegally.

A Norwich Terrier came prancing down the opposite sidewalk with a fussy lady at the other end of the leash. The terrier began yapping at the Great Dane, who started to lumber across the street for a friendly sniff.

"Mais monsieur," screeched the lady as her minuscule dog barked convulsively, "keep your dog on a leash!!"

"Don't worry, madame," joked the man with a shrug, unruffled. "He's already had breakfast."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Adieu, Madame

I am stunned. I feel as though a doctor has just informed me that I'll have to have an arm amputated.

Madame Tabac is selling.

I haven't written about her in a while, partly because I was embarrassed, perhaps, at my first profile of her. Since that time, she has truly become an ally, a camarade, a faithful friend in the neighborhood. A source of information, some juicy gossip -- and mostly updates, complete with photos, on her cherished grandson. She has a heart of gold. She is a genuine human being, not a character or caricature of some American blogger's perception.

Lately when I've stopped by to say hello, the shelves in the loto-tabac shop area of the café have been empty. "They won't deliver unless we pay in advance now," she has confided. Not stamps, or mobicartes or cigarettes or anything else furnished by the Régie. Without merchandise to sell, she's had more spare time on her hands. She and I have had long chats about the café, business, current events, government, the neighborhood, weather, the economy, Life.

So she's calling it quits and selling the Jean B. After 19 or 20 years as owner, 35 in the café-tabac business, she's hanging up her hat. "Oh, you know, it's sad, in a way. There are des gamins in the neighborhood who I've seen as newborns, now they're in université, grand comme ça!" she says. "It'll be different," she admits, "but quite frankly, I'm looking forward to not having to get up and work seven days a week. Sometimes I like just staying at home between four walls. You know what I mean?"

"Oui, oui, of course. But it just won't be the same without you," I lament. "You're the tradition of the neighborhood -- we all love you."

"Don't worry," she reassures me. "The new owners are nice. Ce sont des Auvergnats -- people from the Auvergne. They are sympa. Des gens bien. They'll be good workers, keep this a nice, friendly place."

I instantly regret all the time that I haven't spent at the Jean B in the past two years. Sure, it's kind of grungy, and certainly prior to January 1 it was thick with cigarette smoke. Now the same regulars are still at the bar having their café or their ballon de rouge, just more visible without the smoke. Madame knows them all by name, tutoies them as they arrive and depart. She knows what they want before they've pushed the door all the way in from the street corner.

"Oh I'm so, so desolée that you are leaving," I say. "But happy for you if that's what you want." Then I suggest brightly, "Maybe we'll have to have a fête d'adieu for you. All the neighborhood can come in to say good bye."

Her face lights up. "Pourquoi pas?"

How can I arrange this? She's leaving in three weeks.


French author, literary critic, talk-show guest and man-about-town Frédéric Beidbeger is even more of a man-about-town these days.

Larger-than-life photos of his naked upper torso are plastered on billboards in virtually every métro station, publicizing Galeries Lafayette Homme, the men's store. He's reading a book, bien sûr.

Giving Blood, Paris Style

Forget the peanut-butter Ritz-bits and apple juice, the soggy tuna sandwiches on white bread.

Those who donate blood in Paris today will be treated to a meal prepared by Laurent Delarbre, Executive Chef at the Café de la Paix.

The blood drive, being organized by the Etablissement français du sang, takes place today from noon until 6 pm, on the plaza between the Tour Montparnasse and the Gare Montparnasse. The collecte du sang will continue through April 26, though the fine cuisine from Café de la Paix might not.

The tent may not be as plush as the decor at the Café de la Paix, but the cause is worthwhile.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Vie de merde!

Vie de merde is a French hit blog with millions of visitors daily. The founders of the blog, Maxime Valette and Antoine Descamps, started it kind of as a joke but it took off.

Roughly translated as "Life's a Bitch," the site receives over 1000 mini-anecdotes daily of pain-in-the-arse everyday events that people want to bitch about.

The blog has become such a hit that the acronym VDM has become a part of colloquial language in a large segment of the population.

Here's an example of one VDM:

"Aujourd'hui, j'ai reçu 2 sms de ma copine. Le premier pour me dire que tout était fini, le second pour me dire qu'elle s'était trompée de destinataire. VDM"

"Today, I received two text messages from my girlfriend. The first to say that she was breaking up with me. The second to tell me that she had sent the first text message to the wrong person. VDM"

So if you want to be really hip when speaking French, you can now use, "VDM" (vay-day-em) as a tag line when referring to one of life's little aggravations.
Illustration by Maud Gironnay.

A College Student's View of France

I'm swamped with other work and unfinished writing, so I will offer this tidbit.

Lynsi Burton, a college senior from Washington State University studying in Bordeaux, has written a series of columns for the Daily Evergreen, the college newspaper. Do yourself a favor and read them here.

A sampling: in today's column, she observes French women

From the adolescent in the leather jacket to the mom pushing a stroller to the old woman speeding by on her bike in a fur coat and spike heels, I admire them all. To the untrained eye, it may seem as though many of these primped women wearing expensive jackets and shoes are trying too hard. Maybe they’re a little vain.

But the truth is these women know who they are. They show it to the world with pride and without apology.

Or from last week's column:

Before coming to France, I got contradicting advice about men. “Avoid eye contact, they’ll pounce on you,” or “Don’t flatter yourself, they’re not really hitting on you.” Relationships in France are a thought-provoking subject. How do people go from being strangers to sucking face in front of me on the tram? I have a boyfriend in Pullman I’m interested in keeping, putting participatory journalism out of the question. But my friends and I have had enough experiences to give me some insight into the differences and similarities between American and French dating.

Enjoy the read.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Un Deux Trois Quatre

1) Yesterday I saw Passe-Passe, a just-released comedy starring Natalie Baye and Edouard Baer. Great fun, light and entertaining! Will be titled Off and Running in English.

2) A thoughtful article about Juliette Binoche's career here. Except he didn't mention Klapisch's Paris.

3) To say Bon Appétit or no? The debate continues. But she heard it here first when she interviewed my friend Marie de Tilly. Watch Marie and me in action on French TV last winter! And we have a new project in the works.

4) Paris as a movie set. What's being filmed in the Ile de France these days. The site, however, deserves a mise à jour, I think. I know there are more tournages than they've listed.

Now I'm off and running -- to go chase pigeons in the park.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fractured French

When I was growing up, I think I just assumed that all adults had studied French in high school. All my parents' friends seemed to speak at least a smidgen of French. They knew how to pronounce French -- not in a perfect Parisian accent, but in more of the phrase-book phonetic accent. Mare-see boh-coo. Jeuh-neuh-say-kwah. Fill-ay meen-yon.

And my stepfather was a master at that. He had a wickedly funny sense of humor, but I never saw him guffaw or laugh out loud. Instead, when some turn of phrase or wacky joke hit his funny bone, he pressed his lips together and the laughter emerged through the corners of his eyes, tears of mirth streaming down his reddening cheeks as his upper torso shook. It was really fun to watch him laugh, although one summer day when we were packed in the car on a 10-hour drive and we were reading Mad Magazine aloud for family entertainment, he had to pull the car over because he couldn't see the road any more from laughing.

One of his favorite jokes, which he could repeat and get the same teary-eyed kick out of, was, "What do the French say when the light's out in the bathroom?"

"Jeanne d'Arc." He delivered his own punch line before anyone could beat him to it. Pronounced, of course, in his perfect anglo-american accent. Then, if he had elicited sufficient appreciation from his listener, he would continue.

"What's the French word for 'lawn mower'?"

"Coup de grace." Pronouncing the 'p' of course.

I always imagined that these were the witty one-line stories that all grown-ups shared with each other at cocktail parties. And in a way, they were. The series of English-French puns, it turns out, came from a collection by F.S. Pearson called Fractured French, wildly popular in the 1950s. So popular, in fact, that the cartoons accompanying them were made into cocktail napkins and hors-d'oeuvre plates.

Here are a few more...

What do you call a timid beauty?

"Une pièce de résistance."

How do you say, "There are mice in the river?"

"Mise en scène."

What is a French father of twins?

"Pas du tout."

Okay, I'll stop now, lest I drive off the road and into a cornfield.

(P.S. Just updated, with illustration, more of which are here.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Just My Type

Typeface. For me, it's one of those nit-picky things. Years ago -- egad, it must have been during the Carter administration -- I was trained as a legal proofreader. We corrected copy that had been set by Linotype. Sometimes the font was very very small, otherwise known as "reading the fine print." Often, in addition to catching spelling and grammar errors, we had to send the page back to the printers to be re-set if the lead type-slug was out of line (or sometimes even upside down). Ah, the old-fashioned days before computer-generated printing. I spent two squinting years relentlessly red-penciling wayward type.

So, my urge to straighten out lines of type is strong -- beyond my control, actually.

And now, every day as I spend hours typing at my Yahoo screen, I see this:
Do you see it? Where it says Copyright/IP Policy? It's just an optical illusion, of course. The type is all in a level line. But it nags at me from the bottom of my screen all day, looking to me as if it's a wavy line of type, begging to get smoothed into place.

Reminds me of one of my favorite métro stations.

Mr. Martinon Goes to LA

Former Elysée spokesman David Martinon has just been named as French Consul in Los Angeles. Hey, nice job!

So, it looks like sunnier days ahead, both literally and figuratively, for him.

It's been blustery here, literally and figuratively, I guess.

I wouldn't mind a dose of warm sunshine myself.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Crocs: Fashion Forecast

Good news, bad news. You decide which is which.

Crocs sales are slumping in the US, according to the Colorado-based company. And they just shut down their Canadian factory.

But never fear, Parisian foot-fashion hounds. Crocs just opened its first boutique in Paris last week.

European sales are expected to increase 90%.

Oh joy.

Merci to Threadtrend.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bunches of Flowers

Sometimes a girl just needs flowers.

Sometimes her budget is a bit constrained: the dollar-euro exchange just gives the girl a bland no-frills lifestyle.

Sometimes, when spring hasn't quite sprung, the girl heads to Bunches on boulevard Raspail and buys some bargain flowers, just because.

She selects from all the choices -- there is a nice selection -- knowing that it's not only a little treat, but that she's being frugal as well.

Sometimes, the girl fibs just a little bit to the sweet, friendly fleuristes and says, "C'est pour offrir," so they'll create one of their beautiful bouquets, when really the roses are to take back to her apartment. Which needs a little boost.

Sometimes the girl smiles for the ten-block walk home with the bouquet tucked under her left arm, knowing she bought five big bunches of flowers for 10€.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Prenez Soin de Vous/Take Care of Yourself

Yesterday I -- okay, the proper verbs are failing me -- what did I do? I visited, experienced, participated in, reveled in, absorbed, saw, adored... Aw, heck: I went to the Sophie Calle exhibit "Prenez Soin de Vous" at the Bibliotheque nationale on rue de Richelieu.

It was brilliant. I had grave reservations about it as we entered the doors of the magnificent, elegant reading room and I heard the cacophony in the normally hushed vaulted space. This is an art exhibit? I was wondering. (I'm no art critic, as you may have guessed. I simply record my reactions, talk about what resonates.)

I knew that the premise of the exhibit was that an artist, Sophie Calle, has received a siyonara letter from her hitherto loving sweetheart, which was filled with lame excuses and a final phrase, "Prenez soin de vous:" Take Care of Yourself. I knew that Calle had then taken that letter to 107 women (no idea how that number was chosen) and had them interpret, dissect, enact, react to the letter. The exhibit was a smash hit at the Venice Biennale des Arts last fall.

So I decided to be more avant-garde and hip than my usual mundane self, and check out the exhibit, mostly because I love the Bibilotheque Richelieu, and also because I see so much "old art" in Paris, I decided it was time for me to get more contemporary.

It was brilliant. Did I say that already? It was brilliant, not only as a work of conceptual art, but as a social force. The reactions of 107 females, aged 9 to 90, (that's my guess) slashing their way through this letter. Deconstructing it. Whether it's a work of fiction or reality doesn't even matter.

Imagine printing up a copy of a hi-oh-and-by-the-way-I'm-dumping-you-goodbye letter from your beloved, and having it read and interpreted by, among others, a lawyer, a clown, a young teen, a police commissioner, a singer, an actress, a cartoonist, a comedian (with inflatable dolls and other paraphernalia), a professor, a dancer, a proofreader... well, it goes on. All recorded on video, audio, origami, opera, ink, whatever medium. Not only is it wonderful performance and visual art, it is the best possible sweet revenge imaginable. You know what I mean.

In any case, if you are in Paris, and you have the chance to visit this exhibit, GO. And it's not just because it's an exhibit that you can look at blessedly sitting down occasionally (watching the videos on the reading desks). It's also for the experience of the other people around you. Some people laughed teary-eyed at parts I thought were bland. Other parts I hooted at hysterically, which other people had moved on from, unmoved. Much is in French, but after viewing a few of the English-language versions, you'll understand the whole work of art more fully.

I am not an art critic , because I find the ineffable just that -- ineffable. In terms of recommendations, I usually simply want to slap someone hastily across the cheek and say, "Don't ask; I can't tell you why you should go, just GO!" Not very delicate or ladylike or descriptive of me. And I've never slapped anyone in my life, so please do me a favor, and just GO! Go see this exhibit. If you don't like it, I don't want to hear about it.

A book version exists of "Prenez Soin de Vous" as well. But the only medium I haven't seen used to interpret The Letter is the internet.

So, maybe ... should this exhibit get launched on a virtual extension not yet undertaken by Sophie Calle? As I wandered through, awestruck, I thought -- what if I took a picture of me reading The Letter in front of a performer reading the letter, and posted it on my blog? A mise en abyme of the event itself. Or -- what if the internet took on this art and turned it into another art? Turned the letter into a sort of tag or meme and thousands of internauts re-interpreted the letter too? Ah, I can dream.

If Sophie Calle had asked me to do an artistique interpretation of such a letter (and I won't take it personally that she didn't, for now), I would have re-intrpreted it as a disposable toilet-seat cover, or a new designer Band-Aid strip -- or a barf-bag on a very, very turbulent flight. So what if I'm an artistic simpleton? It was that brilliant, that inspiring.

How would you artistically interpret such a letter? Here it is, in English.

Pass it on.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Guest Blogger

A Sunday stroll in the park, and whom did I meet? The outgoing, charming and talented Gisèle, who is five --but will be six, "après Noël."

She and her brothers came running over to the gate where I was photographing. Hearing me speak in English, she questioned me in French as she concentrated on tying a piece of string around the iron gate post.

"Are you English?" she asked.

"No, I'm American."

"Oh, so you're kind of American/English/French?" she asked.

"No, I'm just American, but I speak French," I explained.

"What are you taking pictures of?"

"Oh, anything, n'importe quoi," I replied. She was eyeing my camera keenly. I asked her, "Do you want to take a picture with it?"

Gisèle nodded and grinned, "Oui!" And in no time she had her technique mastered. "You have to press the button when what you want is in the square?" she asked. And, click -- voila! --a future photojournalist was born. Here are some of Gisèle's masterpieces, taken in the Square Louvois.

Her little brother, with maman and papa looking on from the bench.

Her brothers playing ball in the park.

Richard Nahem, of Eye Prefer Paris. We never knew until today that he was as tall as a skyscraper!

And here's the photo I took, a portrait of the young artist. Merci, Gisèle!
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